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Entries from April 2019

European Women Gathering in Faith

I am writing this from a beautiful Carmelite monastery in Snagov in Romania, where I am speaking at a gathering of Andante – the European Alliance of Catholic Women’s Organiations. I travelled here by train from London, because minor eye surgery prevents me from flying. My mobile phone provider tells me that my three-day journey took me through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania – each time with a text reminding me that calls and data roaming are free because my contract covers travel in other EU countries. Last year, driving from Croatia into Bosnia, which is not in the EU, my internet connection suddenly cut out and I started having to pay for data roaming. It was one small reminder of how dramatic Brexit might be for us Brits and the freedoms we take for granted in Europe.

The European Union has many failings, not least is the extent to which it has become a driving force behind neo-liberal economics and corporate power, and its bureaucracies are undoubtedly cumbersome and expensive. But it has also served its members well in sustaining at least a partial peace in this troubled continent since the Second World War. My journey through Europe has reminded me of how fragile and threatened that peace is. Europe’s bloody history has left its mark on its landscapes and cities, with Romania being one of the more recent manifestations of that as it recovers from years of communist dictatorship and the brutal tyranny of Nicolae Ceaușescu. As the train trundled through this country’s rolling countryside and dramatic mountains, there was evidence everywhere of the ruins of the past and the gradual rebuilding of homes and communities.

The founders of the EU were inspired by the principles of Catholic social teaching – solidarity, subsidiarity and participation, rooted in a belief in the transcendent dignity of the human person. These principles may be frayed round the edges, but they have enduring significance and are vital for the creation of any just and free society. Sadly, some of their greatest enemies today are Catholic power brokers seeking to drive Europe down the dark road of far right politics rooted in violent racial and religious ideologies. The divisions that were fermenting in the Church under the last two papacies have exploded, and America’s culture warriors are seeking to establish a foothold in European politics through their promotion of a militant form of Catholicism that draws on deeply rooted historical conflicts and rivalries, including the language of the crusades. Steve Bannon’s organization, The Movement, is making inroads and exploiting the fractures currently opening up all over Europe. On the taxi drive from Bucharest station to the monastery, I saw a large banner promoting The Movement draped from a building.

All this lends added significance to this group of Catholic women meeting here, representing organizations from across eastern and western Europe. There is, I believe, a growing sense of resistance and solidarity among women in the Church – and a determination to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

My paper is titled “The Future Church: A Home to Hope For?” In it, I reflect on what it means for women to build the church of tomorrow, as an inclusive and welcoming home for all. I also ask what this means in the context of Pope Francis’s call to care for Mother Earth, ‘our common home’ in his encyclical Laudato Si’.

This work of building a shared future cannot happen without respect for cultural and historical differences. Francis’s papacy has been marked by a new respect for the principle of inculturation, and he repeatedly reminds us of the importance of local communities, cultures and traditions for creating an incarnational sense of a faith rooted in history and shaped by different contexts. The women gathering in this beautiful monastery are evidence of both the necessity and the challenge of accommodating these diverse realities. For those from eastern Europe, memories of persecution under communist regimes mean that the Church is still often seen as the custodian of a vital truth embedded in her teachings and sacraments that must not be questioned. For those of us accustomed to a more critical and challenging approach, this calls for attentive and patient listening and learning as we explore together what it means to build the church of tomorrow.

Recent events in the news have rekindled an awareness of just how deeply Catholicism is embedded in our shared human story. The response to the fire at Notre Dame revealed the vast symbolic significance of Catholicism for European identity and culture. The suicide bombings of churches in Sri Lanka that killed hundreds attending Easter Masses remind us that for many in our world today, Catholicism is not about aesthetics and culture but about a faithful commitment to follow the crucified Christ wherever He leads – even to death and beyond.

Here in this quiet place, women come from across this Catholic spectrum. Some bring memories of persecuted and martyred loved ones; others bring what can seem like relatively insignificant concerns about the role of women in the Church and our exclusion from positions of leadership and sacramental representation. Yet as we stand at this critical moment in Europe’s history, I do not believe that these are separate issues. The Church faces a choice – to plough on along its old androcentric path where time and again it has ended up colluding with war, fascism and violence, or to truly become a maternal presence of peace and healing in the world by embracing the wisdom, experience and insight that women can bring to its pilgrim journey through time. That is why I dare to hope that this small group meeting in a quiet place of prayer and contemplation is not insignificant. Beneath the hubris and clamour of men who claim to speak for and sometimes as God, it is always the still, small voices that speak God’s redeeming word to humankind.

