The Pope Puzzle: Keeping the Big Picture in Mind: UPDATE

24B5572900000578-0-image-a-78_1421328465237Pope Francis is on the move.  On the eve of his impending Apostolic Journey to these shores, he created some historic mainstream media history with his virtual audience last Friday on ABC’s 20/20.  See the video here, and selected commentary here and here.  He has extended universal faculties to all priests, not only to forgive the sin and guilt of abortion but to lift the associated sanction for it as it exists under current canon law.  Now, earlier today, comes the announcement that tomorrow two documents will be released conveying canonical changes affecting the marriage tribunal processes involving declarations of nullity.  UPDATE: Here is a link to the Latin text [a Vatican translation in English is not yet available] for the Latin Church; and here is a link to the Latin text for the Eastern Catholic Churches.   With the Ordinary Synod on the Family just around the corner in October, this is an interesting bit of timing, to say the least.  Finally, the apostolic journey itself contains so many diverse elements that it is easy to focus on one or two to the exclusion of the others!  In short, the Pope has tossed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table and, as with all puzzles, it is helpful to keep the original “big picture” in mind as we try to fit the pieces together.1000piecePuzzle_03-1024x679

The Big Picture: Evangelization

Proclaiming Christ to the contemporary world: that has been the mission of the Church since that windswept morning on the Mount of Olives when Christ ascended to the Father.  As has been said, “It is not that the Church has a mission, but that the mission has a Church”!

Pope Francis is — like St. John XXIII — a man with a sharp sense of history and continuity.  Everything he has done since his election has demonstrated this, as I hope this essay will in part illustrate.  What he is doing now is logical, historical, and consistent with the work of his predecessors.  Consider some initial examples.

ROMA 7 Dicembre 1962 - CONCILIO VATICANO II. Papa Giovanni XXIII parla in occasione della chiusura della prima sessione del Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II. ANSA ARCHIVIO / 28342-1

St. John XXIII ushered in a renewed focus on evangelization when he announced the Second Vatican Council in January, 1959.  By the time the Council convened in October, 1962, evangelization had become the cornerstone of the project: how could the Church be a more effective witness of Christ in the contemporary world, especially following the violence, devastation and death inflicted on humanity during the first half of the Twentieth Century?  Blessed Paul VI, John’s successor, convened a Synod on Evangelization in 1974 and declared a Holy Year in 1975 to focus on as a way to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the closing of the Council, referring to the Council itself as “the great Catechism of our time.”  In his landmark apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul wrote:

There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.

Pope-Paul-VI-imageFor this reason the duty of confirming the brethren – a duty which with the office of being the Successor of Peter . . .  seems to us all the more noble and necessary when it is a matter of encouraging our brethren in their mission as evangelizers, in order that, in this time of uncertainty and confusion, they may accomplish this task with ever increasing love, zeal and joy.

Referring back to the Council, he wrote:

We wish to do so on this tenth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the objectives of which are definitively summed up in this single one: to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the twentieth century.

Pope Paul mentioned that this theme was not a new one, and that even prior to the Synod on Evangelization, he had told the Cardinals:

“The conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man. . . .” in a way that is as understandable and persuasive as possible.

The pope then gave three “burning questions” with the 1974 Synod had dealt with:

In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience?

To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century?

What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effect?

Basically, these inquiries make explicit the fundamental question that the Church is asking herself today and which may be expressed in the following terms: after the Council and thanks to the Council, which was a time given her by God, at this turning-point of history, does the Church or does she not find herself better equipped to proclaim the Gospel and to put it into people’s hearts with conviction, freedom of spirit and effectiveness?

Now consider the challenges posed by Pope Francis in his own first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in which he picks up these same themes and asks his to evaluate our own existing ecclesial structures and to change them, even eliminating those which are no longer effective in conveying the joy of the Gospel.  It is not insignificant that a preponderance of his references in that part of the document are drawn from St. John XXIII and Paul VI.

The bottom line here is simple, direct and graphic: the proclamation of Christ to the world is our mission, and we do that with joy, courage, hope and mercy.  In fact, mercy is not simply one of several attributes associated with evangelization, it is the heart of evangelization itself: God loves us and showers us all constantly with mercy, and there are no exceptions and no one is excluded from God’s mercy.  We who claim to be disciples can do no less in imitation of Christ.

With evangelization as the foundation, let’s turn to recent events, especially the upcoming Apostolic Journey.

The Apostolic Journey #1: It’s not all about the USA

The first thing to consider is how the Pope views his trip.  Is he coming to United States?  Of course, but that’s not where it begins.  The official title of his sojourn is, according to the Vatican website: “APOSTOLIC JOURNEY OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS TO CUBA, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND VISIT TO THE UNITED NATIONS ORGANIZATION HEADQUARTERS on the occasion of his participation at the Eighth World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.”

