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How the Phoenix diocese is helping families celebrate Holy Week at home

Phoenix, Ariz., Apr 4, 2020 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- Holy Week this year is going to look different for almost every Catholic in the United States.

On Palm Sunday, people will wave last year’s palms, or this year’s pine branches, or, if they’re lucky, palms from their parish, from the confines of their home instead of the pews of their parish. On Holy Thursday, feet will be washed by a family member, or not at all. For the veneration of the Cross, Catholics will kiss their personal crucifixes instead of lining up to kiss the crucifix at their parish. Candle-lit Easter Vigils will be celebrated by solitary priests livestreaming Mass from empty chapels.

It’s going to be different, and it’s going to be hard. That’s why a group of priests and laypeople at the Diocese of Phoenix compiled “A Journey Through Holy Week for Families”, an online flipbook resource to guide Catholic families through celebrating Holy Week from their homes.

“We had a meeting last week...specifically about Holy Week and how to enter into Holy Week knowing that we couldn't have public Masses at this time,” Fr. John Parks, the Vicar for Evangelization for the Diocese of Phoenix, told CNA. “We just thought - what are ways that we could really strengthen the family and invite the family to pray as the domestic Church?” he said.

“You're not going to be able to see the washing of the feet at Mass. So can we include a little rite from home that a family could do the washing the feet of their family members?” Parks said.

“Or on good Friday, again, you can't see or experience the veneration of the Cross at Mass, could we equip a family to do a little veneration of the Cross from home?”

After the brainstorming session, Parks’ colleague compiled all the readings, prayers and resources into a 150 page online “flipbook” for families. The books covers the Mass readings as well as prayers and other liturgically-themed activities from Palm Sunday through the Triduum and Easter Sunday, as well as the readings and resources for Divine Mercy Sunday, which comes eight days after Easter.

The online book includes links to videos that include everything from livestream Masses from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Phoenix to talks by Bishop Robert Barron to recordings of songs to sing during prayer time at home.

It also includes links to recipes, virtual pilgrimages, coloring pages for kids, a guide to cut out palms from green construction paper, and a Holy Thursday puppet show script.

“There is so much...there's all these different activities and songs you can play. So my only fear that it'd be a little overwhelming. But we’re trying to tell parents, just pick two or three things and have a little game plan for the day,” he said.

“So it’s like reading a playbook for sports - they don't run every play, you just pick the play that you think will help your team, so that's what we're thinking of.”

Parks said while he understands that this Holy Week will be different than what families are used to experiencing, he thinks that this is a special time of grace for families, who are acting as the domestic Church.

“I really believe that God is pouring out a grace now to strengthen the domestic Church in the family. And that there's a great thing poured out specifically for parents, to live deeper in their natural authority that they have over their children, to make them saints and to help them,” he said.

“This little book, it's like ‘ut vadat tecum’, in Latin, ‘to go with’ you. It goes with you. It's a tool that we hope to put in the hands of parents and pastors to help them equip families to walk through this week,” he said.

“That would be my desire, is that even though people can't participate in public liturgies, there's still a way to participate, to a lesser degree of course, but from the home. And I think for some families that might be unique. They've never done a washing of the feet. They've venerated the Cross. They've never prayed the Stations of the Cross in their own home. It can be a really beautiful moment of experiencing holy things in the home.”

Palm supplier sees business halved by coronavirus cancelations

Denver, Colo., Apr 3, 2020 / 11:55 pm (CNA).- Thomas Sowell and his wife own Southeast Palm and Foliage in Astor, Florida, in the middle of the state, about 40 miles west of Daytona Beach.

“It's in the middle of nowhere, actually,” Sowell told CNA in January.

Sowell isn’t Catholic, but his business supplies palms to hundreds of Catholic parishes across the country— in every state, as well as in Canada— not to mention the many Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran communities that also use palms.

Last year, the Sowells’ farm shipped over four million palm leaves.

“There's not many of us that do this. There's not many people, not many companies do what we do,” Sowell told CNA.

“I know that there have been, over the past, say, 50 years, quite a few other companies embark upon this, but for whatever reason they couldn't hang in there with it. It's really difficult.”

Sowell never imagined how difficult this year’s harvest would turn out to be.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, and with Mass suspended through Holy Week in every Catholic diocese in the United States, the Sowell’s business is taking a hit.

“We had an incredible number of cancellations up until two weeks ago,” he told CNA April 2.

Most of his orders for Palm Sunday come in during January, he said. This gives the palm suppliers the chance to harvest the palms, package them, and refrigerate them so they stay fresh before they’re shipped.

Normally, some of the biggest challenges to Tom’s business are natural, such as hurricanes and flooding. In terms of the weather, this was a great harvest year, he said, and they were able to gather all the necessary palms to fulfil the Palm Sunday orders they originally had. The process of cutting, cleaning and preparing the strips of palm is incredibly labor intensive.

But then, as the coronavirus pandemic took a hold in the US, parishes started canceling those orders.

“So here we are with an incredible amount of palms left over that were scheduled to be prepared and shipped...we just lost that,” Sowell said.

Altogether, Sowell said his family will likely ship fewer than half the palms they did last year.

“It's unbelievable. It's hard to grasp what's going on globally,” he said.

Though Sowell also uses leftover palms to create ashes for Ash Wednesday, he has such a large enough stockpile of ash— eight to ten years worth, in fact— that he said it doesn’t make sense to burn any more palms, especially since ash doesn’t go bad.

All the extra palms are currently in a dumpster on his property. The only thing he can really do with them, he said, is use them as fertilizer for next year’s crop.

“So we'll just take them out, spend a few days to drive through the areas where they came from and just scatter them back out again,” he said.

Kate Olivera contributed to this report.

The Pope & the Plague

It was perhaps the most liturgically dramatic moment in the long history of the papacy. A solitary figure in white, stumbling from sciatica, climbed the long steps to the dais above a rain-sodden St. Peter’s Square. “Behold our sorrowful condition,” Pope Francis began. Recovering from a nasty bout of bronchitis, he fought for a moment to catch his breath.

Millions watched on their TVs, phones, and tablets as the pope spoke on March 27 into a deserted square, emptied by a virus that had killed tens of thousands and was holding a fifth of humanity in lockdown. “Open our hearts to hope,” the pope implored God, “that we might feel your fatherly presence.”

A camera shot from behind showed the crucified Christ’s head hung in sorrow, as if looking out to the lit figure in white, who seemed tiny between the vast colonnades. Never had leadership looked so lonely. Never had it been so essential.

The gospel reading was chanted: Jesus, on a boat with his disciples, sleeps through a storm until his disciples wake him and he calms it. The tempest takes place, in St. Mark’s telling, as the light was fading, as it seemed to be fading now. “For weeks now it has been evening,” Francis spoke into the camera. “Thick darkness has covered our squares, our streets, and our cities. It has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a desolate emptiness that paralyzes all that it passes.”

This was the pope piloting God’s people through a storm like no other. The pandemic would be defeated not by fleeing but by staying home, plunging the economies of the world into the sharpest, deepest recession in human history. The news was relentless: death, panic, fear. The world was in desolation.

“We find ourselves frightened and lost,” the pope said. “Like the disciples in the gospel, we have been caught off guard by an unexpected, furious storm.”

 He was there to impart an exceptional blessing urbi et orbi—to the city and to the world—as popes before now had only ever done at Christmas and Easter. To pray for an end to the pandemic Francis had enlisted two resources that hung close by. The sorrowful Christ of the “miraculous crucifix” was from the church of St. Marcello in Via del Corso; the icon was Our Lady “protector of the Roman people,” normally housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. In centuries past, they had both played a key role in ending the plague in Rome.

