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What the Catholic Church Is Not, in Four Words

In my discernment that ultimately led to coming into full communion with the Catholic Church, one of my biggest challenges was figuring out just what the Church is. For years as a Protestant, every Sunday I rattled off the same formula that Catholics do: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” I ultimately found some clarity in Lumen Gentium about what these four marks of the Church mean. And I heartily commend paragraphs 811-870 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, along with Bishop Barron’s chapter “The Church” in his recent book Light from Light. But you may find you need to approach the issue a little differently.   Ecclesiology—that is, the study of the Church—is a particularly slippery…

“Shang-Chi” Presents the Strength of Peace and Self-Gift

“You have nothing to fear. You have the heart of our dragon…take everything we’ve given you and make it your own.”  —Ying Li, mother of Shang-Chi Parenthood is one of the most humiliating and awe-inspiring, painful and joyful, thrilling and debilitating experiences this world has to offer. Children, adopted or biological, bear the marks of their parents, the ones that raised them and/or the ones that bore them. Each one of us as imago dei are living icons of this reality. Our image is given to us through God the Father and our likeness—though also given—is enhanced or marred by our relationship with him or lack thereof.  Within any relationship, two persons pass on to one another their own healing or their pain. This is an all-too-common…

Struggling to Listen

 

Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.

Amid the protests in American cities that followed the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the president of the U.S. bishops conference, issued a statement. “It is true what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that riots are the language of the unheard,” Gomez wrote. “We should be doing a lot of listening right now. This time, we should not fail to hear what people are saying through their pain.”

It was a sensitive response, expressing compassion and a humble commitment to “listening” as the necessary first step toward a more just society. It bears no resemblance to the speech Gomez delivered to a Spanish conference earlier this month, a speech that left me wondering who on earth he’s been listening to.

That talk, a keynote address for a conference on “Political Correctness: Liberties in Danger,” was pre-taped and delivered in Spanish but shared as an English text by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In it, Gomez explains that “new social justice movements” that function as “pseudo-religions” have been “unleashed” in American society, and demand resistance from Catholics.

Gomez says that “we should not be intimidated by these new religions of social justice and political identity,” but he sounds pretty intimidated. His first section is conspiratorial and riddled with anti-Semitic tropes, as he describes the rise of “an elite leadership class...that has little interest in religion and no real attachment to the nations they live in...which is in charge in corporations, governments, universities, the media, and in the cultural and professional establishments” and “wants to establish what we might call a global civilization.” Gomez is not building a specifically anti-Semitic argument—there’s nothing specific about his argument at all—but the rhetoric he chooses has a very ugly history, and its presence here is alarming.

“For years now,” Gomez continues, “there has been a deliberate effort in Europe and America to erase the Christian roots of society and to suppress any remaining Christian influences.” Where does this reactionary vision come from? Which people has Gomez been listening to? Certainly not Catholics who work with the Black Lives Matter movement, who could explain how standing up for the dignity of their neighbors is an expression of their faith. Not admirers of Dorothy Day, who would have stopped him from ludicrously suggesting that her example somehow validates his idea that “the ‘social justice’ story” is an atheistic “rival” to Christianity.

It is disorienting to hear a bishop referring pejoratively to “social justice.”

It is disorienting to hear a bishop referring pejoratively to “social justice.” Gomez eventually recognizes this dissonance, then dismisses it with a wave of the hand: “Of course, we all want to build a society that provides equality, freedom, and dignity for every person.” If that is what “we all want,” why the paranoia? Why not begin with that set of priorities and imagine a path forward? Gomez’s next sentence identifies the hang-up: “But we can only build a just society on the foundation of the truth about God and human nature.”

Ah, of course, human nature. “The ‘space’ that the Church and believing Christians are permitted to occupy is shrinking,” Gomez warns. “Holding certain Christian beliefs is said to be a threat to freedoms, and even to the safety, of other groups in our societies.” When bishops start talking like this, you don’t have to be “woke” to know it’s primarily LGBTQ visibility and civil rights they’re complaining about.

