The National Catholic Review
Reflections on the shape of the church to come

Just southeast of Rome stands the small church of St. Mary in Palmis, better known as the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. It takes its name from the legend of St. Peter’s meeting with Christ as he flees persecution in Rome. “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asks. “To Rome to be crucified again,” the Lord replies. Whatever the actual origin of the name, there is a certain familiarity about this Petrine encounter with Christ: It ends in the reversal of what Peter originally had planned. The rest is history.

As the church prepares for Easter and a new successor to Peter, the ancient question remains power- fully relevant, not only for the papacy but for us all. It is not easy at the moment to get a clear sense of where the church is heading. What we do know is that with his resignation, Pope Benedict has separated the office from the person. Even for a moment, he has created a space of reflection, an opportunity to hear Christ ask us the question, Quo vadis? Even more searchingly, in this moment we must ask not only “Where are we going?” but “Where do we desire to go?”

In his act of resignation, Pope Benedict reminded us that the true head of the church is Christ. This is not a pious formula but a profound act of faith. In difficult times it can be tempting for the church to become enthralled to anxiety about its success or survival. When it does this, it shows itself no different from other human institutions. It can for- get its own origin and mystery, the daily miracle of its life and sacraments, its reality as “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery.” As the pope withdrew into the prayer, reflection and silence of his Lenten retreat, the whole church might follow his example by taking time to let the Spirit prepare us for the election and reception of his successor. It may also be a time to acknowledge and understand what could be called our “ecclesial desolation.”

Attending to Desolation

St. Ignatius Loyola was not the first to identify “desolation” and “consolation,” but he teaches us to use them as a school in which God teaches us. One of the great insights of his Spiritual Exercises is not to flee from desolation but to attend to it. God is at work even in a dry, painful and dark time, confronting us with our fears, resistances and un-freedoms, often deep and subtle. No matter how much we love the church, it would be hard not to feel, at least from a European and North American perspective, that we have been living in a time of desolation. This does not detract from the astonishing goodness, commitment and courageous witness that so many “ordinary Catholics” give—the sure sign of the Spirit’s faithfulness. I would identify three desolations that are present in the Western church at the moment: hierarchical leadership, the wound of abuse, and mourning. Of course, they are all related.

Leadership. Although the hemorrhaging of membership may indeed be due to the secularization of culture, it may also be a symptom of desolation within the institutional structures of the church. This is a subtle desolation because Catholics intuitively understand and revere the hierarchical nature of their church. The desolation may have less to do with the structure per se than with its own secularization. Increasingly, bishops and priests find themselves acting like chief executive officers, with a strange confidence in condemning and disciplining, enhancing their retro-liturgical plumage rather than living out of the sacrament they bear.

As the Second Vatican Council and successive popes have taught, the church is not a corporation but a communio of the Spirit; its discipline does not come from coercion, fear, threat or persecution, but from love of Christ, his mission, his people and his truth. This love means that leadership is always marked by respect for others, their charisms and their dignity; it always begins by presuming their good faith. Ultimately, only leadership like this can be a source of grace to the community, gathering its gifts for the service of the whole Body of Christ and the struggle against evil.

The wound of abuse. We need to acknowledge deep desolation and the wound in the church’s heart caused not only by the crisis of abuse but by the way in which it is addressed. We need to accept that it is not the enemies of the church who have exposed this wound, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. It is the same Spirit who gives us the grace to act with integrity.

Abuse cannot be addressed by safeguarding procedures alone, necessary though they are. A purely juridical process can never be adequate. To attempt to blame others or a lax secular culture is not only a dangerous denial; it is a sin against the victims and against the Spirit who is their advocate. Though intensely personal, abuse is about an institutional failure and the ecclesial culture that supported it. Only through a deep, humble repentance that begins and desires a sustained metanoia of ecclesial soul and culture can there be healing and renovatio.

The church must reclaim itself as the body of Christ, not some international corporation. Here the church needs to believe in itself. It needs to use its own spiritual, sacramental and imaginative resources; it needs a profound conversion. Only when it does this can it truly witness to the world, a world that itself is desperately in need of another way.

Mourning. We live in a church that is mourning. There is a sense that something has been lost. This is not only a loss, as is claimed, in the sense of mystery and transcendence, which we desperately need to recover, but it is also that sacramental intimacy and familiar reverence that marks Catholicism’s incarnational “at-home-ness” with heaven and earth. For some it may be mourning the loss of a past security and glory; for others an unfulfilled future glimpsed at the Second Vatican Council and the lost opportunities or seeds that never flowered. With a younger generation it may be for something they were never given but know they miss.

