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The synodal 1%, the real St. Roch, and the ‘militant’ rosary

Hey everybody,

Today is the feast of St. Roch, and you’re reading The Tuesday Pillar Post.

The fourteenth century St. Roch, by most popular biographies, was born marked with a red cross on his chest — taken as a sign of the Lord’s love in his life even from infancy. Again, from the hagiographies, Roch was a deeply pious child, given to regular fasting and long periods of prayer.

He was also the son of the noble governor of Montpelier, France - in fact, Roch himself inherited that title when was 20 years old. But rather than take up his noble office, Roch handed it over to his uncle, gave away his stuff, and decided to go on a begging pilgrimage to Rome, by foot.

It took him a long time to get to Rome, because Italy was filled with plague victims, and Roch made his way through the country while visiting those victims in their hospitals. He cleaned their beds and tended to their sores. Roch did this because few people wanted to — no one wants to get the plague, after all.

It’s said that as he traveled, his prayers effected miracles. That he prayed for people and they got better. And it’s notable that for quite a while, Roch didn’t get the plague. Until he did, and his leg opened up with a large, probably disgusting, open sore.

The stories say that Roch went to a cave in the woods to die, but a dog found him - the hunting dog of a local nobleman - who brought him food and licked his wounds. Eventually, the nobleman found him, and nursed him back to health.

When Roch got better, he went back to Montpelier - maybe with the dog (?). The city was at war. And because Roch entered the city in his pilgrim’s clothes, without identifying himself, he was arrested as a spy, and thrown into prison. Apparently his own uncle didn’t recognize him. Roch reportedly died in that prison, with angels ministering to him there.

Ok - so, this is the kind of saint story filled with pious hagiography — the red mark, the miracles, the dog, the angels — all of that. It doesn’t feel especially realistic, at least to me, or very relatable. I tend to shy away from stories like this, and while a lot of people have a devotion to St. Roch - like all of Italy, for example - I really don’t.

But his hagiography is challenging me, in a way I didn’t expect.

Here’s what strikes me, and it’s a lesson for us, actually:

Roch was a pious guy who was, by birth, called to a noble office in which I’m sure he could have done a lot of good. He gave that up for the works of mercy, effectively. He knew - it seems - that the Christian life is lived and experienced in direct, unmediated, unreserved love for people on, to use a modern phrase, “the peripheries.”

Roch reminds me a great deal of the rich young man in Scripture, who loved his father and mother, who kept the commandments, but who was called to sell everything and follow the Lord. That young man went away sad. Roch didn’t.

And I raise this because there is a temptation in every generation to tell ourselves that the pieties of religious observance are sufficient signs of a robust faith, without the consuming and transformative love for the poor which Christ tells us, over and over again, is the key to inheriting eternal life.

Roch’s fasting and prayer and devotion manifested in unreserved love for the people of the peripheries, which was personal, and visceral. His love for God was expressed in love for his beloved, unseen, and forgotten children - and this isn’t a romantic legend, but a challenging and life-defining reality.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this,” says St. James — “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

St. Roch got it. I hope we will as well.

St. Roch, pray for us.

The news

Ok, here’s the news:

Yesterday was an important deadline on the two-year schedule of the Church’s global synod on synodality — every episcopal conference in the world was supposed to file by Aug. 15 a ten-page “synthesis report,” which summarizes the synodal “listening sessions” taking place at the diocesan level. The “due date” marked the end of the local phase of the process, in which Catholics were invited to discern and discuss the life of the Church with their pastors or bishops.

So what comes next in the synodal process? Well, we thought you might ask.

The Pillar published yesterday an explainer on what’s happened so far, what happens next, and, at least by the numbers, how it seems to be going so far. If you want the straight scoop on all this, read it right here.

And if you’re wondering where the USCCB’s “national synthesis” document is, we were wondering that too — after all, it was due to the Vatican yesterday, wasn’t it?

We asked around, and a USCCB official confirmed yesterday afternoon that the bishops’ conference had gotten an extension on the homework — while it was due on August 15, the USCCB has a little more time to get it done.

And that’s a good thing, since at least some dioceses were still working last week on their own diocesan synod reports — which they were supposed to hand in to the USCCB at the end of June. Sensing a theme?

You can read about the extension, and the general state of affairs for the synod on synodality, right here.

If you clicked on either or both of those reports, you likely noticed that participation numbers in the synodal process are much lower than Pope Francis had hoped they would be when he set expectations for all of this last year.