If the “certain Christian beliefs” Gomez is referencing are the ones that label same-sex love as sinful and transgender people as delusional, it is true that expressing those beliefs can be uncomfortable, and enforcing them with policy is harder than it once was. Is that, as Gomez claims, because of the nefarious influence of an anti-Christian class of elites? Or is it because people, including many Catholics, have learned that those beliefs are not the truth, and it alienates people when you insult them or their loved ones in the name of Christ?

The Church is still struggling to listen, especially to the voices of the LGBTQ community. It is too threatening to imagine that the Church might yet have something to learn about sex and sexuality, or, worse, might find itself to have been on the side of hate and violence. It seems easier to cry foul, to close ranks.

When Catholic leaders insist on pushing marginalized people back into the shadows, other prophets will step up. The movements for social justice in the United States are not an attack on religion. They are a sign that what Gomez called for in 2020 is happening. People are hearing the voices of the oppressed and the suffering. They are embracing a vision of diversity that is enriching, not frightening; a view of history and humanity that is honest, not manipulative; an approach to politics that is generous and mutual, not defensive and tribal. And if bishops like Gomez are busy inventing reasons to stand in opposition to these efforts—people can hear their voices, too, and that is the real danger the Church ought to worry about.

Issue: 

Harrison Lemke and the Humanity of Art

A couple of years ago, singer-songwriter Harrison Lemke was playing a small house show in my living room. My husband and I had rearranged the furniture so that our little house could accommodate two dozen people. Our four kids were sitting on pillows and local friends as well as a few folks we knew through “Catholic Twitter” (including Lemke and his wife Magdalene) occupied our chairs and couch.  I prayed for all the wrong reasons and you heard me. I prayed and you showed me some weird kind of mercy. Lemke introduced one haunting song with the story behind it. As an elementary student, Lemke had procrastinated on a school project and prayed earnestly that he wouldn’t have to turn it in the next morning in class. The work was still undone. An unexpected windstorm…

Webinar: Charism & Community in an Age of Discernment

Expanding on our November special issue, “The Varieties of Religious Communities Today,” this webinar, grounded en lo Cotidiano, seeks to examine how the charisms of the Church dialogue with our everyday experiences and what it means to build sustainable Christian communities. Trends toward religious disaffiliation and the decline of vocations are an opportunity for discernment, an invitation to reexamine our convictions and to identify emerging practices that will help us flexibly adapt to these transformative times.

Drawing on the experiences and expertise of sociologist, theologian, and novice, we hope this intersection will be a dynamic entry point for expanding our understanding of what it means to live an authentic Christian life, and for discerning a sustainable model of Christian community.

Details below:

Commonweal Conversations: Charism & Community in an Age of Discernment
Monday, December 6
3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT

 

Featuring:

  • Neomi De Anda, theologian and lay Marianist
  • Ann Killian, Novice with the Dominican Sisters of Peace
  • Gustavo Morello, SJ, Jesuit priest and sociologist studying transformations of lived religiosity
    in a conversation moderated by Claudia Avila Cosnahan

 

    Issue: 

    ‘Companions on the Path’

    Fifty-three years after it was founded in Rome by young Catholics moved by the spirit of Vatican II and the European spirit of 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio now counts about fifty thousand members in more than seventy countries. But it is still something of a mystery in the United States. This is due in part to the movement’s name: originally called simply “the Community,” it took the name of the early medieval European monk Sant’Egidio after it was granted use of a seventeenth-century church in Trastevere dedicated to him. It’s also due to the sheer variety of the Community’s efforts. For some, Sant’Egidio is a leading voice against the death penalty. For others, it’s the broker of peace agreements in Mozambique and Burundi late in the twentieth century. Or it’s the inheritor of John Paul II’s precedent-setting meeting of world religious leaders at Assisi in 1986. Or it’s the group that coordinated Pope Francis’s breakthrough journeys to Lesbos and the Central African Republic and helped set up the Vatican’s first shelter for people who are homeless. Finally, Sant’Egidio’s hard-to-define character is due to its limited presence in the United States: informal groups in New York and Washington D.C., at Boston College and the University of Notre Dame, and many “friends” in California. And yet for those of us Americans who have come to know it well, Sant’Egidio is a vital center of our lives as Catholics and a profound source of our confidence in the future of the Church.

