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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.  

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Closure of sister-run La Reina Catholic school near LA sparks organized pushback

A Jan. 24 announcement that the Sisters of Notre Dame plan to close a high-performing all-girls Catholic school in Thousand Oaks, California, by the end of June after nearly 60 years of operation has generated an impassioned pushback by students, parents and alumnae.

Amid the swift scrambling, there is also plenty of soul searching.

La Reina, a high school and middle school, boasting a 100% graduation rate into four-year colleges, has been unable to reverse what are national trends: declining enrollment and projected budget deficits.

A 53% drop in enrollment over the prior eight years and a deficit of $1.4 million for fiscal year 2023 were the two driving reasons for the decision, according to an email sent to parents by then-president Tony Guevara, who recently stepped down from his position. 

It was supported by the National Ministry Corporation, the corporate entity of the Sisters of Notre Dame. It also came endorsed by the La Reina school board. But the board underwent an overhaul in the weeks prior to the announcement — seven of the nine directors resigned or were asked to leave, and replaced with those tied to the Sisters of Notre Dame. Those who left signed nondisclosure agreements.

The board said current enrollment is 268, of which 149 are in high school. As recent as 2019, enrollment was 352. The average tuition for students is about $20,000 a year.

A Save La Reina group was activated within hours of the announcement by an alumnae base that includes many employed in the legal and business world. It included the launch of a website and Facebook page for news updates, and starting a pledge drive to show its potential financial support. The group also staged a vocal protest outside the school grounds on Feb. 3 in concert with the school’s annual « Nun Run » fundraising event, where proceeds support the Sisters of Notre Dame Life & Ministry Fund.

La Reina’s high school, selected as a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, is rated No. 35 among the more than 1,100 Catholic high schools in the country and No. 12 among 108 Catholic high schools in California in a survey by online education resource provider Niche.com

It has been named the Ventura County Star’s Best Private School in Ventura County for three years in a row.

The closing of a Catholic school may not be breaking news, but aggressive activation of a grassroots movement that includes some Southern California star power has amplified the message.

Mira Sorvino, the Academy Award-winning actress whose youngest daughter, 11-year-old Lucia, started at La Reina middle school in the fall of 2023, has been letter-writing and strategizing on the group’s behalf.

« We were stunned because when we came last summer to visit, she fell in love with it, we applied, we were accepted, but we were never given any indication there was a possibility they had financial problems or would consider closing, » Sorvino told NCR. « I was ecstatic about finding this school. It has been a gem. But to have this bomb drop at the end of January has left the girls crying for days. They’re still not over it. »

Sorvino, who last Easter converted to Catholicism through the RCIA program at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church, said her daughter travels 35 minutes each way to the school from their Malibu home.

In a letter of support sent to the Notre Dame leadership as well as Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Sorvino explained: « [My daughter] has fallen in love with her new teachers and friends. There is a special spirit of calm love, academic excellence and spiritual growth that permeates this campus, thanks to the Sisters’ influence. This is more than just a brick-and-mortar, dollars-and-cents educational business. It is a ministry. The school is rightfully named after the Queen of Heaven and I think we can pray for inspiration and guidance to not shutter this. »

The Sisters of Notre Dame started La Reina School in 1964 to serve the growing Conejo Valley west of Los Angeles. 

Sr. Margaret Mary Gorman, the provincial of the Sisters of Notre Dame USA province, points to data showing population declines in Ventura County because of the high cost of living. She said residents moving out of state have led to La Reina suspending many extracurricular opportunities.

« That affects the total school experience, » she told NCR. « It’s what families have come to expect and the sisters want for our schools, but that’s increasingly difficult to provide. It’s not a problem unique to our California province. »

Asked about how this decision may influence the other 12 Sisters of Notre Dame ministries across the country, Gorman added: « Each of our schools is its own entity and board. There’s no grand master plan to pull out of our schools. … This is a reflection of the larger context of what is happening in the church and in the United States. »

Laura Koehl, the executive director of the Sisters of Notre Dame USA National Sponsorship and Network Office as well as COO of the National Ministry Corporation Board, told NCR: « There are a lot of people in various stages of grief about this. We see the reaction and where it’s coming from and we need to stay focused on what’s in the best interest of the students, their families and the faculty. »

Laird Wilson, who has two daughters as La Reina graduates and retired in 2021 after 14 years as the director of facilities and operation, said supporters have raised more than $7 million over the years for capital and leasehold improvements. He said La Reina had been paying as much as $120,000 a year to the sisters to rent the facilities as well as funding the dean of admission position on campus. 

