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.

“The Two Popes”

The last time a pope of Rome died: fifteen years ago today.

Netflix made a movie about the two popes we have had since 2005. Highly fictionalized. I wrote a little essay about it, back when the movie came out. From Mr. Bates’ mailbag

[written 2/11/20]

Two Popes Can't Resign Hopkins Pryce
“You can’t resign!” The fictional Cardinal Bergoglio pleads with fictional Benedict XVI.

Seven years ago today [February 11], Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to abdicate.

Taking into consideration absolutely everything that we have all endured this past half-century, I continue to regard that as the worst day of my life. Nothing worse has happened during my lifetime. [Might have to revise that opinion now, dear sheltering-in-place reader. Anyway…]

Eight years earlier, when Pope Benedict took the throne of Peter, he preached:

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution.  Each of us is the result of a thought of God.  Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

I still believe that with all my heart. That thought, which the new pope expressed on April 24, 2005, still animates me completely, gets me out of bed every day. Keeps my heart beating, really.

…The best scene of the “Two Popes” movie:

When the future-Francis flips. Benedict has just informed Bergoglio that he intends to resign. “You can’t! Jesus did not come down off the cross! You will damage the papacy forever!”

(Amen, brother.)

All pure fiction, of course. No such conversation ever took place.

The movie has a shallow, dumb premise: Let’s imagine the thoughtful-but-hidebound old pope “dialoguing” with the nifty future pope “of the people.” Let’s have them discuss “issues” in a way that only fallen-away German Catholics could find even remotely interesting.

A lame premise produces an crushingly boring movie. Do not bother, dear reader. Seriously.

But the most-painful fiction of the movie is this:

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce (the actors) cannot help but come off as basically forthright men. They radiate a normal level of manliness and internal consistency. You feel like you could have a conversation with either Hopkins’ Benedict or Pryce’s Francis, and walk away having learned something about the man. Something you could count on in future dealings with him. You might disagree with his principles. But you know what the man stands for. You would walk away from the conversation impressed. This man knows himself. He knows what he thinks and why.

Seems to this lowly scribe: Many years have passed since we had a pope who was actually like that, Hopkins’ and Pryce’s performances notwithstanding.

 

When the Rules Apparently Weren’t the Rules

Francis and Benedict

If you saw any news yesterday, you know that the pope issued new laws about reporting sexual abuse.

They include a procedure for accusations against bishops. Those go to the Archbishop. If someone accuses the Archbishop, you go to the neighboring bishop. Then the bishop who receives the accusation forwards it to the pope’s ambassador to the country, the ‘nuncio.’

Sounds simple enough. So simple, in fact, that we could be forgiven for thinking: Wasn’t that already the law?

And it sounds not only simple, but also familiar. It’s what happened in the case of Theodore McCarrick, over twenty years ago. McCarrick sat as an Archbishop. At least two of his suffering sex-abuse victims told neighboring bishops. The bishops told the nuncio.

 

That’s right. Nothing.

McCarrick became a Cardinal. Bishops arranged secret settlements with his hurting victims. In 2008, after all the bishops in his former dioceses, and all the high-ranking Cardinals and popes in the Vatican, all knew about McCarrick’s abuses, McCarrick not only continued to carry on as if nothing had happened, he actually preached at the Beatification of a saint.

Pope Francis’ new law also establishes that exploiting your authority in the Church in order to get sex counts as a crime, even if the victim is over 18. And the new law establishes that covering-up for such crimes also counts as a crime.

Again, my beloved, I think we could be forgiven for thinking: Wasn’t all that a crime already? Doesn’t every God-fearing person on the face of the earth know that exploiting your clerical authority to get sex offends God, and the victim—offends them so grievously, that you must be punished for it? Wouldn’t any churchman of sound mind know that, without anyone having to spell it out in a papal motu proprio?

el-grecost-paulToday at Holy Mass we read in the Acts of the Apostles about how evil St. Paul was–before he became good, by God’s gracious mercy. St. Paul never made any secret of the evil he had done. And he never let himself off the hook, simply because he didn’t know any better, when he viciously persecuted the Church. No—he knew perfectly well that he should have known better.

