Here are four books (in no particular order) that I recommend for 2017. All are excellent and none requires specialized knowledge or expertise. Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History by Rodney Stark Any mainstream textbook will tell you that the Inquisition was one of the most frightening and bloody chapters in Western history; that Pope Pius XII was anti-Semitic and is rightly called “Hitler’s Pope”; that the Dark Ages were stunted by Catholicism towards the progress of knowledge and science; and that the Crusades were an early example of the greed for power and riches on the part of the Catholic Church. In this engaging book Rodney Stark, distinguished professor of history and the social sciences at Baylor University, argues that some of the most firmly held ideas about history that paint the Catholic Church in the most negative light are, in fact, mostly fiction. In each chapter, Stark takes on a well-established anti-Catholic myth, and gives a fascinating history of how each myth developed and became the conventional wisdom, and he presents a startling picture of the real truth. Stark is not only an outstanding social historian—but significantly—is not a Catholic. The Great Dance: the Christian Vision Revisited by C. Baxter Kruger. Have you ever read a book or article—or heard a homily—that presented the doctrine of the Trinity in a compelling and spiritually nourishing fashion? Possibly not. If you are eager to have the Trinity explained to you, here is the book. Presbyterian/Reformed theologian C. Baxter Kruger presents the Trinity in a manner that is eye-opening, compelling, contemporary, and faithful to the longer Christian doctrinal tradition. I rarely read a book all the way through; this book I have read twice. I could not recommend it highly enough. It would be great for a study group. Jesus: a Pilgrimage by James Martin, S.J. Fr. James Martin is one of the most popular and substantive American Catholic writers today. His books constantly make it to the New York Times Bestseller list. In Jesus: a Pilgrimage, Martin recounts a visit to the Holy Land in a manner that is part memoir, part spiritual retreat, and part travelogue. For those who have never been to the Holy Land (including myself), this book brings to life the persons, places, and events that place you spiritually in the land and times of Jesus. People who have gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land tell me that they never read the Bible in the same way again. Their knowledge of the life of Jesus and the places in which he lived comes to life in a powerful way. This book would make great spiritual reading during Lent or Easter. Vibrant Paradoxes: the both/and of Catholicism by Robert Barron. Barron, appointed auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles in 2014, is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, and writer and host of the phenomenally successful “Catholicism” series. His aim is always to present the Gospel and the life of the Church in a manner that focuses on the beauty of the faith and the “beautiful people”—the saints—of Catholicism. Vibrant Paradoxes is a “both/and” book, meaning that it seeks to unite beliefs and motifs that often seem contrary—grace and nature, faith and reason, scripture and tradition, body and soul. Barron writes in a manner that is exciting, accessible, traditional and contemporary. It renders him, perhaps, the most articulate speaker and writer among the U.S. bishops today.
The story that we narrate and celebrate at Christmas needs no rehearsal. We know it by heart. The story has ancient roots in the world before Christ. He who was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago had long been expected. The prophet Isaiah foretold a child who would break the yoke that bowed the people's spirit. As at the first Christmas, the Prince of Peace comes now to join us amidst the harsh realities of the present: a world torn apart, nations at war, and widespread political turmoil. And there is always the danger of World War III as terrorist nations and groups get hold of the worst and most powerful weapons of destruction ever conceived by human madness. As of now, there are over sixty million unborn American dead – on the feast of birth. The earth is beset by hunger, homelessness, human trafficking, terrorism, child abuse, and the suppression of women in the name of religion. In much of the world, poverty and wealth are growing further and further apart. Throughout Advent, we have sung the words, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Now we give thanks that Christ, Emmanuel, has come. To call Christ “Emmanuel,” God with us, means that his love and peace penetrate the world’s darkest realities. From him we learn how to cope in the midst of adversity. He shows us who we are; what is important; and how to live. He opens our barren hearts to new possibilities. Out of the darkness of Christmas comes light: light for peace and growth, courage and strength, hope and confidence. But Christmas offers us not only warm consolation: it offers us a very stern challenge. The challenge is that if God has become one with us, then God’s work is done today through you and me. If God is with us, then he is with us through our vocations in life. This is literally what the incarnation means: God taking on our flesh. Emmanuel, God with us, means giving bread to the poor and welcome to the homeless. Emmanuel, God with us, means the comfort we give to the lonely and the sorrowing. Emmanuel, God with us, means the love a neglected child feels when someone pays attention. Emmanuel, God with us, means the comfort the old feel when they are loved and cared for by their children and grandchildren. Emmanuel, God with us, means the devotion of children for parents, parents for children, and children for each other. Emmanuel, God with us, means re-arranging our lives because others depend on us. And, most of all, Emmanuel, God with us, means that the Word of God, the love of God, has taken flesh in you and me. What sense does it make to say that God is with us – that he is Emmanuel – if those we are responsible for don’t feel God’s love through us? God’s light has little power except as it shines through you and me. God’s warmth must be incarnate in our good deeds for those who need that warmth – or it has little presence at all. God’s peace flows out of your heart and mine – it does not drop from the skies. God answers our prayers not by great miracles mostly, but by the love, mercy, and charity we feel and express toward each other. Christmas is about Christ coming to us, and our coming to Christ – and about our going out to each other. Most of all, Christmas promises us an imperishable inheritance from Christ who came once in Bethlehem will come again in glory.
One of the topics that catechists preparing parents for the baptism of their child must explain is the notion of Original Sin, a topic that has, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside in recent decades. One of the best explanations I know comes from Cardinal John Henry Newman, writing at the latter part of the nineteenth century. Newman asserts that the notion of Original Sin makes perfect sense, and that we can, in fact, experience Original Sin in the world in which we live. First, Newman paints a picture of the condition of humanity and the world: “To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and, then, their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion.” Newman goes on, then, to connect all this to Original Sin: “What shall be said of this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. . . . If there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible original calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.” A simpler way to explain Original Sin is to see it as akin to smog in the atmosphere. The newborn baby is born into a world in which to greater or lesser degrees the air is polluted. The baby did not create the smog, but if he or she is affected by it, and if he or she continues to be exposed to it, the result is ill health. In baptism the smog of Original Sin is removed and the child is anointed with perfumed oil, with Sacred Chrism, which signifies the pleasing aroma of the Holy Spirit. The early Fathers of the Church often wrote of the perfume of the Chrism as the aroma of heaven. A traditional way of viewing Original Sin is to see it as the Sin of Adam. In baptism, the Sin of Adam is exorcized by the Grace of Christ. The child is born into the World of Adam and by baptism is brought into the World of Christ. The transition from the Sin of Adam to the Grace of Christ is not a matter of a few minutes of ritual. What the baptismal ritual symbolizes is not completed immediately, but goes on through the length and breadth of life. Original Sin continues to have its effects in us through our life. Only in the kingdom of heaven will the Grace of Christ finally triumph.
