New Sympathy for Church Ministers
I went back to school last week. I came home with new sympathy for lay ministers in the Church.
IT ALL BEGAN WHEN…
The Florida Mental Health Counselors Association held its annual statewide conference/convention last week, as it does every year, at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Lake Mary, Florida, a mere 30-minutes from my house. Hundreds of mental health folks from Key West to Pensacola attend every year, and while most therapists were enrapt last week in new and cutting-edge advances in the field, a tiny cohort of us—about twenty—spent two days off in a corner of the Marriott taking an intensive program, “Qualified Supervision Training.” This is a required certification for those who serve as supervisors for young therapists seeking licensure in Florida to practice independently, i.e., prepping them to go independent into private practice. Supervisors are required to meet biweekly with their interns for two years to review case files of their patients, assess competency, and [a new piece] to assist interns as they prepare for their national licensure exam, the final hoop, so to speak. We can provide intern licensure supervision for profit or pro bono. In very recent years, the disciplinary board of the Florida Department of Health has required that we supervisors get recertified periodically in this skill field. [I am pleased to tell you I was recertified for six years as an intern supervisor--till the age of 81.]
I don’t supervise psychotherapy interns anymore—as stimulating as that was years ago--but I found the skill set of professional supervision very helpful in my presentations and personal interactions with catechists, lay ministers, and school personnel in my diocese’s certification program over the years. Acquired supervisory skills have helped my writing the “Professional Development” stream of the Catechist Café blog, and even more recently, to advise on my diocese’s plan to train lay spiritual directors.
Did I learn new stuff last week? Well, I learned a lot of good new law. The state has toughened up “supervision” as an entity. During the program we had a two-hour meeting with the stern lady who writes the legislation up in Tallahassee. There has been significant consternation over the number of interns summoned to the disciplinary board for infractions up to and including cohabitation with and outright stealing from patients. [The same intern? Same patient? Nothing kills love like theft. I had to say that. Sorry.] To put it mildly, certification of supervisors needed more heft—more content, more frequency. In the past the state regarded certification of supervisors as a one-time deal, like those sacraments that leave an indelible mark on your soul. Tu es custodes in aeternum, or words to that effect. Now training and recertification is required every six years.
The next point made me sit up in my chair. I encountered a term I was unfamiliar with, vicarious liability. I can be sued for the malpractice of my interns—such as their failure to recognize suicidality or to report abuse. Today I have nothing to worry about—I am not actively practicing or supervising--but I realize now that twenty years ago I had significant exposure in some of the more lackluster locales I worked. I also learned that had I become a vicarious defendant, my attorney might have used the “frolic and detour defense.” There is such a thing.
I also learned that I am very lucky I took my pen-and-pencil state licensure exam back in 1998. Today’s test is longer and much more comprehensive. In last week’s course we were advised to recommend our interns take the test as early as possible, and not wait until the end of the two-year internship requirement. Evidently a lot of interns today fail on the first swing. [Actually, 40% according to the test’s website.] I remember I sat for my exam four days after I returned from my honeymoon. All I remember today about my test was the legal section—I needed a minimum of 24 correct answers to pass it, and I scored exactly 24. It reminded me of my ordination theology board exam; I needed to pass three out of four questions to be ordained, and I passed three. [I failed Canon Law.] Is part of aging the realization that one has dodged a lot of bullets over a lifetime?
Our presenter last week returned frequently to the role of supervisors as “gatekeepers” in the discipline of mental health practice. We are part of the chain that prevents incompetent or dangerous candidates from entering the mental health profession. But primarily we are part of the process that identifies and nurtures promising candidates toward long, fruitful, and innovative careers. We do not do this by ourselves. The universities, the state legislature, the insurance industry, and employers are or should be part of the formative process. But the expectation of the state—fairly—is that supervisors need to stay abreast with the theory, practice, and law if they are to ethically serve their interns and the good of society at large. [I’m afraid that when I’m 81 the state will require intern supervisors to pass the same test the interns take.]
My two supervisors/gatekeepers during my internship years were the clinical directors of a non-profit social service center in Deland, Florida, “The House Next Door.” I worked there for five years. [1996-2001]. My two supervisors were both marriage and family specialists, Regenia Proskine, LMFT and the late Candace Crownover, LMFT. I came to them with a psychoanalytic orientation and specialty in mood disorder. Candy and Regenia taught me to think “family systems” as a therapeutic mode, which later in turn has led me to study and reflect upon the relationships between dysfunctional systems, mental health, and spirituality. Candy was a devout Catholic and very active in church matters. When I closed my practice in 2014 and diocesan ministerial jaunts brought me to Deland, we would go to Mass and then talk for hours over breakfast about the state of the Church.
The State of Florida—despite its sometimes-ersatz reputation—takes the “gatekeeping principle” seriously in mental health practice, as do insurance companies, surprisingly. When I was a provider in the United Health Care System, for example, I was required to submit a patient questionnaire charting symptom reduction every six weeks or so. If my patient was reporting no improvement in mood, a clinician from United would contact me to suggest resources and alternative strategies.
AND ON TO CATHOLIC “GATEKEEPING” AND OUR LAY MINISTERS…
All the above brings us around to a painful question: Does the Catholic Church exercise “gatekeeping responsibilities” commensurate with other professional bodies in its training, and support of its ministers?
It is my impression that as a Church we burn through ministers—particularly young ones--at a disturbing rate—at both the diocesan and the parochial level. For years in my own parish, we were changing youth ministers more frequently than I change the oil in my car. There were many reasons for this, but my main concern is that no competent and idealistic Catholic should ever leave our employment with a sense that the Church has let them down, treated them unfairly, expected the impossible, or outright abused them. So, I listed a number of factors that impede our “gatekeeping” ministry, things that may strengthen our current ministers and better prepare those considering careers in the Church.
 If you stay current with the national Catholic press, you are no doubt aware that many bishops of the United States—not all--are in a state of near panic about the continuing exodus of Catholics from sacramental practice, and most pastors share this angst, too. Moreover, Catholic University’s Well Being, Trust, and Policy in a Time of Crisis: Highlights from the National Study of Catholic Priests  revealed, among other things, that “only 24% [of priests] expressed confidence in the leadership and decision making of the bishops. Sadly, the shepherds are in disarray.
 At the same time, many clerical leaders are in denial about the possible/probable reasons for these departures as well as the decline in the quality of ministry across the board. Two examples: the bishops could easily employ researchers—be they Catholic, such as CARA/Georgetown, or independent, such as PEW—for an in-depth analysis of Catholic sentiment and concerns that might account for departures and discontent. Of course, it might have been cheaper [and more obedient] if most dioceses had followed Pope Francis’ directive on conducting the local synodal process. Have you ever wondered why your parish/diocese did not engage in this universal project of the Church if it did not?
 Consequently, we have what my family therapy supervisors Candy and Regenia might have called “an ugly family secret,” much like alcoholism, incest, infidelity, etc. Ugly family secrets  effectively block truthful communication, and  cause a raft of avoidance and circumventing behaviors and unhealthy strategies. Our church secret is that institutional Catholicism as we have known in our lifetime is passing away. This is a troubling thought, even frightening for those who only know “the old way,” such as bishops and many pastors. The old buttons on the control panel are being pushed, and nothing happens. See Villanova University Professor Massimo Faggioli’s ”No Longer the Bishops’ Church? Catholicism’s Episcopal Crisis” in Commonweal Magazine. How difficult must it be, particularly for new and idealistic lay ministers, to undertake their missions with this secret that few dare to say out loud?
 Theology and religious studies are in serious decline. Theology is a sacred science, but it is still a science like other disciplines that require a firm base of principles to be taught and understood across the board. Science requires openness to reality and continuous reexamination, in the venerable tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. “Gatekeepers,” be they theological or medical, must bring a critical and testing eye to their disciplines. As a therapist, for example, it is my duty, in communion with my peers and the organs of my discipline, to weigh evidence on such recent developments such as transgender medicine—is this a humanitarian breakthrough or a trendy episode which in this case is abusive to children? When a discipline freezes in place, it ceases being a science and instead becomes indoctrination. The ongoing search for truth is the search for God, and the Church is not exempt from this principle.
 Proceeding from the previous point, Kenneth Woodward, the religion editor of Newsweek for 38 years, makes the point that each generation of Catholics is exponentially less educated in the faith than the previous one. This is both a policy issue and a political one, I believe. Our creeping policy over the generations has been to accept lower standards of education for lay ministers because this is cheaper and imposes less preparatory and ongoing education. It also avoids the unpleasant truth that religious sisters and brothers carried the financial weight and the educational preparatory grunt work of parochial faith formation, while my generation got the high quality at a bargain basement price. Woodward would agree, I think, that the highest levels of Church management have never truly digested this enormous loss to pastoral ministry and have been applying ill-fitting bandages on a gaping wound.
Politically, I sense that many pastors are, at some level, uncomfortable with a “reading public.” I have attended the same church for 27 years, and I have never heard a recommendation for adult reading in a sermon. My present pastor preaches every week on prayer—and has never mentioned the works of any historical or contemporary spiritual author such as Thomas Merton or Father James Martin, S.J., whose bestselling Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone  is in the top 1% of Amazon purchases as of this writing. [I forgot! So is Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)]
 Woodward, cited above, points to research that the best predictor of a child’s remaining in the Catholic Church is the practiced faith of the mother, and particularly the father, given that men are usually not notoriously expressive of their inner lives. And yet, we tend to put all our parochial energies into the formation of children. Is it possible that one subconscious motivation at work is the fact that it harder, ministerially speaking, to engage and evangelize adults than pliable children?
 There is a dynamic at play in many of our parishes and chanceries that those with the least to lose and political immunity [i.e., bishops, pastors, and senior officers] are demanding solutions to contemporary problems of the Church from those on the front lines of parish and diocesan ministry with the highest level of vulnerability. Let me put that another way. We hire youth ministers, for example, to get young people involved in the Church when our conference of bishops has no idea how to do it, nor frankly, do the national organizations of such ministers as far as I can see. We hire religious education personnel to get parents and their children back into sacramental practice when pastors and bishops have no idea how to stem the hemorrhage of Catholics from practice and have been failing at it for years now. And what is the criterion used by pastors to assess success or failures of lay ministers? Let’s face it: numbers. Here is the vicarious liability principle turned upside down: pastorally speaking, church responsibility is currently running downhill, not uphill. The interns, so to speak, get fired instead of the supervisors. And yet, the same criterion—attendance—would be more damaging to those to lead the local communities and dioceses in Eucharist and tenor, if this was a fair world.
