Vie de l'église

Why the synod on synodality is confusing to American Catholics

Nearly two years into the synod on synodality, Pope Francis’ global effort to listen to what Catholics think about their church, most American Catholics still find it unintelligible, from its seemingly circular name to its goals and methodology. If an American were in charge of running the pope’s synod, it would be very different.

Americans would begin by asking, « What are the major issues facing the Catholic Church? » To answer this question, they would use public opinion polling, focus groups, consultation with experts and a review of traditional and social media.

The results would show declines in church attendance, in sacramental practice (baptisms and marriages), in respect for the clergy, in the number of religious and priestly vocations and in the number of people who self-identify as Catholic. It would find that Catholics are angry about sexual abuse and its cover-up and that women are tired of being second-class citizens. One out of three people raised Catholic have left the church, and they do it at a young age.

If economists were studying the church, they would find that customers are staying away, the labor force is aging and shrinking, the brand has been tarnished by scandals and its products are no longer in demand.

If the church were on the stock market, its value would have plummeted and no one would invest in it.

After analyzing the problems, Americans would then get to work trying to find solutions.

Task forces would be formed to deal with each problem; experts would be consulted; and solutions would be test marketed to see what works. But for Americans, the process is less important than the solutions. Success is more important than theory.

This is not the way the Catholic Church operates.

Many in the church prefer to blame the world for its problems rather than to undergo a thorough self-examination. Secularism, consumerism, liberalism, anticlericalism, capitalism and other « isms » are easy explanations for the church’s failures.

Churchmen also see failure differently from scientists. If a scientist has a theory that does not fit the world, she will revise her theory. If a churchman has a theology that does not fit the world, then the world must change.

This ideological approach to reality allows churchmen to ignore data in order to continue doing the same old things. As Fr. Andrew Greeley, the eminent Catholic sociologist, pointed out decades ago, churchmen have little training or respect for the social sciences. All answers will be found in theology; data can be ignored.

Francis’ synodal approach breaks with this ideological tradition. Perhaps because he was first trained as a scientist, he abhors ideology from both the right and the left.

His enthusiasm for consulting the faithful is confusing to traditionalists, who believe the church has all the answers already. They do not understand how he can open up for discussion issues that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI said were closed. But his willingness to consult the faithful is also confusing to liberals because they equate it with democracy, which stipulates that whoever has the most votes wins.

What is most confusing for Americans is that for Francis, the process may be more important than the results. The voyage may be more important than the destination.

For Francis, synodality is a spiritual experience. It is a way of experiencing the Spirit as a discerning community. It is a way of being the community of the disciples of Christ. It is being church.

« As we listen attentively to each other’s lived experiences, » explains the synod’s working paper, or Instrumentum Laboris, released June 20, « we grow in mutual respect and begin to discern the movements of God’s Spirit in the lives of others and in our own. In this way, » we become « a Church increasingly capable of making prophetic decisions that are the fruit of the Spirit’s guidance. »

Being synod, doing synod, in other words, is more important than the decisions that will come out of the synod. If the synod made decisions (even correct ones) but made them in the wrong way, in Francis’ mind, the synod would be a failure. The destination is reached, but the trip was a failure.

This is absolute nonsense to results-oriented Americans.

What matters to us is the decisions the synod makes. Can women become deacons or priests? Can married persons become priests? Will regulations on sex abuse be strengthened and enforced? Will gay couples be blessed? Will the traditional Latin Mass be suppressed or expanded? Will top jobs in the Vatican (prefects and nuncios) be opened to laymen and women? Will lay people have a decision-making role in the church? Will the church’s teaching on sex and gender be updated?

For Francis, it is more important that those involved in the synodal process experience the Spirit during their time together in prayer, discussion and listening. They are modeling what it means to be church.

This disconnect is especially problematic for journalists who must cover the synod. We can’t interview the Spirit who is the one behind the curtain pulling the strings. Anyone who gets that interview will win a Pulitzer. Interviewing those who have experienced the Spirit is a frustrating process where you struggle to find the lead. Their responses often sound like pious gobbledygook.

All of this is reflected in the Instrumentum Laboris.

To begin with, the document needed a good editor, who would have cut it down to half its length. Even a dedicated church watcher like me found it hard to keep my eyes open reading it the first time. I had to read it a number of times in small doses over several days. 

The document confused many because it raised questions without giving answers. As a result, most journalists focused on the items dealing with LGBTQ people, women deacons, married priests and lay decision-making in the church — things the ordinary reader could understand.

