Vie de l'église

Francis’ talk to the doctrinal office was great, but it had one big omission

The pope gave a short but important speech to the full membership of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith last week. Most of it was excellent but there was one glaring omission.

First the good stuff. The pope used the occasion (Jan. 26) to clarify his intentions in approving the document Fiducia Supplicans in December, specifically as it relates to the blessing of persons who are in same-sex unions or other irregular unions. He emphasized that « these blessings, outside of any liturgical context and form, do not demand moral perfection to be received. » Blessings, like Holy Communion, are not a reward for the perfect but food for the journey. 

The pope reemphasized the point in an interview with La Stampa. In response to those who object that persons in a same-sex union are living in an objectively sinful situation, the pope replied, « But we are all sinners. Why then draw up a list of sinners who can enter the church and a list of sinners who cannot be in the church? This is not the Gospel. » 

Any fair reading of the Gospel would find it strange that sexual sins have achieved such a prominent place in people’s understanding of sin. How we treat the poor and the migrants should surely garner as much focus but I do not hear anyone at EWTN complaining that the church should not offer a blessing to, say, Rep. Elise Stefanik because she defends views on immigration that can accurately be described as inhumane and fascistic. I hope the congresswoman takes Communion as often as possible and I hope the grace the sacrament confers will help her to see the light and correct her ways. 

The Holy Father was also right to insist that « Inasmuch as we are Christians, we must not tire of insisting ‘on the primacy of the human person and the defence of his or her dignity beyond every circumstance,’  » quoting Laudate Deum. Our sins degrade our human dignity but they do not remove it. Grace, the grace of the cross, removes the sins and grounds the dignity of the human person. The foundational divergence between this pope and his critics is that he insists God’s grace is at the heart of the Christian story, and they insist that human sinfulness, usually someone else’s sins by the way, is the heart of the story. The pope is right. Unambiguously right.

But not exhaustively right. Just as it is remarkable that a certain kind of conservative Catholic considers sexual sins uniquely antithetical to Christian life, it is also astounding that a certain kind of liberal Catholic thinks shedding traditional sexual mores is the very measure of Christian fidelity. It is not that one is right and the other wrong. It is that we all need to move beyond the conviction that pelvic theology is uniquely, comprehensively, and radically, the most important mark of Christian faith. 

More importantly, the pope structured his short talk around three themes: sacraments, dignity and faith. Like Vatican II itself, he started with consideration of the sacraments. « In these days you have reflected on the theme of the validity of the sacraments, » the pope said. « The life of the church is nourished and grows through them. For this reason, special care is required on the part of ministers in administering them and in disclosing to the faithful the treasures of grace they communicate. » Again, the emphasis is on grace, on God’s activity, and how it nourishes us, not on how we build up or tear down the faith. 

His comments about human dignity also reflected a key insight into this pontificate and those who oppose it. Reread the words already cited: « Inasmuch as we are Christians, we must not tire of insisting ‘on the primacy of the human person and the defence of his or her dignity beyond every circumstance.’  » How often do we fall short of this when we speak against our brothers and sisters in the faith? And, how often do debates about controversial issues reflect the degree to which one or both sides ignore the dignity of those with whom they contend? 

The third word was « faith » and the pope began his treatment of it by saying, « In this regard, I would like to remember two events. » The events were the 10th anniversary of his programmatic apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and the forthcoming Jubilee year 2025. A key point of convergence among post-conciliar popes is this understanding that Catholic faith is rooted in the event of Jesus Christ, not in a series of propositions. Alas, some who invoke the memory of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI fail to grasp this, as do some who invoke Pope Francis. We Catholics can and should be protected from lapsing into ideology by the words we pray every day: « Blest is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. »

What did the pope omit from his talk? He should have addressed the lack of consultation before Fiducia Supplicans. When you spend the better part of two months having to issue clarifications, you know you needed to do a better job preparing the text, or at least preparing the bishops of the world to receive the text. Consultations on major issues are vital and, in this instance, they did not happen.

The pope is free to approve documents and to make decisions as he sees fit. He is the universal pastor of the church. But if he wants the rest of us to embrace synodality, he should insist that the dicasteries that help him govern the church act in a more synodal fashion. The central themes of his pontificate can withstand the arrows shot at them from his opponents. But he needs to make sure he and his allies do not make avoidable, unforced errors.

Vie de l'église

Exclusive: Vatican’s abuse expert says ending priestly celibacy could prevent a ‘double life’

One of the Catholic Church’s leading doctrinal officials has reiterated his unusual call for the global institution to consider ending its millennia-long requirement that priests remain celibate, saying that allowing priestly marriage could be a means of preventing clerics from living dangerous double lives.

In an exclusive interview with National Catholic Reporter on Jan. 24, Archbishop Charles Scicluna said: « One of my worries is that people are put in a situation where they are comfortable with a double life. »

« This is not to diminish the beauty of celibacy or the heroic commitment of people who have accepted celibacy as a gift and live it, » said the archbishop, speaking in an interview at the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith for NCR’s « The Vatican Briefing » podcast. « But I think it is good that we discuss it. »

Earlier this month, Scicluna — who serves as both the Archbishop of Malta and an adjunct secretary of the Vatican dicastery — made headlines when he said he believes it is time to revisit the church’s long-standing ban on allowing marriage for most of its clerics.

At the time, the archbishop was commenting on the lives of priests who have hidden relationships, which he said could be a « symptom » of priests « having to cope with » their celibacy requirement. 

