Yesterday, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States—two weeks after a mob, stoked by Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol with the aim of blocking Congress from certifying the election and, among some of the rioters, of doing real harm to legislators.
I was interested to see how parish priests addressed the insurrection at Masses the following Sunday. To be sure, most Catholics don’t want their church experience to become overly politicized. Fair enough: church is about nurturing a relationship to the One who transcends this and every age, and people come to church in part to get away from depressing public affairs. But such a troubling event cannot be ignored at the very places meant to help us live faithfully in the world and to ease our worried minds.
Over the past year, I have been studying three Catholic parishes—all suburban and largely white in racial makeup—conducting interviews with parishioners and attending services, meetings and events. My research aims to understand how these parishes build community within their walls and how they contribute to the wider community.
So, I watched the online Masses at these churches to see how their pastors addressed the insurrection in their homilies. Since I will be selective in quoting the homilies, let me say first that all of them mainly addressed the Scriptures and focused on themes appropriate to the feast day, which was the Baptism of the Lord.
At St. Malachi (all names are pseudonyms), a New England parish, nothing was said in the homily. Neither did the prayers of the faithful seem to address what had happened five days before. One could have attended Mass at St. Malachi and thought nothing unusual was going on in the country. However, there was a petition “for the sanctity of all life from conception to natural death,” and in the announcements, the pastor invited parishioners to participate in a novena for pro-life and in Eucharistic adoration on January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
St. Augustine is a very large parish in the Midwest, where the pastor has not shied away from commenting on social issues. The pastor addressed the riot at the Capitol during both the Thursday daily Mass and the Sunday Mass. His main theme in both homilies was that “the nature of the challenges in our society are ultimately not political. They are spiritual.” In the daily Mass, he asked the questions that were no doubt on everyone’s mind: “What is going on? And how do we respond?” His diagnosis was, “I would say very simply, we’re seeing what happens when we lose God. We have taken God for granted in our society. We like the things that God offers us. But we don’t want to worship. We’re too busy. We have other priorities.” He ended this homily on this note: “Is it a coincidence that faith was mocked this week in a prayer in our capital? A few days later, our capital was overrun. You may have heard one of the representatives very shamefully ended his prayer, to who knows who, with the phrase “amen and a-woman.” He was trying to—I don’t know what—make a statement about gender. Very ignorant. We mock God in our capital. A few days later, it’s overrun.”
For this priest, the deepest cause of the insurrection was that people are not worshipping God, and the main solution seems to be going to church. Now, it’s undeniable that there are spiritual roots to our present crisis, and that nurturing the love of God will, all things being equal, help Christians become more loving neighbors, who understand that they are called to love, as the priest said, “even the neighbor that disagrees with us, even the neighbor that hates us.” But his interpretation of Jesus’ call seems largely individualistic and oriented to personal character. And that’s reflected in the parish culture: I have not seen attempts at St. Augustine to respond to the events of 2020 with concrete actions to reflect on racial justice and to do justice (vs. charitable) work in the local community.
At Our Lady of Charity, another New England parish, the pastor focused his homily on how we should come to know Jesus better, using this theme to encourage parishioners to join a series of online small-group faith discussions. He closed with “these images that we have of Jesus [in the Scriptures] are so different than the ones we viewed coming from our nation’s capital this past Wednesday. The sadness and the horror of that tragedy, deadly tragedy, calls us to a renewed commitment to our faith in Jesus Christ, the faith in which we have been baptized. As baptized Christians, and as faith-filled Catholics, let us be people of hope and peace. Let us speak with the words of God, our Father, of love and acceptance. Let us act with the deeds of Jesus, in his goodness, in the power of God’s own spirit of peace. Let this be the image that we have of Jesus and that we present to the world through the lives that we live.”
I hope that on January 10, most Catholic parishioners in the U.S. heard messages like the one at Our Lady of Charity, rather than like the ones at St. Malachi or St. Augustine. But I bet that St. Malachi was the most common model and that the operative cultures in most parishes are like those at St. Malachi and St. Augustine, both of them attempting to be less “political” and more “spiritual,” but promoting political stances nonetheless.
I asked a St. Malachi’s parishioner why she thought nothing was said at her parish. “I think priests are afraid” to touch such topics, she said. But if so, pastors miss the chance to honor the fears and anxieties of their parishioners and the opportunity to encourage them not just to pray, but to act—to love not just in truth, but in deed (1 John 3:18).
Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.