Vatican "Prime" – Pope Calls Synod for the Amazon (The Forest, That Is)

At the Angelus which wrapped up this morning's canonization of 35 saints – all but two martyrs from indigenous communities in Mexico and Brazil – the Pope took the liberty of making a fitting, yet (another) surprise announcement, here translated into English:
Welcoming the desire of some Episcopal Conferences of Latin America, as well as the voices of pastors and faithful from other parts of the world, I have decided to convoke a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, which will take place in Rome in October 2019. The principal scope of this gathering is to set out new ways for the evangelization of that portion of God's People, especially its indigenous communities, often forgotten and without the chance for a serene living, as well as the crisis of the Amazon forest, a critically important lung for our planet. May the new saints [canonized today] intercede for this ecclesial event, that, in respect for the beauty of creation, all the peoples of the earth might praise God, Lord of the universe [Ed. reference to Laudato si'] and so be enlightened by him to follow the paths of justice and peace.
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To be sure, this development brings numerous ramifications, merely the first of which is a confirmation that the Synod on Young People and Vocational Discernment, slated to take place a year from now, will not be a two-part process, unlike the 2014-5 assemblies on the family which birthed Amoris Laetitia. From another angle, meanwhile, given Francis' keen familiarity with the region encompassing Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela – not to mention, as the Synod's president, his personal choice of the event's timeframe – today's announcement marks the 80 year-old pontiff's clearest signal to date that he has every intention of remaining at the wheel well into the mid-range future.

In June, Francis told the bishops of Peru during their ad limina conversation that he was considering a Synod for the Amazon, with one of the prelates reporting that significant obstacles to travel within the region made ministry very difficult, as a sparse number of clergy has long been a matter of local concern.

On the procedural front, as opposed to the Synod's topic-based "Ordinary" gatherings – comprised of roughly 200 bishops proportionally elected from across the global church, in addition to the heads of Curial offices and a handful of appointed advisers and experts – a "Special" assembly is focused on one specific area of the Catholic world, from which the bulk of its membership is likewise chosen. To represent the wider church, Special Synods see just a small number of prelates invited by the Pope from outside the region in question, their specific experience being deemed useful for the discussions.

In the device's most prominent use, now-St John Paul II called Special Synods for each of the five super-continents in the immediate run-up to the year 2000; the four-week meeting for "America" – the entire landmass, both north and south – was opened 20 years ago next month. The last Special assembly, however, came in 2010, when Benedict XVI convened one for the Middle East, following a second gathering for Africa a year prior.

As for the dramatis personae of the Amazonian event, a familiar face on the Roman scene again stands out: despite being 83 – that is, supposedly "retired" – the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes OFM is certain to play a critical role in the preparations given his ongoing role as head of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network, the multi-national coordinating body of the region's bishops, founded in 2014 at Francis' behest.

While the group lacks the juridic standing of an episcopal conference per se, the void is more than compensated for by direct papal imprimatur: seated next to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio by seniority at the 2013 Conclave, the former archbishop of Sao Paulo famously urged the Pope-to-be "Don't forget the poor!" as the votes piled up in his favor – a word that, he later admitted, would lead the first American on Peter's Chair to shatter even more precedent by taking the name Francis upon accepting his election.

In a gesture that brought their closeness into the spotlight, the new pontiff upended yet another custom (remember: all this took place within the first 15 minutes) by plucking Hummes out from the Sistine Chapel rows to join him on the central balcony of St Peter's for his appearance before the world – a perk traditionally enjoyed solely by the senior cardinal from each of the College's three orders.

Yet what made the moment even more extraordinary was its rich backstory: on his arrival in Rome in late 2006 as Benedict's choice to head the Congregation for the Clergy, Hummes was promptly slapped down within the Vatican for comments he made just before departing Brazil that, in terms of mandatory priestly celibacy, "the majority of the apostles were married," then punctuating the point by saying "the church has to observe these things... [and] advance with history."

By bringing his "good friend" with him on his debut in white, Francis was sending a signal to the Curia he inherited – namely, that the Brazilian behind his shoulder was back at the center of things. As for what that means from here, with both Papa Bergoglio and Hummes stating since that the Amazon's church "must" have an "Amazonian face," with an "indigenous clergy" – and the region's unique culture and challenges having spurred calls from its bishops for the possibility of married priests – at first blush, the 2019 gathering has the prospect of being the most charged moment of Francis' push for an enhanced synodality in the church (...let alone the import of the already-stated environmental focus).