I’m sorry to have to say this, and I’m sorry to have to hammer it out with you, dear reader, ad nauseum—but if I don’t write about it, I will lose my mind.

Pope Francis has done the opposite of accountability. He and his predecessor both broke the very rules he laid out yesterday, in the case of Theodore McCarrick. Now, instead of holding himself accountable, the pope pretends that no one knew the difference between right and wrong before May 9, 2019.

This is the exact same thing that the American bishops (including McCarrick himself, of course) did in 2002. They made rules that any reasonable person would have thought were the rules all along—rules which the bishops themselves had broken for decades. What they didn’t do, and still have never done, is hold themselves accountable for having done great wrong themselves.

They pretended that the rules weren’t the rules when they broke them. Now the pope has done the same thing.

…St. Paul, honest sinner and protector of the Church of Rome, pray for us!

Your Holiness Emeritus, I Disagree

pope-benedict-saturno-hatPope Benedict XVI still lives, and he can still write. He took the trouble to try to explain the sexual abuse crisis, by looking back at his career in the Church. Click to read his essay.

Problem is, His Holiness Emeritus has written things that aren’t really true. He writes, “Only where faith no longer determines the actions of a man are such offenses [sexual abuse of minors] possible.”

But even a cursory examination of the record reveals that faith and sexual abuse can and do often co-exist. Did Theodore McCarrick not believe in God and Christ? I can say with no doubt that he did and likely still does. Many sex abusers have been wracked with bitter remorse and genuine penitence–and have proceeded to offend again.

Pope Benedict suggests that sex abuse spiked after the sexual revolution, which caused moral confusion in the Church. But most people have never been confused at all, regarding the criminality of sexually abusing a minor. In the 50’s, the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, up until now: An overwhelming consensus that sexually abusing minors is a crime. In the ancient world, society tolerated the sexual abuse of minors. But not in the modern West.

For the Pope Emeritus to publish a thoughtful essay on this topic: that could conceivably have helped us enormously. If he had given us the full details of what he knew about McCarrick, and when he knew it–that would really help.

No such luck.

Rather, Benedict XVI has embarrassed himself significantly. He has perpetuated the hierarchy’s standard misidentification of the scandal. The Scandal does not = priests sexually abusing minors. The Scandal = bishops and popes neglecting to discipline criminals.

In his essay, the former head of the the Vatican tribunal dealing with sex-abuse cases–and the former supreme legislator of the Church–laments problems with ecclesiastical law. That’s like Bill Gates writing an essay to lament problems with Microsoft Office.

…How about this, gentlemen of the higher clergy:

Take two hundred men, the approximate size of many presbyterates. Between one and four of them will sexually abuse a minor at some point. What do you do then, when you learn of it?

Isn’t that the question?

Why have four decades passed, since Jason Berry first exposed the case of Gilbert Gauthe–and still: no clear, sensible answer for that question?

The McCarrick Report

Just put a letter to Archbishop Gregory into the mail…

St Matthews Cathedral

Your Excellency,

In 2001, when Theodore McCarrick took possession of the Archdiocese of Washington, he did so as a criminal fleeing justice. He had sexually abused seminarians and at least one minor.

By late 2004, Donald Wuerl and Joseph Ratzinger, among others, knew beyond any reasonable doubt that the sitting Archbishop of Washington was a criminal. No written law explicitly condemned what they knew McCarrick had done to some of his seminarians. But every honest churchman would have recognized the criminal acts. As Pope John Paul II so famously put it, in 2002: “There is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm the young.”

The Apostolic See had a clear duty: put McCarrick on trial. Didn’t happen.

By this time of year in 2006, McCarrick had turned seventy-five, Ratzinger had become Pope Benedict, and the nuncio called Donald Wuerl. Everyone involved entered into a dishonest pact.

Just a few years earlier, Wuerl had participated in the common promise of the American bishops never again to cover-up clerical sexual abuse. Pope Benedict had been a party to that promise as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But in the case of Theodore McCarrick, they broke their recent promise. Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, and Donald Wuerl proceeded to cover-up the crimes of Theodore McCarrick for the ensuing twelve years. They ended the cover-up only when forced to do so, by circumstances beyond their control.

