A New Year and New Religious Trends

The secularizing shifts evident in contemporary U.S. American society show no signs of slowing. In 2019, only 14% of all U.S. adults said they never went to church. But in 2020, that number jumped to 53%. That was an almost 40 point jump in less than twelve months. The shift continued throughout 2021.

While Christians continue to make up a majority of the U.S. population, with about 63%,  their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011. Currently, about 29% of U.S. adults are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. 

Contrary to what some people think, Muslims currently make up only about 1.1% of the total U.S. population. But the projection is that by 2050, they will make up 2.1% and surpass the U.S. Jewish population which is now about 1.9% of the total U.S. population and is not expected to greatly increase. 

For some time now, surveys have shown that younger U.S. Americans are less likely than older adults to attend church, believe in God, or say religion is important to them. 

According to the Gallop National Poll over 72% of U.S. Americans say that religion is losing its influence on the U.S. way of life. But what do they really mean by that? 

Some people, like the white Christian nationalists, want religion to control just about every aspect of U.S. national life. Separation of church and state is, for them, a grave error. But a theocracy is not a democracy. Theocracies are inhumane and abusive. They also blaspheme God, using God to manipulate and oppress human beings. 

Is the ongoing U.S. cultural change bringing a crisis for Christian churches? Everything depends on how one should understand such a “crisis.” Membership is decreasing. Should one regret it? Or accept it as a fait accompli? Or should one take the polarization road and launch a counterattack? 

What some see as crisis I see as a challenge. I ask: what does the proclamation of the Gospel mean in our rapidly changing cultural situation?

Cardinal Jozef De Kessel, the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and a bishop whom I greatly respect, said perhaps the real question is not so much whether the church can maintain its current membership, but whether the church can also attract new people. That would show the credibility and vitality of the church. Not so much by the number of participants that one still maintains; but whether a person, who is fully integrated into our contemporary secular culture, can be touched by the power and beauty of the Gospel as proclaimed and lived by the church. 

Much indeed depends on the perspectives of those who proclaim-and-live the Gospel.

Sometimes people forget what Christianity is all about. Christian Faith is not about doctrines but about a shared experience and a way of life. Jesus taught by being with and affirming other people. He was hardly a doctrinaire authoritarian.

On Epiphany, January 6, 2022, I was pleased that Pope Francis asked: “Have we been stuck all too long, nestled inside a conventional, external and formal religiosity that no longer warms our hearts and changes our lives?” Then he continued: “Do our words and our liturgies ignite in people’s hearts a desire to move towards God, or are they a ‘dead language’ that speaks only of itself and to itself?” Very good questions. But, of course, questions that demand not just more words but concrete institutional and personal action. 

Too many church leaders are great advocates for clear-cut doctrine but fear their own and others’ ongoing human experience. I remember an after-dinner chat with a U.S. archbishop bishop, now deceased, who visited our university for a few days. He and I had known each other for a many years. One evening I asked him: “Do you ever think about the not always so easy life experiences and questions of people in your diocese?” I mentioned divorced and remarried who are no longer allowed to receive communion; young priests who are very unhappy being celibates; other priests who are gay; and all those well educated and pastorally trained women who feel called to ordained ministry? 

Sorry to say the archbishop found my questions, more than a bit annoying, and totally inappropriate because, as he said rather emphatically: “one should not think about such things and I am not that interested in even discussing these things. Good Catholics don’t question. They follow the rules.” 

Contemporary church leaders – well all of us  — really need to listen to what people are experiencing and saying, as they go through life’s changes and developments. 

And we all need ongoing education. Some need major remedial education. Not just in theology but in our anthropological and psychological understanding and perspectives about ongoing human development. Change and new understandings are facts of life. We would not go to a cardiologist whose cardio-vascular understanding is 1950s vintage. Why should we do it in the church?

As part of ongoing formation for church leaders I would stress the importance of spirituality and spiritual direction. People today don’t need more dogmatic indoctrination. They do need spiritual insight and direction. In the depth of our human experiences, people need help discovering the Divine Presence. 

Right now I am reading Gabriel Moran’s book: What Happened to the Roman Catholic Church? Moran (1935 – 2021), theological scholar and educator, died in October this past year. He had such a profound understanding of human experience and spirituality – because of his own spiritual journey as a Christian Brother, provincial Superior, professor, and later as a married man. He was one of my own theological heroes and guides. 

Reading Moran’s final book, which is truly an institutional and a personal memoir, his words ring so true for all of us. (I will come back to his book in a future post.)

“The presence of God is the experience of the depths of presence in which we realize that we have barely begun to grasp the mystery of existence. We inevitably live most of the time on the surface of reality as we move through our mundane existence. But there are moments, if one is attentive to them, when there is an opening to a level of being that we are usually oblivious of. It can be a moment that is profoundly shaking such as the death of a close friend. But it might also be the scent of flowers or the sound of a voice that throws open the mind to a usually hidden universe.”

Every good wish for the New Year!

  • Jack

Ring Out, Wild Bells

This year – a couple days before Christmas Eve — my Christmas and New Year’s reflection is the poem “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892). An English poet, Tennyson was the Poet Laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of the most popular of British poets. Tennyson wrote this poem in 1850, after hearing the bells of Waltham Abbey, 14 miles north-east of central London, on New Year’s Eve. 

