Browsing News Entries

A Posada for Central American Migrants

Like Joseph in the Christmas story, the men at Casa Tochán in Mexico City left their homes looking for shelter. But unlike him, these Central American men left their wives and children behind. “For them, to be without a home, to be without their children, it is very similar to what Mary and Joseph experienced,” said Gabriela Hernandez, the director of Casa Tochán, a shelter for immigrants. Before Trump’s brutal anti-immigrant policies, most Central Americans dreamed of going to the United States, but many are now resigned to living in Mexico, a country they know little about. Because of that, Hernandez and her staff decided to hold a posada, a traditional Mexican Christmas celebration. “It is for them to know a part of Mexican culture,” she continued.

Melbin, a Honduran seeking asylum (Joseph Sorrentino)

Most of the men living in Casa Tochán are fleeing from violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—the so-called Northern Triangle Countries, which consistently rank as some of the most dangerous in the world. It’s the first time many of these men will be celebrating Christmas without their families.

The shelter has thirty beds crammed into small rooms spread over three floors. A few simple Christmas decorations are taped to the walls. Late in the afternoon of the posada, volunteers and residents work feverishly to finish the piñatas in one room, while in the kitchen Hernandez and other volunteers and residents prepare the food and ponche, a traditional hot drink made with fruit, cinnamon, and piloncillo (brown sugar). “This is something they may not have in their home country,” said Hernandez as she watched over the ponche.

The atmosphere becomes festive as more guests and volunteers arrive, but there’s also a sadness just below the surface.

A neighbor holds a candle. (Joseph Sorrentino)

Fredy fled Honduras after he was threatened by Mara 18, one of the most vicious gangs in the world. He left behind his wife and son. “This is my second Christmas in Tochán,” he said. “My son is two years old. I last saw him when he was only a few months old. I missed two birthdays, two Christmases.” Santiago, another Honduran, also finds it difficult to be away from loved ones at Christmas. “In one way, it’s good to be here. It’s safe. But it’s also sad because you’re without family.”

A neighbor who joined in the posada (Joseph Sorrentino)
Isabel testing the ponche with Yasiel, a Cuban seeking asylum (Joseph Sorrentino)

When the piñatas are finally finished, everyone piles into the street. Candles are lit and traditional Christmas songs are sung. At first, neighbors watch from doorways but once the piñatas are hung, children rush out to join in the fun, their parents following. After the last piñata is broken open and the candy it held frantically picked up from the asphalt by a scrum of children, the food and ponche are served. Residents and volunteers mingle with neighbors. The men talk, laugh, and balance plates of food, appearing to forget, for a few brief hours, why they are here.

A boy from the neighborhood takes a turn at the piñata. (Joseph Sorrentino)

Papal Fiction

“The most glorious journey can begin with a mistake.” This is the observation made by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the opening scene of Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, as he preaches to throngs of poor people in a Buenos Aires slum. It signals the central themes of the film: change, reconciliation, and hope for the future. The scene, shot on location in Argentina, surges with the energy of the people and the place. A kaleidoscope of color and activity soon settles into a moment of stillness and focused attention as Bergoglio speaks. He stands in the midst of all these people: not above them, but with them. And they are listening.

But what is the mistake? The first possible answer the film offers is that Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) has decided to resign from his position at the head of the church of Buenos Aires. He is tired and weary from the direction that the church is taking, and he wants out. As his repeated letters to Pope Benedict XVI go unanswered, he plans a trip to Rome to press the pope in person to let him retire.

Little does he know that, at the same time, Pope Benedict is contemplating his own resignation. What holds Benedict back from retirement, however, is his fear that Bergoglio might succeed him. In the 2005 conclave at which Benedict was elected, Bergoglio was a serious contender. The public forgot this fact during the conclave of 2013; many presumed that Bergoglio came out of nowhere. But the prospect of Bergoglio’s rise was not lost on Benedict. He kept an eye (and a file) on him. And he didn’t like what he saw: too much willingness to bend the rules and too little respect for tradition. Benedict comes to regard Bergoglio as his nemesis, someone with whom he disagrees so fundamentally that he fears what might happen to the church should the Argentine ascend to the Chair of Peter. Benedict (played by a fine Anthony Hopkins) decides to face his fears. Just as Bergoglio prepares to head to Rome, Benedict summons him for a face-to-face meeting—for his own purposes. “He must have gotten my letter after all,” Bergoglio mutters, not realizing there’s another agenda at play.

This is the stuff of comedy. And indeed The Two Popes is full of humorous bits, arising from the clash of opposites, thwarted expectations, and unexpected convergences. (One laugh-out-loud moment: the soundtrack accompanying the solemn entrance of the cardinals into the Sistine Chapel for the 2005 conclave suddenly blares strains of Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” A hat tip to Frédéric Martel?) Yet it is also a serious affair. The meeting between Benedict and Bergoglio becomes a three-day conversation over which the central drama of the film unfolds.

The first encounter between the two men takes place in a perfectly manicured garden at the pope’s summer residence—a sharp contrast with the rollicking streets of Argentina we’ve just seen. And of course this is a setup. All the clichés concerning the differences between the two popes come tumbling out. Benedict lives in regal isolation. He is stern, even censorious. He is concerned about protecting Tradition and Truth with a capital “T.” In a reminder that the indignities of old age are upon him, Benedict receives commands from his watch to “Keep moving” every time he pauses in his walk. Yet he’s clearly a tough old bird, and his strong will is on full display. Hopkins’s elderly pope knows that change is on the horizon, but he resists it with every fiber of his being.

Pryce’s Bergoglio is the perfect foil for all this. With wit and winsomeness, and aided by an uncanny resemblance to Francis, Pryce quickly helps establish the contrast between his character and Benedict. Bergoglio eschews luxury and lives simply. A true son of Argentina, he’s passionate about soccer and dances the tango. He enjoys his food. Most of all, he enjoys being with people. (At one point, Benedict arrives on the scene and is startled to find that Bergoglio has made friends with the gardener; together they are extolling the merits of oregano.) Throughout, and just as you would expect, Bergoglio wears clunky black shoes and carries his famous, scuffed black briefcase. The briefcase holds his resignation letter, which he will push under the nose of Benedict at every opportunity—a bit of stage business that grows more hilarious each time it is repeated (and it is repeated often). His dogged persistence in carrying out his mission is an indicator of his own strength of will. He does not bend easily.

There is no evidence either that Benedict was particularly anxious about the prospect of Bergoglio stepping into his shoes.

As their encounter progresses, Benedict proceeds to challenge Bergoglio on his record, while Bergoglio puts up a lively defense of his decisions and priorities. The discussion that follows is a quick run-through of matters of philosophical principle on which the two popes are reputed to disagree, or at least to have distinctly different practical approaches. But this is treated simplistically. At no point does The Two Popes become a film of ideas; there is no attempt to chart the nuances of their viewpoints. Meirelles hews firmly to the time-tested formula of setting two opposing personalities against each other.

Yet as they spend more time together, their exchanges become more personal in nature, more intimate, and more human. We learn through flashbacks about how the young Bergoglio decided to become a Jesuit priest. At a point of decision in his life, a chance conversation with a thoughtful priest whom he had never seen before and who, as it happens, was dying of leukemia, tips the balance. Is the unexpected conversation with a kind stranger perhaps the mistake that opens onto a glorious journey?

But the journey is not so glorious. Through flashbacks, we learn about the young Bergoglio (played by the accomplished Argentinian actor Juan Minujín). There are wrenching scenes concerning events that occurred during the dictatorship. Bergoglio was indeed mentored by a communist, a woman at a food chemistry lab whom he deeply respected. Her daughter was abducted by the regime, and she herself was later arrested and killed. We see the mistakes Bergoglio makes after being appointed provincial of his order at an early age. The film depicts the true story of how he ordered two Jesuits out of their frontline ministry among the poor during the Dirty War, out of fear for their safety, and his suspension of them when they refused. What he did not anticipate was that this suspension then would be interpreted as lifting the church’s protection; the two men were soon arrested, detained, and tortured. Many years later, one of these priests forgave him; the other never did. We learn of Bergoglio’s struggle with guilt for not having done more to save those targeted by the regime. We see how he carries within himself his own consciousness of sin and unworthiness as he goes into exile in Córdoba, Argentina, where his community has sent him after a tumultuous and divisive term.

Benedict, who by now has thawed considerably, listens and attempts to console Bergoglio. He confides his own sense of spiritual loneliness, and reveals his decision to resign the papacy. At the end of the scene, Benedict is moved to confess his own sins, and asks for sacramental absolution, which Bergoglio gives him despite being deeply shocked by what he has heard.