    Sant’Egidio’s two most prominent figures in this country are a married couple who came to the United States three decades ago. Paola Piscitelli coordinates the New York group’s Friday-evening prayer service at the Church of the Epiphany, the weekly meal offered to homeless people in Grand Central Station, regular visits to nursing homes, language schools for recent immigrants, and a Christmas Day lunch held at St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral. Andrea Bartoli, a scholar of international relations, has taught and led programs at Columbia and Seton Hall, served in a dean’s role at George Mason University, and now heads the new Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue. I recently interviewed them in New York.

    Paul Elie: Most accounts of Sant’Egidio begin with its founding in Rome in 1968 and carry the story forward from there. Let’s go in the other direction. What is the Community in the United States now, and what does it mean for you to be a part of it?  

    Paola Piscitelli: It’s a challenge, first of all. Andrea and I grew up in the Community in Rome, and when we came here almost thirty years ago, we didn’t have much of a relationship with the United States: we’d met some people from Taizé at Dayton, that’s all. So there was the challenge: How are we going to speak about our experience to people here? We faced a Church that was not very friendly to movements, that was very much shaped around the parish, for worse or for better. At first we were perceived as a foreign body: “Are you a cult or something?” I don’t know why, because movements have been part of the Church from the very beginning. So here was this “community” that sounded a little funny, and the challenge was: How are we going to fit?              

    Now I think we are in a beautiful moment for the Community, in a way that is very mysterious. At a time when everything was locked down, the Community blossomed, encountering people who wanted to do something—people uneasy about the lockdown, uneasy about the Church, wanting to be together rather than alone. Some were coming from a parish, some were not, some were not coming from any religious background all…but they found in the Community that moment of unity and commitment or encounter with the poor that they were looking for.

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    PE: Can you describe the form the Community takes in the United States?

    Andrea Bartoli: Sant’Egidio is a space of prayer, service, and friendship, and there is a faithfulness to that that comes into the weekly rhythms. Sant’Egidio started serving food to the poor in Grand Central Station twelve years ago, and never missed a Tuesday, not even during the pandemic: everything was closed, and it was the homeless and Sant’Egidio on the street. The prayer service is also very faithful, because it’s not only in the parish of Epiphany on Friday, it’s also at the Hopkins Center nursing home in Brooklyn on Sunday. Sant’Egidio is with the new Americans from Burkina Faso and elsewhere who learn English from us; it’s with the kids from Our Savior in the Bronx, who meet every week for tutoring and counseling. So Sant’Egidio in New York is meeting and doing something every day now. True, it took thirty years before blossoming, but we don’t mind.

    PP: The Church is a long story.

    AB: I think it’s important to bring the Church back to a structure that speaks to the present—a sense that we are all sharing the future, and the future is not hopeless. Sant’Egidio is for those who are trying to say, “Okay, the world is a little problematic, but it’s good to hope, and it’s good to be committed to doing a little something, because we can make changes.” We can make changes on the death penalty, on refugees. We can teach English to people who could not speak English before. We can visit the elderly in a nursing home. There is so much we can do.

    PP: Until recently, we didn’t have anybody who was paid. This is a surprise for people: How can you make anything work without people being paid? Whenever you have a structure, you have a paid staff, and in the parish, when you have something you need doing, you look for a staff person.

    We invite people to do what the Church has always done: prayer, service with the poor, and friendship.

    PE: In 1993, parish life was still strong, the number of priests relatively high, and religious movements were mainly associated with education. Since then the number of priests has halved, the clergy have been discredited by priestly sexual abuse, and the parishes and schools are not central the way they were. In the circumstances, is Sant’Egidio making a different kind of sense to people than it did thirty years ago?

