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Entries from December 2022

Quo Vadis

According to a famous legend, St. Peter, fleeing the certainty of persecution, was heading away from Rome on the Appian Way when he encountered the Risen Christ, traveling in the opposite direction. “Quo vadis—where are you going?” he asked the Lord, who replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” This encounter apparently restored Peter’s faith and courage, inspiring him to turn about and proceed toward Rome to face his own martyrdom.

I thought of this story last month when I was invited to be part of a panel of contributors to this blog for a webinar entitled, “Quo Vadis: Where is U.S. Catholicism Going?” That question was open to many different approaches. For me, it brought to mind the story of St. Peter. I imagined that the question could be translated as such: “Is U.S. Catholicism, in the person of its shepherds, pursuing the way of Jesus, or is its direction determined more by interests of self-preservation, security and what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”?

That question has a particular poignancy as we draw close to the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election. It is worth recalling the extraordinary “quo vadis” challenge he delivered in his short speech before the conclave of 2013 that concluded with his election. There, he said, first of all, that evangelization presupposes a desire in the church to come out of itself: to go to the peripheries—not just geographical but existential. Secondly, he said that a church that does not do this becomes “self-referential” and sick. He described this as a kind of ecclesial narcissism. Succumbing to such spiritual worldliness, he said, “is the worst evil that can befall the church.” Simplifying, he said, “there are two images of the Church: either the evangelizing church that comes out of herself … or the worldly church that lives in herself, of herself, for herself.”

His words apparently electrified his audience. And clearly they provided a succinct agenda for the pastoral and evangelical mission he has pursued over the past 10 years. And yet, on the whole, one feels that in the case of the American bishops, they heard these words, and decided to proceed on in the direction they preferred. They have largely ignored his emphasis on integral ecology, his critique of “an economy that kills,” his pleas to avoid single-issue politics and divisive culture-war wedge issues. A certain number have insinuated that he is, if not in error, then a kind of nuisance, that his priorities are discretionary, irrelevant to their own priorities and not to be taken seriously.

In 2020, many of them were among the 600 bishops and other Catholic leaders on a conference call with President Trump, thanking him for his support for the pro-life cause, religious freedom and parochial schools. And when Trump declared himself “the best president in the history of American Catholicism,” not one of them uttered a word of protest. Nor did any of them, during those four years, charge him (as the president of the USCCB would do on the very inauguration day of President Biden), with pursuing policies that would “advance moral evils.”

Within days of our “Quo Vadis” panel, the U.S. bishops met for their annual assembly to elect new leadership. Preceding that vote Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio, addressed the bishops in words that offered an uncanny echo of my own remarks. He began, in fact, by reminding the bishops of the very same speech by Cardinal Bergoglio to the conclave of 2013 about the two images of the church—an evangelizing church or a self-referential “sick” church. He went on to offer a resume of some of Pope Francis’ characteristic themes: the church as a “field hospital” with the ability to “heal wounds and reignite the hearts of the faithful”; the emphasis on mercy; the call for a “poor church for the poor,” willing to “go forth from its comfort zone”; a church that embraces the Pope’s vision of “integral ecology” and care for our common home.

Archbishop Pierre concluded his speech by referring to the synodal path, which involves “listening, understanding and patience,” and which demands “dialogue in a concrete and respectful way.” He noted that much of the division in our country “and even in the church,” comes from the fact that “we have forgotten how to be with one another and to speak with one another.” Finally, he evinced the hope that “our common discernment” might lead to a faith-filled answer to the question: “’Where are we?’ and more importantly to the question, ‘Where are we going?’”

And so quo vadis? This was in effect the question that Pope Francis, through his representative, was posing to the U.S. bishops. Their answer followed promptly in the election of a new president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese of the Military Services, reputed to be the most distant from the vision of Pope Francis among the possible candidates.

And so the question on the Appian Way lingers: Where are we going?

Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books and a daily contributor to Give Us This Day. His most recent book (with Sister Wendy Beckett) is Dearest Sister Wendy… A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.

Fr. Marko Rupnik’s Case Tests Church’s Anti-Abuse Measures

The case of Marko Rupnik, a high-profile Jesuit priest and artist, threatens the legacy that Pope Francis has built when it comes to tackling the scourge of clerical sexual abuse.

Rupnik has been accused of sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse against consecrated women. Fr Arturo Sosa, the superior of the Jesuit order to which the Pope belongs, told reporters that Rupnik was temporarily excommunicated in 2019 after he absolved a woman who he had been sexually involved with—one of the most serious Church crimes and forms of spiritual abuse. In 2021, a separate complaint was made against Rupnik but was not pursued due to the statute of limitations expiring. Both the excommunication and the decision not to prosecute were handled by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Following the excommunication, the Jesuits placed Rupnik under restrictions, banning him from hearing confessions and offering spiritual directions. 

But the Slovenian Jesuit had influence and connections, including inside the doctrine dicastery. He has been a hugely popular Church artist whose mosaics decorate the Redemptoris Mater chapel in the Vatican’s apostolic palace, the basilica in Lourdes, France and the St John Paul II shrine in Washington, D.C. At this blog’s own institution, Sacred Heart University, he designed the mosaic in the chapel. He recently designed the logo for the 2022 Vatican’s World Meeting of Families.

