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5 takeaways from Pope Francis’ historic visit to the USA

blog_1443828775(Photo: courtesy of CNS)

How are we to evaluate Pope Francis’ historic six-day visit to the United States? Should it be considered a success? Did the Pope accomplish what he set out to do? Were there questions left unanswered? How should we gage the response of the American Church? Of the American people? What lasting impact will the visit have on the country?

Venture to any Catholic media outlet or blog this week and you’re bound to find as many answers to these questions as there are commentators writing them. It’s not without good reason. Considering the historical context and Francis’ unique global influence, the visit was arguably the most significant of any pope to this continent.

I was fortunate enough to be on the ground in the three cities Pope Francis visited in the US. And though I wasn’t able to attend every papal event, I did have the opportunity on a number of occasions to see the Pope up close, hear him preach, and watch him interact with different groups of people. I followed each of his addresses as he delivered them, madly scribbling notes, paying attention to developing trains of thought and recurrent themes.

Based on my experience during those six incredible days and having followed Francis closely over the course of his pontificate, I offer five key takeaways for anyone who is interested in reflecting seriously on what we learned during this trip about Pope Francis and the direction in which he is leading the Church. I don’t intend to be comprehensive. Nor have I focused on the more sensational stories that emerged (as usual, they are receiving more than enough attention already). Rather, I believe there is great value in looking at the bigger picture.

1) Comprehensive teaching

For a whirlwind trip like this one, the Pope demonstrated a striking ability to teach in a comprehensive manner. Officially, he had eighteen opportunities to speak in the US: some to a specific audience, others to the entire nation or, in the case of the UN address, to the world. Parsing each of these addresses, and those not on the official schedule (like the stop over at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia for a meeting with the Jesuit community there), we see that the Pope touched on a wide range of topics: religious liberty, human dignity, family life, politics, ecology, justice, peace, war, persecution, immigration, dialogue, fundamentalism, the consistent ethic of life, the death penalty, the economy, sexual abuse, pastoral attitudes in the church, fear, rigidity, mission, faith, hope, love, God, the workings of the Holy Spirit, Jesus,… to name some!

The takeaway: a selective reading of the Pope’s remarks out of ignorance, or for political or ideological purposes is neither accurate nor helpful. The Pope cannot be pigeonholed, certainly not on this trip. We should all be mindful of the comprehensive nature of his thought, which only reflects the breadth of authentic Catholic teaching.

2) A Church of dialogue

Back in the 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull entitled Unam sanctam, which stated that, “Outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation.” Of course the bull said much more than that. In fact, it was a theological statement grounded in an ancient understanding of the uniqueness of the universal salvific act of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But in the subsequent centuries it did not serve as a good starting point for dialogue with other Christian traditions or other faiths. It was interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as exclusivist, representative of a kind-of “all or nothing” mentality that fostered divisions and alienated non-Catholics.

Unam sanctam is one historical example of the kind of approach that Pope Francis seems determined to avoid. By my count, Francis used the word “dialogue” twenty-three times in five of his addresses. Notably, in his address to Congress on September 24 he made clear his desire to enter into a dialogue “with all of you,” referring to the American people. He elevated Thomas Merton, the great 20th century American Trappist monk, as the preeminent model of dialogue for the country: “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.” Likely referring to the recent rapprochement between the US and Cuba, which the Pope himself helped bring about, he said, “This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.”

Pope Francis also taught us that dialogue is not limited to political activity outside of the Church. Here I quote directly and at length from his address to the Bishops, the leaders of the American Church, in Washington, D.C. on September 23:

“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia (“boldness”), the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

The takeaway: According to Pope Francis, dialogue and bridge building with people of varying ideas, political interests, faith traditions, and especially within the Catholic community itself is the only viable approach for the Church in the 21st century. Today, an “all or nothing” mentality does not reflect an honest application of the Gospel. Francis knows that a dialogical approach requires great humility. In his homily during the concluding Mass for the World Meeting of Families the Pope spoke these words to the faithful: “To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not “part of our group”, who are not “like us”, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!”

3) Ecology: a new cornerstone and point of convergence

If today dialogue is the way of the Church, ecology is the new starting point of that dialogue with the world. Pope Francis made it clear when he released his landmark encyclical Laudato si’ that timing was everything. The first papal encyclical devoted entirely to ecology and humanity’s responsibility for the natural environment was released in advance of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September and the COP21 summit on climate change in Paris this November/December. Many anticipated that Pope Francis would speak about ecology and climate change during his visit to America. And speak he did. His speeches were littered (no pun intended) with references to his encyclical, especially his address to the UN.

