Sometimes people are sort of surprised that bishops, when not in the public spotlight, lead relatively normal lives. We eat and drink, rest and recreate, have cats and dogs, struggle with friendships, deal with family crises, watch TV, play golf, and swear at slot machines in casinos. And sometimes, we even go shopping. I experienced that kind of surprise recently in a chance meeting with one of our faithful parishioners. A few weeks ago I was in my local CVS picking-up a few things I needed, toothpaste and shampoo, I think. I was dressed casually, in secular attire, as is my habit when at home on weekends. While wandering aimlessly through the aisles of the store a very nice lady stopped me, put up her hand and asked, “Who are you?” “It depends,” I said, “are you friend or foe?” “No, really,” she persisted, “Who are you?” “I’m Bishop Tobin,” I admitted. “Oh, thank goodness . . . I thought I was losing my mind . . . You look like Bishop Tobin, but I never thought I’d find him here shopping for himself,” she said. “I shop for things all the time,” I tried to explain. Nonetheless, my friendly encounter with a fellow shopper, and the question she asked, has helped me prepare for the observance of Passiontide and Holy Week. The Gospels during these late Lenten days are filled with accounts of the increasing conflict and hostility Jesus experienced in the time leading up to his passion and death. His disciples struggled to stay faithful to him during these tense times; Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him. His enemies, especially the Jewish leaders, angered at his arrogance and stinging rebukes, looked for ways to entrap and indict him. And even casual bystanders argued about where he came from, who he was and whether he was the Messiah or a fraud. “Jesus, who are you?” they were asking. It’s a leading, loaded question, and one we should be asking too as we follow Jesus during Holy Week. As we see Jesus in his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the large crowd of people welcoming him as a conquering hero, spreading cloaks and palm branches before him, we can ask, “Jesus, who are you?” As we see Jesus gathered with his disciples at the Last Supper, mysteriously handing over his body and blood, and kneeling down to wash their dirty feet, we can ask, “Jesus, who are you?” As we see Jesus in the garden, praying, agonizing over his impending fate, sweating drops of blood, comforted by the visit of the angel, we can ask, “Jesus, who are you?” As we see Jesus suffer the rejection and ridicule of his passion, the unimaginable pain and humiliation of the cross, and finally the total emptying of self in death, we can ask, “Jesus, who are you?” And on Easter morn, when the Risen Christ surprises us as he did Mary Magdalene, appearing now in a glorified body that confounded even his closest disciples, we can ask, “Jesus, who are you?” The presence of Christ in the Church is perennial, but so is the mystery that surrounds him. Every generation of believer looks at Christ anew and asks, “Jesus, who are you?” I see that NBC is presenting a television special, Jesus Christ Superstar, live and in concert, on Easter Sunday evening. It promises to be an engaging production, and kudos to NBC for offering some very appropriate Christian, family-friendly programming on Easter. One of the most beautiful songs of Superstar, sung by Mary Magdalene, is the haunting and powerful, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” In the song, Mary is clearly conflicted by her relationship with Jesus – she loves him, perhaps even romantically, as a man, but is distanced by the power of his divine mission. She sings, plaintively: “I don’t know how to love him, what to do, how to move him. I’ve been changed, yes really changed, in these past few days, when I’ve seen myself, I seem like someone else . . . He’s a man. He’s just a man. . . What’s it all about?” Can’t we relate to Mary’s dilemma? Do we know how to love Jesus? We say all the time that we believe in him, and I guess we do our best. But so often the seismic faults of our human nature hold us back, keep us from loving Jesus, following him, embracing him as we ought. Or think about this: Where would we fit into the Passion Narrative if it were unfolding in our midst today? Would we be one of his disciples struggling to stay loyal to our Lord when we saw him threatened by religious and public officials? Would we be the Judas or Peter who turned their backs on Jesus at his time of greatest need, or his Blessed Mother Mary and beloved disciple John who stayed with him at the foot of the cross, until the very end. Think about it. Who is Jesus for you? What does he mean for you? How has he changed your life? Let us pray: Dear Jesus, in these holy days of Holy Week, “three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.” May we willingly embrace thy passion and death so that we may also merit thy resurrection. Amen. The Rhode Island Catholic first published this article on March 22, 2018
According to the dictionary, a triptych is “a set of three associated artistic, literary or musical works intended to be appreciated together.” And that’s my intention here – to highlight three panels of a pro-life triptych, three distinct but related current issues: racism, immigration and abortion. The common theme? Respect for human life. As it has during much of our history, racism continues to be a sad reality in our nation. At its base, it’s a human problem that has marred many nations and societies throughout history. And the Church hasn’t been immune to its virulence either. Bishop George Murry, S.J., is the outstanding Bishop of Youngstown, Ohio, my successor there. And now he’s been tapped to lead the American Bishops’ pastoral response to recent incidents of racism in our country. In an important speech, he pointed to the Catholic history of racism. While Bishop Murry acknowledges that our nation has made progress on race relations, he says that “recent events in our country have questioned exactly how far we have come.” And he rightly mentions the many Church leaders who have risked their lives to support the cause of racial justice. Nonetheless he asks, “Why does it appear that the Church in America has been incapable of taking decisive action and enunciating clear-cut principles regarding racism?” Perhaps because Catholics have “shown a lack of moral consciousness on the issue of race,” the Bishop suggests. There’s no denying that in our society there are intractable structural obstacles that are both the cause and effect of racism. A recent article in the Providence Journal illustrates the large gap between people of color and white people here in Rhode Island, including in categories of homeownership, housing, health insurance and income. These statistics “paint a bleak picture of life in Rhode Island for people of color.” But, remember, those statistics have faces. I experienced that again last month during a Florida vacation. While staying at a very comfortable resort, I noted that all the people who provided service for us – those who changed the beds, cleaned the bathrooms, and took out