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.