Lift High the Cross

The Tuesday Pillar Post

Hey everybody,

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and this is the Tuesday Pillar Post.

First up, the news:

Pope Francis is visiting Slovakia today, after a seven-hour visit to Hungary for the closing Mass of the Church’s International Eucharistic Congress.

The pope will be in Slovakia until Wednesday afternoon. On Monday, The Pillar brought you a quick run-down of where he’s been, what’s he’s said, and where he’s going next.

Read all about it.

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Last week, Cardinal Wilton Gregory told journalists that theologians “have debated… and continue to debate” when conception takes place.

Well, we got a lot of questions from readers about what Cardinal Gregory meant, and about Catholic doctrine on conception and hominization.

To answer some of those questions, Ed got insight from a bioethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Abortion, conception, and ‘ensoulment’: What’s a Catholic supposed to believe?

Read it here.

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It was only two weeks ago that Hurricane Ida tore through New Orleans and eastern Louisiana, before moving north to cause unprecedented flooding in the northeast.

All told, the storm caused more than 100 deaths and more than $50 billion in damage.

But the news cycle has since moved on, and, if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself already moving on to the California recall election, the Biden infrastructure plan, and Saturday’s stunning upset of the Florida State Seminoles.

And you might be distracted by wondering what the opulent self-importance of Versailles-takes-Manhattan at the Met Gala portends for the human race.

Unless you live in a place directly affected by a natural disaster like Hurricane Ida, it’s easy to forget that while the media might pay attention for a week or two, the rebuilding process will usually take years.

This week, I talked with Bishop John Provost of Lake Charles, Louisiana. His diocese was hit in 2020 with two devastating hurricanes, followed by a rare ice storm, and then by flash flooding.

“Recovery will take years,” Bishop Provost told me. “Patience is of the utmost.”

My conversation with Bishop Provost was so fascinating, we decided to publish it in two parts, rather than pare it down.

In part one, the bishop talked with me about recovery, the 500(!) diocesan locations damaged by the storms, and his advice for dioceses that are now beginning to rebuild after storms:

We have to be available to the people and their needs. I mean, people are raising their children, their children have to be baptized, there's instruction to be given.

We can't stop the life of the Church just because we're having these storms, or this pandemic for that matter. The churches have to remain open. If they're destroyed, well, then we make provisions for something else.

In part two, Bishop Provost told me that “the Church is at its best in a crisis.” He talked about the way recovery has encouraged pastors to leave the paperwork aside and “get back to basics,” and what lessons that might offer for the Church in all times.

When you’re in crisis, you have to concern yourself with the basics. And that starts with the sacraments, and that also includes religious education, because our people just have to be fed, spiritually and intellectually.

And I think there are graces from that. I mean, this what we preach. This what we believe: It’s in suffering that we can find that grace is working, you know?

As it happens, Bishop Provost and the Diocese of Lake Charles are being battered today by Hurricane Nicholas. So pray for them. And read part one and part two here.

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And in case you wanted to see that Jacksonville State / Florida State upset, here’s the comeback:

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What we’re doing

I want thank all of you who have subscribed to The Pillar in recent weeks. We know our investigative reporting, hard news, analysis, explainers, features and interviews are worth paying for, and we’re grateful you do too.

We’re also grateful when you share The Pillar with your friends. In fact, that’s our favor this week: Do us a solid, and share The Tuesday Pillar Post on social media, by texting it to someone, or emailing it, or just talking about it a bunch to someone who might like it. Your endorsement is the best form of marketing, so we appreciate when you pass on The Pillar to Catholics who want great news coverage of the Church.

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Ok, so what are we actually up to? Here are a few of the things we’re working right now, to bring you coverage in the weeks to come:

  • The Vatican trial gets underway next month for the 10 characters accused of serious financial crimes. We’re fairly deep into investigating the extent of those crimes, and will report plenty of news before the next hearings are underway.

  • In June, we had all the details on the USCCB’s Eucharistic coherence document, including the behind-the-scenes politicking ahead of the public meeting. As discussions get going ahead of the next USCCB meeting, we’ll have interviews, explainers, and the news on the process.

  • The U.S. bishops’ meeting in November will also include the election of a new general secretary, votes on new pastoral and liturgical documents, and updates on the Church’s synod on synodality processes. We’ll cover those ahead of the meeting, as we cover the synod itself.

  • We continue to investigate the reforms of Vos estis lux mundi, the Church’s response to the McCarrick scandal, and we will continue breaking news on that front. We’ll also be covering McCarrick’s criminal trial, the unraveling China deal, and the trials of a few South American bishops.

