Book about the Crisis, Reviewed for Profiles in Catholicism

The on-line/print publication asked me to review Papal Policies on Clerical Sexual Abuse: God Weeps by Jo Renee Formicola. They also published my review of the book on their “Clerical Sexual Violence Against Minors” page.

Papal Policies on Clerical Sexual Abuse: God Weeps by Jo Renee Formicola. Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 2019. Reviewed by Father Mark White

Five years ago, Pope Francis visited the U.S. On a lovely late-summer afternoon, the pope celebrated Holy Mass on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of bishops and priests concelebrated, including your unworthy servant. Thousands of Catholics prayed with us, spread across the elm-lined university quad. The city and the nation tuned-in on tv. The Catholic Church in America came together, smiling with hopefulness, in the sunshine. Jo Renee Formicola puts it like this, in the opening pages of God Weeps:

I can attest to the excitement, the love, and the palpable respect for Pope Francis during all those events I helped to cover when he was in the United States.

There was a snake in the garden of excitement and optimism, however. As Pope Francis preached his homily, a concelebrating Cardinal sat immediately behind him, fitting innocuously into the scene. Theodore McCarrick.

Formicola takes the title of her book from one of Pope Francis’ speeches during that visit to the U.S. At the seminary in Philadelphia, the pope said, “God weeps for the sexual abuse of children.” Formicola approaches the problem of sexual abuse as an expert in Church-state relations. She focuses on the policies that the popes have developed to deal with the crisis, and she analyzes those policies for their organizational effectiveness.

Formicola brings her expertise to bear by first clearly defining the sex-abuse crisis, and identifying the steps needed to take to deal with it. Her chronology begins with the case of Father Gilbert Gauthe, in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. This has become the standard frame of reference for students of the history of the crisis. The journalist Jason Berry chronicled the Gauthe case thoroughly, and Gauthe’s attorney, Ray Mouton, worked with Father Thomas Doyle to produce a report for the American bishops. That report set on the table most of the necessary questions for Church leadership.

Pope Francis Shrine Immaculate Mass Junipero Serra
Papal Mass in Washington, September 2015

Formicola goes on to outline the process of competent crisis management. Recognize the focusing event or events. Respond with an appropriate apology for the harm done. Investigate thoroughly. Develop a comprehensive strategy that ensures accountability for wrongdoing. By following these steps, leaders regain trust, and a crisis ends. Formicola systematically outlines how three popes have failed to work their way through these steps successfully.

John Paul’s responses to the tragedy were basically non-existent. They were not public, aggressive, or compassionate. Indeed, for all his pastoral and political action to protect the unborn, the marginalized, and others forgotten by society, John Paul did not provide the same sense of righteous outrage, protection, justice, or solidarity with the victim survivors of clerical sexual abuse… In policy terms, John Paul’s leadership failed every test of what policy analysts describe as positive and successful responses to institutional crises… He could not grasp the gravity, scope, or civil ramifications of clerical sexual abuse; or the personal, psychic, or spiritual damage that it caused… He fueled perceptions of secrecy and fed a narrative of complicity… He blamed an ‘irresponsibly permissive’ American society, ‘hyper-inflated with sexuality.’

In 2001, things changed somewhat. Formicola writes, “John Paul was starting to suspect the ability of the American hierarchy to deal with the festering crisis.” In April, the pope required all cases involving the sexual abuse of minors be reported to the Vatican.

A year later, the pope met with all the American cardinals, including McCarrick, to try to deal with the Boston Globe Spotlight scandal. The meeting produced a ‘Vatican communiqué,’ which framed the Church’s response to the crisis. Formicola trenchantly criticizes the communiqué:

It ignored the serious civil policy implications of clerical sexual abuse… It avoided an official institutional apology. It did not set out a means to investigate the workings of the internal Church, its procedures, or its processes to handle clerical sexual abuse… It did not cede any power to civil authorities to investigate or punish the clergy… It continued a lack of policy coherence and consistency. It represented a policy position in which the Pope protected the role, mission, and reputation of the Church.