But as his reflection deepened, it was clear Francis’s purpose was not just to halt the virus, but to help us live with it. His task: to embolden God’s people to ride into the darkest, most dangerous part of the storm, not by battening down the hatches, but by opening humanity to the grace of conversion in its time of trial.

Francis’s mission—assumed at that moment, in the empty, wet square—was to help us embrace mass quarantine not as a prison instead of a death sentence, but as a time of purification and choosing that could incubate a new future.

Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?


God cares about us too much to wreak vengeance on us, yet respects us too much to remove the chance of a better future by short-circuiting our conversion.

To pray for an end to the pandemic is as natural for us as it was for the disciples to turn to Jesus in the middle of the storm. But prayer’s purpose is to build our trust in the efficacy of God’s mercy; and his mercy is never a quick fix that we might go back to being the same, but a sanatio in radice, a deep-seated cure that transforms us, individually and as a people. It takes time—as much time as it must. God cares about us too much to wreak vengeance on us, yet respects us too much to remove the chance of a better future by short-circuiting our conversion.

This was Francis’s point. When the disciples wake Jesus and berate him—“Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”—they believe in him but have forgotten who God is, how God is. They felt in charge of the boat, steering it full-sail ahead, and only now, when the sails are ripped and the rudder has snapped, do they realize, hopelessly, they are not in charge at all. In a complex sentence, Francis notes how the tempest of the virus has revealed “all the attempts to package and ignore what nourishes the soul of our peoples,” the attempts at “anaesthetizing” through activity and routines that detach us from our roots and the memory of those who have gone before us. Now, in the tempest, we see who we are. Our masks fall away and what is revealed is the thing we cannot escape: “our belonging as brothers and sisters,” fellow creatures created by a loving God.

We had been acting as if that were not true, as if there were no wars or injustice or climate crisis. Unmoved by the cry of the poor and our ailing planet, we thought “we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea”—when we all face the risk of death and poverty—“we implore you: ‘Wake up, Lord!’”

The language of roots and belonging recalled the pope’s recent reflection on Amazonia: how technocratic, profit-before-people attitudes are destroying our ancestral interconnectedness, our soul and our culture, and the ties that bind us to one another, as well as our bond with nature. Our deracinated selves are like that storm-tossed boat, a flimsy, vulnerable thing now that the sea has unleashed its power. In a March 22 interview with the Spanish news anchor Jordi Évole, Francis recalled the dictum that God forgives always, human beings sometimes, but nature never. With the extreme weather events, Francis told Évole, nature is “kicking.”

Was the pandemic another example of nature kicking? The word “flu” comes from the Italian influenza degli astri, an old expression that attributes the disease’s mysterious arrival to the alignment of the stars. But these days we know too much about viruses and agribusiness—factory farming, genetic cloning, and wet markets full of wild animals. Mess with nature, and nature kicks back. These are unforgiving laws.

The same is true of human ecology. The pursuit of power and wealth pours acid on the bonds of belonging. When disaster strikes, it is the very networks of solidarity and fraternity long spurned as restraints on ambition that turn out to be the immune systems on which we all depend. The very people society ignored as unimportant, those performing “essential services,” now turn out to be the ones who save us.

In returning to the Lord and to others, said Francis, “we can look to so many fellow travelers who, in the face of fear, have responded by giving their lives.” Now, suddenly, it is the life of the Spirit—of love, kindness, and service—that emerges as the true life force of the world, revealing to us that our lives are sustained by ordinary folk “who are today writing the decisive events of our story”: doctors, nurses, cleaners, supermarket-shelf stackers, truck drivers, security staff, volunteers, and others (including priests and religious) “who understand that no one is saved alone.”

As our mentalities and priorities shift, the paths of salvation open up. What matters now, in the crisis caused by the pandemic, amid standstill factories and plunging markets, are our solidarity, our hospitality, our mercy. Our heroes and saints are not in magazines but next door: the parents encouraging their restless confined children, the new armies of volunteers—in the UK, 750,000 people have signed up—who will phone the lonely, pick up a prescription, bring food for the elderly. “Prayer and silent service,” says Francis, “these are our victorious weapons.”

Societies that pull together like this, putting the vulnerable first, can achieve extraordinary things. And if we can do it to combat COVID-19, why not also climate change, infant mortality, or war?


The lazzaretto is a hell hole made heavenly by the witness of the friars and the grace that abounds there.

The epic 1842 Italian novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni was a childhood favorite of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s. His Italian grandmother read it to him when he was growing up in Buenos Aires, and he could recite by heart its opening sentence, which begins: “One arm of Lake Como turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains…” (I’m quoting from the 1983 Penguin edition, translated by Bruce Penman.) Francis has a copy of The Betrothed on his desk, and it has been on his mind of late. How could it fail to be? Essential to the mise-en-scène of the novel—which takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish-Austrian rule of northern Italy in the early seventeenth century—is the plague that struck Milan around 1630, eventually killing a quarter of its citizens.

“I want to pray for all of the priests, the creativity of priests,” the pope said in his March 15 Angelus address, “who think of a thousand ways to be with the people so that the people don’t feel alone.” These are “priests with apostolic zeal who understand that in times of pandemic, you shouldn’t be Don Abbondio,” he added. Everyone who knew Manzoni’s novel—as almost everyone in Italy does—got the reference at once. Don Abbondio, the cowardly curé who refuses to marry Renzo and Lucia after being threatened by the thugs of a strongman, is easily suborned, will do anything for a quiet life, and reacts to the plague by shutting himself away in his house. He is the foil to the saintly and heroic pastors of the novel: the cardinal archbishop of Milan and the Capuchin friars who run the field hospital where the plague-wracked are brought (possibly) to get better or (probably) to die.

Manzoni’s powerful, carefully documented description of the plague comes in the form of a historical excursus midway through The Betrothed. He describes how it struck, at first in strange attacks of spasm and delirium accompanied by telltale bubonic swellings, or led to swift death without previous symptoms. Initially, the doctors and authorities denied that it was spread by human contact; it was blamed on black magic worked by foreigners, who were accused of being “anointers”—intentionally spreading poisoned “ointments” along city walls—and lynched. But gradually the city organized, and under its saintly archbishop, Federigo Borromeo, the church was key to its response.

Cardinal Borromeo resisted all pressure to seek refuge from the plague, urging his priests to be more ready to die than to abandon their people. “Go out with love towards the pestilence, as if towards your reward, towards a new life, when there is a chance of gaining a soul for Christ,” he wrote to his clergy. According to Manzoni, around sixty priests—eight out of every nine of the Milan diocesan priesthood—died of the infection.

The lazzaretto, the vast field hospital cum tent city (named for Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead), was where the infected of the city were taken and quarantined. It is almost certainly the inspiration for Francis’s famous metaphor of the church as a field hospital. Manzoni describes it vividly, at one point with 16,000 people stricken with the plague crammed into sheds and tents, its two “endless colonnades on either side overflowing with the desperately sick and the dead, lying together without distinction on palliasses or the bare straw.” Amid these pitiful scenes—including babies of dead mothers being suckled by she-goats—the Capuchin friars who run the lazzaretto rush around feeding and comforting the sick, consoling the dying and burying the dead—and of course becoming infected themselves.

The lazzaretto is a hell hole made heavenly by the witness of the friars and the grace that abounds there. It is where the novel’s various plot lines converge, and scenes of reconciliation and repentance take place: where the wicked, wealthy Don Rodrigo dies painfully as a powerless pauper but is forgiven by Renzo, who is reunited and reconciled with Lucia by the saintly Capuchin Fra Cristoforo.

