Promoting the “Culture of Encounter”

During a mid-day prayer service with American bishops, on Wednesday September 23,  at Washington’s St. Matthew Cathedral,  Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops that they should not close in on themselves but engage in dialogue as promoters of a “culture of encounter.”

Good advice for all bishops, for all popes, and for all of us: building bridges, learning together through constructive dialogue, as we engage in and promote a culture of encounter.

Interested in trends and movements, I see at least four areas for a contemporary Roman Catholic cultural encounter: a polarized church, institutional discomfort with an historical-critical understanding of scripture and tradition, an institutional blindness toward women priests, and a questionable institutional environmental morality…..Of course there are many other areas for “encounter.”


Writing in the Boston Globe on September 21 (“Pope Francis’ balancing act”), historian Gary Wills observed that there are now two Roman Catholic churches and each is in some degree alien to the other: “our church” which is people-oriented and “the other church” which is hierarchy-oriented.

Our church wants married priests (72 percent in a March 2014 Pew poll), wants women priests (68 percent), and uses contraceptives for family planning (77 percent). The “other church” remains opposed to these realities. Priests in “our church” know that their parishioners do not agree with the official positions of the “other church,” but they do their best to listen, support, and minister to them. Priests committed to “other church,” as Wills notes, “do not look around at their congregations. They look up at the hierarchical ladder they mean to climb. They are not pastors but careerists.”


Our religious knowledge, ideas, and beliefs are not static. One cannot correctly understand Sacred Scripture without an historical-critical understanding: how the culture, language, and life environment of people back then affected the meaning of the texts back then.

But this holds true as well for all official doctrinal pronouncements. They too need to be understood in their own historical contexts, over the centuries.

We do not have the same cosmology, philosophy, or cultural world view of the churchmen who wrote the Nicene Creed, for instance. We really could use a contemporary creed. (In one of my theology classes, I asked my students to write their own creeds. The results were wonderfully uplifting because they gave witness to genuine belief.)

When it comes to an historical-critical understanding of Catholic belief, “other church” people really need some in-service updating. I have often thought that bishops (including popes of course) should be required to take and satisfactorily pass a certain number of continuing education courses every couple years, in order to maintain their certification as trust-worthy and knowledgeable leaders in the church. If they don’t pass, they could be given a year’s leave of absence for further study, or be simply asked to retire.

All doctrinal formulations are provisional. They worked yesterday. Some work today. Others need to be reformulated in the light of contemporary theological understanding and the continuing growth in human understanding. Contemporary people, for instance, would not follow the advice of a medical doctor anchored in nineteenth century medical practice and understanding. Why then should it be good religious practice to follow the prescriptions of church leaders still anchored in an antiquated culture, language, theology, and world view?


In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis wrote: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” Here of course we need a bit of historical-critical reflection.

Certainly the historical Jesus did not ordain any women. On the other hand, he didn’t ordain any men either. A man of his time, the idea of ordination probably never entered Jesus’ mind. We do know that in the early church those who presided at Eucharist were the leaders of small Christian communities. We know as well that among those leaders were men and women. Just as we know that among Jesus disciples were men and women; and among the early apostles there were men and women.

Of course women presided at Eucharist in the early church. And of course they do so today.

Women’s ordination is a contemporary reality, as it should be. It is a reality that institutional leadership needs to “encounter,” acknowledge, accept, and promote. With all due respect to those who still repeat it, asserting that women cannot be ordained ministers (priests) is an ignorant observation. And we all know that such ignorance is never bliss.


Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for human responsibility for the environment. He regularly urges the world to phase out highly-polluting fossil fuels. In his encyclical Laudato  si’ (dated 24 May 2015 but officially published on 18 June 2015) he stressed: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels … needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” Some of his fellow U.S. bishops, however, are still not getting the message.

According to Reuters (see September 22, 2015, “In clash with pope’s climate call, U.S. Church leases drilling rights.”), in the very heart of U.S.A. oil country, several dioceses and other Roman Catholic institutions are leasing out drilling rights to oil and gas companies to bolster their finances. In the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, for instance, church officials have signed three new oil and gas leases – and this after Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical.

