A publication of Sacred Heart University

« April 2021 | Main | June 2021 »

Entries from May 2021

Emerging from the Pandemic: A Time to Choose

In his new book, Let Us Dream, in the section “A Time to Choose,” Pope Francis writes, “Coronavirus has accelerated a change of era that was already underway … The categories and assumptions that we used before to navigate our world are no longer effective … It is an illusion to think that we can go back to where we were.”

As parishes emerge from the pandemic worldwide, their members and pastors are eager to return to some sense of normalcy. But they know that things cannot go back to the way they were. Parishes are concerned about attendance and donations that have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, levels that were unsustainable even then. They face strained finances and the shortage of priests.

As a case study, consider my diocese, the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut (AOH). AOH has been in a process of “pastoral and strategic planning” for the past five years, and a synod took place in 2020. In 2017, AOH, which had apparently avoided the tough issue for many years, consolidated hundreds of parishes at once, requiring the closing of 132 of them (currently 131 remain open).

But now, plans are underway for a further consolidation. By the end of this year, many towns will host a single parish, at least administratively. In my town—a municipality of 61,000 residents and at least 20,000 Catholics—seven parishes were merged into three in 2017, and now the three will become one, but with multiple “campuses.” The aim, according to a March 2021 letter from Archbishop Leonard Blair, is “to meet the reality of far fewer priests and Masses in church buildings that rarely if ever are filled to capacity.”

These realities cannot be denied. One might think that this is a bold, rational way of looking forward. Interestingly, though, the Archbishop looks back to a near-past before “the heyday of Catholic practice and housing expansion in Connecticut.” He explained, “We are looking at a ‘municipal model’ for all our parishes, in some cases going back to ‘what once was’ in terms of a ‘mother church’ before suburban growth.” Is this really bold thinking … or bureaucratic thinking justified with a veneer of nostalgia?

I personally fear this round of mergers, because they were not handled well in 2017. Despite language from the Archdiocese that pastoral planning was not simply about mergers and closures, mergers and closures were the primary takeaway for Catholics in the pews. Parishioners worked hard then, and are working hard now, to make the new communities effective. But the reorganization came down like a ton of bricks, with sore feelings and emptier pews in its wake. Catholics didn’t know what was really happening until it happened.

Pope Francis continually identifies dialogue as the crucial practice for all community building, in both church and society. Information is crucial for dialogue. But on the AOH website, there are no links to “pastoral planning” or the 2020 synod, and the search menu on the website turns up nothing. One has to Google to find the relevant website. There, the menu item for “The Plan” is empty.

The COVID year has made all the more apparent that volunteer lay ministry is vital to parish life. Video-streaming of masses, committee meetings on Zoom and socializing and education this past year would not have happened without the laity’s expertise, energy and dedication. Laypeople serve on advisory committees and they run much of what happens in parishes week to week, but they are not yet, as a general rule, incorporated in new, creative ways in shared ministry and participatory governance.

Francis makes clear in Let Us Dream his respect for lay ministry and leadership, including that exercised by women. He has striven “to better integrate the presence and sensibility of women into the Vatican’s decision-making processes,” by appointing women to key posts. He stresses that “an expanded role for women in Church leadership doesn’t depend on the Vatican and is not limited to specific roles.” However, while it is true what the Pope says—that in some places, women run whole Church communities—it is still a rare occurrence. Since 1983, Canon Law has made provision for the role of parish-life coordinator, a layperson who administrates the parish on a day-to-day basis. The Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, did so for the first time in 2018. The establishment of such a role is supposed to be on an emergency basis.

Well, the emergency is here. Like the matters of married priests and women deacons, there are good reasons to explore the idea on its own merits, not just because the shortage of priests will eventually make changes unavoidable. Even tradition is on the side of change. If Archbishop Blair can go back to “what once was” in parish ministry a century ago, cannot the Church consider going back to “what once was” during the first millennium of Christianity?

In Laudato Sí, Francis warns against “trying not to see [problems], trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” Let’s bear that diagnosis in mind as we emerge from the pandemic.