All this means that how his case was handled is a stress test for the Church’s anti-abuse measures. Three things need to be looked at. 

The first is the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of two offices in the Church’s central government that are on the front line of tackling abuse. The dicastery prosecutes cases of clerics accused of abuse but is far from transparent in how it goes about its work. In the case of Rupnik, the dicastery has remained silent on why he was not prosecuted, given that there have been plenty of times when the statute of limitations has been waived. What role did Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, the former secretary at the dicastery, play in the case? Archbishop Morandi was reportedly close to Rupnik and lived in the same Jesuit community as Rupnik. While the Jesuits have revealed what they knew about the case, the doctrine office’s silence is wrong and harmful. 

The second is the Pope’s commission for the protection of minors, which should act as the equivalent of a diocesan safeguarding office inside the Holy See. Under the reforms of the Roman Curia, it has been placed within the structure of the doctrine dicastery. Some question the wisdom of this given the need for an independent body inside the Vatican to ensure safeguarding standards are being met. The Pope has also insisted that the commission remains independent. But three former commission members, including Baroness Sheila Hollins, have now gone public voicing their concern about the commission’s strategy and leadership. They are worried that the commission is drifting from its core purpose of ensuring best practices are followed in safeguarding. The commission insists that it does not comment on individual cases. Still, it is in danger of being seen as missing in action during the latest phase of the abuse crisis, now squarely on how the hierarchy handles cases. 

Thirdly is a need for the Church to be more proactive when it comes to allegations of abuse of adults, particularly religious women. While the Rupnik case did not involve minors, it involved “#metoo” abuse that had a grave spiritual dimension. If the Jesuits had explained that Rupnik had been placed under specific measures and put the information into the public domain, it would have prevented the scandal from erupting. Given the seriousness of absolving an accomplice in the confessional, Rupnik also seems to have been treated leniently, suggesting that what took place could be excused as taking place between consenting adults. While Canon Law has expanded the definition of abuse to include “vulnerable adults,” abuse of power between adults must be better recognized. 

Finally, this case points to the growing weaponization of abuse for ecclesial-political purposes. Notably, highly sensitive details about the Rupnik matter were leaked to at least two online publications hostile to the Francis pontificate. The leaking of this material could only have come from the inside with the ultimate goal of trying to damage the Pope. It points to the deep resistance to Francis from inside the Church. There are likely other Rupnik cases, but they may not suit the anti-Francis agenda, so they will likely stay under the radar. 

In this highly charged atmosphere, it is vital to ensure all cases of abuse are handled in a rigorous, independent and proactive manner. 

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

“We Were Made for Love”

At the Festival of Social Doctrine, whose theme was, “Building Trust: the beauty of encounter,” Pope Francis addressed the audience with this message:

“We were made for love … Encounter must become our greatest desire, our goal to be pursued tenaciously, because a human being is made in such a way that it is not fulfilled, does not develop and cannot find its fullness except through a sincere gift of self." This is the gift of love.

Advent is the season when Christians await this moment of incredible and extraordinary love: we believe that God’s gift of self, out of pure love for us, is his only Son, Jesus the Christ. For Christians, it is in the mystery of the Incarnation that we find meaning and value that are integral to our human dignity. We know we are all created in the image of God—our Imago Dei. This creative act of love endows us all with inviolable dignity. It is during these four weeks that we reflect—each week with hope, faith and joy—on the belief that out of an act of unfathomable love, God loved us into being and then gave to our broken world and fractured selves Jesus the Christ, to be our Savior to dispel the darkness of our calamitous times. Jesus the Christ took human form to live in the human condition to restore us to love—what an astonishing thought. “We were made for love.” This is our ongoing salvation.

The recent working document from the General Secretariat of the Synod, “Enlarge the space of your tent” seems to offer a message that resonates with the Pope’s call for love and encounter, and with the meaning of Advent—that we were made for love. From a synodal journey of encounter, here are two messages from parishes that reflect the sensus fidei: “The dream is of a Church that more fully lives a Christological paradox: boldly proclaiming its authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance through its pastoral and discerning accompaniment” (EC England and Wales). “Instead of behaving like gatekeepers trying to exclude others from the table, we need to do more to make sure that people know that everyone can find a place and a home here” (remark by a parish group from the USA). The first quotation calls for the tricky balance that must be made between “authentic teaching” and “radical inclusion,” yet both messages call for welcome and acceptance. Both statements call for the love for which we were all made.

In the arc of God’s promise to create a space for community, this synod report tells us that the people of God are asking for greater consideration for divorced and remarried Catholics, for women’s ordination and in general for women’s roles within the Church, for the LGBTQ+ community and for healing from the horror of the sex abuse crisis. This journey of the Synod promises to be long and challenging, but the hope is that it seeks a larger tent of radical inclusion, reaching to the margins with listening and welcoming, fostering encounter with trust, recognition and respect. This seems to be a call for the love for which we were made.