On November 2, the Church throughout the world celebrates the Commemoration of All Souls, a day which, though popular in days gone by, has been neglected in recent decades. This neglect may be a reaction to an overly negative view of purgatory and a severe notion of divine judgment. The concept of purgatory is, however, essential to Catholic theology and practice. Granted, the concept of purgatory was often badly preached. Many people thought of purgatory, as Hungarian theologian Ladislaus Boros pointed out, as “a gigantic city of torment, a cosmic concentration camp, in which wailing, groaning, and moaning creatures are punished by God.” Perhaps the most profound truth embodied in the doctrine of purgatory is that we are not frozen, so to speak, in the moral and human condition that obtains at the moment of death. If we arrive at death’s door as imperfect and incomplete Christians, far from the holiness of the saints, we are not condemned forever to that state. God still reaches out to us and calls us to himself, to a completion of our life-long journey into Christ. Purgatory should be seen as a process of dynamic transformation and sanctification, a completion of what began in us at baptism. Anglican theologian John Macquarrie expresses this well when he says that purgatory is one aspect of the process of sanctification whereby we are conformed to Christ. It is the completion of the process of putting on the mind and attitude of Christ. In the twelfth century, William of Auvergne described purgatory as the fulfillment of our earthly penance. If penance is understood as a process of conversion and transformation, we will come to see purgatory not as a fearsome reality, but as the consummation of the whole movement of Christian life to salvation. But what about the fire of purgatory? The early fathers of the Church saw the fire of purgatory as a creative fire that cleansed and purified. The fire of purgatory is the living fire of the Holy Spirit, not the fire of destruction and desolation. St. Catherine of Genoa spoke of “the purgatory of God’s burning love.” We can link this with the mystical tradition which spoke of union with God as entry into a divine fire, into what St. John of the Cross called “the living flame of love.” The pain of purgatory, then, is not the pain of divine punishment and wrath, but the pain of growth and transformation, the pain of breaking out of the old self into the new. Purgatorial suffering, according to John Macquarrie, comes from “the painful surrender of the ego-centered self” so that the God-centered self may emerge. It is vital that prayer for the dead not be seen as bleak bargaining with a harsh God who casts imperfect souls into a ferocious, if temporary, pit. It must rather be conceived of and practiced as a warm and generous outpouring of love for those who have gone before us. It is an act of solidarity by which we accompany the dead on their pilgrimage to final perfection and happiness. It is a testament on our part to the worth and goodness of the departed, offered to a God who wills our salvation. We would do well, then, to celebrate All Souls’ Day by making our own the kind of spirituality – by no means my invention – that I have set out here. Attending Mass on All Souls’ Day and remembering our own deceased relatives and friends – indeed all souls who ever lived – throughout the month of November are practices that need to be recovered and pastorally promoted.
In clearing out my “Viewpoint” shoebox at the end of summer, I found a few items that might be of interest. Here are five. The Need for Good Preaching – Again! A recent Pew Poll Center put preaching at the top of the list when Christians are searching for a new parish or congregations. “This is what people value in a congregation – a good message, a good homily that resonates with them and gives them guidance,” according to Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director for religious research. More than 4 out of 5 people (83 percent) put preaching at the top of their checklist of what keeps them in a particular congregation. I have already mentioned in this column the survey conducted by the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., some time ago, which showed that bad homilies are the principal reason people left the Church. I have the impression that bishops and priests have not yet taken the full measure of the crisis here. Norway Leads the Way! Norway, a nation of 5 million people and one of the world’s most liberal societies, recently passed a law that allows citizens to change gender without a doctor’s permission or intervention. Argentina, Denmark, and Ireland (can you believe it?) already have similar laws, but only Norway and Malta extend the law to cover children. With parental permission, Norwegian children as young as six can now self-assign as male or female, overruling the gender into which they were born. In my opinion, the phenomenon of changing genders is perhaps the most serious attack on the traditional understanding of the human person. If I recall correctly, Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco has identified 14 gender variations currently in the works. I wonder where this will lead us in 20 years! While We're at It! The recent birth of a three-parent baby is another voyage into the world of weird genetics. The procedure performed in Mexico, to get around American regulations on such matters, was conducted by creating an embryo that had the genetic contributions of three people. The procedure was generally condemned by American geneticists and physicians, who predicted all kinds of abuses and unforeseen outcomes. Will this procedure become legal in the U.S? Of course, it will! More Liturgical Shenanigans! The Internet, as we all know, has allowed the broadcast of all kinds of things worldwide, including liturgical abuses. This has only upped the “liturgy wars” and created greater polarization between “conservatives” and “liberals.” For the entire world to see, the internet recently showed the Archbishop of Palermo, Italy, cycling around inside his cathedral in full vestments, including miter. The event was done to celebrate some sort of sporting event. This kind of thing is bad enough, but it eventually gets to Rome and causes the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to become alarmed and to assume a more anxious and negative attitude toward liturgy around the world. Middle-age Folk Masses After Vatican II, folk Masses became all the rage. They were usually led by young guitar-playing musicians in their 20s. Now in the new millennium, folk Masses are led by people in their 50s and 60s—still playing guitars and using the same menus of hymns from past decades. In my opinion, the folk Mass phenomenon needs to fade out or be progressively complemented by the more “traditional” offering of choir/(cantor) and organ and “traditional” Masses settings and hymns. The intended appeal of folk Masses to the young does not seem to have worked, since the young are scarcely to be found in Church these days.