The roles are now reversed. Bergoglio forgets about pressing Benedict to accept his resignation as archbishop and tries instead to dissuade Benedict from resigning the papacy. Why? Because tradition demands it! The reformer doesn’t want so much change after all! Meanwhile, Benedict, loses his resistance to the prospect of Bergoglio as his successor. Maybe the man from Buenos Aires is just the person the church needs as pontiff. The defender of tradition becomes the one who breaks with tradition! And so we are to understand that the two men have looked into each other’s hearts with compassion. This changes everything.


All of this, of course, is fiction. Despite the emotionally satisfying resolution of the film, we need to remember that none of this actually happened. The conversation never took place. Confession and forgiveness were neither sought nor received. Benedict never threw his weight behind Bergoglio in the 2013 conclave (according to many journalists, he favored Angelo Scola of Milan and Marc Ouellet of Quebec), and in any case a retiring pope does not choose his successor. There is no evidence either that Benedict was particularly anxious about the prospect of Bergoglio stepping into his shoes, or that he changed his mind in the end. Although Francis has shown great kindness and solicitude toward his predecessor, the two have never become what you’d call buddies.

The most troubling fictionalization, however, is Benedict’s confession to Bergoglio. Meirelles muffles the dialogue, so we don’t actually hear what he says. But it seems we are to believe that Benedict confesses to knowingly reassigning predator priests—something not supported by his actual biography. The admission of guilt is prefaced by a vague reference to Marcial Maciel, the notorious sex abuser who founded the Legionaries of Christ. Ratzinger’s role in that case, however, was quite different from that implied by the movie. Far from enabling Maciel, Ratzinger, in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, strove to have him removed from ministry; it was John Paul II who resisted. As pope, Benedict finally got rid of Maciel, sentencing him to “a life of prayer and penance.”

Did Ratzinger perhaps reassign predator priests while he was archbishop of Munich? Anything is possible, and certainly this sort of thing happened in many dioceses. But it is not a known fact that Benedict did so, and on a topic like this, an admission of guilt is far from a harmless artistic embellishment. This stuff is radioactive.

Obviously, Meirelles wanted to dramatize a relationship in which two men acknowledge their sins and confide in one another about their feelings of unworthiness for the great office they have been called to fill. And many viewers like to see antagonists arrive at forgiveness and reconciliation. The imagined dynamic between the two men is the most engaging aspect of the film, the most hilarious, and also the most meaning-laden—and the confession scene is part of it. Yet to suggest complicity in the sex-abuse scandals without a solid anchor in fact needlessly complicates things. Wasn’t there something that Benedict actually felt remorseful about to depict instead?

Glorious journeys do unfold, despite all of our mistakes. And sometimes, tradition and progress meet—and embrace. That’s the uplifting message of The Two Popes. If only it could happen in real-life Rome.


Dangerous Disconnects?

Conversations about the future of Catholic ministry tend to focus on the new frontiers—think married priests and the female diaconate. By contrast, very little is happening when it comes to reconsidering priestly formation.

At their fall meeting, the U.S. bishops adopted the sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation for U.S. dioceses and religious orders, which doesn’t provide a new model, but represents only a step in the transition to a new model, and thus doesn’t advance things very far. Meanwhile, there’s a good argument from certain quarters of the church that seminarians should receive training on how to work with the lay ministers they’ll be working with once they’re ordained. It’s not just a question of breaking the barriers between the formation of the clergy and the laity. It’s also a matter of calibrating the relationship between seminary formation and what I’ll call the “contemporary world of knowledge.” After the council of Trent, when the seminary model for priestly formation was established, those two things were essentially one and the same. Religion informed the general culture, and it was assumed that seminary candidates came from Christian Catholic families; the seminary was the next step in the development not only of religious knowledge, but also of literacy and the intellect. Today that model is almost inverted. Seminary life is more about personal, psychological, and spiritual formation apart from the contemporary world of knowledge than it is about the preparation of candidates for the significant intellectual challenges of preaching and witnessing the Gospel in a time when the Church faces such strong headwinds.

The problem, in short, is how to provide seminarians with this intellectual formation, and where. In the United States, this inevitably raises the issue of the role of Catholic colleges and universities. In some countries, lay theologians, seminarians, and young priests in formation study together in state universities where there is a faculty of Catholic theology; seminary formation takes place in a seminary building separated from, but close to, the university, and is about community, life of prayer, and training for pastoral ministry. I experienced this twenty years ago, when I was studying in Germany and lived for one year, as a lay student, in the seminary of Tübingen together with Catholic seminarians. This is clearly not the model in the U.S.; public universities don’t have Catholic theology departments, and Catholic colleges have become largely independent from the Church.

Early in 2019, around the time a group of Boston College faculty published their proposal for the reform of seminary formation, Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that “American seminaries are usually in cities and connected to universities, but the mentality of keeping seminarians separate remains. Their classes are often separate from other students.” Now, Catholic colleges and universities can choose to remain uninvolved with the formation of priests, or they can try to be part of the solution—playing some role, with a degree of academic freedom and autonomy from the hierarchical Church. (Here it’s worth recalling that exactly forty years ago, in December 1979, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith withdrew Hans Küng’s permission to teach; he is one of the theologians who has not been rehabilitated during the pontificate of Francis.) The debate on the reform of seminaries should therefore include questions about the future of academia, since the challenges that they face are also challenges for the institutional church.

Where does theology fit in courses of study increasingly built around professional preparation?

First: if seminary formation is too cut off from the real lives of Catholics, then I think (and I realize that I am generalizing here) the same can sometimes be said for academic theology. Yes, there are numerous examples of theologians who clearly have an ecclesial intentionality and do wonderful work for the people of God. It is not an issue of personal intentions, however, but of the systemic position of academic theology in an endangered Catholic intellectual ecosystem, one in which the magisterium and theologians in the academy also have to compete with the “teaching” found on Catholic blogs and websites and various other outlets.  

The institutional Church needs to change its approach to formation and ministry, but academic theology needs to change something as well. The theological academy needs to be in contact with the people who will constitute the coming generations of Catholic clergy and lay ministers. To be clear: theology should not be done only to advise and support the bishops and the magisterium. But total separation is not good, unless Catholic universities want to have no role and no voice in the formation of those who will provide an education in the faith to the Catholic students who keep our Catholic universities going. The question for theology departments on Catholic campuses is today is whether they see themselves with an ecclesial vocation and want to claim some responsibility in the formation of the future clergy (I am referring here to the 2011 document of the International Theological Commission, Theology Today, much more than to John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae).

Second: what’s happening with theology and religion at Catholic colleges and universities is related to what higher education in general is becoming. Universities are themselves now seminaries of a sort for the formation of candidates in the high priesthood of capitalism, and for the minor orders of the service economy. How does this reconcile with the need for Catholic universities to be the locus for constructive theologizing and the transmission of the theological tradition? This is not a liberal or conservative issue, but an issue of viability of academic theology. Theology survives mostly as a piece in the core curriculum of required courses, and even then it’s not so easy to “sell” it as something a student needs. Where does theology (indeed, the other humanities as well) fit in courses of study increasingly built around professional preparation? What is the curricular rationale? How to think about this in a time when world faiths aren’t so much the debate on campus as is the conflict between religious and spiritual worldviews and the “technocratic paradigm” Francis describes in Laudato si’?

Third: Catholic higher education is largely in denial about the fact that we could be in an undeclared process of disestablishment of Catholic theology from Catholic higher education. Catholic academics have every right to critique the inadequacy of seminary formation in the Catholic Church today. We should also be aware that we academics are working in institutions that are, and at a steady pace, getting rid or trying to get rid of theology requirements—not counting the significant number of small Catholic colleges that have closed, are closing, and will close before mid-century. This is already impacting today’s seminarians, who upon their arrival have had much less exposure than their predecessors to theology in an academic setting. At the June 2019 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America, a special session on “Catholic Theology and the Contemporary University” revealed the gap between theology faculty and their administrators. On the one side, today’s Catholic university decision-makers are chosen for their expertise in areas other than theological (this is clearly an understatement). On the other, academics tend to repeat that they are not teachers of the Catechism but professors of theology. This refrain worked at a time when there was a relatively thick understanding of the Catholic tradition among students. This understanding, to put it mildly, can no longer be presumed.

We should be concerned about seminary formation that is isolated from the contemporary culture. We should be equally concerned about the isolation of academic theology that constrains its ecclesial vocation to contribute to the formation of the Church’s ministers. These issues are inextricably related, and thus critical to the future of Catholic clergy, the future of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the future of the Church itself.