Over two decades earlier, during his brief tenure as a diocesan bishop, Joseph Ratzinger followed what we now know was the world-wide standard operating procedure. In 1979, Ratzinger knowingly received into his Archdiocese—Munich, Germany—a priest abuser of minors. The priest began psychiatric treatment, and, within days, the Archdiocese assigned him to pastoral work, with the Archbishop’s knowledge and tacit permission. None of the restrictions recommended by the priest’s psychiatrist were put into place. The priest went on to victimize other children, over the course of the subsequent three decades. Meanwhile, Ratzinger went on to head a Vatican department, then became Pope Benedict XVI.

Formicola God Weeps Papal Policies Sexual AbuseFormicola summarizes the German theologian’s work with the sex-abuse crisis:

From the epi-center of adjudicating grievous sins as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 until his retirement from the papacy in 2013, Benedict was in a central position to create and implement policies to deal with clerical sexual abuse for thirty-two years. But he was unable or unwilling to punish, contain, remediate, or make a significant policy change in how the Catholic Church dealt with the greatest crisis to its credibility, legitimacy, and existence in modern times.

Many who had long been dealing with the sex-abuse crisis desperately wanted to believe that Pope Francis would find a way to deal with the problem successfully. When he assumed office in 2013, Francis immediately identified with the poor, and urged the entire Church to do the same. Formicola asks, “Can this theological commitment to the poor serve as a basis for a broadened definition, to include the victims of clerical sexual abuse?”

In 2014, the United Nations severely criticized the Vatican’s handling of child sexual abuse. Pope Francis responded to one of the U.N. recommendations and established the Papal Commission for the Protection of Minors. He appointed the clerical sex-abuse survivor Marie Collins, of Ireland, to the commission. Collins soon resigned, however. The Vatican’s zero-tolerance policy, she recognized, was much more an empty slogan than a practical reality, and the pope failed to establish a tribunal to judge bishops who covered up for predatory priests.

Formicola’s historical survey ends with the waning days of 2018, after the McCarrick revelations, the Pennsylvania Grand-Jury Report, the Viganò memo, and the Vatican intervention at the U.S. bishops’ meeting (which prevented any concrete action on the part of the bishops). Formicola summarizes the situation at that time:

The cautious optimism that accompanied Francis’ election continues to erode… Attempts to ensure transparency and accountability for the punishment of priests and members of the hierarchy are disappearing with each new instance of Vatican cover-ups. The expected desire to develop corrective changes in personnel and policy is now being overwhelmed with the existential threat to papal power and the increasing possibility that the Church could simply implode from the weight of its own sins… The laity’s patience is at an end.

Formicola’s calls her final chapter, “God Still Weeps.” She writes:

The needed reforms represent an existential threat to the recognized religious and administrative leadership of the Popes, to the continued functioning of the institutional Church as the world knows it. Strategic change would require dynamic, persistent, and systematic policy solutions… But the Papal responses, instead, were ad hoc, ineffective, often without compassion, and deeply divisive within the Church… For more than three decades, predatory priestly behavior festered as an open, religious sore—as well as a political, economic, and legal wound for the modern Catholic Church. Even now, the largest religious institution in the world remains without an official, systematic diagnosis of the causes of clerical sexual abuse or a prescription to end the victimization of children by priests.

Formicola submitted her book for publication shortly before the February 2019 meeting at the Vatican, dedicated to the problem of child sexual abuse. She writes near the end of the book that the situation actually requires the calling of an ecumenical council. Vatican III should convene—to deal with the sex-abuse crisis.

During Easter week of that year, Formicola taped an appearance on Newark NJ PBS’s “Think Tank” program, to discuss her book. It gave the author the opportunity to discuss the Vatican meeting that had occurred since she finished writing. The interviewer asked, “What happened at the meeting?” Formicola responded, “Nothing. It’s like asking someone to watch after themselves, and you really can’t have that. I don’t know that [the pope and bishops] necessarily are capable of doing anything.”

SynodGod Weeps could have used another edit; it has some passages that are difficult to follow. Chapter Five re-develops a historical narrative that has already been extensively covered in previous chapters, which causes the reader some confusion.