The Psalms are the most famous poems in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet praying them can often be difficult for the reason that they express sentiments that do not reflect the mindset of the one praying them at that moment. Indeed, some people are put off by the Psalms and abandon them completely. Is there a solution to this problem? I suggest that there is (and I am not being particularly original here). Take the opening words of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” This Psalm is very powerful when the one praying it is distressed and overcome by a sense that God is far away. But, what does it mean to pray this Psalm when life is experienced as positive, fulfilled, and happy, and the supplicant has a strong sense of the closeness of God? The answer may be found in the truth that the Psalms are always prayed on behalf of the whole Church, indeed the whole world. One may not oneself find the opening phrase of Psalm 130 particularly relevant to one’s spiritual outlook at the moment, but someone in the circle of family, friends, and fellow parishioners may. Or, if a pastor knows of a person in his parish who is depressed and whose life is full of trouble, he can pray the Psalm on that person’s behalf, putting the words of the Psalm, on that person’s lips, so to speak. Or, one can pray on behalf of the whole Church in time of crisis – and especially the suffering Church in places where war and oppression hold sway. For a moment, the one praying the opening phrase of Psalm 130 becomes the whole Church. One can also pray the first words of Psalm 130 for that part of humanity which experiences the broad range of joy, elation, peace, on the one hand, and tragedy, sadness, and psychological oppression, on the other. Hebrew poets composed the Psalms. Accordingly, the Jewish people have a special claim on the Psalms – notably Jews for whom the horror of the Holocaust is seared into their hearts and souls to this very day. Many Jewish people lost their faith because of the Holocaust and feel that God abandoned them – if there is a God. Praying the Psalms on behalf of downcast Jews is a good and worthy act. One can also put the words of the Psalms on the lips of the faithful Christians and Muslims of the Middle East who are suffering terribly, with seemingly no let-up. They may not be able to pray, but we can pray of their behalf. In all of this, there is an important lesson: Even in the most private prayer there is always a public, communal dimension – a dimension that incorporates all the spiritually needy of the world. Parishes, for that reason, appropriately pray the Liturgy of the Hours publicly, even if only a handful of people are present. This kind of public recitation of the Psalms was recommended for all Catholics by Vatican II. Even in personal prayer the Psalms are always communal, worldly, even cosmic. Monastic and other religious communities build their day around the recitation of the Psalms, praying not just for their own members, but for the whole church and the whole world. The opening phrase of Psalm 130 is a good example of a Psalm that may not always meet the personal needs of those who recite it, but is a prayer that one can recite on behalf of humankind.
Two national studies produced by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), based at Georgetown University, found that young Catholics are abandoning their faith starting around the age of 10, and certainly by age 17 (Confirmation catechists, please note!). Nearly two-thirds (63%) said they no longer identify themselves as Catholics by the age 17, and another 23% said they stopped regarding themselves as Catholic by the age 10. Of those who had left the faith, only 13% said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church. The reason most often given is the tension young people perceive between faith and religion. While this factor is highest among students at public school, it is also remarkably high among students at Catholic schools. There is an emerging profile of youth who say their religious formation is incompatible with what they are learning in public high school or university. Dr. Mark Gray, a senior researcher with CARA, speaks of an unprecedented “crisis of faith” among youth. “In the whole concept of faith, this is a generation that is struggling with faith in ways that we haven’t seen in previous generations.” There is a severe compartmentalization between education in faith and in science. The fundamental problem is that youth may go to Mass once a week but spend the rest of the week learning “how dumb” their faith is. On a positive note, Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, states that there are three factors that yield a high retention rate among young Catholics. The first is that the young people have a “weekly activity” like catechesis, Bible study, or youth group. The second is the availability of adults (not their parents) with whom they can discuss their faith. The third is the possibility of providing “deep spiritual experiences.” I am no sociologist of religion, least of all of that which deals with youth. But my own experience tells me that besides the three factors mentioned here, there are the three additional factors: There is daily prayer in the home, parents and children talking about their faith, and some kind of weekly charitable service made possible for the young people. Some (like me!) worry about the quality of religious formation of children and youth. Things have improved a lot since the horrid days of religious formation in the 70s and 80s. But, having kept an eye on the kind of texts being used, even the better ones are inadequate. If you want your child to be well informed in the faith, then don’t look at the typical text available. We have a long way to go in this area. For one thing, we need to bring back a thoroughly updated question-and-answer catechism. There is also the question of parish religious education teachers and Catholic school teachers. Would you be surprised to know that many of them do not go to Sunday Mass regularly and have “difficulties” with the Church? Surely this has to have a disastrous effect on the students for whom they have responsibility. I have seen no data on this, so I am basing what I say on what I have observed and read over the years and what other pastors tell me. Finally, there are the parents, who rarely if ever talk to their children about the faith and the necessity of growing strong in it. And do parents, even of Catholic school children, go to Mass on Sundays? The vast majority, I fear, do not.
One of the brightest moments in the history on the Church in the U.S. in the past year was the appointment of Robert Barron as auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. I got to know Fr. Barron over a decade ago when I was director of the Mundelein Liturgical Institute and he was professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary. Even then I was a fan. In the intervening years, Barron has become what his late bishop Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., described as “one of the Church’s best messengers.” He promises to be the first bishop since Fulton Sheen in the 1950s to gain a national reputation as a television evangelist. In 2000, Barron established “Word on Fire Catholic Ministries,” which began to produce books and videos that gained international attention. He pioneered a new kind of evangelism, positive, beautiful, and compelling. He followed the formula proposed by Pope Benedict XVI and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar that the two most attractive and irresistible aspects of Christian faith are its beauty and its holiness. In this, he rescued the word “evangelism” from the narrowness, dourness, and negativity that one so often finds in television evangelism. Barron gained international reputation when he produced a ten-part documentary series called “Catholicism.” The series gained attention even in the secular media such as PBS. I could not exaggerate the power and beauty of “Catholicism,” which George Weigel, a national Catholic writer and commentator, described as “The most important media project in the history of the Catholic Church in America.” Barron has long lamented the split in pre-Vatican II Catholicism between the intellectual and the spiritual. This had led to a theology that was dry and unappealing, and a spirituality that lacked much substance and depth. Furthermore, he has lamented what he calls the “beige Catholicism” that developed after Vatican II (not because of Vatican II!). By this he meant a watered-down understanding of Catholicism that lacked conviction and was minimalistic in content and tone. “Beige Catholicism” sadly led to a colorless style of catechesis and liturgical practice. This sort of Catholicism allows the culture to set the agenda for the Church, and to underplay the power and beauty of the Catholic tradition. I could not recommend Barron’s books and DVDs highly enough. While some of his works (like “The Priority of Christ”) require some theological background, most do not, thanks to Barron’s crystal-clear writing style. Here are the books I recommend for the general audience: *And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (1998) *The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path” (2002) *Word on Fire: Proclaiming the Power of Christ (2008) *Eucharist (2008) *Seeds of the Word: Finding God in the Culture (2015) *Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (2016) All of Barron’s DVDs are outstanding. Besides “Catholicism,” there are *Untold Blessings: The Three Paths of Holiness (2005) *Conversion to Christ (2006) *Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Lively Virtues (2007) *Catholicism: The New Evangelization (2013) *The Mystery of God (2015) All of these are available through “Word and Fire Catholic Ministries,” and through local Catholic bookstores and internet suppliers. As a member of the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S., Bishop Barron will bring a new and fresh voice to the initiatives of the episcopate, and he will, I would guess, become the leading light in the U.S. Bishops’ ongoing commitment to finding new and compelling ways to proclaim the Gospel. Robert Barron is a great gift to the Church in the U.S. and, indeed, throughout the English-speaking world. May he prosper in his new ministry as bishop!
Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford (U.K.), wrote a book some years ago entitled Art and the Beauty of God, which has become something of a classic. Hidden away in the book is one of the best (if incomplete) summaries I know of the problem of suffering and how the Christian can deal with the matter and live through it. Harries begins by saying, “The almost overwhelming objection to believing that there is a wise and living power behind the universe is the existence of so much pain and anguish in the world.” Christians can live with this objection by recognizing that the problem of suffering can never be answered in this life. But, for non-believers the problem is insurmountable. Harries’ first explanation of suffering is that God has given humanity genuine independence. “We are genuinely free, within limits, however narrow, to shape our destiny; and that means being free to choose what is harmful to others and oneself, as well as what is beneficial.” Given God’s overall purpose in creation to bring about free, rational beings like us, it could not be otherwise. Think about it: If all of a sudden, human beings were to change fundamentally for the good, exercising their freedom for good purposes only, how radically different the world would be. Harries’ second explanation concerning suffering is that “in the person of Jesus, God himself has come among us and shares our anguish to the full, even in the darkness of the Cross.” This is why the image of Christ on the Cross is so consoling to Christians. “Christ,” said French philosopher Blaise Pascal, “dies until the end of the world.” God is not absent in the experience of suffering; he is in the midst of it. God is not distant, in a remote heaven, apathetic to human suffering. He is the God who, in Christ, carries the Cross through history. Harries’ third explanation is that “in the Resurrection of Christ we have a sign and promise that in the end God’s purpose of love will prevail; will overcome all that is destructive and evil, all suffering and death. There will be a “glorious consummation” of the whole creation. The whole human and physical world will find its proper fulfilment. Harries quotes Romans 8:21, the fullest biblical statement about the end of the whole created order: “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” All will be “transfigured and irradiated by the glory of God in Christ; all will be translucent to the divine beauty.” I add my own additional “explanations” to Bishop Harries’ list. First is the truth that God is present in suffering and illness through doctors, nurses, healthcare personnel, and hospice workers. Their healing power is the creation and gift of God. The sacrament of Anointing before surgery is profoundly connected to the gift of medicine; it complements it. When a person dies in or after surgery, we should not imagine that God’s gift in the Anointing rite has failed. It has to be placed in the context of God’s gift of eternal life offered to the deceased person. A final principle: God is present and active in the sickness and dying of a friend or relative through us, through our being at the sick or dying person’s bedside. We are participants in God’s gift by being with the sick person, not primarily by talking or offering explanations of sickness and dying, but simply “being there” in loving compassion and solidarity.
In clearing out my “Viewpoint” shoebox for June, I found a few items that might interest readers. Here are three. Does God send terror attacks? I’m no fan of fundamentalist evangelists, especially the flashy sort that have television shows and private jets. The one great exception to this over the years has been Billy Graham. All the more disappointing, then, when Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, herself a popular evangelist, recently told a conservative radio interviewer that God sends terror attacks because of all kinds of human evils. She named bathroom rights for transgender people as a sitting duck for divine wrath. When we transgress the moral law, she says, “God abandons us,” “he backs away and takes his hand of favor [and] blessings from us.” Because of our sins, God let 9/11 happen; allowed the shootings in San Bernardino to take place; and generally punishes us because of our national sins. Rubbish! The really sad thing is that even many mainstream Christians (including Catholics) are inclined to believe that God acts in just this way, sending down calamities and disasters when he is angered. To be crystal clear: God does not send disasters on people and nations. He does not abandon us in our sins. Like the Prodigal Father, he is always patient with us in our sins (personal and communal) and joyfully welcomes us back. Rockstar Bono has some advice for church composers Bono is an Irish rock star and a great fan of Pope John Paul II. He has slowly returned to the faith of his childhood (or some version thereof). The singer has developed a great affection for the Psalms, finding in them an enormous range of human feeling: anger, irritation, sadness, and bliss. By comparison, he finds most modern Christian worship music bland and lacking in strong emotion. He calls recent church music “dishonest” for the reason that it covers over much of the more painful aspects of life. Modern church music, Bono says, is mediocre, has the same set of reliably inspirational words, and uses theological jargon that is tiresome. (He is also tired of the repetitive four-chord accompaniments.) Bono holds that if the more dramatic and heart-rending psalms were used more frequently by composers we would have a more vital, moving, and dramatic body of church music. Do I agree with Bono? Is the Pope Catholic? Going to hell in a handbasket John Calvin, the dour sixteenth-century founder of the Protestant Reformation in Geneva and his dour theological son John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, bequeathed to Christianity a rather severe, stoic, and grey form of the Christian faith. One doesn’t expect much nonsense from it. Scottish Presbyterianism, like most mainstream churches, is today losing its people at an alarming rate, and is struggling to find solutions adapted to modern culture. So what to do? Well, the Presbyterian General Assembly, meeting in Edinburgh recently, had a brilliant idea: If the people don’t come to church, then the church should go to the people. Fair enough. But one of the items on the General Assembly’s agenda was the proposal of conducting the sacraments of baptism and Communion through the internet! The most basic objection to this proposal is, of course, that the sacraments involve a community of faith gathered together to celebrate the sacraments tangibly with water, wine, and bread. Internet devotees may think that the medium creates community and gives grace, but that is pure fantasy. If the staid Scottish Presbyterians go silly, what hope is there for the rest of us?
