Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Come, Bride of Christ" – Mother Angelica Dies at 92

For a good many American Catholics, this Easter night brings a bigger blow than the loss of a Pope.

See, there'll always be another Bishop of Rome... but there can never be another "Mother."

Arguably the most influential voice for the Stateside church's "base" over two generations – and, indeed, a woman whose prime saw her wield more clout than almost any churchman at home or abroad – the beloved, famous, ever-original, sometime-controversial EWTN foundress Mother Angelica died at 92 at 5pm Central time, surrounded by the Poor Clare sisters of the Alabama monastery she built, as the world's largest religious media empire beamed the Resurrection to the masses.

Within minutes of the network's announcement two hours later, the news spurred a global outpouring of grief and prayers reflecting the peerless devotion of the "EWTN family" to the apostolate, and the unparalleled breadth of its reach across global television, local and shortwave radio, newsprint, a wire service and a growing piece of the internet. Accordingly, in these days' ultimate tribute to anyone – let alone to an unlikely titan of "legacy" communications long kept from public view – "Mother Angelica" ranked among the top trending terms on Twitter both in the US and worldwide through the night, with the Spanish "Madre Angélica" likewise climbing the chart.

To be sure, the story and legacy of the Ohio Italian born to a single mother could fill volumes – it already has, and even those are far from the last word. For now, though, the order of the moment instead is simply to give thanks and pay tribute to a witness and example that, objectively speaking, has brought the life of faith to untold souls and, with it, has irrevocably changed the face of this church.

If you've ever heard Latin at a parish Mass or found Eucharistic adoration in the trenches, well, there's your proof. What's more, meanwhile, even if some close encounters with the sinful, destructive polarization and ideological self-righteousness that mark this ecclesial moment seem inevitable over the days to come – after all, no less than Holy Week itself didn't lack for them in some quarters – just remember this: 35 years after EWTN was launched in a garage and went on to reach "the ends of the earth," every Catholic media effort that's stepped out on its own since (often in the face of skepticism or much worse, and these just within the church) is in Mother's debt. For those of us who've sought to take on the work in our own ways, we didn't just learn more from her than any other, but in more ways than can be put into words, she represented the "gold standard." And for this and so much more, we will forever be grateful – all the way down to the reminders to "keep us between your gas, water and electric bill," because if you don't, we can't.

Once upon a time, many moons ago – long before the network was ever envisioned – Mother's earliest media initiative was the steady stream of "mini-books" she cranked out on various aspects of the faith, which could be obtained by mail from the monastery at low cost. The circulation of these created the relationships and support from which the TV apostolate would be built.

Even if they'd come to be replaced by the ever more memorable live shows, the mini-books and their role should never be forgotten... but among them all, the title of one particularly sticks out on this night: a work she called To Leave, And Yet To Stay.

It was on the greatest love of her life – not the studio, of course, but the Eucharist. And fittingly, at least in a way, it's hard to find a better summary than that simple title of what she accomplished, too, and how her own unlikely victory will long remain a source of life among us and nourishment for the life of the world.

Tonight, then, may the ancient prayer be our own....
Saints of God, come to her aid,
Hasten to meet her, Angels of the Lord,
Receive her soul, and present her to God, the Most High.
May Mother's Easter never end. Lord only knows how, well more than most, we will never see her like again.

* * *
After two days of public visitation at the Hanceville, Alabama Monastery/Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, the Funeral Mass will take place Friday at 11am Central.

At the liturgy's close, Mother Angelica will be laid to rest in the Shrine's crypt, in the niche above the body of Sister Mary David – her own mother, who would eventually follow her into religious life.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

On Easter Night, "This Is The Foundation of Our Hope"

26 MARCH 2016

“Peter ran to the tomb” (Lk 24:12). What thoughts crossed Peter’s mind and stirred his heart as he ran to the tomb? The Gospel tells us that the eleven, including Peter, had not believed the testimony of the women, their Easter proclamation. Quite the contrary, “these words seemed to them an idle tale” (v. 11). Thus there was doubt in Peter’s heart, together with many other worries: sadness at the death of the beloved Master and disillusionment for having denied him three times during his Passion.

There is, however, something which signals a change in him: after listening to the women and refusing to believe them, “Peter rose” (v. 12). He did not remain sedentary, in thought; he did not stay at home as the others did. He did not succumb to the sombre atmosphere of those days, nor was he overwhelmed by his doubts. He was not consumed by remorse, fear or the continuous gossip that leads nowhere. He was looking for Jesus, not himself. He preferred the path of encounter and trust. And so, he got up, just as he was, and ran towards the tomb from where he would return “amazed” (v. 12). This marked the beginning of Peter’s resurrection, the resurrection of his heart. Without giving in to sadness or darkness, he made room for hope: he allowed the light of God to enter into his heart, without smothering it.

The women too, who had gone out early in the morning to perform a work of mercy, taking the perfumed ointments to the tomb, had the same experience. They were “frightened and bowed their faces”, and yet they were deeply affected by the words of the angel: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (v. 5).

We, like Peter and the women, cannot discover life by being sad, bereft of hope. Let us not stay imprisoned within ourselves, but let us break open our sealed tombs to the Lord so that he may enter and grant us life. Let us give him the stones of our rancour and the boulders of our past, those heavy burdens of our weaknesses and falls. Christ wants to come and take us by the hand to bring us out of our anguish. This is the first stone to be moved aside this night: the lack of hope which imprisons us within ourselves. May the Lord free us from this trap, from being Christians without hope, who live as if the Lord were not risen, as if our problems were the centre of our lives.

We see and will continue to see problems both within and without. They will always be there. But tonight it is important to shed the light of the Risen Lord upon our problems, and in a certain sense, to “evangelize” them. Let us not allow darkness and fear to distract us and control us; we must cry out to them: the Lord “is not here, but has risen!” (v. 6). He is our greatest joy; he is always at our side and will never let us down.

This is the foundation of our hope, which is not mere optimism, nor a psychological attitude or desire to be courageous. Christian hope is a gift that God gives us if we come out of ourselves and open our hearts to him. This hope does not disappoint us because the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5). The Paraclete does not make everything look appealing. He does not remove evil with a magic wand. But he pours into us the vitality of life, which is not the absence of problems, but the certainty of being loved and always forgiven by Christ, who for us has conquered sin, death and fear. Today is the celebration of our hope, the celebration of this truth: nothing and no one will ever be able to separate us from his love (cf. Rom 8:39).

The Lord is alive and wants to be sought among the living. After having found him, each person is sent out by him to announce the Easter message, to awaken and resurrect hope in hearts burdened by sadness, in those who struggle to find meaning in life. There is so necessary today. However, we must not proclaim ourselves. Rather, as joyful servants of hope, we must announce the Risen One by our lives and by our love; otherwise we will be only an international organization full of followers and good rules, yet incapable of offering the hope for which the world longs.

How can we strengthen our hope? The liturgy of this night offers some guidance. It teaches us to remember the works of God. The readings describe God’s faithfulness, the history of his love towards us. The living word of God is able to involve us in this history of love, nourishing our hope and renewing our joy. The Gospel also reminds us of this: in order to kindle hope in the hearts of the women, the angel tells them: “Remember what [Jesus] told you” (v. 6). Let us not forget his words and his works, otherwise we will lose hope. Let us instead remember the Lord, his goodness and his life-giving words which have touched us. Let us remember them and make them ours, to be sentinels of the morning who know how to help others see the signs of the Risen Lord.

Dear brothers and sisters, Christ is risen! Let us open our hearts to hope and go forth. May the memory of his works and his words be the bright star which directs our steps in the ways of faith towards the Easter that will have no end.


Friday, March 25, 2016

"O Cross of Christ, Today Too We See You. Teach Us"

At the close of this Good Friday night's annual Via Crucis at the Colosseum – held under heavy security, with this year's meditations written by the Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia – the Pope kept his custom of offering a self-written prayer to mark a moment which, from the beginning, has held immense meaning in his life.

