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Entries from August 2023

War’s Unexpected Consequences

Editor's note: all opinions and terminology are those of the author. 

On August 5, a Ukrainian court convicted a metropolitan of the russian (I follow a convention in Ukraine to lower case russia) affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) to a five-year term for publicly supporting the invasion of Ukraine and advocating for the overthrow of the Zelensky government by a pro-russian coup. Another metropolitan, Pavlo Lebid, the former superior of the Kyiv Caves Monastery, is under house arrest for his many pro-russian declarations and actions as well as for “fomenting inter-religious hostility.” Meanwhile, yet another metropolitan, Nathaniel, broke ranks and called for Ukraine’s victory over the invader. Notably, Nathaniel’s see of Volyn-Lutsk had suffered a deadly missile strike a day earlier. The invasion of Ukraine has caused not only an immense shift in Ukrainian public opinion against the once dominant UOC in favor of the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) but also internal dissent within the UOC. However, the religious implications of the war reach beyond Ukrainian territory.

With surprising frankness, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople acknowledged: “It would not be possible for all the Churches not to condemn the violence, the war … I did not want the Church of russia and Brother Patriarch Kirill to be this tragic exception … He should react to the invasion of Ukraine and condemn the war as all the other Orthodox Primates did. He did not, that is to his detriment … I expected Brother Kirill at this critical, historic moment to rise to the occasion. If it is required to even sacrifice his throne, and tell Putin, ‘Mr. President, I cannot agree with you, I resign, I leave.’ Or put him in jail, I don’t know what President Putin would do if the Patriarch reacted to his plans, but that is what we, the other Primates, would expect.” In March 2023, Bartholomew added that the russian church shared responsibility for the crimes committed in Ukraine, “Our interreligious dialogue has to focus on ways to resist and neutralize the capacity of the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate to undermine unity and to theologically legitimize criminal behaviour.” Although tensions between the two churches have been long standing, Moscow’s size and financial power ensured a prominent place among Orthodox churches and in the ecumenical world. Since February 2022, that position is less secure.

In September 2022, the 11th Assembly of the Word Council of Churches (WCC) condemned the “illegal and unjustifiable war,” and rejected “any misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression and hatred.” Nonetheless, the WCC continues to attempt to mediate between the parties, albeit fruitlessly. Meanwhile, opposition to the russian church’s position has increased within its own ranks, witnessed by the reluctance of its European branches to participate in a meeting of the Council of Primates. Even many clerics in the UOC have ceased to liturgically commemorate Kirill, as is the traditional practice.

As never before, the russian Orthodox church’s marriage to the secular russian powers threatens the church’s standing within the wider Orthodox and Christian communities. Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun pointedly stated, “Any war must have guns and ideas. In this war, the Kremlin has provided the guns, and I believe the Russian Orthodox Church is providing the ideas.” Kirill has preached that russian soldiers who die in the invasion will have their sins washed away. Former chief editor of the russian Patriarchate’s publishing arm, Sergei Chapnin (now at Fordham University), condemned the russian hierarchy in an open letter, “Now, during the military attack of russia on Ukraine, I have totally ceased to understand you. I hear you uttering nothing but state propaganda clichés, disguised as pious words of Church message, and dubious theological formulas which lead you and your flock away from the Gospel and towards an imperial pagan cult centered on power, wealth and violence. I think you share the blame for it. I see that for many of you it is a conscious choice.” 

The increased isolation of the russian church is also affecting relations with the Vatican. The russian church’s delegation was notably absent at the 2023 meeting of the Joint International Commission of the Catholic and Orthodox Church, which produced the first agreed-upon statement in seven years. There is no longer any hint of a meeting between Francis and Kirill, as there was prior to 2022. Vatican statements on the war have shifted from a focus on mediation to returning Ukrainian children taken by the occupiers. At World Youth Day, Francis spoke directly to Ukrainian youth and vowed to work for the return of children to “martyred Ukraine.” Can the Pope welcome Kirill who flagrantly condones the martyrdom?

Condemned internally and externally, the russian Orthodox church faces an uncertain future, an immense loss of prestige in Christian circles and the growing question of its legitimacy within the Christian ecumene. Certainly, the Vatican must wonder whether its historic Ostpolitik has finally come to an end.

