Vie de l'église

Paulists say they are preparing to close ministries, due to fewer priests

The morning Fr. René Constanza, president of the Paulist Fathers, spoke with National Catholic Reporter, a member of his community had died in hospice care. It was a poignant reminder of the topic of the scheduled interview: the Paulists’ declining numbers, and their recent announcement that « we have discerned that change is coming. »

In an undated letter signed by Constanza on the Paulist website — titled « An Important Message From the President of the Paulist Fathers » — he wrote, « The current reality of fewer Paulists demands that we enter into a process by which we decide which ministries we can continue to staff and which we will have to entrust to others to carry on the good work we’ve begun. »

An accompanying chart anticipates the potential ministerial shift, projecting a continuous contraction of numbers: In 2004, there were 98 Paulists in active ministry. Twenty years later, in 2024, that number has shrunk — by almost half — to 50 in active ministry. And of those, almost two-thirds — 62% — are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

By 2034, the Paulists predict they’ll have only 31 members in active ministry.

For Constanza, the necessity to plan ahead became first priority after his June 7, 2022, installation as president. The General Assembly — the highest deliberative body of the Paulist community — met immediately afterward to determine priorities for the next four years.

« From that assembly of two weeks, we knew that this is the reality and we need to take a look at all these ministries that we have — and we need to start making decisions now and be proactive, and not just be reactive, » Constanza told NCR. « I feel that it’s important for us to start doing that — because the worst thing is for us to just be in a reactive mode. »

« In some ways, » said Costanza, « that’s where we’re at. But we still have the luxury of imagining — reimagining — our mission, and then locating our resources and personnel based on that. »

The Paulists’ losses, said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Gaunt — executive director at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) — are not surprising.

« I wouldn’t say it’s more dramatic than the average; it’s about average, » Gaunt noted. « They’ve lost about half. Overall, there’s been a decline of about 35, 40% — so it’s not that different. The loss and decline is really due to the large number of men who entered religious life post-World War II, » he said. 

« The declining in numbers is really mortality. That’s what’s driving this more than anything else, » said Gaunt.

Paulists serve in nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia, primarily at parishes, college centers, and through various ministries, programs and offices.

Constanza’s letter is direct: « We believe that sometime this year we will likely have to say farewell to two or three parishes or institutions where Paulists are currently serving, » it reads. 

« Additionally, this process will likely involve reimagining some of our national ministries with different structures or leadership, » it continues.

The letter adds that « no decisions have yet been made, but they will be soon. »

Soon, Constanza told NCR, will be a March 5-6 General Council meeting. Consisting of nine Paulist Fathers, the General Council meets quarterly.

Elaborating, Constanza emphasized, « No decisions have been made because we don’t have a list of ‘These are the three or five or whatever that we’ll be choosing.’ We don’t have that. We will be discerning that — but we have been collecting data from our various ministries for a long time now. »

The mission « is quite clear, » Constanza said. « One of the criteria that we will be assessing, based on Paulist mission and charism: How do the ministries allow us to live our charism now, and also help us fulfill our mission in the next five years? »

Of special concern are those on the peripheries of the church.

« We listed those in that assembly, » said Constanza. « Women, we need more women in leadership in our ministries; the members of the LGBTQ+ community, those who identify as LGBTQ+; those in their 20s and 30s; and people of color. »

What will remain consistent, said Paulist Fr. Dave Dwyer — first consultor of the Paulist Fathers and host of SiriusXM satellite radio’s « Busted Halo » show — is their dedication to evangelization through the media. 

« We remain committed to using the modern media to spread the Gospel, for sure, » Dwyer told NCR. « What that will look like later this year, or five years, or 10 years from now — quite honestly, I hope it will look different. Because I hope that means that we’re responding to the signs of the times. »

Reflecting on the Paulists’ founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker — whose canonization cause was taken up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2023 — Dwyer emphasized flexibility. « Just because Fr. Hecker started publishing in print — I mean, I think if he was alive today, he’d say, ‘Well, I probably need a TikTok account,’  » said Dwyer.

Constanza said, « Every time we have to leave places, it’s also sad for us, a dying for us. And yet, we have to realize like St. Paul — who was a great missionary — he left, but he left communities and laypeople that understood the Gospel and the mission, and they were the ones who spread it. »

Laypeople, he believes, will have an ever more critical future role.

« There’s no other way, » Constanza said. « And it’s sad that many are only understanding this aspect of it when push comes to shove. It shouldn’t be that way. It should be that we understand the importance of lay leadership; we value it — and we know that this is the way forward for the church. »

Vie de l'église

‘Less than a person’: Formerly incarcerated people say system needs healing

It has been more than a decade since Lisa Daniels lost her youngest son, but she still cries when telling his story. Darren Easterling was 25 when he was murdered during a drug deal in a Chicago suburb, and while his body lay on the street, covered by a sheet, no one thought to try to inform his loved ones. His mother did not learn about his death until eight hours later, from a family friend.

« There were individuals who were doing their jobs on that day, and not a single one of them took a moment to decide that this young man had somebody that loved him, » she said. « The summation of his 25 years was minimized to that single moment in his life, and he was continually judged by his single worst decision in his life. And not only was he judged by that, but I was, too. »

After her son’s death, Daniels became an advocate for restorative justice — which seeks to honor and heal every person affected by crime, even the perpetrators — and founded a center that fosters healing for young men with criminal backgrounds and their families.

She told her story during a Feb. 21 dialogue event sponsored by the Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network, a project of the Lumen Christi Institute. IOt was  — one of a series of such conversations across the country aimed at fostering a « culture of encounter, » as Pope Francis terms it, among those responsible for the criminal justice system and those impacted by it.

The nearly 200 attendees included prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, legal scholars and law enforcement, as well as victims of crime, returning citizens and their families. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich was part of the panel and celebrated a Mass preceding the conversation. 

