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Vatican re-org, why seminaries exist, and turning to the Mother of God

Hey everybody,

Today is Tuesday of the third week in Lent, and this is The Tuesday Pillar Post.

Not counting Sundays, there are 20 Lenten days before the start of the Sacred Triduum. If you’re anything like me, you might be feeling like - halfway through - your Lent has stalled just a bit.

So here’s some advice from St. Peter Chrysologus, who was 1,500 years ago an Italian bishop: 

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

“If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry.”

That, I suspect, will be my meditation for the rest of Lent — If you’re hungry for Jesus, feed those who are hungry too.


This morning, you might well be hungry for news from the best Catholic media outlet in the world. So let’s dive in:

The news

Most of you know that Pope Francis on Saturday issued a new set of governing norms for the offices and institutions of the Vatican curia. Called Praedicate evangelium, the pope’s text aims to retool the Roman Curia with a focus on service to local churches and an orientation toward evangelization. 

You can read our Saturday report here.

By the way, we emailed you about this breaking news on Saturday morning, when we published our report. And in fact, we sent you two breaking news emails last week - one about this news, and one about the pope’s decision to consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

We don’t like to cram up your inbox, so two breaking news emails from us in one week is kind of unusual. But we do like to make sure you have a thorough report on the Catholic news that matters most — which is why we go beyond our Tuesday/Friday email schedule when something big happens. But if you’re new around here, and you’re thinking four emails from The Pillar in one week is a bit much, don’t worry, we do too. 

We’ll return now to our regularly scheduled programing. 

The publication of Praedicate evangelium is a big deal for the Francis pontificate. The pope has had a mandate to reform the institutions of the Vatican since he was elected in 2013 — and his restructuring plans have been basically in the works since that time.

On Monday, Ed took a look at some of the key provisions of Praedicate evangelium — lay leadership, the role of bishops’ conferences, and a somewhat surprising omission: that Pope Francis did not make much mention of the Synod of Bishops when he reordered the Roman Curia. 

The synod’s permanent secretariat, which is in Rome and headed by a cardinal, is defined by the Code of Canon Law and was not treated in the previous Vatican constitution, Pastor bonus, since it is defined as a consultative body meant to assist the pope in his leadership of the universal Church. 

However, given the emphasis on synodality, both in the text of Praedicate evangelium and in Francis’ vision for the universal Church — which is currently undertaking a global synodal process — it is noteworthy that the constitution does not more directly tie the curia to his vision for a Church that is permanently synodal in its life and governance. 

Interestingly, the constitution defines curial collaboration with the synod’s secretariat as “according to the methods established by the [secretariat] or to be established,” potentially clearing the path for more reforms following the conclusion of the 2023 synodal session in Rome.

Read about it here.

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‘Vos estis’ investigation in Brooklyn

In the latest news on ecclesial reform of a different kind, we reported this week new details about the allegations made against retired a Brooklyn auxiliary bishop, Raymond Chappetto.

According the Vos estis lux mundi report - obtained by The Pillar - Bishop Chappetto is accused of serial failures in his handling of a Brooklyn priest who was prohibited from contacting minors after “grooming” and “boundary violations” involving teenage girls.

The report claims that the bishop failed to tell anyone about a memo accusing the priest of violating that no-contact-with-minors directive, and that failure apparently allowed the priest to be assigned residency in a parish rectory. 

When the priest moved into that rectory, Chappetto allegedly failed to tell the parish pastor about the no-contact-with-minors directive, and, just a few months later, the priest was found to be in the company, again, of teenage girls from the parish.

Read all about the allegations, what we know of the investigation, and what the Brooklyn diocese has to say about all of this.

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‘Why does the Josephinum exist?’

If you are interested at all in seminaries, priestly formation, the priesthood, or leadership in the Church, you’re going to want to read this next interview. 

It’s a really good one.

Here’s the deal: Some months ago, I started hearing priests speculate that the Pontifical College Josephinum, a well-known Ohio seminary, might be in danger of closing. The story was that enrollment was down, some bishops had started sending their men elsewhere, and the seminary was just shrinking too fast.