But in the NCR interview, Scicluna, who has also been tapped by Pope Francis to investigate claims of clergy abuse in places across the world, said that — not drawing any link between priestly celibacy and clerical abuse — this work has shaped his perspective. 

« You realize when you travel a lot and you meet other people, that people find themselves in different states of life, » he said. « And this could be, could be — I’m not saying that this is an actual magic wand sort of thing — could be also something … worth discussing, » he said. 

A proposal to greenlight the ordination of married priests in the nine-nation Amazon region of Latin America was one of the most intensely debated issues at the Vatican’s 2019 synod on the Amazon. Although the proposal received the necessary two-thirds majority vote for approval of the synod members at the end of the assembly, Francis has so far declined to move on the request. 

A similar proposal was included in the final synthesis document of the 2023 October synod on synodality, in which Scicluna participated, and further discussion on the topic is expected when the synod reconvenes for a second session in October 2024.

« What you learn through experience is that you have to factor in human frailty, and the fact that people mature into different situations; they find themselves in a different place psychologically, spiritually, » said Scicluna. « This is something that … the church at the highest authority will have to decide. »

Scicluna’s remarks on « The Vatican Briefing » came in an interview timed to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Francis’ historic 2019 summit on clergy sex abuse, when the pope summoned the heads of the world’s Catholic bishops’ conferences to Rome to discuss the protection of minors. 

One of the major outcomes of that meeting was the promulgation of a sweeping new church law, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (« You are the light of the world »), mandating for the first time that all priests and members of religious orders worldwide are obligated to report any suspicions of abuse or its cover-up.

While the law was initially adopted on an experimental basis, in March 2023, the pope made the law permanent and extended it to also apply to lay leaders who head international Catholic associations recognized by the Vatican. 

Reflecting on its significance, Scicluna said the law is notable for providing a « special procedure that ensures and guarantees accountability, but also responsibility » for « how to investigate people in leadership. »

However, the archbishop also acknowledged that there are « pockets » within the church where the law is not fully implemented, and that more work remains. 

« I think that the fact that we have the law is not like we’ve done our duty and this is like a job well done, » he said. « We have a law which is an instrument, whether we use it or not will depend on people in leadership, but also on the communities. »

Beyond mandating abuse reporting, Vos Estis also set up a new global system for the evaluation of reports of abuse or cover-up by Catholic bishops. It empowered archbishops to conduct investigations of prelates in their local regions, with the help of Vatican authorities.

Asked about criticism from abuse survivors and their advocates that the investigation system is effectively a form of self-policing, Scicliuna countered that « there are levels of accountability that are not only … in-house. »

In particular, he highlighted the fact that Vos Estis mandates that church authorities give cooperation to civil authorities.  

« I think that the guarantee is always the disclosure not only to the church, but the statutory authorities, where the case allows for that and warrants that, » said Scicluna. 

The archbishop also emphasized that beyond the new reporting obligations, another element of the law is that church leaders now have a specified « duty of care » for victims of abuse. 

In a January 2023 interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Scicluna had previously called on the church to improve its treatment of abuse victims, especially with regard to following up when they file reports of abuse or cover-up.

During the new Jan. 24 interview, the archbishop repeated that need, saying: « We need to connect with victims in all phases of the process. »

« I think that if the church is not accountable, it’s not synodal. »

— Archbishop Charles Scicluna

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« The victim has a right to report misconduct, they have a right to give their testimony and to offer their contribution to an investigation, but then they need to be accompanied and to be informed of the outcome of the case, » he continued. « Because that not only respects their dignity, but gives them peace of mind. »

Scicluna also commented on how the concept of accountability fits together with Francis’ vision for a synodal church, in which all Catholics are involved in leading together.

« I don’t think that there is any option away from accountability, » said the archbishop. 

« I think that if the church is not accountable, it’s not synodal, » he continued. « I don’t think that a synodal church would be truly synodal — that is, walking together — if we’re not caring for each other and we’re not accountable to each other. »

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Vie de l'église

Synod report has wide-ranging implications for church governance, ministry

I was pleasantly surprised by the synthesis report, « A Synodal Church in Mission, » from last October’s first session of the synod on synodality. The full text is available here

The report unabashedly calls for significant structural change — including, where indicated, a review of canon law and in other authoritative church documents. 

Such changes could have profound implications for how governance and ministry function in a synodal church. Perhaps most surprising (to me at least) is the call for mechanisms of evaluation and accountability for priests, deacons and bishops and for an examination of the relationship between holy orders and jurisdiction.

The goal is to create more inclusive and accountable structures that will ensure the effective exercise of co-responsibility within the Roman Catholic Church.

In September 2018 I wrote a column suggesting theologian Leonardo Boff’s book Church, Charism and Power, offered the church a way out of clericalism.

I suggested convening a worldwide synod « at which representation from all the people of God would have deliberative voice alongside bishops. » It would include experts who would « recommend changes in canon law and in church policy to hold bishops accountable and integrate laity into decision-making so that we have deliberative voice (not just consultative) at every level. » 

I can hardly believe such prescience. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit works in many hearts as well as my own.

Boff was among the first to listen to the Spirit’s voice in God’s people. In his 1985 Introduction to Church, Charism and Power he wrote: « There are powerful and living forces, particularly at the grassroots, that are not sufficiently recognized. … The grassroots are asking for a new structure, a new ecclesial division of labor and of religious power. For this, a new vision of the Church is necessary. »

There is reason to believe that Boff’s ecclesiology influenced Francis’ vision of synodality and church governance. Like Boff, Francis is famous for recognizing the Spirit at work in ordinary Catholics.