Mourning can generate anger toward those who we feel have taken something away from us. One can detect this in a strange anger that marks the Western Church at the moment. We see it in the internal polemics between different schools claiming to have the answer to our problems, but mainly it is directed against a secular culture, as if it is the secular world that has betrayed and robbed the church of its mission. Anger stops us from seeing the good in others; it stops us from seeing the great good and noble desires of our own culture, hearing its deeper longings, recognizing its fears and deep anxieties and recognizing its own searching. Only anger at the loss and desecration of human life, the exploitation of the poor, the destruction of creation and suffering ignored can serve the Gospel of Christ.

A decisive moment in the conversion of St. Augustine was his recollection of the words of the angel at the empty tomb: “Why seek the living among the dead?” A church that lives from the resurrection does not need to mourn; it needs to follow its risen Lord with joyous, calm and unshakable faith along all the unknown roads of history. It carries within itself the Easter proclamation, “All time belongs to him.” No matter how bleak the age, the church cannot go back; it must never lose its Easter eyes—with these it sees the abundance of graced life even in the desert.

A New Sensibility

If we can pause and take time, we will see that the daily funeral rites performed by the secular media (and some internal voices) have more to do with their own pathologies than our church’s reality. There is life, and it is coming in ways both familiar and new; a new spiritual and ethical sensibility is already forming. This sensibility is not afraid to draw upon the deep wells of the church’s traditional devotional life and to explore fresh forms. Many, churched and un-churched, young and old, have a deep desire for a sacramental life and vision, a Catholic vision, that heals the deep alienations that run through our postmodern life—a vision that makes sense of who we are, our purpose and our responsibilities to cherish the world that God has given us. They already are at home in the church; they are waiting for it to rediscover its freedom and generativity before a secular world. The secular world, too, is waiting for a church it can believe in, even if it chooses not to enter.

When we are freed from our Eurocentrism or America-centrism, our fears and desolations, we can begin to see the Spirit already preparing our future. Where can we begin? Once again, the question “Domine quo vadis?” is not a bad place to start—Christ was on his way to Rome.

The see of Peter. The papacy is God’s great gift to the church, but it needs to continue to evolve if it is to realize the fullness of its service. It has become too trapped in an ultramontane ecclesiology and a quasi-secular, monarchical exercise of power. While effective and prophetic at its best, it can also be impoverishing for the life of the church. All the popes since the Second Vatican Council have been aware of the need to develop a fuller theology of the papacy, both Pope Paul VI and Pope Benedict have helped us deflate its mystique, and Pope John Paul II, while showing its extraordinary, often prophetic power, was not afraid to initiate theological reflection about it. That needs to continue. With this must go a reform of the Roman Curia—not just in terms of structures, but in terms of ethos. It needs to be less about governing the universal church than about serving it. Subsidiarity is not just an important principle for the relationship between secular structures; it is an ecclesial one as well. As Pius XII observed, without prejudice to the hierarchical nature of the church, the principle applies to its life. Indeed, it is present from the beginning, as we can see from St. Paul. The office of Peter must maintain a serious and sustained theology of collegiality, which translates into effective practice and finds articulation within canon law. The council laid the foundations, but the full building is far from complete.

Collegiality. Collegiality needs to be given effective structures within the life of the local church. Only in that way can the full grace of the church’s hierarchical structure and its capacity to offer leadership to national and local cultures be fully realized. Pope John Paul II spoke about the “spirituality of communio” and the renewal and conversion of the use of the grace of power for the service it entails. Unless this happens, authority will be more diminished in the church.

With a development of collegiality, attention must be given to the gifts and charisms of those who are appointed bishops. They need to be men who can offer significant and creative leadership and that means using all the gifts of God’s people.

They need to be able to hold the community to its principal mission of witness to the Gospel of Christ, rather than allowing it to fall into division and dispute about things that are not essential or whose symbolic value has been exaggerated.

Internationally, nationally and locally the church increasingly needs to understand how to strengthen and nourish its own internal life while meeting the demands of the secular culture. This certainly means greater transparency and accountability enshrined in the church’s ethos and law. Above all, the bishop must be less an executive administrator than a demonstratively caring spiritual and pastoral leader. The gifts of administration already exist within the community, especially among the laity, and the bishop should not hesitate to use these gifts fully as part of his own ministry. He must have a deep, compassionate understanding for his priests and his people, the struggles and the circumstances of their lives, nourishing them with the light of Christ and the ever creative consolation of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he must show this love for all within his diocese, prepared not only to call them to the truth of Christ, but to defend them before all those forces that diminish or oppress them. Above all, especially in our present cultures, he must be a man who can speak in a familiar way about God and the things of God.

