5 years ago we started a podcast for young Catholics. What we learned about politics, prayer and the church surprised us.
It was a little over five years ago when one of us, we are not sure who (the origin story remains disputed, and given it was set in a bar over drinks, it is likely to remain unresolved), uttered the words that everyone in media has at least thought to themselves in the past 10 years: “We should start a podcast.”
In a flourish of juvenile, blind confidence, we three founding hosts of “Jesuitical” (our former cohost, Olga Segura, now an editor at The National Catholic Reporter, is someone to whom we remain deeply indebted for making the first three years of the show with us) assumed that we could just turn on the microphones during our normal, daily conversations, and other people would clamor to hear what we had to say.
Dear readers and listeners: We were wrong. Those first pilot episodes were unfocused, uninteresting and, frankly, painful to listen to. You might still think the show comes across that way, but we promise you, we used to be so much worse.
To mark our five-year anniversary, we are looking back on what we have learned from our guests to help us and our listeners navigate the modern world as people of faith.
Yet we had an inkling that something was missing from the Catholic podcasting space. We imagined there must be thousands of young people out there who were involved in campus ministry or did Jesuit Volunteer Corps or always went to the same last-chance Sunday Mass with their college friends and who now found themselves in a new city with a perhaps lackluster parish and hungry for Catholic community and spiritual nourishment. Taking a page from our Jesuit colleagues, we sought to meet these theoretical young people where they were: on their smartphones.
So, to mark our five-year anniversary, we are looking back on what we have learned from our guests—Catholics and non-Catholics vastly smarter and more interesting than we are—to help us and our listeners navigate the modern world as people of faith.
Lessons About Young Catholics
1. Young Catholics need formal and financial support from the institutional church.
Molly Burhans, the founder of GoodLands—an organization that helps the Catholic Church leverage its landholdings to further its mission—was recently profiled in The New Yorker for her heroic efforts to fight climate change. Ms. Burhans is a devout Catholic whose ecology is rooted in her faith. And Pope Francis has clearly made caring for our common home a priority for the church with his encyclical “Laudato Si’.” And yet, most of the support Ms. Burhans has received in her ministry has been from the secular world.
After Ms. Burhans created the first global map of the Catholic Church’s landholdings, Pope Francis approved a plan for her to move to Rome and establish and run a Vatican cartography institute on a trial basis. There was just one problem: It came with no staff and a very modest budget. So Molly declined the offer. She has since submitted a new proposal. All the while, Molly continues to receive awards and offers from some of the most prestigious environmental groups in the world.
Career paths for lay vocations are not obvious. The default view tends to include only a) academia, b) youth and young adult ministry, or, c) uh, I don’t know, here’s the password to our social media account. Go crazy, kid.
Unless we figure out how to incorporate young, lay Catholics and their talents and passions more fully into the formal structures of the church, the church is going to experience “brain drain” of people like Molly Burhans and so many others.
“I would have no self-respect, honestly, if I had stayed working for the Catholic Church as long as I had with the amount of resources I’ve had.”
2. Young people are leaving the church—but it is not for the reasons you think.
A bunch of people with gray hair sit in the parish hall listening to a speaker. Inevitably, someone raises their hand during the Q. and A. session and bemoans the fact that young people just are not interested in church anymore, that their adult child has drifted away, and they do not know what to do about it.
Luckily, the Springtide Research Institute, whose executive director, Josh Packard, spoke with us, is looking for the answers. The institute is devoted to studying young people’s feelings toward religion. They found that a young adult who had five adults who cared about them was far less likely to engage in high-risk behavior. The same principle could help to connect young people to the church.
“[Millennials are] not leaving the church. They were not raised in it to begin with. They don’t have anything to leave, but instead they’re going to be building things. And they’re going to be doing that with the bits and pieces and fragments of the institutional lives that have been left behind for them.”
3. Stop putting young adult Catholics at the “kids table.”
In 2018, over 300 young people from all over the world went to the Vatican to help prepare the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on young people. One of those delegates, Katie Prejean McGrady, had spent a lot of time working with young people in the church as a speaker, writer, youth minister and high school theology teacher. (Katie now hosts a daily radio show on Sirius XM). We talked to Katie about what it was like to dialogue with bishops about youth and young adult ministry, and what changes she wanted to see in how the church welcomes young people.