« The campus looks and operates almost like a college campus because we have been willing to make that happen, » said Wilson. « The reality is if you take La Reina out of here, you have closed so much Catholic education in the Canejo Valley. »

Neither former school president Guevara or principal Maggie Marschner responded to an NCR interview request. Guevara resigned on Feb. 5 citing medical issues. Marschner has taken a leave of absence.

Guevara is featured on the school’s website endorsing a 2019-2024 strategic plan called « Her Future Our Focus, » in which he is quoted:

La Reina has the opportunity to re-evaluate, refocus, and reinvigorate its programs, ensuring that our school remains a leader in educating young women, for generations to come. Given the pace of change in today’s world, it is imperative that we understand our evolving landscape, anticipate our future, and think boldly about how La Reina will continue to provide a transformative educational experience for our students. With much significant growth underway, I look forward to offering regular updates on our progress.

Gorman said that, despite speculation, there is no plan to sell any or all of the 34-acre property — 11 acres are dedicated to the school campus, while six acres continue to support an active Sisters of Notre Dame convent and education center, and 17 acres are undeveloped.

More than 350 virtual signatures were sent on a petition to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, asking Archbishop José Gomez to help find a solution. Paul Escala, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles superintendent of schools, said in a statement to NCR: « While La Reina Middle School and High School resides within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the school is owned and operated by the Sisters of Notre Dame and managed independently from the Archdiocese by its Board of Directors. The Archdiocese has no oversight of the school. 

« That said, the Archdiocese is committed to assisting the students and staff, in partnership with school leadership, with their transition to other Catholic schools. We encourage all concerned stakeholders to share their sentiments with the provincial office and the school’s board of directors. Our prayers are with you and the La Reina school community. »

There are more than 50 high schools in the archdiocese’s Department of Catholic Schools, the largest system of non-public schools in the nation, covering Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and serving more than 68,000 students. 

« I think the Archdiocese can be a hero here to help mediate, » said Sandhya Kogge, a 1999 graduate helping to drive the Save La Reina group. « The message to the diocesan community may be to stay out of our business, but educating young women in the Catholic faith is their business. » 

Kogge, a film distribution lawyer at The Walt Disney Company and former federal prosecutor who is on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, said while the Save La Reina group has recruited the law firms of Ervin Cohen & Jessup as well as Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP to help map out a legal strategy, filing a lawsuit is not a goal.

« But if the National Ministry Corporation will not entertain options to keep the school open, then students and parents and donors need to seek claim and damages, » said Kogge.

Save La Reina has proposed delaying the closure at least one more school year, while continuing to assess financial support that could potentially come forward.

Gorman told NCR the decision to announce a closing date now is based on a concern that « if we waited, the school might collapse during the course of that extra year and that’s not good for anyone. If this happened too suddenly, there would be no time for the school community to spend time savoring the tradition and history and having a better closure. That’s just not the way we would ever want for a school to close. »

Kogge emphasized the alumnae group is « not acting out of nostalgia or volunteering their time out of a need to be saviors. We are doing it for the girls, the students at the school, and for a community that has shaped who we are. »

Catégories
Vie de l'église

Grim anniversaries in the war in Ukraine

This coming Saturday, Feb. 24, marks the second anniversary of Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine in this century. The first invasion started 10 years ago next week, on Feb. 27, when Russian troops took over key installations on the Crimean peninsula and began fomenting revolts in the Donbas region. Across the span of history, Ukraine has often been under Russian or Soviet control. 

These are grim anniversaries to be sure. No one knows how many people have been killed in the conflicts. The Ukrainian government closely guards the number, fearing it would hurt morale, but a civic group last year estimated there had been 24,500 combat and non-combat deaths among Ukrainians, with 15,000 missing. It is likely many of those reported missing are dead as well.

The number of Russian dead is vastly larger, and mostly combatants. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense estimates that there have been 50,000 Russian soldiers killed, and another 20,000 from the Wagner Group. The ministry also estimates there have been 240,000 Russian soldiers wounded, and another 40,000 wounded from the Wagner Group. In the fight against tyranny, a new casualty was added last week: Aleksei Navalny died in a Russian prison. He was not Ukrainian by birth but their fight was his fight.