« The focus is almost exclusively on punishment and controlling people who are incarcerated. … We don’t have a healing system. »
—Patrick Foley 

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Daniels’ was just one of many stories participants told to illustrate the system’s failure to acknowledge the humanity of crime victims, perpetrators, those who are or have been incarcerated, and their families.

Joseph « JoJo » Mapp served 26 years, five months and 26 days in prison, and each day was a dehumanizing punishment. « I was identified as less than a person and a person deserving of the worst treatment possible, » he said.

At the maximum-security institution where Mapp was incarcerated, inmates were housed in their cells 21-23 hours a day and allowed to shower only twice a week. Sentenced as a teenager, Mapp struggled with suicide ideation.

One of his saddest days, he said, involved a birthday visit from his mother and two siblings, which required him to be strip-searched. Because his younger brother wore a sleeveless shirt, the prison officials refused to allow him entrance. And when his mother challenged the decision, she, too, was banned.

« Not only did I have to endure the isolation and loneliness of becoming a young man in an incarcerated setting, but I had to do it with the separation from my loved ones, » he said.

Mapp now works as director of re-entry with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago, which serves young people and families impacted by violence, incarceration and structural inequity. 

Eric Anderson also works with Precious Blood’s program, training incarcerated men in the practice of peace circles for conflict resolution and community building. At age 15, Anderson was sentenced to life without parole, but when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such sentences were unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, Anderson was resentenced and served 27 and a half years.

He saw his resentencing as a « miracle » and a second chance, but says the system offered him no way to « pay down his debt. »

« What I found to be one of the most hurtful things about being in prison was the helplessness of being able to try to repair some of the harm you’ve caused, » he said.

Anderson later realized the way to give back was to first heal himself and « every day to make the right decision when given the opportunity and try to give back. »

Jeanne Bishop, whose sister and brother-in-law and their unborn child were murdered in 1990, described how her faith forced her to make peace with her sister’s killer and led her to work for criminal justice reform. « It was the most healing thing I have ever done, » she said.

Representing the criminal justice system on the panel were Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Judge Erica Reddick, presiding judge of the county’s criminal division. Reddick said the most difficult part of her job is sentencing because she must balance the « pain, the anger, the anguish, the brokenness » of the victims with those same feelings of defendants’ families.

Dart acknowledged that too often the criminal justice system loses its sense of humanity. « It makes people objects, it makes them not the people God created them to be. It makes it easy for people to be callous and thoughtless, » he said. 

In his homily, Cupich said that the current broken system is a « deep wound that affects us all » and that reform of the system is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of those who are involved in it. In his comments on the panel, he urged everyone to remember their interrelatedness.

« We can’t ever reject somebody, where we take the worst thing they’ve done and say they aren’t part of the human family anymore, » Cupich said. « And we can’t ignore the pain and suffering of those who have been injured. They’re family too. »

After the panel, the real work of the evening began, as each table held its own listening session among members of both « system responsible » and « system impacted » people. Although the conversations were confidential, reports at the end of the evening reflected powerful interactions and urgent calls for change. One table reported that all members had exchanged information and planned to stay in contact.

Judge Thomas More Donnelly, president of the Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network, said he has seen evidence of changed hearts at this and previous dialogue events, held in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; San Diego and Detroit. One judge said he was going to start visiting inmates; others say they will look differently at people in their courts.

« Part of the problem with just seeing people in jumpsuits who are robbed of their voice is that you can’t imagine them as people who are loved and love, as people with dreams and aspirations and talents. You just see them as their charge, » Donnelly told NCR.

He said the dialogues also give people impacted by the system a chance to tell their stories to those representing the system that hurt them. In addition, the events highlight the importance of prison ministries and programs that help the formerly incarcerated to reenter society.

Patrick Foley, a former prosecutor who attended the Chicago event, said getting involved in restorative justice work has been humbling. When he began volunteering, he originally thought he was going to make an impact.

« I was very quickly disabused of this idea that it was me doing the transformation, » he told NCR. « I’ve learned so much from being in the presence of people who are system-impacted. It breaks open your heart. »

He now believes the system needs to be transformed, especially in how it treats people who are often suffering from trauma, generational poverty and/or mental illness. « The focus is almost exclusively on punishment and controlling people who are incarcerated. There is very little attention given to caring for the person, » he said. « We don’t have a healing system. »

Future dialogues are scheduled for Memphis; statewide in California; and Covington, Kentucky. 

Vie de l'église

Has Pope Francis failed to root out clergy sexual abuse?

This February marked the fifth anniversary of one of Pope Francis’ seminal efforts to confront clergy sexual abuse: the first-of-its-kind 2019 Vatican summit about abuse prevention with the heads of the world’s Catholic bishops’ conferences.

Looking back now, one of the leading U.S. advocates for clergy abuse survivors told National Catholic Reporter that although the summit resulted in « massive public awareness building » about clergy abuse, its wider impact has been « minimal. »

Anne Barrett Doyle, who has tracked clergy abuse over decades as a co-director of the website, in particular singled out for criticism Francis’ signature clergy abuse reform Vos Estis Lux Mundi, first issued after the summit.

« Its impact has been insignificant, as far as we can tell, » said Barrett Doyle, speaking in an interview in Rome for NCR’s « The Vatican Briefing » podcast. The survivor advocate criticized the way the reform law, which created a new system to evaluate accusations of abuse or cover-up by bishops, does not share with the public which bishops are being investigated.

Some canon law experts say the Vatican keeps that information private so as to protect the reputation of accused bishops while investigations are still in their earliest stages.

« It resembles the laws very much before Vos Estis, [as] it is cloaked in secrecy, » said Barrett Doyle. « We have no idea how many bishops have been investigated under Vos Estis. BishopAccountability tries to count them, but the information is so vague. »

In her podcast interview, Barrett Doyle also criticized the structure of Francis’ main advisory group on clergy sexual abuse, saying the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has « an impossible remit. »

« They’re supposed to sort of be monitoring the church’s progress in safeguarding without being allowed to probe individual cases, » she said. « That’s laughably impossible. »

« The truth only comes out in the individual cases, » said Barrett Doyle. « Literally, the devil is in those details. »

« I think the commission has been exploited by the Vatican to make them look like they’re being accountable to a semi-outside body, which it isn’t, and I think the commission has lost credibility, » she said.

