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Entries from March 2022

Pope Francis’ “Bottom-up” Revolution

Across large parts of the Catholic world, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are in steep decline. Whether it’s Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon or the Archdiocese of New York, the decline has long posed the Catholic Church an existential challenge to how it carries out its mission. 

Two arguments have traditionally been put forward to solve the problem. The first argues for a recruitment drive that has seen resources poured into initiatives encouraging single men to choose the priesthood. The second argues for expanding the ranks of the clergy by ordaining married men. 

While not disregarding the merits of these arguments, Pope Francis has decided to pursue a third way, which is to build up lay ministry and leadership. Rather than focus on who can be ordained to the presbyterate, Francis has pointed to the vocation to ministry that every Christian, through their baptism, can follow. 

In his new constitution for the Roman Curia, the Church’s central administration, the Pope makes the bombshell ruling that any suitably qualified male or female Catholic can lead a Vatican department. Praedicate Evangelium is a game-changer because it breaks the link between ordination and governance in the Church. Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, the Jesuit canon lawyer, explained the “power of governance in the church does not come from the sacrament of [Holy] Orders” but an individual’s mission. 

This mini-revolution goes far beyond who gets the top jobs in Rome. It is about tackling the deeper problem that lies behind the vocation shortage: a lack of participation. And this in turn responds to the urgent need to include women’s leadership in the institutional church. 

Across many parts of the West, Catholic communities might be likened to a fire that has almost burnt out. But the fire is unlikely to start burning again if all the energy goes into lighting it from near the top. Francis’ reforms are the equivalent of trying to re-ignite the flames from the bottom by striking a match at ground level and blowing into the embers.

The Pope’s constitution to the curia can also be linked to the changes he has made to lay ministry, where he opened the roles of lector, acolyte and catechist to women and men not training to be priests. While Francis has maintained the ban on ordaining women to the priesthood, his changes mean there are new paths for women’s ministry. A second commission on the female diaconate—distinct from the presbyterate—has also been convened, although it is more likely that the question of re-instituting women deacons will come “from below” through local synods. The bottom line is that all church entities and all those involved in ministry, lay and ordained, need to serve the Church’s primary mission of evangelization. 

Yves Congar, the Dominican theologian and one of the architects of the Second Vatican Council, argued that for any ministry to exist it needs to meet three tests: it must involve something that is essential to the Church; it needs to be a stable activity that can be relied upon and finally it should be “officially authorized, possibly by a liturgical rite or by the intervention of the bishop.” 

This insight points to the need to rethink which “ministers” can lead parishes and communities and how to harness the different gifts within the entire People of God. In a recent talk to a group of Augustinians, the Pope made a startling point. Noting the sharp decline in vocations, he urged them to work with laypeople as they discern ways to continue their mission. “Let us prepare ourselves for what is going to happen,” Francis told them. “And let us give our charism, our gift, to those who can carry it forward.”

The critical question will be how the Pope’s reforms are now to be implemented. While laypeople can have governance roles, they can only do so provided ordination is not required. A laywoman is not going to be placed in charge of Vatican offices directly overseeing matters concerning the clergy. Furthermore, the code of Canon Law, which states that the laity only “participate” in governance, has not been changed—something which shows that Francis’ reforms remain a work in progress. The bigger challenge is going to be a cultural one. If the Dicastery for Bishops is led by a layperson, will that individual be able to tell a bishop the Pope wants him to resign? How would a female theologian find being the prefect of the Vatican’s doctrine office? 

Nevertheless, Francis’ reforms have deep roots in tradition and take much of their inspiration from the Early Church. They are not “managerial” changes, but radical ones based on the Gospel. N.T. Wright, the world-renowned New Testament scholar, once described the early Christian communities as “small at first, but growing” while totally different to their cultural milieu because of the “open welcome to all who found themselves grasped by the good news of Jesus.”