A Reuters review of county documents in Texas and Oklahoma has found 235 oil and gas leasing deals signed by Roman Catholic Church authorities since 2010. These two states, most recently, have been at the forefront of a boom in U.S. energy production. Church authorities receive a royalty ranging from 15 to 25 percent of the value of what is taken out of the ground. Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley signed the most recent deal on September 3, 2015, giving privately held oil company Comanche Resources rights to operate on 160 acres in Major County in exchange for 18.75 percent of the value of the oil and gas produced.

During his September 23 address to the group of about 300 U.S. bishops, Pope Francis told the bishops to dialogue fearlessly. Indeed, we must all do that if we will promote “encounter.”

Genuine dialogue only happens, however, when the dialogical partners accept two principles of co-operation:

(1) No one is excluded because of gender, sexual orientation, or theological stance.

(2) No one has all the truth.

We dialogue because we humbly acknowledge that we still have a lot to learn from the other, about the other, and about ourselves.

From Bishop Francis’ lips to Pope Francis’ Ears

This week end….A very brief meditation before the pope arrives in the USA

He is 94 years young and one of the very last of the “Jadot bishops.” Francis A. Quinn was bishop of Sacramento from 1980 to 1994 and gained a reputation for his concrete and practical pastoral ministry and strong support for lay leadership. Just a few days before the arrival of Pope Francis in Washington DC, Bishop Quinn wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times — “How the Pope Might Renew the Church,” September 18, 2015 — that the Roman Catholic Church should consider optional celibacy for priests, the ordination of women, and allowing Catholics who are divorced and remarried to receive Communion.

In an interview published in America magazine – “California Bishop Voices Support for the Ordination of Women,” September 18, 2015 — Quinn spoke with unabashed frankness about the changes he would like to see.

“I personally think the Spirit is calling women to be deacons and priests, but the Spirit hasn’t yet communicated it to the teaching church….I can’t see any reason why women shouldn’t be priests,” Bishop Quinn said. “The church would benefit greatly.” Quinn acknowledged that he has had “personal ideas” about the ordination of women for decades; but in the past he “would never preach about it or say it publicly,” since Pope John Paul II had taken it “off the table.”On several occasions, Pope Francis has reiterated the position of John Paul II. In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.”

Francis Quinn, however, is now courageously saying to Pope Francis and to his other brother bishops that it is time to put women’s ordination back on the table.

In Acts of the Apostles (2:17) we read: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Bishop Quinn has good dreams for the church but he is greatly concerned about the future of the church and its young people. They too need a vision. An increasing number of young people either belong to no church, are agnostic, or have an overly individualist spirituality, without understanding the need for community. “The main challenge facing the church today is not simply to resolve questions like celibacy,” Bishop Quinn wrote, “but to relearn how to communicate a deeper, more intelligent, more relevant religion that leads to a life of acceptance and love.”

Holy Wisdom for sure……..Thank God for Bishop Francis A. Quinn!


A Twelve-Step Jubilee Challenge

Pope Francis, drawing on an old RCC tradition, is proclaiming a Jubilee Year of Mercy. It will begin officially on December 8, 2015 and conclude on November 20, 2016. “I am convinced,” Francis said, that the whole church…will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”

The year-long jubilee, according to Vatican officials, will include a number of individual “jubilee days,” for groups such as religious men and women, deacons, priests, catechists, the sick and disabled, teenagers, and prisoners. (Nothing has been said about “jubilee days” for gays, divorced and remarried, nor for those excommunicated because they support women’s ordination.) Young people, however, will be able to celebrate their own special jubilee days with Pope Francis at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, at the end of July 2016.

The last big Jubilee Year was 2000, but as Robert Mickens observed in the National Catholic Reporter (March 16, 2015) it was not all that great. “If John Paul II’s intuition was to usher in an era of mercy and forgiveness,” Mickens observed, “he lacked the physical and mental energy as well as the necessary support of his closest aides to do so with any real creativity or boldness.”

