A Shepherd’s Voice: One Diocesan Bishop’s Pastoral Plan for Implementing “Amoris Laetitia”: First Look


Wuerl         Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Cardinal-Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC has just released Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family: A Pastoral Plan to Implement Amoris Laetitia.  You may access the full document here.  This may be the first parish-centered pastoral plan on this subject in the United States, and I thank Deacon Greg Kandra for posting about this significant event.  This has personal implications for me,  since I am a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC so the new document has particular personal and ministerial relevance; Cardinal Wuerl is my bishop!

I think it is important to note from the outset that Cardinal Wuerl is a master teacher and a faithful, precise theologian.  Indeed, long before he became a bishop, he was well-known to be a skilled catechist, gifted teacher and respected author.  This catechetical perspective informs his entire approach to ministry, so it comes as no surprise that he would create a pastoral resource for the clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese, and that this resource would be grounded in a faithful presentation of the teaching of the Church on marriage and family life.  He provides clear guidance and direction for all Catholics of the Archdiocese, which should serve to prevent confusion while also serving wuerlsynodas an aid for everyone seeking to strengthen their own marriages and families, and the pastoral ministers who are supporting them.  These initial comments can only skim the surface of what is a much more substantive document, and I encourage everyone to take the time to read the Pastoral Plan in detail.  Let’s take a closer look.

More than fifty pages in length, the Pastoral Plan consists of a preface, some introductory reflections, five “parts”, a conclusion and an executive summary.  The five major sections are: Amoris Laetitia’s Teaching, the Way of Faith and Contemporary Culture, the Way of Accompaniment, the Importance of Parish Life, and finally, In Service of the Ministry of Accompaniment, which consists of an extensive list of resources available to pastoral ministers.

The contributions of the Pastoral Plan revolve around several key themes: context, accompaniment, conscience, and practical care.


The document’s first significant contribution is context.  In the Preface, Cardinal Wuerl makes clear that the Plan incorporates not only the teaching of Amoris Laetitia itself, but also the two Synods which preceded and inspired it.  For me this is a most important reminder.  Far too frequently, observers have attempted to read and comprehend the pope’s Exhortation without this context, and that, in my opinion, is not only inadequate VaticanSynodofMarriageandFamilybut dangerous.  “Text” always requires “context”, and the Cardinal makes this clear: to understand and to implement Amoris Laetitia, one must situate it within that broader global synodal process.  Amoris Laetitia, precisely as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, reflects not merely the personal teaching of the Holy Father himself; it is that, certainly, but so much more.  The work of the preceding synods involved representatives of the world’s episcopal conferences, extensive consultation and research over several years, and intense discussions during the synods themselves.  All of this reflected both the importance of the challenges facing contemporary families and the diversity of pastoral responses needed to help them.  As Cardinal Wuerl notes, “Many collaborators have worked to provide elements of a pastoral plan to implement this expression of the Papal Magisterium that follows on two gatherings of bishops, the 2014 Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization and the 2015 Synod on the Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World” (Preface, 3).

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received. This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.


The Cardinal outlines the approach of his Pastoral Plan in terms of accompaniment, which is of course, a major theme of Amoris Laetitia itself.  The theme of pastoral accompaniment is, indeed, the foundation and the goal of the entire Plan.  The Cardinal writes,

Not every marriage, however, goes forward with “they lived happily ever after.”  In fact, for many, in our heavily secular culture today, there is little understanding of the true nature of love, marriage, commitment, and self-giving which are all part of the Catholic vision of love. Yet, while their lives and experiences may have drawn many far away from the Church’s message, we are all the more called to reach out to them, to invite and accompany them on the journey that should help bring them to the joy of love that is also the joy of the Church.

He reminds us that we must approach everyone “with humility and compassion,” remembering that all the baptized are members of Christ’s body, and that we are all brothers and sisters to one another, regardless of circumstance.  He recalls the invitation of Pope Francis “to value the gifts of marriage and family. . .  (and) to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (AL, 5).

The Cardinal directs that the implementation of Amoris Laetitia  in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC be based on the following points.

  • First, it must begin with the Church’s teaching on love, marriage, family, faith and mercy. In particular, he points out that a key insight of the pope’s teaching was a proper understanding of the family “as the site of God’s revelation lived out in practice.”  To this end, the Cardinal joins with Pope Francis in exhorting all ministers of the Archdiocese to a deeper knowledge and formation on marriage and family life.  The richness of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family is a gift to be treasured and shared, especially in light of the many challenges faced by people in today’s world which can distract or even alienate people from each other and from loving commitments.  However, the Cardinal points out, “our task is not complete if we only limit ourselves to faith statements. The goal is the salvation of souls and it is a far more complex effort than simply restating Church doctrine.”
  • Therefore, “it is essential to recognize that our teaching is received by individuals according to their own situation, experience and life. Whatever is received is received according to the ability of the receiver, to paraphrase Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This is our starting point for pastoral ministry.” The Cardinal points out that this “interation” between the proclamation of the church’s teaching and the lived experience of those who hear that teaching was a critical insight from both of the synods.

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received.  This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.