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

Memento Legere: Out of Old Books Comes (Re)new(ed) Wisdom

…For out of the old fieldes, as men saithe,

Cometh al this new corne fro yere to yere;

And out of old bookes, in good faithe,

Cometh al this new science that men lere…

                                                  ~Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowles (l. 22-25)

This past spring semester, I had the good fortune to teach a dazzling work of late medieval literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It is a text that is fairly familiar but is usually confined to the walls of the classroom. That is unfortunate since art, especially the rich bounty of literature, is timeless and has always been a means for a conversation across the limitations of time and space, and The Canterbury Tales, it seems to me, is a literary masterpiece of the 14th century that resonates very much with our world today. It is, I would argue, a worthy vade mecum for our time as we wander into a new future and onto unspecified terrain.

Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales at a critical juncture in nation, ecclesial and social history not so different from our own. He wrote in the shadow of the monstrous Black Death that killed over a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century and that lingered, in one form or another, for generations. The consequences of that continental plague and also of the 100 Years War that was ravaging France and Great Britain at that same time, were dire and extensive. Centers of power, like the Church and European royal houses, collapsed under the weight of their own corruption and their ineffectiveness in managing the immense scale of physical and metaphysical chaos, and people began to lose trust in all forms of authority and in many of the ideals of the past. Sound familiar?

Chaucer decided to critique the turmoil of his time by writing a work that would be structured around the medieval motif of pilgrimage: he would then be able to reveal and to reflect on both private and public lives, as well as on internal states and external behaviors. Any reader of the Tales, then, will find themselves also on a journey of contemplation and renewed observation, walking with the pilgrim(s) and experiencing their encounters as well as their occasions of spiritual and moral inquiry. We—as a Church, as a people, as individuals—have similarly been on a kind of “walk” since the start of the pandemic and even before that time, long back into the years when crisis after crisis rocked the Church and her people, continuing even today. It is perhaps time again to take stock of ourselves and our individual as well as collective journeys, and consider how, moving forward, we can forge a more honest, just and compassionate world for future generations.

With each sequential tale, the reader of The Canterbury Tales enters into familiar spaces of ‘modern’ problems and vexing questions that are still prevalent today. The profiles of the pilgrims and the stories that they share are critical and (despite the broad satire) severe, yet they impart truths that we may wish to contemplate on our individual walks with Chaucer.

One truth from the Tales is that the Church (the human institution) of the 14th century had become woefully mired in a rampant materialism and moral negligence in its effort to sustain its power and to correspond its strength with that of its contemporary secular culture. The wretched pardoner, the vicious friar and the self-satisfied prioress, among the pilgrims, are all characters of moral lassitude whose tales only reveal their lack of self-awareness and moral accountability.  Since they refuse to acknowledge such failings, Chaucer held before them a mirror in an effort to incite clerical reform.

Chaucer imputed the same to the political sector of society, the royal and aristocratic houses: there are several tales of imperious, calculating, cruel and intractable rulers whose moral failings and arrogant self-regard cause damage to their communities and to their own families. Chaucer’s pilgrims continuously aver that virtue and moral character cannot be inherited or even learned only from books: Virtue is to be practiced and lived. That is indeed a lesson still relevant today.

As a second truth, Chaucer depicted scholars, intellectuals and seekers of knowledge who too often become mired in their own egos, often at the expense of others, and so misuse their knowledge or misdirect their intellects for selfish or self-serving reasons, usually causing harm to others. The crude students in “The Reeve’s Tale” and the beguiled ‘scientist’ (alchemist) in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” squander their wisdom and their education for licentious or avaricious goals. The educated have an ethical obligation to use their knowledge wisely and in service to the common good, so they must put aside their intellectual pride and personal vanity. It is a cautionary reminder for the academy and the Church.

Finally, the emerging bourgeoisie (in which class Chaucer counted himself), such as the shrewd merchant and the cunning franklin, engage with other individuals according to a kind of transactional sensibility that was novel in late medieval English society but increasingly apparent. Chaucer, holding a mirror to his own life, regarded such middle-class evaluation not simply appalling but actually toxic to human relationships and the common good. Several pilgrims narrate troubling stories of marriages, friendships, even family partnerships transformed by equations of self-interest and values of investment, excluding moral judgment as frivolous and deeming acquisition of material goods and social power as the necessary motivators of social interaction. Chaucer was as distressed as we also should be for our own increasingly ‘transactional’ audacity.

