Waiting for a flight from Washington DC to Brussels, a couple days ago, I was re-reading Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson. A young passenger, with earphones tucked into his ears and texting on his iPhone, looked over at my book and me. “I used to believe in that God stuff,” he said. “I can’t believe in the old guy up there in heaven, running the show down here,” he continued. “I can’t either,” I replied with a chuckle.
Then he glanced at my nametag dangling from my attaché case, which identified me as an ‘historical theologian.’ (The fellow had good eyesight!) “But you are a theologian,” he said. “But you don’t believe in God?” “I do,” I said “but not the old image of God we inherited from the Middle Ages….I think God is right here with you and me and all the people waiting for the flight to Brussels.”
He pulled his earphones from his head, put his iPhone down, and for the next half hour we talked about faith experiences, contemporary life, his lack of interest in any religion — he was raised a Belgian Catholic — and yet his real desire to experience something ‘deeper in life….something spiritual.’
I told the young guy, on his way home after two weeks in Washington DC, that I meet a lot of people who are turned off by institutional religion. They are turned off by the institution because it does not speak to them in a language they understand; nor does it speak about human life issues they find important. As one of my friends said, we need to change the conversation……
Over the noise in the airport, our boarding group was called. We were both in group three but our seat numbers were far apart. As we started walking to the gate, I remembered a quote from my spiritual guide, Richard Rohr: “In solitude, at last, we’re able to let God define us the way we are always supposed to be defined—by relationship: the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself. Not performance but presence.”
“You know,” I said to the young guy as we got closer to the agent checking boarding passes, “I really think you will find the divine presence you are looking for if you put yourself on ‘airplane mode’ from time to time. We all need quiet time to simply be and reflect. We need to disconnect, occasionally but regularly, from all the noise around us.”
“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living,” Richard Rohr once said. “We live ourselves into new ways of thinking…”
Sometimes it takes a long time for us to ‘really get it’: What makes something secular or profane is precisely whether one lives on the surface of it. It’s not that the sacred is here and the profane is over there. Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it, and everything is sacred if you go into the depths of it
On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. I still remember that historic moment and especially these lines from his opening address:
“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.
“We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world was at hand.
“In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human efforts and even beyond human expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”
Pope John’s words, over the years, have animated and encouraged me in my educational ministry. I have never felt at home with the prophets of gloom, who “have learned nothing from history.” Jesus brought good news. The church too should be about good news.
As I continue checking news updates about the Synod on the Family now meeting in Rome, what strikes me most is the developing polarization — often fierce — that is reflected in the remarks of some influential Synod “fathers.” (What a sad commentary on church leadership and what an irony for a Synod on Family Life that there are no mothers who are high level participants in the discussions and no mothers who can vote about synodal decisions. Does Father always know best?)
It was certainly refreshing and hopeful to read about Quebec Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher’s intervention at the Synod on Octber 6. He noted the “sad and dramatic reality” that women “continue to suffer discrimination and violence at the hands of men, including their spouses.” He asked the bishops to state clearly that there is no scriptural justification for such a bias; and noted as well that New Trstament passages in which the Apostle Paul speaks about wives submitting to their husbands “can never justify the domination of men over women, much less violence.”
Archbishop Durocher, who recently ended his term as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, then asked that the Synod recognize that women can and should be given “decision-making” posts in the church, and in the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy. Finally, he said the Synod should establish a process for opening the diaconate to women. Encouraging indeed.
But then, a few days later, we began to hear strong (overly exaggerated) reactions from the other side of the hierarchical divide.
Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, and head of the powerful Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican’s top liturgical post, told the Synod that divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage in the West, and Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and elsewhere, both had a “demonic origin” that the Synod had to combat. Adding more emphasis to his remarks, he stressed that “What Nazi-fascism and communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.”
