Save the Altar Girls

This is not a local story, but one that represents larger trends in the church—in the priesthood, the liturgy and in the role of the people of God. Recently Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, Ariz., changed its policy on altar servers. From now on only boys may serve; girls may apply for jobs as sacristans. Why? The rector of the cathedral told The Catholic Sun that the cathedral is not alone in making this regulation. A parish in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., he argues, have found that replacing girls with boys as servers leads to more vocations to the priesthood.

These moves to limit laywomen’s access to the altar threaten to drag the church back into the pre-Vatican II world. One wonders if next the altar rail will return, another barrier between the priests and the people.


According to the rector, people who are upset about this decision concerning Mass servers make a mistake in considering it “a question of rights,” as if someone’s rights were being denied. But, he says, no one has a “right” to be a server or even more a priest. One must be “called” to any church office. When the secular world comments on who should be an altar server, he says, it has only an emotional view, unguided by the light of reason.

The key issue is the status of the baptized: that the laity may be called by the Spirit to offer their talents in various roles. The rejection of altar girls disregards the counsel of the Second Vatican Council that the charisms of the baptized “are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation.” By virtue of baptism, the council reminds us, “there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus.” There is “a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and activity which is common to all the faithful in building up the Body of Christ” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Nos. 12, 32).

That this call should be fully welcomed does not appear to be a priority in Phoenix. Yes, the Vatican instruction “Sacrament of Redemption” (2004) allows women servers, but it leaves the decision to local bishops. In Phoenix the bishop leaves it to the pastors. This pastor did not consult the parish council, he says, because its members are not theologically trained.

Another issue is the image of the priesthood today. Is it wise to re-enforce the sense of the priesthood as a clerical caste? Is the acolyte supposed to be like the page who serves Sir Galahad until King Arthur dubs him a knight? In a culture where parents want their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons—in co-ed Catholic colleges, in the armed services, in athletics, in employment—the church can look irrelevant, even foolish, in shunting them aside. The more the priesthood is presented as an exclusive club, the smaller and more remote it will become. Those who put up barriers between themselves and the people should, using modern parlance, recall Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Look, how many times do I have to tell you? You are here to serve.”

Inevitably the issue of women’s roles in the church raises the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Recently a cardinal in Lisbon and some bishops in Brazil, among others, also raised the question; but since Pope Benedict XVI, despite continued agitation, has reaffirmed the policy of John Paul II to allow no discussion of the topic, the matter of altar servers must be considered a separate and independent issue.

In no way should policies imply that women are second-class citizens—welcome to tidy up the sacristy, arrange flowers and clean linens but not to set the gifts at the altar or hold the sacramentary or censer. Rather, they must be welcomed into every service and leadership role, including catechists, lectors, chancellors and general secretaries of bishops’ conferences. (The diaconate for women remains an open question and ought to be explored.) Churches that invite all their people to bring all their talents to the welfare of the congregation will thrive. To tell a young woman that she may no longer pour the water on the priest’s fingers at the Lavabo looks like sexism. If the ban in these dioceses continues and spreads, perhaps women and girls will consider withholding their other services to the parishes, and men and boys, in solidarity with their sisters, will decline the honor of acolyte.

Having girls share serving opportunities with boys is an expression of their equality in Christ. Parishes must create a variety of social and service activities. A distinguishing characteristic of today’s young men and women, even when they are not “devout” in the usual sense, is their rejection of discrimination in any form. They are highly sensitive to any hint of exclusionary policies in organizations. Perhaps if more young people believed they could continue that commitment to equality as priests, more would be ready to follow a priestly vocation.

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Michael Barberi
6 years 8 months ago

I don't disagree that there are many issues that have diminished the authority of the Magisterium. Some of these issues, such as the one Lisa mentioned, namely evangelization and the two you raised ecumenism and papal infallibility, demonstrate the fact that the Church can err.