Here we see the master catechist at work.  The Cardinal expresses the Church’s constant tradition that at the heart of our faith lies a relationship with Christ, and that one does not establish or nourish such a relationship without the conversion of the human heart.  Teaching alone, as central as it is, will be heard and received within very different life situations, and he challenges all of us who minister “to encounter and to accompany” the people we serve where they are in their journey.


Central to Amoris Laetitia and to this pastoral plan is the role of conscience.  St. John Paul II referred to the conscience as “the ultimate concrete judgment” in Veritatis Splendor 63, while the Catechism of the Catholic Church (both of which are cited by Cardinal Wuerl) describes conscience as “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC, 1796).  Therefore, stressing always fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family along with the pastoral awareness of how that teaching “is being received or even able to be perceived,” there is something more.  “An equally important part of our Catholic faith is the recognition that personal culpability rests with the individual. We have always made the distinction between objective wrong and personal or subjective culpability.”  The Cardinal continues:

          Our personal culpability of any of us does not depend solely on exposure to the teaching. It is not enough simply to hear the teaching. Each of us has to be helped to grasp it and appropriate it.  We have to have “experiential” and not just “objective” moral knowledge, to use the language of Saint John Paul II. . . .  Our consideration of our standing before God recognizes all these elements. We cannot enter the soul of another and make that judgment for someone else. As Pope Francis teaches, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, 37).

The Cardinal’s treatment of “conscience” is, for me, a highlight of the pastoral plan, since it is at the level of conscience that our pastoral activity will be centered, and I hope that everyone will study this section reflectively and carefully.

Many will be curious about the question of the possibility of divorced-and-remarried persons receiving Communion, so let me address this in more detail.   This question itself is not specifically addressed in the Plan.  However, much as the treatment of the subject in Amoris Laetitia, I do not find this particularly troubling, for the following reasons.  Traditional Catholic teaching has always stressed a balanced approach between objective moral principles and subjective moral culpability.  There is nothing new in this, and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats it clearly (see, for example, paragraphs 1857-1859).  What prevents us from receiving communion ccc-photois being in a state of mortal sin.  The tradition holds that for a sin to mortal, “three conditions must together be met: grave matter which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” The Catechism continues, “Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: ‘Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother. . . .”  But mortal sin is more than an objectively grave act.  “Mortal sin [also] requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC, 1857-1859).

What Cardinal Wuerl has done is to echo this traditional teaching.  How one forms spiritual directionone’s conscience is a complex matrix involving experience, formation, and discernment guided by one’s pastor.  Objective moral principles are one thing, but a person’s moral culpability for those acts or omissions is another, since “full knowledge” and “complete consent” are subjective issues.  The state of one’s soul before God, then, is deeply personal between the person and God, which again is the traditional teaching of the Church.  The decisions a person makes under the guidance of a pastor are matters of a deeply internal spiritual nature and can vary from person to person.  The responsibilities of a pastor in these matters are most crucial and weighty, and the Cardinal stresses all of this in the document.  No one answer will suffice in every case.  He writes, “Here Amoris Laetitia confirms the longstanding teaching of the Church and encourages pastors to see through the lens of Christ’s mercy and compassion rather than through a rigorous legalism.”  He continues:

Pastoral dialogue and accompaniment involve the development of conscience and also the expression of a level of support or confirmation for the judgment the individual is making about the state of his soul or her soul.  That judgment is the act of the individual and is the basis for their accountability before God.

In practice, this means that while some may be secure in their understanding and appropriation of the faith and the call of the Christian way of life, not all of our spiritual family can say the same thing. Even how we receive and understand the faith and its impact on our lives varies according to our situation, circumstances and life experiences.

While some people might prefer that both Amoris Laetitia and this Pastoral Plan might more directly “answer the question” about the reception of communion, such a response would not respect the primacy of the individual conscience under the guidance of the Church’s pastors, and the traditional understanding of moral decision-making in the Catholic Church.


Finally, as suggested by all that has gone before, the Plan offers very concrete resources for all those in pastoral ministry.  A primary “resource” is, of course, the parish itself.  The Plan suggests myriad ways in which various people within the parish might catechize, encourage, and accompany each other.  The parish is “the home of pastoral accompaniment, where we can all experience the love and healing mercy of Jesus Christ.”  The Cardinal directs that “Our parishes, as the place where people most experience the life of the Church, must be places of welcome, where everyone is invited, particularly anyone who might be disillusioned or disaffected by contemporary society or even by our faith community. The Church assures all that there is a place for everyone here in our spiritual home.”

7-Church-Walk           The section on the parish is extremely practical, with suggestions on how the various members of the parish and pastoral team might create this “culture of accompaniment” for others.  There are paragraphs for pastors and other priests, parish leaders and staffs, youth and young adults, engaged couples, newly married couples, young families, older couples and adults, and families in special circumstances.  It is only here that I would have wished for just one addition to the text.  Deacons are not mentioned in any context, and yet deacons, who are generally married with families of their own, are frequently engaged in ministries to couples preparing for marriage as well as other forms of family-related ministry.  In one sense, of course, the words of encouragement offered by the Plan to pastors, priests and parish staffs can – and do! – apply to the deacons.  Still, it does seem a missed opportunity to develop specific ways in which the diaconate, given its unique features within marriage and family life, might contribute to these ministries.

