The Church Needs to Plan for the Recovery

Cue the cliché: We are living in unprecedented times. Actually, in some ways we aren’t. The world–and specifically here I’m going to address the situation of the Catholic Church–has faced pandemics before and much worse ones at that. We’ve seen lockdowns and separation from the sacraments and all and I don’t want to retread that familiar ground.

But what’s unprecedented this time is the ability to connect with one another despite our separation. Since the the beginning of the US lockdowns in March (and before that in Italy and other places in Europe), we’ve seen how we can still connect, do our work, go to school, order groceries and takeout, entertain ourselves, and most importantly, pray together through our computers and phones and tablets. It’s especially gratifying to see how our priests and parishes have responded in an almost entirely grassroots manner to provide us with live-streamed Masses when we were cut off from our communal celebrations in our churches (sometimes to hilarious, Facebook-filter effect). Kudos to the men of the collar for stepping up, often in areas they weren’t comfortable in, to figure out to get connected and online and streaming, almost instantly.

But as the weeks drag on and we receive increasingly dire predictions for how long we’re going to be like this, questions arise. Yes, even as some states have started to ease restrictions, many lockdowns will last into June at least. And even then, we are warned, life will not go back to pre-February 2020. We will continue to have restrictions on gatherings and requirements to maintain distance and/or wear masks and more. We are also warned that a second wave of the coronavirus will probably hit us in the fall, perhaps even worse than the first wave. This is our life for the time being.

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Why Transparency in the Church Matters

It’s frustrating as a Catholic to see our internal problems air in the media sometimes and realize how nobody is quite wrong, but neither are they quite right, and yet so much damage is done by not being forthright and open.

Take the case of St. Mary’s Parish in Winchester, here in the Archdiocese of Boston. Boston magazine lays out the story from the point of view of the former pastoral associate: He worked at the parish for decades, alongside the longtime pastor1, who had gained a major following in the parish, which had become prosperous and very active. Then as pastoral leadership was changing, a standard archdiocesan audit uncovered potential evidence of financial impropriety that eventually involved the FBI. But after the initial flurry of news and worry, nothing more was ever said and despite this employee’s repeated inquiries, no one would say what happened. That resulted in him clashing with the new pastor, with archdiocesan employees, and an auxiliary bishop and eventually his dismissal. This has all led to a once-thriving parish shedding members who have gone to other parishes or–worse–stopped practicing their faith, and of course massive financial shortfalls.

It’s like a bad two-act play that the Church keeps acting out over and over and over.
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In A Crisis of Purpose, We Stop to Consider What God Wills for Us

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker last night in his press conference announcing mandatory closure of non-essential business and a stay-at-home advisory said something that caught my attention. He was musing on the existential oppression being felt by so many people stuck in their homes day after day, unable to work or engage in their usual social or civic activities. He said that for many, their purpose has been stripped away. Without the need to get up every morning, get dressed, commute to work, work hard all day, take the kids to sports or other events, being part of religious organizations, meeting friends–they’ve lost a sense of purpose in their lives. They are rudderless.

It makes me wonder if that’s one of the goods that God will draw out of this evil. Perhaps we had collectively found our purpose in the wrong things. Not bad things. Certainly necessary things. But not the purpose of our being. If my purpose–or to put in a way more familiar to Catholics, my vocation— is in my job or my social life or my volunteer work or anything else, even though they be very good, then I may have missed the mark. My essential purpose, the very fundamental purpose that underlies everything is, as the old Baltimore Catechism told us, to know God, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. My vocation is how I do all that through my state in life, whether in marriage, priesthood, religious life, or the single life. Everything else flows from that.

But how often we get the priority wrong. How often does knowing and loving God take a back seat to my job, my activities, my busy-ness? How often does loving my family fall into second place to the demands of my job? There’s also a trap in thinking that loving my family is all the stuff we shuttle them around to, the things we do. It’s certainly a part of it, but it begins before that in connecting with them. With our kids, in loving them, forming them, forming their faith. With our spouse, in loving them, helping them in their journey toward heaven, in growing in relationship with Christ and being ever more open to the graces of the Holy Spirit.

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Where Would We Go, Lord?

I have to be honest, I don’t get all the angst about staying Catholic. Don’t get me wrong; this may be my own moral failing, an inability to get sufficiently upset at how bad things are. But when I read other Catholics write about how they struggle with staying Catholic despite all the scandals and how it’s the sacraments that keep them in the pews and that the constant drumbeat of bad bishops, faithless laity, and narcissistic priests has them one foot out the door … I don’t get it.

