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Entries from May 2020

Being Church

As I sit down to write this column, I confess to feeling unbearably sad. Today the official number of American dead from Covid-19 surpassed 100,000. Two days ago, the Sunday before Memorial Day, The New York Times printed the names of a thousand of the dead, a list that fills three pages, including the front page. “U.S DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS,” the banner headline reads. “They were not simply names on a list,” the editors write. “They were us.” Here is an excerpt: “Cornelius Lawyer, 84, Bellevue, Wash., sharecropper’s son. Loretta Mendoza Dionisio, 68, Los Angeles, cancer survivor born in the Philippines. Patricia Frieson, 61, Chicago, former nurse. Merle C. Dry, 55, Tulsa, Okla., ordained minister. Luis Juarez, 54, Romeoville, Ill., traveled often in the United States and Mexico. Michael Mika, 73, Chicago, Vietnam veteran. Black N Mild, 44, New Orleans, bounce D.J. and radio personality. Donald Raymond Haws, 88, Jacksonville, Fla., administered Holy Eucharist to hospital patients. Alan Lund, 81, Washington, conductor with “the most amazing ear.” John Cofrancesco, 52, New Jersey, administrator at a nursing facility. Fred Walter Gray, 75, Benton County, Wash., liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. JoAnn Stokes-Smith, 87, Charleston, S.C., loved to travel and covered much of the globe. Ronald W. Lewis, 68, New Orleans, preserver of the city’s performance traditions. John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond, 59, Washington, D.C., member of a Franciscan monastery. Carl Redd, 62, Chicago, squeezed in every moment he could with his only grandchild.”

They were us! Making music, cooking potatoes, praying in community, visiting the sick, encountering other cultures, healing from wounds physical and otherwise, playing with children, being alive. To remember is to bring back to life, momentarily, what is gone. Teju Cole, in a moving diary of the pandemic, notes, “People are dying in hospitals and dying at home. The official tolls are almost certainly an undercount. The morgues are overflowing. Those are the facts. But where is the grief?” My friends and I are shocked when we see the photos of Memorial Day weekend crowds at beaches, pools, boardwalks, car races, packed together, not one wearing a mask. The POTUS orders the flags at half-staff and goes golfing. Where is the grief? America describes itself as a Christian nation, but what does that mean if as a nation we stop remembering the dead and caring for the living? And how to grieve when we cannot gather together in mourning?

In these strange days, I find I do not turn to the Church for consolation as I once did. I find it elsewhere. I watch a pair of house finches build a nest in the eaves, read the daily Facebook posts of Kara Tav, a rabbi chaplain at a Brooklyn hospital. She is surrounded by an overwhelming amount of death, her job made hell by Covid-19. And yet she keeps on, and with such a generous heart. I like to think the people who are impervious to the loss would feel differently if they had a tour of a hospital ICU, maybe if they had eyes to see, ears to hear.

In the face of the pandemic what was once important falls away. We are left with basic questions. What is ‘church’ when we cannot gather together? When, paradoxically, by not going to church we are helping others, especially the elderly, who represent more than half of congregations and who are at greatest risk if exposed to the virus? Lately, with some insisting churches reopen regardless of risk, there has been a considerable amount of online discussion on the subject: A cartoon is circulating on social media of a simple drawing of a church. The caption reads: “The building is closed. The church is open.” “Our highest and holy calling is to be church, not to go to church,” states a meme. Catholic apologist and blogger Mark Shea remarks that “in this strange hour, it is mostly those who think they do not believe in Jesus who are proving themselves his disciples by the only measure he cares about: their actions which put the good of others first.” 

Such concrete action and concern for the common good recalls Dorothy Day, another recent source of consolation. Day worked as a nurse in a Brooklyn hospital during the 1918 flu epidemic. The work was arduous and heartbreaking, as it is for the nurses on Covid-19 wards today. This was years before Day’s conversion and creation of the Catholic Worker, and yet here perhaps were seeds of what was to be of utmost import to her and the communities she birthed: Christ’s commands of Matthew 25, the source of the corporal works of mercy: visit the sick, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, shelter the homeless, bury the dead. To be church is both basic and difficult. It is to love the least of these our brethren, to know that they are us.

Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.

Welcome, Empower, Send: Lessons from Successful Multiethnic Parishes

My interest of late has been the role of parishes in church reform. Two posts ago, I proposed that parish-renewal programs and active parish councils are vital for empowering lay Catholics to renew the Church. In my previous post, I discussed how Americans’ participation in their churches and other local organizations makes significant contributions to social fabrics both small and large, which suggests that the vitality of parishes is significant for the health of the civic community. Here I tie these points together, drawing upon insights from the experiences of multiethnic parishes.

An infographic collection from Commonweal’s April issue on “The American Parish Today” captures major demographic shifts that shape the present and future of U.S. Catholicism. The number of Hispanic/Latinx Catholics is steadily growing (now 40 percent of the total), a quarter of all parishes intentionally serve Hispanic/Latinx Catholics, and most Catholics (56 percent) now live in the South and the West. Theologian Brett Hoover reflects on the growth of “shared parishes,” those that serve two or more ethnic, racial or language groups. In some cities, more than 75 percent of Masses are offered in a language other than English, and “across the Midwest and South, where demographic transformations began in earnest in the 1990s, the percentage lay[s] somewhere between 15 and 45 percent.”

These demographic shifts create new challenges and opportunities for ministry, worship, education and social outreach. How do successful multiethnic parishes respond to them? The Commonweal issue features an interview with Fr. Hector Madrigal, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Amarillo, Texas. St. Joseph is highly diverse: it comprises the original white/Anglo members, culturally assimilated Mexican Americans, Mexican immigrants, Filipino immigrants and refugees from South Sudan, Bosnia, and El Salvador.

Asked why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised his parish in a 2014 study on best practices for shared parishes, Fr. Madrigal says, “The USCCB identifies nine steps to integration. There are three that I call giant steps. The first step is about welcoming, giving people a place to feel and call their home. The second, once they’ve been welcomed, is to let people feel they belong and can influence decisions. This leads to the third giant step, the commitment to stewardship and communion.” The Bishops’ report found St. Joseph implementing every step.

All parishes can learn from shared parishes. These three giant steps are the essential steps for building vibrant parish communities of any ethnic composition, and they are the same steps by which a parish promotes the common good. Let’s look at each step and its implications for church reform.

Welcome. The Commonweal issue includes survey findings that Catholics are most attracted to a parish by its open, welcoming spirit and by “the sense of feeling you belong there.” In an era when 30 percent of active Catholics attend a parish other than the one closest to their home and no longer attend out of mere habit, welcoming is more important than ever. A popular parish-renewal program, Fr. James Mallon’s Divine Renovation, emphasizes hospitality, following Jesus’ teaching, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). Fr. Mallon writes, “Someone once said that the Church is the only organization that exists mainly for the sake of those who do not belong.” While hospitality builds and maintains community among current members, it is also key to missionary discipleship. “Hospitality does not mean being friendly with our friends and all the people who look, think and talk like us, but reaching out to the stranger.”

Empower. The second step, says Fr. Hector Madrigal, “is to let people feel they belong and can influence decisions.” I believe that this is the pivot point of the whole enterprise, and it’s the step where many Catholic parishes and the entire Church have a lot more work to do. That’s why you are reading this blog! People are more committed to their communities and more likely to go beyond the minimum asked of them when they have a sense of ownership. Among the best practices for promoting ownership is having a parish pastoral council with a meaningful deliberative voice, according to those who specialize in studying such councils (such as Charles Zech and Mark Fischer). Fr. Madrigal provides an excellent example of this empowerment strategy:

“[At St. Joseph] we’ve been good about incorporating and integrating our different ethnic groups, but what about the younger people? And so we had some listening sessions where we evaluated our hospitality, our hymns and our homilies. And there it surfaced very clearly that generational difference is a serious issue for us and we need to address it. … The most essential thing is that we’re not just going to talk about them. We’re going to talk with them. … We’ve come up with a new structure, and one of the requirements is that a third of the pastoral council must reflect this younger generation. We’re being as intentional about it as we were in including the South Sudanese in leadership, the Spanish-speaking, those who speak more English—now we’re saying we have to include the younger generation in the leadership of this parish.”