Finally, the last section of the plan offers a kind of “bibliography” of sources available from a variety of places, including the offices of the archdiocese itself, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and various national and regional groups.  The resources identified cover the waterfront and there is something for everyone, in every kind of need.

          In short, this Pastoral Plan, while prepared for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, is an excellent resource for Catholics everywhere, and I hope that other bishops will follow suit with similar initiatives in their own dioceses.  This Plan reflects significant collaboration on the part of the archdiocesan staff as the Cardinal prepared this multi-layered pastoral response to Amoris Laetitia.  I encourage everyone to read it, study it, and use it!

ADW Seal

Dear Pope Francis: Thanks, and No One Is Confused

Dear Pope Francis,

Since so many people are choosing to write to you, I thought I would too.  Many of the letters you receive, at least those shared through the media, take you to task for one thing or another.  I am writing for two reasons: to thank you for your leadership and courage, and to tell you that — despite what some are complaining about — I do not think anyone is “confused” by your actions, your teaching, and your writing.  May I suggest that those who make that claim are using that language of “confusion” to mask the truth: that they just disagree with you.

Your writing and teaching are clear: you desire the Church to be an adult Church.  By this I do not mean a Church only FOR adults, but a mature People of God, Mystical Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit.  This should be a Church in which we deal with each other with compassion, maturity and an honest realization that people are generally trying to do the best they can despite the sometimes overwhelming challenges they face.  Mature human beings come to realize that one-size-rarely-fits-all, and that we must use our God-given freedom of will in the best ways we can.  Your Holiness, we all understand full well that there are absolutes in life, but we also understand that sometimes we are going to fall short and need to struggle on the best we can, always with the guidance of the Holy Spirit given to us all as children of God created in God’s own image and likeness.

No one is confused by this, Your Holiness.  Your call to a mature Christianity echoes the voice of the world’s bishops assembled in solemn Council:

Coming forth from the eternal Father’s love, founded in time by Christ the Redeemer and made one in the Holy Spirit, the Church has a saving and an eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the future world. But she is already present in this world, and is composed of men, that is, of members of the earthly city who have a call to form the family of God’s children during the present history of the human race, and to keep increasing it until the Lord returns. . . .   Thus the Church, simultaneously ‘a visible association and a spiritual community,’ goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does. She serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family (Gaudium et spes, #40.

There is nothing “confusing” in any of this, except for those who wish to be confused.  They seem afraid of the unknown, the sometimes grayness of life.  As Christ often chided his first followers, and your illustrious predecessors have often repeated, “Be not afraid”, and “Put out into the deep!”  As we sailors know only too well, this often means that while we want to steer a true course, we must often trim our sails and tack in order to take full advantage of the wind and sea.  My sisters and brothers who write to you of “confusion”, however, seem to long for a world — and the Church within that world — which has the clarity of a black-and-white photograph.  The reality of the world is color-full, however, admitting all the colors God created.  As the Council reminds us, we as Church have a “saving and eschatological purpose” which will only be fully realized in Paradise.  The Second Vatican Council (much like your own teaching) is accused by some observers for being “overly optimistic” or for using “ambiguous” language.  Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter, as you well know, Holiness.  This is not ambiguity but mature and conscientious adaptability; not naive optimism, but well-founded Christian hope.

And so I thank you again, Holiness.  Thank you for your clarity of thought and expression.  Thank you for your courage and strength of leadership.  Thank you for your joyful witness to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives as individuals and as Church.

Sincerely in Christ,

Deacon Bill


Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D., Archdiocese of Washington, DC

Commander, USN (ret.)

Professor of Theology, and former Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for the Diaconate and Interim Executive Director, USCCB Secretariat for Evangelization




Going Golden: Fifty Years of Renewed Diaconate

PopePaulVIIt was just fifty years ago today that the Order of Deacons was renewed as a ministry to be exercised permanently in the Catholic Church.  Fifty years ago today, 18 June 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI acted on the 1964 recommendation of the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council.  He promulgated motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, which you can read in full here.

Following the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Lumen gentium, #29), the Holy Father directed the appropriate changes to canon law which would permit the diaconate to be renewed as a “particular and permanent” order, and opened the diaconate to be conferred on married as well as celibate men.  The introductory paragraphs offer significant insights into the vision behind the renewal:

Beginning already in the early days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has held in great veneration the sacred order of the diaconate, as the Apostle of the Gentiles himself bears witness. He expressly sends his greeting to the deacons together with the bishops and instructs Timothy which virtues and qualities are to be sought in them in order that they may be regarded as worthy of their ministry.

Furthermore, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, following this very ancient tradition, made honorable mention of the diaconate in the Constitution which begins with the words “Lumen Gentium,” where, after concerning itself with the bishops and the priests, it praised also the third rank of sacred orders, explaining its dignity and enumerating its functions.