I mean, have you seen humanity? Have you read the Bible? When has it ever been different?

Yes, what bishops and popes and priests do is important. Yes, I fully support airing out the dirty laundry and confronting our sins. Lord knows, I’ve been writing about it professionally and personally for the past 20 years.1 But what does that have to do with my faith?

God is still God. He’s still in Heaven. Jesus is still Jesus. He’s still in the tabernacle. The Holy Spirit still fills my heart and soul. The saints are still the cloud of witnesses; they still inspire and educate through their example and intercede in their prayers. The sacraments still fill me with grace. My prayers still ascend. I still talk to my children about the Light of Christ within them.

Why should some news story suck that out of me? Why should the loss of a priest threaten that? Or a bishop’s failure to govern or to attain personal holiness? If Christ cannot be found in the newspaper stories or articles shared on Facebook, He can be found in my brother on the street. The face of Christ is in my sister panhandling on the corner.

In the end, what could possibly separate me from the Church, the Body of Christ? Nothing, that’s what.

A couple of years ago, I decided I would no longer argue about theology or the scandals or Church controversies online.2 Because, what’s the point? Will I change someone’s mind with a well-crafted bon mot… or more likely an attempted barrage of invective? No, I doubt it. Yes, I read to be informed, but I don’t need that break in my peace any more because I know that Christ is still king no matter how much we endeavor to screw up the Church down here. And if God wants the Church to be fixed and the pews to be full of people, He will do it. And if He wants the pews to be empty for a while, that’s His prerogative. As for me, there’s nowhere else to go. There’s nowhere else I want to go. Where would I go?

  1. This blog, especially in its first 6 years, was a compendium of the rot that had entered into the Church.
  2. Which I have managed, with notable lapses.

The Lone Pundit and the Archdiocese of Boston

Have you ever noticed that reporters tend to go to the same pundits when reporting on particular subjects and sometimes rely on a single pundit to comment? And those stories often seem tailor-made for that pundit to comment on?

So in today’s Boston Herald, the reporter goes to Peter Borre of the so-called Council of Parishes, a tiny organization that purports to represent Boston Catholics, but which apparently has a tiny membership and almost no public footprint1, to comment on the “news” that the Archdiocese of Boston has hired a consultant to help with parish fundraising.

I worked in the Archdiocese of Boston’s fundraising arm for several years and then in a parish for several more. I am well aware of the deficiencies in fundraising in the Archdiocese. I also know that dioceses hiring consultants to help parishes with increased offertory campaigns or capital campaigns is as run-of-the-mill as hiring waste disposal firms to take away the trash. This is not news and one wonders why it is that the Herald decided this was news and perhaps whether the reporter called the pundit or the pundit called the reporter.

The Archdiocese of Boston has hired a fundraising agency to boost donations for parishes — an expense that shouldn’t be necessary with all the employees raising money in the finance department, a Catholic Church watchdog said Tuesday. … Borre told the Herald, “The use of an outside firm surprises me. They have salaried people in the finance department who are supposed to be pretty good at fundraising.”

Borre’s complaint is off-base. Fundraising doesn’t happen in the finance department. Fundraising is a separate function done by Boston Catholic Development Services, a department of the archdiocese which does fundraising for the clergy health and retirement fund, Catholic schools, and the annual Catholic Appeal that funds the operations of the Archdiocese.2 They also provide fundraising services and assistance to related Catholic entities within the Archdiocese, like parishes. There are definitely criticisms that can be leveled against the fundraising practices of the archdiocese and questions raised about the relative size and expense of BCDS compared to their results, but neither the reporter or the pundit come close to those.

You could also point out that lack of funding is not primarily a problem of extracting more money from the people left in the pews, but one of evangelization and discipleship (i.e. not more dollars per person, but more persons at the same dollar level).

But this Herald article is bunk, a criticism of a common and standard practice, and its reliance on a self-described Catholic Church watchdog is deceptive and religion reporters need to do a better job than this.

  1. They have a Facebook page with almost no followers and very little activity and a domain name that doesn’t have a web site. And their Facebook page links approvingly to information about schismatic parishes.
  2. Unlike some dioceses, the annual Appeal does not fund Catholic Charities. They do their own fundraising.

Breaking the Vow of Secrecy in the Conclave

2013 Conclave cardinals walking into St. Peter's

America Magazine in its latest issue has an extended excerpt from a new book by their Vatican correspondent that reveals what happened inside the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis. While this may be interesting for many reasons, it’s also unfortunate since it means one or more people broke a sacred vow.

