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A New Cardinal in D.C.

On November 28, Archbishop of Washington Wilton Gregory became the first African-American cardinal in a socially distanced ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His appointment by Pope Francis comes during a period of political discord and renewed attention to racial injustice in the United States. Gregory said that his appointment was “a sign to the African-American community that the Catholic Church has a great reverence, respect and esteem for the people, for my people of color.”

Born in 1947, Gregory was raised in Chicago and attended St. Carthage Grammar School, where he converted to Catholicism at the age of eleven. He was so impressed by the priests at his school that, according to his sister, he wanted to be a priest even before he was a Catholic. He was ordained in 1973 and went on to serve as a bishop in Belleville, Illinois, and as an archbishop in Atlanta. He is still the only Black archbishop in the United States. 

Gregory has been a healing presence in a diocese still recovering from the wounds of the sexual-abuse crisis.

Gregory was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001, just as the sexual-abuse crisis began to make headlines in Boston and elsewhere. As president of the USCCB, he oversaw the groundbreaking document “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which established procedures for handling sexual-abuse allegations and set a “zero-tolerance” policy for priests found guilty of abuse. When Pope Francis appointed Gregory  the seventh archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington in 2019, the area was still reeling from a new round of the sexual-abuse crisis. The previous cardinal, Donald Wuerl, had resigned amid the fallout from a Pennsylvania grand-jury report that accused him of mishandling clerical sex-abuse cases when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh. Wuerl’s predecessor, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked after Rome received credible reports that he had sexually abused minors for years. “It’s not about the structures of the Church, it’s about the mistakes, the awful bad judgments that the Church made in not focusing on the people that had been harmed,” Gregory said in an interview with CNN. “We were so intent on caring about the clerics, priests, or bishops, that we did not see that the biggest pain to be endured was endured by the people that were hurt.”

As archbishop of Washington, an area that includes the District of Columbia and surrounding Maryland suburbs, Gregory has been a healing presence in a diocese still recovering from the wounds of the sexual-abuse crisis. He’s also been an outspoken voice on racial justice. “We are at a pivotal juncture in our country’s struggle for racial justice and national harmony,” he said at a Mass last summer in honor of the fifty-seventh anniversary of the March on Washington. He publicly criticized the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington D.C. for allowing Donald Trump to use it as a backdrop the day after police cleared protestors with tear gas so that the president could pose with a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused,” Gregory said. 

In an archdiocese where roughly 13 percent of Catholics are Black, Gregory’s appointment is a cause for celebration. “We finally have someone who looks like me, who grew up like me and can embrace his African-American heritage,” said Rev. Everett Pearson of Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Forestville, Maryland. “We’ve now got an opportunity to at least come to the table.” 


Time in the Eternal City

Early in 2020, before the pandemic, I told a former colleague that I’d just gotten back from spending a few weeks in Rome over Christmas. He shot back, “And you’re still a Catholic? It’s a miracle.” This was my first trip to Rome, and I’ve never fallen for a city so hopelessly and so quickly. But it was impossible not to be struck by all the reminders of the Church’s embrace of worldly power and riches. And when I told an old friend of mine, a gay Catholic with perhaps the most jaundiced view of the Church of anyone I’ve ever met, where I was spending the holidays, he snapped that it was only after seeing Rome that he knew why the Reformation had to happen, and why the severity and piety of Spanish Catholicism was the heart of the Counter-Reformation. I understood what he meant.

Similar thoughts crossed my mind during an afternoon at the Galleria Borghese, the spectacular collection of art housed in what was once the Villa Borghese Pinciana. It was started by Scipione Borghese—that is, Cardinal Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. He was his uncle’s secretary, and used that position to amass a fortune. If that raises doubts about his virtue, there’s no doubt that his patronage of Caravaggio and Bernini speaks well of his taste. Still, I couldn’t help but feel the occasional pang of shame as I walked through room after room of stunning paintings and sculptures bought with the toil of so many poor Catholics.

The memories of such art, and the memories of beautiful churches, ancient ruins, and more, remain fresh with me. Now, though, when I look back at my time in Rome it’s transformed by the coronavirus. I wistfully recall being packed into tiny restaurants, or huddling with a friend at a bar, or walking shoulder to shoulder, maskless, down the city’s narrow streets. I’m haunted by how often I heard that it was a brutal flu season in Rome, and I wonder what made me sick my last few days there—a cough drier than any I’ve ever had, one I couldn’t shake, that occasionally left me lightheaded and taking chills. Conversations and sensations have taken on new meaning since I read that epidemiologists now believe the virus was in Italy as early as the beginning of last December.

Rome feels like a place where I was just yesterday, but impossibly far away—a place from a time when we lived differently.

Rome feels like a place where I was just yesterday, but impossibly far away—a place from a time when we lived differently. What I feel when I go back there in my mind is warmth: the warmth of the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, the warmth of the heaters as we sat outside, the warmth of mulled wine on New Year’s Eve. Most of all, I remember the warmth of Rome’s churches, the feeling of stepping in from the cold and seeing a candle flickering against stone. Maybe this is because I was raised in Baptist churches, with their bare white walls, carpeted floors, and empty crosses—places built on the belief that God could never be found in, or through, things. But it was just that possibility that made me Catholic.

One Saturday evening while walking through Trastevere, I came to the Basilica di Santa Maria, which I’d been wanting to see. As I got to the front doors, I noticed Mass was about to start, so I went in. It was only when I saw the bulletin that I remembered it was home to the Sant’Egidio community. The church filled up quickly, with many people exchanging friendly greetings or waving to someone a few pews away—these were not just tourists who decided to stick around while sightseeing. It was striking, too, how many disabled people were at the Mass, though it’s not surprising for those who know of the Sant’Egidio community’s work. Not understanding the homily in Italian, I could just sit and think and pray.

When it came time for Communion, a small ensemble began playing music. A hand drum provided a rhythm that seemed to propel those of us getting in line toward the front of the church—not a march, exactly, but a feeling of momentum, of expectation. As I approached the priest distributing the host, out of the corner of my eye I saw a young boy rocking forward and backward to the music, a bit wildly; he was clearly challenged in some way, hurting in some way, but the rocking seemed to bring him relief. And then I saw his father wrap his arms around the boy, hold him tight, and rock with him. He whispered into his son’s ear and his son broke into a smile. They kept rocking together.

I went back to my pew after receiving Communion and got on my knees and cried. It is in our weakness that God’s grace comes to us, from beyond us, and draws us to himself. The Church’s mission is not found in grandeur or glory, but as the guardian of such tenderness, as a witness to the possibility of mercy for frail mortals. Much of what I saw in Rome has subtly changed, colored by the isolation and anxieties of the hard year that followed; what I felt in the Santa Maria means the same to me today as it did then.

Biden the Catholic

Joe Biden is only the second Catholic to be elected president of the United States. What, if anything, should we make of that fact? Given the nation’s increasing secularism and the consequent attenuation of religious tribalism, I’m not sure we should make much of it. Editors at the National Catholic Reporter disagree. In a recent editorial they named Biden “NCR’s Catholic Newsmaker of the Year,” and expressed a degree of shock that it has been sixty years since John F. Kennedy squeaked into the White House. The editorial presents some good reasons for giving Biden that appellation, as well as a few dubious ones. It begins with the suggestion that “if the United States is still a democracy 100 years from now, it will be, at least in part, thanks” to the president elect. That’s a bold, if hedged, bet and a premature judgment, to say the least. It’s a bit reminiscent of the Nobel Committee awarding its peace prize to Barack Obama during his first year in office. Informed of that honor, Obama famously responded, “For what?”

