ROME – Normally speaking, Lent ought to be a slow period on the Catholic calendar, a time for prayer, fasting and penance in preparation for Easter. In the Pope Francis era, however, there’s no such thing as down time, and thus it’s fitting that the day after Ash Wednesday was among the busiest in memory in the Eternal City.
Not only was America’s most renowned living Catholic communicator in town to receive an honorary doctorate, but the Vatican also was hosting an interfaith shindig to promote the UN’s sustainable development goals, a cardinal seen as slightly out of step with the Pope Francis approach was touting the virtues of silence, and a preparatory session for a highly anticipated summit of bishops in October on the Amazon was underway.
If that’s slowing down, one shudders to imagine Francis’s Vatican speeding up.
Barron and divine generosity
In Rome to receive an honorary doctorate in theology from the Dominican-run Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, more commonly referred to as the “Angelicum,” Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles made a star appearance to celebrate Mass and offer a lengthy academic lecture marking the original March 7 feast day of the “Angelic Doctor.”
(Aquinas’s original feast day was March 7 in commemoration of the day of his death. However, since the date often falls within Lent, in 1969 the Roman Calendar was revised and his feast moved to January 28, when his relics were transferred to Toulouse.)
In his lecture, titled, “The one who is, the one who gives: Aquinas, Derrida and the dilemma of the divine generosity,” Barron contrasted the writings of Aquinas with those of post-modern writers such as French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who argued there could be no such thing as a “gratuitous gift,” since there’s always something expected in return.
Most philosophies and systems of ethics admit the limitations of generosity, Barron said, but he compared these theories to Jesus’ teachings in the Bible, when he tells his disciples to forgive 70 times seven times.
In comments to reporters, Barron said the Gospel command to forgive and to love one another might seem impossible or even “utopian,” yet with the help of grace, it is “eminently practical and, I would say, evangelical.”
Barron also noted that most of his priesthood has been spent under the shadow of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. In his view, the only way forward is to live as a true Christian, imitating other great saints who lived in “times of real crisis” such as Saint Dominic.
Facing the challenges of their time, these figures went “back to the basics,” which often meant “poverty, trust in God’s providence, preaching the Gospel,” Barron said.
Religions and sustainable development
Both interreligious dialogue and interaction with global leaders have been a priority for Pope Francis from the beginning, and those interests intersect this week at a three-day conference on the role of religions in promoting sustainable development.
Titled, “Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Listening to the Cry of the Earth and of the Poor,” the event is sponsored by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and has drawn participation from the American Jewish Committee, the Lutheran World Federation, the Sunni Court of Saida in Lebanon, and representatives of Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain traditions.
In an interview with Vatican News after his keynote speech on day one, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Vatican department for development, said the conference is about “marshalling the moral force of religion behind the implementation of the SDG goals.”
“We need to work together; for no source of wisdom can be left out, just as no one can be left behind,” he said, noting that roughly 80 percent of the world’s population are believers in some form of religion, and that religions are key in providing educational and health services.
Also speaking to Vatican News, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the 2030 sustainable development goals “have not underlined enough the role that faith and religious organizations, religious groups, can give to this common objective.”
Steps have been taken, “but they are still not yet at the height of the expectations,” he said, noting that there was a general hint of disappointment from the day’s speakers.
Part of the reason, Parolin said, is not only that religion is undervalued, but once a major initiative is launched such as the 2030 SDG agenda, after a time “the initial impetus is lost.”
“It’s important to regain that effort and commit oneself to working seriously without losing hope,” he said, adding that “with hope and urgency, you can work toward recognizing the dignity of every person in respect of their rights and of a sustainable development.”
The sound of silence
In other quarters of Rome, yet another conference was launched titled, “Silence, the Polyphony of God,” which runs March 7-9 and is being organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University.
The event was opened by Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican department for liturgy and who has written extensively on the topic. Other speakers will explore silence from an interdisciplinary approach exploring theological, biblical, artistic, musical and spiritual perspectives.
Sarah, often seen as at odds with Francis on liturgical matters, has written two recent books – God or Nothing and the Power of Silence, the latter co-authored with French journalist Nicolas Diat. The third and final book in their series will be published in France March 20 and is titled, “The evening is approaching and already the day drops.”
Sarah has generally kept a low-profile since he was essentially sidelined in 2016, when Francis practically gutted his department, appointing a whopping 27 new members to the office in one swoop, including Parolin.
At the time, the move was seen as retaliation for a comment Sarah had made at a conference saying that all Masses ought to be celebrated ad orientem, meaning the priest faces East instead of the congregation, which is how traditional Latin Masses are celebrated.
The comment created a mini-fiasco, with many believing Sarah was issuing an order given his position as head of the Vatican’s liturgy department. The Vatican press issued a statement insisting that Sarah’s remark was a “personal opinion,” and since then, he’s scarcely been seen at major events. During the October Synod of Bishops, Sarah was elected to the Information Commission but declined for “personal reasons.”
However, Sarah still makes it out for the occasional event, including a 2017 seminar marking the 10th anniversary of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which broadened access to the traditional Latin Mass.
During that conference, he told those who attend traditional Masses not to refer to themselves as “traditionalists” or to “hyphenate yourselves in a similar way.”
“Please do this no longer,” he said. “You do not belong in a box on the shelf or in a museum of curiosities. You are not traditionalists: you are Catholics of the Roman Rite as am I and as is the Holy Father.”
Across the city another 3-day synod, March 7-9 was launched, this time focusing on the Amazon, which is the topic of a special Synod of Bishops set to take place in October.
This week’s study seminar on the Amazon was organized by the Pontifical Salesian University, reflecting on the topic of “New paths for a Church with an Amazonian face.”
It follows a first, initial study seminar held Feb. 25-27 and organized by the Synod of Bishops office, and drew the participation of several heavy-hitters such as the Vatican official in charge of the Synod of Bishops, Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, and Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes.
Titled “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” the gathering is on the Pan-Amazonian region of South America, which includes parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Suriname and will take place Oct. 6-27.
Key themes that could make waves during the discussion are likely to be the role of women, environmental issues, and discussion on broadening access to the Eucharist in a region with few priests.
In a recent interview with Crux, Jesuit Father Francisco Taborda, a professor of theology at the Jesuit-run university in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and an author of numerous books on the sacraments, said the shortage of priests in the Amazon means many in the region are unable to attend Mass more than a handful of times a year.
According to Taborda, this has led “to a re-thinking” of how to ensure that every Amazonian community has access to Mass on a weekly basis, and that “re-thinking” includes the ordination of so-called viri probati, or mature married men.
“That’s what this is about,” Taborda said, adding that “in the final analysis, the solution that could be seen is this one,” which he said will be discussed in the synod hall.