If Donald Wuerl were an honest man, he would have told Pope Benedict back in the spring of 2006: I will not accept the Archdiocese of Washington as my pastoral charge until we make good on our promise and deliver public justice against McCarrick. Had that happened, Wuerl could have entered St. Matthew’s cathedral without dishonesty. As it was, he sat on the throne in Washington with a lie under the cushion for twelve years, complicit in that lie with two popes.

Sir: Do not enter St. Matthew’s with this same lie burdening you. Insist that the pope acknowledge these known facts. Recognize that the Apostolic See has grievously wronged the faithful of Washington. From at least 2004 until 2018, Rome failed to exercise due vigilance over Theodore McCarrick. Pope Francis must openly acknowledge this, and Donald Wuerl must openly acknowledge his complicity in it. Neither of these men deserve anyone’s trust until they publicly acknowledge these known facts.

Until these admissions take place, do not enter St. Matthew’s in the company of Donald Wuerl, and do not accept the apostolic mandate from Pope Francis. I know you didn’t ask for my advice. But I advise you as a brother, anyway.

Christ always offers us a fresh start. But we have to live in the truth. The truth: McCarrick entered St. Matthew’s a dishonest criminal. Donald Wuerl entered a liar. Two popes lived in this lie for years.

Don’t walk in as another liar.

 

Yours in Christ, Father Mark White

Vatican Spills the McCarrick Beans, Part II

Tornielli Giorno Giudizio

Anyone watching the work of the American bishops meeting in Baltimore three weeks ago knows that they voted on this:

Be it resolved that the bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops encourage the Holy See to release all the documentation that can be released consistent with the canon and civil law regarding the misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick.

The bishops voted that resolution down.

Meanwhile, laughter in Rome. Why? Because Rome had already released all the info. By talking secretly to two journalists. The book was published November 6.

“Don’t these silly Americans understand how we do things here?” the Roman cardinali thought to themselves. (Among the Roman cardinali, I include Donald Wuerl, certainly one of Tornielli & Valente’s anonymous sources.)

Meanwhile, we Americans wonder: Really? Talking off the record to a sympathetic journalist counts as “accountability?”

Anyway, click Part One of my summary of the book, if you haven’t read it already. We continue now with:

Facts about Theodore McCarrick revealed by the unwitting accountability team of Vigano-Tornielli-Valente…

In December 2005, Pope Benedict XVI knew that McCarrick had abused seminarians.

McCarrick turned 75 in July, 2005, still healthy and energetic. I remember it as if it were yesterday; all us Washington priests had to attend a 75th birthday party held in a fancy new dining hall at Georgetown University.

Even though canon law requires the resignation of all bishops at 75, sitting Cardinal Archbishops generally serve at least two extra years, if not four or five.

But McCarrick did not. Having concluded that McCarrick posed a grave danger to the good name of Holy Mother Church, Pope Benedict rushed the replacement process, hastily naming Donald Wuerl as McCarrick’s successor. Well before McCarrick turned 76.

crozier wuerl

Meanwhile: two things…

1. Everyone knew that Pope Benedict was embarrassing Theodore McCarrick. But we all thought it had to do with a fast one that McCarrick had pulled on then-Card. Ratzinger in 2004. Ratzinger had explained that priests could and should withhold Holy Communion from politicians who voted in favor of abortion. McCarrick did not communicate that instruction to his brother American bishops.

We priests in the trenches thought McCarrick got relieved early because of that. Little did we know…

2. The second settlement of an abuse claim against McCarrick ran its course during 2006. Rome got the word.

Vigano wrote about “sanctions” against McCarrick. Vigano supposed that the sanctions began in 2009, after Dr. Richard Sipe published selections from the McCarrick abuse-claim settlement documents.

But the ‘sanctions’ actually began in December of 2006.

Vigano wrote that Pope Francis “lifted” them in 2013.

He did not. Because they had never been enforced at all.

The history recounted in this book–of nuncios and cardinals trying to enforce Pope Benedict XVI’s order that Theodore McCarrick live a retired life of prayer and penance–it reads like the slapstick farce that it was. McCarrick outmaneuvered them all.