When the synodal delegates gather in Rome this October, their challenge will be to be open to the Spirit in their prayer and conversations. Egos must be put aside. Ideologies must be tabled.

Like the apostles gathered in the upper room with Mary, they must experience the Spirit’s call to communion, mission and co-responsibility. Like the Apostles gathered with Peter and Paul in the church’s first synod in Jerusalem, they must speak boldly, listen with charity and not be afraid of being revolutionary when the Spirit calls for it.

Vie de l'église

Wildfires have always occurred, but experts say warming climate is increasing severity

As the sky glowed a lurid orange from approaching wildfires, Stephen Morris knew what he had to do: pray — but not alone. Instead, the intrepid director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California, arranged a cross-country, around-the-clock perpetual Eucharistic adoration vigil to accompany displaced residents and other victims of the apocalyptic October 2017 Sonoma Complex Fires.

« Unless you’ve been in it, you don’t understand it, » Morris said. « The ominous sky — this foreboding, almost like end-of-times kind of reality — really gives you pause. … It felt very eerie. »

Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa asked his flock to aid those suffering however they could.

« When you’re in that spot, what else do you have — besides staying close to loved ones, and recalling what’s most important in your life? » asked Morris, who rapidly coordinated the ongoing adoration.

« It was only due to some really honest and sincere relationships that I had formed throughout the country and locally that we were able to do anything, » Morris told OSV News. « The activity of prayer and remembrance was done with neighbors and with true friends, and that added to how special it was. We were praying for the firefighters and first responders. We were praying for people that lost everything. »

A special monstrance known as the Hope Monstrance — which survived a New Orleans Catholic church chapel flooded by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 — was part of the prayer marathon. The monstrance, which had traveled to over 140 churches across Louisiana and Mississippi to bring hope to those communities and promote the power of perpetual adoration, was sent on tour in 2018 to three other communities hit hard by disasters, including Santa Rosa.

By the time the wildfires that started Oct. 8 were finally contained Oct. 31, they had destroyed 3,043 Santa Rosa homes, killed 22 of its residents and caused billions of dollars in economic losses for the mid-sized city of almost 200,000.

While the cause was ultimately attributed to a homeowner’s faulty private electrical system, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat daily newspaper declared: « In short, it was the fire that reset our notion of collective risk in the global climate crisis. »

What does a human-caused conflagration have to do with climate change? The answer lies in what literally became fuel for the fire.

As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains, « Climate change, including increased heat, extended drought, and a thirsty atmosphere, has been a key driver in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires in the western United States during the last two decades. Wildfires require the alignment of a number of factors, including temperature, humidity, and the lack of moisture in fuels, such as trees, shrubs, grasses, and forest debris. All these factors have strong direct or indirect ties to climate variability and climate change. »

Climate change doesn’t start wildfires — but the drier conditions and warmer temperatures associated with it can create the conditions that make it easier for wildfires to start.

Pope Francis cautioned in his encyclical Laudato Si’ that « a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climactic system. … If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. »

Glenn Juday agrees with the pontiff. The professor emeritus of forest ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks served as lead scientist trainer for the Catholic Climate Covenant formed in 2006 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Since 1988, Juday has been a scientist in the Long Term Ecological Research Network — sponsored by the National Science Foundation — for the Bonanza Creek, Alaska, area, one of 28 such international sites. This ongoing study provides ecosystem data about conditions — and changes — over an extended period of time in the North American Boreal Forest, the largest intact forest left on earth, stretching across Canada.

« Fires that have been occurring and smoking up much of the continent of North America recently have been an explosion, almost unprecedented in our historical experience, of fires in the Boreal Forest, » Juday told OSV News.

« I actually began a program of focused research on climate change in variability in the late 1970s, » he said. The challenge was to define, « as scientists, a set of conditions that would convincingly demonstrate that the earth’s climate system and heat balance was higher than it used to be. » This « first detection » was accomplished in the 1980s.

« Does it matter to ecosystems in a way that’s significant? The answer is yes, » Juday emphasized.

« Various scientists — applying the scientific method correctly — and reporting the results in peer reviewed literature so it’s open to scrutiny, and building open and accessible databases, have looked at these questions, » explained Juday. « And our answer is, yes, the warming climate has increased the severity, the frequency and the extent of fire in North American forest ecosystems, and it’s having ecosystem-level effects. It’s not the end of the world; the forest is not destroyed when it’s burned. But it’s changing. Our world is changing. »

Wildfires have always occurred, but landscapes — both soil and trees — are now often more thoroughly damaged, making it more difficult for them to regenerate. The concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is also raised by wildfire activity.