Below is a sampling of significant aspects of the synthesis report.

In the first (of 20) topical areas approved by two-thirds majority vote, synod members said that « synodality represents the future of the Church. »  

The need for a growing as a synodal church occurs repeatedly throughout the 41-page text.

Topic 8 (« Church is Mission ») names a foundational agreement about the basis and necessity of co-responsibility:

The sacraments of Christian initiation confer on all the disciples of Jesus the responsibility for the mission of the Church. Laymen and laywomen, those in consecrated life, and ordained ministers have equal dignity. … The exercise of co-responsibility is essential for synodality and is necessary at all levels of the Church.

Topic 9 (« Women in the Life and Mission of the Church ») asks that:

[W]e avoid repeating the mistake of talking about women as an issue or a problem. Instead, we desire to promote a Church in which men and women dialogue together, in order to understand more deeply the horizon of God’s project, that sees them together as protagonists, without subordination, exclusion or competition. 

Furthermore, there is a need for structural change:

Our synodal path shows the need for relational renewal and structural changes. In this way we can better welcome the participation and contribution of all … as co-responsible disciples in the work of mission.

In addition to ongoing consideration of female deacons, synod proposals call for inclusive language in liturgical texts, expansion of women’s access to theological studies, equal remuneration for pastoral work and allowing female judges to preside at canonical trials. Topic 8 also asks for consideration of lay preaching.

Topic 10 (« Consecrated Life and Lay Associations and Movements: A Charismatic Sign ») gives a shout-out to discernment models already used by most religious communities and acknowledges that our groups have been living synodality for a very long time:

The Christian community also recognizes and wishes to be attentive to the practices of synodal life and discernment that have been tried and tested in communities of consecrated life, maturing over the centuries. We know that we can learn from them wisdom in how to walk the synodal path.

One proposal calls for a revision « in a synodal manner » of Mutuae Relationes, a 1978 document addressing relationships between bishops and religious communities. In 2013 Pope Francis promised such an update in the wake of the disastrous Vatican attempt to discredit U.S. religious communities of women.

Topic 11 (« Deacons and Priests in a Synodal Church ») agreed that clericalism is an obstacle to ministry and mission. It says:

In a synodal Church, ordained ministers are called to live their service to the People of God in a disposition of proximity to people. … Above all, they are required to reconsider the exercise of authority, modelling it upon Jesus who, « though he was in the form of God, […] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave » (Phil. 2:6-7). 

One courageous — and paradigm-shifting — proposal said:

We ask local churches to identify processes and structures that allow for a regular audit of how priests and deacons are carrying out roles of responsibility in the exercise of their ministry. 

Another noteworthy proposal asks that priests who have left the active ministry be included in « pastoral services that recognize their formation and experience. » It is shocking that priests who left the active ministry are currently forbidden to serve as lectors and communion ministers, ministries commonly performed by laypeople.

Topic 12 (« The Bishop in Ecclesial Communion ») says:

As the visible principle of unity, he [the bishop] has, in particular, the task of discerning and coordinating the different charisms and ministries sent forth by the Spirit for the proclamation of the Gospel and common good of the community. This ministry is realized in a synodal manner when governance is accompanied by co-responsibility. …

One of the most substantive proposals suggests creating legal mechanisms for ensuring bishop accountability: 

It is necessary to implement, in forms legally yet to be defined, structures and processes for regular review of the bishop’s performance, with reference to the style of his authority, the economic administration of the diocese’s assets, and the functioning of participatory bodies, and safeguarding against all possible kinds of abuses. A culture of accountability is an integral part of a synodal Church that promotes co-responsibility, as well as safeguarding against abuses.

The assembly also asked for a review of various authoritative teachings about « the relationship between the sacrament of Holy Orders and jurisdiction »:

[It] needs to be studied in greater depth. In dialogue with Lumen Gentium and more recent teachings such as [Pope Francis’] Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, the aim of such a study would be to clarify the theological and canonical criteria underlying the principle of the shared responsibility of the bishop and to determine the scope, forms and implications of co-responsibility. 

As next October’s second session of the synod unfolds, the jurisdiction issue is one to watch. If a corresponding proposal is sent to Pope Francis, it could have wide-ranging implications for church ministry and decision-making.

Given all of the above, there is good reason to hope that the synod on synodality will recommend substantive structural change to Pope Francis next October.

‘There is good reason to hope that the synod on synodality will recommend substantive structural change to Pope Francis next October.’

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I hope I have piqued your interest in reading the synthesis report in its entirety.

If so, please consider continuing the conversation in your local church using available online resources. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued guidelines that suggest holding two or three listening sessions during Lent and collaborating with Catholic affiliated groups and organizations.  

worksheet suggests choosing three priorities from the 20 topics covered in the synthesis and discuss concrete ways of implementing them in your own diocese or parish.   

When the synod first opened, I was struck by the stunning image of lay women and men, bishops, priests and women religious gathered at roundtables. 

It seemed a fulfillment of Chuck Lathrop’s much-loved 1977 poem, « In Search of a Roundtable. » Here is an excerpt:

For God has called a People,
not ‘them and us’
‘Them and us’ are unable to gather around,
for at a roundtable, there are no sides
And ALL are invited to wholeness and to food. …

Roundtabling means no preferred seating,
no first & last, 
no better, 
no corners for ‘the least of these’
Roundtabling means being with,
a part of, 
and one
It means room for the Spirit and gifts
and disturbing profound peace for all.