Also, Formicola outlines the three popes’ theological principles in a manner that seems cursory and shallow. I think it is necessary to understand the three men first as Christian pastors, in order to begin to grasp the complexity of the issues they have faced. Formicola repeatedly laments that the popes have seen clerical sexual abuse as a sin, rather than as a crime. From a pastor’s point-of-view, those are not mutually exclusive things. That said, Formicola is absolutely right about the catastrophic consequences of the popes’ inability to recognize the crime of child sexual abuse for what it is. And the book’s attempt to synthesize theology with public policy introduces a very helpful approach to the problem.

We owe Dr. Formicola a debt of gratitude for assembling a large amount of research into a painful, but refreshingly realistic, analysis. With God Weeps, she has given the Church a gift, applying her expertise to help us see the enormity of the unsolved problem we have on our hands.

Anniversaries of St. Vincent and the Diocese

Rue du Bac Paris
Rue du Bac in Paris

Three hundred sixty years ago this Sunday, September 27, St. Vincent de Paul died. They keep his heart in a chapel on Rue du Bac in Paris. I had the chance to visit years ago; it is a luminous place to pray. [Spanish]

We would not normally commemorate the anniversary of St. Vincent’s death on a Sunday, since we dedicate every Sunday to remembering the resurrection of our Savior. But through AD 2020, we Catholics in Virginia keep the bicentennial of our diocese. The second bishop of Richmond made St. Vincent de Paul the diocesan patron. So we keep our patron’s feast, even though it falls on a Sunday this year.

At Mass, we will read a special gospel passage, in St. Vincent’s honor. The passage includes these words: “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.’”

Our diocesan patron, St. Vincent, founded a group of priests called the Congregation of the Mission. The mission. What mission?

Well, the very same. The mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God. The good news that God is with us. Our brother, Jesus of Nazareth, Who died for us, and rose again for us. He reigns over a kingdom in which death and evil have no power at all. The Apostles of Christ undertook the mission, the proclamation of this wonderful news about God and our destiny as human beings.

Now, what’s the news these days? On the 360th anniversary of St. Vincent’s death, and during the 200th anniversary year of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond? Pandemic. Presidential election. Empty Supreme Court seat. Football with empty stadiums and fake crowd noise.

Ok. But the truly new news is the news that every Sunday brings. Jesus is risen. The Son of Mary, the Son of God, Who rose from the dead, so that we could share His undying life.

“Congregation of the Mission.” Our patron’s society has a name so simple and basic that it brings us back to the basics. St. Vincent de Paul had gone into the French countryside, and he found villages full of poor Catholics who knew next to nothing about Christ and their religion. So St. Vincent and some companions decided to do something about that—to preach to, to teach, and to love the people.

Cabrini Shrine Mass.jpg
Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini’s tomb

The Mission continues. It does not get old. We have a two-hundred-year-old diocese, but we are really just getting started here. The pandemic has interfered with the life of our Church and our diocese, damaging normal Catholic practice. The bishop’s dealings with me have totally changed my role in the mission, and I think what he has done has compromised his ministry as well. A diocese where priests have to live in fear of severe and long-term reprisals for speaking our minds—not a healthy environment. But the mission continues, because it does not come from us messed-up human beings. It comes from Jesus Himself.

Speaking of saints with whom we have close connections… Many of you know that my brother and his wife began raising their sons on the northern part of Manhattan island in New York City. They lived in an apartment two blocks from the shrine of the great Italian-American saint, Francis Xavier Cabrini. We took a parish pilgrimage to New York in 2014, and we had Mass at Mother Cabrini’s tomb, after my brother got on the bus and gave us a little tour of his old neighborhood.

Last week I visited an old friend who lives in the Pacific Northwest. I stopped to make a visit in the cathedral in Seattle. Turns out there’s a relic of Mother Cabrini in the altar there, too–on the other end of the continent. She herself prayed in that cathedral, in Seattle, many times.

The saint had come to Seattle from New York, by way of Nicaragua and Brazil, to help the Italian immigrants. Mother Cabrini loved atlases from her earliest youth; she considered Seattle to be ‘near the north pole.’ Some of the Italian immigrants there had not seen a church since they left the old country, so Mother Cabrini got a mission parish started for them.