The case for Biden’s importance, as NCR sees it, has a lot to do with his unselfconscious piety. He’s a “churchgoing, rosary-carrying, prayer-quoting Catholic,” known to attend Mass even on Holy Days of Obligation, something most Catholics no longer do. For these reasons, NCR’s editors deem Biden “the most prominent American Catholic,” and even an “inadvertent evangelizer.” The editorial criticizes his troubling allegiance to the Democratic Party’s “extreme” position on abortion rights, but praises his recognizably Catholic defense of “the human dignity of all and solidarity, especially with the poor and working class.” His greatest political skill, also inspired by his faith, is a gift for “public empathy.” As the country recovers from the Trump presidency and continues to battle the pandemic, “we will now have a gifted public empathizer” in the White House.

Let’s hope Joe Biden has plenty of the combative spirit he so admired in JFK’s uses of political power.

“Public empathizer” is not a campaign slogan many politicians would embrace. To be sure, the presidency plays a symbolic role in American society and culture. “He is the closest thing we have to a living symbol of the nation,” longtime Commonweal columnist John Cogley wrote in 1959 in discussing the historical barriers to electing a Catholic president. “Before the world, he represents the rest of us in a very special way.” Most Americans thought of the country as Protestant, and looked at the largely immigrant and sectarian Catholic community with suspicion. A member of the Roman Catholic Church representing the whole nation was a step beyond what most people could imagine. Kennedy’s 1960 election reflected a dramatic change in the status of Catholics, as they eagerly assimilated into a prosperous and ever more pluralistic postwar American society. Assessing Kennedy’s impact on the nation after his assassination, Cogley wryly noted that the handsome and dashing young president was no Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major political party. Smith was defeated in a landslide by Herbert Hoover in 1928, and his loss was largely attributable to anti-Catholicism. Kennedy was “much closer to the enduring Protestant image of the president,” Cogley wrote. “Kennedy is the American Catholic arrivé.... The stereotype of the Irish Catholic politician, the pugnacious, priest-ridden representative of an embittered, embattled minority, simply does not fit the poised, urbane, cosmopolitan young socialite from Harvard.”

Biden’s own political ambitious were inspired by JFK, although his Irish Catholic background is working-class, not patrician. NCR curiously describes Biden as “that guy in the back of the church, whose eyes close at the homily, because he’s either deeply meditating on the explanation of the Scriptures or catching a nap. No one knows but God and him.” Needless to say, that is not an image or posture one would readily associate with JFK.

Some presidents have a natural talent for consoling those in mourning, but it is doubtful Americans first look to presidents as empathizers-in-chief, let alone as drowsy old men napping in church. A president’s first duty is to keep Americans safe, and that requires leadership, political skill, reasoned deliberation, and demonstrable strength. Cogley saw all those qualities in Kennedy’s unsentimental embrace of the rough-and-tumble of politics. It was Kennedy’s public virtues, not his private convictions or sins, that Cogley thought pertinent to any judgment of his presidency. “More than any other leader,” Cogley wrote, Kennedy “rescued the day-by-day politics that makes democracy possible from the disdain in which it had been held in America.” Cogley attributed that disdain to a certain puritanical Protestant moralizing that was misplaced when applied to the political realm. Kennedy had little interest in speculative or theological questions, but his approach to politics was part of an identifiable Catholic tradition, according to Cogley. “To their credit,” he wrote of the often compromised urban Irish American politicians who were Kennedy’s forebears, “it can also be said that they never flinched from political responsibility nor did they think of themselves as less worthy Christians because they had to face up to the consequences of original sin in public life.”

Let’s hope Joe Biden has plenty of the combative spirit he so admired in JFK’s uses of political power. If there is any significance to the election of a second Catholic as president, it will lie in the success of his “day-by-day” transactions in governing, not in his piety, no matter how admirable that may be.

Surprise Us, Lord

Several years ago, my husband made me a jewelry box for Christmas. He purchased pieces of maple from a specialty shop, then measured and cut the wood, sanded it, stained it in a caramel color, and fastened it together with metal and leather. He lined the inside with velvet, creating compartments for bracelets and rings. When I opened the box, I was delighted: not just because of its craftsmanship, but because it was something I hadn’t known I needed, hadn’t thought to ask for, hadn’t imagined could exist.

Some gifts are like this. They’re wonderful not because they’re a variation on a category of things everyone already knows you like, such as books or sweaters or wine. (Though those kinds of presents are nice, too, showing that you’re known.) Instead, they’re entirely unexpected, outside the realm of what you thought possible. It’s not that you longed for a jewelry box and now your longing is realized. It’s that you never gave it one thought until now, until it became just what you needed.

That is what I’m asking God for this Advent: surprises, impossibilities, unexpected solutions, the working out of things in ways I can’t envision.

All year, I’ve been asking for particulars: medicines, vaccinations, open hospital beds. Cold freezers and smooth distributions. Certain electoral outcomes. Justice that looks a certain way. Peace that I can picture. Agreement (i.e. everyone else agreeing with me). I’ve seen what I want for this world, and I’ve been furious when it hasn’t come to pass.

As we arrive at the end of the year, I find I can no longer see the way forward.

As we arrive at the end of the year, I find I can no longer see the way forward. I can’t imagine how we’ll achieve immunity. I can’t imagine how kids will get back to school or how the hungry will be fed, how griefs will be soothed or policing transformed. I can’t imagine politics looking any different—unless different means worse. Some disagreements run so deep I don’t know if they can ever be negotiated. How could that conversation go any differently than it has for months?

And I can’t imagine how this coming week will be anything but disappointing. My husband and I are spending Christmas together. We’ll eat tamales and chocolate crinkle cookies, open presents, and attend some virtual services. It should be a nice day. But we’ll also be far away from loved ones, traditions, and our homes. Won’t that just feel crummy? Around the country, people will gather or they won’t, for reasons good and bad; they’ll feel guilty, or angry, or defiant, or depressed. They know someone who’s died, or they have material needs, or they feel less than free. How could this season be anything but lonely, symbolic of all our divisions and hatreds?

Surprise me, Lord. Work out the logistics. Baffle me with your solutions. Make a way.

Surprise me, Lord. Don’t do things as I would do them. A baby in a manger, surrounded by animals, sleeping in straw—that seems vulgar and dangerous and sad! But then you dignified the scene with a star. Kings came bearing precious metal and perfume. I would have said: let the baby be born in a bed! Let the parents be prosperous. I never would have imagined it could be any other way.

Surprise me, Lord. Scripture warns against being caught off guard. Don’t be unprepared for the thieves in the night, the besieging army just outside your city gates. Christ will come when you least expect it—you’d better hope you’re ready. I hope I’m ready, after this year. Eyes to see, ears to hear. Not too cynical to see how grace might arrive quiet and crisp and holy.