And it is we in the present
who are mixing and kneading the dough for the future.
We can no longer prepare for the past. …

—Chuck Lathrop

[The full version is available here.]



(Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 27 & 28, 2024 at Saint Augustine Church in Providence, Rhode Island; See Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28) 

Vie de l'église

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Great expectations

One of the more delightful cartoons I’ve seen lately shows a puzzled man standing in a secondhand store looking at a display of antique « The end is near » signs. 

Religious traditions that believe that history is headed toward a destiny generally assume that the world will end; some think they can unravel signs of its coming — usually in the near future and to the detriment of their adversaries. Paul and his communities expected Christ to return in glory before most of them died. This helps us interpret much of his teaching, including his advice that it is better not to marry. Why start a family if the second coming is right around the bend? As time went on (and on and on), Christian communities began to adjust their expectations. The writing of the Gospels was one result of their adjustment; the written narrative assured that future generations could know Jesus as his companions did. 

The early communities had to reorient their spirituality as they accepted the fact that Christ was not about to appear to judge the nations. They began to understand that Christ remained present to them and that they had a much larger and longer mission than they had expected. Paul was already moving in this direction when he called his community to be the body of Christ for their world (1 Corinthians 12). 

This takes us from expectations of the end into the realm of prophecy — which is not a foretelling of the future, but a reading of God’s influence and desires for the here and now. In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses promises the people that God will not abandon them, but rather continue to speak to them through prophets. As the early Christians discovered, the promise of prophets did not end with Jesus; just as his mission would continue, so too would prophecy. The belief that God continues to speak through prophets underlines today’s psalm refrain: « If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts. » This call remains as appropriate today as it was from the times of Moses through Jesus.

That sounds nice and easy, but in reality, it is neither.  

Discerning God’s action and desires requires us to be deeply grounded in tradition and profoundly open to the new. This is obvious from today’s Gospel. Mark depicts Jesus in a whirlwind of activity: teaching (Mark gives us no additional content), healing and battling demons. Curiously, rather than being brought to faith, the people who saw and heard Jesus ended up utterly confused. The least confused were actually his enemies — they understood what was at stake for them.  

In today’s Gospel, Mark repeats two key ideas: the people were « astonished » or « amazed, » and Jesus taught with authority. 

What does their bewilderment tell us? First, it makes it clear that Jesus was not what they expected. The folks in question had gone to listen to a teacher. This was hardly the first time they had heard someone preach in their synagogue. (In the days before the NBA, Hollywood and social media, gathering to listen to a sermon was a form of entertainment as well as a religious activity.)

What Jesus’ audience heard left them like children who had tasted only watery vanilla ice cream being taken to a Baskin Robbins; there was so much there that they couldn’t take it in. The only way people could explain it was to say that Jesus taught with authority, an authority that he authenticated in a successful skirmish with a demon. People saw that Jesus’ word was sufficient to banish an unclean spirit. To citizens of an occupied nation, people who had learned to endure their lot in life, who had grown accustomed to mediocre hopes, Jesus came at them like a thunderstorm in the desert, jolting them out of their tedium.

Having never expected anything like this, most people had no idea how to respond. Some were frightened, others threatened. But to those who would follow him, Jesus offered an amazing new take on life. He rooted his message in their traditions, yet, rather than close the book saying, « That’s all folks! » Jesus spurred them to hope that all the promises of old would come true — in ways so new that they would continually be astounded.

Mark wastes no time as he throws us into the middle of a world turning inside out. He shows us that bewilderment is good for faith; it can startle us into suspecting that there’s more afoot than we would ever dream of.

The end he wants us to see coming near is the end of low expectations — because the reign of God is at hand.

Vie de l'église

Learning to see with different eyes

He rolled around the Sprouts parking lot in his wheelchair, one leg extended, the other absent underneath the loosely hanging gray pant leg. I noticed him first, and moved to the next row, heading for my car. But he was quick, adept at getting himself around on the streets. 

When he asked for cash I looked away, offering instead a knee-jerk « not today. » But as I walked off with a bag filled with unnecessary groceries, I relented. It’s true, these were items I had bought on sale, but most of them were indulgences, really, like the jar of Silly Cow hot chocolate and the organic lotion bar, the tin of gingerbread tea and the navel oranges to add to the half-dozen already waiting for me at home.  

You can give the guy a buck, for God’s sake, Pauline.

With the growing population of unhoused people in our city, I’d learned to keep dollar bills loose in the side pocket of my car door so I’d be prepared at stoplights and wouldn’t have to go fishing in my wallet. I retrieved one of the single bills and went back to find him. 

I was accustomed to seeing people asking for money, but usually not this close. And the man in the wheelchair was not someone I recognized from the usual community. He had ventured far beyond the perimeters of the traffic light corner, wheeling himself closer and closer to the Sprouts entrance and exit doors, certain to catch the attention of shoppers before they got into their cars and approached the light.

« Here, » I said, as I handed him the dollar. And then, as if trying to explain my return, « I had this in my car. » 

He looked at the bill, his face a fist of wrinkled displeasure. « C’mon, » he scowled. « Give me $100. »

I must have blinked, maybe even jolted in place. « I don’t have $100, » I said, feeling a little riled at his rudeness.

« Well, how about $25 then? »

« How about you just take the dollar? » And I walked off, regretting my attempt to give anything at all and feeling simultaneously prideful and gullible as my negative inner talk got the best of me.

Until I paused to unlock my car door.