    [Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, or reading group? Click here for a free discussion guide.]

    AB: Yes. In this space that is so different, Sant’Egidio is received as a steady point of reference. We invite people to do what the Church has always done: prayer, service with the poor, and friendship, with a centrality to the Gospel as the center of life. It’s an old Christian calling, but done by lay people who take their vocations seriously. And vocation is significant. We do feel called, not just that we are just “volunteers.”

    PE: The service for the victims of gun violence at New York’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral a few years back was like nothing I’d seen in the Church in the United States: the names of victims from all fifty states were read out, along with the circumstance in which they were killed—thus tying the service to the Community’s Litany of the Martyrs—in which martyrs from the first century to the present are remembered. Will that be done again?

    AB: That started after the president of Sant’Egidio [Marco Impagliazzo in Rome] came to us and said: “Look around, America has a problem with guns and a problem with violence.” And it’s a beautiful thing; it’s what Sant’Egidio can be for America. Because an encounter with another is not only an encounter with a living person; it can be an encounter with a dead person. In this sense, Sant’Egidio has “met” a lot of dead people, Óscar Romero being the first. Romero died in El Salvador in 1980, and then Sant’Egidio took his memory and started doing the Litany of the Martyrs [in its prayer service], remembering Romero on the day of his death. That morphed into the remembering of all of the martyrs—an incredible transformation.

    Now the litany for victims of gun violence continues in Washington D.C., at St. Stephen’s Church [on Pennsylvania Avenue]—the Kennedy parish. It seemed to us that it would be good for the prayer service to be a place where the community offers the memory of those who are killed in a particular city that month. So in Washington, every month we keep in memory every person who was killed by guns that month. It’s our way of looking at a city differently because we are Christians. The company of Jesus is giving us a different eye, a different heart, a different memory. We pay attention to those killed with guns: we remember their names, remember where they were killed.

    PP: The names are very important. In today’s prayer [the daily prayer of Sant’Egidio, found in thirteen languages at santegidio.org] there is the passage about Zacchaeus. And Jesus is calling Zacchaeus by name. This is our experience of poverty. It’s never “the poor.” It is a person with a name. “Filomena”: Filomena was the first elderly woman we met on the periferia, the outskirts of Rome [where the Community did its first work]. She had long hair; she was admitted to a nursing home, and they cut off her hair, and she let herself die. Our weekly “Prayer for the Refugees” remembers the names of people who died seeking refuge. There is a liturgy we just did for the first time at Our Saviour [on Park Avenue, near Grand Central Station]: “remembering our homeless friends who passed away.” It is very important that the name doesn’t die. It is the name of an encounter.

    AB: The service for victims of gun violence is something we hope to replicate everywhere. So imagine this being an invitation. Imagine that after this article appears, someone in Louisville, Kentucky, says: “We would like to do the same! We can do a liturgy for those who have been killed with guns.” Sant’Egidio is very “invitational” in that way. The Gospel is always inviting us to something else; there is a movement of the spirit that is telling us, “This is the time to try for more.”

    PE: Who is the Community in New York now, and how do they find you? One by one?

    PP: Yes, one by one, definitely. In New York, we have a group of fifty or sixty people. Some come through the parishes, or they have lost their job, and they want to use their time, or they are retired. These are the people you meet at prayer, and at the Christmas lunch. For me, someone who has lived the Community as my identity, my vocation, these are my brothers and sisters. I call them companions on the path. Some of them are becoming unexpectedly close. So I ask myself: How am I going to communicate this so that it is going to last beyond me? And I tell myself: through the prayers, through the meetings, through the encounters, one by one.

    AB: The Christmas lunch: it’s bizarre, when you think about it. Why do you want to do Christmas not in your house? Why do you want to be in a Church, and serve the poor, who have nobody? But that’s exactly what the Gospel says. And so you look around you and say, why not, once a year, do what the Gospel says? And when you actually do it, then what you discover is that you have not fifty people, not sixty, but hundreds of people, and you don’t know who is serving and who is being served. 