In my status as a retired-but-still-working priest, I have the opportunity to fill in for Sunday Masses in a variety of parishes. I am always curious to view the art and architecture of the church, to ascertain the musical program, to see whether the chalice is given to the people, to note how ushers conduct themselves, and to see how well the people respond and sing. One of the larger bees in my liturgical bonnet has to do with how extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (EMs) conduct themselves and carry out their roles. Practice ranges from dignified to sloppy. Sometimes, ministers are well trained and conduct their ministry in a dignified manner. They process in at the beginning at Mass, sit together, and follow a pre-planned system of going to the altar, distributing Holy Communion, returning to the sanctuary, and processing out at the end. In other places, ministers pop up mysteriously from the congregation, and time and time again the priest has to call on any unscheduled ministers present, since those assigned didn’t show. And casual dress is the order of the day. I have a firm conviction that EMs should wear albs when serving at Mass. The protocol for this is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which states: “In the Dioceses of the United States, acolytes, altar servers, readers, and other lay ministers may wear the alb or other appropriate and dignified clothing” (No.339). There are, in my opinion, a number of reasons why EMs should wear albs. First, since the clergy and altar assistants are vested, why not the EMs—and the lector? Surely there should be some consistency regarding dress. Second, the fear that liturgical ministers will be clericalized is not in my experience borne out. Besides, a clericalist attitude is a matter of how one thinks and acts, not how one dresses. I have never found EMs regarding themselves as superior to the congregation. Indeed, most approach their ministry with humility. Third, the alb is not primarily a clerical robe; it is a baptismal garment. As the basic baptismal garment, the alb is the normative vesture for all liturgies. Thus EMs wearing robes at Mass are manifesting their baptismal status. Fourth, the alb brings a sense of dignity to the Mass, which is meant to be glorious, splendid, and beautiful. While this aim will never be fully expressed this side of heaven, we are nevertheless called to prepare and celebrate the liturgy in a way that already points to heaven. As we reach toward the heavenly, all ministers should appear to have a great sense of reverence for their ministry. Wearing an alb will assist with this. Fifth, the alb covers a multitude of sartorial sins. In parishes that do not vest their EMs (only about 40% do), there seem to be no rules of dress at all. At the parishes at which I have served, I have observed EMs wearing tennis shoes, jeans, shorts, and flip-flops. At one parish an EM was wearing a Bryce Canyon sweat shirt. In most non-alb wearing parishes, the majority of ministers were not dressed professionally or as if for an important occasion. Wearing an alb would solve this problem. We live in an age in which everything is viewed in a functionalist, utilitarian, and pragmatic fashion. We shy away from the formal and the ritualized. It is natural in this environment for the liturgy to be celebrated in a manner that manifests these qualities. Ministers wearing albs would be a major step forward.
There are many ways to observe the Holy Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis last December and continuing until December 8 of the current year. Celebrations at international level (pilgrimages to Rome), diocesan level (visiting the cathedral), parish level (special Masses, liturgies, and retreats) are scheduled world-wide. The individual Catholic is free to select which activities are most feasible and fruitful for him or her. Not every Catholic, however, is able to participate in organized Holy Year activities. But, there is nobody who is unable to design his or her own personal Holy Year and carry it through effectively. I propose that every Catholic set some time aside and draw up a list of commitments to be carried out during the Holy Year based of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. (I will deal with the spiritual works of mercy this week and the corporal works of mercy next week). The spiritual works of mercy are: To Counsel the Doubtful. This calls us to talk about our faith with confidence, and to reach out to those who are doubtful about their belief system. It requires that we create opportunities to talk to others about the fact that life is fundamentally trustworthy, that doubts can be a step in the process of maturity, and that God’s will triumphs in the end. To Instruct the Ignorant. The language here can be problematic. Who wants to be thought ignorant? I suggest that we re-name this Counsel as, “To assist those who seek Knowledge.” During the Holy Year, we can deepen our own grasp of the faith, as well as involve ourselves in some form of faith formation in the parish school, Sunday School, the RCIA, or one-to-one discussions. To Admonish Sinners. Again, admonishing others is a tricky business. In the Year of Mercy, we have to speak gently or we won’t be heard at all. The first sinners to admonish are ourselves. But we all know people and states of life that we need to challenge gently, perhaps those being inattentive to spouse and family, dishonest at work, or living an excessively luxurious life-style. To Comfort the Afflicted. People experience afflictions in all kinds of ways—perhaps in the areas of physical or mental health, or in their marriage, or in the lack of material goods. This is a Counsel that requires less talk and more solidarity, being present with, and to, those in need. To Forgive the Sinner. There is not one of us who has been offended in one way or another. The Evil One latches on to such situations and works hard to makes it enormously difficult to forgive. With the help of the Holy Spirit, there is no offense against us that we cannot forgive. To Bear Wrongs Patiently. In situations where the offense is ongoing, forgiveness is difficult. But no matter what the situation, God’s grace impels us to let go of grudges, and to pray for understanding of those who are being offensive. To Pray for the Living and the Dead. One of the most effective ways to maintain solidarity with our fellow men and women is through prayer for them. However, prayer for the dead has fallen on hard times. We wonder why it is necessary; after all, doesn't everyone go to heaven? But, in fact, many people go to Purgatory before going to heaven, and we can pour out our love for them as they continue their journey of transformation.
I have more material in my “Viewpoint” drawer than I could ever write columns on. But here are some brief items that came to my attention recently. MOST DISAPPOINTING RECENT ECUMENICAL EVENT. In my early years as a priest, I was heavily involved in ecumenical affairs. Sad to say, I’ve become increasingly discouraged by the general state of the mainline Protestant churches. Consider this example: Recently, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, a pro-abortion coalition of leaders from different Protestant denominations, gathered to bless an abortion clinic near Cincinnati. They carried signs which read, “Pro-Faith/Pro-Family/Pro-Choice." One of the speakers (in liturgical garb) shouted, to much applause, “Thank God for abortion providers.” In my opinion, many leaders in the mainstream Protestant churches have lost their moral compass. Some Protestant ethicists who seek to recover an orthodox Christian morality look today to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for guidance. IS THIS A QUIRKY OPINION? Earlier this year, The Leonardo, an exhibition center in Salt Lake City given, shall we say, to the unusual, mounted a show entitled “Mummies of the World.” People could go from mummy to mummy gawking at the skeletons for God knows what reason. I don’t go to anything sponsored by The Leonardo, because I am too culturally conservative, and, being a person of excellent taste, I save my interests for the opera and professional wrestling. But, seriously, did it ever occur to The Leonardo exhibitors and to those who were titillated by the mummies that these are the remains of children of God, had names, were someone’s child, spouse, sibling, parent, had a unique story, and are now in the providence of God? Probably not. Such exhibitions are a sign of cultural jadedness, disorientation, and social boredom. SOME STATISTICS THAT SHOULD KEEP CHURCH LEADERS AWAKE AT NIGHT. Only 50 percent of Italians called themselves Catholic; a further 20 percent call themselves atheist. This represents a serious weakening of the faith over a 20 year period in what has been regarded as the world’s most Catholic nation. Fifty-two percent of Scottish people today are religiously affiliated. The proportion of people who belong to the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) has fallen from 39 percent in 1999 to 20 percent today. The Catholic Church is doing better, due largely to immigration from traditionally Catholic countries. In the past six years, 168 Church of England parishes have closed. Meanwhile, evangelical and charismatic communities have burgeoned. For every Anglican Church, three evangelical or charismatic churches have opened, drawing massive congregations (as they do in the U.S.) A report commissioned by the Dublin Council of Priests finds that Mass attendance in the Dublin Archdiocese will drop by 30 percent in the next 14 years (It is now 40 percent!), and that Dublin will be left with 111 priests by 2030—a drop of 70 percent! (If you would like a report on the Mass attendance of my Irish family, give me a call; your teeth will fall out!) SILLIEST DEVELOPMENT SINCE THE CLOWN MASS. What on earth do we do to involve woman more fully in the life and ministry of the church? Well, some sort of hybrid Christian outfit in Taiwan has one of the best answers yet (Not!): A huge blue glass church built, get this, in the shape of a woman’s high-heel (I’m not making this up!). According to the proud authorities, the church building “will be tailored to women, especially female tourists visiting the area.” The church is expected to become a major wedding center. Women everywhere, rejoice!