Wait. Who was I doing this for anyway? For myself? To receive an expectant « thank you » and a smile of appreciation? To feel good about my little act of charity? Or was it truly an act of kindness for a person in need in front of me. A man who may not know how to be thankful or kind. A man whose life I knew nothing about.

Suddenly, my imagination took over. It was as if Jesus were talking to me through this stranger’s face.  

Can you still love me when I look like this? When I act like this? When I don’t meet your expectations?

As Jesus’ sweet voice came through the face of this man, I realized what was being asked of me. To see with different eyes. To love with the heart of God.

My heart softened, even though the man’s scowling countenance did not. He appeared before my imagination just as disheveled and distasteful as before. But the Christ within him now shone in a way that my judging self would not have been able to see. There was a warm spark buried within him that layers of pain and woundedness concealed.

True, I had to put my prideful ego aside. But wasn’t this my intention? To discover You in all your many disguises? And You poked me right here in the supermarket parking lot. In the dark shadow of a one-legged man slumped in a wheelchair on an ugly blacktop with engines idling all around, car fumes emitting into my lungs and, instead of angelic choirs, the clanking sound of shopping carts crashing into a queue. 

Not at all what I expected.

« You want to love me better? » You ask. « I’m right here. »

Vie de l'église

In ‘Preaching Racial Justice,’ Black Catholics shed ecumenical light on growing need

I behold the intentionality and omniscience of God. Although I had been glancing at a particular book’s beautiful purple and gold cover sitting on my desk for a few weeks, I was consumed by responsibilities of academic work and family life and therefore unable to fully immerse myself in its reading. However, during the National Association for Multicultural Education conference in  November — and not inconsequentially, during Black Catholic History Month — I was situated to read Preaching Racial Justice in its entirety. 

The conference’s keynote address was given by Bryan Stevenson, whose work focuses on honoring the sufferings and martyrdom of our ancestors on U.S. soil. He has an equal commitment to the exoneration of innumerable and disproportionately incarcerated Black and brown men, women and children, as described in his book, Just Mercy.

Stevenson’s work has underscored the connection between the generations of brutality and dehumanization of Black and brown bodies for economic profit, from the transatlantic slave trade to the prison industrial complex. In the moments when I was not in conference attendance, I was also taking in the historical context of Montgomery, Alabama. I visited the Legacy Museum, the National Peace and Justice Memorial and the church where meetings were held to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

In Preaching Racial Justice, Dominican Fr. Gregory Heille recommends making a civil rights pilgrimage, visiting places that have stood in time or have been erected in prayer and memoriam. Heille’s testimony mirrored mine, as this experience seemed to have had just as profound an impact on me as it did on him. None of this was coincidental in my reading of the text, and it set a beautiful and necessary backdrop. 

Preaching Racial Justice is a collection from a group of diverse writers who speak to the urgency, context, necessity and consequentiality of preaching to the congregation about the trauma of racism. Acknowledging the number of parishioners in the U.S. church who identify as white, this text offers some methods for delivering the message about racism while also providing some strategies for « unlearning and relearning, » as described by A. Anita Vincent, one of the book’s contributing authors. 

The text makes explicit that the church as an institution has indeed upheld racism, and the efforts to have honest discussions about it with the flock have been futile. This is a difficult truth for many to grapple with, as it seems much easier to locate racism as external to God’s house or to reduce it to only interpersonal or attitudinal in nature. The uncomfortable realities, however, are outlined rather well through the book’s personal narratives, interviews of religious leaders, and reflections on ancestral and biblical conceptualizations, both in historical and contemporary contexts.

One example is detailed by another Dominican, Fr. James Pierce Cavanaugh, in his interview with Auxiliary Bishop Ferdinand Cheri of New Orleans. Cheri (who died in 2023) provides a historical account of racism and segregation while also describing the racism he endured within the seminary. 

An interweaving of Scriptures throughout many of the chapters fortifies an understanding that rejecting racism and its manifestations goes beyond an individual’s personal viewpoints or offerings. It must be grounded in authentic faith, drawing from the Genesis narrative that tells us we are each made in God’s image and likeness. The biblical focus in the text also emphasizes that racism is, in fact, a sin. 

Another strength of Preaching Racial Justice, which seems to add to the coalescence of the authored pieces, is that it was conceptualized and formed through the authors’ engagement within a community of practice. Each writer had both an individual and collective commitment to helping the reader reflect and potentially apply the book’s lessons in their own lives, or in their church contexts. Another added benefit is the diversity of the contributors, from clergy to lay ministers, all self-described preachers of the Word. Additionally, there is a cultural and social representation, particularly useful for describing how racism and injustice do not just solely impact Black and brown individuals, but are destructive to the entire human race — including those racialized or socially positioned as white. 

I was particularly struck by Deborah Wilhelm’s recounting and then reencountering her family history while gazing at a photo, acknowledging the violent acquisition of Indigenous lands. Fr. Peter Hill provided a self-analysis as a Black Caribbean man, describing how he — like many others across the African diaspora — have internalized white supremacy, leading to a cultural, personal and historical distancing from Black Americans. Although Hill described his own enlightenment through the reading of the Gospel, his narrative exemplifies and reifies just how deeply entrenched negative stereotypes and perceptions about Black Americans are, even by people who themselves would be identified as Black. These are among the difficult and painful tensions discussed in the book’s chapters. 

Aligned with the central focus of the book, contributors note the remarkably poor, inadequate or lacking discussions of racism in many homilies and sermons today, especially following an event of racial terror. Stewart Clem references Pew Research studies showing that American Catholics, along with white evangelicals and mainline Protestants, were less likely to hear about racism in their sermons than those in Black churches. 

