Browsing News Entries

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.

Critical Needs

Catholic hospitals have always faced the challenge of running on tight financial margins while trying to maintain a faith-based commitment to care for the poor. The coronavirus pandemic has made that all the more difficult while posing a serious ethical dilemma: how to distribute scarce resources in a way consistent with Catholic social teaching.

Sr. Mary Haddad, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, took some time away from the struggle last week to answer my questions about how Catholic hospitals and long-term care facilities are responding to the outbreak. “The thing for us in Catholic health care that we always bring to the equation is looking at how we balance the dignity of the person with the common good,” Haddad said in a telephone interview. “Those are both fundamental to who we are.”

The impression one gets is that multi-dimensional chess is playing out at the pace of a speed-run video game—of course, it’s no game, but a matter of life or death. Immediate concerns about finding enough hospital beds may require new ways of thinking, Haddad said. Hospitals trimmed the number of beds substantially in the past decade, and now, “We don’t have a lot of empty beds. We have a lot of empty convents. Maybe some of those could be converted into temporary hospitals.”

It made me wish we still had Catholic acute-care hospitals in New York City, which is where I am hunkered down at what is being called the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and maybe the world. But the Catholic hospital system lacked the political clout to compete with prestigious teaching hospitals and the municipal system for a shrinking pool of government funding, even as it continued to provide charity care. The last to go, the 160-year-old St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, which played a leading role in responding to the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, closed its doors in 2010. Two Catholic hospitals in Queens, now the hardest-hit area of the city in the COVID outbreak, closed the year before.

But still, one of every seven hospital patients in the United States is cared for in a Catholic hospital, according to CHA, which represents six hundred Catholic hospitals and some 1,400 other health-care institutions, such as long-term care facilities. The rather quick loss of Catholic hospitals in New York—where Governor Andrew Cuomo is now requiring hospitals to increase their beds by half—shows how fragile these institutions are.

Childcare and personal protective equipment for employees, supply chains, ventilators: these are among the immediate concerns as mounting expenses lead to millions of dollars in budget gaps. “A whole host of things. As we continue to get into this, there is greater learning where the critical needs will be,” Haddad told me. “Lightening some of the restrictions now on funding would be helpful.”

The scramble is such that one Catholic hospital system, Providence St. Joseph, which has been responding to the outbreak since the nation’s first cases surfaced in Washington State, announced that it had obtained ventilators from “a very unusual partner,” the American Veterinary Medicine Association; some veterinarians had ventilators for large animals that are manufactured by the same companies making the machines for human beings. 

The CHA launched an urgent lobbying campaign to get the federal government to speed up Medicare payments, establish an emergency fund to help hospitals pay for unexpected costs, and delay planned federal cuts in reimbursement for care to the uninsured. The CHA also lobbied for the federal government to pull back a rule that would discourage immigrants from seeking government-subsidized medical care. The Trump administration subsequently agreed not to penalize those receiving government-subsidized care or testing.

Particular concern for the poor and uninsured is a bedrock principle of the Catholic hospital mission.

Haddad, a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, said there are both short-term worries about meeting the additional costs of coronavirus care and longer-term obstacles, such as the cancellation of revenue-producing elective surgeries. As the demise of Catholic hospitals in New York City showed, the battle to survive often depends on how the federal and state governments parcel out Medicare and Medicaid funds, as well as money to cover part of the cost of uncompensated care for the poor.

Particular concern for the poor and uninsured is a bedrock principle of the Catholic hospital mission. Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services, a set of guidelines the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops updated in 2018, describes this as a biblical mandate.

Brian Kane, a moral theologian who is senior director of ethics at CHA, has been busy organizing discussions with ethics experts at Catholic hospitals to deal with the sensitive question of how to allocate limited resources during the pandemic. Part of the task is to put state ethics guidelines into the context of Catholic teaching on the preferential option for the poor, he said. “Especially when we have pandemics,” he said, there is a balance to be struck between each person’s value and the sharing of goods in a way that will save the most lives. “And so we have to strike that balance in terms of the rationing decision.”

“The poor in some ways are going to lose out when we follow a principle like ‘first come, first served.’ It’s not going to work,” he said, speaking with me via Zoom. The challenge, he added, is to be consistent in decision-making and transparent about how resources such as ventilators are allocated. Hospitals can make use of what is known as the Sequential Organ Failure Assessment score, or SOFA, a standard for predicting mortality in intensive-care unit patients. This is the standard New York State adopted in 2015, and Kane praised the procedures in New York, Minnesota and Utah as models. “It’s not just a personal call,” he said. “It has to be made on clinical criteria.”

Making ethical decisions in a time of pandemic is no easy task. As a presentation on CHA’s website notes, “Pandemics and other disasters turn our usual way of thinking and making ethical decisions on their head.” Emphasis shifts from “patient-centeredness to population-centeredness”—a difficult change in a system based on the value and dignity of each individual human life.

But the ground may shift in many ways as the health-care system takes on such a highly contagious disease. “You hate…to use this situation as an indication of the need for universal health care, but it’s hitting us so hard saying, you know, ‘this is why we need to have coverage for everyone,’” Haddad told me. “It impacts the entire community.”