In his most recent book, Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (widely known for his bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People) devotes a chapter to the proposition “God does not send the problem; he send us the means to deal with the problem.” This brought to mind the kind of prayer we often fail to pay adequate attention to: prayer of acceptance. Prayer of petition is the type of prayer with which we are most familiar. This sort of prayer takes the form of asking God for something. In times of illness, stress, or loss, for instance, we ask God to intervene and change the situation. This is, of course, a venerable type of prayer. It is found all through the Bible and the whole Christian tradition. We appeal to God to lend his almighty power to rectify difficult situations that we and those we love experience. Yet often God does not seem to answer our prayers; and we can be left disappointed, with weakened faith, and with a nagging suspicion that prayers of petition generally don’t work. (It is a truism that God always answers prayers in one way or another, and that he works in mysterious ways. But that is for another column.) Traditionally, Christian faith has encouraged people to offer prayers of abandonment when their petitions don’t seem to work. This is a legitimate form of prayer, but it can leave people shrugging their shoulders—spiritually speaking—and expecting less from God. I suggest that prayer of faithful acceptance, as Rabbi Kushner implies, needs to be recovered, especially in times of need. If, for instance, a family member or friend is dying, what kind of prayer is appropriate? Certainly, one may call out in prayer of petition for the recovery of the dying person. But one can also have recourse to prayer of acceptance. In this kind of prayer, one accepts that the person may die—and that God sees the death of the loved one not finally as a tragedy, but full of joy. After all, God brings us through death to the glory of the resurrection. We are inclined to think, for instance, that the sudden death of a young person is a tragedy. It is, from the human point of view. But from the divine viewpoint, the young person has entered into the joy of God’s providence. What glory the dead person now experiences! Understandably, funerals have an air of sadness to them. But homilists and speakers at funerals often resort to sentimentality because that seems the only strategy available. Sometimes people lose faith; others resign themselves to a nagging sense of meaninglessness. This is where prayer of acceptance comes in. We accept God’s wisdom; and we recognize that God’s providence is beyond our purview, but that it is more real than any loss we feel. In the Christian viewpoint, there is no such thing as tragedy (Tragic plots in drama or literature do not, by nature, have a happy ending; the Christian story always does). God does not always directly answer our prayers of petition; he gives us instead the ability to accept what is happening with the surety that glory lies beyond the most terrible human experiences. To paraphrase Rabbi Kushner, God does not always intervene to resolve terrible experiences; rather he gives the strength to live through them with profound faith in the indestructible glory of the kingdom of heaven.
A recent blog on Huffington Post written by religion commentator Bob Smith lays out what he has found from experience to be the principal reasons college students turn away from their churches. I will enumerate these and offer a comment on each. Going to church wasn’t something they did growing up, so there was never an established routine or a sense of the importance of church-going. Comment: Makes perfect sense. This is true today even of Catholic students at all levels of education. Even now, the majority of parents and students in Catholic schools do not go to church, making the future look rather bleak. Many expressed the feeling that church leaders and members of the congregations do not practice what they preach, but often pass judgment on others, and are hypocrites. Comment: Sure, there are hypocrites in the church—and among the clergy. But I have always thought the casting a pall of hypocrisy over the majority of church people unwarranted and lacking in foundation. Lack of trust. Clergy scandals seem to be common today, with clergy engaging in Illegal and/or immoral behavior; the way the churches have responded has only compounded that perception. Comment: A very legitimate concern. I know devout Catholics who have left or thought of leaving the church over the sex abuse scandals. In Ireland, for instance, the church is on the verge of collapse over the clergy scandals. The more college students learn about other traditions the more they question which one is the true religion, if there is one. Comment: I believe the tendency toward religious relativism could to some extent be met head on by good Christian education which at all levels would teach children and young people about other religions and the need to be faithful to their own traditions. The churches refuse to adapt. In order to survive they must be willing to adapt to the changes in society. Comment: The church is not called to adapt to society and to make social norms the pattern for its own practice, but to transform society, while accepting critically from society what is deemed valuable. The practice of not permitting women to hold the same positions as men in the church and the reluctance to welcoming members of the lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transsexual/questioning (LGBTQ) community has resulted in people turning away. Comment: I believe many church leaders, Pope Francis notably, are struggling with the question of how to incorporate women into the administrative and decision-making processes of the church and of reaching out more effectively to the LGBTQ community. The churches make people guilt-ridden. Who needs that? Comment: That charge may have been true in the past, but I don’t think this is the case today. Many commentators complain, in fact, that homilists rarely talk about sin, and go out of their way to avoid making people feel guilty. Relationships between college students of different faiths are quite common. Some traditions lose members when someone from their church marries a person of a different faith. Comment: Mixed marriages are a challenge, but when the challenges are dealt with openly and honestly, both partners can remain faithful to their particular traditions and live happily without compromise. Apart from my comments above, I would like to add this observation: Many young adults (18-39) lack commitment to all sorts of things, particularly to the practice of faith, marriage, and family. Indeed, many do not leave the church on matters of principle, but simply slip away due to a failure of commitment.