Theology. Surely it is time for us to leave behind the rather false and arid polemics about the Second Vatican Council and the hermeneutics of continuity or discontinuity. We are now at the moment of a new appropriation of the council, whose riches we have barely begun to unfold. Part of the problem over both interpretation and practice has been that the theology after Vatican II has not kept pace with the council’s insights. Often the council glimpsed a truth but lacked the theology to develop it or to explore its consequences. Since the council, arguably the theological vitality and creativity of the church has been reduced. This needs to be restored, as does the ecclesial role of theology.

Too often, in its migration to the university, theology has lost its sense of service, not just to the academy but to the church and its mission. It needs to claim its own freedom and legitimacy within the campus, without sacrificing its subject to the gods of secular reason. Theology must not allow itself to forget that only in service of the mystery of Christ and his church is it preserved from vacuity.

We need to discover or recover a new relationship between the ecclesial charism of theology and that of the magisterium—local as well as Roman. Above all there is need for a clearer and effective theology of the sensus fidelium, which is not just a passive assent to Christian truth but an active wisdom manifest in the faithful praxis of Christian life and witness. Without this the church will never have a mature theology of the laity or realize the full effectiveness of its magisterium. Unless the church trusts theology, its mission and its risk, it will fail in its evangelical task. It will cease to have a conceptual command of the cultures in which it lives; it will be inarticulate and incomprehensible before them, lacking sufficient means to address the complex issues of the time with insight, reason, humanity, understanding and truth.

Glimpses of an Emerging Church

At first these may seem rather internal concerns, but without them the gifts that Christ and the Holy Spirit bestow upon the whole community will always be frustrated. Running through the Second Vatican Council is the vision of an open church, attentive to the ways in which the Spirit is working in all aspects of human endeavor, its political, cultural and religious traditions. At the heart of the council’s vision is a vital but simpler church that lives out of the Trinitarian mystery. The miracle of its sacramental life renews this church and makes it less an institution and more a familiar mysticism of presence, persons and communio. It is a church where communio finds daily expression not in retreat from the suffering, violence and injustice that mark the world, but in a profound loving solidarity with it; a communio of love that is primarily at the service of the poor, weak, forgotten and abandoned.

Here the Euro-American centrism of the church must give way to the church emerging in the developing world, which will constitute the majority of its membership by the end of the next papacy. It must give voice to their concerns, which are often far from those of the secular West. It must raise its voice against exploitation in defense of economic and social rights, especially the basic rights of human life and the rights of women and children. Now is the time for the church to discover its prophetic voice on behalf of the developing world, especially its vision of ecological justice and the care of natural resources that all members of the human family can enjoy and cherish now and in the future as the gift of God’s good creation. This church is not afraid of the world; nor is it afraid to be poor before it, because it knows that it does not need worldly power to achieve its goals. It is prepared to spend itself in service—recognized and unrecognized; it is not preoccupied with itself or its own survival but has the needs and the future of humanity as its task.

It is a church that follows the incarnate and risen Christ into all the depths of history and the empty places of the human heart, and always with love. Living from the truth of Christ, it understands and cherishes the supreme gift of life in all men and women, whatever their race, religion, state or status. It rejoices in those structures, human as well as divine, which allow life—all life—to flourish. When the church lives this, then it lives most deeply its own sacramental life, offered without charge or contract to a secular world whose soul is slowly starving. Such a church can teach the evangelical counsels and the precepts with authority: how to share the resources of creation, live materially simpler but spiritually richer lives in solidarity with all women and men, reverencing our own bodies and those of others, rejecting all the ways of instrumentalizing and brutalizing creation and one another.

The council understood how only a church that lives out of a kenosis of love and joyous self-sacrificing gift can realize this vision. For such a church, secularization is not a threat but a call. It is not a utopian church or a church that has some dreamy, humanitarian ethic. Following the crucified Christ, it can never underestimate the reality of our wounded state, but it is not afraid to suffer for and with the world, living with all the tortured realities of our sin but understanding the quieter victory of hope, love and grace, “laboring and working” in the vineyard of the Lord until he comes. Above all, the church that the council glimpsed was one that knew that even when the secular world formally denies God, and informally ignores him, he is always present.