COVID’s Toll on the Orthodox Christian Church

Depending on how you count, the Orthodox Christian Church has fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen autocephalous (i.e. self-governing) jurisdictions. To date, three of its autocephalous leaders—Irinej of Serbia, Ieronymos of Greece, and Anastasios of Albania—have been hospitalized with COVID-19; Irinej of Serbia died from it on November 20. At least a dozen Orthodox bishops have also died from the virus. Among the lower ranks of clergy, the numbers are even more alarming. In Russia, more than one hundred priests or monks have died.

Perhaps we should use these grim statistics to remind ourselves that the clergy often serve as “first responders” to the sick and suffering. In the age of COVID-19, a routine pastoral visit can carry genuine risk. Digging a little deeper into some of these cases, however, suggests that too many Orthodox clerics, bishops included, have acted as though they think they are immune to the virus.

Why? Have they wrongly extrapolated what they believe about the Eucharist to extend to their role as sacramental officiants? Do they naively think that God protects the clergy (or perhaps all “true” believers) from illness?

Let’s start with the case of the much-loved and respected Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radović) of Montenegro, who succumbed to COVID-19 on October 30. Prior to Patriarch Irinej’s death, Amfilohije was the most prominent Orthodox bishop to die from the pandemic. Amfilohije was also one of a dangerously large number of bishops who flouted social-distancing recommendations. Not only was he regularly seen in public without a mask, but he also suggested that large religious gatherings (such as a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Vasilije Ostroski he attended in May) were “God’s vaccine.”

Patriarch Irinej presided over Amfilohije’s funeral on November 1. Thousands of mourners attended the crowded funeral. None of the clergy and few of the attendees wore masks during the long service. Nineteen days later, the patriarch died. Again, there were thousands of mourners, and again most of them ignored guidelines on masks and social distancing. Then, on December 4, the locum tenens of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the man entrusted to steer the Church through the election of a new patriarch, was himself hospitalized with COVID-19. It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which the virus has crippled the leadership of Serbian Orthodox Church.

The situation in Greece is only marginally better. To date, six of the nation’s eighty-two bishops have contracted the disease; one has died. Metropolitan Bishop Ioannis of Lagas, sixty-two, an outspoken critic of government efforts to curtail church services during the pandemic, died on November 15. The Episcopal Synod of the Church of Greece has been more willing than their Serbian counterparts in supporting government imposed, social-distancing restrictions. But there are, of course, those who publicly flout the guidelines. One priest in northern Greece urged parishioners to defy government restrictions, irresponsibly proclaiming “you’re either with Christ or the coronavirus.”


One priest in northern Greece urged parishioners to defy government restrictions, irresponsibly proclaiming “you’re either with Christ or the coronavirus.”

When the pandemic first became a global concern in the spring of 2020, the debate among public-health officials, church leaders, and theologians fixated around the question of whether or not the Eucharist might serve as a means for the dissemination of the virus. 

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church distributes both elements of the Eucharist with a common spoon. It has not always been done this way. But it has been this way for long enough (approximately one thousand years) that many faithful presume, as a contention of faith, that the distribution of the Eucharist does not and cannot spread disease. 

In some corners of the Orthodox world, a few pastorally inclined bishops have encouraged the use of multiple single-use spoons rather than a common spoon. To my knowledge, no bishop publicly suggested that the reception of the Eucharist could spread the disease. Rather, leaders such as Archbishop Elpidophoros, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, presented the policy as a temporary concession to those who might wish to receive the sacrament but were reluctant to do so during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, that proposal sparked immediate condemnation from the super-pious, who saw the archbishop’s recommendation as tantamount to apostasy. While Elpidophoros had broad support among theologians and liturgical historians (there is, in fact, no dogmatic significance to the use of one or more spoons), none of the other forty-plus Orthodox bishops in the United States followed his lead. Similar proposals were adopted elsewhere—in various dioceses in Finland, Romania, and Ukraine—but the predominant practice in the Orthodox world has continued the use of a common spoon.

As the threat of the pandemic grew and governments around the world forcibly closed churches, the debate in Orthodox circles soon shifted from a question of whether or not the Eucharist could be a conduit for the spread of the disease to a series of questions regarding government injunctions and/or the possibility of participating in services through internet technology.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas, arguably the most acclaimed Orthodox theologian alive today, shocked a great number of people when he declared in an interview that while he supported the government’s decision to close the churches to lay people, he did not believe watching a televised liturgy was an acceptable substitute. “I will not turn the television on in order to watch the Liturgy. I consider that an expression of impiety. It is impious for someone to sit and watch the Liturgy.” He proposed, instead, that families read morning prayers together. But a good number of priests in the United States with significant online followings were exasperated by the metropolitan’s comments.

A few months ago, I received an email from a priest that I’ve known for decades. He declared that no one should ever wear a mask in church. For him, it was not enough that Christians affirm that the Eucharist is safe—it was necessary that they demonstrate their faith by disregarding any concern for the possibility that COVID-19 might spread from one worshipper to another during a service. We are being tested, he suggested; would we be counted as real believers or not?

It’s hard to know why some clerics and laity want to force the issue in this way. My suspicion is that the explanation lies in sociological or psychological analysis. Christian theology certainly does not explain this.

With infections rising, bishops dying, and nearly everyone feeling exhausted by the pandemic, it is unclear if anything will be different for the Orthodox Church prior to mass vaccination. But one thing has been obvious from the beginning: this virus does not discriminate between those who believe in Christ and those who do not. Most of the Orthodox Christian clergy understand this. They are taking prudent precautions while continuing the sacramental life of the Church as much as possible. I pray that the rest will follow suit, for the sake of us all.

Many and One


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I’m always moved by those moments when a part of the Mass angles my vision just so: suddenly, I can hold in mind, all at once, deep specifics and vast abstractions. Blessing the wine, the priest says, “fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” and I ground that image in a particular time and place, envisioning a bunch of dusty grapes and a pair of browned hands—a woman and her work. Almost as quickly, though, I’m thinking about the rain that fed the vine, and then I’m off contemplating the tangled evolutionary process and network of intimacies that produced the picker. Before long, I’m in the stars. That’s what makes up the Body—contingency on one hand and the cosmos on the other.

For years now, Pope Francis has been placing his finger on this tension between the universal and the local, asking us to see it not as a problem but as a gift. During the Latin American Episcopal Council’s fifth general meeting in 2007, he was chosen to oversee the drafting of its final document, known as the “Aparecida Document,” after the Brazilian city in which the gathering was held. It is an expansive, often startling examination of the cultural, political, and spiritual situation in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as an exhortation for the Church to shake off its stiffness and “go out” among the people, especially the poor, and “chart the way toward the civilization of love.”

The Aparecida Document has in many ways served as an inspiration for Francis’s papacy, and it set forth themes that he’s taken up and developed in his writing again and again, especially in his discussions of personhood and politics. The document describes the need to cherish the “variety and wealth” of Latin America’s indigenous and mixed-race cultures, and it laments the tendency of globalization and consumer culture to flatten and homogenize them. One of the great bogeymen of the document is a “cultural colonization” that acts as global capital’s handmaiden, “spurning local cultures and tending to impose a uniform culture in all realms.” But it also refuses to indulge any kind of provincialism, and is notably alert to the dangers of cultural stagnation; instead, the document insists on the possibility of fruitful exchanges between cultures, and on the need for groups to change, develop, and stretch toward harmony with others as history rolls forward. Cultures, just like the Church, aren’t edifices rotting atop their foundations but boats stroking through time, charting their own irreproducible courses toward “a common historic destiny.”