In one scene Renzo, searching in the lazzaretto for Lucia, stumbles on a sermon being given by the Capuchin superior, Fr. Felice, to a group of recovered plague sufferers who are being led back to the city. The Capuchin asks them to ponder the thousands in the cemetery and to consider why they have been saved. “And why did he make that choice, my children?” the friar asks them. “Was it not to keep for himself a small nation chastened by affliction and fired by gratitude?… Was it not so that the memory of our own sufferings might make us compassionate and helpful to our neighbors?” He urges them to begin “a new life which shall be all charity. Let those of us who have got back all their strength give a brotherly arm to the weak.”

That we will not be the same after this has been on the pope’s mind.

“People are going to take from this crisis lessons to rethink their lives,” Francis told Jordi Évole. “We are going to come out better, although there will be fewer of us. Many will be lost on the way and it’s hard. But I have faith: we are going to come out of this better.”

In the midst of our trials, Francis said in his urbi et orbi, the Lord “challenges us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support, and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering.” It is a time of testing, he said, in the sense of a time for making choices, “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” In our choosing and expressing that choice in action, we are saved. The elderly are treated, the lonely are visited, our roots are restored: we have built immunity.

In this time of choosing, Francis has praised the policies of governments that have taken what he calls “exemplary measures with clearly marked priorities to defend the population.” In a March 29 letter to a judge in Argentina he acknowledged that the economic crash and its associated ills were no small thing—it would cause hunger, unemployment, violence, and usury, all of which would have to be dealt with—but their policy showed the government’s priorities: “people first.” The contrary, he warned, would be to create a viral genocide for the sake of the economy.


Francis is highlighting the temptation to withdraw. The church must be there for the sick.

How must the church choose? In 1630, the ill were quarantined in the lazzaretto to avoid the healthy becoming sick; the church was there, organizing it, its pastors dying with the dying. But in 2020 containment was barely tried before it was declared a failure. The new coronavirus had spread too fast, too widely, to be contained, forcing governments to adopt a strategy of slowing its spread through mass quarantine (“self-isolation”) of sick and healthy alike, shutting down all activities—like the church’s—that involve people congregating. If priests and sisters are elderly or unwell, they must self-isolate to avoid infection and to prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed, but even fitter, younger priests and religious might be asymptomatic carriers who infect even as they console.

The lazzaretto of this pandemic is the COVID-19 ward at hospitals. Manzoni’s Fra Cristoforo and Fr. Felice are today the exhausted health workers battling with poor equipment and a paucity of ventilators as people lie coughing and fighting for breath. To date, more than fifty Italian doctors have died in the battle against the disease. In a letter to an Argentine judge, Francis said he was edified by the doctors, nurses, religious, and clergy who “risk their lives to heal the sick and protect the healthy.”

The inclusion of religious and clergy in this list is significant. Despite the restrictions on the church’s ministers, who must juggle conflicting obligations, Francis believes they must be on the frontline. Each pastor must discern ways of being close, while always, of course, supporting public-health policies. That, too, was Cardinal Borromeo’s stance in The Betrothed. “He was scrupulous in observing those precautions which would not interfere with the carrying out of his duties,” recalls Manzoni. But his duty came first: to be available for all who needed him, “hastening through the streets of the city to bring help to the poor wretches who were quarantined in their own houses, stopping at their doors or under their windows to listen to their lamentations, and to give them words of consolation and courage in return.” The cardinal “sought out the pestilence and lived in its midst,” writes Manzoni, “so that he himself was amazed, at the end of it all, to find himself unscathed.”

Francis has been careful not to issue instructions; that task is context-dependent and so properly belongs to local bishops. But by warning against being Don Abbondio, Francis is highlighting the temptation to withdraw. The church must be there for the sick and, while taking precautions, must not allow fear of contagion to keep it from doing so. At his morning homily on March 28, Francis said he had heard people criticize bishops who allowed their priests to go take food to poor people who were self-isolating. They argued that priests needed to be retained for the sacraments; bringing food should be left to civil authorities. They were saying, in effect, “we mustn’t get our hands dirty with the poor,” said Francis, likening their mindset to the doctors of the law who rejected Jesus because they had contempt for the people.

Service, self-abnegation, solidarity, fraternity, courage: in the trial at hand, the grace of conversion is available to the whole of humanity—including the church. It is a grace that reveals that we are now all in the lazzaretto together, and invites us to choose.

Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”: A Great Film for Our Time

“We must make an idol of our fear, and call it god.” So says the recently departed Max von Sydow in his most famous role as Antonius Block, the returning crusader who plays chess with Death, in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece, The Seventh Seal. Block comes home from many battles to find a plague-infested homeland. He is not afraid to die, but he is curious about why he has been chosen, and what the ultimate meaning of life and death may be. “I want God to stretch out his hand, uncover his face, and speak to me,” the knight tells Death in the confessional. For a while, he puts off the inevitable while getting to know a rag-tag group of his fellow countrymen trying to avoid the black death during the brief, beautiful Swedish summer heat. Block imagines he is capable of “one meaningful act” before it is finally check-mate.

Answering the Shutdown Skeptics

A worldview is emerging, one that is critical of the more dramatic measures that have been taken throughout the world to curb the pandemic. Its proponents are intellectuals drawing from both classical and modern sources, speaking from both the left and the right. For a while at least, their ideas appeared to be filtering into the minds of some policymakers. Until just a few days ago, President Trump was still expressing skepticism of radical efforts to contain the pandemic. The cure, he insisted, must not be worse than the disease.

The conservative political commentator Victor Davis Hanson acknowledges the public-health crisis posed by the coronavirus pandemic, but also argues that “The current sweeping measures to curb the virus come at a huge cost.” These costs might include an economic recession or depression; rise in drug use and suicide; mental illness; higher morbidity in other illnesses that are temporarily going untreated; etc. Hanson’s arguments rely on an analysis of statistics concerning things like morbidity rates and trends in transmission. But Hanson, who is also an accomplished classicist, notes that ancient authors feared the panic as well as disease: “the sense of hysteria that accompanies a pandemic explains why both Thucydides and Procopius are more famous for their descriptions of the reactions to a plague than even their astute and empirical descriptions of its symptoms.” Hanson mostly asks questions; while he is skeptical of draconian measures, his main thesis is that we will develop a wiser policy only once we get more data through testing. And few would disagree that we need more and faster testing.

Writing from a theological perspective (and citing few statistics), First Things editor R.R. Reno has declared radical containment measures to be the fruit of a “disastrous sentimentalism” that values physical life as the highest good. Instead, we ought to value higher things: “What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life.” Shortages of medical supplies have forced Italian doctors into making tough decisions but, Reno writes, “We are always doing triage. Only the great wealth of our society allows us to pretend otherwise.… Our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage.”

Reno also argues that “closing churches is utterly unnecessary. People can gather to pray before the reserved sacrament while maintaining the ‘social distancing’ advised by public-health experts.” Following Pope Francis’s orders, the churches in Rome have remained open for private prayer, though liturgies are not celebrated publicly. In many other cities, church doors are closed. 


One thing lacking in all this theorizing is a robust sense of responsibility.

A more radical debate is taking place in Europe. On February 26—before thousands had died from complications of the virus in Italy—the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published an essay titled “The Invention of an Epidemic” in Quodlibet, an online cultural review. Agamben denounces the “frenetic, irrational, and entirely unfounded emergency measures” being taken to contain the outbreak in Italy, for a disease he describes as not much worse than the flu. He believes these measures have a hidden purpose. Inspired by Michel Foucault, a philosopher who dissected the disciplinarian structures of the modern state, Agamben denounces the “serious limitations on freedom” imposed by the Italian state, and appears to be most alarmed by restrictions on free movement and the closing of schools and cultural institutions. He fears these exceptional measures will become the norm: “the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government.” These measures will produce a feedback loop between a panicked citizenry that craves safety and a nascent totalitarian state that will be all too glad to provide it: “the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.”

