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Happy Good Friday friends,

I don’t know how your Lent has gone. But if you have been worrying that you’ve not really entered the season well, fasted as hard as you’d hoped, prayed as often as you’d planned, or given alms as much as you could have, I’d suggest now is the time to stop thinking about that.

Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves, Rubens. Public domain.

Good Friday is, for sure, a day for self-examination. Confronted with our own proper places in the crowd in today’s Gospel, baying for the death of the Lord of life, we should consider the crucifix and ponder what we, collectively and individually, have done. 

It is not, I think, a day for post-Lenten self-reproaches about not having worked harder, or been a bit spiritually tougher. Good Friday is a day about weakness, I think. 

The weakness Christ assumed in laying aside his divine dignity to mount the cross. The weakness of my nature, my desires, and my actions which necessitated so profound an act of love. I have not, and due to my inherently sinful nature could not, save myself and so Christ came for me.

That is something I aim to spend the rest of today reflecting upon, and it needs at least a day a year — even if other temptations are ever present. Consider the Diocese of Pittsburgh, for example, which issued a thoroughly sensible and equally delightful response to requests from local Catholics, who asked to be dispensed from the day’s obligations so they could observe that other great Spring memorial: the baseball season home opener.

Knowing as I do something of the yinzer sense of humor, I have to wonder if the “inquiries” the diocese mentions weren’t made ironically to provoke this response, but either way, good for them.

The Pillar team are going to be keeping Good Friday too, as well as the rest of the Triduum and Easter. We’ll be operating a night-watchman rotation in the newsroom for the next week so that we can focus on the things that really matter this season. 

The news doesn’t stop, but sometimes we have to — especially when our beat is the life of the Church. Otherwise, it’s just too easy for us to find ourselves on the outside of the faith looking in, instead of where we need to be, in the heart of this greatest of feasts.

So, we’ve laid some things down to publish for you next week, and we’ll cover anything major and breaking as needs be, but there won’t be any Starting Seven next week. And, ahead of that, I hope you have a blessed Triduum. 


The News

Pope Francis this week issued updates to the penal code of the Eastern Catholic Churches. 

The changes came in a motu proprio titled Vocare peccatores, and bring the operative law for the 23 Eastern Churches sui iuris in communion with Rome into line with reforms made by the pope in 2021 for the Latin Church.

“In the Church the purposes of punishment are the restoration of justice, the correction of the matter, and the reparation of the offense and damage,” wrote the pope. “When the pastor acts in this way to avoid crimes and to properly punish the guilty, he shows that he is aware of his duty and to love the faithful committed to him.”

The legal changes themselves may not be especially new — it’s more a matter of harmonizing the Eastern and Latin codes — but Francis’ legal preamble absolutely doubles down on his call for the Church to take its own penal laws and processes seriously. 

That alone is worth reading.

Maryland’s attorney general released Wednesday a detailed report on the history of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

For American Catholics already cauterized by the horrors of similar reports from other states, many will probably find they are numb to the full horrors of Baltimore text, which documents decades of abuse and cover-up. 

But, as JD wrote in an analysis yesterday, it is also true that the Maryland AG’s report documents past horrors which are, to a great extent, no longer present in the Church thanks to years of reforming efforts.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean the lessons of the Church’s past sins have been fully learned yet, especially when we are talking about episcopal accountability.

As much as we all — bishops, priests, and lay faithful — might want to just bury the scandals of recent years and move on, we can’t. More to the point, we won’t be able to until we can no longer point to obvious areas where our culture still needs to change

Read the whole thing.

An anonymous letter has made waves in Nicaragua, after it accused the country’s Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of being too close to the country’s dictator, Daniel Ortega.

The Church in Nicaragua, of course, remains under severe persecution, with Bishop Rolando Álvarez currently serving 26 years in prison. So it might strike you as incredible that Managua’s cardinal could be anything close to close with the regime persecuting Catholics. 

But, as Edgar Beltram wrote for us this week, the situation is complicated.

For a start, there have long been accusations and reports that the country’s seminaries have been infiltrated by government plants, and that collaborationist clergy or seminarians inform on the political leanings of their brothers. 

And Brenes himself has been frequently criticized for appearing too cooperative, or even sympathetic, to the Ortega “government.”

The anonymous letter, published last week by a Catholic outlet, amplified those criticisms. The situation got even more dramatic when Brenes’ own auxiliary, Bishop Silvio Báez, shared the letter on social media from exile in Miami.

This is not a cut-and-dry story, but it is a very important look at a Church under siege from the government and struggling with the internal divisions which that creates.

I strongly encourage you to read it.

A Swiss Catholic bishop has banned a charismatic group from operating in his diocese.

Bishop Charles Morerod announced March 20 that the Koinonia John the Baptist community was forbidden to engage in any activity in his Diocese of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg.

It’s an interesting case.

The community, canonically a private association of the faithful, describes itself as “a community at the service of the New Evangelisation, within the Catholic Church.” It was founded in 1979 by the Argentine priest Fr. Ricardo Argañaraz, and has an emphasis on kerygmatic preaching, evangelization meetings, and healing Masses. 

It’s been present in the Swiss diocese since 2018, but the bishop, a former member of the International Theological Commission and rector to the Pontifical University of Thomas Acquinas, now says the group failed to provide him with “all the necessary information” before he signed an agreement with them in 2020. 

Morerod said this week he had assumed the group was formally recognized by the Vatican, since it is active in so many other dioceses around the world, including in the U.S. 

“That was a mistake,” the bishop said, adding that he did not know why the Vatican had withheld canonical recognition of the group as either an ecclesial movement or a public juridic person but that he has “hope that the reasons will be known.”

