Louisville's new slugger, Ben XVI's apology, and St. Bakhita's freedom
The Tuesday Pillar Post
Today is the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, and this is The Tuesday Pillar Post.
I’ll have much to say about the extraordinary St. Josephine, but let’s start with the news.
The Pillar reported on Monday that Bishop Shelton Fabre would be appointed this week to succeed Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the longtime shepherd of Louisville, Kentucky.
Well, the appointment came this morning — Archbishop-elect Fabre will take the reins in Louisville on March 30.
While the appointment is now widely known, how it happened is a story in itself. And if you’re interested, we bring you some of the details right here.
After we reported Fabre’s imminent appointment yesterday, we heard from several priests in the bishop’s diocese — Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana — who uniformly praised their outgoing bishop’s leadership in the local Church.
What people mentioned most often is how well Fabre has led the diocese during its recovery from the devastating Hurricane Ida. The September 2021 storm was the second-most destructive in Louisiana’s history. In southeastern Louisiana, in Fabre’s diocese, the cleanup is really only beginning.
People are still rebuilding their homes, and in some cases families lived in tents for months. Many parishes are still having Mass off-site after churches were damaged or destroyed, some Catholic schools are still trying to decide if they can reopen. The devastation was profound.
And Fabre, his priests told us, has lived up to his episcopal motto — “Comfort my people.”
Here’s Fr. Jean-Marie Nsambu, the pastor of one Houma-Thibodaux parish, talking about what happened in his community, and where he finds his hope:
And here’s a Louisiana Catholic talking about riding out the storm at his parish, and “the pain of losing everything.” It’s worth watching.
It seems clear that a lot of people in Cajun Louisiana have depended on the leadership of their bishop in the last few months. I suspect that as he comes to lead a new flock, he won’t forget the recovery efforts in southeastern Louisiana. Neither should we.
Last week was a busy one for the Church in Europe, or at least for a certain kind of cleric. The president of the European bishops’ confederation said that the “foundation” of Catholic sexual doctrine is “no longer correct,” and requires a fundamental revision. Munich’s Reinhard Cardinal Marx called for a move away from priestly celibacy, in response to Germany’s clerical sexual abuse crisis. And the assembly of the German “synodal path” voted in favor of same-sex liturgical blessings and the priestly ordination of women.
A lot is going on Europe. It’s worth asking whether Pope Francis will respond to these things — and if not, why not? Each situation is different, but in each case, Catholic leaders have claimed the mantle of Francis’ papacy while advocating for positions he’s explicitly opposed — some of which are directly opposed to Catholic doctrine.
Here’s a preview:
In Frankfurt, where meetings are taking place, the “synodal path” has taken on so many issues, and has pushed them so far, it now seems plausible the synodal path will fail to achieve even the modest disciplinary and transparency agenda that its most moderate participants hoped to see passed. As that becomes more clearly the case, with little to lose or gain, the ZdK agenda-setters are likely to push harder for doctrinal changes, hoping to prompt enough pushback from Rome to position themselves as a persecuted voice of the faithful. If the Vatican doesn’t take the bait, the synod may well remembered as a quixotic band of activists pushing an agenda that few Massgoing Catholics actually wanted.
A former Cleveland priest, Robert McWilliams, died in federal custody Friday morning — his death is being investigated as a suicide.
McWilliams was sentenced in November to life in federal prison, after he pled guilty to a series of horrific sexual exploitation crimes against children. You can read what’s known about his death here.
The priest’s death doesn’t resolve the questions his case has raised about how someone described in court as sociopathic made it through seminary — even while he was already grooming teenagers before his ordination.
Back in November, I talked with a family who suffered unspeakable abuse committed by McWilliams. Their story is heart-wrenching. It also raises questions about how the Church responds to the victims of abuse, how Church leaders might do better, and how on earth McWilliams was ordained. Those questions are important, and they shouldn’t be forgotten.
‘Our most grievous fault’
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI released a letter this morning, which addressed criticism he’s faced in Germany, and, more broadly, his thoughts on the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
Benedict is accused of lying about a meeting he attended in January 1980, 42 years ago, at which a priest guilty of abuse was accepted for ministry in the Munich archdiocese, which the former pope then led as archbishop. The priest committed abuse again some years later, after Benedict was no longer leading the archdiocese.
The former pope told investigators last year that he wasn’t at the meeting, but then it was revealed that he was. Benedict has since said he was at the meeting, and that his initial response had been an error — but in subsequent clarifications, Benedict’s legal advisors have said that there was no decision to accept the priest for ministry during the meeting, and his status as an abuser wasn’t discussed, or known to Benedict — and they say their records confirm that.