COVID-19 May Help Parents Reclaim an Important Role

Many commands are being issued today in response to COVID-19, and all for the good. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to call your attention to a perennial command to ponder as you’re at home realizing your parental duties: educate your children in the faith. Parents are important witnesses to the faith in the lives of their children. Through them, the faith is handed on generation by generation. Jews have been heeding this command for millennia, so it might be good to learn some things from them, especially the importance they give to household religious education. Years ago, a friend of mine was seriously studying Rabbinic Judaism, and he told me that part of the Talmud’s list of a father’s duties to his son is to teach him: (1) the Torah (2) a craft (3) how to swim Leaving aside the literal vs. metaphorical meanings of “to…

Are All Welcome?

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.


About two years ago I attended the closing Mass for the Master of Divinity program at Boston College, held in St. Ignatius, the campus church. It’s traditional for the community to invite graduating students up to the altar after the liturgy ends. As each graduate ascends to the altar, she is given a lit candle to hold as a symbol of the light she will bring to the world through her ministry. It’s intended to be a beautiful, proud, and sacred moment, but for me it felt very different.

I have a neurological condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease. Among other effects, CMT significantly impairs my balance and my ability to confidently ascend a set of stairs without a railing.

At my graduation Mass, I was confronted with exactly that: a railing-less altar. Instead of being able to take in the beauty of the moment, or consider with gratitude all the opportunities my education had gifted me, I was consumed with anxiety at the thought of climbing up and down those three altar stairs.

It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this. I’ve been a fairly regular Mass-goer my entire life, but I am not a trained Eucharistic minister, nor have I ever been an altar server or a lector. The reason for this is painfully straightforward: the vast majority of Catholic altars are not accessible to me. Where there are accommodations, they often have their own problems. Take St. Ignatius. Technically, it does have a ramp. To use it at my graduation Mass, however, I would have had to exit the sanctuary, navigate a hidden hallway, and emerge from the side of the altar. That would have required me to interrupt my experience of the liturgy and temporarily exit the company of the community and the sacred space in which it was gathered, missing part of the ceremony and visibly lagging behind my fellow graduates.

But as many disabled churchgoers can attest, navigating altars is not the only problem. Often the challenges begin before even entering the church, at the front steps. If they are successfully managed, a number of other challenges await inside. These include finding accessible seats in the congregation (not just behind it), and locating an accessible bathroom, which usually requires a functioning elevator. It is not uncommon to come across elevators that have “Broken, Do Not Use” signs hanging with an accumulation of months or even years of dust.

[A quarter of U.S. parishes are operating at a financial deficit. See the data here.]

There’s no denying that creating fully accessible church facilities is often a massive undertaking. Doing so takes significant amounts of money, and updating older buildings can be particularly expensive. There are aesthetic concerns, too, as some find a ramp that juts into the sacred space, or a railing in the middle of the altar steps, distracting. But accessibility issues are also a matter of Catholic identity, and one of the most fundamental elements of that identity is our sacramental worldview—the belief that the material world can mediate God’s grace to us. Catholic churches are often beautiful reflections of this sacramental worldview, overflowing with visible symbols of God’s presence. The ornate sacred art, gleaming glass windows, and floral adornments are all meant to communicate the past and present story of God on earth.

Inaccessible structures communicate unjust and damaging messages that not all are welcome.

Taking ourselves seriously as a sacramental people means that we cannot overlook the fact that a lack of accessibility mars this sacramental claim; inaccessible structures communicate unjust and damaging messages that not all are welcome. To take a previous example, inaccessible altar stairs imply that only certain kinds of bodies are worthy of accessing that sacred space. The church is often referred to as the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ is meant to be the sacrament of God to the world. But what kind of sacrament are we if we limit the types of bodies that can access our sacred spaces and our liturgies?

Accessibility issues confront parishes with difficult questions, not all of which can be answered in the immediate future. Overhauling buildings requires long-term budgeting and strategic architectural planning—a difficult task for parishes that are already squeezed for funds. But there are smaller-scale, concrete steps with which parishes can begin. For example, parishes may consider reaching out to disabled members of their community about how accessible they find the parish. Leaders should intentionally seek out information about the lived realities of individuals who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Social-justice committees or parish councils might organize fundraisers to install ramps or railings at the entrance of the church and at the front of the altar, or to finally fix that broken elevator. Communities might also organize educational events or invite speakers with disabilities to share their experiences with the parish. When possible, parishes should invite marginalized members of the community into the heart of their sacred spaces and liturgical celebrations.

The effort to make sacred spaces accessible is not a peripheral issue; it is an issue at the core of our Catholic identity. What’s presented to us in our sacred spaces and especially at the altar—the Word of God, the sacraments, and the people mediating those to everyone gathered in worship—inform the entirety of our lives as People of God. Our work as Catholics is energized by what happens in these spaces and flows out of them as we strive to bring about the Reign of God. Parish communities should look at the altar next time Mass is held. Please notice: What kinds of bodies are on that altar? And perhaps more importantly, what kinds aren’t?


Joy and Strain in Shared Parishes

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.


