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Entries from June 2019

This Is Not Fine

There is a meme called “This Is Fine” that is so right for our cultural moment it is constantly reworked, reposted, revisioned, reanimated—gone viral, as they say. Begun as a comic by K.C. Green titled “The Pills Aren’t Working” or “On Fire,” the images picture an anthropomorphic hat-wearing dog drinking from a coffee cup in a room engulfed in flames. “This is fine,” the dog says, when clearly it is not. In the original cartoon, the dog continues, “I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently.” The dog takes a sip of coffee, his hat and arm catch fire. “That’s okay, things are going to be okay,” the dog says. The dog melts away, unrecognizable, monstrous.

Some would have us believe that everything is fine in the Church. Practicing Catholics should believe things are okay even if their reality screams otherwise. Denial is strong here. After the release last summer of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on widespread sexual abuse of children in Catholic dioceses and its systemic cover up by Church officials, Peter Steinfels, for example, felt compelled to write a 12,000-word piece in Commonweal titled “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems: It’s Inaccurate, Unfair & Misleading.” As Christopher R. Altieri points out, however, in The Catholic World Report, the grand jury “did what it set out to do, in spades: show there is a prima facie case to make against the bishops of Pennsylvania, who covered up abuse and enabled abusers for more than seven decades.” Other state attorneys general are now investigating higher-ups in the Church, for the bishops have shown they are incapable of policing themselves.

The Pennsylvania report has caused an awakening. Finally, U.S. Catholics have grasped the breadth and depth of the corruption. Women seem to get this more than men. Is it because some are mothers? Perhaps women are able to recognize more clearly those who are excluded? Unlike the clerics at the Vatican sex abuse summit last February, Jamie Manson, for instance, acknowledged and honored survivors. In a National Catholic Reporter piece, she noted that “survivors of clergy abuse from 20 different countries demonstrated … through the streets of Rome demanding a zero tolerance policy; they spoke to legions of reporters. Through it all, not one cleric stepped outside to greet them.”

Not one cleric stepped outside to greet them. My last column here called for communal action from the bishops, for a time of sackcloth and ashes. Kathy Kane, in a blistering blog entry titled “On the Rocks: Cocktails at Bishops’ Conference Belies Church Suffering” encountered the antithesis of that call at the recent USCCB meeting in Baltimore. Kane, aka “captain of the Mom Squad,” traveled with other mothers from Philadelphia to support the survivors demonstrating outside the conference hotel because, she wrote, “the victims and survivors have literally saved our children by exposing the issue of clergy abuse to the world.” Several bishops, including some from Philly, entered the hotel lounge where the moms were also gathered. The bishops ordered drinks, talked and laughed loudly. One ridiculed a former victim advocate from the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Laughter all around. Not one cleric protested. As Kane noted, one would expect better from “men who are the focus of national attention due to their members’ history of child rape, sexual assault of adults, sexual misconduct, financial impropriety and cover-up of crimes.”

Some Catholics are so busy being Catholics that they forget how to be Christians. After James Carroll wrote a piece in The Atlantic this month provocatively titled “Abolish the Priesthood,” the response from some quarters consisted of ad hominem attacks, a few quite vicious. Matt Fish, a priest, tweeted “James Carroll epitomizes the worst traits of his generation, and soon they’ll all be gone, while we rebuild the Church they tried to destroy according to the very model they tried to erase.” In one response to such critics, the author discovered women responding favorably to Carroll. I myself was particularly moved by Carroll’s honest portrayal of his pain at the Church’s betrayal of its people. Something snapped inside him. He stopped going to Mass. “I carry an ocean of grief in my heart,” he wrote. Who can remain unmoved by that? Carroll predicted a flourishing future Church: “The Church I foresee will be governed by laypeople, although the verb govern may apply less than serve. There will be leaders who gather communities in worship, and because the tradition is rich, striking chords deep in human history, such sacramental enablers may well be known as priests. They will include women and married people. They will be ontologically equal to everyone else. They will not owe fealty to a feudal superior.”