I did some asking around, and I found out they were right, at least partially. The seminary had 217 men in 2014, and has fewer than 50 seminarians today. That’s a pretty rapid enrollment decline. But I was surprised to find that the seminary remained financially healthy, and I found myself wondering about its present, and its future.

So I decided to ask Fr. Steve Beseau, who became rector of the Josephinum in July 2019. And to my surprise, he gave me a lot of forthright and candid answers about the state of things at America’s “pontifical” seminary. 

Fr. Beseau told me that the seminary’s enrollment did shrink fast, and why he thinks that is. He also said that while things are on the right track for the Josephinum, there is a lot of work to do — including some basic discernment about the mission of the seminary, and its charism.

Here’s an excerpt:

I think the low enrollment certainly has an effect [on seminarians]. It raises questions like “Is this viable?”

And as you said, a lot of people have asked that question about the Josephinum.

We are not in danger of immediately closing, we have endowments and growing development, and no deferred maintenance liabilities. So we don’t have the major financial questions that some places do.

But will we run out of mission before we run out of money? That’s the question.

It’s up to the board, the faculty, the staff, to identify and articulate a charism for the Josephinum.

People who know Fr. Beseau well tell me they’re not surprised by the rector’s candor. But it is somewhat unusual when a senior ecclesiastical leader speaks frankly about the challenges of his institution, and openly about his own uncertainty about how things will proceed. 

It’s also, if you want my opinion, refreshing — a break from canned lines crafted by attorneys or PR people. 

So if you’re interested in the Josephinum or the state of U.S. seminaries, you will want to read this interview. But even if you’re just interested in an example of what “transparency” in Church leadership can look like, give this a read. 

Check it out.

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‘The dignity and grandeur of the human being’

Yesterday, March 21, was World Down Syndrome Day, which recognizes people with trisomy-21 and their place in society. (It’s on 3-21 because it’s a trisomy, or three copies, of the 21st chromosome. Get it?)

We published in 2021 an anthology of stories about the Church and Down syndrome, and for World Down Syndrome Day, we republished it again yesterday. Check it out here.

Pope Francis meets with a member of the Little Sisters, Disciples of the Lamb.

Consecrating Moscow

We reported on Friday that while many U.S. bishops say they’re eager to participate in the pope’s consecration of Russia and Ukraine to Mary’s Immaculate Heart this week, they also say they’ve not yet received Vatican instructions on what they’re actually supposed to do.

While the Holy See does not seem yet to have distributed prayers to all bishops for the consecration liturgy, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis published online a prayer this week which can be prayed Friday. You can check that out here.

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Laity and the power of governance

When Pope Francis promulgated his new Vatican constitution Saturday, the part that grabbed the most headlines was the prospect that laity could become heads of certain Vatican dicasteries — a shift from the ordinary historic practice in which such offices headed by bishops and cardinals. 

But while the news has been seen as a big step, a number of canonists have urged caution, pointing out that Praedicate evangelium limits the prerogative for lay curial leadership by the “particular competence, power of governance, and function of the latter.”

In sum, not every dicastery can be headed by a layperson, and its not yet clear which ones are actually eligible.

Why? Because of the “power of governance” in the life of the Church.

There has long been understood a relationship between sacred orders and Church governance — because spiritual authority is part of the triple munera of Christ’s “teaching, sanctifying, and governing” power into which priests are configured at their ordination.

Of course, all baptized people are configured and called to share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and kingly identity, and the power and significance of baptism simply can’t be overstated.

But there is a clear theological understanding that sacred orders configures a person to the identity of Christ in a new way, and therefore confers certain powers and capacities. In fact the Second Vatican Council ties the power of governance most directly to episcopal consecration.

This is why the ordained have been understood to be uniquely capable of exercising the power of governance in the Church, which lay people can share and participate in by delegation.

Canon law expresses this by saying that “those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.”