When my parents left their hometown in central Indiana in 1966, theirs was the “German” parish, though about the only thing really German about it was the heritage of many of the parishioners. I never knew that parish—St. Joseph, a large, gray neo-Gothic edifice on Market Street downtown. My parents were married there a couple of years after my mother converted to Catholicism. Then they moved to California, where I was born. Decades later, in my thirties, I began to visit my extended family in Indiana more frequently. St. Joseph’s was now All Saints, a single combined parish for the entire town. Latin American and Southeast Asian immigrants had moved in to work at the pork-processing plant, and there was a Spanish Mass. By my last visit, a good number of the congregants even at the English Mass were Hispanic.

The town I grew up in lies in suburban Orange County, south of Los Angeles. As a child I rode my bike among the endless subdivisions, and almost everyone I encountered was white. By the late 1970s, however, refugees from Southeast Asia and other immigrants began settling in the area, and our parish offered a late-afternoon Vietnamese Mass, so remote from the rest of the life of the parish that we hardly knew it was there. In the mid-80s, I went off to college, and by the time I moved back to California decades later, my home parish had not only a Vietnamese Mass but a Spanish Mass as well. My mother found herself helping to organize a multilingual, multicultural Thanksgiving Day Mass.

In both cases, local demographic change had turned our hometown parishes into shared parishes, each with two or more distinct cultural, racial, or ethnic groups whose regular worship and ministries were separate, but who used the same parish facilities and were served by the same clergy leadership. Perhaps most Mass-going Catholics in the United States today have at least visited a shared parish on vacation. But at the same time, very little specific data about them has emerged. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found in 2013 that fewer than one-third of U.S. parishes had Mass in a language other than English (in four-fifths of those cases, the Mass was in Spanish). In 2014, Boston College’s National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry reported that just over half of the parishioners at parishes with Hispanic ministry were not Hispanic, and that on average half or more of the Masses at such parishes took place in a language other than Spanish. Over the past decade or so, my students and I have studied various dioceses around the United States and calculated the percentage of parishes with Mass in more than one language. Dioceses in “gateway” cities and states where immigrants have been arriving for decades showed a majority of parishes with multilingual Mass schedules—in the most immigrant-rich dioceses, it was usually a supermajority and as high as 75 percent (Los Angeles) or 81 percent (Miami). Across the Midwest and South, where demographic transformations began in earnest in the 1990s, the percentage lay somewhere between 15 and 45 percent.

[In 1950, U.S. Catholics were regionally concentrated in the Northeast & Midwest. Since then, it's migrated to the South & West. See the data here.]

Shared parishes were almost never the result of a pastoral plan but rather an ad hoc response to demographic change. They constitute a kind of “middle way” between parishes that simply refuse to accommodate newcomers (or will only do so if the newcomers adapt English-language Masses and Euro-American Catholic customs) and those parishes that, de jure or de facto, devote their entire communal life to a particular racial, ethnic, or language group. A few shared parishes remain breathtaking in their diversity, such as St. Camillus in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C., where Mass is held in English, French, and Spanish, and distinct ministries exist for Mexican, Central American, Francophone African, Haitian, Bangali, and African-American Catholics. Here in Los Angeles, I have personally visited and researched an inner-city African-American and Hispanic parish, a historically Mexican parish gentrified into multicultural affluence (but retaining a Spanish Mass), and a suburban parish with English-speaking Mexican Americans, Filipinos, and Spanish-speaking Mexican and Central American immigrants. The most common kind of shared parish, however, remains the combination of a Euro-American English-speaking community and a Spanish-speaking community of Latin American descent.

Shared parishes juxtapose unity and difference, sometimes emphasizing one side and sometimes the other.

Shared parishes juxtapose unity and difference, sometimes emphasizing one side and sometimes the other. The best such parishes balance the two effectively, providing safe space for different groups to worship and minister in their own way, but also joining those groups together in certain activities—liturgy, parish maintenance, festivals, committees—that offer an experience of the parish as a common project. Some native-born Americans object to the preservation of safe space for difference in shared parishes, insisting that Spanish Masses or Simbang Gabi celebrations just foreground the racial or ethnic differences that otherwise people would take little notice of, and that such displays delay necessary assimilation. In truth, people always take note of differences, even if they do not speak of them, and such differences remain very strongly felt by immigrants bewildered by the customs of their new country. In areas with a long history of immigration, a different kind of resistance emerges, where people of all groups tend to assume that regular contact has already made them interculturally competent enough—they have little more to learn from one another. Probably the deepest resistance to the unity-in-diversity model in shared parishes comes from patterns of avoidance. We tolerate one another well, but there are few or no opportunities to encounter one another as human beings and as equals.

Theologian Susan Reynolds speaks of shared parishes as “borderlands,” and they often do bring out the tensions, encounters, hybrid identities, and absurdities that we associate with lands near national boundaries. Regarding tensions, there are the angry battles over parish-room space, between-Mass confusion over the parking lot, and the occasional prejudicial complaints about “the Mexicans” (or, on the other side, “the white people”) uttered with disdain. An English-speaking Mexican American woman married to a white man spoke of how other whites would vociferously complain about “the Mexicans,” seemingly unaware that she was also Mexican.

