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Entries from June 2021

Just Imagine…

For comic relief or abject disgust, depending upon your personal faith perspective, the U.S. Catholic bishops continue to embarrass themselves. Their duplicity of self-righteousness is only surpassed by their delusional self-importance. 

Last week as the bishops gathered for their virtual meetings – somewhat like teenagers for electronic war games – they debated and voted (yes) if they should draft a document on the Eucharist and eligibility to receive it. Their self-proclaimed moral high ground is rooted in a narrow reading of Catholic doctrine that many of them view as the only one. How Pharisaical of them. 

Over these recent years. they never sought that moral high ground in regard to the abuse of minors by either themselves or their clergy. Yet those abusers were able and permitted to continue not only to receive the Eucharist, but to celebrate the Eucharist. Now, some of these same bishops call for a document that prohibits Catholic politicians from receiving the Eucharist based on their political views. It seems that raping and abusing minors ranks lower on their scale of offenses than supporting policies that do not match up with what these bishops envision as in keeping with church teaching.

This week’s behavior by these ‘spiritual’ leaders screams of their disconnect with their people and Pope Francis. Their rationale is rooted in “doctrine” and not in the mercy of Jesus. But then again, look at the churches, empty in no small part due to bishops’ and priests’ condescending preaching and autocratic lifestyle. The bishops’ behavior as an assembly, also, is saddled with disunity and open contempt among themselves. What a mess, and how fundamentally uncatholic.

It might be helpful for the American bishops, since more and more Catholics (especially, and most troublingly, young Catholics) are just ignoring them and their pronouncements, to postpone debates in order to retreat and reflect on the works and behavior of Jesus. Maybe, then, they would also eat with today’s prostitutes and tax collectors. They might even come to understand and accept Pope Francis’ call for synodality. 

Imagine – how refreshing! –  bishops listening to the people of God. Imagine, the Eucharist being food for the soul rather than a political weapon. Just imagine, pastors and not Pharisees.


John J. Petillo is the president of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT.


De-clericalizing Seminaries

Pope Francis is concerned about priestly formation. Last week, my colleague Gerard O’Connell broke the news that the pope had ordered a review of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which oversees priests and, perhaps more importantly, seminaries in the church’s non-mission dioceses. Ordering an apostolic visitation of a Vatican office was virtually unheard of until earlier this year when the pope ordered an Italian bishop to visit the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in order to discern what the office would need out of its next prefect. Now, it seems Francis is working from the same playbook in the Congregation for Clergy.

The pope’s concerns about worship are evident: He wants to see the Second Vatican Council implemented and wants to ensure that the celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass are (1) properly understood as an exception rather than the norm, as he did in a recent guideline governing the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and (2) that Mass in this form is desired by the community rather than being imposed by a priest. (I think, if a survey of the TLM were to be done in the United States, it would find that the case is often the former.)

The latter speaks to some of Pope Francis’ concerns about priestly formation. First, as is well known, Pope Francis has seen the damage that clericalism has wrought in the church, particularly in the sexual abuse crisis, when priests’ and lay people’s belief in the superiority of the priest bolstered decades of abuse and cover up. As I wrote in a previous column for this blog, Pope Francis’ solution to clericalism is a synodal model of church, one that involves priests and lay people listening to one another and working together to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling the church.

A second concern is pride, the root cause of clericalism. This pope has, from the beginning, instructed pastors to be humble, to have “the smell of the sheep.” Last week, he contrasted this with the image of a “superman priest,” telling a group of priests studying in Rome, “My fragility, the fragility of each one of us, is a theological place of encounter with the Lord. The ‘superman’ priests end up badly, all of them. The fragile priest, who knows his weaknesses and talks about them with the Lord, he will be fine.”

It was an image that created a striking contrast with last week’s news that the La Crosse, Wisconsin priest, Fr. James Altman, who became a YouTube sensation last year with his “You cannot be Catholic & a Democrat. Period. (Part I)” video, has now raised almost $700,000 in donations to help him fight his bishop’s request that he resign as pastor of his parish. While I cannot claim to know Fr. Altman’s soul or his relationship with God, it seems clear from the volume of donations that many people consider him to be a sort of superman.