 Following up on the above point, lay Catholics in church employment enjoy little or no protection. They are expected to be perfect—" Practice of the Catholic faith is required. Church employees must conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with and supportive of the mission and purpose of the Church. Their public behavior must not violate the faith, morals or laws of the Church or the policies of the diocese.” [From my diocese’s current national ad for a diocesan youth minister]. Indeed, let him who is without sin cast the first stone. There is no protection of an annual contract, nor arbitration board for contested firings.
Candidates for hire are asked to do the impossible—" Knows how to develop and implement comprehensive ministry programming.” [op. cit.] There aren’t five pastors in the country who know how to do that; this is at the heart of the American Catholic evangelical crisis across the board.
 As a former EAP counselor for my diocese, and a daily follower of several religious education blogsites, it becomes clear to me that pastors and religious administrators could do far more to assist their employees and volunteers in their professional growth. For starters, it is probably safe to say that a new hire, such as a parish religious education director, has not had the benefit of a Boston College, Catholic University, University of Dayton, Villanova or Notre Dame master’s education in religious formation or an equivalent degree. Many are coming to church work with the degree they could afford—the on-line programs which vary greatly in quality—or as often happens, they progressed up the local church ladder from volunteer teaching to program assistant to parish director. Like it or not, lay ministers need much more supportive counsel and guidance in their work than they are currently getting.
 Job descriptions need to be realistic and precise. I wish I had a dime for every time a patient told me his or her pastor dumped a new responsibility on the minister’s desk, usually upon a whim. I advised them to ask the pastor which of the employee’s current responsibilities should be dropped to meet this new project. Unfortunately, most patients needed their jobs and/or were afraid to negotiate with a priest, and now I understand that better. Many pastors interpret such a request as a challenge to their authority and insubordination. Given the absence of detailed and realistic contracts and authentic appeals boards, a lay person working for the church works in the unsettling, no-win environment of clericalism. [For the record, in my parishes, all my staff would have told me to go to hell. Nicely, but firmly.]
Conversely, pastors—like any Catholic employer in public life—are responsible to see that the family and personal lives of employees are protected by establishing reasonable time expectations and boundaries. No business emails at home in the evening. Similarly, time for continued education, reading, and spiritual retreat need to be respected and included in the compensation package, as it was in my contracts as a priest.
 I suspect that many pastors are not aware of the pastoral satisfaction that comes from supervising staff, particularly those employees new to the pastoral field. This can be achieved through regular meetings, as in the case of clinical supervision and “case studies,” or through actual ministerial happenings.
One summer I had a seminarian assigned to my parish, and after supper I would invite him to join me in my office as I returned the day’s pile of phone messages. I would dial the number, and then say, “I have a seminarian with me tonight who is learning what it’s like to be a pastor. Would you mind if he joined us in our conversation?” Nobody ever refused. In fact, they seemed rather honored to help and, to judge by the content, nobody seemed inhibited. In fact, when I made [non-confessional] counseling appointments on the phone, several folks asked if the seminarian could be there, too!
As a pastor/employer/supervisor I didn’t have the precise skill sets of everyone who worked with me and for me. To remedy that, I attended liturgical music conventions, religious education conventions, Catholic school conventions, and Canon Law conventions [Canon Law, my nemesis!] with the appropriate staff, which boosted staff morale and made for lively general staff meetings. I made many mistakes as a pastor, but I do feel that those who worked for me went on to satisfying and better-paying ministerial opportunities. And I certainly enjoyed seeing them come into their own.
I may have left the reader with more questions than answers. This is not always a bad thing; it is better than fools’ certainty. There is no getting around the fact that our Church is troubled, and that ministry of any sort is a complicated proposition.
That said, let me offer a few words of hope to build on.
First, seek communion with God. Or more correctly, let God seek communion with you. Find that quiet place and time to open the Bible or another spiritual text, and let the words take over your imagination and your emotions. The very physical act of rest itself is a sacramental message that God is responsible for your very being and will carry you through. You are not alone, and you do not have to save the Church by yourself. It is God’s Church. [I bring a hot cup of coffee into my time with God.]
Regard every human encounter as a moment of grace. We begin every Mass with the salute that the Spirit of God “be with you.” Be that Spirit. Nothing we teach or donate is as valuable a gift as a sincere wish of God’s upon a fellow human being. This is the first necessary step to evangelization.
Read. If you are a baptized adult, whether you currently minister or not, immerse yourself in the wisdom of the saints, lessons of history, the personal journeys of Church folks before us, and the deep thoughts of Augustine and Aquinas. It will make your Church membership a truly tangible reality in your consciousness.
P.S. I try to keep a stream of such books coming up on the Café posts. Unfortunately, I must read them first, LOL. So be patient with me. And I include Catholic novelists as well, whose tales reveal the presence of God in ways that only a true storyteller can weave.
It is my pleasure to host a weekly meeting of adult Catholics at my parish who are preparing for Confirmation, having not received the sacrament in their youth for any number of reasons. It is a pleasant circle: we have coffee and cookies while I go over the heart of the Catholic message as a preparation for their profession of faith at the Cathedral. Last night I was walking them through the Nicene Creed, which we proclaim or recite at every weekend Mass. I fell into the trap of trying to explain the Holy Trinity—how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit compose One God. I did not do a very good job of it and fell back on St. Augustine’s frustration in trying to do the same thing in 400 A.D.
But at least I could console myself that I avoided teaching an even greater mystery, the observance of the Advent Season. In the present Church Calendar, Advent is a devotional season constructed around the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which is permanently set at December 25. Consequently, Advent can extend from 22 days to 28 days depending on which day of the week Christmas falls. This year, 2022, is a long Advent, figuratively speaking, four full weeks. In the United States, ironically, the First Sunday of Advent generally falls on Thanksgiving weekend—no distractions there!
If you ask a liturgist or a specialist in church worship for a definition of the Advent season, he or she would begin with an analysis of the Latin word adventus, which translates to “arrival or coming.” The month of December is thus a period in which the Church prayerfully reflects upon the coming of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one sent by God the Father. However, Christianity has long held—based upon the Bible itself—that Jesus is glorified in two comings—his birth as a human to Mary, and his dramatic coming as judge at the end of time. Advent attempts to do justice to both, and it is not easy, for during Advent we observe the Second Coming first and the First Coming second.
The late Father Raymond E. Brown, in his [severely overpriced] An Adult Christ at Christmas , reminds us that the “Infancy Narratives” or the traditional Christmas stories of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are not soft and cozy narratives to warm our hearts; they are foreshadowings of the suffering of Jesus and those closest to him; “miniature Calvary stories” as one scholar puts it. In this respect the “Christmas Gospels” are of a weave with the “End of the World Judgment Gospels” that open the Advent season. However, we are so conditioned to hearing Luke’s narrative of the Bethlehem scene in our contemporary setting of family reunions and good cheer that the continuity of the first half of Advent [the Second Coming] with the second half [the remarkable events leading to Jesus’ birth] is often lost.
It has been many a year since I was directly involved in catechizing children, so I cannot say with certainty how today’s teachers broach the subject of Advent with children. I can remember in Catholic school being taught that Advent was something of a countdown to Christmas, though it was never clear precisely how we should be preparing ourselves spiritually other than to follow the directives of the Scripture readings at Mass. My motivation for good Advent behavior, I admit, was fear of offending Santa Claus. I can vividly recall, around the second and third grade, being stunned on the First Sunday of Advent with the proclamation of Luke 21: 25-33: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world….” [In the 1950’s the same Gospels were read every year on Sundays; it was not until 1970 that we went to the three-year rotating cycle we have today, Thus, Luke’s apocalyptic message on the First Sunday of Advent was read annually till I was 22, the same year I stopped waiting for Santa.]
Luke 21 was indeed heavy stuff for a nine-year-old who, based upon his religion classes, was expecting to hear about Mary and Joseph packing for Bethlehem on the First Sunday of Advent, and I was still confused that “grown-up Jesus” was the highlight of the Second Sunday. I felt a little better the third week when John the Baptist came into the Mass reading, although he too was grown-up and describing the adult Jesus, the one who was to come after him. Finally, I could breathe easier on the Fourth and final Sunday when Matthew 1: 18-21 described Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy and the angel’s announcement of the birth of Jesus, though I had no idea of the complications involved in the story. To my way of thinking, it took three weeks for the Church to get to the meat of Advent, which I believed to be the Christmas narrative.
I may be wrong, but I suspect that the dynamic of the Second Coming gets lost, not just for kids, but for adults and even preachers, in Catholic life and worship in the Advent season. This came home to me in a powerful way last night with my group. We were wrapping up our discussion of the Nicene Creed, specifically the line “and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I shared with them what I had been taught about judgment, and more to the point, what I had heard countless times as an altar boy at funerals, the gripping hymn “Dies Irae,” [Day of Wrath] possibly written by the Franciscan Thomas of Celano in the thirteenth century:
The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How great the tremors there will be,
when the judge comes,
investigating everything strictly!
Dies Irae describes Christ’s glorious return as final judge at the end of time. Our personal judgement, I learned, occurs as soon as we die. We were taught that upon our death our lives would be assessed by God, and that most of us, if we had not died in a state of mortal sin, would spend time in Purgatory [from the Latin purgatorium, a purge] to be cleansed of guilt we bore from a lifetime of imperfection and sin, before we could proceed to the presence of God. Catholics believe that our prayers and good works for the “souls in Purgatory” shorten the period of purgation or purification. While there is an essential truth here, the catechetical and pastoral articulation of Purgatory and judgment is somewhat impoverished today. Purgatory is much more than “paying down your mortgage.” Our failure over the years to think creatively about ultimate encounter with the glorified Christ after death is one of the missing ingredients of our present-day Advent observance. Or, put another way, how do we talk about our own judgment?
As my wagon continues to rumble toward the inevitable end of my earthly existence, I have given more thought to the reality of judgment. Given my background in both theology and psychology, my meditations on life after death have taken me in the direction of judgment and Purgatory as painful encounters with the Holy Spirit, who infuses in us the wisdom to see our lives as they really unfolded. Put another way, we will suffer from an encounter with the truth about ourselves. On earth, we can hide, divert, ignore, or busy ourselves against the Spirit’s gift of insightful truth. But after death, we cannot run from such knowledge any longer.
In talking to my class, I gave them my ideas about the truths I would encounter after my death. First, the reality of how much Jesus loves me and how little I have done in my lifetime to walk with him in Scripture reading and prayer. In early elementary school I was taught that if I were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have come down from heaven and gone through his sacrificial life just for me. That impressed me as a little kid; as an adult, I know—intellectually—that such is the case, but the enormity of that truth is only now beginning to penetrate my religious obtuseness. It is a blessed knowledge but a searing one as I reflect upon how little of that love I have reciprocated, or even recognized.