the garbage – were all people of color, each and every one of them, and all women. “I wonder when they last had a nice vacation,” I asked myself. Racism shows up not only in economic structures, however, but all too often in our own hearts – our attitudes, opinions, words and deeds. Each of us, individually, needs an honest examination of conscience on this issue. Racism is a human life issue. And what about the second panel of our triptych, immigration? It’s a topic I’ve written about on several occasions in the past. The “issue du jour” about immigration in our country is focused on DACA, the Dreamers, the young people who were brought here as children and youth and are now facing the possibility of being deported. In many cases these kids have grown up here; the United States is the only home they’ve known. While President Trump, to his credit, has indicated some flexibility on the issue, the hyper-partisan political wrangling will continue, with lives hanging in the balance. The possibility of being deported, forcibly separated from homes and families and friends must be terrifying. The U.S. Bishops Conference has urged the passage of the DREAM Act, or similar legislation “as a prompt, humane, and durable solution to this problem of greatest urgency.” Immigration is a complex and emotional issue. If President Trump wants to build his stupid wall, so be it. The Church has consistently supported the right and the duty of nations to have secure borders and to control immigration. After all, there are walls around the Vatican, and many of us have fences and walls around our homes. But our nation needs comprehensive and humane immigration policy, and we need it now. In the meantime, don’t deport the Dreamers! Immigration is a human life issue. And the third panel of our triptych is the foundation of the others: abortion. The right to be born is the absolute premise of all other rights, for if a child is terminated in the womb, those other rights and privileges are irrelevant. Pope Francis has become an outspoken critic of abortion and defender of unborn children. “Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus,” the Pope said. And again, “it is frightful even to think there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day.” And again, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” It is a sin and a shame that our nation continues to promote abortions, in some cases even paying for them with public funds. Unbelievably, we continue to allow even late term abortions, i.e., after 20 weeks of gestation, just one of seven countries in the world that permits this barbaric practice. (This puts us in the same class as North Korea, by the way.) Recently The U.S. Senate failed to pass a prohibition of late term abortions, the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” and sadly our two Rhode Island Senators, in a procedural vote, enabled this violent practice to continue. It’s especially disturbing that Senator Jack Reed, a professed Catholic, voted against the legislation. Senator Reed is a good and reasonable man; he has offered distinguished service to our nation. That he supports unlimited access to abortion, including late term abortion when the baby is viable, is simply incomprehensible and unjustifiable. Abortion is, without a doubt, the pre-eminent human life issue of our time. Each person is a priceless work of art, an original creation of the Divine Artist. Let’s work together to defend human life and dignity, whenever, however it is threatened. This article first published by The Rhode Island Catholic on February 22, 2018.
The impending collision of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day on the calendar this year might seem like an insurmountable conflict to some, and understandably so, for after all, the themes of one day are totally incompatible with the themes of the other. For example, Valentine’s Day is all about romantic love, opulent dinners, decadent chocolates, beautiful flowers and mushy poetry. (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”) Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, insists on penance, prayer, mortification, simplicity and dire warnings. (“Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou will return.”) For Catholics though, in the convergence of the two days, Ash Wednesday clearly has precedence; it is one of the most solemn days of the year. Ash Wednesday is the doorway of the entire Lenten Season. It is a day of intense faith; a day on which we strive for repentance and renewal; a day of conversion, of turning away from sin and back to God. And who among us doesn’t need to hear and heed that message? It’s for that reason that the church is not inclined to grant a dispensation from the obligations of Ash Wednesday, the obligation to fast and abstain from meat. You want to celebrate Valentine’s Day? Go for dinner the night before, Mardi Gras, or on some other enchanted evening. But Ash Wednesday belongs to God, and it shouldn’t be taken away from him. Having said all that, it seems to me that upon reflection, the two days do in fact have a lot in common. In a simple equation, Ash Wednesday is to God, what Valentine’s Day is to lovers. Think about it. What do human lovers do to express their affection, to keep their passion alive? Well, first they have to communicate. They need to speak honestly to one another, sharing their hopes and fears, their disappointments and dreams. They need to speak from the heart, without distraction. And they need to develop the art of listening, to be great listeners, so that the conversation isn’t always a one-way street. Lovers have to make sacrifices for one another, often giving up their own priorities, preferences and pleasures for the happiness and well-being of the other. And they should do so willingly and joyfully, not begrudgingly. “Yes dear, I’ll be happy to skip the football game to go to the theater with you.” Or, “Sweetheart, we just had meatloaf last week, but if that’s what you want for your birthday dinner, that’s what it’ll be.” And, of course, love sometimes demands far more profound sacrifices than that, doesn’t it? And lovers also freely offer spontaneous little acts of thoughtfulness and kindness to one another – a few kind words, a thoughtful gesture, a surprise gift. And lovers sometimes need to seek forgiveness from the other, don’t they? And freely grant forgiveness too. As Pope Francis has said so often, the secret to having a good marriage is found in three simple expressions: “please, thank-you, I’m sorry.” Hmm . . . the keys to a romantic relationship: communication, sacrifice, and love. Sound familiar? Reminds me of the prayer, fasting and good works that are the hallmarks of Lent. If we’re going to nurture our romance with God, we need to renew and refresh our passion for him, and in Lent we do it especially with prayer, fasting and good works. Lent should be a time of more intense prayer, and it is nothing more than communication with God. There are various types of prayer, of course: personal and public, liturgical and devotional. But whenever we speak to God in prayer we share our hopes