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Entries from December 2021

Shaken. And stirred?

I have been thinking lately about the meaning of discipleship in our increasingly apocalyptic world. Climate change, the global pandemic and the growing threat to democracy each in its own way undermines our sense of what the world should be like. But the novel twist for the followers of Christ is that some of those who claim to be his disciples are climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and fully paid up members of QAnon. What hope can there be for proclaiming the gospel in a polarized Church in a polarized world, when the evangelizers cannot agree among themselves. Whatever happened to “see how those Christians love one another!”?

Getting close to Christmas as we are, we might look for help to Christmas 1914 in the trenches of the First World War. There is good evidence that at least at some points along the front line on Christmas Eve, the infantry called a truce and for an hour or two, met in no-man’s-land to exchange small gifts, to smoke cigarettes together and, in at least one spot, to play a game of soccer. Only to return promptly to killing one another. Fifty years later, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka saw the horrors of the trenches as the site of a potentially new world, illustrated by what he named “the solidarity of the shaken.” The “shaken” was his word for those whose assumptions about the world had been left behind in Flanders mud, and the solidarity that arose from the sense that the men on both sides shared the existential challenge of the trenches—after all, they represented different armies. In fact, they may not have agreed on anything except the commonality of shakenness. Patočka used this scenario to help him promote the Charter 77 movement in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, a loose association of people of many different political perspectives united only in their shakenness and ready to do battle for democracy.

How does this help us with the problem of evangelization today? Illustrating the logic of “we are all in this together,” it strongly suggests an emphasis on presence, in this case of the shaken to the shaken. The gospel has no words to solve climate change or mandate vaccination or preserve democracy; instead, it offers an example of the attitude we should bring to all life’s existential crises, one of care and concern rather than problem solving. Moreover, this is surely what we should expect of disciples of the one who called out in despair from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus Christ on the cross is truly the Shaken One, and his first disciples shared that shakenness until the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, whose power moved them to true solidarity. They did something, they proclaimed the risen Jesus, the one who overcame shakenness and showed the way for his followers to do the same.

Since we cannot proclaim justice effectively unless we are just ourselves, perhaps the first place to try out the insights around shakenness might be in internal evangelization, even as local as the badly polarized American Catholic Church. Like all other citizens of the globe, American Catholics are shaken by the impact of climate change and the pandemic, whether absorbing the problems or denying them. But we are also deeply divided about how to respond to them, or whether to respond at all. In such a hopelessly divided state, there is no way to be effective prophets to a world that so sorely needs it. However, if we could agree that our church, like our world, is shaken to its foundations, then this might be a moment to build on, just as the death of Jesus is the beginning of new life. And we might find the key to this in kenosis, in God’s self-emptying in Jesus Christ, which begins with the child in the manger in Bethlehem. Whether we are Christians who are moved to focus on the humanity of Jesus, or on the divinity of the one whose self-empting he embodies, we are united in following the God-man Jesus Christ, who shared fully in shakenness but who transcended it in the Resurrection. When we relativize rhetoric and prioritize care and concern, we move closer to our sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we may disagree about so many things, and closer too to the world that so needs to share universal shakenness —and be stirred to healing action.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.

This is the last Go, Rebuild My House column for 2021. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and we will return in 2022.

What Does Canada’s Catholic Church Owe Its Indigenous People?

In this season of waiting, COVID has forced the delay of a meeting in Rome between representatives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and Pope Francis, just one more disappointment in the sorrowful saga of the relationship between the Catholic Church in Canada and Indigenous communities.

Earlier this week, Canada’s Catholic Bishops, the Assembly of First Nations, the Metis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization representing Canada’s Inuit, issued a joint statement to say the meeting, to take place just days from now, would be postponed until 2022. Citing concerns relating to the vulnerability of elderly delegates who live in remote communities and the still numerous unknowns about the Omicron variant, the statement labeled the decision as “heartbreaking” and expressed a desire that the meeting be rescheduled for as soon as possible in the new year.

Worries are now being voiced that the postponement of the trip to Rome will further delay the pope’s promised visit to Canada, a critical step in beginning the arduous journey to make amends for the travesty of the country’s residential school system, a system in which the majority of schools are run by Catholic religious orders.

The delay is yet another in an ongoing series of disappointments that have plagued the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous communities and the Vatican. Just days earlier, a piece in the Globe and Mail revealed that the Vatican holds a valuable trove of Indigenous objects in its museum vaults, including a rare sealskin kayak from the Western Arctic. While the artifacts were gifted to the Vatican, Indigenous leaders are calling for the return of at least some of the items because they are important reflections of community history.

The Canadian Bishops’ statement of apology came this past September, months after the first of many discoveries of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools. It was an important step but many are asking why the pace can’t be quickened. While some religious communities have volunteered to release key documents, for example, to help families find the remains of loved ones, the pace remains slow—as slow as the details on the church’s financial reparations have emerged.

The past year has been shocking and disappointing for Canadian Catholics. Already reeling with ongoing claims of clergy sexual abuse, we faced non-stop revelations from an array of media outlets on how church-run schools for Indigenous children were dehumanizing, from the moment the children were ripped from their families through to being unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave.

Yet we should not be shocked. Indigenous communities had been telling us these details for some time. Calls to Action 71-76 in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, issued in

2015, called for action on the unmarked graves. And yet somehow, many of us overlooked this searing issue.

