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Cardinal Wuerl: “We have succeeded in electing a pastor.”


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.

This week: Cardinal Donald Wuerl

On the evening of February 28th, 2013, the world watched the historic departure and official resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The atmosphere in Rome was somber, and everyone felt a little empty and anxious. As part of our coverage that night I had the opportunity to interview Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, who had generously made himself available to the media.

I asked him, “How do you feel?! Having witnessed all of this, knowing Pope Benedict well, and now turning to the daunting task of electing his successor?” To my surprise, he looked at me and smiled and said confidently, “I have so much hope at this moment! What Pope Benedict has taught us through this incredibly humble gesture, is that we can and should do things differently—that we don’t have to be afraid, because the Lord is with us.”

The next time I saw Cardinal Wuerl he was doing an interview with Scott Pelley of CBS, minutes after Pope Francis had appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s for the first time. It was cold and late on March 13th; the Cardinal was in a satellite studio at the North American College and I was watching Scott conduct the live interview from their studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square. Scott, knowing that he couldn’t get a detailed play-by-play of the election, asked the Cardinal what he and the others had accomplished. The Cardinal, who looked exhausted yet relieved, smiled enthusiastically and said, “We have succeeded in electing a pastor.”

The Church and the world have experienced the “Francis effect” for two years now, and there’s no sign of the Pope slowing down anytime soon. There are many Catholics around the world who have come alive or found a second wind because of his ministry. One of them is Cardinal Wuerl, the pastor and teacher who, as you will see, speaks with conviction and clarity; a shepherd who is close to the people and equally close to Francis; a witness to the joy of the Gospel.

Watch Episode 9 of Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect
Airs Sunday, March 1, 2015
pm ET / 6:00pm PT
Only on Salt and Light Television.

Freedom and authority: not just a church matter pt. 1


A perennial and penetrating question exists within the Catholic Church that goes to the very heart of its institutional being, namely the freedom of individual conscience vis-à-vis authority in the Church. In terms of expressing one’s conscience, the question might be put this way: what are the limits to public opinion within the Church considering that she insists on adherence to central teachings and at the same time upholds and promotes the freedom of each person’s conscience? (CCC, 1782)

This question arose in a dramatic way five-hundred years ago around the criticisms of the Augustinian monk Martin Luther. Naturally, church authorities responded defensively. They couldn’t have predicted what was to come: a veritable tsunami of religious and social reform in the name of freedom that was hitherto unimaginable in the medieval world. The religious, social, cultural and political effects of the Protestant Reformation have been felt up to this day.

The Catholic Church came to terms with the reality of this question—at least officially—at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. In the revolutionary constitution on the Church in the Modern World we find statements that express this development clearly, for example:

Let it be recognized that all the faithful, whether clerics or laity, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and of expressing their mind with humility and courage in those matters on which they enjoy competence.” (62)

Yet, in the five decades since the Council the question of public opinion in the Catholic Church has not gone away. St. John Paul II was pope for half of that period of time, and opinions among the faithful vary as to the degree to which he implemented and embodied this particular teaching of the Council.

One very clear articulation of his belief in it came in a 1995 encyclical called Ut unum sint (On the Commitment to Ecumenism)—a document that gets far too little publicity in the Catholic world but is indispensable for understanding contemporary ecumenism, and more immediately, the bureaucratic reforms of Pope Francis and the manner in which he exercises the Petrine ministry.

John Paul was conscious of the long and painful history of separation between Christians dating back to the Protestant Reformation and beyond. As a Council Father, he was also conscious of the deep and sincere desire for Christian unity expressed by Pope John XXIII and the vast majority of his brother bishops. Reflecting on the difficult work for unity in ut unum sint, he wrote:

“I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.” (95)

To “find a way of exercising the primacy which is… open to a new situation” implies taking an honest and critical look at how it has been exercised up to this point, which in turn raises the question of freedom of expression of those within the Church who wish to offer their critique. The gravity of the question is even more pronounced when we realize that the “primacy” John Paul referred to is not some peripheral teaching, but a fundamental Catholic doctrine.