In addition to the casualty lists, there is the trauma that has afflicted the population of Ukraine, from the children who are forced to attend schools underground to the fear among all civilians when Russian bombs target urban population centers at night. Countless families remain separated as mothers and children have fled the country while fathers stay to fight. 

Yet the flame of Ukrainian national identity burns as brightly as ever. Morale has dimmed a bit since the heady first days of the war, when Ukrainian forces turned back what the world thought would be an easy, successful Russian attack on Kyiv. Ukrainian troops may be slogging it out in the Donbas but sea drones have reportedly sunk or disabled a third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Russia is not in a position to be able to replace so many warships in what retired Lt. Gen Mark Herling calls « the pride of the Russian Navy. » 

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has aged these past two years, but he continues to be a leader of astonishing moral gravity and political finesse. Not since Benjamin Franklin went to Paris has one man so successfully carried his nation’s diplomatic ambitions on his solitary back. Zelenskyy was in Paris last week to sign a bilateral security agreement with French President Emmanuel Macron. He also attended the Munich Security Conference in Germany and met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Europe has not abandoned Ukraine to its fate. 

The United States is a different story. Of all the really despicable things today’s Republican Party has done, its willingness to abandon Ukraine is the worst. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said the House will not be « rushed » into passing the foreign aid bill that passed the Senate, as if he was talking about a waiter who brings the entrée too quickly after the soup. Ukraine does not have the luxury of going on recess from the war, as Johnson allowed the House to go on recess without passing or even debating the foreign aid bill. 

« Every day that Speaker Johnson causes our national security to deteriorate, America loses, » White House spokesman Andrew Bates said. « And every day that he puts off a clean vote, congressional Republicans’ standing with the American people plunges. Running away for an early vacation only worsens both problems. »

Bates is both right and wrong. There is no doubt that American national security is harmed if we abdicate our moral obligation to assist Ukraine. Johnson, however, faces a more immediate and a larger problem: Will he allow Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson set foreign policy for the Republican Party, forging an alliance with Vladimir Putin and abandoning not only Ukraine but NATO? Will Johnson allow the craziest of the crazies to rule the roost? 

Meanwhile, the brave soldiers and citizens of Ukraine carry on the fight to defend their homeland. Shame on us if we do not help them in their struggle, and more than shame. Allowing Putin a victory would destabilize Europe to its foundations. Let House Republicans ponder that. In this case, it is both our interest and our honor that is at stake.

Catégories
Vie de l'église

First Sunday of Lent: Leisure, a Lenten discipline

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. That’s no two-cent word! The word Mark chose to explain how the Spirit prompted Jesus into the desert is the same word the Gospels use to refer to driving out demons, to people « cast out » into the darkness and to Jesus’ eviction of the people who had turned the temple into a marketplace. Mark tells us that the Spirit impelled Jesus to go apart immediately after his baptism. Was it to seek the meaning of what he had seen and heard at the baptism? He did have a lot to meditate on after the heavens were torn open, the Spirit descended upon him and the voice proclaimed, « You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased. »

No Gospel tells us why Jesus decided to submit to John’s ritual. Mark, who wrote the first Gospel, might have seen Jesus’ baptism as a symbol of his incarnation and the mortality it implied (Philippians 2:5-8). In baptism, Jesus had made himself one with people who were putting their whole heart and soul into metanoia, a graced decision that impelled them to break free of narrow visions that restrict hope. Unlike Matthew and Luke who describe Jesus’ temptations as a recapitulation of Israel’s history and of different approaches to being Messiah, Mark gives us precious few details: Jesus spent 40 days; he was tempted; he was accompanied by wild beasts and angels. That’s it.

Perhaps Mark is giving us a clue for interpretation with that last phrase, « He was among wild beasts and angels ministered to him. » Even more than Matthew and Luke’s description of the temptations of bread, temple and idolatry, this phrase depicts Jesus as entering into the heart of contradictions: the implacable and frightening forces of nature and the spiritual realities hidden in all matter testifying to what is beyond the palpable. It seems that Jesus may have been driven into the desert to discern about what was deepest in himself, God’s hopes for creation, and how the two were to go together.

Jesus’ being driven by the Spirit reveals that he was particularly sensitive to God’s movement in the world and was seeking to experience God even more profoundly. To do that, anyone, Jesus included, needs to take time apart. Jesus’ sojourn in the desert was like a prolonged Sabbath — a time of leisure, of setting aside his own projects to allow God to touch and re-form his imagination.

