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Entries from June 2022

Did Not Our Hearts Burn Within Us? (Lk: 24, 32)

About a fortnight ago (June 18), a motley crew of 160 people gathered in the upper room of a hotel in Athlone, the centre of the island of Ireland. They were the diocesan delegates and representatives of various ecclesial organizations and reform groups of the Irish Synodal Pathway. They comprised young and old, women and men, gay and straight, laity, priests, religious and bishops. They were gathered to discern the fruits of the year-long consultation of the Irish Catholic Church in preparation for the Universal Synod in Rome in 2023. This ‘pre-Synodal National Assembly’ was being asked to listen to the summary by the National Synodal Steering Committee (of which I am a member) of the various submissions (many of which have been published on diocesan websites—see the Association of Catholics in Ireland website) and to discern whether that summary accurately reflected what each diocese and organization had said.

The mood when we gathered was expectant and somewhat apprehensive. Could this long-awaited day deliver on expectations?

From the beginning, we were invited into a space of discernment, with prayers for the Holy Spirit to be with us. A brief account was offered of the underlying experience of synodality that shone through the 10-page accounts from each diocese and group—the enormous amount of work, the initial confusion, apathy and even cynicism around the whole project, the gathering momentum as people were invigorated by being asked their views and by their encounters with other people of faith. Then there was a presentation of the 15 different themes that formed the main content of the submissions—ranging from the ‘open wound’ of abuse (with the contribution of a poem by a survivor of clerical sexual abuse), through the notion of a more generous ecclesial inclusivity and belonging (with particular reference to women and the LGBTQI+ community), the ambient cultural challenges (including COVID), the difficulties of faith transmission and adult faith formation, the need to include laity in decision making roles in church governance, the special challenges afforded by the indifference of many young people to the institutional church, the need for more vibrant liturgy, the difficulties around clericalism and an aging clerical cohort. The somewhat inward looking nature of the fruits of the consultation were adverted to—what of ecology, poverty and inequality, the housing crisis in Ireland, immigration, peace on our divided island, relationships with other churches and religious faiths?

What was remarkable throughout the day—conducted mainly through the method of ‘spiritual conversation,’ in addition to some short inputs and open forums—was the honest speaking and respectful listening. We did not always agree—far from it—but it felt like even in our disagreement we were committed to attempting some common understanding. And while there was overwhelming evidence that so-called ‘hot button’ issues like the role of women in the church and the non-reception by many of church teaching on sexuality and gender were clearly articulated, still there was also a repeated insistence coming from all sides that we needed to ‘go deeper,’ that our common faith in Jesus Christ and the encounter with his Spirit were what would in the end be crucial. A prominent member of the LGBTQI+ community summed this up well in interviews with national media afterwards when she spoke of her apprehension at the start of the day, and how she had warmed to the honesty and respect on display, and her sense of the common faith that united us.

By the end of a packed day we made our way out to the enchanted 6th century monastic site of Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the River Shannon. There, on a glorious evening coming towards the summer solstice, we participated in a special liturgy designed for the occasion, reconnecting with our ancient roots of faith by processing around the ruins of the monastery, with glorious live music, prayers led for the most part by laity, some local children and families present, and a concluding ceremony of renewal, commitment and missioning. The sense of peace, joy and hope was palpable. People spoke of a ‘milestone,’ a ‘turning point,’ a ‘watershed.’ There was no triumphalism. Neither were there any illusions that the way forward was clear or that it would be easy. But it felt like—as Cardinal Grech had told the Irish Bishops when they were launching the synodal pathway—that the hope that ‘Jesus might visit us’ had been realised.

There have sometimes been fears and some scepticism expressed in our blogs here about the path of synodality: it feels good to be able to report to you that here in Ireland we have taken our first significant step on this path and have felt our hearts burn within us. I hope and pray that it may be the same where you are.

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

Proclaim the Good News

On June 5th, the Feast of Pentecost, the charter for a substantial reform of the structures of the Roman Curia went into effect. Issued by Pope Francis without fanfare on March 19, 2022 and marking the entry into the tenth year of his pontificate, the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium (Proclaim the Good News) is the product of years of extensive consultation with his Council of Cardinals, episcopal conferences and all offices of the curia.

Francis refers to the mandate received to carry out this reform from the cardinals who elected him. His proposed structural reform builds upon a sustained effort to reform the culture of those working within curial institutions, which he has envisioned as first and foremost a process of inner renewal. One might reread his annual Christmas greetings to the curia as a challenging set of spiritual exercises that invite the domineering and complacent careerists among them to rediscover ministry as service. These Christmas addresses recall that ecclesial structures exist not for themselves, but to serve the realization of the church’s mission to proclaim God’s merciful love.