A second painful truth which I believe is only fully understood after death is the reality of how hurtful my sins of omission and commission have been for those who were the object of my selfishness or neglect. A third truth, related to the second, is the extraordinary number of wonderful people I have come to know in my life’s journey, and how much I missed by not taking more time to engage in their goodness in response to their invitations to me. And finally, I believe the Spirit will make clear to me the personal, material, and spiritual gifts I received over a lifetime in contrast to how I recognized and utilized those gifts for the service of the world. So much wasted time! So little Christian focus!
In retrospect, there is probably an “Advent logic” in devoting the first 75% of the season to a liturgical orientation to Christ’s Second Coming. To reflect upon the encounter with Christ’s Spirit of Truth at the end of our time is the greatest incentive to intensifying our present union with Jesus, whose earthly story the Advent season introduces on December 17 and continues through Christmas and the full liturgical year. In an introduction to Fleming Rutledge’s powerful new work, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ , Professor Michael J. Gorman writes: “Advent is not merely preparation for Christmas, much less ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ It is, rather, the season of difficult yet hopeful watching, waiting, and participating—the season that encapsulates the Christian life between Christ’s first and second coming.”
Desirous of Starting Over Your Faith Journey? Seek Out the "Permanent Catechumen," Thomas Merton, As Your Sponsor
This is the time in the Church Year when we see announcements and invitations in Church bulletins for those seeking to join the Catholic Church through Baptism [or a Profession of Faith if baptized in another Christian Church.] I remember very well from my years as a pastor how many of my flock would ask me why they could not be “born again” as their neighbors were doing in other Christian churches. Catholic doctrine teaches that we are baptized once in a lifetime, an unrepeatable event. For those of us baptized as infants, we have no experience of that event to draw from. And while we believe, doctrinally, that this baptism is a definitive saving event, we know experientially that we still wrestle with our reality of one foot in heaven and one foot in hell.
For nearly a half-century now since Vatican II, anyone joining the Church as an adult has been routed through the R.C.I.A., the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I could not help but notice that America Magazine this month reprinted a 1989 essay by Father Andrew Greeley, “The Case Against R.C.I.A.” Father Greeley contests the idea that one size or one model of conversion fits all, and he is quite heated on the point:
Everyone is unique. The Holy Spirit still blows whither She wills. The uniqueness, that which is most special about each person who comes to the rectory, is precisely the message, to those who preside over the rectory, of the Spirit of Variety and Pluralism. We have no right to try to arrange Her schedule, budget Her time, routinize Her grace. No one’s spiritual pilgrimage fits a formula. No one can be run through an automatic process. No one can be forced to jump through a series of hoops that have been designed a priori by liturgists and religious educators.
Whatever one thinks of his critique, Greeley makes a vital point in emphasizing the unique nature of each person’s search for encounter with the living God, an encounter that must precede and proceed liturgical formulation. Put another way, we know that baptism does not guarantee heaven, and that the best catechetical preparation in the world does not inoculate us against sin, confusion, and doubt. Moreover, the mystery of initiation into the full life of God is a lifelong process. As I meditate now in my 75th year of life, I am floored by the complexity of my own history. I hardly know how to reconcile the eager young 21-year-old redhead taking simple vows in the Franciscan Order in 1969 with the bald man who today can hardly imagine his life without his wonderful wife of nearly twenty-five years. More to the point, this senior citizen still feels like a catechumen, standing at the threshold of a deeper conversion that at times is quite frightening.
Thomas Merton once remarked that “the more I know about spirituality, I realize I know nothing about spirituality.” I can resonate with that. I sense that much work of the Spirit remains for me if I would get out of the way and allow God to shape me like the potter’s clay. Ironically, my hunger to “begin again” on the baptismal journey is stronger than at any time previously in my life, or so it seems. I suspect this is true for many of us regardless of when we were baptized. It was that realization which led me this summer to pick up, again, probably the greatest description of catechumenal seeking in print, the extraordinary autobiography of young Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain. 
Can a Catholic start all over again as a catechumen and be “born again?” The answer is no and yes. The negative answer is this: we have been baptized, confirmed, and eucharized, and whether we appreciate the fact or not, our sense of sin and inadequacy before God is a hearty symptom that one’s Confirmation “took”—the Spirit is enlightening us and prompting us with insight into who we are and where we ought to be. Unrest is a gift to move on to something better. So, to repeat these initiation sacraments because we are spiritually shipwrecked would be to deny their power within us at work. Moreover, the “tools” of our rebirth come from the Church—our Creed, the Scripture, the wisdom of two millennia of holy men and women, including those in the present day who minister to us and break bread with us in the Eucharist.
On the other hand, can a Catholic persona be “born again?” Absolutely, so long as we understand that this birth is the fruit of a lifelong labor. There is nothing that says we cannot take our souls back to the drawing board by way of an autobiographical examination of our lives to date. In fact, it is hard to imagine a Christian life which does not engage in a regular self-examination or examination of conscience. As I say, I read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain this summer, and it occurred to me that Merton—despite his Catholic conversion, his lifelong commitment to the Trappist Order, and his ordination to the priesthood—lived his entire life as a catechumen of sorts, and his ministry to the Church remains his written narrative of conversion from childhood to his tragic death while engaged in dialogue with Buddhist seekers of God.
Merton [1915-1968] is an ideal companion for anyone wishing to “start again.” I love Thomas Merton for many reasons, possibly not least the fact that he applied to the same branch of the Franciscan Order that I entered, though his application in his 20’s was rejected because of his relatively recent conversion to Catholicism and several moral complications from his college years, including fathering a child in England. [I entered Franciscan life at 14 and had no such complications, aside from immaturity!] As a convert to Catholicism, he desired priesthood and was despondent for a time when he believed that all doors to the sacerdotal were closed. However, he became aware of the Trappist Order of monks, specifically the monastery of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Monasteries, historically, have been more sympathetic to men with “pasts.” Monastic life dates to the third century, originally as a way of doing penance for sinful lives. Like other religious orders, the Trappist vows are commitments to an intensification of living the baptismal promises. [The vows of religious orders are distinct from the Sacrament of Orders.] A vowed religious remains a lay person unless there is a special need or call to ordination. Merton was received into the Gethsemane community at age 26 in 1941. He would live in this community for the remainder of his life, and he was ordained to the priesthood in the Trappist Order in 1949.
Thomas Merton is one of the most remarkable religious figures of the twentieth century and beyond, and his fame and influence in the Church are a continuing thorn in the side to many bishops who find his lifelong spiritual journey too honest and too “undomesticated.” In 2004 Merton was omitted from the final draft of the U. S. edition of the Catholic Catechism for Adults; by way of explanation Cardinal Donald Wuerl uttered a shameful dissembling: ““The generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was...only secondarily did we take into consideration that we don’t know all the details of the searching at the end of his life.” Wrong. Merton’s autobiographical Seven Storey Mountain currently sits in the top 2% of Amazon book sales [August 31, 2022] and his other devotional writings, such as Seeds of Contemplation, are in wide use today. There is simply no other convert to Catholicism who has left us such a paper trail as Thomas Merton—before and after his initiation into the Church—nor one who has dared to write about his need for God’s grace and his detours in attaining that grace and maintaining the course throughout his adult life in such magnificent prose.
Seven Story Mountain is Merton’s 500-page recollection of his life up to age 30. A detailed personal journal that he maintained throughout his life was made public in seven volumes in 1998, thirty years after his death, and there are multiple volumes of his letters to the famous and the anonymous available for purchase or borrowing today. Thus, although SSM take’s Merton’s life up to profession with the Trappists in 1944, there is an excess of autobiographical riches from Merton’s entire life, up to and including the day of his death, in all sorts of formats, including his journals, letters, spiritual books, and poetry. Merton, who had written poetry and attempted novels before entering religious life, assumed that when he took the habit, he would no longer be able to write. However, his abbot encouraged him to do so, including an exhortation to describe his journey to Gethsemane, which would become Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton’s autobiography appeared on the market in the years immediately after World War II, when thousands of veterans were attempting to make sense of their wartime experience. It is no exaggeration to say that the war had produced a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress syndrome as many impressionable men and women had come face to face with evil, the likes of which they could hardly have imagined. It is a happy accident that Seven Storey Mountain was released on the heels of the Hollywood blockbuster film, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which chronicles the difficulties facing returning GIs to American society. Merton never served in World War II; he was received into Gethsemane just ahead of his draft notice. But his description of male unrest and thirst for religious meaning resonated with thousands of readers, not a few of whom sought the meaningful life of the religious cowl. There were 250 monks living in Gethsemane during Merton’s early years as a monk.
Moreover, Merton’s autobiography and other books began appearing in bookstores as thousands of young Catholic men were taking advantage of the GI Bill and attending college. [My former employer, Siena College, built Quonset huts to handle the overflow of postwar students.] Catholic colleges naturally required theology courses as part of the basic curriculum, meaning that into the 1950’s and 1960’s Catholic life in the United States was infused by better educated Catholic laity hungry for intellectual and spiritual stimulation.
My own rereading of Merton’s early years was a refreshing experience of religious introspection. I had read this work many years ago, but I was a different man then. I was motivated by curiosity as much as anything. But this time around I was taken by the nuances of Merton’s journey—the places he lived with his itinerant artist father, the books he read, the ideologies he toyed with, the religious prejudices he overcame, his time with the Quakers and the Communist Party, his volunteering in Harlem, his social excesses and squandered time. It is interesting that Catholic church buildings were among Merton’s first favorable experiences with Catholic life. [Having recently returned from Europe—particularly Venice and Florence—I can resonate with that.]
Even though all of Merton’s publishing underwent scrupulous examination by Trappist censors, it is amazing to see how God’s grace was able to flourish side by side with Merton’s imperfect humanity. While SSM outlines his youthful sins and trials to age 29, it is his journals [seven volumes in print] and his correspondence [about six volumes released, I believe] where we see more of Merton’s mature graces and vices. He wrestled back and forth with his belief that he needed to depend totally on God’s will, but he was a willful man whose tug of war with his abbot of twenty years, Dom James Fox, is legendary. [When Margaret and I visited Merton’s grave at Gethsemane in 1999, we discovered that the two men are buried side by side…death makes for strange bedfellows.]