More than a Symbol

No signature phrase from the Second Vatican Council is so completely affirmed across the entire theological and political spectrum of the Catholic Church as that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Liberal Catholics are particularly wont to quote it, either in support of the Council’s reform of the liturgy, or in lament that many of the faithful, for want of sufficient numbers of ordained ministers, are deprived of the Eucharist.

That is why the liberal Catholic reaction to recent findings about Catholics’ understanding of the Eucharist is so puzzling. Last summer, the Pew Research Center announced with some fanfare that a recent survey of Americans’ religious knowledge showed that only 31 percent of self-identified Catholics believe that at Mass the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” By contrast, 69 percent told the Pew pollsters that the bread and wine are “symbols” of Christ’s body and blood. Weekly Mass-goers were the only group of Catholics in which a majority (63 percent) chose “actually become” rather than “symbols.”

Naturally the Pew announcement sparked some sharp reactions. As might be expected, conservative Catholic leaders expressed alarm. More surprising, to me at least, was the rush of liberal Catholic commentators to pooh-pooh the findings.

Efforts to explore how ordinary Catholics understand the Eucharist are not new. I myself am responsible for one of them. Twenty-five years ago, when the New York Times was about to conduct a survey of American Catholics, they asked me, as the paper’s senior religion correspondent, for advice. I expressed dissatisfaction with the standard polling that seemed to assume that “hot button” questions about contraception, women’s ordination, priestly celibacy, etc., were an adequate measure of Catholic faith. I urged at least one question about worship. After much discussion about wording we settled on this: “Which of the following comes closest to what you believe takes place at Mass: (1) the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, or (2) the bread and wine are symbolic reminders of Christ.” We hoped that the “comes closest” phrase might cover a multitude of theological subtleties.

The results were not all that different from Pew’s latest. Of all self-identified Catholics, 34 percent said “changed into the body and blood” came closest; 63 percent said “symbolic reminders.” Even weekly Mass-goers favored “symbolic reminders” (51 percent) over “body and blood” (44 percent).

Frankly, those results startled us. They began coming in over a weekend, and the non-Catholic overseeing the survey was so taken aback that she called me at home. Had we made some terrible mistake in the wording? 

Which was of course possible. One friend argued that the Times survey should have included the catechism formula “under the appearances of bread and wine” in its first choice. Similar surveys taken since then have varied in asking whether Christ’s body and blood become “actually” present or “really” present. As far as I can see, the biggest difference emerges between two kinds of questions. The first simply ask Catholics, yes or no, whether they believe the bread and wine are really changed into Christ’s body and blood. The second, like the questions from the Times or Pew, give Catholics a choice of alternative understandings. Very roughly, the first variation reverses the results, with about two-thirds affirming the church’s teaching and one-third not. One might suppose that this, too, should disconcert guardians of church teaching, but it is at least reassuring compared to the Pew findings.

(It should be interjected here that, to my knowledge, we have no measures of ordinary Catholics’ belief about Real Presence before, say, World War II. It is simply assumed that everyone knew and held what the church teaches. I had a good friend in college whose very devout parents were American-born, one of pious Irish immigrants and the other of pious Italian immigrants, but none of these people had been beneficiaries of Catholic schooling. When my friend came home from parochial school and told his parents what he had learned about the Eucharist, they were astonished, even appalled. They made an appointment with the pastor to find out whether what their son had reported was actually church teaching—and therefore true! That may have been an exceptional case. But we don't really know just how people generations back would have answered poll questions about the Eucharist.)

Obviously we should learn more about all this, and CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) has promised a new survey. But will the reactions be any different? I can understand conservatives’ alarm, even if I don’t agree with a number of their remedies. Less understandable is a reaction among liberal Catholics that I have observed over many years: an almost reflexive hostility to disturbing findings about Eucharistic belief and practice.


Let conservatives approve of something and liberals start sniffing for the hidden agenda, probably something to roll back Vatican II.

Consider the lengthy story on the Pew survey in the August 14 National Catholic Reporter. Written by Heidi Schlumpf, it is in many ways an admirable piece of reporting, probing the complexities of polling on this topic and the insights of theologians about the Eucharist. But as so often in news reporting, the key choice was how the reporter defined the “problem” being examined. In this case, the problem was not what Catholics believe about the Eucharist but the poll itself and the alarm it might be stirring, especially in conservative ranks. The headline asks a question, “Do Catholics ‘Actually’ Believe in the Real Presence?” And the subhead replies, “Scholars question recent headline-making survey.”

The story’s first sentence warns that the poll’s “purported” findings “had commentators blaming Communion in the hand, lay Eucharistic ministers, and even the Second Vatican Council.” The article does not cite any such commentators, though I’m sure that, somewhere in the angry corners of the Internet, they exist. Instead the article cites the Episcopal Apologetics-Meister Bishop Robert Barron and Fr. Dwight Longenecker articulating debatable but much less far-fetched reactions.

From there the article turns to “sacramental theologians, liturgists, and pollsters” who contrast Pew’s question to that of other polls and offer other less “dichotomous” ways of viewing terms like “real” and “symbol.” Eventually, the article warns against insisting on church teaching about “transubstantiation”—a word that in fact the Pew question never used.

If Catholics leave Mass “charged with charity, compassion, and justice,” one theologian is quoted as saying, “they’re getting it, even if they are not drawing on the distinctions of Aristotelian substance and accident.” Another theologian advises that Eucharistic change in the bread and wine must serve a larger change in the people. “We are supposed to become the body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for the life of the world. That’s the real change that ultimately matters.”

In the same issue of NCR, executive editor Tom Roberts rolls his eyes at the idea that the Pew findings show “we have to get our catechetical hair on fire.” Schlumpf’s article, he writes, is an antidote to “the breathless indignation of church elders,” e.g., Bishop Barron, “the hip hierarch of evangelizers,” whom Roberts expects to soon be marketing a new video on the Eucharist.

What’s common to these reactions?

1. A scramble to dismiss the poll’s finding as both dubious (“purported”) and insignificant.

2. Immediately situating the findings in the right-left Catholic combat zone, linking them with allegedly extreme conservative hysteria (“hair on fire,” “breathless indignation”) and even opposition to Vatican II.

3. Attributing the low support for “actually becomes the body and blood” to the philosophical difficulties of the Aristotelian-Thomistic language of transubstantiation. 

4. Confidence that, regardless of polls or theological theories, most Catholics “get it” with, in Roberts’s words, “an innate and compelling understanding of real presence.”

5. Subordinating the question of Christ’s presence in the transformed bread and wine to the question of Christ’s presence in the (hopefully) transformed worshipers, who will manifest that transformation in ethical conduct.

Here’s another first-rank liberal Catholic commentator (and friend), the Jesuit Thomas Reese, in his column at Religion News Service. The Pew findings, he writes, have caused “a lot of clerical hand-wringing.” But in fact they represent “an impoverished idea of what the Eucharist is really all about.”

He then launches into a critique of transubstantiation, a 13th-century legacy, he explains, of an era when few Catholics received Communion. Using such Aristotelian terms today “is a fool’s errand,” he declares. “When was the last time you met an Aristotelian outside a Catholic seminary?” (Note to Tom: Actually a number of Aristotelians occupy prominent places in contemporary scholarship.)

Reese does not suggest that Catholics would benefit from some alternative explanations. “I don’t think we have a clue what Jesus meant when he said, ‘This is my body.’ I think we should humbly accept it as a mystery and not pretend we understand it.”

He continues

The Mass is not about adoring Jesus or even praying to Jesus…. We pray to the Father through, with, and in Christ…. The Eucharistic prayer asks that the Spirit transform us so that we can become like Christ…. Ultimately, the Mass is more about us becoming the body of Christ than it is about the bread becoming the body of Christ…. About making us more Christ-like so that we can continue his mission of....bringing justice and peace to the world.

Now I probably suffer from “an impoverished idea of what the Eucharist and the Mass is really all about”—I’m still working on it—and some of that impoverishment is no doubt inherited from all those centuries when peasant Christians didn’t receive Communion and had nothing to do but adore from afar. Yet Reese’s elimination of adoring or even praying to Jesus from his description of the Mass seems exorbitantly severe and sits oddly with texts from the Kyrie to the Communion invitation by way of parts of the Gloria and Sanctus, as well as the Memorial Acclamation and the Agnus Dei. It also seems unduly abstract from human reality in drawing sharp lines between the intimate movements of heart and mind that can be labeled adoration, prayer, thanksgiving, praise, petition, or recommitment. Even if that were not the case, I would hesitate to dismiss the devotional Eucharistic spirituality of all those centuries, however conditioned by cultural circumstances or vulnerable to sentimentality or excessive individualism. 