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

Sinead O’Connor’s Dark Night of the Soul

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Sinead O’Connor reading her 2021 autobiography, Rememberings. She was found unresponsive in her London flat on July 26 this year at the age of 56. The cause of her death hasn’t been made public, but she often admitted to suicidal feelings, especially after the suicide of the third of her four children, Shane, at the age of 17.

Sinead (I call her by her first name because I don’t want to objectify her) achieved notoriety when, during a Saturday Night Live broadcast in 1992, she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II as a protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. She was banned for life by NBC. “This hurts me a lot less than rapes hurt those Irish children,” she writes. Future recording contracts and performances were cancelled (“cancel culture” is nothing new) and there was widespread opprobrium. Devout Catholic Joe Pesci said on Saturday Night Live the following week that he would have given her “such a smack.” It was a life-changing event that some say ended her career, but she describes it as a moment of liberation from the lucrative and exploitative music industry: “I define success by whether I keep the contract I made with the Holy Spirit before I made one with the music business.”

The photograph was taken during the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979, and it was the only photo Sinead’s mother ever had on her bedroom wall. Sinead writes, “My intention had always been to destroy my mother’s photo of the pope. It represented lies and liars and abuse.” In an almost unbearable chapter, she describes the sadistic torture she suffered as a child at the hands of her mother, who died in a car crash on her way to Mass when Sinead was 18. By that time, she had understandably cut off all ties to a mother whom she nevertheless mourned and loved throughout her life.

Given what we now know about Pope John Paul II’s collusion in covering up priestly sexual abuse, that act of tearing up his photograph takes on new meaning, particularly when interpreted in the context of Sinead’s personal story. What if, instead of shock and outrage, Catholics had recognised it for the prophetic gesture that it was?

There is an unflinching honesty to this autobiography, shot through with heartbreaking confessions but also with moments of comic genius that made me laugh out loud, such as her description of the reaction of a Greek barber in London when she asked him to shave her head. Her violent encounter with Prince in his dark, remote home is written like an episode from Dracula, in a way that is both shocking and hilarious. Listen to the audiobook to get the full impact of her dramatic flair.

Honesty isn’t synonymous with factual reportage, and Sinead’s many public outbursts are riddled with contradictions and volte-face claims. Her honesty is that of a person willing to expose herself in all her mental struggles, failures, vulnerabilities and regrets, but also in an unflinching commitment to solidarity with the vulnerable and oppressed. She emerges as a tormented, courageous, chaotic, loving soul adrift in a world that sanctifies conformity, success and denial over truth’s often raw and jagged realities. She writes of her beloved friend John Keogh’s dependence on Class A drugs that, “he’s an innocent. That’s why he can’t bear the world.” It’s hard not to see this as a summing up of her own short, troubled life, with its several husbands, many lovers and four children fathered by different men.

Hers was a restless search for meaning even as she preserved a childlike faith in a God who would not abandon her. She sought guidance from priests and ministers, she discovered sources of wisdom in the cryptic utterances of her Rasta friends, she was ordained a priest in the Independent Catholic Church of Ireland, renaming herself Mother Bernadette Mary. When she embraced Islam in 2018, she adopted the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat, though she retained her birth name for public performances.

Her autobiography is a story of the dark night of the soul without the trappings of conventional piety with which Catholic hagiographers domesticate the saints. Towards the end, after her conversion to Islam, she writes, “I’ve done only one holy thing in my life and that was sing.” Earlier in the book, she tells of how, as a schoolgirl, she went to see a priest to tell him how sinful she was. He listened to her carefully and then asked her what job she wanted to do when she was an adult.

“I told him I liked singing. He said, ‘Ah! Did you know that he who sings prays twice?”’

RIP, beautiful singer, and thank you for the prayers you left us.

Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.

The Kids are Alright. But What about the Church?