On a more positive note, shared parishes also engender a lot of “code-switching,” where people naturally adjust their behavior depending on whom they’re speaking with. A Puerto Rican refers to the same priest by his first name in English settings, but always as “Padre” in Spanish. Then there are the beautiful and rich encounters that may occur. People deliver the peace in their neighbor’s unfamiliar language at a bilingual Mass, surprising their pew mates; older Euro-Americans fawn over the young children of their immigrant parish-council colleagues; people from multiple cultures pray the rosary in different languages at the same time in matched rhythm; and people sing the bilingual parts of the Mass without hesitation and in unity.

There are also absurdities, sometimes exasperating, other times humorous. A middle-schooler tells me after Mass how he was scolded by an adult for speaking Spanish (at recess!) to another child who had just arrived from Mexico. A couple with steadfast anti-immigrant views declare their love for the afternoon bilingual Mass. Celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, there are ebullient calls and responses of “Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe” (long live the Virgin of Guadalupe), and “Viva Mexico,” but then the Mexican priest eyes our modest group of visiting Anglos and cries out, “Viva Estados Unidos” (long live the United States), a cry so unexpected for the occasion that the whole congregation begins to laugh, we visitors included.


In my experience and research, there are four big challenges in shared parish life.  First, the language barrier figures prominently, even in areas where bilingualism is common. People grow nervous not knowing how to speak with one another, or they commit offense unintentionally. Even where translation is readily available, it has its politics. Translating secretaries soften up blunt complaints for their monolingual priest (often to his chagrin). Language barriers lead to culture clash, as when communities accustomed to avoiding mention of death find themselves face-to-face with the skeletons and candied skulls of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos). Second, culture clash emerges in daily misunderstanding—perplexity at why white people do not shake hands with everyone when they enter a room (as in Latin American custom), why Mexicans double park on major feast days, and why African-American liturgies are so long—but it also manifests itself in misinterpretation of different approaches to key parish activities such as fundraising, popular devotions, and the emotional tone of the liturgy.

The third and most difficult challenge to confront in shared parishes has to do with the way the larger U.S. society seeps into parish life. We suppose and celebrate the equality of all Christians in our common baptism and one faith, but we live in an unequal society where injustice persists. How do we maintain equality at the parish when at local workplaces all the bosses are from one cultural group and all the workers are from another? How does one exclude from parish life the unconscious biases and half-conscious stereotypes that appear on the streets or in the stores? How do we keep the differences embedded in societal structures out of the structures of the parish? The answer, of course, is that we rarely can. Affluent people of one group struggle to separate out their parish interactions with another group from interactions with the same people who serve as their gardeners and housekeepers. Because of educational advantages or longtime presence in the parish, parish professional staff (parish associates, directors of religious education, music directors, youth ministers) often come from dominant groups, even sometimes when the volunteer-led immigrant choirs or youth groups are far larger than their own. Middle-class Euro-American volunteers think nothing of using parish resources (reasoning that they give on Sunday), while working-class Hispanic parishioners host fundraising events for every penny they spend.

These inequalities between cultural, racial, and ethnic communities pose significant challenges. When I give workshops, people do not want to talk about power dynamics in the parish. To speak of inequality or injustice in the parish itself brings long simmering resentments out into the open, provokes fears of being branded as racist, and sparks worry that conflict will consume the community. Addressing inequalities raises thorny questions about who should work for the parish, about accurate representation on parish committees or at multicultural liturgies, about who gets to use which rooms, when, and why. Many immigrants come from places where rules are never equitably enforced and fairness is hobbled by corruption, while native-born Americans often assume that fairness and equitably enforced rules will settle everything. We can struggle to see how fairness may not translate to justice, that equal opportunities may be technically available but not truly accessible, and that people born in the United States have a kind of home-field advantage when it comes to interpreting and following the rules. At one parish I studied, the African-American lay leadership insisted that members of the Hispanic immigrant community attend monthly liturgy meetings so that everyone had a voice and was on the same page, but the translation offered at the meetings was so poor that the Hispanics could not meaningfully participate. The situation looked fair but was actually unjust.

Finally, there is the grief that comes with change. Fr. Stephen Dudek, a priest of the Diocese of Grand Rapids who writes and presents frequently on shared parish life, calls shared parishes “crucibles of grief.” Immigrants struggle with all they have left behind—family, culture, language, home. (I once visited the father of an undocumented immigrant in Mexico; when I brought back a photo of him, his daughter wept at how much he had aged.) People in receiving communities see their hometowns transformed by different languages, restaurants, social media, stores, and music. In places where immigration is a relatively new phenomenon, the emotional whiplash can feel particularly acute. Age differences between communities exacerbate the issue, as when, for example, an aging white or African-American community finds itself paired with a young Hispanic or Asian community. At the same time, grief in the face of change is such a common human experience that everyone can relate. Once clued in, we recognize emotions that may at first shock us—anger, longing, sadness, depression—as part of a process of letting go. Recognition that everyone grieves what they have lost can engender more sensitivity, perhaps especially to elders who find themselves dealing with multiple experiences of loss near the end of their lives.

Nothing can replace the long, sometimes challenging, ultimately joyful process of communities getting to know one another and learning to cooperate.