and fears, our disappointments and dreams. And we listen to God, seeking to know his will more clearly so that we can do his will more faithfully every day. Silence is such an essential element of the spiritual life for it quiets the heart, mind and soul, allowing God to break through the incessant clatter of our culture. Lent is also a time of sacrifice – of reasonable fasting and abstaining from meat when the Church requires us to do so. And most of us “give up” other little things too – dessert, coffee, alcohol, technology – those simple attachments that keep us tied to earth and prevent us from lifting our hearts and minds to heaven. Our disciplines eliminate vice, increase virtue, purify our souls and strengthen us in our daily struggle against evil. And Lent is also a time of good works, of almsgiving. Perhaps we give some extra money to charity, or visit someone who is ill, or welcome the stranger, a new family, into our neighborhood. Or maybe we seek reconciliation with a former friend or family member from whom we’ve been alienated for a long time. Our works of charity allow us to share our blessings with others and keep us attuned to the pressing needs of our brothers and sisters, at home and around the world. You see, our faith is nothing more than our longing for God, and his for us. But like any romance it too has to be nurtured and nourished if it is to prosper and grow. And it’s what the faithful observance of Lent, with its prayer, fasting and good works, helps us to do. It seems to me, then, that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have a lot in common after all, for the goal of both is to renew our passion for the one we love. This column first appeared at The Rhode Island Catholic on February 8, 2018
Today a few thoughts about building bridges and opening doors, themes which have appeared in religious news stories in the last few weeks. On a national, even international level, there’s been a rather intense debate about the recent book of Fr. James Martin, S.J., “Building a Bridge,” in which he advocates that the Catholic Church and the LGBT community “enter into a relationship of respect, compassion and sensitivity.” Surely no one can object to that simple proposal, can they? However, while the book has generated admiration and support from one side of the bridge, it has also sparked fierce reaction and rejection from the other. Because of his unconventional approach, Fr. Martin has been criticized by church hierarchy, dis-invited from several high profile speaking engagements, and personally attacked on social media. What’s all the fuss about? (For full disclosure, I admit that I haven’t read the book yet – I’ve read plenty about it, though, from various perspectives.) Well the problem, as I understand it, is that in furthering his proposal for dialogue, Fr. Martin has neglected to present and explain the fundamental teaching of the Church about homosexuality, teaching that has to be the starting point of any really honest, comprehensive and fruitful dialogue. In a recent “Wall Street Journal” article Vatican Cardinal Robert Sarah makes the same point. The Cardinal identifies Fr. Martin as “one of the most outspoken critics of the Church’s message with regard to sexuality,” and then goes on to summarize Catholic teaching on the subject: “Homosexual actions are gravely sinful and tremendously harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them.” He continues: “People who identify as members of the LGBT community are owed this truth in charity especially from clergy who speak on behalf of the Church.” In reflecting on Fr. Martin’s desire to build bridges, I thought of the iconic “Bridge to Nowhere” in my hometown of Pittsburgh, constructed in the 1960s. It seems that after the bridge was started, because of poor planning and various construction snafus, it couldn’t be anchored on the opposite river bank; it couldn’t be completed and, thus, for several years dangled perilously over the waters of the Allegheny River. I believe that Fr. Martin’s proposal to build a bridge between the Church and the LGBT community is sincere and well-founded. He has sparked a valuable discussion. Nonetheless, his hesitation to state clearly the Church’s teaching about homosexuality cripples his efforts. It means that his dialogue will be incomplete. He’s building a bridge to nowhere. Fr. Martin could advance the dialogue, respond to the critics, and silence much of the vitriol if he would simply include in his presentation a clear exposition of what the Church teaches about homosexuality: that while individuals with same-sex attraction are welcomed and valued members of the Church, homosexual actions are immoral and same-sex marriage is unacceptable. Then, let the dialogue begin. And what about those open doors? According to local news reports, a neighborhood Protestant church, Woodridge Congregational United Church of Christ here in Cranston, RI, had recently displayed outside the church a set of rainbow-colored doors meant to proclaim that “God’s doors are open to all.” (I’ve seen similar displays at other Protestant churches.) According to the pastor the doors were a sign of inclusiveness, “with a particular focus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.” Very sadly, someone vandalized the doors at the church, shattering the slats of the red and purple doors of the display. Whether the destruction was a hate crime or a random act of vandalism apparently hasn’t been determined. Nonetheless, let’s be very clear – the vandalism of the church’s property is terribly wrong and unacceptable, and if it’s meant to send a message of bigotry or hatred, it’s even worse. The Cranston church’s mission statement says, “We believe that no matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, age, mental status, family structure, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender status or gender expression.” The church should be applauded for its open doors, for its welcoming policy. Every Christian church, every Catholic church, should have an equally welcoming, inclusive message. But, remember, welcoming people isn’t the same as condoning behavior. I hope that in hastening to welcome folks, Christian churches don’t succumb to the temptation of watering-down the faith; that they don’t fail to preach the truths of the Gospel or challenge the spiritually harmful behavior of those who enter their doors. It’s absolutely true that Jesus welcomed people from the margins of society, accompanied them on their journey, and forgave their sins when they fell. But he also challenged them to do better, to grow in holiness and leave their sinful ways behind. “Go, and sin no more,” he told the woman caught in adultery. (Jn 8:11) And what did He say about doors, gates and roads? “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13-14) So, what’s the message here? If we’re going to build bridges, let’s be sure that they’re anchored in truth. And if we’re going to open doors, let’s be sure that they lead to eternal life, and not to the path of destruction. This article first appeared on September 28, 2017 at The Rhode Island Catholic.
