In the Winter of Faith Just Keep Working

As I write this, it is mid-winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Like each season, winter has its time, its three months. To many of us, there seems to be a metaphorical winter in the Church and in our culture, one that has lasted for years.

Those of us who are older probably remember a time when Masses were crowded. The church parking lots were packed full, and if you didn’t arrive early enough you often had to park elsewhere and then stand during Mass. Catholic Schools had long waiting lists, and parents made sure to put their children on the list long before they reached school age. If you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them.

Beginning in the mid-sixties, however, weekly Mass attendance by Catholics began to drop. According to some polls, nearly 80 percent of Catholics were regular attendees in the mid-fifties; today, that figure has dropped to as low as 20 percent (depending on the polling methodology). Open dissent from Church teaching grew among the faithful and the clergy, especially after Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which re-affirmed the rejection of artificial contraception. The autumn of our discontent and the “falling leaves” of defection of clergy and religious sisters from their vows and the faithful from their pews ushered in a long winter from which we have yet to emerge. Added to this are scandals of the worst kind, rooted in a loss of faith by the very ones sent to prophetically announce that faith. Corruptio optimi pessima!

What is evident in the Church is even more apparent in our culture. The West, which was once called Christendom, has descended into a cold and fierce secularism. The darkness and moral confusion grow deeper; opposition to once-widely-held moral norms is outright celebrated. Artificial contraception, abortion, divorce, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual acts, euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide, and many other things we once considered shameful are now promoted and called “rights.” Our culture has become crass, coarse, and angry.

Yes, it is the depths of winter in the Church and in our culture. Jesus once said, False prophets will arise and mislead many. Because of the multiplication of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:11-12).

Where is the plentiful catch of fish, the abundant harvest of which Jesus often spoke? What are we to do in this long winter when little seems to grow?

Perhaps the first step is to realize that there are seasons through which the Church must pass and that one day the seasons will change. Even in winter, farmers work to prepare for the next harvest. What does this mean for us? St. Paul wrote this to Timothy regarding the seasons:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So, they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-4).

Therefore, even in winter we must still work for that which will bring in the harvest when winter has passed. We are to preach and live the Word in season and out of season, whether popular or unpopular. We are to pray, to prune, and to accept pruning ourselves.

Back in November as climatic winter approached, I pruned my roses and crape myrtles. Pruning cuts away what is excessive and no longer fruitful in order to encourage future growth. Soon enough the warmth of spring will come; tender shoots will appear and then leaves and flowers. Similarly, the Church must prune and be pruned. The pruning has been severe and evidently quite necessary; much that was unhealthy is being cut away.

Even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning or for the field to lie fallow, He is preparing for future growth. The Lord says, “The harvest is plentiful,” but that doesn’t mean that the harvest is necessarily right now.

The bottom line is this: just do your work. Keep living the faith, passing it on to your children, and insisting on what is true. Obey what the Lord commands and know that the harvest He announced will be brought in someday. Yes, the harvest will come, and it will come with abundance. Scripture says,

Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. They go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown. But they will surely return with rejoicing carrying the harvest of grain (Psalm 126:5-6).

Although it is winter, continue to do your work. We may not live to see the harvest for which we prepare, but others surely will. Jesus says,

Thus the saying “One sows, and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37).

I have reaped harvests that others have sown. When someone comes to confession after forty years away, I reap the harvest that others prepared—planting, watering, and fertilizing. I, too, will prepare so that others after may harvest.

Whatever the season, do your work. It will bear fruit in due time.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: In the Winter of Faith Just Keep Working

Can Anything Good Come Out of 2018?

It is hard to describe 2018 as anything short of a disaster for the Church, both in the United States and around the world. I will not recite every gory detail here but suffice it to say that this year will go down in history for its high-stakes drama and the discouragement that ensued among both clergy and the faithful.

Can anything good possibly come from 2018? None of us can say for certain, but we do know that God can write straight with crooked lines; He can make a way out of no way. Though I am a known critic of many of the events of the past year, I would like to point out some positive effects that have occurred. I pray that these do not become overcorrections, which can sometimes be as bad as the evils they replace.

The laity has found its collective voice.

Many of us can remember a time when it was almost unthinkable to say anything negative about a priest or bishop. Even if one saw evidence of problematic behavior by a clergyman, mentioning it was verboten. There was a kind of excessive deference to Church authority. Because the priest was holy and had given his life to God, questioning or opposing him was tantamount to questioning or opposing God.

Though this began changing in the 1970s and ’80s, there has still been a sometimes-unhealthy submissiveness to the clergy, especially bishops. For traditional Catholics, disrespect for the clergy—especially the pope—was a mark of dissent and highly frowned upon. A true and orthodox Catholic had a filial love for the pope and, as general rule, for the bishops in union with him.

Although we call priests “Father” and think of bishops as shepherds, most of us are adult children. The Catholic faithful have equal dignity before God and have both the right and the duty to work with their clergy in manifesting the Church. The roles are distinct, but the responsibility is shared.

While not rejecting the divine constitution of the Church (wherein the Lord established his clergy with the power to teach, govern, and sanctify in a unique and authoritative way), God’s faithful people are to work with their clergy so that the clergy are responsible and accountable for the gifts and roles God has given them. Canon 212.3 says this of the lay faithful:

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

A fawning and overly deferential attitude toward the clergy does not help them or the Church.

The bishops and other clergy have been humbled in a way that may have salutary effects.