It will take a humble, free, mystical church to see this, to go even into the darknesses where God has been hidden or discarded. When it takes this next step, even on the Holy Saturdays of the secular world, it will find him where he is not expected to be; it will discover that there are many who bear his name and hear his voice. They have been waiting so long for the church to find them.

Maybe, as the church inaugurates a new papacy, we will not be afraid to love this church, as it is, as it desires to be, as God wills it to be. Maybe we will glimpse again the greatness of the church’s heart and mission.

Listen to an interview with James Hanvey, S.J.

James Hanvey, S.J., a member of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, currently holds the Lo Schiavo Chair in Catholic social thought at the University of San Francisco.


daisy swadesh | 3/22/2013 - 7:06pm

Someone (Tim O'Leary) asked about my comments to this article in which I said that Pope John Paul II had said the Church was vowed to perpetual celibacy.
It's been a long time--this was probably in the early 1980s over a question of ending priestly celibacy and I probably read it in Our Sunday Visitor. However a better question to ask is--why, after nearly 2000 years, doesn't the Church have a Theology of the Bride of Christ?

My feelings about JPII are mixed. He was very influential in challenging the totalitarianism of Soviet communism and with his frequent world travels helped bring the Church into the modern world, etc.

However, his strong influence re Humanae Vitae, many years before his papacy, caused terrible grief among married couples and led to their achieving greater independence in thinking. No one knew it then, but among all mammals a bonding hormone called oxytocin strengthens the bond between mother and child and is also activated by sexual relations. The decisive study of it was done in the 1990s on prairie voles--and it's active in all nonhuman primates in strengthening social relationships. In humans, because of oxytocin, sex outside the period of fertility renews the bonds of the marriage. Married couples knew this, not through science, but through experiential knowledge.

daisy swadesh | 3/11/2013 - 5:41pm

Thought-filled, inspiring, brief--thank you for this meditation.
Jesus called the church's leaders to not lord it over others but to be a servant. The most important task of a religious leader is to listen for the Holy Spirit even if it comes from the mouth of a child or a donkey. And the most important thing about Peter is NOT that he never made mistakes--he did--but that he had the courage and the humility to correct them--and be a better leader because of it.
When JPII declared the church vowed to perpetual celibacy I wrote the Vatican because an essential theological construct had been missed.
Jesus is the Bridegroom. The Church is the Bride of Christ. They may be celibate before the Marriage, but they are vowed to Marriage. The Church has long assumed the Marriage would occur only in heaven. Yes, it's a spiritual marriage, but Jesus made clear--in the story of the woman with seven husbands--that marriage wasn't needed in heaven--it's to be lived here on earth. And what is Marriage? Marriage is how we learn to live together despite our differences and stay together--through Love! Something the world desperately needs today.
JPII was, like many earthly leaders, certain of himself even when he was wrong. And the Church has been in agony with the burdens he laid on her. He was a consumate actor on the global stage and who could follow him in that?
The world today is facing great crises of global proportions, and cannot afford to have a Catholic Church in schism.
Let us pray that the Holy Spirit of God will speak to the conclave so they will find the Way.

Tim O'Leary | 3/11/2013 - 9:18pm

Daisy. Sorry to be picky but your comment is very confusing. The only thing clear to me from your piece is you don't like Blessed Pope John Paul II (The Great). Can you give the reference where he declared the "church vowed to celibacy"? And what does celibacy of an organization/community mean? Or, if you/he meant that Jesus was always celibate (as in the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ), how could that be wrong? As to this pope's understanding of marriage, did you read the Theology of the Body?

And how does this relate to the Quo Vadis article?

Michael Barberi | 3/16/2013 - 9:29pm

Let's pray that Pope Francis will help solidify a divided Church and bring a renewed spirituality to our Church and Catholics who strive to love God and neighbor. A replaying of the narrative that Catholics must accept all and every teaching by faith without reason is not an answer because it is blind, and to accept every teaching by reason without faith denies the transcendental. We need both faith and reason to address the many complex issues that will lead to a reception of all teachings. To disagree with certain teachings for legitimate philosophical and theological reasons is not reflective of individualism or relativism. It is a cry for a convincing and rationale moral theory in support of all moral teachings and a renewed faith.

When the pastoral advice of many priests propose answers that are inconsistent with certain doctrines, then this fuels the disagreement and a unnecessary skepticism grows.

There is much hope in this new Pope because of Christ and the workings of His Holy Spirit.