When I first laid eyes on the Seattle skyline, I thought, ‘This looks like mid-town Manhattan.’ Turns out I was not the first to think the cities look alike. Mother Cabrini thought that, too.

My point is: The mission of Jesus’ Church extends everywhere and always. None of us were born Christians. We have our Christian faith, and the heavenly grace that comes with it, because those who went before us handed it on to us. We venerate our spiritual ancestors. We recognize the sacrifices that they made, so that we could know Who Jesus Christ is, and have a relationship with Him.

That relationship is the most-important thing in life. So let’s dedicate ourselves to the mission, too.

Update: “Remonstratio Placed Out of Time”

canon law codex canonici

On June 17, my canon lawyer received a letter from the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome. The letter said two things.

1. My lawyer never had standing to speak on my behalf.

2. I should go to my new assignment, since the time limit to appeal the bishop’s decision had passed.

This surprised both my lawyer and me. Bishop Knestout had corresponded with my lawyer, taking for granted that my lawyer spoke for me, throughout April and into May.

(In March, we had presented to the bishop a notarized document in which I authorized my lawyer to write and speak on my behalf.)

We had followed all the proper procedures. My lawyer petitioned for justice; when the bishop rejected the petition, we went to Rome, asking for redress. We did everything well within the legal time limits. (The full timeline is available here.)

That same day, June 17, when the letter came from Rome, I also received a letter from Bishop Knestout. It informed me that I could not, in fact, take up my new assignment, as the Congregation said I should do, until this weblog ceased to exist.

st-peters-sunriseThis stipulation left me in limbo. I can hardly conceive that Bishop Knestout has a right to order me simply to shut up. I long ago conceded that he has every right to supervise, edit, purloin, moderate, even perhaps suppress, statements of mine regarding Catholic faith and morals. My friends and I repeatedly proposed compromise solutions.

In his letter to me of June 17, however, the bishop expressed his position in writing for the first time: You will not criticize your betters. Period.

When I tried to reason with the bishop about the impossibility of this situation, he rebuked me harshly. So I wrote to the Congregation for the Clergy myself, begging them to decide the case that my lawyer had presented to them. Then my lawyer petitioned the bishop again, waited for a response that never came, then petitioned the Vatican again.

I never received any reply from the Congregation. A few days ago, my lawyer received an answer to his petition.

The Congregation insists that my letter to them “cannot be considered an initial request for a favorable decree, but must be treated as a remonstratio placed out of time.” [remonstratio = appeal]

This defies reality. The written record clearly shows how we filed everything with punctilious promptness, beginning on Easter Monday, when the bishop originally published his decree removing me as pastor.

Cardinal Stella goes on, in his recent letter:

The fatalia legis in this case is no mere ‘technicality,’ but exists in law to prevent the decisions of ecclesiastical authority from remaining permanently in question. [fatalia legis = time limits for filing appeals]

Two interesting things to note about this sentence.

1. This is the first time that the word ‘technicality’ has appeared in the legal correspondence in this case. Cardinal Stella put the word in quotes, as if quoting someone. But neither my lawyer nor I used the word in our letters in June and August. We made constructive legal arguments, having to do with the situation as it now stands. It seems that the Cardinal himself recognizes that the word ‘technicality’ would naturally come to mind.

2. 100% agree that: The decisions of ecclesiastical authority should indeed not remain open permanently to question. We must have time limits for appeals.

We acted well within those time limits. We promptly raised questions about the justice of the bishop’s actions against me. Those questions remain unaddressed.

My lawyer and I did our part, to offer everything the court needed to investigate the situation, establish the facts, and apply the law. No one ever said this is an easy case; it involves difficult questions about free speech in the Church. We never asked for anything other than the due process of law, and a decision based on the reality of the situation.

Neither Bishop Knestout, nor the Congregation for the Clergy, have done their part. They have not faced the facts of the matter. They have said, over and over again, for months, simply this: “Shut up, and go away.”

That’s not how you solve anything. Bishop Knestout’s decisions regarding my ministry as a priest will remain in question. The Congregation’s rejection of the case on the flimsiest technicality means that the bishop’s decisions will remain in question indefinitely.

My lawyer and I did everything we could to inform the court and contribute to a just resolution. We tried.