Over the past thirty years, many Catholics have become more comfortable giving feedback to their local priests, even confronting them when necessary. Bishops, however, have continued to be well-insulated; they are often surrounded and protected by several layers of staff. Most lay people indicate that they have no hope of ever getting through to the bishop. Even letters addressed to the bishop are answered by subordinates. In some larger dioceses, even priests can have difficulty meeting or speaking with their bishop.

Many bishops have become aware that they are too distant from their people and must get better at listening to them, taking their concerns seriously, and participating more in the everyday life of the flock.

Clergy are more likely to correct one another and speak more honestly to their bishop.

Priests are not immune from showing excessive deference to and flattery of higher-level Church officials. Priests are people and most people are hesitant to speak clearly and forthrightly to those in authority over them.

We priests need to overcome this tendency and learn to speak more frankly, yet still respectfully, to our bishops. A priest has a shared responsibility with his bishop, acting as his eyes and ears in the parish as well as being his voice to the parishioners. Priests must become more willing to say things to their bishop that he would rather not hear but needs to hear.

This recent crisis has helped some priests, even if only a minority, to become more willing to speak out, to the bishop and to the laity, with clarity and charity. Priests owe respect and obedience to their bishop. This is not obsequiousness and fawning deference, but manly and respectful interaction that has the best interests of the bishop and the wider Church at heart.

We have learned the price of silence and compromise.

The sexual revolution was simmering through the early 1960s and reached a boil in the last few years of the decade. Sadly, most clergy and parents remained far too silent as the body count grew. It is estimated that there are more than 40 million abortions per year around the world. Most children are now raised without the benefit of a father and mother in a stable marriage. Sexual promiscuity (and the resultant sexually-transmitted diseases) and sexual confusion are rampant. Yet the silence from many pulpits on these matters is deafening.

In 1968 many clergy, embarrassed by the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, simply stepped away from any teaching on human sexuality. It became too politicized and controversial for their tastes. In sowing the wind, we have reaped the whirlwind.

We have been reminded that “tactful” silence is foolish and compromise with the world brings a false peace rooted in lies. The world will never be satisfied with any compromise we make. In fact, it derides us when we do so! The world will only be satisfied with total surrender. The sexual sin and confusion, up through the highest ranks of clergy, shows forth the price of such compromise. The world is not changed by our compromise, but we are corrupted, weakened, and confused by it. We have earned no converts, only derision and moral debilitation.

It’s time to get back to the uncorrupted and pure teaching of Scripture, which is more concerned with people’s salvation than with their feelings.

Some are now speaking more plainly about the central issues of homosexuality and the abuse of power.

The connection of homosexuality to sexual abuse by clergy has been a forbidden topic, but the current crisis has forced it out into the open. (I have written in detail about this topic in other posts, here and here.) When 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy are males, we must investigate why that is the case; remaining silent about this fact has only caused further damage. An honest assessment is going to be necessary for any credible solution.

Clearly, those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are going to face unique problems in the same-sex settings of seminaries, rectories, and religious houses. The Pope himself recently raised these concerns. The current crisis has encouraged more to speak out about these issues, realizing that continued silence will only make matters worse.

The common good and the spiritual welfare of those with same-sex attraction require a truthful assessment of this matter no matter how unpopular such observations and prescriptions may be. Besides, the world isn’t going to love us no matter what we do!

We are now more aware that the victims of sexual abuse are not just pre-pubescent children and post-pubescent minors, but vulnerable adults as well.

Although seminarians and newer priests are adults, an older priest or bishop can use his power, authority, and influence over their future to make it difficult for them to resist sexual advances.

Further, because priests are called “Father,” any sexual interaction with the faithful—male or female, young or old—can rightly be called “spiritual incest.” All this talk about “consenting adults” ignores the fact that many relationships are not ones between equals. The #MeToo movement has brought this out in the business, media, and Hollywood worlds.

There is a growing awareness in the secular world of the damage that can be caused by caretakers, therapists, counselors, and others in positions of influence who take sexual advantage of vulnerable adults. In the Church, a priest who does this is guilty not only of violating a professional boundary but also of sacrilege, because he violates his sacred vows.

The current crisis has caused the Church to take a much clearer look at this aspect of the problem. If even the secular world is beginning to understand this, we can do no less.

Here, then, are some positive outcomes, even if painful in their initial unfolding. They can be helpful trends for the Church provided they do not become overcorrections. This is one of the dangers of any response to a crisis: that we simply swing to a perhaps-equally-undesirable extreme. For example, overcorrections might result in some of these:

  • A laity that is so bold as to be incorrigible, unteachable, and disrespectful of clergy and bishops.
  • Bishops that are so anxious for the approval of their flock that they stop leading and prophetically challenging the faithful to follow Christ, especially in matters that challenge popular ways of thinking.
  • Neglecting mercy and the pastoral need to be patient in leading people out of habitual sin.
  • Forgetting that 20 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy have been female.
  • Demonizing sexual attraction such that even appropriate flattery and outreach (e.g., asking someone out for a date) is considered abuse. Attraction between men and women is normal and healthy and should not be criminalized. Obviously, clergy should never signal sexual interest, but a mere look or an expression of concern does not amount to a boundary violation.