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Anglican woman bishop: Pope took ‘risk’ inviting her to address cardinal advisers

An Anglican woman bishop who addressed Pope Francis and his advisory Council of Cardinals says she believes the pontiff took a « risk » in extending her an invitation to speak to the group and hopes that the Catholic Church will continue to explore the topic of women’s leadership with « courage. »

« I’m aware — not least from various reactions in the aftermath — that to many such an opportunity feels rare, if not historic. I’m thankful for the privilege, and equally want to honor the risk Pope Francis surely took in welcoming it, » Bishop Jo Bailey Wells, deputy secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, said in an email interview with the National Catholic Reporter following her visit to Rome.

Wells was one of three women who on Feb. 5 met with the pope and what is often referred to as his « C9 » group of nine cardinals that meets quarterly in Rome to advise Francis on church governance. 

While the group has historically focused its meetings on the reform of the Vatican’s bureaucracy, during its last two meetings the body has discussed the role of women in the church.

« It suggests that he sees the value of ecumenical engagement not only for collaboration between churches but for listening and learning from each other, » Wells said of the pope’s decision to include both women and an Anglican for the first time ever at the usually all-male meeting.

According to Wells, Salesian Sr. Linda Pocher, a professor of Christology and Mariology at Rome’s Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences « Auxilium, » organized the session at the request of the pope.

Wells’ own invitation came unexpectedly late last autumn. Pocher asked her « to speak to the story of the ordination of women in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion, offering a personal perspective as well as the broader ecclesial journey, » Wells said.

In his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II wrote that the Catholic Church has « no authority » to ordain women as priests — a position that Francis has repeatedly upheld. But throughout his decadelong papacy, Francis has also expanded the Catholic Church’s dialogue with both the Anglican Communion and on women’s ministries.

Wells said that during her morning with the pope and his top advisers, she told the story of Li Tim Oi, who in 1944 became the first woman to be ordained to the Anglican priesthood. At the time, it was impossible for male priests to visit Tim Oi’s Chinese congregation in Macau, leading to her ordination under exceptional circumstances.

Nearly half a century later, in 1992, the Church of England’s General Synod voted to ordain women, though subsequent legislation allowed for certain parishes not to accept ordained women as priests.

Among those women first ordained as priests soon thereafter was Wells, who in 2016 was made a bishop. Along with having taught at Duke University and Cambridge, Wells is now the bishop for episcopal ministry based at the Anglican Communion Office, which helps resource and foster connection between Anglican bishops.

In Rome, Wells said, she discussed the « levels of decision-making in regard to women in the three orders of deacon, priest and bishop » with the pope and cardinals.

« Even though I am utterly convinced that God calls women to sacramental ministry through the ordination of women to all three orders — not least because I’ve experienced the challenge and privilege of this calling myself — my greatest longing for the Catholic Church is that every member may be affirmed and empowered in ministry as well as in discipleship, in God’s way and in God’s timing, » she told NCR.

Wells said the pope and the cardinals « listened graciously, evidenced from their questions and the discussion which followed. »

In addition, she noted that she was impressed by the Vatican’s ongoing synod on synodality, where for the first time ever, Francis extended the right to vote at the synod to the laity, including women, at last October’s session. Among the topics discussed inside the synod’s deliberations were questions about the ordination of women to the diaconate, as well as the priesthood. 

The « urgent need » for expanded roles for women’s ministry, as the synod’s synthesis report described it, is expected to top the agenda when synod delegates reconvene in Rome this October.

« We might expect that, whatever the path ahead in terms of women and ordination, that the Spirit will be at work to affirm and harness the gifts and graces invested in women for the sake of the whole body of Christ, » said Wells of the synod.

After the conclusion of the pope and his cardinals’ meeting with the three women, Pocher — the Spanish Salesian who organized the gathering — said she believes that Francis is « very much in favor of the female diaconate, » but that women’s ordination remains out of bounds for him.

Even so, Wells said that she is impressed and hopeful after her time at the Vatican and that she hopes her meeting with the pope’s top leadership encourages the conversations to continue.

« I hope that the gift of tradition may be seen to empower rather than hamper the possibilities for innovation, » she said. « I hope the conversation on the particular place of women will help to build a model of ministry in which every member — male and female — plays an active role. I hope the church will continue to explore the particular topic of the role of women with courage, listening to the voices of women as well as men as it deliberates theologically and canonically, in the expectation that we (ever) have much to learn. »

And, Wells added, « I hope the church may welcome and be stretched by the differing voices in this conversation and thus come to appreciate how diversity itself may be a gift for expanding our horizons and enriching church life. Not just diversity in terms of male and female, but diversity in terms of viewpoints. »


Transfiguration and Pasch

(Second Sunday of Lent-Year B; This homily was given on February 24 & 25, 2024 at Saint Augustine Church in Providence, Rhode Island; See Genesis 22:1-18 and Mark 9:2-10) 

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Chief justice’s Christian reasoning in IVF opinion sparks alarm over church-state separation

When the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are considered children under state law, its chief justice had a higher authority in mind.

By citing verses from the Bible and Christian theologians in his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Tom Parker alarmed advocates for church-state separation, while delighting religious conservatives who oppose abortion.

Human life, Parker wrote, « cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself. »

The Alabama court’s Feb. 16 ruling stemmed from wrongful death lawsuits brought by couples whose frozen embryos were accidentally destroyed.

The most immediate impact of the ruling was to leave in vitro fertilization clinics in Alabama potentially vulnerable to more lawsuits and reluctant to administer treatment. But not far behind were mounting worries about Parker’s explicit references to Christian theology.

While Parker’s concurring opinion does not carry the force of precedent, advocates for church-state separation fear he could inspire judges in other states to push the envelope.