As Sr. Josephine Garrett, C.S.F.N., a religious sister and licensed counselor who works with seminarians, points out in a recent interview with Gloria Purvis, seminary vetting processes often fail to account for personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, which can then run rampant when a priest gathers a large social media following.

The third concern Pope Francis has expressed, most publicly last week in a speech to seminarians, is rigidity. In the speech, Pope Francis urged the seminarians to “dilate the boundaries of the heart” while they are in seminary. “Be passionate about what approaches, what opens, what brings together. Be wary of experiences that lead to sterile intimisms, of ‘satisfying spiritualisms,’ which seem to give consolation and instead lead to closures and rigidity. And here I rest for a while: Rigidity is a bit of fashion today; and rigidity is one of the manifestations of clericalism. Clericalism is a perversion of the priesthood: it is a perversion. And stiffness is one of the manifestations. When I find a seminarian or a stiff young priest, I say ‘something bad happens to this one inside.’ Behind all rigidity there is a serious problem, because rigidity lacks humanity.”

Clericalism, pride, rigidity—the links between the three are evident, and with his recent speeches and the review of the Congregation for Clergy that he ordered, Pope Francis has made clear that he hopes to see a church in which priests are formed to be the opposite: Listening, humble and human.


Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.


Lessons from the Pandemic

In a recent letter, Pope Francis made this comment about the Pandemic, “We never come out of any crisis the same: either we come out better or worse, but never the same; and that will depend, to a large extent, on our capacity to cultivate—especially in the younger generations—an imagination that would help them believe that another way of writing history is possible.”

As we begin to emerge from the worst ravages of this COVID year, it is good to consider what we have learned, and whether we are better or worse for the experience. Has this crisis enlarged our imaginations and enabled us to believe that another way of writing history is possible?

Among other lessons, we learned about the relation between our personal lives and conduct and the larger common good. During periods when we were effectively confined to our homes, perhaps unable to go to work or school or church, it was possible to feel that we were doing nothing—that our lives were in a kind of limbo. But with contemplative eyes we could see that by staying home we were actually contributing to the common good. We realized that by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing we were not just protecting ourselves, but serving the welfare of our neighbors.

It was possible, in our isolation, to feel that we were all on our own. Yet it also became possible under these circumstances to feel our connection with people all over the world, as well as our neighbors down the street, and to recognize how deeply our survival and sustenance depend on others, their prayers, their work, their commitment to a broader community beyond themselves.

There were lessons we could also glean from the experience and testimony of moral and spiritual witnesses of the past, who elected solitude, or had it imposed on them. In a Twitter series, #MastersofSocialIsolation, I wrote about such figures, invoking examples ranging from Emily Dickinson (“Some keep the sabbath going to church – / I keep it, staying at home”) and the Desert Fathers (“Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything”), to Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela.

But many of the deepest lessons came from Pope Francis, who above all discerned the deep interconnection between global, social, personal and spiritual dimensions of this crisis. In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he wrote, “A worldwide tragedy like the Covid-19 pandemic momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all. Once more we realized that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.”

While hoping that this experience might force us “to recover our concern … for everyone, rather than for the benefit of a few,” he warned that this was useless if it did not cause us to “rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence.” In other words, we were being challenged to embrace an ethic of global solidarity and accountability to our fellow human beings, thus overcoming “the cool, comfortable, and globalized indifference” that blinds us to systems of inequality and exploitation: the “pandemic” of systemic injustice that is the counterpart to the public health emergency.

Have we learned these lessons? One hopeful sign was the awakening to the effects of systemic racism. Perhaps it was no accident that in the “stillness” of this pandemic so many were able to hear the voice of George Floyd crying “I can’t breathe.” From that outcry, and the response it evoked, one could indeed glimpse the promise that another way of writing history is possible.

But at the same time, one had to wonder. As time passed, many simply became impatient or exhausted; we had had enough of this. We wanted to pretend that the crisis was over, to get on with our lives and move on. It raised deep concern for the future of our species—if we have the imagination and will, the emotional bandwidth, the courage and spiritual depth to confront the greater existential threats we continue to face from climate change and the ongoing peril of nuclear Doomsday.