For example, Vatican II called for ecumenism but little real progress has been made. The joint statement issued between the RC Church and the Angelican Church was a great leap forward. The statement proclaimed that each Church takes into account all the right factors in making moral judgments concerning moral teachings. The statement did not condemn the 1930 Angelican Church's teaching allowing artifical contraception. It was just a matter of a different judgment involving all the right factors. However, when the press confronted the Vatican about this statement, the CDF said that the Catholic Church possessed the whole truth, not part of it, impying that the Angelican Church was not as perferct as the RC Church. This arrogant assertion contradicted the joint statement that took years of preparation. Just when we took one step forward in a spirit of ecumenism, we suddenly took two steps back.

Anyone who studied the political drama under which Vatican I took place would not be so quick to agree with the doctrine of papal infallibility. Keep in mind that ex Cathedra has only been invoked twice. Both had to do with Marian Doctrine, something that cannot be proven. It is by faith we accept this doctrine. For every other moral issue, the truth has the papal encyclical. Starting in the late 19th century, the papal utterance has replaced ecumenical councils, synods of bishops and pontifical commissions. In other words, the papal encyclical has become a one-man Magisterium, nowithstanding those who agree with the pope.

Having said all of that, I do agree with Lisa Weber that the general laity (and theologicans and many priests) do not have a voice in our Church. The fact that 97% of Catholics don't abide by Humanae Vitae, and that most Catholics believe that it is morally right to save the life of the mother when a pregnancy threatens her life and the fetus cannot survive under any circumstance, are just two examples.

An individual can err. However I am not certain that most theologians and Catholics, and many bishops and priests can err collectively. The collective disagreement involves sexual ethics that started in 1968. Since then, contraceptive couples are forbidden from receiving Holy Communion but most do anyway. Divorced and remarried Catholics cannot participate in the Eucharist, but some do anyway. Homosexuals and serodiscordant couples must practice celibacy, but most do not. The sacramental and penitential law of graduation for habitual sinners is applied discriminantly. There is much confusion over this specific issue, yet the Church will never debate it.  Catholics that cannot have children because of a fertility disorder cannot use in vitro fertilization. The list goes on. The explanation from the Vatican: these Catholics are invincibly ignornant, victims of the secular age, or they possess a distorted reason. The Catholic Church must stand firm as the authority on faith and morals. There will come a time when the truth will penetrate the minds of these Catholics. If not, there is nothing wrong with a smaller Church. End of discussion.

C Walter Mattingly
6 years 8 months ago
I think you oversimplify and miss the main reason the Church proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as dogma and papal infallibility in the late 19th century: the rise of logical positivism, which as you know claimed that the only truths are those which can be verified with the senses, and the accompanying acceleration of secular humanism. Since not only Transubstantiation, but also the Resurrection run counter to that disposition, all Christocentric churches had a big problem. Mystery, the basis of our and other faiths, gave way increasingly to rationality, and to absurdity and uncertainty in later years. The Church, confronted such skepticism and attacks on all sides such as those you articulate in your commentaryin #201, responded by being true to itself, that is, its testaments and its traditions, and exaggerated, perhaps unfortunately,  that response with the infallibility ruling. One argument that this general response on the whole might not have been imprudent, as opposed to a broad accommodation to its traditions, is noting that those more accommodating traditions such as the Episcopal Church are today suffering a greater loss of membership than the Church here in the US and elsewhere.
ed gleason
6 years 8 months ago
Walter; you say "the rise of logical positivism, which as you know claimed that the only truths are those which can be verified with the senses, and the accompanying acceleration of secular humanism." is the reason for the declaration of infallibility..??
To say that infalliblity was declared to counter some  notions popular at that time, intellectual fads, has got to be the saddest argument I ever heard on the subject. That's like saying
" let's nip this discussion in the bud by stopping/forbidding the discussion and search' 

Wow... we hear that again.... maybe that's all they got so they keep throwing that pitch..
Norman Costa
6 years 8 months ago
@ Walter:

Logical positivism really didn't formulate itself until the early 20th century, and had a good run through to the 1960s and 1970s. While there were variations within the 'movement' it was predominately an era of finalizing a philosophy of science, not a theology of faith. The last element to take hold was the concept of falsifiability in scientific theory. Ain't nothin' true 'less you can tell how it could be falsified. I think the philosopher was Popper.

Sience is both method and content. As method, science is AN approach to understanding nature, including ourselves, based upon observation and the recording of data. As content, science is the collection of data from observation into an organized body of knowledge. Is there a reason why a Pope would want to counter science as method and content, by creating doctrinal infallibility?

