Pope Francis and His Critics: Pastoral Perspectives

No one could have predicted the crises we face today, and they are slamming us all at once. Even before the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we were challenged by the erosion of credibility of all institutions, including churches. Our national politics were continuing their toxic descent into entrenched partisan screeching, and no one has been left unaffected. Add the pandemic to the mix and we have entered a whole new reality, affecting each and every one of us. Just when we need to come together to help each other through all of this, safety demands we be kept apart.

All of this has had profound effects on how we are called to be “Church” today: how we gather (or not), how we pray (no singing), and how we continue our mission of spreading the Good News.

Threatening to pull us even further apart, critics of Pope Francis have been doubling down on their accusations against him and his leadership of the church. These critics are adding even more confusion, anger and uncertainty to an already chaotic time. I recently contributed three reflections to Where Peter Is. Here are the links:

Part One is The Spirit of Vatican II: Out into the Deep” was published on Wednesday, August 19.

Part Two, “Reacting to Archbishop Viganò: A Pastoral Reflection,” was published Friday, August 21.

Part Three, The Matter of Words,” was published Monday, August 24.

The Pope in DC: Preparatory Thoughts

Ever since the Pope announced his first-ever visit to the United States, preparations began.  Then, as his plans expanded from Philadelphia to New York to Washington, DC, matters became even more hectic.  Then, the surprise announcement of his intention to canonize Franciscan Junipero Serra during his time in Washington, and the jump was made into hyperspace.  Today, in Washington, all of those preparations could be seen coming together.

In front of BasilicaIt was a cloudy, cool day by Washington standards, and later in the afternoon, the clouds opened and, as one hotel worker remarked, it felt like Winter had arrived, not the Fall!  I am here for several reasons.  I am a deacon ordained and incardinated into the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, so this is my home archdiocese in ecclesial terms, and it is good to be back here on that level alone.  In fact, as a DC Deacon, I have served here on the Archdiocesan staff as well as on the senior staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  So, when we took the Red Line to the Brookland/CUA Metro stop this morning, the closest stop for the Catholic University, and right across the street from the USCCB, I felt immediately back at home.

But the other reason I’m here is to accompany and assist the Bishop of Monterey in California, Richard J. Garcia, on whose staff I serve currently.  Soon-to-be Saint Junipero Serra founded many missions in California, and seven of them are located within the Diocese of Monterey, with Serra himself buried in the sanctuary of his favorite mission at Carmel.  The bishop was asked to come to Washington a bit early to meet with numerous press outlets to speak of the canonization and its meaning for Catholics today.  He asked me and a couple of our priests to assist with the interviews so much of the day was spent responding to those press requests.IMG_1737

It was wonderful to watch the preparations on the campus of the Catholic University.  I did my doctoral work here, and watching the students going about their normal business while others were setting up chairs, workers putting the final touches on the altar and sanctuary on the East side of the Basilica, and technicians conducting never-ending sound checks: it was all very exciting.  Eventually we headed back to our hotels to get ready for tomorrow.  Our pilgrimage group has made it safely, and we’ll meet with them for breakfast tomorrow before they head out on their DC adventures.  Other clergy and laity are also heading in, many of whom will be helping with the Papal Mass on Wednesday.

IMG_1732As I’ve written before, it will be important to keep in mind all of the “moving parts” of the Pope’s visit, which has already begun — in Cuba.  That part of the trip is closely linked, intentionally I am sure, to the pastoral visit to the United States.  The Pope will pray with the bishops of the United States on Wednesday morning at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, have lunch with them at the St. John Paul II Cultural Center near the Catholic University, and then the Mass later in the afternoon.  Then the next day, Thursday, the Pope will address a joint session of Congress, the first time a pope has ever done that.  While Californians are focused on the canonization of Father Serra, I think most Washingtonians, and perhaps most Americans, are more interested in the Congressional address, which promises to be an exciting challenge to every part of the American political spectrum.

And then, of course, the Pope leaves for New York and Philadelphia.  I hope simply to reflect and report on my impressions of the DC portion of the apostolic journey.

For now, please keep Pope Francis in your prayers, that he travels in safety and good health, and that his mission of spreading the Good News is met with joy and enthusiasm!

“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.