‘True Confessions’ Offers Interpretive Key to the Church in Our Time

Fran Maier’s New Book, Featuring 103 Interviews — 30 With Bishops — Gets to ‘The Heart of the Matter’

Fran Maier at home in Pennslyvania.
Fran Maier at home in Pennslyvania. (photo: Sarah Webb / National Catholic Register)


Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church

By Francis X. Maier

Ignatius Press, 2024

284 pages, $24.95

To order: TRUE CONFESSIONS - Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church | EWTN Religious Catalogue


Francis X. Maier’s book, True Confessions, arrives as an interpretive key to the Church in our time.

An old saying warns that “the past is a foreign country,” whose customs and inner life are difficult for later generations to understand.

But the present has become similarly strange, as news media decline in reliability and social media become a perpetual brawl. Caught between competing conspiracy theories, we hardly know what to believe in the daily reports.

True Confessions is a revelation of what’s really going on, not only in the actions of Church leaders, but in their thoughts and motives.

It’s an unusual book — largely an assemblage of others’ voices. Maier conducted 103 interviews for the book, 30 with bishops, then more with pastors, big-dollar donors, religious women and men, academics, and founders and leaders of lay apostolates. All were given the option of anonymity, and many chose it.

The result is an open, candid discussion of a range of issues that puzzle and vex the faithful, from the discipline of clergy to the closing of parishes and schools. Bishops are notoriously reticent to speak in any but the most cautious terms. But for this book, they opened the floodgates.

All the temperaments are on full display, from the sunnily optimistic to the darkly apocalyptic. Some forecast a coming renewal, others martyrdom. Most see a continuation of the Church’s recent shrinkage in the United States. 

“We’ll be a smaller Church but a stronger one,” says the bishop of an urban diocese. And they openly speculate about how the duties of bishops, clergy and laity might change with such a development. Some foresee change in the discipline of priestly celibacy.

They differ also in their attitudes toward the disappearance of institutions. Some see it as defeat, others as liberation for more effective evangelization.

Maier may be the only interviewer in the United States who could have drawn out such frankness. He is the consummate ecclesiastical insider, having served 15 years as editor-in-chief of this newspaper and then 27 years in upper management in archdiocesan chanceries. He has advised the U.S. and other delegations at Vatican synods.

Many bishops have worked with him and learned to trust him. So they spoke openly and on the record, if anonymously.

One bishop revealed that he had been shaken by a “deeply sobering” conversation he had had with an exorcist. 

“I don’t think people have any idea of how much genuine, satanic evil is out there, the demons that can be present in a person, and the way they can enter a human being through the senses, from the misuse of technology, from generational curses, or through the role of other sins, like freemasonry, in someone’s history.” 

He immediately acknowledged that this sounds “implausible,” but then insisted on the point.

Few are the bishops ready to make such a confession to a researcher. Maier may be the only interviewer who could have elicited it.

The bishops vary in their assessment of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Some wax nostalgic for the days of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Most complain to some degree about “confusion” brought about by the “ambiguity” of recent doctrinal teaching. But there is also a fair share of admiration for the Pontiff. Says one urban prelate: “I think Francis may actually be a genius.”

Two ghosts haunt many of the Catholics interviewed for this book. One is the historic cases of clergy sexual abuse. The other is the Church’s response to the COVID crisis.

Clergy “morale took a heavy hit from COVID,” admitted one bishop. Lay leaders were especially critical of the Church’s shutdowns. One university professor judged that “the lasting lesson of COVID” is that “Church leadership completely failed.” When church doors reopened after the hiatus, many young people did not return.

The discussions of sex abuse are more nuanced and less raw with rage than they were a decade or two ago, and that is a positive development. 

Both laypeople and clergy situate the problem within the wider societal context, and they no longer speak of it as simply a problem of the clergy. Said one bishop, “The effect of the 1960s sexual revolution on the Church and the world has been huge. It was pivotal in affecting the attitudes of both laypeople and priests in a detrimental way, leading to abuses that were manifested decades later. We’re still under its cloud.”

Priests report a lingering anticlericalism. Some are hesitant to wear their Roman collar in public.

Nevertheless, many of the interviewed concede (in the words of one philanthropist) that the Church has made a great effort to overcome the problem and has “now gotten ahead of it.”

The delight of True Confessions is its variety of responses. Everyone seems to agree that ours is an age of crisis, perhaps unprecedented in some ways. But few agree on the nature of the crisis, its causes or solutions. Maier lets them all speak their minds.

And every interview reveals a subject who has thought deeply about the matter and has applied that thinking to real-life work for the Church. Some of the interviewed are frustrated; some are melancholy. But the Catholics seem, even so, to love the Church; and the non-Catholics seem to appreciate the Church and their friends in it.

It’s hard to find fault with this book, but a critic must dutifully strain. Maier’s selection of interview subjects seems to imply that the solutions to our problems will come from intellectuals and elites. When the interviewed are not bishops and priests, they’re professors, attorneys, social scientists, philanthropists and public officials.

History shows no shortage of reforms originating with men and women of little education starting with zero public or ecclesial prominence. Think Anthony of Egypt. Think Francis of Assisi.

But Maier knows that — and knows that Providence is always ready to supply surprises. In conversation with one priest he identifies “Thinking outside the box” as “the heart of the matter.”

It’s certainly the heart of this book.