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Way Stations for a Pilgrim Church

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.


Some people mark out eras in their lives by the places they’ve lived or the jobs they’ve held. I measure mine in parishes.

I grew up in a Catholic parish south of Denver that sat on a hill and faced the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The church was the apotheosis of post–Vatican II architecture, rounded and dark and a little odd. The walls were built of brown brick, the kind that clung to your clothes like Velcro if you leaned against them. Olive-green and burnt-orange carpet blanketed the floors, and ruddy tile gave the narthex a smoldery, numinous glow. The western-facing wall was made of plate-glass windows. As a kid, I spent most of Sunday Mass transfixed by rose-colored rays of sunlight shooting through the clouds onto the snowy face of Mt. Evans, a view that lent an organic logic to the sacraments: God, too, could be both grand and intimate, both transcendent and earthy.

Every summer, my parents shuttled my siblings and me off to visit our great-aunts in Streator, Illinois, a small, rural town ninety miles south of Chicago where my mother’s side of the family had lived for generations. Once there, we melded into life at their parish, St. Stephen’s. The church was the oldest Slovak parish in the United States, a distinction my Slovak-American family wore with pride. My siblings and I spent our summer breaks helping our aunts and the other ladies of the Altar and Rosary Society run the parish rummage sale, sell rozek, and lead the rosary at the local Catholic nursing home. At St. Stephen’s, the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were still being received in the 1990s. Mass-goers still knelt at the extant altar rail to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, a practice as foreign as it was enchanting to a nine-year-old future Millennial. St. Stephen’s was like an immersion trip into the Catholic past, into a world of ethnic religious enclaves that otherwise only existed for me in old family photos.

After college, I moved to Brownsville, Texas, to teach middle school with a Catholic postgraduate service program. My local parish, San Felipe de Jesus, sat in the heart of the colonia of Cameron Park, known as much for its one-time designation as the poorest place in the United States as for its tradition of social organizing. Most parishioners were Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. Many lived on both sides of the border, regularly traversing the international bridge between Brownsville and neighboring Matamoros to shop or go to the dentist or visit loved ones. At San Felipe, the porosity of the Rio Grande Valley borderlands was manifested liturgically. Prayers, processions, and posadas regularly flowed onto the streets, blurring the boundary between church and everyday life.

Later, I moved to Boston for graduate school. Two thousand miles north of the Rio Grande Valley, I found myself worshipping in a different sort of borderland: St. Mary of the Angels, a small parish in Roxbury that served a tightly knit, multiethnic, multilingual community composed primarily of African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Latinx, and Irish-American Catholics. At the 9 a.m. English-language Mass, the affective high point of the liturgy was the Sign of Peace. As the choir sang “This Little Light of Mine,” worshippers would spill out of their pews to embrace one another. Elderly Jamaican women kissed the cheeks of white thirty-somethings, while gregarious toddlers (including my own) darted down the aisles to collect as many hugs as time would allow. To the dismay of newly arrived priests, exchanges of “Peace be with you” were usually accompanied by “How’s the baby?” or “Will you be at the meeting later?” Eventually the music would taper off and people would wipe the tears from their eyes and take deep breaths and slowly recede into their pews. It remains the only parish I’ve ever belonged to where everyone knew everyone else by name and noticed if you were gone.


The 1983 Code of Canon Law describes parishes as stable communities of the faithful. In their own ways, each of these far-flung parishes was just that, or seemed to be at the time. They were places—rooted and untransferable, woven recognizably into the fabric of their neighborhoods and geographies. Entering into the lives of these communities taught me that holiness has a fundamentally local character. They were holy because they were there, ordinary and unspectacular, each its own peculiar embodiment of the Communion of Saints.

My lifelong enchantment with the eccentricities of Catholic parishes prefigured my eventual vocation: I became a theologian. As a graduate student, I worked with Hosffman Ospino on the National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry. The work I do now is in what I call lived ecclesiology. Through ethnographic research in parish communities, I examine how lay people use ritual to negotiate cultural difference and experiences of suffering. This work relies on the conviction that attending to the messy particularities of parish life helps us read the unfolding story of the church, not just sociologically but also theologically. The parish is a locus ecclesiologicus—a space for deep reflection about the meaning and mission of the church in a changing context.

Today, the story that U.S. parishes tell is one of displacement on a massive scale. Parish closures and consolidations are reshaping territorial boundaries, throwing once-disparate communities together, scattering others, and leaving many in affected dioceses feeling pastorally abandoned and spiritually homeless. Meanwhile, the borderlines within parishes are also being reconfigured. As the church becomes increasingly diverse, cultural communities coalesce and coexist in “shared parishes.” In rarer cases, they establish personal parishes, akin to but much less common than the national and ethnic parishes of the past—a pastoral strategy most common among Asian-American Catholics.