If you've been around here long enough, you already knew that the Synod was the key to everything else, and how a mandate for "the inculturation of the Gospel" is the oft-forgotten "bomb" in this pontificate's programmatic text. 

Even for said awareness, though, today's news just made both a bit more real – indeed, as Hummes himself mapped out during his own 2015 visit to the US, the process ahead will entail "the harmonization of the Catholic Church with the native culture of the Amazon"...

In other words, not the other way around.

Yet again, these are interesting times. As always, stay tuned.


"A Dynamic and Living Reality" – The Catechism at 25... The Council at 55

In the world of the Roman Church, today's date has come to hold something of a mythic significance... yet all of it rooted in the modern age.

Fifty-five years ago on this 11th of October, John XXIII opened the twenty-first ecumenical council in Christian history – the second at the Vatican – with an warning against "prophets of doom" and an exhortation that, "at the present time, the spouse of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity; and she thinks she meets today's needs by explaining the validity of her doctrine more fully rather than by condemning."

Though Papa Roncalli died all of eight months later, on 3 June 1963, this opening day of Vatican II is now marked as his feast.

It was likewise in the vein of the Council that, upon the 20th anniversary of its closing, the then cardinal-archbishop of Boston proposed a universal Catechism – the first since Trent – with an eye to integrating the development of doctrine into a contemporary authoritative form.

In retrospect, it seems all the richer that the idea which would forever enshrine Bernard Law's Roman clout was pitched at a Synod of Bishops; given an enthusiastic takeup in the Aula (at least, from its dais), it was promulgated a quarter-century ago today after an arduous six years of drafts, committees, consultation and discernment: that is, a synodal process in itself.

Often as Catechism of the Catholic Church has been appealed to over these last 18 months – and even longer – it's apparently gone forgotten in those same quarters that the text's authority is contingent on one thing alone: the signature of The Pope... other words, the same stamp likewise borne by more recent contributions to the Magisterium.

Accordingly, returning to the scene of the genesis of both, tonight saw the 266th Bishop of Rome mark this day's milestones by "taking stock"... and – using a memorable example of how the Catechism was already revised within months of its publication – showing along the way how, in a living church, even "the finished product" remains a work in progress.

Here below, the Pope's address from tonight's event, organized by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

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The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, by which Saint John Paul II, thirty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church, offers a significant opportunity for taking stock of the progress made in the meantime. It was the desire and will of Saint John XXIII to call the Council, not primarily to condemn error, but so that the Church could have an opportunity at last to present the beauty of her faith in Jesus Christ in language attuned to the times. “It is necessary,” the Pope stated in his opening address, “that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate” (11 October 1962). “It is our duty,” he continued, “not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves, with an earnest will and without fear, to that work which our era demands of us, thus pursuing the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries” (ibid.).

It is in the very nature of the Church to “guard” the deposit of faith and to “pursue” the Church’s path, so that the truth present in Jesus’ preaching of the Gospel may grow in fullness until the end of time. This is a grace granted to the People of God, but it is also a task and a mission for which we are responsible, that of proclaiming to our contemporaries in a new and fuller way the perennial Good News. With the joy born of Christian hope, and armed with the “medicine of mercy” (ibid.), we approach the men and women of our time to help them discover the inexhaustible richness contained in the person of Jesus Christ.

In presenting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Saint John Paul II stated that it should “take into account the doctrinal statements which down the centuries the Holy Spirit has made known to his Church. It should also help illumine with the light of faith the new situations and problems which had not yet emerged in the past” (Fidei Depositum, 3). The Catechism is thus an important instrument. It presents the faithful with the perennial teaching of the Church so that they can grow in their understanding of the faith. But it especially seeks to draw our contemporaries – with their new and varied problems – to the Church, as she seeks to present the faith as the meaningful answer to human existence at this moment of history. It is not enough to find a new language in which to articulate our perennial faith; it is also urgent, in the light of the new challenges and prospects facing humanity, that the Church be able to express the “new things” of Christ’s Gospel, that, albeit present in the word of God, have not yet come to light. This is the treasury of “things old and new” of which Jesus spoke when he invited his disciples to teach the newness that he had brought, without forsaking the old (cf. Mt 13:52).

One of the most beautiful pages in the Gospel of John is his account of the so-called “priestly prayer” of Jesus. Just before his passion and death, Jesus speaks to the Father of his obedience in having brought to fulfilment the mission entrusted to him. His words, a kind of hymn to love, also contain the request that the disciples be gathered and preserved in unity (cf. Jn 17:12-15). The words, “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (Jn 17:3), represent the culmination of Jesus’s mission.