Indeed while clearly recognizing on the one hand that “these functions very necessary to the life of the Church could in the present discipline of the Latin Church be carried out in many regions with difficulty,” and while on the other hand wishing to make more suitable provision in a matter of such importance wisely decreed that the “diaconate in the future could be restored as a particular and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”

Although some functions of the deacons, especially in missionary countries, are in fact accustomed to be entrusted to lay men it is nevertheless “beneficial that those who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Certainly in this way the special nature of this order will be shown most clearly. It is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it “can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.”

deaconsFrom the beginning, then, the renewal of the diaconate as a “particular and permanent” order of ministry has been about sacramental grace.  The diaconate must never be reduced simply to the sum of its various “functions” which might easily be performed by others without ordination.  However, the Council and the Pope recognized that those performing those functions in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church should be strengthened by the sacramental grace of ordination.

This is a very special day for the Church and her deacons.  We remember with great respect and humility the giants of the renewal of the order of deacons: the bishops, theologians, and most especially those pioneering early deacons who set out into the unknown, charting a course for the rest of us to follow.

Deacons of the Church: Happy Golden Anniversary!


Deacons: Bringing it Home

Pope Francis poses with cardinal advisers during meeting at Vatican

In news from the Holy See today, it was announced that the nine special Cardinal-advisers to Pope Francis (known colloquially as the C9) have wrapped up their latest three-day meeting in Rome.  You can read Vatican Radio’s account of the meeting here.  The overall topic is the reform and restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy itself.  Amid the several major areas discussed, ranging from finances to communications to decentralization, several interesting bits were mentioned which directly concern deacons.

In the news conference reporting on the meeting, Director of the Holy See Press Office, American Greg Burke included:

Among other proposals, the possibility of transferring some functions from the Roman Dicasteries to the local bishops or episcopal councils, in a spirit of healthy decentralization.

For example, the transfer of the Dicastery for the Clergy to the Episcopal Conference for examination and authorization for: the priestly ordination of an unmarried permanent deacon; the passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon; the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.

married deaconMany people might be unaware of the history behind these three items, so let me cover each briefly.  Before doing that, however, we should keep one traditional factor in mind.  Throughout the Catholic tradition, East and West, it has been a well-established principle that “married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry.”  Following ordination, then, the longstanding norm (until the 1984 Code of Canon Law) was that, once ordained, a man could not marry — or marry again, in the case of a married cleric whose wife has died.  In other words, the very reception of Holy Orders constitutes an impediment to entering a marriage.  The 1984 Code (c. 1078), however, permits a request for a dispensation from the “impediment of order” which would then permit the widowed deacon to re-marry.  More about this below.

USCCBThe three issues mentioned today are all questions that up until now have required a petition from the cleric involved to the Holy See for resolution.  None of them were things that could be decided by the local diocesan bishop or the regional episcopal conference (such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).  So let’s take a closer look at these three situations.

  1. “Unmarried permanent deacons”: There are some people who wrongly assume that all so-called “permanent” deacons are married men.  This is inaccurate, and international statistics suggest that somewhere between 4-10% of all permanent deacons are, in fact, unmarried.  When an unmarried candidate for the diaconate approaches ordination, he makes the same promise of celibacy made by seminarian candidates for the (improperly called) “transitional” diaconate.  The situation addressed by the C9 concerns these celibate permanent deacons should they later discern a vocation to the presbyterate.  Many Catholics are surprised to learn this, but the Church rightly teaches that each Order is its own vocation: that a call (vocation) to serve as Deacon does not mean that Deacon necessarily has a vocation to the Presbyterate or Episcopate.  Deacon formation programs are not helping men discern a general vocation to the ordained ministry; rather, the focus is on the particular vocation of the diaconate.  So, if a deacon later discerns a possible vocation to the presbyterate, he must enter into a formation process for the priesthood to test this vocation.  In the US, the need for this careful discernment and formation is detailed in the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  Up until now, the diocesan bishop (or religious superior) had to petition the Holy See to permit the subsequent ordination of that celibate permanent deacon to the presbyterate.  What the C9 is rightly suggesting (in my opinion) is that such decisions might be made at the more appropriate level of the episcopal conference, and not the Holy See. (I would think that should this idea go forward, the decision will ultimately be referred back to each diocesan bishop as the authority best positioned to know the situation and the people involved the best.)  NOTA BENE: This particular situation involves permanent deacons who have never been married before; the situation of a widowed permanent deacon will be covered in the third item below.
  2. US Bishops“The passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon”:  This is a situation which has been faced by many of our deacons over the past decades.  Obviously a married man cannot and does not make the promise of celibacy prior to ordination as a Deacon: we do not promise a hypothetical: “I promise to embrace the celibate life IF my wife predeceases me” is not part of our liturgical and sacramental lexicon.  However, once ordained of course, that married deacon is impeded from entering another marriage.  First, of course, because he is already  married!  But if his wife dies, he is still not free to marry again because he has assumed that “impediment of order” I mentioned above.  St. John Paul II developed three conditions under which a widowed permanent deacon might petition for a dispensation from the impediment of order (notice, by the way, that this is not a “dispensation from celibacy” since the married deacon has never made such a promise from which to be dispensed in the first place).  These three reasons, which need not concern us at the moment, have taken various forms over the years, including some revisions by Cardinal Arinze which made the likelihood of obtaining such a dispensation most highly unlikely.  The petition for this dispensation right now begins with a petition from the widowed deacon to the Holy See, via his diocesan bishop (or religious superior).  What the C9 is suggesting is that in the future, this petition would go from the Deacon to the Episcopal Conference (or, if the Conference develops such procedures) to the diocesan Bishop.
  3. The last reference is to “the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.”  Here we find the widowed deacon discerning a different path.  Rather than discerning a new marriage, he is discerning the possibility of a vocation to the presbyterate.  In a sense, then, he is in the same position as the deacon above who was never married.  In the past, such petitions were handled by the Holy See; if the suggestion of the C9 is accepted and implemented, such decisions would be made at the local (Conference or diocesan) level.