Just to be fully clear, you'll want to read what flowed out this time:

O Cross of Christ, symbol of divine love and of human injustice, icon of the supreme sacrifice for love and of boundless selfishness even unto madness, instrument of death and the way of resurrection, sign of obedience and emblem of betrayal, the gallows of persecution and the banner of victory.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you raised up in our sisters and brothers killed, burned alive, throats slit and decapitated by barbarous blades amid cowardly silence.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the faces of children, of women and people, worn out and fearful, who flee from war and violence and who often only find death and many Pilates who wash their hands.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those filled with knowledge and not with the spirit, scholars of death and not of life, who instead of teaching mercy and life, threaten with punishment and death, and who condemn the just.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in unfaithful ministers who, instead of stripping themselves of their own vain ambitions, divest even the innocent of their dignity.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the hardened hearts of those who easily judge others, with hearts ready to condemn even to the point of stoning, without ever recognizing their own sins and faults.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in expressions of fundamentalism and in terrorist acts committed by followers of some religions which profane the name of God and which use the holy name to justify their unprecedented violence.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those who wish to remove you from public places and exclude you from public life, in the name of a pagan laicism ["secularism"] or that equality you yourself taught us.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the powerful and in arms dealers who feed the cauldron of war with the innocent blood of our brothers and sisters.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in traitors who, for thirty pieces of silver, would consign anyone to death.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in thieves and corrupt officials who, instead of safeguarding the common good and morals, sell themselves in the despicable market-place of immorality.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the foolish who build warehouses to store up treasures that perish, leaving Lazarus to die of hunger at their doorsteps.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the destroyers of our “common home”, who by their selfishness ruin the future of coming generations.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the elderly who have been abandoned by their families, in the disabled and in children starving and cast-off by our egotistical and hypocritical society.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas which have become insatiable cemeteries, reflections of our indifferent and anesthetized conscience.

O Cross of Christ, image of love without end and way of the Resurrection, today too we see you in noble and upright persons who do good without seeking praise or admiration from others.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in ministers who are faithful and humble, who illuminate the darkness of our lives like candles that burn freely in order to brighten the lives of the least among us.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the faces of consecrated women and men – good Samaritans – who have left everything to bind up, in evangelical silence, the wounds of poverty and injustice.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the merciful who have found in mercy the greatest expression of justice and faith.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in simple men and women who live their faith joyfully day in and day out, in filial observance of your commandments.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the contrite, who in the depths of the misery of their sins, are able to cry out: Lord, remember me in your kingdom!

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in the blessed and the saints who know how to cross the dark night of faith without ever losing trust in you and without claiming to understand your mysterious silence.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in families that live their vocation of married life in fidelity and fruitfulness.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in volunteers who generously assist those in need and the downtrodden.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those persecuted for their faith who, amid their suffering, continue to offer an authentic witness to Jesus and the Gospel.

O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those who dream, those with the heart of a child, who work to make the world a better place, ever more human and just.

In you, Holy Cross, we see God who loves even to the end, and we see the hatred of those who want to dominate, that hatred which blinds the minds and hearts of those who prefer darkness to light.

O Cross of Christ, Arc of Noah that saved humanity from the flood of sin, save us from evil and from the Evil One. O Throne of David and seal of the divine and eternal Covenant, awaken us from the seduction of vanity! O cry of love, inspire in us a desire for God, for goodness and for light.

O Cross of Christ, teach us that the rising of the sun is more powerful than the darkness of night. O Cross of Christ, teach us that the apparent victory of evil vanishes before the empty tomb and before the certainty of the Resurrection and the love of God which nothing can defeat, obscure or weaken. Amen!
* * *
To help explain the intro above, the passion of Jorge Mario Bergoglio on this particular night isn't so much a function of his ministry, but comes from the very core of himself.

In the first manifesto-grade address given following his election, the 266th Bishop of Rome recalled at its outset how, as a boy....
"I always remember how, on the evening of Good Friday, my grandmother would take us to the candle-light procession, and at the end of this procession 'the dead Christ' would arrive and our grandmother would make us — the children — kneel down, and she would say to us: 'Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise.' This was how I received my first Christian proclamation."
In the same confident hope of tomorrow, goodnight.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

"Two Gestures" – In Lord's Supper, "Let Brotherhood Be Contagious In the World"

Yet again continuing the practice he began in Buenos Aires, the Pope took his Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on the road to his cherished "peripheries," with this year's venue packing the added thread of immense relevance across much of the Western world.

As the Syrian refugee crisis – the world's largest forced movement of persons since World War II – continues to resonate far and wide, and with Tuesday's attacks in Brussels spurring a fresh burst of scrutiny of migrants in Europe and beyond, in yet another reinforcement of his solidarity with the displaced, Francis chose to bring this year's opening of the Triduum to a refugee center at Castelnuovo di Porto, 15 miles outside Rome, where the community of 900 transients (from 25 countries) is mostly non-Catholic.

Due to the size of the throng, the Mass (fullvideo) was notably held outdoors, with the altar sheltered under a tent.

While the wider church is now officially permitted to include women and children in the liturgy's rite of the Washing of the Feet thanks to the January decree issued at Francis' behest, like many pastors Papa Bergoglio had long taken to doing it anyway. Among the 12 chosen for tonight's edition of the rite were four women; per Italian reports, the whole group included three Muslims, a Hindu, and a worker at the facility alongside the refugees.

According to an explanatory note released on Tuesday from the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization (the Vatican arm overseeing the coordination of this Jubilee Year of Mercy), the Pope wanted his intent to be unmistakably clear: by "washing the feet of the refugees, [he] demands respect for each one of them," and to underscore anew in the process "the path of respect as the high way towards peace."

As has invariably been the case over this liturgy's earlier editions at youth prisons and a nursing home, as the moment unfolded among the migrants, tears could be seen in the eyes of those who took part and the rest looking on.

Here, the video of tonight's Mandatum itself...

...and Vatican Radio's English translation of Francis' brief, unscripted homily:
Gestures speak louder than pictures and words. There are, in the Word of God we read, two gestures: Jesus serving, washing the feet ... He, who was the “head man”, washing the feet of others, of His own, even of the least; one gesture. The second gesture: Judas who goes to the enemies of Jesus, those who do not want peace with Jesus, to take the money that bought His betrayal; the 30 pieces of silver.

Two gestures.

Even today, here, there are two gestures: this, of all of us together, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Copts, Evangelical [Protestants] brothers and sisters – children of the same God – we want to live in peace, integrated. One gesture. Three days ago, an act of war, of destruction in a European city, by people who do not want to live in peace. Though behind that gesture, as there were behid that of Judas, there were others. Behind Judas there were those who offered money, that Jesus be delivered up to them. Behind that [other] gesture [on Tuesday in Belgium], there are manufacturers, arms dealers who want blood, not peace; they want the war, not fraternity.

Two gestures, just the same: Jesus washes feet, Judas sold Jesus for money. You, we, all of us together, of different religions, different cultures, but children of the same Father, brothers – and there, those poor people, who buy weapons to wreck fraternity. Today, at this time, when I do the same act of Jesus washing the feet of twelve of you, let us all make an gesture of brotherhood, and let us all say: “We are different, we are different, we have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and we want to live in peace.”

This, then, is the gesture that I make with you. Each of us has a story, each of you has a story you carry with you. Many crosses, many sorrows: but also an open heart that wants brotherhood. Let each, in his religious language, pray the Lord that this brotherhood be contagious in the world, that there be no 30 pieces of silver to purchase a brother’s murder, that there be always brotherhood and goodness. So be it.