Merton never quite reconciled the silent, structured life of the monastery with his own considerable energies, a problem that only got worse as he aged. His letters are filled with promises to correspondents and friends to read this and examine that. In SSM we see him as a young adult devouring volumes of books on philosophy and the arts, and then on to theology in his religious search. As a 50-something monk he continued this pattern—it is plain in his letters—and one wonders where he found the time to do all this. Late in his tenure he received permission to build a “hermitage” to find more silence and prayerful isolation. He joined the main abbey for Mass and one meal per day. But he hosted many guests and small groups at the “hermitage” or in the retreat center [Martin Luther King had a retreat scheduled at Gethsemane when he was killed in Memphis.] It is fair to say that he never totally “left the world,” and his 1960’s writings against the war in Viet Nam and racism in the United States raised the ire of those who felt a cloistered monk had no business engaging in these controversies.
The blessing of Thomas Merton is his recognition that his soul is always in need of reform, semper reformanda. For the Catholic who picks up Merton for the first time in 2022, it is a bit of a shock to read a man who has much in common with St. Augustine, with his distrust of man’s natural state and his utter dependence upon God’s grace. Merton’s college and young adult years had taught him what a life without God was really like. We are not used to hearing this language in the era of Vatican II, which tends to speak of the human species much more optimistically. The irony, of course, is that John XXIII convoked Vatican II precisely because of the moral collapse manifested in two World Wars and the Holocaust. Merton appreciated this fact and never got carried too far from his mea culpas.
Merton loved the sacraments; his description of Eucharistic encounter brings out his poetic best. He had strong devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, to the liturgical calendar, and the Divine Office. In SSM he reflects the times in his traditional disparagement of Protestant ideas and practices, but in middle age his deeper sense of the provenance of God steered him into a more ecumenical stance, and by the end of his life to the Eastern theologies of meditation. It can be said, I think, that the title “perpetual catechumen” can be applied to him in the sense that he never considered his divine conversion a “done deal” but a life-long search.
I believe that this is what Father Greeley was trying to say in the paragraph cited above: because we go through the rites of initiation does not mean that we stop initiating, whatever our age. And for this reason, I recommend that if you are feeling a need to get to the root of your spiritual unrest, or even if you feel that your initiation is somehow dead to you, pick up Merton. I recommend the Seven Storey Mountain, but if you prefer to begin with a third-person biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton  by Michael Mott is dated but a very good narrative. Possibly Merton’s most famous spiritual writing is New Seeds of Contemplation [revised, 2007]. The first volume of his journals is Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation/The Journal of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: 1939-1941. If you would like to sample his letters, start with The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends .
A catechumen—first time or repeater—needs a sponsor. Merton is there for you. He has done the heavy lifting.
First, I am grateful I got significant response to the post on the Synod last week, and everyone who responded personally over the multiple Cafe social platforms had exceptionally good points to make. In fact, I would like to address as many as I can, but each deserves a full post because of the complexity of the question.
The first person to weigh in was Mary, one of my distant relatives from Pennsylvania. She and her husband are extremely active in their parish and have raised three remarkable daughters to adulthood. She asked this question: “How are we going to engage the unchurched and underchurched? Are we supposed to stand at the entrances of other churches and hand out forms to all those folks? To those who self-identify as former Catholics? It will be another exercise of ‘speaking to the choir’ imho.”
Thank you, Mary. In a few sentences you correctly targeted not one but two issues which may derail the Synodal process. First, your sentence, “It will be another exercise of speaking to the choir” reminds us that in the last half century or so, since Vatican II, we have loyally participated in a seeming endless series of programs which promise to restore the vigor of the Catholic Church at the parish level and enrich the universal Church. I suspect that we are growing weary of them. I must admit that when the Synod appeared on my personal radar, I had something of the same reaction—not another half-baked bureaucratic program leading to nothing. I was so unenthused that when a particularly good friend, a Doctor of Theology, asked me how I was going to get involved in the Synod process, I told her I was tired of Church programs and wanted to be left alone in my golden years.
If you google the web pages of dioceses at random, you will find that many of them in the United States are in the process of some localized structured renewal unrelated to the Synod. This morning I picked at random the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is featuring “Nothing Compares to Being There.” This is a campaign—well organized—to invite back to weekly Mass those who discontinued regular participation at Eucharist during Covid. The problem is that this program, and others like it, assumes that Covid is the facilitator of the decline, when there is a large body of research which establishes that the exodus from the altar predates February 2020. Nor did I see anything suggesting dialogue in the Philadelphia program; it is essentially “come back to us where you belong.” A pastoral effort, to be sure, but nothing synodal about it.
During my years as a Franciscan priest and parish pastor, I was elected to the Order’s three-year and six-year meetings, called “chapters,” to address problems and create better ways to enhance the community life of the friars on the East Coast of the United States. Each of these chapters produced a working document to be implemented by the local communities. Toward the end of my years with the friars we produced a document called Franciscan Life and Ministry, or colloquially, FLAM. Several years later we returned to write a revision of this document. The product quickly became dubbed “Son of FLAM” and became something of a poster child for the reality that meetings, documents, and plans were just not cutting it.
Why have so many Church projects of renewal died? The gifted Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton [1874-1936] may have put it best: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Chesterton’s adage explains why so many Church ventures do not deliver the goods, so to speak, whether they be the works of parishes, dioceses, or the universal Church itself. First, we nibble around the edges looking to avoid what our founding documents tell us to do—the Gospels, the Nicene Creed, Francis of Assisi’s Rule for the friars, written in his own hand; the “hard” challenge that Chesterton speaks of. There is no mystery to what Christ wants of us—to pray always, to care for the poor, to “be one as the Father and I are one.” Most of us—individually and corporately—are engaged in “conscience negotiations” about how far we want to take this, how hard do we want this to be.
Consequently, all our Church dialogue is tainted by this dishonesty. It is critical to admit this as we enter the Synodal phase. In fact, the best that could come out of the Synodal process is an intimate confession of our individual and collective sinfulness, one to another. Only then can the forgiving grace of God loosen our tongues to speak the words that build the Body of Christ on earth. If I understand Pope Francis correctly, this is the dialogue of saving unity he wishes the entire Church to embrace. To admit our sinfulness and failure to live the Gospel as well as our need for the saving example of Christ is the unifying principle of the Church.
In our prayers for the fruitfulness of the synod, we would be amiss if we did not pray for the deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church. It is impossible to escape the reality that the line between the sacramental charism of leadership and the intoxication of authority and power is often crossed, many times unknowingly. Again, the success of the Synod will depend upon the honesty of the ordained clergy: that they understand the pope’s intention, that they preach it clearly, that they facilitate the process to the fullest, that they seek help for the process if they do not understand the art of effective collaboration, that they encourage openness, and finally and most painfully, that they hear sincere fraternal correction, when necessary, coming from their people. The mistakes of ordained leaders do not lessen their ministry or importance to the Church; rather, admission of “clericalism,” pride, academic sloth, insensitivity, etc., bring our clergy to closer communion with the faithful.
And so, Mary, only time will tell as to whether our march toward Synodality is the highway to the New Jerusalem or forty more years in the desert. But to your second point about reaching the unchurched. I am going to suggest that the terms “churched” and “unchurched” are much less useful than we may think. We tend to put stock on the number of the “churched” because it is the only visible metric we have for measuring the relative health of the parish. [As a former pastor, I looked at attendance through the eyes of my accountant, LOL.] It is unwise to assume that because someone is in the pew with frequency, he or she enjoys a full communion with God and is in less need of the “spiritual field hospital,” to use Pope Francis’ phrase, than an individual who is not in our pews but may enjoy a communion with God that we can scarcely imagine. The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son never abandoned his “pew” at the father’s table but his true soul was revealed in a painful display.
That said, it is exceedingly important that the Synod process involve those who once sat side by side with us in the pew and who have sought spiritual solace elsewhere. The assumption is often made that someone who absents himself from Catholic worship is “the guilty party in the divorce.” We have good research now that those who have left the practice of the Catholic faith have done so for a myriad of reasons, many of them quite understandable. The groundbreaking St. Mary’s Press/CARA 2017 study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” found that departure from the Church begins around the age of thirteen, and as early as 10. When I read this study, I found these results very confirming. For an eight-year-old child, not fortunate enough to sit in one of the first three pews, what is the actual experience of Mass for him or her—spending an hour watching the backside of the grownup in front? And does he get more from the sermon than we adult unfortunates? No one has ever stopped to consider—or considered it important enough—that our very architecture [and our preaching and music selections, too] alienate children from Mass. It occurs to me just now that the Synod process should listen very carefully to the young and the very young, who are “unchurching” under our noses.
I do not think we need to visit other churches and hand out forms, as Mary humorously put it. But I think everyone who reads my words today knows dozens if not hundreds of family members and friends who are no longer affiliated with Catholicism, however one defines that. I could go through three lists right now and produce at least five hundred names: my family, my old seminary classmates, and my Facebook friends. In a perfect world—and even in the real world—I would ask them to tell me about their faith journeys.
I will give one example. One of my close friends from my seminary and ordination class is celebrating his birthday today. He beat me to seventy-four by three weeks. He retired recently from his position as a highly respected Episcopal pastor in North Carolina. I would hardly call him unchurched. At the same time, how much richer the Catholic Church would be if we understood the spiritual call that led him to the Episcopal priesthood after he was ordained with me. I would never say to him, “We’re gathering the fallen-away Catholics back to the fold, and we’d like you to join us and reconsider.”
What I would rather say is this: “You began your baptismal and ordination journey in the Roman Catholic tradition, and then you were called to another branch of Christ’s family. Can you share with us something of your journey that might enrich and reform us as we assess our Roman Catholic stance toward God’s mission through Christ?”
Invite as many as you are comfortable with, with the understanding that their experiences are invaluable to us, as we humbly listen. And let God take it from there.
The Synod is Coming! The Synod is Coming! Has Paul Revere ridden through your home, your parish, your diocese yet to ring the bell and gather all the grownups in the town square to spring to action? The Synod on Synods, summarized in that snappy catch phrase, “Synodality,” has captured the fire and imagination of all American Catholics, eager to engage in a billion-wide consultation with the pope and the world’s bishops to form a future vision of the Church under the headings of “Communion, Participation, Mission.” A wave of energy and excitement has engulfed the country! Or not.
First, what is going on? Last year Pope Francis convoked a Synod or worldwide meeting of bishops to discuss the process of how the Church members communicate with each other [communion], work with each other and the world [participation], and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ [mission]. The Synod, scheduled for 2023, will be preceded by the largest consultation process the Church has ever attempted.
Whether this is all news to you, or you are confused about your role to play in this process, really depends on where you live, who you know, and “how plugged in your diocese is” to the happenings in Church World. National Catholic Reporter’s update of December 14, 2021 indicates that across the United States some dioceses are moving ahead energetically, and some are doing nothing. In Orlando, my home diocese, there was evidently a gathering at the Cathedral in November, though I heard nothing about it in my parish and it is not clear from the website who was invited and what, if any, follow-up is planned. [This would describe many of the dioceses I checked.] Some dioceses, such as Savannah, GA, are merging the Synodal process with diocesan discernment and planning programs already in the works locally. Lincoln, NE, is conducting its listening process entirely by email. St. Augustine, FL, has sent postcards to every Catholic on record throughout the diocese.