For all of us, 2021 has been quite a year. To all of my Another Voice friends, my very best wishes for Christmas 2021 and a hopeful and healthy New Year 2022. After a few days of holiday time with family and friends, I plan to be back with you after Nativity. — Jack



Ring Out, Wild Bells

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light.
The year is dying in the night.
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow.
The year is going, let him go.
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to humankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife.
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times.
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite.
Ring in the love of truth and right.
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold.
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant and the free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand.
Ring out the darkness of the land.
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Luke’s Infancy Narrative

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles make up a two-volume work which scholars call Luke–Acts. The author is not named in either volume. It had once been credited to Luke, “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14), and a close associate of Paul the Apostle. A significant group of contemporary scholars, however, suggest that the author is anonymous. As the noted Catholic biblical scholar, and my friend,  Raymond F. Collins observes: “The physician-friend thesis is based on a mention in Col 4:14, but few scholars believe that Paul wrote Colossians.” In addition there are many contradictions between Acts and the authentic Pauline letters.

Last week we saw that Matthew had a keen interest in the Hebrew-Christian community. Luke however is more focused on the broader gentile Christian community. Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-38)  goes back not just to Abraham, the father of the Hebrew tradition, but to Adam, the father of humanity. Unique to Luke is John the Baptist’s birth story, the census and travel to Bethlehem, the birth in a manger, an angelic annunciation to shepherds, and a story from Jesus’ boyhood.

Luke’s preface is addressed to “Theophilus.” The name means “Lover of God.” It could mean any Christian although most interpreters consider it a reference to a specific Christian convert and Luke’s literary patron.

Biblical scholars date the composition of Luke-Acts to around 80–90 CE, although some suggest as late as 90–110 CE. There is textual evidence that Luke–Acts was still being revised well into the 2nd century CE.

Luke’s Infancy Narrative is found in chapters 1 & 2, and the author begins his story with the aging and childless Zechariah and Elizabeth. An angel of the Lord announces to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son. The promised son will be John the Baptizer. 

Elizabeth is described as a “relative” of Mary the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:36. There is no mention of a family relationship between her son John and Jesus in the other Gospels. Biblical scholar,  Raymond E. Brown, described it as “of dubious historicity.” 

There are many similarities between Luke’s story of the birth of John the Baptizer and the account, in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) of the birth of Samuel (11th century BCE). Cleary Luke’s account of the annunciation and the birth of Jesus are modeled as well on that of Samuel. After Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had a religious experience, praying for a child, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel, to the great delight of her husband Elkanah. Hannah’s exultant hymn of thanksgiving resembles in several points Mary’s later Magnificat. (Samuel, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, played a key role in the transition from the period of the Hebrew biblical judges to the institution of a kingdom under Saul, and again in the transition from Saul to King David.)

In Luke’s Infancy Narrative, after the angelic announcement about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel then announces the virgin birth of Jesus for Mary, a young girl from Nazareth, engaged to Joseph, a descendent of David. The pregnant Mary then goes to Judea to visit Elizabeth, her pregnant relative. The child in Elizabeth’s womb (John) leaps for joy at the presence of the unborn Jesus. Luke wants his readers to understand that, right from the start, Jesus was superior to John. 

Some scholars maintain that John the Baptizer belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew sect that expected a messiah and practiced ritual baptism. Most  biblical scholars agree that Jesus was an early follower of John and that John baptized Jesus. Several New Testament accounts report that some of Jesus’ early followers had also previously been followers of John the itinerant preacher. 

While visiting Elizabeth, Mary sings God’s praises for lifting up the lowly and sending the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-55) This prayer-song is frequently called the Magnificat, based on its first word in Latin. It echoes several biblical passages, but the most pronounced allusions are to the Song of Hannah, from the Books of Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Samuel 2:1–10).

Mary’s Magnificat, recorded only in Luke’s Gospel, is one of four hymns, from a collection of early Hebrew-Christian canticles: Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:67–79), the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Luke 2:13–14), and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:28–32). 

After Mary’s return to Nazareth, John is born. His father Zechariah then praises God with the words of the Benedictus.

According to Luke, a census was called for throughout the Roman Empire. It meant that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to go to Bethlehem, since Joseph was of the “house of David.” When they got there, there was “no room for them in the inn,” and so Jesus was born and put in the stable’s manger. (Some people really don’t know that a manger is a feeding trough for animals. The English word comes from the Old French word mangier — meaning “to eat” — from the Latin mandere, meaning “to chew.”) 

There are major difficulties in accepting Luke’s Roman census account, however. First it could not have happened in the days of King Herod, who had died in 4 BCE. Luke refers to a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius wasn’t appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE. Herod had already been dead for ten years. In addition, according to the annals of ancient Roman history, no such census ever took place. There was no single census of the entire Roman Empire under Augustus. And no Roman census ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors. A census of Judea, therefore, would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee. 

Luke clearly followed the models of historical narrative which were current in his day. He needed an explanation for bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there. Let’s call the journey to Bethlehem an example of Luke’s creative historical imagination.

In Luke, we have no Wise Men, as we saw in Matthew, but angels appear to lowly shepherds, telling them to go visit the baby Jesus. The angels then sing out the famous words of the Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward all people.”

Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth. Then forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth. Mary and Joseph simply followed the regulations in Leviticus 12:1-8. The holy family then returned to their home in Nazareth. (Notice that Luke makes no mention of a trip to Egypt.)

Luke’s Infancy Narrative concludes with a story of the twelve-year-old Jesus. While on a trip to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph lose Jesus. Then they later find him in the temple astounding the teachers there with his understanding. 

Today of course – more than two thousand years later – we too are astounded and encouraged not just by his understanding but by his vision and his spirit that truly animates us and gives us hope for today and tomorrow.

Luke’s Gospel climaxes with the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13–35). Luke’s Jesus is on a journey with us.

  • Jack

PS    Well…a number of friends have asked me if Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. Perhaps I should not write this so close to Christmas, but I have always liked the observation of the Catholic biblical scholar, and expert on the historical Jesus, John Meier. He is the author of the five volume series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Meier has often stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem should be understood as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Matthew’s Infancy Narrative

Reactions to last week’s introductory post about the Infancy Narratives have been quite positive. One person, however, did write that he finds much of the Bible a collection of meaningless fables. I respect all who take time to react. I don’t consider the Bible a collection of meaningless fables. But I can understand this man’s concern. For many people, I suspect the Bible is really unknown territory. We really do need to help people read and understand the Bible.