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

Good News from Ireland

Can good news still be of interest?!

In a statement after their March 2021 spring meeting, the Irish Catholic bishops formally announced that they had “decided to embark on a synodal pathway for the Catholic Church in Ireland leading to the holding of a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years.” The bishops are clearly inspired by the teaching and practice of Pope Francis, and they explicitly acknowledge the assistance of Cardinal Mario Grech and Sr. Natalie Becquart of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops in Rome. Their outlook is missionary rather than self-referential, and they acknowledge the challenging context within which the Church in Ireland is embedded.

This context includes the rapid secularization of Irish society, with a major decline in religious practice and a sharp reduction in the number of vocations to priesthood and religious life; the shocking revelations around clerical and institutional abuse that have severely damaged the moral credibility of the Church; the need to promote peace-making and a culture of welcome (in the context of the unfinished peace process in Northern Ireland and the influx of immigrants to the island of Ireland); the cries for transparency, greater participation and accountability in the Church; the discovery, due to the COVID pandemic, of the family as the ‘domestic Church’; the need to connect with young people (who have exited the Church in their droves) and to honor the contribution of women, not least by listening to ‘their deep concerns.’ All this, following Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti, is seen within the call to solidarity with the poor, the earth, the excluded and those ‘on the peripheries’, including ‘initiatives of social friendship in favor of our sisters and brothers in other continents.’

The rhetoric, as Francis himself often acknowledges, is the easy part. The transfer into concrete action, stemming from real renewal and reform, is more difficult. And yet this is a good start, an almost unique example of the kind of leadership the Irish Church has been crying out for, after several demoralizing decades.

The bishops propose to proceed by means of a two-year ‘national conversation’ or consultation process, structured around the leading and open question of ‘what does God want from the Church in Ireland today?’ This is envisaged as a period of prayer, listening and discernment, allowing groups and individuals to share their insights, with related information sessions and educational programs on the meaning and processes of syondality, all under the direction and supervision of a ‘task group made up of lay women and men, including young people, religious, priests and bishops’ to be established next June. In the meantime, the Bishops have opened up a facility on their website for short submissions on how best to conduct the consultation – in addition, by the way, to the invitation for submissions around the vexed issued of the best English translation for the Lectionary to be used at Masses, another earnest of their good intentions. This two-year consultation process will also serve as the Irish contribution to the 2022 Synod on Synodality in Rome, and afterwards the exact shape of the National Synod/Assembly will become clearer.

All kinds of questions arise – will the participants be ‘the usual suspects,’ or will the bishops find a way to honor their observation that ‘we are also aware that many people have left Church behind and in some cases feel ignored, excluded or forgotten – we need to hear their voice also’? How will their assertion that synods are not instruments for changing church teaching sit with the clear non-reception in Ireland of teaching on sexuality and gender? Will we find a way to negotiate the delicate balance between the lay perception that priests want to cling on to power and the corresponding perception by priests that laity are often good at offering suggestions for change but slow to assume responsibility for implementation? In short, as Massimo Faggioli has put it, ‘is synodaltiy a way to renew the pastoral style of the Church in the existing institutional and theological system’ or can it be a moment of ‘opening the Church to the possibility of institutional and theological developments?’

But for now, it’s good to give thanks for blessings, to acknowledge that in Ireland (as in Germany, Australia, Latin America, Liverpool, perhaps soon Italy itself) the crucial first step has been taken to realize the Pope’s dream of a synodal church for the third millennium. The Irish bishops, understandably, seem to have had last-minute jitters just before the final decision to proceed on this route (after all, as MyroslawTataryn himself noted recently here 04/22/2021, ‘a synodal church is a messy church, more committed to dialogue than judgment’ – this lack of control is outside the default comfort zone of most bishops). But they were reassured by Cardinal Grech: ‘that the people of God (and here I am referring to all the baptized, bishops and clergy included) are still not spiritually and theologically equipped to engage in a synodal process should not dishearten you.’ In other words, do not be afraid!

