Motown and the turbocharged Church

Detroit hasn’t gotten a lot of good press in recent decades as it’s struggled to cope with the myriad problems of rustbelt American cities in the age of globalization. But the Church in Detroit is not playing defense. Under the leadership of Archbishop Allen Vigneron, it’s going on offense, challenging itself to become a diocese of missionary disciples.

The plan is laid out in Archbishop Vigneron’s recent pastoral letter, “Unleash the Power of the Gospel,” issued from the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on the Vigil of Pentecost ( The letter synthesizes the conclusions and convictions of a remarkable process that began three years ago. Thus, in March 2014, the archbishop announced a year of prayer for a “new Pentecost,” a new outpouring of the Spirit. In 2015-16, missions were held throughout the archdiocese in order to give its people a new experience of the Lord Jesus – which is always the beginning of radical, missionary discipleship. In 2016, parishes were challenged to re-imagine themselves as launch-pads for mission, with parishioners coming together to discuss openly and candidly the future of the archdiocese under dramatically changed circumstances. In 2016, the archdiocese also held a Mass for Pardon in which the bishops, priests, and people of Detroit publicly repented the sins that had impeded the proclamation and reception of the Gospel, asking the Lord’s forgiveness so as to walk into the future with clean hearts and renewed courage.

Finally, in November 2016, clergy, religious, and laity from across the archdiocese met in synod to pray together and discuss together how to become, in a phrase that recurs throughout Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral, “a joyful band of missionary disciples.” This was not the kind of diocesan synod often seen in the United States: an administrative exercise, internally focused on the Church-as-institution. Detroit’s synod had a different goal: in Archbishop Vigneron’s words, “nothing less than a radical overhaul of the Church in Detroit, a complete reversal of our focus from an inward, maintenance-focused church to an outward, mission-focused church.”

Archbishop Vigneron and the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit have faced the facts: Catholicism-by-osmosis – Catholicism passed along by the old ethno-cultural transmission belt – is over in America. In forty years, perhaps in twenty, no thirty-something Catholic in the United States is going to answer the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” with the answer, “Because my great-great-grandmother came from County Cork” (or Palermo, or Munich, or Cracow, or Guadalajara). The cultural air of the early twenty-first century is too toxic to be a carrier of the faith. The faith has to be proposed, and future generations must meet and embrace the Lord Jesus, if Catholicism in America is to flourish, being salt and light in the world and offering healing to a deeply wounded and fractured society.

As I’ve watched the Detroit process over the past several years, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the Synod of Cracow, called by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, to help his archdiocese receive the Second Vatican Council and implement its reforms. Like Cracow, the Detroit process began with an extended period of intensified prayer. Like Cracow, the Detroit process was aimed, not at more efficient administration, but at more effective evangelization. Like Cracow, the Detroit process had extensive lay involvement. Like Cracow, the Detroit process faced squarely the challenges of preaching the Gospel and witnessing to it in a hostile cultural environment. (And like Cracow, the Detroit synod process was led by a philosopher-bishop whose thinking and leadership are nourished and informed by prayer, the Bible, and the sacraments.)

The extraordinary contention that has followed Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage, Amoris Laetitia, has created a lot of problems; perhaps most gravely, that contentiousness has impeded what the Pope still insists is his grand strategy, laid out in Evangelii Gaudium: the transformation of Catholicism into a communion of missionary disciples. That is precisely the challenge that the Detroit synod process accepted. The follow-through plans – along with their biblical and doctrinal rationale – are laid out in detail in Archbishop Vigneron’s extraordinary pastoral letter.

Motown may no longer be the epicenter of the global automobile industry. The Archdiocese of Detroit, however, is well on the way to becoming a shining model of how to gather and organize a local Church for the New Evangelization.

Featured image by Circa24 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

COMING UP: Are jihadis “losers”?

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When I first visited Israel in 1988, my friend Professor Menahem Milson, a distinguished Arabist at Hebrew University who was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s military aide during Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, told me that “you have to meet my friend, Colonel Yigal Carmon.” Carmon worked in the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv; I had a very busy schedule in Jerusalem and around Galilee; so I tried to decline. Menahem insisted and I finally agreed to spend a morning in Tel Aviv. It was one of the most fruitful surrenders of my life.

It turned out that Yigal was the advisor on counter-terrorism to the Israeli Prime Minister, and when I went to his office in what I remember as the basement of the Ministry of Defense, he was handling three telephones simultaneously; on each of them, he made life-and-death decisions, daily, sometimes even hourly, about reported terrorist plots: Was the report reliable? What could be done about the threat? Who was to be put in harm’s way? We talked for over an hour, during which the phones interrupted us several times. I left deeply impressed by his remarkable calm, his fluent Arabic (a trait he shared with Milson), and the extraordinary nature of his job, to which, in that pre-9/11 world, there was no real analogue, save perhaps in an MI-5 office dealing with Northern Ireland.

Two years later, I was in town for what turned out to be the last meeting of the Jerusalem Committee, an international advisory panel to Mayor Teddy Kollek. Our meetings ended and, as Yigal had a rare day off, he invited me to go with him to Masada, Herod the Great’s massive fortress.

It was September 1, 1990, and tourists had fled Israel in droves, Saddam Hussein having helped himself to Kuwait a month previously. When we got to Masada, the parking lot was empty, save for a bus carrying tourists from American evangelicaldom. We rode up the funicular to the top of the great plateau together and then went our separate ways. Yigal, unfamiliar with the ways of some goys, asked me in a puzzled voice, “What are they doing here? Everyone else has left.” I explained that these good folk probably thought that, with war imminent, they’d lucked into a front-row seat at the Battle of Armageddon. So they were staying put.

Over some three decades of friendship and collaboration, I’ve come to think of Yigal Carmon as the contemporary reincarnation of an ancient Stoic. He is completely tone-deaf religiously: not hostile to religious belief, perhaps even admiring it in others, but incapable of it himself. Yet he is a man of the utmost moral seriousness, determined to see things as they are and to live in an ethically rigorous way, according to the norms of justice we can know by reason. So in a world increasingly dominated by irrationalism, he is very much worth listening to.

Since 1998, Yigal has been the driving force behind MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, whose self-defined goal is to “bridge the language gap between the Middle East and the West” by providing translations of materials originally appearing in the Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu, Pashto, Turkish, and Russian media into English, French, Polish, Japanese, Spanish, and Hebrew. In a recent MEMRI Daily Brief, Yigal, taking exception to one of President Trump’s bombastic characterizations of terrorists, wrote that “the jihadis who perpetrate these horrific crimes are neither losers nor nihilists….these perpetrators, by the standards of their own belief, are virtuous people…” That means that the only long-term answer to the bloody borders between “Islam and the rest” – borders than now reach deeply into Western societies – is for Islam to undertake a far-reaching internal reform, which purifies the faith and leads Islam to develop, from within its own resources, a case for religious tolerance and political pluralism: “a Muslim aggiornamento…along the lines of the reforms introduced by Pope John XXIII.”

Thus informed by both his Stoic ethic and his long experience in trying to thwart terrorist violence while helping the West understand it, my friend Yigal Carmon has come to precisely the same conclusion as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – Islam must develop and propagate an Islamic case against terrorist violence. It won’t be easy. But it must be done.