« Now we’re in a place where government officials feel emboldened to say the quiet part out loud, and directly challenge the separation of church and state, a foundational part of our democracy, » said Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

She said Parker’s opinion was just the latest example – and a brazen one at that – of government officials advocating for Christian nationalism, a movement that seeks to privilege Christianity and fuse Christian and American identity.

Other instances she cited include Missouri lawmakers citing Catholic and biblical teachings for restricting abortion and U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson saying the notion of church-state separation in the U.S. was a « misnomer. » 

Parker argued in his opinion that the court was merely enforcing the Alabama state constitution, which was amended in 2018 to recognize « the sanctity of unborn life. » That principle has « deep roots that reach back to the creation of man ‘in the image of God,' » Parker said, quoting the Book of Genesis.

Parker sprinkled his opinion with a litany of religious sources, from classic Christian theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, to a modern conservative Christian manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration, that opposes « anti-life » measures.

He also quoted a Bible verse that is legendary within the anti-abortion movement, in which God told the prophet Jeremiah, « Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. »

The Alabama court’s ruling that frozen embryos are children is an extension of the ideology that undergirds the anti-abortion movement, said Mary Ziegler, a historian of the abortion debate and a law professor at the University of California, Davis.

And it points to the influence of the conservative Christian legal movement, she said. Namely, its position « that the U.S. has an intrinsically Christian Constitution » — a notion that Ziegler and many historians reject.

« The point, I think, for the movement was never just getting rid of Roe, » Ziegler said. « It was always to achieve fetal personhood, » the idea that human rights are conferred at conception.

The Alabama ruling could influence decisions in other state courts and legislatures, particularly in the 11 states that already have fetal personhood language in their laws, Ziegler said. But because it’s about the interpretation of a state law, she said the case is unlikely to make its way to the Supreme Court.

Some anti-abortion activists rejoiced at the ruling.

It’s « a tremendous victory for life, » said the powerful Christian legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom. « A beautiful defense of life, » said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council.

The Liberty Counsel filed a notice with the Florida Supreme Court, saying the Alabama decision — including Parker’s concurrence — should be factored into a pending decision about a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would protect abortion rights.

« Unborn life must be protected at every stage, » Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s chairman, said in a statement. 

Still, Christian perspectives on IVF are mixed, and in some cases, undecided.

While the Catholic Church condemns such reproductive technology as immoral, many Protestant churches and denominations do not have a firm stance against the practice.

Kellyanne Conway, the political consultant who worked for former President Donald Trump, lobbied GOP lawmakers in December to advocate for contraception and fertility treatments. She cited her firm’s finding that even anti-abortion evangelicals overwhelmingly support access to IVF.

On Friday, Trump shared his strong support for IVF in a post on his Truth Social network and called on Alabama lawmakers to protect access to the procedure.

Parker is no stranger to church-state debates.

He served as former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s spokesperson during fights over a Ten Commandments monument Moore erected inside the building housing the Supreme Court.

Parker is a member of Frazer Church, a Montgomery megachurch that until 2022 was part of the United Methodist Church. The congregation, which left amid a UMC schism over the denomination not upholding its LGBTQ clergy and marriage bans, is now part of the Free Methodist Church, a more conservative denomination.

Neither United Methodists nor Free Methodists specifically condemn IVF in their church doctrines. The Free Methodist Book of Discipline emphasizes the value of human life at all stages. It notes that reproductive technologies raise many »ethical, medical, legal and theological questions even as they offer hope. » 

Parker was the founding executive director of what is now called the Alabama Policy Institute, which is associated with the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family. On its website, Focus on the Family recommends that married couples not freeze or discard embryos created during IVF.

Fertility experts say IVF without the option of frozen embryos would likely increase the costs of fertility treatments and reduce the chances for patients trying to have a baby.

Because religious groups have different opinions about when life begins, « it’s quite problematic to see a judge essentially embedding a Christian view into state law, » said Greer Donley, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in bioethics and health.

She said that other judges might increasingly apply religious thinking to their decisions.

« It’s particularly notable that (Parker) is not trying to hide that, but even if judges were careful in their language, the result is essentially the same, » Donley said.

Laser, of Americans United, said that even the Alabama court’s majority decision — which does not explicitly reference religion — is problematic; it states that all participants in the case « agree that an unborn child is a genetically unique human being whose life begins at fertilization and ends at death. »

« That is not taking into account everyone this policy is going to be imposed upon, including religious minorities, the nonreligious, Christians who have a different belief system, » Laser said. « It undermines true religious freedom. »

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. 

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Second Sunday of Lent: A test with no fixed answers

What do you feel when someone says « God is testing you »? Really, doesn’t it seem unfair for God to call us into a contest of wits? Knowing we’d never win, Jesus taught us to pray, « Do not put us to the test. » But still, we hear stories that sound like God’s testing.  

In an interesting combination of Scripture passages, the story of Abraham’s test prepares us for contemplating Jesus’ transfiguration. Genesis 22:1 says, « God put Abraham to the test. » Marc Chagall, the Jewish mystic who conveyed theology through his art, portrays the « Sacrifice of Isaac » as a tragic tale that runs through history. Abraham and Isaac are the central characters, while the main scene is subtly repeated by depictions of the crucifixion and a ghetto scene recalling the Holocaust.  

Many Jewish theologians interpret the story of Abraham’s test not as God’s demand for sacrifice, but as an account of the call to metanoia and a divine declaration that the God of life would never require human sacrifice. In that light, we might understand the transfiguration as an invitation to the disciples to adjust their perspective.  

Mark situates the Transfiguration after the healing of a blind man, Peter’s proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah and disciples’ rejection of Jesus’ teaching about the suffering to come. In that context, Jesus’ resplendent appearance underlined the fact that he was not the messiah they were expecting. No potentate or conquering warrior who would oust the Roman occupiers, Jesus did not fill the role of the one they hoped for. He was far too powerless and vulnerable to match their concepts of God or a savior.  