Nonetheless, Reese’s column is very eloquent, even in the abbreviated form I have presented here. It sparkles with explanatory insights that don’t usually surface in a news service like RNS. A condensed theology of the Mass and its Trinitarian orientation in 750 words. No mean feat. 

But note: it also fits into the framework above. The poll results are denigrated (“an impoverished idea”) and associated with the conservative excess (“clerical hand-wringing”). Whatever might be troubling in the poll’s results stems from what is troubling in the definition of transubstantiation (“using Aristotelian terms…in the 21st century is a fool’s errand”). The need for any intellectual explanation or fancy pants apologetics à la Bishop Barron is rejected out of hand (“I don’t think we have a clue…. We should humbly accept it”). And the focus shifts from the question of the transformation of the bread and wine to the moral transformation of ourselves (“making us more Christ-like so that we can continue…bringing justice and peace to the world”).


Why did liberal Catholics seem so resistant to any possibility that there has been a serious erosion of Catholic belief in the Real Presence?

It was not until early October that I encountered a full-throated conservative reaction to the Pew finding: the September 29–October 12 issue of the National Catholic Register with its 60-point headline, “Eucharistic Wake-Up Call.”

The issue contained no less than fourteen articles on the Eucharist, including articles on the production of hosts and Eucharistic wine and sidebars on Eucharistic miracles, Eucharistic books and DVDs, and Eucharistic papal encyclicals.

Nowhere did I find any outright blaming of the Second Vatican Council, although there was a lot of familiar grumbling about the post-conciliar “spirit” and lack of catechesis. If many of the articles could have fit into my pre-conciliar childhood, they were less dogmatic and more conscious of contemporary challenges to understanding the sacred. Most of the articles were more positive in proposing remedies than negative in targeting enemies.

Not that there weren’t grounds for disagreement. The Register articles were full of references to liturgical reverence but not to liturgical participation. There was a lot about the centrality of the tabernacle but not about the mystery of the altar. The transformation of bread and wine often seemed detached from the drama of salvation through death and resurrection, the Mass less a sacrificial meal ritually memorializing Christ’s Passover than a solemn means to “confect” the Blessed Sacrament, enabling worshipers to adore and implore Jesus, whether briefly entombed in their bodies or more lastingly enthroned in the tabernacle.

So liberal Catholics might well be critical of what could be considered a cramped as well as nostalgically pre-conciliar view of the Eucharist. But why were liberal commentators (and not for the first time) so quick out of the blocks with quips about “hair on fire catechetics” and “clerical hand-wringing”? Why did they seem so resistant to any possibility that there has been a serious erosion of Catholic belief in the Real Presence? Why are they not more bothered by findings like Pew’s, or even less drastic than Pew’s? 


The puzzle is all the greater because over the years I have participated at countless liturgies of large and small groups of overwhelmingly liberal Catholics, and their belief was palpable, their fervor sufficient to energize St. Peter’s Basilica. So here are my own best answers. 

Simple polarization. Let conservatives approve of something and liberals start sniffing for the hidden agenda, probably something to roll back Vatican II. (Conservatives entertain parallel suspicions about anything endorsed by liberals.) To acknowledge that anything at the heart of Catholic belief and practice has eroded since the Council risks handing ammunition to conservative critics. A series of surveys done over many years by William D’Antonio et al. for the National Catholic Reporter always insisted that Catholics were hewing to “core beliefs.” Dissent was limited to questions like contraception, conscience, ordaining women, and so on. An impression of continuity was strengthened by the design of those periodic surveys, which missed the growing number of young people dropping out of the sample in each generation.

Fear of extra-liturgical, para-liturgical, or devotional diversions. The liturgical renewal recentered Catholic spiritual energy on participation in the Mass, after centuries of obstacles to participation had dispersed that energy into devotions, including those surrounding the Blessed Sacrament like Solemn Benediction or Forty-Hours Adoration.

Commitment to social justice and Gospel witness. Do concerns about Catholic belief in the Real Presence reflect an otherworldly, individualistic spirituality of personal salvation? Does so much focus on the sacramental change in the bread and wine eclipse the necessary change in the recipients—and in the world they should be serving?

Naïve or materialist interpretation of Eucharistic change. The history of Christianity has been marked by some strange and distorted understandings of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. “Barbarian” warriors wanting Jesus to lead them into battle put consecrated bread on their lances. Reports of miraculously bleeding hosts have stirred the imaginations of pious but literal Catholics who envision a tiny Jesus, as physical as on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, crouched within or behind the white veiling of the consecrated bread.

These are all legitimate worries, but they strike me as overwrought. Or, if not overwrought, suggestive of the need for precisely the kind of theological explanation or catechesis that liberal commentators have been swift to spurn.

Reflexive polarization needs no rebuttal. As for devotional and para-liturgical backsliding, a half-century after Vatican II the reformed liturgy is well established. Active participation at Mass is not threatened by every silent prayer of veneration before the Tabernacle or celebration of Solemn Benediction. Investigation might even show that fervent participation is increased. This is not a zero-sum game.

That is also true about belief in the Real Presence and commitment to social justice. The erosion of the former hardly means growth in the latter. At Mass the Lord is present, in distinct ways, in the Word proclaimed, the bread and wine transformed, and the congregation sent forth. There is no reason to assume that playing down one of these transforming modes of presence will strengthen another; no reason to think that the risk of otherworldly individualism—or the commitment to justice and healing—is any less among those choosing a “symbolic” understanding of the Eucharist.

Finally, the constant temptation to concretize a spiritual mystery almost to the point of gross superstition or intimations of cannibalism should warn liberals against dismissing rather than pursuing theological reflection about Real Presence. Such theological reflection, and its corresponding catechesis, must be humble about the inevitable limitations of our language and intellects; but “we haven’t got a clue” is no substitute for rethinking our understanding of transubstantiation. An article by Brett Salkeld in a recent issue of Church Life Journal is an enlightening example of such rethinking and a good advertisement for his ecumenically sensitive new book Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity (Baker Academic).


One ray of common sense in this controversy came from Fr. Raymond J. de Souza in that issue of the National Catholic Register. De Souza contrasted the Pew findings about all self-identified Catholics with much higher levels of belief in the Real Presence found by Pew among weekly Mass-goers. Another poll put the figure among the latter at more than nine out of ten.

So in the end is this all about Mass attendance? I have always believed that many pioneering liturgical reformers were overly confident that the renewed, vernacular liturgy would be its own catechesis; consequently, little was required to instruct people in the pews. But the reformers were surely right about belief in the Real Presence. Again and again throughout the Mass, word and gesture proclaim the Real Presence, even more so, I believe, in the renewed liturgy than in the mumbled Latin ones I knew as an altar server. In this sense, Roberts and Reese are probably correct: most Catholics simply “get it,” without any further need for catechesis or theological explication. If, that is, they are regular Mass attenders. As fewer and fewer are.

Father de Souza has further things to say about secularism and the way “the entire sacramental system has lost its hold.” But he ties this in with the challenge of remedying the massive drop in Catholic Mass attendance, about which he offers more common sense: “Successful programs of parish renewal stress a welcoming community, a sense of belonging to a common mission, good music, and good preaching.”

Much easier to spell out that agenda than accomplish it, for a lot of reasons. Still, I cannot imagine liberal Catholics disagreeing. So why should we view possibly disturbing poll findings about belief in the Real Presence as a dubious distraction? Why not as a compelling call for parish renewal, with all the implied challenges for mission, music, and preaching? Why not as a “wake-up call” for bringing people back to the Eucharist?

Expectant Waiting

The first reading for the First Sunday of Advent this year was Isaiah 2:1–5. It speaks of waiting for “days to come” when the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” and they will not “train for war again.”

Like Isaiah, we await a baby in a crib, the birth of the Messiah. And after that Messiah’s Ascension into heaven, Christians again wait for his final coming. This is the richness and beauty of Advent: we’re both waiting for Christmas and preparing for the eschaton (from the Greek for “the end”). By the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the readings will have shifted to focus on the virgin birth (Isaiah 7:10–14) and the Nativity (Matthew 1:18–24). But much of the Advent liturgy, including the Liturgy of the Hours, trains our minds and hearts on waiting for the fullness of Christ’s presence among his people at the end of time.

We aren’t terribly used to waiting any more, at least patiently. We are especially bad at expectant waiting: waiting that is patient, intentional, and eager. Advent is a time to renew this eagerness of waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

What can patient rumination on all these associations bring us? In scripture, one note is struck above all: accord.

