Pilgrimage and the Path Ahead

By Mike Lewis, 29 February 2024
Vatican City. Image: Sean Ang/Unsplash.


I returned late Monday from a ten-day trip to Rome, which began less than two weeks after a short trip to Lourdes. I used most of my Tuesday morning sleeping off jetlag, and then I dedicated the late afternoon and evening to spending time with my wife and kids, whom I’d begun to miss terribly by the end of my trip.


The main purpose of my journey to Lourdes, as I’ve mentioned before, was to participate in a panel at the 27th annual St. Francis de Sales International Congress. The congress was a gathering of Catholic journalists and communications professionals — most of whom were from France but included participants from over 30 countries. The theme of this year’s congress was “Times of Upheaval,” which gave participants an opportunity to take a close look at the future of Catholic media in a world of uncertainty and instability. Topics varied widely and touched on many issues, such as serving as a Catholic journalist in war zones like Ukraine and the Holy Land, to the role of AI in a changing journalistic landscape, to the role of Catholic media in healing divisions and polarization. My panel addressed the question, “Can the Synod repair the divisions in the Church?”

Also taking part in my plenary session was moderator Marie-Yvonne Buss, the editor-in-chief at Pèlerin (a French Catholic news magazine published by Bayard). My fellow panelists were Marie-­Lucile Kubacki, a young French journalist and Vatican correspondent for La Vie (a French weekly magazine) and Sister Christine Danel, superior of the Congregation of Xavières, who served as an expert at the October 2023 Synodal Assembly in the Vatican.

I will summarize my presentation in a future post, but (not to spoil too much) my response to the question was that the synod — as in the current 2021-2024 process underway in the Church — will not repair the divisions in the Church, but that synodality is the long-term solution to repairing and unifying the Church.

Going to Lourdes was not simply a business trip, however. It was also a pilgrimage. The church where I grew up and received my first communion, penance, and confirmation was St. Bernadette’s Church. For as long as I can remember, St. Bernadette has been one of my saint-companions in my faith journey, and her encounters with Our Lady are the touchstone of my devotion to Mary. To be there in person and to see the grotto and the water from the miraculous spring was a homecoming for me. Unfortunately I did not have much time to spend with Bernadette and Our Lady, but I hope to return with my family.

Another powerful moment was meeting the sister and niece of Fr. Jacques Hamel, a French priest who was attacked and killed while saying Mass in 2016. Towards the end of the congress, Fr. Hamel’s sister Rosalind and the mother of the young man who slit his throat presented two journalists with the Father Jacques Hamel Journalistic Award. It was deeply moving to see the sister of this priest standing hand-in-hand with the mother of the man who murdered her brother — a friendship forged by forgiveness through pain and suffering.

These new and hopeful chapters to the story bring to mind the last words spoken by Fr. Hamel before he died: “Va-t’en Satan” (“Go away, Satan” in English). They remind us that even when we are facing overwhelming evil, there is always hope and always a path forward.

Rome and the Vatican

I arrived in Rome on February 9, following an extremely grueling overnight flight. My primary reason for going there was to observe and participate in the meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution originally founded by Pope John Paul II in 1994 and overhauled by Pope Francis in 2016, complete with new statutes and a new mission.

These changes have been controversial, to say the least. The revised statutes removed the requirement for members to swear an oath affirming the personhood of the embryo from conception, opening membership to non-Catholics and others with different bioethical views. In addition, the reconstitution of the Academy meant that all of the academicians had their memberships terminated, and that the entire roster of members was reconstructed. The new Academy included a mix of former members and new academicians with diverse perspectives and backgrounds (including non-Catholics and people with positions on some issues that do not always fall in line with Catholic teaching). The reformed Academy has taken on a distinctly scientific approach and a broader scope. In terms of its mission, the work of the Academy is focused on areas of common ground in order to promote human dignity and the common good.

Back in May 2023, I wrote an article criticizing the communication style of the leadership of the Academy, particularly its president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. The focus of my article was on the Academy’s seemingly persistent inability to communicate effectively with pro-lifers from the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Nearly a year later, I was surprised to find myself in the center of the action, listening to the speeches, presentations, speaking with and sharing meals with the academicians and organizers. Additionally, I watched the dramatic press conference exchange between Michael Haynes of LifeSiteNews and Academy member Mariana Mazzucato in person, as it happened.

My understanding and my assessment of the Pontifical Academy for Life are more positive today. Although I still have some criticisms and questions about some aspects of its work, I think Pope Francis’s vision for the Academy is fundamentally sound. I will expand on these thoughts in another article.

I stayed a few days longer in Rome after the Academy meeting, and I used the opportunity to meet individually with a number of Vatican officials (including cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity), journalists, and friends in the Eternal City. Topics of discussion included the Church in Africa, the clerical sex abuse crisis and safeguarding, the Digital Synod and the “digital mission field,” evangelization, the liturgy, Catholic moral theology, the state of Catholic journalism, spiritual life, and Italian food and culture. With a few noteworthy exceptions, the weather was good. At dusk I often found myself outside and in or around St. Peter’s square, which calms down considerably in the evening after the tourist crowds have left.