On that mountain, the disciples saw Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, symbols of Israel’s vocation and identity. The law defined the people of Israel as God’s own. The prophets led them to know what being the people of God demanded of them at each moment. Moses and Elijah would have been dazzling enough, but in addition to being accompanied by those two giants, Jesus himself glowed with incomprehensible glory.  

Incomprehensible must be the word for this Sunday; it fits us, the disciples and Abraham. Isaiah, who carried out his ministry around 700 BCE, had reminded his people of God’s proclamation, « My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways » (Isaiah 55:6-10). Both Abraham and the people of Jesus’ day had a hard time accepting that. (Not to mention us!)  Abraham, in imitation of the religions surrounding him, wanted to please God by offering his all.  

In a culture that did not believe in eternal life, Isaac represented Abraham’s only future beyond the grave. What Abraham didn’t realize was that his notion of sacrifice smacked of manipulation; it was close to the Pelagianism St. Augustine would fight against (we can be good enough to earn salvation) and the practices Martin Luther would condemn as he insisted that salvation is a free gift of a loving God that can never be earned. God’s undermining of sacrifice leads us to realize that the belief that we can earn God’s favor through sacrifice of any kind actually impedes our reception of the love God offers, regardless of our moral performance.  

The disciples’ inability to understand Jesus was different from Abraham. They weren’t so much trying to earn God’s favor as they wanted to set the course for how Jesus should carry out his mission — a course that would lead the world to see him as a shining success. Jesus’ appearance in glory would have fit their plan perfectly had it not been preceded by his insistence that they would save their lives by losing them, and, even more dreadfully, that Jesus would be ashamed of anyone who acted ashamed of him in his vulnerability.  

When we think of the Transfiguration in isolation, it fits wonderfully into our ambitions for glory and success. We are on the winning team! When we read it as a confirmation of Jesus’ teachings about serving, about being the least and giving fully of ourselves in trust, we begin to understand that the glory of God is an enigma, a promise of glory and fulfillment through self-effacement and even apparent failure.  

St. Paul asks us, « If God is for us, who can be against us? » The reality, as Chagall reminds us, is that many can be against us. That’s when the test comes. If we can drop our attempts to earn our own salvation, our misgivings and incomprehension can be transformed into stages on the road leading us ever more profoundly into the mystery of God’s unfathomable love. 

This test has no fixed answers. It’s actually an invitation to the freedom that flows from trust that God will continue to lead us into mystery beyond our highest hopes and wildest dreams.  

Vie de l'église

The most political thing we can do as Catholics

I sometimes joke that, 30 years ago, I bet my life and my career on higher education, the Roman Catholic Church, and the American form of constitutional government — three unshakable, bedrock institutions. It’s true, of course. It’s not much of a joke. But across the last several years it has come to seem funny that I could have thought those three were a good bet.

For as much as that bit of gallows humor always gets a laugh in 2024, I mention it because it points to a deeper conviction that I have — one I have acquired across now three decades of professional engagement with the academy, the church and our politics. In a deeply important sense, they’re all the same thing. And, they’re all suffering for the same reasons.

I found myself thinking about that recently in my classroom at Chicago’s DePaul University, where I am teaching classical political thought during this winter term. Though I am appointed as a theologian at my home institution the Catholic Theological Union, my training is in political science and, really, I am a political theorist. It’s always a pleasure for me to return to teaching the writers who first discerned what politics is in an ancient world where the lines between drama, poetry, philosophy, religion, and public life were not so well drawn as they are today. 

For those ancient people in the Athenian city-state that thrived between the time of Solon and Plato, politics was a rich experience. Public life was experienced in performances of poetry and drama that are early antecedents of our sense of liturgy (from the Greek leitourgia, « public work »). Audiences heard tragic stories of their gods interacting with human affairs, and the experience shaped their public life. As the classicist Edith Hamilton wrote, « The poet and the actors did not speak to the audience; they spoke for them. Their task and their power was to interpret and express the great communal emotion. … That deep community of feeling came to pass in the theatre. … [People] lost their sense of isolation. » Our understanding of public life arose from these experiences. 

Hamilton reminds us that we use the word « politics » far too casually today. That is a central message I try to convey whenever I teach politics. The truest meaning of the word does not convey a sense of partisanship or division, corruption or competition. It had no such meaning when politics first arose from those ancient city-states. In its first, best and most useful sense, politics means « our shared life, » the life of the community.  The Greek origins of our word politics (politeia) convey this sense — roughly, « what the city does together. » Politics is a community discerning together, sorting through its options and weighing its advantages and disadvantages to arrive at a course of action. When conflicts arise, politics means addressing them through discussion and law rather than violence. Politics means valuing our shared life together more than we value winning any argument — and bearing witness to that value in our commitment to dialogue with one another.

In this way, a university classroom also is a political space. A classroom is a community discerning together. We discuss, we grapple with problems, and through dialogue we come to understanding. The classroom exists because none of us comes to understanding alone and, because we value coming to a better understanding together, we also come to value our community of relationship. The freedom to speak our point of view and seek the truth together wherever that search leads us is that community’s distinguishing characteristic. The classroom is a place where we learn skills of citizenship no matter what we are studying there. In this way, the freedom and the relationships of the classroom are connected intimately to how we live our public life. 

The church also is a political community. The meaning of ecclesia is « the community that is called together, » and so the church is a community called to bear witness together to what we believe. We do this in the public work of the liturgy all the time: A visible church is joined to an invisible church, our Sunday assembly alongside the communion of the saints together joined in the same act and the same conviction of faith. But certainly Pope Francis’ call to a synodal style of church also invites us to recognize the church as a political community where, all together as a community of the baptized, we discern the promptings of the Spirit in conversation with one another. 

I know this is an unfamiliar way to think about politics. But often I think that returning to this way of thinking about politics holds answers for us.