In a response to Agamben published in Antinomie, the normally high-flying French thinker Jean-Luc Nancy reminds Agamben of a few fundamental facts. First of all, the morbidity rate of the current epidemic is far worse than that of the flu. Second, the pandemic is a local (not a global) affair, as are the strategies for containment. So even if these strategies were to evolve into a means of social control, to attack the Italian government is “to hit the wrong target.”

In response to this and other critical reactions to his essay, Agamben published some “Clarifications” on March 17. He no longer downplays the gravity of the situation. “The problem is not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic.” Those consequences will be dystopian: “Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technology, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact—every contagion—between human beings.” Social-distancing measures have moral consequences: “Our neighbor has been canceled,” because an encounter with him or her could be an occasion for spreading the contagion. On this score, Agamben says that the churches have been silent. Yet this is surely not true of Pope Francis, who has praised the “heroic example” of priests who care for the sick.

No doubt there is a kernel of truth to Agamben’s reasoning. Democratic states are exerting power—through enforced quarantines, surveillance, and executive imperatives—in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades. And at least some of these measures could remain in force after this pandemic is over. Yet others would argue that the real problem has been not so much state overreach in the name of public safety but a general lack of preparedness that has left governments everywhere struggling to catch up with the emergency; the seemingly draconian lockdowns have all come too late for the tens of thousands of people who have already died. In another response to Agamben, the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito makes an entirely plausible claim: “It seems to me that what is happening in Italy today…has more the character of a breakdown of public authorities than that of a dramatic totalitarian grip.”


One thing lacking in all this theorizing is a robust sense of responsibility. The neighbor might indeed be canceled, but not in Agamben’s sense of the term. It is a fact that certain populations are more vulnerable to this illness than others; it is also a fact that transmission of this disease takes place at a much higher rate without the implementation of radical social-distancing measures, especially during the beginning of an outbreak. While it is true that one is not responsible for every foreseeable consequence of one’s actions, it is also the case that, in this special moment of crisis, one has a duty to try to foresee the possible consequences of not having a shutdown, or of ignoring one. Those consequences are social, affecting both neighbors and ourselves, and to pay attention to them is to pay attention to the common good. A few weeks ago, Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi wrote the following warning: “I and many other Italians just didn’t see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.” Instead, “I lacked what you might call ‘moral knowledge’ of the problem. I knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting me in a significant, personal way. It took the terrible ethical dilemma that doctors face in Lombardy to wake me up.”

On the way to their dubious conclusions, the shutdown-skeptics make some good points: panic is indeed dangerous; scarcity is indeed part of the human condition; and, yes, we need to remember, even now, that the other is our neighbor and not just a potential threat to our personal well-being. But now is not the best time to be inflaming suspicion of public authority, or encouraging people to go their own way and take their own chances. As UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who has tested positive for COVID-19—recently acknowledged, the pandemic has demonstrated that there is, after all, such a thing as society, never mind what Margaret Thatcher said. Without cooperation and collective discipline, many more people who might have been spared will die of this virus. So stay at home if you can, not in fear but in solidarity. Right now, you don’t need to go inside a church to find icons of sacrificial love in our midst. Just look at—and pray for—the doctors, nurses, and orderlies in our hospitals, the people delivering meals and groceries, the healthy people volunteering to undergo clinical trials for vaccines and treatments, the priests, nuns, and religious praying and caring for the sick.

Coronavirus and the Realities of Homeschooling

Living within a quarantine of indeterminate length, many parents are having their first experience of becoming hands-on in the academic and spiritual instruction of our children. Word on Fire Institute Education Fellow Robert Mixa brings us a helpful interview on the benefits and challenges of homeschooling, whether planned or circumstantial, featuring Kathleen Vogt. Kathleen is the wife of Word on Fire’s Content Director, Brandon Vogt. She studied at Florida State University where she graduated with a degree in Elementary Education. She and Brandon have six children, with a seventh due in July, and they live on a small farm outside Orlando, FL. There she homeschools their four oldest children.  Kathleen would be happy to answer any questions you might have about homeschooling at [email protected]  RM: How did you get involved in homeschooling? KV: Growing up, I went to Catholic school for grades K-8 and then switched…

Authentically Black, Truly Catholic

Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.


What is a parish? That’s a question I posed in a book review a couple of years ago for the journal American Catholic Studies, and I went on to suggest three possibilities: it’s “a semi-autonomous organization,” “an administrative unit,” or “a community of believers.” As a sociologist of religion and a practicing Catholic, I still grapple with the question. But it’s precisely by contemplating the topic as scholars, members of the faithful, or both, that we may work our way to an answer.  

In that spirit, I have for twenty years been examining systemic racism in the Catholic Church, and how that racism impacts African-American Catholic identity. A key to the way I study this is by looking at liturgy as a form of identity work, which means I spend a lot of time at parishes. A sociological understanding of parishes is essential in our current climate because it allows us to see them—and the dioceses of which they are a part—as an element of the broader social structure. Because of the church closings and parish consolidations that have swept through historically Catholic strongholds like Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Chicago, it is vital that we understand parishes as organizational structures both on their own and in the more general diocesan sense. Doing so allows us to appreciate the multifaceted impact on the community when those organizations change. Changes to the Catholic landscape in recent decades have removed schools and churches from neighborhoods. Institutions that were once anchors of the local community no longer exist, while the buildings that once housed them are empty, demolished, or repurposed. Consequently, it is more difficult for those still living in the affected neighborhoods—especially those who don’t have access to cars or reliable public transportation—to participate in parish life. This disproportionately impacts racial minorities, low-income residents, and the elderly. As a result, groups that deeply depend on their parishes have been losing them at a precipitous rate.

[Of Roman Catholic parishes in the U.S., 798 are considered to be predominantly African American. See the data here.]

Catholicism in the United States has been robustly studied by scholars across a multitude of disciplines, and now parishes and parish life are beginning to get some long-overdue scholarly attention. Yet Black Catholics and the complexities around Black Catholic parishes are still not sufficiently studied. This is especially problematic given that the major shifts in the parish landscape are found primarily in urban areas, and those are the areas with the strongest Black Catholic presence.

I am currently working on a book about systemic racism and identity in the African-American Catholic experience. One of the topics I explore is how African-American Catholics use the liturgy to incorporate the dual heritages of Roman Catholicism and the African-American religious experience to create a cohesive ethno-religious identity. I’ve identified three liturgical styles—traditionalist, spirited, and Gospel—that describe different ways Black Catholics use liturgy to, as I have previously written, “actively produce Black Catholic parish culture.” All three styles use music, preaching, and church aesthetics to integrate the dual heritages.

The traditionalist liturgy style is rooted in the dominant model of U.S. Catholicism, bearing close ties to the style perpetuated by Catholics of European ancestry; it is, therefore, the most common. Its key features include short homilies and a heavy reliance on the missalette for hymns. At Black parishes, it is most often found at Masses dominated by senior citizens who do not care to stray from the liturgical style they have experienced most of their lives. Thus, it’s most likely to be found at Saturday vigils and early on Sunday morning. Next, there is the spirited liturgy style, which is just that: a bit more spirited than the traditionalist style without being wholly divorced from it. That liveliness is expressed principally through slightly longer homilies with a more animated preaching style, as well as through songs that are found in the Lead Me, Guide Me hymnal that are more likely to invoke African-American culture than the songs found at traditionalist-style Masses. Finally, the Gospel liturgy style invokes a kind of worship that is closely associated with the denominations of the Black Church. It uses preaching, music, and church aesthetics to tangibly call on African-American history and lived experience in order to interweave them with Roman Catholicism. 

