Welcome to The Tuesday Pillar Post.
The only way to begin this newsletter is to urge prayer for the people of Haiti, devastated by an earthquake, compounded by a tropical storm, and for the people of Afghanistan, who have seen their country overtaken by the Taliban at a much quicker pace than many — including the U.S. government — were expecting.
The month of August is dedicated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. It seems appropriate to entrust the suffering of those two nations to the loving heart of the Mother of God. May she intercede for their people.
Vaccine mandate redux
With the coronavirus pandemic on the upswing, and vaccine mandates put in place by employers, schools, and even some governments, bishops have been asked frequently whether Catholics can obtain religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.
As I wrote last week, bishops have taken differing positions on the question, and, several more have weighed in over the past few days.
As an aside, I said last week (I think on The Pillar Podcast) that I suspected confusion over this issue could become quite acute, unless statements from bishops in senior leadership positions all began to coalesce around the same position.
Yesterday, the Archbishop of Los Angeles posted online a statement which explained that his archdiocese “is not providing individuals with religious exemption letters to avoid vaccination against COVID-19.”
Since Archbishop Jose Gomez is also the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and his position aligns with that of the Archdiocese of New York, I expect that most dioceses issuing any kind of statement or policy on vaccine exemptions will follow his lead — bringing, perhaps, some unity to the question.
‘The West will have to apologize’
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, had words of praise for Chinese Catholics last week.
“We are proud of the witness of faith they give. We hope that they will always be good citizens and good Catholics,” the cardinal said.
Parolin also said that eventually “the West will have to apologize” for doubting the effectiveness of the Church’s engagement with Beijing.
But a lot of China watchers, and Chinese Catholics, have challenged the notion that it is easy, or even possible, to be both a good Chinese citizen and a good Catholic, especially given a national policy toward the “sinicization of religion,” announced by President Xi Jinping in 2015.
Although Parolin said he is “proud of the witness of faith” given by Chinese Catholics, it is unclear if his comments are meant to extend to imprisoned clergy, or even prominent lay Catholics targeted by the Chinese government.
Since the 2020 imposition of a new National Security Law in the previously autonomous region of Hong Kong, several prominent Catholics have been arrested and imprisoned, including Jimmy Lai, the founder and owner of Apple Daily, the now closed pro-democracy newspaper.
Lai is currently serving a 14 month prison sentence for his pro-democracy work. In an interview last year, he spoke about how his Catholic faith informs his work, and his targeting by government authorities.
"The way I look at it, if I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person,” said Lai. “If you believe in the Lord, if you believe that all suffering has a reason, and the Lord is suffering with me...I'm at peace with it."
Finally, a long read, and a difficult one. But if ecclesial reform and good ecclesiastical governance are what’s needed right now, this story is an important read.
Ireland’s Silverstream Priory is well-known by many Catholics as the place that produced “In Sinu Jesu,” the spiritual diary of a Benedictine monk.
The monastery made a few headlines when it was subject to an apostolic visitation — a kind of official Church inspection — in early 2020.
That visitation came after a monk at Silverstream made complaints to the priory’s local bishop — complaints about financial and organizational mismanagement, and about a pattern of behavior he described as “spiritual abuse.”
A visitation report was issued more than a year ago. And the monk who raised the complaints told The Pillar today he is now living outside the monastery — in what he calls a kind of retributive exile, imposed on him for being a whistleblower.
Officials at the priory declined to respond to interview requests from The Pillar, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.
But the story of Fr. Benedict Andersen is an important one — it raises questions about formation and supervision of the charismatic founders of new religious communities, and about due process and the protection of rights for those who raise concerns.
In 2011, my dad started working as a government contractor in Afghanistan.
He went, like a lot of people, because he needed a job. My dad has spent his whole career in aviation, and with the job market changing in his field, he found that it was government agencies, and the companies with which they contracted, who had need of his skill set. So in his mid-fifties, he packed a duffel bag and went off to Afghanistan.
He’d spend a few months there, then come for a month, then head off again. Some years he’d be home for Christmas or Thanksgiving, but often he switched or extended rotations, so that colleagues with small kids could be home with their children those holidays. We got used to scheduling baptisms, family parties, and other events for the month he’d be home.
We never got used to the time difference, which means we’d often call him while he was fast asleep. He’d usually answer the call anyway.
2011 is also the year my oldest son was born. For most of their lives, my children have been praying each night for “GrandDan in Afghanistan.” They’ve looked forward to the little gifts he’d pick up in Dubai on his connecting flight home. They’ve known that GrandDan’s homecoming meant a month of feasting and family celebrations, and that each time he left again for the airport, their grandmother would spend a couple of days feeling sad.
When the pandemic came, my dad spent more than six months in Afghanistan without a break. There were no flights home. It was hard on him. He has a hard drive full of movies, and he spent his time in Afghanistan teaching himself the guitar, but every day passed slowly.
It was, of course, hard on everybody.
He stopped working in Afghanistan last year, because of some health concerns that cropped up. If they hadn’t happened, he might have still been there this summer. I’d been urging him to find a different job; he’d told me that 2021 would probably be his last year in “the ‘Stan.”
My dad went to Afghanistan for the same reason as a lot of people — he needed a job. But like a lot of people, I think he also was proud that he was putting his skills to work in service to our country, and in service to the people of Afghanistan. And he should have been proud — our nation asked people to make sacrifices, and, like a lot of people, he did just that.