“A lot of times young people are relegated to the cheap seats, when it comes to Catholicism. They’re either the problem to be solved, they’re the kids that made a mess in the parish hall or they’re the ones that can clean up after the adult gathering…. They’re just kind of put into this separate category rather than [being recognized as] an active part of the life of the church. I hate the term ‘youth Mass.’ It’s Mass—and young people just happen to be engaged more in the work of the liturgy. But why can’t that happen at the 9 a.m. Mass?”
Lessons About Social Justice
1. Being pro-life means a lot more than opposing abortion.
Fairly or not (we would argue not), the pro-life movement in the United States is often disparaged as being merely pro-birth, or worse, anti-woman. Helen Prejean, C.S.J., challenges the misconception. Sister Prejean has said she “stand[s] opposed to all killing: war, executions, euthanasia, killing of children, unborn and born.” She has been fighting to end the death penalty for four decades and has done more than any other American to awaken the nation’s conscience to the hidden horror of state-sanctioned executions.
“One person on death row is too much suffering. The torture of putting a human being in a small cell—and they begin to count the days to their death, one day after the other—it’s just unspeakable. And people are oblivious to it. People don’t go into prisons. People don’t go onto death row. They don’t talk to the people who can say to you: “Today is Tuesday, and by Saturday, I’ll be dead. They’re going to kill me Friday night.” And for conscious, imaginative beings, that is mental torture. And because people are so far from it, they don’t think about it. They don’t recognize it as being against human rights.”
We also spoke with Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa in January 2019, right before the March for Life she was planning to attend—and the Women’s March, a worldwide protest for women’s rights first held on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration. She was one of few people we knew who attended both marches, but she says both were about defending the dignity of women. Destiny, who became pregnant at age 16 and chose to raise her child as a single mother, is the co-founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life, pro-woman group that promotes a whole-life ethic.
“I think the most dangerous thing we ever did was make abortion a partisan issue. This is a human rights issue; it’s something that everybody should care about. And so we keep linking it to one political party that has some questionable other activities [and] people say, ‘O.K., well that’s not whole life. That’s not pro-life all the way.’”
2. Racial justice today requires accountability for past injustices.
In 1838, the Jesuits who ran Georgetown College sold 272 slaves to pay off the school’s debt. In 2004, Onita Estes-Hicks, a cradle Catholic from New Orleans, was preparing for a family reunion when she discovered that she was a descendent of two of those enslaved persons—Nace and Biby Butler. Then, in 2017, Tim Kesicki, S.J., then-president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, formally apologized for the sale, a small first step in an ongoing journey of healing and reconciliation—a journey that Onita says still has a long way to go.
“It seems to me, given the violence that was rendered toward the families in 1838, it would not be expecting too much to have a penitential prayer included at every Mass at Georgetown [and] in Jesuit churches throughout the country. That’s the sense of reparations I would like to see. I don’t know the extent to which the Jesuits have introduced the slave sale in their universities and high schools, but they are top-notch educators, and I think something could be done in the high schools and in universities so this becomes a part of [our] living history.”
Following the murder of George Floyd and the global protests for racial justice his death inspired, we spoke with Anthea Butler, a historian of African American and American religion. In a moment of national reckoning, Professor Butler challenged Christians to resist complacency and put their faith into action.
“There are elements in our faith that obviously give us the tools and the impetus to fight racism. It’s really that the organized structures and the people doing it right now are just really not living up to that…. And let me put a finer point on it and say that it is not enough just to have faith and say that you want to do better. It requires change. I think that we forget that repentance means that you turn away; you cannot simply be sorry about something. You have to do something about it, and the doingis the part that everybody seems to fall down on.”
3. Catholics should not be afraid to get political—but the Gospel trumps political ideology.
Simone Campbell, S.S.S., is not afraid to get her hands dirty in the world of politics—or to use the “sister card” when it might lend greater heft to a cause she cares about. The leader of the Catholic social justice group “Nuns on the Bus,” Sister Simone has traveled the country with her fellow sisters, calling for just economic and immigration policies—a vocation, she says, that has deep roots in her religious order.