A “Shoe” cartoon I saw the other day said this: “A recent study has shown that six of the seven dwarfs . . . aren’t happy.” The reference to Disney’s “Seven Dwarfs,” reminded me of a recent article in the “National Catholic Reporter” by Nicole Sotelo that discusses why young adult Catholics have left the church. Apparently a lot of them aren’t “happy” either. The article lists several reasons for the defections. For starters, a high number dropped out because they are unhappy with the church’s teaching on sexuality – abortion, homosexuality and birth control. Another large group says they’ve left because of the way the church treats women. On the other hand, only a few have stopped participating because they feel that the church has abandoned traditional practices such as the Latin Mass. Along with the findings of a number of professional studies, several other reasons are often cited for the youthful departures: The sexual abuse scandal; the hypocrisy of the members; the irrelevance of organized religion; the church isn’t very welcoming; too much emphasis on money; the Mass is boring; too busy to attend, etc., etc. I heard of one young man, raised thoroughly Catholic, who stopped going to church because he’s “angry with God.” The reasons for his anger aren’t clear. Ms. Sotelo summarizes her findings by saying that if we analyze the statistics we’ll find that when young people leave the Church “it has less to do with a lack of belief and more to do with the fact that young people want a church they can believe in.” I’m not so sure. I think that the erosion of church participation is in fact a manifestation of a “lack of belief,” or at least the consequence of a very thin and fragile faith. And all of these reasons that are so often cited for dropping out – are they reasons or just convenient excuses? Three observations are in order. First, I think that many of the excuses young people use for quitting the church apply to older adults as well. Second, I’m not convinced that disagreement about sexuality morality is a primary cause of departures. If that were the case, the mainline Protestant churches would be booming, but they’re not. Most of them jettisoned traditional Christian teaching on these matters a long time ago and still they languish. And third, one of the most obvious indicators of commitment to the faith is regular participation in Sunday Mass. Now, without a doubt, members of the church, including some priests and bishops, have given plenty of reasons for fellow members to become disillusioned and then quit. Nonetheless, if your faith is strong and resilient you overcome these hurdles and attend Sunday Mass, despite your personal experiences, disappointments and doubts. And so, for example, if your faith is strong you go to church because you know it fulfills a divine command; it’s the primary Christian, Catholic way of observing the Lord’s Day. There’s a tendency nowadays to overlook the concept of “obligation,” in things both religious and secular. An entitled generation thinks that when they attend Mass they’re doing God a favor, when, in fact they have a sacred obligation to do so, and that it’s offensive to God if they deliberately choose to ignore him! If your faith is strong, you attend Mass because an unparalleled sacred action is unfolding in your presence – the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, the oblation of Christ that reconciled God and man and redeemed the world. If your faith is strong you attend Mass because you will hear the Word of God proclaimed, in the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the homily. “The homilies are terrible,” you say. Might be true, but remember, throughout salvation history God has managed to use flawed preachers to deliver his word effectively to his people. If your faith is strong, you attend Mass because there, and only there, are you able to receive the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. You can stay home and pray all you want, but the Eucharist is the heart and soul of our faith. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you,” Jesus said. (Jn 6: 53) If your faith is strong, you go to church because you realize it’s important to belong to the Christian community, a community of faith and love that will accompany you through life in good times and in bad. And despite a few colorful characters and occasionally eccentric behavior (sounds like most families, doesn’t it?) the church is a divine institution, established by Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit. When, at the beginning of her article Ms. Sotelo suggests that “young people want a church they can believe in,” she misses the point. That church already exists; it’s the Catholic Church, the one founded by Jesus. Near the end of her article, however, she offers some rather encouraging words about remaining in the Church. “The reasons we stay are many,” she says, “including our love for the faith, our gratitude for the tradition, and the knowledge that if we work together, we can build a better church.” Would that more young people shared her perseverance, commitment and faith! Jesus asked: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8) The question remains relevant. The article first appeared at The Rhode Island Catholic on March 16, 2017
If you follow news about the Catholic Church at all, you’re already aware of an historic debate taking place in the Church right now concerning Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love.” It is the letter Pope Francis wrote last year about marriage and the family. While the conversation has been going on since the letter was published, it has certainly become more vocal and visceral in the last couple of months, and there’s no sign of it abating any time soon. The most intense discussion centers around chapter eight of the document, the one dealing with “irregular” marriages, and the particular question of whether or not Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried may receive Holy Communion. In the past this was clearly prohibited, and some argue that it still is. Others, however, point to the Pope’s intriguing comment that because of “forms of conditioning and mitigating factors” the pastoral accompaniment of these couples might include “the help of the sacraments.” The Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” the Holy Father writes, invoking a phrase he used previously but now repeats in a new context. The debate has become pretty intense in some quarters. Those who support a change in the longstanding practice of the Church are labeled heretics and schismatics. Those who oppose a more “pastoral approach” are called rigid and legalistic. It’s not at all unusual for Church statements and papal letters to cause discussion and even division. It happened with the documents of the Second Vatican Council; it happened with the promulgation of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI; and it happened in response to any number of letters and policies