In his analysis of ut unum sint, Archbishop John Quinn dove into this question of criticism in the Catholic Church, pointing out the long history of disagreement between popes, bishops and the faithful and its implications for today:

“To attempt to create the illusion of unanimity or even consensus where it does not exist and cannot exist is to run the risk of diminishing the moral authority and credibility of the Church. To portray all criticism and disagreement as disloyalty or lack of faith is a grave injustice.” (The Reform of the Papacy)

In light of all this, one can appreciate the import of raising the question of freedom of expression vis-à-vis authority in the Church regarding ecumenism. But as I said above, this is a perennial and penetrating question and therefore transcends any one topic.

It’s fascinating, for example, to look through this lens at the current debate going on in the Church about marriage and family life. I say “debate” quite intentionally because that is exactly what it is. I don’t wish to get into the nuances of each argument. More broadly though, what is truly fascinating is not that the debate is taking place, but that it was sought and initiated by the pope—Pope Francis. He said explicitly at the close of last October’s synod on the family that, “I would be very worried and saddened… if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace.” (Read the address here)

A strong argument could be made that the approach of Pope Francis to the question of marriage and family life today is similar to the approach of Pope John Paul to the question of exercising the primacy back in 1995. Both expressed a desire for openness and honesty in a discussion on matters of grave import. The difference with Pope Francis—and this might account for the sense of novelty we feel—is that he communicates so clearly for all to understand.

The result of Francis’ unambiguous call for open discussion and debate on marriage and family life has been exactly that: open discussion and debate. Suddenly those who—for whatever reason—had previously tempered their call for an honest examination of the issue, now feel empowered to speak. Those who are fearful of any change to the current understanding of the Church’s teaching are equally vocal. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the end, but it is evident that the debate is a fruit of the seeds planted at the Council after a long and tumultuous history, nurtured by John Paul in his own way, and now growing rather quickly under Francis. A development, not in theory or doctrine, but in practice is taking place regarding this question of freedom of expression in the Catholic Church. As the saying goes, the toothpaste is out of the tube.

It was necessary to reflect briefly on this question inside the Catholic Church in order to be able to reflect on it outside as well. Freedom of expression vis-à-vis authority within a civil society is an equally weighty matter, and it happens to be front and center right now as the Canadian government moves forward with bill C-51 that would grant extraordinary powers to CSIS and the RCMP in their battle against domestic terrorism. For Canadians, questions of individual liberty and freedom of expression have been thrust on the table. What are we to make of the Conservatives’ approach to this discussion? How can the Church’s experience on the matter inform the debate? As the story develops, I will reflect on those questions next week…

+Chaput: “Pope Francis is never going to be tamed, nor should he be”


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.

This week: Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap.

If you have never heard of Archbishop Charles Chaput, that is about to change. The former archbishop of Denver and current archbishop of Philadelphia is hosting the upcoming World Meeting of Families and the first visit of Pope Francis to the United States in September. He has also been selected from among the American bishops to represent the United States at the 2015 Synod of Bishops that will conclude the Pope’s two-stage synod on the challenges to family life.

Archbishop Chaput is known in Catholic circles for his strong advocacy of traditional Catholic values especially relating to marriage, family life and the dignity of every person including the unborn. He is also a Franciscan friar who has embraced a life of poverty and simplicity—a life he holds in common with the current Pope. In this full interview from S+L’s documentary The Francis Effect, Archbishop Chaput speaks about the changes that he sees Pope Francis initiating in his reform of the Church and reflects on the response of Catholics in a time when some are feeling unsettled.

Watch Episode 8 of Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect

Airs Sunday, February 22, 2015

8:30 pm ET / 5:30 pm PT

Only on Salt and Light Television.

When death is at the doorstep: martyrdom and euthanasia in the Church


It’s always difficult to say something about a subject that has not affected you in a particularly personal way. Nevertheless, death is a subject that is before us these days as a community of faith and as a society as a whole, and therefore warrants some reflection.

I’d like to comment on two recent events in particular. On February 3, Pope Francis declared Oscar Romero, the beloved Salvadoran archbishop, a martyr for the Catholic faith. A few days later on February 6, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that physician-assisted suicide is permissible, thus overturning the law prohibiting such deliberate medical action.