K.C. Green reworked his comic a few years ago and titled it “This Is Not Fine.” The dog is back in the burning room, but this time it stops before claiming the situation acceptable. It wonders, “what the hell was wrong” with its thinking. How could it have let the fire go so long, get so bad! It grabs a fire extinguisher and frantically puts out the fire. In the final two panels, the dog sits in the dark, burned-out room, holding its head in its hands, weeping.


Jennifer Reek is a writer and teacher.


A Yearning to be Engaged

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore recently wrote a column titled “Half Measures” reflecting on how parishes can respond to this challenge: “Mass attendance is down. Our absent Catholics aren’t merely out of town; many are gone. For a variety of distressing reasons, they are disconnected from the Lord, the Church, the Mass and the sacraments.”

What Lori describes is familiar to Catholics in most parts of the world, and certainly in most parts of the United States, including the New England region where I live. While there are Masses that are exceptions to the rule (usually at ethnic parishes, parishes in high socioeconomic enclaves and university-based parishes), most weekly Masses are, to be blunt, boring. The music is not very good. The preaching only occasionally makes you think or really moves you, and it does a poor job of expositing the scriptures. Not many teens and young adults are in attendance. There aren’t as many people there compared to a decade ago, and the weekly donations are way down. There are many activities advertised in the bulletin, but only a small slice of parishioners participate in any of them.

This situation has everything to do with church reform. Vatican II defined the church first and foremost as the people of God (Lumen gentium, chapter 2). Accountability in the church depends on the whole people of God taking an active role. To do that, lay Catholics have to be there, and they have to care.

Yet the onus for change lies mainly on the leadership of the church. In Catholic polity, there’s little meaningful change that lay Catholics can make if the way is not cleared from above. For those lay Catholics who do yearn to be engaged, there is little structural space for their voice, participation and leadership.

As a prominent leader in the U.S. church, what does Archbishop Lori think needs to be done about this situation? Taking as a generic example a parish whose membership is shrinking, Lori says that merely adding a coffee hour after mass, nice though that is, is not bold enough. He calls for “genuine missionary conversion” and lists several practices that characterize it. Let’s look at these proposals.

“An urgent summons to prayer and repentance, first and foremost exemplified by the parish clergy and leadership.” Yes, exactly, and with even more transparency and robust involvement of lay oversight. The parish level has not really been the problem here; lay Catholics are waiting in good faith on action from the bishops.

“Concentrated attention on good preaching.” This is one of Lori’s most apt proposals. Why are Catholic homilies so routinely terrible, intellectually thin and irrelevant to the real struggles of daily life? The delivery has none of the marks of excellent public speaking. All the years of theological and biblical learning the priest has done seems to make no impact on the content. And homilies rarely mention the tremendous social and ethical teaching of the church. How many priests in the typical U.S. parish have ever once said anything about police shootings, despite the bishops’ great recent letter, Open Wide Our Hearts? Bad preaching is a major factor in leading a Catholic who wants to be a churchgoer to find another church, and it’s a key place where the Mass fails to engage young Catholics’ minds and hearts.

“Reverent liturgy; abundant opportunities for eucharistic adoration and confession.” Adoration and confession are nice, but like coffee hours, they are half measures. These activities speak mostly to the older generation, and frankly, not even to many of them. By contrast, Protestants churches of all types and sizes typically put significant resources into having excellent music at their services. A few years ago, Thomas Reese commented on what the Catholic church needs to learn from the data about its hemorrhaging membership. Reese says that “those who are leaving the church for Protestant churches,” which is about half of the fallen-away, “are more interested in spiritual nourishment than doctrinal issues…People are longing for liturgies that touch the heart and emotions. More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed.”