The dominant note of Praedicate Evangelium is one of co-responsibility and of mutual collaboration in the service of that mission. It marks a step toward a fuller reception of the Second Vatican Council’s insights into the collegial nature of episcopal ministry and the co-responsibility of the baptized faithful for the life and mission of the church. The Council’s Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops expressed the wish that offices of the curia be reorganized to better serve the diverse needs of the churches in a new time. Yet the post-conciliar reforms of popes Paul VI and John Paul II failed to translate these insights effectively into practice. Paul VI carried out initial reforms by making the new Secretariat for Christian Unity a permanent fixture and creating new dicasteries for the laity and for justice and peace— the latter a direct response to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (GS 90). He also moved toward a greater internationalization of its staff, long dominated by Italians.

Where the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops spoke of the curia as functioning “for the good of the churches and in service to the sacred pastors [bishops]” (CD 9), the 1983 Code of Canon Law described the curia as working in the name and with the authority of the pope but neglected to mention its service to the bishops. The statutes introduced by Pope John Paul II in 1988, Pastor Bonus, emphasized the maintenance of “communion” conceived largely in juridical and universalizing terms, and gave rise to a highly centralized and controlling curial culture. French ecclesiologist Hervé Legrand observes that in the last half century the size of Vatican personnel doubled and the number of curial bishops quadrupled. Decrees emanating from the dicasteries were vested with increasing juridical and doctrinal weight, effectively reducing the doctrinal authority of the college of bishops to a “fiction.”

The Franciscan reform, aimed at reversing this dynamic, is recovering centripetal force through a “healthy decentralization” that sees the local churches as distinct centers of mission with diverse needs, and their bishops as sharing in the Pope’s care for the communion of all the churches. It reflects a more collegial style in the exercise of papal authority and places the curia at the service of the bishops in their role as local pastors.

Praedicate Evangelium opens the door to a radical shift in its recognition that within a truly synodal church, the dynamic of co-responsibility extends to all the baptized faithful, the gifts of whom the curia has need. A strong current of canonical and theological thinking has it that any exercise of authority or juridical power in the church is necessarily rooted in the sacrament of priestly ordination. Praedicate Evangelium contends that the staff of the Roman dicasteries act “by virtue of the power received from the Roman Pontiff in whose name it operates.” Given the vicarious nature of this power, Francis has determined that “any member of the faithful can preside” over the various offices, as the baptized are called to be missionary disciples. They are qualified, not by ordination, but by their competency, learning, experience and personal virtue. Competency takes precedence over loyalty or clerical caste. The appointment of religious or lay women and men to staff the Roman dicasteries is no innovation. But Praedicate Evangelium opens the way toward a greater presence of non-ordained staff and to their increasing share of responsibility and leadership.

While the reordering of the dicasteries is now complete on paper, Francis has yet to appoint new leaders to carry forward their redefined roles or to replace those who have exceeded the normal age of retirement or term limits. It is a fair bet that the many delays in the implementation of these reforms signal that he continues to labor in the face of strong headwinds. Francis has placed the reforms of Praedicate Evangelium at the center of his agenda for the extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals planned for August 29-30, an indication that they remain an urgent priority. Stay tuned. And may the winds of Pentecost continue to breathe new life into the church.

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

Can the Bishops Hear These Messages?

The synod and its synodal process is Pope Francis’ aim to listen to and learn from all his flock—from the ground up. It is nothing short of revolutionary. The Catholic Church has seen nothing like this movement since Pope John XXIII called for Vatican II. Francis truly wants to hear from his people. In fact, in a remarkable moment through the efforts of Loyola University Chicago, at “Building Bridges: A Synodal Encounter Between Pope Francis and University Students” (Zoom Forum), the Pope listened intently to college students express their concerns about the Church. Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium summing up the Vatican II Council: “in all the baptized from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work…”  I believe Francis wants to listen to and learn from what the laity have to say. He has asked the bishops to organize the synodal process to hear what the flock is saying.

I wonder if there may be additional ways, outside of a formal synodal process, of listening to and learning from the flock. For example, the most recent May 2022, AP NORC Poll has something to say that is worth listening to and perhaps even learning from. The title of this very comprehensive poll is “Most Catholic Americans disagree with hardline positions of church leadership” and the first three items are worth attending to: Most American lay Catholics, who attend Mass regularly as well as those who do not, support some abortion rights, oppose denying Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, or denying Communion to LGBTQ people or to divorced and remarried Catholics. The laity reported here seem to disagree with the hard line position some bishops take on these big issues.