Where Peter Is, where Peter is

I spent a lot of time in prayer, going to Mass, and even braving the notoriously hit-or-miss minefield known as “going to confession in St. Peter’s Basilica.” (Fortunately my priest was talkative but kind.) In the afternoon on Ash Wednesday I parked myself for a couple of hours in front of the St. Pius X altar, which is adjacent to the tomb of his immediate successor, Pope Benedict XV. These two popes were very different in style but each led the Church during tumultuous years in the early 20th century in his own way. While there I prayed for you and your intentions, and I also prayed for discernment about the way forward for WPI.

All of the Church leaders and journalists with whom I met were extremely supportive of the work of Where Peter Is and our efforts to promote the vision of the Holy Father. We are known. We are read. We are respected. I confess that it was deeply consoling to hear that our work (and even my own writing specifically) is appreciated at the highest levels of the Church. Several important Church leaders commented that the work we do to communicate the message of the pope is crucial because so few in the English-speaking world are doing it. That was the reason we started the website, after all.

A few people added that they were impressed by my ability to persevere in the face of so many harsh, angry, and often unhinged attacks from Catholics who oppose the pope. A few of them, however, offered advice that helped confirm something that I’ve been discerning for a few months now: responding directly to indietrists is futile.

Reluctantly and regrettably, I’ve come to conclude that after 11 years of this pontificate, Catholics who cling to an anti-Francis ideology — which includes many traditionalists, the recognize-and-resist movement, and those who stubbornly continue to support the dubia cardinals and other prelates who openly oppose the pope’s teachings — cannot be reasoned with.

Much of the work we’ve done at Where Peter Is has taken an apologetical approach. We’ve explained at great length the traditional Catholic understanding of papal primacy and authority. We have repeatedly clarified what the Church teaches on the role of the living Magisterium. On many controversial questions, we’ve responded in great detail with the Church’s position on every debated aspect of an issue multiple times.

I think I finally learned my lesson when papal critics began responding in the same way to Cardinal Victor Fernández’s meticulous answers to doctrinal question after question. This helped me to realize that trying to convince committed ideologues — even those who profess that they desire to be orthodox and want to be in full doctrinal accord with the pope — is useless. If they won’t listen to the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, why would they listen to me or WPI?

Six years ago, we wanted to start a website that helped explain Pope Francis to our fellow Catholics who claimed to be “confused” by him and his teachings. We’ve made the case for Pope Francis’s teachings throughout this time. Certainly a few people have changed their minds. This is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, however. The truth is (at least at this point in his papacy) that the views of most papal critics are firmly entrenched.

All that said, God bless those who continue to try. Don’t let them break your spirit. And if they begin to break you, consider taking up one of the many other ways to serve the Church and evangelize.

The damage done by the people in the indietrist movement is real, but no individual can stop it. The only way they’ll ever change is if they respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. The painful truth is that we can’t dialogue with the devil. And much of the opposition to the teaching of Pope Francis is straight from the bowels of hell. Catholic author Stephen Walford was prophetic in 2017 when he wrote in an open letter to the dubia cardinals,

You may or may not be aware that there is a growing section of traditionalists and even some conservative Catholics who see you as the standard bearers for the rejection of this papacy. I know from experience that some of it is deeply troubling. The abuse from many, including those who run websites and Traditionalist blogs aimed at the Holy Father and those who are loyal to him, is nothing short of satanic. You are their role models and that is an intolerable situation. In reality, there is no confusion but only outright rejection and defiance towards the legitimate Pope and his magisterial teachings.

Seven years later, these words ring even more true. And I have finally discerned that it’s time for me to say, in the words of Fr. Jacques Hamel, “Go away, Satan.”

The path forward

I don’t plan to go anywhere. The future of Where Peter Is will depend on the generosity of our supporters. I’m always very uncomfortable asking for money, so our future might be short-lived.

Our mission will be to continue to support the Church and the pope, whoever he is. Our coverage of the anti-Francis movement will continue, but I anticipate that it will be more analytical and anthropological (and less apologetical) in tone. Perhaps I will begin to make serious progress on a book I’ve been writing about the ideological war against Pope Francis.

But on the whole, if we Catholics are serious about reforming the Church — healing wounds, evangelizing, going out to the periphery, clearing out rot and corruption in our clerical structures — we cannot allow ourselves to be held back by those who are trying to shift gears into reverse.

To conclude (and this likely isn’t a surprise for most people), I am firmly convinced that the path forward in the Church is synodal, not apologetical. This change in approach is my Lenten commitment and the direction in which I intend to proceed. I will be turned into a Pillar of salt if I keep looking back.

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

With thanks to Where Peter Is, where this article originally appeared.


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