Tornielli and Valente document it, in excruciating detail. They propose to contradict Vigano, insisting that Vigano painted an inaccurate picture of a McCarrick effectively punished by Benedict XVI, then liberated by Francis.

But: I don’t remember Vigano insisting that Benedict’s sanctions were effective. As Tornielli and Valente point out, Vigano himself proved utterly inadequate to the task of enforcing them.

Tornielli and Valente try to cast doubt on Vigano’s utterly crucial assertion that he told Pope Francis about McCarrick’s abuses in June of 2013. But Card. Ouellet, prefect of Bishops, has already acknowledged that Vigano probably did tell the pope about McCarrick. (Oullet preposterously claimed that we could hardly expect the pope to focus on such information).

And even if Vigano never told Pope Franis anything about McCarrick, Tornielli and Valente effectively inform us that they all knew anyway–all the Cardinals around the pope. Pope Francis didn’t need Vigano to tell him that McCarrick was a ticking time bomb of scandal that could explode and destroy them all. The pope already knew. He just did not appear to care.

McCarrick sofa

The picture from this hit-piece book against Vigano is manifestly not: Vigano wrong. The picture that emerges is: The people who run our church really, really do not know what they are doing.

I will likely have more to tell you about what I have read, dear reader, but let me close now with:

My Analysis

In 1994, Bishop Hughes of Metuchen, NJ, could have insisted on a church trial of his predecessor, even though that predecessor was his ecclesiastical superior. Trials are ugly, but they do attain the kind of certitude that we can have in this life, about an accused man’s guilt or innocence.

It would have taken a great deal of courage for Hughes to denounce the Archbishop of his province. But the alternative was: Slip into the shadow world of the mafiosi

In 1999, Cardinal O’Connor could have insisted on a trial of Theodore McCarrick, for violations of the Sixth Commandment with his own seminarians. But he did not. O’Connor wasn’t hung up about guilt or innocence, either; he only cared about whether or not McCarrick got promoted.

(Even the good guys among the mafiosi are still mafiosi, my friends. O’Connor was convinced that McCarrick had preyed on defenseless young men. But still O’Connor never suggested that McCarrick had no business remaining in the throne in Newark–and had no business saying Mass at all.)

John Paul II could have, and should have, conducted a trial. But he preferred to think the best about the charming snake-oil salesman.

Benedict XVI absolutely had to conduct a trial. But he did not do so. He assumed McCarrick was guilty. Meanwhile, McCarrick regarded Benedict’s attempts to closet him in a monastery as a “persecution.” Because McCarrick denies to this day that he did anything wrong.

There’s no getting around this: Pope Benedict XVI is guilty of covering up for Theodore McCarrick. The pope worried about scandal. He did not appear to understand that McCarrick’s victims needed justice. Nor did he understand that more victims would surely come forward.

But we can well imagine that Benedict is suffering his punishment right now. He himself made the choice that leaves him in the impossibly painful position that he now occupies. He knows everything about all this. He knows he made a terrible mistake, out of weakness of will.

And he can say nothing. He has information that could help resolve the problem–The Problem, that he knows has released termites into the very foundations of the Church. But he cannot say anything. Because of the choice that he himself made, to live as the “contemplative ex-pope.”

Pope Francis inherited a nightmare situation in which one of his Cardinals (an unusually prominent one) stood accused of grave abuses. But his guilt had never been proved; it had never even been put on trial, by anyone.

Pope Francis absolutely, positively had to conduct a trial, to establish McCarrick’s guilt definitively and remove him from the clerical state.

Instead, Pope Francis blew the whole thing off completely.

Until a man came forward accusing McCarrick of abusing him while he was still a minor. And this apocalypse we have lived through, and continue to live through, began.

Who Will Give the Concession Speech?

Elections usually end with a concession speech. The defeated candidate acknowledges that the voters have chosen his or her opponent. The loser of the election promises to abide by the choice of the voters. The contest ends.

But who will concede the Irish referendum? Can the unborn children whose lives now stand in danger–can these little ones take to the microphones to acknowledge that the voters have chosen to grant abortionists the authority to kill them with impunity?

____

Pope Benedict wrote some penetrating, wise things to the Catholics of Ireland in the spring of 2010. He tried to help them recover from devastating revelations about pervasive child-sex-abuse cover-ups.