[Cities like Fresno & Phoenix have seen large increases in Catholics while others have seen sharp decline. See the data here.] 

Shifting, too, are boundaries of belief, affiliation, and practice. An increasing number of U.S. Catholics locate themselves on the peripheries of the church. Disagreement with church teachings, dissatisfaction with the role of women and the treatment of LGBTQ persons, and disillusionment wrought by the sex-abuse crisis have caused many to reevaluate their relationship to the institutional church and, in turn, to their parishes. Such displacements are harder to quantify—statistics on Catholic disaffiliation tell only part of the story—but they are supremely evident to anyone who has spent time in Catholic communities recently. In a particular way, the relentless tide of abuse revelations has exposed the fragility of authority, the deceptiveness of charisma, the insufficiency of Catholics’ formation on issues of sexuality, and the dark consequences of patriarchy and secrecy. The crisis has forced lay people, many for the first time, to wrestle in a sustained way with the reality of the church’s sinfulness and the limits of their own power. Some have chosen to leave altogether. Together, these transformations are upending perceptions of the parish’s storied stability. Parishes today are spaces of ambiguity, uncertainty, and change—unstable communities of the faithful.

At the macro level, the geographical center of gravity in the U.S. church is shifting under our feet. Dioceses throughout the upper Midwest and Northeast are closing, merging, and clustering parishes in an attempt to maintain viability in the face of declining Mass attendance, worsening clergy shortages, and a surfeit of aging church buildings too costly to repair. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago—once urban centers of U.S. Catholic life—two decades of restructuring efforts have shuttered or consolidated hundreds of parishes and Catholic schools.

Meanwhile, in the South and West, parishes are overflowing more quickly than they can be built. America’s largest parish is in Charlotte, North Carolina—historically one of the least Catholic regions in the nation. Nearby, in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Catholic population increased by 259 percent between 2000 and 2010, in part due to immigration. Two years ago, I moved to Atlanta to teach at Candler School of Theology, the United Methodist seminary and theological school at Emory University. In 2018, Candler inaugurated a program in Catholic Studies, a response to the explosive growth of Catholics in the region and the paucity of institutions here dedicated to forming them for ministry. In Atlanta, half of the archdiocese is Latinx. Black Catholic students are a defining presence at Candler. In other words, this is a region that looks a lot like the church itself.

Geographical transformation has coincided with sweeping demographic change. In the 1980s, the landmark Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life offered a comprehensive portrait of U.S. parish practice two decades after Vatican II. Unparalleled in its scope at the time, the results of the study definitively shaped collective understandings of what was happening on the ground in U.S. Catholicism for decades to come. But excluded from the study were Spanish-speaking and other non-English-speaking parishes and parishioners. Unsurprisingly, the picture that emerged was of a church that was normatively white, largely assimilated, and primarily English-speaking. That wasn’t fully the case then, and it’s even less the case now. People of color—Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others—make up more than half of U.S. Catholics born since Vatican II. Latinos alone account for 71 percent of the U.S. Catholic population’s growth since 1960. Today, they compose about 38 percent of U.S. Catholics, and well over half of Catholics under the age of forty.

Comparing this sweeping demographic transformation with parish-level realities also reveals some startling inequities.

Immigration is a driving force behind this diversification. As of 2012, nearly 80 percent of Catholics belonged to a parish that was home to recent immigrants. Between 1980 and 2014, according to CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), the number of U.S. Catholics born outside the country nearly quadrupled. And a Pew survey showed that more than a quarter of all Catholic adults in the United States are first-generation immigrants, and another 15 percent are second-generation. The majority are from Mexico, though Catholics from elsewhere in Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, China, and sub-Saharan Africa are also strongly represented in the pews.

Yet comparing this sweeping demographic transformation with parish-level realities also reveals some startling inequities. Though Latinos account for most of the growth in the church and often constitute a numerical majority in parishes, ministerial and liturgical resources, paid personnel, pastoral attention, and decision-making authority are disproportionately concentrated among white Catholics. Almost four in ten U.S. Catholics identify as Hispanic or Latinx, but only 3 percent of priests are, and only about a quarter of parishes regularly celebrate Mass in Spanish or offer some form of Hispanic ministry. Just over half of U.S. Catholics are white, but according to the National Congregations Study, over 80 percent of Mass-goers attend a parish with a white pastor, while 71 percent of parishes offer Mass in English only. Despite the steady rise in culturally diverse parishes, the majority still remain economically, racially, and ethnically segregated. In a recent essay, public policy scholar Mary Jo Bane sums it up starkly: “The Catholic parish landscape is essentially made up of rich white parishes and poor Latino parishes.”