To know God, as we are well aware, is not in the first place an abstract exercise of human reason, but an irrepressible desire present in the heart of every person. This knowledge comes from love, for we have encountered the Son of God on our journey (cf. Lumen Fidei, 28). Jesus of Nazareth walks at our side and introduces us, by his words and the signs he performs, to the great mystery of the Father’s love. This knowledge is strengthened daily by faith’s certainty that we are loved and, for this reason, part of a meaningful plan. Those who love long to know better the beloved, and therein to discover the hidden richness that appears each day as something completely new.

For this reason, our Catechism unfolds in the light of love, as an experience of knowledge, trust, and abandonment to the mystery. In explaining its structure, the Catechism of the Catholic Church borrows a phrase from the Roman Catechism and proposes it as the key to its reading and application: “The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 25).

Along these same lines, I would like now to bring up a subject that ought to find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims. I am speaking of the death penalty. This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity. It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor. No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life. No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.

In past centuries, when means of defence were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice. Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian. Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.

Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively. Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth. Indeed, as Saint Vincent of Lérins pointed out, “Some may say: Shall there be no progress of religion in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For who is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50). It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.

“The Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (Dei Verbum, 8). The Council Fathers could not have found a finer and more synthetic way of expressing the nature and mission of the Church. Not only in “teaching”, but also in “life” and “worship”, are the faithful able to be God’s People. Through a series of verbs the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation expresses the dynamic nature of this process: “This Tradition develops […] grows […] and constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth, until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (ibid.)

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

I thank you for this meeting and for your work, and to all of you I cordially impart my blessing.

In Orange, Tet +Nguyen – Finally, US’ Asian Fold Nabs New Bishop

(Updated 4pm ET with presser video.)

“Are all of your sons here?”

Time and time again, that’s been the Pope’s question to his aides when addressing the appointment of bishops. Citing the Old Testament story of the calling of David, from Francis the line is less an innocent query than a marching order to "go and fetch" those who, like the boy shepherd-turned-king, are off working far afield.

In this, for nearly a decade and a half, one group has been glaringly conspicuous by its absence: the sons and pastors of the roughly 4 million Asian faithful in the US, a community whose constant growth – and ever more prominent sense of commitment – has arguably made them Stateside Catholicism’s most vibrant, and visibly dedicated, bloc….

Yet absent from the "center," that is, until now.

Breaking a 14-year drought for the Stateside church’s Pacific influx, at Roman Noon this Friday, the Pope named Fr Thanh Thai Nguyen (left), 64 – a Vietnamese "boat person" (refugee) serving until now as pastor of St Joseph’s parish in Jacksonville, Florida – as a second auxiliary bishop of Orange: the 1.3 million-member Southern California fold which claims the nation’s largest Vietnamese contingent.

With the nod, the bishop-elect – just the latest of the ongoing "Auxnado" that'll add some 30 new assistant hats to the US bench – becomes only the fourth Asian ever to be called into the American hierarchy, and among them, the second from his homeland. In 2002, Orange received Bishop Dominic Luong as a deputy, likewise plucked from across the country – in his case, after years in New Orleans, itself another major center of the diaspora. (Ordained a priest in Buffalo after being sent from Vietnam at the very start of the war, Luong retired in late 2015 upon turning 75.)

All around, the last time a trans-Pacific priest joined the nation’s hierarchy came in late 2003, when the Filipino-born Oscar Solis was appointed an auxiliary of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest local church. Early this year, Solis came into an even bigger watershed upon his promotion to Salt Lake City, thus becoming the first Asian cleric ever to lead one of the US' 179 dioceses.

As reflected in those earlier instances and again today, potential bishops from non-Anglo ethnic groups tend to be drawn from a national list given their usually small numbers among a local presbyterate. That’s especially been true in this case – with a Vietnamese auxiliary long known to be the explicit wish of Orange’s Bishop Kevin Vann, it is understood that the long dearth of Asian picks required the wider pool of potential nominees to be constituted from scratch, the task daunting and then some due to the intense vetting for any single cleric to be “cleared” for an appointment, and at least three of those needed to fill a terna.

Indeed, such was the extent of the search behind today’s move that, while an ordinary request for twin auxiliaries would normally see both choices unveiled and ordained together, it’s already been more than 10 months since the first half of the petitioned Orange duo – the home-grown veteran pastor and clergy chief, now Bishop Tim Freyer, 53 – was appointed.

