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Quiet fire, the problem with good ideas, and never sometimes

Happy Friday friends,

And a blessed Pentecost for the days to come.

It is a feast I hold dear every year. And as I think about those men on fire, I’m always struck by the inherent dynamic tension of the event. 

The disciples begin the day huddled in a locked room, paralyzed by fear. They end it rushing out into the street, animated by the Holy Spirit. What changes in between is their reception of the gift Christ promised at his ascension.

The disciples’ sudden zeal to announce the Gospel is striking because nothing new has been revealed to them, strictly speaking — they had spent 40 days seeing the risen Lord, eating with him, listening to him, watching him disappear into the heavens. 

What they do receive in the interim is described in the Acts of the Apostles as “tongues of fire,” an image which carries well the burning intensity of the faith that seizes them, and the consuming urgency to spread it throughout the city and the world. 

The tension that strikes me is that, for all the sudden motion into which the disciples are thrown, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are essentially reflective, internal, and dispositional.

Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord; these don’t strike me as the calling cards of furious activity. 

On the contrary, as we’ve been making our way through our novena to the Holy Spirit this week, I’ve found myself growing stiller and quieter in prayer — a disposition I’ve needed for some time but lacked the, well, understanding to ask for. 

Most of my day is spent in a frantic sense of being behind, treating work, family, and prayer as something to be rushed through, not launched into — and often in that inverted order. But approached correctly, and in their right order, I find it a lot easier to serve, rather than work at them.

I think this is the way it’s meant to work, at least I hope it is: that when invited sincerely the Holy Spirit enlightens before it engulfs. See this way, the disciples outward explosion of zeal was an inevitable reaction to what they had seen and experienced already 

I’m not saying I’m having a dramatic conversion experience here or anything. But I have, I think, had a spiritually rather better Easter season than I did Lent. And I’m grateful for that.


The News

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has written to local district attorneys informing them that he is “disturbed but not surprised” by their decision to downgrade charges against five people who destroyed a statue of St. Junipero Serra on church property during a protest in 2020.

The archbishop spoke with us about the letter he wrote yesterday, explaining that despite the five committing what would look like an obvious felony, in full view of police, on camera, the DAs have decided to bump the charges down to a misdemeanor offense because of their participation in a restorative justice program.

But, the thing is this: the archbishop says the archdiocese was frozen out of the conversation. So, the archbishop asks, in what sense is justice being restored if the community that was attacked isn’t even involved? 

It seems a fair question. Indeed, according to the archbishop, the DA’s office treated him as the problem in the process, not the representative of the offended party.

The archbishop also argues that had a similar attack been committed against any other faith group, it would almost certainly have been prosecuted as a hate crime, and that the decision to treat violence against the Church differently smacks of “anti Catholicism.”

You can read about the letter, and our conversation with the archbishop here.

A monastery of Carmelite nuns says a Texas bishop has threatened them all with dismissal from their order as he conducts an investigation into an alleged offense by the convent’s superior.

The nuns, in turn, have now sued Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth in civil court, filed for a restraining order against him, and appealed to the Vatican.

You’ve probably read something about this already this week, but we talked to a lot of the people close to the case to find out what the heck is going on, because the whole thing seemed, well, very strange.

Up close, it only got stranger.

According to the Carmelites’ lawyer, the bishop “comes in with only 30 minutes notice, forcibly takes their technology, accuses Mother of violating the Sixth Commandment and then leaves — and then over the next two days just bombarded them with these different mandates.”

The diocese claims the mother superior had admitted to some kind of sexual misconduct, which is supposedly the basis of the investigation, and the justification for seizing a phone, iPad and computer from the convent.

The nuns say their mother superior was interrogated while she was heavily medicated after surgery, and in and out of delirium. Their lawyer says the whole diocesan investigation is a put-up job and an excuse to seize the cloister’s donor database.

And if you think that all sounds too weird to be believed, we haven’t even started on the canonical issues raised by a diocesan bishop issuing legal threats of dismissal against the members of an autonomous religious house as part of an investigation into allegations which, so far as I can tell, might concern sinful behavior but don’t constitute a canonical crime.

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I can’t recall a story this… unique, either on the basic facts or the legal issues it raises. You’re going to want to read the whole thing. 