Lori concludes his list with a range of pastoral ministries: “Personal outreach to absent parishioners; sound catechesis for parishioners of all ages, especially the young; support of married couples and families; loving assistance to the sick and the dying; generous outreach to the poor and vulnerable; and more.” I affirm what the Archbishop is getting at here, even though he and I may have different visions for catechesis. It’s hard work, but it can be led by a pastor who empowers his parishioners. As for the laity, more of them have to step up and volunteer. But not much of the potential can be unleashed unless the bishops make room for Reese’s “flexibility and creativity” in every area of church life.

It won’t happen without much greater investment of time, money and hiring in key ministries, particularly directed to the young. As Paul Lakeland has written on this blog, what young people “encounter in the church is too often something that does not speak to their hearts or inflame their souls.” According to Reese, the “data shows that two-thirds of Catholics who become Protestants do so before they reach the age of 24. The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence.”

Lori’s oversight is his implication that the onus lies with individual parishes to implement these activities. It’s not that individual parishes shouldn’t try, and it’s not that they can’t grow more vibrant. But their grassroots efforts must be met with a huge outpouring of support, resources and changes in vision and tone from the bishops. The Archbishop is right that people are spiritually hungry and looking for authenticity. “No half measures” must be the mantra at every level of the church.


Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


WHY THE CHURCH NEEDS L’ARCHE MORE THAN EVER

Like many Catholics, a few weeks ago I watched online the funeral mass for L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier. Those who know the mission of L’Arche are familiar with Vanier’s commitment to building communities that welcome people with developmental disabilities, not out of conventional charity, but out of a desire to nurture friendships that recognize the gifts of all. At its best, L’Arche models a kind of community that is sorely needed right now in the Catholic Church.

Although L’Arche’s model of community cannot be uncritically duplicated in the Catholic Church, either in the ornate halls of the Vatican or at the poorest parish, there is much to learn from its witness to the Gospel. David Gibson, in a recent column on this blog, pointed out how clericalism has bred a culture that awards “the jockeying for power and position.” He, like Pope Francis and many others, identified it as a root cause that allowed the sex abuse crisis to spiral for so long and, globally, in so many forms, from pedophilia to the sexual harassment of seminarians to the rape of women religious.

Clericalism is the antithesis of the L’Arche model. Imagine, for example, if during formation and throughout their vocation, seminarians and priests were to spend time in communities that are similar to L’Arche’s understanding of community. L’Arche invites the laity and the ordained to come together around a shared recognition that each of us carries weaknesses, each of us harbor our own disabilities, even if they are not classified as “developmental disabilities.” It is a model of hospitality as well as a school in humility. The ostensibly weak are the mentors and friends of the supposedly powerful. The jockeying of power that is the hallmark of clericalism jars irreconcilably with the spirit of L’Arche.

The Catholic hierarchy and institutions, meanwhile, are scarred from the sexual abuse crisis. And how many of our young people would recognize the moral and spiritual authority of our ecclesial leaders? But when my students read a chapter from Henri Nouwen’s beautiful book, Adam, I am struck by how many students respond to Nouwen’s spiritual growth through his encounter with Adam, one of the people of the L’Arche-Daybreak community with the greatest disabilities. Adam, Nouwen insists, served his L’Arche community as a teacher, a counselor and even a kind of missionary in the sense that Nouwen firmly believed that Adam had a unique vocation from God to proclaim the Gospel to others through his disabilities. It was Adam, Nouwen came to realize, who extended hospitality and friendship, Adam who blurred the lines between ordained and lay, Adam who was Nouwen’s center of community and who best exemplified L’Arche’s form of hierarchy, in which people whom society would normally put at the lowest are in fact the center of communal living.

