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That moment when the Church was founded – #SLPilgrimage at Caesarea Philippi

The flush region of Caesarea Philipi is about an hour’s drive north of the Sea of Galilee.  It was given to Herod the Great by Caesar Augustus around 20 BCE, who in turn handed it down to his son Philip.  Philip named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar, and his own name eventually became associated with it, thus Caesarea Philipi.  But the region also has another ancient name, Paneas, because at the time of Jesus there was a thriving religious cult around the fertility god Pan.  The temple of the cult was built around one of three natural springs feeding the Jordan River.  To pagans, these types of natural springs were gateways to the netherworld or Hades.

Seb3The scene must have been bustling with worshipers of all kinds when Jesus and his disciples ventured up there from their usual hang out in Capernaum.  There they had a conversation that would forever shape the history of the Church.  Surrounded by statues and images of the ancient gods, Jesus poses a pointed question, “who do people say that I am?”  Peter replies confidently, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Son of the living God was an obvious rejection of the pagan cult and a vote of divine confidence in his teacher and friend.  Jesus’ pronouncement laid the foundation for the Petrine ministry embodied throughout history in the authority and primacy of the popes.  There are other suggestions of Peter’s primacy among the twelve in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, but this one is the most direct and consequential for how we understand the Petrine ministry.


Reading this conversation between Jesus and Peter two thousand years later on the ruins of the pagan temple, a deeper question surfaced: why Peter?  By all Gospel accounts, Peter was not the ablest or most reliable disciple.  Surely Jesus could have built his church on a sturdier foundation.  In his commentary of this historic conversation, G.K. Chesterton captures the paradoxical truth hidden in Jesus’ choice of Peter:

“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”

Sebastian Gomes is an English producer for Salt + Light.

The environment was calling, calling me!

wetlandIt’s “Laudato si’ Week”, an anniversary movement to celebrate and implement the landmark encyclical of Pope Francis on care for our common home. As the website indicates, this week is about reflection and action; it’s about bringing the rich teachings of the document to life in our communities.  Last week I heard a wonderful story that I wanted to share with our S+L readership.  I was teaching in the Summer Institute at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago; the course was on media and communications in the era of Pope Francis.  One of our class periods was dedicated entirely to Laudato si’ and how the Pope sees the ecological crisis as an opportunity to open lines of communication between countries and cultures.  During our discussion, one of the students, Maryellen Knuth shared this amazing story of Laudato si’ in action!

Let me preface this story by telling you that at the time I did not recognize this as a call.  I answered something that I felt deeply in my core, but I am not sure I could have expressed it in words at the time.

In 1999 I was disturbed by a soil testing truck that I saw out my kitchen window on the 88 acre wetland that backs up to our property.  I made some phone calls and found out that a housing developer was planning to build half million-dollar homes on that wetland.  Daily for almost three months I called neighbors, environmentalists, fish and wildlife preserves, conservation organizations and specialists, village trustees, forest preserve commissioners, and anybody I could find to help try to prevent the destruction of this beautiful piece of property, which was also a home to abundant wildlife.

What began as a disturbance in me quickly became a vision for the people living around the wetland, and they came together to save it.  We gathered in homes to strategize about how to fight the developer and the village, and to solicit the help of the forest preserve by bringing this piece of property to their attention as a piece of land they might be interested in purchasing.  We lived and sweated for that wetland as we educated ourselves about issue, made phone calls, obtained aerial photos of the area, circulated petitions to all four borders of the wetland, and attended each monthly village meeting for a year and a half.

The battle went into litigation, first circuit court (we lost and filed an appeal) and then appellate court.  I am proud to say that in February of 2004 (5 years later) we got word that the forest preserve was settling with the seller a fair price for the land.  The wetland had been saved!

Simply stated, I answered a call to be an advocate for the environment.  I didn’t really stop to think about it, I just acted on it, the call.  I think it was always part of me, no discernment was necessary, action started immediately.  I never said, “what if…”, “I don’t have time”, or “what will this entail?”  Answering the call quickly became a vision that was carried on many shoulders, embodied in the strong hearts of the people who fought for it.  People who didn’t know each other before came together in a remarkable way to realize that common vision.