My work is about breaking down the myth that there are no Black Catholics

I’ve observed numerous manifestations of these three styles of liturgy. There was the parish in Philadelphia that during the month of December had an Advent wreath right next to the Kwanzaa kinara. There was the parish in Harlem where the pastor deftly used the call-and-response technique closely associated with the denominations of the Black Church to deliver a homily on “Who does God’s will?” and expertly connected the Gospel reading with the lived experiences of parishioners. There was another parish in Philadelphia where a baptism concluded with the litany of the saints. What made this unabashedly Catholic ritual notable is that the litany began with the usual call of Mary, St. Joseph, St. John the Baptist, and the apostles, but it then seamlessly moved into Black saints such as Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, St. Josephine Bakhita, and St. Martin de Porres, and those closely associated with the Black community, like St. Peter Claver. It occurred to me listening to the litany that I’d never heard one specifically directed at the Black community. It was a litany that celebrated Blackness within Catholicism. This was a new experience for me, but it shouldn’t have been. After all, Perpetua, Felicity, Josephine Bakhita, Martin de Porres, and many others aren’t just Black folks’ saints: they’re the saints of the universal church. These saints and Catholic Blackness can and should be celebrated in all parishes. To be clear, I’m not inviting cultural appropriation. Rather, I’m calling for a celebration of Blackness that moves the needle away from systemic racism and toward racial justice.

Ultimately, my work is about breaking down the myth that there are no Black Catholics, or at least that there aren’t enough to merit inclusion in the conversation about American parish life. Black people were practicing Catholicism in North America hundreds of years before the United States was founded. In 1984, the Black Bishops of the United States published the pastoral letter What We Have Seen and Heard. To date, it is the only pastoral letter written by the Black Bishops. In the letter, the bishops called on Black Catholics to be “authentically Black and truly Catholic.” What my research demonstrates is that there is no one, rote way to do this. All three of the liturgical styles discussed here meet the needs of those who utilize them. What matters is that African-American Catholics have the freedom to establish and practice an ethno-religious identity, and have their practice of it be recognized as authentically Black—and truly Catholic.  


Modeling Change

Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.


It was about five minutes before six on a Tuesday evening, and members of the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership’s (CSPL) Immigration Committee were trickling into the conference room. Some were arriving straight from work, and helped themselves to plates of rice and beans and cups of cantaloupe juice before taking their seats. Others had been there all day, filling up whiteboards and firing off emails. They’d come from all over Chicago, some reaching the coalition’s suburban Maywood office from as far away as the South Side. After a short prayer in English and Spanish, they quickly got down to business.

There was a lot to cover in the fifty minutes allotted by the agenda. Most pressing was the upcoming pilgrimage to El Paso, Texas, where the group had helped plan a teach-in and was co-organizing a border action to help asylum seekers legally enter the United States. Just six weeks earlier Patrick Crusius, a young man inspired by white-nationalist ideology and armed with a semi-automatic rifle, had driven more than 650 miles from the Dallas area to a Walmart in El Paso in order to “kill Mexicans.” He’d murdered twenty-two people and injured twenty-four more. Galvanized by the massacre, the coalition had decided to take action, not only to publicly protest the racist immigration policies of the Trump administration, but also to show solidarity with Latinx communities in the borderlands. Among the dead, after all, were people just like them.

There was some concern over turnout, logistics, and safety, but meeting facilitator Sue Ross, a middle-aged former business manager with short curly hair and tortoise-shell glasses, kept things moving. After about ten minutes she tabled the pilgrimage discussion and switched to reporting on the progress of the census initiative. Maywood, with a 95 percent non-white population, had been systematically undercounted by more than 30 percent in the 2010 census, resulting in the loss of several million dollars in federal funding. Outreach to local parishes, soup kitchens, and shelters, along with a push to provide internet access to the elderly, would help residents register themselves and thus force the 2020 census-takers to include them.

Next came the community-benefits report. Anely Jaime, jostling her small child in her lap and speaking mostly in Spanish, explained that a local bank had agreed to partner with CSPL to develop a course in financial literacy. For many new immigrants, it would be their first opportunity to learn how to build credit and obtain small loans. “Es un granito de arena,” she explained: a grain of sand, not much, but nevertheless essential, since limited access to credit is one of the chief obstacles that keep her neighbors, especially the undocumented ones, from establishing stable lives.

The gathering concluded with announcements and a prayer, just as any parish-council meeting would. There was to be a workshop on Catholic Social Teaching, racism, and oppression in the U.S. prison and immigration-detention systems the next evening. The prayer, offered by Sumbul Siddiqui, a medical student at Loyola University Chicago and a DACA recipient, was in Arabic. She prayed for peace, the success of the upcoming pilgrimage, and humane immigration reform. Afterwards, a few hung around to chat and eat a second plate of food. But most headed straight home; they’d have to wake up early the next morning for work.

Even as the room emptied, though, the energy remained palpable. I felt as if I’d experienced the kind of vitality, the sense of shared purpose and community, that many Catholics say they yearn for in traditional parish life, but somehow can’t seem to find. These disaffected and disaffiliated, especially younger Catholics skeptical of the institutional church, are not necessarily unfaithful; they’re not just “insufficiently devout.” They may simply feel they’re not getting what they need to live authentic Christian lives, or at least more fulfilling ones. If a parish doesn’t provide a robust sense of community, or vital social-justice ministries, or meaningful spiritual formation—or, most importantly, real recognition and empowerment—is it surprising they may look for them outside traditional structures, including beyond the walls of a church building?

These are some of the needs that CSPL is meeting. It is not aiming to subvert or supplant the traditional parish; indeed, there are ministries—like religious education, liturgy, and the sacraments—that as a lay-led group it simply cannot perform. But in an era of intense social reorganization and geographic disruption, when U.S. Catholics are both more diverse and less rooted in a single place, the coalitional model adopted by CSPL and similar groups—emphasizing bottom-up leadership, demographic inclusivity, and a distinctly spiritual approach to political and community engagement—may suggest a kind of prototype for an evolving, post-parochial church.

Racism, xenophobia, income inequality, and other forms of oppression aren’t easily overcome. But there’s a method for it.

Just under three years old, CSPL combines the methods of traditional grassroots community organizing—pioneered by Christian Base Communities in Latin America and Saul Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago—with the beliefs and principles of Catholic social teaching, theology, and spirituality. Structured as an independent nonprofit organization and funded by a combination of dues-paying members and donations, it’s an emerging alliance that links a range of partners—parishes, schools, hospitals, universities, unions, cooperatives, and other community and faith-based associations—across the entire Chicagoland area.

CSPL’s mission is to overcome “systemic racial, social, economic, and environmental injustice by building power that is rooted in the vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In concrete terms, that means identifying individuals—especially women and people of color—with the capacity for leadership, and then training them to enter strategically into political and public life.

Appropriately, CSPL itself evolved out of a parish in Maywood, St. Eulalia’s. Founded in 1927, the parish and its parochial school originally served affluent white Catholics who had left Chicago for the elegant new suburbs west of the city. Starting in the 1940s, though, and continuing into the ’60s, Maywood’s demographics shifted drastically.

By 1967 the town had become majority African American, and the tensions of the civil-rights era had spread from the city to the suburbs. But under the charismatic leadership of a new pastor, Fr. William Quinn, St. Eulalia’s welcomed Maywood’s black population, integrating and becoming known not just in Chicago but around the country as a social-justice hub. Quinn, an expert on the Latin American church, had attended two sessions of the Second Vatican Council, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and advised Cesar Chavez. Fr. Andrew Greeley, a well-known liberal Catholic commentator (and frequent Commonweal contributor), considered him a mentor. 

[The Church today looks very different from how it was in 1970. See the data here.]

