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Losing one's head, and is the pope talking about you?

Hey everybody,

Today is the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. 

St. John the Baptist was given the great honor to announce the Lord, and to baptize him —  and the Lord said of him that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

What a gift, for the Baptist, to be called to such an intimate and important vocation of prophetic witness — even if it meant losing his head. 

Salome with the head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio.

Of course, St. John the Baptist isn’t the only saint to lose his head for the Lord. 

So for your feast day enjoyment, we’ve put together a list for you, of the (eventually) acephalous companions of John the Baptist

You can read about St. John Fisher, whose head didn’t decay; about St. Aphrodisius, who carried his head through town, and St. Valentine, whose headless demise was not accompanied by flowers or chocolate.

I read last night, by the way, something interesting:

You’re aware of St. John’s comment in the Gospel of John, that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” St. Augustine had an apparently interesting read on that comment, noting in a sermon that at the end, John “decreased” by exactly one head, while the Lord was increased — raised up — on the cross. 

Anyway, read more about those who lost their heads for Christ, right here.

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The news

Pope Francis on Thursday spoke via video link with students in Russia, and encouraged them to remember that they are “heirs of the great Russia” — that of Peter the Great and Catherine II.

On Monday, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church expressed “pain and concern” about those remarks, noting that, from his view, now is not really a great time to praise examples of “imperalism and extreme Russian nationalism.”

The Holy See this morning has walked back the pope’s remarks — kind of — saying it should have been “clear from the context” that when the pope praised Russia’s emperors, he meant to encourage a spiritual and cultural heritage, not “to exalt imperialistic logic and governmental personalities.”

I have a feeling we’ve not heard the last of this situation. But to know what’s happened thus far, here’s an explainer.   


Berlin’s archbishop caused a fracas last week when he announced that he will not impose canonical sanctions on priests who offer liturgical blessings for same-sex couples.

The move is framed as an implementation of Germany’s “syondal way,” — and borrows heavily from the language of Amoris laetitia to explain its approach.

Barring intervention from the Holy See, the Berlin decision is likely to be picked up in other dioceses as well, with Berlin’s archbishop claiming to pray for “unity in diversity” for the Church.

The Pillar explains what you need to know. 

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Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany on Friday celebrated a funeral Mass for his disgraced predecessor, Bishop Howard Hubbard

Scharfenberger focused his homily on Christian hope and the blessing of priests, though he also  acknowledged that controversy surrounded the retired bishop, who announced a few weeks ago that he had civilly married a woman, prompting a correction from Scharfenberger.

Hubbard’s life “is much to be celebrated,” Scharfenberger said, while acknowledging that the late bishop “was not an uncontroversial figure at times.”

“But then again, I know no priest that has not at times been a source of great hope and blessing,” he continued.

The Pillar has since learned that the Friday funeral Mass was not the only liturgical celebration for Hubbard — that a cadre of priests in the Diocese of Albany offered a Mass the night before to “celebrate” Hubbard’s life.

All of that might come as a surprise to you — if you’re aware that Hubbard had abandoned his ministry and spurned a decision of the Holy See, that he openly admitted to reassigning abuser priests, that he was accused of numerous instances of sexually abusing minors — he denied those allegations — and that he died under the cloud of a Vos estis lux mundi investigation.

Of course, you can read about his funeral here.

But if you’re looking for more context — or to understand why some Catholics regard this as a matter of scandal, Ed and I had a robust conversation on the topic last Friday on The Pillar Podcast.

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Disagreement continues between the Carmelite nuns of Arlington, Texas, and Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth.

The nuns announced this weekend that they stand by their rejection of the bishop’s Vatican-conferred authority over their monastery, and that they are ready to accept canonical penalties for their decision.

But as they issue statements to that effect, it’s not clear who is advising the nuns — and it’s not certain whether all the nuns understand the significance of the war they’ve undertaken. Sources in Fort Worth say that as things escalate, the Holy See is preparing an apostolic visitation — in part to assess the freedom of the monastery’s nuns. 

Read the latest.

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In Argentina, a groundbreaking series examines the role of the Church in the country during a “spiral” of violence between 1966 and 1983. 

The work is remarkable because it came about by the opening of the Church’s archives to researchers at the Catholic University of Argentina, and a desire from the bishops — sprearheaded 11 years ago by then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — to grapple with the Church’s role in the country’s decades of military dictatorship.

The Pillar spoke with Ricardo Albelda, one of the researchers behind the book, about how it came about, and what lessons it offers for bishops — and indeed all Catholics — living in turbulent times. 

Check it out.