In Fratelli tutti, Francis further elaborates this strain of his thought, diving into one of Christianity’s touchiest paradoxes. How can we take into loving account each of the world’s cultures, appreciating it for what it is, searching it earnestly for “seeds of the Word” and unlikely points of commonality, without—as has too often been the case throughout the Church’s history—raiding its riches through colonial domination, or asking its members to shed their particularities and join some featureless, blandly celestial community of shibboleths and rules? How can I understand my sorry self—beset as I am by specifics: my race, my class, the family into which I was born—as part of a Church that claims to be universal? How to square, on the one hand, Paul’s assertion that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” with, on the other hand, his account of having “become all things to all people” in order to spread the Gospel—a maneuver that only makes sense if we admit the persistence of difference? How can we be many and also one?

Cultures, just like the Church, aren’t edifices rotting atop their foundations but boats stroking through time.

Those are the urgent questions driving an encyclical devoted to the siblinghood of all human beings. In its fourth chapter, “A Heart Open to the Whole World,” Francis suggests that “an innate tension exists between globalization and localization. We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality. Yet we also need to look to the local, which keeps our feet on the ground.” It is as dangerous for communities to “get caught up in an abstract, globalized universe” as it is for them to “turn into a museum of local folklore, a world apart, doomed to doing the same things over and over, incapable of being challenged by novelty or appreciating the beauty which God bestows beyond their borders” (142). The universal is “like a ‘final cause’ that draws us towards our fulfilment,” while the local is “capable of being a leaven, of bringing enrichment,” and each adds to the force of the other.

It’s striking that in both the Aparecida Document and Fratelli tutti, cities are given special attention as the places where this kind of synthesis most commonly occurs. “Faith teaches us that God lives in the city in the midst of its joys, yearnings and hopes,” the former says, “and likewise in its pains and suffering.” In the latter, Francis turns to the cultural riches of his homeland as an example of such a synthesis. “In Argentina,” he writes, “intense immigration from Italy has left a mark on the culture of the society, and the presence of some 200,000 Jews has a great effect on the cultural ‘style’ of Buenos Aires” (135). That kind of encounter isn’t just a natural product of proximity, according to him, but the fruit of a kind of intellectual discipline, a conscious straining to hold in tension two seemingly opposed but equally radiant goods: “I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make,” he writes, “only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture” (143).

Francis is a model of this discipline. He has proudly displayed his own rootedness in the history and sensibility of Latin America, and of Argentina specifically—from its complex ecology to its unique theological currents, and even its intense and rivalrous soccer culture, of which he is a lifelong fan—while expressing his wish to reach all people, in urban centers and at the most remote and least remarked-upon borderlands, the “peripheries,” geographical and existential, of which he so often speaks. The two impulses, he seems to believe, depend on each other. We can only obtain the universe by way of the local street. Francis’s formula sounds a bit like the logic of the Incarnation, with its insistence that, in order to save the entire world, God needed to become a certain child, in a certain country, born to a mother whose name we claim to know. He ate real food, local to his hard-pressed corner of the world, and seems to have had special favorites among his friends. If Nazareth had had a soccer club, Christ might have been a regular in the stands rooting for it.


Fratelli tutti is not addressed to Catholics or anyone else in the United States in particular, despite the paranoia of some of Francis’s critics here, who chose to take its early October publication and distinctly anti-populist message as a direct repudiation of Donald Trump on the eve of the recent election. To the contrary, it feels refreshingly unfettered by our homegrown psychodramas.

Francis’s fine parsing of the local and the universal made me think about whatever we mean when we talk about “Blackness.”

Still, those Americans who read the document will find it a bracing experience. As I sat with it, I wondered if it offered a path between several yet unresolved ways of approaching race, identity, and culture that haunt my questions about this country. Francis’s fine parsing of the local and the universal, the collective and the individual, made me think—as, admittedly, I often do—about whatever we mean when we talk about “Blackness.” Some insist that it is an immutable category, more a kind of fate than a record of histories and experiences, and that Black people are resigned, always and everywhere, to a state of unfree sub-citizenship. The particulars of Black life, they say, make it impossible to draw analogies between our experiences and those of other oppressed peoples around the world—solidarity, for them, is an impossibility, more a cruel joke than a strategy for change. And some, focused on the history of chattel slavery in the United States but unwilling to engage with the history of American imperial behavior, try to erect a hierarchy of racial-political claims to redress, placing the concerns of African Americans above those of immigrant groups and other people of color: a politics of “blood and soil” with Black blood, at long last, made a priority. Others imagine a world utterly evacuated of racial concerns. In this vision, we’d all step out of our labels, stop calling some people “Black” and others “white,” and finally shrug off the nastiness of history. All we’d need is to stop relying on the false charms of the group, and finally live our lives as cosmopolitan individuals, ready to face the world alone.

These unsatisfactory options seem to rhyme with the scheme that Francis puts forward in the fifth chapter of Fratelli tutti, in which he repudiates both an unthinking, demagogic populism and a “dogma of neoliberal faith” that leaves all of a person’s problems up to the global market to fix. He posits, instead, the importance of a third kind of arrangement, that of a “people” who, keeping their common experience in mind, sail through history together, always looking for a fresh wind, open to the possibility of change. “The concept of ‘people,’” Francis writes, “is in fact open-ended. A living and dynamic people, a people with a future, is one constantly open to a new synthesis through its ability to welcome differences. In this way, it does not deny its proper identity, but is open to being mobilized, challenged, broadened and enriched by others, and thus to further growth and development” (160).

Here Francis reminds me of the Black feminist scholar, critic, and activist Barbara Smith, who coined the much-misunderstood term “identity politics.” Smith’s great insight was that a politics centered on our experiences as members of shunted-aside groups—as Blacks, as women, as lesbians, on and on—can refine our notions of freedom, first for ourselves and then, crucially, for others as well. Francis is just as attentive to the lessons offered, often harshly, by daily life. “Realities are greater than ideas,” he says in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium. This has been the bent of an American lineage that stretches from the later W.E.B. Du Bois, runs through the life of the entertainer and radical publisher Paul Robeson, and is evident in the works of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Each of them was an ardent internationalist, as interested and involved in the drama of decolonization in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as in the grand twentieth-century struggles of Black people in America.

I can imagine Francis nodding happily toward Julius Nyerere, the late Tanzanian president and anti-colonialist, who grounded his arguments for pan-African socialism in the cultural memory of his own people. Nyerere—a pious Catholic who has inspired a local cult and a case for canonization—invoked what he called “traditional African society” as a goad for movement into the future, toward what Francis calls “a universal horizon” of solidarity among sisters and brothers. “Both the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ individual were completely secure in African society,” Nyerere wrote in his essay “Ujamaa—The Basis of African Socialism.” “Nobody starved, either of food or of human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth; he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member. That was socialism. That is socialism.”