This is not without effect, as Valerie Lewis-Mosley painfully describes: « I have had countless experiences of coming to Mass hoping to receive refuge from the trauma experienced by the onslaught of attacks on Black bodies but with no promise of justice. I leave those liturgies feeling even more downtrodden than when I arrived. » 

Preaching Racial Justice also calls out the behaviors of the self-proclaimed faithful. Redemptorist Fr. Maurice Nutt breaks down the problematic « I don’t see color » approach of many white Americans. While it fails to confront and address racism, it also undermines the dangers of both white fragility and the legacy of our country’s idolized « distorted notion of whiteness. » Highlighting the generations of violence, lynchings, exclusion and trauma inflicted upon Black and brown bodies, Nutt questions how members of the Catholic Church could possibly reject the truth of racism as « America’s original sin. »

In a similar way, Fr. Vincent Pastro recounts the commentary from white parishioners after a celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, perceived as a disruption to the « order » they would have liked to control. He poignantly describes how the church’s inclusivity often looks more like assimilating into white cultural norms rather than celebrating the language, customs, beauty and richness of cultures. This includes those who identify as U.S. Hispanic/Latino and speak the dominant Spanish language, but engage in the othering of Indigeneity. 

Why does Preaching Racial Justice matter? Perhaps this query is framed best through the testimony of Resurrectionist Fr. Manuel Williams. He notes the failure of the Catholic Church to respond to the 1968 manifesto from the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The NBCCC explicitly stated how the church persists as a « white racist institution » and assailed its complicity in the failure to acknowledge and lack of response to racism and injustice.

Although the question of why racial justice preaching matters has been left unanswered, perhaps this book contributes a thoughtfully and collectively crafted starting point, moving toward how the church might begin to respond — by speaking directly to its people.

Vie de l'église

Pontifical universities’ online course to unpack Francis’ ecological teachings

A new course offers Catholics a chance to dive deeper into Pope Francis’ environmental teachings and his vision of integral ecology with guidance from academics and experts at the Vatican and beyond — all without leaving home.

The pontifical universities and athenaeums of Rome have created a joint online, English-based course on integral ecology that will lead students through Francis’ 2015 encyclical, « Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, » and his recent follow-up Laudate Deum, an apostolic exhortation « on the climate crisis. »

The course begins Jan. 25, with a 90-minute session each month through June. Enrollment remains open through March 31 and can be completed at For those who enroll after the course’s start, prior sessions will be available online. There is a course fee of 30 euro, or roughly $33.

Initially offered in 2016 at the pontifical universities, the joint diploma in integral ecology consists of a total of six sessions that cover the six thematic chapters of Laudato Si’, such as « What is Happening to Our Common Home? »; « The Gospel of Creation »; and « Integral Ecology. »

An additional March workshop will screen the documentary « The Letter » about Francis’ ecological encyclical, and an online conference on May 2 will delve further into Laudate Deum.

While focused on Catholic teaching, the course is open to anyone interested in learning more about the sacred duty to care for God’s creation and protect life in all its forms, Salesian Fr. Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam, a professor at Salesian Pontifical University and one of the course instructors, told EarthBeat.

« The initiative hopes to promote a mass movement of people from below and from all walks of life for the care of our common home and the most vulnerable in our midst, » said the author of The Ten Commandments of Laudato Si’.

Each course session will be led by different instructors from the various pontifical universities across Rome, and will include expert voices from other Catholic schools, institutions and international development agencies.

Among them are Susana Réfega, newly named executive director of Laudato Si’ Movement; Mauricio López of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon; Celia Deane-Drummond of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute at Oxford University; and John Mundell, director of the Laudato Si’ Action Platform.

The course advisory board includes Cardinal Michael Czerny, head of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Cardinal Peter Turkson, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences; and the rectors of nine pontifical universities and athenaeums.

Graduates can receive a certificate upon completing the course, as well as become official Laudato Si’ animators through a program run by Laudato Si’ Movement.

« The unprecedented challenge facing the planet and people can only be addressed within the lens of an integral ecological vision that Pope Francis championed in Laudato si’, » the course materials state.

Raising ecological education has been a primary goal for the pope and the Vatican as a central piece of the planet’s response to the rapidly growing threats from climate change and biodiversity loss.

« Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment, » Francis wrote in the Laudato Si’ chapter on ecological education and spirituality.

He added, « Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. »

In Laudate Deum, Francis bemoaned that in the eight years since he issued Laudato Si’ « our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point. »

He later stated: « There are no lasting changes without cultural changes, without a maturing of lifestyles and convictions within societies, and there are no cultural changes without personal changes. »

The pope also sought to use the exhortation to educate as well, spending a sizable portion of its opening to counter climate denialism, « even within the Catholic Church, » by presenting the latest data on climate change that he melded with moral context.

At the COP28 United Nations climate conference in December, the delegation representing the Holy See stressed the importance of education and lifestyle change in nations’ collective response to climate change.

The Holy See delegation proposed adding to the Dubai gathering’s concluding document a requirement for countries to include and fund climate education within climate solutions, but the proposal was not adopted.

« We need to change our way of life and thus educate everyone to sober and fraternal lifestyles, » Francis said in a video message to inaugurate the first-ever faith pavilion at a U.N. climate summit. « This is an essential obligation for religions, which are called to teach contemplation, since creation is not only an ecosystem to preserve, but also a gift to embrace. »

Vie de l'église

Indigenous faith, reverence for land lead effort to conserve sacred forests in northeastern India

Tambor Lyngdoh made his way through the fern-covered woodland — naming plants, trees, flowers, even stones — as if he were paying older family members a visit.