In the first place, we need to recover the word « politics » from the ways that we abuse it. The word should mean something greater to us than division. Some things in our personal lives and in our public lives need to be objects of greater than usual reverence. It is for that reason that Pope Francis so consistently has pointed us toward « a better kind of politics. »

That call to embrace politics for what it really is has been a distinguishing mark of Pope Francis’ ministry. I always am amazed it gets so little attention. Early in his pontificate, in Evangelii Gaudium (2013), Pope Francis told us that « Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity. » In « Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home » (2015) he insisted that “a healthy politics is sorely needed.”  And in Fratelli Tutti (2020) , Francis makes « A Better Kind of Politics » the subject of an entire chapter. He tells us that « to be part of a people is to be part of a shared identity » that arises from « advancing toward a common project. » The heart of arriving at this « better kind of politics » is love (caritas) « which is the spiritual heart of politics. »

Yet our communities are suffering. Our national political community is suffering, but so is our church. So are universities. They suffer in different ways, but polarization and an absence of love are the root of all of them. Together, the suffering of those communities is a manifestation of our failure to love one another and to love the opportunities we have to recognize one another as friends in the communities we share. Pope Francis seems to be telling us that Catholics should be leaders in our communities: We should be the ones who bear witness in love to « a better kind of politics. » But too often, we are the bringers of division both in the church and outside it.

There is no simple answer to this problem, but there is a good beginning. We can heed Pope Francis in Fratelli when he imagines our communities as places « where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another. » We can have so much courage as to listen respectfully and still love amid disagreement.  But even more basically, we can fulfill the promises of our baptism, live our faith in he who commanded us, « As I have loved you, so you should love one another » (John 13:34).

To live our faith in that way is the most political thing we can do.

Vie de l'église

It’s time for the Catholic Church to return Indigenous land

As a growing land return movement, Landback is a diverse and global process. From the return of national parks to the Eastern Kuku Yalanji in Australia, to the reclaiming of Tuluwat Island, a Wiyot sacred site near Eureka, California, Landback is gaining in global strength. Although each land return initiative is distinct and specific to its place and relationality, as a movement gaining ground across the globe, Landback is a proper noun.

When the Vatican repudiated the « Doctrine of Discovery » in March 2023, it sparked renewed calls for the Catholic Church to return Indigenous lands. As the progenitor of colonial land theft, an allegedly pro-life institution and a global power that owns a large amount of land, the Catholic Church is in need of a systematic, institutional strategy for returning its lands to Indigenous nations. 

What is ‘Land’ in the Landback context?

Environmental scientist Max Liboiron (Red River Métis/Michif) defines Land as a « unique entity that is the combined living spirit of plants, animals, air, water, humans, histories, and events recognized by many Indigenous communities. » Liboiron capitalizes Land to signify it as more than mere landscape, or inert space that can be understood primarily as property. 

Waroani leader Nemonte Nenquimo says the Amazon forest (the trees, the waters and other more-than-human relatives) is teacher, home, life-giver, nourisher, spiritual connection — as well as material place. 

Japanese ethnographer Chie Sakakibura explains that to be Iñupiat « is to be formed relationally with other nonhuman persons. » Iñupiat elder Suuyuk Lane Sr. asserts, « The whale makes us human. »

For Indigenous people, Land is relational. It is not merely property or resource, but a network of specific, place-based relationality that operates as a life web reaching beyond temporal notions of time and dominant geographic notions of space. 

Echoes of this relational understanding of Land arise in other communities as well. 

Ecowomanist scholar Melanie Harris names the earth’s cry in our era of climate change as prophecy, connecting the dominating logic of anti-Black racism and anthropocentric environmental norms. She states, « The trees stand as living witness. » 

Trees witnessed the lynchings of black bodies in the U.S. South that began in the 19th century. And they witnessed the police bullets that killed environmental activist Manuel Paez Terán in 2023, who died protesting the creation of « Cop City » in Atlanta, Georgia, that would have torn down 85 acres of the South River Forest. Their mother, Belkis Terán, told reporters of her child, « The forest connected them with God. » 

The forests in Quebec that burned in 2023 are witnesses of colonialism, victims of climate change, and survivors. 

Land witnesses and remembers and connects us to God. And Land is also much more. Liboiron stresses that Land is not a noun. Land is a verb. And, in the U.S. context, all Land is Indigenous Land.

What is Indigenous land return, or Landback?

Landback is a global movement of Indigenous sovereignty that initiates the return of territory (place) previously removed from Indigenous nations due to initiatives of colonization, or in the U.S., settler colonialism. Settler colonial initiatives include ongoing land dispossession, the breaking of treaties and untenable resource extraction. Thus, the property the Catholic Church owns in the Americas is stolen. It is not Catholic, but Indigenous. 

Landback also involves the restoration of Indigenous peoples beyond the physical transfer of land. It involves the restoration of relationships that are continuously severed or damaged in the ongoing project of non-Indigenous settlement, also known as the United States. 

Few Catholic communities have participated in the return of Indigenous lands, but there are some examples of what this looks like.

In South Dakota in 2017, about 525 non-continuous acres of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation were returned to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. This land, scattered throughout what is today a 900,000 acre reservation, was transferred to the Jesuits of the Midwest Province by the federal government in the 1880s, likely as a result of the Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act, passed during the Allotment and Assimilation era of U.S. federal Indian law, included a provision for Christian religious communities to retain 160 acres of reservation lands for evangelization purposes, while Indigenous religious practices were made illegal. The Jesuits used Rosebud Sioux lands to build Catholic churches and cemeteries within the reservation. This included the St. Francis Mission, one of the federal Indian boarding schools run by the Jesuits. 

In 2023, the Ahtna Native Alaskan Tazlina village, a federally recognized tribal member of the Alaska Native corporation Ahtna Inc., successfully raised the funds to purchase about 412 acres of land that houses traditional fish wheel sites along the confluence of the Tsedi Na (Copper) River and the Tezdlen Na (Tazlina) River. This site, first seized by the Russians, then bought by the U.S. federal government, was purchased by the Archdiocese of Anchorage in the 1950s for $1.25 per acre, and became the Copper River federal Indian boarding school. The school shut down in 1971, and burned to the ground five years later, contaminating the site. 