Cuba? Cuba??  I can hear some eyes rolling: Aren’t there direct flights from Rome to Washington or New York?  Is this all part of President Obama’s new relationship with Havana?  Is the Pope taking sides in such political issues?  Is the Pope a Democrat??? [I know that we must be careful here; I hope readers realize that I’m trying to be somewhat humorous in those questions!]  Rather we must again look at history.

jfk-nikitaIt’s 1962.  Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the US and Cuba entered a new level of tension when the Soviet Union began installing nuclear-capable missiles on the island.  The week after the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, the crisis exploded, and we were all on the brink of disaster.  Behind the scenes, both President Kennedy and Premier Krushchev approached Pope John XXIII for whatever assistance he could offer in mediation.  Working both publicly and behind the scenes, John did just that.  In fact, you can listen to one of his public efforts from Vatican Radio here.  Once the crisis had passed, due in no small measure to the pope, he decided that he had to write what many now consider his most significant encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).  This was a direct result of the missile crisis.  Since that time, popes have worked to continue to ease the tension between our two countries.  3hw5z9i

The fact that Pope Francis is beginning his apostolic journey with a visit to Cuba is most significant.  I am convinced that we will hear more about Pope John XXIII and his efforts from Pope Francis and the longstanding desire of the papacy that peaceful solutions be found.  When he arrives in the United States, It think it is a safe bet that he will “report” on his visit to Cuba, especially perhaps, in his speech later at the United Nations.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: Evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #2: It’s not all about the big ticket events

Take a good look at the agenda for the apostolic journey here.  Notice the times throughout that Pope Francis will be visiting with young people, with the poor, with immigrants, with prisoners and the ill.  I hope that the media will not simply keep their cameras focused on the huge papal Masses and the public addresses to the Congress and the United Nations — as critical as those will be.  At the heart of the pope’s visit, however, will be those far more intimate and direct contacts he will have with people most in need of God’s healing and merciful touch.  Much as we saw in the recent 20/20 “virtual papal audience” this is where the pope feels most at home, and where he feels he — and we — need to be!

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #3: The Canonization of Junipero Serra

Living and working right now in California, in fact, in the Diocese in which Father Serra is buried, it has been fascinating to watch the reactions to this canonization.  I was born and raised in central Illinois, and all we learned were the basics: that Spanish Franciscans led by Fra Junipero Serra had established a series of missions along the California coast during the Spanish Colonial period in the late 18th Century.  That was pretty much it, or at least as much as I remember.  Now, of course, we have become much more attuned to the complexities of this matter, with many native peoples objecting vigorously against what they characterize as an oppressive and murderous regime.  Father Serra himself is sometimes even cited as a culprit or even as a “devil” in this regard.

Old-Mission-San-Fernando-Rey-de-Espana-father-Junipero-Serra-16Other Native peoples, however, support the canonization.  In particular, there have been very fruitful conversations between church authorities and the leaders of the Peoples who are descendants of the groups who were actually involved in the situations described.  They are actively involved in promoting and in planning for the canonization itself.  A number of respected scholars of the period, the peoples, and the archaeology, continue to examine the evidence in a comprehensive and nuanced way.  For me at least, it has been this this renewed sense of dialogue and scientific and historical research that has made the event of the canonization of Junipero Serra fruitful.  Several of these scholars even admit that when they began their work on the missions that they were negative toward the mission system but, after their analysis, actually come to hold the opposite view: that, in fact, the missions served a positive role in the history of the region and its peoples.

But the bigger issue, perhaps, the “big picture,” needs to be remembered.  To declare someone a saint has never meant that the church considers that person to be perfect in every way.  Pope Francis understands that.  He has been highlighting people who have left their own homeland, left their previous “comfort zones”, and preached Christ.  Last January,the pope canonized Father Joseph Vaz, an Indian-born priest who came to Sri Lanka during the 17th century, at a time when Dutch colonists conducted a brutal persecution of Catholics. It was on the papal plane flight leaving Sri Lanka that embarked reporters asked the pope about the canonization.  He replied that he was seeking to hold out examples of courageous evangelization, and for that reason, he hoped to canonize Junipero Serra during his visit to the United States.  The ultimate message, then, is not to portray Junipera Serra as a perfect, sinless man.  The pope hopes that the known positive aspects of his life and ministry will inspire today’s Christians to leave our own comfort zones to offer Christ to the modern world.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #4: The Speech to Congress

This will be a particularly fascinating and historic event!  Reports out of Washington suggest that some legislators are concerned that the pope’s address will result in unseemly behavior, as members of one political party rise to applaud certain items in the address while the other party remains seated.  It has been suggested the no one rise during the speech itself and then applaud only at the end of it.  In any case, we may be assured of one simple fact.  The pope will challenge each and every member of Congress, as well as all of us who will be following along.  He is neither Republican or Democrat, and he will undoubtedly be an equal opportunity prophet: preaching against abortion and for immigration reform; criticizing any economic systems (including capitalism) which harm the human person and challenging the lawmakers to find ways to help the poor and those caught in despair.  When considering the normal camera angles used for similar events (such as the President’s annual State of the Union address), it will be most interesting to see the pope at the podium, flanked by Vice President Biden on the left and Speaker Boehner on the right.  Both men, as Catholics, might well offer interesting visual responses to the challenges to the topics sure to be raised by the pope.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #5: The Speech to the UN General Assembly

Here we have another interesting papal precedent.  It was fifty years ago, almost to the day, that Pope Paul VI addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations.  During that famous speech, which would have great influence on the Second Vatican Council, which was at the same time completing its own work on the section of Gaudium et Spes dealing with war and peace, Pope Paul passionately reminded the Assembly:

These are the words you are looking for us to say and the words we cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again!

Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your Institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!

And in a classic comment, he proclaimed, “If you want to be brothers, let the arms fall from your hands. A person cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands.”