Because of Covid, among other things, the Vatican’s directives to the world’s bishops for the process of the Synod were late getting to the post office. The official Vatican document outlining the theological principles of the upcoming Synod were not released till September 7, 2021. As anyone involved in Church life and ministry is aware, the diocesan-parish calendars follow the fiscal year, beginning July 1. The introduction of a universal and novel program of such major importance—and there is no precedent for such a focused world-wide consultation--has caught many segments of the Church flatfooted. The September document--which runs to about 8,000 words—is no walk in the park; it conveys the theological underpinnings for the inclusion of the faith life and experiences of all baptized persons and the need to hear their insights in the light of the Holy Spirit. It is the kind of document that needs “digestion” lest the process be seen as simply an opportunity for the laity to get their beefs out in the open.
If you do not have time to read the Vatican Document, you might instead look at the guidelines for group listening sessions posted by the Diocese of Allentown, PA, for use in its parish/regional consultations. [Scroll down to sections 4, 5, and 6.] The Allentown outlines were written for group interaction, but clearly there is an understanding that much personal homework needs to be done before meeting in a group encounter. A few samples will suffice. The Allentown participants are called upon to address these questions in group: [I selected several from the full inventory.]
Describe ways that you learned about being Catholic. (e.g., raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, RCIA/Convert, married a Catholic)
How would you describe your relationship with the Catholic Church today? Has it changed over time? How? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
Does your parish offer a spirit of welcome and inclusion to all in the community?
Does prayer, Mass, the Sacraments, and other Church celebrations inspire and guide your life with the Church?
Why or why not?
How would you describe your relationship with God? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
How can a church community help form people to be more capable of walking together, listening to one another, fulfilling the mission, etc.?
Where do you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit? What are we being asked to do?
One of the first things that jumped off the page of these questions was the autobiographical nature of the inquiry. Participants are asked to provide a sketch of their journeys from baptism till the present day, which requires an admission of sorts about the bumps and washouts as well as the high moments. I noticed in the Allentown directives—and, as a mental health professional, I highly commend them for this—an admonition to confidentiality [though even in therapeutic groups, I cannot assure members that everyone will respect this, and I must extend that warning, too.] I might add here that there will be times when church/diocesan employees may be sharing hard truths with their superiors and employers, a situation known as a dual relationship. Would a Catholic woman schoolteacher in a parish school suffer consequences if she admitted that deep in her heart, she longed to be a Catholic priest? I wonder if that circumstance has been planned for—and if people are honest in sharing, it is bound to come up.
Honesty is hard to hear, and any of us who enter serious dialogue with our neighbors in Christ is going to hear feedback that is, at the least, troubling, and disturbing. It would be hard for me to say as I must, in a group of people who love our parish, that my mind and soul are not fed in my present parish of 26 years, that it is a struggle to attend each week, and that I am in my 70’s and still wandering in the desert seeking that saving unity experience that Pope Francis has called us to. I have felt isolated there, sad that what I perceived to be helpful educational/theological gifts I had shared with the diocese for forty years were not deemed useful to the mission of my home parish. When our permanent deacon reached out to me a few months ago to prepare the adult candidates for Confirmation, I was on the verge of tears at having been asked—and it proved to be the most heartwarming parish experience I have enjoyed there.
Of course, truth telling works the other way, too. In 1987 and 1988, after a decade of service pastoring the same parish, I had to embark on a campaign to raise about $2 million—an exceptionally hefty sum then—to build the church that stands there today. This involved a year of dining with individual families soliciting gifts of five and six figures. A pastor is never so vulnerable as he is with hat in hand. And in those long personal discussions, I learned a great deal. Some of my families were carrying crosses—personal and financial—that I had known nothing about in ten years. In other cases, parishioners used the opportunities to freely share their perceptions of my imperfections as a pastor. In some cases, these were misunderstandings, but in most cases, they were right, and when the church building finally opened in 1988, I knew in my heart it was time for me to take a hard look at my spiritual trajectory as a priest and rouse myself into the major discernment of my life’s direction, spiritually and vocationally.
On the question of the voice of the Holy Spirit, that too might raise surprises if we were honest with each other. I have posted over the years on the Café blog that my sixth-grade Confirmation experience was one of my true “downer” moments. Having been taught about the fire and power of the Holy Spirit and how it changed the apostles, I was so disappointed that nothing happened, i.e. I felt exactly the same after the ceremony as before. Something of my faith died then, and I really did not recover a profound sense of the Holy Spirit’s intervention till I entered AA in 1990 and a few months later found an Episcopal psychotherapist whose own religious faith, expertise, and blunt honesty turned my life around to the point where I could start, slowly, building a faith experience on stone, not sand. My guess is that the Spirit truly “blows where it will” to quote Saint John; I would be eager to hear how the Spirit has touched others in a synodal sharing encounter.
Again, looking back at the kinds of questions posed in the Allentown format, it strikes me that the kind of sharing process envisioned here cannot be achieved in an evening. The goal is not to fill paper with suggestions, but to share our life with God, historically and existentially. Consequently, for this Synodal process to work, pastors and deacons will need to coordinate preaching for some weeks to explain the process and, equally important, how this process can be continued after the official timetable of the Synod is complete. It is the pope’s vision that this kind of intensive unity at the grassroots level—let alone the interchange between communities and the bishops of the world in communion with the Bishop of Rome—become the standard way we interact and build the Body of Christ, a counterbalance to an overly authoritarian and clerical style of leadership.
It is true that segments of the Church do not trust Pope Francis nor the Synodal process. One glaring problem with the build-up to the 2023 Synod is that there is nervousness and opposition among many bishops and laity about “opening the floor” to the full membership of the Church to have influential say. Any hint that the Church is a “democracy” suggests to some that the Church is sacrificing its timeless principles to the whims of the age, losing its position as the one rock of security that can still be trusted. Such a fear does overlook the fact that the Church is a living and breathing entity empowered by the Holy Spirit to plan its mission and correct its sinfulness. Pope Francis would say that the Synodal process recognizes the power of Baptism, that a true priesthood of the faithful constitutes the Church, or the Church is nothing.
That said, the exercise of a true baptismal life requires study, prayer, and involvement; armchair criticizing is an abuse of the collaborative process. This is even more reason bishops and pastors must ensure that the resources are available for adult conversion and formation. Allentown’s guidelines make note of this; “How do you think people can grow in their faith? What resources (books, clergy, retreats, services, etc.) are helpful to you?” Most adults, I think, do not know precisely what they need—individually and collectively—to enter continuing faith and theological formation, beginning with Scripture study. I am not always confident that dioceses know how to introduce formative programs for professionals, those with college degrees, motivated initiative-takers, etc. [I began The Catechist Café blog to address this need.]
In the discussion of the synodal process, I have ignored to this point a very troubling fact: only 20-25% of Catholics are actively engaged in parish life to the point of weekly participation in the Eucharist. About 50% are Catholic in name only; the second largest identified group by religious pollsters in the U.S. is former Catholics. In truth, most baptized Catholics have already participated in this synod, albeit unknowingly; they left. In some of the better media and journalistic coverage of the Synod to date, there have been calls to do everything possible to talk to this population to find out why they left. This may be one of the most painful populations to hear, but if nothing else, there is an opportunity for healing at the very least. I would be cautious about using the term “coming home,” however, as some dioceses are advertising their outreach. The “home” is dysfunctional; it is better to invite those who have left to become part of the healing of the dysfunction that drove them away in the first place.
Pope Francis has expressed the concern that the poorest and the most vulnerable of society be invited to participate. Some dioceses are considering inviting clients from their Catholic Charities programs to express their needs to the local churches. In states like mine, Florida, the plight of immigrants [many of whom are Catholic] deserves personal witness. Again, this is a learning process that needs to extend far beyond the initial two-year Synodal process. We are being called to examine what Catholic community life is called to look like; there is an inherent discomfort in this because all of us will have to rethink our Catholic modus vivendi. The Protestant philosopher Brian McLaren puts it well in his The Great Spiritual Migration : “And that’s why we so desperately need this third migration: from a religion organized for self-preservation and privilege to a religion organizing for the common good of all.” [p. 153] McLaren is referencing the entire Christian family, not just Roman Catholicism, but the point is well taken for the Catholic household.
So how can you get involved?
The rollout of the diocesan consultations for the Synod is extremely uneven. Ideally, direction should be emanating from your diocese and your parish, but a review of the American landscape indicates that the rollout is uneven, and admittedly may not occur at all in some dioceses. My home diocese of Orlando has the general description of the synodal process on its website, but no concrete program is currently publicized. The “unofficial word” is that the parishes will be responsible for doing the consultations as they see fit.
Many dioceses are conducting “hearing sessions” at a variety of locations. In real life, this is a town hall style meeting. As a pastor, I had exactly two such meetings in twenty years. I am hesitant to endorse this model because the message it conveys is superficiality, the last thing this process deserves.
In an ideal world, a parish would build a series of cluster or small group meetings over an extended period to address the questions from a source such as the Allentown model. The layout and sequence of topics needs to be scheduled and publicized in advance so that participants can pray and reflect upon the questions prior to meeting; as I commented earlier, about every issue on the templates I have seen is profound and autobiographical. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of explanation and support from the pulpit. I do not know whether, in my own diocese, the priests and deacons have received orientations about the Synod and how to address it from the pulpit and other local means.
It may be that the only option open to you officially is an invitation to a town hall or listening meeting. You may wish to attend  to get a whiff of which issues generate the most heat, if not light; and  to see exactly why town hall meetings are ineffective anywhere if you did not know already. But, to take your involvement further in the true spirit of Synodality, there is no law against forming your own cluster to give prayerful and thoughtful consideration to the issues the bishops will be discussing at the 2023 Synod. I would mention to your pastor or someone on the parish staff that you are going to do it; that may generate some energy to rouse others in the parish to “go thou and do likewise.” But your parish cannot tell you it is wrong to gather five of your friends to gather weekly or monthly in a home or a local coffee shop to discuss what the universal Church is undertaking. You can use the Allentown outline or another similar to it.
Can you send your summary of discussions directly to the Vatican? Absolutely. The postage might be a bit—I would send it registered mail—but here is the official address copied from the Vatican directives on the Synod:
General Secretariat for Synod of Bishops
Via della Concilliazone 34
VA-00120 Vatican City
Phone (+39) 06 698 84821 / 84324
What's Ahead for the Cafe?