These pastoral disparities are reflected in the attitudes of the people in the pews. In a recent CARA survey of parishioners who belonged to culturally diverse parishes, white respondents showed abysmally low levels of support for the prospect of greater diversity in their parishes. Their support for welcoming immigrants, non-English speakers, and certain communities of color into their parishes was also markedly lower than it was among Latino, Asian, Black, Native American, and multi-racial respondents. Unsurprisingly, white parishioners were also less likely than their non-white counterparts to feel like outsiders at their parishes or to perceive intercultural tension there. While cultural diversity is indeed transforming the church, stark asymmetries of power persist. White Catholics continue to act as gatekeepers in parishes, even where they are in the minority.


Not one of the parishes I grew up in looks the way it did when I sat in its pews. Each is a sign of the times.

When I arrived at St. Mary of the Angels in Boston, it had been almost a decade since the “Spotlight” reports threw open the windows on clergy abuse there, and seven years since the archdiocese announced the sweeping closures of almost one-fifth of its parishes. Both of these crises ravaged Boston Catholics’ trust in the hierarchy. The result was a city full of spiritual refugees—lifelong Catholics driven from their institutional homes by betrayal and their parochial homes by closure. St. Mary of the Angels—having only narrowly avoided closure itself—became a landing place for many of them. Inclusive and unpretentious and relentlessly lay-led, it was the kind of parish you ended up at if you were searching for a place to belong. This sort of openness to change required that the parish hold its identity loosely—and change it did, again and again.

In 2015, parishioners at San Felipe de Jesus in Brownsville began welcoming a new community to Mass: more than a hundred unaccompanied child migrants, most from Central America, who were being housed in nearby facilities. Every Sunday, parishioners reserved a section of pews for the children—a powerful symbol of acceptance. Throughout the Valley today, empty pews bear evidence of the terror visited upon border communities by the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration policies. Parish leaders there report that many undocumented parishioners are afraid to leave their homes to attend Mass. Communities like San Felipe de Jesus continue to be centers of accompaniment, solidarity, and advocacy.

In 2010, my family’s beloved Slovak parish was merged with the town’s other remaining parishes as the Catholic population declined. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Slovak, Irish, Polish, and German immigrants who settled in Streator each built and sustained their own churches. Times have changed. Culturally shared parishes have supplanted national parishes as the primary model for integrating new immigrants into parish life. Today, Streator’s single parish owes much of its survival to the town’s growing Latinx community. Masses are now celebrated in English and Spanish, and a vibrant painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs alongside the vintage, European-style statues of the Holy Family.

What about my childhood parish? It tells the other part of the American parish story. Once located on the far, airy edge of metro Denver development, it now sits in the heart of suburbia, enveloped by the tendrils of a nearby retail superplex. A decade ago, the church underwent a lavish renovation aimed, ostensibly, at shoring up visible signs of its Catholic identity with an increasingly wealthy and more self-consciously conservative community. Glossy marble replaced the dark wood and groovy carpet. Stained glass now filters the mountain view. My mother, still a parishioner, has never heard the abuse crisis mentioned there—it’s almost as if it never occurred. Despite the prevalence of Spanish-speaking Catholics in the area, all of its seven weekend Masses are still in English. Like many predominately white suburban parishes, it has largely opted out of the work of responding to cultural diversity, despite its geographic location. It is hard not to feel as though the community has braced itself against the tides of change by retreating into the security of a supposed timelessness and placelessness.


The worst thing we could do for parish life in this moment would be to conflate change with ‘crisis.’

What good is the parish within this landscape of change? Some have argued that the parish has reached the end of its viability as a model of local ecclesial community. Ecclesial movements, campus ministries, and even online communities have supplanted parishes as primary loci of religious participation, social belonging, and connection to the universal church for many Catholics. As the U.S. Catholic population increases while the number of parishes and priests declines, parishes themselves are becoming larger, some unmanageably so. Here in the Atlanta area, thousands of Latinx Catholics are served in massive, pan-cultural missions. Arrangements like these begin to feel like dioceses unto themselves, so diffuse that hope for anything approximating genuine community lies in the cultivation of smaller and more intimate subgroups. The parish structure as we know it originated with the Council of Trent as a way to clarify the task of ministry within the geographical expanse of a diocese. Perhaps, some suggest, the challenges of ministry in the present era simply demand a new solution.

