Skip to content

'Freed from sin', and Christ in our weakness

Good morning,

There is a lot going on in the Church right now, and to understand it all, you’ve come to the right place — you’re reading The Tuesday Pillar Post.

I’ll bring you up to speed on the news, but first, an anniversary worth celebrating:

103 years ago today, on June 20, 1920, Pope St. John Paul II was baptized in the parish church of Wadowice, Poland. 

The font in which Pope St. John Paul II was baptized. Credit: Polish bishops’ conference

Baptism, the Church says, is the “gateway to the sacraments and necessary for salvation” — the sacrament of new life, through which we are “freed from sin, are reborn as children of God, and, configured to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church.”

There was no more profound moment in any of our lives than the moment of our baptisms. 

For many of us, it was unchosen, and we were not aware it was happening, and still in that moment — by the imposition of water and words — God worked profoundly, to claim us as his own. 

John Paul II made it a point to celebrate the day of his baptism as much as his birthday, and to encourage Catholics to do the same.

Our family, if I’m being honest, has only a spotty record on this — we try, and we’ve celebrated some baptismal anniversaries pretty well, but probably forget as often as we remember. 

Maybe you’re in the same boat. But I’m reminded on this anniversary of JPII’s baptism just how much begins in the baptismal font, and that in that moment, God calls us each to the life of grace — to holiness. 

May St. John Paul II pray for us, who have been reborn by baptism in Christ.

Leave a comment

The news

The big news out of Rome this morning is that the Holy See has released the Instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the October Vatican meeting of the Synod on Synodality.

That meeting is the first of a two-parter, taking place in October ’23 and ’24, at which bishops, priests, religious, and laity will gather to discuss how the Church can better inculcate synodality — best defined as prayerful and consultative conversation and discernment — into her ordinary life. 

We broke down for you the instrumentum laboris here — and you can be sure we’ll take a closer look at it in the weeks to come.  

The document — a kind of first draft from which the synod participants will work — says it will focus on the Church welcoming, forming, and empowering Catholics for mission, and whether there can be more involvement of more people in decision-making processes in the Church.

Fair questions, all.

Indeed, while the synodal process has been beset with jargon and goofy fonts and a lot of odd rhetoric, the questions it asks are not particularly novel, not in themselves offensive, and have the potential to generate actual conversation — as they’ve done in some dioceses. 

But of course, that doesn’t mean that the path to October will be a smooth or straight one — because the questions raised by the synod rarely have much to do with the talking points surrounding it.

We’ve seen during the global canvassing of the synod on synodality that many, many people — some activists, some Church leaders — have taken the opportunity of the synod to advocate strenuously for their particular pet causes, aiming to wrap them in the mantle of “synodality” to advance them in the life of the Church. 

From time to time, the Holy See pushes back on that — but inconsistently, and sometimes in ways that raise more questions than answers.  

From my perspective, the October meeting of the synod on synodality will be worth seeing — as activists of all stripes, some wearing pectoral crosses, come to Rome, for the sake of taking the Vatican-provided microphone, and floating some very strange ideas. 

For some Catholics, that will generate a good deal of concern, and for others outrage. A fair amount of real frustration will likely be justified — even as a set of provocateurs exploit it to predict doomsday scenarios for the Church. 

My prediction is that the synod on synodality will be more heat than light — that we’ll see fireworks in October, and then again in October ’24, but that if an apostolic exhortation on all of this is ever actually produced, it will be mostly jargon, and not an endorsement of calls that would repudiate Catholic doctrine.

I could be wrong. But I expect the most outrageous suggestions floated in October won’t carry the day, but in the meantime, they’ll cause wonderment, conflict, and some degree of scandal — and all of that will cause frustration, and hurt, among those paying attention.

Now, bishops in the U.S. — left, right, and center — have all told me numerous times that they’ve actually gotten something from the synodal process at the local level, if only that was hearing more from their local Catholics, and knowing them more. That may well bear fruit in the Church’s life — even the fruit of deeper conversion. Some bishops say it already has. 

But as the synod marches on toward a resolution, calling into question the structures of decision-making that have served the Church, I wonder if a theological question will emerge. The Church teaches that the vocation of laity is to sanctify the world — to proclaim the Gospel always and everywhere, in real commitment to the mission of evangelization. Is turning the entire Church inward — to urge greater and greater institutionalized self-reflection at every level — a service to that mission, or a hindrance? 