Feeling the "Bern," For Good – Pope Names Hebda as Twin Cities Archbishop

Amid an epic storm of clerical misconduct and mishandling of allegations that's engulfed the Twin Cities church in criminal charges, Chapter 11 bankruptcy, some 400 lawsuits and a lack of morale that's birthed ecclesial "paralysis," this Holy Thursday brings the 850,000-member fold a richly-deserved Easter gift: the new archbishop, and one who can hit the ground running immediately... because he's already there.

In an exceedingly rare nod on the Triduum's opening day, at Roman Noon the Pope named Archbishop Bernard Hebda, 56 – the long-stalled coadjutor of Newark initially parachuted in to tackle the situation as apostolic administrator – as the ninth archbishop of St Paul and Minneapolis, giving the most significant and, by far, most-challenging assignment on the current US docket to a figure who's already scored high marks among its people for taking on a pastoral, administrative, financial and legal disaster with an approach rooted in savvy, humility, outreach and compassion.

A Harvard and Columbia-trained canon and civil lawyer universally known as "Bernie," the archbishop-elect now permanently succeeds Archbishop John Nienstedt, whose early resignation at 68 was accepted last June in the wake of local prosecutors' six-count indictment against the archdiocesan corporation, citing its lax response to reports of abusive priests. While no charges were levied against Chancery administrators as individuals, the institutional charges led Rome to pull the plug on both the Detroit-born prelate and his 57 year-old auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché, as Nienstedt's two-year attempt to press forward was further complicated both by the penchant for controversy which the polarizing archbishop embraced over his eight-year tenure, as well as by a law firm's investigation commissioned by the archdiocese into allegations of sexual misconduct by Nienstedt himself with adult males over several decades.

As neither the report nor its conclusions have ever emerged, Nienstedt's defenders have resolutely insisted upon his innocence in both the personal misconduct claims and any assertions of wrongdoing in overseeing abuse cases. Accordingly, having briefly taken up at a parish in Michigan early this year – before a public outcry forced his departure within days – the retired archbishop reportedly sought to portray his ouster from office as being driven by "critics" who, he said, "would like to punish me" for "the strong stance that I was forced to take in defense of Catholic teachings, particularly the defense of marriage." Having initially agreed to Nienstedt's stepping in to aid the parish's ill pastor, Bishop Paul Bradley of Kalamazoo subsequently apologized to the entire diocese, saying he hadn't "foreseen the full impact and strong emotional reaction to his presence" there.

A move that underscored the alarm with which the Vatican and the nation's key players viewed the Minnesota eruption – and their determination to accomplish an effective cleanup as quickly as possible – Hebda's appointment from halfway across the country as administrator with full powers was intended to start rescuing the local church from the brink in all its fraught facets. Among the first steps he took toward that end was a highly unusual series of listening sessions around the archdiocese to receive parishioners' input on the optimal qualities the next archbishop would have, effectively giving him a remarkably deep "playbook" with which he can now proceed from the outset.

A onetime secretary to the future Cardinal Donald Wuerl and protege of Pittsburgh's famous Lou Vallone who spent a decade in Rome as the third-in-command at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, even as the appointee's mix of legal and pastoral skill made the Steeler Nation export a uniquely well-suited choice for a sudden Midwestern encore as "acting archbishop," it was widely presumed – and, among Newark's priests and people, ferociously desired – that Hebda would pass the Twin Cities to another permanent choice and return to New Jersey to finally inherit the helm of its 1.3 million-member archdiocese (at the time, Francis' first major Stateside appointment) once Archbishop John Myers reached the retirement age of 75 in late July. However, his being entrusted with the Twin Cities post – a possibility that first started being raised in authoritative circles early this year given impressions of Hebda's success in the temporary role – now short-circuits the Jersey succession that's been three years in the making, creating a very significant opening for the next Nuncio to the US to fill once, as has been reported, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò retires over the coming weeks, with the Vatican's current legate to Mexico, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, widely expected to be given the Washington posting.

Among other recent developments in the Twin Cities, last month the archdiocese announced the move of its offices to a new site in St Paul following the needed sale of the longtime Chancery buildings due to the bankruptcy. Additionally, on the personnel front, within the last two weeks two diocesan priests were reinstated into ministry following abuse investigations that deemed the allegations against them unsubstantiated, while two Third Order Regular Franciscans leading local parishes were placed on leave in connection to their alleged involvement in the case probed by the Pennsylvania grand jury which, earlier this month filed the nation's first charges against superiors of a religious order in a cited cover-up.

All that said, with the archdiocese in ongoing negotiations with Ramsey County prosecutors over the resolution of the criminal charges, the outcome of those talks and the three-year Minnesota "window" suspending the civil statute of limitations on abuse claims has left the most pressing hurdle still to come: resolving the 400-plus lawsuits against the Twin Cities' church, and the mammoth settlement it'll require.

While Hebda doesn't formally become archbishop until his installation – which, per the norms of the canons, must take place within two months – as apostolic administrator, the nominee already enjoys the complete authority of the office in which he's now been fully placed. Yet since an administrator normally avoids most long-frame decisions to keep from unduly burdening the future ordinary, any reticence on that front is now a matter of the past.

Given the church's focus on the Triduum and the moment's immersion in prayer and worship, the announcement of any kind of appointment on Holy Thursday is practically unheard of, and it is impossible to recall a US move being made on this liturgical date. That it's happened in this case serves to send two deeply potent messages: first, that the ongoing turmoil of the Twin Cities fiasco made the choice of a permanent leader simply too important to wait any longer... and, indeed, to provide a lift and the hope of turning a corner after a long, difficult haul, at the very moment when the Christian calendar calls for it.

SVILUPPO: Minutes after the announcement was made in Rome, the Twin Cities church released the following letter from the archbishop-elect:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

When I arrived in Minnesota for the first time last June, I was but a visitor -- assigned as Apostolic Administrator to help with the operations of the Archdiocese until Pope Francis named a new Archbishop. In the nine months since then, I have been blessed to witness your deep faith and your commitment to Christ’s Church, His people, and the Eucharist. I consider many of you friends.

That is why it is with joy that I tell you of Pope Francis’ decision to appoint me as the next Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The Pope and the Holy Spirit evidently had different plans for me than I had anticipated, and I am humbled and honored to be named your shepherd.

I know from my nine months in the Archdiocese that there is much work yet to be done to overcome the significant challenges we continue to face, but I am firm in my conviction that the Lord is truly present here, even in our struggles. The exceptional staff and leadership team at the Archdiocese, along with our strong priests, committed religious, and dynamic lay leaders are all reasons for great hope. You all seem to work tirelessly to serve Christ and His people no matter where they are found and for that I am most grateful.

It has already been an honor serving you and I very much look forward to continuing to serve you and this vibrant community for as long as the Lord sees fit.

Now more than ever, I will be counting on your prayers and support. Be assured of my prayers for you, your families, and this local Church.

Sincerely in Christ,

Most Reverend Bernard A. Hebda
Apostolic Administrator and Archbishop-Designate
Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
In an extended interview with the archdiocese's Catholic Spirit, Hebda termed the choice of himself – which he only learned about on Tuesday – as "a shock."

As for the unusual timing of the announcement, the appointee said that the Nuncio felt "it would be a beautiful opportunity for the announcement to be made on Holy Thursday, when we focus on the Eucharist, when we focus on the priesthood and when we focus on service. He said those three themes are so important in the life of any diocesan bishop."

His installation has been announced for Friday, May 13th. Notably, meanwhile, as the Vatican has yet to announce whether the world's new archbishops will be called to Rome for late June's feast of Saints Peter and Paul, how and when Hebda – and, for that matter, any other metropolitan named since last summer – will receive the pallium attached to his new office is unknown.

