Happy Friday friends,
As a starter, JD is still down with Covid. He’s been out of the office for the week, and I’m not expecting him back in the immediate future, so that alone should tell you he’s quite unwell. Please pray for his recovery.
It is, if events or illness have conspired to make you forget, still Christmas, by the way. And so a very merry Christmas to you all.
It’s no easy thing to keep Christmas for a full 12 days, right through to the Epiphany. Indeed, we really get 13 this year, since Epiphany is celebrated on the Sunday, a day after its actual calendar date.
Quite how people used to keep the season right up until Candlemas on February 2, I’ll never fathom, but I can see the nobility of trying. Much like the 50 days following Easter (which is obviously the bigger deal), it's not easy or even natural, I think, to spend a long period in “feast”.
We are conditioned, internally and externally, for toil. Work is our default setting and, according to the Genesis narrative, our existential lot, borne of original sin.
Generally speaking, I don’t think this is necessarily an altogether bad thing. We do have to work, after all. And, as St. John Paul II wrote in Laborem exercens, “work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons.”
Our endeavors, individual and mutual, are part of what forges and defines us as people, as a society. Rightly understood and pursued, work is a directing and living out of our creative impulses and earthly stewardship, proper to our nature as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.
But as the adopted children of that same God, liberated from sin and death by the coming in time and resurrection of His Son, feasting is no less proper to our nature and status, even if it is sometimes harder work than working — at least for some of us.
It’s simply not possible to down tools entirely and take entire liturgical seasons off from our jobs, of course, and the Church doesn’t have this expectation, either. But we are called to live our daily lives and our work with true joy; to feast on the job, so to speak.
This can feel like a kind of hollow exhortation to be more “cheerful” around the house and office, but really it's something much deeper. Living our daily lives with joy, and radiating that joy, is a powerful evangelical witness, and it isn’t something one can credibly fake, either.
Living joyfully in the truth of the Incarnation and Resurrection, a wise man once told me, is like walking around with a winning lottery ticket in your pocket: You haven’t cashed the giant cheque yet, and you aren’t in a position to spend your winnings. Practically, nothing about your situation has changed — yet — but your outlook on the world is totally different because you know what’s coming.
People notice that kind of change in a person, and they want what they have, even if they don’t know exactly what it might be that they’ve got.
As we head into the long dark of winter until
baseball season Easter, I’ll be asking myself if I’m living my professed belief that the Christ has been born for me, that my baptism is a winning heavenly lottery ticket if I want to claim it. The real test, I suppose, will be if anyone can tell the difference.
Anyway, here’s the news.
Chinese authorities have arrested a bishop for voicing dissent against changes to his diocese made by a government-appointed administrator.
While Shao was being detained, the government installed Fr. Ma Xianshi as the head of the diocese. Ma is a member of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the state-sponsored body to which Shao has refused to sign up.
Upon his post-Christmas release, the bishop wrote a letter objecting to changes in the diocese made by Fr. Ma while he was away, including the suppression of a neighboring diocese into his own — a move unapproved and unacknowledged by Rome. Shao was arrested as a result.
All this comes as the months tick down on the Vatican-China deal, which is up for renewal in October.
Will Rome respond? We shall see. Though the Vatican has grown more vocal over unilateral Communist Party action in the last 18 months, it hasn’t slowed the total Sinicization of mainland Church governance, nor does it seem likely — at least at this point — to prevent the deal being renewed in due course.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai, the jailed Catholic newspaper publisher, pled not guilty this week to National Security charges.
Lai has been in prison on a raft of charges since December 2020 and is in the middle of a legal marathon of trials. He appeared in court Tuesday to deny sedition and collusion with foreign agents.
He faces life imprisonment if convicted.
Amid an international outcry over Lai’s treatment the Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Stephen Chow, used his Christmas Day homily to voice skepticism of democracy.
An unusual choice of topic and timing, you might well think. Though speaking to friends in and around Hong Kong, I was told there’s a wider context to consider, and that Chow’s reflections should be read as part of a bigger conversation which we, looking in from the outside, aren’t necessarily privy to.
There is, I’m told, a growing discourse in China over the last 18 months that seeks to separate the term “democracy” from the notion of representative democracy along the American or Westminster model.
There is apparently an argument that the process by which the representatives to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference are both chosen and operate constitutes a much closer connection between the views of the people and government. It even has a name: “total democracy.”
As one clerical friend put it to me: “I don’t ask you to buy it, I simply point out that this is the language against which Chow is operating.”
Food for thought, and a reminder that nothing in China is simple, or should be taken at face value.
The bishops of the United States are being asked to host several additional listening sessions in the upcoming months, as part of the next stage of the Church’s synod on synodality.
In a letter sent to U.S. bishops, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on doctrine, and coordinator of the USCCB's role in the global synodal process, said listening sessions should focus on two questions from the USCCB:
“Where have I seen or experienced successes—and distresses—within the Church’s structure(s)/organization/leadership/life that encourage or hinder the mission?”