In 2005, Juday acted as a field trip leader for a U.S. Senate committee. His task was to brief the visitors — including Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins — on the impact of climate change. Unsure of how he could tangibly demonstrate it to them, Juday found the wildfires did his work for him. « On the trip between Utqiagvik (Barrow) and Fairbanks — it was about an hour-and-45-minute flight in a 737 passenger jet — they were never able to see the ground because it was completely blanketed with smoke. »

In early June, when the skies of many East Coast cities dramatically reflected similar wildfire activity in Canada — and smoke turned the heavens orange in New York City and hazy over the monuments of Washington — Americans spared a thought for their neighbors to the north.

Among those battling the blazes was a priest — Fr. Gerald Mendoza.

Why would a priest — already pastoring two parishes, Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Chateh and St. Peter and St. Paul in Rainbow Lake, in Canada’s Alberta province — also become a volunteer firefighter?

« I am a Filipino, » said Mendoza. « It’s in our culture to work and work and work. We’re having an identity problem if we’re simply relaxing. »

Mendoza has received fire alerts even while distributing Communion. Once forgetting to silence his text-announcing phone during Communion, both the priest and his parishioners learned at the same time of a grass wildfire. After Mass, Mendoza quickly doffed his vestments, rushed to the firehouse, changed into his firefighting gear, and took off to the scene of the inferno.

« There’s a need to watch, and to stand by, » explained Mendoza. Just as he is on call for his parishes, so he is for firefighting. « It’s a different mission, putting out fires. »

With one of the most aggressive wildfire seasons yet on record, more than 3.5 million acres — 69% of an average full Canadian wildfire season — burned in just seven days during late June, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

« A few months ago, we received 103 wildfire alarms only in Alberta, » Mendoza said, « and that’s too much. … Summer is here — but hopefully, we’ll receive some rain. All of us are praying for rain here. »

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Eduardo Verastegui talks about his new film Sound of Freedom | KnightCast

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Golden Rule boat sets sail for ‘a nuclear-free world’

Jacqueline Allen-Douçot, cofounder of the Hartford Catholic Worker in Hartford, Connecticut, has been organizing resistance to General Dynamics Electric Boat for more than 30 years. The company is the nation’s largest supplier of nuclear submarines to the U.S. Navy. Its offices and fabrication facilities are located in New London, Connecticut, 45 miles southeast of Hartford.

« The Catholic Worker has been trying to make connections between money for the Navy and the lack of human resources, » Allen-Douçot told me after dinner at St. James Episcopal Church in New London on June 9. We were gathered with other members of the CT Committee for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a loose affiliation of local groups united in their work for nuclear abolition.

Earlier in the day, the CT Committee had organized sails on the Golden Rule, considered the world’s first modern protest ship. In 1958, its four-man crew was arrested in Honolulu when they tried to sail toward the Marshall Islands to demonstrate against nuclear weapons testing. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. had conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the islands, exposing Marshallese communities to dangerously high levels of fallout and radiation. 

The action of the Golden Rule drew international attention and helped inspire the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

The Golden Rule was sold after its initial voyage, but resurfaced half a century later in Humboldt Bay in Northern California. Volunteers went to work restoring the boat, and in 2015 it was relaunched on a three-year tour up and down the West Coast as a project of the antiwar group Veterans for Peace.

The Golden Rule began its current journey in Minneapolis in September 2022, with a plan to follow the « Great Loop » of waterways around the eastern half of the United States. Its stop in New London was part of this 11,000-mile itinerary, which is expected to conclude in Chicago in September this year.

« The Golden Rule is sailing not just against nuclear weapons, but for a nuclear-free world, » project manager Helen Jaccard explained. « The bylaws of the Golden Rule were written after the Fukushima [Japan] nuclear disaster in 2011 and reflect a concern about nuclear energy. »

Catholics and other faith-based groups have witnessed against nuclear proliferation for decades. In the 1950s, Dorothy Day and other Catholic Workers served multiple jail sentences for refusing to participate in civil air defense drills. The Catholic Worker joined with various pacifist groups in 1957 to form Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons, an original sponsor of the Golden Rule.

The Non-Violent Action Against Nuclear Weapons reorganized as the Committee for Non-Violent Action in 1958. One of its first actions was a demonstration against the Polaris submarines then being produced by General Dynamics Electric Boat.

« The real goal was to raise awareness of the terrible effects of nuclear weapons, » said Joanne Sheehan, an anti-nuclear activist from Norwich, Connecticut.