Interesting enough, these views are consistent with the 2018 St. Mary’s Press study “Going, Going, Gone” whose aim was to listen to the stories of youth and young adults who are disaffiliated from the Catholic Church. This report examined Millennials and Generation Z members (18-25) and asked why these young people are leaving the Catholic Church. “Of those who have left, 35% no longer belong to any religion, while 46% have joined another religion. An additional 14% report being atheists or agnostics.” The study reports that these youth say they reject the Catholic Church’s positions about LGBTQ people, abortion and birth control. They report that the Church emphasizes rules that do not connect to their real world.

“Going, Going, Gone” is consistent with my students’ views. My students tell me that they feel disaffiliated and disconnected from the institutional Church; they reject the Church’s positions on the LGBTQ+ community, on abortion and birth control, and on denying Communion to remarried Catholics or Catholics who may support abortion. My students hunger for connection, purpose and meaning in their lives, and many say they believe in God or a Higher Power, but they do not feel that their local parishes offer them the community and faith that they desire. One of my students confessed she identified as LGBTQ and she “had to leave the Church because her parish made it clear she was not accepted.” She said she occasionally attends Mass at the University. Some of my students do tell me that they attend Mass at the University because here they experience some of the faith and community they seek.

A 2021 Gallup Poll reports the decline of Church membership across major religious institutions with membership in the Catholic Church falling the fastest. This statement was made real to me in a very personal way. I had been visiting my brother-in-law and his wife who I had not seen in about a year. These are two people whose 38 years of married life have been spent in their parish as Eucharistic Ministers, Readers, Choristers and as Lay Leaders within the parish. I always thought of them as the kind of Catholics who would save the Church. I was impressed by their parish involvement, so I asked, as I always do, about their parish work. My brother-in-law’s response stunned me. He said “Oh we no longer belong to the parish or go to Church. It just became too much finally—the Church’s views on abortion and Communion and gay people. We just quit. Couldn’t take it any longer. Maybe we will join the local Episcopal or Congregational Church, but for now we don’t belong.” I was slack-jawed, and could barely respond, except to say that I understood.

His words saddened me. I feel sad, too, when I talk to my students and they say pretty much the same things as my brother-in-law told me. I believe that Francis would want to hear these stories from his flock. I just hope that the bishops are listening.

Michelle Loris is the chair of the Catholic studies department and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Sacred Heart University.

What’s a Catholic Journalist?

The state of Catholic journalism is a matter of intense debate in church circles these days, and for good reason. The U.S. bishops’ decision in early May to eviscerate Catholic News Service, a wire service that has reported on the church with professionalism for more than a century, came as a shock to many, including more than a few bishops who didn’t realize what this would mean for their own diocesan outlets. It also came as a gift to conservative Catholic media who will fill the void with the divisive rightwing agitprop that has already developed a large audience by slavishly following the decadent path blazed by Fox News and Breitbart among others.

This is no abstract debate: the vast majority of Catholics get news about their diocese, about the Catholic Church nationally and globally, and about the pope through Catholic media and via secular journalists who rely on church media for tips and context. The decline of professional Catholic journalism means that news about the church and the Vatican is refracted through an increasingly partisan lens, one that skews to the right against Pope Francis, and away from the facts and the truth.

I wrote about the wider dynamics driving this trend and the entire information industry in an old-fashioned journalist’s cranky cri de cœur in National Catholic Reporter. One issue my essay only touched on, but which needs greater deliberation and amplification, is the question of what in fact defines a Catholic journalist.

The journalism trade today is what it is: a profoundly stressed business that is being buffeted by forces beyond the guild’s control—ever-changing algorithms that can doom your content, an “attention economy” that has more platforms chasing fewer eyeballs, and vampire capitalists who bleed vulnerable media dry. The decline of traditional journalism shops has opened opportunities for many individuals to hang out a shingle and declare themselves Catholic journalists. Some do it with good intentions but mistake popular fluff for serious reporting; others are simply amateurish at best, or insidious at worst.

So how should we define what it means to be a Catholic journalist? Here’s my elevator pitch: A Catholic journalist is a Catholic who writes in good faith about Catholic things while following the trade’s professional standards and ethical practices. Above all, a Catholic journalist seeks the truth and reports it fairly, without fear or favor.

