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  • Yes, the church will survive an open discussion about the family

    There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on about the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is only a few days into its second and final session.

    We’ve heard warnings that Pope Francis and his “mercy” agenda may be leading the church down the road to schism (over the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics), or confusion (over more welcoming language regarding gay people, cohabitating couples and others), or a “first-world vs. third-world” split, or some type of dangerous pastoral shift that was worked out before the bishops even arrived in Rome and which non-Italian speakers might not even understand when it comes time to approve or disapprove.

    We heard these concerns during last year’s synod session, too, and they have evidently persisted. I think that’s why Pope Francis has taken the floor and tried to reduce some of the hyperventilating that’s going on inside and outside the synod hall.

    He began by encouraging bishops to be open to the Holy Spirit, and not to view their meeting as some kind of Parliament. That the pope felt he had to say this speaks volumes about the kind of political posturing that’s been going on in recent months. One participant said the pope also asked the bishops not to give in to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” apparently responding to the murmured fears about this synod’s new methodology.

    The pope emphasized that the “deposit of faith” is not a “museum” but a living fountain that must have a connection to people’s lives. He said apostolic courage includes the courage to look critically at the “hardening of hearts” in the church that simply sends people further away from God.

    While insisting that the synod had never contemplated changing basic doctrine about the permanence of marriage, the pope said bishops need to show “evangelical humility.” That means “not pointing fingers at others in order to judge them, but extending them a hand in order to help them up, without ever feeling superior to them.” I think this plays into the pope’s exploration of how the church can restore full sacramental participation for divorced Catholics, among other things.

    Meanwhile, predictions that the synod would be muzzled (allegedly part of the “conspiracy” to shove through a prefabricated outcome) are proving untrue. Bishops are free to talk to reporters, and the Vatican is providing a daily “meet the press” with several bishops each day.

    The fact that these bishops sometimes disagree about important issues has already emerged in the press hall. That has prompted an “oh my God” reaction among some reporters, who apparently believe the church cannot survive an open discussion on these questions.

    I think that’s the kind of melodrama that Pope Francis is trying to move beyond. The tension between mercy and truth is not something this pope created, as readers of the Gospel will recognize.

    Francis believes, correctly I think, that unless the church changes its language and pastoral approach, it will continue to alienate many of the people it is trying to save. He knows this involves a difficult debate, among a hierarchy that was largely put in place by two popes who emphasized doctrinal identity.

    It’s far too early for predictions, but I’ll make some anyway: The synod will not derail, bishops will not pick up their briefcases and march out of the hall, the faithful will not be stunned and disoriented by the outcome. At the end of the month, I think we’ll see a final document that is largely positive about the many contributions given and sacrifices made by families today, recognizing that in the modern age the church needs to also work with “untraditional” families in ways that are more welcoming than judgmental.

    The pope has wisely structured this synod in a way that avoids up-and-down votes on specific final proposals. I think he probably realizes that reaching a consensus on issues like divorced and remarried Catholics, or replacing the “living in sin” language the church has used to define some relationships, will take more time. I expect some of these questions will be handed to commissions for quiet advancement in the months to come.

  • Opening synod, Pope Francis aims for balancing point

    Pope Francis tried to set the tone of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in his opening Mass today. It was a tone of balance between preaching truth and practicing mercy.

    The pope’s point was that the church can and must do both, that there is no contradiction between the church as a doctrinal teacher and the church as a pastoral “field hospital.”

    In one of his homily’s key passages, he first quoted Pope Benedict XVI in saying, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” Then, explaining why the church must be a bridge and not a roadblock to people who fall, he quoted Pope John Paul II, who said that those who err must be “understood and loved.”

    By drawing on both his predecessors, I think Pope Francis was doing a little bridge-building himself, between the liberal and rigorist wings of the more than 270 bishops who will participate in the three-week long synod.

    Here is how the pope described the church’s mission in today’s world. On the one hand, truth:

    To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert, in defending faithful love and encouraging the many families which live married life as an experience which reveals of God’s love; in defending the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously.

    And mercy:

    To carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.

    Not surprisingly, the pope did not focus on hot-button issues like divorce, gay marriage and cohabitation, topics that became lightning rods in last year’s synod debate. Instead, he emphasized the spiritual and material afflictions – including loneliness and selfishness – that are harming family life around the globe.

    Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom.