In the United States, it looks like roughly 1% of Catholics have participated in the synodal process in some way or another - in some cases that means filling out a survey online, in other cases, it means attending a parish or diocesan meeting.

And the 1% who participated are not a microcosmic, demographically representative sample of the Catholic Church in America. As the Diocese of Pittsburgh noted:

“Demographically, the majority of parish sessions saw greatest participation from Caucasian adults, with more women than men in attendance, and an average age of 60 and over.”

At a May meeting of “50 diverse individuals from across the [Pittsburgh] diocese,” participants:

“were encouraging of the synodal process as a whole. They pointed out, however, that most of the people the Church needs to reach did not participate in the process and it should be kept in mind that the majority of perspectives which were heard came from a similar group of people, that is, individuals who were over 60 years old and who frequently attend Church.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the views of men and women over 60 who attend Mass are important. In fact, I think we ought to consider a bit more often the tradition of Anna and Simeon in the temple, instead of writing off older parishioners with derisive cracks about boomers, or “Karen from the parish council” memes.

In fact, I think it’s ironic that young people who love tradition are often cavalier about the possibility that our elders have something to say. The 1970s were not a pinnacle of Western civilization or of the Christian intellectual life — but the personal, hard-won wisdom that comes from a lifetime of Chritian discipleship is worth hearing, especially if it comes from people who kept the faith when the world (and often the Church) was turning on its head.

But, the synod on synodality aimed to hear from the whole of the Church - from the communion of the baptized - both the devout and the disaffected.

If the substance of consultation in the West is built on the perspectives of only one group, synod organizers will have to address that if the next phases of the synod are to have credibility or meaning in the life of the Church. We intend to keep asking about that, so stay tuned. And of course, as participation numbers emerge, we also intend to ask about the cost of all this.

Here’s a story from Nigeria you don’t want to miss. It’s just astounding.

If you read The Pillar, you know that the country’s leading party, the APC, has broken with tradition by choosing two Muslims to run on their presidential ticket — Christians and Muslims customarily share the executive brand in Nigeria, to alleviate the antipathy between the Christian south and the Muslim north.

The country’s bishops, and a lot of other Christian leaders, say that if the APC wins the election, violent Christian persecution in the country will intensify, with very little intervention from the government.

Despite that, a Catholic politician, Gov. Simon Bako Lalong of the Plateau State, announced last week that he would serve as the director general - or campaign chairman - for the APC’s candidates.

And when Christians erupted in anger over this, Lalong did a pretty curious thing.

At a press conference, he heavily implied that he had checked with Pope Francis, and that the pontiff had no problem with what he was doing.

Lalong even mentioned that he received an honorary papal knighthood a few years ago. The implication was pretty brazen.

Catholics called “baloney” on Lalong’s claim to papal support. Some threatened to go to the nuncio about all this, where presumably Lalong would lose that papal knighthood.

So on Friday, in a solicitous letter to the bishops’ conference, Lalong walked it all back.

And I mean, this story has everything - a crazy press conference, an angry association of papal honorees, and Lalong’s political apology: “I now realize I may have overreached myself,” he wrote.

Really, give this report, from The Pillar’s correspondent in Nigeria, a read.

After that, check out this story from the German ‘synodal way,’ where pressure is mounting for bishops to cut ties with a lay leader of the synodal path, who has recently advocated for more abortion access in the country.

Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics, wrote recently that “the medical intervention of an abortion should be made possible nationwide.”

Bishops and spokespeople of the synodal way have insisted that their initiative is merely a conversation among Catholics about what might be — and that the Church in Germany will be ultimately faithful to what the Church teaches and decides.

But as Catholics in Germany raise objections to Stetter-Karp’s abortion advocacy, bishops will have to decide how long they can maintain their silence on her role in the Church’s discernment process — and what an intervention on the subject might mean.

This last story we’ve got today, I’m hoping you’ll read, and also share.

It’s the story of a maternity home in Chicago - a place for women in need, and for their babies. It’s the story of the women who live there, the woman who runs things, and the bond they form.

It’s a story about what the Church is actually doing for women and their babies - a kind of living counter-claim to the idea that people who oppose abortion don’t care about women and their children.

And it’s the story of women who’ve overcome a lot of obstacles, and found new sources of hope.

“We're dealing with women who— especially at our maternity home— women that are coming directly out of crisis. Women who have been living on trains, living in their cars, who've been couch surfing, who were kicked out because their parents found out that they were pregnant at the age of 18,” Faith Cintron said.