Fasting is one of the practices associated traditionally with the season of Lent. Lenten fasting is rich in meaning and significance. I suggest that there are seven values to be derived from fasting. + The first value of fasting is learning reverence for food. We live in a consumer society in which food is available in abundance and is habitually wasted. Food is viewed as purely functional; rarely do we think of food as a precious gift from God. Fasting gives us the opportunity to interrupt our normal consumerist attitudes regarding food, and allows us to grow in reverence for it. + The second value of fasting is that it provides a means of assisting the hungry. The scriptures are full of admonitions about sharing food with the needy. Indeed, the extent to which we share our food is one of the criteria by which God will ultimately judge us. There are numerous ways in which we can fast for charitable purposes during Lent. We can shop more economically so that we may contribute more to charity. We can eat more sparingly and put the money we save aside to assist others. + The third value of fasting (close to the second) is that it allows us to enter into solidarity with the poor. This means recognizing that that as long as there are poor people in the world, it is unseemly that we should eat luxuriously. We are called to live more simply, more sparingly, and to avoid waste and self-indulgence in a spirit of union with those who have little. As long as there is hunger in the world, a permanent element of fasting should be part of our lives + The fourth value of fasting is helping us grow in humility. Humility means a realistic, clear-sighted, and sober sense of ourselves and our places in the world. To be humble is to have an awareness of our own limitations. We realize that our lives are fragile. We become more aware of our mortality and the fact that we must die. Hunger makes us more aware of our limitations, our mortality, and our dependence on the earth. Hunger cuts us down to size and deflates our egos. + The fifth value associated with fasting is that it teaches discipline. Discipline means self-restraint and appropriate self-restrictio – nall marks of the mature person. Their opposites are self-indulgence, the inability to control ourselves, and the tendency to live without restraint. Fasting involves external discipline teaching us internal discipline. The practice of fasting can have the inner effect of making us more genuine and authentic disciples of Christ. + The sixth value of fasting – especially on Good Friday, when Catholics are required to fast – is to express solidarity with Jesus on the day of his death. On the day of Christ’s trial, suffering, and death, Christians are called to live in a sober way, avoiding entertainment and distracting activities. As Christ suffers on the Cross on Good Friday, Christians are invited to observe that day with a firm gaze on Christ’s saving actions. + Finally, we fast in preparation for the return of Christ in glory. We are reminded that we can never be satisfied by ordinary food, which satisfies only momentarily but then perishes. We do not live by bread alone. What we await is the food of heaven, the food of God’s heavenly banquet which will not perish but give eternal life. Until then, we will always be spiritually hungry.
Lay ecclesial ministry programs are a significant development in the Catholic Church in the U.S. Candidates are proposed by the pastor, trained by the diocese, installed by the bishop, and officially designated as lay ecclesial ministers. Lay ecclesial ministry is still in the early stages of implementation and, understandably, exhibits some growing pains. Among these are a lack of clarity about this ministry and some exorbitant claims made for it. It is, for instance, held that lay service is new to Catholicism. Despite popular opinion, there has existed from the first days of Christianity laity who were active in building up the life of the Church. The ways in which laity have been successful in the development of the Church have varied greatly over the centuries. There has always been some recognition that Baptism calls every man and woman to serve the building up of the Kingdom of God – whether by work within the Church or in the everyday circumstances of earning a living, raising a family, or serving the common good. Since Vatican II, the role of the laity has been given new emphasis. In parishes and dioceses, there are numerous people at work in service of the liturgy, the proclamation of the word, and the advancement of justice and charity. This is an outstanding fruit of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Second Vatican Council. However, one of the dangers involved in the designation of certain people as “lay ecclesial ministers” is that an elite could be created in the Church which would add a further layer to the distinction between clergy and laity. So I ask: Are not all lay ministers lay ecclesial ministers? Is not the parish DRE who has served in her role for 20 years automatically a lay ecclesial minister? What about the diocesan director of evangelization or the lay parish administrator? And why does the Bishop install lay ecclesial ministers and not other ministers? There needs to be further clarity on these matters. One should see the lay ecclesial ministry movement for what it is: one more initiative since the Second Vatican Council to involve the laity more fully in the work of the Church and its mission in society. An article in a Catholic publication some time ago described lay ecclesial ministry as “radically new.” But anything that is radically new stands in discontinuity with the history of the Church and is not in accord with how the Church develops. The same article went on to say that the rise of lay ecclesial ministry will eventually eclipse the rise of monasticism in the fifth century, the birth of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the 13th century, and the explosion of religious orders after the Council of Trent—especially in the 19th century. This is what I mean by an exorbitant claim. If lay ecclesial ministry sees itself as replacing traditional ministries and orders in the Church, then surely it has gone too far, and is bound to be a disruptive influence. The Church needs every baptized man and woman be of service in some way to the life of the parish and active for the good of society. What the Church does not need is a special elite body of laity which marginalizes the gifts and charisms of the ordinary believer and clutters up the traditional order of the Church with claims to special status and authority. Can lay ecclesial ministry be modified to survive the kind of critique I am offering here? I believe it can.
I find that my occasional brief commentaries on news and other items are popular with readers. So here are some things that caught my attention recently. 1. Against my better judgment, I went to see the movie “Star Wars” recently. I hated it! I couldn’t stand the silly dialogue, the talking machines (who were ugly as sin), the junky space ship (which was much uglier than sin), and the deafening noise. I left half way through. Since the movie is an unprecedented box office hit, my peeved disinterest is not, it seems, shared by the rest of the world. Consider: The Zion Church in Berlin, Germany, hosted a special Star-Wars-themed liturgy the same weekend the movie came out. Special scenes were broadcast to the congregation/audience; an organist played music from the movie; and the homily was about the parallels between the movie and the Gospel. (Now how did I miss those parallels?) 2. I’m not sure the Church needs to run hospitals any more. The need their foundation originally met has now been assumed effectively by other entities. However, the recent story about the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver tangling with the government about having to provide contraception coverage to employees drew my attention to the need for the Church to sponsor hospices for the dying, as the Little Sisters do. I think it is time for the foundation of new religious orders dedicated to the dying. This would be especially valuable at a time when euthanasia is increasingly accepted by Western society. The Church needs to offer a counter-witness. 3. Hover boards, it seems, are the latest fad among the young. These are contraptions on which one stands and moves around with no need of anything to put one’s hands on for guidance. Recently a video went viral of a priest in the Philippines riding on a hover board up and down the aisles at the end of Mass singing some schlocky song into a microphone. Alarming fact: many in the congregation loved it. The Bishop of San Pedro was not amused, however, and he temporarily suspended the priest for abuse of the liturgy. 4. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have been trying to hold the first general Council since (get this!) the year 787. However, the various Churches are unable to get their acts together, and the plan is now falling apart. I have the greatest love and respect for Orthodox Christianity and its theology. But this conundrum among the Orthodox Churches is one of the best arguments I know for a Pope over all Christian Churches. A Pope can call an ecumenical Council at the drop of a miter, and everyone will show up. But the Orthodox have no such unifying ministry. 5. People wonder what Pope Francis means by a “poor church for the poor.” Among the things it could mean is that the heads of important Vatican offices and councils live more simply. A recent book by Gianluigi Nuzzi entitled Via Crucis gives interesting figures about the size of the apartments of the aforementioned figures. Being a person of studied discretion, I won’t mention names. But one senior official lives in an apartment of 1572 square feet, which in the swankier parts of major cities would be worth about $35 million dollars. Another has an apartment of 1536 square feet. A retired official lives in an apartment of 1251 square feet, and another has a residence of 1059 square feet. By the way, Pope Francis lives in rooms of 150 square feet.