Finally, notice that the C9 specifically mentions the Episcopal Conference as the possible new decision-maker, while I have suggested the possibility of the diocesan bishop in some cases.  What I am envisioning is that the Conference might well develop procedures and policies which might further delegate such matters, under certain circumstances, to the diocesan bishop.  For example, in 1968, it was the Episcopal Conference which received authorization to ordain (permanent) deacons.  The Conference then extended that authorization to each Bishop for his decision on the question.

The question of “healthy decentralization” is a wonderful one, and it is intriguing that the diaconate is part of that conversation!




Catholics and Immigration: Kneading the Dough with Pope Francis


Few topics have so occupied the fears and attention of so many in recent months than the issue of immigration.  I almost wrote “in the United States” but caught myself in time: this is a global phenomenon, which some observers state is at its worst since 1945 and the end of the Second World War.  The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that there are 21.3 million refugees in the world, of which 10 million are reported as “stateless”; only 107,100 were resettled in 2015.  Almost 34,000 people PER DAY are forced to leave their homes, and of those 21.3 million refugees, more than half are under the age of 18.  Check out some additional statistics here.

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the International Forum on “Migration and Peace.”  You can — and should! — read the whole text here.  Immigration has been a constant concern for this Holy Father since his election (all you have to do is Google “Pope Francis and Immigration” to see his many statements on the subject), but it is also a concern he’s shared with his predecessors and, indeed, the papal magisterium is reflecting longstanding principles of Catholic social teaching.  In short, the pope’s concerns are migrants-and-pope-francis-2nothing new, although he has been particularly passionate in reminding the world of the moral principles involved.

In my last blog post, I repeated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that we are supposed to be “a leaven and kind of soul” for society.  This means that we are immersed in the messy dough of human existence, helping each other find God in the rising.  In this post, I want to summarize and review the pope’s most recent teaching with a view toward how we might implement its provisions in our own concrete circumstances, our own doughy mess.

I should also point out that the pope has repeatedly re-affirmed the right, duty and obligation that countries have to protect their citizens.  Nothing he promotes would ever deny that, although some commentators have suggested this.  However, as we will see, legitimate measures to protect society at large must still take into account the moral obligations we have to all people and not simply our own citizens.

Finally, we realize that whenever any pope teaches on a volatile subject, such as immigration, reactions range from enthusiastic support to enthusiastic disagreement.  This instance is no different, which critics opining that the pope has no business talking about these things.  On the contrary, the pope has every obligation to address matters of faith and morals, perhaps most especially because people need to hear it even when they don’t want to, or when it makes them feel uncomfortable.  Just as parents must speak truth to their children even when the children don’t like it, so too religious leaders (not only the pope!) must be prophetic even when unpopular.

migrants-and-pope-francisTHE ADDRESS OF POPE FRANCIS

The outline of the pope’s address yesterday is a powerful statement in itself.  With seven major points, the pope offers an outline for pastoral action.  The pope observes:

Migration, in its various forms, is not a new phenomenon in humanity’s history. It has left its mark on every age, encouraging encounter between peoples and the birth of new civilizations. In its essence, to migrate is the expression of that inherent desire for the happiness proper to every human being, a happiness that is to be sought and pursued. For us Christians, all human life is an itinerant journey towards our heavenly homeland. . . .  Contemporary movements of migration represent the largest movement of individuals, if not of peoples, in history.”

Francis therefore speaks of an “urgency for a coordinated and effective response to these challenges,” a response marked by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and integrate.  After he discusses each them, he continues that we need to “conjugate these four verbs in the first person singular [‘I welcome, I protect, I promote, I integrate’] and in the first person plural [‘We welcome, we protect, we promote, we integrate’].  In this way we discover our own responsibility, our own duty, “a duty we have towards our brothers and sisters who, for various reasons, have been forced to leave their homeland: a duty of justice, of civility and of solidarity.”

Let’s take a closer look at each of these four responses with their related duties.

Pope Francis greets immigrants as he arrives at port in LampedusaTo Welcome

Francis pulls no punches, speaking of a rejection of others that is “rooted ultimately in self-centeredness and amplified by populist rhetoric.”  What is needed, he says, is a change of attitude which overcomes indifference and counters fears.  A changed attitude will be generous in welcoming those “who knock at our doors.”

For those who flee conflicts and terrible persecutions, often trapped within the grip of criminal organisations who have no scruples, we need to open accessible and secure humanitarian channels. A responsible and dignified welcome of our brothers and sisters begins by offering them decent and appropriate shelter. The enormous gathering together of persons seeking asylum and of refugees has not produced positive results. Instead these gatherings have created new situations of vulnerability and hardship. More widespread programs of welcome, already initiated in different places, seem to favor a personal encounter and allow for greater quality of service and increased guarantees of success.

In the first person singular, then, how am I welcoming the stranger?  Not in some general, theoretical and antiseptic way, but in a concrete, leaven-in-the-dough way.  In the first person plural, how do we join together in groups, parishes, and communities (and not simply in governmental ways) to initiate, support and sustain “more widespread programs of welcome”?

To Protect

Pope Francis cites his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who stressed that migration makes people “more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence.”  Pope Francis builds on this teaching by referring to our need to protect the dispossessed:

Defending their inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedoms and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted. Protecting these brothers and sisters is a moral imperative which translates into

— adopting juridical instruments, both international and national, that must be clear and relevant;

— implementing just and far reaching political choices;

— prioritizing constructive processes, which perhaps are slower, over immediate results of consensus;

— implementing timely and humane programs in the fight against “the trafficking of human flesh” which profits off others’ misfortune;

— coordinating the efforts of all actors, among which, you may be assured will always be the Church.

Turning again to my/our personal responsibility: in what specific ways can I help in any or all of these areas of protection?  Perhaps I can’t do much alone, but I can at least join my efforts with those of others.  And, if there is nothing in our community, perhaps I can initiate something.

Repairers of the BreachTo Promote

To welcome and to protect is not sufficient, according to Pope Francis, who turns to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which describes human development as “an undeniable right of every human being.”  This is not a right granted by a government or an agency, but by God.

As such, it must be guaranteed by ensuring the necessary conditions for its exercise, both in the individual and social context, providing fair access to fundamental goods for all people and offering the possibility of choice and growth. Also here a coordinated effort is needed, one which envisages all the parties involved: from the political community to civil society, from international organizations to religious institutions. . . .  Efforts must be encouraged that lead to the implementation of programs of international cooperation, free from partisan interests, and programs of transnational development which involve migrants as active protagonists.

The Holy Father stresses that such rights ought first to be guaranteed in a person’s place of origin, but if they are not, people must be free it emigrate to places where they will find this opportunity.  How do I work now to guarantee to rights of all persons who are here, both citizens and non-citizens alike, but all human persons created in the image and likeness of God, and all endowed with the same human rights?  What could I be doing that I’m not?  What could we do together, perhaps as a parish community, to contribute to this effort?

people-out-perspTo Integrate

The pope teaches that integration is a two-way process “rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness: it is not the superimposing of one culture over another, nor mutual isolation, with the insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettoes.” Those who come to a new country must be open to the culture of the new country, “respecting above all its laws.”

Citing Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis highlights the responsibility toward the family in the process of integration, citing John Paul’s message that policies must be developed that “favor and benefit the reunion of families.”  In addition, again citing John Paul II, proper integration “requires specific programs which foster significant encounters with others. Furthermore: for Christians:

The peaceful integration of persons of various cultures is, in some way, a reflection of its catholicity, since unity, which does not nullify ethnic and cultural diversity, constitutes a part of the life of the Church, who in the Spirit of Pentecost is open to all and desires to embrace all.

Perhaps these last two areas are the more challenging of the four in practical application.  So often, our policies regarding displaced persons involve screening and “vetting” and are less concerned (if at all) in how we might “promote and integrate” our sisters and brothers.  In what concrete ways can I serve to help with this integration?  Perhaps I can help with the process of reuniting families; perhaps our parish might sponsor families who have been apart, and help bring them together again.

Here is where Pope Francis challenges us all further, speaking of three duties or obligations related to welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating.  These are the duty of JUSTICE, the duty of CIVILITY, and the duty of SOLIDARITY.

  1. Justice

The pope points out:

We can no longer sustain unacceptable economic inequality. . . .We are all called to undertake processes of apportionment which are respectful, responsible and inspired by the precepts of distributive justice. . . .  One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources. We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs.

Justice demands that we see with God’s eyes: how does God see his children who are homeless and searching?  We can do no less.  How would we feel if we found our own children abandoned, abused, homeless and hungry?  Suddenly those verbs of welcome, protection, promotion and integration become very personal.  They are just as “personal” for God!

Furthermore, popes Francis and Benedict teach that justice challenges us to break down stereotypes:

Ensuring justice means also reconciling history with our present globalized situation, without perpetuating mind-sets which exploit people and places, a consequence of the most cynical use of the market in order to increase the well-being of the few. As Pope Benedict affirmed, the process of decolonization was delayed “both because of new forms of colonialism and continued dependence on old and new foreign powers, and because of grave irresponsibility within the very countries that have achieved independence.”

2. Civility

Civility means so much more than simply being “polite”!  Francis again cites St. John Paul II: “an irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored.”  Civility helps us to appreciate the value of the very relational nature of the human person in which every person is “a true sister and brother; without fraternity it is impossible to build a just society and a solid and lasting peace.”

biblical-justice3. Solidarity

Evoking the book of Genesis, the pope reminds us of God’s question of Cain: “Where is your brother?”  We are one with our sisters and brothers, and what affects her or him, affects me.