Tim O'Leary | 3/18/2013 - 11:15am

Michael - I think Pope Benedict XVI, possibly one of the greatest intellects of our time, would agree with you on the importance of reason, even though his reason may not arrive at the same conclusions as yours. But, I think you will agree with him that it is possible to mislead oneself. Here is a quote from a message he sent to the "Courts of the Gentiles" outreach to non-Christians: 'I believe deeply that the encounter of faith and reason enables us to find ourselves. But all too often reason falters in the face of self-interest and the lure of profit, and is forced to regard the latter as the ultimate criterion. Striving for truth is not easy. But each of us is called to make a courageous decision to seek the truth, precisely because there can be no shortcut to the happiness and beauty of a life of genuine fulfillment. Jesus says as much in the Gospel: "The truth will make you free".

In any case, I think we can agree that we both want Pope Francis to transmit the fullness of the faith, and that this will lead to a greater holiness among Catholics, a fuller faith to our fellow Christians and finding of Christ among non-Christians of good will.

Michael Barberi | 3/19/2013 - 2:32pm

There are sincere, respectful and informed Catholics that have legitimate philosophical and theological reasons for disagreeing with certain moral teachings of the Catholic Church. We are all human and sometimes we do not fully understand the truth, and popes are no exception as history has taught us.

We remain faithful to the Church by striving to fully understand all teachings and to use our God-given practical reason and faith to make moral judgments in cases of moral conflict. Our informed consciences can err but we are guided by Christ and the Holy Spirit as are all members of His Church. The Church teaches us never to go against our informed consciences even if we disagree. This does not mean we should arbitrarily chose the teachings that satisfy our human condition. Nor does it mean we must accept a teaching that is in significant tension with collective human experience, reason and our informed conscience. We must give respect to Church teachings and strive with humility to live upright and virtuous lives.

We can agree that our Church is profoundly divided over sexual ethics and there is much suffering and moral dilemma in accepting the Church's answers to many concrete cases of moral conflict. For those who accept every Church teaching do not stand on a higher moral ground than those who faithfully and respectfully disagree. We must always be on guard not to allow self-interest and pride blind us to the truth. Nor should the Church close all doors to debate and our growing knowledge of theology, Scripture, philosophy, anthropology, science and what is means to be human.

Let's pray that Pope Francis will solidify a divided Church and lead us all to a fuller understanding of the truth for the love of God and neighbor.

Tim O'Leary | 3/9/2013 - 11:28pm

And not to forget the answer to Quo Vadis to each of us. The calls for reform above are well stated. Let us all look into our hearts and begin the reform within ourselves. Wouldn't it be amazing if the new pope was welcomed by a new zeal for holiness throughout the earth, in every Christian heart?

O God,
our eternal shepherd,
who guides your people with a father's care,
grant to your Church
a Pope acceptable to you
in holiness of life,
one entirely consecrated
to the service of your people.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.

Beautiful prayer from the Collect of the Mass to elect a Pope
(From Rocco Palmo at

Michael Goc | 3/9/2013 - 10:51am

Father Harvey's desolations resound within me, especially mourning. As one who loves the Lord and His Church, I am in mourning by wounds inflicted in the name of the Church and through the Church. It appears to me that Fear--of losing one's own status, of giving up one's power, of letting go of the belief that there are those in the Body of Christ superior to others--rather than Agape Love, has driven many of those in formal leadership over the past decades, and we, along with the anawim, look for hope and resurrection in the Church, but do find the One who has drawn our hearts to God. The concern in the Church overwhemingly seems to be to pray the Liturgy correctly and accept without question or dissent all that is promulgated. These have also become part of the fabric of many of the institutions of the Church, thus not permitting most of the Body of Christ to take their rightful places of service in maturity with Christ as our head.

Avery Dulles gave us the various models of the Church, facets of a diamond; however, too long has the Church as Institution been the predominant model with the others being made subject to it. Yes, there is hope that the Holy Spirit is still trying to work within the Church as this unprecedented event within many generations of the pope's resignation shows.

English Standard Version (©2001)
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Psalme 43:5

Nicholas Clifford | 3/9/2013 - 10:13am

I am encouraged not only by this wonderful article, but by all the calls for reform that have poured out in the last two or three weeks. However, one must ask the question: why now? Has not the need for reform been evident for a long time? It is as if only Benedict's resignation has made it possible for so many of the ordained (particularly bishops) to note the need for change, particularly in the governance structures of the Church (of which the Curia is part, but only part).
I hope that such calls for reform will continue even after the election of a new pope. For we must all do our part. I do not doubt for a minute that the Holy Spirit will enlighten those charged with his election; but the Church's long history has made it all too evident that all too often those charged with such an election have failed to listen to the Spirit.