From within the Catholic Church came radically different responses to these two developments. To the news of Romero’s official martyrdom, Catholics everywhere rejoiced. The man who so many already considered a saint because of his heroic stance in defense of the dignity of the poor expressed in defiance of a tyrannical right-wing government, will be recognized in death for his Gospel witness.

In stark contrast, the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling sparked a unified outcry from the Catholic community in Canada and beyond in the form of a categorical defense of life, even of those suffering from “grievous and irremediable medical conditions.”

The people of our time may perceptively wonder how it is possible for such opposing responses to be reconciled in a single creed. Was not Archbishop Romero conscious of the likelihood of his death in speaking out against the Salvadorian government, and thus, in a way freely welcoming his own death? How is that different, they may ask, from a person who is suffering from an irremediable state of life, often in similar and sincere contemplation of their very existence, choosing to die and receiving medical assistance to do so?

It is a profound and difficult question, but not one that has escaped the mind and heart of the Catholic Church over the course of history. After all, martyrdom for the faith has been a reality from the beginning of the Christian movement. In Luke the Evangelist’s portrayal of the 1st century martyrdom of St. Stephen we find many similarities to the story of Romero twenty centuries later.

Of martyrdom the Church officially states that it is, “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.” (CCC, 2473)

But to look specifically at the question posed, namely what accounts for the difference between the Catholic responses to Romero’s death and the court decision to legalize euthanasia, we must attempt to explain the principle of paradox that has been infused into the Christian message from the very beginning.

In one sense, the person today who suffers from an irremediable state of life and wishes to end it is expressing a belief that the negative consequences of choosing to endure—prolonged suffering of all kinds or financial pressure on family members, for example—outweigh the prospect of living. It’s impossible to imagine the weight of such an examination of conscience, but people have done it and made the decision to die.

From the Catholic perspective, as witnessed to by the lives of the martyrs, the willingness to die comes as the result, not of a conviction that death is the better choice, but that rather that life is. And this is the paradox. The martyr is not a person who chooses death because it is an option, but one who will endure death for the belief that life is the only option. In Romero’s case, he chose life for the poor people of El Salvador so vehemently that he paid the price with his own life.

Now that the Supreme Court has made its decision, the Catholic Church must voice its opposition to the law in favor of the dignity of all life. At the same time, it is essential that the Church do everything in its power to accompany—as Pope Francis would say—those struggling with such decisions and avoid an attitude of judgment that would not do justice to the Church’s insistence on the dignity and respect for every human being. Whether they are struggling with the decision to end their life or struggling for survival from a tyrannical dictator, the dignity of each person and the respect for the conscience of each person must be the priority of Catholics if we are to be faithful to the Gospel.

CNS photo/Octavio Duran

“Pope Francis is great, but what do you really think?”


Photo: Three of the four participants on the closing panel of the 2015 De Mazenod Conference were Canadians.  From left to right: Fr. Thomas Rosica, Sebastian Gomes, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and Fr. Ronald Rolheiser discuss the Francis effect on the Catholic Church. (S+L: Feb. 1, 2015)

This past weekend I had the privilege of addressing the 2015 De Mazenod Conference, held at the Oblate Renewal Center, on the campus of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.  It was a stimulating and spirit-filled event that brought members of the Missionary Oblate Partnership together from across the country to discuss Pope Francis and his visionary exhortation The Joy of the Gospel.

We began the conference with a screening of S+L’s documentary The Francis Effect, in which an entire chapter is dedicated to what we called “the blueprint,” that is, Francis’ apostolic exhortation.  The film received a very positive response from the group and it set the tone for our further reflections on Francis.

Over the course of the weekend a number of themes came up: Francis’ vision of the Church as a field hospital after battle; his impact on the recent Synod of Bishops on the family; questions about authentic joy and the value of doubts, as well as specific issues like the role of women in the Church and engagement with younger generations.

By the end of the weekend we still had many unanswered questions, of course.  And one in particular struck me and is worth further reflection.  It is the question of why most Catholics seem to respond positively to Pope Francis and why a smaller, though significant number is sincerely critical of some of the things he says and does.