produced by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI over the years. What is unique about the Amoris Laetitia debate, though, is that it has publicly divided the hierarchy – bishops conferences taking differing positions, one bishop against another, and even cardinals on opposite sides of the divide – an unseemly turn of events, unprecedented really, at least in modern times. Without a doubt there are intelligent, sincere, and holy people on both sides of the issue. But the challenge reached new heights a few months ago when four cardinals of the Church submitted five formal questions, “dubia,” to the Pope himself, seeking clarification on specific issues. Thus far the Holy Father has declined to respond, the cardinals have hinted at further action, and the drama continues to build. Some personal thoughts..... First, as the Church debates the neuralgic issues of Amoris Laetitia, we should agree that in this sweeping document, Pope Francis has provided a comprehensive and challenging blueprint for the pastoral care of marriage and the family in our time. It’s about so much more than Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The Pope has sparked a new awareness of the challenges and potential of Christian family life today, and for that we should all be grateful. Secondly, I do think it’s important that we have a more definitive answer to this specific, charged question: Is it lawful for Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion or not? I confess that my desire for clarity comes, at least in part, from my personal preference and administrative style. My desk is clean, my files are organized, my home is uncluttered, and I live my life in well-planned fifteen-minute segments. Some would say I’m compulsive, and I can’t disagree. But far more important than my personal preference is the fact that when we talk about essential elements such as the teachings of Christ, the moral law, and the nature of the sacraments it’s necessary that we have clarity and unity, if the Church is to have any credibility at all. No one responds to the sound of an “uncertain trumpet,” the Scriptures remind us (I Cor 14:8), and “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand,” Jesus himself taught. (Mk 3:25) Should the Holy Father respond to the “dubia” submitted by the cardinals, and perhaps even meet with them to discuss their concerns? That’s absolutely not my call, but I’m sure the Holy Father has very good reasons for proceeding as he has. We need to trust and respect that. And perhaps there are some behind-the-scenes dynamics taking place that you and I are not privy to. There always are. I do recall, though, the words that Pope Francis spoke to the American Bishops in September of 2015 during his Apostolic Visit: “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly...Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions.” I hope and pray that the Holy Father and the questioning cardinals will bring this spirit of fearless dialogue to the current impasse. In the meantime, while prelates and pundits debate the merits of Amoris Laetitia, those of us in the trenches should continue doing what we do best. That is, to preach the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments, pray with and for our people, and serve them with sacrificial love. If we do that, the very simple but profound aspiration contained in the opening words of Amoris Laetitia will be realized: “The joy of love, experienced by families, is also the joy of the Church...The Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed.” This column first ran in The Rhode Island Catholic on January 19, 2017
My mom loved Christmas. Each year it quickened her step and lifted her spirits, creating a lot of activity in the little house in which we lived. For example, after my dad died, the task of putting up the single string of lights around our front porch fell to me. They were the old-fashioned, large, multi-colored bulbs we used to know. But I remember so clearly, that as I climbed the ladder to string the lights my mom would invariably start to sing in a soft, lilting voice, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” It happened every year. My mom liked to write Christmas cards to family, friends and neighbors, especially to long-time friends she hadn’t seen in a while. And she really looked forward to receiving them too. And for many years she dutifully gave $5 to each of my ten nieces and nephews, even when they were grown adults. When, at one point I suggested that maybe it was time to increase the gift, perhaps to $10, she looked at me like I had just shot Santa Claus. Her Christmas gift was $5, and that was that! But most of all, my mom loved to bake Christmas cookies, an event which took over our kitchen and dining room for a couple of weeks before the holiday. At her peak she made about 200 dozen cookies I think. Her traditional list included Russian Tea Cakes, thumbprints, spritzes, gingerbread men (each individually wrapped) and her specialty, sugar cookies – rolled thin because my dad liked them that way – and cut with old- fashioned, metal cookie cutters, into Santas, stars, stockings, bells and wreathes, and finished-off with homemade icing, and, on some, sprinkles. My mom would then carefully arrange the cookies on trays, cover them with plastic wrap, put a bow on top, and deliver them to friends and neighbors. And that’s where I got into trouble. One year, when I was living in Youngstown, I went home for my weekly visit to mom just before Christmas and she asked me to take a tray of her prized cookies across the street to our neighbors. Of course I was happy to comply. So, I grabbed the tray, put it under my arm like a football, and started out the door. “Wait,” she said, “hold it upright or you’ll crush the cookies.” And then I said something I still remember and regret: “It doesn’t really matter, they’re just cookies.” And she leveled me with this, her voice as stern as I ever heard it: “It matters to me; I made those cookies and I’m proud of them. Hold the tray straight!” Boom! That’s how a mom corrects a fifty-year-old bishop, pulls him from his pedestal, and puts him in his place. At Christmas time I still miss my home and my mom. (My dad too, but that’s another whole set of stories!) I miss her singing while I put up the lights, the cards she sent and received, her personal little customs, and . . . her cookies. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that as time goes on Christmas changes, and it doesn’t seem nearly as good, as magical or comforting, as it used to. Yesterday’s memories are far better than today’s realities. (I don’t know – are young families today creating endearing traditions they’ll remember fondly in the future?) However, the words my mom spoke to me on that ill-fated-cookie-delivery-day remain with me still, and I think they summarize perfectly the meaning of Christmas: On this day our loving Father looks at us, his wayward, imperfect and bruised children, cradles us gently and says wistfully: “They matter to me; I made them and I want to be proud of them.” That’s why our Heavenly Father sent his beloved Son into the world – because He loves us and cares for us – each and every one of us: The Christian, Jew, Muslim and atheist; the Black, White and Brown; the citizen, immigrant and refugee; the Democrat, Republican, liberal and conservative; the straight, gay and transgendered; the homeless, unemployed, incarcerated, abused and addicted. And precisely because He wants to be proud of us, He calls us to be good and to do good, to overcome our sins and divisions, and someday to be by his side forever in heaven. And what can be said of the whole human family can be said of you personally, dear reader. God loves you! He cares for you and how you’re doing! He accompanies you every day, in moments of joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, success and failure, health and illness, and life and death. But we shouldn’t be surprised by God’s providence. After all, remember that Jesus is Emmanuel, the “God-who-is-with-us!” As we celebrate Christmas this year, we know our world is troubled, our nation is divided, and our Church is challenged. It can be pretty discouraging, and sometimes I wonder if God is disappointed in us, if He’d like to start all over. But the truth is, God hasn’t given up yet on the human experiment. Each year at Christmas, God says to us once again: “You matter to me; I made you, and I’m confident that you can do better. That’s why I sent my Son to help you.” So thanks, mom, for the Christmas memories. Thanks for setting me straight about your cookies. And thanks for your words of reprimand that help me understand the mystery of Christmas. A blessed and joyous Christmas to all! This column first ran in The Rhode Island Catholic on December 15, 2016
So, you just learned that your pastor is being transferred. How do you react? For some Catholics, even regular church-going types, it doesn’t make a lot of difference. They don’t have a strong personal relationship with their pastor; their feelings about his performance are neutral; and they just presume that next week someone else will show up to say Mass.Some Catholics are thrilled when they learn that their pastor is moving on. They never really liked their priest to begin with; they thought he was an incompetent, irreverent and lazy bozo; and they think it’s just fine that he’ll be imposed upon some other unsuspecting congregation somewhere.(In writing this, I recall that when my transfer from Youngstown to Providence was announced in 2005, one of my fans in Ohio wrote to me to say that when he learned of my reassignment, his heart “leapt with joy.” He added, “What a pity for your new Diocese.”)And some Catholics are really disappointed, even angry, when they learn that their pastor is being moved, and they don’t hesitate to tell the bishop exactly how they feel.For example, just recently, one nice lady whose pastor was being moved wrote a heartfelt letter to say, “I do not understand why priests have to be transferred to another parish. It just doesn’t seem fair when a parish loves the priest they have, that they get transferred somewhere else after a few years. I would just like to know why this has to happen.” I wrote back to the parishioner to say that transferring priests is a normal and longstanding practice of the Church everywhere, and I reminded her of the obvious – that if priests weren’t moved from time to time and from place to place, her beloved pastor would’ve never been assigned to her parish to begin with!Not every letter is quite as respectful though.I got a letter from another lady, very upset by the clergy changes taking place in her parish which said, “Why would you go and uproot a parish of this magnitude? Do you ever take into consideration the parishioners? I am devastated. My husband and I have decided to stop going to church for a while. I hope you are happy with your choices, because we certainly are not.”So, let me get this straight. This self-acclaimed faithful Catholic has decided to break the Commandments, deliberately miss Sunday Mass and deprive herself of the Eucharist because she’s not happy with the change of pastors in her parish?As most folks can appreciate, the assignment of priests is a complicated task and there are many reasons that might prompt the change of priests, some of which are very personal and not appropriate for public discussion.For example a priest might be moved: Because the priest himself has requested a change of assignment; or to deal with a health problem he or a member of his family is experiencing; or because the priests in a parish aren’t getting along and can’t work together; or to meet the specific ministerial needs of a parish such as facility with a second language; or because the priest or the parish is going through a time of transition; or to allow a priest to assume an extra-parochial ministry, etc. . . . etc. . . . .In the Diocese of Providence, in dealing with clergy assignments, we are indeed blessed by the dedicated and competent service of Auxiliary Bishop Robert Evans who knows the priests and parishes of the Diocese extremely well, is highly respected, and has years of experience dealing with clergy issues. Bishop Evans doesn’t work in isolation, though, but in consultation with members of diocesan staff, other priests, and the priest personnel committee. Although the final responsibility for assignment of priests is mine, as it must be, I’m really grateful that Bishop Evans is there to quarterback the process. There’s no question we’re living in a time of rapid change in the Diocese of Providence, especially when it comes to priestly ministry. As already well-documented, the number of priests available for assignment is dwindling rapidly. This year, for example we have eight more priests retiring. In the last six years, including this year, we’ve had 45 priests leave active ministry, mostly through retirement, and only ten new priests ordained. In the very near future, the Diocese of Providence will have more retired priests than active priests in its ranks.What does all this mean? It means that changes in priest assignments are coming to a parish near you, and probably to your parish. And it means that everyone’s patience, understanding and cooperation will be necessary. Although we will do our very best to meet the pastoral needs of the people of this diocese, be assured it will not be the same in the future (the very near future) as it has been in the past. So, if your pastor is being transferred, pray for him and his new ministry. Keep in mind that he was ordained to serve the needs of the entire Diocese, and not just your parish. If you’ve benefited from his ministry, thank him and thank God. And welcome your new pastor too; support and encourage him. Of course he won’t be identical to your former pastor and undoubtedly he won’t be perfect. But if you wait for a perfect priest, the pulpit in your church will be empty for a long, long time.
