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Ordinary holiness, synodal tides, and a crisis of confidence

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Happy Friday friends,

As many of you probably know already, yesterday Pope Francis recognized a second miracle attributed to Blessed Carlo Acutis, further clearing the way for his eventual canonization.

This has made a lot of people I know very, very happy. 

Of course, we should all be happy at another sign that we know someone is alive in heaven. We — I — can tend to gloss over the article about believing in the communion of saints whenever we recite the creed, but it’s actually an incredibly powerful affirmation.

That the saints are alive in and with Christ, and interceding for us here as we struggle along, is mind bogglingly good news for us — the sort of thing which should illuminate my daily life.

The truth, though, is I tend to treat the saints I love best as abstract characters, almost legendary figures to be invoked, even if I make real efforts to learn from and lean on them in prayer. Some of the ones I love best, Catherine of Siena, for example, do tend to lend themselves to this. By all accounts she was a bit otherworldly and out of the common way even for those who knew her in life.

I think one of the reasons Carlo Acutis has such a great popular devotion, apart from his age and “internet saint” image and the fact that he’s actually English, is that he’s a distinctly relatable figure.

This is Blessed Carlo Acutis’ hometown, if you didn’t know. Greatest city in the world.

It’s easy to see Carlo as a person you might meet or know, talk to and be encouraged by in everyday life. This isn’t necessarily so even with other “modern” saints. 

John Paul II was no less larger-than-life in life than he is now: inspiring, for sure; historic, undoubtedly. But his was a sanctity of greatness, of office, of charisma, of personality. Carlo, I think, inspires people with an ordinary kind of sanctity — and I mean that in the best way.

“Ordinary holiness” is, I think, harder to conceive of for many of us because we’re so intimate with our own ordinary-ness and so conscious of our lack of sanctity. Carlo’s witness, then, is the inspiration of the immediate, a shocking illumination of what our own sanctity could look like if we really ask for faith. 

That’s something to pray about — for me, anyway.

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Here’s the news.

The News

The proportion of Australia’s Catholics attending weekly Mass fell from 11.8% to 8.2% between 2016 and 2021, according to figures released this week.

In an era of plummeting Mass attendance in many countries, that headline may strike many as so much white noise, especially in the post-Covid era. But as Luke Coppen reported, dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that there are some interesting trends at work.

Yes, the pandemic did terrible damage to the regular practice of the faith. But the underlying demographics point to something interesting: 18-29 year olds have doubled as a share of churchgoers — practicing Catholics in Australia are getting younger.

Read the whole story here.

In Italy, the received wisdom for decades has been that there are too many dioceses — and successive popes have tried to address the issue by uniting several under a single bishop without formally suppressing or merging them.

But this could be about to change.

As Luke wrote this week, Italy has more dioceses than the United States, despite having millions fewer Catholics, and more dioceses united in persona episcopi (41) than any country in the world.

But the pressures on bishops of running two separate dioceses are mounting, as are the pressures on small-and-shrinking historical dioceses to maintain any kind of functioning ecclesiastical infrastructure.

All the signs point to a Roman reset on dealing with the issue, but the idea of suppressing dioceses outright is not more popular now than it has ever been.

So, what’s the new plan? Read all about it here.

As Edgar Beltran noted this week, whenever a leftist government comes to power in Latin America, people tend to ask if it could become “the new Cuba.” 

Really though, he observed, the better question might be if Cuba is becoming the new Nicaragua.

As the economic crisis in the country worsens and protests against the regime increase, government pressure on the Catholic Church grows, despite a progressive increase in freedom of worship in the last three decades.

In this report, Edgar talks to exiled priests, and frames what’s happening now in the context of what has appeared from the outside to be decades of cautious progress for religious freedom on the island. 

You will learn a lot from this report. I did.

In his Tuesday newsletter, JD wrote about his experience last weekend at the West Coast kickoff of the four Eucharistic pilgrimages, which will converge on Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress in July.

Well, now we have his full report on the day. And I don’t mind telling you this is the sort of walking-talking-thinking-talking-and-thinking-some-more out-and-about pieces at which JD truly excels.