Much of the waiting we do experience we think of in the negative—a lack of something that we want. We wait for a bus that isn’t here yet, an apology we think someone owes us. But these things may never materialize: the bus may have broken down, the apology might not be forthcoming. This negative waiting is essentially different from the expectant waiting of Advent, since the virtue of faith assures us that the long-awaited Messiah has already appeared and sent the Holy Spirit as “the pledge of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14). Even our waiting for Christ's return is not a lack, for the “fullness of the one who fills all things in every way” (Ephesians 4:23) is already present in the mystery of Christ’s kingdom, the church. What we truly await is the final revealing, “in power and great glory,” of what is already present in mystery (CCC §671). This pregnant tension between “already” and “not yet” transforms negative waiting into expectant waiting, uncertainty into hope. Rather than the anxiety that too often springs from uncertainty, Advent calls us instead to “rejoice in hope” (Romans 12:12).

What are we to do in this time of Advent, then? What can make our waiting eager and expectant? If we want guidance on waiting for the final fulfillment of our hope, we might turn to the church’s monastic tradition. Monks train their attention, making their lives a sign that “the world and its enticements are passing away” (1 John 2:17). The practices of monastic life train the monk (or anyone who adopts them) to “be attentive...until day dawns and the morning star rises in [their] hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

The monks have one perennial suggestion for how to wait: to ruminate or “chew over” the words of the Scriptures. We do this to internalize them, to taste their full savor, and to enjoy the richness made from taking the Books of the Old Covenant alongside the New, from experiencing them as integral to one another. The monks never grew weary of tasting how rich the associations in the Scriptures were, and Advent is a feast for those with the patience to see the connections as the liturgy of this season unfolds.

In Advent, the Christian assembly takes on the words of the prophets awaiting a better world, the New Zion. We celebrate the Lord as shoot, bud, and root of Jesse; the great King who will save the Daughters of Jerusalem; dew on the fleece of Gideon; Shepherd of Israel; the Prophet of Deuteronomy; the Lamb of God from Exodus; Vinedresser; Prince of Peace. In the ancient O Antiphons that ramp up the final days of Advent, he is the Wisdom of God, the presence in the burning bush, Key of David, Radiant Dawn, Keystone, the Son of the Virgin called Emmanuel, and finally, on Christmas Eve, the Radiant Bridegroom coming from the bridal chamber.

What can patient rumination on all these associations bring us? In these scriptural resonances, one note is struck above all: accord. The fertile tension between “already” and “not yet” in which we live calls us to apprehend this accord with an attentive clarity of spiritual vision. In bringing together the Torah, Judges, the wisdom books, and the prophets with the gospels and the letters of the New Covenant, we discern in our expectant waiting the unity of God’s plan, stretching from before creation to the consummation of all things. With this in mind, we can resist the animosity, rancor, and discord of our world and instead attend to the Lord and his gifts of peace, harmony, and unity that can exist among precious diversity. “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross [through him], whether those on earth or those in heaven” (Colossians 1:19–20). Advent reminds us of this reconciliation and peace flowing from the divine fullness and the most holy sacrifice of the cross, precipitated by the Incarnation at Christmas and brought to its own fullness on the great Last Day.

On the Edges of Empire

Five centuries ago, on Good Friday in 1519, Hernán Cortés and his band of conquistadores landed on the east coast of Mexico. Two years later they conquered the great Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). A decade after that, Our Lady of Guadalupe reportedly appeared to the Indigenous neophyte Juan Diego. She charged him with the mission of communicating to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga her desire that a temple be built on the hill of Tepeyac, originally situated north of Mexico City though today within the bounds of the since-expanded metropolis.

The encounter and clash of the Old and the New Worlds in the Americas set off lively debates in Spain and its colonies on the legitimacy of military conquest and the autonomy and humanity of native peoples. Miguel Sánchez, author of the first Guadalupan theology with his 1648 book Imagen de la Virgen María, mirrored his contemporaries in his Eurocentric interpretation of the Spanish imperial project. Sánchez deemed Guadalupe Spain’s “assistant conqueror” and attested that the “heathenism of the New World” was “conquered with her aid.” His book established an enduring pattern of engaging Old World sacred texts and theological discourse to examine Guadalupe as a New World chapter in the spread of Christianity.

For Indigenous devotees, Guadalupe began as a paradoxical figure. She was a force whom Spaniards engaged to enhance native peoples’ acceptance of colonial rule and missionary efforts, a protagonist in the Spanish efforts to displace Indigenous ways. But she was also a powerful mother and intercessor, a brown-skinned woman who provided continuity with an ancient Nahua worship site at Tepeyac. She worked miracles that alleviated suffering in Indigenous communities amidst the catastrophic effects of European diseases. The fact that natives were the first Guadalupan devotees with an explicit intercessory devotion to Juan Diego, who was not officially canonized until centuries later in 2002, underscores that at its core the apparition story is about Guadalupe’s providential choosing of an Indigenous believer as her emissary.

Nonetheless, preachers who followed in Sánchez’s wake increasingly pronounced triumphalist claims about Mary of Guadalupe’s singular patronage of New Spain. They popularized the association between Guadalupe and the text of Psalm 147:20: “Non fecit taliter omni nationi” (God has not done this for any other nation). Drawing on this legacy, by the early nineteenth century both those struggling for and against Mexican independence displayed hermeneutical savvy in their articulation of Guadalupan and biblical justifications for their conflicting causes. Insurgent priests as well as crown loyalists led troops who fought under Guadalupe’s banner and attributed their victories in battle to her. The year after independence was secured, a preacher at the Guadalupe shrine acclaimed: “Believe me, compatriots: if we have conquered our sovereignty, if we have triumphed over our enemies, if the country of Anahuac [Mexico] breathes liberty, we owe it all to the Virgin of Tepeyac.”

Subsequently, the conviction of Guadalupe’s providential relation with Mexico continued to shape national consciousness. When Mexican prelates secured the authorization of Pope Leo XIII for a canonical coronation of Guadalupe in 1895, the chosen orator for the occasion, Bishop Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona of the diocese of Yucatán, asserted that “Mexican history is Guadalupan history.” Diverging from the claims of his colonial predecessors, he averred that Guadalupe did not abet the Spanish imperial enterprise, but instead forged a new mestizo (mixed-race) people and nation. She halted both the cruelties of the former Aztec rulers and “the horrible and barbaric calamities of the warlike [Spanish] invaders” and “united and constituted into one people the two diverse castes, Indigenous and Spanish, and thus was born the present race that is truly American.” Just like Yahweh accompanied Israel in the Ark of the Covenant and “made from an enslaved people a free and great nation,” Guadalupe was, according to Carrillo y Ancona, the “Ark of the Divine Mexican Covenant” and Mexicans her chosen people.

Guadalupe and Juan Diego reveal a divine plan in which the lowly are entrusted with a mission and the powerful are instructed to accompany them.

Numerous contemporary devotees contend the foundational source for the Guadalupe apparition tradition is the Nahuatl-language Nican mopohua (a title derived from the document’s first words, “here is recounted”), first published in Luis Laso de la Vega’s 1649 treatise Huei tlamahuiçoltica (By a Great Miracle). The narrative hinges on its dramatic reversals. At first only Guadalupe has trust in Juan Diego; by the end, the bishop and his assistants believe he is truly her messenger. At the outset Juan Diego kneels before the bishop; in the end, the stooped indio stands erect while the bishop and his household kneel before him and venerate the image on his tilma (cloak). Throughout the account Juan Diego must journey to the center of the city from Tepeyac some three miles to the north; at the end, the bishop and his entourage accompany Juan Diego to the periphery of Tepeyac, where they will build the temple that Guadalupe requested. Symbolically—and physically—the presence of the ecclesial leadership and the church they are constructing is thus moved from the center of their capital city out to the margins among the Indigenous people.

Echoing insights such as these, theologians today increasingly seek to comprehend Guadalupe through the eyes of Juan Diego. They insist that Guadalupe can only be fully understood through her relationship with the marginalized one who was her partner in achieving her purposes. When preachers and theologians during the colonial and national periods made reference to Juan Diego, they typically presented him as a model for native conversion to Catholicism, or as the symbolic recipient of the heavenly favor bestowed on the people of Mexico. Conversely, their present-day counterparts give substantial attention to Juan Diego as the chosen protagonist of Guadalupe in confronting the plight of the marginalized. Women theologians, who tend to accentuate Guadalupe as a feminine manifestation of strength and liberation, have concurrently emphasized that she emancipates women as she did Juan Diego. These articulations comprise a crucial epistemic shift in the Guadalupe tradition: from this perspective, Guadalupe and Juan Diego reveal a divine plan in which the lowly are entrusted with a mission and the powerful are instructed to accompany them. Through the eyes of Juan Diego, the ultimate significance of the Nican mopohua and the wider Guadalupe tradition is discovered in the way they are lived out among the poor today.