I am old enough to remember a time when Advent wasn’t just the bridge between Halloween and Christmas, but a time of preparation that included a penitential component, efforts to truly prepare to celebrate the Incarnation. While most of what I celebrate in my church is forward-looking, I am nostalgic for an era of that degree of deliberate mindfulness.

I know many Catholics who see the issue of residential schools as a tragedy of history—“this was before my time!” (even though the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996) or “why should I donate to cover the bad actions of the church?”—and accept no responsibility for the actions of the institutional church over the 116-year history of residential schools.

But if we are the church, we must all make amends, even for sins not personally committed. COVID has placed limits on so many of our activities that now is not the time to call for communal services, but we all have vital gifts we can offer if we are sincere in seeking to heal the sorrows visited on Canada’s Indigenous peoples by our church.

  • We can lobby church hierarchy and government officials for more support for issues such as the intergenerational trauma that can be traced back to earlier generations’ suffering in residential schools, or we can target an issue such the lack of clean drinking water on many of Canada’s reserves.
  • We can donate funds—and for those who are unwilling to give to church collections, feeling it to be good money after bad by covering the church’s shortfall in reparations, find a good local or national Indigenous-run charity.
  • We can pray for forgiveness and guidance—for ourselves and for our church. In this season of hope, we must remain hopeful that we can all honestly begin the process of reconciliation.
  • Finally, we can listen. What happened in residential schools should not be news to us. An inquest into the death of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died of exposure and hunger after running away from his residential school, took place in 1966, with a story on Chanie in a national news magazine shortly thereafter. It shouldn’t have taken another 45 years for the truth to sink in. Like Thomas, we should have believed and acted. Let this Advent be a time for that action, long overdue, to find new life.

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

“Only in the Deep Valleys Can You Appreciate the Majesty of the Mountains.”

Last month’s plenary meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops invited that sentiment. The conference’s central “accomplishment” was the adoption of a thoroughly anodyne document reflecting a pre-conciliar understanding of the Eucharist. This was a kind of nadir: The bishops’ conference that once produced remarkable documents on nuclear weapons and the economy could only manage a text that was even less interesting than the catechism.

But at least it was an off-ramp, a way to bring an end to the fruitless year-long effort by some culture warrior bishops to get the conference to urge, even demand, that President Joe Biden be denied communion. The zealots lost.

There also were signs of hope at last month’s meeting if you know how to read the tea leaves. The most obvious was the presentation on synodality by Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas. Flores is among the most intellectually gifted bishops in the country, a man who inhales literature and culture. A Latino, Flores catches many of Pope Francis’ literary references that the rest of us miss. His time leading a border diocese has marked him as a Pope Francis bishop too: His flock is on the margins. Not only did Flores help his brother bishops better understand what synodality is all about, he became the chair of the Doctrine Committee at the end of the meeting. (The bishops elected him last year and he served as chair-elect the past year.) That is a reason for hope.

Another important change took place when Baltimore Archbishop William Lori assumed the leadership of the Pro-Life Activities Committee. He replaces Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann. Lori is the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, the leadership of which has been taken over by Republican Party operatives in recent years. Still, the Knights are a far cry from the American Life League and Lepanto Institute which were the groups that shaped Naumann’s approach to pro-life issues. Lori is conservative but compared to Naumann, he is the embodiment of sweet reasonableness.

The election of new committee chairs this year showed signs the pro-Francis bishops are getting closer to the day when they will constitute a majority of the conference.

For example, Bishop James Cecchio of Metuchen defeated Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle in the race to become treasurer of the conference, 135-106. Cecchio is a more conservative type, a former rector of the North American College in Rome who roped in conservative donors like Tim Busch, founder of the rightwing Napa Institute, to fund new projects at the seminary. Etienne is more obviously a bishop in the mold of Pope Francis, beginning a series of listening sessions last year designed to help forge a pastoral plan from the ground up.

There was a bit of what statisticians call “noise” around this result. Cecchio’s ten years as rector meant that he had hosted many of the bishops when they came to Rome, so his significant margin of victory was not necessarily a referendum on whether the body of bishops wanted to more closely align themselves with the pope.

The strangest election was for the chair-elect of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, the USCCB’s point person for a raft of important public policy issues. The bishops selected Ukrainian Archbishop Borys Gudziak, despite the fact that he had spent most of the past decade working in France. Most bishops barely know him. Why did he win? Because the alternative was the culture warrior par excellence, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. That was a bridge too far.  

Another election showed the degree to which the conference is still not willing to go all-in with Pope Francis. Bishop Steven Lopes of the Anglican Ordinariate defeated Archbishop Mitch Rozanski of St. Louis to become chair-elect of the Liturgy Committee by a single vote, 121-120. Rozanski marked himself as a pro-Francis bishop during an intervention at the June USCCB meeting. Lopes is more conservative but he also leads an ordinariate that was created precisely so the former Anglicans could keep a different rite. The closeness of the margin indicates that it is not too long before Team Francis has the votes to select new leadership more aligned with the pope, but they are not there yet.

Next year, the bishops will elect a new president to replace Archbishop Jose Gomez, whose tenure as leader of the USCCB has been one disappointment after another. Between now and then, Pope Francis will likely name another fifteen or twenty bishops, perhaps more. There may be enough votes next November to decisively steer the conference in a new direction.

The Catholic Church is like an aircraft carrier. It doesn’t change course on a dime but it does change. The committee chair elections in the past two years were baby steps to be sure, but they move the U.S. Church closer to that day when its conference headquarters is not known as a “Francis-free zone.” There is a long way to go, but things are moving in the right direction.

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.