The community leader and entrepreneur was a little boy when his uncle brought him here and said these words: « This forest is your mother. »

This sacred space is in the village of Mawphlang, nestled in the verdant Khasi Hills in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, whose name means « abode of clouds. » On an overcast day, the forest, a bumpy 15-mile drive from the state capital of Shillong, was tranquil but for the sound of crickets chirping and raindrops rustling the bright green foliage.

The ground, carpeted by dead leaves and green saplings, was peppered with moss-covered sacred stones, which for centuries have served as sacrificial altars and recipients of chants, songs and prayers.

Mawphlang is one of more than 125 sacred forests in Meghalaya, and arguably the most famous one. These forests are ancient, virgin woodlands that have been protected by Indigenous communities for many centuries; comparable tracts have been documented in other parts of India and around the globe, from Nigeria and Ethiopia to Turkey, Syria and Japan.

In Meghalaya, these forests represent an ancient tradition of environmental conservation, rooted in Indigenous religious beliefs and culture. For hundreds of years, people have come to sacred groves to offer prayers and animal sacrifice to the deities they believe reside there. Any form of desecration is taboo; in most forests, even plucking a flower or leaf is prohibited.

« Here, communication between man and God takes place, » said Lyngdoh, a descendant of the priestly clan which sanctified the Mawphlang forest. « Our forefathers set aside these groves and forests to signify the harmony between man and nature. »

Many of these forests are primary sources of water for surrounding villages. They are also treasure troves of biodiversity. Lyngdoh counts at least four species of trees and three types of orchids that are extinct outside of the Mawphlang sacred grove.

Today, climate change, pollution and deforestation threaten these spaces. They have also been affected by the Indigenous population’s conversion to Christianity, which began in the 19th century under British rule. Christian converts lost their spiritual connection to the forests and lore, said H.H. Morhmen, an environmentalist and retired Unitarian minister. Meghalaya is 75% Christian in a country that is almost 80% Hindu.

« They viewed their new religion as the light and these rituals as darkness, as pagan or even evil, » he said.

In recent years, environmentalists working with Indigenous and Christian communities as well as government agencies have helped spread the message about why the forests, invaluable to the region’s ecosystem and biodiversity, must be tended. Morhmen said that work is bearing fruit in rural communities.

« We’re now finding that even in places where people have converted to Christianity, they are taking care of the forests, » Mohrmen said.

Mustem village in Jaintia Hills is one example. Heimonmi Shylla, headman of the hamlet with about 500 households and a deacon, says almost all residents are Presbyterian, Catholic or members of the Church of God.

« I don’t consider the forest holy, » he said. « But I have great reverence for it. »

It serves as the village’s source of drinking water and is a sanctuary for fish.

« When the weather gets really warm, the forest keeps us cool, » he said. « When you breathe in that fresh air, your mind becomes fresh. »

Shylla worries about climate change and insufficient rain, but he said there are plans to promote tourism and « make the forest greener » by planting more trees.

Petros Pyrtuh takes his 6-year-old son, Bari Kupar, to a sacred forest near his village, also in Jaintia Hills. He is Christian, but said the forest is an important part of his life; he hopes his son will learn to respect it.

« In our generation, we don’t believe it is the dwelling place of the gods, » he said. « But we continue with the tradition of protecting the forest because our ancestors have told us not to defile the forest. »

B.K. Tiwari, a retired professor of environmental science from North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, is heartened to see that conversion to Christianity has not disconnected the people entirely from the land.

« In the Indigenous religion everything is sacred — animals, plants, trees, rivers, » said Tiwari, who has studied the biological and cultural diversity of Meghalaya’s sacred forests. « Now, they may not feel any connection with the divine or spiritual, but as a culture, they understand their roles as the custodians. »

Donbok Buam, a native of Jaintia Hills who still practices the Indigenous faith, explained that in his village’s sacred forest, rituals are performed at the confluence of three rivers honoring the goddess Lechki, denizen of the forest and guardian of the village.

« If people have a problem or sickness or if women have trouble conceiving children, they go there and perform sacrifices, » Buam said.

One of the rituals involves carrying river water before daybreak and offering it to the goddess at a specific location in the forest. The water is poured in gourds and placed alongside five betel nuts and five betel leaves — four for the rivers and one for the sacred forest. A white goat is sacrificed in honor of the forest deity, he said.

« We believe the goddess walks in the forest, even today, » Buam said.

The Nongrum clan is one of three that cares for the Swer sacred forest near Cherrapunji, an area about 35 miles southwest of Shillong, which is among the wettest in the world. They follow the pantheistic Seng Khasi religion, which holds that God exists in everyone and everything. The forest is a temple where their deities reside, and rituals are performed to ward off war, famine and disease, said Knik Nongrum, president of the local committee that cares for the forest.

« When there is a healthy forest, there is prosperity in the village, » he said, vowing that this forest will continue to thrive because his clan is determined to carry on the traditions established by their ancestors.

Like most sacred forests, this one is not easily accessible from the road. It is located up a steep hill whose terrain can become treacherous if hit by a downpour — as it frequently is. It is impossible to enter the forest without feeling the brush of twisted branches, breathing in the scent of flowers and herbs, and being showered by droplets of water shaken off leaves.

The part of the forest the people hold sacred is a leaf-covered plot surrounded by thick, tall trees.