The Vatican has been stepping up its oversight of new movements in recent years, taking a more active interest in their internal governance and issuing new laws to ensure regular turnover in leadership. Morerod’s concerns about how “some of these communities develop sectarian traits” which “opens the door to abuse of all kinds” are likely to be echoed in Rome, but how the matter is brought to a resolution remains to be seen.

Read the whole thing.

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The spirit of 2018

This week, we covered extensively the installation of the new Bishop of Shanghai, Joseph Shen Bin. 

First, as rumors of his appointment began to circulate in China, I asked in an analysis on Monday if Beijing and the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association were about to “do it again” and install a bishop without prior Vatican knowledge or approval.

I also asked what the Vatican response would be if they did. 

Previously, the Holy See has tended to come out with statements several days after the event, claiming that they knew an appointment was coming but just hadn’t announced or acknowledged it when it happened — even while Vatican officials privately briefed they’d had nothing to do with the new bishop. 

But that streak ended last year, when the Chinese authorities got a serving diocesan bishop to vacate his see and become an auxiliary in a diocese the Vatican doesn’t recognize as even existing and Rome had to call it out as a breach of the 2018 Vatican China deal.

If Shen came in, I wondered, would the Vatican try to go back to spinning it as normal, would they feel free to point out a new violation of the deal where there was one, or would they just try to ignore the whole thing?

We didn’t have to wait long to find out. 

After Shen was unveiled as the new Bishop of Shanghai on Tuesday, we spoke to several priests on the mainland, including in his new diocese and they were… extremely frank about what had happened.

“This is an appointment made by the Chinese government,” one Shanghai priest said. 

“We will not obey. It is a death knell for the Sino-Vatican accord. If the Vatican says anything that recommits to that, everybody will know they have been made to kowtow to the CCP.”

Things developed more when the Vatican came out and acknowledged that Shen’s appointment had been a unilateral move by the Chinese authorities and, while they’d had a whiff it might be coming, Vatican officials only learned he had been installed when they read it in the press.

(Just as an aside: if that’s true, it’s deeply worrying. My own phone was lighting up through the night and early morning as the installation happened. If Rome really did have to wait for news reports, it suggests a total lack of contact with people and events on the ground in China.)

Later on, in a press conference by the Chinese foreign affairs ministry, a spokesperson waived away the significance of the appointment — now confirmed as a unilateral move outside of the Vatican China deal — and said Beijing was committed to the “spirit” of its accord with Rome.

Of course, without knowing the actual text of the Vatican-China deal, we can only guess at the “spirit” in which it was drafted. 

But, as I wrote yesterday, the Shen situation presents a number of pressing ecclesiological, canonical, diplomatic, and pastoral problems for the Holy See. 

Shen isn’t just “some bishop,” he’s the president of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China — the CPCA and CCP body responsible for naming new bishops — meaning Shen has basically taken a self-appointed see without a papal mandate, at least on paper. 

In reality, it’s not clear which official in China actually called the shot. 

But anywhere else in the world, this would be an unignorable act of schism. Instead, since we don’t know exactly what authority the Vatican has ceded to the Chinese government in their deal, we all — including local clergy in Shanghai — are left guessing if the diocese now has an illegitimate leader. 

That’s kind of a big deal.

It does not seem to be in doubt, even at the Vatican, that Beijing, not Rome, now has effectively complete control over the Church in China, making it an effectively national Church without recognizable bonds of communion in governance with the Bishop of Rome.

And that was exactly what the Vatican-China deal was supposed to prevent.

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Rerum novarum

On Good Friday, I always wonder who, exactly, were the two men crucified with Christ. 

The Gospels of Luke and John say merely that Jesus was crucified along with “alios duos,” while Mark and Matthew call them “latrones,” (the same word used to describe Barabas) a somewhat elastic term which seems to be applicable to violent criminals, ranging from highway bandits to guerilla insurgents.  

Growing up, at least as I remember it, the latrones were always simply translated to be “thieves,” which colored my understanding of Roman justice rather than Christ’s dialogue with them from the cross.

Now I more often see and hear the word rendered as “revolutionaries,” which rather changes the significance of the “good thief” asking Christ to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

I heard a Good Friday homily once on the significance of the two “revolutionaries” in which the priest explained that just as we, the congregation, ought to find ourselves in the mob shouting Tolle, tolle, crucifige eum, so too we should recognize in ourselves, and the Church, the two temptations revolution.

The first, he explained, was what he called the revolution of relativism. The impulse to sanitize the Gospel, to make the distinctly R-rated grisliness of the Passion and unflinching, uncomfortable demands the Lord makes on our moral lives into a G-rated animation, where nothing bad ever really needs to happen, and nothing more is asked of us than to be nice to each other.

The other he described as the restorationist tendency, which revels in a perverse pleasure in the violent sins of the Church’s past, and mistakes the power and moral certitude of the faith for a mandate to impose it at the point of a sword.

I think these same tendencies were outlined well by Pope Francis as “the temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness” and “deceptive mercy” of “the so-called progressives and liberals” versus the “temptation to hostile inflexibility” of the “zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – traditionalists.”

“The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners” is real, as Pope Francis pointed out to the synod of bishops in 2014

And at the heart of both is “the temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.”

Looking around the Church today, it is not hard to see that both revolutionary tendencies are on the march.

The real revolution is, of course, that of Christ, who upended the cosmic order in a way I struggle every year to make space to fully consider. 

The way of Christ is the path to the resurrection of the dead and to heaven, and it proceeds only and always up and through the cross; to love the other, even unto death, because for the Christian death is never the end.

That love, that revolution, is what I will be trying to think about for the rest of today. 

See you next week, and have a blessed Triduum.

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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