That is the Blackness I want—an open attitude toward identity and group experience, a peoplehood hungry for the future. Its voice rings out so clearly in those fleeting moments of the Mass and now, perhaps unexpectedly, in Fratelli tutti. It has its feet on the ground of race and ethnicity and place, and stretches outward, its heart and its arms aimed at the rest of the world.

This article appeared as part of a symposium on Fratelli tutti in our December 2020 issue, alongside “Freedom & Equality Aren’t Enough” by Charles Taylor; “Radical Truths” by William T. Cavanaugh; and “Reconsidering ‘Chisme’” by Neomi De Anda.


Can’t Explain

In his recent book, Longing for an Absent God, Nick Ripatrazone compares the fiction of Ron Hansen to that of Don DeLillo. DeLillo uses the religious language of his former faith as a backdrop, a puzzle that can be solved through secular means but always within the control of the author. Hansen, as it turns out, is the less dogmatic writer. In discussing Hansen’s 1991 novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, Ripatrazone notes Hansen’s fiction is messy; it “seeks without needing answers.” The miracles in the novel are not explained, or explained away. Hansen is just as concerned with the nuns in Mariette’s convent who did not want to believe that a sign of God’s presence could be there now, with them, as he is with whether what Mariette is experiencing is in fact a miracle.

In an interview featured in Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: Notes Toward a Memoir, Hansen discusses how he decided to write a novel about a nun bearing the stigmata in a Midwestern convent in the first place. “Mariette having a crisis of faith is not very interesting, but if the crisis has a physical manifestation that brings in the quarrels between science and religion, the book has more possibilities.” But more than that: the book also portrays the quarrels within religion. The stigmata do not have a uniformly positive effect on the other nuns, indeed they “awaken either revulsion or awe.” In this Hansen evokes Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel, The Corner That Held Them, which recounts the prosaic lives of a convent in thirteenth-century England. Over decades, this community experiences holiness but also some less-than-holy conduct, including hostile reactions toward the saintly—or those who try to be saintly. One theme of Mariette is what Hansen calls a “sense of ambiguity” as to whether she was in fact bearing Christ’s wounds; the stigmata present a challenge to both those who believe and those who do not. The ambiguity invites us to contemplate our own reactions to the question of whether saints can exist. Science may not quite explain what Mariette is experiencing, and while her fellow Catholics can understand it—in the sense that their faith has prepared them for physical manifestations of the divine—they can’t explain it either.

In addition to Mariette, Hansen is the author of nine other novels, several of which have been made into movies, and three collections of stories. Born and raised in Nebraska, he spent his military service in the 1970s in Arizona and now lives in Cupertino, California. His background made him a natural for a revival of the Western. As Joseph Bottum has explained, Hansen’s “outlaw” trilogy—begun with Desperadoes (1979), continued with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), and completed with The Kid (2016)—saved the Western from being a niche genre in part because of Hansen’s prose, which stripped down the flowery language of the dime-store gunslinger tale and rebuilt it around an imagined Western argot. That argot may not be quite believable by itself, but combined with Hansen’s factual research it is sufficient to bring us into that world.

As Hansen himself notes, Christian imagery or motivation entered his Westerns gradually and was not always recognized by readers.

As Hansen himself notes, Christian imagery or motivation entered his Westerns gradually and was not always recognized by readers. At the same time, however, Hansen was working through a series of “Catholic” novels, such as Mariette or 1996’s Atticus. Hotly in Pursuit of the Real covers both bodies of work, and is divided into separate sections containing personal essays, interviews, and a set of reflections by Hansen on several of his books, as well as some more ephemeral pieces that were previously published elsewhere.

Because he is not from the gothic, Christ-haunted South or the ethnic-Catholic Northeast, Hansen brings new elements of the American Catholic story into fiction. In Mariette, for example, the nuns are French rather than, say, Italian or Irish, and the convent interacts with small-town America rather than urban areas. In this respect, Hansen can perhaps be grouped with J. F. Powers as a chronicler of the Catholic experience between the coasts. This experience was different because, in a certain sense, it reverses the usual roles. Unlike in the East and South, where Catholicism was often treated as an intrusion by the Protestant establishment, in parts of the Midwest and West the Catholics arrived before the Protestants. Nebraska also features in a couple of pieces, but Hansen does not address what being Catholic in post-war Nebraska may have looked like. We do, however, get a real sense of the importance Nebraska had for him as a storyteller. Like Bill Kauffman, whose seemingly humdrum upstate New York environs provided no end of fantastic stories, Hansen sees in Nebraska a wellspring of imagination. As a boy he sat in caves rumored to have been frequented by Jesse James and his gang, and he saw a history of the nation (and the people who lived there before there was a nation) lying just underneath the endless fields.

But one should not underestimate the strangeness of Mariette to its audience in 1991, even to some Catholics: it was already some decades since Vatican II’s reforms and the more complete integration of Catholics into American life. A novel about an ecstatic nun in 1906, where even the unecstatic ones wear cinctures, was bound to remind people that Catholicism can be odd. Among the other striking passages in Mariette is one in which Hansen recounts a discussion between two nuns about their lives before they entered the convent: “We talked about our childhoods.... She played in a habit just like the one that her sister wore. She whipped herself with knotted apron strings. She rebuked temptations against chastity by lying naked on thorns.” And this is before we get to the stigmata.

Hansen’s Catholic sensibility was formed both critically and intellectually by the Jesuit tradition. He is a student of Gerard Manley Hopkins, around whose poem “Wreck of the Deutschland” Hansen wrote his 2008 novel, Exiles. And Ignatian spirituality has left a deep impression on his writing. One technique of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, Hansen says, is its effort to make meditation on Gospel scenes “a more sensual experience of the event.” Anyone who has gone through the Exercises knows what Hansen means: it can be a very powerful experience. Hansen uses that “to make things as sensual as possible so that readers really enter the scene and then learn something.” But as Ripatrazone points out, this alone does not seem enough to distinguish a Catholic novel from a novel written by a non-Catholic or a former Catholic. DeLillo can be as sensual as Hansen, Philip Roth can convey physical forces no less effectively, and many other writers put in just as much work to create a truthful historical world.

So how does this work? Perhaps it is the case that the verisimilitude and dedication to a novel as a work of art is in service to something else. Not an orthodoxy, necessarily: didactic fiction is too often (though not always!) boring fiction. Rather it is to try to understand the human world with the realization that it is not completely comprehensible. Hansen, again, finds in Ignatian spirituality a way to do that, because it trains us to see that world through perspectives other than our own: the querulous disciples, the woman at the well, the man born blind.

Hansen tries to do something like this in James, which deals with questions of human forgiveness and redemption by wrestling with what those terms mean in a religious context. Similarly, in a review of a now largely forgotten Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Edwin O’Connor, The Edge of Sadness, Hansen argues that O’Connor uses ecclesiastical life as a vehicle for examining the “age-old maladies of selfishness, lethargy, indifference, and bleakness of soul.” The reality after which Hansen says Catholics are hotly in pursuit deals at the same time with “the sensual or sordid facts of the flesh” and the “awareness of the unseen but ineluctable foundation of our existence,” which transcends the flesh. Like his model Ignatius, Hansen wants us to see what’s right in front of us, though it may not be visible.


Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: Notes Toward a Memoir
Ron Hansen
$32 | 198 pp.


An Ambrose of Our Own


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There are a number of conclusions one could draw from reading the Vatican report on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. For example: that the clerical sex-abuse crisis in the Church is worse than we thought and extends to vulnerable adults. Also, that position and influence in our Church are easily bought, and that bishops lie, even to the pope, to protect other bishops. But the conclusion that encompasses all of these things is that the way we choose our bishops is deeply flawed, producing bishops who are, in turn, deeply flawed. How did things get this way, and what can be done about it?

First, let’s consider a bit of history. Once the office of bishop was clearly established in the early Church as the unitary head of a diocese (a Roman administrative unit), that office was filled by someone chosen by local people and priests, then ratified by the neighboring bishops, as a sign of the unity of the Church. Even the unbaptized were eligible, as we know from the oft-told story of St. Ambrose, whom the clergy and people of Milan chose as their bishop while he was still a catechumen. The first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, was elected by the priests of Maryland and confirmed by the pope. Today, we are so used to the pope choosing our bishops for us that we think it was always that way. It wasn’t. In fact, the right of the pope to choose bishops was only settled with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a papal document that clearly allocated that power to the holder of the papal office.

Arguably, there is some limited lay input in the selection of bishops. When a priest is being considered for appointment as bishop, the papal nuncio sends out what are called apostolic letters to a select group, which may include laypeople from the area, asking their opinion of the candidate based on some very specific questions. Because the papal nuncio does not actually know the laypeople of a diocese, he normally gets their names from the outgoing bishop, which means that the recipients of the letters are usually wealthy donors. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the areas of query in the apostolic letters were: Has the man ever said anything about birth control, abortion, married priests, female priests, the remarriage of divorced Catholics, same-sex marriage? These questions reveal the biases that gave us so many culture-warrior bishops under those popes. Since the election of Pope Francis, the questions focus more on pastoral concerns. But most of the letters still tend to go to influential (i.e. wealthy) people.

Apart from these letters, there is no other lay input into the choice of bishops. The system is still pretty much an old boys’ network. Each diocese in the United States is part of an ecclesiastical province—every diocese in Illinois, for example, is in the province of Chicago; every diocese in Pennsylvania is in the province of Philadelphia. At their annual provincial meetings, the bishops of each province can put the names of priests they favor on a list of potential candidates for bishop. This is called the provincial list, and every so often the bishops update it. When there is a need for a diocesan or auxiliary bishop in the province, the papal nuncio begins the hunt by looking at the candidates on the provincial list. Laypeople do not get to put names on the provincial lists. And the papal nuncio is not even bound by the provincial list: it is only a starting point in putting together his list of potential candidates. On his own initiative, the nuncio may add the names of priests from other provincial lists around the country, or names that aren’t on provincial lists, to create the list of candidates that he sends to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome.

The Congregation for Bishops, currently headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, has thirty or so members, including cardinals who work at the Vatican, plus cardinals and bishops from around the world. The congregation vets the nuncio’s list (called a terna because it has three names on it) and may add different names before sending it to the pope. An American bishop (usually a cardinal) who is a member of the Congregation for Bishops has inordinate influence on who becomes a bishop in the United States.

McCarrick’s appointment required no consultation with the body of clergy of New York, and no consultation with the body of the laity, beyond those few apostolic letters.

After receiving the terna, the pope can accept it and select a name from it; he can reject it entirely and ask the congregation for a new terna, with names on it that he suggests; or he can ignore the terna completely and just choose his own man.

This is our system. And it is easy to see how the McCarrick case fits into it. His first appointment as bishop was as an auxiliary in his home archdiocese of New York in 1977, where he had been serving as secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke since 1971. Cardinal Cooke, with the consent of the other bishops of the province of New York, had his secretary’s name placed on the provincial list. When the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Jean Jadot, went looking for names for a terna for auxiliary bishop of New York, there was McCarrick on the provincial list. The Vatican report says that between 1968, when McCarrick was first considered for auxiliary bishop, until 1977, when he was appointed, fifty-two apostolic letters were sent out, mostly to bishops and priests in the New York area, suggesting that very few apostolic letters were sent to laypeople. With his limited investigation complete, Jadot placed McCarrick’s name on the terna that he sent to Rome. The Congregation for Bishops did its vetting, the list went to Pope Paul VI (who probably had a conversation or two with Cardinal Cooke), and McCarrick was chosen. His appointment required no consultation with the body of clergy of New York, and no consultation with the body of the laity, beyond those few apostolic letters. It mostly required Cardinal Cooke’s patronage.

Once a bishop, albeit an auxiliary and not a diocesan bishop, all that McCarrick had to do to advance in the hierarchy was to campaign with the apostolic delegate (whose title changed in 1984 to papal nuncio) to get his name on a terna for his own diocese. Given the discretion that the delegate had in structuring a terna, and given McCarrick’s already prodigious fundraising in New York, it is not difficult to see how this might happen. When the new diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, was established in 1981, McCarrick was named its first bishop. In clerical circles this is referred to as a “starter diocese” to describe the first small diocese given to a man meant for bigger things and bigger dioceses. When a bishop is being considered for promotion or transfer to another diocese, the papal nuncio talks not to the priests and the laypeople of the diocese, but to other bishops who know the candidate. McCarrick, his fundraising prowess increasing as he moved up the ladder, had been in Metuchen for less than five years when he was named the archbishop of Newark. He stayed there for four years, and when a cardinalatial see—Washington, D.C.—fell open, McCarrick started campaigning again. According to the Vatican’s report, he had been considered for Chicago and New York before this, but concerns about his sexual relations with priests and seminarians kept his name off the final terna submitted to the pope by the Congregation for Bishops.

Thanks to the report, we know that McCarrick was not going to be on the terna submitted by the papal nuncio for Washington, D.C., for the same reason that he did not advance for Chicago or New York: the rumors of his sexual misbehavior. Learning that these rumors had reached the Vatican, McCarrick wrote a letter addressed to his friend Bishop Stanisław Dziwisz, a member of the papal household, but meant for the pope, in which he strongly denied these rumors. The letter had its desired effect. After some curial machinations, McCarrick’s name ended up on the terna and he was chosen by Pope John Paul II, even though the pope had acquiesced in a prior evaluation by the Congregation for Bishops not to advance McCarrick’s name for Washington. We know that McCarrick used funds at his disposal to send personal gifts to prelates at the Vatican. Was there a check for Bishop Dziwisz in McCarrick’s letter, to assure that it got passed on to the pope? Who knows?

But see how this process of choosing bishops works. Thanks to the old boys’ network among bishops, once McCarrick gets his name on the New York provincial list—and after a limited appraisal by a few New York laypeople for his appointment as auxiliary bishop—his further advancement does not depend on what the laity say. His moves from New York auxiliary to bishop of Metuchen to archbishop of Newark to cardinal archbishop of Washington D.C. involve only the apostolic delegate/papal nuncio talking with other bishops. It is a self-enclosed clerical system that gave us McCarrick, and that gives us our bishops still.

The system usually delivers a bishop whose only loyalty is upward, and not to his own priests and people.