The general response of the conference participants to the Pope was overwhelmingly positive.  It should be pointed out, too, that the conference was in no way made up of individuals who share one particular ideological position.  And so it was interesting to watch the particular discussions develop and almost inevitably turn to the question I just posed. photo2

The Archbishop of San Antonio is Gustavo García-Siller, who celebrated Mass with us and joined our panel discussion on the final day of the conference.  In his homily he took an earnest stand in defense of church unity—not unity among the Christian traditions, but specifically unity among Roman Catholics.  In his mind, the conversation about Pope Francis that is taking place everywhere in the Church these days cannot ignore the ensuing reactions that seem to expose a chasm between those who believe the Pope is doing exactly what we need today and those who—to put it delicately—do not.

We Catholics have a long and tumultuous history, where individuals have been excommunicated and even executed for their disobedience to the popes and their challenges to the Church’s teachings.  We do, after all, boldly claim a consistent belief through the epochs of history back to the Apostles who were the closest confidantes of Jesus.  No one should expect the historical journey of our community to be without some major scandals.

Yet we claim a consistent belief and a body of teachings.  And all of that weight of the apostolic tradition bears down on the shoulders of sincere believers and everyone feels the pressure of it when the topic of Pope Francis arises.  It matters little whether you are happy about his ministry or not, his two years in office have put the question of fidelity to our two-thousand-year-old tradition on the table.

But why?  There are a number of specific cases that we can look at to see the effects of this.  Notably among them was the Pope’s famous, “Who am I to judge?” comment on the plane back from Rio de Janeiro in 2013, and more recently his desire for an open and honest discussion of Catholic family life at the Synod of Bishops that, according to some, caused confusion and threatened what is believed to be unchangeable Church teaching on marriage.

Generally speaking, the divergent reactions among Catholics to these kinds of comments and gestures by the Pope hinge on a fixed understanding of the nature of the Church, and more specifically on the nature of reform in the Church.  Pope Francis is a reforming pope; there is no doubt about it.  For those who fear reform, therefore, the freewheeling pontificate of Francis must be challenging, if not unbearable.  Resistance should be expected.

There was an insightful book written in the late 90’s called, The Reform of the Papacy by the former Archbishop of San Francisco John Quinn.  Quinn traces the attitude of resistance to reform back to the Reformation of the 16th century.  The Protestant Reformers, he says, “used the word “reform” to include rejection of the papacy, rejection of the priesthood, the Mass, the intercession of Our Lady and the saints, monastic and religious life, and other things.” No wonder, he continues, that after the Reformation, “discomfort with use of the word “reform” and grim resistance to criticism developed within the Catholic Church.”

In his reflection on the beginnings of the Reformation, Chesterton noted that prior to it the differences of opinion between Catholics were always a matter of emphasis.  Some stressed “the idea of the impotence of man before God, the omniscience of God about the destiny of man, the need for holy fear and the humiliation of intellectual pride [which Chesterton associates with the thought of St. Augustine], more than the opposite and corresponding truths of free will or human dignity or good works [St. Thomas Aquinas].”  But, he continues, “a time was coming when emphasizing the one side was to mean flatly contradicting the other.”  He was referring, of course, to the official schism between the Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

If we jump forward 500 years to the recent Synod of Bishops, for example, we find modern topics of dispute around the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life.  Unlike the Reformation period, today it is the Pope himself who is responsible for opening and encouraging the discussion.  It is the same with other comments he makes; the reactions, both positive (hopeful) and negative (fearful), are related to the degree to which one believes a particular change will come about.

Ironically, the source of fear among Catholics who want no change in doctrine is simultaneously the source of frustration among Catholics who hope for it.  The truth is that Pope Francis has neither obliged the latter group, nor conceded to the former.  In other words, he hasn’t changed a single doctrine or teaching of the Catholic Church.  Perspective is of the essence today.  If you read the Pope’s final address to the Synod of Bishops last October, you will see clearly that he does not believe in a Church where emphasizing the one side means flatly contradicting the other.

Perhaps there is something to be said about our differences of opinions in terms of emphasis.  Yes, the Pope is emphasizing mercy and forgiveness before the rules and regulations.  Yes, he is emphasizing mission and evangelization before catechesis.  Yes, he is emphasizing the Church’s pastoral outreach above concern for its own institutional security.  But he is not, in any way, rejecting, dismissing or contradicting those teachings of the Church that are essential to the Christian Faith.