Process aside, while Asian-Americans merely make up some four percent of the nation’s 75 million Catholics, the community’s sense of devotion has, in recent years, seen them provide a full quarter of the US’ priestly and religious vocations – in other words, pulling roughly six times their weight. That disparity is even more overpowering out West; among other examples, Orange’s own priesthood class this year was comprised of one Anglo, one Korean, and four Vietnamese ordinands, the latter community long dubbed the “new Irish” in the California church and beyond.

Elsewhere in the country, meanwhile, Nguyen’s fellow emigres have been packing and building their own churches at a striking clip. Last month, a Vietnamese parish in Atlanta which outgrew a makeshift 700-seat site within years broke ground for a new, $15 million church doubled in size, and just before departing the North Texas Metroplex five years ago, Vann himself dedicated Vietnamese Martyrs (above) – a 2,000-seat mecca in Arlington thought to be the nation’s largest “ethnic parish” of any kind.

Most of all, Stateside Catholicism’s second-largest regular gathering takes place every year on a field in rural southwestern Missouri, as tens of thousands of the faithful trek hundreds of miles to take part in “Marian Days” – the long August weekend started by an exiled Vietnamese order in gratitude for finding a home, and freedom, on these shores.

In a normal year, the festival of prayer, music and food sees a crowd of about 75,000 pitch tents in Carthage (usual pop. 14,300). Yet this summer, to mark the event’s 40th anniversary (below), over 100,000 showed up.

Per usual, the only low figure in this mix is the level of interest and/or support the broader (read: Anglo-dominant) "Catholic conversation" has shown toward any of this....

Namely, 0.

And if that’s not just another sign of a people in decline, with its priorities out of whack – because a historic exodus of souls isn’t already enough? – as ever, the remedy seems to lie less in explanations than it does in conversion.

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Impressive as the context is – well, the Asian-American one – the Pope’s pick brings a story that’s nothing short of moving.

While that'd be the case in any circumstance, as the US bishops have mobilized to an extraordinary degree over recent months on behalf of migrants and refugees – and against the backdrop of a planned Federal slashing of receptions for asylum-seekers to their lowest level since 1980 – today's nod sends an even more potent message.

One of 11 children who entered a Vietnamese minor seminary as a teenager, by the mid-1970s Nguyen (pron. "Noo-WIN") and his confreres came under the close scrutiny of the Communist government, culminating in a stint under house arrest.

Fleeing his homeland by boat with 26 of his relatives, their 28-foot vessel was caught in a tropical storm at sea, after which the family was left without food or water for ten of the 18 days it took for them to reach the Philippines, where they would spend nearly a year in a refugee camp.

Able to come to the US thanks to family already living in Texas, the future bishop was taken in by a friend in Connecticut, where – still to be ordained and knowing little English – Nguyen got his start as a janitor at a Catholic Charities facility in Hartford, picking up the language by taking night classes. After several years teaching in inner-city public schools, he returned to discernment with the La Salette Missionaries, who urged him to consider the priesthood after initially applying to be a brother.

Following studies at the Jesuits’ Weston School of Theology (since merged into Boston College), he was ordained in 1991, at the age of 38. Three years later – having been invited to minister to a rapidly-growing Vietnamese presence in northeast Florida – Nguyen incardinated into the diocese of St Augustine, taking the reins of his first assignment there after his then-pastor, Fr Robert Baker, was named bishop of Charleston in 1999. (He of "No more Whispers!" fame, Baker marked his 10th anniversary as bishop of Birmingham earlier this week.)

In the 4,000-family pastorate he's held until today – the largest outpost in Florida's founding diocese; its ample church (above) opened in 1999 – the bishop-elect has overseen a sprawling community spread across a combined nine weekend Masses in English, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and the "Extraordinary Form" of the Roman Missal, plus a school of 550 students, and everything else that comes with both.

Given the vast scope, energy and diversity of the Orange church – whose larger parishes top 8,500 families of every background – suffice it to say, it's preparation well had.

As Nguyen only touched down at Disneyland late yesterday, and with plans for his move West still unclear, the ordination date remains to be determined.

SVILUPPO: Even if the legendary plot's "Crystal" centerpiece won't be dedicated for Catholic worship until mid-2019, with its 40-acre campus already serving as the diocesan hub, Nguyen turned in a memorable debut at the Cultural Center next to the future Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove... beginning with his own "warning" to the SoCal crowd about his "Vietnamese Boston accent":