Beginning with conversations at tribal council meetings in the 1990s, the Tazlina Village Council began discussing cleanup. In 2011, then-Chief Johnny Goodlataw led the village in a « vision to action » workshop to begin planning the return of these lands to the village. Through the following seven years of advocacy and processes with various partners, the village persisted in their efforts to return the land. 

In 2018, Tazlina Village, in a « leap of faith, » entered into a contract with the Anchorage Archdiocese to attempt to purchase the site for $1.86 million. ICT reported in June 2023 that « the village raised the money and expects to close on the land this spring. »

The relationality of Ahtna Land is made plain in the tribal council’s statement: « What were once indigenous Ahtna hunting and fishing lands will now be returned to our people. This gift of life means we can walk and fish on the land on where our ancestors walked, for which we are profoundly thankful. » 

These two places, roughly 3,000 miles apart, offer storied examples of where the Catholic Church and the global movement for Indigenous land return meet. 

Catholic return of Indigenous Lands

Indigenous land reclamation is happening in a variety of ways. In Tazlina, this occurred via private sale. Other examples include title transfers. Still lacking in the Catholic Church, however, is a truly systemic approach to this issue. How might the Catholic Church begin to systematically envision the return of Catholic-held Indigenous lands? 

Deborah Parker (Tulalip) the CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, offered three practical suggestions: provide access to Catholic Indian boarding school documents; return boarding school lands to the Tribal Nations they were originally stolen from; and politically support the Truth and Healing Bill

Both Tazlina Village and Rosebud Sioux Reservation were sites of former federal Indian boarding schools. How might the Catholic Church hold itself accountable to its role in Indigenous dispossession that includes but goes beyond former boarding schools? How might it leverage its pro-life philosophies to systemically implement the return of Indigenous Lands? 

Considering the isolated, uneven responses we’ve seen from the church, I would add a fourth consideration to Parker’s three action items: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops could reconfigure the Black and Indian Mission Office, or BIMO. 

Composed of three historical agencies — the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the Commission For the Catholic Missions, and the Catholic Negro-American Mission Board — the Black and Indian Mission Office operates to fund Black and Indigenous Catholic communities. To do so, it seeks donations primarily through a Lenten annual appeal. In 2005, the appeal exceeded $9 million for the first time. These monies are directed toward such initiatives as the National Black Catholic Conference and the Tekakwitha Conference

Yet, despite the funding of the contemporary lives of Black and Indigenous Catholics, this ministry narrates these communities as outside the fold of Catholicism and in need of evangelization. (Per the website, the « People of God » fund the « building » of Christ’s body in these non-white communities.) Such narratives maintain the racism of the institutional church, as Fr. Bryan Massingale and Fr. Joseph Brown have elaborated. Where, for example, is the Lenten collection for the evangelization of white people?

In sharp contrast to survivor testimony of Catholic-run federal Indian boarding schools, BIMO’s apologist history as told on their website bemoans their institutional lifespan as a truncated one: « This remarkable success [of Catholic boarding schools] had unfortunate results. Other denominations, jealous of Catholic successes in this area, began to lobby for an end to the funding for all Indian schools. » This history also illustrates a specifically Catholic fear of losing access to Indigenous Land: « In 1859, fearful that homesteaders and others might challenge the ownership of mission lands, Bishop [Augustin] Blanchet sent Father [John Baptist] Brouillet East … to protect mission property by securing clear titles. » 

The church required land titles in order to successfully « kill the Indian » in these children — allegedly saving their souls through a system whose sole intent was dispossessing tribal nations of their Land

What might be gained by reworking the Black and Indian Mission Office to include funding for Indigenous communities seeking land return? How might the church repent from its ongoing attempts to « evangelize » non-white communities, and instead seek, in the case of Indigenous people, to return the Land it has stolen? 

Taking accountability for the church’s role in Indigenous genocide and land dispossession requires a greater collective imagination. It requires a reworking of current funding, and perhaps the creation of non-evangelical « ministries » foregrounding accountability at the level of the Vatican and the various conferences of bishops in the Americas. It requires a commitment to institutional political activity that supports Indigenous life and Land return. 

What else can we envision as a church to bring true accountability for the institution’s sin? How can the body of Christ work for the flourishing of Indigenous Catholic and non-Catholic life? 

Individually, the work has begun. As an institution, it’s time for the Catholic Church to give the Land back. 

Author’s note: I am deeply grateful to my students at Haverford College from the 2023 spring semester. Our conversations, and their amazing research on various Landback movements, provided the backbone of this writing project. Carmen Siftar, thank you especially for your gift of content editing for this piece. Quyaana, friends!

Vie de l'église

Atlanta Catholics honor memory of Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor known for welcoming all

Atlanta’s progressive Catholic community has been celebrating the memory of Msgr. Henry Gracz, an archdiocesan priest who championed the inclusion of Catholics of all stripes at downtown Atlanta’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Gracz, 84, who died Feb. 5 after a long battle with kidney cancer that metastasized, was often lambasted by right-wing Catholic media, including Church Militant, for his steadfast welcoming of LGBTQ people into the shrine’s pews. Progressive Catholics praised Gracz for being « ahead of his time » for his courage in taking a leading role to push back against homophobia among Catholics. 

In addition to being an open and affirming parish, the shrine is known for its ministry to those in need, including a daily offering of sandwiches and snacks each weekday.

Antonio Alonso, the Aquinas Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture, and director of Catholic Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, told NCR that Gracz was a national leader who lived both compassionately and prophetically.

« I think he was ahead of his time in the United States, let alone in the South, » said Alonso, who said he recommends the shrine to his Catholic students.