This often results in bishops being parachuted into dioceses by headquarters, without any knowledge of the diocese, its priests, or its people. At least McCarrick was made an auxiliary in his home diocese. One of the practices that increased under John Paul II, and one of the worst, is the appointing of auxiliary bishops for a diocese from priests outside the diocese. This happened because provincial lists were used. But what an insult to the diocesan presbyterate: not one of you is qualified to be an auxiliary bishop of your own diocese, so we must bring in an outsider, usually an outsider who is slated for future promotions because of the influence of his patrons in the United States and in Rome.

Sometimes a parachute bishop works out, sometimes he doesn’t. The system usually delivers a bishop whose only loyalty is upward, and not to his own priests and people. This fact alone—how bishops are chosen and where their true loyalties lie—explains a lot about how American bishops mishandled the sexual-abuse crisis.


What would it look like if laypeople had a real role in the choice of bishops? Let’s make a modest proposal. When a diocese is about to fall vacant—and we know well in advance when that would be because a bishop must retire when he turns seventy-five—the papal nuncio or someone from the nunciature staff should travel to the diocese and speak with the laypeople directly. Ask people to stay after Mass to talk about this; that way you will get those 22 percent of Catholics who actually participate in the life of the Church to give their opinion. Or hold a convocation in the diocese attended by folks chosen by the people of the parish, not by the pastor. The people know who the good priests are; they know the men Pope Francis described in his talk to the episcopal conferences of Latin America (CELAM) when he said:

Bishops must be pastors, close to people, fathers and brothers, and gentle, patient and merciful. Men who love poverty, both interior poverty, as freedom before the Lord, and exterior poverty, as simplicity and austerity of life. Men who do not think and behave like princes. Men who are not ambitious, who are married to one Church without having their eyes on another. Men capable of watching over the flock entrusted to them and protecting everything that keeps it together: guarding their people out of concern for the dangers which could threaten them, but above all instilling hope: so that light will shine in people’s hearts. Men capable of supporting with love and patience God’s dealings with his people.

Let the people tell the nuncio who these priests are. They know.

Another group who knows are the priests of the diocese. If anyone gets apostolic letters from the papal nuncio, it should be these men. They know the kind of bishop the diocese needs, and they know who has the necessary talents.     

Having heard from the people and priests of the diocese, the nuncio can then make his list for Rome from the names they suggested. And the list should stay that way. Neither the nuncio nor a member of the Congregation for Bishops should get to put a friend or protégé’s name on the list. Their job would simply be evaluative: Which of the candidates identified by laypeople and priests doesn’t think and behave like a prince, but is a pastor and close to the people? Even the pope should be bound, not in law, but in conscience, to that list.

Under such rules, the McCarrick horror would never have happened. We might have had something like Milan in the fourth century, and someone like Ambrose as bishop.


Movements of the Heart

Soon after turning eighteen I got my driver’s license, started a job, and bought a car—a supercool little Mini (definitely not the status symbol it is today). One weekend not long after, a few friends and I headed out of town to a campground north of Sydney called Wiseman’s Ferry. I’m not making that name up. The lead-up to the trip was full of excitement. We’d be exercising the “freedoms” that come to you at eighteen in Australia, not just getting a license to drive but also getting to drink legally. So we spent that weekend doing a lot of the things people do at that age, and maybe a few things you shouldn’t do at any age.

I distinctly recall the drive home. To get in and out of the campground you had to ford a shallow river crossing that Australians call a causeway. As the car came up out of the water on the homeward side, I had the clear thought: “There has to be more to life than this.” I remember it so well because it was a moment that changed the direction of my life. Soon afterward I got involved in the local parish youth group. I found the experience very meaningful. I read a lot. I started going to Mass daily. It all led to the seminary and eventually ordination.

Two of the friends from that weekend at the campground did not make it much beyond their twenty-first birthdays. One died of an overdose in India. The other, my childhood best friend, ended his life on the kitchen table in a lonely apartment in a run-down part of Sydney. I can still clearly see his face, his long black hair, his lanky frame scrunched up beside me in that little Mini as we crossed the causeway. 

I thought of this time in my life when I read the Gospel for last Sunday (Mk 1:1–8), in which we learn about John the Baptist. Not only because in the 1970s many of us looked like John the Baptist, but also because it made me ask what was going on in John’s heart and mind. What led him to abandon his previous life for a life in the desert? Eating wild honey and locusts, wearing camel skins—that must have been unusual even in his day. What led him to change direction? What moved him? What was “the more” he was looking for?

Perhaps it’s hyperbole, but the Gospel says, “The whole of the Judean countryside and all [emphasis mine] the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him.” What did they see in him? What were they looking for? What deep yearning was stirring in their hearts to change directions?

When over the years I’ve looked back on that moment crossing the causeway, it now seems obvious that the thought should come to me just as I emerged from the river. In theology, psychology, architecture, and in all manner of disciplines, causeways represent liminal phases, moments when we pass from one reality to another. They are thresholds that signal and facilitate a significant transition. Think of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, or indeed of the River Jordan and baptism itself.

What I think and feel, my emotions, can help me to understand who I am as a particular creation of God’s love.

Until about eighteen months ago, I’d served for five years as campus minister at Regis High School in New York. That experience helped me become deeply familiar with Ignatian spirituality, a key component of which is giving serious attention to our human desires. The teaching arises from the personal experience of St. Ignatius in vocational discernment. St. Ignatius, by his own accounts, had a wild youth. But after a near-fatal battle wound he suffered as a solider, he spent a long recuperation thinking and reflecting on his life. He discerned that underneath the more superficial desires of his “wild youth” lay a deeper desire to imitate the lives of the saints—the saints he was reading during his recovery. He felt a movement of the heart for a heroic life of generosity and service. Here was the liminal moment when he said “yes” to God and crossed over the threshold into a new way of living.

I raise all this in the hope that you might take a moment this Advent to get inside your own story. To pay attention to your deepest desires, the yearnings of your heart. Every human heart has the desire for a life of meaning and love. I suspect we do not always pay enough attention to our desires because we are afraid that if we did we might go astray or lose direction. But Ignatian spirituality encourages me to discern who I am by paying close and thoughtful attention to what moves my heart and imagination. What I think and feel, my emotions, can help me to understand who I am as a particular creation of God’s love. Not paying attention to them can lead to a stunted, shriveled life. This is not what God wants for us.

Others may have heard the voice of God in thunder and burning bushes, but that has not been my experience. What I know from experience is that at times God reveals his will to me in my deepest, truest, and holiest yearnings and desires. This is what I have come to believe happened at Wiseman’s Ferry that Sunday I crossed the causeway. I had a taste of “freedom” that I thought would make me happy, but having experienced it I felt empty. Underneath those superficial desires I began to recognize a deeper desire.

John the Baptist did not know exactly what he was doing or exactly what was coming when he stepped into the desert. But he listened and responded to those stirrings of his heart, and this placed him in the position to recognize Christ when He appeared. Of all the people ever born, it was John the Baptist who directly prepared a way for the coming of Christ.

I believe it is the same for us. What I encourage during this Advent is to pay attention to our deepest desires. To take some time to do something practical. To spend some time sitting with these thoughts. What is that heartfelt sense in me? What is it I really want? What would I do if I had the freedom to do it? What moves me? What am I yearning for? What does God desire for me?

