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Entries from August 2022

Acts and Images of Contrition

I once had a virtual audience with an actual anti-pope. I watched the documentary Pope Michael with some friends who then arranged a Skype conversation with its titular subject. If memory serves me right, I asked him about he balanced his time in Kansas with his duties to the people of the Diocese of Rome. I found his conviction charming even if his spiritual authority far from credible. But he seemed like a nice guy.

David Bawden, the man who called himself “Pope Michael,” died earlier this month. According to one set of internet rumors, he may have sacramentally confessed and recanted his false claims to be the successor of St. Peter before journeying home to God. Other online reports call this story mere rumor and gossip. Whether or not that tale of deathbed conversion happens to be true, I’m taken by its drama. I am still holding out hope for the happy ending.

It makes a lot of sense that Christians would cherish the aesthetics of forgiveness and find even imaginary accounts of reconciliation beautiful. The Christian vision of history, after all, centers around the cross-shaped, self-emptying love of God. The life of Jesus the Christ displays how beauty and redemption harmonize. This is the Lord who eats with sinners and who weeps for lost friends, in whom and through whom all is made new again. For the medieval imagination, it is only fitting that such love not only redeems a fallen world but makes creation even more beautiful to behold.

Attention to the real Holy Father’s penitential journey to Canada rightfully overshadowed news of the death of an obscure American anti-pope. As Michael Higgins observed in his blog last week, Pope Francis performed a tenderness in his listening and presence. Acts of contrition need to precede the work of healing.

For Catholics, the Church will always be both the bearer of the tradition and a continuation of God’s intervention in history. Pope Francis also demonstrates how to discern the sinfulness of compromised institutions. The Church is also a social construction, a human conglomerate complicit in systemic oppressions like residential schools. Restoring credibility for the Church includes corporate penitential actions. These are visible signs of faith meant for the world to see.

So, too, are the visible signs of faith in the sacred art that invites us to delight in creation. As Dante says through the mouth of Virgil, human creativity cooperates with the Creator, our arts are like God’s grandchildren (Inferno, Canto XI). But just as we inherit the glories of Catholic music, sacred architecture, painting and poetry alongside legacies of abuse and violence, a renewing Church needs to be cautious about how our contemporary works of penance are received. The same might be said of the signs and symbols of Catholic life: rosaries, icons, candles, robes, statues. The lush arts of Catholicism demonstrate a theological conviction about the good of the world God has made. But works of art might be shared by believers and non-believers alike; authentic shepherds and schismatics can, in theory, both wear a white zucchetto.

The danger comes when penitential prayer appears theatrical, as if performed for its own sake. Acts of contrition, however beautiful to behold, seek to rehabilitate wounded relationships beginning with oneself. Penance serves an inner conversion (a “turning around”) that pushes us towards acting differently in the future, aware of the wrongness of the past without obsessing over it. The Pope’s penitential journey offers an opportunity for the whole Church to reevaluate alignment identity. Catholic reparation for institutional complicities in evil remains a project for every person in the Church (some rightfully called to do more than others).

There are dangers to moving quickly because a preferred image may take the place of the truth. I believe we are still adapting to the speed of information sharing in our era of ubiquitous surveillance. Pictures and video arrive in real time often with commentary. Emotional reactions are real even if the story turns out to be fake. This rapidification of knowledge, to borrow a concept from Laudato Si’, can also undermine the inertia of penitential acts. Rapidification makes it difficult to separate the history-making fact of a Pope’s apology from the imperfect gaffs of a human doing human things. Penance appears awkwardly celebratory when filtered through social and traditional media. Indeed, the same rapidification inspires defensive calls to “get over it” when the apology does not seem enough for centuries of wrongdoing. Forgiveness should be quick and easy so we can scroll on to the next story.

The aesthetics of forgiveness are so powerful on stage or in a movie because drama, by its very nature, collapses big changes into short spans of time. A slick montage allows interpersonal transformation to be miraculously swift. Sometimes forgiveness does move fast. That’s the beauty of God’s infinite mercy made instantly accessible in the personal drama of sacramental confession. But repairing a compromised human institution calls for more than complaints or kitsch counter-papacies. Rather, it is the people of God doing works of great love that will prove how God’s holy Church remains credible even after all this time.

Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.

A Humble Roman

When Julius Caesar informed the Senate of the Republic of Rome of the successful military defeat of an enemy by his legions, he is reputed to have said Veni, Vidi, Vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.

Two millennia later, another Roman came, saw and conquered. Except in this instance, the people he addressed had already been conquered for centuries, knew the personal price of defeat and dispossession, and he came not in triumph with a wreath of victory, but on a “pilgrimage of penance.”

Pope Francis traveled from the Tiber to Canada to honour his pledge to deliver an apology on native soil to the First Peoples of the New World for the colonizing crimes of the past, specifically the church-administered residential schools. These schools were often enclaves of segregation, cultural genocide, brutalizing behaviour by overseers, large dormitories of physical and sexual abuse, places where children were involuntarily submitted to a process of rigorous assimilation to the dominant power. These schools were the creation of the federal government, but the political leaders in Ottawa discharged operational responsibilities to several Christian churches—United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Mennonite and Roman Catholic—the lion’s share of which fell under the auspices of Catholic religious orders. For over a century, some 150,000 Indigenous children went through the schools. Thousands died due to disease, malnutrition and neglect, while intergenerational trauma damaged the lives of countless survivors and their descendants. The social and political consequences of a policy born of Victorian high mindedness and arrogance are with us still.

Expectations for this papal visit—held last month in three discrete areas of the country (Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit)—were high and the pope knew that he was being dropped into a political and spiritual maelstrom. Still, he masterfully focused on the mission at hand—a healing mission distinguished by its genuine contrition and moral imperative for healing. He knew that for all the words written for him by his Canadian hosts, curial support team and cardinal advisors, in the end he needed to impart sincerity by gesture, silence, attentive listening and tactile moments of embrace and reverenced kissing.

Francis knew that he needed to create a momentum of tenderness because he knew, as that very Catholic Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor knew, that when tenderness is just theory and “cut off from the person of Christ … its logical outcome is terror.”  To be tender is to be accountable, to be present to the other and to honour the other.

When Francis came to Washington to address both Houses of Congress, he highlighted some of the moral visionaries of the land, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He also included in their number Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and made much of their intellectual and spiritual contributions to America.

Likewise, when Francis came to Canada, he drew on the wisdom of two of the land’s globally recognized Catholic thinkers: political philosopher Charles Taylor and philosophical theologian Bernard Lonergan, a fellow Jesuit. In quoting Taylor on secularization, the pope noted that secularism constitutes a formidable challenge for our pastoral imagination and prompts us to look at “restructuring the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing.”

As I have said in my guest column, “View From Guelph” (The Tablet, August 6, 2022), “in applying this bold exercise in pastoral imagination to the Canadian context, indeed the New World context, Francis is calling for nothing less than a spiritual revolution. How do we address the corrosive effects of colonization, the deliberate and systematic effort to eradicate the cultures and spiritualities of the First Peoples, the appalling record of Euro-centric hegemony with its presumed civilizational superiority, in a way that moves beyond theory, exhortatory rhetoric and deft political manoeuvring?  Theologian Fredrick Bauerschmidt concisely encapsulates the options, “Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda [the Spanish Renaissance humanist] who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbours.” The option, in other words, is either aggressive proselytizing or authentic witness. For centuries, we chose the former and the consequences are clear.

Francis repeatedly calls for the “recognition of the special genius of the Indigenous peoples, their harmony with Creation, the richness of their languages, which we ruthlessly suppressed, and the paramount need to move through truth to reconciliation and forgiveness.”

What happened in Canada is now unfolding in the United States following a detailed investigation initiated by the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, examining the legacy of the Native boarding schools, the role of Catholic orders in their administration and the need to find a process for moving forward with national healing.

Francis’ Canadian journey can prove a workable and inspiring template.

Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus at Sacred Heart University. The author and co-author of numerous books, his most recent is The Church Needs the Laity: the Wisdom of John Henry Newman (Paulist).