Solidarity is born precisely from the capacity to understand the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and to take responsibility for these needs. Upon this, in short, is based the sacred value of hospitality, present in religious traditions. For us Christians, hospitality offered to the weary traveler is offered to Jesus Christ himself, through the newcomer: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Finally, in language easily recognizable in our contemporary Western culture, the teaches:

The duty of solidarity is to counter the throwaway culture and give greater attention to those who are weakest, poorest and most vulnerable. Thus “a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world” (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 5 August 2013).


So, I suggest we prayerfully consider what the pope has to say as we Americans confront the challenges of immigration policies under the current administration.  In particular, how can each and every one of us — individually and communally — tale on the responsibility to welcome, to protect, to promote, and to integrate?  How well can we respond to these initiatives from a sense of justice, civility, and solidarity?

Here’s the dough: let’s get our hands messy.


The Word Matters: Being Christ-like in the Age of Trump

christ_the_pantocratorINTRODUCTION: “Quod tibi videtur?”

“How does it seem to you?”

It seems to me that since 20 January 2017 everyone is still trying to sort out what exactly has happened.  For people who supported the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, they are full of hope that he will deliver on his various and varied campaign promises, feeling that they have been overlooked by the “professional politician” class and the “elites” in the media and academia.  Those who opposed his candidacy and election are full of concern that he will cause irreparable damage to the office and the country through ineptitude or worse.  It is quite one thing to run on a platform that is “anti-Washington”; it is quite another to master the inherent complexities of governance.  So it seems to me that everyone is to some degree unsettled about the future.

But for me, of all the claims and counterclaims made over the last month, one that troubles me most deeply is the repeated assertion (made in various words and contexts) that boils down to this.  “We don’t care that the president lies; his words don’t matter; it will be his actions that matter.”  As more than one observer noted, the new president is supposed to be “taken seriously but not literally.”  And, of course, there are all of the “alternative facts” to be considered!

Youth-PossibilityBut words do matter.  Especially for Catholics.  Imagine a baptism celebrated without words, especially the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”!  Imagine an ordination without the prayer of consecration over those being ordained.  Imagine the Eucharist without a Eucharistic Prayer of consecration.  In all of these examples, we would conclude that a sacrament has not taken place.  Words matter to us.  They matter a lot.  And of course, fundamental to all of that is the understanding that the Christ is, in fact, the Word of God!

How, then are we to respond to our current political situation, not simply as citizens, but as Catholics, as Christians?

church-and-stateWhether one supported or opposed the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States is now on a practical level irrelevant.  The overall turmoil it has caused, however, is not.  His supporters fervently believe that he will take significant actions to ameliorate their concerns.  His opponents just as fervently believe that his actions are a danger to the Republic and to our society at large.  The polarity that has afflicted our discourse for so long has, if possible, descended to new levels.

Political campaigns built on fear only serve to increase that fear.  When we are afraid we want to find the cause of that fear and remove it. If social media are any indication, at least some people find it easy to associate other people with their fear, and the vitriol only increases, and the lines keeping us apart become only sharper and more painful.

Take just one example: when protesters took to the streets following this election, they were called “snowflakes” by many commentators on the right.  Why?  Apparently, this was a characterization based on the assumption that these were spoiled, wealthy, pampered “college kids” who were just scared of their own shadows.  Speaking as a professor working with both undergraduate and graduate students at several universities, I can attest that such a characterization is simply untrue.  Some of my students are some of the strongest folks I know, who are hard working (often working several jobs while raising families and still going to school!) and dedicated — and worried.  Words matter.

Similarly, it is unfair to characterize all Trump supporters as being some kind of monolithic group of “deplorables.”  There are many who support the new president because they feel that they have been overlooked in recent years and that their own concerns have not been heard or responded to.  Words matter.

These are our family members.  These are our friends.  These are our parishioners.

altar-at-vatican-ii1BACKGROUND: “Quid nunc?”

“What now?”

This blog is focused on Catholic ministry, especially the ministry of Catholic deacons.  However, I hope that what follows might be helpful not only to brother deacons but to other people of good will as well.  Specifically, it seems to me, the fundamental question remains: “How does a Christian behave?” For those of us who are “Heralds of Christ,” publicly and solemnly charged to “believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach,” the challenge is particularly acute.

Back in 1965, the world’s bishops gathered in Rome at the Second Vatican Council spoke words of hope and challenge.  In its capstone document, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) the bishops had

this to say (in paragraph #3):

Though humankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of the human person in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective striving, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. Hence, . . . this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. . . .  For the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed.

So, the first point for our reflection must be that we have a responsibility to be active participants in the world around us; we cannot allow ourselves the luxury, however tempting, of withdrawing from the world so as to avoid the often unpleasant and distasteful conflicts  which so often permeate contemporary life.  Gaudium et spes famously describes this responsibility when it teaches that the Church “serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family” (#40).  The challenge for us is to figure out how we — individually and collectively — may serve as leaven in the messy dough of today’s world.

Once again we turn to the Council, which speaks of the “single goal” of the People of God:

to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served. To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. (GS ##3-4)

This paragraph offers so much!