A huge number of bishop departed early from Vatican I, in disgust, over the way discussion on the matter of infallibility was going. A majority of the remaining bishops voted with Pius IX. And don't forget the escape clause.

The Pope's armies had just been defeated, and the Papal States seized by the new unified Italy. Church doctrine insisted that the Religion of Islam, (er uh strike that) the Religion of Catholicism must be at the core of the establishment and conduct of the State. It must be stated so in a Charter or Constitution, or whatever. A State is not a State, unless it is a religious State. There is no concept of separation of Church and State.

Pius IX was stripped bare, except for the postage stamp area of the Vatican. The Vatican did not give up its claims for more than 50 years when it was compensated by Fascist Italy.

The only power left was a moral power, and the doctrine of infallibility was a desperate attempt to say, "I really mean business," when the Pope chastized secular governments and excommunicated those who sided with them. These anti-secular actions by the Popes led to reactions by secular governments (like France) to counter with anti-clerical legislation.

In the end, the Doctrine of Infallibility created a near impenetrable barrier to any real unity with the rest of Christianity. As to the Marian pronouncements, I never understood why doctrinal infallibility had to used, and used almost immediately. But, I am not in a position to analyze or critique the matter.
Michael Barberi
6 years 8 months ago
I can only conclude that the Editors of American Magazine do not like my recent commments, because they were not posted.  Let me try again.

I believe that social history played a big part in the formation of the Doctrine of Infallibility:

1. The Doctrine of Infallibility come in the same time period as Darwin's 1850 theory of evolution and the 1860 Italian Revolution. The former was consider a threat to Catholic theology, the later an assult on the power and authority of the Church (they lost the papal states).

2. The First Vatican Council was plagued with controversy. For the first 1870 years there was not such thing as papal infallibility. This does not mean it was not debated, but rather this idea never reached the level of doctrine. 

3. Pius IX responded to these events and threats by issuing the infamous Syllabus of Errors. Many of thess so-called errors were seriously in tension with much of thinking at that time. This speaks to the mindset of the pope and the Church at that time.

4. Pius IX with good intentions and the belief at that time, kept a young Jewish boy from his parents and confined to the Vatican until adulthood. This was based on a belief that when a child/baby is baptized by a mid-wife (because of a suspicion about the possibility of birth death), he/she becomes a Catholic. This case as points to the mindset of Pius IX at that time as well. 
Norman Costa
6 years 8 months ago

@ Michael:

I'm glad you brought up the Jewish boy that was kidnapped and adopted by Pope Pius IX. Indeed it is very telling of the state of mind of Pope Pius IX, at that time.

As a father and grandfather, I found this episode utterly horrible. The Pope was protected by the Church laws governing the Papal States. It shows Pius IX, and the Church itself, exercising temporal power that was devoid of heart or empathy for the boy and his parents. While locked in a theological and canonical straight jacket, not to mention narcissism and afraid of losing power, common sense and compassion went out of the window. 

Michael, perhaps you should finish the story and tell what eventually became of the relationship between the parents and the boy. I'd do it, except I'll start banging on the keys with rage. If this were to happen today, the Pope would be arrested and charged with, among a number of crimes, child abuse. Imprisonment would be a certainty.
john fitzmorris
6 years 8 months ago
The mindset of the rector is why the insitutional church is growing day by day more irrrelavant to the lives of younger Catholics. It is also downright irredemably stupid as the comment from Adenauer says so eloquently
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 8 months ago
Norman, Michael,
Years ago I read a novel, I believe the title was Michael, Michael, that must have been inspired by the kidnapped Jewish boy, who was snatched by his French nursemaid who then baptized him, leading to a terrible Canon law/sacramental mess. I believe the author was a professor or romance languages out of Columbia U. It pictured the French bishop, acting under the influence of the Pope, as the image of a Church dying under the weight of its legalisms. (The Church is always dying, it seems.) At the end a Jesuit priest out of the Basque region finally realizes his humble service is actually prideful and gets the child back to his Jewish family, who are far preferable to any Church members in the book. At least that's how I recall it.
Thanks for the input on logical positivism, etc. Positivism (illogical perhaps?) was around with the moral philosophers, seen especially in the briilliant early English atheist David Hume, who, I am glad to report, had a happy, if not blessed, temperament. What I was really trying to get at is the larger question that seems to concern most of us here: what is going to grow the Church? Most of the reforms called for here by most of our more liberal commentators have been taken, for example, by the Episcopal church, but that church in America, as Tom Piatek pointed out and most of us likely already knew, has for decades now been hemoragghing membership. I personally look forward to considering some of those issues myself, but this experience of the mainstream Protestant churches, it seems to me, suggest that whatever their merits per se, those reforms are not the answer, indeed have resulted in greater defections. What, then, is the cause? Only after determining that can we conceive of effective responses.
Anne Chapman
6 years 8 months ago
Walter, may I ask a question?  Why are you concerned with "growing" the church?  