As I used to say to the students at Regis, “Who I am is not incidental but instrumental.” And learning who I am is how I come to understand myself as a unique creation of God’s love. Listening to our deepest and truest desires is how we acknowledge God’s speaking to us. Paying attention to our deepest desires can help us discover who we are and what God’s vocation is for us. We ignore these movements of the heart at our peril. 

Adapted from a homily delivered December 6, 2020.

Reconsidering ‘Chisme’


Querido Papa Francisco

In Fratelli tutti, you call for including more people in dialogue, and indeed you frame the entire encyclical as a reflection born of dialogue and common commitment to human fraternity and social friendship inspired by an encuentro of interreligious leaders. True, dialogue can be great. But it can also be exclusive. If we are to be out in the world encountering and listening to one another, then we should also be open to various ways of communicating. And so I ask very respectfully that you reconsider your stance on chisme, which you have condemned in the past. 

Yes, I love chisme (some may call it “gossip”). I spend hours every week communicating with people across the Americas and around the world about what’s happening in their lives. And like many people, I also love hearing what they find questionable about human behavior and what they think about the state of the world. As a Latina (thanks for the shout-out! [Fratelli tutti 135]), I can attest to the links between information and chisme in the conversations of people in Latinx communities. These links are so close that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish where one ends and another begins. I find chisme to be a way of communicating with one another by those who feel they have less power and permission to speak publicly.

In your encyclical you identify many injustices and forms of inequality confronting the world: racism, nationalism, xenophobia, environmental degradation, human trafficking, colonization, living with disability, poverty. You even use the cry of the French Revolution—equality, fraternity, liberty—as a subtitle. A focus of your papacy has been the common good, which you mention thirty-four times in Fratelli tutti. You have dedicated your time as an ecclesial leader to uplifting those who have been historically marginalized, oppressed, and silenced. You have brought attention to the plight of those who are forced to migrate. You have called for improving international guidelines on asylum, and for creating fairer systems of labor and trade. You have so strongly focused on synodality, and on the participation in Church leadership of people at the local level, that I—a lay Catholic woman scholar and theologian—am frequently asked to speak on these topics by local, national, and international Hispanic and Latin American ministry organizations. Like you, I strongly believe in the inclusion of all, and that life is a fragile gift of God. And yes, this notion of synodality is closely tied to dialogue. But I also think there are problems with using dialogue as the main form of communicating about these things. In fact, like chisme, dialogue can also be hurtful.

We cannot simply say that communication used by people who feel disempowered is negative or sinful.

For example, dialogue often assumes a mutuality that does not exist. It frequently occurs in spaces where power structures have already been established. Dialogue, like any single mode of communication, centralizes some cultures and voices, and therefore marginalizes others. Often, there’s the expectation or assumption that dialogue will be followed up with a written account—which means that whoever has the final “word” in the writing possesses unique power. Unless measures are taken to account for the uneven power dynamics inherently present in dialogue, we are not fully participating in encuentro because at least one party will be guarding themselves against injury and abuse.

There’s already been a lot of criticism about the sexism inherent in the untranslated title of your encyclical, and about the lack of women’s voices among its citations. While you do call for the equality of rights and dignity for women—especially for “those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment and violence, since they are frequently less able to defend their rights”—you do not include sexism among your list of social ills. And though there are vague references to the pain, suffering, and hurt the Catholic Church has caused through the systemic violence of sexual abuse, you do not explicitly address the issue.  

I mention these because this is another way that dialogue can exclude. I carry with me the women who have told me they do not feel safe or welcome to speak out in certain spaces. I hold close the LGBTQ+ persons who want nothing to do with Catholicism (or even with God) because of “dialogues” had in church buildings. And my heart really breaks when I hear from people who have been so abused and broken by persons commissioned through formal Catholic Church structures that “dialogue” may simply bring them more trauma and pain. 

Encyclicals that do not name the change that needs to happen within the Church’s own systems and teaching—in regard to sexism and the deeper work of the theology and ministry of human sexuality—do not help those affected to feel invited into dialogue. As you yourself note: “We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story” (20).


So I am asking you to consider more than one mode of communication to help us build better foundations for caring for and nurturing the fragility of life. (Indeed, Fratelli tutti calls for multiple cultural models as a way toward the common good [12].) I am also asking that we avoid characterizing one as better than the other. We cannot simply say that communication used by people who feel disempowered is negative or sinful, and that the type of communication allowed mostly to those in power is the most positive and productive. We need to pay attention to various types of communication because people use a variety of communications to express both their suffering and their God-talk. That includes chisme.

Encyclicals that do not name the change that needs to happen within the Church’s own systems and teaching do not help those affected to feel invited into dialogue.

You have criticized chisme in the past, saying that it can kill, that it fills the heart with bitterness, that it keeps humans from being holy. You even cautioned hairdressers (90 percent of whom in the United States are women) not to give “into the temptation of gossip that can easily creep into your work environment, as we all know.” And your disdain for chisme was quite evident at the Angelus on September 6, 2020, when you said in discussing unity and fractures in the Church: “The biggest gossiper is the devil, who is always saying bad things about others, because he’s the liar trying to disunite the church, to push away the brother and to not create a community. Please, brothers and sisters, let’s make an effort not to gossip, gossiping is a plague worse than COVID, worse.” 

But in a Church where men have the most power to speak—both in homilies and in official writings—paying attention to chisme is a must. It shouldn’t be condemned as evil. So I would like to raise some points about the significance of chisme, and how it can help us understand life and ultimately lead us to God-talk.

First, engaging in chisme shows human finitude. Chisme often includes how one person has fallen short of what we believe is necessary to live one’s best life. 

Second, chisme allows us to understand ourselves better. It compels us to be self-reflective. Chisme upsets the daily rhythms of life, because it is usually based upon questionable behavior. It can be an interpretative tool that forces us to reexamine ourselves within certain normative contexts. Some say we are always discerning what God asks of our lives. Because chisme makes us engage and interpret moral behavior, it can help us with that discernment. 

Third, chisme provides a way for us to express in daily life that we are humans filled with contradictions. Chisme allows us to check our experiences against those of others and so functions as a language of the people.

Finally, chisme involves both intimacy and vulnerability. We share chisme with people we trust and with whom we wish to build closer relationships. Carmen Nanko-Fernández beautifully made this point about intimacy and vulnerability in discussing the untranslated title of your encyclical on the Commonweal website (“What Francis Means by ‘Fratelli Tutti’”), suggesting you wished to express the title in the language of those you hold dear.

Again, I know chisme can be hurtful. But I am asking you to consider more than just dialogue as a mode of communication in acknowledging the fragility of life and elevating human dignity. As you write in Fratelli tutti: “When the dignity of the human person is respected, and his or her rights recognized and guaranteed, creativity and interdependence thrive, and the creativity of the human personality is released through actions that further the common good” (22).

For all of these reasons, muy querido papa Francisco, and because you call for “a love that integrates and unites,” I beg you to reconsider your stance on chisme. 


This article appeared as part of a symposium on Fratelli tutti in our December 2020 issue, alongside “Freedom & Equality Aren’t Enough by Charles Taylor; Many and One by Vinson Cunningham; and Radical Truths by William T. Cavanaugh.