‘Are you talking to me?’

When he went to Portugal for World Youth Day this month, Pope Francis took some time to visit with a Jesuit community, as he is wont to do on international trips, and to answer the questions of his Jesuit confreres. 

As has become common practice, those questions and answers were published in La Civiltà Cattolica, a semi-official Vatican-ish journal

The conversation had some pretty substantive and interesting sections.

But in Portugal, where Pope Francis spent time praying in the hot sun with some 30,000 American pilgrims and their bishops, the pontiff also took some time to throw them some shade. 

The pope was asked by a Jesuit about Americans, “even bishops,” criticizing the pontiff’s leadership. 

In response, the pope said that in the United States, “the [ecclesial] situation is not easy.”

“There is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.”

The pope warned Americans that “indietrismo (being backward-looking) is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals.”

Francis noted a “climate of closure” in the U.S, by which “you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.”

Some American “groups,” he said, “so closed, are isolating themselves.”

“Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.”

First, I think, the pontiff should be congratulated — as pope, he has spent exactly six days in the United States, and has managed, apparently, to make some very definitive conclusions about at least some of the 60 million Catholics living in the U.S.

But second, I should say, I agree with the pope. I think there are definitely ideologues living among us, and I’m glad the pope recognized that.

But here’s the problem: I have no idea who the pontiff is actually targeting. Neither do they.

Rather than make a deliberate, definitive, forward-facing correction of the theological, cultural, or pastoral tendencies of some American Catholics, the pope has cast unspecified side-eyes at — you know — “those people” over there, during a closed-door meeting whose proceedings, he knew, would be published.

Probably most people think he means liturgical traditionalists — and probably most people think he is grouping those traditionalists with “conservative” politicians advocating for the death penalty or nuclear warfare. 

But I don’t know. 

When the pope condemned “looking backward,” could he have meant the American bishops looking back to the days before Ordinatio sacerdotalis, and calling for a discussion of women’s priestly ordination at the synod on synodality? 

When the pope lamented an ideological “climate of closure,” could he have meant a spate of liturgical prohibitions not required by Traditionis custodes or any other magisterial text? 

When the pope cautioned about “going backwards” towards ideology, does he mean Trent, or the 1970s? 

He didn’t exactly say, did he?

I am not a liturgical traditionalist. I go to Novus ordo Masses offered by priests who don’t wear amices. I pray like a Latin American Pentecostal. I like Dorothy Day more than Fulton Sheen. My politics veer well outside the bipartisan mainstream. But I try to be Catholic, and to hold the teachings of the faith, and for that reason, a fair number of people would call me a conservative.   

Does the pope mean people like me? 

Or, does he mean my friends who go to Traditional Latin Mass and are dyed-in-the-wool socialists, with revolutionary politics that kind of frighten me? 

Does he mean the “presidential campaign” of Taylor Marshall? Trump people? Are we talking sedevacantists? LifeTeen? “ChurchMilitant”? Extremely online twitter-posters? Steubenville conferences? The “Spirit of Vatican II”? People who like a Latin Agnus dei now and then?

Does he think those groups are all the same?

I honestly don’t know. 

If he does mean me, and he has some particular corrective, I’d like to receive it.

I doubt very much the pope knows who I am. But if he does, I hope he wants me to be a saint. And if he thinks I’m on the wrong track, I hope he’ll tell me. 

It would certainly make things easier, wouldn’t it? 

But the problem with the pontiff’s commentary is that, barring specificity, it won’t be used by anyone to make an examination of conscience. It won’t inform the pastoral ministry of bishops, or lead to some effort to receive lost sheep. 

It won’t convict, because we’ll all presume the pontiff is talking about “other people.”

His commentary will be a cudgel, placed in a room full of people who disagree with each other, and used indiscriminately.

“I know who the pope means,” we’ll each say. “He’s obviously talking about you.” 

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For your edification, here’s a fascinating little piece of Catholic ephemera:

A petition has begun which suggests that Bishop Robert Barron could “save humanity” by growing a beard. As it happens, I hold to the traditional view that beards are for laymen and religious. Call me a facial hair ideologue, I guess.

Look this week for some great reporting from The Pillar, including a two-part interview with Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Sweden. 

In the meantime, be assured of our prayers. And please pray for us. We need it.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

This newsletter is brought to you by the Institute of Catholic Culture.
The Institute of Catholic Culture is now enrolling students in The Cardinal Virtues: Keys to the Good Life! This free, ten-part, online course treats prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance according to the thought of Aristotle, Aquinas, and twentieth-century Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper. Learn more!

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