The pope seems totally unconcerned about it, with the occasional exception of attempting to woo the ultra-right wing Pius X group and a few others?  Somehow he thinks that a group of anti-semites who totally reject Vatican II are worthy of his extraordinary efforts, while he simultaneously dismisses the exodus of tens of millions of Catholics who have left the church in the USA, in Europe, including Ireland, and inceasingly in Latin America.  Since he has expressed his willingness to let all of these tens of millions go in order to have a "smaller, purer" church, why do you worry about "growing" it?

It really doesn't seem that many people are actually worried about the "growing" the church bit - but many are very unhappy that during the last 35+ years, the church has become increasingly about ecclesial monarchy, about ostentiations displays of wealth and power,  about unquestioning obedience to human men, and seems very little about the gospel and about Jesus.  They know that Vatican II has been subverted, they feel betrayed, and they refuse to worship an institution and its hierarchy instead of God.
6 years 7 months ago
Thank you for addressing this issue. I was beginning to lose" faith" in America magazine, but it has been restored at least for this moment. I could hardly believe my eyes when I first read about this issue and now they are eliminationg the cup from the assembly. It seems to be "de ja vux all over again" to quote one of my favorite philosphers, Yogi Berra. With all that has happened and is going on in the church, they have to concern themselves with these issues. No wonder so many are heading for the mega-churches or not going at all. As another favorite philosopher, Ron White, says "You can't fix stupid." I wonder what the pastoral council has to say about this. However, they have probably been sworn to silence.
Norman Costa
6 years 7 months ago
@ Msgr. Richard Siefer:

Please, don't just stop after those few words. I believe all of us would like to hear more commentary, and more depth from our clergy on all sides. You are teasing us. Please go on.
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 7 months ago
I think whether a church is consistently growing or consistently losing membership is a valid measure of whether a church is living or dying. It's mathematics. If you continue to lose 2% of your membership for 30 years, you have lost half your church. Another generation, well, so it goes. But this does not mean at the expense of the church being true to itself, and it is only in that limited context that I would agree with Benedict's willingness to accept a smaller church, although I doubt that's what he would prefer.

I simply disagree with your assessment of John Paul II, who held office for the great majority of the 35 years you refer to, as an anti-semite or one not devoted to Christ's church. He probably had the most impact of freeing peoples from political and social domination and servitude of any pope in modern times. In my opinion, and the opinion of most of the world's Catholic and noncatholic population, he was as sincerely devout in his devotion to Church, gospel, and Christ, even heroically so, and as much in touch with his flock, as any pope of modern times, his mishandling of the abuse issue not withstanding. The outpouring of love from the young and admiration of the secular as well as the Christian world at his death says more than I can. 
Anne Chapman
6 years 7 months ago
Walter, I have little respect for John Paul II, but I do not think that he is anti-semitic. Pretty much the only thing he did that I admire was his honest apology to the Jewish people for how Christianity in general and the Catholic church in particular treated them. I don't recall him reaching out to Pius X either - if I recall correctly, he was the one who threw them out to begin with.  However, he was very instrumental in beginning the return back to the 19th century, he was very anti-woman, and he centralized power to the papacy even more than it had been, shoring up its imperial structure.  