SVILUPPO 2: Held at 9am local time in the shadow of the Chair the ninth archbishop now inherits, here's fullvid of the brief, understated presser:


Pope to Priests: "We Should Not Hesitate In Showing Excess"

24 MARCH 2016

After hearing Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah and say: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21), the congregation in the synagogue of Nazareth might well have burst into applause. They might have then wept for joy, as did the people when Nehemiah and Ezra the priest read from the book of the Law found while they were rebuilding the walls. But the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ townspeople did the opposite; they closed their hearts to him and sent him off. At first, “all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (4:22). But then an insidious question began to make the rounds: “Is this not the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” (4:22). And then, “they were filled with rage” (4:28). They wanted to throw him off the cliff. This was in fulfilment of the elderly Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin Mary that he would be “a sign of contradiction” (2:34). By his words and actions, Jesus lays bare the secrets of the heart of every man and woman.

Where the Lord proclaims the Gospel of the Father’s unconditional mercy to the poor, the outcast and the oppressed, is the very place we are called to take a stand, to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim 6:12). His battle is not against men and women, but against the devil (cf. Eph 6:12), the enemy of humanity. But the Lord “passes through the midst” of all those who would stop him and “continues on his way” (Lk 4:30). Jesus does not fight to build power. If he breaks down walls and challenges our sense of security, he does this to open the flood gates of that mercy which, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, he wants to pour out upon our world. A mercy which expands; it proclaims and brings newness; it heals, liberates and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.

The mercy of our God is infinite and indescribable. We express the power of this mystery as an “ever greater” mercy, a mercy in motion, a mercy that each day seeks to make progress, taking small steps forward and advancing in that wasteland where indifference and violence have predominated.

This was the way of the Good Samaritan, who “showed mercy” (cf. Lk 10:37): he was moved, he drew near to the unconscious man, he bandaged his wounds, took him to the inn, stayed there that evening and promised to return and cover any further cost. This is the way of mercy, which gathers together small gestures. Without demeaning, it grows with each helpful sign and act of love. Every one of us, looking at our own lives as God does, can try to remember the ways in which the Lord has been merciful towards us, how he has been much more merciful than we imagined. In this we can find the courage to ask him to take a step further and to reveal yet more of his mercy in the future: “Show us, Lord, your mercy” (Ps 85:8). This paradoxical way of praying to an ever more merciful God, helps us to tear down those walls with which we try to contain the abundant greatness of his heart. It is good for us to break out of our set ways, because it is proper to the Heart of God to overflow with tenderness, with ever more to give. For the Lord prefers something to be wasted rather than one drop of mercy be held back. He would rather have many seeds be carried off by the birds of the air than have one seed be missing, since each of those seeds has the capacity to bear abundant fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.

As priests, we are witnesses to and ministers of the ever-increasing abundance of the Father’s mercy; we have the rewarding and consoling task of incarnating mercy, as Jesus did, who “went about doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38) in a thousand ways so that it could touch everyone. We can help to inculturate mercy, so that each person can embrace it and experience it personally. This will help all people truly understand and practise mercy with creativity, in ways that respect their local cultures and families.

Today, during this Holy Thursday of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I would like to speak of two areas in which the Lord shows excess in mercy. Based on his example, we also should not hesitate in showing excess. The first area I am referring to is encounter; the second is God’s forgiveness, which shames us while also giving us dignity.

The first area where we see God showing excess in his ever-increasing mercy is that of encounter. He gives himself completely and in such a way that every encounter leads to rejoicing. In the parable of the Merciful Father we are astounded by the man who runs, deeply moved, to his son, and throws his arms around him; we see how he embraces his son, kisses him, puts a ring on his finger, and then gives him his sandals, thus showing that he is a son and not a servant. Finally, he gives orders to everyone and organizes a party. In contemplating with awe this superabundance of the Father’s joy that is freely and boundlessly expressed when his son returns, we should not be fearful of exaggerating our gratitude. Our attitude should be that of the poor leper who, seeing himself healed, leaves his nine friends who go off to do what Jesus ordered, and goes back to kneel at the feet of the Lord, glorifying and thanking God aloud.

Mercy restores everything; it restores dignity to each person. This is why effusive gratitude is the proper response: we have to go the party, to put on our best clothes, to cast off the rancour of the elder brother, to rejoice and give thanks… Only in this way, participating fully in such rejoicing, is it possible to think straight, to ask for forgiveness, and see more clearly how to make up for the evil we have committed. It would be good for us to ask ourselves: after going to confession, do I rejoice? Or do I move on immediately to the next thing, as we would after going to the doctor, when we hear that the test results are not so bad and put them back in their envelope? And when I give alms, do I give time to the person who receives them to express their gratitude, do I celebrate the smile and the blessings that the poor offer, or do I continue on in haste with my own affairs after tossing in a coin?

The second area in which we see how God exceeds in his ever greater mercy is forgiveness itself. God does not only forgive incalculable debts, as he does to that servant who begs for mercy but is then miserly to his own debtor; he also enables us to move directly from the most shameful disgrace to the highest dignity without any intermediary stages. The Lords allows the forgiven woman to wash his feet with her tears. As soon as Simon confesses his sin and begs Jesus to send him away, the Lord raises him to be a fisher of men. We, however, tend to separate these two attitudes: when we are ashamed of our sins, we hide ourselves and walk around with our heads down, like Adam and Eve; and when we are raised up to some dignity, we try to cover up our sins and take pleasure in being seen, almost showing off.

Our response to God’s superabundant forgiveness should be always to preserve that healthy tension between a dignified shame and a shamed dignity. It is the attitude of one who seeks a humble and lowly place, but who can also allow the Lord to raise him up for the good of the mission, without complacency. The model that the Gospel consecrates, and which can help us when we confess our sins, is Peter, who allowed himself to be questioned about his love for the Lord, but who also renewed his acceptance of the ministry of shepherding the flock which the Lord had entrusted to him.

To grow in this “dignity which is capable of humbling itself”, and which delivers us from thinking that we are more or are less than what we are by grace, can help us understand the words of the prophet Isaiah that immediately follow the passage our Lord read in the synagogue at Nazareth: “You will be called priests of the Lord, ministers of our God” (Is 61:6). It is people who are poor, hungry, prisoners of war, without a future, cast to one side and rejected, that the Lord transforms into a priestly people.

As priests, we identify with people who are excluded, people the Lord saves. We remind ourselves that there are countless masses of people who are poor, uneducated, prisoners, who find themselves in such situations because others oppress them. But we too remember that each of us knows the extent to which we too are often blind, lacking the radiant light of faith, not because we do not have the Gospel close at hand, but because of an excess of complicated theology. We feel that our soul thirsts for spirituality, not for a lack of Living Water which we only sip from, but because of an excessive “bubbly” spirituality, a “light” spirituality. We feel ourselves also trapped, not so much by insurmountable stone walls or steel enclosures that affect many peoples, but rather by a digital, virtual worldliness that is opened and closed by a simple click. We are oppressed, not by threats and pressures, like so many poor people, but by the allure of a thousand commercial advertisements which we cannot shrug off to walk ahead, freely, along paths that lead us to love of our brothers and sisters, to the Lord’s flock, to the sheep who wait for the voice of their shepherds.

Jesus comes to redeem us, to send us out, to transform us from being poor and blind, imprisoned and oppressed, to become ministers of mercy and consolation. He says to us, using the words the prophet Ezekiel spoke to the people who sold themselves and betrayed the Lord: “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth… Then you will remember your ways, and be ashamed when I take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God” (Ezek 16:60-63).

In this Jubilee Year we celebrate our Father with hearts full of gratitude, and we pray to him that “he remember his mercy forever”; let us receive, with a dignity that is able to humble itself, the mercy revealed in the wounded flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us ask him to cleanse us of all sin and free us from every evil. And with the grace of the Holy Spirit let us commit ourselves anew to bringing God’s mercy to all men and women, and performing those works which the Spirit inspires in each of us for the common good of the entire People of God.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

"By Humbling Himself, Jesus Invites Us To Walk On His Path"

20 MARCH 2016

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (cf. Lk 19:38), the crowd of Jerusalem exclaimed joyfully as they welcomed Jesus. We have made that enthusiasm our own: by waving our olive and palm branches we have expressed our praise and our joy, our desire to receive Jesus who comes to us. Just as he entered Jerusalem, so he desires to enter our cities and our lives. As he did in the Gospel, riding on a donkey, so too he comes to us in humility; he comes “in the name of the Lord”. Through the power of his divine love he forgives our sins and reconciles us to the Father and with ourselves.