Others take the opposite view, pushing for a radical recommitment to the territorial parish. The spiritual placelessness and social homophily of postmodernity has made the parish’s appeal less clear. Theologian Vincent Miller has argued that on an ecclesial level, the deterritorialization wrought by globalization has threatened “the church’s ability to be present in and to any particular place.” For him, this trend is manifested most clearly in the prevalence of “parish shopping.” Instead of gathering with the proverbial here-comes-everybody of one’s neighborhood, people now seek out parishes that suit particular preferences: better music, more competent homilies, a greater emphasis on social justice, a more traditional liturgical style, a better generational fit. As believers sacrifice local diversity for the comfort of like-minded enclaves, Miller suggests, they “lose the habits of cohabiting with people who are different from them,” in some way undermining the very catholicity of the church. As an antidote to this, he urges resisting the temptation to parish shop, instead grounding ecclesial belonging in our local communities—however imperfect they may be. In an age of extreme polarization, resisting the urge to self-sort can be countercultural.

But while parish shopping is typically denounced like some kind of national epidemic, a closer look reveals a different picture. According to CARA, more than half of African-American parishioners, and nearly half of Hispanic and Asian-American Mass-goers, bypass their territorial parishes to attend Mass elsewhere. At St. Mary of the Angels in Boston, the Spanish-language Mass had become a spiritual haven for Dominican and Puerto Rican Catholics living well beyond the surrounding neighborhood. One woman, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, had been attending Mass closer to her home when a friend invited her to St. Mary’s. She described the sense of welcome and relief that washed over her when she arrived. “I felt like I was at home because others treated me very well,” she recalled. “I felt like I was in my parish in Santo Domingo.” Seen in this light, parish shopping suddenly appears to be less about the triumph of consumerism over the virtue of local belonging and more about the longing for a basic level of inclusion—a yearning for home.

Yet Miller’s call to take more seriously the relationship between place and ecclesial life stands. For a long time, the sort of holiness that parish life disclosed was a factor of its ability to bind people to place and, in some subtle way, to reveal the incarnational sacredness of the local and particular. Today, the boundaries of parish life are shifting: across the country, within communities, within ourselves. In an age of migration and profound change, parishes still offer us a way to think about holiness—that is, if we are willing to listen to the voices of those most responsible for the transformation and continued vitality of parish life. Latinx theologians and scholars of religion—Arturo Bañuelas, Neomi De Anda, Allen Figueroa Deck, Virgilio Elizondo, Nichole Flores, Roberto Goizueta, Justo González, Cecilia González-Andrieu, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Daisy Machado, Carmen Nanko-Fernández, Leo Guardado, Hosffman Ospino, Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Fernando Segovia, and many, many others—have spent decades calling the church to recognize the revelatory status of margins and borders and the salvific power of solidarity across boundaries of many kinds. It’s time to pay attention.

The worst thing we could do for parish life in this moment would be to conflate change with “crisis,” sharpen our apologetics, and flatten ambiguities in a desperate attempt to keep anybody else from leaving. (Spoiler: it won’t work.) Reality is inviting us instead to embrace the transitions happening all around us. The stability of the parish relies on a paradox: while territorially grounded, parishes also facilitate a kind of transitory belonging. While they differ in many ways, the consistency of certain things—the structure and flow of liturgical ritual, for example—means that they offer a chance at home in any place. They are like way stations for a pilgrim church—beckoning us across borders, ready to receive us on the other side.


Hear the author speak about her essay on The Commonweal Podcast, available below.

Catholic Prayer and Adoration—Through Space and Outside of Time

It is beautiful and silent—so silent that you might not believe the feed is live if not for the occasional flicker of a flame caused by one Benedictine nun of Tyburn convent moving in and bowing as she takes her place before the Blessed Sacrament, while another bows and takes her leave. And then, of course, there is the perpetual movement of light and shadow as the day progresses—another reminder that the image on your monitor is not a static photograph, but something alive, being transmitted via “live feed” directly to where you are. To where each of us are. Whatever is happening within the mysterious waves and crackles of electricity—a live energetic force that few of us really understand—what it is being delivered to us in real time is access to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, adorned in a monstrance and situated in a monastic chapel…

The American Parish, By the Numbers

Editors’ Note:  Weve 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.


Statistical overviews of American parish life typically start with the headlines: a declining national number of parishes and priests, and a growing list of parishes without a pastor in residence—or, worse, entirely closed. Even more startling are the sharp long-term declines in the number of Catholic baptisms and marriages, raising urgent questions about where the church’s future parishioners will come from.