Ultimately, we must lovingly summon all to chaste living in accordance with the Sixth Commandment and God’s overall teaching. If we can be serious and loving about this, something good may come of the crises of 2018.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: cathstan.org/posts/can-anything-good-come-out-of-2018

A Shocking Loss of Faith: Reflecting on the Closing of So Many Churches

Lincoln Congregational Temple in Shaw, credit: NCinDC, Flickr

As I walk or drive through my Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., I pass by more than twenty churches (all of them Protestant) that have been closed in the past decade. Many of them are grand and prominent buildings. (Click here to see four of them.) Most of the them have been converted to condominiums, likely due to historic preservation norms that seek to retain the exterior appearance of historic buildings.

A recent study by the local non-profit organization Sacred Spaces Conservancy confirms my anecdotal evidence about the large number of closures. On Capitol Hill, a growing neighborhood with a tremendous number of row houses, about 40 percent of buildings used for worship have closed [*]. Such a figure is shocking and demonstrates a collapse of religious observance. Our Catholic parishes have suffered as well, but thankfully none of them have closed.

As always, there is important detail behind the numbers. At the root is a dramatic demographic shift in the population of the District of Columbia. The once majority-black city is no longer so; African-Americans now make up less than 50 percent of the population. The new arrivals to the city are also younger. To say that the city is undergoing gentrification is not really accurate. The majority of the new residents are not gentry at all; they are largely young adults, saddled with college debt and unable to afford to own property. The median home price in this area is close to one million dollars. Because most of them do not have the means to buy a home, they rent, and even then must usually share with others to make it affordable.

This is the new demographic reality: A once solidly African-American area is now more racially diverse and younger as well. The new residents are in general less religiously observant and those who are “religious” are less tied to particular denominations or congregations. This is a challenge to institutions established in a very different world.

This has affected Protestant and Catholics in different ways.

The Protestant Experience:

There are reasons that the Protestant congregations have been more affected by the changes than the Catholic parishes. In general, Protestant denominations were and are divided in that they served specific groups defined by both racial and sectarian lines. For example, there might have been ten “Baptist” churches in a fairly small area, but they weren’t serving just different Baptist denominations; there were White Baptists, Black Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and so forth. Add to this a slew of other denominations and distinctions such as African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod Lutheran, High Church Episcopal, Low Church Episcopal, and Broad Church Episcopal. The city churches were built during a time when these distinctions mattered.

However, it is the racial focus of Protestant churches that looms largest of all in this city. Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. This still rings largely true. It wasn’t just race, it was the length of the service and styles of worship, preaching, and music. Black churches in solidly black neighborhoods could flourish in many varieties from storefront churches to megachurches to historical “anchor” churches such as Metropolitan Baptist and Foundry United Methodist. African-American congregations that identify strongly with black traditions of worship have not adjusted easily to the demographic shifts of recent years. Thus, they face the choice of either moving to where their congregants have moved or closing. It isn’t just “inflexible” niche marketing that is the problem; whites who move in are not easily persuaded to attend their services. Whether it is liturgical style, preaching content, or just the “awkward” experience of being a minority, whites and other non-African-American arrivals don’t join in large enough numbers to shore up a declining congregation.

In short, the combination of changing demographics and denominational division has spelled disaster for many traditionally black congregations. Some of them have moved to the suburbs; others have closed. Focusing on a niche market is a problem when the niche disappears or moves away.

As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the “old time religion” a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social “gospel.” Gone is the drama of salvation. Jesus is less Lord and Savior and more a good man and ethical teacher. For those who think the Catholic Church should chart a similar course, please note that as much as we have declined, the mainline Protestant churches have collectively seen an utter collapse in attendance [**].

The Catholic experience:

The experience of the Catholic parishes on Capitol Hill has not been ideal, but it is better, and we can survive collectively. There are reasons for this.

Our first commitment is generally to serve a neighborhood or region. In a certain sense, the whole world is divided up into parishes. Every diocesan parish has a boundary. Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should attend Mass. Today, boundaries tell the Church where we are supposed to go. A parish is responsible for every person who lives within its boundaries. Thus, with few exceptions, the parish stays put whether its founding parishioners remain or move away. Although there are a few ethnic parishes here and there (mainly due to language and/or a special rite) that aim to serve only a particular group, this sort of “niche marketing” is generally frowned upon.

The Catholic Church is catholic (universal). My own parish has gone from a solidly African-American parish to one that is more than 40 percent non-African-American. In this, it is beginning to reflect the current makeup of the neighborhood, which is more racially diverse and much younger than it was. Noting this, we did a very Catholic thing. Although the changes brought stress, we went out to meet our neighbors. We knocked on doors; we talked to them in the park and at the local market. Over time we’ve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls). We still have our longer, vibrant Gospel Mass for the benefit of our traditional parishioners, some of whom have stayed in the neighborhood and others who have moved away but continue to attend Mass here on Sundays. This has been the second big sea-change in this parish and neighborhood. (The first one took place after World War II, when the neighborhood became solidly black.) Through it all, our parish stays and cares for whoever lives here.

That said, things are not nearly as good or strong as they should be in the Catholic Parishes of Capitol Hill. Not one of them has more than 1000 people in attendance on Sunday. The largest has just under 900; mine has 600; two of them have fewer than 200. Several of our schools have closed. Part of the reason for the smaller number of parishioners is that all these parishes were built before the advent of the automobile and thus are much closer to one another than is true in the suburbs. People in my neighborhood have three Catholic parishes within walking distance, with Masses offered at all sorts of different times, lowering the number in any one parish.