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

My Soul is Fading away, Overwhelmed by Acedia (Ps 119:28)

Months of isolation, online classes, meetings, family gatherings and reduced social contact have shrunk the breadth of our horizons considerably. The monotony of the routine is seeping in: pray, work, eat, sleep, repeat. And while the availability of vaccines represents a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, it is becoming apparent – as relentless waves of COVID-19 continue to roll over one vulnerable community after another, now engulfing the global south—that we will likely be in this for a long time to come.

A recent piece in the New York Times is getting a lot of attention, no doubt because it speaks to what so many are feeling these days. Author Adam Grant names the malaise—the blahs that have so many stuck in a rut—as “languishing.” He describes it as a sense of stagnation and emptiness that saps our motivation to do even the simplest of things.

There are important parallels between what Grant perceives as a mental health crisis and the “noon day demon” that Christian monastics have come to know as acedia. Acedia sets in naturally in the ascetic simplicity of monastic life whose daily routine of prayer, work, meals and sleep is marked by repetition. It comes with the depressing thought that the long road ahead might be nothing more than a meaningless monotony. The soul-weariness of acedia is described variously as melancholy, boredom, listlessness, discouragement, indifference, apathy, despondency. We encounter its temptation, now amplified in our pared-down routines, in the little voice that asks, “why bother?” or “what difference will it make?” and “who cares?”. When seized by acedia’s pathology, our discouragement gives way to the paralysis of despair. We simply cease to care. The I-don’t-give-a-damn version of indifference can degenerate into a virulent sin or vice against charity.

Kathleen Norris has written eloquently on the malaise of acedia prevalent in North American culture, drawing from the Christian spiritual tradition to distinguish between psychological illness and the temptation to acedia. When she began writing about it, she observed how our daylong exposure to television and electronic news media fuels indifference and an inability to really care and act on things. In a world where we are constantly inundated with information, it becomes impossible to distinguish the nonessential from what really matters.

We are unable to absorb the mind-numbing scale of human suffering all around us, with nightmarish new twists each day. It is unbearable to witness the heart wrenching catastrophe that has fallen upon our sisters and brothers in India. In Latin America and elsewhere, the uncontrolled pandemic is leading to the collapse of governments and of public order. Around the world, a contagion of despair is creating new populations of refugees. Closer to home, my neighbors struggle with lost employment, home schooling and increased family pressures while the health-care system is tested to the limit. What is a soul to do? Pray, work, eat, sleep, repeat.

If self-centered indifference is the sickness of our time, the present moment reveals the need for a corrective vision of the world. Hunkered down in COVID bubbles, perhaps we can refocus on what really matters, shed some ballast, redirect our attention to the few simple things, especially the relationships, that count. We can find new freedom in the cultivation of a healthy indifference to the many things that distract us from what truly gives life.

The monastic remedy against the temptation of acedia is essentially a practice of stability, including perseverance, meditation on the scriptures, tears and manual labor.

Persevere. Don’t look away. Resist the temptation to flee. Christian faith tells us that God is waiting to meet us in our disarray.

Return to the Scriptures. They contain a vision of the world as God sees it, not as we would like it to be. This might be a good time to turn to the psalms. They give voice to the whole range of human emotions welling up within. We can pray with a great cloud of witnesses who have never hesitated to lament or cry out, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13).

Weep. An especially difficult aspect of the present crisis is the inability to gather, to mourn, to console those who have lost loved ones. Weep and mourn. Shed tears of compassion for the whole earth in travail. Weep with compunction for our many failures to love. May our souls not be deadened by the weight of grief and sorrow.

Work. As much as you are able. Let each simple gesture of quotidian labor become an act of love: cooking, cleaning, reading, writing, ploughing, planting, building a new world. Reclaiming life through the practice of ordinary acts of self-care and care for others moves us from self-centered indifference to the beatitude of joy.

Now more than ever, the world needs a culture of mutual care to save our fading collective soul.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.