Understanding the Bible is like learning to read a new language. It has nuance,  symbolism, metaphor, historical references, and a theological tonality that one needs to learn. Perhaps it is like learning to read music…Starting with the Abraham figure around 2150 BCE, who struggled with his own religious perceptions (at one time he was ready to do a sacrificial burning of his son), all the way to Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Abraham and Son of God —  it tells the story of divinity, disclosure, and human belief and discernment. 

The biblical narrative has many twists and turns. Many highs and lows, many noble and heroic people as well as some real scoundrels.Throughout the entire biblical account, however, one truth remains: In our deepest experiences, in the very depth of our humanity, even when we are not fully conscious of it, a living presence beats in our hearts. Truly alive and personal, this presence has been called Yahweh, the Sacred, the Divine, the Ground of Being, the Great Spirit: God. 

And now, today, we move on to take a look at the Infancy Narrative in the Gospel of Matthew.

A key element in Matthew is the author’s contention that the Hebrew-Christian tradition should not be lost in a church becoming increasingly gentile-Christian. Composed most likely between 80 and 90 CE, Matthew cites the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) far more than any of the other gospels. 

Matthew’s author? In 125 CE, Papias (c. 60 – 130 CE) the Bishop of Hierapolis (today’s Pamukkale, Turkey) suggested that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was Matthew the apostle. Most contemporary scholars reject that notion. The unknown author clearly wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew Christians, most likely in Syria, who were greatly shaken by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Hebrew temple in 70 CE. 

Matthew’s infancy narrative, found in chapters 1 and 2, clearly reflects the author’s Hebrew-Christian background.Matthew’s purpose here is clearly to establish the authentic messiahship of the Hebrew Jesus of Nazareth. 

Matthew begins with one of the two New Testament creative genealogies for Jesus. The other, which we will see next week, is in Luke. Matthew begins with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) 

Matthew starts with Abraham, while Luke begins with Adam. The lists in Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies are identical between Abraham and David, but they differ radically from that point on. Somewhat unusual, however, Matthew’s list includes four ancient Hebrew women. They were not the typical Hebrew wives. There are various theories about this. Perhaps, the author of Matthew wanted to call attention to Mary as a non-typical wife, who gave birth to Jesus as a “virgin.”

The function of a biblical genealogy is to link religious VIPs: the starting person and the person at the end. And it includes one or more important people in between. So we start with Abraham, father of the Hebrew tradition. We end with Jesus the Hebrew Messiah. In between we have King David (c. 1000 BCE). He was the second king of ancient Israel. He founded the Judaean dynasty and united all the tribes of Israel under a single monarch.

For Matthew what is important is that Jesus is the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David.” (“Son” here equals “descendant.”) Matthew’s genealogy has three sets of fourteen  generations. For an ancient numerical system based on seven, fourteen is twice seven, symbolizing perfection.

Looking at the genealogy, mathematically, if the average life span between one generation and the next is about 25 to 30 years, the period covered in Matthew’s genealogy would be 1,260 years. Abraham (or an Abraham figure) existed around 2,150 BCE. Matthew’s genealogy is not therefore about precise history but a symbolic linking of key people in the Hebrew faith tradition with Jesus of Nazareth. 

We continue with Matthew’s infancy narrative: In a dream, a heavenly messenger, an “angel” (from the Greek word angelos meaning “messenger”) announces to Joseph, then engaged to Mary, that Mary is pregnant, thanks to God’s spirit. Thus a virgin birth for Jesus.This Joseph dream calls to mind the story of an earlier Joseph and his many dreams in Genesis 37-50. 

About the virgin birth, Matthew here quotes the passage in Isaiah 7:14 from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint. The Greek word used here is  parthenos which usually means “virgin.” In the original Hebrew language version of the text, the word used is almah which meant very simply a young woman. 

The original text from Isaiah was about the mid 8th century BCE King Ahaz, the twelfth king of Judea. The text promises him that God will make him victorious over his enemies. As a sign that this would happen, Isaiah said that a specific almah (“young woman”) had conceived and would bear a son for Ahaz whose name would be Immanuel, “God is with us.” (The young woman was Ahaz’s wife Abijah. The son was Hezekiah, a religious reformer and a much better king than his father.)

In the ancient world, attributing a virgin birth was a way of stressing the importance of an outstanding ruler. Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE) and the Caesars were said, by early commentators, to have been “virgin-born.” Is Jesus’ virgin birth an historic event or a major theological symbol?

Unlike the infancy narrative in Luke, Matthew mentions nothing about a census, nothing about a journey to Bethlehem, and nothing about Jesus’ birth in a stable. In Matthew, after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the Wise Men from the east visit him at Joseph and Mary’s house in Bethlehem. They were led there by a star, as well as the Hebrew Scriptures prophecy of Micah 5:2, which I mentioned last week, that a ruler for Israel would come from Bethlehem.

Most contemporary scholars do not consider Matthew’s story about a star leading the Wise Men to Jesus to have been an historical event. (Nevertheless each year in the Christmas season we still read speculations about comets that appear in December.) The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person’s life was linked to a particular star. 

The Wise Men, the Magi, were later called “kings” because of the belief that they fulfilled prophecies found in Isaiah and in the Psalms concerning a journey to Jerusalem by gentile kings.

The Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. Later Christian thought found symbolic meanings in the three gifts: gold for Christ’s royalty; incense for his priesthood; and myrrh for his burial; but here, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, the gifts are simply appropriate to the status of a new king.