More than 2,000 years later, it is this vision of participation that sits as one of the foundation stones of the Franciscan reforms of the Church.

Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of  The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church. 

The Prognosis for Synodal Conversion, Reform and Renewal

The Church entered this Synodal process weak and wounded from clergy sexual abuse, revelations of racism and colonialism and fraud; massive departures from the faith in the Global North and pandemic trauma.

In this dark time, many have lost trust in the Church. Pope Francis’ call to “journey together” to bind up wounds, to stimulate trust, to renew relationships and to strengthen all for the common mission, brought light and hope. It challenged us to dream of real conversion, reform and renewal in the Church. However, many are sceptical that this process is a diversion from addressing long-identified pathological, systemic and cultural beliefs, practices and relationships. Still, those who are responding with enthusiasm see the possibility of real renewal of the Church.

As a physician, I am acutely aware of the risky business of prognosis for healing even when there is a patient who recognizes their need, a correct diagnosis, an effective prescription and a supportive community. I know the dangers and suffering of misdiagnosis for serious illness.

The Council of the Synod of Bishops has expressed “great satisfaction” with initial progress because most Episcopal Conferences have appointed someone to implement the process. However, this sets a low bar for the goal of becoming a “constitutively synodal” Church.

My diagnosis reveals serious and irreconcilable understandings of need, diagnosis, goals and support. I add challenges to the prognosis for healing.

The “fundamental synodal questions” are restricted to the experience of “journeying together” in dioceses, parishes and communities, to hopes for the future, and to identifying obstacles. Real encounter, sharing and listening are essential to overcome the culture of secrecy, silence and denial in the Church. We need to “form ourselves” in synodality.

Some bishops are not participating and denying the need. There are widely different formats ranging from questionnaires to single 3-5-hour sessions or a series of small group online sessions.

There is high control of the input, which is summarized in a 10-page and highly structured diocesan synthesis. This is followed by a second synthesis from continental national episcopal conferences culminating with a final synthesis presented to the Synod on Synodality in Rome, October 2023.

The preparatory document identifies goals including forming “a participatory and co-responsible Church” and liturgy promoting the “active participation of all the faithful.” However, key issues—identified by previous Synods and others—such as relationships between clergy and laity, the theology of priesthood, the role of women and a renewed moral and sexual theology and Christian anthropology are not explored.

Synodality is “discernment based on consensus from common obedience to the Spirit,” which recognizes that formal authority. There are serious issues of power, authority and Church organization here. In the Church, decision-making is only done by the pope, bishop or parish priest. All accountability is upward; none is to the People of God.

Pope Francis often says, “We say one thing with words but our actions and reality tell another story.” (Fratelli Tutti, 22) Assessing our reality, I diagnose some contradictions that threaten the promise of synodality and try to “read the dynamic of the culture in which we are immersed.”

The International Theological Commission has warned disparagingly that “synodality is … a linguistic novelty which needs careful theological clarification.” (2018)

The German Bishops’ Synodal Path agreed on many contentious theological and ecclesial issues needing reform. Disappointingly, Pope Francis responded to them with concerns about “false synodality.” He advised that they should discuss evangelism and not the teachings of the universal Church!

In classic misdiagnosis, German Bishop Voderholzer, a negative German participant, said the sexual abuse crisis was being “instrumentalized” by some to re-organize the Church. Research has shown that the abuse of trust, power, position and conscience in clergy sexual abuse and longstanding denial and cover-up has revealed endemic, systemic and cultural beliefs and practices that stand in contradiction to the “mind of Christ.”

Another misdiagnosis is evident in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) plan for a multimillion-dollar Eucharistic Congress focusing on the “real presence” to get people back to the practice of the faith.

The Vatican held a highly clerical February 2022 conference in Rome on the theology of priesthood organized by Cardinal Ouellet of the Congregation of Bishops. Pope Francis’ homily was a personal reflection on the gift of celibacy in the Latin Rite, not on the contested theology.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022, Pope Francis’ message celebrated women doctors of the Church and demanded “the dignity and intrinsic worth with which the Creator endowed them be restored to all women.” If only the Church could witness to this!