The verses of Psalm 25 that we pray in today’s liturgy could well have been the psalm on Jesus’ lips as he wondered in the desert. This prayer could lead us through our 40 days of Lent. 

When we are sincere in praying, « Make your ways known to me, » we open ourselves, like Jesus, to being impelled to escape from our ceaseless activity. This prayer calls us, strange as it may sound, to the « discipline of leisure. » It allows wonder to lead us beyond what we think we know.

Pope Francis recently said as much when he urged a dialogue group of Marxists and Christians to dream, to allow dreaming to give them the ability to be creative and the courage to take risks. Francis told them that dreaming leads toward grasping God’s own dream for creation.

When we pray, « Remember that your compassion and love are from of old, » we instinctively know that God needs no reminders, rather, we need to ponder our experiences of God’s compassion and give thanks for those who have revealed God’s love to us. Doing so, we’ll understand the truth of the phrase, « Good and upright are you, Lord, showing sinners the way. » This prayer puts us in touch with God’s invitation to us — sometimes gentle, sometimes terrifyingly impelling.

The First Letter of Peter expresses this invitation in terms of cultivating a clear conscience. We usually think of conscience as a call to remember our sin and repent. Following Jesus’ example in the desert, we can rethink that. « Conscience » combines the words « con » (with) and « science, » thus, Christian conscience describes a way of knowing together with God. That is exactly what Jesus sought in the desert, he took the time to know with God and understand what he was called to be and do. 

As we begin Lent, rather than choose something to give up, a more radical approach could be to commit to taking the leisure that allows us to dream beyond our current horizons. That would bring us into the realm of the kind of sacrifice that consecrates our time. It leads us to go, like Jesus, into the sacred activity of coming to know ourselves and our world from God’s perspective. 

Beware! Taking time for sacred leisure can make us vulnerable to being driven like Jesus.

Catégories
Vie de l'église

Faith, confidence and the Black struggle in America

As Black people, we know the struggles that hit our lives personally much more than many of our fellow brothers and sisters around the world. In America, we are still struggling to achieve true equality and recognition. We have struggled for centuries to prove that we are capable, talented and, in most cases, the brightest ones in the room. Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw this play out at one of the most-watched awards shows in the country. 

At the 2024 Grammys, the rapper Jay-Z received the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award for his contributions to the music industry. Surrounded by some of the field’s most accomplished and talented artists, he made a statement that shook the entire audience and has been spoken about repeatedly since. 

« I don’t want to embarrass this young lady, but she has more Grammys than anyone and never won album of the year, » he said of his wife, the multi-genre star Beyoncé.

« Even by your own metrics, that doesn’t work. Think about that. The most Grammys and never won album of the year. That doesn’t work. »

As Beyoncé sat in the audience, quietly watching her husband speak the truth, the rest of the Black community and many in the music industry knew it as well. Black people are always working harder and almost never getting the recognition that they deserve.

This year, as is often the case, Lent began right in the middle of Black History Month. I have always thought this is a beautiful convergence. A time when we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, mixed in with recognition of the outstanding accomplishments of Black people. Lent has also been a time to devote an extensive amount of time to my relationship with God. Lent asks us two main questions: What is in the way of your relationship with God? And how can I deepen my relationship with God?

Looking at Jesus’ time on Earth, we see the struggle that he had throughout his life. Something I personally believe is that as Black Catholics, we should identify with his pain because he, too, was a brown person meant to make a difference despite opposition. Throughout his life, he took the guidance of God and persevered despite the devil, antagonists, and temptation. He continued to move forward. One of the most beautiful pieces of his story is that he stood strong, knowing that from above, he was anointed and protected no matter what. Our Mass readings during Holy Week show that even when he knew the time was coming for him to be betrayed, he handled it all with grace and stayed consistent. 

I do believe the same can be applied to my life and to the rest of the Black diaspora. There have been many times I’ve been the most educated person in the room but underestimated, had the best idea in a meeting but ignored, or worked for someone not qualified for the job. As great and strong as Black people are, the work to consistently show up, code-switch and strive for perfection becomes entirely taxing for many of us.

When I was deep in the struggle, my previous pastor told me to look to the Black Catholics on their way to sainthood for inspiration. I pray that they continue to give me guidance as I continue to fight for that recognition and change they so graciously sought in their own lives. 

