On March 27, 2020, Pope Francis gave a special urbi et orbi (“to the city and to the world”) blessing. This moment of global prayer, usually reserved for Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, came in response to what had quickly become a global crisis. After recalling the Gospel account of Jesus calming the storm and sea (Mark 4:35–41), Pope Francis said, “For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities.... We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel, we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm.” He went on: “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”
At the time, I did not appreciate the extent to which my “false and superfluous certainties” would be uncovered. The length and severity of the storm seems to have set me on a prolonged period of self-evaluation. What we’ve been through since last March has forced me to face some accumulated falsehoods, to confront what had been uncovered in me. This past year has provided me a time to construct a new daily schedule, to embrace new projects and habits, to identify priorities that would align more authentically with the Spirit within me. We associate Lenten spirituality with letting go of our sinfulness, it’s true, but we forget that Lenten spirituality is also about getting in touch with our authentic selves. We are invited to see ourselves through the omniscient gaze of the Divine.
Beyond one’s personal reevaluations, the length and severity of the storm has also exposed our ecclesial falsehoods. I have two specific examples in mind. The first is the way our nation has been confronted with its deeply rooted systemic racism. Yet many in Church leadership continue to live under the “false and superfluous certainty” that the Church is beyond racism and bigotry. The second is the way it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the divisions among Church leadership and the failings of our current structures. Many continue to live under the “false and superfluous certainty” that our ecclesial structures and leadership remain a strong and credible presence in society. But criticisms of the USCCB’s statement on President Biden’s inauguration proved that Catholics who felt victimized and discriminated against by the Trump presidency find such pronouncements uninspiring and deeply out of touch with their concerns and hopes. When Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich criticized the process by which the statement had been written and released, he was pointing us towards the collegial failings of the leadership structure. Following the logic of Pope Francis’s urbi et orbi message last March, we could say that the USCCB, archdioceses, dioceses, parish communities, and other ecclesial institutions have implemented schedules and projects, adopted habits, and set priorities guided by these false certainties. Having been misled, we find ourselves grappling with sinfulness and needing to rediscover what makes an authentic Church. Our Catholic institutions and leaders are not exempt from living the spiritual movements of our tradition. In this past year and in this Lenten season, they’ve also been called to see themselves through the omniscient gaze of the Divine.
On this third Sunday of Lent, in the Gospel of John, we encounter an angry Jesus who fashions a whip out of cords in order to drive out those who have turned his Father’s house into a marketplace. In our present moment, Catholic institutions are called to reevaluate the reasoning behind their ecclesial decisions. Have they supported ministries, organized themselves, and appointed leaders in a way that builds up the Body of Christ, or have they been motivated by a desire to maintain status quo and financial well-being? Given that racial and economic inequalities go hand in hand, I would argue that in most cases when the Church is guided primarily by its desire to maintain financially beneficial relationships, it does so to the detriment of the historically marginalized and disenfranchised. The Gospel of John continues:
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me. At this the Jews answered and said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” (John 2:17–20)
As we grapple with our self-evaluation as a Church, it would seem that the Church is its own worst enemy, blind to the fact that it is attempting to construct the temple through destructive means. Our actions preserve our sinful systems, and our sinfulness undermines our credibility. It’s evident that we need Jesus. When ecclesial leadership and institutions turn authentically to Jesus, we find prophetic, transparent, inclusive, and creative ways forward.
I feel a sense of urgency as we get closer to Easter and closer to normalcy. I believe this time to be the opportune moment for communities of faith and all ecclesial institutions to intentionally and collegially reevaluate and reimagine their power structures, confront de facto racist practices, to humbly seek the consultation of experts who have been left out of ecclesial discussions, to listen to the promptings of the marginalized Body of Christ, and to not be afraid to take risks. Pope Francis noted in his urbi et orbi message that “embracing [Jesus’s] cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring...to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.” It is commonplace to say that prayer changes us, it does not change God. It appears that the fruits of the urbi et orbi extraordinary blessing are evident in our growing pains.