Anyone who follows so-called Catholic “influencers” on social media platforms like X (the former Twitter) or Instagram is well aware that Pope Francis just presided over another record-setting World Youth Day (WYD)—this time in Lisbon. And once again—like the halcyon days of John Paul Il—the rock-star presence of the pope assured that the event drew some 1.6 million teens and young adults to the Portuguese capital. Some 700 bishops and more than 10,000 ordained priests also came to this latest edition of “Catholic Woodstock,” an international gathering that has been taking place every two or three years since the mid-1980s. Reporters, bloggers and some of the Jesuit pope’s greatest fans and defenders gave the impression that WYD 2023 rose to some exciting new heights, making the previous 14 editions (or 16, depending on how you count them) pale in significance. But, in fact, the Lisbon gathering was not particularly different from any other of those earlier World Youth Day gatherings. (Congratulations to the official Vatican Media, by the way, which resisted the temptation to play Pravda and refused to hype the event as many in the “pro-Francis” sectors of the Catholic and secular media did.)

First, about those “huge” crowds that left some papal enthusiasts amazed and mesmerized. Lisbon city officials said upwards of 1.6 million people showed up for the Saturday prayer vigil and the next day’s closing Mass. But a number of previous WYD grand finales (again, according to local authorities) actually drew more people. The real record-setter, of course, was Manila in 1995 with nearly 5 million kids chanting, “JP 2, we love you!” When Francis went to Rio de Janeiro just a few months after being elected pope to lead WYD 2013, more than 3.2 million young people crowded the famous Copacabana beachfront for the vigil and closing Mass. Before that, the World Youth Day celebration that took place in Rome during the Great Jubilee of 2000 drew more than 2 million participants. Meanwhile, WYD 2016 in Krakow (Poland) attracted just under 2 million, while the final WYD events that were held in Paris (1997) and Madrid (2011) both drew nearly 1.5 million people.

Second, playing the numbers game is not smart or helpful. The idea that World Youth Day has somehow been a winning ticket for keeping the latest generation of Catholics engaged in the Church does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the numbers more than suggest that teens and young adults are walking away from the institutional Church at ever increasing levels. The massive presence of their peers at these global events does not reflect a groundswell of interest in Catholic faith. Rather, it is much more the result of careful organization, public relations and financial subsidies. The venues that are selected play a key role. Tourist destinations like Paris, Rio, Madrid, Krakow and Rome—to name a few—are big draws, especially if national episcopal conferences (like the one in Italy) or other Church organizations subsidize a young person’s travel expense, and local hosts offer free or very inexpensive lodgings and meals. And then there is the pope. If he weren't going be there, local dioceses, parishes, youth groups and so forth would not be promoting World Youth Day so vigorously. How many among the 700 bishops and 10,000 priests would have been in Lisbon had the pope not been part of the program? In fact, Francis was the centerpiece of WYD 2023, just as he was at Rio (2013), Krakow (2016) and Panama (2019). In this, he has continued to play his role at the youth gatherings in ways that are uncannily similar to the way John Paul II did.

Third, each new generation of WYD reporters, bloggers and (now) social media “influencers” apparently has no awareness or recollection of what happened at previous youth gatherings organized around the pope. And that is why it seems the key takeaway message that comes from each new edition of these Catholic Woodstock moments is that they are destined to suddenly revive the Church in unprecedented ways and abruptly reverse the trend of people walking away. The key message Francis imparted this year to the teens and young adults at the “bigger and better” happening in Lisbon was that everyone is welcomed in the Church. “Todos! Todos! Todos!” he said in at least three or four different addresses during his time in Portugal. As messages go, this is a darn good and very hopeful one. And maybe some of the 1.6 million in the crowd believed it. But most young Catholics—especially young women and even many in the LGBTQ+ community—know, by now, that this is little more than a marketing slogan. They (we) know that the Roman Church remains misogynist and that women and LGBTQ+ folk remain second-class Catholics (at best) and will remain such. Yet, they (we) all applaud the elderly pope, just like in the old days ... A commentator once famously said about the WYD crowds' fawning adoration of John Paul II, “They like the singer, but not the song.” When it comes to Francis, it's more like, “They love the singer, but they're not interested in his band (the Church).”

The meticulously choreographed events that take place during the weeklong World Youth Day, which are carefully put together with the use of contemporary music and entertainment, are obviously meant to present the youthful and vibrant face of the Catholic Church and to help Church leaders better communicate with teens and young adults. This is certainly all a worthy effort, but it seems to bear meager fruit. Yes, there are many priests and consecrated religious who claim that a WYD experience at one time in their life was instrumental, even decisive, to discovering their Church vocation. But anecdotes aside, there is no statistical evidence to suggest that these jamborees have caused even the slightest uptick, let alone a spike, in vocations to the presbyterate or religious life. The World Youth Day formula was devised during the early years of John Paul II's reign. And many thought it was the answer for growing the Catholic faith. But, let's be honest, this formula has not evolved much since its very beginning, even in the “evolutionary” pontificate of Pope Francis.