Everyone who participates in the conclave, whether a cardinal or one of the many Vatican support workers on site, take a vow to maintain the inviolate and secret nature of the process to avoid the sorts of pressures that the selection of the Pontiff has undergone in history. If they are able to deliberate and choose in private, the cardinals are freed from worry that others will now how they voted or that the college was divided or that the new pontiff did not have certain amounts of support or support from particular people in his election. To that end, the Vatican goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure the privacy, from the prosaic like blacking out windows to the sophisticated like using advanced technology to sweep for bugs and block any kind of signals.

So the obvious question is whether this extraordinary breach of trust revealed anything worth mentioning. Read More and Comment

Kicking Old Ladies to the Curb and Catholic Values

elderly woman

According to a news report today, a group of elderly women living in a residence for lower income seniors are being forced out of their homes to make way for younger, more affluent residents by the religious order that has owned the place since the 1940s.

Let’s stipulate that news reports don’t always get the whole story and that this particular one doesn’t have a response from the religious order in it. Here’s the deal: Our Lady’s Guild in Boston has been run by the Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception, whose mother house is in New Britain, Connecticut, since 1947. Its founding charitable aim was to provide safe and affordable housing for single, working, retired, or student women. That last one is key here. And while the order now claims the housing was supposed to be temporary or transitional, they have allowed residents to stay for decades at a time.

In 2012, the order hired a new realty management firm, which began to raise the modest rents. In 2014, long-time residents were informed they would have to move out by the summer of 2018. The property management company also began to advertise higher rents aimed at younger women, prominently international students. The residents have filed a complaint with the city’s fair housing agency that the order is engaged in age discrimination, noting that an ad for renters said it was a residence for women 18 to 50. In 2011, three-quarters of the residents were over 50.

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Reporting Systems are Fine; What We Need is Strong Leadership

Cardinal Seán O'Malley

Cardinal Seán O’Malley is instituting a new system for reporting misconduct by bishops of the Archdiocese of Boston. Of course, it’s mainly symbolic, but it sends a challenge to his brother bishops in the US and beyond to take similar action.

The new phone number and web site is similar to one that was set up in 2011 to report financial misconduct in the archdiocese from a company that specializes in setting up whistleblower systems for corporations and organizations.

At the moment, the only people it covers are the cardinal himself and his auxiliaries and his authority to institute it comes from his sovereign authority as bishop.

And therein lies a problem. The system exists at the will of the man who sits in the chair. Any successor of his could turn it off at a whim. The same is true for every other diocese.

The cure for these situations, like that of Ted McCarrick, the former cardinal and laicized cleric, is not that we need a reporting system. The solution can only come from having leaders willing to take action against those who undermine the Church, steep themselves in sin, and drive the nails through Christ into the cross by their abuse of the innocent or protecting those who do.

Cardinal Seán’s action is a good first step, but there are no easy solutions. What we need is for the Holy Spirit to bring us new strong and Christ-like bishops and for that we can only pray.

When is Bread Not Bread?

Eucharist held in the hand

The upcoming Pan-Amazon Synod for the Catholic bishops of the region has been gaining controversy for some of its controversial proposals, but this one is the worst yet.

One proposal wants to replace the wheat bread used to confect the Eucharist with a bread-like food made from yuca, a starchy tuber that grows in South America, Africa, and Asia. Msgr. Charles Pope sounds the alarm on this one by pointing out that the only valid matter for the Eucharist is bread made of wheat flour and water and nothing else. Not rice, not yuca, nothing.

Like other tubers, yuca can be used to make gluten-free “bread.” But it is not bread — it is merely bread-like. By definition, bread is made with grain. The Church has long been quite specific that the bread for the Holy Eucharist must be made with pure wheat flour. Nothing is to be admixed—no honey, no nuts, no other grains. This purity is necessary for validity.

I recall many years ago attending a Mass in the Diocese of Richmond near Virginia Beach at which the bread used for the Eucharist was leavened with yeast and had honey and, I think even raisins or nuts. It wasn’t good bread and it wasn’t the Eucharist. It was only one of the liturgical abuses present in that Mass.

Anyway, the reason they want to replace actual wheat bread for fake bread in the Amazon is apparently because it’s so humid there that the wheat hosts become mushy and, they claim, no longer bread. So, the bread is no longer bread and must be replaced with something that is not bread either?

We need clear instructions from Rome that this is unacceptable because down this path leads the denial of the sacrament to many of the faithful.

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