PS. This is not the absolute end of the road. We have the right to appeal to a court called the Apostolic Signatura, and we will do so. My lawyer says that the Signatura could remand the case to the Congregation for the Clergy, insisting that we get a hearing. Say a prayer.

PPS. From the beginning, I have always felt that time is on our side. In spite of this painful development, I still do. I miss being the pastor, to be sure. But I have a roof over my head, prayers and Masses to say, a book to finish and try to get published… In other words, I’m ok. God is good. One day at a time.


The Gift of Daily Rhythm

alarm clock

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Monks pray. They chant psalms and canticles to give God glory. [Spanish]

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Nurses in hospitals see to their patients’ medications. Make notes. Change shifts.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Worksite managers drink coffee out of big tumblers and plan, supervise, order equipment and materials. Chew the fat with customers, architects, engineers. Talk football.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Rehab patients and nursing-home residents contend with their aches, their pains, and their loneliness. They await their meals, their p.t. and o.t., their baths or showers, and their meds. They tune into their tv shows. They hope someone will sign-up for a social-distanced visit. Maybe they read their Bibles and pray.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Students arise, eat cereal or pop-tarts, maybe stress-out about the homework they haven’t done. They get on the computer and try to learn something remotely. They get called-on via Zoom. They get bored. They turn off the camera and fall asleep.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Depressed people suffer, suffer–with every tick-tock minute poking the scalp like sixty little needles, one second after another. Landscape workers sweat in the sun, dirt grinding into the skin of their fingers. At Waffle House, they sling the hash; at Mickey D’s they drop the fries. Truck drivers look through the windshield down the highway and plan their next bathroom/coffee stop. The unemployed wait in agony for e-mails to come.

How could we get through life without the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms? This year with a pandemic has broken our rhythms–which makes us appreciate all the more whatever rhythms we can manage to have. The bishop broke my rhythm pretty badly. Thank you, Lord, for sending me work to do.

The rhythm that makes the passage of time endurable always involves some kind of work. Work makes time a friend, an ally, a partner. On the other hand: when you’re idle, time becomes a mud patch, an enemy, a dark confusing cloud of frustrated non-possibilities.

At Holy Mass tomorrow, we will read the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. What exactly does this parable teach? The main lesson is: the owner of the vineyard is generous. “I am generous,” he said.

We earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brows. We get to sleep the sound sleep of the just by working hard, from dawn to dusk. But did we earn these brows, upon which we sweat? Did we earn these hands we use? Do we receive 24 hours every day because we pre-paid for their delivery?

No. A huge gift came first. We have what it takes to build up a rhythm of life because God gave us us. The idea that I deserve even to exist: that idea is the gravest enemy my spiritual life can have. If I start kidding myself that I somehow gave myself the morning sun; if I start tallying all the benefits and perks that my illustrious efforts deserve, then I run a grave risk. I will find myself standing there with just one little denarius in my hand at the end of the day. When I frown, the Lord will ask me, “Are you envious because I am generous? I have paid you fairly.”

The vineyard owner in the parable was rich, rich in a higher order of magnitude than the laborers he hired. The owner did not deal in loose change. The standard wage for a day’s labor was a denarius. The owner didn’t have any smaller coins. All the workers got the same pay, whether they started at dawn or at 5pm.

The owner did not think twice about it, because a denarius was loose change to him. He needed able-bodied workers in his vineyard, for however many hours he could have them, as many workers as he could find. He had a lot of ripe grapes to pull from the vines.

Some people live in run-down double-wides, and some live in mansions with wall-to-wall carpet and tropical fish tanks. Who really deserves either one? And, in the end, what difference does it make? I could fight all my life to win the esteem of men, to consume daily gourmet meals, to rack-up professional accomplishments and little performance-review trophies. I will still die as naked as I was born.

God gives me today. For free. We will all die wretched and miserable deaths unless we spend the rest of our lives trying to grasp this one simple fact. God gives. God gives the dawn. And 9am. And noon. And 3pm. And the evening.

He gives it all, to everyone, every day, freely.