Yet, truth be told, all our Capitol Hill parishes were once much fuller. The parish schools were bursting with children and our rectories and convents were brimming. To some degree, the fact that all our parishes are still open is based on inertia from prior times. We were bigger than the Protestant congregations to begin with and so it’s taken longer to erode. The danger is that we are parking on someone else’s dime; the fuel that those of the past left us is dwindling to mere fumes. The generation that built our parish churches was poorer than we are in a monetary sense but seemingly richer in faith. There was a time when more than 80 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. Today it’s only about 20 percent and the figure has been dropping by the year. The current scandal has surely not helped, but the problem is deeper, older, and wider than that. Despite the steep drop in attendance, it has often been “business as usual”; our focus seems to be institutional more so than Christological or eschatological.

The problem is not a local one in Capitol Hill. This steep decline has occurred throughout the Western world. A secular world has, by definition, a worldly focus and little time or thought for God. The Catholic Church has not always responded well to this.

There isn’t the time to set up a complete scheme for evangelization, but as most of you who read here know, I think accommodation/watering down of the faith is precisely the wrong path. We must shine brightly in a world of increasing darkness. As Catholics and Catholic parishes, we are called to love everyone, but we must love them enough to tell them the truth. A fiery love for Christ that holds Him in awe and deeply respects His teachings must be combined with a true love for souls such that we strive to save them rather than merely pleasing them.

In a neighborhood with an increasing population, no church that was once full should close. We cannot simply blame demographics for decreasing numbers of parishioners. If every parishioner found one convert or returnee, the parish would double in size. Is that really so hard? What percentage of our parishioners can say they have ever gotten even one person to return to Church and the sacraments? Blaming demographics is a convenient excuse.

If secularism has swept in, we cannot simply lament it; we must accept the responsibility that it has happened on our watch. We must meet the challenge with fortitude and with the knowledge that the Lord built a worldwide Church with a cadre of leaders who hardly looked promising. He did it against all odds. He asks that we bring our five loaves and two fishes and promises to multiply the harvest of holiness and the numbers as well. His graces are not exhausted, and His mercies are not withheld if we but ask and act.

What are your five loaves and two fishes? What are your parish’s five loaves and two fishes? Not one Catholic parish should close in a neighborhood where people still live. Even if the “old-timers” have moved on, there is still a harvest of human beings to bring in. The harvest is plentiful, so ask the Lord of the harvest, “Lord, who is that one person in my family or among my friends to whom you are sending me? Show me, Lord, and I will go to work.”

The Office of Bishop

credit: J. Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Fortuitously, the first reading for this Monday, which is the day that the annual fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Baltimore begins, speaks to the qualifications of a bishop. The full reading from Titus is as follows:

Paul, a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ for the sake of the faith of God’s chosen ones and the recognition of religious truth, in the hope of eternal life that God, who does not lie, promised before time began, who indeed at the proper time revealed his word in the proclamation with which I was entrusted by the command of God our savior, to Titus, my true child in our common faith: grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our savior. For this reason, I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious. For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled, holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents (Titus 1:1-9).

From this passage, note the following qualities of a good bishop:

The Bishop is Submitted and Sent. St. Paul writes to Titus, Paul, a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ …

In this matter St. Paul reflects on his own relationship to Christ, but because he is of the rank of bishop, his reflections apply to bishops whom he will soon describe. Paul sees his rank as that of a slave. He is not his own man; he belongs to God and is under His authority. Paul is accountable to the Lord. In our current crisis, many wonder to whom the bishops are accountable. Juridically, bishops are not accountable to one another but to the Pope. However, even if they never answer to the Pope, thy will one day have to answer to Christ!

St. Paul speaks of himself as a slave to Christ. Some may wince at the use of the term slave, but we who are in Holy Orders at any level are indeed slaves to Jesus. We are taken up by Him in Holy Orders as He wills, not as we will. When we lay down upon the cathedral floor, we gave our whole lives to Christ and said, “If you can use anything, Lord, you can use me!” Yes, we are slaves of Christ, and He will use us as He sees fit.

St. Paul also says here that he is an apostle. That is, he is sent, commissioned by Christ, to whom he owes his first allegiance. No priest or bishop can have an authority above Christ or in place of His. The Church is Jesus’ bride; the people are His. Bishops are “slaves” to whom He entrusts oversight—an oversight for which they will have to account.

The Bishop should be Saving and Strong. The text says that bishops should teach … for the sake of the faith of God’s chosen ones and the recognition of religious truth, in the hope of eternal life …

The bishop ministers for the sake (i.e. the salvation) of God’s chosen ones through his proclamation of the faith. He is called to instill the faith by the grace of God, a faith that saves not just pleases. The word translated here as “religious” is εὐσέβεια (eusebeia) and refers to a faith that is pious, godly, or devoted. Hence, the bishop’s role is to keep God’s faithful in a close, pious, and devoted relationship with God through the proclamation of the truth of the gospel.

The bishop must also, by this proclamation, instill hope. Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Hence, the bishop is courageous and summons others to courage and to the confident expectation of God’s help.

Too many bishops and priests today fall short when it comes to proclaiming he gospel courageously. They avoid subjects that they think are “too hard” for God’s people. Many seldom preach about or teach of sacrifice. Long gone are any real demands from the pulpit for things such as fasting or turning away from sin to live a life of virtue and obedience to Christ even at high cost. But hope is the confident expectation of God’s help. A bishop should confidently and courageously summon God’s people to walk in the truth!