Pope Benedict Easter candleSeems like a good day today to consider a couple paragraphs of that letter. We could apply the Pope’s words to ourselves here in the US, too.

In recent decades the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The program of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it.

Young people of Ireland, I wish to offer you a particular word of encouragement. Your experience of the Church is very different from that of your parents and grandparents. The world has changed greatly since they were your age. Yet all people, in every generation, are called to travel the same path through life, whatever their circumstances may be. We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people. But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever. He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart.

A young person’s experience of the Church should always bear fruit in a personal and life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ within a loving, nourishing community. In this environment, young people should be encouraged to grow to their full human and spiritual stature, to aspire to high ideals of holiness, charity and truth, and to draw inspiration from the riches of a great religious and cultural tradition. In our increasingly secularized society, where even we Christians often find it difficult to speak of the transcendent dimension of our existence, we need to find new ways to pass on to young people the beauty and richness of friendship with Jesus Christ in the communion of his Church… By treading the path marked out by the Gospel, by observing the commandments and by conforming your lives ever more closely to the figure of Jesus Christ, you will surely experience the profound renewal that is so urgently needed at this time. I invite you all to persevere along this path.

____

We are pro-woman and pro-life. The referendum in Ireland means a crushing short-term victory for unrealistic propaganda and the empty promises of sexual libertinism.

Pope St. John Paul II explained very thoroughly how a Christian must be pro-life. And he explained how a pro-lifer must be kind and sympathetic.

We separate the moral failings that can lead to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy from the simple good of a human life. We say Go to Confession, and start fresh; we stand beside you. The abortion movement offers no helping hand and piles shame on top of shame, saying: Go, Kill the fruit of your dishonest sex.

Love will win in the end. Dear brother and sister Catholics of Ireland, we American Catholics welcome you to the trenches. We will work to build the Culture of Life from the ground up, until the Lord calls us home.

Concession speech? No. We concede nothing.

The Saint of Shakespeare’s Florence

Romeo + JulietActs III and IV of Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well take place in Florence, Italy.  While he was writing, St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi was living in a Carmelite convent in Florence, Italy.

Shakespeare was born two years before the saintly nun was born.  He lived on for almost nine years after she died.  In other words:  they were contemporaries.  Shakespeare began his career in the theater the same year that Mary Magdalen de Pazzi entered the convent.

The saintly nun died 409 years ago today.  She, too, wrote.   During this time of year, in the fortnight between Pentecost and Corpus Christi, in 1584, she professed her monastic vows and experienced mystical revelations.  More revelations came during the same fortnight a year later.  She wrote:

The Holy Spirit comes into the soul like a fountain, and the soul is immersed in it.  Just as two rushing rivers intermingle in such a way that the smaller loses its name, and is absorbed into the larger, so the divine Spirit acts upon the soul and absorbs it.  It is proper that the soul, which is lesser, should lose its name and surrender to the Spirit—as it will, if it turns entirely to the Spirit and is united.

Mary Magdalen de Pazzi book coverIn the spring of 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the Archbishop of Florence to celebrate the 400th anniversary of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi’s death.  The pope wrote:

The saint represents the living love that recalls the essential mystical dimension of every Christian life…Grasping the monastery bells, she urged her sisters with the cry, “Come and love Love!”  …May her voice be heard in all the Church, spreading to every human creature the proclamation to love God.

Among Shakespeare’s characters, we find a couple intense Italian women.  For instance: Juliet, of Verona, of the house of Capulet.  While the Bard was writing about the all-consuming love of Juliet for Romeo, St. Mary Magdalen was living such a love—for God.

The Widow and Elijah

elijah widow

She has contributed all she had, all she had to live on. (Mark 12:44)

If you are like me, Christ’s words here make you think of the first section of Pope-Emeritus Benedict’s encyclical on Christian hope. The poor woman at the Temple treasury gave all her “substance,” her whole livelihood, her material means.

In the first reading at Holy Mass this Sunday, we hear about the widow who had been reduced to poverty by a long drought. As she explained to the prophet Elijah, she was a woman of very little substance.