It seems very safe to predict that Pope Francis will make direct references to Pope Paul’s address, and that he will build upon it.  His message will be, like Pope Paul’s, about the responsibilities that nations have to their people and indeed all people.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #6: The World Meeting of Families

Finally we come to the event which initiated the pope’s visit to the United States in the first place. Naturally we will see and hear the pope offering inspiration and encouragement to the assembled families.  While he may not get into specifics, it would seem natural that he might aver to the upcoming Synod on the Family.  He will certainly speak of the multiple stressors on the family today and challenge all in attendance to strengthen the family and offering his own personal and prayerful support.  The family will also be presented as the domestic Church, echoing Vatican II, reflecting in itself the loving nature of God and God’s own relationship with God’s creation.

Proclaiming Christ to the modern world: evangelization.

And so, as we head into this remarkable journey with Pope Francis, may we all keep the completed puzzle in mind: It is all about how WE, today, carry the merciful Christ into the world today.  Our Holy Father is giving us a stunning demonstration of how that looks on a global scale: EVANGELIZATION!


Prayers for all in Charleston

Word is just in that the suspect in the terrible shooting in Charleston has been arrested.

My first reaction upon hearing this terrible news was to remember back to those terrible days during the Civil Rights movement, with the assassinations, bombings and lynchings that were part of the daily experience of so many of our sisters and brothers.  It felt like nothing had changed over the last fifty years.

May we all please keep everyone involved in this most recent tragedy in our prayers and thoughts.  And, may we also find the courage to take steps to confront and eliminate the causes that lead to such hatred and violence.

“Laudate Si'” and Deacons: Things to Ponder While Implementing the Encyclical


Pope Francis has issued his first encyclical letter to the world, Laudate Si’: On the Care of our Common Home.  For several weeks, even before its release, commentators within and outside the Church have been opining about its possible content, the magisterial weight of its teaching, and even on the role of the Holy Father (and indeed, any person of faith) on questions related to ecology and the environment.  In the hours since its release, commentary has exploded from every quarter.  I don’t intend to enter that fray until I’ve been able to read the entire document, but it might be helpful to consider how we, as deacons, might approach the study and implementation of the encyclical.  I offer a few suggestions.

  1. Try to set aside the political rhetoric of current US debates on global warming.

The encyclical is a part of the Church’s magisterium, not an expression of partisan politics.  This is not to say that the encyclical should not have an impact on our political landscape, but reading the Pope’s words through an American political lens will prevent us reaping the full benefit of the teaching.  Certainly, we should not be trying to “proof text” the encyclical to prove or disprove a particular political agenda.  In particular, as deacons, we should help the Holy Father’s words not be coopted by those who might “cherry pick” sections of the encyclical, while ignoring others, simply to meet a political end.

  1. Read the encyclical as part of the larger magisterium of the Church.

As the Pope has said repeatedly, this encyclical must be read and interpreted within the existing matrix of Catholic Social Teaching.  While there seems to be much within the text that has the Holy Father’s unique “voice,” the teaching it contains is in continuity with previous statements of the contemporary Church, including the Second Vatican Council (in particular, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), the papal magisterium (including Sts. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and several teachings of St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), and various statements of national bishops’ conferences around the world.  We can best serve our communities, in my opinion, by helping people see the connectedness of the moral principles being addressed, a connectedness that shows the constant, recurring concern of the Church for God’s creation and our human responsibility for that creation.

  1. As deacons, how might our own ministries reflect this teaching?

What concrete steps might our own communities be encouraged to take in response to the encyclical?  Consider:

  1. Study groups among our adults and young people, actually reading the encyclical and not simply reports about it.
  2. Are there building projects in your parish right now? How ecologically responsible are those projects?  Are there ways that the building materials, energy sources, and so on might better reflect our concern for creation?
  3. How might our parishes and institutions throughout the Diocese form partnerships within the wider communities to improve our response to environmental concerns?

As deacons charged with being Heralds of the Good  News of Christ, we have a particular responsibility and a unique opportunity to serve in communicating, teaching, and acting on the provisions of the encyclical.

Returning to the Blogosphere

After spending the last few months immersed in diocesan ministry, teaching, and writing, I think I’m finally able to give a little time to the blog!  Many have asked if I was giving it up completely, or just for Lent!

So, for whatever it may be worth, the blog is open again!

deacon logo

“In medio stat virtus (et synodus)”: What if the OTHER side is correct?

santa-teresa-de-avila-12sept2012In honor of the great Saint Teresa, whom we remember today, and before reading what follows, take a deep breath.  Exhale s-l-o-w-l-y.  Repeat several times.

Now, given all of the extreme positions being taken by some people in response to Synod 2014’s Relatio post disceptationem, we should all be asking ourselves two questions:

1) Do I find myself agreeing with the extremes on either side?  Do you side with Muller/Burke or with Kasper?  Are you demonizing “the other side” as you define it?  Now, few people may answer that question directly, preferring to say, with St. Paul, “I stand with Christ.”  Honestly, though, every Christian will say that, won’t they, even when they take contradictory positions?

2) IF you find yourself on one of the extremes, I’m curious: what will you do if the “other” side (whichever that is) should become the preferred position taken by the Church?  What if the Church adopts positions which do not precisely correspond with your own?  What will you do?

As a followup to yesterday’s blog post (here), I just hope and pray that ALL of us can find the virtue that stands “in the middle.”  What is necessary now is a proper sense of reason and balance.  Aristotelian ethics, which would later influence St. Thomas Aquinas, held that every virtue is a balance between extremes: courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness, for example.

Please, fellow Catholics, take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and pray.  As a people of faith, we believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge; we should all act like it!