The Bishop should be Steady in Speaking. The text says, … that God, who does not lie, promised before time began, who indeed at the proper time revealed his word in the proclamation with which I was entrusted by the command of God our savior …

The bishop has been entrusted with God’s word, which he is to speak. This is not something to be used simply to further his own projects; it is the word of truth from God, who cannot lie.

It is God’s “revealed” word, meaning that it is unveiled and should not be treated as strange, remote, or unfathomable. It is plainly disclosed and should be plainly spoken.

Finally, the word is “entrusted by the command of God.” Thus, the bishop is under command to preach and teach the word entrusted to him. As St. Paul says elsewhere, For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Cor 9:16)

The Bishop should Stabilize and Secure. The text says, … to Titus, my true child in our common faith …. For this reason, I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town …

A bishop must put in order the local Church that has been entrusted to him. Even if elements of the truth are already present, there must be a purifying of that Church so that it is more complete in the truth and the virtues and so that there is order, that things are “set right” and improved upon.

A bishop is also to appoint priests in every town to help him to keep order, to teach and insist on what is right. As St. Paul says elsewhere: But let everything be done in a fitting and orderly way (1 Cor 14:40).

The Bishop must be Steadfast in Sanctity. The text says, For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate, just, holy, and self-controlled …

I think this list speaks for itself. I will not add to it except to say that that the bishop and his priests and deacons should themselves be chaste and insist that others be chaste as well. It seems that in our times this must be specifically stated, for there has been too much unchastity among the clergy and it has been knowingly been tolerated.

The Bishop must be Sound and Sure. The text says, … holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents.

A bishop must not only hold and teach the faith, he must refute opponents and dissenters. There is far too little of this today among bishops and priests. Too often, even if they are personally orthodox, they stand by silently while wolves confuse the faithful, deceiving them and leading them astray.

St. Gregory the Great lamented that too many of his priest were “dumb dogs” who would not bark, who would not drive away the wolves and warn the faithful. Too rare today are bishops who will rebuke dissenters and deceivers. Too often dissenters, deceivers, and liars are allowed easy access to the faithful. Our universities teem with false notions; often the truth itself is banished. Parishes are permitted to stray seriously from Catholic norms on laity and Catholic teachings on morality.

Bishops must get back into the business of refuting error and refusing to allow access to the faithful to those who would deceive them. He must refute with sound doctrine not merely with his own opinion. He must protect his flock from the wolves in sheep’s clothing, with their pernicious errors rooted in presumption and false tolerance.

Here, then, is just a brief commentary. As our bishops gather in Baltimore, please pray for them and for all the clergy of the Church!

All Things, Small and Great

There is a notion that ushering in reform or change requires large numbers, majority percentages, and the like, but a passage from the First Book of Maccabees reminds us that Heaven’s math is not always ours:

But Judas said: “It is easy for many to be overcome by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or by few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from Heaven. With great presumption and lawlessness, they come against us to destroy us and our wives and children and to despoil us; but we are fighting for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; so do not be afraid of them.” When he finished speaking, he rushed suddenly upon Seron and his army, who were crushed before him. (1 Mac 3:20-24)

Intensity, dedication, perseverance, and fortitude often win the day even when sheer numbers are lacking. Water spread over a large area quickly becomes a stagnant pond but focused in a narrow channel it can be a mighty stream.

Another well-known story is that of Gideon, whose army of 30,000 was outnumbered two to one. Despite this, God told him his army was too large! He instructed Gideon to dismiss the cowards, those who did not feel up to the battle—20,000 left. God said that 10,000 was still too many soldiers and told Gideon to keep pruning. Eventually, the army was reduced to a mere 300 men. Those 300 defeated an army of 60,000; they won the day because God was with them.

In the Church, reform often comes quietly at first, through individuals who gather a small colony of Heaven about them by God’s grace. As the Church was exposed to the corrupting influences of the world, monks fled to the desert, and others joined them. Monasticism grew like embers in a darkening world. At other times of darkness and uncertainty in the Church, individuals like St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross appeared, as if out of nowhere, and small colonies of Heaven grew up about them.

In times like these, remember the mathematics of Heaven, which often uses remnants and tiny mustard seeds to accomplish its purposes. We may have grandiose visions of how God should fix the Church and may want God to bless the things we are doing to try to fix it, but another approach is to find out what God is blessing and then do that. It could be things as simple and old fashioned as getting married, staying married, having many children, and raising them well. It could be Eucharistic adoration, fasting, praying the rosary, teaching the faith, and fighting the battles right in front of us, just as Judas Maccabeus, Gideon, Catherine, and others did.

God has a plan to restore His Church in times like these. Is there perhaps a Catherine, Francis, or Teresa walking in our midst even now? Meanwhile, God reminds us to walk humbly with Him, live the faith, and tend the vineyard He has given us. Perhaps these are small things, but with God small things can bring about great ones.

St. Augustine wrote,

Quod minimum, minimum est,
Sed in minimo fidelem esse,
magnum est
.

What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing,
But to be faithful in a little thing,
is a great thing.

(De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 35)

What Our Church Buildings Say About Us

The week in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours we are reading from the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Both these prophets wrote at the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, which had begun in 587 B.C. The Jewish people were permitted to return to the Promised Land beginning in about 538 B.C. Haggai wrote his book in the summer of 520 B.C. and in it he scolds the people for concentrating on their “paneled houses” while the Temple is in a ruinous state. He ties their weak piety to the failure of crops, their inability to enjoy what they have, and other calamities.