It’s a necessarily long read, but I seriously recommend you make the time for it over the weekend. It’s not just a great window into the people who came to the procession’s start, it’s also a first-person view of San Francisco, and what that city has become in recent years.

Most important, I think, JD started with a professionally dispassionate view of the whole event and took seriously many of the criticisms of the entire programme which have been raised — including by some bishops. 

The most important part of this piece, I think, is that JD took these questions and critiques to the people there on the day and let them answer. And, frankly, I think the results speak for themselves.

Read the whole thing.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin gave a speech this week at a conference in Rome marking the centenary of the first Church council to be held in China. 

The Cardinal Secretary of State used a presentation on the historical figure of Rome first Apostolic Delegate to China to flesh out his vision for a kind of ‘no diplomacy’ diplomacy for engaging with the Beijing government — not geopolitics, no wider agenda, just talking about the place of the Church in China without distractions or foreign agendas.

As I wrote in an analysis this week, it’s a nice idea. 

But the reality is that the programme of “Sinicization” Parolin has put his full weight behind isn’t a recipe for authentic enculturation, it’s the subordination of the Church in China to the Communist Party. That’s not my view — that’s the view of people in Parolin’s own office and of clerics on the Chinese mainland, whom I spoke with about the speech.

The reality is Parolin’s plan for a renewal of the Vatican-China deal, and his stated ambition for a permanent Vatican envoy of some (any) kind in Beijing, isn’t being pursued in a vacuum. He’s playing a zero sum game and his every advance (each of debatable worth on their own merits) is coming at a cost — a cost being borne by the faithful clerics on the mainland and the Holy See’s diplomatic allies.

You can read the whole analysis here.

Thanks to the generosity of the Knights of Columbus, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry invites anyone anywhere to audit one summer course entirely free. Application deadline is June 28th. Learn more about topics such as the theological poetics of J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald; Pope St. John Paul II’s "Gospel of Life;" and more! 

The Carmelite Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, Texas, is back in the news this week. 

The nine nuns living in the Arlington Carmel have refused this week to allow the Vatican-appointed superior to enter their monastery, or to communicate several Vatican decisions connected to their complicated dispute, now in its second year.

Mother Marie of the Incarnation, president of the Carmelite Association of Christ the King, was appointed by the Vatican in April to exercise direct governance and oversight of the Carmel in the long-running standoff which has seen the nuns at odds with their local bishop and the Holy See.

But, according to statements by Mather Marie and the Diocese of Ft. Worth, she was denied admittance to the cloister on Wednesday and Thursday this week, as she attempted to deliver several Vatican decisions in their case.

I could try to summarize the whole backstory here for you, but it would need it’s own newsletter.

Stay up to date here.

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Anyone with a passing familiarity with the Arlington Carmel story will recall just how deeply acrimonious and deeply strange it all is, once you get into the details.

At the center of lots of other questions and concerns in the case are the allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Mother Theresa Gerlach, was was the superior until the crisis began, and who the nuns there still recognize as their leader — the Vatican-appointed Mother Marie notwithstanding.

The accusations against Gerlach were what triggered the involvement of local Bishop Michael Olson, who acted to investigate, then remove, then canonically expel Gerlach from the community.

But, as JD noted in an analysis yesterday, we learned this week that while the other details of the case remain very complicated, we do now know that the Vatican has ruled to nullify the decree from Olson which expelled Gerlach from the order.

As JD says, this doesn’t bring a resolution to the wider issues of the Carmel any closer — and there’s no real doubt Bishop Olson was dealt a difficult hand to play with the nuns.

But, as we’ve been pointing out for a year now, there have been serious issues from the beginning with Olson’s canonical case for Gerlach’s dismissal. 

JD suggests the Vatican’s decision to uphold her appeal against dismissal might not mean much in the broader issues facing the Arlington Carmel, but that it still looks like a big win for her canon lawyers — and more importantly for the right of due process.

I agree.

Tide watch

Two things happened this week which I think merit consideration together.

The first was Pope Francis’ response when asked about the possibility of sacramental ordination for women as deacons on the infotainment show 60 Minutes.

“I’m curious, for a little girl growing up Catholic today,” Norah O’Donnell asked with the kind of oleaginous pomposity only American TV types can manage with a straight face, “will she ever have the opportunity to be a deacon and participate as a clergy member in the Church?” 