But beneath these distressing national trends there’s also a complex story of regional diversity. Over the past seventy years many Catholics have migrated away from the traditional Irish, Italian, and German strongholds in the eastern and midwestern United States. Nearly 60 percent of Catholics now live in the South and West. As a result some dioceses, far from declining, are bursting at the seams with new Catholics. They’re arriving not just from elsewhere in the country, but also from abroad, testing the capacities of the relatively few parishes available to serve them. Yet even here, the pastoral realities of a shrinking priesthood, and the financial pressures facing the church everywhere, further complicate the ways in which parishes might evolve to serve these future generations.

As part of our special issue on the American parish, we’ve gathered some of the most illuminating and interesting data in a single, graphically illustrated document that you can see here (PDF).

We are grateful to Fr. Thomas Gaunt, SJ, and his colleagues at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in Washington for their help in compiling many of the data elements in this package. All designs are by David Sankey.


The American Parish Today

A few years ago Commonweal published a special issue on parishes in the United States. We sent out correspondents and had them report back on what they encountered on an “ordinary Sunday” at their parish—what the liturgy was like, what they made of the preaching, how the art and architecture of the building influenced (or didn’t) the experience. These dispatches provided an interesting, eclectic account of what it meant to worship in different parishes in different parts of the United States. At the same time, such an approach was unable to take the full measure of the changes remaking the U.S. Catholic Church—most of all the significant changes in demographics and geography, set against the backdrop of declining vocations and broader trends in religious disaffiliation—and what they meant for local communities of Catholics.

This time we wanted to try something different, looking at the state of the parish more broadly. Just what does “parish” mean for U.S. Catholics today? Early on, we began speaking with Susan Bigelow Reynolds, assistant professor of Catholic studies at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, whose essay, “Waystations for a Pilgrim Church,” is one of those featured in this special issue. She expressed something that helped us arrive at our guiding theme: though canon law describes parishes as “stable communities of the faithful,” we live in unstable times, an age of migration and movement. So we asked a number of authors to consider this theme, from a variety of perspectives.

Reynolds does so by recounting the changes that have occurred in four parishes that have marked her life, folding those stories into broader trends, from the rise of Latinx Catholics to the shifting geography of the U.S. church. Brett Hoover focuses on the increasingly common phenomenon of shared parishes, examining how distinct racial, cultural, and linguistic communities can flourish as they negotiate how to use the same parish facilities and be served by the same clergy. And Griffin Oleynick explores the organizing and activism taking place beyond traditional parish structures—the grassroots efforts to fight with and for marginalized groups, especially immigrants, and the ways such work can generate a vitality and purpose from which many parishes could stand to learn.

We also wanted to offer deeper insights into particular aspects of parish life and give practical suggestions for how to make parishes more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled. So we commissioned a series of shorter, more focused articles: Natalia Imperatori-Lee on preaching, Mollie Wilson O’Reilly on making Mass child friendly, Jason Steidl on LGBTQ ministry, Tia Noelle Pratt on African-American Catholics, and Madeline Jarrett on how parishes can be made more accessible for disabled people. We also interviewed Fr. Hector Madrigal of St. Joseph’s Church in Amarillo, Texas (photos of which are featured throughout), about the practical and pastoral aspects of ministering to a mix of communities under one roof.

What all of these contributions share is humility and hope. They approach the changes happening in the American church as the occasion to learn again what it means to love our neighbors, and as a chance to give up comfort and complacency for a Catholic faith that embraces what God is doing in our midst. The sense of loss and mourning that accompanies the death of a church forged in a different time is acknowledged. But what comes through again and again is a sense of possibility, of resurrection and renewal—that the U.S. church is not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition, a reality we can and should joyfully embrace. 

Closing Shot | Last Supper


Last Supper, 2017

I stay away from the reductive “Who, What, When, Where” of most photographs I make, wanting to preserve their magic and mystery. But this photograph in particular might be exempt from my rule. It was taken at a small Bible-based rehabilitation center in Georgia. One of my family members struggles with addiction, and I’ve always been intrigued by treatment that incorporates the spiritual world. The sun-bleached reproduction of the Last Supper right above the center’s cafeteria table was one of the only pieces of art I saw there. It was a moment when everything lined up right.


An Act of Service

It is not surprising to find Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, invoking Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—the Russian dissident who exposed the Soviet Union’s brutal prison-camp system in his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn, who survived the Gulag himself, bitterly denounced the inhuman ideology of the Eastern Bloc. But he understood that, left unchecked, the commercialism and venality of the capitalist West was also spiritually corrosive. At bottom, he argued, the West shared many of its materialist assumptions with Eastern Communism. This twinned critique has long endeared him to thoughtful conservatives in the United States.