Quinn died in 2004, but inspired by his legacy, St. Eulalia’s built a community center in his name. It opened in the former parochial school building in 2011, consolidating and expanding the parish’s various social-justice ministries: a soup kitchen and food pantry, youth tutoring and mentoring programs, outreach to the elderly, a computer lab and classrooms for job training, and English and Spanish language lessons for new immigrants, especially Maywood’s rapidly growing Mexican-American population.

It was there, in 2017, that CSPL’s founding members first met and got to talking. They’d all been involved in organizing and justice work, but wanted to bring their commitments to spiritual and public life to push for social change. The key, they realized, would be to ground their activism in prayer and theology. This approach would have the potential not only to galvanize and transcend the divisiveness often found in activist circles; it could also energize and transform a stalled, divided Catholic Church that seemed more focused on parsing doctrine and preserving institutional power than in building community.

Over a home-cooked meal of tamales and flautas, I talked with CSPL training committee chair and board secretary Joanna Arellano and her husband, CSPL executive director Michael Okińczyc-Cruz. The couple live in a modest apartment in Pilsen, a traditionally working-class but now rapidly gentrifying Chicago neighborhood just southwest of the Loop. We were joined by three other members of the CSPL board: John DeCostanza, a campus minister at nearby Dominican University; Kathleen Maas-Weigert, a professor of sociology at Loyola University Chicago; and Gabriel Lara, CSPL’s full-time economic justice organizer.

We talked about how CSPL’s work brings Catholic spirituality, and the church’s mission to care for the poor and marginalized, more forcefully into public life. Lara, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, explained that he’d once studied for the priesthood but then discerned a call to lay life, afterwards working as a lay minister in a parish in the United States. He valued his time in the seminary, which also left him with a call to service and helped lead him to cofound CSPL.

Arellano had a similar experience. “I wanted to find a way of exercising my power that was also grounded in my faith,” she said. “Growing up as a first-generation Latina in Chicago, I experienced racism and sexism all too frequently. But my mom—a member of UNITE-HERE Local 1 and one of the baddest lunch ladies in Chicago—taught me how to overcome it, not just through organizing, but also through prayer and contemplation.” Arellano explained that as a child she’d witnessed her mother participate in marches and demonstrations for the rights of workers and immigrants. “Her Catholic faith was central to who she was: a contemplative activist, and a prophetic mystic. Injustice is like a broken tapestry—our task is to stitch the People of God back together.”

But how? Again and again, our conversation turned to the necessity (and difficulty) of building power at the margins of society. Racism, xenophobia, income inequality, and other forms of oppression aren’t easily overcome. But there’s a method for it, and for CSPL, it starts with listening to people on the ground. You can’t accurately gauge the needs and aspirations of members of marginalized groups and communities just by hosting big town-hall-style meetings or rallies. What about those who don’t speak up? And social media can be useful in getting the word out, but it can’t substitute for actual dialogue. That’s why intimate person-to-person meetings called “one-on-ones” are so essential. These “sacred conversations” don’t just permit greater honesty, and trust; they allow the Spirit, not the ego, to set the agenda.

And then there’s always the temptation to “do something,” to “take action.” That’s necessary to bring about change, but the impulse needs to be resisted, at least at first; reflection is more important. It’s another way CSPL infuses traditional methods of community organizing—which often begins with political and power analysis—with Catholic spirituality. Instead of a purely secular “clarification of thought,” CSPL engages in spiritual discernment, a process (pioneered by St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits) of prayerfully and communally pondering the path forward in the light of God.

Discernment, the group explained, isn’t so much about obtaining pragmatic consensus as it is a way of incarnating the church as the members of CSPL want it to be, moving it into more direct engagement in the public square. It’s a way of proceeding that’s not hierarchical or authoritarian, but horizontal and relational. Pope Francis might call CSPL’s approach synodal—by walking together, members create new synergies and open new spaces, freeing people’s latent energies and talents to emerge and bear fruit.

“And that’s precisely where many of our parishes are falling short,” Okińczyc-Cruz said. He meant that while parishes may well provide community, sacramental nourishment, and a spiritual home, they’re also failing to empower their parishioners to advocate more forcefully for their political and economic interests. Parishes might be ministering to people on the margins, but they’re not letting them lead.

“As Catholics we hear terms like ‘power’ and ‘self-interest,’ and it makes us nervous,” Okińczyc-Cruz said. “But we’re followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached a message of justice and radical mercy, who boldly challenged unjust systems of oppression.” He stressed that Christ Himself—whom he characterizes as one of the most successful community organizers in history—encourages us to enter directly into politics not naively, but compassionately. “We can’t understand the depth and meaning of God’s love if we’re not willing to hear and respond to God’s cry for justice.”  

Just before dinner, Okińczyc-Cruz had driven me around Maywood. He explained that many of its suburban residents lacked access to the economic opportunities available in the city. “All of the construction, all of the capital is being pumped into the old working-class neighborhoods of Chicago, colonizing those neighborhoods and pushing people out here. Due to rising rents, poorly funded schools, and violence, Maywood’s one of the few places families can afford to live.”

Which is what makes Maywood such an important community to organize with. Parking outside the Quinn Center at St. Eulalia’s, Okińczyc-Cruz talked me through CSPL’s successes thus far. One early victory was bringing together parents, school administrators, and police to create the “Smart Routes” program. Modeled on “Safe Routes,” developed in Chicago’s South Side, it’s a violence-prevention initiative that, besides guaranteeing a safe passage to school for young children, enables Maywood parents to take a more active role in communicating their needs to local government officials.

That experience of organizing and being heard had a ripple effect, leading CSPL to take action on a number of other issues. First was the lack of access to a decent supermarket. Maywood is a food desert, and residents have to travel to shop for groceries a few miles away. But the store is near an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office, which discourages undocumented residents from making the trip. So CSPL began working with local grassroots leaders, parishes, and universities to form worker-owned cooperatives (cooperativas) to help provide healthy food alternatives to the Maywood community. Then, besides the census initiative currently underway, CSPL also wanted to confront the acute mental-health crisis and suicide epidemic in the Latinx and African-American communities, which tend to stigmatize mental illness and depression. So it started training community leaders, and advocated for training for local police officers, to administer person-to-person mental health first-aid. Even with events like the El Paso pilgrimage drawing closer, Okińczyc-Cruz stressed the importance of the local. “The trip will come and go. Our work—training leaders, building our institutional partnerships, engaging in grassroots community organizing—has to happen here.”


How should the coalition address racism and sexism in the church? How can it attract and include young people?

In her book Cuéntame: Narrative in the Ecclesial Present, theologian Natalia Imperatori-Lee argues that for the Catholic Church to succeed in the present cultural moment, it should stop thinking strictly in terms of geographic parishes and instead look to “lay-led groups, DIY religion, and even the possibility of personal parishes” for new models. Such groups have a few obvious advantages over traditional territorial parishes: their flexible, responsive leadership and dynamic spiritualities can speak to disaffected Catholics seeking a more relational, participatory church. And by abandoning old geographic boundaries, they can harness new energy and new ideas, especially from young people, who are both less likely to be settled in any particular place and more likely to travel greater distances.

But Imperatori-Lee cautions against facile idealism. Throughout church history, paradigms and practices have come and gone. To be successful in the long run, new movements can’t just root themselves in the church’s ancient spiritual traditions, or merely aspire to activism in the face of injustice. They also need to guard against corruption, homogeneity, and exclusivity.

Perhaps the most basic challenge faced by CSPL is its long-run financial independence. Much of the initial seed money, Kathleen Maas-Weigert told me, came from a community of women religious. Since then, CSPL has gained the support of other private foundations. But grant money doesn’t last forever, and CSPL’s board would like to see the coalition become even more capable of sustaining itself through annual membership dues, from both individuals and institutional partners. This is particularly challenging because CSPL aims to organize and serve communities without much disposable income. (Dues are currently paid according to a sliding scale, and contributions from members are in fact growing.) And unlike a parish, which receives support from the larger diocese and whose donors can more easily see their tithing at work (improvements in the physical plant, community events, ministries, etc.), CSPL’s budget is both less certain and less visible—there’s the rent for the office space and expenses for actions, which can vary, but there’s also the rising cost of health insurance for the staff.