The CT Committee for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a spiritual descendent of the Committee for Non-Violent Action. Sheehan points out that the Committee for Non-Violent Action was once headquartered at the current site of the Voluntown Peace Trust in Voluntown, Connecticut. The Peace Trust is one of the four members of the CT Committee, along with the Hartford Catholic Worker, the War Resisters League, and St. Francis House, an intentional Christian community in New London that is informed by the Catholic Worker movement.

« We sensed there was discomfort when talking about nuclear weapons in the community, » said New London resident Frida Berrigan, who participated in the series of « clarification of thought » meetings at St. Francis House that inspired formation of the CT Committee. 

She stressed that compassion is at the heart of the group’s mission, which she defined as being « consistently present and visible as people who are against nuclear weapons but not against the people employed at Electric Boat. » 

Berrigan said that there had been a « turnover of generations » after a surge of anti-nuclear activity from the 1960s through the 1980s. The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first legally binding international agreement to outlaw nuclear weapons, has been an « exciting tool » to bring younger people into the movement, she said. 

That treaty went into effect in January 2021. Flags of each of the 68 countries that have ratified it to date festoon the Golden Rule in tribute. There is mounting pressure from states and cities for the U.S. to adopt the treaty as well.

Another way that groups are raising awareness is to point to nuclear abolition as an intersectional issue

« Militarism and climate change are linked, » Jaccard said. « The U.S. military is the largest emitter of CO2 on the planet and largest single consumer of oil. »

The connection was evident to those who participated in the sails in New London. Throughout the previous week, smoke from Canadian wildfires had blanketed the region and drawn attention to the imminent threat of climate change.

Sails took participants out onto the Thames River, where the Golden Rule steered south past General Dynamics Electric Boat’s facilities. In 2021, the company began construction on the first of 12 planned Columbia-class submarines. Each submarine will be outfitted with as many as 16 ballistic missiles carrying warheads capable of untold destruction

The total cost for the project is estimated at $132 billion, even as the U.S. is in the midst of a $1.7 trillion, 30-year upgrade of its nuclear arsenal. 

For Sheehan and other members of the CT Committee, these exorbitant sums could be better used to provide resources for local communities and address the climate crisis. Sheehan said that the CT Committee advocates for the « economic conversion » of Electric Boat, which could adapt its infrastructure to support green jobs such as wave-energy production.

« It comes down to resources, » said Allen-Douçot, who went to prison for an action against the USS Pennsylvania Trident submarine in 1989. « If we don’t put money into the problem of climate change, our children will suffer. »

Allen-Douçot acknowledges that the Catholic Church has made strides in advancing the anti-nuclear message in recent years, including Pope Francis’ express condemnation of nuclear weapons in 2017, and a pastoral letter on nuclear disarmament from Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2022. But Allen-Douçot counsels there is more work to be done.

« Our common goals should be disarmament and the environment, » she said. « We’re hoping we can rebuild some kind of movement. »

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McGivney House Opens in Poland

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How a Mexican spiritual leader preserves the sacred knowledge of a volcano known as El Popo

Moisés Vega has a distinctive job: The 64-year-old Mexican says he can speak the sacred language of volcanoes to ask for good weather and a good crop.

Mexico lowered the alert level on the Popocatépetl volcano by early June after its eruptions of gas and ash had drawn international attention. For Vega, though, the 17,797-foot (5,425-meter) mountain, known as El Popo, is a living being that never fades from his sight.

« The Popocatépetl is our father and the Iztaccíhuatl is our mother, » he said, referring to a neighboring volcano. « They are providers of water and we are not afraid of them. On the contrary, their exhalations are blessings because they give us life. »

There is no English translation for his profession, but among the inhabitants of the towns of central Mexico, men like him are called « graniceros. »

« Their work is based on the pre-Hispanic notion of conciliation with nature, » said archaeologist Arturo Montero, from the University of Tepeyac. « They are regulators of the weather who believe that the mountains are spirits of nature. »

It’s unknown how many « graniceros » are in Mexico. Vega says that in Amecameca, the city where he lives 44 miles southeast of Mexico City, there are only four (himself included). He estimates that there could be a similar number in nearby towns.

Many locals believe that only men who are struck by lightning and survive — Vega among them — are the ones who can claim the job.

« I knew I would become a ‘granicero’ since I was a boy, » Vega said. He was ordained to fill that role in a ritual in 1998.

His main task is to perform rituals three times per year to ask the volcanoes for good weather; just the right amount of rain needed for the crops. He mostly leads these ceremonies in stone shrines built by the locals in « El Popo » or « El Izta, »

He also works as a traditional healer and makes additional income explaining El Popo’s story to tourists visiting a volcano museum in Amecameca.