“Our foundress was the first woman in the Hungarian parliament, so we’ve always known that there is an intersection of charity and justice. Margit Slachta, S.S.S., said there are four levels that Sisters of Social Service were supposed to work at. The bottom level is direct service. The second level is group work—like in a settlement house. The third level is movement work—things like the anti-nuclear movement. And then because she was in the legislature, she thought legislation was the top level, the pinnacle. But she said that the legislation wouldn’t be any good unless it’s connected to the other three, and direct service would be less effective unless it was connected all the way through up to legislation. And for me that has always been a big motivating thing, to know that we hold a piece of the process of government.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, the day supporters of President Trump attacked the Capitol Building, the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, wrote that the assault was a consequence of, among other factors, “the complicit silence and active support of religious leaders who refused to confront the cancer of white nationalism that this president endorses.” When we spoke to him the following week, he reissued his challenge to Catholics who choose party over faith.
“The social doctrine of the church is very explicit that Christians may have political loyalties and belong to political parties. But our political loyalty must always be a critical one and must always be subjected to the light of the Gospel—whether we are Democrat, Republican, socialist. That ideology cannot be our ultimate identity or ultimate frame of reference.”
Lessons About Spirituality
1. Honest prayer is good prayer. (Related: There’s not a “right” way to pray.)
Though we were initially reluctant to do this, one of the three segments on “Jesuitical” involves us talking about our prayer lives. It is the part of the show that is most difficult for us, both because prayer is difficult and because talking about it for an audience is embarrassing and terrifying. Luckily, we have spoken to a number of spiritual masters—like our colleague James Martin, S.J.—about how to get better at finding God in our lives (and better at talking about it).
“The best prayer is the one that works best for you. That’s kind of a zen answer, but it’s true.”
Luigi Gioia is an Anglican priest, scholar and author, whose book, Say It to God: In Search of Prayer, was chosen as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official Lenten book for 2018. It is filled with down-to-earth, practical advice about prayer.
“Talking to God like you would talk to someone who is with you, walking by you, and sharing with him or with her whatever really comes to your mind, whatever is important for you, whatever frustrates you, whatever makes you rejoice, [this] is the essence of prayer. Prayer is really talking to someone who is there and who is infinitely, deeply interested in everything that happens in our lives.”
2. Your conception of God will change throughout your life. That is O.K. (and necessary).
Richard Rohr, Franciscan, author and spiritual guru, is an inspiration to millions of spiritual seekers. Though, to be honest, we had only surface-level knowledge of his work. But after we spoke with the comedian Pete Holmes about how much his life had been changed by Father Rohr’s wisdom, we knew we had to go straight to the source.
“Most Western spirituality, reflecting Western civilization, has been a spirituality of climbing, achieving, performing, perfectionism, of proving yourself worthy to an always demanding God. And what Jesus reveals is not a spirituality of ascent but a spirituality of descent. [Or as St. Therese of Lisieux put it] you come to God much more through your mistakes than through achieving personal perfection. That’s a 180 degree turn from the way I was raised to understand Christianity. That’s the big switch. When that hit me already as a Franciscan novice, when I was 19, that changed everything. And much of the rest of my life has been trying to understand that more deeply.”
3. Give spiritual direction a try—and do not worry if it does not fit the usual mold.
One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned from the show? You (or at least we) cannot live out our spirituality alone. Every week, we talk with our (now former) colleague Eric Sundrup, S.J., about what’s going on in our spiritual lives. In the telling, the explaining, the retelling and listening, God’s presence becomes abundantly clearer. God is relationship; God comes to us in relationship, too. And so, if you have never tried spiritual direction, do not be afraid to try it out (and try it out again if it does not work out, with a different person and a different method).
“One of the key components to remember in spiritual direction…is the primary conversation is actually between you and God. The director is there to repeat and reflect, to point out where God is alive and active and what’s going on, and what they see in the stories that someone shares…. I’ve found that are people afraid to ‘break up’ with their spiritual director, and I encourage people, ‘If this isn’t working, if my personality or my style doesn’t fit, don’t hesitate to go find another spiritual director.’”
Lessons About the Institutional Church
1. Women are already serving and leading the church. But their gifts are not yet fully recognized.
In a feature story for Americain September 2021, Colleen Dulle, an associate editor and the host of America Media’s “Inside the Vatican,” profiled women who had risen to new heights in the historically cleric- and male-dominated Catholic hierarchy. Under Pope Francis, a historic number of women hold positions of leadership at the Vatican. But has he done enough?