Pope Francis writes, “If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing …  If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected.”

If only.


Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives. On Twitter: @RobertEllsberg.


An Extraordinary Synod

When it comes to Roman Synods, the 1985 one is singular in a number of ways. First of all: it was an Extraordinary Synod, falling between the schedule for the Ordinary Synods, on average held every three to four years. Secondly: it was specifically focused on the Second Vatican Council and was orchestrated to occur on the twentieth anniversary of the Council’s conclusion. Thirdly: it was the platform for many intriguing ecclesiological struggles aching for expression and validation on a global stage.

It was also singular for me in that it was the first of several synods that I would attend as a credentialed and approved journalist, an admittedly unusual status for someone who is primarily an academic but a requirement of the Press Office of the Holy See. My colleague, Douglas R. Letson, a medievalist and senior academic administrator, and I would spend many an hour poring over the documents, trying to make sense of the subtexts, deciphering the politics of composition, unearthing background information.

We attended daily press briefings that proved no more than an extended exercise in obfuscation, worked closely with the professional journalists and Vaticanisti, whose job was to fathom the Byzantine depths of Roman discourse and maneuverings, and spent time at the best trattoria in town with papal insiders, informed editors, and the occasional renegade reporter. Not the customary terrain of the conventionally trained academic. But we learned.

And what we learned: the synod agenda was inflexibly scripted; the interventions by the bishops (their 2.5-3.0 mins. of fame); the redacted English translations of the circuli minores or small language-based discussion groups; the pathetic press meetings with the Relator and other synod presiders who clearly had no conception of how the media works and demonstrated no desire to know; the episcopal self-editing that prevented any topic of consequence for the universal or even particular church from reaching the floor; the benign indifference of the Supreme Pontiff (on one occasion we were invited  to the synod hall to watch a session in progress and Pope John Paul II was occupied reading his breviary, or perhaps editing his post-synod document, while the bishops were delivering their safe and anodyne addresses—not an edifying moment).

The synod process was not enacted in a way that reflected a genuinely consultative body. The bishops were scripted. Everything was controlled. The media was a potential problem best kept at bay. All of this resulted in deference from the pious and career-ambitious and in cynicism from the others.

And that was too bad in many ways because the Extraordinary Synod had more than a little electricity about it. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s controversial interview—The Ratzinger Report consisting of a series of interviews with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori—appeared a couple of months before the synod began, thereby influencing its agenda and direction; certain prelates would rise to media prominence during the proceedings, including the eventually disgraced Bernard Law of Boston and the Dominican Christoph Schonborn of Vienna; the work for a universal and updated catechism for the Catholic Church began in earnest; the synod was the public genesis of a fiery and divisive debate that would unfold in subsequent decades, specifically during the pontificate of Benedict XVI around a hermeneutic of continuity.

Lots to munch on.

Subsequent synods were an improvement—a slightly more efficient and open press office; more public, if still generally muted, griping by novice bishops shocked by anti-collegial operations; and a modest increase in staff.

But the machinery of the synod remained intact.

And then Francis arrived: the process opened up dramatically. Participating bishops were enjoined to speak their minds (parrhesia); collision of Catholic intellects, as John Henry Newman would have it, was seen as a desirable feature of the synodal process; there was no overarching papal agenda corralling conformity over genuine unity; the number of advisors, periti, and interested parties expanded; and the pope not only welcomed the cut and thrust of debate, he ensured it.

But with episcopal conferences accustomed to being cowed by the curial offices, with bishops schooled in being timid rather than temerarious, it took Francis and his allies quite some time to get them comfortable in their skin, fear-free in the expression of their opinions and driven by a new energy of empowerment.

Of course, there were the critics and resisters, but that is fine.  Meaningful dialogue and openness to the Spirit does not consist in eliminating all tension.

And now for the piece de resistance: the planned 2023 synod on synodality with comprehensive involvement by all the members of the People of God. We have come a long way from that moment in the 1960s when Pope Paul VI re-introduced the synod as a continuation of the collegiality of the Second Vatican Council.

Laus Deo.


Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s and president of Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.