What one notices in this quote, and throughout the interview, are these processes at St. Joseph: listening to the members, formulating a mission statement based on the discernment of the whole parish, (re)evaluating all parish practices in light of that mission, intentionally including all constituencies in the leadership of the parish, and from this foundation, forming Catholics to become missionary disciples. Following the USCCB’s “best practices,” but moving ahead of what most bishops make possible, Fr. Madrigal and St. Joseph are in the vanguard of parish-level reform in the Church. They exemplify at the parish level the greater deliberative role for the laity that Gerry O’Hanlon calls for in his recent post in this blog.

Send. The word “Mass” comes from the liturgy’s closing words in Latin: “Ite, missa est,” meaning, “Go, she [the Church] has been sent.” Worship is completed in mission. Drawing upon the Aparecida Document of the 2007 conference of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, both Fr. Mallon and Fr. Madrigal emphasize missionary discipleship. The future Pope Francis was the leading force at Aparecida, and the bishops’ document was warmly affirmed by Pope Benedict. Thus, there should be power in this metaphor to draw together different visions within the Church today.

So, if you want your parish be a strong actor for social justice in the wider community, work to build community in your parish. If you want your parish to grow and the parishioners to show a greater missionary zeal, empower their voice and their leadership, and challenge them to serve the kingdom of God. Good ecclesiology is good social ministry, and vice versa. Or, in theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s oft-quoted dictum, “The church doesn’t have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic.”

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

Why Dante Still Matters, and Especially Now

… ma gia volgeva il mio disio e ‘l velle,
Si come rota ch’igualmente e mossa,
L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.[1]
(Paradiso. xxxiii. 143-145)

Were he alive today, Dante Aligheri would rock social media, and not just because of his poetic brilliance. In truth, Dante was a proud—even at times arrogant—voluble, enlightened but often (by his own account) volatile Florentine who harbored—at least initially in the creation of his masterpiece—a rather robust penchant for revenge. Through his writings, Dante was willing to expose the prevalent hypocrisy (including his own) and the persistent abuse of authority in both secular and religious Florentine society.  He wrote with a fierce determination to speak truth to power (after all, what other devout Catholic in the 14th century—or any century—would place a pope in hell?) and to expose malfeasance wheresoever it was found. One can only imagine his tweets from #therealdivinecomedy. 

Dante’s greatest work was, of course, his ‘divine’ Commedia, and while there are many sources that inspired its composition, one of the most crucial was his own immediate environment. Dante looked at the world around him and was unhappy with what he saw or, at least, with what he perceived to have become the status quo: the apparent dissolution of social ethics and community responsibility, a languid relativism undermining common moral values and a pervasive ambivalence about intellectual and theological integrity. Sound familiar? It is intriguing, then, to consider what Dante would make of the current global pandemic and of the tested responses of responsible institutions, as well as of the reaction—from world leaders and from average people—that have ranged from the admirably effective to the abysmally ineffective. It goes without saying that Dante would be impressed by the valiant efforts of the medical professionals and other ‘frontline’ workers, the teachers, the mail carriers, the grocery clerks, the trash collectors and so many others. It is also clear that he would be disheartened (but perhaps not surprised?) by other behaviors that percolate through social media, such as the demands for exclusion, the threats of violence and the reckless dismissals of cautionary oversight. He likely would take to social media to call out the smugly self-absorbed, the hypocritical anger-mongers and the thoughtless betrayers of trust and of the truth.