When the prophet asked for food, she said, “How can I provide for you, and my son, and myself, when all I have is a handful of flour, and no hope of getting any more?”

Pope Benedict XVI Castel Gandolfo good nightBut Elijah said: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. Faith is a “substance.”

Actually, Elijah did not say that exactly. He said, Just give me something to eat. I am a hungry prophet. Give me a cake. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Have some faith, woman. God makes the sun shine and the rain fall.

Who wrote, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for?’ Right. St. Paul. The same apostle who also wrote: “Christ will appear a second time to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him.”

In his encyclical, Pope Benedict posed the question: On what, exactly, does man live? What is the substance of human life?

Before we shout Faith! Love! Jesus! let’s pause. Hungry Elijah asked for bread before he got into matters of piety. As the Fathers of Vatican II put it:

A man can scarcely [attain a spiritual life] unless his living conditions allow him to be conscious of his dignity and to rise to his destiny…Human freedom is often crippled when a man encounters extreme poverty. (Gaudium et Spes 31)

So Elijah asked for food. At that point, he could not simply live on the words coming forth from the mouth of God. But the woman said: I don’t have any bread, man. No bread, as in money. And no bread, as in bread.

Elijah said: Woman, I feel you. I know you’ve got problems. So do I. But give me something to eat. I have been fasting for days, months, years. I have walked all over kingdom come–east, west, north, south. Just trying to serve the hardnosed God of Israel. He is enormously demanding.

Why do think we have this endless drought in the first place? Because the king and the people of our nation have abandoned the faith. Listen, just give me some bread. Then we’ll talk.

Elijah map ZarephathElijah did not start with a sermon; he demanded a cake. The woman was also practical and no-nonsense. But did she respond to Elijah’s purely practical request with pure pragmatism of her own?

Did she say, “Look, Israelite. I don’t know what kind of math you Jews practice, but here in Phoenicia 1 + 1 does not = 3. I do not have three cakes worth of substance in my flour jar?”

No, she did not say that. She did not refuse him. His request made no sense; it didn’t add up. But she faithfully obeyed anyway. Her faith became the substance of the cakes she proceeded to make. She had enough faith to bake cakes for a year.

Do miracles happen? Or can science explain everything? Is our substance made merely of molecules? Or do we need another science, other than “science,” to explain what we are really made of? As in: the science of the saints.

What if the woman had spiritualized everything and said to Elijah, “I wish you peace, my brother! In the name of the Lord! Go your way. Stay warm and well fed!” What if she never handed over the cake? Would her praises be sung in the Scriptures then? Hardly.

On the other hand, down-to-earth as she was, her life had more substance that just the flour in the jar. Her faith reached out to something real, to a supernatural substance. She believed in God. She wanted, above all, to obey God. And she hoped in His providence.

God took care of her, and her son, and Elijah, bodily and spiritually.

What’s the greatest miracle? I think it is two-fold. One: The greatest miracle is that anything even exists at all—and that things, as they exist, do fundamentally make sense.

Why does 1 + 1 even = 2? Because God makes sense, and makes everything He has made make sense. That is the most awesome of all miracles, and that’s why we can even have math, or science, or modern medicine, or economics.

But ultimately God makes more sense than we ourselves can grasp right now. After all, He has a fundamental divine reason for making the universe. The second part of the great miracle is that God has taught us through Christ His fundamental reason—the reason why He has made everything that He has made. He made it all for us: for our salvation, for our perfect fulfillment. His whole plan has one goal: that we would live.

Two Good Priests Among Many

Conclave Mass 2005 St Peters
Mass “Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice,” April 18, 2005

 

“I am the good shepherd,” says the Lord.

Exactly ten years ago last Saturday, two men sat together under the dome of St. Peter’s basilica. Since that day, both of these two men have become very famous. It was the Mass to begin the papal conclave in 2005, concelebrated by all the Cardinal electors. One of these two men soon became Pope Benedict XVI. Eight years later, the other one became Pope Francis.

That day, the first of these two men actually gave the homily. Cardinal Ratzinger was then the Dean of the College of Cardinals, so it was his duty to preach the sermon at the beginning of the conclave. In his homily, he made the point that Christ had brought a time of jubilee, the ‘year of favor,’ to the earth. Pope Francis cited the same idea when he recently declared that we as a Church will celebrate a jubilee year, a Year of Mercy, beginning this December.