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London.

Notre-Dame de Paris, Pope Francis and Living Stones

Many of us, in various parts of the world, watched in horror and disbelief when Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames. It was especially gut-wrenching to witness an infernal beast consume the roof and topple the steeple of one of the world’s great Christian cathedrals at the very beginning of Holy Week. Like other televised tragedies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the horrific spectacle in Paris commanded global attention and received blanket coverage from both mainstream and social media. And as with other history-making events, some journalists and pundits saw this as an opportunity to offer grave and poetic commentary. There was a lot of deliberating and moralizing. What did this distressing scene say about the current state of the scandal-plagued and ideologically divided Catholic Church? What was its message for secularized France? What fierce warning did it hold for a Western civilization that has become unhinged from its Christian moorings? In the end, Notre-Dame was not destroyed. And not a single life was lost, thanks be to God.

But the fire of this magnificent cathedral was a truly shocking thing to watch as I spent several hours switching back and forth through some of the channels available on my satellite dish: Italian State TV (RAI), Sky Italia, France24, Fox News… At CNN there was Chris Cuomo speaking about the symbolic importance of Notre-Dame for Catholicism and even the Vatican, wondering if the pope would actually go to Paris for Easter. “Imagine the image of Pope Francis in front of Notre-Dame saying Mass on Sunday. You know, with smoke still rising up from it as an idea of rebirth and renewal. How powerful that would be.” After briefly conceding the “concept from Catholicism (that) the Church is the people, not the places… and the people matter most”, Cuomo continued speculating. “It will be so interesting to see what pope does with this Holy Week, given this loss. Is there a chance that you see the pope not in Rome celebrating Easter Sunday, but here? What an important image that would be.” CNN’s correspondent in Rome, Delia Gallagher, said she “wouldn’t rule it out” because, “of course, we know that he’s a pope of surprises”. Jim Bittermann, an old hand with CNN who has been in Paris, off and on, for many years, said “it would be quite a remarkable symbol if this pope decided to come visit for the Easter Mass”. But he then cautioned, “It’s hard to believe that that could be organized so quickly, especially with the church still burning at this hour.”  

Oh my, I thought. What to make of this sort of suggestive speculation? These are all top-notch reporters and news analysts. Is it possible that they have not really understood Pope Francis’s priorities or the change of mentality he’s tried to bring about these past six years? The 82-year-old Jesuit pope is, by no means, anti-cultural. He is not anti-European. But, at the same time, and despite the affection he would win back from the people of France, it would be out of character for him to drop everything and rush to Paris because a cathedral has been badly damaged by fire – even considering the artistic masterpiece and historically important religious symbol that it is. The pope of Laudato Si’ is more concerned about our own human destruction of God’s masterpiece – the created universe and the human person. Francis is more alarmed that we are killing ourselves from the earliest stages of life in the womb up to natural death; through wars, torture and human trafficking. He’s disquieted by our careless destruction of our “common home," through the pollution of the air we breathe and the water we drink; through the wars we wage and the greed that consumes us to the detriment of the poor, the week, the immigrant and refugee and all other outcasts of society.

Pope Francis has not focused his worldwide ministry on preserving the cultural and artistic heritage of Christianity, at least not the way that has been manifested over the centuries through structures built of precious stones. Instead, he tried to show us how to take care of so many “living stones” that we have long ignored or scorned. He has gone to places like Lampedusa and Lesbos to comfort refugees; he has spent every Holy Thursday in prisons, washing the feet of criminals, some who are not even Christians. Like his patron, St. Francis of Assisi, the pope has seen the call to rebuild the Lord’s house as a summons to repair God’s crumbling household – all of humanity made in God’s image and likeness– rather than a building made of wood and stone.  As Richard Rohr has said, “Creation itself – not ritual or spaces constructed by human hands – was St. Francis’ primary cathedral.” And so it is for Pope Francis.

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.