Dante’s Commedia is commonly acknowledged to be one of the greatest treasures of western European literature and, like all literary artifacts, it lends itself to different interpretations. It is a narrative poem of an epic scale and a bountiful excursus of the world of late medieval Italy. It is a compendium of the robust interdisciplinarity of learning in the medieval world, connecting theology to classical literature to law to mythology to history to art to politics to science, and it is a study in poetic composition and astonishing versification. However, the Commedia is more than a cultural or literary or historical artifact: it is an examination of social ethics and individual dignity, and it is also a spiritual narration of universal relevance.  It is true that for the (post) modern reader, the very structure of the poem into three cantica titled Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, might seem archaic, peculiar, even ludicrous, but that tripartite structure is an organizing principal that is meant to guide the reader through her/his own journey of self-reflection, self-awareness and self-assessment—a journey that must be completed to regain the connection to God (having strayed away midway through life) and one’s full humanity. Yet, that journey is never a singular enterprise, nor is it an occasion to celebrate exclusively the individual, paradoxical as that might seem.

Dante’s journey through the three ‘conditions of being’ follows a tri-level pathway of encounters with others: even Dante’s vision of God, while personal, was not achieved alone. The souls whom he meets along the excursion are those of individuals whose adjudicated placements are primarily the result of the kinds of relations they had with others: they loved others either not at all (and themselves too well), or too tepidly (and eventually realized their failing) or quite exquisitely (with the purity of agape). How we love each other—and therefore love God—is at the core of the Commedia. The multiple episodes of the ‘souls’ throughout the Commedia are the means by which Dante can address the brokenness of his world, a culture that seemed to him to be elevating love of self over love for others, and a love for material existence over a love of God. Dante chided his contemporaries (and himself) for the errors of the day: an escalating monetization of society, an increasing inward turn of both the intellect and the spirit, a rising interest in self-promotion at the cost of relational engagement and an intensifying disillusionment with shared ethical values.

Like Aquinas, Dante was a student of Aristotelian thinking (expanded with Pauline belief), and so he accepted the dictum that people are by nature relational and can realize the flourishing of their humanity in communion with each other: the common weal takes precedence over the desires of any one individual (see 1 Corinthians 12: 4-26). Dante likely would have regarded our current ‘cult’ of individualism, the fraught promise of the modern age, with grave concern, even condemnation, especially in a society that has the luxury to know better and the means to do well.  His is a cautionary tale for our times.

Yet Dante was not without hope. His journey does not remain mired in inevitable damnation (Calvin is still two centuries away). Once Dante and Virgil emerge out of the darkness of the Inferno and begin the ascent of the purgatorial mountain, Dante encounters souls whom he can celebrate for their atonement, the souls of those who redirected their lives from sin (pride, envy, wrath, greed) to virtue (humility, compassion, patience, generosity), always with the help of others. No one can make the journey alone. The souls in Purgatorio did not just cease from sinning, they embraced active lives of virtuous behavior and reconnection to others (and, through others, to God). Yet Dante was also a resolute believer in free will, and so he also insists that we always have choice in how we live our lives, whether we choose the dark wood of fear and despair, self -pity and resentment, or the clear path of benevolence and joy, empathy and love.

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

…tanto ch’i’ vidi de la cose belle
che porta ‘l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stele. 

(Inferno. xxxiv. 137-139)[2]

1 Trans.: …my desire and will were already moved, like a wheel turned uniformly, by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

[2] Trans.: …until I saw, through a round opening, some of those things of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there that we emerged to see again the stars.

Taking Stock – Church Reform

One of the positive side effects of this sad time of coronavirus/COVID-19 is that those of us well enough to do so have time to take stock. Where, then, stands reform in the Catholic Church?