After hearing about Jesus’ birth from the Wise Men, Matthew tells us that Herod the Great (c. 72 BCE – c. 4 BCE), the ruler of Judea, ordered the massacre of all the baby boys of Bethlehem. (Most Herod biographers, however, do not believe that this event ever really occurred.) Joseph, according to Matthew, is warned again by an angel in a dream, to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Note the similarities between Jesus’ early life and that of Moses. Matthew’s point is that Jesus is the New Moses. 

After Herod’s death, an angel tells Joseph (again in a dream) to return to Israel. Out of fear of Herod’s son Archelaus, the new ruler of Judea, Joseph takes his family to Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus is raised. He will be known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Next week, a look at Luke. Luke presents a broader worldview and has two infancy narratives: one for John the Baptizer and one for Jesus. And Luke has a very positive attitude about women. 

  • Jack

The Infancy Narratives

Thanksgiving was a week ago. But now we are already nearing the second Sunday of Advent. 

Today and over the next two week ends, I would like to share reflections about the birth of Jesus as described in the “Infancy Narratives,” which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Today some introductory observations. Next week, a look at Matthew’s presentation.

The “birth day” of Jesus of Nazareth is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, which is quite silent about the day or the time of year when Mary gave birth to her son. In keeping with Hebrew customs at the time, Mary was most likely between 12 and 14 years old when Jesus (Yeshua) was born. Her husband was probably a couple years older. In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his parents, Mary was called Myriam. 

We really don’t know much about Joseph. In Matthew 13:55 we read: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” Most biblical translations use the word “carpenter” to describe Jesus’ and Joseph’s trade. But the Greek word can be read in many different ways. The word is téktōn, a common term used to describe artisans, craftsmen, and woodworkers. But it also, can refer to stonemasons, builders, and construction workers. Perhaps even what today we call a “handyman.”

Nevertheless, the early Christians did not focus on Jesus’ birth. The key Jesus-event for them was Easter. They rejoiced in their belief that Jesus was raised from the dead and entered a new form of life: promising new life for all who believed and followed him. Christians are Easter people.

It was not really until around 200 CE that Christians began to commemorate a Jesus birth date. Not at first on December 25 but on January 6. Most likely the earliest source for setting December 25 as the date for celebrating Jesus’ birth is a document written by Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235). Hippolytus was an important second-third century Christian theologian. Early Christians connected Jesus to Sun imagery through the use of such phrases as his being the “Sun of righteousness.” They Christianized and took over the Roman celebration of the winter solstice which was held on December 25. 

New Testament accounts of the birth and early life of Jesus are found only in Matthew 1:1 – 2:23 and Luke 1:5 – 2:52. The accounts are certainly not fairy tales. But they are not strictly historical either. Our Sacred Scriptures contain a variety of literary forms by which the truths of our faith are expressed and communicated. We find poetry, drama, symbolism, metaphors, imaginative recreations of past events, and varying degrees of historical narration. The Bible is primarily about understanding our faith. It is not primarily a history book. I resonate with the observation by the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Most people today ignore the differences found in Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. They simply combine the accounts without noticing the differences; and folkloric legends that arose centuries after Jesus’ birth get thrown into the mix. 

Neither Matthew nor Luke, for instance, mentions “three kings.” Matthew mentions “wise men” magoi in Greek, from which we get the English word “magi.” Although the “magi” are now commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind; and nowhere in the New Testament do we find them called “Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper.” Those names are creations from the 8th century CE. 

In Matthew we find: the visit of the wise men, the star, and Herod’s plot to kill Jesus. These are not found in Luke however. In Luke, on the other hand, we find: the birth of John the Baptist, the shepherds, and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. But these are not found in Matthew.

The differences between Matthew and Luke are nearly impossible to reconcile, although they do share some similarities. The American biblical scholar and Catholic priest, John Meier, has often stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is not to be taken as an historical fact. Meier describes it as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. King David (c. 1010 – c. 970 BCE) was born and raised in Bethlehem. No doubt a text from Micah 5:2 in the Hebrew Scriptures contributed to this belief as well: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the rulers of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

The Church of the Nativity, built in the fourth century and located in Bethlehem in the West Bank, Palestine, is built over a cave where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. The church has been undergoing extensive renovation – at a cost of $17 million – since 2013. The church was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great (c. 272 –  337 CE) a short time after his mother Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325–326 CE. Helena had been instructed by her son to find important Christian places and artifacts, since Christianity was becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. She paid her scouts well, and they came up with exciting (though not always historically supported) discoveries. Helena also found the“relics of the Magi.” They were kept first in Constantinople; but then moved to Milan. Eight centuries later, in 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa took the “relics of the Magi” and gave them to the Archbishop of Cologne. Whatever they really are, the relic’s are still in Cologne Cathedral.

As I write this reflection, my wife and I are sorting our Christmas decorations and getting ready to set up our “manger scene.” I suspect that few people today realize that our Christmas manger scene imagery owes a lot to St. Francis of Assisi (c 1181 – 1226). 

Francis began the Christmas tradition of nativity scenes, because he wanted to help people gain a fresh sense of wonder about “the first Christmas.” Long before Francis set up his first nativity scene in 1223 CE, people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people really didn’t speak: Latin. Although churches sometimes featured fancy artistic renditions of Christ as an infant, they didn’t present any realistic manger scenes. Francis decided that he wanted to make a difference. 

Francis, living in the town of Greccio, Italy at the time, asked his friend John Velita to loan him some animals and straw to set up a scene to represent Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The scene was set up in a cave just outside Greccio. It featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, people in costume playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and a live donkey and an ox that John had loaned to Francis. Francis’ nativity scene presentation proved to be so popular that people in other areas soon began setting up nativity scenes to celebrate Christmas. 