While Benedict’s letter included three pages of notes on all of that from his legal advisors, the former pope’s text focused on a bigger picture:
In all my meetings, especially during my many Apostolic Journeys, with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault. And I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen. As in those meetings, once again I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness. I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate. Each individual case of sexual abuse is appalling and irreparable. The victims of sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy and I feel great sorrow for each individual case.
It’s not clear to me how victims of clerical sexual abuse will respond to this letter. On the one hand, the former pope is expressing “shame…sorrow…and a heartfelt request for forgiveness,” as he has done before. On the other hand, the letter is lacking in specifics — whether the former pope believes there are particular decisions he made as the pontiff that should have been made differently, that “failed to confront” real problems, etc.
It is important, I think, to recognize the extent to which antinomian and clericalist ecclesiastical culture created an environment in which clerical sexual abuse and misconduct long went insufficiently addressed and even insufficiently recognized. Benedict’s apology seems to be at that level — an apology for ways in which he failed to sufficiently confront or address those cultural problems.
But the apology does not address particularities — McCarrick, as an example, though not the only one. That fact is certain to be noticed.
Benedict’s tenure at the CDF and his reign as pope include decisions that aimed to address the failures of clerical culture to sufficiently root out and punish abuse. At the CDF, he helped usher in a new legal era on these matters with Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. As pope, he put in motion the reforms to canonical penal law that ended with the 2021 promulgation of a new, and much improved, universal penal code.
But the former pope’s letter today hints at the fact that there are particular situations for which he has great regret — even if the recent allegations about a meeting 42 years ago are not among them. Benedict does not delineate those situations.
Of course if he does so, he’ll be much maligned, excoriated even, by some. But for the whole Church, that kind of specific candor would probably contain very real lessons, and very real insight into contemporary problems. It might be helpful in the Church’s ongoing efforts to recognize, address, and prevent a host of related problems which are not — however much we might like to think otherwise — only in the rearview mirror. And it might set a precedent that would help to resolve a number of still-unanswered questions about McCarrick and other issues, which still harm the credibility of the Church.
Is he morally obliged to do that? I honestly don’t know.
Do I think it would offer important and valuable information? Yes.
Do I think it will happen? Probably not, at least not while he is living — though he may leave behind more reflections on this topic to be read after his death.
Do I think those reflections would impugn entirely his legacy? I suppose it would depend upon what was in them.
But one lesson of the sexual abuse crisis is the way in which the entire Church has gained deeper awareness and understanding of the scourge of sexual abuse, coercion, and misconduct only step-by-step — and bear in mind, there are parts of the world that are even now at only the beginning of that process. Benedict’s own life represents the trajectory of that awareness, and his ministry has contributed to it as well. It is not all one thing, and that’s the complicated part of all of this.
Looking all of that in the face, honestly, and clear-eyed, will require wisdom, discernment, courage, and humility — gifts which, for the sake of victims, and for the sake of the Church’s integrity, we should continue to ask of the Holy Spirit.
Freedom in Christ
St. Josephine Bakhita was born in the Darfur region sometime around 1869. At nine, she was “kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life,” according to her biography in Spe salvi
She was eventually brought to Italy as a slave. In Venice she heard the Gospel, and she came to know that the Lord loved her.
In the late 1880s, Bakhita decided to stop serving her captor. She was living temporarily with the Canossian Sisters who evangelized her. When she was ordered by her captor to leave, she refused. In 1889, an Italian court affirmed that she was a free person, not a slave, and that she could determine her own future.
In 1890, when she was around 20, she was baptized a Christian; she was confirmed and received the Eucharist.
In 1896, Bakhita took religious vows, and spoke often of the liberation she found in Christ.
In truth, liberation didn’t come easily. She suffered the effects of slavery, and trafficking, and beatings. She suffered pain, and the pain of memory. But she said she found joy in the Lord, and she become known as a most gentle witness to Christ.
She died in 1947 with the names of Jesus and Mary on her lips.
May St. Josephine Bakhita, who found freedom in Christ, pray for us, and for victims of trafficking, slavery, and captivity.
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Editor’s note: In perhaps The Pillar's most egregious copy error to date, I wrote this morning that Benedict XVI “helped usher in a new legal error on these matters with Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela.”
The text ought to have said that the former pontiff helped usher in a new ERA.
The error, about which we feel quite sheepish, has been corrected. If, however, you are reading The Tuesday Pillar Post in your inbox, the error perdures, as the email is a snapshot of the text at a particular moment in time, and for that we apologize.