I think Michael Sean Winters “nailed” it (03/05/2020). There had been an exaggerated reaction of dismay to the formal response of Pope Francis to the Amazon Synod. Winters is surely right to assert that Francis understandably wanted to focus on matters ecological at that synod, and that the tectonic shift that is happening under him with regard to church reform centers on a synodality that is not reducible to a parliamentary form of government, where issues are determined purely by majority vote. In short, with regard to the issues of married priests and female deacons, issues of concern to the universal church, Francis remained unconvinced that the discernment process had reached the point of peaceful decision.

Nonetheless, this incident has raised concern in some quarters that while the reform of Francis has been strong on personal and cultural aspects, it has been limited at the legal, institutional and structural levels, so that a well-organized and resourced opposition is now scenting blood.

Certainly at the cultural level, there has been real progress - a genuine loosening up of discussion, debate, and a growing familiarity with the practice of communal discernment. And there has been an awareness of the need for legal, institutional and structural change – so, for example, the new laws in Episcopalis Communio around mandatory consultation before the Synod of Bishops, the on-going work of the Council of Cardinals, the shortly to-be-published document on reform of the Curia are all evidence of this.

I would suggest that there are two major issues emerging as the reform seeks to find more secure institutional footing within the church.

Frist, with regard to the relationship between primacy and collegiality as newly focused by the Amazon Synod, John O’Malley, in another context, notes that while it is clear that in the Catholic Church, governance is shared by the pope and the collective authority of the bishops, the practical implementation of this sharing will by definition always be untidy and subject to change. Church governance, like the governance of every institution that is not a dictatorship, consists of lines that are sometimes blurred. We are faced with the practical question of what are the appropriate instruments for making the collegial (synodal) tradition of church governance effective. 

Since the ultimate purpose is the discernment of God’s will (and not some more simple counting of votes, the “parliamentary procedures” of ARCIC III),  one can understand the reluctance of Francis to simply accept tout court – the recommendations of a regional synod that were themselves deeply contested and were also being addressed in other fora. On the other hand, perhaps ARCIC III also has it right in recommending a more deliberative role for the Synod of Bishops and a fuller articulation of the authority of Episcopal Conferences. O’Malley’s colleague at Georgetown, Ladislas Orsy, has already long argued for the effective, not just affective, authority of Episcopal Conferences, proposing that the Holy See can and should retain ultimate supervisory authority over the conferences but more in the traditional manner of a court of appeal.  By offering a more deliberative status to the Synod of Bishops and indeed to Episcopal Conferences, Francis would be laying positive foundations for a more shared ecclesial governance, coupled with a kind of mutual veto to avoid simple head-counting as a means of settling disputed issues, thus preserving the value of discernment.

Secondly, we need to address the role of the laity in church teaching and governance. While, as O’Malley notes, historically the laity at Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II exercised real influence through a consultative process, nonetheless in an age that values participation as of right and in which the share of the baptised in the three-fold office of Jesus Christ (including governance) is more and more acknowledged, it would seem sensible to move in the direction that ARCIC III proposes and offer a more deliberative role to laity in the Catholic Church.

This would enhance the value of the sensus fidei fidelorum in both church teaching and governance, not least as an antidote to the often unconscious clericalism that Francis himself often criticizes and has identified as an obstacle to the creation of a synodal church. But, in addition, it is the “sense of the faithful” in regions like ours that is most sensitive to such neuralgic issues as the unresolved role of women in the Church and the unreceived status of some church teaching on sexuality. These “internal peripheries” (Lakeland, 03/19/2020) of the Church articulate in their voices of dissent a position that requires hearing and discernment if the Church is to regain credibility in our culture.

We may cavil at some of Francis’ own theological instincts and language on such issues but this may be to miss the point. By his synodal decentralisation, he wants a less exclusive emphasis on his own particular position (and the inevitable blind spots of any particular pontiff) and more room for the Holy Spirit to work through the whole Church. Which is why, as Catherine Mulroney urges (03/12/2020), we all need to put our shoulders to the wheel, from parish level up, in bringing about this new church.

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.