Yet, about the same time that the report “Enlarge the space of your tent” was published, we read another report: at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall meeting, the already divided and mistrusted body of bishops chose a candidate who seems more in line with polarization, discord and division and less in favor of creating the welcoming Church expressed in the synodal report. There seems to be a disconnect between what we might hope for from the synodal report and what we see in the decisions of the USCCB.

My students experience a similar disconnect with the Church. One LGBTQ student said to me, “It doesn’t match up—the love you say that Jesus brings in the Gospel and what the Church says to us.” This student’s remarks resonate with what so many of my students (straight and LGBTQ) want: a church where they feel welcome and accepted. Yet, they do not always experience that sense of belonging.

Now, another disconnect occurs between the hope engendered by the first synod report and what we heard in a recent interview where Pope Francis explained why women cannot be ordained as priests. He gives us the theory of the Petrine Principle (the keys went to Peter), and he offers women the Marian Principle (to be a spouse) and the administrative way (to manage and organize for the Church). How does this statement match up with what has been reported about the call for women’s ordination and the role of women in the Church in “Enlarge the space of your tent?” How will this statement affect the general extended synodal encounter and dialogue—which must be based upon trust? Will the tent be widened? How will the tent balance “authentic teaching” with “radical inclusion”? How will the ineffable love of the Incarnation, for which we were made, and which is the essence of our Church, be enfleshed in this enlarged tent?

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

“Unlike Any Mass I’ve Ever Attended”

I intend this post as a further contribution to June-Ann Greeley’s discussion last week about many young Catholics’ disengagement from Mass. I agree with Greeley’s diagnosis of a generational lack of theological and liturgical formation that “has resulted in generational apathy or dismissiveness about an entity and a system about which they know little and, as a result, care not at all.”

In dialogue with Popes Benedict and Francis, Greeley calls for “an intentional redirection of generations toward the liturgy that (among other attainments) connects the sacred with the profane, the divine with the mortal, the substantial with the incorporeal.”

My reflections go in a different but complementary direction. Sure, young people can find depths to plumb in the rich sacramentalism of the Catholic liturgy with the help of effective formation. But young Catholics are also looking for something else. They are looking for the same things most people are looking for if they visit a church, decide to join a church, or are simply going to feel motivated enough to get up on Sunday morning:

Welcome and acceptance. Connection to community. Emotional engagement. Social relevance. Support in facing the problems of everyday life.

My list is backed up by Commonweal’s infographics about contemporary American parishes, which lists the top factors that attract people to a parish: its open, welcoming spirit (68%), the sense of feeling you belong there (64%) the quality of the preaching (62%) and liturgy (60%).

Like my colleague June-Ann, my list is also informed by teaching theology to undergraduates. I recently had an experience with my students that enriched my appreciation of why they feel disconnected from typical Catholic worship and what they are looking for instead.

For my course “Black Theology and Ethics,” I arranged for students to join me at Sunday worship at a Baptist church that is almost entirely African American in its membership. While several students in the class seemed interested, the “getting up on Sunday morning” thing was an obstacle for some. Three intrepid women took up my offer, and we had a terrific time, followed by brunch at a diner afterward (which is an undervalued element of church culture that could perhaps attract some young people!).

Black church services and other energetic Protestant services are no longer new experiences for me, although I didn’t have such experiences until after my college years. The Black Baptist service was a new experience for my three students, all of whom remarked—as captured in the title of this post—that they have never experienced anything like it in a Catholic church.

And that was a good thing: they all found the worship service energetic, engaging and “not boring,” even though it ran to an hour and a half in length, with the sermon lasting half an hour.

Yet it wasn’t merely the energy of the gospel band and the other upbeat elements of Black church worship that made them like the service. Certainly, these were among their reasons, but the things they really appreciated are deeper and more significant. To quote my students:

“It brought me so much joy to see how excited people were to welcome new people to their church.”

“It was very apparent that the pastor put a great deal of effort into preparing his sermon so that it would relate Bible teachings to problems in our society today; by doing so, his words resonate with people on a personal level.”

“The pastor was very interactive with the churchgoers, unlike the churches I normally go to, where they don’t really talk with you but more at you.”

The first quote refers to the tremendous welcoming spirit we received throughout our visit. Several ushers greeted us when we entered; the whole congregation sang to us at the start of the passing of the peace; many congregants came over to shake our hands and welcome us.

My students were impressed by the relatable sermon. The pastor connected the themes of Psalm 78 to the everyday struggles of people in the pews. He assured them that Jesus was walking with them in these struggles. He drew upon the historical struggles and the strong faith traditions of Black Christians and of the African diaspora. At one point, he chided the Christian community when it hypocritically fails to support single parents. My students appreciated this honesty and inclusiveness, for they each know people who have had children out of wedlock and see that these women need support, not ostracism.

These reactions are widely confirmed by conversations I’ve had with the rest of the students in this class and in others. But what these three students could see and articulate better—by having a concrete experience to compare to their attendance at Catholic Masses—is what they positively value in a church experience.

A Mass that would hook them doesn’t need to have gospel music. It does need to speak to their lives and daily challenges. It does need to genuinely, joyfully welcome them. It does need to speak to their hopes and dreams for a better world.

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