  1. Be involved
  2. Be Christ-like: to be witness, to rescue, to not sit in judgment, to serve
  3. Scrutinize and interpret the signs of the times in light of the Gospel
  4. Find language that is meaningful to each generation (and culture)
  5. Respond to perennial questions asked by ALL people
  6. Recognize and understand our world: explanations, longings, dramatic characteristics.

When we turn to the specific question of our involvement in the political life of the nation, we must remember always the purpose of political life in general. Politics involves “the rights and duties of all in the exercise of civil freedom and in the attainment of the common good” (GS #73).  Specifically, the bishops offer this concise description:

The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy. Indeed, the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection (#74).

The bishops speak of the growing need to give better protection to human rights, including “the right freely to meet and form associations, the right to express one’s own opinion and to profess one’s religion both publicly and privately. The protection of the rights of a person is indeed a necessary condition so that citizens, individually or collectively, can take an active part in the life and government of the state.”  Furthermore:

In the conscience of many arises an increasing concern that the rights of minorities be recognized, without any neglect for their duties toward the political community. In addition, there is a steadily growing respect for men of other opinions or other religions. At the same time, there is wider cooperation to guarantee the actual exercise of personal rights to all citizens, and not only to a few privileged individuals.

The bishops also take to task those who would pervert the political process to their own ends:

However, those political systems. . . are to be reproved which hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize large numbers through avarice and political crimes, and divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves (#73).

How do we deal with differing opinions within our societies on how to achieve these goals?

If the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good, not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one’s freedom and sense of responsibility.

It follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good. . . . But where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.

Finally, the bishops speak specifically to the role of Christians:

All Christians must be aware of their own specific vocation within the political community. It is for them to give an example by their sense of responsibility and their service of the common good. In this way they are to demonstrate concretely how authority can be compatible with freedom, personal initiative with the solidarity of the whole social organism, and the advantages of unity with fruitful diversity. They must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods.

gaudiumconfweb-171x200MOVING FORWARD: Bringing the Word to the words

  1. Remember our fundamental relationship: with Christ.  That’s the point here.  Christian.  For the moment, not American, not French, not Iranian, not German — and certainly not Republican or Democrat.  For those who claim to be disciples of Christ, the Messiah of the living God, Christianity is a way of life.  It is not simply a collection of teachings, liturgical rites or even a moral code.  It is all of those things, but so much more.  “Being  Christian” means being in a relationship with Christ, and just like any relationship, our lives are to be lived accordingly.
  2. The Word of God, Christ, called us all to serve the common good of all.  He gave his life to that end; it must be our end as well.  How do we constantly and consistently serve the common good of all?
  3. In serving the common good, we must first be involved in the life of our communities.  Just as Christ emptied himself into our human condition, we too should follow the same path, pouring ourselves out for others.  This means we cannot hide away from society, or act as if contemporary issues really don’t matter to us since we’re focused on heaven!  The incarnation of Christ demands that we too are co-responsible for this world and not only the next.
  4. We must be like Christ in other ways, too, as the bishops reminded us decades ago: that we must witness to the Truth always, that we are involved in order to rescue others while not sitting in judgment of them, to serve others where they are and not asking to be served.
  5. We have a responsibility to examine and interpret the signs of our contemporary times in light of the Gospel.  The world of 2017 is a different place than the world of 1965, or the world of 1945 or the world of 325.  The Council reminds us that we must not only critique the times, we must interpret the signs we see in light of the Gospel of God’s love and Truth.
  6. Words matter: we must find “language that is meaningful” to each and every generation and culture.  Do the words we use hurt, demean, insult?  Or do the words we use build up, nurture, heal?  (Do calling fearful people “snowflakes” tear down or build up?)
  7. Before speaking, we should find out what people’s questions are, and attempt to answer them!  As Pope Francis reminds us constantly: answer people’s questions; don’t spend time on questions that have never been asked!
  8. blue-heaven-leaven-bread-dough-e1443546998297We must be engaged and knowledgeable about our world today.  If we are to be the yeast in that messy lump of dough, if we would attempt to make a difference, we have to get ourselves involved with it.  We should be critical of society when necessary, and supportive of reasonable attempts when possible.  The leaven doesn’t take over the dough, it helps it rise!
  9. Focus on your particular community: what are the concerns being raised by all persons in that community?  How do our words and our actions address the needs of all of them, and not merely to one side or another?  We are called to serve them all
  10. Before, during and after each and every thing we say and do, PRAY!  Above all, PRAY!  Remember that Christ, the WORD is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all human longing.  We begin with the Word, we end with the Word.


Coming Up for Air: Returning to the Blogosphere

It’s been an absolutely crazy time on many levels since my last blog posting.  I have officially “retired”, although I’m teaching more courses than ever at several universities, traveling to speak with groups of priests, of deacons and their wives, and directing retreats.  We have moved back to our home in Florida, saying farewell to family, friends and co-workers in California, and saying “we’re back!” to old friends and co-workers down here.  In ministry I have left a wonderful, extraordinary parish and returned to another where I served before heading out to California.

And, of course, since my last blog post, Donald John Trump has transitioned from being President-elect to being President of the United States.

I’ll be returning to active blogging shortly.

Happy Sunday!