Pope Francis reinforced this perspective in his 2016 visit to the Guadalupe shrine at Tepeyac. He avowed that, as Mary had made her visitation to her kinswoman Elizabeth, so too she “wished also to come to the inhabitants of these American lands through the person of the Indian St. Juan Diego.” The pope explained that the “preferential” love offered through Juan Diego “was not against anyone but rather in favor of everyone.” He urged his audience to realize that in “visiting this Shrine, the same things that happened to Juan Diego can also happen to us.” Then he commissioned them in the name of Our Lady of Guadalupe to be the Juan Diegos of today: “Today, she sends us out anew; as she did Juancito, today, she comes to tell us again: be my ambassador, the one I send to build many new shrines, accompany many lives, wipe away many tears…. Go and build my shrine, help me to lift up the lives of my sons and daughters, who are your brothers and sisters.”

The evolving understanding of Guadalupe parallels the evolving story of the Americas, or as Pope John Paul II put it in his 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, the story of “America,” an intentional use of the singular to underscore “all that is common to the peoples of the continent.” Historical events addressed through the theologies and tradition of Guadalupe—conquest, attempts to Christianize natives, society-building, racial mixing, independence, and the demands for justice for marginalized groups—were not only momentous occurrences in Mexico. They marked the history of nations throughout the American hemisphere. Similarly, the historical trajectory of understanding Guadalupe’s meaning provides an incisive interpretive key for assessing the past and present of Christianity and human flourishing in America.


Guadalupe demands we denounce false narratives that dehumanize, and listen instead to the cries and the wisdom of her struggling children.

We in the United States would do well to reexamine our own national history and current state through the lens of the Guadalupe tradition, as Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso did in his recent pastoral letter Night Will Be No More. Issued on the vigil of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and at the Jornada por la Justicia national gathering of the Hope Border Institute and the Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition in October 2019, the pastoral letter also followed upon the massacre of twenty-two people at a Walmart in El Paso last August. Bishop Seitz addresses “the legacy of hate and white supremacy.” He testifies to the colonial conquest and exploitation of Indigenous peoples. He confesses with sadness the complicity of Catholics and church leaders in that oppression and in the deadly effects of institutionalized racism that subsequently plagued what is now the Southwest. He deplores the suffering of immigrants such as the Irish and Chinese, the Manifest Destiny ideology that drove the expansion of the United States, and the brutal treatment of Indigenous, African-American, and ethnic Mexican populations in Texas through the dispossession of lands and communities, enslavement, segregation, disenfranchisement, worker exploitation, and lynching. The El Paso Walmart massacre and the current xenophobic atmosphere of our nation must be comprehended within this history of racism.

Yet Bishop Seitz accentuates that “the people of the borderlands are not victims.” They are a resilient and dignified people who have created community across borders, formed generations of leaders, and struggled to build a more just society. As she did with Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe has enabled them to confront the forces of dehumanization and embrace the mission to transform and humanize the world. Marveling at the ongoing capacity of Guadalupe to uplift her daughters and sons, Bishop Seitz states: “Only a woman such as this young, brown, mestiza empress, born on the edges of empire and who revealed herself anew on the edges of empire, could have convinced our people of the nearness and tenderness of God.” He calls for a new flourishing of leaders who empower the victimized and not only avoid the evil of racism, but actively combat it in solidarity with those it afflicts.

A critical appropriation of our American history is foundational for renewing hope and enacting transformation. Marginalized groups in particular have been, in Bishop Seitz’s words, “deprived of the narratives, land and religious traditions that gave their life consistency and meaning” and assailed with “new racialized narratives for self-understanding [that] were forced upon them.” Consciously or not, racialized narratives of colonial conquest and Manifest Destiny justify white privilege, incite uncritical nationalism, and fracture human dignity. It is no surprise that numerous devotees in El Paso and beyond, especially those of marginal status, resonate with a rival story: Juan Diego’s interactions with a loving mother, his election as an unexpected hero, his rejection, his unwavering faith, and his final vindication. Their fervent devotion intimates that for them this is the true story and hope of America. It reveals the truth of their human dignity and exposes the lie of experiences that diminish their fundamental sense of worth. It calls them to be leaders in confronting injustice and transforming church and society. It reminds the privileged that, like Bishop Zumárraga, Guadalupe demands we denounce false narratives that dehumanize, and listen instead to the cries and the wisdom of her struggling children.


Against Bourgeois Religion

The German theologian Johann Baptist Metz, who died on December 2 at the age of ninety-one, was born in Bavaria, served briefly as a sixteen-year-old in the Wehrmacht during the closing days of World War II, and spent several months in a POW camp in the eastern United States. He studied theology in Bamberg, Munich, and Innsbruck, and was ordained a priest in 1954. It was in Innsbruck that he became the student and collaborator of Karl Rahner. After completion of his studies, which included a doctoral dissertation on Thomas Aquinas, and a few years in pastoral ministry, he took up an academic position at the University of Münster in 1963, where he remained for the next thirty years, until his retirement.

Metz was one of the founders of the journal Concilium, which is often associated with the liberal or progressive wing of the post-conciliar church, but he was not so easily pigeonholed. He was deeply sympathetic to liberation theology and a politically engaged Christianity, critical of the excessive centralization in the church that he saw under Pope John Paul II, and rejected any “backward glancing vision which longs for a pre-Reformation Western Christianity.” At the same time, Metz was not afraid to criticize other theologians who were identified as progressives, whether this was Rahner’s theory of “anonymous Christianity” or the Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s notion of divine suffering. At the end of the day, Metz was more interested in theological arguments than theological parties. When then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who as archbishop of Munich had blocked Metz’s appointment to the university there in 1979) was invited to an academic symposium that was to mark Metz’s seventieth birthday, Hans Küng issued a public broadside denouncing Metz for having sold out to the ecclesiastical powers-that-be by agreeing to share a stage with the “Grand Inquisitor.” Metz is reported to have commented tartly, “Sometimes Küng conducts himself like a second magisterium. To tell you the truth, one is enough, at least for me.”

On a deeper level, it is difficult to identify Metz as a “progressive” because he was so skeptical of the notion of progress itself. For Metz, human history is riven with catastrophe and interruption. Like many German intellectuals of his generation, he was haunted by the specter of Auschwitz—not only by the fact that a putatively “advanced” culture like Germany had perpetrated such barbarity, but also by the knowledge that the people of his own deeply Catholic Bavarian village (including his own mother) had “not known” about a concentration camp a mere thirty miles away. He recalled asking himself “what sort of faith it must have been that allowed us to go on believing undisturbed during the Nazi time.” He came to identify this sort of Christianity as “bourgeois religion,” a religion that identifies the kingdom of God as the evolutionary outcome of human culture and not as the disturbing apocalyptic event that crashes into history. Wielding the unfashionable sword of the apocalyptic, which had been dismissed by other German theologians as the primitive garb in which true Christian eschatology wrapped itself, Metz skewered the pretensions of the comfortable Christianity that is “rid of danger but also rid of consolation.”

The dangerous memory of Jesus crucified and risen, carried by the traditions of the church, is the subversion of all bourgeois religion.

For Metz, the chief source of both danger and consolation in Christianity was Jesus himself. Metz often quoted an apocryphal saying of Jesus that is recorded by Origen: “Who is close to me is close to the fire; who is far from me is far from the Kingdom.” Metz noted, “It is dangerous to be close to Jesus, it threatens to set us afire, to consume us. And only in the face of this danger does the vision of the Kingdom of God that has come near in him light up.” The dangerous memory of Jesus crucified and risen, carried by the traditions of the church (albeit in sometimes subterranean ways), is the subversion of all bourgeois religion. This memory also presses Christians, in imitation of the one whom they follow, to recognize that their way of life is not simply coextensive with the highest aspirations of modernity, and that they will often be rejected by the world, whether through mockery or suppression. But for Metz it is only in the face of such danger that consolation can be found, and a church that flees such danger, as so much modern Christianity does, is far from Jesus and therefore far from the joy of God’s kingdom: “The present misery of our Christianity is not that we are considered as fools and rebels too often, but rather, practically never.”