“I’m definitely among those who is sort of cheering when there is a new [woman appointed at the Vatican] every few months. But there was a quote from one woman who was appointed a few years ago that has always stuck with me. She says, “I can’t wait until this is not a story.” I fall there: I can’t wait until this is not a story, but we’re not there yet.”
While Pope Francis has created two commissions to study the history and theological underpinning of women deacons, ordination to the diaconate is open to only men. But Casey Stanton is not ready to give up on what she considers her call to ordained ministry. A co-director of Discerning Deacons, a project to engage Catholics in the active discernment by the church about women and the diaconate, has heard countless stories from women who share this calling—and she wants the church to hear them, too.
“There were three women on our little parish staff who all would have discerned a diaconal vocation if the door was opened. So that was part of the constellation for me: “Oh, we’re all out here. We’re just invisible somehow. And what would it mean for our church leaders to have an encounter with our call? And could that be an occasion for conversion, for learning something new about who can be ordained to what in our church?”
2. The sexual abuse crisis is not over—and the church needs to listen to survivors.
When Juan Carlos Cruz first came forward with the allegation that he had been abused by the notorious priest predator Fernando Karadima, the church in Chile disregarded the accusation, with one cardinal even saying it was hard to believe Juan Carlos was a victim because he is gay and “might have liked it.” And when Pope Francis visited Chile in 2018, the pope called allegations that a bishop had covered up Father Karadima’s abuse “slander.” But Juan Carlos refused to remain silent, and his advocacy for abuse victims eventually got him a private meeting with the pope—and an apology.
“I feel [I got] some of my dignity back. But at the same time, when I met with [Pope Francis], I told him: ‘I cannot be the exception. I have to be the norm. Not that every survivor has to come and see you and greet you—and I am honored that you did that with me—but everybody needs justice’.... It’s important that other survivors believe and know that someone will hear them. The church has to change that paradigm, that way of thinking that the survivors are enemies of the church and want to destroy the church. Quite the opposite. There are a lot of people who have been destroyed by the church.”
Hans Zollner, S.J., has dedicated his life to protecting children from the horrific crime of sexual abuse. A psychologist and Jesuit priest, he has guided the church’s efforts to bring healing to survivors and to prevent such abuse from happening again. Despite the progress the church has made in recent decades, he says Catholic leaders must go deeper in their encounter with the pain and anger of survivors.
“From the side of the victims, the biggest obstacle [to healing] is that they have encountered a good number of church representatives who have not listened to them. Most victims, survivors that I’ve met only request that they be listened to with an open mind, open ears and an open heart. And many of them didn’t encounter that attitude but encountered a legal approach, a psychological approach, a coldness and the rejection of any requests of a personal encounter.
So the biggest obstacle is that some church leaders did not really sit down, take time, be quiet and take on whatever victims wanted to express, be it rage, anger, sadness, accusations. Because this is for almost all of them the starting point of some journey of reconciliation.”
3. We need to pay attention to, and be in relationship with, the capital-C church, without letting it dominate our spiritual lives.
We sometimes joke that our faith lives were better before we knew the names of any bishops. And while church politics and intra-Catholic culture wars can be disheartening at times, we have had the great blessing to interview several bishops on the show. It was a stark lesson that “the bishops” or “the U.S.C.C.B.” is a very different reality than the individual person of “Bishop So-and-So.” One of those prelates is Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn. Bishop Caggiano has been putting into action Pope Francis’ call for a “listening church.”
More than one thing can be true: 1) Bishops are our shepherds and teachers. 2) They hold almost all the authority in the church (which feels maddening at times). 3) They are our brothers in Christ, baptized the same way we all were, who want to listen to us and share in the mission of the church with us.
In other words, believe it or not, bishops are just people, too.
“I think what animates Pope Francis in large part is this beautiful, basic theological idea of communion—that we’re all linked together, all humanity is linked together because we’re all made in God’s image and likeness. And among believers we’re linked together by grace and the Holy Spirit and in baptism. And so, we could disagree, we could even fight, but we’re all in this together to be partners in mission. We all have a role to play in preaching the Gospel and moving the mission of the church forward. So I think it is a concept that for young adults, in particular, resonates so deeply because no one wants you to speak for them.”