I have never owned a dog, but I am told by my friends who have them that at some point the dog starts to own you. I laughingly feel that way about The Catechist Café. The “soft” opening of the Café was September 2014, which coincided with the closing of my private psychotherapy practice. In those early days I had visions of a daily post for catechists and parish ministers as well as motivated Catholic adults while I continued to teach theology to catechists and schoolteachers for my diocese.
A few years ago, I realized that I had run out of about everything I know from 70 years of living and working with the Church. It was time for me to retool as a teacher and writer by expanding my own reading into new areas of theology and Catholic life. It has been and continues to be an exciting change…except that it takes more time to read the books—the new releases and the classics I have missed along the way. So be patient as I digest what is often for me new material so I can pass it along to you in a fashion that makes sense.
Therefore, I am setting the Café goal at about two posts a week, give or take. My hope is to enrich your Catholic experience as members and ministers. I know that most of you don’t have the time to read as much as you’d like, and my hope is to facilitate your access to the best the Catholic world has to offer.
I am going to open an eighth stream on the Café’s home page--Catholic novelists and their books. In the general world of literature, it is amazing how secular critics and readers devour novels by outstanding Catholic authors—from Graham Greene to Flannery O’Connor to Sally Rooney. I am constantly amazed at how secular literary critics return again and again to Catholic literature through the ages. It is amazing to me that with the dozens of acclaimed Catholic fiction writers in our faith family, none ever seem to make their way into a sermon or a faith formation program.
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I began this post on Wednesday afternoon [yesterday] sitting in my car under the watchful eye of the medical professionals for my 15-minute crisis observation in case I suddenly started to retch or do whatever a bad immunization makes you do. For just a few moments earlier I received my first injection of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at the Orange County Convention Center, just north of Disneyworld. I am as amazed as anybody that this opportunity to receive the two-dose vaccine came up so quickly and, in my case, so easily. It was/is my best Christmas gift this year.
I know that all of you watch enough news to know that the distribution of the Covid vaccine, in my case Moderna, is becoming a national crisis, both in terms of limited distribution and national debate about who should get the limited supply first. On our Monday evening local news [December 28], we saw our Orange County executives receiving their shots. Privately I did not think I would be able to get vaccinated till March or April, and probably then in my doctor’s office. When I learned that 19,000 doses had been sent this weekend to my county for first line providers and the like, I never considered that the average senior gentry like myself would get anywhere near these precious first shipments. However, there on TV was the announcement that anyone 65 or older whose residence was Orange County could go on-line to register for 3000 available doses offered this week and next.
Margaret and I do not normally win lotteries, but immediately, in the middle of dinner, Margaret and I each logged in on to the Orange County Covid site on our IPads, just as we had been instructed on TV. Naturally, the site was overloaded for both of us, but we each kept hitting the “Next” button—literally about several hundred times--and about an hour or two later our pads lit up like Christmas trees and we obtained reservations—in the same two-hour window, no less. I believe there were eleven openings left. Tuesday morning Orange County texted us with our bar codes for admission and record keeping for the next day’s vaccination.
Naturally, I was surprised this all happened so quickly for us. I had long believed that there would be an elaborate pecking order for vaccine access, from first providers to nursing homes to teachers, etc. [Margaret is, in fact, an adjunct professor at UCF who visits public schools as part of her job, but we did not expect that to open any privilege doors for us.] We are both in the 73-74-year-old range, short of the CDC’s guidance of age 75, and neither of us have unusual health issues or think of ourselves as particularly vulnerable other than what the actuarial tables tell us. We are both proactive about flu shots, pneumonia vaccines, shingle shots, etc. We had no expectations of early opportunity; just hopeful we could be treated before summer to do some long-postponed travel abroad.
So, to what do we owe our unusual good luck? Well, our case is a textbook example of who you know and where you live. By the norms of the Center for Disease Control standards, the age of 75 is currently the cutoff for inoculations for vulnerable populations; my generation is, nationally, in the next lower tier. There is, of course, a national consensus of sorts that front line providers and nursing home residents should move to the front of the line.
However, I live in Florida. Our governor, Ron DeSantis, has been governed by one principle since the virus reached the Sunshine State almost a year ago: his reelection in 2022. Consequently, our protective measures throughout the state have been minimal at best. There are no statewide orders on lockdowns, masks, or public gatherings to speak of. Truth be told, major businesses and Catholic bishops have been more proactive in protecting the public. Governor DeSantis recently addressed residents at Florida’s giant retirement mecca, The Villages, about 30 miles north of my county, promising to make the vaccine available immediately at age 65. This would be fine if the vaccines were rolling out in large numbers of dosages, which is presently not the case. [In fairness, this underwhelming availability of vaccines is a federal failure as much as a state issue.] In Florida there is a political twist here, as residents of The Villages, like many of the 250,000 seniors who live in my county, are “snowbirds,” the folks who spend large portions of the milder months up north with families and grandchildren. There is political capital in freeing them up to travel when the first buds of spring appear. And Orange County is one of the world’s vacation meccas, and there has been great effort to keep the restaurants and bars open [though Disney’s policing of CDC policy is very stringent, I am told by my patients.]
Given the absence of state supervision, each county must fall back on its own resources to establish vaccine protocols, and there is a disturbing inequality in funding, infrastructure, and experience across county lines even here in Central Florida. Orange County’s on-line reservation and delivery system is first rate. [There is an expectation of Disneyesque quality, I guess.] But we have good friends in bordering counties where no on-line registration system exists, and individuals must call county health offices, whose phone lines are jammed and offices severely understaffed. This morning’s Orlando Sentinel describes the statewide problems encountered so far.
The current situation certainly weighed on my mind when I took advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated. There is unfairness in the system, to be sure, and as you might expect, I do try to examine issues from a Catholic moral perspective, and there are indeed moral considerations surrounding both Covid-19 and the medical means of treating and preventing it.
The medical resources available for illnesses and pandemics are uneven even across state and county lines, but this is a small paradigm of the challenges facing world health. Pope Francis has written and preached exhaustively about the rights of all persons on God’s planet to enjoy a modicum of preventive and proactive health care, matters that include clean water, sanitation, nourishment, and access to professional care. Covid-19 is teaching us that an international fraternity of care needs to govern our interactions across the globe.
Closer to home, the medical profession’s “do no harm” principle extends to all public officials in the establishment of public policy. It is becoming clearer that our country’s ability—at all levels of government—to address chronic and unexpected health emergencies is compromised by inadequate funding and an unseeming politicization of the healing process.
Our Catholic catechetics must review its contents and resources to address the morality of self-care and social responsibility. The many breakdowns of Covid-19 preventive personal discipline are rarely addressed as sin, but what other term would you use? The Fifth Commandment, in Catholic tradition, has come to imply an obligation to care for one’s own body and the physical safety of others. The political statement of going mask-less, for example, can hardly be justified in the face of honoring the body as a “Temple of the Holy Spirit.”
Catholics are obliged to seek truth in both the religious and the scientific realm. We hold that God is revealed naturally in the wonders of science. Consequently, there is an obligation to respect sound scholarship—and that includes the principles by which we come to understand more about ourselves and our surroundings. To undermine the common good through the seeding of “offbeat theories” which have continually failed the crucible of peer review and scientific method carries moral guilt commensurate to the harm it causes. Anti-vaxxers need to address their stance by a moral light. About fifteen years ago I sought medical help for deafness; a specialist explained to me that there is a strong correlation between mumps and adult deafness. At age 14 I was hospitalized for a severe case of mumps that invaded much of my body. Of course, this was long before the discovery of the mumps vaccine. It is hard for me to comprehend how parents expose their children to such long-term risks today when vaccines are readily available. At the very least, I believe there is a moral imperative to prevent the proliferation of Covid and other contagious diseases.
I am not going to lie and say that I had no thoughts about the consequences of injection of a new drug into my arm. However, I trust sound medicine and the institutions that brought it forth. I understand that Covid-19 is a grave danger to a good number of those infected. I also understand that my inoculation contributes to the common good, and in some way is my contribution to the ministry of Protection of Life. I regret that in my corner of the world there was not a fairer system of distribution in my state and in my country, but I could not see that declining the drug would any way change that equation.
So, it is now early morning, and you might be wondering about side effects. [The CDC advisory on side effects is here.] I woke up at 3 AM with a very sore arm and a case of euphoria [I do not usually blog in the middle of the night] for I consider myself extremely lucky to have had this health intervention so soon, and I look forward to my second dose on January 27. This was a Christmas gift I never expected to get, and I sincerely hope all of you can protect yourselves and your loved ones as soon as possible.
Time for breakfast.
It is a testimony to the times we live in that I cannot remember the occasion which prompted my last pastor to engage a local law enforcement officer to stand guard over our congregations and parking lot on Saturday and Sunday Masses. Perhaps it was a shooting massacre at a church—Charleston, South Carolina comes to mind—but last Saturday an Altamonte Springs, Florida, city police cruiser sat near my car in the lot, a reminder of the vulnerability of all gathering places and sites of worship.
I imagine that the officers working our church this coming Christmas Eve will be busy, for this year we have the new—and hopefully the last—challenge of Covid 19 to good church order. The pandemic and its challenges to Christmas worship in the United States has been chronicled in some detail at National Catholic Reporter, with reports on how various dioceses are accommodating the expected large numbers of worshippers at Christmas, how the Vatican is permitting each priest the privilege of offering four Masses on Christmas Eve if the pastoral need exists, and church-state struggles on worship and civil Covid regulations.
The State of Florida has gained some measure of national notoriety for its loose Covid-19 precautionary standards. The optics as well as the content of the state’s guidance webpage offer little encouragement or hard restrictions, and the governor has declared that local jurisdictions cannot impose stricter measures than the state. That said, major retailers and the Disney complex in my county are running tight ships. Several of my patients tell me that Disneyworld is policing its masking, eating, and social distancing rules forcefully across its parks. Publix grocery stores, Costco, and Staples [my regular shopping haunts] require masks and social distancing for admission and service.
I am pleased to report that the Diocese of Orlando has publicly maintained strong safety policies. Our bishop, John Noonan, has situated all Covid discussion in the context of Christian service and responsibility to neighbor. There is still a dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation for those in vulnerable populations, no questions asked. It remains to pastors to enforce diocesan policies on such matters as communion in the hand and to develop unique strategies of safety best suited to the size of the parish and its configuration. Again, my home parish, Annunciation Church in Altamonte Springs, Florida, has met this challenge very well. After the two-month lockdown during the first surge in the spring, my wife and I, who fall in the “vulnerable population” as we are in our 70’s, experimented with returning to Mass by attending a sparsely populated noon Mass on Thursdays. Having established our comfort with the level of protection provided by the parish, we eventually returned to our favorite Saturday vigil Mass and continue to worship in peace. From where I sit, it is rare to see an unmasked individual. [I do note with some humor the appearance of a “Trump 2020” facemask at one of our Masses; I cannot remember if this was before or after the election. Maybe that mask will reappear on January 6.]