My story can be summed up in a wonderful quote I had hanging on my back door along with my kids’ schoolwork.  I came across this quote in the midst of our battle for the wetland.  But it took on new meaning as we became the quote!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
Margaret Mead
Wetland (1)

Maryellen Knuth is the Director of the Emmaus Formation for Ministry Program for lay students studying advanced degrees at Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park, IL.  In 2005, she graduated with a MAPS degree from CTU.  She has been married for forty years, and has five children and four grandchildren. She lives on the edge of a preserved wetland in Bartlett, IL.

Woman and the Church: new episode of Subject Matters tackles the perennial question

Subject Matters: “Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity, and the Church”
Mary Hasson, editor
Sunday, June 19 at 8:30pmET / 5:30pm PT

This Sunday’s all-new episode of Subject Matters features Mary Hasson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.  She’s the editor of this compilation of essays responding to Pope Francis’s call for a more “incisive presence of women” in the Church today.  Grounded in the Church’s clear teaching on feminism and complementarity–espoused by Pope John Paul II in particular–these women offer practical and theological considerations with the clear goal of taking another step forward.  Ahead of Sunday’s premiere, check out “My Take” on this timely and provocative book and tune in Sunday night!

Progress regarding women’s presence in the Church should be measured less by the numbers of women appointed to significant positions within the Church’s structure (although that is surely important) and more by the transformative impact of an integral complementarity put into practice more broadly, in parish ministries, education, social work, business, and health care.
Promise and Challenge, p.261

Remembering Cardinal Loris Capovilla, our link to a Saint and the Spirit


We were once a Church of oral tradition. Long before the New Testament was codified, the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection circulated the Mediterranean world by word of mouth. Chief among these evangelists were Paul and the twelve Apostles, who journeyed far and wide while facing enormous opposition and persecution, eventually being killed for the message they shared.

Tradition holds that John, perhaps the youngest of the twelve, outlived the others and eventually died an old man in Ephesus, in modern day Turkey. But not before he wrote or dictated what came to be the fourth gospel of the New Testament, the Gospel of John, dated sometime between 90-110 CE.

Some contemporary skeptics read a lot into that chasm of some sixty or more years between the death of Jesus in the early 30’s and the composition of the gospel, but there’s a real sense in the text that John’s understanding of the real Jesus was actually enhanced, rather than hindered, over time. John had the historical facts about Jesus, but also the benefit of hindsight that can illuminate the deeper truth about a person or event.

On May 26, 2016, the eldest member of the College of Cardinals passed away in a remote town in northern Italy. His name was Loris Capovilla and he was the personal secretary of Pope John XXIII. John died on June 3, 1963, fifty three years ago today. With the passing of Cardinal Capovalla, a significant part of the oral tradition of the life of Pope John and the historic Second Vatican Council has come to an end.

Pope Francis canonized his predecessor John on April 27, 2014, and I had the rare opportunity to visit Capovilla in Sotto il Monte a few days later (Click here to read Fr. Tom’s account of the visit). It was an experience I will never forget.

The Cardinal was fragile—98 years old at the time—but full of energy and excitement. He had known for years that Angelo Roncalli was a holy man, but certainly the Church’s official recognition of Roncalli’s holiness was cause for extra jubilation. We spent ninety minutes with him in private speaking about John and the Council, the past fifty years, and Pope Francis. It was a very moving experience to sit with such a man, the aging eyewitness to one of the most extraordinary moments in church history.

What he told us was equally extraordinary. Apparently John had run up against enormous resistance from within the Church (from cardinals and bishops) when he called and commenced the Second Vatican Council. Capovilla told us it weighed very heavily on him personally and that he was constantly expressing his concern to John. But there was a great tranquility about John, even in the face of internal pressure, overt criticism, and other enormous obstacles. On one occasion John told him, “Loris, if we stopped along the road to pick up all the stones they are throwing at us, we would never get anywhere.”