    PE: So much of my own sense of Sant’Egidio comes from its presence in Rome and its work abroad. How important are its efforts and profile internationally to the Community here in the United States? Communion & Liberation, say, has brought American members to its annual meeting in Rimini and bound them into the movement that way.   

    PP: Ah. That is not our way—we don’t have the money. But an effort is made. One woman wanted to go to Rome and see the Community there, so we offered her our air miles. That is the way.  

    AB: And there are Americans in Rome who went to Lesbos and worked with the refugees there.

    PE: Andrea, you’re now leading the Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue. What does that mean for your work as a scholar and dean?

    AB: We started the foundation as an American entity, to study more this work that Sant’Egidio has done on peace, because there are not so many places where these things can be done. I still have an academic appointment as a CORE Fellow at Seton Hall. I’m developing a new course on Catholic peace stories, because many people do not have a sense of how Catholics have worked for peace over the centuries. And there is, we believe, a very deep rediscovery of the involvement of Catholics with peace, expressed by John XXIII in Pacem in terris and then very beautifully by John Paul II. It was this involvement that Sant’Egidio took on. First there was the Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986; then there was the peace agreement for Mozambique in 1992. The prayer came first—the prayer comes first.

    Fundamentally, we in Sant’Egidio believe that peacemaking requires the discipline to, as the psalm says, “Seek peace and pursue it.” There is a double dimension, both seeking and pursuing. You cannot just seek peace; you really need to go after it. And we believe that the Church needs to rediscover that. At the beginning we would say “prayer, friendship, and service.” Now we are saying “prayer, poor, and peace”—the three p’s that Pope Francis associated with Sant’Egidio. There is clearly a vocation to peace, and we’re trying to better understand what it means to be called to this peace that is not just for you, not just for me, but for everyone. 

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    Issue: 

    From Gundam to God: Tyler McNabb and Reformed Epistemology

    Tyler McNabb, PhD, is an associate professor of philosophy currently teaching at the University of St. Joseph in Macau on the south coast of China. Previously, he was an assistant professor at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of several well-regarded books, including Religious Epistemology (Elements in the Philosophy of Religion) and the co-author of Plantingian Religious Epistemology and World Religions. He spoke with the Word on Fire Institute’s Matt Nelson about reformed epistemology and how his teenage crisis of faith brought him to where he is today. This is the first in Word on Fire’s periodic series “The Evangelizer’s Path.” Matt Nelson: First of all, can you say something about how you came to pursue philosophy as a professional vocation? Dr. McNabb:…

    The Heroic Face of the Innocents

    We are the Church of the saints. That's the message of a fine collection of stories titled, "The Heroic Face of Innocence," by George Bernanos, author of "The Diary of a Country Priest." Ellyn von Huben reviews the volume today.

    Sisters on the Move

     

    Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.

    When Sr. Mary Daniel, OP, entered the Dominican Sisters of St Mary’s, New Orleans, in 1958, she thought she knew what the rest of her life would be like: life in a large motherhouse with her sisters and a steady job as a teacher, nurse, or catechist. After the Second Vatican Council, though, everything changed. Religious life underwent sweeping renewal, and Dominican sisters reclaimed their order’s charism of itinerant preaching. Sr. Daniel, then middle-aged, traveled to Berkeley to study theology, later becoming pastoral associate of several parishes in Mississippi, where she regularly preached at Eucharist. “What I admire about women entering religious life today,” she told me, “is that you know everything will change. And you’re entering anyway.”

    As a second-year novice with the Dominican Sisters of Peace, I’m inspired by Sr. Daniel’s willingness not simply to embrace change, but to undergo total transformation. It’s no secret that congregations of women religious are dwindling in the United States; in just a few decades, my fellow Catholic sisters and I will number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. We will no longer own extensive properties, nor will we sponsor large institutions like schools or hospitals. In fact, our leaders are currently divesting of such assets, establishing canonical structures to pass governance on to others. Whatever else the future brings, it will doubtless require extensive discernment. 