Jesus is pleased with the crowd’s showing their affection for him. When the Pharisees ask him to silence the children and the others who are acclaiming him, he responds: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Lk 19:40). Nothing could dampen their enthusiasm for Jesus’ entry. May nothing prevent us from finding in him the source of our joy, true joy, which abides and brings peace; for it is Jesus alone who saves us from the snares of sin, death, fear and sadness.

Today’s liturgy teaches us that the Lord has not saved us by his triumphal entry or by means of powerful miracles. The Apostle Paul, in the second reading, epitomizes in two verbs the path of redemption: Jesus “emptied” and “humbled” himself (Phil 2:7-8). These two verbs show the boundlessness of God’s love for us. Jesus emptied himself: he did not cling to the glory that was his as the Son of God, but became the Son of man in order to be in solidarity with us sinners in all things; yet he was without sin. Even more, he lived among us in “the condition of a servant” (v.7); not of a king or a prince, but of a servant. Therefore he humbled himself, and the abyss of his humiliation, as Holy Week shows us, seems to be bottomless.

The first sign of this love “without end” (Jn 13:1) is the washing of the feet. “The Lord and Master” (Jn 13:14) stoops to his disciples’ feet, as only servants would have done. He shows us by example that we need to allow his love to reach us, a love which bends down to us; we cannot do any less, we cannot love without letting ourselves be loved by him first, without experiencing his surprising tenderness and without accepting that true love consists in concrete service.

But this is only the beginning. The humiliation of Jesus reaches its utmost in the Passion: he is sold for thirty pieces of silver and betrayed by the kiss of a disciple whom he had chosen and called his friend. Nearly all the others flee and abandon him; Peter denies him three times in the courtyard of the temple. Humiliated in his spirit by mockery, insults and spitting, he suffers in his body terrible brutality: the blows, the scourging and the crown of thorns make his face unrecognizable. He also experiences shame and disgraceful condemnation by religious and political authorities: he is made into sin and considered to be unjust. Pilate then sends him to Herod, who in turn sends him to the Roman governor. Even as every form of justice is denied to him, Jesus also experiences in his own flesh indifference, since no one wishes to take responsibility for his fate. And I think of the many people, so many outcasts, so many asylum seekers, so many refugees, all of those for whose fate no one wishes to take responsibility. The crowd, who just a little earlier had acclaimed him, now changes their praise into a cry of accusation, even to the point of preferring that a murderer be released in his place. And so the hour of death on the cross arrives, that most painful form of shame reserved for traitors, slaves and the worst kind of criminals. But isolation, defamation and pain are not yet the full extent of his deprivation. To be totally in solidarity with us, he also experiences on the Cross the mysterious abandonment of the Father. In his abandonment, however, he prays and entrusts himself: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Hanging from the wood of the cross, beside derision he now confronts the last temptation: to come down from the Cross, to conquer evil by might and to show the face of a powerful and invincible God. Jesus, however, even here at the height of his annihilation, reveals the true face of God, which is mercy. He forgives those who are crucifying him, he opens the gates of paradise to the repentant thief and he touches the heart of the centurion. If the mystery of evil is unfathomable, then the reality of Love poured out through him is infinite, reaching even to the tomb and to hell. He takes upon himself all our pain that he may redeem it, bringing light to darkness, life to death, love to hatred.

God’s way of acting may seem so far removed from our own, that he was annihilated for our sake, while it seems difficult for us to even forget ourselves a little. He comes to save us; we are called to choose his way: the way of service, of giving, of forgetfulness of ourselves. Let us walk this path, pausing in these days to gaze upon the Crucifix; it is the “royal seat of God”. I invite you during this week to gaze often upon this “royal seat of God”, to learn about the humble love which saves and gives life, so that we may give up all selfishness, and the seeking of power and fame. By humbling himself, Jesus invites us to walk on his path. Let us turn our faces to him, let us ask for the grace to understand at least something of the mystery of his obliteration for our sake; and then, in silence, let us contemplate the mystery of this Week.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

On Ides of March, The Scandals Strike... Again

Simply put, in the long, horrid road of American Catholicism's tragic history of sexual abuse and cover-up, few days have been as stunning as this.

Add in the mounting questions swirling around Rome over the Pope's commitment to tackling the global storm, and at least on some levels, it almost feels as if the ghost of 2002 has returned....

And yet again, just in time for Holy Week.

* * *
Early this morning, word circulated from San Antonio that Fr Virgilio Elizondo, the widely-hailed godfather of Latino theology in the US – and with it, long the lead prophet of a Hispanic ascendancy that's since come to comprise a plurality, if not the current majority of the nation's 70 million faithful – had been found dead at 80 yesterday, amid the looming cloud of a lawsuit alleging his abuse of a seminarian in the 1980s.

While the city's newspaper only relayed the statement of the cleric's assistant that Elizondo "died of a broken heart," an independent local news-site, The Rivard Report, cited unnamed sources in saying that the vaunted theologian had taken his own life by "a self-inflicted gunshot wound." The shocking news confirmed shortly thereafter by a Whispers op appraised of the situation, later in the day it emerged that the Notre Dame professor's death had indeed been ruled a suicide.

Ordained for San Antonio in 1963, Elizondo first rose to notice five years later at the side of his then-ordinary, Archbishop Robert Lucey, as the prelate's aide during the second plenary of CELAM – the decennial mega-conference of the Latin American bishops – at Medellín in 1968. Building upon the experience, shortly thereafter the young priest secured the founding of what's now known as Mexican American Catholic College (MACC) in his hometown, which quickly established itself as the US church's principal institute for the study and encounter of the burgeoning Latino reality both in the States and the Catholic world at large.

His work bolstered by the triumphant 1979 arrival of Patricio Fernandez Flores as the city's first Hispanic archbishop – an appointment made after a significant local campaign pushed for that result – Elizondo was named rector of San Fernando Cathedral four years later. Serving a dozen years at its helm, the 1731 landmark built at the site of the city's founding attained a fresh luster and prominence as the stage for Elizondo's concept of inculturated ministry, culminating in the wide TV broadcast of a bilingual weekly liturgy, "Misa de las Americas," on Sunday mornings, which was said to have reached a million viewers at its peak across the continent.

The author of some dozen books and scores of other contributions, in 1997 Elizondo became the first Hispanic-American to be awarded Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, the US church's most prestigious honor, and remains its only Latino laureate. Three years later, he was named to the university's faculty as a professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology, commuting to the Indiana campus from San Antonio.

Last May, a county court lawsuit filed in the Texas city accused Elizondo of one 1983 incident of kissing and "fondl[ing] the genitals" of a seminarian who, according to the filing, sought the priest's help in dealing with another cleric who was abusing the student. The suit said that the claimant was a minor at the time.

Recounting that he "fought off Father Elizondo and then ran from his vehicle" as the assault took place, the plaintiff explained that he didn't come forward for three decades due to "believing that he would only continue to be abused, be dismissed, made ashamed, and be touched again and again, should he ever attempt to seek the assistance of the church again." The suit likewise accused the San Antonio archdiocese of inaction toward Elizondo despite being made aware of the man's claims.

Responding to the charge, Elizondo told local media that "the allegations made against me are not true and have absolutely no basis in fact," denying "all the claims which have been asserted against me."