And do get yourself up to date, because I have a strong suspicion Rome is going to sit up and take notice of what’s going on deep in the heart of Texas.

Earlier this month, Portugal passed a bill legalizing euthanasia in the country, with the country’s Catholic president signing it into law.

On the face of it, it might look like a sad case of “more of the same”: another country rolling in the tide of the culture of death, with an ostensibly Catholic politician giving it the rubber stamp. But that’s not the story.

Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, may have signed the bill, but he’s been leading the charge against it for the last six years — throwing every constitutional challenge he could into its path.

And, as Felipe D’Avillez wrote for us this week, he’s not done fighting yet, and neither is the country’s medical establishment, who are foursquare against the law. It looks like they still have some cards to play to stop the law from coming into force, even if it is now on the statute books.

This is some deeply interesting reporting on the political maneuverings going on, and definitely worth your time.

The Trappist monks of Belgium’s Saint-Sixtus Abbey make some of the best beer in the world, but they don’t do it for profit. So you can imagine how annoyed they were to discover it is being resold illegally at inflated prices over the border in the Netherlands.

The monks are now trying to find ways to identify the price gaugers and cut them out of their distribution network, but it’s not easy.

Luke Coppen took a look at the black market in Trappist beer this week, and what the abbey is doing to stamp it out. And it’s pretty cool. 

It sounds so simple

This week, the Illinois Office of the Attorney General released its report into clerical sexual abuse in the state’s six dioceses. It was exactly as horrific and discouraging as you would expect.

Since the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in 2018, there has been a steady drumbeat of these documents across the country, laying bare in forensic detail exactly how bad the abuse crisis was in previous decades. 

I’ve seen a lot of comments to the effect of “yes, this is horrific and the Church has a lot to answer for, but other institutions aren’t coming in for this kind of scrutiny.” Ok, fine, I guess. It’s true that we aren’t seeing AG’s reports popping up nationwide into public schools, or the Boy Scouts, and whatever else.

Is the Church being targeted? I guess you could make that argument. But, frankly, I don’t care, particularly. 

I want the Church to be holy. I want it to be the leading light on human dignity and accountability for its sins. I want it to model every kind of best practice when it comes to the protection of children. And if “unfair” levels of scrutiny can help us get there (and I think they have), so much the better.

Case in point, the Illinois report offered more than 50 pages of policy recommendations to the state’s dioceses. Other civil jurisdictions have done the same in the past, though they have often focused on implausible, and frankly irrelevant demands, like ending the sacramental seal of confession.

Illinois, instead, offered a lot of constructive food for thought. So I took a look at some of the proposals in a long analysis this week.

Some of the ideas, like independent reporting mechanisms, have already been brought in nationwide. 

Others, like the standardization of terms, like describing an accusation as “credible” or “substantiated” are things I have been begging for, for years. Though, I’m sorry to say, it seems highly unlikely that dioceses will adopt such a policy, still less head Rome’s repeated demands that they stop using such terms entirely to describe allegations which haven’t yet been tested by a full legal process, be it civil or canonical.

Others sound like common sense proposals — like ensuring that abuse allegations can be reported anonymously, or encouraging bishops to meet personally with survivors and treat them with the kind of pastoral sympathy and urgent attention they have every right to expect, to demand, even.

But it isn’t always that simple. 

It’s one thing to ask bishops to meet personally with survivors, and to expect them to offer them the kind of full and unflinching apology and plea for forgiveness they have coming. But in the wider context, with windows in the statute of limitations for lawsuits becoming permanent doors in some places, the reality is that bishops are in a bind. They might want to show exactly the kind of personal pastoral closeness being asked of them, but also be advised the wrong kind of apology could leave the diocese open to bankruptcy-level liability.

It’s a real bind, and there is no easy or obvious way I see to answer it — though some bishops, like Albany’s Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, are making notable efforts.

And when it comes to anonymous complaints, it doesn’t take much effort to conceive of a situation where a victim might want or even need to preserve their anonymity. And the same applies to whistleblowers working inside Church structures who encounter instances of cover-up.

But it also doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see the ways in which an anonymous complaints mechanism can be abused to lodge vexatious allegations against innocent clerics. Granted, spurious allegations make up a tiny minority of cases we have seen over the last several decades, but that doesn’t mean they do not happen.

