What is a church, that we should be mindful of it?

I found myself crying, as I watched Notre Dame burn. I’d only been there once; why was I crying? I cried as I watched the people gathered to sing the Hail Mary as they watched the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris burning. Why? What is this church, that it should inspire such a reaction?

Usually, when theologians discuss the definition of church, they’re talking about the body of Christ, the communion of believers, the ecclesial community, the ecclesiastical institution, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” object of the Creed. Today I’m going to talk about the building. Not Notre Dame specifically, but the genus of which Notre Dame is an instance: a church as Catholics make churches, and particularly a great church, that expresses the fullness of this genus of church.

A church, first of all, is embodied prayer. Everything about its building is prayer, especially so during Christendom. The money donated to build the church is an offering to God by the donors, through whose goodness they have these financial gifts to offer, an offering of thanksgiving or petition. The justly compensated labor of the architects and artists is an offering to God, as they turn the creative gifts with which God has endowed them to create works that glorify God. The justly compensated labor of the carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, and every other skilled or unskilled laborer involved in the complicated task of raising a building is the prayer of workers in the vineyard who answer Jesus’ call to come into the fields to gather in the plentiful harvest. A church is a great, intricate, persistent tapestry of prayer.

A church, secondly, is a sacramental: Continue reading

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Create in me a clean heart, O God

About 20 years ago, the music director of my parish announced that he would be resigning at the end of0 the current choir season, 8 months later. Not only was he the best music director I’d ever worked with, whose opinions I invariably respected even when we disagreed, he was a good friend. This happened amidst a great deal of other change in my life, and it was very difficult for me. I was on the search committee for his successor, and that didn’t go smoothly for me either: I didn’t like the process, and I especially didn’t like that the search parameters were defined to find and hire a candidate who lacked some of the expertise that I considered most important. My clearest memory of the time involves a phone call with a choirmate and fellow committee member, a woman 30 years my senior: I was in tears, she was distressed by my distress, and earnestly advising me not to take it all so seriously that it made me cry, that it wasn’t good for me.

During the same period, the choir was rehearsing a setting of Psalm 51, to prepare for Lent. It was lovely, with a musical setting that intensified the text, and a few challenging passages for us to work on. So we were singing it a lot, every Wednesday for weeks, and some Sunday mornings if there was time. The opening was simple, with men and women singing first separately, then together:

Continue reading

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Clericalism and the Doctrine of Scandal

The doctrine of scandal in the Catholic church is based on the scriptural injunction ((Romans 14:13ff, for example) to avoid doing anything that would shake the faith of others, particularly those whose faith is less mature.

In practice, this has been commonly interpreted as a justification for covering up the sins of clergy, specifically including the sin of sexual abuse of children. The rationale has been that if the laity knew that a priest (or a bishop! Or a cardinal!) had done such a sinful thing, our faith would be shaken and we might even leave the Church: thus endangering our salvation, according to the pious; or taking our donations with us, according to the cynical. It was better, reasoned the clerics, to protect the faith of their flock by keeping those misdeeds secret, protecting the reputation of the church. And so these incidents were not reported to secular authorities, and victims were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and offending priests were re-assigned to another parish where no one would know what had happened.

I think we can all agree that the result of this policy was disastrous. (And certainly, one important lesson to take from this story is that you should always be suspicious when the thing you propose to do for the benefit of others just happens to coincide with your own best interests.) But what I want to do here is dive into the relationship between the doctrine of scandal implemented in this way, and the structural sin of clericalism.

Implicit in this doctrine, if taken at face value, is the assumption that the faith of laypeople is weaker, and more easily shaken, than the faith of clergy.

This assumption is an outgrowth of clericalism, which perceives clergy as a class as holier, closer to God, stronger in faith, and wiser in judgment than laypeople as a class, purely by virtue of their clerical status. This goes hand in hand with the infantilization of the laity, whose role in parish governance is to be strictly consultative (Section 536.2 of canon law). The pre-Vatican 2 maxim that laity were to “pray, pay, and obey” is no longer universally recognizable as the Catholic lay experience, thanks to the Vatican 2 retrieval of the priesthood of all believers; but its ghost haunts our parishes in the tendency to assume that “Father knows best,” and to expect that if something needs to be done, Father will take care of it, or arrange for it to be taken care of.

The structure of clericalism, these tendencies affecting both laity and clergy, constitutes an occasion of sin for both classes. It tempts clergy to think too highly of themselves, and laity to think too little. It tempts clergy to take too much upon themselves, and laity to take too little. It tempts clergy to overstep moral authority, and laity to abdicate moral agency.

It successfully tempted hundreds of men — priests, bishops, and cardinals — to collusion and complicity in the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons, such as seminarians. By their passive silence and their active coverup, these men participated in deeply wounding thousands of innocent victims: all on the grounds that the laity couldn’t handle the truth.

Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitudes, with text on the bottom reading "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.


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About the Vigano memo

Last night, the former papal nuncio to the US released an 11 page letter containing breathtaking allegations that many high-ranking clergy, even including popes, knew about the abusive behavior of former Cardinal McCarrick.

If true, this is devastating, and it must be investigated.

But is it true? We don’t really know yet. There are some good Catholic journalists on the story. I recommend practicing the virtue of patience, as we wait for corroboration, if any, and for more facts to come out.

Meanwhile, here are my thoughts:

  • Remember the Kim Davis thing? Vigano engineered that.
  • There’s a clergy abuse survivors group who doesn’t buy it.

  • I read the letter very quickly last night, and a few things struck me as poorly evidenced. But here’s the thing that I gradually noticed today: On page 6 of the letter, Vigano describes his first meeting with Francis:

When it was my turn, I just had time to say to him, “I am the Nuncio to the United States.” He immediately assailed me with a tone of reproach, using these words: “The Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized! They must be shepherds!” Of course I was not in a position to ask for explanations about the meaning of his words and the aggressive way in which he had upbraided me.

In this 11 page letter, there are 16 references to homosexuals, including: homosexual tendencies, promoting homosexuals, active homosexuals, the homosexual current, subverting the Catholic doctrine on homosexuality, homosexual abuse, homosexual behavior, homosexual networks (3 times).

Gee, what *could* be the reason that Francis said that to him??


Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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#CatholicsForAction gather this weekend

Thanks to Adrienne Alexander who shares the following information:

After the PA Grand Jury, I was very disappointed with the initial USCCB response, then I went Mass for the feast of the Assumption, heard essentially nothing & got quite upset. I didn’t realize how much I needed something to be said or how hurt I’d be by the silence. Fortunately I turned my pain & anger to action, and went to work organizing.
I put out a national call to action, and so far we have seven cities (also listed below) that have answered the call to hold events on Sunday, August 26. A couple more have been in conversation, and may hold events after that.
I feel very strongly that the “flock” needs to show up, and show the same old, same old isn’t ok. By gathering on the same day to say enough & support each other in this difficult time, I was hoping to create a Women’s March type of feel. As I’ve talked to folks, the words I’ve heard haven’t been condemnation, but lament, contemplation, penance, action. I think it’s important at this point to remind ourselves, Church leadership, broader society, that WE are the Church, we stand with survivors of abuse, and thereby demand more action.


Events are being held:

Saturday, August 25

Boston, MA — 4p @ Cathedral of the Holy Cross

Sunday, August 26

Chicago, IL — 1:30p @ Holy Name Cathedral

Naperville, IL — 5p @ St. Margaret Mary

Philadelphia, PA — 11:30a @ Sister Cities Park

South Bend, IN — 1p @ The Grotto, Notre Dame

St. Louis, MO — 3p @ Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

Twin Cities, MN — 1p @ Cathedral of St. Paul

Washington, DC — 10:30a @ St. Matthew’s Cathedral

If you live in one of these cities, please consider attending if you can.

In any case, please pray for this effort; for all who attend; that priests will be emboldened to speak out; that the bishops will see and hear and be moved to right action; and for the whole church.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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Dear Catholic clergy: Please say something.

Dear Catholic clergy,

Please, say something about the Pennsylvania report at Mass. At every Mass. We need to hear you say something about it. We need to know you are paying attention, that this is not just business as usual.

If you don’t know what to say, or if, after discernment with input from others, it is your pastoral judgment that addressing the matter plainly will cause more harm than good, I gently invite you to use these words.

When: At the beginning of mass, immediately after the greeting.

What: In light of the recent report about the churches in Pennsylvania, let us begin Mass with a moment of silent prayer:
    for all those who were harmed;
    for the repentance of the men who harmed them;
    and for the conversion of the men who covered it up and allowed it to continue.

(Spend at least 45 seconds in silent prayer. More is better.)

(During this prayer, your posture and demeanor should be penitent.)
(Hopefully, that part will come naturally.)

I have deliberately worded this prayer without any explicit reference to sexual abuse, children, priests, or bishops. This is because I know there are priests out there who have been confronted by furious parents for mentioning these topics in front of their young children, thus forcing the parents to explain, and who are therefore adamant about not talking about it at Mass.

If you are one of those priests, please, I beg you, use this prayer. I wrote it for you. It is vague enough that those furious parents can gloss over it to their children: “There was a report about a lot of sad things that happened in Pennsylvania, so we’re praying for the people who were involved.”