In his speech this month, Jay-Z offered his own advice: « In life, you gotta keep showing up. Just keep showing up. Forget the Grammys. You gotta keep showing up until they give you all those accolades you feel you deserve. »

Indeed, it is my hope that this Lenten season, we Black Catholics will recognize that in spite of the injustices and odds against us and the standard of perfection often required of us, we will prevail just as Jesus did.

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Vie de l'église

Your letters: Foreign aid, US elections, sacramental words

Following are NCR reader responses to recent news articles, opinion columns and theological essays with letters that have been edited for length and clarity. These « Letters to the Editor » appear in the March 1–14, 2024 print issue.


Not the same

Michael Sean Winters seems to equate aid to Ukraine with aid to Israel: « Both are engaged in bitter struggles against, respectively, a thugocracy and theocracy » (ncronline.org, Feb. 12, 2024). Putin and Hamas may be equally evil, but this does not mean that Ukraine and Israel are equally deserving of our aid. Ukraine needs our aid to hold off Russia’s nakedly aggressive land grab, but Israel does not need any more help from us to continue its genocidal campaign against Gaza. 

The only leverage the U.S. has to force Israel to work seriously for peace is to withhold aid, not give more. No cajoling is of any use while unconditional support continues.

Sadly, though, the political state of affairs in our country is that our aid to Ukraine is in greater peril than our aid to Israel. 

MARK J. GEORGE
Detroit, Michigan

***

Lip service

One expects a Catholic publication to pay at least lip service to the teachings of Jesus (ncronline.org, Feb. 12, 2024). Did Jesus ever complain that we are not shipping enough bombs to our allies? Did Jesus ever say that the way to make peace is to arm one side in a fight? Did Jesus ever suggest that a « just peace » is when your guy wins? Foreign Affairs routinely publishes articles based on these premises, but I was appalled to see them in a purportedly Christian publication.

PETER C. REYNOLDS
Palo Alto, California

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Partisan not pastoral

Considering the Republican Party and the USCCB have many of the same benefactors, it is not surprising the church will play a role in our politics (ncronline.org, Feb. 9, 2024). What is unfortunate is that many of our clerics engage in political support which ostensibly violates federal law regarding not-for-profit enterprises.

The quadrennial document Faithful Citizenship has since its inception appeared to minimize the importance of issues and policies which benefit the vast majority of the American people, particularly the poor. Their emphasis has been the preeminence of abortion and their mandate that only those politicians whom the clergy regard as sufficiently anti-abortion are worthy of the votes of Catholics.

The members of the Catholic Church in America are no more divided than the population of non-Catholics. As Fr. Reese alludes, our parishes are likely divided similarly so our pastors need to take care not to alienate half their congregations. The only way for our shepherds to play a positive role is to give equal time to different issues such as climate change, the social safety net, fair taxation, etc. If the bishops fail to show evenhandedness toward all candidates they will define themselves as partisan and not pastoral. Their credibility will not survive that reputation.

CHARLES A. LEGUERN
Granger, Indiana

***

The Catholic vote

If the choices for president in the next election are President Biden or President Trump, who in conscience can we vote for (ncronline.org, Feb. 9, 2024)? Both are supporters of more military aid to Israel. There will be others on the ballot but elections are structured so they do not have a chance of winning. The same goes for votes for many representatives and senators who support more defense spending. How can the Catholic vote make a difference in this type of election structure? Do we override our conscience to vote?

BOB GRAF
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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Needless legalism

I’m a non practicing Catholic, but my faith is important to me. Rome’s publication of Gestis Verbisque underscores why I distanced myself from the institutional church: I’m tired of needless legalism (ncronline.org, Feb. 7, 2024).

I understand the point the Vatican—and Winters in his column—is trying to make: the sacraments are a treasure and ought not to to be messed with. However, particularly in the case of baptism, the trinitarian formula needs to be the non-negotiable verbal element. Surely God was not prevented from acting by the mere alteration of the pronoun! If the Vatican expects « I » going forward, fine, but it shouldn’t expect all those baptized with « we » to believe that their baptisms (and other sacraments received thereafter) never counted. How demeaning for them (and for the clergy who acted in good faith)!

Instead of stipulating that the entirety of the text or rite in question has to be followed to the exact letter for a sacrament to be valid, intent should matter most. After all, the directive to baptize as recorded in scripture (Mt 28:19) only mentions the trinitarian formula. Our Orthodox kin don’t use a pronoun at all, and Rome has no issues with their baptisms.