As Robert Mickens reported in his Octber 14 Letter from Rome, “It has been known for quite some time that a number of cardinals and bishops, both in Rome and abroad, are—to put it mildly—uncomfortable with the way Pope Francis’s pontificate is unfolding. Well, this week it all spilled out into the open when it was unveiled that several cardinals—including three top Vatican officials (Cardinals Pell, Müller and Sarah)—wrote a letter to the Pope that basically criticized the way he is running the Synod of Bishops.”
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who signet the letter, is also one of those “uncomfortable” with Pope Francis
I really have no idea what the Synod will end up saying. Regardless of the synodal outcome, the contemporary Roman Catholic leadership divide is serious, deep, and very real. This is a major turning point for the church. If no good news comes from the Synod, the Roman Catholic exodus will accelerate for sure.
While the debates continue in Rome, the Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Myers, has already made up his mind and has given his priests strict guidelines about refusing Communion to Catholics who, for example, support gay marriage or whose own marriage is not valid in the eyes of the church. In a two-page memo, Myers also ordered parishes and Catholic institutions not to host people or organizations that disagree with church teachings. So much for being merciful and inclusive in encounters with the other. Myers is obviously an “uncomfortable” archbishop.
We have a polarized Roman Catholic climate for sure. One can survive in a such a polarized climate, however; but only by observing some spiritual survival strategies:
(1) Truly believe and act on the belief that the Spirit speaks to and through everyone in the church, and that the hierarchy must listen to more people than just themselves.
(2) Be anchored in contemporary life not in an antiquated vision and cultural understanding of the human person that is more medieval than modern.
(3) Continue to educate yourself and insist on continuing education for everyone in the church, starting with your local bishop. Everyone needs a better understanding of Sacred Scripture, of Christian tradition, and contemporary psychological and socio-cultural understandings of the human person in all its variety and richness.
(4) Practice the way of Jesus that calls us to mutual respect for everyone in the church. At the same time, dialogue, question, and challenge perceptions and beliefs that appear to be unfounded, antiquated, or simply wrong.
(5) Understand that the old RCC status quo is finished. The church is headed down a new road; and there will be bumps along the way.
(6) Realize that being critical is also the way to be constructve.
(7) Realize that speaking the critical word is not enough. We need to be prophetc change agents, or just keep quiet and let those who have learned nothing from history take control.
A great number of people responded to my request for their personal reflections about living the faith today. I cannot use all of them here but offer a selection. I greatly appreciate the thoughtful responses of everyone who took time to write. Some people indicated I could publish their names others asked that I not publish their names.
We begin with reflections by Patricia:
Greetings, and thank you for the opportunity for me to communicate some thoughts toward what I believe should be important to all Catholic Christians, and to all Christians. My name is Patricia Squires, and I am a 65 year old Catholic Christian. I am a convert of 30+ years and I must admit I have been very disappointed by my Church in recent years. This is primarily due to American Bishops/Priests seemingly aligning themselves with the far political right of America, leaving me, a liberal American, feeling a bit lost in “my” Church, and wondering if there is a place for me, as a Catholic, any longer. Then, along came Pope Francis, and he gave me a bit of hope. I continue to search for others, in our faith community, who consider the following thoughts/issues of utmost importance. Please feel free to use my name should you wish to…..the Catholic Church seemed to be side-tracked, with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, from the progress begun in Vatican II. They seemed to be more “rules” oriented, rather than showing love and compassion. Pope Francis seeks to bring us back to that path, and I believe that we desperately need to return to being a more loving, compassionate, and welcoming group of Christian people. We need to concentrate more on what Jesus taught us. If we are truly Christians, we must be followers of Christ, and his real teachings, rather than what the hierarchy from centuries ago, deemed to be most important.