More than anything else, the memory of the Reformation should provoke Catholics to a deeper and humbler dialogue with each other, and an awareness of the beauty and fragility of our communion.  The words of Vatican II still ring true:

It happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. (Gaudium et Spes, 43)

Now or never: urgency needed in run-up to Synod 2015


When in October 2013 the Vatican announced the first ever two-stage Synod of Bishops, many in the Catholic Church were hopeful about the possibilities of an in-depth discussion and consultation. After all, a year in between the two Synods is a lot of time, right?

Not necessarily. The Vatican didn’t publish the Lineamenta—a discussion guideline consisting of the final document of the October Synod and a series of questions looking at particular family issues—until over one month after the Synod, on December 9th, 2014. At that time, the Vatican also requested that responses from the Bishops’ conferences on behalf of the local churches be submitted to Rome no later than April 15th.

In Toronto, where Salt and Light is headquartered, Cardinal-Archbishop Thomas Collins invited “a concise response” to the Lineamenta from concerned Catholics with a submission deadline of February 16th. Time is needed, obviously, to organize the responses and send them to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) where the Conference will then need time to organize the responses from around the country.

Though the Archdiocese of Toronto is unique in terms of its size and complexity, we can assume that other dioceses find themselves in the same boat. Suffice it to say, the preparing of the Lineamenta, its wide dissemination and the three-tier organization of material from the local level up to the Vatican quickly turn “one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment,” into only a few weeks of actual discussion and consultation of Catholics in the local churches.

In a sense, no one can be blamed for this. The genuine desire of Pope Francis for real consultation involving the whole Church has been deflated by the reality of a complex bureaucratic system that is characteristic of any global institution. But perhaps a greater focus could be on the discussion and consultation rather than the organization of the material.

There are other challenges, including creating for people a “protected space so that the Holy Spirit may speak,” as the Pope likes to say about the Synods. In other words, conducting an effective and in-depth discussion/reflection even at the parish level is no walk in the park—many parishes have never done that. Considering these limitations, it would be easier to do nothing. But that cannot be the response of Catholics at an historic moment like this. In his landmark document on evangelization today, Pope Francis wrote:

“Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way.” I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 33)

There are two key points to be made here: first, the emphasis on thinking outside of the box. It’s clear; an attitude towards the Synod and this consultation of the People of God which reflects the status quo at the parish or diocesan level is not acceptable. Second, the link between this consultation and evangelization. The Pope is speaking about “pastoral ministry in a missionary key,” which we may not naturally attribute to a Synod consultation. But a process like this is as much about evangelizing ourselves—changing the way we think about being church—as it is about sharing our experiences of family life today.

All of this to speak a word of encouragement to Catholics participating in—or thinking of starting—a conversation around the Synod document at their parish, school or other community. The challenges are many and the timeline is short, but this is also a learning process for every community; “synod” literally means “journeying together.” “Even a bad shot is dignified when one accepts a duel,” as Chesterton wrote. Rest assured, if you consider the direction in which the Church is going, it won’t be the last consultation.  When the reality suggests we’re nowhere close to perfecting the process, practice is exactly what is needed.  Even if deadlines are missed.

The Pope has said clearly that there are only three authoritative documents to consider during this church-wide consultation: The Lineamenta, the Message to the People of God and the Pope’s final address to the Synod Fathers on October 18th. For those who wish to go a bit deeper, S+L provides you with a complete list of related documents on the Synod of Bishops on the Family:

Important texts for discussion/reflection on the Synod of Bishops on the Family


1) Lineamenta (Dec. 2014)

2) Message to the People of God (Oct. 2014)

3) Pope Francis’ final address to the Synod (Oct. 2014)


4) Pope Francis’ homily during the concluding Mass of the Synod (Oct. 2014)

5) Midterm report (Oct. 2014)

6) Pope Francis’ opening address to the Synod (Oct. 2014)

7) Pope Francis’ homily during the opening Mass of the Synod (Oct. 2014)

8) Pope Francis’ homily during the prayer vigil for the Synod (Oct. 2014)

9) Instrumentum Laboris for the Extraordinary Synod (June 2014)

10) Cardinal Kasper addresses consistory (Feb. 2014)

11) Pope Francis’ letter to families (Feb. 2014)

It’s worth taking another look at the “Asian Pope Francis”


For those who watched or witnessed the recent papal visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines, it’s impossible not to have noticed the involvement of Manila’s archbishop, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle. Tagle is easily the most popular Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and not just among Filipinos. He’s been likened to Pope Francis, in wide popularity, yes, but also in his humble demeanor, authenticity and strong pastoral sense.