People often ask me to offer them a packaged program or set of bullet points on how to successfully navigate shared parish life, but nothing can replace the long, sometimes challenging, ultimately joyful process of communities getting to know one another and learning to cooperate. I will say that time helps a great deal. A shared parish I attended in New York City, and another my wife attended in Chicago, had juggled two language communities for decades, and most parishioners were unbothered by cultural differences. They continually committed themselves to cooperation across the communities, and they genuinely wanted a parish of equal partners, even if the larger societal dynamics kept getting in the way. I would also argue that having a priest-pastor (or a lay parish-life director) with a vision of equal partnership goes a long way. One pastor I know worked hard to confuse people as to which community was his favorite. He would also intervene if any pastoral leader began to speak of one group’s needs as more important than those of others.

As Catholics, however, we cannot and should not expect our often-overburdened priests to always come to the rescue in a context like this. These days there are far more shared parishes than there are clergy who are prepared to work interculturally, who have language skills, or who know how to express a vision of unity in difference. Our long hangover from the centralized uniformity of nineteenth-century Catholicism leads us to subtly expect that everyone will ultimately express their Catholic faith in the same way, and somehow be officially sanctioned by Rome. Such uniformity was always more an ideal than a reality, even in the heyday of medieval nostalgia, common Catholic culture, and Bing Crosby in a collar. Today’s diverse parishes require genuine acceptance of many distinct Catholic practices, tones, and styles, finding our unity in the things we truly hold in common—core beliefs like our faith in the Eucharist; sacramentality; patron saints; common prayers like the rosary; and shared pastoral leaders like our pastors, bishops, and Pope Francis. I recognize this puts us at odds with some of the ideological fervor of our times, where differences are poison and often exaggerated. The tenor of our times requires, however, that whatever our legitimate political differences, we must not speak of our immigrant brothers and sisters in Christ as if they were some sort of plague rather than people. If we can speak hatefully without any compunction, then we have lost our moral compass as a people.

In some specific aspects of shared parish life, we have come a long way; in others, wisdom and expertise has only begun to emerge. Preparing a proper multilingual or multicultural liturgy is now easier than ever; the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions has a thoughtful guidebook to show us the way. Less clear is the way forward on stewardship. Long-resident cultures sometimes lament the low collections in working-class immigrant communities. But one has to calculate expenses longtime residents may not have, such as sending money (remittances) home, as well as the cultural customs around giving in the country of origin (almost never state-sponsored, despite what people think). I would argue that the primary problem with stewardship in shared parishes is not that immigrant communities do not give; rather, it is the odious comparisons between long-established, stable communities and poorer immigrant communities. They will always make newcomers look rather unjustly like freeloaders.

The proper language and cultural idiom for faith formation still stymies us. The answer will be different for different communities, but many shared parishes thus far have emphasized either English to push people along toward assimilation (usually imitating the public-education system), or an immigrant language to facilitate the preservation of cultures. Both have their limitations. Monolingual English risks dividing families, especially in places where immigrant parents have insufficient time or resources to learn English properly. Monolingual Spanish, Vietnamese, or Korean programs keep families united, but they can compartmentalize faith as an aspect of one’s culture of origin and not a matter for everyday life, much of which is lived in English. Parishes that develop some kind of bilingual program, admittedly harder to pull off, have often found a sweet spot that prepares children to pray both with their families and with their peers in the larger society. Again, there is no sure solution for every parish.

I began this essay with an account of the changes in the parishes of my parents’ hometown and my own. Even in those two stories, one can see some reliably recurring patterns in shared parish life, such as the way newcomer communities emerge in response to unforeseen local pastoral needs, and how such communities are only gradually integrated into the center of parish life. Like all parishes, however, shared parishes are a product of their unique local environment. Our incarnational theology celebrates this rather than finding it a problem. All Catholic unity is communion, that is, unity amidst difference, rooted in the three-persons-but-one-God of the Holy Trinity, present as much within a family as within a parish as within the global church. That unity in difference unfolds in history, which means that the way we live our common faith constantly adjusts to a changing world. Thus, I would be foolish to say too much with certainty about shared-parish life moving forward. Instead, I look to the perfect communion that we will find only in the “eschatological parish,” that is, the Reign of God. In the meantime, we do the best with what we have, struggling and celebrating.


For a Good Quarantine Read, There Ain’t Nothing Like a Classic

Not infrequently, in the middle of a harried day in clinic or after an onerous day slinging emails on the computer, I find myself—in my mind’s eye—nestled in a dimly lit room, swallowed in an oversized chair, reading a classic work of literature. It may be a doorstop novel, lofty poetry, or a series of penetrating essays. No matter. Only one thing is certain: it is old. Who might I be reading? It may be William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Dante Alighieri, or the Greek Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy writers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am entranced by G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, T.S. Eliot, and P.G. Wodehouse. But every so often, I hear the criticism that I don’t read enough “modern” writers. Modern writers,…

Refuge of Love

We hear all the time that what we want as Christians is a personal relationship with Jesus. And when people say that, if you’re like me, it makes you feel uncomfortable.

