Pope Francis used his third day at Rome’s Gemelli hospital to visit children hospitalized in the oncology ward and to confer the sacrament of baptism on a tiny infant named Miguel Angel.
The child, who was just a few weeks old, was sleeping peacefully in a portable hospital bassinet as the pope and the mother prepared for the sacrament and medical staff looked on March 31. The Holy See press office provided a video of the baptism and other images of the pope’s visit to the pediatric ward.
The pope was given a small metal emesis basin filled with water. Reciting the baptismal formula in Spanish, he sprinkled the water with his hand on the baby, who loudly protested the sudden shower. He urged the mother to go ahead and try and comfort the infant while the pope made his own attempts by soothing the child’s face and tapping his mouth.
The pope wrote out by hand the baptismal certificate as seen in another image, which also showed the pope’s left wrist wrapped in gauze and an elastic bandage.
The pope spent about 30 minutes visiting the ward, bringing the children rosaries, large chocolate Easter eggs and copies of the book « Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. »
The surprise visit came the day after the pope enjoyed a pizza « party » with staff on his second night at Rome’s Gemelli hospital.
In the evening of March 30, « Pope Francis had dinner, eating pizza together with those assisting him throughout the days of his hospital stay, » that is, doctors, nurses, assistants and members of the Vatican police, the Vatican press office said March 31.
After breakfast on March 31, « he read some newspapers and resumed work, » it said.
Francis was expected to be able to return to his Vatican residence April 1, the press office said, although the final decision would depend on the results of tests carried out early March 31.
Matteo Bruni, head of the press office, later confirmed the 86-year-old pope’s « presence » at the Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square April 2.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, said, « With the pope at each celebration, there will be a cardinal celebrant who will be at the altar, » the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica reported March 31.
It all just feels so hopeless. Another mass shooting in America. At least three elementary school children and three of their teachers murdered in Nashville, Tennessee. A space designed for learning turned instead into a killing field. A community that will never, ever be the same. Survivors and family who will carry unimaginable grief, trauma, heartbreak for generations to come.
And yet, and yet, and yet. We know all too well how this song goes. « Thoughts and prayers » will be on offer aplenty. But the NRA and other gun lobbies will exert pressure on Congress. Passage of sensible gun control measures will be deemed out of reach. It’s just too radical, of course, too inimical to our exceptional, untouchable American ideal of liberty.
The chorus repeats, awaiting a new verse. Nashville will be followed by somewhere else, just as it was preceded by Uvalde, and Buffalo, and Sacramento, and San Jose, and Colorado Springs, and Indianapolis, and Rock Hill, and Boulder, and on, and on.
If only, if only. If only someone could take the country by the shoulders and scream the scream of a mother, or a father, or a grandparent, or an aunt, or an uncle now looking to years and years of pain and someone always missing from their kitchen table.
If only, if only. If only someone could speak with a voice of unquestioned moral authority and say, « No more, not again, we must do something this time! » We are better than having to send our children — our children! — off to school each day, knowing that any person can walk in with an assault weapon and annihilate them.
« Don’t tell me that guns aren’t the problem, people are. I’m sick of hearing it, » he said on Twitter. « The darkness first takes our children who then kill our children, using the guns that are easier to obtain than aspirin. We sacralize death’s instruments and then are surprised that death uses them. »
We’re sick of hearing it, too. We’re also sick of hearing the same song, always with a new verse — but always one where more of our children are butchered and no one in authority does anything. How long must this song go on?
On Jan. 24, 2023, the Doomsday Clock moved to a minute and a half before midnight — 90 seconds for the human community to choose life. The response to this news has been predictable. Many aren’t even aware of it; others shrug their shoulders. Some feel their anxiety spike, others zone out on social media while some sink deeper into despair. Others, in a bizarre instance of credulity, welcome it as a sign of the coming rapture. And still others — perhaps the majority — say, « Somebody should do something! »
But what if that somebody is « us » — you and I, the communal « we » of the human community? And, for us Catholics, the communal « we » as disciples of the nonviolent Christ.
What if we gave up nuclear weapons for Lent? Is this just an off-the-wall question? Or does it focus our attention on a central issue of our time? What if the human community is waiting for our spiritual traditions to reclaim their moral backbone and demand that the nine nuclear nations begin giving up their weapons, followed by dismantling them for good? For the good of the planet. For the good of humanity. For the hope of the future.