The UN address is of particular interest for the following reasons: first, it was the foremost opportunity for Pope Francis to speak to the whole world (remember he addressed his encyclical to everyone). Second, Francis developed themes of previous popes at the UN (Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) such as the promotion of human dignity, the problem of humanity seeking absolute power, the senselessness of war, etc. In particular, he framed these themes in reference to integral human development, which cannot be conceived apart from a relationship with the natural world. The Pope spoke about “a true right of the environment,” an intrinsic right, and that, “The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion.”

The takeaway: It appears that Pope Francis is framing the discussion and promotion of integral human development, which encompasses the key components of the Church’s social doctrine, from the foundational question of ecology and humanity’s relationship and responsibility towards creation.

4) Collegiality in action

For Pope Francis the fraternal relationship and shared responsibility of church leadership between the Pope and the Bishops known as “collegiality” is not an abstract ideal but something to be put into practice. Since his election, he has spoken often of the need to develop collegiality in the Church. For example, in Evangelii Gaudium he wrote that:

“Episcopal conferences are in a position to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” (32)

Collegiality was realized in a concrete way during Pope Francis’ visit to the US. Some expected (even hoped!) the Latin American Pope would scold his northern neighbors on economic imperialism and excessive material consumption. Others didn’t know what to expect, but sensed that Francis may not be aware of the social and cultural realities given that this was his first ever visit to the country.

Francis, in a sense, surprised us all. He showed a keen awareness and sensitivity to issues affecting the people, the state and the church. “Freedom” and “religious liberty,” two of America’s most cherished principles, ran through a number of his addresses: notable, his opening remarks at the White House, his address to Congress in which he spoke in a remarkable way about Abraham Lincoln, and his speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. On multiple occasions he spoke of “going back,” or “looking back” in reference to American history and its great struggles in building a nation in which human dignity is promoted and safeguarded.

The takeaway: It’s unlikely that Pope Francis, amid his demanding schedule, spent weeks and months learning about the rich history and culture of the United States in books alone. It’s more likely that he spoke often with his brother bishops there. We know that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston (the current President and Vice-president of the USCCB), along with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (host of the World Meeting of Families), met the Pope on numerous occasions ahead of his visit. We also know that the Pope has two very close advisors and collaborators in Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston. The Pope’s keen awareness of American history and sensitivity to the country’s current challenges are probably a reflection of the consultation he initiated with these men, of his desire to support his brother bishops and the American church and encourage the entire nation to be its better self.

5) The Pope is Catholic

It sounds like a truism. But since Pope Francis began critiquing the global capitalist system, trickledown economic theories and financial speculation, some in the United States—even fellow Catholics—have raised doubts about the Pope’s Catholicity. It was a serious enough concern, evidently, that a journalist felt the need to raise it with the Pope during the in-flight press conference en route to Washington, D.C. from Santiago, Cuba. “There have already been discussions about a communist Pope, now there are even those who speak of a Pope who isn’t Catholic,” said Gian Guido Vecchi, “What do you think?” In response, Pope Francis told a story about a woman who considered him the “anti-pope” because he didn’t wear red shoes. Then he concluded, “My doctrine on this, in Laudato si’, on economic imperialism, all of this, is the social doctrine of the Church. And it if necessary, I’ll recite the creed. I am available to do that.”

Anyone with an ear to the ground can hear murmurs of frustration and perplexity with Francis from a few Catholic circles. There are various and complex reasons for this. This comment of the Pope, however, serves as a sweeping and penetrating retort in a rather unexpected and almost jovial way. The question has suddenly been turned around. It is now up to those who would question the Pope’s Catholicity to show how his remarks on those touchy social and economic questions contrasts with the established social doctrine of the Church.

The takeaway: Perhaps Francis’ greatest success in these two-and-a-half years as Pope has been his ability to communicate authentic Catholic orthodoxy in a pastoral yet penetrating way that challenges and inspires many different people—much like the Gospel of Jesus Christ does. In turn, this has exposed misconceptions or misrepresentations of the Church’s long-standing social doctrine by some Catholics. The question therefore is not, “Is the Pope Catholic?” but “How do Catholics understand orthodoxy?” The Pope, like his predecessors, is Catholic. Are we?

S+L is your home for coverage of the #KofCPA15 Supreme Convention

Knightsblog(Sebastian and Emilie preparing the script for the Knights of Columbus Convention taking place in Philadelphia next week.)

Just listening to the amazing accomplishments of the Knights of Columbus each year at the Supreme Convention is enough reason to celebrate.  The international lay organization is the largest in the Church, donating millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours to help those most in need throughout North America and around the world.

This year Emilie Callan and I will be spearheading S+L’s coverage and we couldn’t be more excited.  It’s the 133rd Supreme Convention and it’s happening in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and America’s cradle of religious liberty.  What better place to celebrate the Knights of Columbus, an organization which is grounded in the principles of fraternity, unity, charity and patriotism?  Look for these themes to get a lot of attention at the Convention.