Reflecting the ongoing divide between the Stateside church's twin realities – one ever bleeding out as the other continues to blossom – while the suit's release spurred significant shockwaves among academics and in Hispanic church circles, it barely made a blip in Anglo news or discussion at the national level. In one of the few exceptions to the lack of interest or awareness, shortly after the case's emergence the Survivors' Network those Abused by Priests called for Elizondo to be suspended. Though no record exists of the cleric's faculties being officially removed, indications are that he was informally keeping out of view as the suit neared trial.

Over today, meanwhile, social media and conversations with Elizondo's friends and admirers have reflected a thoroughgoing shock and no mere grief, but a sense of devastation. In a statement released overnight into today, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller said his clergy were "saddened and stunned" by "an occasion of great sorrow."

Avoiding any reference to the cause of Elizondo's death, the archbishop termed the loss "a devastatingly sad time" for the theologian's family, colleagues and friends, asking prayers to "commend him to the saving mercy of our God, who is compassionate and full of mercy and love."

Yet even as the moment became the latest staggering toll the scandals have exacted on the life of the church, no mention was made of Elizondo's alleged victim, the lawsuit, nor anything in relation to abuse and those who've suffered it.

* * *
Hours after that first jolt, at midmorning another press conference was called in Midstate Pennsylvania, the attorney general again presiding.

Two weeks after a Commonwealth grand jury leveled a searing indictment of generations of leadership in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, today saw the other shoe drop as charges were announced against three former provincials of the area's Third Order Regular (TOR) Franciscans, all indicted on child endangerment and conspiracy counts in enabling prolific abuse by one of their own.

Fourteen years after Boston, the move represents a watershed: never before have the superiors of a religious community been held criminally liable for facilitating a cover-up among their confreres. And with all of two US church administrators having faced similar charges until now, with today's development, the number suddenly stands at five.

The case against Fathers Giles Schinelli, Robert D'Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli stems from the trio's alleged negligence in supervising Brother Stephen Baker over their respective terms as provincial of the TORs province of the Immaculate Conception, a period which spanned their eight-year terms from 1986 to 2010.

Based in Hollidaysburg in the Altoona diocese, the community was founded a century ago to minister to Italian immigrants to the area. (On a context note, given the prominence of the order's ministry at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, it's worth making clear that the college is part of a separate province of the TORs with its own distinct governance.)

According to a 33-page indictment against the friars issued by the grand jury today, evidence on Baker found the brother's abuse of "over 100 children" during his eight years (1992-2000) as a teacher and sports coach at a diocesan high-school in the Pennsylvania church, alongside 11 earlier allegations against him filed by former students at another high-school in Ohio, which were settled by the Franciscans out of court in 2013.

Among other damning claims, the grand jury found that, upon learning of a second allegation of abuse by Baker in 2000 – after an initial report received by Schinelli in 1988 – D'Aversa moved the brother from the Pennsylvania school to become the community's vocations director, a post which would obviously presume at least a modicum of interaction with young people, not to mention a lack of supervision. From 2003-06, the brother was then assigned to the order's outreach ministry in a Midstate shopping mall, and not banned from all public work until 2010.

In early 2013, Baker committed suicide by stabbing himself days after the Ohio settlements were announced.

The disclosure of the Ohio cases against Baker provided the initial impetus for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office to impanel the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury, whose two-year probe resulted in no charges against diocesan officials due to deaths and the expiration of criminal statutes of limitations. Even so, the investigation and today's indictment highlights a salient ecclesial reality in the scandals' wake: that, since the mechanisms of reporting and audits which determine compliance with the Dallas Charter and Norms are only required of the nation's dioceses and eparchies, religious orders have largely operated on a freer plane in their response to cases that arise in the confines of their communities.

To be sure, there are two important codicils to that. Firstly, most of the due diligence involving male religious overlaps in a diocese's requirement that, upon being appointed to a diocesan work by his provincial (contingent on the acceptance of the local bishop), a religious priest or deacon would undergo a now-mandatory background check and safe-environment training before receiving the necessary faculties for public ministry in a parish, school or other diocesan-bound institution, as would any non-ordained brother, woman religious or layperson being employed in those same venues. At the same time, however, as opposed to the penalties of a permanent life of prayer and penance or dismissal from the clerical state for a credibly accused diocesan priest, the understanding of profession into a religious order is considerably different in that, despite a similar removal from holy orders, a professed man nevertheless remains a brother and full member of his community, which precludes his ejection from their number while also providing the supervised "restricted life" stipulated by the US norms given the nature of living in common and the orders' operation of houses which engage in minimal public ministry, let alone to children.

Still in all, the same accounting and disclosure of credibly accused religious by the orders is not demanded in (particular) canon law as it is in a diocesan context, and over the years some communities have fought dioceses to prevent the names of their deceased or elderly accused from being made public alongside those of implicated secular clergy. Accordingly, as the approach cited above has been the predominant understanding on the communities' side to date, much like this grand jury's blistering account of the Altoona-Johnstown Chancery's cavalier neglect of allegations years into the post-2002 era, today's filing – and what portends to be a lengthy, bruising and high-profile trial – has the potential to invite further scrutiny of the response by the 210 communities of men serving in the US church, whether in media, by civil authorities or both.

Ordered to surrender to Pennsylvania authorities by Friday, two of the charged ex-provincials are currently serving in Florida, according to an Associated Press report, with the other in the already beyond beleaguered church in the Twin Cities. Two of the friars are pastors of parishes, the third in ministry in an order-run retreat center.

In a statement provided to the Washington Post – which, oddly enough, wasn't circulated to local outlets – the province responded to the charges as follows:

We are deeply saddened by the news released today by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. With compassion for the victims and their families, as well as for the Catholic family and the community at large, the Province and its leadership have worked to cooperate with the Office of Attorney General throughout this investigation in the hope that this information could shed light on events that the Province, too, struggles to understand.

The Province extends its most sincere apologies to the victims and to the communities who have been harmed. It invites the community to join it in prayer for healing and understanding, and for all the priests and brothers who honor their vocations and the Church.
Reportedly inundated with new information called into a state hotline opened in the wake of the grand-jury on the diocese, the Attorney General's probe is ongoing.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Nuncio Vobis? Mexico Legate Tipped For US Border Crossing

Less than two months since Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò reached the retirement age of 75 – and, indeed, all of two days after the topic came up here – the choice of his successor as Apostolic Nuncio to the US is reportedly at hand: in a piece published earlier today on his Settimo Cielo blog, the conservative Italian vaticanista Sandro Magister indicated that Archbishop Christophe Pierre (above), the 70 year-old French-born legate to Mexico, is the Pope's selection for the Washington posting, with an announcement said to be "imminent."

A mission-chief for 20 years – and the Vatican's man in the global church's second-largest outpost since 2007 – the reported choice would mark another move by Francis to highlight the "peripheries" toward which the pontiff has ceaselessly prodded the church; Pierre's first assignment as a Nuncio was a four-year stint (1995-99) in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In addition, two weeks after the Pope's long-desired stop at Mexico's US border – and subsequent doubling-down on the advocacy that spurred it – what would be a provocative transfer north given the US' current political climate would bring a figure intimately familiar with matters of immigration as the Holy See's representative to the US government, to say nothing of the Nuncio's role as the Pope's eyes, ears and voice to an American Catholic fold which has been transformed (and, in some quarters, roiled) by a historic influx from Latin America. On yet another key front, unlike the prior lead occupants of 3339 Massachusetts Av NW, Pierre would arrive in the States with an unusually well-steeped understanding of the church in the Southern and Western US, which have jointly surpassed the old bastions of the Northeast and upper Midwest over recent years to become the home of a majority of the nation's 70 million faithful.

All at once, the prospect of Pierre's appointment would both come as a surprise and not as one. While the name of the Frenchman has circulated in authoritative circles only over the last six weeks or so, from the outset of the succession planning, the most widely cited name for the DC post has been Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the bubbly Italian who won great acclaim and affection in New York's church and diplomatic circles over his eight years as the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations headquarters there.

