A tough year ahead

George Weigel

2018 was a bad year for Catholics. 2019 is almost certainly going to be worse. Good reason, then, to reflect on two recent texts from the Church’s Office of Readings.

The first is from paragraph 48 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

“The end of the ages is already with us. The renewal of the world has been established and cannot be revoked. In our era it is in a true sense anticipated: the Church on earth is already sealed by genuine, if imperfect, holiness. Yet, until a new heaven and a new earth are built as the dwelling place of justice, the pilgrim Church, in its sacraments and institutions belonging to this world of time, bears the likeness of this passing world. It lives in the midst of a creation still groaning and in travail as it waits for the sons of God to be revealed in glory.”

And the second is from the Spiritual Canticle of the reforming Spanish Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross:

”Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.”

With those sobering but consoling thoughts in mind, I offer a few speculations about 2019, by way of cautions about the rough waters ahead.

There will be further revelations of clerical sexual abuse from decades ago, and the false narrative that there is a rape culture in the Catholic Church today will be reinforced.

More awful details about the behavior of Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, will come to light.

At least one U.S. bishop, and possibly several, will resign after revelations of malfeasance and worse in handling reports of sexually abusive clergy under their authority.

Rome and certain sectors of the American Church will continue to ignore or misinterpret empirical evidence about the exceptionally high percentage of adolescent boys and young men who have been victims of clerical sexual abuse.

The February meeting in Rome to discuss the abuse crisis in a global context will disappoint many U.S. Catholics, who mistakenly imagined that it would produce a global plan for reform.

Too many senior officials of the Roman Curia will continue to insist that the U.S. reaction to clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance is exaggerated, media-driven, and somehow “Protestant.”

The determination of the U.S. bishops’ conference leadership to involve expert Catholic laity in the reform of the priesthood and the episcopate will encounter more resistance in Rome.

No state attorney general or federal prosecutor will launch an investigation of sexual abuse in public schools.

October’s Special Synod on Amazonia will (obliquely?) appeal for the ordination of mature married men to the ministerial priesthood in that region, but without input from other local Churches that would be seriously impacted by any such concession – including the Church in the United States.

Ultramontanism – an excessively Petrocentric idea of the Church that misconstrues the teaching of Vatican I and Vatican II by treating the pope as an oracle – will intensify on an increasingly cranky and authoritarian Catholic Left.

The Holy See will run a huge deficit, even as Peter’s Pence contributions continue to fall throughout the world Church.

The persecution of Cardinal George Pell will continue but his conviction on “historic sexual abuse” charges will increasingly be seen by rational people as a grotesque miscarriage of justice motivated by scapegoating, anti-Catholicism, and sordid politics in Australia (and elsewhere).

As the Xi Jinping regime’s persecution of Christians intensifies, the Vatican’s “deal” with the People’s Republic of China will look even worse and its defense will seem ever more implausible. 

Russian Orthodox spokesmen will continue to blame the Catholic Church for the Moscow Patriarchate’s troubles in Ukraine, further compromising the Russian-centered ecumenical grand strategy of the Holy See toward the complex worlds of Orthodoxy.

A tough year lies ahead. Yet Christ, risen and triumphant, remains present and available in the Eucharist, to which serious missionary disciples will have ever more frequent recourse for strength and courage. May His Kingdom come. 

COMING UP: Soho Pilgrimage: A Christmas Meditation

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Advent and Christmastide are full of journeys and pilgrimages: Mary goes to Judea to visit Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem, ostensibly to fill out their tax forms, in truth to fulfill an ancient prophecy. Amazed shepherds leave the hills, come to town, and find the desire of the nations. The Magi go on a star-led trek and then return to the mysterious East. Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Child go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for what we celebrate on February 2 as the Feast of the Presentation (after which, and only after which, serious Catholics pack up the Christmas crèche). The Holy Family flees to Egypt, then journeys back to Nazareth.

Biblical religion taught western civilization that life is journey, pilgrimage, and adventure, not repetitive cycles or one darn thing after another. Advent and Christmas remind the Church of that deep truth. That’s why processions are a helpful way to celebrate these two linked liturgical seasons.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in one of the most remarkable processions you’d ever want to experience. It took place in Soho, the most decadent part of London’s West End. And it literally stopped people in their tracks on a Sunday evening.

This nocturnal pilgrimage, in which a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was processed from St. Patrick’s Church in Soho Square to Warwick Street and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, was the culmination of a weekend-long Advent Mission at St. Patrick’s — which, under the leadership of Canon Alexander Sherbrooke, is the vibrant center of the New Evangelization in London. The weekend mission involved Masses, confessions, conferences, caroling and street evangelization, and a Saturday “Nightfever” experience of prayer, song, and Eucharistic adoration during which some 300 people, many of them unchurched, walked through St. Patrick’s open doors, lit a candle, and wrote down a prayer.

On Sunday evening, after a concluding Mass in honor of the Immaculate Conception, more than 200 of St. Patrick’s Brazilian and Spanish-speaking Latino congregants joined their Anglophone fellow-parishioners in the Marian procession. Led by a cross, thurifer, candle-bearers, and one of London’s auxiliary bishops, Nicholas Hudson, Our Lady of Walsingham was borne on the shoulders of sturdy men and accompanied by Ambrose, Father Sherbooke’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the parish’s secret evangelistic weapon. We sang Marian hymns, prayed the rosary aloud — and offered often-startled by-standers, taking a smoke-break outside one of the area’s ubiquitous pubs, a small packet with a candle, a Miraculous Medal, and a Bible verse.

Our route was certainly tawdrier than the Flemish landscape through which Christ carries the cross in Pieter Bruegel’s painting, The Procession to Calvary. But like the Lord, we were on pilgrimage through the world: a world that included the aforementioned pubs, upscale restaurants and cheap curry shops, foreign exchange bureaus, several 24-hour grocers, a pharmacy, two porn shops, and any number of clothing emporia. (Further verifying Oscar Wilde’s observation that life often imitates art, we turned one corner at a high-end jeans outlet called “True Religion”). The procession ended at the headquarters church of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, where we sang the Litany of Loretto in Latin before going our separate ways.   

St. Patrick’s in Soho is that which every Catholic parish should want to be. Its rich pastoral life, which includes an extensive ministry to the homeless, is built around Mass and daily Eucharistic adoration. The liturgy is celebrated with dignity and beauty; its music is supernal. The parish sponsors an “SOS Prayerline” that has helped thousands of lonely or desperate souls over the past decade. The young people who live and work at the parish are not only involved in its liturgical life; one works at an archdiocesan center for trafficked women, another is about to return to the seminary, and all are involved in street evangelization. This is the “Church permanently in mission” of which the Pope writes in Evangelii Gaudium, and like that document, the all-in Catholicism of St. Patrick’s is animated by the joy of the Gospel.

To be a pilgrim is to be going somewhere. That somewhere is the Kingdom come among us at Christmas, and coming again in power and glory. The St. Patrick’s Advent Mission procession invited an aggressively secular and sometimes sordid part of London to join that journey to beatitude.