Much has been written about Tagle since his ordination as bishop in 2001 (now 57, he was a youthful 43 at the time. In comparison, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made bishop at 56). His appointment as Cardinal in November of 2012 came as a surprise because of his age, but even more significant was the context of that unusual consistory. A month earlier during the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would appoint six new cardinals, which in hindsight, we know was a preemptive move leading up to his resignation on February 28th, 2013. Pope Benedict obviously wanted Tagle in the conclave.

In Pope Francis’ four day trip to the Philippines, nothing was more astonishing than the final Mass he celebrated with six-million-plus faithful Filipinos in rainy conditions. It was a record-breaking spectacle. At the end of the Mass the local bishop spoke a few words of thanks, as is the tradition, and since the celebration took place in Manila, the honor went to Cardinal Tagle.

After thanking the Pope on behalf of the people, Tagle said:

“You arrived in the Philippines three days ago. Tomorrow you will go. Every Filipino wants to go with you! Don’t be afraid, every Filipino wants to go with you—not to Rome—but to the peripheries! We want to go with you to the shanties, to prison cells, to hospitals, to the world of politics, finance, arts, sciences, culture, education, and social communications. We will go to those worlds to bring the light of Christ. Jesus is the center of your pastoral visit and the cornerstone of the Church. We will go with you, Holy Father, where the Light of Jesus is needed. Here in Luneta, the Qurino Grandstand, where heroes are revered, where newly elected presidents take office and popes meet the Filipino people; here in this place of new beginnings, please Holy Father, send us as your missionaries of light! Send us! Before you go, Holy Father, send us to spread the light of Jesus. Wherever you see the light of Jesus shining, even in Rome, even in Santa Marta, remember the Filipino people are with you in spreading the light of Jesus!”

As Cardinal Tagle spoke, he and the Pope looked at each other with great affection. There was a sense of emotion that could be felt, and it was clear to everyone that this was not a meeting of formal protocol, but a meeting of minds and hearts.

The Cardinal’s words are worth noting. They were a clear pronouncement of solidarity with the Pope and his vision of a church with Christ at its center that lives on the peripheries. The roller-coaster pontificate of Pope Francis has shown that that message is not easy to digest for some Catholics, let alone to shout from the rooftops as Tagle did.

But, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Tagle took such a stand with the current Pontiff. Yes, his humility, authenticity and pastoral sense can be likened to Francis. But Tagle has been around for a lot longer than Pope Francis. In other words, the song that Francis is singing is one Tagle knows the words to.

For example, at the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization Tagle quickly became a major player. His intervention was one of the shortest and most direct, and helped shift the discussion away from a critique of secularism, materialism and the like, to one of genuine self-reflection. He called for a Church that is more humble; a Church that is respectful of every person, especially the neglected; a Church that has the capacity for silence, knowing it does not possess the answer to every problem facing the human family. “The world,” he said, “takes delight in a simple witness to Jesus—meek and humble of heart.”

Last October during the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I had the chance to interview Tagle after the publication of the infamous “midterm report”. The report, which used unprecedented language of inclusion and welcome regarding people with a homosexual orientation, was criticized by some bishops who wanted to critique and amend it prior to its publication.

In our interview, Tagle defended the content of the document and praised the “spirit” and “creative tension” it communicated, feeling that it was faithful to the week-one discussions. When I asked him about the spirit inside the Synod, he called it, “a spirit of listening… which led me to a rather humble stance.” This humility, he continued, reminded the bishops that the situations families find themselves in today are often complex. Juxtaposed to the ideals of the Church’s tradition, Tagle finished by asking, “Can we allow these two realities to intersect, and allow the [Holy] Spirit to surprise us?”