The pressure only increased when John passed away between the first and second sessions of the Council. Capovilla told us that the completion of the Council—especially in the direction of openness and mercy which John had charted—was in serious jeopardy. He himself was deliberately sidelined by the Curia, who for fear that the Church’s long-standing doctrine would be compromised, attempted to redirect the Council away from perceived novelty and an attitude of accommodation to the world.

For this reason Capovilla sang the praises of John’s successor, Paul VI. It fell to Paul to navigate the restless waters at the Vatican and maintain unity. Capovilla went so far to say that if it weren’t for Paul VI, “we wouldn’t be here right now” (meaning we wouldn’t be celebrating the canonizations of St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII).

Capovilla also had high praises for Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the controversial philosopher and cosmologist who was censored by church authorities for his apparent heterodox views related to evolution and the nature of human beings. Since his death in 1955 his work began to seep into mainstream theology and is today experiencing a noteworthy resurgence. All the popes from John to Francis have acknowledged the importance of Teilhard de Chardin, most recently Pope Francis referenced his thought in paragraph 83 of Laudato si.

But during the pontificate of John XXIII from 1958-1963, Teilhard’s work was anathema to the institutional church. Nonetheless, John had a great respect for him and interest in his work. Capovilla told us it wouldn’t surprise him is Teilhard is made a saint one day.

As interesting as the conversation was, what I remember most about our meeting with Cardinal Capovilla was his contagious joy when speaking about his boss and friend, Pope John. It was clear he would never tire of speaking about John and the Council to anyone who was interested. It was as if the memory of ‘the good Pope’ over these five decades served as a timed-release pill, as Capovilla came to understand and appreciate him better and better, and tried to transmit that memory to others.

It’s true to say that what I experienced speaking with Cardinal Capovilla cannot be fully communicated on paper. I do not presume that anyone reading this will automatically feel the same way I felt when we were sitting around the table together back in 2014. It was not just what he said, but how he said it and the obvious effect it had on him all those years later that, in turn, led me to a deeper understanding of John and appreciation for what he did for the Church.

John was able to launch the Council in the face of great opposition and trepidation among church officials because he was totally open to the Holy Spirit, and that freed him from a narrow, defensive mentality that would unconsciously stifle the Spirit, essentially constraining the space in which the Spirit works. What was really ‘dangerous’ about Pope John—and what is also ‘dangerous’ about Pope Francis—is not that he might have changed this or that long-standing teaching of the Church, but that he was free, and his personal freedom brought freedom to others and freedom, in many ways, to the modern church. Needless to say, Cardinal Capovilla was very happy with Pope Francis, remarking with a smile when we asked him about this perceived freedom in John and Francis, “They are the same!”

Subject Matters: “The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age”

Subject Matters: “The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age”
by John Thavis
Sunday, June 5 at 8:30pmET / 5:30pm PT
This Sunday’s all-new episode of Subject Matters features best-selling author and Vaticanista John Thavis.  You will not be able to put this book down: relics, apparitions and exorcisms, they’re all there in this investigative book about how the Vatican deals with claims of the supernatural.  Ahead of Sunday’s premiere, check out “My Take” on John’s book and tune in Sunday night!


“One constant is that manifestations of the supernatural continue to simmer among the faithful, percolating up like hot spots on the global Catholic landscape.  In response, the Vatican attempts to coolly examine the facts and exercise quality control, extinguishing any hint of fanaticism.”
The Vatican Prophecies, p.12

Being an “expert in humanity”… is for everyone!

Subject Matters: “Experts in Humanity: A Journey of Self-Discovery and Healing”
by Josephine Lombardi, PhD
Sunday, May 29 at 8:30pmET / 5:30pm PT

This Sunday’s all-new episode of Subject Matters features a wonderful book that brings together Catholic spirituality and contemporary biology and psychology.  Theologian Josephine Lombardi takes us on a spiritual journey towards being our best selves in “Experts in Humanity: A Journey of Self-Discovery and Healing.”  Ahead of Sunday’s premiere, check out “My Take” on Professor Lombardi’s book and tune in Sunday night!