Holy Spirit


Earthquakes and Tremors: The “Relatio” in Context

Synod2014Yesterday, very early in the morning here in California, my cell phone alerted me to a new message.  My first reaction was to ignore it and go back to sleep, but curiosity won out.  This was when I found out about the just-released Relatio post disceptationem from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  As the Catholic blogosphere exploded into comments, analyses, cries of outrage, prayers of thanksgiving, “sighs, mourning and weeping” and then the inevitable calls for clarification, I thought I might blog something as well.  By the time I had the time to do so, however, I felt like I was standing in front of a fire hose shooting often conflicting information at full force onto a hot fire of feelings.  What could I possibly add to this maelstrom that could be helpful?

Context.  Every text has a context.

1) Keep the big picture in mind!  Remember that this Extraordinary Synod is only the first step in the process initiated by Pope Francis.  This Synod’s purpose is to study, discuss, debate, and question issues related to contemporary family life, and then to frame the questions to be studied, discussed, debated and questioned by the whole church throughout the coming year.  The results of the year-long process will then become the subject of the Ordinary Synod which is scheduled for October 2015.  More about that later.

Synod2) This relatio is a work-in-progress.  It is not a final document of any standing whatsoever.  It is first a status report, summarizing the conversations held thus far at the Synod.  Those conversations, of course, have been remarkable.  Following the Pope’s opening address in which he asked the participants to speak freely and boldly, they have done so, and it is thrilling to read the results of those conversations thus far.  Second, the relatio is a draft document which is intended to be revised, corrected, amended, and re-written over the next several days.  The final version of the document will be presented to Pope Francis later in the week as the Extraordinary Synod draws to a close.  Third, it appears that the hope of the Synod Fathers (the bishops together with Pope Francis) is that the final document will serve as a guide to the discussions, debates, listening sessions, research and conversations that they hope will happen over the coming year throughout every Diocese.  That is why the questions which are incorporated into the relatio are so important; it is easy to see that these are intended to be asked by every Catholic, lay and ordained, over the next year.  Then, in October 2015, the Ordinary Synod will take up the questions again, aided and informed by the work of this year of discernment throughout the entire Church.  It is, I believe, at that time that we will see certain questions and issues being addressed in more definitive form, both in terms of a final report from the Ordinary Synod and also from the papal magisterium in the form of an Apostolic Constitution or Apostolic Exhortation.  In addition, should changes be desired to the current Code of Canon Law, it is possible that Pope Francis might announce those at that time as well, although he might also choose to give the results of the Ordinary Synod to the Commission he has already appointed to study the canons related to annulments, so that the Synod’s work can inform their work.

SynodThurs23) Be prepared for unpopular changes to the current text.  Since this is a working document, synodal bishops who feel their points of view are not adequately presented will push to change that, and it may appear like a rollback of some of the ideas now being applauded by so many.  This should not be seen as discouraging OR encouraging: it will be an attempt to clarify and, in the end, reflect the complexity of the issues which remain.  It’s the way bishops tend to work.  You can see this in the press briefing offered this morning, in which Cardinal Napier of South Africa complained that the current text did not adequately describe all the positions being taken by the bishops.  He also expressed a reasonable concern that — because of the great explosion of media coverage on the relatio — bishops may now feel they are locked into the current text because any attempt to revise it will be misunderstood.  He’s right, I think: any changes now are going to be looked at very warily by people on all sides of the issues.  Still, the normal process of making revisions to a working document should be followed.

4) Keep an eye on the official synod bulletins and clarifications.  This will add additional context to the process.  John Thavis, veteran journalist on Vatican matters, reported this morning:

Today’s synod bulletin summarizes the reaction among synod participants during a two-hour debate yesterday. On one hand, it said, there was acclaim for the way the document managed to accurately reflect the speeches at the assembly and its general theme of “welcoming” as a key to evangelization. The synod should have the “watchful gaze of the pastor who devotes his life for his sheep, without a priori judgment,” was how the Vatican summarized the favorable reviews.

As for the objections, they were many – although it is hard to say how much support each criticism has among the nearly 200 bishops present.

The official Bulletin lists a number of the objections to the text.  They include everything from wanting a more complete treatment of traditional families to a better treatment of societies which practice polygamy.  It may be expected that the final form of the document presented to Pope Francis at the end of the week will certainly incorporate some of these items.

Empty Tomb5) Remember the distinction between doctrine and dogma.  Doctrines are the teachings of the Church; dogmas are doctrines that we believe to be part of God’s revealed truth.  Doctrines can and do develop over time; dogmas do not, although the way we attempt to express them can change as our human understanding of them deepens.  The church can have a doctrine regarding, for example, the lending of money at interest.  At one time, the Church taught that it was immoral to do this under any circumstances, fighting against the practice of usury (This is why, for example, the Christians in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” had to go to Shylock for a loan: it was illegal to do so from another Christian).  Clearly this is a teaching which has changed over time, as the context changed.  A dogma, on the other hand, would include our teaching on the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit.  General talk that we often read now concerning the Synod involves “changing church doctrine”.  Some are saying, “We can’t do that because they come from God!”  That would be correct if we’re talking about dogma, and even then the words we use can still be developed, even while the dogma itself remains unchanged.  Plus, are we talking about dogmas in every case here?