Next week we take a close look at Matthew’s infancy narrative.

  • Jack


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Thanks Giving

Thanksgiving Week End 2021

This weekend I want to thank all who have journeyed with For Another Voice this past year. You are a much appreciated group of readers and I always welcome your comments and questions. And I must also say that, after checking, I amazed to see that there are now readers not only in the United States and Canada, but also the United Kingdom, Ireland,Western Europe, and Australia.

For Another Voice offers weekly reflections about  contemporary Christian belief and practice. The title comes from the poem “Little Gidding,” by T.S. Eliot: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” 

We are rooted in our Christian tradition but are called not to live in the past but to see and speak with contemporary words and vision about life and society today.

Unlike some blogs, there is no charge for following For Another Voice. 

Once a year however, usually toward the end of November, I invite readers to make a contribution. As an older retired fellow, with a modest retirement, these contributions help me to update and/or replace my computer and cover miscellaneous expenses connected with my website.

If you would like to make a contribution, I would be very appreciative. 

There are five ways readers can contribute:

(1) With a US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to: 

   Dr. John A. Dick

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            3001 Heverlee    — Belgium

(2) By ZELLE using:       jadleuven@gmail.com

(3) By US bank transfer to: 

      Account 7519230887 in name of John A. Dick

      Routing number 072400052

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(4) By international bank transfer to my Belgian bank: 

      BNP Paribas Fortis Bank 

      Account in the name of John A. Dick

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      IBAN: BE83 2300 3923 6015

(5) By credit card or PayPal. Simply click on this link:   

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A very sincere thank you!

Jack

The Tenacity of Hope

Recently some readers of Another Voice told me they fear I am becoming “negatively critical and pessimistic.” Their remarks surprised me. I am critical but I think it is healthy and responsible to be constructively critical. Being critical, however, is not the same thing as being negative. And I am really not pessimistic. But I am a clear-eyed realist and greatly concerned about the problems that confront present and future generations in our contemporary world. 

Today I have short reflection that does not focus on the problems. I call it the Tenacity of Hope because I am not a prophet of doom; and my faith and my reading of history give me hope and encouragement . 

Yes very big problems confront us today: political and religious polarization, climate change, and of course a rebounding Coronavirus. If people work together, all of these problems can be resolved. I do believe that. For some problems it may take a lot of time. For other problems like the pandemic, there will be yet more suffering and death before we can say we have safely moved beyond that. 

As an older historical theologian, I am confident, as well, that there will be a greatly needed reconfiguration of our Christian churches. But I am not certain I will live to see it. Right now I enjoy witnessing what I call the new church transformation movements, like those involving women priests. And I find encouragement from truly well-informed contemporary theologians – like the men and women teaching and researching at the Catholic University of Leuven. They know the tradition and its history. They understand and know how to interpret today’s signs of the times.

One’s life perspective is important. I grew up with family stories about fear and hope. In Corona days I have thought a lot about my father, his four brothers, and of course my grandmother. My grandfather, Alonzo William Dick, a school teacher in Indiana, died in 1919 in the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918 – 1920. Most of his children as well as my grandmother were too sick to attend his funeral. Town authorities in Montpelier, Indiana wanted to put the boys in foster care homes. My grandmother said “absolutely not.” She had a big challenge in front of her. Fortunately there were neighbors and family members who encouraged and helped her, especially in the first couple years after Alonzo’s death. It was not always easy but, on her own, she raised the five boys and they all became wonderfully mature, optimistic, warm, and wise adults. Their mother had often reminded them – and often reminded me as I was growing up — that “bad things do happen but we cannot allow them to destroy us.”

Yes my perspective and optimistic vision are historically based. I look at what happened in the past, what is happening today, and what can happen tomorrow. 

These days I also find that my current Belgian environment is helpful when reflecting about tragedies and the tenacity of hope. 

Although I was born and grew up in Michigan, USA, I now live in Leuven (“Louvain”) Belgium. Many years ago I came here to complete a doctorate, was offered a job, and never left…But I am still very much a US American. 

Historical reminders are all around my family and me. In our back yard my wife and I can look at the area, not far from our house, where there was once the local community hanging-tree. Soldiers of the fiercely anti- Protestant Duke of Alba, “The Iron Duke,” used the local hanging-tree in the sixteenth century religious wars to execute citizens of Leuven suspected of Calvinist sympathies. Alba, strongly supported by Pope Pius V (1566 – 1572), was Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1567 to 1573. During those six years he executed, across the country, more than a thousand people. 

Nevertheless, Leuven not only survived but flourished, because enough people maintained courage and hope.  That area of the local hanging-tree — which I am sure is unknown to most contemporary people — has been greatly transformed and is quite safe and peaceful today. Life is stronger than death.

Close to three hundred and fifty years after the terrorism of the “Iron Duke,” Leuven suffered again in WWI. Starting on August 25, 1914, and over the course of five days, German troops burned and looted much of the city and executed hundreds of civilians. Our world renowned university library with its magnificent collection of ancient manuscripts was burned. This provoked great national and international outrage. Nevertheless, people did not give up and Leuven was rebuilt. And, starting in 1921, thanks to countless, mainly US American, fundraisers and the personal efforts of Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), chairman of the Commission for Relief of Belgium, a new library could be built.

Then, just about thirty years later, the city was bombed in World War II. Great devastation. Again, people picked up, rebuilt, and moved forward. The tenacity of hope. 

Hopeful people pick up and move forward. And now thanks to the narrow-minded, and often belligerent behavior of the anti-vaxxers, we are confronted with a major resurgence of the Coronavirus. Our contemporary challenges are very real.