Stop putting God in a box! The spirit of the law should always triumph over the letter.

LUKE JENSEN-CROSS
Farmers Branch, Texas

***

Magic words

Michael Sean Winters writes that failure to adhere to the precise words the church prescribes to administer sacraments such as baptism is a big deal because the « words in the baptismal formula were given to us by Christ himself » (ncronline.org, Feb. 7, 2024). Actually, the words used are not Christ’s but rather a translation of a translation of a translation of something written down years after Christ’s death (and in fact differ depending on the church rite). That said, Winters is absolutely correct when he states that the sacraments must be treated with all the reverence we can. But rather than regarding them as a commodity that God will withhold unless the correct magic words are recited by a human, the sacraments are instead a gift freely given by the loving God. For them to be effective, what is most important is whether these gifts are accepted not only with reverence but also with all the humility, faith, hope and, most of all, love (for both God and our fellow human) we can muster.

BILL LEONARD
Oquossoc, Maine

Catégories
Vie de l'église

We can answer Pope Francis’ call to curb climate pollution by protecting old trees

In his recent apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum, Pope Francis shared a clear message: our Common Home is suffering from a human-driven climate crisis, and it is up to us to take urgent action. Knowing this, it pains me to see that a critical part of our natural world and one of our biggest natural resources for slowing climate change, our majestic mature and old-growth forests on federal lands, are being lost to logging. 

From filtering the air we breathe and the water we drink to providing essential wildlife habitat and spiritual value, mature forests and big trees are powerful life sources. By absorbing harmful pollutants that can cause harm through high rates of asthma, heart disease, lung disease and cancer, these trees give us clean air to breathe. By clearing out toxins from the water flowing into rivers, streams and reservoirs, mature forests help provide our communities with clean, reliable water to drink. 

And importantly, given the climate crisis highlighted by Pope Francis, our mature and old-growth forests on federal land store 17.2 billion metric tons of carbon and counting. Forests are at the heart of our country’s climate resilience and are one of our most effective climate solutions. As the Elwha Legacy Forests coalition states, « No human-made technology can match big trees for removing and storing climate pollution. If they are logged, most of that pollution is quickly released into the atmosphere and it takes many decades or centuries for younger trees to recapture it. »

That’s why I am heartened to see that the U.S. Forest Service just proposed a plan to advance protections, in the form of a nationwide forest plan amendment, for the last remaining old-growth trees in all 128 U.S. national forests. 

Irresponsible logging and the devastating impacts of human-driven climate change have left precious mature and old-growth forests suffering all over the country. Most of our old-growth forests have already been cut down, while many mature forests — future old-growth forests — are on the chopping block. Right now, more than 370,000 acres of mature and old-growth forests, including trees that have stood for nearly a century, face imminent threats of logging under 22 federal logging projects

In addition to logging, old-growth forests are increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change — wildfires, drought, insects and disease. These forests remove a significant amount of climate-warming carbon pollution from the air and store it in their leaves, branches, trunks, roots and carbon rich soils. These forests also provide wildlife habitat and clean drinking water.

The proposed forest plan amendment could better protect and strengthen the country’s old-growth forests, addressing their threats and conserving them as a natural climate solution. Forest Service leaders must ensure that the final amendment truly stops commercial logging of old growth and paves the way for future action to protect our mature trees and forests as well. 

As Pope Francis said in Laudate Deum, « The world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point. » In recent years we have witnessed wildfires that have ravaged communities and blanketed others with smoke from hundreds of miles away. We do not have time to waste. It is up to us to slow the global climate crisis and alleviate the suffering that it brings to our communities and to our siblings around the world. We have a moral responsibility to act, and we can contribute to that by protecting our forests. 

Pope Francis reminds those of us who are Catholic to recall how « responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world. » As a Catholic himself, President Joe Biden understands the moral and existential imperative that calls us to protect and care for these essential ecosystems and creations of God.

« The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it? » Pope Francis asks in Laudate Deum

I feel that profound love every time I step into one of our beautiful nation’s national forests. This is an opportunity and a responsibility for the Biden administration to lead by example to care for it, by using one of the easiest climate solutions available to us: to ensure the final U.S. Forest Service amendment is strong and protects old-growth trees and forests from logging. These forests are one of our most affordable tools for fighting the worsening climate crisis.  We cannot wait any longer for action to protect our communities and common home.