Pope Francis has frequently used the phrase “throwaway culture” to lament the very casual way in which we dispose of unwanted members of the human family when they’re deemed burdensome, inconvenient or useless. While the Holy Father has applied this theme to a number of situations, it seems especially fitting to consider its relevance to abortion, particularly as our nation observes the 42nd Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the horrible Supreme Court decision that rendered abortion legal in our nation. For example, the Pope has described abortion as a product of a “widespread mentality of profit, the throwaway culture, which has today enslaved the hearts and minds of so many. . . Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord . . . they must not be thrown away.” This throwaway culture emerged in full view here in Rhode Island recently, when workers discovered a “fetus,” that is, an unborn baby, estimated to be about 20 weeks old, at a sewage treatment plant in East Providence. Anyone with any degree of compassion at all finds this gruesome discovery to be extremely distressing and recoils at the thought of a tiny baby being treated so shamefully. A couple of thoughts come quickly to mind. First, if the baby was indeed 20 weeks old as the police reported, it was just a few weeks away from being very viable outside of the womb. He (it was a little boy) should have and could have been saved. And one has to worry about the mother of the baby and what prompted her to treat her child this way. We need to pray for her physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. There are lots of good folks in our community and Church who even now would quickly offer her support and assistance if she were to come forward. As we think about the mom, though, and lament the final disposition of her baby, we should understand that similar situations occur every time an abortion takes place in our nation, and even here in our local community. According to published statistics, approximately 4,000 abortions take place per year in Rhode Island. That means there are about 4,000 babies being “disposed of.” (By the way, how are the unborn, aborted babies handled at local abortion clinics? I suppose they’re just labeled “medical waste,” victims of the throwaway culture the Pope laments.) Additionally, 4,000 abortions mean that about 4,000 women will live with the physical and psychological harm of this unnatural, invasive procedure, along with the spiritual harm of having destroyed their own child, one of God’s precious creations. Leading the charge in this war on children, of course, is Planned Parenthood. It’s well-documented that Planned Parenthood is America’s largest abortion provider. At least one out of every four abortions in the U.S. is performed in a Planned Parenthood facility. Since 1970 Planned Parenthood has performed a staggering 5.3 million abortions. According to the Susan B. Anthony List, abortions account for 94% of the services provided for pregnant women by Planned Parenthood. And to make matters even more troubling, the immoral activities of Planned Parenthood are supported by the federal government, by your tax dollars and mine. During the most recent fiscal year, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America received more than $500 million from American taxpayers, accounting for 40% of the group’s total revenue. We need to say to our congressional delegation – for all that is good and holy, the public funding of Planned Parenthood must stop! Let’s be very clear. Planned Parenthood is a destructive, immoral organization. The primary reason for its existence is the termination of pregnancy, i.e., the death of unborn children. How any Catholic worthy of the name can be supportive of, or associated in any way with, Planned Parenthood and its evil agenda is completely beyond me. Our response to the throwaway culture, however, shouldn’t be a partisan matter of being Catholic or non-Catholic, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. It’s a question of human rights, fundamental human dignity. It should concern us all! As Pope Francis has written so eloquently: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us . . . The defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right . . . It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” (Evangelii Gaudium, #213-214) “It’s not progressive to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” That’s a statement we need to think about, for the Pope’s declaration applies to many issues and problems in our culture today. Recently I awoke to a headline in the Providence Journal that said, “Slaughter of the Innocents.” Finally, I thought, the Journal is writing against abortion. Instead, the editorial was about the recent terrorist attack on a school in Pakistan that resulted in the death of 141 people, including 132 students, indeed an unspeakable, horrible event. The editorial, passionate and well-written, includes a comment by Pakistan Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, who mourned the death of the children by saying, “The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry.” Beautifully said. But, I wonder, how small are the coffins of the aborted children here in Rhode Island, or rather the coffins they would have if they were given a proper and dignified burial? Not to worry, though. Here in Rhode Island we just throw them away.
In October a number of bishops from around the world will meet with Pope Francis in Rome to discuss the “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” A similar meeting in October of 2015 will follow-up on the same topic.Although the discussion of the pastoral care of the family will be very comprehensive, and probably won’t produce any immediate change in Church law, a lot of the speculation is fixed on whether or not the Church will alter its approach to Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried and thus not permitted to receive Holy Communion. Public interest in the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried gained traction with a major address given to the College of Cardinals by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a presentation that floated various approaches to this situation. Kasper’s trial balloons were quickly shot down by other prominent prelates. Later, however, the Cardinal suggested that Church leaders must “leave behind narrow-minded legalistic considerations and a non-Christian strictness which burdens people with unbearable weight.” Pope Francis has lamented the fact that so much attention is being paid to this singular issue. But, truth be told, at least some of the responsibility for the intense debate rests with Pope Francis himself and the enigmatic comments he’s made. For example, during an interview last summer, the Holy Father said that the Synod would explore a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the care of the divorced and remarried. He added that the Church law governing annulments also “has to be reviewed, because tribunals are not sufficient for this.” These tantalizing tidbits, in addition to the Pope’s declaration that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” (Evangelii Gaudium, #47) have generated heightened expectations, and understandably so.The challenge for the Church, of course, is how to maintain and proclaim the irrefutable teaching of our Lord Jesus that marriage entails a sacred and permanent bond between husband and wife, while also providing spiritual care for those Catholics who have fallen short of the ideal. The numbers of such Catholics are staggering; most Catholic families, I suspect, have experienced these situations.In my personal reflection on this dilemma, I turn to the incident in the Gospels in which Jesus and His followers were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath and because they were hungry, began to pick and eat the grain, a clear violation of an important Mosaic Law. The offense was roundly condemned by the religious experts, the Pharisees. But in response, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:23-28)In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, our Lord clearly placed it in a “pastoral context,” exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment.Could we not take a similar approach to marriage law today? Could we not say, by way of analogy, that “matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?” Although the teaching of Christ and His Church about the permanence of marriage is clear and undeniable, the lived reality is that many individuals, for a variety of reasons perhaps – personal, catechetical or cultural – are ill-equipped to fulfill the lofty demands of the law.I understand completely the arguments against taking a more “pastoral approach” to this topic, primarily that to do so would betray the sacred teaching of Christ we are obliged to uphold. I know that even within the current discipline, divorced and remarried Catholics, though barred from Holy Communion, are still valued members of the Church and that there are many ways for them to participate in ecclesial life. And I believe in the value of “spiritual communion” as a truly worthwhile devotional practice for those unable to receive the sacrament.But at the same time, the Church has taught the pre-eminent value of receiving the Holy Eucharist, and I keep hearing the words of Jesus about the Eucharist, words that are just as valid and important as His words about marriage: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53)I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have “dropped-out” of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist. And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion. What’s the solution to this dilemma? Well, for starters, can we at least think about simplifying the annulment process so that it’s more akin to the current practice of receiving various dispensations for marriage, handled completely at the local level with the oversight of the Diocesan Bishop? Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?In lieu of this formal court-like process, which some participants have found intimidating, can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive Holy Communion? And don’t we already offer Holy Communion to other individuals whose relationship with the Church is impaired, such as Orthodox Christians? Whatever the outcome of the deliberations, it is important that any “pastoral approach” to divorced and remarried Catholics be adopted by the Universal Church and not attempted at the level of national, diocesan or parish churches. To impose local solutions to this widespread problem would be completely dishonest and misleading, causing only confusion and division.I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. There are many other Church leaders, including our Pope and bishops and theologians, who are a whole lot smarter and holier than I am, wrestling with this issue. We should pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will guide their discernment. Nevertheless, my forty-one years as a priest and nearly twenty-two as a bishop have convinced me that the status quo is unacceptable. For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic Family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!Posted with permission from Rhode Island Catholic, official publication of the Diocese of Providence.