A second challenge is that as a broad-based coalition, CSPL’s diverse membership necessarily represents a plurality of interests. A few weeks after my dinner with some of the CSPL board in Chicago, Maas-Weigert reminded me that while much of CSPL’s recent work has been centered on advocating for justice for immigrants, that’s hardly the group’s sole focus. Its mission instead has three interrelated elements: immigration, violence prevention, and economic justice—with the latter undergirding the first two. True, a large portion of its current membership is Latinx, and that’s a reflection of demographic realities in the U.S. church. But CSPL has also worked to build broader solidarity with other marginalized communities, including African Americans and Asian Americans. “People tend to forget that there are African-American Catholics, too,” confirmed Byron Diggs and Anthony Williams, both local restaurant owners and CSPL board members. “The church needs to hear from us.”

CSPL wants its model to be replicable elsewhere, but there are questions it hasn’t yet answered definitively, even as it builds partnerships with groups and institutions outside of Maywood and the Chicagoland area. For instance, how should the coalition address racism and sexism in the church? How can it attract and include young people, especially college students, many of whom are indifferent about the fate of Catholic parishes? (It’s had some marked success here, particularly with students at nearby Dominican University, Loyola Chicago, and Notre Dame.) Finally, how should CSPL navigate its relationship with both the Archdiocese of Chicago and the wider institutional church? “We don’t want to alienate the people we’re trying to work with,” Okińczyc-Cruz told me. “We want to be respectful of the church we all love. But we still have to challenge injustice.”

That’s the most difficult aspect of sustaining any extra-parochial movement, since, at least for the time being, parishes remain the primary site where Catholics celebrate liturgy, receive the sacraments, and nourish and pass on their faith. CSPL is no different; its members currently worship across a range of parishes throughout Chicago and its suburbs. There’s the core St. Eulalia’s contingent, with parishioners mostly supportive of CSPL’s agenda. But then there are also some who attend Mass at parishes where CSPL’s work encounters some resistance: “Sometimes well-off Catholics are comfortable funding food pantries and soup kitchens, but they don’t want to hear about addressing structural injustices,” Sue Ross explained. “They think people should just lift themselves up by their bootstraps.” I asked whether she ever felt uneasy worshiping there. “Not really,” she said calmly. “We’re all sinners. I’ve got nothing but love for them; I hope my presence at Mass helps convert them.”


A synodal church is not born from shared geography or ethnic ties, but that springs into being from the spirit of closeness and fellowship that emerges on the way to someplace else.

It was a warm Wednesday evening in October, and the El Paso pilgrimage was about to begin. About seventy-five people were gathered inside Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, their bags stacked in the aisles as a pair of buses waited outside. The pilgrims ranged widely in background and age: many belonged to a group of Latinx college students from the University of Notre Dame and Dominican University, but there were also graduate students from Loyola Chicago, employees of the Archdiocese of Chicago, middle-aged activists, and older African-American veterans of the civil-rights movement. All, by virtue of their participation in the pilgrimage, were members of CSPL.

As the send-off Mass got underway, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich channeled Pope Francis and gave a moving homily about accompanying people on the margins. After the Mass ended, he called everyone to the altar for a blessing and even attempted some light humor: “So, you’re all going to El Paso by bus? Who organized this?” They looked around, a little embarrassed, then gave a collective response: “We did!”

After some prayer and song, and interviews with local television crews, the trip got underway. The bus ride itself was mostly uneventful, featuring the kind of ordinary mishaps and frustrations you might expect on any long road trip: crankiness from lack of sleep, soreness from the tight space, flashes of real anger from the driver when one of the toilets broke down (and nobody told him).

As the buses crossed the plains of Oklahoma and entered New Mexico near Santa Fe, we began tracing an old pilgrim-and-trade route known by Spanish colonists as El Camino Real, the royal way. With monumental rock formations gliding by outside, a few pilgrims made speeches, gave workshops, and offered prayers, transforming the buses into impromptu stages, classrooms, and chapels. (After it grew dark they also became makeshift karaoke bars.)

The closer we came to the southern border, the more people opened up. A few Notre Dame students spoke about their desire to better understand the sacrifices their parents had made by crossing from Mexico. Karina DeAvila, a Latina activist from outside Chicago and one of the key organizers of the gathering in El Paso, explained her plans to run for local political office. Josh Long, a documentary filmmaker, admitted feeling conflicted about his former admiration for his uncle, who had worked as a border-patrol agent years ago. After some Norbertine brothers came on board and joined us in prayer, I realized what I was seeing: true synodality, a church that’s not born from shared geography or neighborhood boundaries or ethnic ties, but one that springs into being from the spirit of closeness and fellowship that only emerges on the way to someplace else.

As the teach-in unfolded over the weekend in El Paso, many pilgrims told me that whatever they’d experienced—which they couldn’t quite articulate—was life-changing. It wasn’t just the rousing plenary speeches, workshops on nonviolence and anti-racism, or seminars on border theology and Catholic social teaching. Nor was it simply crossing the Paso del Norte bridge into Ciudad Juárez and seeing thousands of migrants and asylum seekers camping by the roadside in squalor (though that had indeed been important, as some had participated in helping fifteen Mexican asylum-seekers legally cross the border). It was the fact of being together—something their monthslong efforts had achieved—and seeing that they weren’t alone. Hundreds of others, just like them, had come from New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. They’d filled local churches and streets; they’d shown themselves, and the country, and each other, who they were. 


A few months after the pilgrimage, I caught up with Okińczyc-Cruz over the phone. To be sure, he said, the El Paso trip had built momentum among CSPL’s membership. But there was more work to be done closer to home: the census campaign, which was kicking into high gear, and the mental-health workshops, which had become quite popular. There was also a move to a bigger office, requiring new furniture. Overall, though, he seemed calm and confident about the future: “Now it’s time for us to see where the Spirit leads.”

Whether extra-parochial groups like CSPL may help reshape parishes in the future is of course uncertain. After all, under canon law, parishes are not autonomous. There are currently 17,000 parishes in the United States, serving some 75 million Catholics. All exist and operate at the intersection of community and geography, and each is run under diocesan authority by a bishop who in turn connects them to the universal church. If Catholic parishes are “particular” communities, with all the local variance that implies, they’re also juridical territories, uniformly constituted from above as branches of a global, hierarchical institution.

This tension is built into the way the church has understood its local communities since the late Middle Ages, when the Latin terms parochia and diocesis were both used to denote local churches led by a bishop. But they had very different connotations. Early Christian writers used the Greek paroikos to mean “sojourner,” and paroikia, the word for parish, implies a community of believers on a pilgrimage, journeying through the world toward their heavenly home. Diocesis, on the other hand, is rooted in notions of power and authority: the Greek dioikein means “to control, govern, administer, or manage a house.” Parishes, then, are paradoxical: they’re specific territories with fixed earthly ties, but also simultaneously on their way to someplace else. Ultimately, couldn’t this be a useful way to think about the future of the parish—and the place of extra-parochial groups like CSPL in reimagining it?