Now 63 and transferred to Poland in 2010, the onetime "deputy foreign minister" in the Secretariat of State notably became the first quarterback for the Vatican's amplified environmental push under Benedict XVI, which Migliore championed on the Holy See's behalf in the UN's deliberations. That said, a current of opposition to Migliore's appointment to the US began circulating early this year, and given the word of Pierre's selection, the Mexico rep.'s experience with migration issues – and the Pope's ostensible desire to send another message on their import – would appear to have tipped the balance in his favor, as well as a likely reluctance to transfer the Nuncio to Warsaw with months to go before Francis' late July trek to Poland for World Youth Day in Krakow.

An informal cleric described as friendly and "savvy," one ranking op who knows Pierre praised the choice, telling Whispers that the archbishop "knows how to hold onto the rudder in the midst of storms." Given the tensions of the moment on church and civil fronts alike on this side of the border, that skill would be in for quite the test.

*   *   *
As Francis marks the third anniversary of his election on Sunday, it bears recalling that Papa Bergoglio has bucked the tradition of his predecessors in opting to stick with the US representative he inherited for a lengthy period of time. Over the last half-century and more, each new Pope has traditionally placed a diplomat of his own choosing in Washington within the first year or two of his pontificate, reflecting the assignment's immense clout both on geopolitical and ecclesial fronts, above all in the Nuncio's most consuming and consequential function: compiling the extensive amounts of consultation, research and reports which set the stage for the appointment of every American bishop.

Named to the US in October 2011, Viganò's assignment to the post was widely perceived as an "exile" from Rome in the wake of his unsuccessful campaign to root out mismanagement and graft in Vatican City's finances and contracts as the city-state's deputy mayor. Within weeks of his arrival in Washington, the archbishop's earlier pleas to Benedict for his support in the reform effort became a centerpiece of the incendiary "Vatileaks" document haul, which destabilized the Curia for the bulk of 2012 while winning Viganò a reputation for courage in the face of apparently irredeemable corruption.

In the wake of Francis' election, the new Pope's push for Curial accountability and a financial cleanup led to well-placed expectations that Viganò would see his triumphant return to Rome in a top post. The speculation turned to naught, however, after a smear campaign by the archbishop's enemies which circulated in the Italian press is believed to have short-circuited the move.

Having laid the groundwork for the Pope's markedly successful East Coast trip last September, the career diplomat landed in the center of another firestorm in the visit's wake when it emerged that Kim Davis – the Kentucky county clerk whose brief imprisonment for refusing to perform same-sex marriages on religious freedom grounds became a cause celebre in the culture wars – was quietly greeted by Francis at the DC Nunciature between public engagements. In a remarkable clarification issued in response to the furore caused by word of the meeting, a Vatican statement said that, with Davis among "several dozen" people present, "such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability."

Emphasizing that "the Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects," the statement sought to further distance Francis from the clerk in adding that "the only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family." Long based in Washington, the former student was later found to be openly gay and had brought his partner to the encounter.

Having won wide esteem among the US bishops with his gracious style, quiet assists and commitment to a heavy travel schedule to take part in local church events, Viganò was feted by the bench at last November's plenary in Baltimore with the traditional champagne sendoff which the USCCB accords to a Vatican representative attending his final meeting. That said, as the archbishop's success at ultimately obtaining the appointments of those he's recommended has largely been stymied by the influence of the Stateside cardinals on the Congregation for Bishops – whose votes determine the ultimate endorsement of a candidate to the Pope – Viganò's "swan song" pick on these shores is understood to have been the July elevation of one of his favorites, Fr Robert Barron, as auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. At the time, the move stoked widespread amazement among the American hierarchy given the highly unusual transfer of the Chicago-based media titan to the global capital of pop culture.

As previously reported, with almost a dozen of the nation's 197 dioceses currently awaiting new leadership, the bulk of the docket has been in a holding pattern over the last several months in anticipation of a new Nuncio. Once the transition has taken place, further delays are expected as the newcomer reviews the pending files and familiarizes himself with the lay of the land.


Tuesday, March 08, 2016

After The "Decade," The Checchio Diocese – Pope Names NAC Chief to Metuchen

(Updated 11am ET with ordination date, Bishop-elect's statement.)

All of five weeks since Msgr Jim Checchio departed The Hill after a transformative decade as Rector of the Pontifical North American College, the long-expected final part of the sendoff has come to pass: at Roman Noon, the Pope named the son of South Jersey up the Turnpike as fifth bishop of Metuchen, just shy of his 50th birthday next month. (The duo are seen above during Francis' visit to the NAC last May.)

Inheriting the leadership of some 650,000 Catholics in the four counties of Central Jersey's northern half, Checchio succeeds Bishop Paul Bootkoski, who guided the diocese for 14 years as its population increased by over a third – a very unusual reality for a region mostly accustomed to "managing decline" in terms of its Catholic presence. A Newark native, Bootkoski reached the retirement age of 75 last July.

Founded in 1981 at the growing southern edge of metropolitan New York, Metuchen is the youngest diocese of the Northeastern US and – with both the Amtrak Corridor and New Jersey Turnpike (I-95) running straight through it – among the nation's most heavily-traversed. Accordingly, while the turf is principally comprised of bedroom suburbs teeming with workers who commute to New York or Trenton, it likewise spans several onetime manufacturing hubs now being reoccupied by recent immigrants, one of the US' largest and best regarded public universities – Rutgers in New Brunswick – and the picturesque rural hideaways of the Garden State's horse country. (In other words, everything but a piece of the Shore.)

Ordained in 1992 and having earned both a JCD and MBA in later studies, the bishop-elect built a rep as a warm, effective hard worker in a host of South Jersey parishes and Chancery posts before returning to his Roman alma mater as vice-rector/Economo (CFO) in 2003. Upon becoming the NAC's 22nd rector at age 39 in late 2005 – the first Italian-American to hold the post – Checchio oversaw an extraordinary period of growth and vitality for the Stateside church's most influential formation house, increasing enrollment by some two-thirds (a spike which made the 158 year-old college the largest American seminary and produced its biggest classes since the 1960s), as well as undertaking a significant building and maintenance overhaul on both its campuses, topped by the $8 million, 10-story tower of new classrooms, which was dedicated last year by the Cardinal-Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

Having sent forth almost 500 men into ordained ministry over what's become known as the "Checchio Decade," upon the rector's departure one colleague remarked in the NAC's magazine that "perhaps no living American" has provided more priests for the church in this country. The bishop-elect's successor, Fr Pete Harman of Springfield, Illinois, took office last month.

While Checchio had been granted a sabbatical since coming home to adjust and rest up before beginning his next assignment in Camden, reports that he would receive the Metuchen appointment upon his return to the States have circulated since last summer, when the end of his second five-year term at the College saw the transition process begin in earnest.

Among the ranks of the hierarchy, the bishop-elect now joins most of the NAC's rectors over its history, including two of his living predecessors, now-Cardinals Edwin O'Brien and Timothy Dolan, both of whom were likewise named bishops in rapid order after their terms atop the Gianicolo were completed (in those cases, however, both began as auxiliaries). For Checchio's home-church, meanwhile, the appointment is a particularly historic and sweet moment: with Camden's 80th anniversary coming late next year, today's appointee becomes the first South Jersey priest ever tapped to lead a diocese, and but the second named a bishop.

On the wider scene of Catholic Jersey, the move adds even further clout to a state bench culled from the A-list of national and international church leadership: to Metuchen's south, Bishop David O'Connell landed in the 850,000-member Trenton church after a banner decade as president of the Catholic University of America, Camden's own Bishop Dennis Sullivan found his heaven in Wawa Country after a long stint in the most challenging and thankless Chancery job known to man (read: vicar-general of New York), and on Checchio's new northern flank, Newark awaits the July succession (after three years in traffic... horrid detour included) of Archbishop Bernie Hebda, who spent a decade as one of the Holy See's top canonists (while moonlighting as a NAC spiritual director) before being placed in line to lead the 1.3 million-member local church, the US' seventh-largest.