James Collins | 3/5/2013 - 3:48pm

Too often the church leadership likes to blame problems in the church on the "evil" secular culture. I like James Hanvey's idea that the problem of our hierarchy is that they are caught up in a monarchial leadership paradigm from the middle ages. That does not work with a church membership that is much more educated, knowlegeable and who firmly believe in the principles of political and religous freedom, ciollegiality and subsidarity.

Vince Killoran | 3/8/2013 - 4:39pm

James, I applaud your comments to this inspiring piece. The Church is "Living Church'' and I fear that those who view it in a static and narrow manner don't just have their history wrong--they have their theology wrong as well.

Tim O'Leary | 3/7/2013 - 9:15am

It is foolhardy to ignore the impact of the secular culture on the thinking of our own Catholic people and even our clergy. Things that were generally believed to be crimes against humanity a century ago (sex-selection and eugenics abortions, infanticide for genetic defects, euthanasia, cloning), or sexual practices that were understood for millennia to be unhealthy for individuals and society, are now commonly accepted and encouraged by even a substantial minority of our own congregation, some of them highly 'educated.' Freedom is the beginning of ethics, not its end. We are capable of choosing evil, and abandoning the faith, either on our own or by following wayward pastors. And, so often, we use our education and sophistication not to discover the truth, but to justify our desires.

Juan Fernández de la Gala | 3/7/2013 - 10:53am

Secular culture means also democracy, rights equality, avoid gender discrimination...
Here you are just three things that our Catholic Church ignores and must learn urgently nowadays.
As Second Vatican Council proposed: in many occasions we need to be evangelized by the secular culture. Let's go, then.

Tim O'Leary | 3/7/2013 - 11:27am

Juan - I agree that the Church has learned and can learn a lot from the non-ecclesial community, as long as it never departs from the faith handed down by Christ. So, it can welcome expansion of gender equality but cannot depart from Christ on a male priesthood. It can reflect on reproductive rights and can defend parental rights but cannot abandon the rights of the unborn child or the pregnant woman for "unequal" and special protection. It can learn from the psychological understanding of people with abnormal sexual desires but cannot abandon the call for personal holiness and chastity, nor lose sight of the damage to children and society by abandoning the protection of the complementary roles of fathers and mothers. (the protection of children is a particularly grave concern in the Church today, given the lax discipline and historical mishandling of the child abuse crisis).

I also think the influence of John Courtney Murray, S.J. at Vatican II helped move the Church to a greater appreciation of religious freedom, although the secular world seems to be losing its sense of this first human right more recently.

I note that the papal conclave recognized the importance of secret voting (instituted way back in 1621) to avoid undue political pressure before any democracy (even today, this is resisted by American Unions).

Juan Fernández de la Gala | 3/1/2013 - 6:00pm

Thanks a lot for this inspirational (and perhaps even prophetic) text.
I hope all these visions and glimpses of VC-II become a reality one day.
Maybe, after a few days things could start to change...

bill halpin | 3/1/2013 - 1:16pm

From a similar darkened, hidden, and discarded place James Hanvey refers to, I read his article with reluctant cheer. I have so wanted to feel part of the community dear to my history and heart, the Catholic Church, but it has been remarkably difficult in the interstice between the Aggiornamento of the early 1960s and the Absurdity, (read: ridiculously incongruous or unreasonableness), of Church governance and awkward theology in this nascent 21st century.

Augustine recollecting the angel's words, “Why seek the living among the dead?” -- might have been a converting impetus for him, but resonates today as a departing trope for the disaffected leaving the empty tomb of Jesus and empty seat of Peter for more reasonable, accepting, and compassionate spiritual environs.

That said, I agree with the template of acknowledging desolation, moving through new sensibility, and standing at the unknown but heuristic emergence of a self which is willing to incorporate the mystery, mysticism, and mindful awareness of what is coming to be unconcealed.

The catch, and it is an important one, is that this emergence, this Christ-Minding and kenotic resignation might not need the ancient structure and archaic mindset of our hierarchical prelatry.

A Trappist monk once said to me: “Cheer up, Bill, things are only going to get worse!” It was a generous koan he offered me from the depths of his cheerful contemplative realism.

Hence, the abandoning exodus of the faithful to other horizons, where similar experiences of desolation, revived sensibility, and prayerful emergence will, no doubt, recur. But the experience, tried and suffered, will be without the heavy burden of disappointment that is an unhearing institution -- a weight disturbing enough to extend the stations of the cross and innumerable fallings of the suffering servant beyond their typical end.