How to Have a Younger Church

It was thought-provoking to read Bishop Frank Caggiano’s wise words at Fordham on March 12, when he said that “young people are leaving the Catholic Church not because they are angry—but because they are indifferent.” Their lack of interest, he continued, was because “there are questions unresolved, and young people simply don’t have the mental energy or desire to figure it out.” There is much to agree with here, especially the implied distinction between the attitudes of older church-going Catholics to our currently dysfunctional church and those of the younger generation who, in most cases, are not regularly practicing. In my own experience of almost 40 years teaching undergraduates, I can concur with Bishop Caggiano that anger is not a common late-adolescent response to church matters. Perhaps “indifference” is a bit soft. I would probably want to say that they aren’t angry, because they don’t care. The church doesn’t matter to so many of them, so why would they be angry? The bishop is also correct that meeting questioners where they are in a respectful and nonjudgmental posture of listening is of paramount importance. Good pastors and educators understand that, while the less successful ones trot out pat answers to questions that may not actually have been asked. To borrow from the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he is so insistent in his advice to spiritual directors that they get out of the way and allow the spirit to work on the minds and hearts of the searcher. Which means, of course, that a mentor’s patience must approximate the patience of God which, as we know, is endless. Listening, as the bishops says, can be more important than talking.

However, if young people are drifting away from the church because they don’t care rather than because they are angry, let me suggest that they don’t care because what they encounter in the church is too often something that does not speak to their hearts or inflame their souls. Young people, in my experience, are patient with imperfection but intolerant of hypocrisy. They can sure spot a phony a hundred miles away. If you don’t believe me, browse sometime on the dishonest educator’s nemesis, www.ratemyprofessors.com. Whether for good or ill, there is no parallel reviewing system for pastors and bishops. Perhaps we ought to have one? And if we did, we would see a lot of understanding of the average guy doing his best, real appreciation for the one whose openness and honesty shines through and profound distaste for pretentiousness and false pride.

What really causes young people not to care rather than be angry is that they have written the church off, too often perhaps before they have given it a real chance. I think Bishop Caggiano is onto something when he writes about the beauty of the liturgy, but you have to be in the building to appreciate it. On the whole, they are not there for several reasons. First, the liturgy is as often as not pretty routine, and while that might be fine for those of us who have the ritual deep in our psyches, it doesn’t work to entice someone in. Second, the ethical values of the young, as opposed to their occasionally amoral practices (and how different are they here than the rest of us?) are not respected within the confines of the institutional church. A particular pastor may be receptive to an individual who comes to him. But the church itself is simply inconceivably unrealistic to the majority of young Catholics on same-sex relationships, on cohabitation before marriage and on the use of birth control. Most adult Catholics shrug their shoulders at the anachronistic approach of the church on these issues and carry on worshipping, perhaps because they understand deep down that the Lord is not always in agreement with the teaching of the church. But the young don’t have that patience. It’s not so much that they are not in the church, as that the church is not in the world they live in.

All that Bishop Caggiano suggested as ways to attract the young is wise and compassionate. But I would add a few things. Most importantly, weed out hypocrisy, whether it is bishops who hide abusers or senior church leaders who manage to be simultaneously closeted gays and homophobic. Then, our ethical teaching needs to be expressed in the knowledge of human frailty and imperfection, and with the honest acceptance of difference. Do not tell people that birth control for the unmarried is always self-indulgence and not sometimes responsible. Do not assume that cohabitation is always the road to future marital ruin, since it often isn’t. And do not assume that same-sex relationships can never be as loving and fulfilling as straight ones. All this would just be more fake news, and the church does not need to go that way. Maybe, even, encourage gay clergy to be open about their sexual orientation. The sky will not fall in, and there could be no better way to signal to gay Catholics that the church welcomes them. There used to be, years ago and happily long-gone, a column in the Fairfield County Catholic entitled “The Narrow Gate.” Nothing could be less Catholic. As James Joyce so famously described our church, “Here Comes Everybody.” Every one of our parishes should put out that big banner you see often adorning the church buildings of the U.C.C.—“All Are Welcome.” When this is what the Catholic Church proclaims, and when it really means it, and when it has done it for a while, the young will be back. It’s not doctrine or ethics or liturgy that they find most distasteful. They know, and they want the church to know, that love has no boundaries.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

This is Our Problem

By now, the sins of the fathers are well known. 

Seemingly weekly headlines underscore that the Catholic Church is riven by clergy sexual abuse, not only locally but globally, with reports on abuse cases surfacing from Australia to Africa.