Today's appointment rounds out a hat-trick that's seen three of Rome's foremost US priests depart the city as bishops over less than four months: in November, Francis named the longtime CDF official Msgr Steven Lopes, a 40 year-old San Francisco native, as the first bishop to lead the continent-wide ordinariate for Anglicans who've "swum the Tiber," and next week brings the ordination of Tulsa's own Archbishop-elect Peter Wells, 52, who the Pope has dispatched as Nuncio to South Africa after seven years as Assessore of the Secretariat of State, essentially the Holy See's "deputy chief of staff."

Speaking of Roman diplomacy, today's appointment defies what's mostly been a months-long holding pattern on Stateside picks in light of the impending selection of a new Nuncio to Washington following January's 75th birthday of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

With the Metuchen file now off the desk, three US dioceses stand vacant, with another eight led by prelates serving past the retirement age; among the latter group, Bishop Roger Morin of Biloxi just reached the milestone yesterday. On the whole, the pending docket is topped by two appointments of outsize importance: the succession to Long Island's 1.6 million-member fold based in Rockville Centre, where Bishop William Murphy turned 75 last May... and above all, the next archbishop of a battered church in the Twin Cities, a charge still immersed in pain on practically every front (and facing some 400 lawsuits) in the wake of a sex-abuse firestorm.

Likely to be one of the US church's largest and most exuberant rites of its kind over recent decades, Checchio's ordination and installation in Metuchen must take place within four months of this morning's appointment. In another notable tie to the new bishop's last post, his principal consecrator – the metropolitan of New Jersey, Archbishop John Myers of Newark – likewise serves as chairman of the NAC's board of trustees.

SVILUPPO: As the Appointment Day presser begins at the Chancery in Piscataway (fullvid), it's emerged that Checchio will be ordained on the feast of Saints Philip and James, Tuesday 3 May. The site was not announced; given the expected NAC-related throngs who'd want to attend, a venue larger than St Francis Cathedral might well be required. (Indeed, Bootkoski's own installation was held in a local arena.)

And here, as prepared for delivery, the bishop-elect's introductory statement to the Metuchen church, preceded by the showing of a Catholic News Service retrospective of his tenure on the Hill....

Good morning. Praised be Jesus Christ! I’m a little embarrassed with the CNS video being shown as an introduction to our gathering. That video was made in my final days in Rome, as I finished ten years as Rector of the Pontifical North American College on February 1, and began a sabbatical, which was to run until July! I had hoped during my sabbatical to spend time with some family and friends, go on retreat, then do some writing on seminary formation, and finally study Spanish in preparation for becoming a pastor in my home diocese.

As of last Monday, those plans have changed! I was in rural Minnesota with some lay and priest friends. Unbeknownst to me, the cell phone reception was not so good and all my calls were going in to voicemail. When I finally realized that something probably wasn’t right and I checked the messages, I discovered that Archbishop Vigano, the Apostolic Nuncio, had called. When we arrived at the rectory where I was staying, I slipped in to my bedroom and called the Archbishop back, while my friends were waiting for me in the living room, to go ice-fishing. The Archbishop, aware from past discussions that I desired to return home from Rome to serve in my diocese and be nearer to my family, after some friendly discussion said to me, “Monsignor, it’s good you did come home from Rome, for I’m happy to tell you that Pope Francis is appointing you as the bishop of Metuchen.”

After we hung up, I knelt down next to the bed and before a crucifix and said a prayer to Our Lady for the priests and faithful of the Diocese of Metuchen and to ask for her protection and assistance for me. I then got up, joined my friends and off we went ice fishing. I pray that I will be more successful as a bishop than I was at ice fishing.

My primary work these past 12 ½ years has been in forming seminarians so that they can serve as effective parish priests here in our beloved homeland. I know that the parish is crucially important in the life of the Church and as I was leaving Rome I asked my bishop if I could return to parish work. It never occurred to me that I would be asked to be pastor of a parish this big! I’m grateful for the Holy Father’s confidence that I will be able to shepherd this vibrant Church of over 640,000 souls, and I very much look forward to working with and supporting the good pastors, priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers who are already laboring in this vineyard.

St. Augustine once defined the office of bishop, as an “Office of Love”, as it is the Bishop who is to give certainty that the pastoral charity of Jesus Christ is never lacking in a local Church. Touched by a bit of holy fear, I am certainly humbled to become the shepherd of this wonderful diocese and I look forward to striving to fulfill the demanding task of ensuring that the pastoral charity of Jesus Christ continues to be abundant here in Metuchen. I promise you my prayers and my commitment to serve to the best of my abilities.

I learned after my ordination to the priesthood that although ordination brought many, many graces with it, it didn’t infuse the perfection of the virtues, and I imagine ordination to the episcopacy will be the same…so I am very much aware of my own deficiencies but at the same time encouraged to be taking on this office during this great Jubilee of Mercy. I’m likewise inspired by the wonderful example of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who sets such a high and challenging standard for us.

I’ve been reading everything that I can find about the Diocese of Metuchen and know that it is still a young diocese, 35 years this upcoming fall. Now this young diocese has a baby bishop to go with it and I’m going to be depending upon your help and prayers. In particular, I will be grateful for the advice and support of Bishop Paul Bootkoski who will be close by and who has led and loved the people of this diocese for the past 14 years. Thank you, Bishop, for your good leadership and care of this diocese.

I have a lot of gratitude in my heart today and I’d like to offer some words of appreciation:

I love being a priest, and I’m so grateful to God for His love and for His calling me to be with Him and follow Him in the priesthood. I’m also grateful to God for the grace He has given me over these 23 years which has sustained me in being faithful to my priestly promises.

I’m grateful to my mom and dad for the gift of life and for teaching their children what love looks like in daily life. I am thankful as well to my 2 sisters and my brother and their spouses, as well as my 6 nieces and nephews: I count it a blessing to be in a family of love, encouragement and patience. Extended family and friends so often take on this role for us too, and I’ve been blessed with an abundance of these.

I’m grateful as well to the Church which has nurtured me in the faith over the years. Except for my years in seminary, both in formation and on the faculty, I’ve lived in the Diocese of Camden all my life. There, I was blessed with a great home parish-- St. John’s in Collingswood. I attended the parish grammar school and then was educated at a nearby Catholic High School, Paul VI. In all of those years of Catholic education, I had priests, sisters and teachers who encouraged and nourished me. As a matter of fact, at St. John’s I often heard our good and generous Mercy Sisters speak lovingly of their community and motherhouse here in Watchung, here in this Diocese. I’m grateful to that local religious community and to all who worked to pass on the faith to me.

I’ve also been blessed with good priest mentors, especially from the presbyterate in Camden and from the faculty, past and present, of the North American College: exceptional men of God, who helped teach me how to be a pastor and shepherd. We’ve had great bishops in Camden and I consider it a real privilege to have had the opportunity to work closely with a few of them, seeing firsthand the necessity that the Bishop be a man of prayer and communion, in close friendship with the Lord, especially given the challenges involved in shepherding a diocese.

I’m particularly grateful that the recent bishops of Camden allowed me to become involved in the work of priestly formation at the North American College. That experience has deepened my love for the priesthood and the Church and enriched my own priestly life and ministry, as I, along with our exceptional formation faculty, annually shepherded the 250 generous, dedicated seminarians of the Pontifical North American College, the 78 priests from our graduate house, the Casa Santa Maria, and the 33 priests who came each semester for sabbatical. I have no doubt that the daily inspiration I had received from them has been a unique preparation for me for this new ministry here with you.

As I prepare to begin to serve in this beautiful diocese, I ask for your prayers and will be depending upon them. I pray that we may together build up this portion of the people of God into an enduring and convincing sign of the Kingdom for our Church and world. Thank you and God bless you.