The location is significant for another reason this year.  Philadelphia is preparing to welcome thousands of pilgrims for the World Meeting of Families, and a million more for the visit of Pope Francis in September!  This will be a primary focus of our coverage this year, which we hope will include exclusive interviews with the Bishops of the host cities of Philadelphia, Washington DC and New York.

Apart from the business side of things, the Knights Convention always provides an opportunity to greet new and familiar folks and to take the pulse of the North American Church.  We are living through a fascinating moment in Church history, and with the visit of Pope Francis to the US on the horizon what better time and place to explore the insights and sensibilities of some of the most active members of the Catholic family.  You won’t want to miss this conversation!

Please join us for comprehensive coverage of the 133rd Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus beginning next week Tuesday, August 4.  For complete details please visit: S+L’s KofC Convention webpage

We’ll see you next week from the City of Brotherly love!.. And don’t forget to share the experience on social media with #KofCPA15

“This economy kills”: anticipation mounts ahead of Pope’s US trip

Bolivia(Pope Francis listens attentively to speakers at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia on July 9.  Photo courtesy of CNS)

In two years Pope Francis has said enough about the global economic system to spark both enormous enthusiasm and heavy criticism.  The story is still developing, but after his recent trip to Latin America, the prevailing sense is that it will climax when he sets foot on US soil for the first time in September.

Personally, I’ve never seen Francis so comfortable, at home and in his element as he was during his week-long trip through Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay last week.  Evidently he felt totally free to speak his mind and heart to his native Spanish speaking audience.  And when he spoke about economics, the message was clear.

Of the many and consistent critiques Francis made of the current economic system last week, none was more powerful than the address he gave to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia—one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

The message simply stated at the beginning was, “land, lodging and labor are sacred rights for everyone.”  The problem is that this is not the reality.  “We want change,” he said, from “an unfettered pursuit of money,” or—as Francis described it—“the dung of the devil.”

Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home [the earth].”

Francis continued by encouraging the Popular Movements and the people of Bolivia to be the change they want to see; to take control of their own lives and lead by example: “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites,” he said, “It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

It was by no means the first time Pope Francis has blasted the current economic system.  Since the publication of his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the critique has been piercingly clear and consistent.  Because of this, it has drawn criticism from the capitalist faithful—many of whom are in the United States—who deflect the Pope’s criticism by saying he doesn’t fully understand economics and shouldn’t be involved in making policy.

Well, oddly enough, the Pope actually agrees.  In that same address to the Popular Movements the Pope for the first time said that he doesn’t have the specific solutions to the socio-economic problems of the world:

“Don’t expect a recipe from this Pope.  Neither the Pope nor the Church has a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solutions to contemporary issues. I dare say that no recipe exists.”

A few days later on the return flight to Rome, the Pope was asked about his economics message and the criticism it sparks in the United States.  The Pope, again for the first time, acknowledged that he hasn’t studied the criticisms:

“I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States. I heard about it, but I haven’t read about it, I haven’t had the time to study this well, because every criticism must be received, studied, and then dialogue must be ensue. You ask me what I think. If I have not had a dialogue with those who criticize, I don’t have the right to state an opinion, isolated from dialogue.”

The anticipation is mounting… It appears the showdown will finally happen when the Pope arrives in Washington in September.  What the Pope will say in his address to the American Congress is anybody’s guess, but we can be confident that it will factor in the predominantly American criticisms of his economics message.  That will be something new, a development in the Pope’s expression of his own ideas.

Finally, we might be tempted to think that the Pope’s humble admission of ignorance of his critics is typical of the man whom the world knows as simple, humble and innocent.  But I would call him subtly shrewd.  The Pope essentially outlined the process for the discussion by emphasizing dialogue through encounter.  Ideas and theories—economic or otherwise—can live in the clouds.  The people affected by the implementation of those ideas and theories can only live on the ground.  And that is where the Pope will finally meet his critics face to face.

SebastianGOn Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation.  For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice of dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the Church and society.  Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for S+L TV.

Francis in Latin America: the cultural influence on a developing pontificate


Much of the novelty surrounding the person and pontificate of Pope Francis can be attributed to his Argentine, Latin American background. His personal style, his understanding of church matters and his views on global issues are all shaped by that particular cultural experience. The significance of this cannot be overstated.

So when Francis returns to his home continent, it’s an opportunity to see and hear him at his best. We witness, not only the shepherd who smells a lot like the sheep, but the sheep who know well the voice of the shepherd. The stars align, in a sense, and we are all witnesses of the spectacle.

The result is a breakdown of the cultural and linguistic barriers that sometimes exist when Francis is working in Rome. There, he is still an outsider, as he acknowledged when he was elected: “It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get [a Bishop of Rome]… But here we are.”