I reference this last quote in order to bring us back to the original thought: the parallels between Cardinal Tagle and Pope Francis. In his homily during the closing Mass of the Synod, at which Pope Paul VI was beatified, Pope Francis said in almost “Tagle-an” words:

“God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new”. A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”!”

With the powerful image of these two bishops in front of us, we might say that a good test of humility—and faith—is the degree to which we are open to and able to be surprised by God. In the context of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, that means precisely putting the reality of complex pastoral situations in dialogue with the Church’s tradition and allowing for new possibilities to emerge. What happens at part-two of the Synod in October and in the coming years is anybody’s guess; Tagle was re-appointed last November as one of the presidents for the 2015 Synod by Francis. What we do know is that with Cardinal Tagle, Pope Francis isn’t the only “voice crying out in the wilderness” (John 1:23)

The exception to the rule: Vatican diplomacy


Before departing for Sri Lanka on Monday, Pope Francis delivered his annual address to the diplomatic corps, providing an occasion for reflection on the matter of politics and the Church and more specifically—in light of the recent revelation of Vatican involvement in the easing of USA-Cuba relations—on the Catholic Church’s role in global politics.

2014 was a busy year for the Church diplomatically. One example was the signing of a new agreement with the government of Cape Verde on the juridical status of the Church in the predominantly Catholic island off the coast of West Africa. The deal grants a substantial degree of freedom to the Church in its charitable works and social influence. On April 3rd the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin called the deal a “historic event” and nine months later the Pope announced that in February of 2015 Bishop Arlindo Gomes Furtado will be made the first Cardinal in the country’s history.

As a general rule, foreign affairs and international diplomacy rank high on any government’s political and economic agendas. When it comes down to it, the highly complex and interdependent global economy of today can take much of the credit for that. But, as recent worldwide events of violence show, the question of security is also a factor.

The general unpredictability and instability of both economics and war/violence foster in governments an understandably defensive, if not selfish, attitude of national protectionism. It’s quite common, for example, in the aftermath of a significant incident that affects multiple nations, to hear a minister of foreign affairs, a secretary of state or a head of state say forcefully from the outset that, “we will act according to our nation’s best interests.”

Obviously, these interests will differ from nation to nation and even from one political party to another. But no degree of separation between parties would change that almost instinctual, political response of national protectionism that is a defining quality of the world of nation-states that we inhabit.

Well, almost. The Vatican is officially a nation-state, or more accurately a city-state, according to the 1929 Lateran Treaty signed with Italy that gave the Pope full sovereignty and jurisdiction over a small territory in the heart of Rome. It was a significant loss of territory, in fact—known historically as the ‘Papal States’—that was the price of this unequivocal sovereignty. At the time, the loss could be considered a great blow to the influence and prestige of the Catholic Church. But considering the complexity of our current global political reality, the signing of that treaty and the emergence of the modern Vatican City State could be seen as providential.

Consider the recent diplomatic efforts of the Vatican between long-time adversaries Cuba and the United States. Pope Francis took the initiative by sending heads of state Barack Obama and Raul Castro a letter calling for a closer, more open relationship, after which the Vatican in October hosted a delegation from each country to examine new possibilities. In separate December 17th press conferences the two presidents acknowledged the Vatican’s efforts and personally thanked Pope Francis.

Generally speaking, what has to be recognized today is the utter exceptionality of the Vatican City State as a voice in global politics. Granted, Vatican City State is not the same thing as the Holy See, that is, the primatial See or ‘chair’ of Roman Catholicism. As the pontificate of Pope Francis has demonstrated rather pointedly, the Bishop of Rome is primarily a pastoral office, concerned with serving the spiritual needs of Catholics around the world and presiding over the local churches in charity (See the Pope’s first address, March 13, 2013).

But, interestingly enough, it is exactly this pastoral mandate that in turn gives so much freedom and potential to the diplomatic arm of the Vatican City State. When we reasonably presume that the first words out of the mouth of a political leader regarding foreign affairs will be, “we will act according to our nation’s best interests,” we can also presume they would be the last words out of the mouth of the Pope. Because the “best interests” of the Church are simply the wellbeing and progress of the human family itself, it is able to mediate as a nation-state between nation-states in a uniquely trustworthy manner.