Montero said it’s not easy for contemporary « graniceros » to remain well-versed in ancient knowledge, given that many have to take a variety of jobs to get by. But they want to preserve their ancestral legacy and responding to inquiries from anthropologists, journalists and tourists helps them do that, he said.

On a recent Sunday, Vega pointed to a replica of a shrine built to show visitors what real temples devoted to volcanoes look like. He said the rituals he performs are a fusion of pre-Hispanic and Christian elements. In addition to flowers and fruits, shrines have crosses, but not crucifixes. They are painted in blue, to represent the sky, or white, to emulate clouds.

« I respect the (Catholic) religion because we grew up in this place, but the mountain speaks to us in the words of our grandparents, not in the words of the conquerors, » he said in reference to the evangelization led by the Spaniards after 1521.

The roar of « El Popo » tells him that something is wrong. Someone may have climbed its slopes to perform an animal sacrifice, which is against the community’s beliefs. A thief may have stolen the crosses from their sacred spots. A group of drunken men may have profaned its soil.

Alcohol is forbidden in the volcanoes, Vega said, because spirits can get drunk and interfere with the weather. This could lead to a catastrophe, he said, as bad weather can destroy the crops and leave people hungry.

The sacred understanding of « El Popo » varies from town to town, but many agree that the volcano does not threaten their lives. Leticia Muñoz, who sells avocados in the town of Ozumba, said she trusts « graniceros » more than the government and she would never evacuate her home.

« One sees that (the volcano) is harmless, » she said. « If he wanted to, he would explode. »

The last big eruption of El Popo was in 1994; many in Mexico City could see the smoke. Many people who were evacuated said they lost their animals and vowed they would never leave again.

The connection between local communities and volcanoes has evolved through the centuries because each mountain responds to the needs of its inhabitants, said Laura Elena Romero, an anthropologist from the University of the Americas Puebla.

According to Romero, the sacred mountains of Mesoamerica are associated with the essential resources of life and that is why « graniceros » like Vega make offerings to ask for rain while others request prosperity for their businesses.

During rituals, she said, there’s a dialogue between men and volcanoes and they are seen as members of each community.

« The volcano wouldn’t harm the people to whom it belongs, » she said.

Vie de l'église

Synodal working document is deeply rooted in Vatican II

The first two things that jump out when reading the working document, or instrumentum laboris, for the forthcoming synod, which was released June 20, are how much the document charts a new approach to a working document for an ecclesial synod and how deeply the document is in continuity with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Whoever came up with the idea of framing the document in terms of questions, rather than a draft text, deserves a bonus. For starters, it puts to rest one of the most common complaints about the synodal process coming from the anti-Francis bleachers, namely, that this synodal process is a smokescreen for a predetermined agenda to radically change the moral teachings of the church. After Cardinal Robert McElroy called for the synod to achieve a « radically inclusive » church earlier this year, conservative theologian Larry Chapp opined, « What it all amounts to is code for the ascendancy in the Church of the moral ethic of secular modernity and its imposition on everyone in the Church via the pathway of deceptively pre-engineered, faux democratic processes designed to produce predetermined results. »

Predetermined results? For the first time, the instrumentum laboris does not present a draft of a final document for the synodal assembly to amend, but a series of questions. These questions reflect the ones raised in the worldwide consultations. The planning committee did not draft a set of plausible responses. It did not lean into the neuralgic issues one way or the other. It acknowledges them and, in so doing, also acknowledges that the effort to declare some topics closed failed to stop the questioning.

The working document does, however, frame the issues, neuralgic and pedestrian, raised in the consultation process, and the frames it uses are all drawn from the ecclesiology of Vatican II. And, so, the first set of questions is grouped under this category and question: « A communion that radiates: How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity? » 

This is almost word for word from the opening paragraph of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which reads: « Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. »

I see also in this awareness that the church’s self-understanding is achieved in part by its mission to the world an echo of the brief remarks then-Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio made to his fellow cardinals shortly before they elected him pope. « The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism, » Bergoglio told them. »In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out. » 

This pastoral intuition grew out of Bergoglio’s experience of the reception of Vatican II in Latin America. It is neither a left or right insight. It brings the seeds planted at Vatican II to maturity.