Vanier frequently criticized the typical pyramidal structure of our society in which those at the top are honored with power and wealth, and everyone else must climb the pyramid as far as possible or be left behind. As he writes in Living Gently in a Violent World, “Jesus came to change a world in which those at the top have privilege, power, prestige and money, while those at the bottom are seen as useless.” Vanier observes that just as Paul teaches in the First Letter to the Corinthians that the weakest are the most indispensable to the Body of Christ, so too “the weakest and least presentable are indispensable to the church.” But, he points out, “I have never seen this as the first line of a book on ecclesiology.” Vanier, of course, is not denying that there needs to be people with specific leadership roles. (Nouwen continued in his vocation as a priest even after joining L’Arche.) But L’Arche demonstrates how leadership can take on different forms, thereby creating a community of mentors and friends. Those supposedly at the top (a director, a chaplain and so forth) are learning and growing in friendships based on mutuality and dignity with those whom society would deem as useless.

L’Arche then provides a spiritual model for Catholics of all stripes to reflect upon ways in which leadership can involve people of all abilities and vocations, be they lay or ordained. It is an inspiration for a kind of Christian community desperately needed in this turbulent and dispiriting time in the Church.


Brent Little is an assistant lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


Notre Dame de Paris: A Meditation on Meaning and Memory for the 21st-Century Church

Notre-Dame

Thence entered I the recesses of my memory, those manifold  

and spacious chambers, wonderfully furnished with

innumerable stores; and I considered...

­­                        St. Augustine. Confessions, Book XIII

The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer…On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.

                        Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Book 3, Ch. 1

On April 15, 2019, the world beheld a mournful spectacle in Paris as the fading light of day was pierced with raging tongues of fire that were consuming the fabled cathedral of Notre Dame: its roofing, its spires, seemingly even the flying buttresses of the great Gothic edifice.

The fire would persist for several more hours as people gathered in the area near the cathedral, and thousands more gathered around different forms of media and watched in vain as a manmade marvel of design and engineering was ravaged by the error of man-made technology.

Those who cared to pay attention to the accident did lament the sad fate of Notre Dame but did so, it seems, for peripheral, insufficient reasons: predictably the reasons were about national pride and cultural chauvinism, secular and personal concerns, and even some academic and aesthetic complaints about lost artifacts and marred beauty. Such grievances are understandable, perhaps allowable, but do seem to obfuscate the true legacy of Notre Dame de Pariss—that is, what should be understood about the original meaning of the Gothic structure and about what such an edifice of stone and glass could offer to the 21st century, to the 21st- century Church, to 21st-century Catholics.

We are moved, then, to pause a moment and reflect on Notre Dame, not as a digression into medieval ecclesial culture or as a foray into the nuances of art history, but as a conversation about values and tropes of meaning between past and the present worlds. Like Thomas Merton, who deepened the dimensions of his own life’s path and realized the emergence of his own spiritual journey by delving deeply into an earlier (medieval) age of monastic culture, we also might want to delve a little into the riches of spiritual treasury of our tradition and enrich our own journeys, not simply on our terms (which tend toward a cultish emphasis upon the individual as well as a socio/political and economic presentism) but on terms familiar to the people of that time. In the interests of brevity, I will consider only three values expressed by the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame that we might wish to apply to our common cultural (and ecclesial) moment:

  • Walk into a Gothic cathedral and be struck by the vibrant multiplicity of the material world in the surrounding display of carvings and paintings, glass and stone: animals, flora and fauna, the strange (see: misericords) and the fantastic (sea creatures and wondrous beasts), life and death. Then reflect on the Gothic/Scholastic principle that everything—not just the human—is worthy at least of attention and is part of the goodness of creation. All aspects of the physical world are justified as participants in the sacred mystery of the faith: that is to say, all such wonders of creation converge in the same place where the miracle of the Eucharist occurs and the liturgy reenacts the Passion of the Christ. Thus does the created world participate in that salvation, thus does the splendor of creation reveal itself. Though perhaps not so to our modern observation, the Gothic cathedral in its time was regarded as a living organism encapsulating the vibrancy and animation of the living world, its diffuse patterns and expressions indicative of the inherent goodness and progress of creation. As John Ruskin once wrote, “… it was in healthy love of change that Gothic architecture rose,” and while there abides in the Gothic a healthy tension between the divine and human (the human will win out centuries later), it yet insists that the world is a locus of temporal dissolution but also perpetual immanence. It is worth our care and compassion because it is a gift that we have received although we did not earn it, and such a perception of our world is one that we all in the 21st century would do well to remember, much as Pope Francis has suggested not anew but in keeping with the Catholic understanding of creation. The Gothic cathedral, if viewed properly, asks us to celebrate humanity and all other expressions of creation in all their diversity and distinction; we should live in gratitude for the plentitude of life in this world while at the same time recognizing that each living entity, known and unknown, expresses the eternal presence of God in our midst.