For the cynical, it can sound like having an imaginary friend, someone you make up conversations with as if you were really talking. At a deeper level, though, maybe the barrier is even more difficult to overcome: we don’t imagine that God could take an individual interest in us and our manifest imperfections. At best, God might be a benevolent employer who loves all of us equally, at an appropriate and necessary distance. But an intense love for us individually, the way we are? An actual desire to be with us and hear from us? Someone who will communicate that love to us in a way we can understand and feel?

For me, lately, there has only been one way past this “personal relationship” barrier. It has been to try to see Jesus’s actual personal relationships for what they are. Clearly, there were people in this world that he loved—not the way a master values a servant, but as a friend loves a friend, for reasons so deep they are hard to explain. This family of friends in today’s Gospel—Lazarus, Martha, Mary—is the one that has come alive.

They weren’t his disciples, or at least, not among the twelve. They don’t seem to have followed him from place to place in his public ministry. And yet, he returns to them, knows them all well, stays with them; they tolerate and even welcome his traveling disciples. Even after he made his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we’re told he went back to the nearby village of Bethany that night—perhaps to their house, a refuge of love in what he knew were the last days of his life. He seems to have turned to them the way we turn to those closest to us, the people we would want around when there is a crisis.

At a time when all of us are suffering, worried at best and genuinely afraid at worst, we would love it if God would take all this away.

What were they like? We know the gospel story about Martha and Mary having their domestic squabble about who wasn’t working hard enough. Maybe they were all three that way: open and passionate and argumentative. If we can picture this home of theirs, a place of normal humans where Jesus just liked being, where he could relax and be himself, maybe we can begin to see that even now, a relationship with him might be not only possible, but something that would change how we experience God.

And yet being a friend of Jesus, having that personal relationship, loving him and being loved by him, did not save these friends from suffering. “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” It’s a bitter thing said to Jesus by these people he loved, and he doesn’t explain why exactly he stayed away so long. Even Lazarus himself, sick and then dead and then dragged back to life, goes through an awful ordeal. So even these great friends of Jesus have a crisis, and their relationship with him has to deepen into something new, and hard for them to understand.

At a time when all of us are suffering, worried at best and genuinely afraid at worst, we would love it if God would take all this away. And yet all we have to see us through is this relationship of love, one that doesn’t leave us. God is still taking a compassionate and individual interest in us, even in our fear and distraction. We would love to know why there is suffering for us, but all we are given is a relationship where we can literally say anything, and be ready to hear almost anything. It’s not a simple relationship or always an easy one. But it is always there.

A few verses after Lazarus’s return to life, the gospel says of these three friends that they gave a dinner for Jesus. It makes me like them even more—their instinct to have a party to celebrate the friendship that even death didn’t destroy. We’re at a moment right now when dinner parties aren’t possible. But in these next few days, picture one anyway, and the kind of relationship of love that sustains you the most. And say something out loud to a God who wants nothing more, and nothing less, than that same kind of relationship with each of us.

Living in Isolation

A few days ago, waiting to go through security in Tel Aviv airport, I watched the maneuverings of the young man before me in the queue. As we shuffled forward, he always had a suitcase five feet in front of him and behind, so that no one could get near him. He may have been wise, but it was a powerful symbol of what the virus means for millions of people: isolation, keeping one’s distance. The very presence of others may be a threat, as one may be for them.

Isolation can be more terrible than death. We must all die, and for many it comes as a welcome relief. But isolation saps our very humanity: grandparents being isolated from their grandchildren, lovers separated from each other. We are touched into life by each other, from tiny touches to making love. A character in a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer says: “Touching him was always so important to me. It was something I lived for. I never could explain why. Little, nothing touches. My fingers against his shoulder. The outsides of our thighs touching as we squeezed together on the bus.” When the coronavirus threatens, life-giving touch might become deadly.

The evening before I flew, I went to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and entered the tomb where Jesus is supposed to have lain for three days. The crux of the Christian faith is a man who died in utter isolation. He was lifted up on the cross above the crowd, beyond touch, made into a naked object. He seemed even to have felt separated from his Father, and his last words, according to Mark and Matthew’s gospels, were: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” In that moment he embraced more than just our deaths. He made his very own the loneliness that we all endure sometimes and that tens of millions live today.

On the night before he died, that isolation was already palpable. He gathered his closest friends around him for a last supper. One of them had already sold him to the people who sought his life; Peter, his Rock, was about to deny he even knew him, and most of the others would take to their heels. In this most chilling moment, he did something utterly startling, taking the bread and wine, and saying “this is my body and blood, given for you.”

When the community was falling apart and everyone faced the future alone, he made the promise of a new communion, which would be stronger than betrayal and cowardice and which nothing could destroy, even death. When the churches are shut and public worship ceases for a while, that promise still holds and the gift is still given.

So, yes, this awful virus may cut us off from each other physically, and that is a profound deprivation. But Christians believe that all our loneliness is embraced in a communion that pierces through every barricade. The risen Lord comes through the locked door behind which the disciples had placed themselves in self-isolation and lifts their fear and loneliness.