The second group of questions also flows from a key conciliar insight: « Co-responsibility in Mission: How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel? » The fathers of the Second Vatican Council would not have put the question this way. But without the recovery of the central role of baptismal dignity in the life of the church evidenced in Lumen Gentium such a question would not be possible. As the instrumentum laboris states earlier in the document, « a synodal Church is founded on the recognition of a common dignity deriving from Baptism, which makes all who receive it sons and daughters of God, members of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters in Christ, inhabited by the one Spirit and sent to fulfill a common mission. »

That focus on the common dignity of the baptized also revolutionized the church’s ecumenical efforts at Vatican II and since, just as the council’s consideration of the common dignity of the human person made dialogue with non-Christian religions possible in a way they had not been before. The image of Popes John Paul II, a Pole, and Benedict XVI, a German, visiting the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was unthinkable before Vatican II. Obviously, non-Christians are not « co-responsible » for Catholic mission, but those entrusted with Catholic mission must, after Vatican II, be mindful that God is already at work in the world before we come to evangelize.

It is only after the subject of mission has been addressed that one can turn to issues of participation, governance and authority, which form the third category of items the synod will consider. In this section, most questions are essentially practical. For example, « How can seminaries and houses of formation be reformed so that they form candidates for ordained Ministry who will develop a manner of exercising authority that is appropriate to a synodal Church? » and « To what extent does the shortage of Priests in some regions provide an incentive to question the relationship between ordained Ministry, governance and the assumption of responsibilities in the Christian community? » 

Practical or not, this is the section in which we can foresee the most difficulties.

Some conservative critics have been frantically worried that the working document would lead the Catholic Church astray. Last November, after the release of the working document for the continental stage of the synod preparation, George Weigel complained, « This has nothing to do with Vatican II. »

EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo last week featured an « encore presentation » from earlier in the month, in which he interviewed Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis, former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and former patron of the Order of Malta, who now has no particular assignment. The cardinal offered this enthusiastic endorsement of the process: « The fact of the matter is that there is no clear idea of what synodality is. It’s certainly not a mark of the Church. » Thank you, your eminence, for that thoughtful commentary.

The joke is on the critics. The working document contains precisely the combination of elements of continuity and discontinuity that constitute the « hermeneutic of reform » with which Pope Benedict XVI said the council should be interpreted in his famous 2005 Address to the Roman Curia. The citations from Scripture throughout the document are not cherry-picked. They are ecclesiologically foundational. The vision is deeply rooted in the teaching of Vatican II.

The vision of a synodal church that emerges from this document is also something else. It is a sign of that « abundant ‘more’ that signals God is at work » of which Pope Paul VI spoke and which I highlighted in my review of a new book by Cardinal Michael Czerny and Fr. Christian Barone. Discussing the reports from those who participated in the synodal process, the working document states: « One common trait unites the narratives of the stages of the first phase: it is the surprise expressed by participants who were able to share the synodal journey in a way that exceeded their expectations. »

We can note that many Catholics have low expectations at this moment in church history, but that sentence, like the rest of the text, is brimming with hope. People’s expectations were « exceeded. » Surely, this is a mark of the church, no matter what Cardinal Burke says. When we surrender to God, and become docile to the Holy Spirit, then, and only then, do we experience the joy the first apostles experienced when their expectations were dashed by Jesus of Nazareth’s ignominious death. We, like they, and like Christians in every epoch, are called to trust in the Lord in the circumstances of our times. 

This document, collecting the insights from what is likely the widest consultative process in the history of the world, helps all of us to trust that the Holy Spirit is calling us to this synodal process and the ecclesial vision that is emerging, a vision rooted in the teachings of Vatican II and looking confidently forward. 

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St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Love of the Eucharist

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Don’t be afraid

“Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed” (Matt 10:26).

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Jer 20:10-13; Ps 69; Rom 5:12-15; Matt 10:26-33

How many bad choices are attributable to fear – either to do something we know is wrong or to fail to stand up for what is right?  Jesus understood this basic cause of human weakness and repeatedly told people not to be afraid. 

Internet sites claim that the injunction against fear appears over 360 times in the Bible. But most of us need only our own histories to admit that intimidation was a factor in moments we wish we could do over, especially youthful indiscretions that can still evoke a flash of shame. We did foolish things because of peer pressure. We failed to show courage because we were afraid of criticism or ridicule.

Jesus’ words about fear in today’s Gospel were addressed to an early church facing persecution, which led some to deny their faith, families and friends to save themselves. Jesus distinguished between threats to the body and to the soul. He told his disciples not to be afraid of bodily death, but soul death was to be feared. What did he mean?  One possibility is that if evil co-opts our consciences, we become complicit in what we know to be wrong.

In the film, “A Man for All Seasons,” St. Thomas More’s daughter pleads with him to sign a false affidavit to save his life.  He extends his cupped hands as a metaphor for his integrity, saying that even a small opening would drain his soul like water.  He will enter eternity headless rather than betray his conscience.  Only grace can inspire such heroic courage, which is why we honor martyrs like Joan of Arc, Maximilian Kolbe and Franz Jagerstatter. 