I know he was proud of supporting members of the military. Not just at work, but in the DFAC — the cafeteria — where he’d buy young soldiers a cup of coffee, talk with them about their families back home, offer them a word or two of advice.
I read today that more than 800,000 members of the U.S military have served at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan since 2001. With contractors and State Department folks, that means the number of Americans spending time there these last few decades is likely around a million.
Each of them has a story. Each of them made sacrifices. Each of them saw terrible things, endured discomfort, went home different. Except, of course, those who didn’t come home at all. 2,352 American service members died in Afghanistan, and another 20,000 were wounded.
And each of the Americans — the 1 million Americans — who have spent time in Afghanistan these past decades is affected by their experience. That will impact their families — their children, perhaps, and their spouses. It will impact who they are in their communities, in their workplaces, in their churches.
Not all of us know a soldier or Marine or airman who spent time in Afghanistan. But as a nation, we just concluded sending 1 million people off to a war. There can be no doubt that in time, that will impact us all.
The war was all the way in Afghanistan, and far more dramatically impacted that country and its people and families, of course. But it was also an American war, touching, impacting, and shaping families and communities across this country, in a way that we haven’t always recognized.
And one hopes it did some good — but when that comes into doubt, as it now has for a lot of people, I think it’s important to remember that the people who went there were not the policy makers, were not creatures of the Beltway, not setting America’s foreign policy doctrine.
The people who went there were moms and dads, mechanics, and doctors, and priests. They were sons and daughters.
The last few days, no doubt, watching the scenes from Kabul and the airport, have been hard for those who made sacrifices, and came home different, or buried friends. Amid the discussions about the politics and policies that led to our hasty evacuation of Kabul, it seems to me important to remember the men and women who went there, for a lot of complicated reasons, but, in one way or another, for the rest of us.
It seems to me important to remember them with gratitude, and compassion, and respect.
During my dad’s time in Afghanistan, he was most proud of a little Bible study he’d put together. The group got together on Friday nights, to read and discuss the Mass readings for the upcoming Sunday. Often, it was the closest he’d come to Mass for weeks. He led it as a Catholic, but Protestants came too. So did people with no faith, or very little faith.
My dad didn’t think he did much: He printed out the readings, prepared a few thoughts of his own, I presume he led a song (he’s that kind of guy.) He didn’t want it to be Dan-directed, he wanted it to be for people an encounter with the Word, an encounter with Jesus Christ. I know he doesn’t think it was much, but I also know he hears from people who say that little Bible study was part of what made their time tolerable. And part of what gave them hope.
I’m proud of my dad for a lot of things, but that little Bible study, in a bland conference room or cafeteria in some dusty corner of central Asia — well, that probably tops the list.
More to pray for
Many of you have read or heard that Cardinal Raymond Burke, the emeritus Archbishop of St. Louis, and former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, has contracted the coronavirus. The cardinal is now in a hospital, on a ventilator, apparently in critical condition. Please keep him in your prayers.
By the way, requests for prayer are a funny thing. Most of us hear them near everyday, and sometimes we agree to pray without thinking about it again. I’ve been struck lately by Cardinal Newman’s admonition that intercessory prayer is an imperative for Christians — a Scriptural mandate, to be sure, and part of the foundation for any fruitful interior life.
Newman kept lists, and he prayed specifically — not only for specific people, but for specific desired outcomes.
It occurs to me there are two important fruits of that:
One, that asking God for specific things habituates us to have confidence that he really does intervene in the world, that he really does act in miraculous and Providential ways, and out of love.
Two, praying for other people habituates us, in prayer, to charity. If prayer is meant to foster divine intimacy, and God is love, beginning with prayer as an act of charity — out of love for others, and for their good — orients us towards God’s own being, which is love itself.
“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” the epistle of St. James says. It’s true. It is amazing what prayer really does. It is amazing that God deigns to hear us, out of his love for us.
Last month, we interviewed Fr. Louis Merosne, a parish priest in Haiti, who spoke to us after the country’s president was killed. This week, his church was badly damaged in Haiti’s earthquake, as were the homes of many of his people. And shortly after the earthquake, as many people were left homeless and as the dead were still being recovered, his country was pounded by a tropical storm.
The people of Haiti, it goes without saying, are in need of prayers. We hope to have some reporting on their situation soon.
But at The Pillar, we want to do more to help, and we know you do too.
So here’s what we’re doing:
For the next week, for each new paying subscription to The Pillar, we’ll send $10 to Mission to the Beloved, a Catholic apostolate run by Haitians and for Haitians.
If you’ve been thinking about becoming a paying subscriber, now is the time to do it. We’ll take $10 of your money, and send it to help Haitians rebuild the Church in Haiti, supply food, medicine, and shelter for the people of Haiti, and proclaim hope in Jesus Christ to the people of Haiti.
If you already get The Pillar for free, click the subscribe button and choose one of the paying options.
If you already subscribe, share this newsletter with a friend, and encourage them to consider subscribing:
And in the meantime, please continue praying: for the people of Haiti, the people of Afghanistan, for Cardinal Burke’s recovery, and for the Church’s mission around the world. And perhaps pray in thanksgiving for the simple fact that the Lord hears our prayers, and allows us to pray, fruitfully, for other people.
Please be assured of our prayers, and please keep us in yours — we need it!
Yours in Christ, and in the Immaculate Heart of Mary,