Lay people, the law says can “can cooperate in the exercise of this same power according to the norm of law.”

For a very long time, there has been debate among theologians and canonists about the meaning and extent of lay “cooperation” in the governance of the Church’s life.

The pope’s new text will certainly add fuel to that debate.

Praedicate evangelium emphasizes that the Vatican curia shares the power of the pope, but emphasizes a particular kind of sharing — vicarious, rather than delegated — which is associated in law and theology with ordination. 

The text raises more questions about a long debated subject — the cooperation of lay people in the exercise of spiritual authority. In the best case scenario, the questions raised will become the fodder for fruitful and serious theological and canonical work on an important subject, which has long been in need of further development.

But the best case is not the most likely.

At a press conference Monday, canon lawyer Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda aimed to clarify all this. Ghirlanda took a definitive position in that debate, telling journalists that mission, not ordination, is the source of the power of governance. That’s certainly a view, but it’s not the only view of the questions at hand.

All this may prove to go mostly unnoticed, but, given the headlines about Preadicate evangelium, I doubt it.

Instead, I think that in the months to come, and during the synod on synodality, the Church will hear a lot about lay participation in the Roman Curia, amid new expectations of increased lay leadership in the Vatican’s most visible departments.

In short, Praedicate evangelium seems to have created differing sets of expectations among different groups: with the media reading the text to say one thing, while many theologians, canonists, and Churchmen understand it to say another. 

And the most popular media reading, of course, plays into a facile and contrived dichotomy between laity and clergy, which frames questions like this one as a class struggle instead of a serious theological question about the nature of baptism, orders, and authority. We should have little doubt that instead of that nuanced conversation, there will be a great deal of noise about “toxic clericalism,” and other such buzzwords.

The questions are interesting and important, but they’ll no doubt be treated in some corners as a kind of contentious ecclesiastical battle over identity politics and theological “rigidity.”

At The Pillar, we’ll aim to cut through that noise and bring you the straight scoop on the state of the question. We’ll also aim to take a look at what lay cooperation in the power of governance already looks like in the Vatican, in dioceses around the world, and in the history of the Church.

So stay tuned. And in the meantime, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments about how laity can or have cooperated in the governance of the Church’s life and mission. Have at it.

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Turning to the Mother of God

As a reminder, we’re giving $1 for every new addition on our free mailing list this Lent to the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia’s Ukrainian Relief Fund, and giving $10 for every new paying subscriber.

So today’s the day! Subscribe, share The Pillar with your friends, and tell them to sign up!

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Pope Francis talked Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, apparently offering again the mediation of the Holy See in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. It’s worth noting that the Vatican has offered that mediation several times since Russia’s invasion, seemingly keen to play a role in ending the conflict. But to date Russia has not expressed interest in the Holy See’s involvement.

The consecration of Russia and Ukraine to Mary’s Immaculate Heart on Friday is not likely to make Russia more enthusiastic about the prospect of Vatican involvement — the Russian Orthodox Church has, for decades, pushed back on the idea that Catholics should undertake to consecrate their country to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

But the pope’s plan to proceed with the consecration might be taken as a sign in the Church’s faith that a spiritual intervention — made by the successors of the apostles and the Vicar of Christ — will have more effect than trying to get a seat at the negotiator’s table.

I’ve been reminded in the leadup to the consecration, of the pope’s spiritual intervention at the start of the pandemic in 2020 — the powerful moment of his Eucharistic blessing to the world, and his plea for divine help.

Pope Francis offers a Eucharistic blessing March 27, 2020. Credit: Vatican News/youtube

​​Those moments, it seems to me, transcend politics, secular and ecclesiastical, and become an invitation to stand in humility before God, as a Church, asking and expecting his divine help. They are moments that make our ecclesial communion concrete and immediate.

I’ve been praying that consecration of Russia and Ukraine on Friday will be another such moment — of ecclesial unity, and humility, as we turn together to the Mother of God, and asking for her help.

May she intercede for us all.

Be assured of our prayers. And please pray for us at The Pillar. We need it.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

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