Television coverage of Vatican II

Television coverage of Vatican II

6) The Synodal Process in Light of the Second Vatican Council.  Many people have noted that the synodal process (by which I mean the entire process of preparation for this Extraordinary Synod, the Synod itself, with its working documents, then the “intersession” between the Extraordinary Synod and the Ordinary Synod next year, and its documentary results) has a tone reminiscent of the Second Vatican Council.  I would agree that there are certainly many similarities.  A popular pope who calls together bishops of the Church to discuss areas of concern, a group of bishops and others who express horror and concern that “timeless truths” risk being discarded and that the ecclesial sky is falling, other groups who predict wholesale changes to teaching as well as pastoral practice, the world’s media pouncing on every press release, statement and bulleting: ALL of these things were present during the Council.  One of the photographs I often use in teaching about the Council shows the bishops in Council in St. Peter’s Basilica, with a television camera right in the middle of it.  The entire world, still reeling from world wars, economic collapse, living under a nuclear threat and a not-so-Cold War, wanted desperately to hear Good News from the Catholic bishops of the world.

vatII-4The Council proceeded in stages, too, just like this synodal process.  There was an “antepreparatory phase” in which input was solicitied from bishops and others around the world.  There was a “preparatory phase” in which the nearly 9,000 items received were considered and placed in some kind of order, and seventy draft documents were prepared — all before the Council opened.  Then came the Council, held in the Fall months over four years, from 1962-1965.  Not only were these four sessions important: so too were the intersessions — the time between the sessions — in which much of the work continued, bishops discussed matters at home with their pastors and people, research was conducted, and preparations were made for the coming Fall Session.

While synods have been a long standing tradition in the 2000 years of church history, the Council Fathers envisioned a renewed kind of synodal process.  The nearly 3000 bishops at the Council found that the collegial work they were doing in Council was of great value, as they learned about the pastoral needs and responses of their brother bishops around the world.  How could this collegial process be extended in the future, without having to go through the expense and time to call ALL of the world’s bishops together?  Might there be a way to gather a smaller, but representative group of bishops together with the Pope to discuss specific issues of concern.  And the contemporary synodal process was born.  This was understood as a way to extend the work of the Council into the future.  There have been many synods since the Council, but none has captured the imagination of the world like the current event.  Many bishops have complained over the years that synods have not been the source of creative pastoral responses that the Council Fathers had intended; perhaps the biggest change with THIS Synod is that there is a renewed appreciation that these bishops, representing their brothers, and in full communion with the Holy Father, will be able to recommend and even to effect changes in pastoral practice in a way not done before.

There is also a “conciliar feel” to the process itself: the preparation process for this Extraordinary Synod (including the questions sent out from the Synod office, requesting wide dissemination as a way to prepare for the Synod), the fact that there are two synodal events (I do not want to refer to them as “Sessions” such as we use for General Councils of the Church): the Extraordinary Synod this year and the Ordinary Synod next year, with the period in between the Synods to be used for further research, study and development, much like the conciliar “intersessions.”

Nonetheless, while many of us get a kind of “conciliar feel” from the current synodal process, it would be wrong to treat this like a Council.  It is NOT a General (sometimes called an “Ecumencial” (world wide)) Council of the Church.  Some have suggested that perhaps the time is right to hold another General Council, that issues such as those related to the family are too important to be left to a synodal process.  Perhaps this is true, and perhaps this could actually be a recommendation of the Ordinary Synod next year: that the Holy Father consider doing just that — although I doubt that will happen.  My own opinion is that what we are witnessing now is the synodal process as it was originally envisioned and intended by the Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  Let’s see how this works out.

This is an exciting time for the Church: not only because vitally important questions related to marriage and family life are being debated and addressed at long last by church leaders, but also because we are witnessing a renewal in the leadership structures of the church herself.  As Pope Francis has repeated so often since his election, everything — including the structures we use to serve others — must be evaluated in very concrete terms: how well are we able to care for ALL of God’s people?  That is the standard to be applied.  We exist to serve others in need and, as the saying goes, “justice delayed is justice denied.”  The tradition and the history of the Church reveal that we have always had great flexibility in how we attempt to serve, while agreeing on the core truths of faith.

Keep watching!  And, as the Holy Father himself reminded the assembly at Mass yesterday morning before the relatio was released, “be open to God’s surprises”!

Back from Vacation!

The silence here has been due to a conscious decision to “unplug” a bit while taking a couple of weeks to visit family around the country. It’s been a wonderful, life-giving time.  Here’s just one picture with two of our fourteen grandchildren!

photo (18)

I’m back now, however, and intend to get back to many things, including this blog, once I clear a pile of paperwork from my desk!

God bless all here!

Bishops, Blogs and the Clergy: Accountability and Obedience

Holy SpiritThe recent fracas over a blog hosted by a deacon in England has revealed some interesting fault lines in the development of communications strategies in the contemporary Catholic world. Add to the normal ecclesial relationships involved based on our sacramental theology of Holy Orders and canon law, the American penchant for seeing everything through the lens of personal rights and freedom, and you have a fascinating matrix of meaning. What follows is not intended as in any way comprehensive or exhaustive on the subject, but I would like to raise certain things for reflection and consideration.  It is also important to remember that these comments are focused on the Latin Church of the Catholic Church.

First, let’s consider two points about the relationship between a cleric and his bishop.