Whatever our response to the Doomsday Clock, there is little doubt regarding the crisis to which it points. As the Russian army masses for a spring offensive in Ukraine, Putin continues to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, including withdrawing from the new START treaty. On the other side, escalating the war further, NATO and the United States deliver more and better weapons to Ukraine. With spy balloons and displays of military in the Taiwan Strait, China also challenges the global reach of the U.S. And predictably, following the pathological pattern of war, each side blames the other, raising the geopolitical stakes and escalating the conflict toward the brink of World War III.
Meanwhile, beneath, beyond or amid all this conflict, the quiet river of Catholic seasons flows, once more, into the season of Lent. We hear the usual question, « What are you giving up for Lent? » It may be a familiar question, but I believe it is the wrong question.
To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that the individual practice of penance is not important or praiseworthy. Obviously, it remains a legitimate form of self-sacrifice that prepares us for the Easter mysteries. But, at its core, Lent is less about individual penance, and more about communal conversion.
It is the Body of Christ in the world today — the entire people of God — that is called to participate in the dying and rising Christ. This communal journey is, in turn, focused not on individual sinfulness but on systemic sin. Jesus didn’t die to assuage God’s anger for our personal sins. He was put to death because he named the demons — the systemic evil — in the cultural and religious arrangements of his day: the brutal imperial occupation, the collaboration of religious leaders with Rome in the oppression of the poor, the exclusion of lepers, the lame, the blind and the ritually « unclean. »
The most urgent pro-life issues facing us today are the climate crisis, the nuclear threat and war — what Pope Frances describes as « a third world war fought piecemeal. » Unless we confront these threats, any other concerns about human reproduction, gender identity or sexual morality will, in effect, be moot. Last year the U.S. defense budget totaled more than the next nine countries combined. It is a dangerous illusion to speak of this as necessary for international security. It is, on the contrary, heightening the insecurity of the human community. Instead of funding climate change mitigation and other basic human needs, our elected leaders are handing over record profits to weapons manufacturers.
In striking contrast, during his 2019 visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pope Francis reiterated his condemnation of nuclear weapons: « The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral. »
Pope Francis’ statement highlights another source of tension in the contemporary church. His vision is, to state it gently, out of sync with most of the Catholic community in the United States. Or, to put it more directly, there is a chasm between the official teaching of the church on nuclear weapons and the convictions of most Catholics, including bishops, priests and laity.
If, for example, a priest, deacon or lay woman gave a homily based on the words of Pope Francis, while making refence to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and quoting from Archbishop John Wester’s 2022 pastoral letter (« Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: Toward a Conversation on Nuclear Disarmament« ), as these are grounded in the teaching of Christ, the result would, in many parishes, be resistance — whether silent or vocal. A few parishioners would likely walk out.
Why this chasm and its polarizing fallout? We are, as author and Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry reminds us, « in between stories. » The old story of unlimited progress, free market capitalism, systemic racism, economic inequality and pursuing peace through military victory is still in place. But the new story (which is as ancient as the Hebrew prophets and as perennial as the Gospel) is stirring like a seed in spring. This Lent provides a graced opportunity for this vision to find expression in communal metanoia — a radical change in our collective moral mindset: a willingness to leave behind political, cultural and religious assumptions that have become, at their core, unjust and violent.
I take heart in Jesuit Fr. Dan Berrigan’s conviction that every nuclear weapon is a blasphemy against the resurrection, which he describes as « the hope that hopes on. » With my other sisters and brothers who strive to be, in the image of Pope Francis, « artisans of peace, » I choose to walk in this same stubborn hope. If the Spirit that « blows where it will » is able to transform minds and hearts this Lent, it will be another step toward reclaiming the nonviolent path of the crucified and risen Jesus.
A couple of weeks ago, a conservative Catholic magazine named me the second-worst Jesuit in the United States — No. 1 was my friend Fr. Jim Martin.
I was disappointed in the article: I should have been No. 1. After all, I hired and mentored Jim when I was editor of the Jesuit news and opinion journal America, but this is clearly a case of the student outshining his teacher. I write about the Vatican; Jim influences Vatican policy.
My conservative critics would be surprised to learn that, as a high school student and young seminarian, at a time when everyone around me was enamored with John Kennedy, I was a Goldwater Republican. I even had a subscription to the National Review.
When I entered the Jesuit seminary at Los Gatos, California, in 1962, just prior to Vatican II, I was very comfortable with the church as it was in the 1950s, when the Jesuits were described as the pope’s Marines.
What happened to change me?