    Fortunately, our sisters have a wealth of experience in that department, having ventured into emerging ministries decades before the institutional Church would recognize the need for them. Anticipating the environmental crisis as early as the 1970s, Dominicans opened farms and ecology centers to preach the goodness of creation. Jane Belanger, OP, studied sustainable agriculture and began working in eco-justice ministry, first in Ohio and later in Kansas. Other sisters got involved with populations at the margins of the American economy. Witnessing the poverty and neglect suffered by migrant farmworkers, Janice Thome, OP, and Roserita Weber, OP, learned Spanish so they could accompany the growing Latinx population near the Tyson beef plant in Dodge City, Kansas. These ministries have borne fruit, but now the sisters must face the prospect that there will not be other sisters to succeed them. Letting go and trusting that their work has not been in vain will require deep faith in Christ’s promise of resurrection.

    [Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, or reading group? Click here for a free discussion guide.]

    Our sisters have acted on the same faith before. In 2009, following a decade of discernment, they chose to let go of their lifelong religious identities and came together to form a new congregation, the Dominican Sisters of Peace. The story that I’ve heard most often since entering the order, and the one I love the most, is about how we received the name “peace.” The sisters voted over two weekends, with half gathered in one place and half in another. Of fifty possible names, including a whole string of Dominican saints, “peace” hardly made the list. However, at the first gathering, an elderly sister addressed the assembly. “What the world needs now more than anything,” she said, “is Christ’s gift of peace.” Her words made a powerful impression. The results of the first vote were kept secret; nevertheless, a similar leaning swept the second gathering. “Peace” was the nearly unanimous selection. After such a powerful movement of the Spirit, the sisters say that God named us “peace.” It’s an invitation for every sister to ask herself how God is calling her to build and preach peace.

    That’s what it means for us to be co-creators of God’s just future.

    Community is an essential part of that vocation. During my first year in the congregation, I lived in Columbus, Ohio, with sisters from Kansas, Michigan, Louisiana, New York, Massachusetts, China, Cuba, Ireland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Many were in their seventies and eighties; socialized in such different regional and ethnic cultures, and hailing from different founding congregations, they had learned to navigate sensitive differences and dwell peaceably under one roof. Sharing meals and celebrating Eucharist together fosters their mutual care and respect. For me, their multicultural community remains a sign of hope in a time of division.

    Pope Francis has called us to be “a poor Church, for the poor,” and I see the strategic planning that our sisters are carrying out today as a model for the wider Church, both in the United States and worldwide. In light of changing demographics, our leaders are right-sizing. Relinquished properties in Louisiana and Massachusetts have been converted into land conservancies; a former motherhouse in Michigan now belongs to the local school district. Our predominantly white sisters are also educating themselves about racism and white supremacy to build a more inclusive community for the future. Committed to nonviolence and peace-building, our congregation has advocated for an end to gun violence, human trafficking, and the death penalty. That’s what it means for us to be co-creators of God’s just future.

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    What a rich inheritance, passed on to me by the Dominican sisters who have gone before, itinerant preachers all. Trusting in the Spirit’s guidance, they have spent their lives constantly on the move, changing place and custom to meet the emerging needs of the people of God. As I join them on this journey into mystery and ponder the future, I’m encouraged by the thought that our God once chose Israel, “the smallest of peoples,” to bring forth a blessing to the nations.

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    Humanity Going Meta to Become All About Itself

    In David Fincher’s brilliant 2010 film The Social Network, Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, sums up the goal of Mark Zuckerberg’s burgeoning Facebook company, telling him: “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet.” Parker’s words, written by Aaron Sorkin, have proved to be eerily accurate. We all have our own platform and audience. We all create our own reality with our smartphones. In a manner of speaking, we are all our own pope of our own religion. It’s all diabolical. And behind it all (according to the film) is a young man who wanted to get back at an ex-girlfriend by equipping Harvard men—the elite of the elite—with a simple tool to rate the attractiveness of co-eds. The Social…