“No,” said the pope. 

This was broadcast just as several national reports for the global synodal process were calling for exactly that — as we have previously reported — and it triggered an immediate, if somewhat predictable, backlash from the usual suspects.

The second thing that happened was that DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández met with Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church and offered a kind of apology-by-way-of-explanation over the fallout of Fiducia supplicans, the DDF’s pre-Christmas declaration on the blessing of gay people who present themselves as a couple.

In March, the Coptic Orthodox issued a statement in response to Fiducia supplicans, saying they had “decided to suspend theological dialogue with the Catholic Church, re-evaluate the results achieved by this dialogue from its beginning 20 years ago, and establish new standards and mechanisms for the dialogue to proceed in future.”

It was a major setback to what had previously been one of the biggest ecumenical advances of the Francis era.

According to Vatican News, Fernández affirmed to Tawadros that “these blessings are not given to the union between individuals” and do not impart “‘sanctifying grace’ but those aids of the Holy Spirit that Catholics call ‘actual graces,’ which push the sinner towards conversion and maturation.”

Cardinal Fernández looking to mend fences and repeating, as he has done several times now in the months since Fiducia was issued, that such blessings are for individuals not couples qua couples, is all so much to be expected.

What I thought was especially notable, though, was to see him, via the official Vatican media portal, using the language of sinners and conversion when speaking about gay Catholics. 

Whatever the rival agendas in regards the Church’s approach to same-sex relationships in the current synodal process, this is exactly the vocabulary many expected would be the first thing to change when it concluded, including a redrafting of the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this point.

What we have seen in the last week is Pope Francis and his top doctrinal deputy express what many would consider (in the worst possible to way) to be deeply conservative views on the hottest topics going in the synodal process, and they did so with no discernable wink or nod to those on the other side of the issue — at least that I could see.

If I am sure these events are significant, I am unsure what to make of them.

Is it a calculated, thinly coded rebuke by Francis of the Cardinal Hollerich school of synodality, who seem to have taken it as read that the synod is, indeed, a doctrinal free-for-all and decided to start saying so out loud?

Is the pope laying down some clear markers on what is absolutely not going to pass papal muster in any post synodal document in a bid to focus minds ahead of October?

Maybe there’s increased concern that radical progressive calls for reform have been given so much space and air time that more conservative leaders (like in Africa, say) will simply refuse to buy in to the process and boycott proceedings.

Or have Francis and Fernández come to some new understanding or concern that some of the more radical proposals going around, with some loud voices behind them, pose an actual threat to Church unity and doctrinal coherence?

I genuinely do not know. Maybe it is some combination of all these, maybe it is something else entirely. 

But this I do know: Francis knows the rhetorical volume of a flat “no.” And Vatican News doesn’t get the editorial green light for saying Fernández called people “sinners” on a whim.

A tide is shifting here. I am just not sure in what direction it’s being pulled. Yet.

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A crisis of confidence

I don’t know if there is a word for doing something out of an imagined or borrowed sense of nostalgia mixed with sincere enthusiasm, but there ought to be.

Last week I did a thing. I definitely don’t regret it. But ever since, I have been overthinking it in the way that I tend to do when approaching a new social situation, to the point that I may be going a little crazy.

I joined the parish softball team. I wanted to do it. It was my idea. 

For years, my wife and I kind of floated around but functionally outside our local Catholic community, at a social level. 

Being in the “around 40” demographic without children makes it awkward to break in, sometimes: most social contact happens at the school gates and centers around kids. Reasonably so.

Since the birth of our daughter, now a toddler, we’ve got to know a few people and it's a blessing to have a rich seam of Catholic families nearby to lean on. But my wife has, in all honesty, been leading the social charge while I lurk in my office all hours.

What better way, I thought, to meet like minded dads than to join a team which plays at the KoC pool where we spend the bulk of our summer evenings? Added to that, I’ve always loved softball. Or, at least, the idea of softball.

My dad played on teams in Chicago as a young man, and I can dimly remember my parents both playing on a mixed team on the diamond across the road from our little house when I was young.