Even if we cannot get to the Eucharist, we can still enact symbols of communion. In Northern Ireland, a hotel offered to deliver free meals to people stuck inside their homes: “Call us before 1 pm and order a meal. We will deliver dinner to you that evening—there is no charge for food or delivery.” In Italy, people came out onto their balconies and sang to each other. Music reached into every room to embrace people in their loneliness.

The risen Lord comes through the locked door behind which the disciples had placed themselves in self-isolation and lifts their fear and loneliness.

Indeed, music has an ability to express a hope beyond our words. The opera about 9/11, Between Worlds, by Tansy Davies, had its world premiere in 2015. Some were shocked that anyone should compose an opera about such a horrible event, but perhaps it is the only way to face its brutality. Nicholas Drake, the librettist, said that “putting the transforming power of music at the heart of the drama, we thought, might allow us to weigh the tragedy of what happened on 9/11, and yet discover some kind of light in that darkness. Music even seems to have played a role in helping some people on that day. A security guard sang hymns to those descending the stairs, to give them courage. Some relatives, lost for words as they spoke to loved ones on the phone, sang together.”

Yes, millions of us must endure isolation, but what are the gestures that we can make that put us in touch with those whom we cannot touch? It may be by buying food for those who cannot get out and leaving it on their steps, by phoning and texting. Small gestures can speak of profound belonging.

Every Eucharist recalls what Jesus did in the face of death, defying its threat of ultimate isolation. I was never so aware of this as I was while saying Mass in Syria, less than five miles from the frontline, when gunfire could be heard not far off. The threat of violence was ever-present, and yet hope found expression in our singing and in reenacting that gesture of self-gift that nothing could destroy. Even when I cannot get out to join the community in prayer, God remains present, as St Augustine wrote, “in my deepest interiority.” However lonely I feel, I am not alone, for at the core of my very being is Another.

The Dangers of Digital Anonymity

When I was in college in the mid-2000s—right around the time “Thefacebook” and Myspace launched and cell phones were suddenly everywhere—I became fascinated by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s writings on the press, which seemed to anticipate the dangers of the digital world by 150 years. (Hubert Dreyfus—whose book On the Internet Robert Mixa explores in the latest issue of Evangelization & Culture—was all over the connection.) Kierkegaard saw that flattened, disembodied communication had a deeply dehumanizing effect, turning passion into reflection, commitment into chatter, and concrete individuals into an abstract “public.” A key element of his critique of the press was its anonymity. Here is the ever-passionate Kierkegaard in his Point of View: The fact that an anonymous author by the help of the press can day by day find occasion to say (even about intellectual, moral, and religious matters) whatever he pleases…

Common Sense Isn’t Enough

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads throughout the globe, Americans are doing their best to “flatten the curve” by practicing social distancing. This is the advice of the world’s scientists, who are tracking this disease that has already cost so many lives. But in the midst of this collective push to secure compliance with necessary safety measures, a number of people still refuse to take the threat seriously. We now know, for example, that coronavirus can incubate in the body for several days without symptoms, yet you may still hear from some that, as long as no one is feeling sick, public gatherings are OK. This only quickens the contagion, as apparently healthy people unwittingly function as vectors for a virus that will likely find its way to someone more susceptible to the disease.

Mandatory lockdowns nationwide will soon make these minor rebellions irrelevant. But it is nonetheless worth asking ourselves why so many people—secular and religious alike, elected officials and regular citizens—failed to heed the warnings of scientists. There are at least four sources of this heedlessness: political scheming, entrapment in the politics of “culture wars,” a profound ignorance of our own fragility, and a general distrust of science. Together they are prime examples of what the Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904–1984) called human bias.

In Insight (1957), his monumental study of the human process of learning, Lonergan discusses the conditions not only for knowing but also for unknowing—that is, for the ways we can get knowing wrong. The human process of discovery, of insight, is always motivated by our innate desire to know, that basic orientation of wonder toward the world described by Plato and Aristotle and discovered by anyone who has ever met a child’s incessant questioning. We are, by our God-given nature, oriented toward truth by the ineluctable drive within us to ask questions and to seek reality through inquiry. Bias is anything that prevents the instinctive dynamism of our minds from attending to experience, seeking to understand, and making a disinterested judgment on the evidence that life offers. Lonergan identifies many kinds of bias, but among them are two that help explain the sources of heedlessness in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

The first is group bias. Because every instance of discovery takes place in the context of community, the process of reaching truth can always be interfered with by perceived community interests. There are truths we would rather not know, and so questions we will avoid asking, because it could cost us something. As societies develop, Lonergan notes, a process of accumulating insights leads to progress. But this cumulative process can turn back in the opposite direction, such that a society enters into a state of decline as a result of group bias wreaking havoc on political life. At that point, certain important questions are off the table.

This marker of decline is certainly on display institutionally in the White House today. There, President Trump has created such a culture of fear that his deputies hesitate to tell him news he may not want to hear. Anxious about his electoral prospects should this pandemic take a great economic toll, Trump insisted on downplaying the gravity of this new coronavirus. His administration’s refusal to ask critical questions concerning the real scope of this crisis and what it could do to the American medical system has already cost lives and will likely cost many more in the weeks and months to come. This is a sign of a society that is in serious political decline.