But in places like Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay—the three countries on his itinerary this week—Francis is very much at home. Exhibit A: When he addressed a group of religious, priests and seminarians from Ecuador at the Marian Shrine of El Quinche on Wednesday, he looked out over the crowd and said, “I’ve prepared some remarks to share with you, but I don’t feel like reading them.” He proceeded to give a spontaneous, lengthy reflection on the ability to see everything as a total free gift from God, and reminded those present not to forget who they are and where they come from.

It’s not the first time (nor the last, I would wager) that Francis has gone off-the-cuff, but in this case the setting and immediate audience certainly affected the dynamic of the address; a synergy was spontaneously and organically created.

Interestingly, the consequences of this affect not only his immediate audiences but in fact the whole Church. Though not quite in Argentina (you might think he’s there from the number of his countrymen currently in Bolivia!), Francis is at home; he is comfortable. And the result is that we see and hear some of his clearest communications on the Church and its mission.

This was the case when Francis first visited his home continent in the summer of 2013 for World Youth Day in Rio. There he gave a series of addresses that set-up the core themes of his pontificate, in particular the address to the Brazilian Bishops and the address to the leaders of CELAM. That visit became a lens through which we could understand Francis a bit better and, more broadly, the direction in which the Catholic Church may inevitably be heading. The publication of Evangelii Gaudium a few months later confirmed this in spades.

So, a word to the wise: what Francis says on “home” soil is hugely significant, not only for the people in front of him, but for the whole Church. What he says and how he says it may be another key to understanding his vision for the Church and the practical consequences of realizing it. Pay particular attention to what he’s saying about ecology and humanity’s relationship to the created world (especially in light of his recent encyclical), and to the importance of healthy family life. More broadly, a universal call to conversion has emerged from his addresses, that is, a change of mind and heart about what it means to be a relational human being in our world today, what Francis described in this morning’s homily as “the logic of love”.

CNS photo/Paul Haring

SebastianGOn Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation.  For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice for dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society.  Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for Salt+Light TV.

Receiving Laudato Si’: remember no encyclical is released in a vacuum

(Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the Vatican gardens in 2014. With the publication of Laudato Si’, Francis has joined Benedict in issuing an encyclical that addresses the ecological crisis and integral human development. Caritas in Veritate was issued by Benedict in 2009. Photo courtesy of CNS.)

With the release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on ecology and the care of our common home, a new chapter in the ever-growing Magisterium of the Catholic Church has been written. This encyclical, the second of Francis’ pontificate (Lumen Fidei was published in June of 2013), is the first ever to deal solely with the environmental question, its ramifications for people of faith, and indeed the entire human family.

Within minutes of its publication, quotes from it were being shared on social media along with various summaries and the always popular lists, “(insert random number here) things you need to know about Laudato Si’”. Even critiques of certain themes in the document were being issued.

Of course this kind of popular and immediate response is typical of our culture. I wonder if the level of enthusiasm for discussing, sharing and even debating or critiquing Laudato Si’ will continue in the coming weeks and months once the initial novelty of the text wears off. I hope it will.

In any case, in this initial release phase it’s worth reflecting on the question of how we receive this document; by that I mean, with what attitude are we approaching Laudato Si’ and, perhaps, with what narrow perspective and ideological baggage?

Immediate reactions or responses to things are typically not well thought out. The most intense and emotional responses to Laudato Si’ on the Internet have come from people who find in the text either a strong affirmation or a harsh critique of their own, firmly held opinions. But a papal encyclical is not meant to offer a definitive ruling on this or that issue. And while the countless tweets of those folks do serve to raise awareness of the document, they end up saying more about the tweeter than the tweeted.

We might say that an encyclical is the opposite of a tweet. Encyclicals are dreadfully long (Laudato Si’ is 230,398 characters… with spaces), dense and require intense and prolonged reflection. They are written by one pope (with the exception of Lumen Fidei that was written by Pope Francis and Pope Benedict), but only as part of an established body of magisterial teachings. Even when one deals with a particular theme, like Laudato Si’, an encyclical is not released in a vacuum.

A good example of this is the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, on integral human development issued by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Many people are already putting this encyclical in conversation with Laudato Si’, and Pope Francis himself references Caritas in Veritate to make his arguments. But beyond this, Caritas in Veritate is a tribute to an older encyclical Populorum Progressio, on the development of peoples written by Pope Paul VI in 1967. From the outset Pope Benedict states:

“I intend to pay tribute and to honour the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development and taking my place within the path that they marked out, so as to apply them to the present moment.” (Caritas in Veritate 8)

There have been other cases of popes writing encyclicals to mark an anniversary of an older encyclical or to re-present its fundamental principles in light of a new social or cultural situation. This is the practice of what Pope John XXIII called “reading the signs of the times,” that is, applying the fundamental truths and principles of the Catholic faith to the current reality. This is what Pope Benedict did with Caritas in Veritate and this is what Pope Francis has done with Laudato Si’.