In our extremely conservative novitiate, the director of novices imbued us with a traditional spirituality in which obedience to superiors is considered a response to the voice of God. But he also taught us not to be judgmental. Thinking you are better than others is a sign of pride and arrogance, he said, especially if you are passing judgment on a person’s thoughts and motivations, which you cannot see.
This fundamental teaching, plus my natural shyness, stuck with me when the Second Vatican Council seemed to change everything. It kept me from condemning everyone who did not follow the rules. (Only when I became an editorial writer, years later, did I break out of my shell.)
For the first four years of my seminary training, however, we were not even told that the Second Vatican Council was taking place. We had no radio, television or newspapers during this time.
Somehow, I learned about the council and asked the seminary rector if I and a friend (another Republican) could have a copy of the council documents. After much debate among the faculty, the two of us were given the documents; the other seminarians didn’t get them for another couple of months.
Ultimately, it was the council that liberated me from traditionalism. My training in traditional obedience made me receptive to the council teachings, which, after all, came from the pope and the hierarchy. If this is what the pope wanted, then as a good Jesuit, I should salute and follow. Sadly, today’s conservatives do not do this when Pope Francis points the way.
The council documents opened my eyes to a greater understanding of the liturgy, the role of the church in the world, social justice, ecumenism and interreligious relations. My understanding of the council was later enriched by Jesuit Fr. John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II.
As a conservative, I also approached the Scriptures and the U.S. Constitution in a literal way. In grammar school, we had a textbook with diagrams showing how Jonah could survive inside a whale.
During my third year at Los Gatos, I discovered the Paulist Bible series that devoted a pamphlet to each book of the Old Testament and the Collegeville series on the New Testament. This introduced me to contemporary Scripture scholarship, which uses literary criticism and history to understand what the author was trying to tell his audience.
I would continue this study when my studies in theology introduced me to Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown and other scholars. My understanding of the parables was forever changed by Jesuit Fr. John Donahue’s The Gospel in Parable. Today, I always consult the Jerome Biblical Commentary before writing a homily.
When I was sent to St. Louis University to study philosophy in 1966, all hell was breaking loose in the church and in America. At this time, ignorant and confused church leaders made it difficult to see the voice of God in superiors.
Those in charge of the church did not know how to implement the council reforms; liturgical change came unexplained. As an obedient Jesuit, I saluted and went along and eventually loved it. I was not threatened by the changes because at Los Gatos I had read The Mass of the Roman Rite, the magisterial history of the liturgy by Jesuit Fr. Joseph Jungmann. No one can read this book without concluding that the only constant in the history of the Mass is change.
My political transformation also began in St. Louis. I took a course on constitutional development and concluded that the U.S. Constitution is what five of nine Supreme Court justices say it is.
The Vietnam War, which I supported, was also going on. I changed my view after reading Vietnam: A Dragon Embattledby Joseph Buttinger, which showed the United States was making all the same mistakes the French had made earlier. And although Catholics suffered after the war, the predicted bloodbath did not take place. Today, Vietnamese Catholics can practice their faith as long as they do not challenge the ruling party.
After ordination, my experience as a tax reform lobbyist with the nonprofit Taxation With Representation soured me on Republicans and business leaders, who decry government spending and interference in the marketplace but line up at the government trough for tax subsidies and loopholes. We attacked these subsidies as interference with the market. Our proposal was to eliminate loopholes and use the money to cut the tax rates for everyone. They hated us for exposing their hypocrisy.
My conservative instincts were still operating when I was editor of America and the Bush administration warned of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. My liberal colleagues wanted us to condemn the invasion, but I worried about looking foolish if these weapons were found. For me, the deciding factor was opposition to the invasion by Pope John Paul II. If I was wrong, at least I would have the pope for company.
Another book that transformed my theological views was Contraception by John T. Noonan, which told the history of the church’s teaching on contraception. I remember throwing the book at the wall after reading the section describing how the Irish confessional manuals had a bigger penance for contraception than for rape, because rape was a « natural » act. Game over.
Most of these books are histories, which I see as an antidote to ideological thinking. Ideologies are systems by which you ignore data in order to arrive at an absolutely certain opinion.
For more systematic theology, you cannot go wrong with the writings of Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx and Bernard Lonergan, although I confess I found them tough going.
There are lots of great books in theology. These changed my life. I hope the fact that they are being recommended by the second-worst Jesuit in the United States does not mean that they will now be banned from seminary libraries.
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