It is frankly shocking, however, to see Reno make use of Solzhenitsyn to undermine recent measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Reno sees a perverse “sentimentalism” at work in the quarantine restrictions and social distancing that have become so prominent in recent days. He thinks state and local authorities who urge us to refrain from much of life’s usual business are really saying that “death’s power must rule our actions.” Satan, he tells us, has been pleased to watch churches bow to the “false god of saving lives” by canceling religious services. And if we want to understand why some things are more important than preserving life, Reno suggests that we look to Solzhenitsyn, who “resolutely rejected the materialist principle of ‘survival at any price.’”

I am no expert on Solzhenitsyn, but I have long been moved by his books—and I recognized this quotation. In fact, it appears in The Gulag Archipelago in the imperative form: “Survive! At any price!!” Solzhenitsyn is describing the mentality of zeks, or Gulag inmates, arriving at camp. This mantra is the “natural splash of a living person,” a spontaneous instinct for self-preservation. But for many zeks it hardened into “an awesome vow.” And “whoever takes that vow, whoever does not blink before its crimson burst—allows his own misfortune to overshadow both the entire common misfortune and the whole world.”

Zeks faced a terrible choice. The most human, natural goods—of life, food and shelter—could only be taken from their fellow inmates. Of course this was the very purpose of the Gulag system, a hellish machine carefully calibrated to degrade and destroy human life. Solzhenitsyn is clear: “‘At any price’ means: at the price of someone else.” Reno, meanwhile, castigates the media and local authorities for seeking to manipulate us with the “fear that we’ll die redoubled by the fear that we’ll cause others to die.” He takes particular exception to the suspension of public Masses, but his pique really appears to be directed at the general inconvenience of quarantine: “Were I to host a small dinner party tonight, wanting to resist the paranoia and hysteria, I would be denounced.”

What a yawning chasm separates the pupil from the teacher! Solzhenitsyn shows us that the essence of materialism is parasitic: survival at the expense of our neighbor defiles the most basic of God’s gifts, life itself. Solzhenitsyn saves his most withering contempt for the zeks who angled for better bunks and rations by betraying other inmates to the camp authorities. Reno, on the other hand, asks us to ignore the doctors, the mayors, the scientists who are begging us to consider our neighbor. These leaders have asked some of us to sacrifice our natural goods—free movement, gainful employment, entertainment—to promote the survival of others. They have asked others of us—doctors, nurses, grocery-store workers—to risk life and health by dutifully continuing to work. If some inmates could choose to live for others even in the cesspools of the Gulag—and Solzhenitsyn shows that some, a precious few, did—how can we decline the same call? In short, Reno has got The Gulag Archipelago exactly wrong.


Make no mistake: these sacrifices are not a surrender to death. They are a sacrifice to the God who gives life.

Today’s quarantine restrictions complement centuries of Christian response to epidemics. The church has always urged the faithful to take every sensible precaution in defense of human life, while continuing to serve God and neighbor. When the plague came to Wittenberg in 1527, other pastors asked Martin Luther if it was proper for a Christian to flee. His response is worth reading today:

If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.

Of course it was wrong to abandon the sick and dying, and Luther himself remained in town to help. Yet he insisted that refusing to make use of “intelligence and medicine” was “not trusting God but tempting him.”

Perhaps Reno, a convert to Catholicism, thinks Luther a doubtful authority. In that case he should look to St. Thomas More, who knew better than most that some things are worse than death: he accepted martyrdom before dishonoring his God, his church, or his own conscience. Yet he also knew, from “more than many” examples in Scripture, that “God hath given us our bodies here to keep, and will that we maintain them to do him service.” Even while awaiting execution in prison, More recognized that “when God sendeth the tempest, he will that the shipmen shall get them to their tackling, and do the best they can for themself, that the seas eat them not up.” In an age of epidemics, More practiced what he preached. As a student, he prudently left Oxford to slow the spread of a plague; but years later, as a royal official, he remained in town to personally direct the city’s quarantine efforts.

Luther and More lived in an era often blighted by pestilence and death, and they both urged Christians to love one another through collective efforts to slow contagion. But they also recognized the tremendous spiritual power of the “remembrance of death” in a time of crisis. Both men were the product of a culture fixated on the “art of dying.” The deathbed manuals of their time instructed the faithful that “whoever thinks always of death does a good work,” and that “every discerning life is a meditation on death.” Reno’s ostensibly theological take on the current outbreak contrasts very unfavorably with this rich tradition. He is so quick to chastise our sudden preoccupation with mortality that he cannot appreciate it for what it is: a chance to contemplate death in community. This may be the first time in generations that the wealthiest nations of the world have experienced a true memento mori—a reminder of life’s transience and fragility.