Maybe Francis will do better this time around? I hope so and have some positive suggestions.

The notion of a Christian jubilee year goes back to the Book of Leviticus (see Leviticus 25:8-13). It called for a jubilee year every fifty years, in which slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and God’s mercies would be especially demonstrated.

The first Christian jubilee year was proclaimed in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII, for pilgrims visiting Rome and offering the full pardon of all their sins, if they visited the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul and fulfilled other requirements. The granting of special indulgences was always a key feature of earlier jubilees. (It is hard to say today just what exactly an indulgence means. I will bypass that topic this week.)

Clearly what Pope Francis has in mind for the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy is that the institutional church and individual Christians extend forgiveness, compassion, and a welcoming back to the church of those who for various reasons have been excluded or have felt abandoned.

I have twelve suggestions (just like there are twelve gifts of the Holy Spirit) for the Jubilee of Mercy. In every diocese, starting with the Bishop of Rome (i.e. Pope Francis) I suggest that bishops go out of their way to accomplish the following:

  1. For those excommunicated for their active support for women’s ordination, the bishop will lift the excommunication and welcome back to the church those women and men who had been thrown out.

  2. For those excommunicated for their active support for same-sex marriage, the bishop will lift the excommunication and welcome back to the church those women and men who had been thrown out.

  3. For those children not allowed to attend parochial schools because their parents are a gay couple, the bishop will order that no parochial school in his diocese will continue to exclude these children. He will apologize for earlier exclusions or expulsions.

  4. For those who have been fired from their teaching positions or from parish ministries because they entered into a same-sex marriage, the bishop will announce a major change in diocesan policy and welcome back those women or men who had been fired.

  5. For those divorced and remarried but not accepted as full members of the church, the bishop will welcome them back to the church, and he will authorize that their second marriages be accepted and blessed.

  6. Recognizing the importance of being generous and merciful toward the tens of thousands of nonfunctioning married priests, bishops in the Jubilee of Mercy will allow and welcome back to full ordained ministry those men who wish to do so.

  7. Recognizing the importance of qualified ordained ministers, bishops in the Jubilee of Mercy will begin to ordain already ministerially qualified married men.

  8. Recognizing the importance of opening ordained ministry to women, bishops in the Jubilee of Mercy will begin to ordain women to the diaconate.

  9. Recognizing that bishops must break out of the trappings of power, authority, money, and privilege, bishops in the Jubilee of Mercy will establish a “Jubilee Committee” of lay and ordained advisors to determine how bishops can best do this.

  10. The Jubilee Committees in every diocese will supervise the removal and selling of outrageously expensive episcopal croziers, miters, crosses, rings and other episcopal ornaments. Money will be used to support refugees.

  11. As a symbol of the needed change, and respecting Pope’s Francis’ frequent admonitions that bishops adopt a simpler life-style, all bishops will immediately cease wearing ornate Renaissance robes; and they will cease using all medieval episcopal titles of power and privilege.

  12. Titles of “eminence” or “excellency” will no longer be permitted or used. Bishops will be called “bishop” or “archbishop” or “cardinal.” The preferred title will be either “father” or “reverend.” For example, people will begin to speak about “Father Timothy Dolan the Archbishop of New York.”

In 2007 about 24% of Americans identified themselves as Roman Catholic. Today that figure is 20% and some studies say it is even lower than that. Of those roughly 20%, just 17% are practicing Catholics. One of the largest religious groups in U.S. society is now the group of former Catholics. And that number is growing: Four-in-ten (41%) of U.S. Roman Catholic adults under age 30 say they could easily see themselves leaving the church.

A Jubilee of Marcy, as I outline it above, might change the statistics. Whether it does or does not, the patterns of Roman Catholic life in the United States need a major overhaul because it is the just, appropriate, and authentically Christian thing to do.

Jubilee Committees now have two months to get their plans in motion. Then… let the Jubilee of Mercy begin! 

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