Point #1: The cleric has become a cleric because he was ordained by a bishop. This ordination has certain effects, both sacramental and canonical.  The sacramental effect configures the ordinand in a particular way with Christ; I will address the canonical effect shortly.  Since 1972 and the revisions made to the sacrament of Holy Orders by Pope Paul VI, one enters the clerical state by ordination as a deacon through the laying on of the bishop’s hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. (Prior to 1972, one entered the clerical state, not through ordination at all, but through the liturgical rite of “tonsure”; the new cleric was then considered “capable” ( “capax” in Latin) of receiving sacramental ordination. The analogy might be with farming: one first plows a furrow and prepares the land to receive the seed and be fruitful; tonsure was that necessary first step.)

Deacon-2Point #2: During the liturgy of ordination, and prior to the moment of ordination itself, the ordinand makes a series of promises to the bishop. The most dramatic promise comes when the ordinand approaches the bishop, puts his hands in the bishops’ while the bishop asks: “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors?” (If the ordinand is being ordained by a bishop other than his own, the words are changed slightly to reflect that he is promising obedience to his own diocesan bishop and not to the ordaining bishop.) Through this promise and subsequent ordination, the newly-ordained deacon is sacramentally changed at the core of his being, and also becomes linked permanently in relationship with his bishop and the diocesan church. This particular effect of ordination also has a canonical effect, and is referred to as incardination. For example, on 25 March 1990, I was ordained into the Order of Deacons by His Eminence James Cardinal Hickey, then the Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, DC. I made the promise of obedience to Cardinal Hickey and his successors, which has now included Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl. Over all of the years since, although I have served in a variety of places outside of the archdiocese as well as within the archdiocese, I have always remained incardinated in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. That is my ecclesiastical “home”.

Concerning the notion of obedience, this is no mere profession of blind obedience to the bishop, nor is it simply a legal requirement to preserve good order and discipline.  Holy Orders, as we are told repeatedly in Vatican documents on the diaconate and the priesthood, is at its core about relationships: the relationship of the ordained with Christ, the relationship of the clergy with their bishop, for example, and the relationship of the clergy with the people we serve, or with each other. Ordination is not simply about the individual being ordained, but is actually about the entire Church. For example, it is often helpful to state that a person is not ordained “a deacon” or “a priest”; rather, he is ordained into the Order of Deacons or into the Order of Presbyters. We never operate alone: we are called into a community of service. Therefore, obedience sets the standard for this community. Obedience, in its theological roots, refers to listening and hearing (Latin: ob + audire) the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit working through others, and in the case of ordination, that means recognizing the Holy Spirit working through the bishop. It acknowledges in humility that the ordinand recognizes that, through the Bishop’s own ordination into the Order of Bishops, he has received the Holy Spirit in a unique way, the same Holy Spirit he is about to invoke upon the ordinand. The “promise of obedience” then is a profound theological as well as legal moment of that new relationship. Both our theology and consequently our law abhors the notion of a “vagus” cleric: an “unattached” cleric who is not incardinated somewhere, a cleric who is not somehow attached to a particular Church and exercising ministry under the “oversight” (episkopē” in Greek) of a bishop or other legitimate ecclesiastical superior.

IncardinationBefore turning to this particular example, one more technical point to make.  There are two broad categories of clergy: so-called “secular” (or diocesan) clergy, where the relationship is focused on the particular geographical community known as a diocese, headed by a diocesan bishop.  The other broad category are “religious” clergy, who are members of various religious communities that are most often not geographically restricted.  Vows are made (unlike diocesan clergy who do not make vows) upon entrance into the particular religious community, and the religious superior is not a diocesan bishop, but a religious superior; religious clergy serve wherever their congregation serves, and that might be worldwide.

With this as background we come to the current situation of a cleric and his bishop and the deacon’s blog.

The deacon in the current situation is member of the diocesan clergy, bound by his promise of obedience to his bishop.  Someone asked about Deacon Greg Kandra and his famous “Deacon’s Bench” blog: yes, if Greg’s bishop were to decide that Greg should no longer host his blog, he would be expected to give it up.  As clergy, we surrender a certain amount of freedom which lay people would have in a similar situation.  According to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), #18, all clergy exist for one reason: to build up the Body of Christ.  It is one of the responsibilities of the diocesan bishop to assess this “on the ground” and to make determinations about the building up of the Body of Christ in his own diocese.  As clergy, we are public persons.  As such, we cannot really say that “in this activity I am operating as a private person” with regard to the church.  We give that ability up upon ordination.  We now represent Christ and we also represent the Church.  St. Thomas Aquinas famously taught that a cleric acts “in persona Christi et in nomine ecclesiae” (“in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church”).

Dolan at Santa CruceCardinal Dolan, in a recent talk at Rome’s University of Santa Croce during a conference on communications, pointed out that we must “adhere to the best and highest standards. . . .  How we say something is just as important as what we say.”  In this observation he is echoing St. John XXIII, who frequently spoke of the permanence of religious truth on the one hand, and the ways in which those truths are expressed on the other.  How we communicate is just as important as the content of what we have to say.  As a screenwriter once put it, “Is coarseness a substitute for wit, I ask myself?”  Truth is one thing; a Christian should be communicating that truth in a Christian manner; there is no room for “snarkiness”, demeaning characterizations, ad hominem arguments or anything of the like.  This is so much more than just “being nice” to others.  For clergy in particular, it is about doing what “builds up” the Body, not acting in a manner which derides and  tears down the Body.  That’s really the gold standard: When I write, when I speak, am I building up the Body of Christ, or serving to tear it down?