Consultation is good. More lay involvement in ecclesiastical structures is good. But those things can’t become a mission unto themselves — and if they do, then the Church becomes a sacristy-bound parody of itself. It was Pope Francis who said that, by the way. It may be a reminder he needs to offer again, as the wheels of synodality continue to turn.

Subscribe now

Ed and I were last week at the USCCB’s spring plenary assembly in Orlando, where the bishops discussed, among other things, a revision to the Ethical and Religious Directives, a plan for the ongoing formation of priests, and the 2022 CUA study that found flagging trust and confidence among priests in their bishops.

I was surprised when some journalists told me that the meeting seemed a bit sleepy, and the agenda uninteresting — from my perspective, the entire assembly was packed with meaning, and we’re actually still working through our post-assembly coverage. 

A lot of issues were raised by the bishops about the state of the Church, and the conference, and we’ll continue this week to thoroughly report and unpack them.

To start:

The bishops approved a plan to review the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, in order to incorporate the USCCB’s recent doctrinal note on issues related to transgenderism. Approval came after several bishops urged consultation with health care providers, people who identify as transgender, and dioceses with large Catholic hospitals.

The bishops approved a document on the ongoing formation of priests, after several bishops pushed back on the document’s use of imagery depicting the priest as a spiritual father. One bishop said that imagery encourages narcissism, and a few others said the document encourages clericalism.

The Pillar reported this week that the floor pushback was part of a broader opposition movement to the “Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests.” Perhaps most interesting is that Bishop Earl Boyea said the document is meant to combat isolation and clericalism, while some bishops seemed to suggest it encouraged those things.

You can read about the floor debate, and the pushback behind the scenes, and competing visions of the document right here — as well as a bigger question: After all of that, will anybody read it anyway?

At the meeting’s conclusion, Bishop Boyea gave a speech aimed at priests, on the CUA study, and the question of whether priests trust their bishops. The bishop said that the USCCB had discussed the CUA study among themselves earlier that week — though priests themselves had not been a part of that discussion, of course.

So The Pillar asked 10 priests — young and old; pastors, seminary guys, and chancery guys, from all over the country — for their reactions to Bishop Boyea’s speech, and to the CUA study on priests and their bishops.

These priests had some very interesting — and insightful — things to say. And you can read about them here.

Give a gift subscription

The world-renowned mosaic artist Marko Rupnik was dismissed from the Society of Jesus last week
, after spending months in the spotlight over allegations that he sexually and spiritually abused religious sisters — in truly harrowing ways — in the creation of his art, much of which is installed in chapels and churches around the world. 

According to alleged victims, Rupnik’s art and abuse were inseparably intertwined, with one attesting that Rupnik’s “sexual obsession was not extemporaneous but deeply connected to his conception of art and his theological thought.”

The scandal leaves church rectors and leaders at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to remove Rupnik’s art from sacred spaces, given the alleged sacrilege by which it was created, and given that some sexual abuse victims have said that they see in his work the dehumanizing abuse of which he is accused, and the Church’s mishandling thereof.

In the U.S., some of the most prominent Rupnik mosaics are in Knights of Columbus chapels, both in New Haven and in Washington, DC. 

So we asked the Knights — both in December and again this week — what they’re planning to do about the Rupnik work adorning their chapels.

Here’s what the Knights of Columbus told us about that.

Next, we reported on Friday that an agreement which might have ended the Syro-Malabar liturgical dispute seems to have fallen apart just as soon as it was announced. 

St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, India has been closed since December amid serious conflict over the liturgical life of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. And it does not seem that a deal reached last week to reopen it will actually hold.

Here’s the latest.

Finally, also in India, an archbishop in the state of Manipur said last week that 249 Christian churches were destroyed in a May wave of violence between the largely Hindu Meitei people and the predominantly Christian Kuki people in northeast India.

Violent conflict in the region continues, with more than 50,000 people in the region displaced.

Read about it here.

Share The Pillar

After McCarrick

I had intended to close this newsletter with a little bit of pithy commentary about the billionaires trapped in a submersible in the North Atlantic, or about the folly of the “Major League Cricket” experiment set to be launched next month in Texas.