Every time we come to the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, I think of one of my favorite scriptural passages taken from the prophet Isaiah. God’s servant, the prophet declares, brings forth justice “not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.” And in powerful words, the passage says of God’s servant: “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” Applied to the Church today, the fundamental message is that the role of God’s servants is not to preach hell fire and damnation to broken people, to make them walk away with a sense that the Church does not care, or even rejects them. The role of God’s servant is to bring encouragement and hope to those who are broken, bruised, and discouraged. The “bruised reed” is a good image of human vulnerability and frailty. In the world of nature, the bruised reed, if tended gently, still grows and thrives in the proper environment, even if with difficulty; but in a harsh environment the bruised reed breaks and dies. Christians are called to treat the bruised reeds among their brothers and sisters with gentleness and care, so that they may thrive and grow, and not spiritually fade and die. The “smoldering wick” in Isaiah is also a potent image of faith and hope on the very edge of being quenched. With gentleness and patient care, the smoldering wick can be rekindled; but with rough, careless, and overbearing treatment it is quenched. The world, the Church, our congregations, our households are full of bruised reeds whom we should not break, but raise up again; smoldering wicks we must not quench, but help rekindle. Those who serve in the pastoral ministry of the Church have a particular responsibility in this regard. When bishops, priests, and deacons are seen as harsh, quick to judge, unfeeling, and unsympathetic—then they are miserable failures. Unless a pastor is seen as one to whom one can go and expect care, compassion, and gentleness, he is betraying his ministry. In the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome, the participants struggled with how to deal with the sense of alienation and isolation from the Church among homosexuals, those in homosexual unions, and the families of homosexuals. Some bishops offered courageous proposals in this regard. On this matter overall, the Synod took two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps backward. But the Synod participants were left with the sense that something must be done to include homosexual persons and other sexual minorities in the Church. There was a felt need for a new language about sexual matters, rather than the simple repetition of traditional formulas, which fail to compel—and still remain quite untouched by Vatican II. A similar concern was expressed about the possibility that those who are presently unable to receive Communion because they are in second marriages without an annulment could receive holy Communion. Going to Mass without receiving the Eucharist is for such people a most unsatisfactory experience, and I expect that the final document from the Synod that Pope Francis will issue will take positive steps in this regard. The ordinary Catholic does not have to wait until the Church speaks more positively on thorny matters. The vocation to uphold and strengthen the alienated and marginalized can be carried on now for the most part quietly, unobtrusively, and undramatically. There is not one of us who lacks the ability to carry out the vocation of God’s gentle, healing servant.
The movie “Spotlight” (which I saw last week, and thought remarkably fair—not at all expressive of the familiar media attacks on the Catholic Church) has again opened up discussion about the issue of child abuse in the Catholic Church. The movie portrays the disastrous handling of sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston over a number of decades. “Boz” Tchivividjian (don’t ask me how to pronounce the name) offered an insightful commentary in a Religion News Service blog last week entitled “Spotlight: It’s Not Just a Catholic Problem.” Tchivividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor, the founder and executive director of ABUSE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), and a Professor of Law at Liberty University (and I would guess a Baptist) argued that child sex abuse is just as prevalent in the Protestant Churches as it is in the Catholic Church. Regarding the movie “Spotlight,” Tchivividjian writes: “Some may be tempted to watch this film with disgust at the Catholic Church and a sigh of relief for Protestants.” But, he says, “such relief would be unfounded and misplaced” for the reason that over a number of years the three companies that insure most Protestant Churches reported receiving approximately 260 reports per year of minors being sexually abused by church leaders and members. This compares to the 228 ‘credible accusations’ a year of child sexual abuse reported by the Catholic Church.” Tchivividjian offers a surprising assessment: “In reality, the likelihood is that more children are sexually abused in Protestant churches than in Catholic churches.” This means that “Protestants are going to have to accept the fact that there are many more similarities than differences with our Catholic brothers and sisters when it comes to how we have failed to protect and serve God’s children.” Tschivividjian identifies three areas of similarity between the Churches on this matter. First, regarding the clergy who abuse: “The evil perpetrated by those who use their religious cover to access and abuse children is alive and well in Protestantism.” The sinister reality is “that sex offenders who hold positions of authority while carrying Bibles and quoting scripture are treacherous, regardless of whether they are called priest, pastor, or reverend. It’s not just a Catholic problem.” Second, the attempts to protect reputations among church leaders and their denominations are widespread. Tschivividjian says that this is an all-all-too familiar problem in the Protestant Churches. He points to situations where offending pastors, missionaries, and other leaders have been reassigned or allowed quietly to retire all in an effort to insulate the institution. Third is the problem of silent bystanders. “Among the disturbing truth that surfaced in ‘Spotlight’ was the deafening silence that surrounded the sexual abuse of children that had permeated inside the Church in epidemic proportions.” However, “the same deadly silence permeates inside many Protestant institutions.” Pastors will preach on all kinds of social ills, but studiously avoid the topic of child sexual abuse. Catholics should take no joy whatsoever in Tschivividjian’s assessment. One child sexually abused in any tradition is one child too many. But it does put the Catholic situation into useful perspective. However, Catholics do not have to work less at the prevention of child abuse, but continue the stringent measures to protect children and bring offenders to justice. One may ask, finally, why the Catholic situation has not received fair treatment in the print and electronic media. The answer: the media themselves—which often seem rather less interested in exposing child abuse at all levels of society than in Catholic-bashing.