Today, the temptation to see only what is immediately in front of us hinders a proper reception of an important teaching like Laudato Si’. Twitter is not helpful in this regard. We cannot understand, process or reflect on everything immediately. On top of that, ignorance of the historic and thematic thread running through the modern encyclicals, especially the social encyclicals, is an injustice to the organic process of development within the body of magisterial teachings. It seems to me that this organic process is a constitutive quality of Catholicism and cannot be dismissed or ignored for ideological purposes. As Pope Benedict stated clearly in Caritas in Veritate:

The Church’s social doctrine is “a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new. It is one thing to draw attention to the particular characteristics of one Encyclical or another, of the teaching of one Pope or another, but quite another to lose sight of the coherence of the overall doctrinal corpus.” (12)

When receiving and reading Laudato Si’ it would be good to ask, “what do I see here?” If the answer is merely “an acknowledgement that climate change is real,” or “a particular economic perspective,” or another singular issue that tends to draw attention and create controversy—something that can be tweeted—then perhaps greater appreciation is needed for what an encyclical is. Though it requires time and reflection, in reading Laudato Si’ we should see, not only Pope Francis’ enormous contribution to the ecological discussion, but also Caritas in Veritate, Populorum Progressio, Pope John Paul II’s consistent call for greater ecological action, Gaudium et Spes, the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, the Gospel.

The beauty of Catholic teaching, which is really Catholic Tradition, is that it is organic and dynamic. It is alive. As Pope Benedict said, it is consistent and ever new. Because of this, Pope Francis can read the signs of the times in light of the Gospel. He can adopt the most up-to-date and authoritative science as part of his analysis of the ecological crisis. He can critique what is in reality an unjust economic system that excludes millions of people. He can show that creation is interconnected, theologically, biologically and socially.

Pope John XXIII famously said, “It is not that the Gospel has changed: it is that we have begun to understand it better.” The contribution of the papal encyclicals to our understanding of the human person, the created world, modern civilization, the reality of God, the challenges we face together, is a living testament to that statement. Here we find Laudato Si’, the latest in a long line of reflections on the signs of the times, and one that will require of everyone a lengthy commitment to read, discuss, understand, and ultimately live.


SebastianGOn Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation.  For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice of dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society.  Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for S+L TV.

Two months after the Nepal earthquake, local Jesuits help to rebuild homes and lives


(Fr. Bill Robins SJ, a Winnipeg native, sits by a Hindu shrine on the Pulchowki hilltop in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.  Fr. Bill is Socius to the Regional Superior of Nepal, and superior at Kamai Niwas Jesuit Training Center in Kathmandu. For the past few months he has been involved in the Nepal earthquake relief effort.)

On April 25, 2015 a massive earthquake struck Nepal. It registered a catastrophic 8.1 surface wave magnitude and killed more than 8,800 people while injuring more than 23,000. A major aftershock occurred a few weeks later, striking at a depth of 18.5 kilometers and being felt 2,500 kilometers away. The relief effort is ongoing, emergency aid is still needed. Amidst the destruction and chaos, the local Jesuit community is helping the Nepali people rebuild.  Fr. Bill Robins is one of those Jesuits, and recently spoke to S+L about the experience…

S+L: It’s been two months since the devastating earthquake. What is the general mood/spirit among the Nepali people? How are they coping?

Fr. Robins: Most of Nepal’s people lead the difficult lives of subsistence farmers. They constantly put up with rain and heat on the plains, and snow and cold in the high hills. Nepal’s rural road network is expanding, but except for the main highways, roads are rough, steep, and cut along steep slopes. Maintenance is a constant problem. Many people carry their supplies, walking several days from the road head to home. The earthquake, of course, caused many more problems than usual! There was plenty of fear at first, and as people were settling down, the second quake about three weeks after the first, was even more unsettling.

These are practical people. There was no time for crying. Frantic searches saved lives. The dead were quickly and properly cremated or buried. People immediately salvaged what they could from their homes; lumber and roofing sheets to build temporary shelters, and whatever stored food and bedding they could.

Then they were back to work: hoeing corn fields, preparing seed beds for rice, and ploughing the rice fields. Those who did not lose their livestock have animals to nurture. Despite some fear, people now have relatively safe and comfortable places to lay their heads, to cook, and to enjoy one another’s company.

S+L: In the aftermath of the earthquake, much of the international media attention focused on the destruction and loss of life in Kathmandu and other more populated areas. What was the effect of the earthquake on the people living in rural towns and villages?