But instead, it seems appropriate to recognize another anniversary in the life of the Church.

Today — June 20 — marks five years since the scandal of Theodore McCarrick was first announced by the Archdiocese of New York, and then by two other dioceses that same day.

I wrote last week about the McCarrick anniversary from the perspective of Church governance — about what has and has not happened since.  

But if you’ll permit me, I’d like to offer a more personal reflection on the McCarrick scandal, and on being a Catholic in the U.S. right now.

I never met McCarrick, or if I did, he didn’t make much of an impression on me. Growing up in the Archdiocese of Newark while McCarrick led it, I have come to believe that his own moral depravity impacted negatively the way the faith was taught and lived in the churches he led, despite the heroic efforts of some priests, laity, and religious to overcome the consequences of his leadership in his diocese.

But McCarrick himself was not an especially consequential figure to me before the announcement of allegations against him on June 20, 2018.

Like a lot of Catholics, the McCarrick scandal, and all that followed it, was for me a very real occasion to grapple in a new way with the scourge of clerical sexual abuse, and with the Church’s mishandling of that abuse.

Like a lot of Catholics, I realized in the McCarrick scandal that the Dallas Charter had addressed some issues, but missed many more.

I came to understand better in 2018, by talking with victims, that the “abuse crisis” wasn’t just something in the past, and that it has crippled the faith of men and women who very much wanted to love Christ and the Church.

And I also learned that sexual abuse — indeed any abuse — in the context of the Church is different than abuse in the context of other public institutions, because unaddressed abuse in the Church undermines the integrity of our Christian witness, and our hope to proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ.

Because the Church is the barque of our salvation, the holiness of her members is taken as an evaluation of her truth claims. That may not be fair, but it is true — and when Christian leaders fail to live the mission of the Gospel, they make it harder for anyone to believe that holiness is possible. 

The McCarrick scandal changed my perception of the Church’s life, and inspired in me a deeper sense of a call to help the Church to live with integrity the claims and promises of the Gospel.

Reform is a necessary component of renewal. I believe that bringing dysfunction, sin, and evil into the light helps the Church to call upon Christ for healing, strength, and justice.  

And better policy, and more accountability — more justice — render easier the discernment of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. 

We have a long way to go. The project, actually, does not have an end, because sin is endemic to the human condition, and because reform efforts to date have been applied inconsistently, sometimes without rigor, and with inconsistent results.   

And, like many of you, I’ve faced challenges in my own faith since the McCarrick scandal emerged five years ago. Some scandals have led me to wonder if holiness is even possible. 

But I’ve also seen grace operate in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

One way I know the Gospel is real is that I have seen victims of clerical abuse set free from the wounds they carry, through the grace of Jesus Christ, mediated through the Church.

I’ve seen victims seek healing in the Church that hurt them — and I can’t imagine that being possible without an extraordinary kind of grace.

And I’ve seen those victims reach out in their pain to other victims, and patiently, gently, and heroically point to Jesus Christ on the cross — the man who bore our pain, and who gives us new life. 

I’ve found the Church’s grace — the veracity of her claims — in her wounds. Christ is with those who have been hurt the most. He carries their woundedness in his body.

There is a lesson in that. His power is made perfect in weakness.

Five years after McCarrick, maybe not enough has changed. Maybe the spotlight has moved on to politics, and victims are not as often seen. Maybe reform is regarded as just another issue, and those who push for it are regarded as zealots. 

But I’ve seen Christ with the victims of clerical sexual abuse. That’s changed me. I’ve met bishops who’ve been changed, priests who’ve been changed, faithful lay Catholics who’ve been changed, too.

I’ve met men and women who want the Church to be holy, because they love her, and because they know she is the salt and light of the earth. 

I’ve seen in these five years what God can do. And I’m praying he’ll do more of it — to reform his Church, and to renew it in the grace of Jesus Christ, who has loved us in our woundedness, in our doubt, and in our pain.

May God bless his Church. Let’s continue to pray for victims, and to pray for the Church which Christ gave us.

Subscribe now

Please be assured of our prayers, and please pray for us. We need it.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

Comments 21