Your future depends on you knowing God and knowing yourself. This will bring you healing, and your own story of healing will inspire others to know God and to know themselves.
Experts in Humanity, p.127


Preview of Subject Matters Ep2 – Perspectives

Tonight on Perspectives: Best-selling authors Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White speak about their book series “Rebuilt” and “Rebuilding Your Message” ahead of our Sunday, May 22nd episode of Subject Matters.

Reignite your parish by “Rebuilding Your Message”, on Subject Matters


SebBlogSM1Every Catholic knows what life is like in the parish: a faith-filled community that sometimes struggles to share its message, bring about change, or try new things.  A new episode of Subject Matters airing this Sunday tackles the phenomenon of communication in today’s fast-paced world, including what works and what doesn’t.  Rebuilding Your Message: Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching is the latest book in a series by best-selling authors Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White of Timonium, Maryland.

Based on years of study and practical pastoral experience, Tom and Fr. Michael have compiled a comprehensive list of axioms that can help pastors and parishioners reflect on how they communicate their message, and more importantly, how to improve at it.  Teaching and preaching don’t just happen from the pulpit, say Tom and Fr. Michael, but also in classes and small groups, in bulletins, on the church website and social media, and through volunteers who welcome visitors through its doors.  Stagnation in the parish is not inevitable, they say, if the pastor together with the right parishioners, reflect honestly and think creatively about the core message, and what makes church matter to people today.  Tune in to Subject Matters…

Sunday, May 22nd at 8:30pm ET / 5:30pm PT
featuring “Rebuilding Your Message:
Practical Tools to Strengthen Your Preaching and Teaching”

by Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White


New S+L book show “Subject Matters” premieres this weekend

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Cicero

Subject Matters is a brand new series on Salt + Light Television that promotes the reading and writing of books in our time. As digital content becomes more prominent and accessible, books are becoming more peripheral in people’s lives. But are they still relevant? Ahead of the premiere of Subject Matters on Sunday, May 15th, host Sebastian Gomes reflects on the power of reading and explains how the show adapts the artistic nature of books on screen (above).

In the show, Sebastian sits down with contemporary authors and editors to discuss a variety of books of interest, from pressing political and cultural issues to questions and debates about the supernatural. Two criteria are used in the selection of books: Is the book relevant? And, is the book readable? With the production of Subject Matters, S+L hopes to reignite interest in the ancient art of the written word and spark the imaginations of a new generation of book lovers. Beautifully filmed on location at Ben McNally Books in downtown Toronto, Subject Matters links the old with the new to create a television experience that is visually stunning and rich in content. Each 30-minute episode features an interview with the author of a book, a discussion on the relevance of the topic and a peer review segment for a broad and substantial analysis of current and relevant ideas.

Subject Matters premieres Sunday, May 15th at 8:30pm ET / 5:30pm PT
Featuring “Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery.
by David Gibson

Watch John Thavis on Perspectives Weekly

(Perspectives Weekly: Catholic Update with John Thavis premiered Friday, May 6th on S+L TV.)

Things are always happening at the Vatican and throughout the Catholic world that warrant discussion and analysis.  One of the most widely respected commentators or “Vaticanistas” is John Thavis, former Rome Bureau Chief for Catholic News Service.   Thavis retired from his CNS position in 2012 to devote himself full time to writing.  His 2013 book “The Vatican Diaries” became a New York Times best-seller.  His latest book, “The Vatican Prophecies” investigates supernatural signs, apparitions, and miracles in the modern age.  But his popular writing hasn’t removed him completely from the Catholic news scene.  In this episode of Perspectives: The Weekly Edition, guest-hosted by Sebastian Gomes, Thavis analyzes some important current events in the life of the Catholic Church with clarity and objectivity typical of his renowned journalistic career.  Topics discussed include: Pope Francis’ recent exhortation on the family (Amoris Laetitia), Francis’ solidarity visit to the refugees in Lesbos, Greece, Bernie Sanders’ surprise invitation to the Vatican and implications of the US presidential campaign for the Church.