Debilitating fear can also follow trauma. The greatest violence inflicted on victims of rape and child abuse by perpetrators has been to add blame and shame to their suffering by convincing them that this was their fault. Jesus’ harshest warning was to those who would steal the innocence of a “little one.”  Better for them had they never been born.

Jesus knows there will be victims. He himself was one of them. He wants to protect his disciples from despair. God sees and holds accountable every evil act. No amount of power or money can hide sin forever. If God cares for the birds and every hair on our heads, God will also bring us through any suffering or crisis, even death.

The Word of God holds powerful relevance for the victims of official misconduct, the millions of victims of slavery and the hundreds killed during the racial attack on Greenwood, Oklahoma, in 1921. The international spotlight now on racism and cover ups in policing, verified by video evidence of brutality victims have claimed for decades, is forcing both reforms and a public examination of conscience about the racial bias embedded in American history and culture.

The nonviolent Jesus offers the only way forward, a radical metanoia that acknowledges both systemic and personal complicity in racial and economic disparity. It requires a commensurate commitment to truth and reconciliation to affirm the fundamental dignity and equality of every human being sharing the planet.

If this call to repentance seems like wishful thinking, the alternative will be much harsher. The status quo is unsustainable and the challenge to this generation on issues like war, poverty, race, immigration, health care and the future of the planet is fateful. It will lead to either a kairos moment and moral uplift or an apocalyptic descent to institutional breakdown.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus is saying. But this does not mean the world will change if we do not. God’s unlimited grace is here to aid us in healing the suffering body of humanity, but only if we also act together to prevent the death of the world’s endangered soul.

Adapted from column published on June 21, 2020.

Vie de l'église

Filipino-American illustrator Mike Curato on his book ‘Flamer’ and growing up as a gay Catholic


Mike Curato

368 pages; Macmillan Publishers

Raised in the 1980s and ’90s in a Catholic home just outside of New York City, Mike Curato is a gay Filipino-American illustrator. After producing the award-winning Little Eliot series of children’s books, in September 2020 he released a semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Flamer. The novel tells the story of Aiden Navarro, a 14-year-old Filipino-American kid spending his last week at Boy Scouts summer camp before starting high school. 

Flamer struck a chord for its touching portrayal of a Catholic boy earnest to fit in and « be good, » struggling to come to terms with bullying and his own unexpected feelings for another boy. Upon release it won universal accolades, including the Lambda Literary Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2021. It has also recently become one of the most banned novels in America

NCR spoke to Curato about Flamer and his experiences growing up Catholic. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

NCR: How long had the idea of doing a semi-autobiographical memoir been with you?

Curato: I had ideas about wanting to pay some kind of homage to camping and maybe scouting. Then, during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign I listened to legends like Toni Morrison saying, « If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. » And I realized there was such a lack of books that I needed when I was young.

I made it a comic because that is the medium that I read at that age, that is what I connected to. So I thought it would be the best tool to use to speak to young people. 

How would you describe the books you wish you’d had as a child? 

Books that validated my experience and told me I’m OK being myself. We’re told as kids, « Just be yourself and everything’ll be fine. » But I didn’t see myself anywhere. I didn’t see myself in books or on TV or in movies. And other kids my age told me that there was something wrong with me. How can I just « be myself, » when all these people seem to have a problem with that? It began this self-erasure, like maybe I’m not supposed to be here.

I went to Catholic schools and we were taught that we’re all God’s children. But it seemed to me like maybe he likes some children more than others. Or at least people do. I did not feel like one of God’s children a big portion of the time. 

What was your experience with the Catholic Church? 

I specifically remember religious textbooks in middle grade talking about homosexuality as a sin and as a choice. And it was a new textbook; it wasn’t like some old dusty thing. This was modern day Catholic teaching. So I’ve got teachers reading from this textbook to me, and I’ve got classmates calling me the f-word. Even things I’m hearing my father say about gay people, it’s like, OK, noted. And I grew up during the AIDS crisis. So I felt like, I can’t be one of them, I’ll be dead. There wasn’t a lot of hope for a happy future for me. 

I was a devout Catholic. I was an altar boy for many years. Just like Aiden (my protagonist), I continued past the normal time, into high school. So I thought, I will be good. I’m excelling in church because I’m an altar boy. I’m getting good grades. I’m an obedient son. I will find someone to marry and we’ll have children and we’ll be good people. We’ll go to church and I’ll be good. 