Like his mentor Rahner, Metz was more an essayist than a writer of books. But while one often senses that Rahner’s essays were straining toward some grander systematic synthesis, Metz’s writing stubbornly resists such ambitions. Indeed, not only were Metz’s books quite clearly collections of essay, the essays themselves often seemed like collections of aphorisms. In style, and perhaps in content, he is closer to the book of Ecclesiastes, Pascal, and Walter Benjamin than to Rahner. His chief contribution to theology is not so much a system, or even a set of positions, but a body of lapidary phrases that haunt and disturb theological discourse: “dangerous memory,” “interruption,” “bourgeois religion,” “the cult of the makeable.” These phrases raise more questions than answers, which is only fitting given that Metz believed that “theology is a culture of questions, not of answers.” Metz enacted in the very form of his theology his principled rejection of any theological impulse to adopt a totalizing view of history.

I don’t think that any future theologians will be “Metzians” in the way that one might be a “Thomist” or a “Rahnerian.” Metz simply did not aspire to be that sort of theologian. But it is difficult to imagine that future theologians who read him will not think differently about the apocalyptic character of history, will not ask difficult questions about bourgeois religion, will not feel more deeply the danger and consolation of the memory of Jesus. And that is a worthy legacy for any theologian.


The World of the Crusades

Catholic schools used to—do they still?—nickname their athletic teams “Crusaders.” Jefferson spoke of a “crusade against ignorance.” Eisenhower called his World War II memoir Crusade in Europe. In recent decades we have had crusades against crime, drugs, and poverty, to name just a few targets. George W. Bush proclaimed a crusade against terror. The word generally had a positive valence. But now, among groups as diverse as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Western progressives, the word is a slur. John Paul II even apologized for the Fourth Crusade (1215) that, instead of liberating Jerusalem, captured Constantinople. In recent years xenophobic crackpots of the so-called alt-right have embraced the crusades.

So what is a crusade, what were the crusades? In bare essentials, the crusades were a series of wars waged by European Christians against Muslims and pagans, and also against fellow Christians, in the Levant, of course, but also in Iberia, Italy, Southern France, the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Baltic. The so-called First Crusade—medieval people did not number the crusades; modern writers do—was preached in 1095 by Urban II, launched in 1096, and completed in 1099. The last crusade that met the technical requirements for crusading (see below) was launched by Pius II in 1463. Struggles against the Ottoman Turks down to the end of the seventeenth century bore some stamps of crusading. The crusades were, thus, the longest-lived phenomenon of the medieval Catholic world. It would be fair to guess that the crusades are one of the few things most people would mention if asked to say something about the Middle Ages.

With the death in 2016 of the Cambridge scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith, Christopher Tyerman assumed, by merit not by default, leadership among the world’s historians of the crusades. He is prolific. Readers of the book under review may wonder how it compares to his 2006 God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, which tipped the scales at 1,024 pages. The World of the Crusades is only half as long but it retains many features of the longer study. Both are based on a sovereign command of both sources and scholarship, and both seem to be addressed to general audiences more than to fellow specialists. Tyerman never argues with other scholars in his text and rarely does so in his notes. World moves at a livelier clip than God’s War and is more engagingly written. It is also festooned with features that will entertain and inform all readers: 161 images, almost all in color; seventeen maps; and thirty-nine essays of two to four pages called “The Crusades in Detail.” These treat, to pick just a few examples, Women and the Crusades, Plunder and Booty, Castles in Outremer, Paying Crusaders, Food and Drink, The Sociology of Crusading: Who Went?, The Children’s Crusade, and Medicine. Reading this book is as pleasurable as it is informative. I have been reading and teaching medieval history for fifty years. I wish I had cut my teeth on this book instead of Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades (1951–54).

Three themes run all the way through this book (and inform God’s War as well). The first is that the inception of the crusades drew upon a reservoir of enthusiasm for Holy War that persisted, now waxing, now waning, for some seven centuries. That enthusiasm was, at its core, fundamentally religious. The second is that each crusade can best be understood when set into its economic, social, political, and ecclesiastical context. The third is that geography matters: cascading turbulence in Western and Southern Europe, the Middle East, and the Baltic must be understood if the crusades are to be understood. Themes two and three generate Tyerman’s “world.” A further difference between God’s War and World is that the world is more central in the latter and war, in minute detail, more central in the former. Readers who want a blow-by-blow account of each crusading campaign will be happier with War.


Crusaders were not holy solitaries. They had to fit into dense networks of political and familial relationships.

Tyerman’s approach is basically chronological but only the First and Third Crusades (1187) get their own chapters. All the other crusades are embedded in chapters dealing with the three themes enumerated above. The book defies any attempt at brief summation. Tyerman begins by warning against the binary of Christian vs. Muslim, an excessive focus on the Holy Land, a perception of civilizational strife, and any attempt to relate the crusades to modern Palestine. Christians waged war in God’s name in Roman times, in the age of Charlemagne, and in tenth-century Germany. In the late eleventh century something new happened or perhaps more accurately coalesced: what we call the crusades. A crusade proper was always marked by specific preaching, vows, taking the cross, and concrete benefits. These benefits were both religious (remission of the temporal punishment for sin and later of sin itself) and secular (suspension of debts and lawsuits, and financial privileges, for example). Crusaders were crucesignati, signed by the cross, but there was never a single name for them or for the movement in which they participated. Crusade never achieved a specific sacramental or juristic definition. “Crusade,” in English and in other languages, is an eighteenth-century word.

A few of Tyerman’s general points are worth attention. Every crusade reveals elements of extraordinary planning, organization, and execution, all of which are themselves revealing of the growing sophistication of medieval society and government. Crusades were fantastically expensive and over time generated inventive means of financing them. Crusaders were not holy solitaries. They had to fit into dense networks of political and familial relationships. They were lords or vassals, and maybe both. They had fathers, sons, wives, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews. Any one crusader’s vow could have an impact on a considerable number of people. Crusaders generally belonged to the political and social elite but crusades needed cooks, dog-handlers, farriers, grooms, stewards, notaries, laundresses, physicians, minstrels, and prostitutes. Crusading armies were motley crews. Most crusaders were paid; they were not romantic idealists. Every crusade was both more and less than a religious war. No one had a monopoly on brutality. No matter one’s vantage point, any one crusade or the movement as a whole provides a privileged view of the medieval world.

Tyerman concludes by bringing the story down to our own times. He does this in two ways. Beginning with Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (1580–81), which turned Godfrey of Boullon’s First Crusade into a chivalric romance, Tyerman discusses writers such as Walter Scott, Edward Gibbon, Chateaubriand, various romantics, Nazis, Fascists, and some recent scholars, Marxists, pious Catholics, and secular historians; painters from Tintoretto to Delacroix; and composers from Monteverdi to Dvořák. His aim is to show how and why the crusades have been kept alive in modern memory. Second, he asks “Do the Crusades Matter?” That is a pretty good question for any historian to ask about his or her subject. He gives several answers, all in the affirmative. If historians in the past were primarily interested in politics, war, diplomacy, and “great men,” then today they are much more interested in memory, memorialization, interfaith and cross-cultural relations, race, popular religion, identity, and gender. The student of the crusades can productively follow any of those threads. Whether one admires or despises the religious faith that impelled countless thousands of people over several centuries to go to war, the fundamental question of human motivation is on vivid display in the crusades. The modern political maps of Iberia and of the eastern Baltic make sense in light of the crusades. From 1495 to 1717 the Holy League—in a set of military campaigns that weren’t quite crusades—fought and defeated the Ottomans. Venetian imperial and commercial opportunism is still on display in Istanbul and has complicated matters in the Adriatic, especially in Istria and Dalmatia, until now. In the end, the Lebanese Maronite Church, united with the papacy in 1181, is the sole surviving remnant of the crusader states in the eastern Mediterranean. Georges Duby’s famous quip that the sole contribution of the crusades to Europe was the apricot must be taken tongue-in-cheek.

The World of the Crusades
An Illustrated History

Christopher Tyerman
Yale University Press $35, 520 pp.


Behold the Child

In the Christ child, God chose to need us. This is the message of Christmas: the profound vulnerability of the divine as it divests itself of glory in order to assume the form of a fragile creature—and a baby at that.

But babies grow up, and so did Jesus. From youth to adulthood he progressed, and as he grew in wisdom and stature he left behind childish ways. Indeed, he asserted his adult prerogatives regularly: by distancing himself from his parents in the temple, making a whip and driving out moneychangers, excoriating the religious leaders of his day, taking charge and raising the dead when the time was right. Behold Christ the man.