If you are *not* one of those priests, please, I beg you, be more explicit:

In light of the recent report about the horrific crimes that were committed across six dioceses in Pennsylvania, let us begin Mass with a moment of silent prayer:
    for all the children who were sexually abused;
    for the repentance of the priests who abused them;
    and for the conversion of the bishops who covered it up and allowed it to continue.

Additionally, I encourage the use of this prayer at the beginning of every prayer service, every rosary, and every meeting in every parish for the foreseeable future. It can be offered by clergy or laity: whoever is convening the meeting or offering the invocation.

Please, give us this prayer, or something like it. Give us your prayer. Give us a space and a structure for our prayers.

Above all, do not keep silent. You know, and we know, that keeping silent was an intrinsic element of the sins that were committed in Pennsylvania, and in all the other places that we don’t know about yet,

because the people who do know
have kept silent.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.





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Shepherd Me, O God

The psalm at Mass tonight was Psalm 23, and we sang a paraphrased setting of it by Marty Haugen. I’ve sung it dozens of times before, but this time the refrain took my imagination somewhere new.

Shepherd me, O God

We’re used to seeing shepherd as a noun, “the Lord is my shepherd” and all that. But shepherds actively shepherd the flock. Sheep are not exactly the brightest animals on the planet… and when it comes to following the LORD, well, we’re all sinners who need to be shepherded.

Beyond my wants

So I had this image of myself wandering aimlessly… well, no, not aimlessly exactly: headed in a general direction, but easily distracted. Very easily distracted. Super duper easily distracted.

A sheep might stop for a lovely browse on a yummy bush, or some extra luscious looking grass. Sheep get lost by following those distractions, one leading to another, until they’ve wandered away from the flock off in another direction entirely.

What are my wants, my distractions? The latest novel from my favorite author, when there are other things that need my attention. A videogame, endless games of solitaire, sleep or food even tho I’m not really tired or hungry. That feeling of outrage, of righteous indignation, the rush of “I’m right”, the fascination of scandal. The easy path.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants.

Beyond my fears

What do sheep fear? Things that are really dangerous, and things that are not. Wolves and other predators, and scary looking but harmless critters. Paths to safety that look unstable.

How do you get sheep past those things? My first thought involved a sheepdog, snapping at the heels of the sheep to make them more scared of him than they are of the ScaryThing. “Chivvy me, O God”??

(If the Lord is my shepherd, then perhaps the Holy Spirit is his sheepdog. “The part of God that noodges you”, noodging you past things, keeping you going when you want to stop.)

But religion that relies on fear of something worse has never made sense to me, so I started thinking of other ways shepherds coax their sheep past scary things. They stand in front of the scary thing, hiding it, perhaps. They talk to the sheep, keeping its attention on them instead, keeping a hand on it, soothing it, always keeping it moving.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my fears of failing, of doing it wrong, of not doing enough, of offending, of being talked about, of being ignored, of being abandoned.

Shepherd me, O God,
Beyond my wants,
Beyond my fears,
From death into life.

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Signs of the Times

“Why don’t you just say all lives matter, ma’am?”

I was holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at the side of the road when the white man pulled up in front of me and rolled down his window to ask a question. I didn’t have an answer ready, but some of the other protesters did. He didn’t find them satisfying, though, and the exchange ended in mutual disgust as he drove off. We protesters commiserated with each other, and I practiced some answers for next time, as the demonstration dispersed.

As I was driving home, though, I thought about that encounter again. The man hadn’t seemed angry, initially; he’d looked disappointed, or as if he felt it wasn’t fair. Maybe he had stopped in front of me because I looked like a nice white lady — maybe I reminded him of someone that he knew. He sounded like he couldn’t understand why I would be holding a sign like that.

As I drove down the road, I tried to imagine what the world might look to someone who didn’t think it was fair for people to be saying “Black Lives Matter”, who felt left out by signs like that — and I think I caught a glimpse of it.

It’s a world that doesn’t see white. Continue reading

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“And for many”: a Lectionary Reflection

One of the most glaring changes made in the recent English translation of the Roman Missal was the words of institution. In the ICEL translation I grew up with, the phrase Jesus spoke over the wine was translated as “for you and for all.” I recall the catechesis given at the time: one of the principles of translation was that the liturgy should be self-catechizing, without the need for additional explanations. The literal translation, “for you and for many,” might easily lead the faithful to believe that Christ did not die for the sins of all humankind, which is heretical.

When the new missal came in, I tended to internally translate the Latin “pro multi” as “for the many”, because, I had been taught, it was an idiom that basically meant “for all.”

A few months ago, though, I heard the phrase with new ears, through the interpretive lens of Christians caught up in rivalry with each other over whose way of following Jesus was more pure, more correct — both today, and when Jesus walked among his first disciples.

And through those ears? “For you, and for many” doesn’t sound like a deep theological pronouncement about universalism or predestination. It sounds like Jesus pointedly reminding his rivalrous disciples, “You’re not so special.”