Zechariah, who wrote in the autumn of 520 B.C., also expresses concern for the poor state of the Temple and ties its rebuilding to future blessings, including the coming of the Messiah. Later in the week, we will examine Zechariah’s writing.

In today’s post we look at a passage from the Book of Haggai and ponder what it means for us:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’” Then the word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet, saying: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” Now this is what the LORD of Hosts says: “Think carefully about your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but never get warm. You earn wages to put into a bag pierced through.” You expected much, but behold, it amounted to little. And what you brought home, I blew away. Why? declares the LORD of Hosts. Because My house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house (Haggai, 1:2ff).

God does not need a fancy temple, but we do. The building of beautiful churches says a lot about our priorities and where our heart lies. Churches express our love for God and our desire to honor and thank Him. They need not be extravagant, but they should be adorned with a beauty and form that stands out as sacred and memorable, as an expression that we love God and take Him seriously, that He is a priority in our lives. In the Middle Ages, the town church was usually centrally located and was the tallest and most prominent building. By the 16th century, palaces and government buildings began to take that place. Today, the skyscrapers of our cities are named for investment banks and insurance companies. Yes, our buildings say something about our priorities!

Churches are also meant to remind us of Heaven. Until recent decades, they were built along lines that spoke to the heavenly realities both Moses and John saw as they were shown the heavenly worship and vision. Churches have high jeweled (stained glass) walls because Heaven does. Churches have glorious throne-like altars with the tabernacle at the center amidst tall candles because in Heaven there is a throne-like altar with the Lamb upon it and Jesus stands among the lampstands. Paintings and statues of saints and angels, incense, priestly robes, standing/kneeling appropriately, and singing of hymns all remind us of the communion of saints and angels in the heavenly worship. All of this is revealed in the heavenly visions contained in the Bible. (I have written more on this topic here and here.)

Haggai’s opening vision also says a lot about our inability to enjoy even the good things we have without God at the center. We all have a God-sized hole in our heart and only He can ultimately fill it. Trying to get created things to fill that gap is both frustrating and futile. The good things we do have point to God, the giver, and should inspire in us a gratitude and longing for Him. If we remove or marginalize God, our disorder affections gnaw away at us; no matter how much we get we remain dissatisfied.

God says through Haggai that fixing the ruined Temple is the way to fix their hearts. It is less about the building than about hearts. It is interesting that some of the most glorious and beautiful churches in this country were built by poor immigrant communities. We now live in times of comparative affluence, especially in America, but although incomes and home sizes have grown our churches seem to be built on the cheap, lacking both the nobility and glory that belong to God and which poorer generations produced in the churches of their time.

The problem has both theological and liturgical roots. A flawed notion of the liturgy claimed that churches should look more like living rooms or dining rooms than Heaven. (N.B. Some more recently built churches are returning to more traditional forms, but the reform has been slow).

Another problem was/is the “poverty of Judas.” This is the idea that money spent on buildings would be better used by being given to the poor. There may be a little truth to that, but the poor also want and need beautiful churches that remind them of Heaven and give due honor to God. A church is a space of beauty that all can share.

Yet another reason is that we just don’t value or prioritize the Lord and the liturgy as highly anymore. If we give less to the church perhaps we can buy a nicer car, a boat, or a vacation home. How is that ephemeral stuff working out for us? Are we happier? Haggai says no: You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. Exactly! All our blessing point to God and should instill gratitude and a longing for the true completion of an eternal relationship with Him.

Enough said for now. The point is not so much a building itself but what the building says about our hearts. God says today through Haggai, in effect, “Your paneled houses and the ruined Temple are a testimony to the condition of your hearts and your flawed priorities.”

Indeed, God should get the first fruits of our harvest, our best and highest effort. This is not because he needs them but because we do.

Go with God, Cardinal Wuerl

On this significant day for the Archdiocese of Washington and the universal Church, I want you to know that I receive the news of the Holy Father’s acceptance of Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation with mixed feelings.

I hope you will understand that he has been a spiritual Father to me since 2006 when he came to Washington as our Archbishop. I have flourished under his leadership. He appointed me in 2007 as pastor to my current parish, which I love so much. I have served him and the Archdiocese on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, the Priest Personnel Board, and as a Dean. I have also been the coordinator for the Traditional Latin Mass and worked closely with the Communications Office for many years. He called an Archdiocesan Synod in 2014 and has carefully implemented its decrees, and drafted many helpful policies, both financial and pastoral, that have assisted this archdiocese to be ship-shape. He has also founded a minor Seminary here and our vocations to the priesthood are vigorous, currently 75 men are in formation for us.

This very blog of the Archdiocese was his idea and when he asked me to write for it I had no idea that it would reach so far. My writing has never been micromanaged and only twice in ten years was I ever asked to remove a post I had written. I am grateful for the support, encouragement and platform I have received.

In all these ways and more I found him to be a top-notch administrator, careful, just, cautious and measured; even if, at times to a fault. Sometimes I wanted him to be passionate and fiery about this or that issue! Though some in recent news cycles have called him arrogant and extravagant, I have found him to be often shy and very aware that a bishop does not have unlimited powers. His lifestyle, from my limited vantage point was not extravagant but simple, even austere.