I confess. I do find it very easy to point my fingers at and write articles about problematic and negative people. I get annoyed and frustrated. But I know we need to work against polarization and I do try to reach out to the problematic and negative. It is not easy. I have lost a lot of Facebook friends in the process. From the Apostle Paul, I know that “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful.” (1 Cor 13: 4–5)

And I know as well that, in my dealings with negative and often obnoxious people, I do need to be humbly alert to the exhortation of Jesus in Matthew 7 and Luke 6: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” 

Thinking about strengthening our own tenacity of hope, we greatly need to learn from the example of hope-filled men and women. My old friend, Archbishop Jadot, the subject of my recent book, was for me a supportive teacher. I remember complaining to him about problems in the church and my frustrations with problematic bishops. One US archbishop had tried very hard — but without success —  to get me fired from the University of Leuven. Jadot looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Yes it is winter now. But spring WILL return.” We all need people like Jean Jadot in our lives.

Actually I guess we are all called to be prophets of hope and hopeful change. We need to critically examine our own perspectives, because they can make us open or closed. 

A few days ago I met a very old fashioned-thinking young priest. His theology was medieval and his comportment was haughty and arrogant. What a disappointment. Then a couple days later I met a group of energetic young men and women, who are theology students at our university. They are wonderfully bright, well informed; and their theological perspectives are contemporary and pastoral. What a delight. A healthy perspective. These young people, working on advanced theological degrees, are indeed, whether they realize it or not, prophets of hope and hopeful change for today and for tomorrow.

In a couple weeks, one of my adult discussion groups will discuss an article about the English anthropologist Jane Goodall (born 1934). She is a wonderfully prophetic and inspiring person. I remember her 1999 book, written with Phillip Berman, Reason for Hope. The book details her spiritual epiphany and her belief that everyone can find a reason for hope. 

“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference” Goodall wrote. “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.” 

The tenacity of hope. With constructive criticism and collaborative efforts, we can indeed be “noble, generous, and heroic” in church and in civil society.

  • Jack

Polarization and US Catholic Bishops

During a video message presented to the Congress of Catholics and Public Life, an Opus Dei affiliated group in Madrid, Spain on Thursday November 4th, Archbishop José H. Gómez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, condemned the “new social justice movements” calling them “pseudo-religions” and “dangerous substitutes for true religion.” 

A good friend described the Gómez message as an Opus Dei “call to arms.” Founded in Madrid in 1928, Opus Dei flourished under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. In 1947, a year after the organization’s headquarters was moved to to Rome, Opus Dei was given praise and approval by Pope Pius XII. Since the 1970s, Archbishop Gómez, has been quite active in the powerful far right Catholic organization. In 1999, he became the vicar of Opus Dei for Texas; and, in 2001, he became the first Opus Dei “numerary” to be appointed a bishop in the United States. (Numeraries are members who give doctrinal and ascetical formation to other members.)  Archbishop Gómez has said that he is no longer a “member” of Opus Dei but follows Opus Dei spirituality. 

Gómez is a well-known  promoter of US Catholic polarization and a fierce critic of US President Joseph Biden. His statement on Inauguration Day in January 2021 was clear and direct: “Our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage and gender.” Archbishop Gómez, quoting a US Conference of Catholic Bishops voter guide, stressed “For the nation’s bishops, the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘pre-eminent priority.’”

Not all US bishops agree with Archbishop Gómez, however. Bishop Robert McElroy, Bishop of San Diego and a vocal member of the minority of US bishops who diverge from the Gómez line, has continued to stress that abortion is not the US Catholic pre-eminent issue. “The pre-eminent issue for our country at this time” he said  “is healing and coming together.” 

Bishop McElroy’s observations, and those of Archbishop Gómez of course, reminded me that it is now close to twenty-five years ago that Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin announced his Catholic Common Ground Initiative: his call for dialogue among the US Catholic Church’s increasingly polarized believers. If only people had truly listened to him back then…But we can still listen to him today.

Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 until his death in November 1996. The Catholic Common Ground Initiative was Bernardin’s final and most substantial effort to promote dialogue in an increasingly divided US Catholic Church. Beginning in 1992, Bernardin had grown concerned about polarization due to political issues and the implementation of the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). He began working to gather influential Catholic bishops and laypeople who were committed to dialogue and church unity, despite their disagreements. The Common Ground initiative challenged US Catholics to honestly discuss their views on the role of women in the church, about human sexuality, and about how the church should be governed.

Shortly before his death, Cardinal Bernardin hoped he would be leaving a gift to guide the church during a difficult period. But Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia), James Hickey (Washington), Bernard Law (Boston), John O’Connor (New York) and Adam Maida (Detroit) came out strongly against Common Ground. Bernard Law captured the flavor of their criticisms when he said: “Dialogue, as a way to mediate between the truth and dissent, is mutual deception.”

Law of course was wrong. His life ended in disgrace. Bernardin remains the prophetic US Catholic hero. And Gómez remains a problematic prophet of doom.

We do not dwell in the past but we do learn from it, in our own ways, as I stressed two weeks ago in my “See, Observe, and Act” reflection. May we support people like Bishop McElroy and actively engage in a contemporary Common Ground Initiative. 

Polarization takes people who basically have something in common. It then emphasizes their differences. Then it hardens their differences into disgust. Then it turns their disgust into hatred. 

According to a 2021 Survey of American Catholic Priests, conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, priests on both sides of the US political divide are largely pessimistic about the state of the US Catholic Church and its future. Their  pessimism is our call to listen, dialogue, collaborate, support, and move forward.

There is nothing Christian about polarization. Polarization, especially when promoted by highly placed religious and political leaders, is deadly. 