The intensity and immediacy of the current coverage make it easy to forget that this is not a new problem, newly revealed. It was 1985 when the U.S. bishops were first handed a report warning of an abuse crisis, and three decades since news broke of systemic crimes in both the Irish church as well as at Mt. Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, Newfoundland. These were harbingers of headlines to come.

It has taken us this long, as an institution and as a collective of members, to begin to admit — and react — to the inescapable rot from within. But as a recent conference hosted by the Faculty of Theology at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College revealed, the glacial pace at which we’re responding is simply unacceptable.

One of the key takeaways from the colloquium, titled The Wounded Body of Christ: Listening and Responding to Abuse in the Church, was that while we’re finally confessing publicly that the church is gravely wounded by the crisis, we have yet to listen and respond in a meaningful way to those who suffered at the hands of priests. Our response right now still rests at the institutional, rather than the personal level, and healing the church means nothing if we do not first heal our neighbor.

A case in point: at the conference, a panel discussion with survivors included a man named Mark Hawkins, whose vast experience in educating others about the trauma of childhood sexual abuse has taken him everywhere from teaching police and social workers to an appearance on Oprah. It has also earned him awards from Queen Elizabeth II and the Ontario Provincial Police. Yet, he noted, this was the first time in his years of speaking on the topic that a Catholic organization had invited him to talk. 

Another participant, Leona Huggins, was just back from Rome, where she had been the sole Canadian representative at the Vatican summit on ending abuse.

“I’d love to stop telling my story,” Huggins said, but then noted that one of the 21 talking points to come out of the Rome meeting was a suggestion to create a handbook of protocols. “It’s shocking that’s on the table. (The church is) still parsing what abuse is. We need to continue to tell our stories,” she said. 

The third panelist, John Swales, said of the survivor participants, “we are the lucky ones.” For Swales, participating was a way to speak for Michael, a friend who succumbed to the resulting horrors abuse sufferers can experience, and for all those who do not have a voice. 

“I’m actually okay,” Swales told the assembled. “You’re not. You need to figure out what to do.”

Attendees heard searing testimony, calmly delivered, of the many challenges survivors can face, from the costs of therapy and medication to loss of faith; from substance abuse and mental health issues to marriage breakdown and loss of income. 

It was noted, for example, that while the world-renowned Southdown Institute just north of Toronto offers therapeutic services to Roman Catholic and other clergy, survivor participants couldn't name a comparable site for them.

“There aren’t the same supports for victims as for perpetrators,” Swales argued. “I don’t expect a blank check, but I shouldn’t have to grovel to get therapy.”

For Hawkins, the manifestations of his trauma included finding himself “super protective” of his children and having difficulty trusting anyone. “This impacted my faith,” he said. “Why did God allow this to happen?”

Toronto lawyer Simona Jellinek, who has pursued cases for clients against a number of religious organizations, Catholic and otherwise, argued that the church’s first task is to turn its attention to the people who have been hurt — and then focus on fixing the church.

“Right now the church can tell its lawyers that instead of doing what insurance companies do in court (fight for the lowest settlement), they can send a clear message that we’re trying to make this a survivor-centric church,” she said. “The church is to do the work of God. It is not to be caught in in battles with its people.

“Defendants who come early and say ‘sorry’ are very helpful. That’s where the healing begins,” she added, noting that financial settlements tend to be lower when defendants show a degree of contrition. 

(As one person in attendance quipped, “What would Jesus do is not meant to be a financial decision.”)

Jellinek called for transparency and respect for the courts, arguing that any institution that keeps the crime of sexual abuse secret is complicit. 

“The biggest crime is the cover-up,” agreed Huggins, who discovered the priest who’d served time for abusing her was subsequently assigned to a parish in Ottawa.

It was a somber day, but there were notes of hope and suggestions for how to make progress. One attendee, for example, told the room that, frustrated by a lack of institutional response, she and several other parishioners formed a discussion group to research the problem and lobby the church for change. 

Another noted that only a quarter of the colloquium was devoted to survivors, stressing that for academics to learn and contribute to solve the crisis, they need first to hear and absorb victims’ statements, an assertion that prompted applause.

And from the survivors themselves, grace and guidance.

“I’m glad to be here and glad the church I grew up in is talking about the issue,” Hawkins said. 

“You have the power to make change,” Swales told the crowd. “This is a church that will defend its predators against young children. 

“This is our problem,” he said, gesturing to the assembled. “If you can walk out of here unscathed it says something about you.”


Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.