Seeking the Spirit Beyond ‘Dimes Square

Last year, about a month after Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes limiting the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass, I received a text from a college friend. We’d once been very close, working together on our college newspaper, but had a falling out after he began identifying with the alt-right and developed an admiration for Milo Yiannopolous, the former Breitbart staffer who, after being deplatformed when a series of videos of him advocating pedophilia emerged, converted to Catholicism, began to identify as a “reformed sodomite,” and became one of Pope Francis’ most vocal critics.

I immediately thought of this friend—like Milo, a gay man turned traditionalist Catholic reactionary—when I read First Things contributor Julia Yost’s piece in the New York Times this week, “New York’s Hottest Club is the Catholic Church.” Yost’s piece highlights a group of right-leaning downtown New York podcasters and small magazine editors who have taken up Roman Catholicism as a transgressive, anti-bourgeois yet Decadent-inspired cultural practice that Yost, while pointing out Gen Z’s proclivity for performativity, refuses to pin down as mere posturing.

I will refrain from judging their sincerity, too, but I do think that the strain of reactionary Catholicism that so often pops up in the United States—whether from the anticapitalist “Red Scare” podcast hosts or the hypercapitalist Breitbart scene—belies an insecurity that aims to take shelter in a church that never actually existed the way they imagine it did.

Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D., writing in Where Peter Is about Pope Francis’ recent critique of “indietrism” or “backwardism”, argues that while European traditionalists are solidly grounded in history and face the risk of failing to “notice that changes have taken place over the centuries,” Americans “are far more prone to look to the future and fix our gaze on a culture that never really existed but that we hope to bring into being. We have a nostalgia for ‘the perfect society.’” The solution, she writes, is that “The European mindset needs to be balanced by openness to the future, and the American mindset needs to be balanced by a true knowledge of the past.”

This lack of “a true knowledge of the past” is manifest not only in the young Americans who long for a pre-Vatican II era they never experienced and which, in reality, was not the way they imagine it being, with elaborate Tridentine high Masses every day and an unquestioningly obedient body of the faithful. It also appears in older conservative Americans who refuse to acknowledge—and in fact, resist—the truth of how doctrine develops over time. In just the last few days, the former EWTN staffers running “The Pillar” Substack have turned their focus to “investigating” the Twitter account of the Pontifical Academy for Life, after it tweeted that the controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae was not covered by papal infallibility. (This Twitter dust-up followed the academy’s publication of a volume of conference papers debating life issues.)

Then, of course, there is the “backwardism” of the wealthy conservative Catholics who have used their influence particularly in the media to undermine Pope Francis, as detailed in Go, Rebuild contributor Christopher Lamb’s book, The Outsider.

Again, I do not doubt these Catholics’ sincerity, but I believe their reactionary tendencies and their desire to construct an institution that has improbably not changed in 2,000 years is a sign of insecurity. It is much more comfortable to construct a museum-like church and assume the aesthetics of an imagined bygone era than it is to throw open the windows to let the Holy Spirit blow in, and to discern the Spirit’s call.

Back to my friend, the Milo admirer: About a month after Traditionis Custodes came out, he texted me to apologize. Although he was upset about the pre-Vatican II Mass being limited, he said, he had come to understand why the pope’s intervention was necessary. He recognized that the old Mass had become a proxy for opposition to Vatican II, and that he had participated in that opposition and realized now he was wrong.

This, to me, was a sign of spiritual maturing, of recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating where conversion was needed, and following that prompting.

In response to the Times’ piece about the Dimes Square traditionalists, former Commonweal editor and “Know Your Enemy” podcast host Matt Sitman tweeted, “One thing about religion I’ve realized from being an editor at a Catholic magazine and now doing KYE is that a lot of people wrestle with their faith in ways that are quiet, mostly private and not part of their influencer brand. You’ll never read about them!” Then added, “This is my impression from countless emails and conversations, and I’d wager that this group of people absolutely dwarfs whatever trend in NYC is being debated.”