In the process of retiring one pope and electing another, I’ve had a bunch of media interviews. Members of the secular media, as well as the general public, have been keenly interested in the drama and the circumstances of Benedict’s surprise resignation.And now the focus has quickly changed to the prospects for the next pope. The two questions I’ve been asked most frequently are: “Who will be the next pope?” and “What will the next pope have to do?”The first question is easy to answer: I don’t know.The second question is a lot more complicated, but at least I can offer a personal opinion and some observations.To begin, the new pope will have to spend a lot of time at home, being more personally involved in the administration of the vast Vatican bureaucracy. He’ll have a lot of work to do to straighten out the confusion, the bad behavior and the intramural squabbling that seems to have taken hold there.The new pope will also have to be a tireless pilgrim, spending lots of time and energy traveling to the ends of the earth in the service of the “new evangelization,” re-proposing the faith of the Church to friends and foes alike.The new pope should be a man of authentic holiness and devotion, able to spend long hours in his chapel undistracted, immersed in intense contemplative prayer.The new pope will have to be comfortable spending every waking hour on the world stage, in the brightest of spotlights, being well-prepared, friendly and engaging in facing enormous crowds at lengthy, draining liturgies and circus-like public audiences.The new pope, following the stellar example of his predecessor, will have to be a world class theologian, well-schooled in biblical and patristic theology, and classic Thomism, yet able to examine and respond to contemporary theological trends, legitimate and otherwise.The new pope will have to be a compelling preacher, a charismatic figure who dominates any stage he’s on, an A-list personality that people of the world and the media will fall in love with.The new pope will have to be conversant with modern technology, comfortable with the social media, yet also able to speak, write and translate Latin, the official language of the Church. And by the way, he should be fluent in at least five or six modern languages – he’ll need them at the weekly audiences.The new pope will have to be strong and articulate in maintaining and defending the traditional teachings and disciplines of the Church, explaining them to an increasingly secular and skeptical culture. He will also have to be very patient – listening carefully to liberal voices clamoring for radical change, as well as conservative voices condemning all the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years.The new pope will have to appoint perfect bishops, encourage disheartened priests, placate unhappy nuns, and inspire the faithful to live-out their Christian vocation even when they’re burdened by multiple personal and practical problems.The new pope will have to exhibit a sincere commitment to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue; trying to find common ground with increasingly liberal Christian denominations devoid of traditional values, and building strong bridges of fraternity and understanding with other world religions, especially Judaism and Islam.The new pope will have to be a confident head-of-state, meeting with politicians, presidents, potentates and prime ministers from every corner of the world, leaders of diverse nations who come to the Vatican bearing their own specific agendas.The new pope will have to be at-ease with young people, especially in those high-profile, exhausting World Youth Days he’ll be expected to attend. Nor will it hurt his image if once-in-awhile he stops to bless and kiss the little children raised to the windows of his pope-mobile.The new pope will have lots of problems to solve – the continuing fallout from the worldwide sex abuse crisis; the declining sacramental practice of Catholics in the Western world; the challenges to traditional moral values, especially human life and traditional marriage; the violent attacks on Christianity in some corners of the world, and the more subtle yet real challenges to religious liberty in others; and urgent issues such as immigration, health-care, poverty, hunger, global warming, and war, to name just a few. All these things will be on the new Pope’s shoulders, and he’ll be deemed a failure if he can’t solve them all!“Bishop Tobin, that’s an impossible job description,” you say. “No man on earth can meet all those needs, fulfill those expectations and solve all of those problems.”And you’re absolutely right! The burdens placed on the shoulders of the Roman Pontiff are enormous – beyond anything a human being can be reasonably expected to fulfill.Pope Benedict realized that immediately. He said that when he was chosen to be pope, he felt like a guillotine had fallen upon him. At that moment he prayed to the Lord: “What are you doing with me? Now the responsibility is yours. You must lead me! I can’t do it. If you wanted me, then you must also help me.” (Light of the World, p. 4 )And that’s why the new pope, whoever it will be, will need our fervent, personal and prayerful support. And that’s why the new pope will need the grace and the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. Reprinted with permission from the Rhode Island Catholic, official newspaper for the diocese of Province.
The proposal to legalize “same-sex marriage” in the State of Rhode Island is immoral and unnecessary. Despite enormous political pressure, the General Assembly should stand firm, resist the current fashionable trend, and continue to uphold its longstanding commitment to marriage as traditionally defined.The multiple problems associated with “homosexual marriage” have been explained in this space on many occasions in the past.
At the end of June, the Diocese of Providence will have the great joy of ordaining two outstanding young men as priests of the Lord Jesus.
Once again our nation has been rocked by a terrible act of senseless violence – the shooting in Tucson, Arizona in which several were wounded, including a member of Congress, and several others were killed, including a federal judge and a beautiful little nine year-old girl.
According to the dictionary, a eulogy is “a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died.” Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? In the context of a Catholic funeral, however, eulogies can be problematic for several reasons.
So, sometime next year you’re attending Sunday Mass as you always do. The priest takes his place in the sanctuary, makes the Sign of the Cross and says “The Lord be with you,” and you dutifully respond, “And also with you.” “Wrong,” the priest says, “The correct answer now is, ‘And with your spirit.'”
Marriage is like a beautiful gilded bird cage. All the Little birds on the outside want to get in, while all the Little birds on the inside want to get out!