Does that mean his childhood was left behind as a mere stepping stone for the serious adult business of the redemption of the world? No. If we believe that Jesus is the revelation of the Father, then he must be so at every stage of his life, and we have good reason to think that the first years of Christ’s life occupy a privileged place in our interpretation of the rest of the Gospel story.

This may seem like a counterintuitive claim: How can Christ’s childhood, which is not even mentioned in the gospels of Mark and John, hold such theological weight? But the fact is that Christ repeatedly privileges childhood as the defining mark of redeemed—and thus true—humanity: “Unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3); “To such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). The gospels clearly teach that Christ came to make us children again. And that means we cannot understand the Incarnation properly if we miss that Christ the man never ceased to be Christ the child.

To claim God’s weakness is ultimately to own the inefficiency of a child in God’s providential ways.

Consider the neediness of a child. Throughout Christ’s entire adult ministry we see that he retains this disposition as a daily reality: he depends on the financial contributions of the women who travel with him (Luke 8:1–3); he has no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20); indeed, there is no pillow even for his final sleep, and had it not been for the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, Christ would have been buried in a criminals’ pit. How similar all of this is to Jesus’ infancy, when a humble stable proved to be his first home. And just as he was swaddled as a baby by his mother Mary, so he would be swaddled by her after his death.

What of the Passion itself, in which Christ was led, like a child, where he “wouldst not” (John 21:18)? In every moment of his Passion he exhibited the vulnerability of childhood. He pleaded with his Father before his death, asking not to die while freely submitting to the Spirit’s illumination of God’s will. In his confrontation with Pilate, he refused to claim his rightful throne in the manner of the kings of this world, and was instead robed in scorn and crowned with thorns. In the end, he returned to the nakedness of his first days. Behold Christ the child.

Our Lord is truly meek and mild—and hidden like so many children who go unnoticed by us. His most obscure birth would be matched by an equally shrouded rebirth, his barely noted resurrection. Christ remains the invisible child in his ascended reign, concealed in the church’s sacraments and awaiting our response to his grace.

It should therefore come as no surprise that when we seek to encounter Christ today, we find him chiefly in the needy and helpless of this world. The Christ we meet in the vulnerable is the child Christ and none other. The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, prisoners, refugees, the sick, and, of course, children themselves—all these carry in their bodies the vulnerability and dependency that never leave us, the openness to wounds and to love that is the privilege and risk of the child.

Children may be weak, helpless, needy, but they are not quiet: they demand the love that rightly belongs to them, the care, the affection, the embrace that will satisfy their small but capacious hearts. This cry of the Christ child is the weakness of God that St. Paul speaks of, and we are reminded of it every day by all the sorrows and disasters that befall us without heaven’s interference. Some of these take place on the world stage, others in the smaller theaters of our own communities: spouses divorcing, children abused and neglected, jobs lost, friends suffering from chronic illnesses that suffuse every conscious moment with pain—all these will not be overcome by the strong God, the God who storms in and brings justice to the brokenhearted in one fell swoop. I want my God to make bread from these stones, these stumbling blocks placed everywhere in life’s path. And yet my prayers for myself and for those I love rarely effect the visible change I desire. To claim God’s weakness is ultimately to own the inefficiency of a child in God’s providential ways.

Yet children can also break our hearts. And when our hearts break, the hardened soil is prepared to receive the good news of ultimately victorious love, which the Sower casts far and wide. If we come near to the suffering Christ child in our midst, if we pick him up and hold him, he will water our hearts with his tears; up will grow the fruits of faith, hope, and love. And if we, as the Christmas hymn invites us, “come to own him” this season, he will come to own us too, and we will know his strength—the strength of a child who grasps us by the neck and will not let us go.


Fallen Priests

Speaking about the church’s sex-abuse scandal at a September conference on the “Catholic Imagination” at Loyola University in Chicago, the essayist Richard Rodriguez said a very brave thing. “What do we know about these priests? We know nothing about the burden of these fallen priests,” Rodriguez said, according to articles in the National Catholic Reporter. “We don’t know their stories. What do they think they were doing?…. We have no idea who they were, or what they suffered…. Our imaginations have gone dull.”

Evidently Rodriguez’s remarks were prompted to some extent by the 2016 death of his friend, the Notre Dame theologian Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo had been accused of abusing a minor, and appears to have committed suicide. He had denied the charges.

Rodriguez was criticized by some for showing concern and even sympathy for priests most people regard as monsters deserving nothing but condemnation and social oblivion. Such priests, and the bishops who hid their crimes, remain exhibit Number 1 in the case against a corrupt, hopelessly patriarchal, and arrogant institution. Who, after all, wants to be seen expressing interest in such people, let alone offering them comfort? Doesn’t doing so just retraumatize victims?

The wishes, well-being, and confidentiality of victims need to be placed first and foremost. But does that mean we have nothing to learn from the offending priests about the causes and consequences of the crisis? Criticism of Rodriguez seems misplaced to me. It took real courage for Jason Berry to break the sexual-abuse story in Louisiana in 1985. Early on, Thomas Doyle, OP, showed the same fearless determination in demanding that the hierarchy stop turning a blind eye to the victims and the crisis. In 2002, the Boston Globe took risks in exposing the grotesque failure of Cardinal Bernard Law and the Boston archdiocese. But at this late date, simply damning the church is too easy, especially in light of the well-documented steps the church has since taken to protect children. Rodriguez makes an important point. Is it possible to understand the sexual abuse if the stories of priest-abusers are regarded as untouchable and irrelevant? Will such ignorance help us prevent future abuse? Don’t journalists have an obligation to pursue such stories, no matter how unpalatable?

If we allow disgust to keep us from hearing such stories, we are protecting no one but ourselves.

What Rodriguez appears to be calling for on an imaginative level is no different from what Truman Capote accomplished by writing In Cold Blood. In order to make some sense of the brutal and seemingly motiveless murders of the Clutter family, Capote had to show who the murderers were. He didn’t diminish their culpability or the horror of the crime; he painted a broader and deeper picture of the tragic collision between two different sides of 1950s American life, each largely and tragically ignorant of the other.

Andrew O’Hagan does something similar in Be Near Me, a novel about a priest who violates sexual boundaries with an adolescent. O’Hagan complicates, but doesn’t absolve his protagonist’s actions. As Hilary Mantel wrote in her review in the Guardian, Be Near Me “is a nuanced, intense and complex treatment of a sad and simple story. Read it twice.”

Earlier this year, I received an email from a priest who has long been confined to restricted ministry because of his sexual abuse of a minor. He and some priest colleagues have been trying to launch a project that would complicate what he calls the “dominant narrative” of the clergy-abuse story. I told him that in the current climate he was not going to have much luck on that score. Some aspects of what he was proposing seemed morally evasive—for example, describing pedophilia as a “public-health problem.” But he was right to insist that the actions of Catholic priests cannot be understood without taking into account the much larger societal problem of sexual abuse. No institution that deals with adolescents and children is immune, and there is little evidence that the Catholic Church was worse than other organizations in this regard. Unfortunately, there is also no evidence that it was any better.

My email correspondent’s proposal relied on the often-neglected John Jay reports commissioned by the bishops. “What do the reports tell us about the psychological states of the offending clergy, their seminary formation, their understanding of their offenses, and the contextual causes of their offending?” he writes. “Did offenses result more from ignorance and weakness or from clerical power and arrogance…. What do we have to learn from listening to the offenders themselves?” Research into the harms done to victims, he notes, did not begin until the late 1970s. Did most abusers have an understanding of the damage they were doing? Paraphrasing the John Jay reports, he writes, “The abusive clergy were in many ways adolescents themselves, and most of their offenses consisted of fumbling efforts at intimacy.” Most abusers were not serial predators: more than half of them were alleged to have had one victim.

As Peter Steinfels has written, the John Jay reports raise serious questions about what my correspondent called the “dominant narrative,” which casts the typical offender as a serial rapist who acted out of power and arrogance. I have some personal knowledge of two priests accused of sexual abuse. One was a friend from graduate school. Accused, he readily confessed to having abused an adolescent boy and was eventually laicized. What did he think he was doing? My few attempts to contact him over the past seventeen years have been futile. Though he was in his twenties when the abuse occurred, my sense is that in many ways he was an adolescent himself, psychologically immature and sexually confused. It seems possible that he acted out of weakness, ignorance, and misplaced affection. But that is speculation on my part. It would be helpful to hear his story.

The other case concerns a deceased priest who was in all likelihood motivated by power and arrogance. But I can’t be sure. As Richard Rodriguez urges, it would be good to know more about both stories, provided of course that the privacy of victims is protected. If we allow disgust to keep us from hearing such stories, we are protecting no one but ourselves.