Most of the rituals are performed only during turbulent times; the most recent tribulation was the global coronavirus pandemic. One particular ritual — the sacrifice of a bull — is done by the head priest once in his lifetime, a practice that gives him authority to perform other rites for his community.

Jiersingh Nongrum, 52, pointed to the sacrificial altar just outside the forest, which has a crater in the middle where the animal’s blood pools. He was 6 when he witnessed that once-in-a-lifetime sacrifice.

« It was such an intense experience, » he said. « When I think about it today, it feels like a vision that I can’t even properly describe in words. »

Some sacred forests also serve as ancestral burial sites, said Hamphrey Lyngdoh Ryntathiang, the chief caretaker of one such forest in Khasi Hills. He practices the Khasi faith and his wife is Christian.

Each forest has its own set of rules and taboos. In this forest, people can take fruit from the trees, but are prohibited from burning anything, he said. In others, the fruit can be plucked from the tree, but must be eaten in the forest. Deities are believed to punish people for disturbances.

Lyngdoh from Mawphlang is Christian, but he participates in the forest rituals, invoking the deities believed to appear as a leopard and snake. He also sees the effects of climate change on forests in the area, and noted the invasive birds, fungi-infested trees and disappearing species.

In rural Meghalaya, the poorest people rely most on the land, said Lyngdoh, noting forests can be life-giving as well as economic engines, providing water and driving tourism.

« But above all, a sacred grove is set aside so we can continue to have what we have had from the time this world was created. »

Vie de l'église

Black Jesus and his Black followers come to life in ‘The Book of Clarence’

The late Rev. James Cone, known as the father of Black liberation theology, stated in his book God of the Oppressed that God is Black. « Christ is black, therefore, not because of some cultural or psychological need of black people, but because and only because Christ really enters into our world where the poor, the despised, and the black are, disclosing that he is with them, enduring their humiliation and pain and transforming oppressed slaves into liberated servants. »

In the biblical comedy « The Book of Clarence, » British writer and director Jeymes Samuel brings to life East Jerusalem A.D. 33 inhabited by Black people and a colonizing white force of Romans.

The story follows Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), the village mischief maker who is trying to save his life after he lost a bet. He also is motivated to prove to his family and the woman he loves, Varinia (Anna Diop), that he isn’t a nobody.

Initially, Clarence concocts a plan to join his twin brother Thomas (also played by Stanfield) and become the 13th apostle of Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock). When that plan fails, Clarence, a self-professed unbeliever, decides to become a fake messiah in order to obtain money, power, influence and a way to pay back his debt and have his life spared.

While « The Book of Clarence » is set during the time of Jesus, the story is told through a Black cultural lens and employs magical realism. The cast, made up of African Americans and actors from the diaspora, is excellent. And while there are many laughs and entertainment like levitation and a dance scene, the movie also explores contemporary issues facing Black Americans including racial profiling and police brutality. 

Though the movie is rated PG-13, there are graphic depictions of carrying the cross and crucifixion that may be difficult to watch for younger teens or sensitive viewers, and widespread smoking and recreational drug use.

In addition to the religious story, Clarence’s journey is also one that many people today face. He has pressure to take care of his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) after his brother leaves to follow Jesus. He struggles to make ends meet without an honorable trade to provide a living. And he wants to prove his self-worth to those who believe he is a wayward soul that will amount to nothing. 

There is also a budding love story with Clarence’s object of affection, Varinia, who wants Clarence to change his ways and become honorable and authentic.

For Clarence and his good friend and sidekick, Elijah (RJ Cyler), disbelief in God and Jesus as Messiah are only remedied by personal experiences with the Divine. For centuries, African Americans have relied on their personal faith and encounters with God to help them overcome hardships and have hope for a better future. During a time of increased societal secularization, the movie’s message about faith and belief will resonate with many people who struggle with personal doubt or have family and friends who have strayed from the Christian faith.

Though « The Book of Clarence » is not considered a « faith-based » film, and Samuel wants all people regardless of religious background to feel comfortable watching the movie, it still offers much for Catholics to ponder and reflect on their own faith.

One such source of reflection that the movie playfully depicts is the centurieslong inaccurate portrayal of Jesus as a white, European-looking man. The popular series « The Chosen » stands out as one of the most successful media portrayals with Jesus as a Middle-Eastern-looking man to date, which is more authentic. So, while it is historically inaccurate to portray Jesus as African American, so too have the countless portrayals of Jesus as white been historically inaccurate yet largely unquestioned and accepted. 

It is a bold and necessary move to depict the holiest man, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, disciples and followers as Black in a world that constantly seeks to criminalize, dehumanize and subjugate people with Black skin. 

When reflecting on Cone’s seminal work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Nikia Smith Robert wrote, « To understand the cross and the lynching tree is to recognize the tragedy of crucifixion but also to appreciate the beauty of resurrection. This is to say, the defeat of death does not have the last word. Jesus snatches victory from defeat. »

« The Book of Clarence » has an excellent twist at the ending that beautifully illustrates Jesus’s victory over death. Overall, the movie was a breath of fresh air and needed departure from so many African American movies that depict Black trauma, oppression and other negative experiences. Though the African American experience has indeed been filled with much pain, sorrow and anguish, it’s also important for filmmakers and artists to imagine and depict a world with Black joy, triumph and inspiration. 

Like the Gospel message, the movie leaves the audience hopeful and filled with awe for the miracle-working Jesus, who has always been and continues to side with the oppressed, marginalized and outcast in society.