“How can the structures and organization of the Church help all the baptized to respond to the call to proclaim the Gospel and to live as a community of love and mercy in Christ?”
The General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops has asked episcopal conferences across the globe to help prepare for the second global session, which convenes in October.
Nearly 20,000 young Catholics — mostly students — have gathered in St. Louis for SEEK, a massive conference sponsored by campus ministry apostolate FOCUS.
Catholic student journalist Jack Figge is there with them and doing some feature reporting for The Pillar.
In his first dispatch, Jack spoke to several attendees about what brought them there, and their experiences in and of evangelization.
If you’ve heard enough of the tired tropes about the rise of the “nones,” about young people deserting the Church, and about the general demographic decline of the faith in this country, this is an antidote for all of that.
While most of the world was celebrating Christmas, the Nicaraguan government escalated its campaign against the Catholic Church in the country.
In recent weeks, the Ortega regime has arrested more than 15 priests, along with a bishop, two seminarians, and some lay collaborators.
As Edgar Beltrán reported this week, since 2018, more than 10% of Nicaraguan clergy have been deported or exiled from the country, leaving many dioceses without senior leadership and seriously depleting the pool from which Rome could appoint new bishops.
It’s beginning to look like a deliberate strategy by the government, effectively crippling the Church by arresting or deporting anyone with a position of responsibility.
An Italian diocese announced this week that a pastor had incurred excommunication following a public “act of a schismatic nature” at a Mass on New Year’s Eve.
The Diocese of Livorno said that Fr. Ramon Guidetti violated canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law through “refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff and of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”
Guidetti used his homily to brand Pope Francis “a Jesuit Freemason linked to world powers, an anti-pope usurper,” and to indulge publicly in the conspiracy theory — the canonically nonsensical and absurd conspiracy theory, I would add — of “Benevacantism,” claiming that the previous pope’s resignation wasn’t valid.
In doing so, the priest incurred a latae sententiae excommunication, which came into full force with the public declaration of his diocese.
But, what is the deal with “automatic” excommunications, exactly? And what happens next for the priest?
A Christmas Day deadline set by Pope Francis for the adoption of a new Eucharistic liturgy passed relatively quietly in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church’s Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
After threatening local priests — the majority of them, by all accounts — with excommunication if they failed to celebrate the Christmas Eucharist according to the Eastern Catholic Church’s revised liturgical norms, the vast majority opted to comply.
But any hopes that this would mark a final settlement to a roiling, often physically violent, liturgical conflict in the Syro-Malabar Church are likely to prove short-lived.
A prominent lay group has announced that, having conformed to Francis’ Christmas ultimatum, all but five parishes plan to revert to celebrating their preferred form of the liturgy, facing the people, effectively defying the pope again.
This conflict has been amping up for years and, a brief Christmas respite to one side, it looks likely to come to a head in 2024.
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It’s probably not fine, really
The big news yesterday was a five-page press release from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by its prefect, Cardinal Fernández, offering “clarifications” on Fiducia supplicans, the pre-Christmas declaration on blessings for couples in same-sex relationships and others in irregular unions.
The 2,000-word text called for a “calm reading of the declaration so as to better understand its meaning and purpose” after “understandable” reactions from bishops around the world.
As I wrote in an analysis yesterday, Cardinal Fernández’s press release on Fiducia supplicans is something of an interesting creature.
On one level, the DDF prefect was at pains to insist that everything is fine, really, following the doctrinal office's declaration.
There has been no doctrinal change, Fernández said, and so there can’t be any doctrinal dispute between his office and, for example, the bishops of Africa, any appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
But the simple fact that Fernández has now clarified, in some detail, many of the exact practical aspects of these blessings is kind of a big deal, since he’d previously said no such clarification would be forthcoming. He even went as far as providing a specimen blessing, despite insisting such things have to be spontaneous and so there couldn’t be set texts.
The temptation here is to enjoy the humor of the situation a little, but really there’s nothing terribly funny about it. That the cardinal has had to issue such a lengthy clarification so soon after saying he wouldn’t is a clear enough admission that the situation is out of control and has triggered a true crisis of communion among the world’s bishops.
It didn’t, I think, have to be this way. And I think some of Fernández’s clarifications are both helpful and illustrative of what the DDF has insisted right from the beginning the Church can and can’t do with these sorts of blessings.
There has been a lot of sound and fury, for example, at the DDF’s contention that the people of a couple could be blessed without blessing or implying a blessing of their relationship or union. I’ve never seen this distinction as particularly hard to grasp, myself, but for a lot of people, it was mere sophistry. And certainly, there were many, many public examples of priests administering such blessings over the Christmas break in ways suggesting they didn’t see a difference, either.
One hopes the cardinal’s suggestion that such blessing take only seconds and include a prayer “that the Holy Spirit can free these two people from everything that does not correspond to his divine will and from everything that requires purification,” will go some way to clarifying the situation. But I think it’s fair to file that as a “hope” rather than “expectation.”
Ditto the cardinal’s important, and I think helpfully nuanced, advice that such blessings include the priest making the sign of the cross over each party individually, rather than over them both as a couple.