Still, I remain, poised and open, in the dark.

Tim O'Leary | 2/28/2013 - 1:29pm

To our current desolation, I would add the “wound of dissent” to the “wound of abuse.” Both seem to be concentrated in Euro-America and both have to do in the main with sexual sin. Both have been mishandled and even made worse by deficiencies in pastoral leadership and insufficient disciplinary procedures. And this is despite a series of historically significant and saintly popes (the longest streak of holy popes since the 5th century!).

As to the right response to our own “Quo Vadis,” I completely agree that the Church, from the new pope to every Catholic person, needs to refocus on the "principal mission of witness to the Gospel of Christ". This witness needs to be to the whole Gospel, to the fullness of the faith, and not just to the parts we find most congenial or easy (such as social justice for faraway places or being generous with someone else’s treasures). Every Catholic could benefit from making their own the humble commitment that Pope Benedict XVI just made today, “Among you, among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future Pope, to whom, here today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”

RICHARD KUEBBING | 3/16/2013 - 10:08am

this is an excellent article. I especially liked the title with both visual and pastoral echoes.

our faith is both visual and pastoral. one example in the last week is Francis appearing is a simple cassock. to morph slightly Marshall McLuhan, the medium can be part of the message.

as for the "wound of dissent" mentioned above, it is a self-inflicted wound compounded by narrow mindedness. the world understood is much more complex than can be fit into simple mantras.

and the world today is a new Tower of Babel. even when we all speak the same language, words, the tokens of communication are taken and used so differently that we cannot understand each other. Try getting a consensus definition of: Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, Christian, Jew, Muslim, ...

RICHARD KUEBBING | 3/16/2013 - 10:25am

and what exactly is the meaning of the picture that accompanies the text in the print issue, both in the context of the article and outside that context?

Robert Riley | 2/27/2013 - 7:20pm

I liked much of what I read here, such as "The council understood how only a church that lives out of a kenosis of love and joyous self-sacrificing gift can realize this vision. For such a church, secularization is not a threat but a call. It is not a utopian church or a church that has some dreamy, humanitarian ethic. Following the crucified Christ, it can never underestimate the reality of our wounded state, but it is not afraid to suffer for and with the world; living with all the tortured realities of our sin but understanding the quieter victory of hope, love and grace, “laboring and working” in the vineyard of the Lord until he comes. Above all, the church that the council glimpsed was one that knew that even when the secular world formally denies God, and informally ignores him, he is always present."

I don't think that I can add much to what Fr. Hanvey said, other than to give my opinion that much has been lost in the present Church since Vatican II. That great Council, under the initial direction of Pope John XXIII, signaled the willingness of the Church to enter into the 20th century and to embrace (not be defined by) a more secular world (yet also a world with new dimensions of spirituality which were not defined or confined by dry, institutional dogma of past centuries). I am reminded of that scene of Jesus engaging the woman at the well in Samaria as found in the Gospel of John. He said, more or less (my memory isn't perfect), "The time will come when people will not worship at these two mountains (in Samaria) or at the Temple in Jerusalem, but instead will worship God in Spirit and in Truth." I could be mistaken, but I think he was saying that Love will eventually bloom universally in people's hearts thanks to a growing sense of the Divine Love within (and among) rather than have their faith defined mainly by institutional boundaries. I believe that faith will transcend the manmade boundaries of religion (and other aspects of culture) which for so many centuries have separated person from person, even to the point of encouraging people going to war with one another over differences of belief.

ROBERT FUSELIER | 2/27/2013 - 12:49pm

I agree with Fr. Hanvey that the church must avoid viewing the secular world as an enemy and instead focus on seeing it as a people in need of compassion. Jesus taught us to be inclusive; he questioned all those who took an ‘us vs. them’ view of the world. The ‘us vs. them’ view leads us to be defensive, prone to anger and violence. Jesus taught and lived that, while opposition is often required, the intent to harm the other is forbidden. Yet the concept of nonviolence is still hard for us to grasp.

Fr. Hanvey’s statement, “Only anger at the loss and desecration of human life, the exploitation of the poor, the destruction of creation and suffering ignored can serve the Gospel of Christ,” suggests that there are times when anger may be justified. I understand that righteous indignation has been a topic for theological review for centuries. Perhaps it’s time to let science have a word.