The prognosis for healing depends on overcoming silence and denial in tragedy fatigue, challenges from secular culture and science, polarizing divisions, our commitment to conversion and renewal and accepting the “surprises of the Spirit.” It also depends on the life and health of our holy, visionary, and sometimes perplexing, Pope Francis.

Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.

Notes from a Merger

In my May 2021 post, I discussed the impending merger of the three parishes in my city into one “municipal parish” as an opportunity for reform of the Church in daily lives of Catholics. But, it was an opportunity marked by steep challenges: my parish is in New England, a region with declining church membership; priests are scarce nationwide; the pandemic battered parishes worldwide. Here I report some personal observations of living through this merger, which became official on the first of January.

Reflecting regional trends, the membership of my parish is graying and declining, but having a school has helped draw families with children. The pandemic made a huge dent in church attendance everywhere, but recovery has varied. I see only a smattering of children and teenagers in the pews at my parish—in any of the four locations where we worship, with the exception of the Spanish Mass. The contrast with pre-pandemic attendance is notable. So is the contrast with the huge, wealthy, suburban parish in Ohio that I visited this week, where the six weekend Masses were packed with people of all ages.

These differences were not caused by the pandemic but exacerbated by it. (To be sure, the Ohio parish benefits from an upper-class location and an attractive school.) For those who already had a weak connection to parish life, the pandemic prompted them to develop other habits. Both Catholic and Protestant church members over age 55 have been falling away; their reasons are not about any particular crisis or dislike of church, but because they are feeling disconnected and are finding other ways to “practice” their faith.

So, connection is key, and it’s a challenge for my merged parish. Because of their typical size, Catholic parishes are difficult places to get to know other people. Catholic parishes sponsor many groups that allow members to enjoy their preferred activities—from devotions and socializing to volunteer service—while avoiding the interests and styles of other parishioners. Both of these features pertained to my pre-merger parish, where I knew the difficulty of finding more than the handful of folks who were interested in the same ministries as I. Now my parish has tripled in size to approximately 6,000 families, served by one pastor, one associate pastor and five deacons.

From what I have observed during the pandemic and merger, my parish would be sunk without the devotion of its lay members and groups. A silver lining of the pandemic might be its furtherance of leadership by the already engaged members. But, referring back to my previous post, there’s only so far lay leadership goes in the current Catholic Church, not only by canon law, but by enculturation. I’ve observed the tendency of Catholics to hold back from taking initiative in deference to priests. I heard the phrase, “we’ll have to see what the new pastor wants,” a lot during the months before the merger... and said it myself! To his credit, the new pastor has conveyed a vision for growing through the merger that’s about letting the laity to continue their leadership of ministries and take a good bit of initiative. Indeed, it would be impossible and unwise to try to micromanage a parish of this size.

I’ve observed several pressing needs for my merged parish and the many parishes like them, of which I’ll mention two. The first is communications. Unlike some well-financed parishes, neither pre- or post-merger do we have a robust website or a creative use of social media. We don’t have the email addresses of most members, nor do many donate online. There’s one wonderful volunteer keeping the website and YouTube page updated, but for no pay and with no budget. We need a paid staff member and a communications strategy.

Second, I believe my parish desperately needs at least one paid youth minister. It would be a tough job at this point, but this ministry requires more than volunteers; it requires a specific skillset, youthful relatability and full-time attention. Without professional attention to the needs and interests of Catholic youth and their families, the Catholic Church, at least in much of New England, is going to keep dying out. The Ohio parish is privileged to raise $60,000 per week, but they do invest a chunk of these resources into youth programs, and the pastor has a vision for why this is important.

