Interview: Bishop Wack discusses “anger, division” in the American Catholic Church
Bishop William Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., Smiles on November 13, 2017, during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Baltimore. (SNC / Roll Bob)
Christendom has come and gone, says Bishop William Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida.
“We have reached the end of Christianity,” said Wack, who told NCR in a recent interview that the church’s goal should not be to restore a supposed golden age of Christianity or to rebuild an political culture where the Christian faith reigns supreme.
“Our faith is not built on this sponsored or state-sponsored Christianity. It is built on one person: Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” Wack said, explaining in the interview his vision of the Christian faith. and the modern society of which he spoke in his first pastoral letter.
Released on November 4, Wack’s 18-page letter, titled “Sharing the Gift,” focuses on evangelism. Echoing Pope Francis, Wack urges Catholics in his North Florida diocese to become “missionary disciples” by living their faith and seizing opportunities to share it with their neighbors.
In “Sharing the gift”, Wack, a priest of the Holy Cross who became bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee in August 2017, quotes Gaudium et Spes and Lumen gentium of the Vatican Council II.
Wack also recognizes “the great amount of anger, division, anxiety and hopelessness” in modern times. Under such circumstances, Wack says the temptation is to retreat and “circle the wagons” to defend the Christian faith from outside forces, or to use the gospel only to solve burning social problems. Such approaches, says Wack, miss the essence of the Christian faith.
Wack discussed his pastoral letter in an interview in early November, before the assembly of American bishops in Baltimore, where the bishops approved a document on “Eucharistic consistency” after months of controversy over the efforts of some prelates to s’ address pro-choice Catholic politicians like President Joe Biden.
Here’s NCR’s interview with Wack, slightly edited for length and context.
RCN: Four years after becoming a bishop, what made it the right time to take up a pen and write your first pastoral letter?
Wack: When I got there, everything was new. I came straight from a parish to become bishop of a diocese. And we had a lot of problems; we had hurricanes, we had personnel issues, we had a fire in the co-cathedral, and then the pandemic. I spent most of the first three and a half years reacting in some way to things that are going on in the world and in this diocese.
Finally, six months ago, I thought, “This is it now. It is time to teach and express my hope, my plan, my heart for the diocese. There would never be a perfect moment when everything is slow and calm. It was right.
Plus, it’s not just my plan; it comes from my interactions with the people, the parishioners, the priests here. The spirit is pushing us, I think, to do something very positive. We argue about everything. There is so much acrimony and division. We have to get out. We must again evangelize.
Pope Francis greets Bishop William Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida during a meeting with American bishops from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina at the Vatican on February 13, 2020 (CNS) / Vatican Media)
What prompted you to focus on evangelism?
We are in a very fractured, very fearful world. There is confusion, there is anger, there is anxiety. And this is nothing new. It has been around since the time of Jesus, and before Jesus. But in the midst of it, we are called to live our faith. We are changed people because of Jesus Christ. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that we have this relationship with Jesus, and it changes the whole direction of our life. But if you look around it doesn’t seem like we are believing or experiencing this. We are caught up in so much that is going on.
In the letter, why did you write that Christendom is “dead”?
I meant it was provocative, so people could research it, talk about it, and wonder what it means. It really means that we are back in apostolic times. We just got to go out and preach the good news, in a very simple way. I’m not saying you should go out around the corner with a Bible and Sunday school. If you do, great, but share your faith. Pray in public. Give people hope. Comfort the people. Direct them to something greater than anything we are discussing today.
Do you see the mission of the church today as trying to restore Christendom somehow, as some would say, or something else?
I don’t think that’s our goal. In writing this provocative statement, I want to help people see, make sense of what’s going on in the world, and give us positive direction. We can no longer take for granted that Christian values are the norm, and that’s okay. We’re not going to go back and fix that and figure out how we can have this empire again or whatever. This is what God calls us to do now.
“We are in a very fractured world, very fearful. There is confusion, there is anger, there is anxiety. And this is nothing new.”
– Bishop William Wack
As you noted in your letter, the gospel was quite new in apostolic times. Two thousand years later, there is a feeling that Christianity has been tried and found insufficient. How to evangelize in a relevant way in the 21st century?
That’s why I think we have to embody [the Catholic faith]. Even with this letter, it is important to note that I am not saying to people, “Distribute this to your friends, and you evangelize. This is really written for those who are already in the pews to give them the tools or challenge them to embody the faith in a very simple way. We can all live in a way that people will say to us, “I don’t know what it is about you, but I want it.
Citing from Lumen gentium and Gaudium et Spes, is it fair to say that your vision of evangelism is rooted in Vatican II?
I really wanted to give people that impression. Vatican II recognizes the need for us to come out of ourselves. Before that, naturally and naturally, we took care of our own. But I think that with Vatican II we realized that we have to share this gift with the whole world. We are the leaven of the world. Pope Francis picked up on that and is all about missionary discipleship. It’s not just something that I invented or that Pope Francis did. It is clearly part of our history.
What do you think of the divisions and acrimony in the church, especially those we see playing out among bishops and among Catholics on social media?
Unfortunately, it has always been there. We have the famous story of Peter and Paul in disagreement on [evangelizing] Gentile Christians, and how Paul said he would go straight to Peter and look him in the eye to tell him he was wrong. I think it’s good for people to know that this is nothing new. Unfortunately, what is new is that it is amplified on social media.
Bishop William Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, center, and other American bishops from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina wait to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican Apostolic Palace on the 13th. February 2020 (CNS / Paul Haring)
What do you think of how some debates have become political within the church?
I move away from it. In the Bible, Jesus was asked about paying taxes. I loved his response. He didn’t say yes or no. He said to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, but the most important thing is to give God what is God’s. I guess that’s what I’m really trying to focus on, this second part. We are so caught up in these burning issues of our time, which are important and need to be addressed, but I fear we are neglecting Part Two.
With this in mind, would Jesus tell us not to let ourselves be drawn into cultural wars?
I do not know. It would have been interesting to know what he would have said about all these things. But we do know that when asked about some issues of his day, like paying taxes, he sort of dismissed them. We all have different lenses through which we read the scriptures, but for me I see Jesus turning his face towards Jerusalem and people trying to distract him and trip him up. His response has always been, “You don’t understand, people. God is love, and he wants you to accept it and he wants you to pass it on to other people. That’s why I have come.” Some would say that is too simplistic, and I understand that. But that’s who I am.
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