Would you say that concern to « be good » created anxiety in you? 

Yes. It was constant. Like, every day. « Don’t mess up! » I think that is a very common experience for little gay boys. They overcompensate. I’m going to be stellar at everything that I can get right, because I can’t get being straight right. 

I would try to be more butch sometimes. I tried sports, I tried dating girls, I tried being aloof and playing down my flamboyance. I tried to paint a veneer, and I thought maybe I’ll get a pass to get into heaven if God sees that I’m trying so hard. 

You weave together Catholic and pop culture imagery throughout Flamer in really interesting ways, like having the comic book X-Men character Phoenix, who sacrifices her life to save the universe, show up in a chapel just as Aiden is considering killing himself. 

What I love about the Phoenix saga is the self-sacrifice. She’s like, « I’m all powerful but I’m going to save people around me by destroying myself. » And then she gets to come back anyway. 

There’s this sort of wanting and emptiness that Aiden experiences with church and the mysteries around it. Like when he’s talking about confirmation and how he’s really ready and waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend on him, but then he didn’t feel anything. That was very real for me. I was like, « OK, I guess I’m confirmed. » 

I don’t know if you noticed the imagery at the end: when he wakes up from this experience with the Phoenix, where he’s been speaking with his own soul, he has the tongue of fire. 

Oh wow, I missed that. 

That is Aiden’s real confirmation, when he faces himself. I feel like that is how we experience God’s love, showing up for yourself and accepting your whole self. In doing that, you are accepting God’s love. 

I love the word confirmation. « You’re confirmed. » You’re here and you deserve to be here. 

Another thing about the book that stood out is the way you avoid vilifying Aiden’s bullies. There are a couple times where the main bully gets ridiculed for picking on Aiden, and you draw him looking so shaken. I was really impressed by the empathy you show there. 

There’s that saying, hurt people hurt people. We don’t know what we don’t know. Oftentimes with bullying it’s a projection. Obviously I don’t condone that, but we’re all human beings. And I was a shitty kid too sometimes. I said things to people that I feel bad about now or that I don’t even remember. We can all be that guy. 

After this book came out, I got an Instagram message from one of my bullies. He was like, « Hey Mike, I read your book, and I wanted to say I’m truly sorry for the things I put you through. I have kids now and I’m trying to raise them to be different from how I was. » I said I really appreciated that and I’m glad you’re raising your children differently.

It was a pretty cool moment. And it gives me more empathy for people. We’re all walking around with these untold stories. If we knew everyone’s story there would be a lot more compassion in the world and a lot more patience. That’s why there needs to be more quality books, not fewer. 

« This is sending a message to queer children, too. By removing a book about them, they’re saying ‘we don’t want you here.’ « 

Mike Curato

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You’ve been put through the ringer the last few years, with school districts banning Flamer and people calling it pornographic, which is so bizarre. It’s like they’re talking about a completely different book. How has that all been for you? 

For the first year and a half it was all positive feedback. I didn’t get one negative thing. Then that Texas lawmaker came out with his McCarthy-era list of books which mostly consisted of queer and BIPOC stories and/or creators. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what’s going on here. And it worked. In this age of hoaxes, I was like, y’all have been bamboozled.

It’s sickening to watch some angry person holding my book up and saying these awful things, reading passages out of context and trying to paint me like some kind of deviant. 

How do you find peace in the midst of it? 

It’s very challenging. It’s taken up so much of my time and energy and peace of mind. I have to call on my community to support me. I have nightmares sometimes about this. 

It seems like that’s all part of their goal. 

Absolutely. They want to scare people, to make people think twice about buying a book like this for your library, about creators trying to make a book. They’re trying to send a warning to publishers: don’t do this or you’ll have to deal with us. It’s the old school fascist playbook. You find the weak communities and you use them to your own gain.

This is sending a message to queer children, too. By removing a book about them, they’re saying « we don’t want you here. » And it’s all done in the name of protecting the children. I’d like to know which children they’re trying to protect. It doesn’t seem like all of them. 

Does religion or God play any role in your life today? 

I believe in God and the universe, but I don’t really identify as Christian anymore. There’s a lot of things I love and cherish about my Catholic upbringing. I feel like it’s part of who I am and part of what made me who I am today. But I don’t feel like a part of the church. 

I like believing in the mystery more. You think about the vastness of the universe. We don’t even know how big it is. There’s so much beyond our understanding. I don’t need to know if it’s the Catholic God or it’s some other one. I just know there’s a greater power and that’s enough for me. I feel comfort in just knowing that.