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.

Care for Others Is the Best Kind of Self-Care

One of Pope Francis’ most frequent gripes is against the sin of “self-referentiality.” He absolutely detests ecclesiastical navel-gazing, and this should surely be a warning to ecclesiologists too. Studying the church and promoting its healthy behavior is not primarily about ecclesiastical politics or the temptation to gossip about the Vatican. What’s so bad about that? Well, it isn’t paying attention to what should be the primary concern of all Christians—a clear sense of mission. I recall so well the great British religious journalist of the later part of the twentieth century, Peter Hebblethwaite, talking book titles with me. I think he was considering writing a book to be called "What is the Church?" But he wisely shelved that title—after all, there are so many books with that title already on the shelves—and chose instead, "What is the Church For?" Smart move.

When thinking about the church, I find myself drawn increasingly often to the parable of the good Samaritan, and particularly on this question of ecclesial purpose. Think for a moment of the two religious leaders who passed by on the other side. True, Jesus mentions them as a warning against too narrow a sense of neighborliness. But think about them for a minute. Scripture scholars have all kinds of explanations of their failure to act, some of them not entirely unreasonable. But whatever their excuses, one thing is clear. They pass by unchanged. Because they do not engage with the wounded man, nothing happens for them. Wrapped up in their own concerns and perhaps fears, cocooned within themselves, safe and secure, taking care of themselves, nothing happens! St. Irenaeus had it right: no challenges, no growth. If indeed the world is “a place of soul-making,” then the opportunities need to be grasped—even, and perhaps especially, the ones that are uncomfortable or fearful.

Enter the Samaritan and, by the way, Jesus never calls him “good.” Again, of course Jesus is telling the story to make the lawyer see that everyone is one’s neighbor. But let’s think for a minute about the Samaritan himself, not so much about what he does, but about what happens to him as a result of what he does, and also of course what happens to the wounded man as a result of the Samaritan’s actions. Both of them are changed. Sure, the wounded man begins the process of healing, and the Samaritan is a few dollars short. But there is a much more profound gift-exchange going on here, as Simone Weil made so clear in her essay on “Forms of the Implicit Love of God.” The wounded man, whether he will live or die, recovers his human dignity in the way the Samaritan affirms him. And the Samaritan, in giving himself to the other in need, becomes more a person than he was before. In either case, this is the paschal mystery; in dying, we are raised to new life.

If the fundamental problem with self-referentiality is that it is stagnant, and if the opposite for the church is evangelism, and for the individual Christian, missionary discipleship, this does not mean that there should be no institutional purification and no individual self-care. But both these interior exercises can only be for the sake of looking and moving outwards. As is so often rightly said, the church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the world to which it is called. And as retreatants engaged in the final contemplation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises know, their purpose is to renew contemplation in action. St. Ignatius’ first presupposition is that love is shown more in deeds than in words, and the contemplation unfolds as a profound appreciation of the presence of God in the world. Ignatius has in mind that the exercises will result in a conversion of heart, a radical change, that finds the love of God at work in the world.

One of the timeliest evangelical actions is then to counter the contemporary obsession with self, encouraged in different ways by social media, consumerism and deep-seated anxiety. The freedom that Apple and Google proposed to us has become slavery, to technology and to our desires. Countering this, the gospel is as subversive, if not more so, than it ever was before. In place of self-care we put concern for others, and like the Samaritan, we are both poorer and better for it. In place of “you can have anything you want,” we proclaim the discipline of choosing whatever is the more loving action, and we are the better for it, even and maybe more so when our untrammeled desires must be set aside. We embrace the cross for the sake of the world, but it is new life that we promote. Where the world is on the cross, we preach a gospel for which the cross can never be the last word, even if for missionary disciples it is through the cross of self-discipline that the world might be saved. And if this sounds hokey, think for a moment about the cost of restraining global warming, which will require radical lifestyle changes for all of us. Everything has its price, but the price may well be worth paying. In the end, a purer church can only be the one submerged in the messy particularities of a world on the brink.

Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.