    I think of the elderly, abandoned even by their loved ones and children; widows and widowers; the many men and women left by their spouses; all those who feel alone, misunderstood and unheard; migrants and refugees fleeing from war and persecution; and those many young people who are victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture.

    In describing the contemporary culture, the pope seemed to strike some notes of criticism that sounded familiar to those (like me) who heard many such homilies from John Paul II and Benedict. Lasting and fruitful love, Pope Francis said, is “increasingly looked down upon, viewed as a quaint relic of the past.”

    “It would seem that the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates and the highest percentages of abortion, divorce, suicide, and social and environmental pollution.”

    I expect this is the kind of message we’ll hear from the synod, too. The more unsettled part of the debate, however, is pastoral language and practice regarding those who don’t align perfectly with church teaching, including Catholics who practice birth control, couples who live together outside of marriage, divorced and remarried Catholics, and gay couples.

  • On eve of synod, a Vatican official comes out as gay

    If the Vatican wanted to bury the question of homosexuality during the Synod of Bishops that begins tomorrow, those plans were upset today when a longtime official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation came out as gay.

    Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa did not come out quietly, either. He held a press conference (at which he hugged his partner), gave interviews and announced that a book on his experience is imminent.

    Saying he was “happy and proud” to be gay, Charamsa said his (soon to be former) workplace at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was homophobic and paranoid. He said he was asking Pope Francis to change the Catholic catechism, which calls homosexuality “disordered.”

    That gay priests work at the Vatican will come as no surprise to those who have read my book, “The Vatican Diaries.” But this kind of public revelation represents a real challenge to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude that reigns there.

    Keep in mind that for church officials, there are two kinds of public admission here. First is Charamsa’s sexual orientation. The second, and probably more serious in the eyes of the Vatican, is that the priest is in a sexual relationship, violating the promise of celibacy he made when he was ordained.

    Most objectionable of all, for the Vatican, was the publicity he sought out, with the expressed desire to influence the outcome of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which begins Sunday.

    A Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said there was no way Charamsa could continue in his position at the CDF. Lombardi saw it as a move to manipulate the synod.

    “The decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure,” the spokesman said.

    For his part, Charamsa said in an interview that he wanted the synod to take note: “I would like to tell the Synod that homosexual love is a kind of family love, a love that needs the family. Everyone – gays, lesbians and transsexuals included – foster in their hearts a desire for love and family.”

    The Synod of Bishops is discussing the family, and at its first session last fall homosexuality became one of the hot-button issues that quickly drew the attention of bishops and the media.

    This month’s session will feature a more controlled, point-by-point discussion of family issues, with less public reporting on the proceedings.

    Charamsa called Pope Francis “fantastic” for his emphasis on dialogue. The pope recently met with a former student who is gay, along with the man’s partner.

    The pope, however, has also made it clear that he opposes outside efforts to manipulate the debate during the Synod of Bishops.

  • Pope Francis and Kim Davis

    For those asking what I think about the pope's meeting with Kim Davis last week, I point them to this Tweet yesterday from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, one of the pope's closest advisors in Rome:


    If a top papal advisor is saying Pope Francis was "exploited," that raises questions about the entire episode.

    Some may remember that Rebecca Kadaga was the Ugandan parliamentarian who pushed for that country's controversial anti-homosexuality bill. While in Rome in 2012, she was in a group that met with the pope -- an encounter that was billed by her supporters as a papal blessing for her cause. The Vatican later put out a statement saying that was not the case, that there was no implied papal approval of her actions or proposals.



  • At final U.S. Mass, pope preaches openness and tender mercies

    Pope Francis wound up his U.S. visit with a defense of the family as a place of “little miracles,” where gestures of compassion and tenderness often reflect true holiness.

    The pope also said the church needs to recognize that the Holy Spirit works in many settings and among many people, sometimes bypassing “officialdom and inner circles.”

    “To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not ‘part of our group’, who are not ‘like us’, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!” the pope said.

    The pope spoke at a Mass celebrated on a Philadelphia parkway before several hundred thousand people, the culmination of a church-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

    His homily made the point that family life is made up largely of small, tender gestures that are crucial in a world full of “new divisions, new forms of brokenness.”

    The pope recalled the words of Jesus, “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded.”

    The pope added: “These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children.

    They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work.”

    The pope said people should ask themselves: “In my own home, do we shout or do we speak to each other in love and tenderness?”