In this sense, it causes me special sadness that he resigns under a cloud where many see only what they know from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. We can never forget the victims of sexual abuse by clergy and we owe them every effort to eradicate predators from clerical ranks. And whatever the findings of the Grand Jury, accurate or inaccurate, I can say that, in his time here in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl has been very serious in enforcing the policies of the Dallas Charter and ensuring the safety and flourishing of the young people under our care.

However, even prior to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report there were problems that arose with Cardinal Wuerl’s response to the revelations about Archbishop McCarrick. He presented an institutional and legal face and spoke mostly by issuing disclaimers. He seemed to see the crisis as something to manage as an administrator more than a father and shepherd.

I would have preferred if he could have been less protective of the institution of the Church and been more like a grieved shepherd, angry that one of his predecessors had abused some of his flock, even his seminarians and young priests; angry that two other bishops had paid hush-money and not informed him or warned him. I wish I could have heard him tell God’s people that he was angry and disgusted and was going to move heaven and earth to get to the bottom of this scandal; that he would lead the charge to fight for us all so that this would not happen again.

Only late in the crisis did Cardinal Wuerl come to see that such a stance was what people needed and looked for. A few weeks ago, he wrote to God’s people in the Archdiocese a letter asking forgiveness for anything he had done to cause hurt. It was a beautiful letter and many in my congregation wept as I read it, (including me); others applauded. It was a breakthrough and a time of healing.  

Yet from early on, Cardinal Wuerl became the national face of this crisis and a kind of lightning rod for people’s justified anger at the McCarrick case. At some point being the face of the crisis  took on a life of its own and there was little or nothing the Cardinal could say or do to ameliorate this. I think, in many ways, a number of other bishops and clergy deserve greater scorn and scrutiny.

It is clear that there were numerous attempts to inform the Church of the concerns regarding Archbishop McCarrick that were brushed aside or received scant attention from bishops and Church officials both here in this country and going right to the top in Rome.

Only recently has Rome agreed to allow a thorough investigation to begin. I applaud this, since the allegations are serious and need investigation. This is not merely so that justice will be done, but also to be sure that clerical abuse is no longer tolerated or overlooked at any level. The current victims of clerical sexual abuse surely deserve such an investigation to be thorough and credible.

About a month ago, Cardinal Wuerl asked to meet with us, his priests, to discern with him if resignation was the best path forward for healing and progress for the Archdiocese in this situation. We sadly, and with great respect for him, came to the consensus that such a time had come. We were moved to be included in that discernment and he was clearly moved as well. It was a time of truth, but also of respect, concern, admiration and mutual charity.

The Cardinal went to Rome last week with the report that it was a time for new leadership in Washington and requested that the Holy Father now accept the resignation he had tendered almost three years before on his 75th Birthday. This morning the Pope has announced that acceptance.

As you can see, in his statement this morning Cardinal Wuerl reiterates his apology and his request for pardon for any past errors in judgment. He also wishes to present his resignation as a sign of love for the people of this Archdiocese and prays it will be a way forward toward healing for victims and resolutions that will further protect God’s good people.

I pray that none of you will forget the many ways the Lord has blessed us through Cardinal Wuerl. It is too easy to demonize people we have not met or when we are angry, even justifiably so. But the Cardinal is a human being, and one of God’s sons. He deserves and requires our love and prayers as he departs. Whatever errors in judgment have occurred, please remember his request for forgiveness.

I have known and worked with Cardinal Donald Wuerl over the years and it is very painful for me to see him go, especially under these circumstances. As I said, he has been a spiritual father and leader, and has confirmed me in my own ministry for the past 12 years. Go with God, Cardinal Wuerl, go with God.

 

“This Is All I Can Do Now” – Applying a Practice of St. Catherine of Siena to Our Current Crisis

St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, Giovanni di Paulo (1460)

Many Catholics have struggled to find a voice that has been nearly washed out of us by our training. We remember a time when it was unthinkable to criticize a priest; those who did were quickly rebuked, with little opportunity for explanation. Bishops and especially the Pope were not to be questioned let alone criticized. We have now seen the sometimes-horrifying toll of unhealthy deference, of setting a class of men apart from critique or accountability.

Respect surely has its place; we should not correct with unneeded harshness, personal attacks, or demeaning words. However, we must regain a healthy sense of the need to hold our clergy accountable and to insist on what is right. Canon law states the right, duty, and modality of this among God’s Faithful.

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons (Canon 212.3).

God’s faithful are struggling to find their voice, long suppressed. We must find this voice, even regarding the Pope. He has said some alarming things, hurtful things, and has shown little concern for serious charges against Church officials at the highest levels. Even in this case we must find our voice. We must respectful but firm and clear that we expect a full investigation of the charges so that this does not happen again.

All of this feels awkward. It touches some of our oldest training against criticizing popes, bishops, and clergy.

In times like these, we need a Catherine Benincasa.

We know her as St. Catherine of Siena. Though renowned for her love, generosity, and humility, as well as her power to heal, console, and cast out demons, she was no shrinking violet. If she saw something in your soul that was unholy, you were going to hear about it, no matter who you were.

St. Catherine would meet with anyone, from the poorest beggars to kings, governors, bishops, and popes. None of them were denied her love and encouragement. Neither were they spared the hard truths that God gave her to say. Only God was to be pleased, not man. Spiritual truths were to be extolled over every temporal matter (e.g., safety, comfort, pleasing worldly powers).