Recent discoveries in emotional neuroscience (e.g., see Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience) have established that what we know as anger is controlled by neural circuitry of which we have little conscious control. We cannot act freely when we are angry. We can in freedom use behaviors that mimic anger to make a point. But there is a clear distinction between acting as if we’re angry and acting from anger.

I understand anger may lead us to act at times when we should. The energy provided by this emotional system is great and can be put to good use. But we should never act while we’re angry, even for the most just of causes, since we can’t act with freedom. Perhaps when we find our selves in anger we should follow Thérèse of Lisieux’s advice and surrender in gratitude. Then we might find the patience to question the motives of our anger and free our selves of its violent potential. The problems of today require us to be as open as possible to God’s Grace, the source of all compassion.

Dan and Peg Hebert | 2/27/2013 - 12:35pm

This is a vision of Church for which I could pour myself out and give my life.

Joseph Sasso | 2/27/2013 - 11:37am

This is one of the most important articles I have read
about our Catholic Faith and our church in transformation. The HOLY SPIRIT within, has truly bless'd James Hanvey, S.J.

Mike Evans | 2/27/2013 - 10:09am

It seems that the writer is determined to set the secular world vs the church as his major theme. We need to rediscover the difference between 'the church in the world' instead of 'the church and the world.' Nor is our salvation to be found in the clericalism and neo-conservatism of the third world where priests are in short supply and access is mostly dependent upon social standing and family riches. 80% of Brazilian catholics can not attend Sunday Mass. How is faith to be nurtured when the basic sacramental life is both rare and rationed? What reforms (besides the ludicrous new sacramentary) will bring our children and grandchildren to the church out of their own desire to be part of the Christian mission? Will our new pope be a person of inspiring love or another Inquisitor? There is so much work to be done that it will take ten years of Vatican III even to open the doors and windows.

Robert Riley | 2/27/2013 - 7:34pm

Mike, I appreciated your comment, "Will our new pope be a person of inspiring love or another Inquisitor? There is so much work to be done that it will take ten years of Vatican III even to open the doors and windows." I may be biased, but I remember in my early 20's the thrill I felt during Vatican II and its opening of the Church to the new realities (and at times chaos) of the 20th century. I believe that in many ways, the two popes since Paul VI and the short-lived John Paul I have dragged the Church (in some ways) backwards into the mentalities and artificial, Spirit-stifling, "certainties" of the 19th century. As you say, we can only hope that a new Vatican Council can once again open the doors and the windows, so that the Church may embrace and help heal the world's people in the 21st century instead of defining people according to a moralistic past set of criteria. It is also a new time of dialogue with the world's religions, so that Love may triumph over the past religious barriers we have set up between us (in all ignorance).

George Farahat | 2/27/2013 - 9:31am

I am often impressed by writings and thoughts of Jesuit theologians and this article continues in the same vein of seeking more collegiality. However, we must ask ourselves how an authentic teaching of the Church should be communicated. God will not forsake the Church. St. Augustine said: Be moderate in everything except in love. Pope Benedict XVI is probably the last of the giants who participated in Vatican II. He addressed the priests of Rome on February 14, 2013. He reflected there on Vatican II. His reflections may be a starting point for theologians to see the role of the Church today in the world. As a reference please see the address here:
I also wrote a little post on this great Pontiff the day he said he will resign. See it here if interested:

George Farahat, Master's in Information Systems, B.Sc. in Engineering (Telecommunications), Senior Consultant,

Rosemary McHugh | 2/26/2013 - 10:51pm

"the true head of the church is Christ"
Thankyou for this excellent article, which gives me hope that maybe the Holy Spirit is finally being listened to on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. For so many years, as a cradle Catholic, I wondered "Where is Jesus in the Roman Catholic Church?" When I left my home in the Catholic ghetto of Chicago, to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin, a Protestant University in Ireland, and when I had further medical training in England, I had the opportunity to meet Protestants, who were focused on knowing Jesus as real in their lives, and who knew their way around the bible. It put me to shame because my Catholic Church did not trust lay people to read the bible. I have been so uplifted by the writings of the Jesuit Karl Rahner who wisely said that we can all be mystics as we desire to walk in union with Jesus for the greater glory of God. I am very grateful for the hope given in this article by another Jesuit. In getting my Masters Degree in Spirituality in a few months at the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago, I have come to realize that so much of what has been written has been from one point of view, the point of view of men. I am very grateful to the Jesuits that, as educators, they have been open to listen to the point of view of women as well. The viewpoints of both women and men are needed to be listened to at this special time in our church, for God's greater glory.
Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Recently by James Hanvey

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