If we are not building up the Body, and we are clergy, then it is the obligation of our bishop or religious superior to take corrective action on behalf of the diocesan church.  So, when we come across a blog hosted by a member of the Catholic clergy, consider the following points:

1) How well is the cleric in question reflecting a positive, constructive, and energetic vision of the Church?  If the blog is characterized by negative, hand-wringing, woe-is-me attitudes about the Church, find another blog to visit!

2) How does the cleric communicate, especially about others with whom he may disagree?  For example, Cardinal Dolan stressed the importance of “never caricaturing or stereotyping those who oppose the Magisterium and bishops at every opportunity.”  Even in the face of  “mean, vicious, and outward attacks,” he said, we must “always respond in charity and love,” he exhorted.  “We follow the instruction of Jesus by not responding back to with harsh words of our own.”  The use of demeaning, sarcastic and mocking language has no place in Christian communication, especially by members of the clergy, and the cleric should be rightly taken to task if this is part of his communication “style”; it’s simply not consistent with being Christ-like in the community.  If you find this on a blog supposedly run by a Catholic cleric, find another one!

3) As public ministers of the Church, no member of the clergy should be reticent about being transparent and accountable about his own ecclesiastical “credentials”: who is his ecclesiastical superior, for example, and how does his blog relate to his overall ministry within the broader communion of the Church?  Obviously, I’m not suggesting disclosing information which might be dangerous to his safety, but certainly his public identity as a cleric in a particular religious community or diocesan church is not unreasonable.  If a cleric is unwilling or unable to provide such bona fides, it will probably be better to visit someone else!

ottawa good friday xviThe bottom line, in my opinion, is the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church.  We clergy do this as part of a larger context, not as a collection of individual ministers, but as a communion of ordained ministers who share in the sacrament of Holy Orders.  It is no coincidence that “communio theology” has become one of the most paradigmatic forms of ecclesiology since Vatican II, an ecclesiology fully embraced by the papal magisterium.  Unlike other forms of Christianity, in which everything revolves around the individual’s relationship with God, our perspective is different.  While we certainly hold for the individual’s profession of faith, we do so as part of the larger Trinitarian communion of disciples.

As summarized at Vatican II, we are the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

It’s all about relationships.


The Canonization Chronicles: Rebuilding Rome (or at least a part of it!)

The pace of life in and around St. Peter’s is really so full of energy and enthusiasm right now, the best word I’ve seen to describe comes from NCR reporter Joshua McElwee — a carnival.  The constuction and preparation of the altar and platform and other structures in the Piazza is one thing.  I’ve lost count of the various national and regional flags, the languages being spoken, and even the number of times street vendors have approached with the finest souvenirs ever made!  Really!  They told me so!

Everything is new and fascinating in this Eternal City right now, at least the parts closest to the Vatican.  New structures have been built, especially the press scaffolds and so on.  Traffic has been completely re-routed around the Vatican, and most of the shops and cafes and restaurants will be closed all day tomorrow because of the press of the crowds.

photo 1It has been another wonderful day with friends and new acquaintances. I had a quick coffee with NCR reporter Joshua McElwee, and then, after meeting with brother deacons Rob Mascini (the Netherlands) and Enzo Petrolino (Italy), I wandered over to the Borgo Pio, one of my favorite streets in Rome, just around the corner from St. Peter’s.  Always a fascinating place people watching!

There was even some nice music for pranzo. . . .

After wandering around this morning and early afternoon, with the temperature rising fast, I stopped outside the Libreria Editrice Vaticana (bookstore) near the Vatican Press Office for a lemonade.  Soon a couple came up and asked me in halting Italian if they could sit down as well!  I answered “sure” in my best Midwestern English, and met a delightful couple from Chicago.  While they are thrilled with the canonizations in a general way, they’re really hoping to encounter Francis.  This seems a very three popescommon response.  People are happy for the two popes being canonized, but in the hearts of many, Francis is already a saint as well, and he’s still with us!  One of the most common images (of which I have many in my bag already) shows the two new saints flanking  Pope Francis who is in the middle and slightly elevated over Pope John and Pope John Paul II.

My new friends told me that this was their first ever trip to Rome, but that they were already looking forward to coming back when things would be less hectic.

Among all the various national groups, the one that stands out are the Poles.  As one person put it to me, “The Poles are back!”  There are signs and songs and shouts all over the place; I can only imagine what will happen tomorrow when Pope John Paul II is announced as “Saint John Paul.”  But Pope John is not forgotten.  I saw several groups of people John’s home diocese of Bergamo: from young and old,  clergy, religious and laity,  all of whom are literally camping in St. Peter’s Square.  Although the police are trying to tell people they can’t do that, no one has yet started removing them either.  It will be interesting to see what happens on that score as well.

I had a delightful conversation with CNS reporter Carol Glatz and then decided to grab a taxi and return to our lodgings and rest for tomorrow.  But, with every respect to my friends and colleagues, the highlight of the day was about to happen, completely by chance.



The Via della Conciliazione is now a pedestrian thoroughfare.  People are simply walking up and down the whole length of the street, and the only motorized vehicles allowed now are related to public safety.  Along the way, I encountered this delightful group of children being entertained by some local workers.  Enjoy the video.  It makes my day every time I watch it!