That seems like it ought to be uncontroversial, just commonsensical. Apparently not. Many continue to believe that “orthodoxy” is the baseline trait of a Catholic journalist—defining orthodoxy the way they prefer, of course, usually tilting in a rightward direction. Others see Catholic journalists as evangelists. That is the cringey approach of many of the soft-focus, “lifestyle” approaches to Catholic news promoted by “content evangelizers” like FAITH Catholic, a media provider that is seeking to sell its products to dioceses and supplant actual journalism. The founder of FAITH Catholic, which was recently the focus of an in-depth report by NCR’s Brian Fraga, was quoted as saying that “it is a higher call to be an evangelist than a journalist … When the ideals of journalism appear to take precedence over being a disciple who evangelizes, the diocesan journalist can lose his or her way.”

That is the apologist’s approach to Catholic journalism, a lamentable and all-too common view of the role of journalism in Catholicism that winds up serving neither evangelization nor journalism. Clifford Longley, in a tribute in The Tablet to the recently deceased John Wilkins, a Catholic and a journalist worthy of both dignities, also took aim at that conflation of journalism and public relations. But in his eulogy to his longtime colleague, and his elegy to their shared vocation, Longley argued that the roles of Catholic and journalist are inherently distinct and irreconcilable—“a source of tension which needs to be managed but can never finally be resolved because journalism and Catholicism follow different rules. If both can be described as searches for truth, then they follow parallel lines which can only meet at infinity.”

This is where I would disagree. Journalism tends to focus on facts and Catholicism on faith. But the shared search for truth leads to the same place. Fudging the facts in order to protect the faith—to “avoid scandal,” as the Code of Canon Law has it—is a concept that has been distorted to argue for covering up anything that makes church officials uncomfortable. Such a reading would inevitably put journalism and Catholicism at odds. But a proper reading shows that hiding the truth is what scandalizes the faithful and hurts the church. We have seen how that happens time and again, and it’s inherently contradictory for a religion based on preaching the truth to believe it can be helped by hiding the truth. That would be denying its own identity.

That’s also why a Catholic who is a good journalist has a good shot at being a good Catholic. And given that the career path is more like financial martyrdom, there’s even a chance at sainthood.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 

Governing or Loving?

Well, the chatter has begun: Will Pope Francis retire? This, while speculation grows considering the possible repercussions of the synodal process initiated by the Pope. Our attention glues to those very important issues which are, alas, distant from the lives of everyday people. Who gets to be a Cardinal at the unexpected consistory in August? Why is the Pope calling a consistory in August? What is the meaning of this or that pronouncement by this or that prefect of a dicastery? Which politician has been castigated by which bishop? Are the political forces aligning pro or against…? Forty years a priest and the ecclesial/political chatter persists. The Church, claiming neutrality in the world of politics, sits comfortably within the political world it has created for itself. I recall from my seminary days in Rome when we, young seminarians, were assigned with preparing a dinner for a group of cardinals—a dinner, not characterized by simplicity. Why the extravagance? Was it necessary? It was expected.

Like it or not, the Church is a political entity in the world, despite purporting not to be of it.

Recently I have been reflecting upon Jesus’ injunction to Peter: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Our traditional Catholic interpretation is that Jesus was giving instruction for Peter to govern the Church. But it is important to note that the instruction is a response to Peter’s assurance of his love for Christ, given in the context of a meal. There are many levels on which we can interpret this exchange: sacramental, ecclesial, but also the straightforward, human level. The latter being, I suggest, the most demanding and neglected. There is a significant difference between an injunction to govern and a call to demonstrate one’s love. I think we need to shift focus from the commission to rule to the demonstration of love. We must heed the instruction to physically be present with the other, to eat meals together, as it were.

This is a difficult time for my Church. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is intimately involved in addressing the repercussions of war in Ukraine. Currently, my parish and others are discerning how best to address the practical needs of people (mainly women and children) who have fled the devastation of war. We are being challenged, as we were during the Soviet repression of our Church, to stand with and for our people. Yet often this desire has been condemned as an expression of nationalism rather than solidarity. Being with the people is acceptable, but be careful not to get too close. Do not be “political.”

This is a challenging time for the universal Church. The world is changing radically and rapidly. Social norms have undergone immense upheavals in many countries. Scientific developments have caused people to fundamentally alter their understanding of human identity, sexuality and what it means to be human (for example, LGBTQ+). These new understandings often collide with positions the Church has enunciated. Are the people, adopting these positions, to be welcomed or convinced that they are misguided? If they are to be governed, the answer is clear: correct your ways. If they are to be loved, they should be welcomed and embraced. We are hypocritical to say, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” We judge people sinners, demanding that they must change their ways in order to be embraced by the Church. We see our sin as somehow less serious than “theirs.”