“On top of just unpacking massive trauma, massive issues, we're trying to bring and find joy.”

“We don't just want babies to be born. We want women to thrive,” she added.

Read about Gina, Faith, and the ministry of Aid for Women here. Share their story. And then listen to them tell the story in their own words, on The Pillar In-Depth, our fantastic podcast, right here.

And if you think this story matters - the story of a pro-life women making a difference in family’s lives, don’t forget that subscribers make our reporting possible, and we really do need more of them.

About the rosary

Finally, I should probably say something about an essay in The Atlantic this week, initially headlined “How the Rosary Became an Extremist Symbol.”

The essay has gotten a lot of attention from Catholics - it argues that the rosary has become a symbol of militant Christian nationalism, intertwined with AR-15s and fetishized militia culture.

The text takes up the Catholic ideas of spiritual combat, and seems to suggest they undergird alt-right conspiracy theories, and government takeover fetishes. And that’s ticked off a lot of Catholics - understandably.

Now — I read this morning about a prominent Catholic television priest who apparently prays with a rosary made of shell casings. If that’s true, it’s pretty weird. Really weird, actually.

And, look, there is an online subculture in American Catholicism that seems to be champing at the bit for some Lepanto, ‘militant Church’ moment of rising up against Christian persecution — you can find it easily, and it’s weird too.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a little while, you know that military imagery has never especially resonated with my sense of the spiritual life — though it’s right there in Scripture, so it’s obviously a perfectly reasonable way to think about prayer, and it’s drawn from the divinely inspired texts themselves.

And it’s my experience that Catholics for whom martial spiritual language does resonate are usually aiming to become men of peace and virtue, not to run survivalist camps in some rural woods of Michigan. There are exceptions, but they are not the rule.

But the essay is not so careful about its distinctions.

The idea that the rosary is a kind of icon for American Christian nationalism would come as a surprise to the old ladies at my parish who pray all 20 decades after Mass each morning, in a mixture of English, Spanish, and Tagalog, depending upon who’s leading the prayers.

And the fact that a Swiss Guardsman says the rosary is a powerful weapon means he knows that demons are real, not that he’s waiting to slaughter some oncoming force of marauders.

The text is, in short, a sensationalized bit of world-building, which takes a few kernels from weird online Catholic subcultures, and seems to universalize them, concluding that “the sacramental rosary isn’t just a spiritual weapon but one that comes with physical ammunition.”

Anyway, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a centuries-old devotion to the Mother of God - the most beautiful woman in history - would be recast in vulgar and political terms, with very little careful thought along the way.

Nor should it be surprising that a Catholic academic was happy to lend his name and ideas to the piece, suggesting the rosary as a banner for the “Catholic cyber-militia” acting as a gateway drug to “radicalization and real-world terrorist attacks.”

Again, that suggestion indicates precious little familiarity with most of the Catholics who pray the rosary. If the synod on synodality shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions from a very small subsection of Catholics, neither should writers at The Atlantic.

But what should we do about it?

Well, I’d suggest we pray the rosary. Tuesday’s the sorrowful mysteries, in case it’s been a while.

Have a great week. Ed’s on vacation this week, so if we seem a bit light on stories, that’s why. But we’ll aim to soldier on with great coverage, while he rants about baseball and goes on an exploratory tour of Allegheny dive bars.

Here’s what I’m hoping you’ll put in the comments — as we come out of the slowness of August, and pick up with coverage about all manner of things, would you kindly note in the comments some of the themes, issues, challenges, and successes you see emerging in the life of the Church, which The Pillar might shed some light upon with careful and thorough reporting? I’d be most grateful.

And again, if you’re not a subscriber, but you love The Pillar, maybe today’s the day:

Also, one of my favorite bits of Americana ended Sunday, the Florida Python Challenge. Picture guys armed with machetes and flashlights, aiming to rid the Everglades of a ravenous invasive species, by literally pulling Burmese pythons out of the swamp by their tails, and maybe win a few thousand bucks.

It probably does very little to actually control the snake takeover of the Everglades, but man, is it cool.

And if you prayed for my children Max and Pia on Saturday, during their first communion and confirmation, thank you. Mrs. Flynn and I were overwhelmed during the liturgy with the sense of how much God loves them, and how many other people have loved our children, and our family, so well, and so generously. So thank you. Really. Here’s some pictures.

Be assured of prayers, and please pray for us. We need it.

In Christ,

JD Flynn
editor-in-chief
The Pillar.

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