A few older priests sent often touching observations. Here I give one example. The other asked me not to publish his name:
I am a retired priest and I am angry and disappointed. I studied philosophy and theology for eight years and more than fifty years after ordination, I find myself in an organization which has grossly lacked leadership and intellectual integrity. The clergy are not required to keep current with the best theological thinking of the day nor assisted in doing so. Bishops feel safer this way since what you don’t know will mean that you won’t think for yourself or challenge anything the Church says. This means that traditional formulations of doctrine are perpetuated without any development and encourages unthinking careerism…..So with parishes closing or consolidating and average clergy becoming older and fewer, ranking hierarchy stand firmly against allowing the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist and we cannot even discuss the discipline of celibate clergy. Instead of discussing the glaring problems within the Church, the hierarchy are campaigning against same sex marriage, with no success, and the perceived loss of religious freedom…..”
Sister Joyce from New York offered a nine-point reform program:
1. Addressing Climate change and accompanying environmental issues in systematic ways. I think this to be the most critical in our times…2. Gender equality and all that it can mean for decision making and for ministry at every level, including ordination of women to the deaconate and priesthood. 3. Restructuring of the papal office and the teaching magisterium so that it reflects a horizontal approach, so that invited to the table of conversation are theologians of every discipline and in conversation with scientific, economic and psychological scholars of some repute today. 4. Getting rid of the hammer of excommunication and replacing it with ongoing conversation on all thorny issues…. 5. Banishing all clerical titles such as Monsignor which one thought was supposed to have been eliminated after Vatican II and all excessive medieval garb a la Burke style who is an embarrassment to the church. 6. Providing a comprehensive pastoral response and welcoming of people whose fundamental sexual orientations are varied…. 7. Think and respond differently to homiletics. It is a well-known fact that homilies are terrible in many local faith communities. Create a policy requiring a priests to get real training in homiletics. Also invite the laity with some background in theology to participate in homiletic training. 8. Make social justice a priority in every parish and provide diocesan training….9. Require all pastoral staff to get training in ethics and morality a la Vatican II plus. To that end, rethink and reverse the church’s teaching on birth control. It makes no sense at all.
Joris reminds us
…Jesus of Nazareth realized that to be devout in any way at all, one must first be adult–authentic, self-actualized, contrite, grateful, and aware.
Pamela, a few years younger than I, introduces herself as
…a 69 year old Catholic woman who reads a lot. My sources are Global Pulse, Commonweal, America, NCR, NY Times. I live in the diocese of Phoenix, so while I support my diocese, I have asked them not to send me the diocesan paper so as to avoid aggravation. What is the biggest challenge facing Christians today? My answer: welcoming the stranger. What is the biggest challenge facing Catholics today? Ignorance of the broad richness of the church’s thinking…..
And I conclude this week’s reflection with keen observations from my good friend, Sue, who is a very fine historical theologian:
It won’t surprise you to know that I think the deep-level misogyny lurking in our Church is the most important issue to address — and the thorniest. The research I’ve done on the old churching rite of women after childbirth turns up a 2000-year-long history of fear of women’s bleeding anywhere in proximity to holy places. I believe there’s a direct tie-in to the utter refusal to even countenance any discussion of ordaining women. I suspect that a fear of women’s bodies results in the overemphasis on “pelvic” issues in moral theology and, at least in the U.S. church, the embarrassing overemphasis on “religious liberty” as reinterpreted to cover the teaching on contraception to which only an infinitesimal number of Catholics would assent. Until the Church fully accepts that males and females have received the same Baptism (you wouldn’t think that would be an issue!) we cannot hope for a level of credibility that will permit us as a Church truly to preach the Gospel and be heard.
“Once people start to believe change is possible,
the drive to achieve it accelerates.”
Patrick Edgar, President, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church
Following up on my thoughts last week about the importance of ENCOUNTER, I am writing this week to invite you to share some thoughts with me.
Please write – you can send your thoughts to me at email@example.com – I would appreciate your telling me who you are and whether or not you want your observations identified or simply listed as anonymous.
I want to know what YOU think are the important issues for Christianity today. Your concerns. Your hopes and wishes. I will publish what I consider the most thoughtful and/or original pieces that come my way…..or I may summarize if I get a lot of responses.
In October 1517, Martin Luther issued his own observations about Christianity in his day……..