His successor has turned back the clock on Christian-Jewish relations however, bringing back some very offensive language into the liturgy, authoring that awful letter before the previous pope died that gutted ecumenical relationships in general,  and he is the one who is doing handstands and somersaults to try to bring the Piux X folks back.  He is accelerating the return to the pre-Vatican II church, returning the laity to their prior status of mindless sheep whose only role in the church was to "pay, pray, and obey",  and he continues to the shore up of the imperial church. However, as the head of this imperial church, he seems concerned only about bringing back or in those who share his dislike of the novus ordo and  his love of the TM, and also those who are as terrified of women as is Rome (the Ordinariate) - who, together, are a small group of people.  He does not want to talk with nor listen to the tens of millions who have already left, and who, according to all the data, are continuing to leave in ever greater numbers, especially the young adults.

A smaller church - definitely on its way if trends continue. A "purer" church - not likely. 
Anne Chapman
6 years 7 months ago
Walter, I forgot to say this. You say you are concerned because if there are losses it indicates the church is dying. It is dying in the west, and is also starting to die in Latin America, home of half of the world's Catholics. Once African Catholics (where there is growth) reach the  education levels and stage of economic development that now characterizes the western nations and much of Latin America, it too will peak and begin to decline.  Education level especially seems to be highly correlated with willingness to swallow everything Rome and many bishops are trying to force on the church these days.

Those of us who actually believed in Vatican II are keeping a deathbed vigil at this point and there seems to be no hope for a recovery.
Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago
I agree with Anne Chapman, that JP II was a holy and blessed pope. He contributed much to the Church and was loved by millions. His philosophy and theology on marriage and procreation was clearly pre-conciliar and orthodox. It reflected his profound belief that it was the Divine Truth, which her rigorously defended throughout his papacy (this is a kind description of his determination and dogmatic rule).

The issue and problematic is not JP II but the theology of the Magisterium. The papal encyclical, without remainder, has become the Magisteriium. Most importantly, the Divine Truth rests with the pope, and those bishops and theologians that agree with his philosophy and theology. It is NOT reflective of a cross section of ecclesial thought. Consider the following paradox and contradiction. The reason Paul VI gave for not accepting the Majority Report of his Pontifical Birth Control Commission, the fact that there was no complete agreement among the members, was as a principle violated in contradiction when he accepted the Minority Report and the One-Country conclusions of Karol Wojtyla's Krakow commission (1966-1968). Hence, the 75% opinion of 72 members of his PBCC, representing 5 continents, and a wide cross section of theologians, bishops and the latity, was put aside for the conclusions of a highly limited, narrow opinion of the few. 

As for the young Jewish boy, the pope kept him in the Vatical until adulthood, where he received an thoroughtly Catholic education and become a priest. During this time, the protests of his parents, the leaders of the Jewish community in Italy and many officials from Governments around the world, including the U.S., did not persuade the pope from his decision.
While the issue of a skrinking or growing Chruch has some importance, it is the profound moral dilemma that many Catholics must deal with respect to sexual ethics in its general description. Most Catholics choose to ignore these teachings and the authority of the papacy. Theologians that disagree with the Church, are called dissenters, unfaithful servants of Christ and his Chruch. This means the majority I may say. We have a divided Church and a Crisis of Truth. The tragedy is that most of laity do not attend Mass, and treat the complexity of the theological debate as a big "ho hum".  The Vatican have become irrelevant but the impact is much deeper than that.

Anne Chapman's wise conclusion that Vatican II has become a "interpretation gone astray, a big misunderstanding of what the council meant, evidence that we will not see any reform for many years. However, there is hope because that is what Christ and His Spirit has given us. You only lose the battle when you give up. So, we respectfully move the conversation forward as best we can.
Anne Chapman
6 years 7 months ago
Actually, Michael, you mis-read me.  I corrected Walter, who thought I called John Paul II anti-semetic.  I do not call him that - his promotion of ecumenism, and especially his actions to apologize to the Jewish people were admirable. However, that is pretty much the only thing about him or his papacy that I found admirable.

I do not think that he is either holy or blessed. I think his papacy caused great long-term damage to the church. During his almost 30 years in the papacy, he presided over the most dramatic loss in priests and religious membership as well as over the loss of tens of millions of Catholics.  His teachings about women may be the worst thing he did - he set the church back decades and contributed to the acceleration of women leaving the church. He was a celebrity pope, good at attracting crowds who enjoy being around celebrity happenings,  but there was no depth, no long term positive impact. He was "loved" by millions in the same way Princess Diana was.