  • Jack

See — Judge — Act

Joseph Cardijn (1882 – 1967) was a Belgian social activist best known for his lifelong dedication to social activism and working towards the improvement of the working class. He blamed the death of his mine-worker father in 1903 on harsh labor conditions. Many of his former schoolmates working in the mines and mills believed the church had abandoned them, which prompted Cardijn to found a social movement dedicated to helping them…Working-class Belgians in that era tended to see the church more interested in serving the interests of the aristocracy. 

When Cardijn was first made an assistant priest near Brussels in 1912, he began to work with factory workers. In 1915, he became the director of the city’s Catholic social work. In the years after the First World War, he began to organize young Catholic workers in the Brussels area to evangelize their colleagues. The group was named “Young Christian Workers.” A spin-off was the “Young Christian Students” movement.

Joseph Cardijn was well-known and greatly respected at the University of Leuven and passed away in a Leuven hospital 1967, when I was a seminarian in Leuven. I never met him unfortunately but had already learned much about him. I was active with a Young Christian Students group when a college student in Detroit.

The big Cardijn impact on my life, however, was his stress on critical thinking. He really helped me become a careful and questioning observer. His famous exhortation that we need to “See, Judge, and Act” could also be my motto. As a teacher I have always tried to engage people in critical thinking. Cardijn I am sure was far better at it than I have been. But I keep working on it…

Just two years before Joseph Cardijn’s, Pope Paul VI honored him and his prophetic ministry by appointing him a cardinal. Today must people know this remarkable Christian as “Cardinal Cardijn.”

See, Judge, Act — Thinking about the past:

I guess I find it easy to be a critical thinker about the past. I still give lectures and write about the “historical-critical method.” I understand, for example, the place and meaning of biblical mythology about Adam and Eve and about Noah and the great flood. 

I am not surprised that many contemporary scholars suggest that the Hebrew prophet Moses may have been a legendary figure, but a Moses-like figure existed in the 13th century BCE. I am surprised when contemporary “biblical experts” on the Internet say Moses wrote the Pentateuch. There is no way “Moses” could have written the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were  composed between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Indeed there once was a belief in both Judaism and Christianity that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Those days passed long ago.

I truly believe that “Yeshua,” our historical Jesus from Nazareth, did live, did reveal divinity, as well as revealing authentic humanity. He was cruelly executed by the Romans, who found him a dangerous trouble-maker. Some of Jesus’s fellow Hebrews, unfortunately, felt the same way. But Jesus was later experienced very much alive. The earliest witnesses to that were some of his women disciples. He lives. His spirit guides us today. Too many Christians, however, still ignore the major role played by Jesus’ women disciples… 

In our historical-critical look at the past, we should be reminded to avoid some of the aberrations of the past. At the beginning of October, for instance, I published a couple articles about Christopher Columbus who was hardly a saintly explorer. He was a murderer, a tyrant, and a scoundrel. A couple people on Facebook “unfriended” me when they read my article. But there is life after Facebook.

Among early Christian “fathers” we know today that a number of them were outright misogynists. Among them are certainly: Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 – 430); Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century; and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, 13th century. Nor should one forget the great Reformers Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin  (1509-1564).

See, Judge, Act — Contemporary life:

But what about the challenge of being a critical observer, thinker, and activist today? It is more difficult because via Internet critical observers can be immediately challenged, repudiated, or outright denigrated. They can be  “cancelled.”

There is certainly a lot of falsehood and pure nonsense in our contemporary world that is packaged and promoted as truth. We see that of course in political and religious rhetoric. And in the ongoing Covid pandemic. Right now as hospitals again fill up with COVID-19 cases, I am becoming very peeved at the nonsense of the anti-vaxxers and especially with the “Christian” anti-vaxxers. They have fed themselves such a steady diet of falsehoods that they are unable to respect and respond to contemporary medical science. They are not just ignorant and foolish. They are dangerous people.  

Another alarming trend that concerns me these days is “cancel culture.” On the “Left” and on the “Right” cancel culture has become a socio-cultural virus. It is being used by misguided Christians as well. I recall many examples. Right now I am thinking about a fellow who for several years was a well-liked and respected teacher in a Catholic high school. He announced recently that he is going to marry his male partner. Shortly after his announcement, he was fired from his job and informed that he will be banned from working in any Catholic school in the diocese. Catholic cancel culture. Parents protested his being fired but were informed that their children would be expelled from school, and made unwelcome at any Catholic school unless the parents stopped their protests.

Cancel culture has been compared to a modern day “witch burning.” It has certainly been used by religious groups to eliminate “troublesome people.” It is greatly manipulated and distorted by people on the far right. Former US President Trump once said: “The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it.” Really? This is just another Trumpian falsehood. In fact the former-president himself has quite a history of engaging in cancel culture behavior. He has pushed for boycotts, called for the firing of his critics, and has used his platform, particularly Twitter, to attack people. In 2017, Trump went after football players who knelt during the National Anthem as a form of protest against racial inequality, calling for them to be fired and encouraging fans not to support the league. That is real cancel culture.

Cancel culture is unhealthy because it primarily creates more hateful polarization. Engaging in a respectful exchange of opinions while working toward the same goals is how we will thrive and grow as a society. Yes, there is a time to disagree and to vigorously dialogue. But how to respect each other through discussion and debate is and remains our Christian challenge.

See, Judge, Act — Values Clarification:

Thinking about helping people become well-informed critical thinkers today, I suggest we start giving classes in “values clarification.” (I did that in the 1970s and 1980s.) How do people display and practice truth and honesty? Or how do they display and practice falsehood and deception? Do we take time to compare or help people compare a person’s rhetoric with that person’s actual behavior? How do we help people clarify their own values? How do we clarify our own values?

For example, I would like to see more people critically examining the rhetoric and actual policies of Viktor Orbán who has served as Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010. As the Boston College historian, Heather Cox Richardson, observed in a recent column, Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace multiculturalism with “Christian culture,” and wants to stop immigration. He rejects “adaptable family models” and promotes “the Christian family model.” Is this really Christian? Values clarification?