Christ has revealed the face of the Father, by dying on the cross for us. Now we live in the time of grace, the time of sincere love, the time of divine mercy. Cardinal Ratzinger said that in April 2005. Pope Francis said it in April 2015.

Pope John Paul II with Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio
Pope John Paul II with Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio

I know it might make me sound nostalgic and old, but I think it’s a good idea for us to imagine both Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Bergoglio concelebrating that particular Mass on April 18, 2005.

They both grieved the loss of a beloved friend who had died two weeks earlier. They both, I am sure, could hardly imagine the world without Pope John Paul II.

I am also sure that neither Cardinal Ratzinger nor Cardinal Bergoglio had any serious thought at that moment about becoming pope himself. They were praying fervently at the holy altar, praying that Christ the Good Shepherd would guide them, together with all the Cardinals, to do their sacred duty well.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily that day made a mark on me personally. Of course I was paying attention to everything, watching all the Youtubes, and reading all the translations of everything. It was in that homily that Cardinal Ratzinger gave his famous diagnosis of the “dictatorship of relativism,” the contemporary tendency to tolerate everything except the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must have the courage to preach the truth with love, he said.

Now, I myself don’t claim to be any kind of particularly respectable priest. I hope I teach orthodox doctrine, since I hardly have anything else to offer. I have above-average skills in solving crossword puzzles, but that’s about the extent of my talents. So I don’t hold myself out as any great shakes.

But I can honestly say that I have been, and am, willing to die for the fact that there is such a thing as truth, such a thing as The Truth. And that Jesus Christ teaches it, that Jesus Christ is it. If the dictatorship of relativism asks me to choose between Christ the Truth and more days on this earth, I hope to shout Viva Cristo Rey while they shoot, God help me.

Pope Benedict, that day before he became Pope Benedict, was saying: ‘The truth is that Christ brings the Father’s loving mercy.’ Now, ten years later, Pope Francis is saying, ‘The truth is that Christ brings the Father’s loving mercy.’

Benedict Francis kneelingNewspapermen, breathless anchorwomen, and other associated television chatterers have a tendency to paint a bad Pope Benedict/good Pope Francis picture. Meanwhile, plenty of bloggers, magazine columnists, and experts on the Sacred Liturgy, like to paint the good Pope Benedict/bad Pope Francis picture.

But I really think we should meditate on the two of them concelebrating that particular Mass on that particular day, April 18, 2005. Let’s see them there, beneath the huge dome, among their brother Cardinals, praying the Mass at the tomb of St. Peter. Praying that the merciful Lord would guide His Church into the future, so that all the people of the world could reach true fulfillment as children of God.

Neither of them were praying, “Lord, make me the pope!” We can say that for sure. And we can likewise be sure that neither of them were praying, “Lord, whatever you do, don’t make Bergoglio pope!” or “Don’t make Ratzinger pope!”

I think we can imagine that they were both humbly praying something like, “Lord, give us the shepherd we need. May Your holy will be done. Give us the loving shepherd, after Your own Heart, that You have chosen.”

Now, how do we know so clearly that they both prayed more or less like this, in their innermost hearts, on that day? Because we know what they both are, deep down. We know what they both have in common, which makes their differences, real as those differences may be, seem small.

Both of these two men, Ratzinger and Bergoglio, Pope-Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis—both have lived their long lives as devout Catholic priests. They are both the same, fundamentally: prayerful, dutiful priests. They both have really only wanted to do one thing: shepherd the flock according to the Heart of Christ. I, for one, admire them both and love them both very much. Above all, because they are such beautiful priests.

Let’s thank the Lord especially at Mass on Good-Shepherd Sunday for all the prayerful, dutiful shepherds He has given us in our lives. None of us would be here right now, if it weren’t for the shepherds we have had. The priests who gave us our sacraments of initiation, who have heard our confessions, and who have fed us from the holy altar with the medicine of immortality, the flesh and blood of Christ our God. Thank you, Lord, for guiding us through the shepherds you have given us!

And Viva Papa Francesco!