I have come back to the religious house where I’m staying where they young rector from the Congregation of Mariannhill Missionaries (CMM) and I took a light supper in the kitchen and talked about many things.  Born and raised in South Africa, Fr. Musa is excited about the new energy being found in and about the church.  He won’t be able to attend the canonizations tomorrow because he serves in several parishes on the weekend, but he asked for special prayers at the canonization and promised his in return.  The house has pilgrims from the United States (well, just me), the Netherlands,  and Germany.  There was a young woman from Michigan staying here, according to Musa, but she called him to say that she was going to camp out in St. Peter’s Square tonight.

As for me, I will be getting up at 2:45 AM.  Sister Philomena, the 84-year old dynamo who runs the kitchen, is putting out some breakfast things for me tonight, and Musa is getting up to arrange a taxi at 3:30 AM.  (The taxi company wouldn’t arrange things in advance!).  He said it was his way of participating in the event.  I’ll take the taxi to Saint John Lateran to pick up the bus which will take us to the edge of Vatican City.  There we will be met by officials from the Vatican’s Pilgrimage office at 5:00 AM and escorted to the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina to await the Mass and our service as ministers of communion.

So, it’s off to bed for a few hours sleep.  Tomorrow will be an incredible day!  Oh, and the forecast calls for rain and storms, but only AFTER the conclusion of the Mass.  We shall see. . . .

The Canonization Chronicles: Notes from Friday, 25 April

It was a busy day today, and these scattered thoughts reflect some of the craziness that’s building around here.

Queue for St. Peter'sIt was still another gorgeous Roman day.  As I entered the Piazza San Pietro, it was obvious that the crowds are building in both numbers and intensity.  There were long lines yesterday to get into the Basilica, but nothing like today!  The queue wrapped around the piazza and into the Via della Conciliazione.  The crowds today were often celebrating in parish, organization, or even national groups.  One sizable group had brought in a large wooden cross, secured it in a stand, and serenaded passersby with a variety of songs and hymns for at least an hour.  Other groups were singing around the Square as well.  I would estimate — very unofficially — that the crowd in the Square today was at least triple what was there yesterday — and tonight, a deacon friend from Rome told me that they are now estimating as many as five million people to be “attending” the canonization ceremonies at venues all over town.  One group today was practicing their “John Paul II, we love you” chant, although I didn’t hear a similar chant for Pope John.  The press scaffolding next to the Vatican Communications Office seemed quite crowded today, much more so than yesterday.

double_popesPerhaps the most visible change of all today, however, was the hanging of the tapestries with the portraits of the two new saints from the front of the Basilica.  They’re not hanging together like this; that’s just a camera trick. St. John is on the right side of the Basilica and St. John Paul is on the left side of the Basilica.  The tapestries seem smaller than what I would have expected when you see them against the full size of the Basilica, but maybe that will change for Sunday!

John in LifeBefore going on, I’d like to add a bit about Pope John.  Personally, I am sorry that so many people have forgotten just how popular, inspiring and influential  Pope John was in his day.  When he died on Pentecost, 1963, a proposal to proclaim him a saint immediately, “Santo Subito”, was chanted by the people and circulated among the world’s bishops who were preparing to return to Rome for the second session of the Council.  It was proposed that the Council itself, when back in session, make the proclamation of sainthood (under the leadership of Pope John’s good friend and successor, Pope Paul VI).  Although Pope John was extraordinarily popular and beloved for his simplicity, humor and pastoral concern, the bishops decided that to proclaim him a saint immediately would be unseemly; there also seemed to be a sense that it would be better to wait until “Pope John’s Council” was successfully concluded as his legacy before proceeding further.  Obviously, these are two very different men, and this is not a popularity contest!  Still, I hope that younger people who have really only known St. John Paul II and his recent successors might be inspired by this canonization to study and learn about St. John XXIII and Pope Paul VI.  To understand where we are today on many levels in the Church, a person really needs to understand those two popes of the Council and the first years of its implementation.


As I wandered around the Square talking with people, and later in conversations with friends, there was a general enthusiasm about the leadership of Pope Francis, his genius at linking these two new pope-saints, and his own unique stamp on exercising the Petrine ministry.  The only concern raised was that he has made himself so open and vulnerable that he may be attacked!  The numbers at his Wednesday audiences are stunning, and he has begun the audiences much earlier, arriving in his popemobile sometimes as early as 9:30 AM so he has more time to meander through the crowds before taking his position on the platform for the formal portion of the audience.

St. John LateranFinally, a brief word about the instructions we’ve received for Sunday.  I must leave the monastery in which I’m staying at 3:30 AM for the trip to St. John Lateran.  I have included a picture of St. John Lateran in bright sunshine which I took yesterday; that’s not a view I’ll have at 5:00 AM on Sunday morning!

At some time between 4:30 and 5:00 AM, a special bus will take us priests and deacons who are distributing communion from the Lateran to the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina at the other end of the Via della Conciliazione from St. Peter’s (a week ago, we were told the bus would leave at 5:30; that’s been changed.  Maybe by Sunday, it will change even further.  I intend to be there in plenty of time!).  At Santa Maria we will vest in alb and white stole and wait for the Mass of Canonization to begin at 10:00 AM, when we will make our way out the front doors of the church into the Via della Conciliazione.  Eventually, we will distribute Communion to those communicants in the area.  We have been told to distribute communion only on the tongue (actually, the instructions say “data in bocca” (given into the mouth), in order to prevent someone from taking the Host in the crowd and giving it to another.

I’m going to St. Peter’s tomorrow morning; it will be interesting to see what happens next as the numbers build along with the excitement!

Santa Maria in Traspontina

Santa Maria in Traspontina on the Via della Conciliazione