Dr. Holly Ordway on Apologetics and the Christian Imagination

The Word on Fire Institute is happy to introduce its readers and students to Dr. Holly Ordway, Fellow of Faith and Culture at the Word on Fire Institute, Visiting Professor at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination. Dr. Ordway is a former atheist who speaks and writes movingly of her journey into Catholicism and the vocation she has found there. Here she discusses her role as a Fellow of Faith and Culture with Andrew Petiprin, himself a Fellow of Popular Culture here at Word on Fire. AP: Your new role at the Word on Fire Institute is “Fellow of Faith and Culture.” Welcome! What will your work entail, and what will Institute members and fans of Word on Fire content be getting from you in the months and years to come? HO: Thanks! I’m delighted to be joining the team. As Fellow…

Papacies in Lockdown

Governments around the world are comparing the fight against the pandemic to war, and whether or not you agree with the metaphor, Pope Francis and the Vatican do face a “warlike” situation. Italy is in lockdown, the rites of Holy Week and the Easter liturgy will be celebrated without people present, and a papal trip to Malta planned for May has been postponed indefinitely. Indeed, for the first time since 1979, there may be no papal trips for an entire year. Francis himself now even uses the word “caged” to describe the effect of the limitations imposed on him. And yet, over the last two centuries, several of Francis’s predecessors have faced similar conditions.

During the pontificate of Pius IX (1846–1878), for example, the government of the Papal States was temporarily replaced by a short-lived republican government in Rome, following the flight of the pope to the southern city of Gaeta, in the territory of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from 1848 to 1850. This coincided with the end of the short liberal phase of the then-new pope, who in a reactionary turn adopted anti-modern social and political teachings. It arguably led, at least indirectly, to the formation of modern Italy and, as one of the unintended consequences of the Vatican Council of 1869–1870, to an ideologically anti-modern but bureaucratically modernized papacy. The council was interrupted by the invasion of Rome by the Italian army and the collapse of the Papal States in September 1870, and that was the beginning of a long reclusion of the pope, who now saw himself as a “prisoner in the Vatican.”

The pontificate of Benedict XV (1914–1922) was tested by World War I, which began right before his election in September 1914. His interpretation of the role of the papacy and of the Holy See in that unprecedented conflict served as the origin of the modern teaching of the church as engaged in working for peace, as well as on the neutrality and diplomacy of the Holy See, and on multilateralism, international institutions, and nationalism. The collapse of the empires following the end of the war led to a rethinking of the relationship between colonialism and the missionary activity of the church (in the encyclical Maximum illud of 1919). 

The pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958), of course, is still largely to be explored by historians (his archives, opened on March 2, are now closed again because of the pandemic). But it’s well known that World War II threatened the papacy and the Vatican in a very particular way. Mussolini, who received the political backing of the Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church during his rise to power in the 1920s, incurred the wrath of the ecclesial establishment after allying with Hitler, which put the pope in danger. The war and the Holocaust tested Pius XII as a diplomat and as a pastor, but also as a theologian. His silence on the Holocaust, both during and after the war, of course remains the most politically and theologically controversial aspect of his papacy.

War also shaped the pontificate of John XXIII (1958–1963). In serving as a military chaplain during World War I, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was able to encounter people of other faiths—non-Catholic Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He wasn’t a pacifist, but he clearly rejected the rhetoric of war and did not (as other priests did) become absorbed by nationalist-religious propaganda. Then, as a papal diplomat in Turkey during World War II, he was instrumental in aiding the flight of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe toward the future state of Israel. He became pope at the height of the Cold War, and in its most dangerous moment—the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962—he intervened directly with both President John F. Kennedy and Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev. Months later, in April 1963, he published his last encyclical on peace and human rights, Pacem in terris, one of the most consequential papal teachings ever.

The papacy, institutionally situated within the headquarters of the Vatican, is afforded a kind of physical immunity from what happens beyond its walls. Yet sovereignty isn’t a shield against pandemic. Crises like these tend to have an effect on popes as human beings, and on the papacy as institution. We can already see it beginning to happen. 

Like a war, the pandemic is limiting the ability of the church to function normally, liturgically and institutionally.

In terms of the effects of the pandemic on Francis’s papacy, there are three aspects worth considering. The first is how his handling of the pandemic affects the mystique of the papacy. The Catholic Church, as it developed historically, cannot do without the people, and it cannot do without the pope. There is a tradition of the pope as defender of the church, of Rome, and of civilization, going back to Pope Gregory I “the Great” (590–604), often considered the first medieval pope. This came to mind while watching Francis walk the Via del Corso in a totally deserted Rome on his pilgrimage to two churches on the afternoon of Sunday, March 15, and his extraordinary Urbi et orbi blessing against the pandemic, lonely in an empty St. Peter’s Square, on March 27. If there is a canonization process for Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the future, these two moments could be an important part of the dossier—a pair of iconic images from his pontificate.

The second aspect concerns magisterial teaching. This global-health emergency is yet another instance of the crisis of globalization, and it confirms the prophetic insights of certain key tenets of Catholic social doctrine, including universal access to health care, international cooperation and solidarity, the role of states and governments in the protection of the common good, and the cooperation between church and secular authorities for the common good. But we are also seeing a rebalancing of power in favor of national governments. For the second time in his life (the first being the dictatorship and dirty war in Argentina), Francis finds himself in a situation where the church has to walk on a very fine line between fundamental freedoms (including religious freedom) and the limits imposed by national governments. For some Catholic leaders (clergy and lay), whatever a state or government does is necessarily hostile to the faith; they fail to see, or choose not to see, that what government does can be essential for the common good.

This brings us to the third aspect, the impact on the institutional system of the Catholic Church. Diaries and testimonies left by influential church leaders in times of crisis reveal the understanding they had of how crises can impact the intricate operations of the papacy and the Vatican: from relations with the state and with local churches, to the management of Vatican finances, to the diplomatic activity of the Holy See, and more. One could only imagine, for example, what it would mean if a conclave had to be called in this situation. But there is also the ongoing project of the reform of the Roman Curia, on which the council of cardinals has been working since at least 2014. It would be naïve to think that this pandemic will not have an effect on it—not least because of the impact on the finances of the Catholic Church both locally and in the Vatican. More generally, international crises as momentous as this tend to expose the weaknesses of the ecclesiastical status quo. For example, in an important memo drafted in the summer of 1945, Jacques Maritain (then French ambassador to the Holy See) endorsed the widely circulating idea of a de-Italianization of the Roman Curia together with a new system of international protection for the Holy See bypassing the Lateran Treaties of 1929. That was perceived as a threat by an Italian-dominated Curia. What followed in Pius XII’s pontificate was the maximization of authoritarianism and verticalism, with the pope micromanaging the work of the Vatican dicasteries, and a more prominent role for the Secretariat of State, which was under the direct control of the pope himself. The Holy Office started to play the role of a super-dicastery. French Dominican Yves Congar, under investigation by the Holy Office, in his December 6, 1954 diary entry, defined the Supreme Congregation in these terms: “The Holy Office is the crux of everything, the unnamed mover, the absolute to which everything is referred and before which everything must bow down. Nothing else exists.” 

This is not a war. But like a war, the pandemic is limiting the ability of the church to function normally, liturgically and institutionally, around the world; that includes the Vatican. The sovereignty of Vatican City does not confer immunity against the invisible threat of the virus. People inside the Vatican residence have tested positive for COVID-19, and though Francis has tested negative he continues to hold audiences and is visibly more at risk than most of us in lockdown. The modern papacy requires visibility and it is therefore essentially incompatible with a rigorous regime of self-isolation. Social distancing means that the institutional church is visible only through the media. This state of liturgical and institutional suspension, especially during Lent and Easter, is recentering media attention on Rome and on the pope. Francis has emphasized the need to decentralize the church, and the lockdown comes at a very delicate moment in the pontificate. This is the kind of emergency that in the last two centuries has amplified the advantage the institutional papacy has over local churches. We don’t know if that will be the case this time. Nor do we know how it will affect the ever-delicate ecosystem consisting of Rome, the Vatican, and the papacy.