If we are to respond to the world in love we must engage with that world, not as temporary visitors who may retreat into the safety of our church community. Rather, love demands that we enter into the reality of the world (the reality we participate in constantly) with the aim of bringing the balm of the good news: the good news—not laws or condemnatory statements—but rather the joy of the resurrection, the enlivening power of the Spirit. Too much of the political face of the Church has been formed by political ideologies that deal with questions of power. Can the bishops find the courage to disavow power in favour of the simple message of love?

Power’s enticement is the lure of governing: you can get results. It is the temptation of the world. Yet Christ’s cross is the sign of failure. Not ultimately, but in terms of political success. Christ’s glory lies in the strength of transformative love—a love that transfigures the world and calls forth the Holy Spirit for all to see and embrace. Let’s “feed Christ’s sheep,” not with the lavish dinners expected by some Church hierarchy, but with the hospitality of Christ’s bread and fish roasted over the fire, offered to tired fisherman after a frustrating day out on the waves.

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.

The Pentecost Vigil

The LORD brings to nought the plans of nations;
he foils the designs of peoples.
But the plan of the LORD stands forever;
the design of his heart, through all generations.

      - Psalm 33:10-11, Pentecost Vigil Mass

Many Catholics are familiar with the Easter Vigil, the Mass on Holy Saturday evening that completes the Paschal Triduum and stands as the central celebration of the church year. Fewer know that Pentecost, a feast (along with Christmas and Epiphany) on the same level as Easter, also has an extended, though less frequently elaborated, Vigil Mass featuring four readings from the Hebrew Bible in addition to the Epistle and Gospel. Pentecost more frequently arrives for us as the end of something, the culmination of the Easter season and the transition to “ordinary time” in the church year and summer on the secular calendar. Yet this year it is worth our while to keep vigil with Mary and the Apostles.

This year in the life of American Catholics brings a somber Pentecost. Most notably, our country has once again experienced one of its inexplicable episodes of gun violence directed against children, alongside numerous others directed against Black Americans and other marginalized groups. With the author of Ephesians, we experience groaning and uncertainty what to do and how to pray under such circumstances. With Ezekiel, we might experience our country as a land of dry bones, doomed to repeat its most horrific failures again and again. We feel all too often like the exiles of Babel, unable to communicate with one another across cultural and political lines within one country.

The state of the church in this country, meanwhile, seems scarcely better, in no small part thanks to the failures of its leaders. As Michael Sean Winters detailed on these pages just this past week, Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco has sought to use Eucharistic discipline for political ends in a way that goes far beyond his moral authority. Meanwhile, elsewhere in California, Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry has demonstrated that its recent embrace of people and subcultures —particularly pseudo-philosopher Jordan Peterson and bodybuilding—redolent of toxic masculinity have themselves reflected a toxic workplace culture. Barron’s subsequent (announced yesterday) move to a diocese in Minnesota, while perhaps helpful for diverting his attention from Word on Fire, sends the message that the church as an institution still views promotion (and subjecting a local flock to the pastoral rule of someone who has demonstrated poor judgment on important matters in the very recent past) as a way of solving problems.

St. John XXIII famously spoke of Vatican II as being a kind of “new Pentecost,” and he was right about this, especially in the way that Council opened up the church to being a more global rather than European institution—in retrospect its signature achievement. Yet it was not the only one—every Pentecost can be this for us if we remain open to the Spirit in our lives. Rather than a transition to the “ordinary” (a truly banal name for a season if there ever was one) Pentecost for us ought to be a transition to living our Easter faith (for the Christian Easter is an ever-present feast) more dynamically in our lives in the world.

Pope Francis has demonstrated this openness to the Holy Spirit just as his sainted predecessor John did. This is where what Austen Ivereigh calls his “freedom” comes from—letting the Spirit rather than convention guide. We might view the raising of people like friend of Sacred Heart University Bishop Robert McElroy to the cardinalate, whatever its broader political ramifications, through this lens. Rather than viewing the church and its leadership as a kind of civil service with protocols, Francis views it through the lens of service to the Gospel. This offers a model (however imperfectly implemented, as the Barron case above indicates) for us—how can we view our jobs and everyday lives as service to God and those around us rather than as busywork? We need this spirit of service (while also needing to draw boundaries to prevent service from turning to burnout), and the leaders of our nation also need this dynamism particularly in their approach to passing laws that serve the common good rather than settling into partisan gridlock and jockeying.

This Pentecost, let us keep vigil and pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into a society that sorely needs it. This does not mean passively accepting what comes. Pentecost, indeed, was a call to action for the Apostles, who went from the Upper Room to the ends of the world they knew. But without attentiveness to the Spirit, our actions, necessary as they are, will be in vain. Our society and our church need this attentiveness—need Pentecost—now more than ever.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.