Fr. Robins: The international media did not get far from good roads and airports! There was plenty of material for sensationalist reporting, so why go farther? Later reporters did get out to severely damaged rural areas. There, the damage to houses was almost total. Building materials are stone, mud and wood, good enough to withstand storms, but not earthquakes! Yet in Kathmandu, though there was much destruction of old buildings, people are using most houses and offices. Electricity was off for a few hours, as were telephones, but the main roads to Kathmandu from the Indian border, and especially the Kathmandu airport, were only briefly closed. The western half of Nepal, as well as the eastern districts, did not suffer.

Fellow Jesuits coming from India expected total devastation, based on news reports, but we continued to live comfortably in our residence. The hill people picked up the pieces and stoically got back to work.

S+L: The Jesuits in Nepal (and their students/alumni) are directly involved in the relief and reconstruction effort. What are the main focuses of that effort? What has been accomplished so far?

Fr. Robins: Many organizations, working with the U.N. immediately got busy with initial relief work. Caritas Nepal, with a lot of help from Caritas Internationalis, as well as the Catholics of Kathmandu, our school alumnl/ae, students, and parishioners reached out as we could: helping to clear streets in the city, and getting tarpaulins, food and medical aid to accessible areas.

Many aid organizations are working, so with government approval, are bringing help to specified village areas. The Nepal Jesuits have set up the Nepal Jesuit Social Institute to coordinate our work in five areas.

S+L: Looking more generally at the relief effort, what is needed at this stage? What are the biggest challenges?

Fr. Robins: People will not rebuild their houses until October, after the monsoon rains. The challenge is to build shelters and see that there is enough food on hand. Most schools have collapsed so we help build temporary classrooms and especially get the students settled down to studies again. Several District hospitals are beyond use, so they operate out of tents. The challenge the Jesuits can best meet is in education, helping as we can to get schools running well. Hopefully we can free a few Jesuits from other important ministry to stay several months in the villages we help, to especially provide moral support to the people there.

S+L: What have you learned about the Nepali people through this tragedy?

Fr. Robins: Stoic determination: None have experienced such an earthquake, but have all faced challenges most of us could hardly bear: mothers giving birth to eight or ten children and loosing half of them to disease, crops lost due to drought or floods, landslides taking away fields, land, and sometimes houses.

A sense of humour: A smile is generally on a Nepali face. They deal with sorrow or hurt, and move on, looking ahead.

The Jesuits first went to Nepal in 1951 and set up projects gradually over the years, among them the St. Xavier Social Centre in 1970. In 1997, they opened a parish and two schools, including Moran Memorial School for the children from a neighboring tea estate.  To support the Jesuits in Nepal and the earthquake relief effort, visit Canadian Jesuits International or call 1.800.448.2148


Fr. Bill baptizes a Nepali child at Gyalthung, Sindupalchow District.

New POV episode airs tonight on S+L


Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect is a S+L series that goes deeper into the important questions surrounding the person and pontificate of Pope Francis. The series consists of a selection of the full interviews from S+L’s original documentary The Francis Effect.

Tonight: Fr. James Martin SJ and Dr. Philip Berger

In this episode of Point of View, we hear from two men who share their unique thoughts on Pope Francis and how he’s reaching out and affecting so many different people.

Everyone remembers the famous “Jesuit interview” with Pope Francis that was published in September of 2013. Fr. James Martin, SJ, Editor-at-Large for America Magazine in New York City is the man who first proposed the idea to his colleagues, and then collaborated with the Jesuit journal in Rome to get it done.

For Fr. Martin, the interview was a glimpse into the real Francis, his personality, faith and perspective on the Church. This kind of openness and accessibility is authentically Francis, according to Fr. Martin, who received a personal thank-you letter from the Pope after sending him his latest books published in Spanish. “He started the letter by saying “Dear brother”, and I thought that was beautiful because we’re brother Jesuits, and I think most bishops or cardinals would write, “Dear father”, but he writes, “Dear brother, thank you for sending me these books.” Fr. Martin tells the whole story and comments further on the “Jesuit-ness” of Francis in this interview.

Part two of this episode is my interview with Dr. Philip Berger, Medical Director with the Inner City Health Program at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and the Co-founder of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. Dr. Berger’s professional life has been dedicated to the ongoing fight for proper health care for refugees in Canada, an uphill battle, he says, because of recent policy changes under the current federal government.

“I’m sure that Pope Francis’ statements on refugees are helping all the refugee advocates in Canada who are attempting to make Canada a safe place for refugees, as it has been in the past,” he says.

Dr. Berger, who is Jewish, sees in Pope Francis a much needed global moral voice for the poor and marginalized. He is so impressed with the current leader of the Catholic Church for “his refusal to make severe judgments on people, even people whose activities may be anathema to the Catholic Church.” This approach, he says, “humanizes the Pope and brings his teachings down to the street level, which is really where they should penetrate.”