As I wrote in the analysis, Fernández’s press release can clarify all it wants to in theory, but there’s no sign the DDF plans to flex its muscles and ensure the theory is correctly applied — or act against obvious and public misapplications.
As such, the “doctrinal opposition” that the cardinal insisted yesterday doesn’t exist is likely to continue, as will the criticisms that last month’s declaration has been applied in ways “heretical, contrary to the Tradition of the Church or blasphemous,” whatever the DDF says.
There are, as I wrote, real and valid concerns that the doctrinal genie is out of the bottle now, and there is no shortage of priests and bishops who will insist the Church can and should bless gay unions. That’s an urgent pastoral crisis for Catholics everywhere, not least for Catholics in same-sex relationships who have a right to look to the Church for love, charity, truth, and clarity about their situation.
Finding their place in the Church will, I imagine, be made all the more difficult by the backlash against intentionally bad faith interpretations and applications of Fiducia supplicans. A backlash that has included, I have seen, naked homophobia and abuse online.
None of this is going to just go away because of a press release. And all of it should be of real and immediate concern to the DDF, to local bishops and pastors, and every Catholic with a heart for their neighbor and concern for the communion of the Church.
Where life is wonderful
Part of the Christmas joy in our house is the rewatching of the usual Christmas favorite films: “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Die Hard,” “White Christmas,” “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” “Home Alone,” and so on.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is, at least in theory, firmly in the annual rotation, though finding the time to watch the thing has become harder since having our daughter.
Two-year-olds aren’t really built for two hours of black-and-white narrative, without a single Disney-esque girl power ballad to break things up, nor do they leave their parents with much energy for it after they’ve gone to bed, either.
I think pretty much everything that could be written about that film and its message of the value of a life lived for others has been written, and I’ve no intention of making my own hackneyed contribution to the canon.
But I will say I have always envied George Bailey, more than sympathized with him. I’m sure the frustrations of a man who, for love of his neighbors and family, cannot escape his small-town existence for the wide horizons of the world resonates with many, but I’m not one of them.
Every time George frantically insists that he’s “shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and gonna see the world,” I want to tell him to go jump off a bridge.
I have moved, on average, every four years of my life, and that’s included four transatlantic moves, to say nothing of changes of town or city in between. Amid all that, I’ve developed a kind of private fantasy of small-town American life, made up of partial memories from my early childhood, back to which I long to escape.
Of course, there is no going back. When I returned earlier this summer to the north Chicago suburb where I lived until I was nine, I discovered it gentrified almost beyond recognition.
Patchy park spaces have evolved into manicured lawns, patrolled by officious men in uniform polo shirts. A family pass to the park district beach on which I was practically raised for months of the year now costs more than a midsize sedan, and the local Walgreens sells $25 bottles of wine where once there had been a rack of comic books.
More to the point, the people and families I knew have themselves grown and gone, or receded out of reach. While I couldn’t recite my wife’s mobile number with a gun to my head, I can still remember the home phone numbers of my three closest childhood friends, but none of their parents now answer those lines when last I tried them.
I have, if I am being honest, few friends of long duration, none from my school or university days, and none whatsoever from my early childhood.
My parents and siblings have themselves moved two or three times since I left the house, including over an ocean, so there is no childhood home to revisit.
What I envy about George Bailey isn’t his quotidian small-town life, though — appealing as it is in my mind. Nor is it his angelic epiphany about its true value and his impact; anyway, in my case, I suspect the results would be a mixed bag.
What I envy of that character is that his moment of revelation can be so cleanly illustrated and understood.
His life is inextricable to the people and place that shaped him, and which he has shaped in turn. His identity is bound up in that common life and those shared experiences. The town of Bedford Falls is who he is, and neither he nor the town is recognizable without the other.
I envy the gift of self-understanding that can come with being so deeply rooted. For those of us who have lived a more transient life, it can often feel like memory and identity float too freely apart from our actual history.
I wonder sometimes where that lack of rootedness in people and places leaves my own identity. Is it, at least in part, left behind with every move, scattered piecemeal and forgotten? Or is my identity somehow formed by it? If so, am I the sum total of the places I’ve been, or defined by all the departures?
Of course, the answer to all of this is to recall, as I try to especially at Christmas, that my real home is not here, or anywhere on earth, but in the house of my Father in heaven. It’s He who tracks my travels, and marks my progress towards Him. And it is in Him, and only in Him, that my actual identity originates.
I’ve no real idea of what my daughter will remember of this Christmas, though we’ve delighted in watching her develop firm attachments to random ornaments and decorations. I don’t know what traditions we’ll stumble into in the coming years which will form the basis for her own midlife nostalgia.
What I do hope she will have, though, is a sense first that her place is around the manger, and find her first identity in the name and dignity she received at her baptism. What I hope she will always know is that the value of her life, whenever it leads, is as clear from the vantage of heaven as George Bailey’s is from a snowy mainstreet.
Knowing that, she will know that life is indeed wonderful and that she has a home.
See you next week,