    “That’s a good way of measuring our love,” he said.

  • Pope meets with abuse victims, promises accountability for those who failed to protect minors

    After meeting with five sex abuse victims in Philadelphia, Pope Francis told international bishops that the church owes them a debt of gratitude for bringing to light shameful crimes.

    "I am profoundly sorry. God weeps," the pope said of sexual abuse. He called abuse victims "true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy."

    The five were not all Catholic, and not all of them were victims of sexual abuse by priests. Some had been abused by a teacher or family member, the Vatican said. A spokesman later said that while previous such encounters had been with victims of abuse by clerics or other church personnel, this meeting had a "larger perspective."

    UPDATE: Here is the text of the pope's remarks after the encounter with victims:

    “I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorry of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart. I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm.

    I am profoundly sorry. God weeps. The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.

    You survivors of abuse have yourselves become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy. We humbly owe each one of you and your families our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children.”

    Earlier this year, Pope Francis approved a system of reporting and judging bishops who fail to protect minors, including a Vatican tribunal to determine whether a bishop is guilty of “abuse of office.”

    The Vatican said the pope met with three women and two men who had been abused as minors. The pope met with each, expressing his own "pain and shame" at their suffering. 

    Here is the Vatican statement on the encounter:

    This morning between 8:00 and 9:00 am, at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the Holy Father received some victims of sexual abuse by the clergy or by members of their families or their teachers. The group consisted of five adults - three women, two men - who have suffered abuse when they were minors. Each person was accompanied by a family member or support person.

    The group was accompanied by Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston and Chair of the commission set up by the Pope for the protection of minors; by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Most Reverend Charles Chaput and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Diocese of Philadelphia Office for the protection of minors.

    The Pope spoke with visitors, listening to their stories and offering them a few words together as a group and later listening to each one individually. He then prayed with them and expressed his solidarity in sharing their suffering, as well as his own pain and shame in especially in the case of injury caused them by clergy or church workers.

    Pope Francis reiterated the commitment of the Church so that all victims be heard and treated with justice; the guilty be punished and crimes of abuse be combated with an effective prevention program in the Church and in society. The Pope thanked the victims for their essential contribution to restore the truth and begin the journey of healing. The meeting lasted about half an hour and ended with the blessing of the Holy Father.


  • Pope to bishops: Families need our support, not complaints and criticism

    It’s become increasingly clear during his U.S. trip that Pope Francis is trying to get bishops on board in his quest for a church that is more merciful, less judgmental and closer to its people.

    That was the sub-theme at this morning’s encounter with international bishops attending the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

    The topic was the modern family, which usually prompts a litany of problems from church leaders. Pope Francis began his talk by stating that the “foremost pastoral challenge” facing the bishops is to recognize the family as a gift.

    “For all the obstacles we see before us, gratitude and appreciation should prevail over concerns and complaints,” he said.

    The pope did address the challenges facing families, in particular a “consumerism” mentality that has invaded even personal relationships – accumulating friends on social networks, for example. He also appeared to reference gay marriage when he noted “the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural – and now juridical – effects on family bonds.”

    But as pastors, he said, the response is not to condemn or exclude:

    Should we blame our young people for having grown up in this kind of society? Should we condemn them for living in this kind of a world? Should they hear their pastors saying that “it was all better back then”, “the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?”

    No, I do not think that this is the way. As shepherds following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time. To look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion. The world today demands this conversion on our part.

    That “conversion on our part” was a pretty remarkable comment. He went on to explain that it’s a mistake for the church to interpret contemporary culture as merely indifferent to marriage, or engaged in selfishness. And it’s wrong to assume young people are “hopelessly timid, weak or inconsistent.”

    “We must not fall into this trap,” he told the bishops.

    The pope then turned the argument around, saying it’s the church’s responsibility to “rebuild enthusiasm for marriage.”

    “We need to invest our energies not so much in explaining over and over the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family,” he said.

    And in a line that reflected the “actions vs. words” theme of his pontificate, he added: “A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.”

    Shepherding, not talking, is what is required of bishops today, and they may need “infinite patience” in that process, he said.

    He closed his speech with a rather amazing request that bishops “become more and more like fathers and mothers, and less like people who have simply learned to live without a family.”

  • Pope throws away speech, talks from his heart to families

    If you want to see what Pope Francis' preaching and pasturing style is all about, watch this from the vigil Saturday night in Philadelphia:




  • Pope Francis' somewhat different take on religious liberty

    Well, that was interesting.