Ironically, by encouraging us to carry on with business as usual, Reno sends us back into the arms of the very materialism he claims to reject. In the West today, we organize both our working lives and our leisure hours around consumption. We live as if youth, health, and wealth are the default settings of life. Most Christians through the centuries have not had that luxury. Millions today, who worship in the developing world or under the yoke of persecution, have never had it. Why is that when we make the slightest adaptation to our historically unique status quo, canceling concerts and dinner parties to protect the vulnerable, Reno cries foul? What worldview is he really defending?

All human beings tend to mistake the coarse, changeable world of everyday experience for the unchanging and eternal. But twenty-first century Americans may be uniquely susceptible to the illusion that our way of life is a permanent program. We are now confronting a crisis that should shatter that illusion; at least for a time. God willing, this too shall pass—the sick will be treated, parents will return to work, children will reappear in the schoolyards. But the social cost of that recovery may well be enormous and unprecedented.

Few Christians would ask for this cup, but we must drink it—to serve God by serving our neighbors, and to grow closer to God through the contemplation of death. Solzhenitsyn’s mission was not simply to expose the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet regime and the horrors of the Gulag. He was also determined to show how even the most inhuman captivity, the most unjust suffering can move us “in the direction of deepening the soul.” Quarantine is no Gulag, but it is a costly act of service that meets the urgent human needs of our neighbors. That service may involve going to work—at a hospital or a testing center—or staying home. But make no mistake: these sacrifices are not a surrender to death. They are a sacrifice to the God who gives life.

The Theology and Christ-Consolation of Spiritual Communion

The Church has weathered numerous storms throughout her history. Wars, plagues, famines, persecution—all of these are impressed upon the memory of Mother Church, forming her age-old wisdom and inspiring her pastoral concern. One of the ingenious notions developed as a result of these trials is the practice of spiritual communion. The theology of spiritual communion gives us profound insight into the very nature of the Eucharist itself. The Mass (aka the Eucharist) is the source and summit of the Church’s life. As such, it is also the epicenter of Christianity per se. Firstly and most essentially, the Mass is the activity of Jesus offering himself to the Father. In other words, the Eucharist is primarily a sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from two Latin words: sacra, meaning “holy,” and facere, “to make.” The Mass, therefore, is Christ “making holy” his Mystical Body, the Church. It is Jesus, through the hands…

Poem | On a Cardinal Climbing Down a Manhole to Restore Power to 400 Homeless People



We were almost used
To living in the dark,
To being powerless,

That day you quietly
Pulled the lid off the sky
Of a world below

And snuck down, strange
Inside that stale air,
To flip the switch,

Subverting power structures,
Sparking gasps of joy
In us who could not pay

That suffocating debt,
Your dirtied hands declaring,
“Let there be light.”


Teaching & Preaching

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.


Theologians are the worst people to sit next to at Mass. I know, because I am one, and so is my husband. The temptation to over-analyze the liturgy—and to armchair-quarterback the homily in particular—is difficult to resist. I’ve heard homilies that went on too long, relied on inappropriate imagery (hello, gory World War II stories at the children’s Mass), or failed to take the community into account. I’ve been at parishes where week in and week out the homilist grieves the availability of pornography. I’ve sat through more sports-metaphor-dependent homilies than I ever needed to. But complaining about bad preaching is easy, especially since, as a lay woman, I am barred from giving a “homily” in a liturgical setting.

About twenty years ago, when I was a grad student at Notre Dame, one of my professors was lamenting lay students’ relative ignorance of Scripture as compared to his own grad-school cohort. A fellow lay student noted that priests have to engage Scripture daily and weekly in preparation for Sunday Mass. This, over a lifetime, brings an intimacy with scriptural texts that lay people have to foster, if we can, on our own time. The professor, himself a diocesan priest, had never thought about it that way. Barring lay people from preaching deprives us of an opportunity to cultivate a closeness to Scripture that could benefit the whole church.

Over the past few years, I have been asked on several occasions to offer scriptural reflections in a variety of liturgical settings. These opportunities have given me a chance to reflect with empathy on the difficult task of regular preparation of homilies. The struggle is real: I read and reread Scripture, searching for an “in” or a hook; I look at exegetical essays and commentaries; I pray. It takes me weeks to get somewhere with a reading. I’m pained by how harshly I’ve judged the men who have been doing this on a weekly basis for a good portion of their lives. While I regularly deliver public lectures, preaching is a different skill.