We also witness group bias in the response of certain religious commentators who use specious theological arguments to sow doubt in the wisdom of public-health recommendations. To suspend public celebration of the sacraments, it is argued, is to capitulate to secularism in its absolute fear of death; the church that lives in the light of the Resurrection should interrupt its ministry for nothing, not even death. Here theological truths and half-truths are twisted to support an embittered us-versus-them mentality. Yes, the church’s priority is the spiritual health of the flock, and the specter of death must not keep the church and its pastors away from ministry. Yes, there is such a thing as living in excessive fear when good must be done. But except in moments when the church is asked to renounce its faith, there is no reason to disconnect the corporal from the spiritual works of mercy. We do not prove our concern for souls by displaying our disregard for the health of bodies.

Simply put, pastors may not make martyrs of their own people in the grand battle not to be like the secular world. What is more, while pastors may risk their own lives to minister to those suffering from illness, in the current situation, pastors who overlook the possibility of infection or death for themselves may unwittingly bring disease and death to other, more vulnerable parishioners. Only group bias could cause someone to mistake the current predicament and to imagine we are living in Shusaku Endo’s Silence. This is not that, and we are not sacrificing our faith and our ultimate loyalty to the church when we temporarily close the churches. For “church” never closes, since the love of God never ceases to be poured into our hearts by the Spirit. God's grace is not limited to the sacraments, even if God is always graciously available in them. By affirming this we do not gnostically disincarnate Christ’s ecclesial body; rather, we recognize that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

There are truths we would rather not know, and so questions we will avoid asking, because it could cost us something.

Another instance of group bias is the persistent denial that the apparently healthy risk transmitting the disease. Let’s call this the group bias of the healthy, a bias against fragility. We reveal our unwillingness to learn what life is like for the most vulnerable among us when we say with complacency that COVID-19 will “only kill the old and already sick,” as if we enjoy a permanent exemption from those categories. The blithely healthy do not want to know these truths about others because, on a fundamental level, they know these are truths about themselves. Our societal bias against our human fragility can easily be understood as the psychic mechanism of repression writ large. If enough people continue to congregate in public despite the warnings of health officials, then everything must be all right. But those whose family members suffer from disease, or those who have lived with chronic illness all their lives, are less likely to fall prey to the bias against fragility. They can ask the appropriate questions about what is best to do for others, and this is because experience has already forced such questions upon them. If our culture were not so ruthlessly effective at screening us from the especially vulnerable, we would be better at making their questions our own. We might feel like one body, in which the weakest member is also the most honored.

Yet psychic repression works only when there are plausible stories we can tell ourselves to maintain our blind spots. One such story arises from what Lonergan calls the bias of common sense or general bias. Simply put, general bias is a bias against theoretical knowledge. In the realm of philosophy of knowledge, or epistemology, it is our natural tendency to think that knowing is like taking a look. As children, we first come to identify knowing with sensory experience itself: what is “real” is what I “bump up against” in the world through my senses. In other words, “seeing” (broadly understood as sensory experience) is believing, and if I cannot see something, then it must not be real. Common sense thrives in the world of the practical. It concerns what works, not the nature of reality itself. And this is as it should be: to expatiate on the nature of “money” at the grocery store check-out line would make a fool of the philosopher and frustrate everyone else around. But it’s a problem if we come to think that what works is the only thing worth knowing and that we need never ask any further questions. At that point we are living in general bias.

While not intrinsically opposed, the realms of theory and common sense are always liable to conflict. There are times, after all, when common sense breaks down. In those moments, general bias can resist the judgments of theoretical knowledge and its representatives—experts, in other words. This occurs most frequently when the general populace cannot validate the statements of scientists simply by taking a good look. I suspect this is why many have found it so difficult to believe they could be transmitting the coronavirus unknowingly when they do not feel ill. If they cannot “see” the effects of the virus in their own bodies, how could they be a danger to others? This pandemic reminds us of common sense’s limitations and of the dangers of its bias against theory—particularly when theory takes the form of scientists warning us of inconvenient truths we cannot immediately see, feel, or touch. America’s anti-intellectualism and distrust of elites has many causes, but general bias constitutes its heart. Sadly, its conjunction with Christian group bias against the secular world and the broader group bias of the healthy against the vulnerable is now endangering public health.

This year’s pandemic will not be the last. We can expect other crises that will challenge our society and expose its inherent weaknesses. Lonergan writes that “the challenge of history is for man progressively to restrict the realm of chance or fate or destiny and progressively to enlarge the realm of conscious grasp and deliberate choice.” In this crisis, chance has already claimed many lives and will no doubt claim many more before it’s over. “The realm of conscious grasp and deliberate choice” must be further enlarged before the next such crisis arrives. That will require a collective effort on every level—local, national, and international. And that effort will be successful to the degree that we manage to overcome the biases that keep us from seeing and accepting inconvenient realities. The church, as the society whose interests are those of the human race and not of any particular group, has a duty to strive to root out all forms of bias. Alongside all people of good will, we must work together for the flourishing of the whole. This will be remembered as a moment when American society either further entrenched itself in its dangerous biases or worked to correct them in order to promote the general welfare—here and throughout the world. Let us pray it will be the latter.