 However, his successor may be causing even more damage to the church than did John Paul II.  It is hard to separate them in a way, since the current pope was so intimately involved in the course of the previous papacy.  Together, they have destroyed Vatican II and driven tens of millions in Europe, North America, and now Latin America out of the church. As they accelerate the return to the pre-Vatican II church, the exodus also accelerates. Beginning with Paul VI,  the birth control decision that simply ignored the sensus fidelium to cling to a misguided older understanding of the role of sexual love in marriage caused the break-down of trust in Vatican understanding of the human condition; this was exacerbated by the continued moves towards the past during the last 30 years - the retreat to the past is costing the church its future.
Michael Barberi
6 years 7 months ago
@Anne Chapman:

I dont'disgree with you about the value of JP II's papacy. However, I do believe that JP II was a symtom of the problem, which IMO is the theology of the magisterium. The pope became the only measure of the truth since Vatican I.

As I said, I was being "kind" in my description of JP II. Who can really say who is blessed and holy, or not. I would argue that all who try to love Christ with all their heart, mind, soul and strength; and their neigbor as themselves, are blessed and holy in the eyes of God. There will always remain the question of degree. The disheartening thing about JP II's legacy was his leadership style. He ruled the Church with an iron fist and his papacy was characteriized with more power. He instituted policies and wrote encyclicals to ensure that his teachings would be free from revision.

The exaggerated fear of going against tradition, as the absoute moral truth on every moral issue, and the lack of a solution to the profound disagreement within the Church today on issues ranging from sexual ethical teachings to ecclesiology, the unmoving and orthodox theology of the magisterium will continue to be the problematic.
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 7 months ago

Comparing the populazr assessmenty of Princess Diana with that of Pope John Paul II is akin to comparing the popularity of Mother Theresa with Oprah. John Paul took a bullet in the gut from those who opposed freedom for his people and went right back out to face potential murderers again, stopping long enough to visit his attempted assassin in prison to speak with him and forgive him. If you don't see the difference, I won't argue with you.

According to figures cited in USA Today, Church membership grew 1% in 2009. In Europe there was significant decline in membership (along with the collapse in population growth, perhaps, in a secular culture which has more completely moved from sexuality as an essentially procreative, family culture to one bordering on sexuality as a recreational culture.) Elsewhere the Church has mostly seen some growth, resulting in the overall small increase.
Awakening Grace, an Episcopal publication, in a 2010 article entitled "Episcopal Church Decline," cites Episcopal Church demographic studies which chronicle a rate of decline of 11% over a ten-year period. It concludes, "Therefore, if trends continue, the Episcopal Church will cease to exist as an organization somewhere around 2070. But will it make it that far? Probably not," citing the demographic fact that today half the Episcopal Church membership is 50 or over. 

I cite the Episcopal Church because you have singled it out as a paragon of a church that has moved in the progressive direction you advocate: divorce, abortion (?), women priests, openly gay priests, sacramental diminishment such as the nature of the Eucharist, and so forth. So the point remains, undiminished: such churches which made such reforms as you advocate have, on the whole, experienced a disturbing loss of membership. The most valid poll of church vitality is the same as that of any organization: the vote of the membership by their feet.
6 years 7 months ago
Thank you for this well written article and for publishing it so other people could read it.  God bless you. 
Marybeth Kearns-Barrett
6 years 7 months ago
As women we already are second class citizens in the church, barring girls and women from serving as acolytes sounds perfectly consistent to me.
Patricia Munyan
6 years 7 months ago

Thank you, Rick, for once again being the voice of reason. I am one of those who cannot fathom that the Church hierarchy honestly believes that God could not or would not call women to the clergy. It has been a disappointment to me for the past few years that I cannot serve my Church as a Deacon. I feel that this is a calling for me. To preach the Gospel, witness marriages, baptize babies (I know, I know...I can do that in case of emergency), and serve my Church more deeply is denied to me. If we are truly created in the image and likeness of God, why cannot I not serve in this way?


Keep fighting the good fight.


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