Dr. Berger’s testimony as a medical doctor and concerned citizen sheds light on the immense value of the Catholic Church’s moral voice in this day and age, particularly with Pope Francis, who is undoubtedly a Pope for the entire human family.

Watch Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect
Airs Wednesday, June 17, 2015
9:00 pm ET / 6:00 pm PT
Only on Salt and Light Television (check schedule for repeats)

Few embodied lay leadership in the Canadian church more than Romeo Maione


(Romeo Maione, the first Executive Director of Development and Peace and a lifelong social activist died on May 12th, 2015.  Photo courtesy of Development and Peace.)

It’s often said of the major developments in the history of the Catholic Church that it takes decades, even centuries, to fully comprehend their significance and put them into practice.  We often hear this regarding the teachings of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s.

Yet, it is too simplistic to say that Catholics are only now beginning to realize what the Council was about and what it means for our faith community in the modern world.  Such a claim, though generally accurate in my opinion, fails to recognize the prophetic witness of many individual bishops, priests, religious and lay men and women who, stirred by the Spirit, courageously implemented the teachings of the Council in its immediate wake.

In Canada, no one understood or embodied the teachings of the Council better than Romeo Maione, the first executive director of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP), commonly known as Development and Peace, serving in that capacity from 1967-1973.  Maione, a lifelong advocate for justice, solidarity and the Church’s preferential option for the poor, passed away in Ottawa last month on May 12th at the age of ninety.

Born and raised in Montreal to Italian parents, Maione received only a grade school education before becoming an industrial worker.  In 1950 at the age of 25 he joined the Young Christian Workers, a lay movement founded by Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn in response to the harsh and unjust labor conditions of industrial work at the time.  The movement became very strong in Quebec, building close relationships with trade unions.  Maione, an impassioned young Catholic, quickly rose to the top of the national movement and in 1957 was elected as the international president of the Young Christian Workers.

In 1962 he became assistant director of the Social Action Department of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), and through the 60’s and 70’s held various positions in the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), served as the president of the World Assembly of Youth, and worked as a union representative.  In 1987 he was invited to participate in the Synod of Bishops on the Laity at the Vatican, where he had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II.

Maione’s wealth of international organizational experience and ability to speak fluent English, French and Italian made him the perfect candidate to lead Development and Peace as it was taking off in the years following Vatican II.

The Canadian Bishops had returned from the Council with an entirely new perspective on the world.  During the four years the Council was in session they encountered other Bishops from Latin America, Africa and Asia who shared the life experiences of their people and articulated the need for action on behalf of justice between the wealthier and poorer nations, and across cultures.

The key to the Council’s vision of social justice, solidarity and a preferential option for the poor was human dignity.  What became apparent in the thinking of the hierarchy was the centrality of the dignity of the other, who, in a globalized world, often looked, thought and believed differently than traditional Eurocentric Catholicism.  Bishop Alex Carter of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was president of the CCCB in 1967 when Development and Peace began and later recalled the Council experience in this way:

“I doubt whether many of us returned from the Council unaware that we faced a challenge which could only be answered in the Canadian church with a new vision, new forms of social action and, where necessary, a new vehicle if we were to translate this into action.”

That new vehicle became Development and Peace, a democratic movement for international solidarity pursuing alternatives to unjust social, political and economic structures.  In Development and Peace, the Bishops of Canada created a structure with real lay leadership, something the Council explicitly called for if the Church was to fulfill its mission to help build the Kingdom of God.  If the Church was to be present and active in building a better world, the lay faithful had to do it; this was their baptismal responsibility.

Romeo Maione took this challenge to heart.  He asked how Development and Peace could educate lay Catholics in Canada about their baptismal responsibility.  Part of that education was redefining the commonly held view of charity and the donor-recipient relationship.  For Maione, the notion of rich people simply giving to poor people without building a mutual relationship or working to free others to participate in their own development only perpetuated the oppression and domination that was afflicting the world of that time in the form of unjust social, political and economic structures.

Under Maione’s leadership, Development and Peace would stress this educational component designed to change the perspective of Canadian Catholics so that the poor were seen, not as helpless victims, but as victims of unjust structures who were capable of developing their own dignified lives and communities. The poor, in fact, were the primary arbitrators of their own development.  It was the role of wealthier countries, like Canada, to build partnerships to allow for this organic development.

Looking back on the life of Romeo Maione and fifty years of Development and Peace in Canada, it is remarkable how much good has been accomplished. Countless individuals and communities in the Global South have raised themselves up because of the partnerships fostered through the organization, and many Canadians have learned much about what it means to put the Catholic faith into action. But beyond this, the vision and faith of Romeo Maione, and others of his generation, helped create an unrivaled standard of lay, democratic Catholic organizational leadership here in Canada. That is something the Canadian church should remember and be very proud of, as the Fathers of Vatican II undoubtedly would be.