Still, the classroom offers lessons that translate well to the pulpit. Both the classroom and the church bring together a community to serve a greater purpose. Both ask speakers and listeners to attend to the other. And both are spaces of learning. Most Catholics don’t have an opportunity to study theology after they are catechized, so the main way they access theological thinking is through weekly Mass. This doesn’t mean that homilies should be theological treatises. It means that homilies, like classroom lectures, require preparation—but also humility and love. 

Homilies, like classroom lectures, require preparation—but also humility and love

When I started teaching, I thought my role was to be a font of information about Catholicism for my students. After all, I had studied a lot of theology and could, if not “set them straight” on what they should know and think, at least nudge them in the right direction. But that was a fool’s errand. Teaching, I came to realize, is as much about learning from students as it is about imparting knowledge. You can have the perfect lesson plan, the perfect lecture, the ideal set of group activities, and the whole thing could flop. Or something can happen on campus that requires you to scrap your plan and start from scratch. As much as I stress coming to class “prepared” as a task for students and professors alike, part of the preparation involves cultivating a willingness to reach the objective in a way other than what you had envisioned. Professors—and preachers—should strive to be nimble.

One Sunday I was at a Spanish Mass at a Midwestern parish that was packed with families, most of whom had small children. There were babies in every row, it seemed. The presider, who was not a native Spanish speaker, launched into a homily about the evils of abortion. I looked around and thought, “Read the room.” He could have made the same point far better by acknowledging how the Holy Spirit was palpable in the cries and coos and chaos of families doing their best to worship together. Instead, he delivered a political diatribe.

[What elements attract parishioners to a parish? See the data here.]

Like professors, preachers should also practice humility. In any endeavor seeking an understanding of God, we have no choice but to recognize our finitude, our inability to fully grasp the incomprehensible mystery, much less communicate it to another. This might seem daunting, but it is truly freeing. We cannot say all that needs to be said; we must trust in the Holy Spirit to move between our words and the hearts of those who listen. But humility is more than a posture. We must take actions that show our humility before God and one another.

One way preachers can practice this kind of humility is by inviting lay people to reflect on Scripture at Mass. A preponderance of evidence indicates that college students learn best from diverse faculty. Having faculty from different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds improves learning outcomes for white and nonwhite students in measurable ways. Learning from those who are different from ourselves expands the list of texts we understand as canonical. It also brings fresh perspectives to canonical texts to which we’ve grown accustomed. This can be true when it comes to Scripture as well. Lay people, including vowed religious, provide perspectives on Scripture that include parts of life that may remain hidden to the clergy. The difficulties of community living, the challenges of child rearing, the pressures of work-life balance, the annoyances of cooking or living with a spouse—all these experiences bring richness to our prayer lives, and can do the same for the church’s public prayer, the liturgy. After all, the scriptures weren’t written by clerics alone. We shouldn’t leave clerics alone to reflect on them every Sunday. Sharing the pulpit with the congregation builds community, engages marginalized voices, and has the potential to energize faith.

The final and most important touchpoint between the classroom and the pulpit is the importance of love. Teaching is an act of love; no professor who has contempt for their students is a successful professor. It may seem a cliché to say that I love my students, but I do. I love their insight and their potential, I love the adults they are becoming, I love their questions and their ability to see through me. I love their self-consciousness and their lack of self-awareness, their passion and their ambivalence. I sincerely want them to experience joy and peace, to experience the God of love.

This must also be true of preachers. A cleric who looks down on the laity cannot be a good preacher, because contempt is the opposite of love. Like teaching, preaching is an act of love, an attempt to break open God’s word in a life-giving way. Only when we approach these tasks with careful preparation, profound humility, and surpassing love can we hope to invite God to speak to God’s people through the preacher’s words.

Or at least make it less likely that I’ll be annoying to sit beside at Mass. 


Together But Apart: Being One, Online, in the Eucharist

Priest of Jesus Christ, celebrate this Holy Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass. —St. Teresa of Kolkata My first experience of the Mass happened on an Easter Sunday, and we arrived right on time, which on that day meant we were ten minutes late. We had to sit in the very back of the balcony. I couldn’t see what was happening on the altar, but I could smell the incense wafting up to the rafters. I could hear the clang of the thurible, and the beautiful hymns rising to heaven. I could feel my heart finally finding its place. When I got into the car with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, my silence was deafening. We pulled into his parents’ driveway and he asked what was going on. I remember him telling me, “You…