She loved the Church but remained gravely concerned with the condition of the beloved Bride of Christ. Particularly egregious to her was the condition of so many clergy, right on up the ranks. Even the popes of her time, whom she acknowledged as the sweet Vicars of Christ, and her beloved father could not escape her expressions of grave disappointment and her calls to conversion.

Of special significance for us today is her exchange of letters with Pope Gregory XI. Though he led an exemplary life in many respects, he was a weak, shy, even cowardly man. He was deeply compromised by his temporal ties to power, wealth, and protection, without which he feared that he and the papacy could not survive. Nepotism was also a terrible problem; his own family members kept him wound around their fingers.

Most of the early popes died as martyrs, but by the time of the Avignon Papacy, popes had become very tied to the world and had “too much to lose.” They had fled to Avignon and had been in residence there for decades, living behind fortified walls, protected by armies, and compromised by alliances with secular rulers. It had to stop.

Gregory XI was the last of the Avignon popes. He only returned to Rome at the prodding of this young woman, not yet thirty, who told him, in effect, to go back to Rome or risk Hell. In 1377, after much delay and fretting, Pope Gregory left for Rome.

Below are some excerpts from a letter she wrote to Gregory XI, just prior to 1377. I think her words speak loudly to the clergy of today. The specific issues that beset clergy today are somewhat different but not that different. The Church no longer commands extensive temporal power or rule, but too many clergy are still unwilling to maintain holy discipline or enforce canonical penalties on malefactors.

I have already said too much; I will let Saint Catherine speak for herself. (If you think my blogs are long, try reading St. Catherine’s letters!) I present here only excerpts of a much longer letter to Pope Gregory; she wrote several others as well. The translation I am using here is from Letters of Catherine Benincasa.

In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of gentle Mary, mother of God’s Son.

Very loved and reverend father in Christ Jesus,

I Caterina, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ and your poor wretched unworthy daughter, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you the sort of true gentle shepherd who takes an example from the shepherd Christ, whose place you hold. He laid down his life for his little sheep in spite of our ingratitude …

You know that the devil is not cast out by the devil, but by virtue. [Mt. 12, 26-27] … You hold the keys, and to whomever you open it is opened, and to whomever you close it is closed. This is what the good gentle Jesus said to Peter …

So take a lesson from the true Father and Shepherd. For you see that now is the time to give your life for the little sheep who have left the flock. You must seek and win them back by using patience and war—by war I mean by raising the standard of the sweet blazing cross and setting out against the unbelievers. So, you must sleep no longer, but wake up and raise that standard courageously. I am confident that by God’s measureless goodness you will win back the unbelievers and [at the same time] correct the wrongdoing of Christians, because everyone will come running to the fragrance of the cross …

By the fragrance of their virtue they would help eliminate the vice and sin, the pride and filth that are rampant among the Christian people—especially among the prelates, pastors, and administrators of holy Church who have turned to eating and devouring souls, not converting them but devouring them! And it all comes from their selfish love for themselves, from which pride is born, and greed and avarice and spiritual and bodily impurity. They see the infernal wolves carrying off their flock and it seems they don’t care. Their care has been absorbed in piling up worldly pleasures and enjoyment, approval and praise. And all this comes from their selfish love for themselves. For if they loved themselves for God instead of selfishly, they would be concerned only about God’s honor and not their own, for their neighbors’ good and not their own self-indulgence.

Ah, my dear Babbo (Father), see that you attend to these things! Look for good virtuous men and put them in charge of the little sheep. …

Up, father! Put into effect the resolution you have made concerning your return and this crusade. You can see that the unbelievers are challenging you to this by coming as close as they can to take what is yours. Up, to give your life for Christ! Isn’t our body the only thing we have? Why not give your life a thousand times, if necessary, for God’s honor and the salvation of his creatures? That is what he did, and you, his vicar, ought to be carrying on his work. It is to be expected that as long as you are his vicar you will follow your Lord’s ways and example.

So come, come! Delay no longer … Take courage, take courage, father! Stay away from the bitterness that cripples but take hold of the bitterness that strengthens—bitterness at seeing God’s name insulted, and strength in the trust that God will provide for your needs. I’ll say no more, for if I followed my inclination I wouldn’t stop as long as I had life in my body!

Forgive my presumption. Let my love and grief for God’s honor and the advancement of holy Church be my excuse in the presence of your kindness.

This is all I can do now. Have pity on the sweet loving desires being offered for you and holy Church in continual tears and prayers. Please don’t treat them with indifference, but act on them vigorously, for it seems that spring is ready to burst into bloom, and soon the fruit will come, because the flowers are beginning to blossom. … As for whatever I can do, I would gladly give my life if necessary for God’s honor and the salvation of souls. Gentle Jesus! Jesus!

(St. Catherine of Siena, Letter 74 to Gregory XI at Avignon)

Such words still ring true today! We must exhort Pope Francis to hear our cries for investigation and reform. We must speak in love and with respect, but we must also speak insistently and with clarity. The very credibility and fruitfulness of the Church is at stake. We have a duty and a right to speak to him in this way—so do our bishops. In Catherine’s words, “This is all I can do now.” The Pope must decide whether to hear our heartfelt cry or ignore it, but we cannot stop. All we can do now is to cry out insistently for justice and for a purification of the Church.

Thank you, Mother Catherine. May you, who converted the heart of Pope Gregory XI and summoned him to courageous manhood, now imbue us, the clergy and people of today, with that same fortitude and determination to call for what really heals, even if the honesty hurts.