As I tried to puzzle out in my analysis, “obvious” and “common sense” proposals are often very tricky to get right — and sometimes they even contradict one another. But that just means we, as a Church, have to do the mental leg work to get as much right as we can, as fast as we can.

You can read the whole thing here.

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The wisdom of Mr. Darling

“Children are not puppies, they are people,” Mr. Darling once observed to Nana, the family dog. 

While I have always considered Darling a rather heroically put upon figure, done a disservice by his Disney portrayal, I cannot say I entirely agree with him on this point. Our daughter is now more than a year and a half old and, while she is my first child, I’ve done my share of housebreaking puppies and I am not sure the differences between them are as marked as you might think.

There’s the incontinence and the tendency to chew everything in sight, of course. And they both tend to respond more to tone than words.

Dogs and children also, as an uncle of mine likes to note, cannot grasp the concept of “sometimes,” and I have certainly found this to be true. 

One of the great joys of fatherhood so far has been teaching the child to pick strawberries from our garden, and watching as she foraged through the patch with the wild intensity (and porcine sounds) of a shoat rooting for truffles. My wife was less enthusiastic the next day, when she discovered the kid motoring through the fruit of a wild sprout bush of dubious edibility.

Our daughter is equally unable to grasp why it is praiseworthy to navigate the steps up to our house after a walk, but shameful to attempt the flight down to the basement on her own. 

No doubt this confusion is mostly my fault. I am an inconsistent parent, certainly in her eyes. After all, if I am able to guess correctly what she-who-must-be-obeyed wants on the first shill grunt at lunch, why can’t I do it again at dinner?

Much of this, of course, comes down to the ability, or not, to communicate in full. 

Our friends and family all assure us it’s well within the normal range of things that the child isn’t speaking yet, even so much as a cursory Mamma or Dadda. You can’t even wring a “No” out of her, which I’ve always assumed was secretly every child’s real first word. 

Given this, it’s been tempting to assume she might just not be quite “there” yet with understanding language, and therefore instructions, and to treat her fits of distemper with a little indulgence. At least until she went to the doctor for her 18 month weigh-in.

Confronted with the sight of the nurse, in full scrubs, apron, gloves and mask, she drew herself up to her full freakish height (99th percentile for her age, we’re told), pointed to the door and announced “Margaret* go now!”

It seems our daughter is holding out on us, refusing to speak except when she decides it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t know quite what to make of that. 

Every dog I’ve ever had has been desperate to communicate, eager to let me know what it wants — often irritatingly so. What am I supposed to make of a child who seems to prefer an inarticulate silence? She’s not getting it from her mother, that’s for sure.

Is it a question of lack of need? 

Perhaps we’re being too attentive, and depriving the kid of the external pressure to make herself understood, though I’d be surprised. The general consensus among our friends is that we’re the opposite of neurotic helicopter parents, and often given seemingly loaded compliments about our laissez-faire attitude. 

I suppose it might be that she simply thinks I’m not sufficiently interesting to merit the effort involved in learning to talk, or the breath she’d expend in conversing with me. She wouldn’t be the first.

I’m not really worried about any of this, to be clear. She’ll come along as soon as she likes, and in the meantime she has a reasonably happy temper, a fondness for sleeping in, and it doesn’t take much to make her happy. Usually. 

But my inability (and her apparent unwillingness) to communicate is at least seasonal. I lack wisdom and understanding, she knowledge (as well as piety and fear of the Lord, from what I can tell from her behavior in church).

I don’t expect a tongue of fire to descend on the baby this weekend. And, all things considered, my wife would probably be a little upset about an open flame in the nursery. 

But I am learning the wisdom of Mr. Darling this Pentecost. My daughter isn’t a puppy, whatever her level of house training. She is a child, with her own will and her own ways. 

It’s my job to turn her towards the source of grace, and to let the Spirit animate the new nature she received at baptism. And it’s my job to pray the same Spirit will grant me the measure of counsel I need to keep her away from the wrong stairs and bad fruit along the way.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar

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*My child’s name is not Margaret, but Margaret is a nice name and I’m not telling the world her real one.

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