Today’s readings from Exodus and Matthew build on that theme. The LORD’s exhortations to treat the marginalized justly are implicitly an exhortation against scapegoating, but the manner of it conveys “You’re not so special.” Aliens – you were once aliens in Egypt. Widows and orphans – if you die, your own wife will be a widow and your own children will be orphans. There but for the grace of God, basically: you yourselves are no different from the alien, the widow, the orphan. It’s a commandment grounded in empathy, which defuses scandal and mitigates against scapegoating.

Given this mimetic lens, the gospel reading from Matthew sounds like a teaching about desire. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind” is another way of saying “Your whole self shall be oriented towards God,” which is another way of describing desire.

After that, “And the second is like it” caught my ear. Because, depending on how your tradition divides Exodus 20 into ten commandments, one can read the first commandment as “I am the LORD your God, you shall have no other gods besides me” and the second as “You shall not make for yourself an idol of anything in the heavens or the earth.”

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” puts “your neighbor” and “yourself” in the same category as each other, and decidedly not in the same category as the LORD your God to whom all your desires should be directed. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because you’re not so special.

We normally think of “idol” as “false god”, a thing that is worshiped as a god. But thinking in terms of desire, idols are those things that distort our desires away from God. The fascination of scandal, and of mimetic rivalry, lead our desires away from God, because we are caught up in defining ourselves against the source of scandal, or as better than our rival, rather than pacifically receiving our identity from God and defining ourselves as in Christ.

We are mimetic creatures. We receive our desires from those around us, and those desires constitute who we are. We learn to love ourselves only after we are first loved by others. We love ourselves because we see ourselves through God’s eyes, as beloved by God. I cannot love my neighbor as myself unless I see my neighbor, too, as beloved by God.

I’m not so special.

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Lectionary Reflection for the Day After Charlottesville

We are blessed on this nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time with readings that are very apt for the day after a white supremacist rally filled with rhetorical and literal violence.

The first reading is from the book of Kings: the beautiful telling of how Elijah found God not in the violent storm, not in the violent earthquake, not in the violent fire, but in the tiny whispering sound, the still small voice. We do not find God in violence.

Psalm 85 reminds us what the reign of God looks like: kindness and truth, justice and peace, truth shall spring out from the waters of the earth, and justice shall rain from the heavens. This is what we’re here for. This is what we’re pledged to. This is what God promises us, and what we promise to each other.

Romans 9 reminds us who the Jewish people are: an important reminder, given that we saw Nazi flags and slogans in Charlottesville, too:

theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever.

Finally, the gospel gives us the story of the disciples in a boat on a storm-tossed sea, when Jesus comes walking to them over the water. They are quite understandably freaked out: well, wouldn’t you be? With the winds and the waves and the darkness, the apparition looks like death.

And, aren’t you? I know I am.

Jesus says, Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Peter, dear Peter, impulsive Peter, asks for proof: if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.

And Jesus says


Peter hears his voice, amid the storm and the wind and the waves,
and because Peter is never one to do anything by halves,
he steps out of the boat, gaze fixed on Jesus, and starts walking
actually walking
on the water
despite the storm, the wind, the waves
Peter walks on the water
to Jesus.

Hold that moment in your thoughts, right there.

Peter saw something impossible,
discerned that it was Jesus,
answered Jesus’ call to come to him,
and did the impossible thing, too.

Doesn’t it feel impossible, to counter hatred and white supremacy, when it comes in a storm of hateful chants and waves of hateful violence? When it is treated with kid gloves by law enforcement, the same law enforcement that brings out riot gear and sonic weapons and sniper rifles in response to protests by black people and native people? When the casual racism or dogwhistles or complicit silence burns through our lives?

It’s Jesus calling us. If we keep our gaze and minds and hearts fixed on him, we can do the impossible thing, too.

…at least for a while. Because the story goes on from there: Peter realizes just how frightening and impossible a thing he is doing, and loses his spiritual balance, and falls.

And then he calls to Jesus. Who responds, and lifts him up.

I don’t know if Heather Heyer was Christian, but I know she showed up to counter-protest the white supremacist rally, to do the impossible-seeming thing, to speak out for kindness and truth, justice and peace. And she died there, when a white supremacist deliberately drove his car into the crowd.

I don’t know if she was Christian, but as Christians, we believe that Jesus will raise us up, as he raised Peter up out of the water, as God raised him up on the third day. When he calls us to do the impossible thing, then like Peter, we should respond.

Of course we’re afraid. Who wouldn’t be?

But if we keep our gaze fixed on him, if we set our whole mind and heart and soul and strength on him, if we listen for his voice in the storm saying Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid, then we, too, can get out of the boat and walk on the water into the storm.

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