I’ve never played the game in an organized way, sure. But I own a softball bat. It’s propping up the wall in the corner of my office as I write. I bought it several years ago with much the same conviction as I acquired most of my power tools — that, as a man of a certain age, I ought to have them, even if my daily call on them is minimal and my proficiency with them even less.

But I played on cricket teams in my 20s, and I love baseball, so the mechanics of the game don’t scare me.

No, it’s the getting out and meeting people which is doing my head in a bit. I’m looking forward to it, don’t get me wrong. After all, that’s the reason I joined the team. But I am worried about getting the tone wrong.

What’s the form for parish league softball? What’s the dress code?

I know there are jerseys, which is cool. But what should one wear with them? 

Would an old pair of cricket whites be suitably practical and a little recherché? Should I buy baseball pants in a matching color to the jersey, or would this be considered gauche? I’ve already bought them, either way.

Shorts would obviously be more comfortable and relaxed, given the DC summer weather, though they would make sliding into base an incredibly painful proposition. But maybe that’s the point? Maybe you want to accumulate skid marks up your leg over the course of the summer as a kind of suburban war wound.

Or maybe I have it backwards. Maybe the whole idea of sliding into second in a dads’ softball league is frowned upon, a sign of taking things too seriously. 

But if that’s the case, how relaxed an approach should I be taking when I show up for the first game — is it good form to arrive with a case of 24 under your arm and a pack of smokes rolled into your sleeve? 

Is drinking in the dugout de rigueur and firing up a lung dart in the outfield cool? 

Is this the image I should be going for? Or would this alarm my teammates and bring me under censure?

I got rather tangled up in all this and decided the best thing will be to arrive in as low key a way as possible, to play well enough to merit inclusion in the weekly squad, and to do so without appearing to try too hard. 

Having settled on this approach, I texted a friend who knows about these things and he sent me links to the athletic equipment version of Silk Road, where you can buy “hot” bats. 

What these websites do is take a regulation baseball or softball bat, say a Louisville Slugger, and shave and roll it (I have no idea what this process actually entails, but I gather it’s illegal for league sports) to juice every contact you make. Apparently they promise an extra 30 ft per hit in slow pitch softball. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, cheating in sports is appalling; I think every member of the 2017 Astros should be doing time in an Alaskan gulag. There’s no excuse for edging out fair competition to gain professional rewards or academic scholarships. And if you’re playing serious competitive sports, or aiming to, you will be found out eventually. 

And even if you are just playing semi seriously, sports, especially baseball and baseball adjacent games, are truly a school of virtue — it really is about how you play the game. 

But my aim here isn’t to win, or even not to lose, and I don’t want personal glory, per se. All I want is to be seen to play just well enough that my teammates are willing to overlook my inevitable social awkwardness and faux pas, and thus let me hang around for the summer. 

Let’s be honest, I’m in my 40s and have smoked roughly three-quarters of a million cigarettes in my life; spotting myself 30 feet is likely the difference between making it to first base once or twice a game vs. batting 0.00 on the season. That’s surely only venial, rather than mortal material, right?

I didn’t have time to answer the question. My wife asked what I was thinking about, then took my phone away and told me I was insane.

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She’s right, of course. And I’m absolutely not serious. 

I’d never actually cheat, the self-loathing would consume me. I treat baseball as a kind of quasi-liturgy, and softball basically is religion in my home city. They’d find me curled in the fetal position at second base, rocking and sobbing about how it was all a lie and I’d betrayed everything I love in life.

And anyway I just got the car back from the mechanic, and it has to go back next week — if I spent $299 on a hot bat right now my wife might reasonably use it on me.

So, assuming I make the team, I’ll show up Monday with my unused office decoration of a bat. I’ll wear shorts under my new baseball pants under my old cricket whites, so I can strip down to the socially acceptable level before anyone sees me. I’ll bring the beer, but leave it in the car until someone wonders aloud if anyone brought some.

It will be wonderful. There is nothing better than opening day and the start of a new season. 

And who knows, maybe it all comes together and we go all the way.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

Thanks to the generosity of the Knights of Columbus, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry invites anyone anywhere to audit one summer course entirely free. Application deadline is June 28th. Learn more about topics such as the theological poetics of J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald; Pope St. John Paul II’s "Gospel of Life;" and more! 

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