    At the official “religious freedom” event during his U.S. visit, Pope Francis never mentioned the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns, nor their battles over alleged religious discrimination on Obamacare provisions and conscience protection issues.

    The bishops have certainly made this a priority. Here was Archbishop William E. Lori last June asking the faithful to support their efforts:

    “Religious institutions in the United States are in danger of losing their freedom to hire for mission and their freedom to defend the family…. Endangered is the freedom of church ministries to provide employee benefits and to provide adoptions and refugee services in accord with the church’s teaching on faith and morals. It is one thing for others to disagree with the church’s teaching but quite another to discriminate against the rights of believers to practice our faith, not just in word but in the way we conduct our daily life, ministry and business.”

    Perhaps a detailed analysis of these matters was never in the cards for Pope Francis. At the White House the other day, he did offer generic backing for the bishops, encouraging the defense of religious freedom from “everything that would threaten or compromise it.” And he made a brief, symbolic stop at the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that is suing over the Obamacare provisions on contraception coverage.

    If the bishops were looking for something more explicit in Philadelphia, the pope went in a different and more philosophical direction: “Uniformity.”

    It’s a word that’s popped up more than once during the pope’s U.S. visit. Clearly, the pope doesn't like it. As he said at the 9/11 Memorial Friday, religious leaders should be “opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity.”

    But what exactly is he talking about?

    Today in Philadelphia we got some explanation. Citing the French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau, the pope said the big threat to religious liberty today comes from “a uniformity that the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us.”

    The pope then explained how this uniformity emerges in the modern age, going back to a concept he expressed in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sì.

    “We live in a world subject to the ‘globalization of the technocratic paradigm,’ which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity,” he said.

    To resist that movement, he said, religions have a duty to promote a healthy pluralism in which differences are respected and valued. The pope evidently sees such pluralism as the antidote to the push for uniformity.

    “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” he said.

    He noted that the Quakers who founded Philadelphia aimed to establish a colony that would be a “haven of religious freedom and tolerance.”

    I doubt if all the pope’s deep-thinking points were picked up by the massive crowd that filled Independence Mall, a three-block area that is considered the cradle of American democracy.

    They applauded when he spoke about the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect those rights. He spoke at a lecturn used by Abraham Lincoln when he gave the Gettysburg Address.

    “Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity,” the pope said.

    But he added that U.S. history also shows that these principles must constantly be re-affirmed and defended. As examples, he cited the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and “the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans.”

    The event was billed as a “meeting for religious freedom with the Hispanic community and other immigrants,” and the Latin American pope returned to the theme of immigration at the end of his talk, delighting his audience when he told them: “Never be ashamed of your traditions.”

    “Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation,” he said.


  • In Philadelphia, pope pays tribute to a native saint

    Pope Francis today paid tribute to Philadelphia’s own Saint Katharine Drexel, who as a young heiress used her fortune to build missions and schools for the poor.

    Celebrating Mass in the Philadelphia cathedral shortly after his arrival in the city on Saturday, the pope said the story of Katharine Drexel held a lesson for the way the church should challenge people.

    While touring Europe in 1887, Drexel met with Pope Leo XIII and asked for more missionaries to Native Americans. Pope Leo responded pointedly, “What about you? What are you going to do?”

    Later that year Drexel made an extended visit to Indian missions in the western United States. She eventually founded an order of sisters, using her inheritance to build convents and schools for African-Americans in the South and Native Americans in the Southwest.

    In his homily, Pope Francis said Pope Leo had known how to spark a tremendous personal change, and that modern church leaders should also finds ways to lead people to share their “enthusiasm and gifts with our communities.”

    “Those words – ‘What about you?’ – were addressed to a young person, a young woman with high ideals, and they changed her life. They made her think of the immense work that had to be done, and to realize that she was being called to do her part,” the pope said.

    “How many young people in our parishes and schools have the same high ideals, generosity of spirit, and love for Christ and the church! Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them to do their part?” he said.

    This lesson is especially valuable today, the pope said, because the church increasingly needs lay people engaged in its mission. A “sense of collaboration and shared responsibility” with lay people is needed, he said.

    “We know that the future of the church in a rapidly changing society will call, and even now calls, for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity," he said.

    And in a shout-out to the contribution of women, he added: “In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.”



    In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.


    In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.


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