Having lost their leader in Washington DC, it appears that Donald Trump-supporting Republicans have settled on Orbán as the new authoritarian leader to admire. He is anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-free press, and anti-democracy. The Conservative Political Action Committee, which holds the US right’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists and politicians is now planning its next big conference in Budapest in 2022.

The far right is quite active these days. Last weekend, the leaders of the QAnon far right conspiracy movement gathered in Las Vegas to discuss the state of the world and the future of their movement. QAnon members, as I have written, embrace a range of unsubstantiated beliefs. They center on the notion that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, consisting mostly of elitist Democrats, undermined former-president Donald Trump. The lead speaker at last week’s QAnon gathering in Las Vegas was the actor Jim Caviezel, who is best known, among conservative Christians, for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Caviezel’s speech, amounted to a call to arms against the liberal worldview and concluded with the proclamation that “the Storm is upon us.” This was a direct invocation of QAnon’s central conspiracy theory. On Monday, Caviezel’s speech was quoted approvingly by a far right Catholic bishop. “All need to listen to this speech,” wrote Joseph Strickland, the anti-Biden, Bishop of Tyler, Texas. Strickland is strongly anti-LBGT and insists that Catholics cannot be Democrats.

And so we do indeed have much to carefully and critically observe and think about these days. And much that calls for concerted action…

  •  Jack

PS I have a couple big projects on my calendar in coming days and am taking a week off. I plan to return after Veterans Day.

Power and Prestige

(Occasionally I receive a reflection written by a friend that, with his or her permission, I really want to post on Another Voice. That happened this week. I will simply call the author “Fr. Jim.” He is a retired US Army chaplain.)

Jesus criticized his followers who were looking for power. He reminded them that, if they had learned anything from him, they would know that following him was about service, not power and prestige. 

There is a lot going on in the church these days that is all about power. There are a number of bishops, especially in the US, who are openly playing the power game. 

A number of them want to deny certain people communion for a number of reasons, one of which is that thosepeople are not sufficiently against abortion. The Pope has asked them not to do this, but they have publicly ignored and defied him and even now the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) is preparing a document to do this. 

Recently a number of bishops have chosen to ignore, or perhaps even defy, Pope Francis in the matter of the Covid vaccines. Francis has said there are no moral problems in getting the vaccine, and doing so is an act of charity and concern for others. A number of bishops have publicly ignored this and acted against it, including the Archbishop for Military Services. 

The way so many Catholics, not just bishops but certainly with the bishops’ support and encouragement, treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is totally opposite from how Jesus lived, yet this mistreatment is done allegedly in the name of God. I can bless bombs, rockets, gunships, animals, but not two people of the same sex who love each other. God’s first act of self revelation is creation, so the more we know about creation, the more insight we have into God. I don’t think God is done revealing God’s self yet. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t get to judge who is or isn’t created in God’s image and likeness.

Currently Francis is calling the whole church to take part in a Synod to look at where the church is and where it is going. He want folks at all levels to have a part in the discussion. Again, in the US a great number of bishops are ignoring his call or giving it faint lip service. It is public knowledge that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is a Francis-free zone.

One of the most serious delicts (crime), on a par with child abuse, a Catholic priest can commit is to be in favor of ordaining women as priests. If a priest is publicly in favor of ordaining women, which I am, he can be suspended from priesthood and thrown out of the church without any process. Catholic Cancel Culture?

The way the clericalist church treats folks whose marriage has failed and who are just looking for, and perhaps have found, love again is a brutal disgrace. Some marriages fail. They may have started out well, but bad things happen to good people for any number of reasons that the clericalist mind just does not grasp, and so the acts of power and control begin. For some folks the annulment process is good, while for others it is painful. There has to be another way. It would seem that a significant number of celibate male church officials really believe they know more about how to live a Christian life than the folks who are actually living it. This celibate male has at least a glimpse of the reality but I really don’t know much.

The polarization in our country is happening with the support of a number of bishops, who are definitely encouraging it in the church. Many of the bishops are clearly aligned with a particular party and its reputed leader, and this alignment seems to be the basis for their leadership or lack thereof.

Francis is calling the church to be like a battle ground field hospital that is working to help the folks deal with the suffering in their lives, just to walk with them. I have served in some of them, and have experienced the kind of care he is talking about. A great number of bishops, especially US bishops, see the church not as a place of healing, but as a system of laws and penalties. As it was in the days of Jesus when the priests told the people if you want to go to God you have to go through us, the bishops of today are saying the same thing.

In my own life, I am in the very fortunate position of being retired and not in charge of anything. I do not depend on the church for anything, except perhaps the opportunity to help out in parishes, hospitals, and similar places. I am thankful for my active duty Army experience which has afforded me some insight that others might not have. No doubt I look down the alley with my own set of lights. This does not make me better or worse than anyone else, just perhaps unique, a character, so to speak.

I don’t think there needs to be a separate class of person (clergy). The fact that there is one now is a source of many of the problems in the church, clericalism. As clerics we were taught that ordination makes a person ontologically different. I do not believe this at all. A number of experiences in the Army convinced me beyond any doubt that this is just not true. We just have a different role in the church, one of gathering and leading folks in prayer. We don’t need a separate caste to do this.

I believe that Jesus said “I will be with you always”, and “I will send the Spirit to remind you of what I taught you”, and this is happening right now. Perhaps the church will be led kicking and screaming into a new awareness of what it means to be followers of Christ in our own day and time. Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, had already foreseen something along this line in a 1969 radio broadcast: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge.” We certainly are in a current crisis. I hope we can be open to the Spirit leading us forward.