« We have a significant population of LGBTQ students at Candler, » said Alonso. « We’ve had an open, ecumenical environment so Catholics can feel free to be themselves. Every time a student asked me where is a safe place to be in the Catholic community in Atlanta, my unequivocal answer is always ‘the shrine.’ « 

Alonso said most of the extended Catholic community at Candler are members of the shrine where « our students find unconditional love. »

In an op-ed published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shrine parishioner Jaye Watson, wrote about her first time attending Mass there. She said she « was struck by a feeling, one I still struggle to describe. The only thing I can come up with sounds trite but it’s true — ‘love lives here.’ « 

« To me, Father Henry is what you get when love is manifested in human form, » she wrote. « The love he gave so freely changed countless lives and hearts. »

Church Militant, LifeSiteNews and other conservative Catholic websites often criticized Gracz, many times in the same posts that also criticized or mentioned former Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory and outspoken Jesuit priest and author Fr. James Martin, both advocates for the inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church. 

Gregory, who served as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta from 2005 through 2019, before being appointed to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., will be concelebrating at Gracz’s funeral at the shrine with current Atlanta Archbishop Gregory John Hartmayer, who is also supportive of the shrine’s efforts to be inclusive.

In an emailed statement to NCR, Gregory wrote:

During my nearly 15 years as Archbishop of Atlanta, I came to have a high regard for the pastoral compassion and dedication of Msgr. Gracz. He served everyone with a kindness that easily won their hearts and trust. His ministry at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception gave the Catholic Church an image that Pope Francis has urged all clerics to display.

In another email to NCR, former Shrine parishioner Cullen Larson, the retired Southeast regional director of Catholic Relief Services, wrote of Gracz:

He was the embodiment of pastoral ministry. His parish included and welcomed everyone in the area and their needs, not only the Catholic members. The Eucharist that he led was a verb, nurturing and sending us all to make real the presence of Christ everywhere. His preaching was a witness of faith; the liturgy he led was truly a work of the people. He lived solidarity toward justice.

The shrine’s director of music ministries, Dónal Noonan, told NCR the welcoming and unconditionally loving shrine community that Gracz nurtured was often the place where people on the verge of leaving the church found a home.

« It was your last stop before you became Episcopalian or you left the church all together, » Noonan said. « The shrine was a place of welcome before Henry. He just built on that and flung open the doors. »

Gracz and the shrine also hosted the Atlanta group « Fortunate and Faithful Families, » which supports families with LGBTQ members.

Leigh Holbrook, who is gay, told NCR a story of meeting Gracz at a time when she was considering leaving the Catholic Church because of the pain she felt over the church’s treatment of LGBTQ persons.

« He found me in a crisis of faith when I was in the back of the church, » Holbrook told NCR. « At the shrine I was welcomed and loved no matter who I was. There was never anything but love from Father Henry. »

Holbrook said Gracz told her she was loved by God « exactly as you are, and then he asked me to be a lector at daily Mass. »

Giving her something to do made her feel « part of the community, » Holbrook said. « By giving me something to do he let me know I was needed. »

Holbrook called Gracz « our gentle and spiritual father. He was a blessing to everybody. I don’t think there’s anybody who met him that didn’t feel that way. He was definitely the embodiment of Christ in every way. » 

Henry Charles Gracz was born in Buffalo, New York, on Sept. 27, 1939. He graduated from Canisius College, studied theology at Buffalo’s Christ the King Seminary and did graduate work at Fordham University and The Catholic University of America.

Gracz was ordained a priest May 8, 1965, by the late Atlanta Archbishop Paul Hallinan. Gracz lived and ministered in Atlanta for more than half a century. 

When Gracz received his cancer diagnosis, he appointed the shrine’s parochial vicar, Fr. Joseph Morris, to take over pastoral duties.

While Gracz kept a smile on his face, he did say it was painful to be criticized for his pastoral work. In 2018, some Atlanta Catholics circulated an online petition asking that Gracz be removed from his appointed role, by Gregory, to be part of a group of spiritual advisers for survivors of sexual abuse, because of Gracz’s ministry to LGBTQ Catholics.

Gracz was quoted in The Georgia Bulletin saying he’d just like to go back to helping people who need him without this distraction. « When you’re in the cause of doing good in the name of the God who you believe in, and people attack you for it, it’s painful, » he said.

Kelly Quindlen has been the shrine’s pastoral coordinator for the last five years. An Atlanta native, Quindlen says her job is multifaceted, but her most important task was to be Gracz’s assistant.

Working with Gracz was educational, Quindlen told NCR. « By watching him ministering to people, I learned how to minister to people, » she said. « He was my friend too. »

When Latinx singer Gina Chavez, who is a queer Catholic, was performing in Atlanta, Quindlen said she invited Gracz, who also was a Chavez fan who loved live music, to come along with her to Chavez’s concert in a small club.

Quindlen said Chavez’s music « is infused with spirituality. Henry loved stuff like that. We bought T-shirts. He was my buddy, and we had fun. »

Quindlen said the last wedding Gracz presided over was that of her sister, Annie, last November.

In a letter to his parishioners on Feb. 1, Gracz wrote to inform them that although he had been able to live with kidney cancer for about ten years, it had spread throughout his body.

« I am sorry to share this news so starkly with you, but I believe that sharing the truth is rooted in love, » he wrote. « You are my family and family deserves to know. »

On the Sunday before he died, Noonan, a native of Ireland, went to visit Gracz. « His face was his normal color, and his beautiful blue eyes were sparkling, » he said. 

The day after his visit, Noonan, who was alone at the shrine, received the news that his mentor and friend had died. He decided to ring the church’s bell.

« I rang the bell for two minutes in downtown Atlanta that let the people know that something terrible had happened, » Noonan said, « that the bell was rung for an amazing man. »

Alonso said the decades of wonderful pastoral care exhibited by Gracz will carry on at the shrine.

« Obviously the loss is immense because of the way he led; it was never only about him, » Alonso said. « There’s a community of people ready to continue this work, and that’s a legacy. » 

A vigil service will be held Friday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m., at the Shrine. A funeral Mass and celebration of life will be held on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 11 a.m., at the shrine. Gracz will be interred in the crypt at the shrine immediately following the funeral.