The Super-Rich King and 9/11


At this Sunday’s Holy Mass, we will read a parable from St. Matthew’s gospel. Our English translation of the parable refers to a debtor owing “a huge amount” to his employer. The original Greek text reads “ten thousand talents.” The current U.S. dollar equivalent would be: $225,000,000. [Spanish]

In the royal throne room, the official groveled before his master.  Again, to translate literally from the Greek: the debtor did the king homage by kissing the royal hands and then prostrating himself on the floor.

Now, this king had some money. He possessed stunning power and largesse. The extent of his resources made even this particular IOU of 225 million seem small. He knew this poor little spendthrift of a provincial official would never be able to pay it back. The official had squandered the money on some terrible idea.

But the king liked the official anyway. Maybe the king enjoyed the official’s sense of humor, or appreciated his political loyalty, or maybe the official had superior military skills. Who knows?

‘Come on, get up, old boy! What’s $225 million among friends?  Go home, and give your wife and kids a kiss for me.’

Here’s the question: What kind of king is this? How did he manage to amass so much wherewithal that he could wave off a debt of a quarter-billion dollars without batting an eyelash, smiling indulgently?  Who has the power, the confidence, and the resources to act with such otherworldly magnificence?

Nineteen years since 9/11. Let’s remember: There is one point-of-view from which the Twin Towers in New York City, even when they stood a quarter-mile high, did not look tall. Those of us old enough to remember, we can tell our young people: ‘From the ground, those two towers made for an awesome spectacle.’ Someone Else, however, looked down upon them, with all-knowing eyes. They looked small to Him.

How can we Christians find it in ourselves to be genuinely forgiving?  How we say something like: “I hope everyone who died on September 11, 2001, can get to heaven somehow. Everyone. I pray for the thousands, of good guys. And I pray for the 19 bad guys, too. May we all be in heaven together someday.’

How can a Christian muster the magnanimity to pray for his enemies? To love his enemies. To want nothing other than to live in the Kingdom of God with both friends and foes alike?

I’ll tell you one thing: Will-power alone cannot bring it off. We human beings do not become merciful by our own force of will. The evil of the world dwarfs our natural virtues. If we presume to go up against the malice of Satan without God’s grace, we will be crushed instantly in a hail of debris.

But we can be merciful, because God is great. We can share in His infinite resources.

The Lord looks down and sees the world, His handiwork. When part of it is scarred by the ugliness of evil, He immediately sees how, by His infinite power, He will heal and rebuild. Because He sees a world full of His children. Not one falls outside the reach of His love. When one sins, He sees immediately how He will move the sinner to repentance by the calm light of truth. All things will be made right by the blood of Christ. The sinner will not be lost.

In other words, God has a bank account big enough to cover the most outrageous debts. When the planes and the buildings came crashing down on September 11, the Lord thought: This is terrible. But of course I will pour out everything needed to bring good even out of this, and the sun will rise again. God’s love makes even the most tremendous catastrophe look small. God always has a way to heal it, and make all things new.

The divine safety net of mercy will never collapse. It is no ponzi scheme. The Lord loans and loans and loans, never expecting repayment. And infinitely more wealth still sits in the Almighty bank.

May His Kingdom come. May He give us our daily bread. May He forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

To go back to the Greek text of the gospel reading one more time.  Our translation has it that the second servant owed the first “a very small amount.” Approximate calculation from the original text, in our currency:  $35.

The first servant owed the king $225 million. The second servant owed the first $35.

Certainly, you and I owe each other $35 here and there. Let’s make apologies, and do what we can to make it right. Then we can forget all about it, and we can go together to kiss the King’s hands and prostrate ourselves before Him. He will smile to see us together.

Message for Parishioners

Happy Labor-Day weekend. We say goodbye to summer and try to get back to normal—or at least as normal as we can, with these masks, and everything that goes with them.

Over two months ago, I let you know that I had written to the Vatican. I wrote to insist on a proper resolution of our case. When they had previously tried to dismiss the whole thing on a flimsy technicality, it took less than two months for them to do it. So I take no news as good news this time. I hope the rule of law will prevail in the end. Then we can get back to normal.

If Bishop Knestout has a problem with my blog, or with me personally, I remain ready to work that out with him–in a way that does not confuse, or harm, anyone else.