One way or another, parishes and dioceses need to prioritize spending on community building and youth formation. The aspirations that my archdiocese developed at its recent synod all sound great on paper, including, “On all levels, our local church needs to re-envision youth ministry so that it reflects the invitation that this Synod is putting forth to all: to encounter Christ and to become missionary disciples.” But where’s the plan?

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

Rest in Peace, Dr. Paul Farmer: A Gentle Lenten Reflection

[My neighbor is] not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in

whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.

~ Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez

The unexpected death on February 21, 2022, of Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of the global non-profit Partners in Health and chair of the global health and social medicine department at Harvard Medical School, was, for many, both shocking and dispiriting. Followers of his work recognized in Farmer a resilient advocate for the poor, for the vulnerable and for the powerless, and a persistent challenger to the social privilege and moral equivocation of certain echelons of the Church and of developed nations, especially with regard to the communities of the destitute. That Farmer was a physician who imbued his medical work with the claims (and mandates) of social justice further illuminated his activism and tenacious campaign against poverty and indifference. It should be noted that he died as he had lived, at a medical clinic he had founded in Butaro, Rwanda, that provided free medical care and subsistence for the local population.

Farmer dedicated his career as a physician to some of the most impoverished and under-served communities in the world—in Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi, Peru and the Navajo Nation in the U.S.—but an inspiration far more profound than a physician’s (laudable) desire to heal rooted his passionate—and resolute —commitment. Admittedly indifferent to his Catholic faith most of his younger life, Farmer often stated that during his first years as a doctor, he experienced a deepening of that faith along with a transformation in his understanding of his craft through his encounter with the theological writings of Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the noted architect of the ‘first wave’ of liberation theology. Indeed, so formidable was the effect of Gutiérrez’s ideas that Farmer often referred to Gutiérrez as his spiritual and moral accompagnateur, his ‘accompanier,’ in his public health and medical outreach and in his own ‘journey’ back to his Catholic faith.

From the principles of liberation theology, Farmer learned that the poverty that he encountered throughout the world is neither natural nor necessary, but it is ‘structural’: that is, the effects of material privation reach much farther and deeper into all facets of life than are apparent, and the dismal weight of poverty not only denies the poor access to the necessities of daily living, but also crushes hope and defies faith, creating an existential toxin that intensifies any physical malady. Poverty is the consequence of decisions and choices of capitalist engineers and its effects finally become ‘violent,’ damaging the body and the mind and the spirit, across and beyond generations.

Yet, poverty need not be a hopeless circumstance. As Gutiérrez taught Farmer, an antidote against that invasive contagion is a reorientation of perspective about the world and its people, based not on a hermeneutic of suspicion but rather on the “hermeneutic of generosity.” It is a hermeneutic grounded in hope and mercy that recognizes in real time the integrity of the other, regardless of material condition, by “walking” in company with, and not away from, those along whose paths we find ourselves. That creed of ‘accompaniment’ so enlightened Farmer that he was able to liberate his clinical work from mere diagnosis and prescription to a praxis of care and companionship: the healing arts, he realized, require not just chemicals and implements for corporeal restoration but compassionate and benevolent attention to the whole of each individual, accompanying them along the journey of illness to healing, or along the final pathway to death.

It does seem that the work and ideas of Gutiérrez and Farmer are especially pertinent at the start of this Lenten season. It has been a year of distress and sorrow, of many walking away from and dismissing the other, of defining truth only through the lens of the self. Yet Lent is the season of spiritual renewal, a period of reflection that calls us to the difficult truth of Jesus’ message of love and solidarity. It is a time of reawakening and transformation and so we pause to consider the liberating theology of Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez and the liberated life of Dr. Paul Farmer. Both men have called us to authentic personhood, to an intimacy with God through the love of Jesus that we express in our daily love for every person on whose path we discover ourselves. It is a love that rejects judgment and disdain and that is open to the fullness of each individual (Pope Francis refers to the “sacred ground of the other”) as a companion on the shared path of life.

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