In short, stay tuned for more smart, serious, Catholic coverage from The Pillar in the months ahead. Thanks for helping to make it happen.

Lift high the Cross

If you’ve not read Evelyn Waugh’s “Helena,” you should.

The novel is a remarkable depiction of the life of St. Helen, the Christian mother of Constantine, who is believed to have discovered the true Cross, on which Christ was crucified, while she traveled in the Holy Land.

That discovery is part of what we celebrate on today’s feast.

A fragment venerated as a piece of the true Cross of Jesus Christ, at the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liebana in Spain. Credit: Francisco J. Díez Martín/wikimedia. CC BY SA 2.5

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Waugh’s St. Helen is a smart, practical, and holy. Waugh loved her enough to say often that “Helena” was his best and favorite novel.

When Waugh’s Helena is in the Holy Land, she finds herself for a moment in prayerful conversation with the Magi, the wise men who brought gifts to the newborn Jesus. A few excerpts of that prayer:

“You came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you too.”

“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.”

“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

I am struck by Helena’s observation that in the Lord’s presence, it is the wise and learned, the powerful and worldly, who need to be accommodated in some special way.

Helena knows that the “simple,” those who “find a kneeling-place in the straw,” are the ones who “come into their kingdom” with Christ — a kingdom which is somehow theirs, as she puts it.

Rich and powerful people — a queen like her, and an emperor like her son — are the ones in need of special prayers, and a chance not to be “forgotten” at the Lord’s throne.

Helena’s prayer is an inversion of our usual way of seeing the world — usually it is the poor who need to be remembered, the simple who are in danger of being forgotten. It is not usually kings and queens for whom room must be found.

But Helena’s observation is a real one. At his birth, at the cross, at his resurrection and his ascension, Christ was mostly in the company of simple, poor, powerless, often undesirable people. The kind of people for whom the Church has a “preferential love,” as Pope St. John Paul II put it.

I mention this because today, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, convicts me.

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In media, it’s natural that the machinations of powerful and influential people tend to receive the most coverage. Their decision are likely to impact the greatest number of people, and, in general, people want to know about and understand their leaders. That’s natural, and understandable. And covering leaders is important, because journalism provides a mechanism of public accountability in the Church.

But there is a danger, when the work of Catholic media is often to cover Catholics in leadership, of beginning to develop a flawed ecclesiology — one that sees the influential or the powerful as somehow more central to the Church’s identity, or even more expressive of it.

It’s not especially profound or original to say that isn’t true. But it is important. It’s important because the life of the Church is a communion ordered to holiness — and holiness is not the same as power, authority, or worldly success.

In fact, the authority given to ecclesiastical leaders exists only for the sake of fostering and enabling holiness — good Church leaders help ordinary people become holy, bad Church leaders don’t.

Still, any of us can fall prey to a mentality which equates “success” with holiness. And it can be especially easy for Catholics — clerical or lay — who occupy leadership positions to make that same mistake. When that happens, it becomes easy to fall into traps of self-congratulations, or self-assurance, or a sense of being somehow set apart, and unlikely to lose the Lord’s favor by pride or complacency.

But holiness is derived from closeness to Christ, and thus, closeness to the cross. And in my own observation, the Catholics closest to the cross don’t occupy splashy positions of influence. They’re diocesan and parish staffers working long hours with little support, or priests driving hours each week between the parishes they cover, or men and women who have held and taught the faith for decades, only to be written off as “Susan from the parish council” by wags with more schooling than wisdom, more inclination to spout off than to listen.

Often, the men and women closest to the cross also include those who can’t make self-congratulations for worldly success, because they don’t have much of it. The ones who are forced by circumstances to recognize their poverty and insufficiency, their dependence on God’s Providence, the fragile precariousness of life itself.

In reality, all of us are dependent entirely on Providence, and none of us can merit salvation without Christ. But some of us are better positioned for self-delusion.

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Of course, we exalt the Cross because we find Christ there. The resurrection makes it a “trophy of his victory.”

But we exalt the Cross best if we see the kind of people who are gathered there, on Calvary, around Jesus — the kind who were there first, who kept vigil, who weren’t deterred by pride or social ambition.

We exalt the Cross best if we know that our presence before the Lord is a gift — not a gift to him, but a gift from him. We exalt the Cross best if we ask whether there might be room for us, too.

There is room for us, because God is good, and merciful. We are remembered at the Cross, so that we can be remembered at the Throne of God, when the simple and the poor enter their kingdom.

May we, by God’s grace, be among them.

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Pray for us, as we pray for you.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

JD Flynn, JCL
editor-in-chief
The Pillar