My parish is one of the largest in this diocese and possesses state of the art technology. Early on, the parish staff developed a system of on-line reservations for the weekend Masses. On Tuesday mornings the website is open for reservations for each of the following weekend Masses, and the names are duly logged in the parish records. On Saturday night when my wife and I enter the church for Mass, we must present ourselves at the door to a greeter with an Ipad tablet, who checks off our names. I have no problem with this method of insuring social distancing. It is not clear precisely what sort of algorithm is used to determine in my church [or any other in our diocese] what constitutes a safe maximum number for preserving social distancing. I am lousy at guessing crowd numbers, but my sense is that my parish admits about 400 persons maximum in a building that perhaps holds 1500. I do notice that although my Mass is frequently listed as “full” on the reservation site, there are a fair number of empty available pews, suggesting that attendance may lag reservations.
I think the biggest test of the adage, “see how Christians love one another,” will come on Christmas Eve. Historically, Christmas Eve is the largest assembly of the faithful; the phrase “Christmas and Easter Catholics” is not a cynical invention but a recognition that even the most marginal Catholic makes an appearance for Mass in the glow of holy nostalgia and sometimes spirited reinforcement from the punchbowl. This is a unique post-Vatican II challenge; in my youth there were no vigil Masses, just a standing room only Midnight Mass. As an altar boy I reveled in the beautiful music, poinsettias, and gold vestments of the Latin Mass. I also remember individuals passing out, and the unique aroma of alcohol induced bad breath. As my pastor would tell the altar boys, put out the candles quickly or this place will explode.
In the past half-century, the popularity of the earlier evening vigils has grown exponentially. When my wife and I were married over twenty years ago, our attendance at Midnight Mass was unshakeable. But then we drifted earlier, to a 9 PM Mass, and over the past decade, to a 7 PM Mass. We are not courageous enough to attend one of our 4 PM Masses. In my mother’s parish up near Buffalo, the pastor used to plead with the weekly 4 PM congregation not to attend the Christmas Eve 4 PM Mass, where the parking lot would be near full at 2 PM, even in the region’s worst lake-effect snow squalls.
Given these logistical challenges in an ordinary year, how does a parish maintain sanity and safety in a Covid environment? Evidently, even the Pope has been reflecting upon this problem, for he has given priests the permission to offer four Masses on Christmas, if parishes would want to offer extra Masses in smaller groups. Bishops in many dioceses are granting a special permission to begin Christmas Eve Vigil Masses at 2 PM [Church Law forbids Vigil Masses before 4 PM.] My parish has taken advantage of these permissions. But it took the extra step of a strict on-line registration policy, announcing well in advance from the pulpit, bulletin, and website that a preregistration was sine qua non for admission to any of the Masses.
Ground Zero for on-line reservations was December 18, last Friday, at 10 AM. My wife and I, for reasons of safety and my curiosity, had decided to reserve space for the novel 2 PM Vigil Mass. My wife literally had her finger over the button on her Ipad when the reservation site turned green. Evidently, so did many other folks, and we heard later that there were a few hiccups in service given the incredible on-line demand. The parish added two more Vigil Masses, but quickly all available space was booked. On the parish website now is the list of Masses with a statement that all Masses are now closed, and that those without reservations should watch the parish livestream of two Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
So, I wonder how my parish—or any parish--will manage the inevitable visit of the annual worshipper who never got the fax and will be expecting admission. As a Church we do not have collective experience with turning people away from our doors. [We are trained to think counteractively.] I will admit that in twenty years as a pastor I sometimes gave my local fire marshal gray hairs to include everyone for Christmas Eve or Easter Morning. My sermons on those occasions were pitched in part to the occasional worshipper or stranger to welcome them physically into the parish family, with an offer to assist anyone in second marriages, LGBQ estrangement, confessional fears, or dislike of me personally for my perceived shortcomings, of which there were plenty. And I was hardly the only pastor who brought this approach; a parish that does not evangelize on Christmas and Easter is missing the boat.
The Covid-19 environment puts a good parish and a conscientious pastor in a most uncomfortable predicament: protecting the safety of those in his building while extending pastoral concern to those who showed at least a spark of grace by turning up. How this dilemma is addressed will depend initially and most importantly on how the folks on the ground defuse the disappointment, surprise, or anger of those who cannot be admitted inside the Church. Again, as any minister will tell you, there are many Catholics on the cusp of leaving institutional contact at the next slight. And while such individuals may have doctrinal or personal issues with the Church, nothing is quite so definitive as having a door slammed in your face—on Christmas, no less.
There is a political edge to consider here, too. If the analyses of recent elections and polling are any indication, there is a strong current in the United States of fear that government and culture are overtly anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. In New York and Washington, D.C., for example, Catholics sought judicial relief for what they viewed as excessively harsh restrictions on the exercise of religion by local authorities. In Washington, for example, church gatherings were limited to 50 persons. It was probably galling for Catholics to live under these restrictions when the federal government was hosting gala balls for hundreds in indoor settings. I must think that somewhere in the United States—and Florida, with its statewide laissez-fare approach to the Covid crisis is as opportune a place as any—political activists in premeditated or spontaneous ways may demand access under the banner of freedom of worship.
It is my profound hope that the priests and lay ministers who will lead the Church’s parochial celebrations of the Lord’s birth have given prayerful thought to the unique challenges of this Christmas Season. Last Easter was observed when much of the country was shut down and there was more unity of purpose in protecting life and limb. But after many more months there is either lethargy or rage in the face of energized Covid-19, exacerbated by fear and uncertainty after a tumultuous election and economic woes. Amid this, our church ministers have gamely pushed on in the face of financial strain, material interruptions to ministry, and, in a very real way, missing their families in faith. My hope is that the liturgical Christmas “rush,” such as it is during an untamed pandemic, will energize our parish leaders Even within the confines of social distancing, tell them you appreciate them at Mass [and cover their backs, if necessary, as they work to protect ours at the church doors.]
I read Peyton Place  a few weeks ago, a novel about a 1940’s small town in New England where everybody knew everybody’s business until one thing led to another and the real village secrets came into the light with a fury that left no one the same. In 2018 Pope Francis ordered a thorough Vatican investigation of a living American Cardinal, a nearly 500-page report released this past Tuesday [November 10, 2020] and easily accessible to the public in English. “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick [1930-2017]. The full text is here and on other websites. If you are starting from scratch or confused about Cardinal McCarrick’s career and behavior, there are good narratives including this one from America Magazine or a podcast from the same site.
Given that church ministers, catechists, and Catholic adults in the world are looked up to for answers about the Church, including its inner working, it is imperative that anyone in a church leadership role [say, as an adult education teacher] have accurate information at the ready, not hearsay. Every national dinner hour television news ran the McCarrick Report alongside the national Covid-19 spread and the election vote-counting on Tuesday evening. To get caught flatfooted by a fellow parishioner who is angry, distraught, or looking for information is unprofessional for a Catholic minister. On the other hand, as I review dozens of Catholic blogsites nearly daily to get the grass roots pulse, I see more posters upset about the election returns than the serious revelations of Pope John Paul II’s mismanagement of abusive bishops, though I have come across pockets of communities which advocate removing the name of the canonized pope from church entities.
How does a local catechist or pastor awaken and explain this current crisis in the Church? And trust me, it needs to be addressed. Too many good folks have left the institutional practice of Catholicism already because of an absence of transparency and honesty on the part of Church leaders. Some former brethren, sadly, are victims themselves of clerical perpetrators and the bishops who failed to address the problem. Many more are angry and perceive [often rightly] that portions of their offertory funds are being diverted from ministry to pay damages and lawyers, much of this information hidden in non-disclosure settlements. Before any meaningful ministry of evangelization can get off the ground, there must be a clearing of the air as well as institutional/attitudinal reform of the exercise of Church ministry.
First, how has your parish responded to the clergy abuse scandal since the story burst on to the American scene in 2002 with the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting, portrayed recently in the film “Spotlight?” My impression is that if abuse occurred in a parish [or in widespread numbers in a diocese], there is a much greater psychological and spiritual impact, and heightened publicity of abusive events such as new revelations about Cardinal McCarrick can trigger relapses and emotional discomfort. Parish staffs may want to keep an ear to the ground for distressed members in the current flurry of publicity.
Parishes such as mine, which have had no reported clerical abuse cases in its thirty-year history, may possess a blissfully ignorant congregation which has little grasp of the scope or the damage suffered by Catholics around the country and around the world. The risk of complacence, “that type of thing happens in Boston or Buffalo but not here,” sometimes needs a pastoral reminder or jolt that bad things can happen anywhere.
Second, Catholics need reminding that the narrative of clerical abuse has evolved over the years. In 2002 the Church was reeling from the sheer numbers of clergy and victims. Over the next decade the complicity of many bishops in cover-up became the focus, and a few were arrested and sent to jail. In 2017-2018 the tentacles of cover-up were discovered to reach higher than local bishops, into the highest ranks of the Church. In very recent years the influence of money for protection, promotion, and other favors came into general focus, such as the case of Bishop Bransfield of West Virginia  and of course McCarrick.
For some years now just about every diocese in the United States has developed strict protocols on the protection of minors and, in my own diocese, the handling of money at every level. While these painstaking steps should be applauded, it is painfully evident that no protocols exist for bishops, some of whom use cash gifts, promotion, and intimidation to buy favor and, evidently, protection if that was needed.
Third, clericalism at the very least hindered internal church discipline and gave many priests and bishops a false sense of security. I have read several hundred individual abuse investigation reports over the past two decades. One of the most common features of clerical-lay interactions in an abuse allegation is the contempt of clerics for lay persons seeking help. [There are several such examples in the McCarrick Report.] A common theme is a complaint made by the parents of a minor abuse victim to a local pastor or officer of the diocese about a specific priest. Often local dioceses use the old philosophical medieval maxim of “Ockham’s Razor,” which roughly translated means “the simplest answer is usually the right one.”