  • The prolific display and bountiful imagery of the Gothic cathedral articulate a range of emotions, but certainly in its time it expressed no sentiment more than hope, and a hope that was unabashedly joyful. In the 21st-century aesthetic of clear glass and steel lines, the darkening stone and stained windows of the Gothic cathedral might evoke other reactions, but in its time, the edifice was both inspirational and aspirational. The structure of the cathedral does strain upward to airy heights, and certainly such upward reaches could be read as arrogance and prideful assertion. However, for the generations of workers who toiled by hand to construct the church, it represented hope in the possibilities of human endeavor and the salvific promise and joy in genuine devotion and in the creative process, in the gifts of imagination and inspiration.

There are indeed droll gargoyles overhanging the sides and entrances of the cathedral proper and they do present particular admonition about sinfulness and impiety; nevertheless, they do not impede entry into the sanctuary and the (medieval) congregants were not deterred: the men and women walked under the looming watches of the gargoyles and through the doors into the sanctuary. The hope of/in salvation and for/in the animating progress within the world future pulsed throughout the cathedral and there was space for joy.

We, of course, live in a dark, even dystopian, era and it has been difficult to rest in hope or find joy in much of daily life. However, there surely was much in the 12th and 13th centuries to cause pessimism and no small degree of despondency, and yet there were still public (as well as private) gestures of optimism, faith and trust. We might want to consider opting for the light more than resigning ourselves to the darkness. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, each of us has the freedom to choose how to respond to whatever situation distresses us, and we have that choice. We can choose to ‘dwell in possibility’ and live with joy in the future. Like the medieval bricklayers, stone masons and artisans who toiled at their craft even though they were quite aware that they likely would not live to see the completion of the cathedral, we can choose to trust in each other and in a fellowship greater than any one person, trust in a future of which we are but a small but vital part now, and be joyful for the many blessings that grace our lives.

  • As Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis Abbey in Paris (and one of the first patrons of the Gothic style) once exclaimed: Deus est lux, God is light. The beauty of the stained glass windows in Notre Dame and other Gothic cathedrals was not for mere display. The windows were meant as conduits of light that would cascade into the shadowy spaces of the cathedrals in a symbolic representation of the pouring out of divine illumination into an opaque world, not the word of creation or nature but the world of human design and manufacture, the word of human societies and communities, of human groups and associations, of man-made values and ideas. It is the illumination of reason enhancing faith, of truth prevailing over deceit, of transparency vanquishing opacity. It is the call for clarity, honesty and intelligibility in all our lives and at all times. What could be more pertinent in this age of deconstructed truth and post-postmodern relativism than to shine a light onto the dim confusion of our culture?

Notre Dame de Paris still stands. Some of the building, including the 800-year old original roofing and its 300-ft. iconic spire, has been lost, as well as 10 percent of its works of art, but the high altar and the cathedral’s organ have suffered severe but not irreparable damage, and most of the stained glass windows, including the great Rose Window, remain intact. However, that material inventory should not detain us much. It is the primary structure of the church—its 12th-century footprint on the Ile de la Citie and its original signification that endure. What was fragile or incongruous or wearied has burned away, but what is secure and true and genuine endures. We do well to remember that.


June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.