Sitman’s account of quiet wrestling resonates with me, and certainly describes my friend’s eventual response to Traditionis Custodes. The work of the Holy Spirit is quiet and persistent and intimate; it can happen below layers of aesthetic preoccupations and in, as Madeleine Delbrêl says, “the ordinary people of the streets.” It is happening all the time.

What is thrilling, now, is that, since Vatican II, and especially with Pope Francis’ global synodal process, we are being asked to undertake that wrestling with the Holy Spirit, that discernment, together, rather than exclusively within ourselves. It makes sense that the Jesuit pope, the world’s spiritual director, is the one asking us to engage in discernment together. I pray that our faith will be mature enough—secure enough—to follow this call.

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.

Planting Seeds

While recovering from a war injury in his family’s castle, Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier and courtier, asked for something to read, preferably his favorite genre of courtly adventure. Instead, he was presented with a book of lives of the saints. At first he found the stories boring. But eventually he became engrossed, imagining a different kind of heroism in God’s service. “What if I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did?” he asked himself. It was the start of a journey that led him to found the Society of Jesus.

I did not know this story when I set out to write my book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, which was published 25 years ago this month. But I did know the powerful, contagious effect of moral witness. I knew that from my own life and from the example of my father Daniel Ellsberg, whose decision to risk prison for copying the top secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers was directly inspired by the example of young men willing to go to jail for refusing to cooperate with the draft. Such stories had a great impact on my decision to take a leave from college after my sophomore year and make my way to the Catholic Worker—wondering what it would be like to do what Dorothy Day and her companions did.

It was Day who enlarged my store of holy and heroic exemplars. From her recounting of the lives of St. Francis, St. Therese, St. Vincent de Paul, and others, I learned about men and women who had had asked themselves what it would be like to live like Jesus and his disciples. Responding to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors, they had charted new paths of discipleship that others might follow. Day had little interest in abstract theories and principles; what fascinated her was the way these ideals were lived out. And so she moved easily between the canon of official saints and the lives of many others—writers, peacemakers, defenders of the poor, and other radical dreamers. She was drawn to those who (to borrow a phrase that Pope Francis applied to Day herself) allow us to “see and interpret reality in a new way.”

In that spirit, as I wrote All Saints, I combined “official” saints with others drawn from a wider “cloud of witnesses”: Gandhi, Etty Hillesum, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman. On the one hand, I wanted to take the official saints down from their pedestals, to show them as human beings whose distinctive holiness was expressed in the course of a life. But I also wanted to expand the understanding of holiness.

Curiously, over the past 25 years, my calendar has edged closer to the official list, as 43 of “my” saints have progressed along the path of canonization, ranging from Servants of God Helder Camara, Pedro Arrupe and Dorothy Day herself, to Saints John Henry Newman, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Hildegard of Bingen, John XXIII and Charles de Foucauld. But my deeper motivation for writing this book, and the daily reflections on “Blessed Among Us” I have written over the past 10 years for Liturgical’s Give Us This Day, has not simply been to honor or remember those who went before, but to plant seeds that might encourage new readers on their own path.

This summer, one of my reflections was about Mattie Stepanek, who died in 2004 at the age of 13 of a hereditary disease. In his short, grace-filled life, he became an ambassador for peace, publishing best-selling books of poetry, befriending Jimmie Carter (who gave the eulogy at his funeral), teaching religious education classes in his parish and touching countless people with his remarkable witness to the gift of life. I noted that a guild is currently promoting his cause for canonization.

Afterward I received a message from his mother, who recognized my name but couldn’t immediately place it. Going through a box of Mattie’s things, she suddenly remembered, and sent me a picture. It was a copy of All Saints, which she said Mattie kept checking out of the library every two weeks until he could afford to buy his own copy.

This was a new experience, but a confirmation of why I write these reflections: So that somewhere, somebody might read these stories and imagine a different way of living, and ask themselves, “What if I should live like Mattie Stepanek?­”

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. His most recent book (with Sister Wendy Beckett) is Dearest Sister Wendy… A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.