Thus, the local priest or chancery official consoles the parents/victims that “there must be a misunderstanding and I’ll have a good talk with Father X. You don’t need to worry about this anymore.” If the parents are not so easily dismissed, the pastor may appeal to their standing in the Church with reminders that “rumors like this can destroy the Body of Christ,” or in my classmate’s favorite phrase, “pious drivel.” If the parents or adult victims are adamant and litigious, they may get an interview with a diocesan official with promises of follow-up, and in a few cases, funds for counseling. Often, their complaints were buried. The grip of clericalism in hiding abuse was only broken when the clerical structure finally faced an immutable force, civil law enforcement.
Clericalism’s central pillar is an interpretation of Catholic theology that an ordained priest is, by nature of the Sacrament of Orders, a superior man. Sacramentally speaking, a priest is unique in the Church in the way he serves it, as leader and gatherer around the Eucharistic banquet and the other sacraments of life in the Apostolic tradition. Clericalism holds that a priest is better than a layman, period, in the natural order of things. Seminaries and certain devotional trends promote the idea that a priest as priest is superior to lay persons, the thinking goes, and the need to protect his elevated status in all circumstances supersedes any other considerations even when criminal activity is involved. The optic of the Church becomes the Roman collar, not the pouring of baptismal water which raises all the faithful to the priesthood of Christ.
John Paul II was a fierce defender of the image of the priesthood: in 1992 in Pastores Dabo Vobis [para. 20] [or “I will give you shepherds”] he wrote: “Therefore, since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ himself, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes. The human weakness of his flesh is remedied by the holiness of him who became for us a high priest 'holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners' (Heb. 7:26).” It is not unthinkable that Pope John Paul’s idealism regarding the image of the Church and the priesthood impacted his ability to separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote in 2011, we have many “John Paul II seminarians and priests” who identify with their uniqueness and do not grasp Pope Francis’ call for clerics to “smell like their sheep.”
It is also true that there is clericalism within clericalism. The crux of the McCarrick Report is John Paul’s appointment of McCarrick to the Archdiocese of Washington in November 2000 against the advice of laity, seminarians, priests, bishops and even Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. McCarrick had, by 2000, been refused three major promotions by the Vatican for his lifestyle [including the Washington, D.C., position which he ultimately attained after a second review.] While the November 10 report cites numerous examples of “bishops behaving badly” in McCarrick’s vetting, the pope elected to make the appointment by his own judgment, overriding both the brotherhood of the priesthood and the wisdom of the baptized faithful knowledgeable of the case.
Fourth, priests and parishioners need to understand the nature of their relationship, both in terms of Church Law [Canon Law] and, equally important, their day to day coexistence in parish life. A good way to start a conversation might be a parish-wide study and pulpit reflection on the nature of the parish, based upon Canon Law and a reasonably understand of what a parish is. [Over lunch yesterday with one of my old catechetical students, I complained that parishes should have been doing this kind of reflection during the Covid-19 restrictions when there was enforced time to stay home and pursue the important things in life we don’t usually address. “We’ve wasted a catechetical year,” I lamented, and worse, we have the technology to do this sort of thing and didn’t use it.]
For years I have heard the complaint that priests do not understand the challenges of the laity, and as a former pastor I will own that. But it is equally true that parish members do not understand the challenges to conscientious priests, either. There are two texts which strike me as honest descriptions of priestly parish life, a pair of studies of case histories of priests in the ministry. The National Opinion Research Center [NORC] undertook significant studies of Catholic priests in the context of Christian leadership for the new millennium. The first volume, The First Five Years of the Priesthood, was released in 2002, and Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years arrived in 2006. Just slightly dated—the influx of international priests to pastorates in the United States has accelerated and, in some ways, compounded preexisting challenges—the works may open eyes to a healthy commiseration and trust that priests, as a rule, are disgusted with malfeasance by their bishops or the Vatican as much as their parishioners.
A good deal of local church conflict with pastors involves matters already set in stone. Parishes are bound by Canon Law to have a finance council to advise the pastor, who by the same law does have the last word on fiscal decisions. From experience I can say that a pastor is treading difficult terrain who ignores frank concerns of the parish family. While Canon Law states that Bishops may mandate parish councils throughout their dioceses, the last research, around 2010, indicates that about half of the U.S. Church operate with established pastoral or parish councils. More recent research has found that many priests, notably younger clergy, have difficulty dealing with the laity than in the earlier decades after Vatican II. Consequently, I put more hope in less structured and more personal and trusting interactions between the priests and people of any given parish.
With the demand for priests so high, some bishops are ordaining men with obvious personality disorders. These sorts of preconditions are not cured by prayer and experience. When combined with the hubris of an imperial theology of priesthood, honesty and transparency will lose every time. Congregations and, worse, individuals, can suffer significant disdain and wounds from poor pastoral interactions. We are past the time of grin and bear it. It is not a sacrilege to report first-hand poor pastoral interactions with a priest to a bishop or his delegate in the chancery. [I am assuming here that readers are already familiar with the civil obligations of reporting child abuse.] As a counselor I have advised such a course of action to a few patients who suffered from thoughtless pastoral insensitivity. The usual objection is that “they won’t take me seriously” or “nothing will be done.” The McCarrick Report is witness enough to that. But I reply that a complaint or a report makes the next complaint from another person much more believable.
This is the end of a rather long post, I will admit. I began it last Tuesday. I have added to it throughout the week while I am caring for my wife, Margaret. She was injured and somewhat incapacitated by a bicycling accident on October 24 that required surgery on November 3. She is doing well but still has significant therapy coming down the road. Keep her in your prayers. And I promise some upbeat posts coming along this week.
Tuesday's Day of Reckoning
On Tuesday, November 10, at 2 PM Rome time the Vatican will release the so-called “McCarrick Report.” This mammoth document—minimally estimated at 600 pages by those few who have seen it—covers the entire priestly career of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was ordained in 1930 and forced to retire from the College of Cardinals in 2018. The report is a multitiered analysis of a scandal that may seriously impact the reputations of present and past Church officers in the United States and in Rome, and possibly cast a shadow over at least one pope. Senior churchmen such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and much of the national Catholic press have warned of its impact when released on Tuesday. [As a rule, such matters as those discussed here in this post are not featured in parish websites and Facebook pages sponsored by parishes.]
It is useful to look at why the disclosures on next Tuesday may be received with greater shock and grief than other public revelations of clerical abuse. In 2002 the public became aware that abuse of minors by priests was a much more common practice than previously believed. For much of the twenty-first century, the identification of perpetrators was undertaken with varying degrees of foot-dragging. Reasons for hesitancy and even outright stonewalling of internal investigations ranged from embarrassment to the Church, potential payouts to victims, and loss of offertory revenue from disgruntled worshippers.
During those twenty years since the Boston Globe’s Spotlight on the problem of abusive clerics raised national consciousness, there has been more attention paid to the conspiratorial side of the abuse crisis, an organized pattern of diocesan behavior in which victims were quietly paid off for their silence and known serial perpetrators were knowingly transferred to other parishes by their bishops. It is not an exaggeration to say that this pattern was in many dioceses the norm; the result of such a strategy was the exposure of many more children to abuse and the exclusion of civil law enforcement in the protection of minors and removal of dangerous offenders from access to children and minors.
I cannot pinpoint the exact date, but some time after 2015 a number of high visibility civil law suits against a Catholic religious order drew so much attention in the State of Pennsylvania that in 2017 the state determined that the Church would not or could not manage itself in matters of youth safety. Attorney General Josh Shapiro demanded access to all clerical personnel files in chanceries across the state. The Pennsylvania Report of 2018 was a bombshell, particularly in terms of unreported priests and the large number of victims, over one thousand according to the New York Times. Both the numbers and the raw witness accounts from victims was of such a scale that about twenty attorney generals across the country almost immediately opened similar statewide investigations, including my own state, Florida. [The Florida Attorney General’s Office released my state’s findings a few days ago, including an analysis of the Orlando Diocese.]
The evolution of awakening to the abuse crisis has drifted more to those responsible for the hiding and the coverups of child abuse in the Church. To put it bluntly, attempts to hide and reassign abusive priests, particularly without warning the new parishes and pastors, can be a criminal conspiracy. A few bishops or chancery officials have actually served time in prison in the past decade here in the United States, but if Florida is typical of the nation, most of the perpetrators and their superiors are dead, or the statute of limitations has long expired.
In 2017, however, one of the highest-ranking prelates in the American Church—a cardinal who had voted in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI—was called to face his past—and it would seem that he will take other prelates down with him. The life and church career of Theodore McCarrick covers so much ground that if you have never heard of him, you may find his biography in Wikipedia very useful, as it traces his journey up the clerical ladder [and down], and with a little insight one can decipher that young Father McCarrick, ordained a priest in 1958, enjoyed the favor of powerful friends and learned to cultivate them into four distinct episcopal promotions.
By 1977 he was consecrated an auxiliary bishop of New York by Cardinal Terence Cooke. In 1981 he was named first bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey; in 1986 Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey; in 2000 Archbishop of Washington, D.C. He submitted his mandatory retirement [age 75] in 2006 but maintained a powerful figure in the United States and Rome. His considerable skill set included fundraising for a wide swath of church enterprises.
However, by all accounts I have seen over the past two years, the ex-Cardinal’s personal habits were widely known in Church circles for many years. In February 2019, a Vatican trial found him guilty of sexual crimes and abuse of power and dismissed him from the priesthood. McCarrick’s penchant for seminarians and young priests is reflected in his choice of residences, seminaries, and in a notorious beach home he owned. When approached for favors by the Cardinal such as sleeping in his bed, seminarians, who naturally needed his approval for ordination, found themselves in impossible situations. Young priests who needed McCarrick’s blessing for such promotions as first pastorates found themselves in similar dilemmas.
McCarrick’s pattern of sexual coercion leads one to the old Watergate question of “what did they know and when did they know it?” in reference to the superiors who promoted him through the episcopacy and later his bishop colleagues who looked the other way on matters of his reputation and fitness. In 2018 Pope Francis realized that the McCarrick saga would never be put to rest unless the ex-Cardinal’s enablers were identified. Cardinal Shawn O’Malley, for example, lobbied for a thorough investigation of McCarrick’s career vetting. Such an investigation would involve American prelates, of course, but all episcopal appointments come from Rome ultimately, and appointments to the Archdioceses of Newark and particularly Washington, would get scrutiny from the very top.
This is the ultimate nightmare of the McCarrick investigation, and certainly an anguishing decision for Pope Francis, for most of McCarrick’s career successes were sanctioned by Pope John Paul II. If Pope Francis approves a full revelation of the McCarrick promotions, he may have to reveal, at the very least, some extremely poor judgments from a sainted predecessor. If Tuesday’s report is redacted, then Francis will be accused of prolonging a cover-up and his own papacy may be irretrievably damaged. As I say, Tuesday’s deed needs to be done, but it will cost.
On My Mind