A large group of us traveled to Richmond and to Washington, over the course of the past two months, to try to have a dialogue and get a good resolution to our situation. We did not get any immediate results. But we know from Scripture that the Lord rewards the persistent.

Now Father Carlos Lerma has arrived. Many of us in Martinsville remember Father Carlos’ first Mass as a priest, at St. Joseph’s in June of 2012. I had the privilege of helping him celebrate that Mass. I love Father Carlos as a brother priest and as a friend. I will not interfere with his work, and I wish him well.

Over the course of the past couple weeks I have written a rough draft of a book about everything we have been through. Writing is hard work, of course. But it has helped me a lot, to think it all through and put it down on paper.

I am working on getting it all edited, and finding a publisher. I am pretty sure that people all over the country will want to read about our case.

In the meantime, though, it occurred to me that it might help you to read through the draft chapters, just as it helped me to write them. I will break the whole thing up into shorter passages and publish them on my blog over the course of the next few weeks. I will be glad to hear your thoughts about what you read.

The Lord has sorely tried our faith through this ordeal, but it is nothing compared to what He went through for us in His bitter Passion, and it’s nothing compared to the suffering that many of our brothers and sisters have had to endure because of the pandemic.

We put all our faith in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. We know He has a plan. I love you and look forward to seeing you.

Steps and Points-of-View in Fraternal Correction

In this Sunday’s gospel reading, we hear the Lord Jesus give instructions on how we can correct each other’s faults. [Spanish]

wite out correctionPeople who love each other correct each other. We have to learn how to give correction gently, and how to take it graciously. Because really loving your neighbor means correcting him or her sometimes.

In fraternal correction, there’s always a correct-or and a correct-ee. In the gospel passage, the Lord Jesus lays out the steps for the correct-or to follow.

First, take it up in private. If that does not work–if the correctee refuses to listen–then include two or three other people in the conversation–people who know the situation and who will back up the criticism.

The second step hopefully will demonstrate the correctness of the original correction to the correctee. ‘I told you in private that you need to work on this or that problem, but you blew me off. Will you listen to these two friends of ours? They agree with me.’

Now, ideally you never wind up at Step Two. Ideally, the correctee listens the first time.

But no one should ever initiate Step One without being prepared to go to Step Two, if need be. I should never presume to correct anyone without asking myself whether at least two or three other people would back up what I have to say. If not, then I shouldn’t say anything in the first place. I don’t have the right to force my personal quibbles on anyone.

Enough for the correct-or. What about the point-of-view of the correctee? Giving good and helpful correction requires great love and humility. Taking correction well requires even more.

Let’s each ask ourselves: What makes me good, in God’s eyes?

Does it impress God that I learned how to use a set of clippers, so I can cut my own hair? Does the Lord have some kind of special reward lined up for me for my impeccable grammar? In high school, I knocked-down buzzer-beating, game-winning jumpshots not just once, but like four times. Does that make me a worthwhile human being?

The more we push the question, the more absurd our pretenses appear. Almighty God laid the foundations of heaven and earth. He knit each of us together, from nothing. He makes the sun rise and set. Our little monuments to ourselves do not impress Him.

The one thing that impresses God is: His Christ. The sacrifice of the only-begotten Son impresses the heavenly Father. The self-offering of the innocent Lamb pleases heaven.

Whatever justice, whatever righteousness, whatever holiness we have, Christ gives it to us, as a free, un-merited gift. Left to our own devices, we have nothing.

If I remember this; if I remember that whatever righteousness I have comes from Christ, then I can listen to someone who loves me enough to tell me when I have done wrong. I won’t get defensive. Instead, I will realize: here is a chance to respond better to the gifts that God has given me.

After all, all goodness and virtue comes from God. The Father loves me in Christ whether I can spell well, or hit a good backhand, or give good speeches at dinner parties. None of these things matter to God, in and of themselves. Rather, Jesus Christ gives me the bedrock of who I am. And He gives it to me for free, even if I can’t do anything right.

So if someone tries to help me become better, I can face the truth about my own shortcomings. And try to work on them.

The truth is: we can all do better.

Hopefully some true friend will offer some good suggestions. And hopefully each of us will trust God enough to listen.