(Maione shakes hands with Pope John Paul II during the Synod of Bishops on the Laity in 1987.  Photo courtesy of Development and Peace)


On Further Reflection

In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation.  For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice of dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society.  Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for S+L TV.

“Pope Francis brings hope to Mid-East Christians and Muslims,” says CNEWA president


Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect is an S+L series that goes deeper into the important questions surrounding the person and pontificate of Pope Francis. The series consists of a selection of the full interviews from S+L’s original documentary The Francis Effect.

Tonight: Msgr. John Kozar

Monsignor John Kozar is all too familiar with the various conflicts in the Middle East and the stories of the millions of victims they produce. He runs the Catholic Near East Welfare Association that works with Eastern Churches to provide relief aid and promote local development. It’s tempting, says the Monsignor, to think of the Middle East as lost and hopeless. And that’s exactly where Pope Francis comes in. The Pope, he says, has brought new hope to many—both Christians and Muslims—by his sincere concern for all human suffering and especially for those on the margins. The question is, can one man really make a difference?  Find out in this in-depth interview with Msgr. John Kozar, airing tonight for the first time on S+L TV.

Watch Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect
Airs Wednesday, June 10, 2015
9:00 pm ET / 6:00 pm PT
Only on Salt and Light Television (check schedule for repeats)

The development equation: church teaching on the New Evangelization


When we talk about a development in church tradition or teaching, we are talking about a phenomenon that has taken place within Christianity from the very beginning. Even the varying articulations of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we find in the four Gospels represent a development as such: the written narratives were built on the oral tradition of the first Christian communities that was built on the witness of the Apostles that was built on the experience and teachings of Jesus. (The 1964 instruction by the Pontifical Biblical Commission on The Historical Truth of the Gospels is an excellent tool for understanding this three-stage development.)

More recently, since the election of Pope Francis, there has been much discussion about possible development in the areas of the church’s pastoral response to divorced and remarried Catholics and its teaching on the environment.  The Pope’s forthcoming encyclical and the October general Synod of Bishops on the family will serve to clarify these heated discussions.

There is another area of the church’s teaching that may be less “juicy” then the above mentioned but still provokes this discussion of development. It is the church’s contemporary tagline, “the New Evangelization.” Everyone in the Catholic world has heard about it and a lot of great work is being done at the grassroots level to put it into action.

It is a decidedly modern initiative, based on the church’s experience of the realities of our present time. It can be traced back to Vatican Council II, but Pope John Paul II conceived of it, Pope Benedict XVI refined and promoted it—especially through the 2012 Synod—and now Pope Francis has effectively put it into action.

Interestingly, Pope Francis has not spoken much about “the New Evangelization,” though anyone who listened to what Pope Benedict said about it can see the obvious parallels between the words of one pope and the actions of another.

But last week Pope Francis met with the staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and shared his thoughts on the subject:

            “This is what people today expect from the Church: that she be able to walk with them offering the company of the witness of faith, which renders one in solidarity with all, in particular with those most alone and marginalized. How many poor—also poor in the faith—await the Gospel that liberates! How many men and women, in the existential peripheries generated by the consumer, atheist society, await our closeness and our solidarity! The Gospel is the proclamation of the love of God that, in Jesus Christ, calls us to participate in his life. Hence, the New Evangelization is this: to be aware of the merciful love of the Father so that we also become instruments of salvation for our brothers.

This rich description of the New Evangelization represents a deepening of previously articulated magisterial teachings. We can clearly see the “Francis” accents: emphasis on the poor, on accompanying people and on the mercy of God.  These are matters of emphasis, yes, but also of development. And taken together with the reflections of Pope Benedict and JPII, a clearer picture of this thing we call “the New Evangelization” takes shape.

It was JPII who recognized the need for a re-articulation of the fundamentals of the faith in a rapidly changing modern world. It was Benedict who explicitly linked the content of the New Evangelization with the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  Now Francis has put his finger—as he often does—on the heart of the matter, namely, an experience of God’s mercy.

We can say that all the pieces seem to have come together. Back in 1962 Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican Council by shifting the emphasis from an attitude of condemnation to one of mercy, saying nowadays, “The Bride of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” Francis has said essentially the same thing.

 In all of this we can see an organic development in the church’s teaching on evangelization in the world today.  As pieces fall into place a more complete picture emerges. There is a pattern within this process of development that always considers these three variables: 1) how the truth of the Gospel can be 2) interpreted in light of the particular historical moment 3) over a period of time. This is the “equation” for development in the church and it is a fascinating thing to watch at this particular historical moment.

SebastianGOn Further Reflection

In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation.  For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice of dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society.  Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for S+L TV.