Lessons About Interfaith Dialogue
1. Dialogue does not mean compromising on your beliefs (and it can be a lot of fun).
It is a poorly kept secret that we borrowed generously from the Jewish podcast “Unorthodox,” from Tablet Studios when thinking about the format and spirit of “Jesuitical.” The hosts of that show, Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz and Mark Oppenheimer, give their always funny, often irreverent takes on the “News of the Jews” (see “Signs of the Times”) and talk with one Jewish and one gentile guest about politics, food, movies, identity and so much more. The hosts of “Unorthodox” taught us that you can be unapologetically Jewish (or Catholic) and still engage with people of other faiths as long as you are authentic, curious and entertaining.
“Each week we have a Jewish guest and a ‘Gentile of the Week.’ And the Gentile of the week gets to bring a question to us, and it’s something that they know about in advance, so they can think about it, and we usually try to get the question in advance so we can give a real answer. And those have become some of the most interesting and complicated and thorny and theological discussions that we have on the show.
Because when you have a Jewish guest, we have a common language, right? Whereas with our Gentiles, there are so many things that you kind of want to know about people that you just never felt like you could ask.”
2. Catholics must reckon with the church’s past (and present) anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
In the fall of 2021, Unorthodox’s Mark Oppenheimer joined us for a more somber conversation to mark the five-year anniversary of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman murdered 11 people attending Shabbat services—the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history, and one far too few Americans remember.
“One of the kind of humbling things or kind of poignant and sad things is how many people have said to me over the last three years, ‘Oh, you’re writing a book on Pittsburgh. What happened there?’ And even after I say, ‘Oh, the shooting,’ there’s still this beat where most people don’t realize there was a shooting there.... And that includes a lot of Jews, especially secular Jews or Jews who are not synagogue-goers. It includes almost every Gentile. [And] I think that part of what’s going on there is that Jewish life doesn’t count for quite as much as other lives in the current political discourse…. People love Anne Frank, but most Americans are not particularly concerned with the ongoing institutional safety of elderly synagogue-attending Jews on a Saturday in Pittsburgh.”
Jordan Denari-Duffner remembers an anti-Muslim chain email that was sent around her Catholic community when she was younger and thinking: How could these faithful, loving Catholics not realize that this message was wrong? In the years since, Jordan has written two books and many articles on Catholic-Muslim relations, drawing upon her experience living and studying among Muslim neighbors in Amman, Jordan. She seeks to help others examine their prejudices in order to more faithfully live out their calling as Christians.
“One of the issues that I’ve noticed in Catholic circles is that a lot of Catholics will read books about Islam that are not by Muslims. It will be by people who maybe are Catholic or from a different faith tradition or of no religion, who sometimes set up an us-versus-them dichotomy in their presentation of Islam. And I think it’s really important to learn about Islam from Muslims themselves.”
3. Catholics must be involved with interfaith dialogue, because our culture is increasingly interfaith.
Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization that promotes interfaith cooperation, is worried about religious illiteracy in the United States. Ignoring religion, he said, is like “going to medical school and not learning about the circulatory system.” It is precisely in our divided times that Eboo believes we need to draw upon the diverse religious traditions of this country as a source of a more fundamental unity.
“There is a whole set of things that religious teaching offers to citizenship in a diverse democracy. One is, religious traditions have this capacious idea of who belongs. In Islam, it’s that all of us carry the breath of God. In Christianity, it’s that we are all created in the image of God. And so there is this sense that we are all sacred and we’re all sanctified.
Religions also, unsurprisingly, have different doctrines. I, of course, consider the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, as the final prophet. That is not the way members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints view it. [But] religions have teachings about crossing divides and reaching out and working with not just your opponent but your enemy. Jesus’ famous dictum ‘Love your enemy’ is central to that. All of these things help us live in a diverse democracy, where there are really profound disagreements and cavernous divides, which is exactly what we are experiencing at this moment.”
Join Jesuitical in Italy this fall! Ashley, Zac and Eric Sundrup, S.J., the podcast’s spiritual advisor, are leading a pilgrimage though Rome, Assisi, Siena, Tuscany, Florence and Venice, Sept. 17–28. Sign up by Feb. 18 to get $350 off. Learn more here.