It would be a mistake to conclude, as some have done in the aftermath of the USA-Cuba announcement, that this kind of approach is entirely the result of “the Francis effect”. Granted, the impetus for easing restrictions between the US and Cuba may not have come at this time otherwise, the Vatican’s approach has been consistent for many years.

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI was received in Cuba by Raul Castro, and then met privately with his brother and former president Fidel Castro. He was blasted by political—and some Catholic—conservatives in the US for giving the communist brothers any time of day. Ahead of the trip Benedict did criticize communism as an ideology that doesn’t correspond to reality and has failed Cuba, but later denounced the 50-year-old US embargo for its “restrictive economic measures.”

In perhaps his most enlightening comments of the trip, Benedict said of the Church that, “We want to help in a spirit of dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move forward a society which is fraternal and just, which is what we desire for the whole world.”

That, in a nutshell, is what the Vatican and the whole Catholic Church strives for diplomatically. And if we read Pope Francis’ most recent address to the diplomatic corps and the disheartening list of tragedies and conflicts afflicting many parts of the world, we will see that the Church’s political know-how is not only unique, but absolutely essential.

The Francis effect is about ‘accountability and transparency,’ says Alison Smith


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.

This week: Alison Smith

Alison Smith is a renowned and highly respected journalist best known for her work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  She has covered important church events, including the visits of Pope John Paul II to Canada, his funeral in 2005, and the election of Pope Francis in 2013.  She posits that Pope Francis is changing the popular narrative around the Catholic Church, but that his work is still incomplete.  As an outside observer, she perceptively notes that the success of the Francis effect may not be determined solely by what the Pope does, but by what others do in response.  Questions, she says, still need to be asked.

Watch Episode 2 of Point of View: Interpreting the Francis Effect

Airs Sunday, January 11, 2015

8:30 pm ET / 5:30 pm PT

Only on Salt and Light Television

Director of JRS Syria: “We don’t have the right to do nothing”

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The Director of Jesuit Refugee Services in Syria, Fr. Nawras Sammour, SJ visited Toronto last week to speak about the ongoing civil war and refugee crisis plaguing his home country. The event, which was co-hosted by Canadian Jesuits International and Development and Peace, was held at the Jesuit parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in downtown Toronto.

Speaking to close to one hundred people gathered in the parish center, Fr. Sammour outlined the work of JRS Syria which includes emergency and ongoing medical care, and educational and psycho-social treatment. Their centers serve more than 35,000 families.

Echoing one of Pope Francis’ central teachings, Fr. Sammour said that “the most important work we can do is accompanying people. That is our primary responsibility.”

In a country torn apart by more than three years of political and religious sectarianism, the only response for JRS is to stand with those who suffer the most. “We are weak,” he said, “but being the weakest and the lowest is a grace in this regard: that nobody is threatened by us or afraid of us. And so we must use this grace to talk to everyone and try to build a better future for everyone.”

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Jesuit Refugee Services, which is supported in part financially by Development and Peace, does not consider religious or political affiliation when serving refugees. Anyone who is in need can come to their centers, where they will be served by professionals and volunteers who themselves come from diverse backgrounds.

“Parents come with their children and the parents are sick and hungry, but they are seeking care for their children first,” he said, “only on an airplane do you have to put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your children. In Syria the parents come and say, “Please, my children are hungry, help them first.””

While millions of Syrians have fled to neighboring Arab countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, Fr. Sammour reminded everyone that the largest group of displaced persons are still in Syria. They have been forced to flee their homes and move to less-violent areas, and their stories are often ignored or quickly forgotten.

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Against overwhelming odds and dwindling resources, JRS continues its work accompanying refugees in their daily struggles. “We don’t have the right to do nothing,” said Fr. Sammour.

“This is a civil war, but it’s not only a civil war. It is also political, economic and religious… The attitudes that are prevailing refuse to accept a ‘win-win’ situation. In their own minds, they have to win and everybody else has to lose. We are all losers in this catastrophe, the attitudes need to change.”

Jesuit Refugee Services link:

Development and Peace link: