Saturday, December 25, 2010

In Praise of Emmanuel, God With Us

May the peace and tender love of God--who chose to be born in a humble manger in Bethlehem, in a vulnerable human body, with tears to shed and laughter to share with friends as well--be with every person who seeks peace and welcomes true joy.

May God, who loved and still loves without condition, bless those most in need of love.

May the spirit of Christ get carried forward by each of us in quiet, small ways. May each of us, in small, simple ways, be a source of love and peace for those around us.  Yes, us--the ones who are frail and full of flaws.

May the beauty of the incarnation--the birth of Emmanuel, God with us--stay with us long after the trappings of the season are put away.

Edwardsville, Illinois, Christmas Day 2010

Merry Christmas to anyone ("Anyone out there??") who stumbles across this blog!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

An Open Letter to Bishop Thomas Olmsted -- On a Mother's Life Saved

Many in the Catholic blogosphere have followed, for more than a year, the case of the young woman in Phoenix, a mother of four, whose life was saved in 2009--in St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, a Catholic institution--through surgery that resulted in the death of her unborn child.  The woman's doctors decided, after careful study, that her chance of dying within days or weeks was almost one hundred percent if she did not have the surgery.  Catholic teaching over the years has made room for such a contingency.  That is, if an unborn child dies as an incidental and unavoidable consequence of a procedure that must be performed in order to save the mother's life, the child's death is a tragedy, but not a morally culpable outcome.  Theologically, this situation comes under the concept of the "double effect."

Last May, however, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, head of the Phoenix diocese, decided to excommunicate Sr. Margaret McBride, who served as one of the hospital's administrators and was also in charge of its medical ethics board.

On Tuesday of this week, Bishop Olmsted issued a proclamation that officially stripped the hospital of its Catholic identity.  (I say "officially" because any institution's or individual's genuine, core-deep Catholic-Christian identity is something that no prelate, not even the Pope, can remove.)

I ended up writing a letter to Bishop Olmsted, which I will drop in the mail later today.  (No, it's not much in keeping with the Christmas spirit--but then, neither were the bishop's actions.)  Of course, I realize that my letter will likely have zero influence on the bishop, if he even ends up seeing it.  Yet Catholics in the pews owe it to the church, and to their vocation as the concerned laity, to speak up when they see something seriously wrong happen in the church.  Bishop Olmsted's actions in this case--the logic he uses, even--strike me as profoundly wrong.  The letter, for whatever it's worth:

Dear Bishop Olmsted:
Here's a moral quandary for you, a hypothetical situation:  A small plane is about to crash.  Two people are aboard the plane.  There is only one parachute in the plane.  There is no way that both individuals can be saved.  That outcome, desirable though it certainly would be, is simply impossible.
Should the parachute be thrown overboard?  That is, should both lives be sacrificed because both lives cannot be saved?  Or would you allow that it is better that at least one of the passengers have a chance at life? 
Count yourself fortunate, Your Excellency.  In reading this letter, you have encountered only a hypothetical scenario.  The doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital had to deal with a real, honest-to-goodness woman who was about to die, along with her unborn child.  (As I'm certain you already know, the unborn child was at eleven weeks gestation.  There was no way, based on medical facts that the woman's doctors faced, that the mother would have survived several more months in order to give birth anywhere close to the point of viability.  Plainly put, the woman and her child both would have died if your preferred course of action had occurred in that hospital.)
 I remain Catholic because of Christ's love and compassion, and in spite of (not out of respect for) the example that you have given the Church in your recent actions. 
The bishop's diocesan address, in case anyone else wants to write:  The Most Rev. Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, 400 East Monroe Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85004-2336.  

Deacon Greg Kandra, over at the Deacon's Bench, has posted excerpts from several articles on this subject as well as primary source documents that verify that the woman's condition was extremely grave--so much so that she stood virtually no chance of surviving the pregnancy, nor of even carrying the unborn child to the point at which he or she might have been viable outside of the womb.  (The pregnancy was eleven weeks along when the woman's condition turned critical.)

May God help all of us as we stand up for all human life--including the life of this young woman, whose four children, thankfully, are not motherless this Christmas.  It is a good thing indeed that she is alive, notwithstanding the death--the unavoidable death--of the child she carried in her womb in 2009.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Roy Orbison's Voice -- Hard Not to Believe in God When You Hear That Man Sing

George Solti once said that he was able to believe in God because Mozart once lived and composed.  How could one not believe in God, after all, after hearing Mozart?

I feel the same way about Roy Orbison.  He died of a heart attack twenty-two years ago tonight, but every time I hear him sing, I inevitably think, Yes, there must be a God, a very benevolent God.  The richness of his voice, the emotion that is constantly simmering an inch below the surface -- passion, or lonesomeness, or glorious admiration, or melancholy -- how can I listen to all that, coupled with what I've read about the tragedies the man endured as a husband and father, and not believe there was something sacred in his voice?

Here's a link to two songs from the album he recorded a month before his death in 1988:  "She's a Mystery to Me" and ""You Got It."  Say a prayer, if you will, for Roy's eternal peace, then go tell someone you love that you love them while you still can.

[I cribbed part of this post from the review I wrote last week on Amazon for Orbison's last album, Mystery Girl.  What a great listening experience that entire album is.]

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Modern Day Martyrs

Greg Kundra, over at the Deacon's Bench, remembers the rapes and murders of four women in El Salvador thirty years ago today.  All four were providing aid to, and advocating on behalf of, the poor.  They were killed by death squads associated with the El Salvadoran government.  (Those are the same government death squads that the Reagan administration would help fund, directly or indirectly, starting in 1981, along with the contras in Nicaragua.)  Their deaths occurred less than a year after the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, another advocate for the poor, who was shot while saying Mass.

The martyrs were:

  • Sr. Maura Clark (Maryknoll)
  • Sr. Ita Ford (Maryknoll)
  • Sr. Dorothy Kazel (Ursuline)
  • Ms. Jean Donovan (laywoman, age 27)

May those four women, and all those who died in El Salvador's civil war, rest in peace.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Progress for Human Rights in Illinois

The Illinois General Assembly (state house of reps) passed legislation yesterday that would legalize civil unions for same-sex (as well as opposite-sex) couples.  The state senate is debating the bill today; it is expected to pass.  Governor Quinn has promised to sign the bill.  Actually, Quinn went to the house floor yesterday to advocate on behalf of it.  (One of the reasons I like the guy.  He has the guts to stand up when he needs to.)

This is much needed legislation.  Gay and lesbian couples have as much right as any other adults to see their legal rights as partners protected.  The civil union bills affects areas such as health care and inheritance of property, among other things.

Opponents claim that couples should just go to an attorney to have legal arrangements made to cover those concerns.  But why should they have to?  Why should gay and lesbian people who have chosen their life partners have to jump through hoops that straight couples are not required to?  This bill is about fairness.  It's about equal treatment for all adults in this state.

Some folks--including the Catholic Conference of Illinois (the Illinois bishops, in other words)--have argued that this legislation will eventually lead to religious institutions being forced to perform weddings and blessing ceremonies for gay couples.  Although I personally would not have a problem with any church (including the Catholic church) choosing to bless gay couples, this bill--and similar laws in other states--deals with only civil law.  No one has ever been able to legally force a Catholic priest (or any other minister) to marry a couple with one or more divorces in their background.  In fact, no one in the United States has ever been able to force any religious institution to marry anyone. (The couple where one or both partners has a divorce in their past is still allowed to go to the courthouse and get married without the help of a priest.  We don't discriminate against them under civil law simply because not every religious denomination is happy about their situation.)  The "danger to America's churches" argument is a non-starter, at least in the United States, where the First Amendment gives religious institutions a wide berth regarding how they implement their faith.

Reasonable people can disagree about many things (including whether this legislation goes far enough in terming the new unions "civil unions" rather than marriages), but in the end this is a civil rights issue.  My belief in Jesus and his teachings leads me to believe that God wants people to have equal rights under the law--yes, that's right, I believe God wants people to be treated fairly.  Radical or moderate or whatever I am, I've finally gone and said it!  I think God wants people to be treated fairly.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ambivalent About...the Rosary

I did not grow up with the rosary.  Went to a Catholic school K-8, a good school where I learned plenty of truly important, foundational things:  love of neighbor, the Sermon on the Mount, social justice.  I can honestly say that I'm still a Catholic today (however ambivalent I may be) primarily due to the influence of my mom as well as what I was taught at the school where she enrolled me in the early seventies.

One thing I can't recall ever learning at that Catholic grade school, however, was the rosary.

My mom grew up praying the rosary.  She spent twelve years at a school called St. Mary's, after all, and that was a couple decades before the Second Vatican Council--a time heavy with Marian themes.  My mother was not obsessed with the rosary, not as far as I could tell, but she said one occasionally and seemed to draw comfort from it.  I have a vague sense she probably chided herself for not saying the rosary more often.

I too feel like I should try to say a rosary every now and then.  The thing is, I usually do not actually follow through.  I'll say a couple decades of the rosary a couple times a year, typically.  Some years, I may pick up the rosary three or four times.  Probably never with any greater frequency than that.  On a long road trip, perhaps, I will pull out my rosary.  (Yes, I keep it in the car.  You would suspect, from that factoid, that I use it every day.  Not the case.)  Occasionally if I have a friend with a serious health or relationship issue, someone who has asked for prayers, I'll pull out the rosary and say a decade for that person.  Most years I say a decade or two on the anniversary of my mom's death.  (On that day I also play "Danny Boy," a song she loved and which she had strong associations in the wake of her own father's death, and Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart," a song that I love from Zevon's posthumous album, The Wind.)  In other words, I do associate the rosary with some meaningful prayer moments.  It's not completely irrelevant to my life.

Yet the repetition gets to me.  I suppose that's mostly why I don't say the rosary much.  Sometimes the repetition helps me to build a sense of momentum, a sense of timelessness.  More often, however, it makes me feel that I'm simply going through the motions, just waiting to be done.

That isn't to say I have anything against Mary, though my theology isn't steeped in the same type of Marian devotion that many in my mother's generation experienced.  As I say a decade of the rosary and think of the gospel scene for that decade, I'm concentrating not so much on Mary's iconic "queen of heaven" image which was so prevalent in my mother's upbringing.  Nor do I find myself attracted to the traditional idea of Mary pleading, sometimes tearfully, to her son Jesus on behalf of sinners.  (The Jesus we encounter in the gospels already has his ear turned toward sinners and the humble of heart.  He doesn't need to be talked into mercy.  Mercy is Christ's modus operandi.)  

Instead, I think of Mary as the woman who was down-to-earth, of this world yet holy--a woman whose holiness grew to fullness through her up-close and personal interaction with her son, Jesus.  She is St. Mary, yes, but she is also someone who was a peasant on this earth--marginalized, in a very real sense, as both a woman and someone whose youthful pregnancy no doubt had been talked about on her block--and yet she knew God (God!) just about as intimately as anyone can know God.  She carried the God child in her womb.  She nursed him.  She changed his diapers.  She tended his skinned elbow.  She soothed away his tears when the neighbor kid called him a name.  (Yes, Jesus must have cried--at least in secret, on occasion--as a boy.  As a man, he cried when he learned of Lazarus's death.)  She joined Jesus and his friends at a wedding; maybe she watched him dance.  She watched someone drive spikes through his hands.  (My heart convinces me that Michelangelo got it just right when he depicted Mary, in The Pieta, tending her son's dead body with great love.)  As I think of Mary in those contexts, growing closer to her son Jesus, getting to know him--well, I realize that I am called into a similarly close relationship with Christ.  Although God knows that I (unlike Mary) am a sinner, God wants me to be that up-close with him.  God wants me in his family (me, of all people!), just as he wanted Mary.  Pretty amazing.  Every so often, saying the rosary reminds me of that.  Christ wants to be part of the messy parts of our lives, the painful parts, as well as the joyous parts.  Emmanuel, God with us.

I wish the rosary always had that effect on me.  I wish it always drew me in, drew me closer to God.  But maybe sometimes--perhaps sometimes is enough.  Maybe prayer is like that--full of possibility, pregnant with possibility and opportunities for trust, like any relationship that is still growing; none of it fully developed or crystal clear.  (Ten years ago, while at the Jesuit retreat house on the banks of the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis, I think I had one of those hour-long, it's-so-very-clear moments. I remember sitting in front of the window in my retreat cell, watching the early December snow fall, and feeling completely at peace with and in love with God.  I don't expect that experience every day.  I'm not even sure I could handle it if it came once a week.)

Ambivalent about the rosary?  Yes.  Ambivalent about God's love for me, as well as the rest of humanity?  No, not really.  Except on the very worst days, I'm not ambivalent about that at all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hey, Even Very Conservative Popes Can Learn to be Slightly Progressive!

Two news stories this week suggest that all hope need not be surrendered every time the name of Benedict XVI is mentioned.  Just when my cynicism is about to crest over, Benedict comes out and says a couple things that have needed to be said--by him--for a very long time.  (Kind of makes me want to invite him over for a cup of Earl Grey tea and Lorna Doone cookies. My mom would have approved of me serving Lorna Doones to the pope.  Loved them.)

This very conservative pope has taken a stand on government-promoted access to health care that is truly progressive (and, one has to add, totally in keeping with mainstream Catholic thinking on the right to quality health care).  Here's a link to an article by John Allen from the National Catholic Reporter:
"Pope Calls for Guaranteed Health Care for All People".  Good for him.  Let John Boehner (he who is so Catholic) fly to the Vatican and issue talking points against the pope if he wishes.  I'll play defense for Benedict on this one.

Then, another bit of news to make me think that an extra dose of logic has somehow been snuck into the Vatican (possibly strapped to the back of a squirrel?):  The pope has allowed that, on occasion, the use of condoms might not be a totally bad thing; in fact, they might just (the pontiff says ever so tentatively) represent responsible behavior.  Again, an NCR article reporting an interview the pope gave this summer to a German journalist:  "Pope Signals Nuance on Condoms."

Granted, Benedict has not gone so far as to endorse condoms as contraception for married people who love each other but who can't afford to get pregnant this year.  Nor has he endorsed them for married couples in which one partner is infected with HIV.  But he has stated that if you are a male prostitute and are engaged in a sexual act where no transmission of life is anatomically possible, well, then, okay, perhaps you might not be doing an evil thing by using a condom to avoid the transmission of a deadly disease to yourself or to others.  Yeah.  I know.  It's not a revolution in papal thinking on human sexuality and responsibility, but it is one small step in a good direction--that is, toward a recognition that many aspects of sexual morality involve nuance and the greater good, rather than a strict, unwaivering adherence to a code of canon law written in a rare-air environment that often doesn't seem to have much to do with what every day life looks like for many Catholics in the pews.

The truth is, much of Catholic teaching on human sexuality is very healthy and holistic in its outlook.  Contrary to what many have heard second or third-hand, the Catholic church does a pretty good job of teaching that sexual expressions of love are often beautiful and a reflection of God's incredibly generous, joyous love.  In some cases, of course, the church does seem to shout at people in a rather angry voice when the topic is sex. My point, though, is that Catholicism is not at its heart an anti-sex faith.  Yet that message gets lost--mutilated, even--when the Pope argues (as he did in 2009) that condoms will result in more AIDS cases in Africa, rather than fewer.  His statement in that case was not just silly but also dangerous in its disregard for the science of disease prevention.  (They're called prophylactics for a reason.)  But this time, the pope's reasoning shows not just better sense but greater compassion for his fellow human beings as well.  So I really mean it when I say that the pope's very recent concession on condoms matters.

Who knows?  In another twenty or thirty years, we may have a pope who teaches that John and Mary can make love guilt free--without checking the calendar or the basal thermometer, yet without chancing pregnancy either--after volunteering that morning at the soup kitchen, taking an elderly neighbor to church, and tucking in their four kids with another hour or two left in the weekend.  Hope I live long enough to see Pope John XXIV grant that interview.

Update... Nov. 23... The Vatican took it a step further today:  Condoms are morally justifiable in any situation, gay or straight, where a couple wishes to prevent transmission of a deadly disease.  In the Catholic church, this is not an insignificant development.  Contraception still gets a head-shake from the pope, but this is a welcome shift in sexual ethics teachings.  Have to say, I didn't expect this pope to do this.  Color me impressed.  From the New York Times:  "After Condom Remarks, Vatican Confirms Shift"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Merton on Doubt & Faith, Forever Linked

Thumbing through Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation (first published in 1961, but still fresh today), I stumbled across this observation in the quasi-essay called "Sentences."
You cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt.  You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem to be religious.  Faith is not blind conformity to a prejudice--a "pre-judgment."  It is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven.  It is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else.
Faith can be hard to summon up -- some days more than others.  Doubt comes easily.  Doubt is vital if I want to develop a deeper faith than I already have.  Doubt might even be a doorway to faith?  I hear Merton hinting at that.  Doubt, though unsettling, is healthy.  Faith may be what sustains us, but doubt is the chewing we do to get that food into our systems.  Or something like that, maybe?  Merton is so much more eloquent.  He always is.  (Which is one reason he's Thomas Merton and I am not!)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

In Belgium, a Sign of Hope

Just about every archdiocese has a paid spokesperson (often a lay person) whose job it is to put the best possible spin on church happenings, particularly those that directly involve the local archbishop.  Sometimes, these folks have a good deal of prior experience as a public relations professional or a newspaper or television reporter (as was the case in St. Louis for a time, when former KMOV reporter Jamie Allman became the spokesperson for then-Archbishop Raymond Burke).  

On occasion, however, the spokesperson has a good deal of training in theology and church history.  Such was the case in the archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, where Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard has recently gone on the attack (rhetorically speaking) against gays and lesbians, and in support of pedophile priests not being prosecuted.  Leonard's paid spokesperson was a layman named Jürgen Mettepenningen; he came to his job with a degree in theology and with publications in that field.  A few days ago, according to the National Catholic Reporter, Mettepenniningen quit his job and openly criticized the way Leonard has approached his own job.  The former spokesperson now says this of his former boss:
Archbishop Léonard is no leader. He behaves like a reckless driver headed down the highway in the wrong direction -- thinking everyone else is at fault.
Remember that this is not simply sour grapes.  Mettepenniningen was not fired; he quit, after having a heart-to-heart talk with his wife about the moral conflicts he faced while serving as Leonard's representative.  That's the kind of courage we need to celebrate in the church.  

Think about how much better off the church would be today if all sorts of folks in support roles had spoken out when they saw bishops covering up sexual abuse in the United States, in Ireland, in Belgium and in Germany.  Think how many destructive practices could have been short-circuited if good people had found the courage to speak out.  Good for Mr. Mettepenniningen.  May he find a new role in which his integrity and frankness are put to good use.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Priest Suggests Women Deacons -- Great Idea -- So Forget It

Over at his Deacon's Bench blog, Greg Kandra links to a Chicago Sun-Times article about a Cook County priest, Fr. Bill Tkachuk, who is asking the church to consider ordaining women as deacons:  specifically, as permanent deacons, rather than transitional deacons.  (In the modern Catholic church, permanent deacons carry on with their lay careers while ministering part-time to the needs of a parish; many of them are married, and, unlike transitional deacons, permanent deacons almost never become priests.)  I love what Fr. Tkachuk is proposing and consider him a courageous man simply for floating this idea.  If the Vatican were to willing to adopt (or even seriously examine) Fr. Tkachuk's suggestion, that move would, in and of itself, represent genuine progress in the church's acceptance of women's gifts in ordained ministry.  I certainly hope people talk about this idea; I hope it gets some real traction in the church.

Alas, here's why I strongly suspect it won't.  Imagine how a Catholic woman diaconate plays out in local parish life over its first five or ten years.  At first, some of the folks in the pews would be shocked and distressed to see women in clerical garb delivering homilies in a Catholic church.  (Others, like me, would be shocked yet happy.)  Eventually, the parish would come to depend on the woman deacon's gifts; they might well wonder why they didn't have full access to her gifts years earlier.

Then things begin to pick up a bit of speed.  Once folks see women serving the parish in a regular, recognizable role--a role that involves being able to administer several sacraments to the faithful (specifically, baptism and marriage; also, I'm guessing, the anointing of the sick)--many Catholics would wonder why the church was not willing to go that one extra step (a seemingly small yet crucial step) and ordain women as priests.  Why, they ask--why not ordain her?  And that's when the Vatican finds itself needing to speak up in defense of the boys-only rule.  The answer to the woman-exclusion rule, really, has a lot to do with genitalia.  That's not a very good reason, of course (actually, it's an awful reason), and the defenders of a male-only priesthood insist that the church's rejection of female priests actually has to do with deeper concepts of gender, rather than the body parts potential priests happened to have been born with.  Yet, in the end, physical anatomy is what chiefly differentiates a male candidate for priesthood and a hypothetical female candidate.  The criteria for ordination involve that factor (yep--body parts!) much more so than intelligence, compassion, skill in interpersonal relations, depth of spiritual life, or writing a bad-ass final paper in Theology 471.  Not saying the things listed above do not matter at all, but they do not matter as much to the church as the sex of the applicant matters.

Someday the church will get past that.  I used to think it would reach that point in my lifetime, but now that I'm in my forties and the hierarchy seems to grow more conservative and more misogynistic with every year, I'm not so sure.  Yet (in the immortal words of Sam Cooke), "a change is going to come."  Ordaining women as deacons would be a nice down payment on that change--which is exactly why (sadly) the Vatican will refuse to consider Fr. Tkachuk's proposal.

Just in case the pope stops by:  Go ahead, Benedict, prove me wrong.  If you do, I'll update this post and get you a really nice gift card for Christmas.  Nope, I'm not talking about one for groceries or gasoline.  Better stuff than that.  All you need to do is sign your name.  The document can be something really simple--something along the lines of "No more discrimination against women...or at least not quite as much."  Heck, you can even issue it in Latin if you like.  Go on now.  You know you want to.

(Hat tip to The Deacon's Bench.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

George Harrison, Julian of Norwich, Etc: On the Same Page

Want to hear the voice of a recent mystic/poet (mystical poet?) who mirrors what the wisest saints say about our task on earth and our relationship with God?  Try this line from George Harrison's memoir I, Me, Mine, first published in 1980:
"The only thing we really have to work at in this life is how to manifest love". 
Can't you hear the voice of Francis of Assisi?  Or Julian of Norwich?  Perhaps Dorothy Day?  It's not about doctrine, not primarily.  It's not about clobbering anyone about the ears or going on a power trip.  Manifesting the love God implanted in the human soul -- sharing the love we've been given, allowing others to bring their inherent human dignity and love to the task at hand, reflecting God's compassion and mercy whenever and however we can find the strength to do so.  None of us live up to that all the time.  I sure don't.  But the core calling is indeed to "manifest love."

(Thanks also, George, for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and a mess of other good stuff.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Kathleen Norris on Conversion: More Than Having a "Saved on..." Date

Kathleen Norris writes in her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, about the tendency of evangelicals to focus so intently on the specific date they were "saved" on, an exact date on which they were "born again."  Norris (though a Presbyterian last time I checked) has an excellent grasp on the progressive teachings of Catholicism and mainline Protestant churches.  Nowhere is this more true, perhaps, than when she discusses what conversion means for those who choose not to point to a date-locked-in-time when discussing their own conversion:
"It does not mean seeking out the most exotic spiritual experience, or the ideal religion, the holiest teachers who will give us the greatest return on our investment.  Conversion is seeing ourselves, and the ordinary people in our families, our classrooms, and on the job, in a new light.  Can it be that these very people--even the difficult, unbearable ones--are the ones God has given us, so that together we might find salvation?  Taking a good look at myself and the people I live and work with, I might assume that God is foolish indeed.  I might also begin to have an awe-inspiring glimpse into the uncomfortable implications of Paul's exhoratation to the Philippians to 'work out your own salvation with fear and trembling' (Phil. 2:12)."
I'll confess that I've never fully understood the attachment many evangelicals have for their "saved on..." date.  Certainly, I do understand marking the anniversary of a time and event that had a profound effect on whom one is today.  I also think I get the desire to prize the date on which one realized for the first time that God cares for each of us personally, not simply as abstract representations of the human race.  But really, doesn't the concept of a "saved on..." date imply that it's all over; the supposed Christian destination--salvation for me, myself, I--has been arrived at?  I don't mean to sound cynical about what is truly a source of joy for many evangelicals.  Still, I much prefer the view that Kathleen Norris articulates in the passage above.

I also can't help but remember that Norris identifies strongly with the spirituality of the Benedictine order.  The Benedictines are well known for leaving a door unlocked in each of their monastearies, with at least one empty room always available for unexpected travelers.  That hospitality and openness to strangers is part of any complex, on-going conversion experience, isn't it?  And then also we have the metaphor of conversion as journey.  Leave a door open for those on the journey--for each of us is meant to be on that journey.  None of us are home yet.  We all are on the way.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Losing One's Life for Others -- Priestly Examples

I've been slow-reading (savoring) the Robert Ellsberg book, The Saints' Guide to Happiness.  Despite the title, the book explores the very real (sometimes messy) details of genuine, flesh-and-blood women and men who grew into their sanctity.  Some of the folks discussed in the book are recognized, canonized saints within the Catholic tradition.  Some have not been canonized and perhaps never will be, yet are wonderful examples of humans who ultimately ran toward, rather than away from, God's universal call to holiness, wholeness, and love.

Anyway, this morning Ellsberg had me reading about a dead priest whose name I had never encountered before:  Father Engelmar Unzeitig, who was ordained during the early 1940s and arrested shortly thereafter for preaching against the Nazis and in defense of the Jews.  Ellsberg describes Fr. Engelmar's time as a prisoner in Dachau:
In December 1944 the camp was hit with a terrible outbreak of typhoid.  More than two thousand prisoners died in the first month.  To stem the epidemic, infected prisoners were confined to a squalid barracks, where they were essentially left to die, alone and uncared for.  Within the hell of Dachau this was surely the inner sanctum.  Nevertheless, when a call went out for volunteer orderlies, twenty priests stepped forward.  Father Engelmar was among them.  Given the extremely infectious nature of the disease, the meaning of this gesture was clear to all; there was little hope that any volunteers would survive.  Yet into this void the priests brought their love and faith, doing what they could to bring some consolation and dignity to the place.  Simply caring for the sick and keeping them clean provided endless work.  But the priests also heard confessions, offered last rites, and recited prayers for the dead.  Because the SS would not enter this barracks, it afforded its own peculiar zone of humanity.
Ellsberg reports that Fr. Engelmar died of typhoid in March 1945, a few weeks short of the liberation of Dachau.  He willingly gave up his life for others, a wonderful imitation of what Christians believe Christ did.  Those in the typhoid barracks inevitably died, one must assume, but in their suffering their humanity was recognized and embraced.

There have been some bad priests set loose in the world; the files of too many dioceses are filled with their names, and the court papers, too.  Yet most priests, I'm convinced, try to represent Christ's love as well as they are able.  Some do so with a great deal of effectiveness and at some cost to their own health.  And a few, clearly, lay down their lives, so great is their love for the brothers and sisters God places in their midst.

I'm reminded here of not only Fr. Engelmar, but also Fr. Mychal Judge, the NYFD chaplain who went into the North Tower on 9/11, along with the firefighters he was there to minister to, when it was clear that a disaster was in the making.  Fr. Judge too gave his life in a most Christ-like manner.

In all likelihood, unfortunately, he will probably not be canonized in any of our lifetimes.  Mychal Judge was a self-described gay (and chaste) priest--a variety of priest the Vatican seems incredibly skeptical about (if not downright hostile toward) these days.  May Fr. Judge rest in peace, and may his holy priesthood serve as an example to every newly ordained priest.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Two Archbishops: What a Difference!

Those of us in the greater St. Louis area survived the wanna-be papacy of Archbishop Raymond Burke (who reigned in St. Louis for four years before moving on to head the Vatican's version of the Supreme Court in Rome).  Burke loved being formal, glum, and aloof; he loved every last trapping of clerical dress available to an archbishop; he wanted more and more of the Mass to be full of Latin, a language that few of the people in the pews (not to mention most priests) understand.  Here's a picture of Archbp. Burke.

Raymond Burke (he's the one sitting down)

Next, here's a picture of a newly designated Archbishop, Gustavo Garcia-Siller, who is headed to the San Antonio archdiocese (after a few years as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago).  Garcia-Stiller celebrates Mass in Spanish and English, depending on the predominant language in the parish he's visiting.  He evidently likes mixing with everyday parishioners.  According to Rocco's Whispers in the Loggia, Garcia-Siller wears a small cross on a shoestring around his neck (because, one guesses, walking with Jesus need not involve glaring, outward signs that point to one's power or prestige).

Guess which archbishop impresses me more!  Guess which one would make me more likely, if I were not a Catholic, to want to check out the Catholic church in hopes of finding a path to the God who chose to be born in a manger!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Why Bishops Never Should Have Lawyered Up

Here's John Paul II, speaking not specifically about the sexual abuse scandal but Christian charity and justice in general.  He's commenting on the parable from Luke that depicts Lazarus, the beggar who lives outside the gates of the rich man (the parable that served as the Sunday gospel two weeks ago).
“…How can we exclude anyone from our care? Rather we must recognize Christ in the poorest and the most marginalized, those whom the Eucharist – which is communion in the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us – commits us to serve. As the parable of the rich man, who will remain forever without a name, and the poor man called Lazarus clearly shows, ‘in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter’s side’. We too must be on this same side.”
 This is the spirit, the drive, that I love so very much within Catholicism.  Social justice.  The call to reject materialistic values and instead work for justice and peace.

Wherein lies some of my ambivalence as The Mighty Ambivalent Catholic.  The Church has for many decades (centuries, let's be honest) too often failed to live up to this teaching.  The sex abuse scandal (including the cover-ups; the shuffling of bad priests through a series of unwitting parishes; the lawyering up at the diocesan and archdiocesan levels, culminating in Cardinal Law's decision to flee Boston in late 2002, while under a legal cloud, for the safety of Rome) is the most flagrant recent example of the Church not living up to this call.  Too much of that occurred under John Paul II's watch.  (Sorry, this fact cannot be ignored.)  Cut the man some slack, if you like, because he was in poor health for the last decade of his papacy.  Perhaps his ability to tend to administrative details--reports of ghastly crimes, even--was diminished.  But there is no way to let him or his lieutenants off the hook entirely, not without suggesting that this call to favor the poor, the victimized, the marginalized only applies to individual Christians and not to the Church as an institution.  I don't see how we can do that or why we would ever want to do that.

Say a prayer, if you are a person of faith, that every cell of the Christian church--and the Roman Catholic church in particular--will recommit itself daily to giving preference to the needs of the oppressed and the poor; commit itself fully to putting victims' needs before its own earthly desires for prestige, unquestioned authority, material wealth.

Yes, you have to be a person of faith to chase after that prayer, to hope that such a thing is possible.  I have no idea how long it will take us, as a church, to get there.

(Hat tip to Whispers in the Loggia for JPII's lines.)

Friday, October 01, 2010

Random Thought from Henri Nouwen: On Gratitude

Thumbing through Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I read and marked up last spring, I come across the following passage, which deals with the elder's son attitude toward his returning brother:
"Along with trust there must be gratitude--the opposite of resentment.  Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.  My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve.  It always manifests itself in envy. . . . There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude."  The Return of the Prodigal (Doubleday), p. 85
In those eighty-odd words I find something I should chew on for days, if not weeks.  And this is so typical when reading Nouwen.  Words to take with me on the never-ending path of conversion.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Gospel I Wanna Reject

One of my closest friends, recently ordained as a priest in the Episcopal church, sent me a copy of the sermon she's going to preach this Sunday.  I liked the sermon a lot.  The only problem is that I don't much like the gospel story on which it's based.  We're talking here about the parable of the rich man who is indifferent to the hunger and suffering of his poor neighbor, Lazarus.  I don't like that gospel story because I see myself in the rich man.  I see him in me.  (Maybe that's why Lazarus gets a name and the rich man doesn't.  Fill in your own name, in other words, if the shoe fits.)  I'm the one who is experiencing material comfort right now--and, quite honestly, for all of my life up to this point.  (Sure, I bought groceries at Aldi's during graduate school, but I was always able to buy plenty of them.  And if I had needed my parents' assistance--as I sometimes did--I could put out a call to my parents.)

Make no mistake.  I don't really want Lazarus's misery.  I don't view him in romantic, grandiose terms.  I want desperately to avoid his fate, his suffering, while on this earth--both for myself and for those whom I love.  But I also do not want to hear Jesus calling me out for enjoying my creature comforts while the poor--the poor within thirty miles of me, as well as the poor around the globe--suffer in very palpable ways.  It's painful to think that Jesus means me--not somebody else, not some abstract entity who exists in some other society--when he's telling this story.  It's me who has not helped them--not nearly enough--in meeting their material needs.  It's me who has not done enough to respect and protect their human dignity.  It's not that guy to the left of me Christ is talking about, nor the woman on my right.  I'm the one he's pointing his finger at every time I hear this story.

I don't like this Sunday's gospel.  Which is a pretty potent sign that this is the gospel, perhaps more so than any other gospel proclaimed throughout the year, that I most need to hear.  The one I need to wrestle with, pray over, reread.  And more than all that, the one I need to figure out a way to do something about.

If I end up in hell some day (please God, no), my guess is that it's my sins of omission that will get me there, not stuff I've done.  Too much good untapped; too many good intentions not put to work.  And too many Christs-in-need walking around whom I ignored for too long.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Join a Retreat: Fifteen or Twenty Minutes a Day

Something I love about Catholicism:  the call, through the centuries, to step away from the pressing demands and numbing routines of daily life and seek out what is timeless, spirit-filling, truly enriching.  This call can be found in the writings of the ancient monks (modern monks too), and even in the gospels, where Christ tells his disciples to come away with him for rest, prayer, recharging.  (All right, I guess Christ never did call it recharging--seeing that electricity and batteries weren't part of the vocabulary then.)

Creighton University, which has a wonderful daily reflections center (with many of the scripture reflections written lay people, as well as scripture scholars), also is home to this online Ignatian retreat.  I meant to follow along last autumn but somehow got distracted.  This time, I'm doing it.  Dug into the book about three o'clock this morning, actually.  (Yep, you can do the retreat totally online or with paper, your choice.)  I'm grateful to the people associated with Creighton who put these things together.  Great resource; food for my faith life, and I need that food.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Yes, Virginia, Sometimes You Sure Can Take Things Too Literally

Over at Standing On My Head, Dwight Longenecker is proud of taking this weekend's gospel admonition (i.e., that we are to "hate" our family members in order to fully please Christ) literally.  He looks askance, predictably enough, at folks who think that particular reading should not be taken literally.  He comes close to expressing regret for the love that exists in important, familial relationships because that love does not involve God and God alone.  (How one can love a family member or friend and not have God involved at least indirectly, well, I don't know.  Is not the God we worship the very definition of love?  Where does love come from, if it is not from the ambiguous-yet-definitely-there, impossible-to-ignore frosted-glass tracings of God?)

Too many human relationships are lacking in love.  Let's not be sorry, on the basis of God's supposed jealousy, about the ones we are part of that do include love.  Lean into Christ, put nothing before him, take up your cross; that's an inevitable part of the Christian ethic.  But love your neighbor as yourself:  that's part of the same ethic, not a value we need to renounce, not a value for which we need to  hem-and-haw out an apology.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

And we wonder why we're short of priests

One of the Catholic blogs I read on a regular basis belongs to a conservative young priest who nonetheless strikes me as a decent fellow, a smart guy.  Needless to say, we disagree about seventy percent of the time on liturgical and theological issues--but as I said, I like him just the same; I'm convinced he has a good heart.  A few days ago, Fr. D posted in his blog a letter from the vocations director for his diocese (which also happens to be my diocese).  At one point, the vocations director asks, "Is there someone there [in your parish or circle of friends] who might just possibly make a good priest?"  I've heard this question posed any number of times over the last three decades.  It was asked frequently when I was a teenager finishing up at my Catholic grade school.  When I was fourteen, I seriously considered the priesthood myself.  Not for me, though I respect people who are called to it.

Still, I can't help but laugh (gently) at the irony of the Catholic church asking this question so frequently, with mixed results, even as it fails to consider ordaining women to the priesthood.  Conservatives/traditionalists in the church will offer a dozen arguments about why the church does not--"cannot," in their words--ordain women as priests.  Ultimately, though, human prejudice is a factor that cannot be overlooked, though defenders of a male-only priesthood always do deny that there's anything vaguely resembling sexism at work here.

Do I know--have I known--promising, faith-filled Catholics who would make excellent priests?  Yes indeed.  But some of those folks are female.  Unfortunately, the church has told them not to apply; we Catholics in the pews evidently do not need those folks (you know...women) to minister to us, to bring the sacraments into our lives, as priests.  The Holy Spirit has basically been told by Church leadership, over and over, that only males are eligible.  How out of whack is that?  And how very unfortunate for those of us who want to see the priesthood flourish!  (I realize, yes, that the Church would characterize the situation otherwise.)  May God, in God's wisdom, send His ministers, of whichever gender, to those churches that will accept them.  

Pray hard for vocations, yes!  Truly!  And try to keep an open-mind and be non-sexist in those prayers -- that would be a wonderful charge for the Church to give itself.  Priest shortage indeed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Progressive Christian Blogs I'm Following

This post is substituting for a legit blog roll, which I can't seem to do with my old-fashioned template (one that I kind of like, actually) here in Blogger.  Of course, this post will get lost in the mix, I guess, as I add new posts, but here are some blogs I like.  These are blogs that offer a nice counterpoint to the gazillion arch-conservative blogs that are out there (especially in the Catholic portion of the blogosphere).  Many of these blogs also provide laughs alongside meaningful reflections, and, most of all, hope for the future.  (Not everybody is running away from Vatican II, thankfully.)

I imagine I'll add more as I stumble across them, and maybe I'll re-post this post if it eventually gets lost in the mix.  In the meantime, though, I'm just happy to have come across these progressive Christian sites.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Anne Rice and Walking Off by One's Self

Jane Redmont, writing in The Daily Episcopalian, discusses the all-too-tempting route that Anne Rice has taken, that is, walking away from the flawed church (aren't they all flawed?).  I say all-too-tempting because there are days when I would like to leave too--yet I know I can't.  (If I left the Catholic church, I would do so only to go to another Christian community.  No shunning of the church altogether for me.)

A couple salient quotes from Redmont in her "Open Letter to Anne Rice":

What I am writing to tell you is that there’s no such creature as a lone follower of Jesus. You can’t be a Jesus-person away in a corner. Even hermits pray in communion with a larger tradition, a church beyond themselves in a world which is the place where God becomes incarnate.
The world: that’s why Jesus showed up. That’s why we are church. I’m with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor and theologian whom the Nazis killed for resisting Hitler and the Third Reich. He wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”
There is some grace, indeed, to be found in being part of the larger church:  the quiet church, the church militant, the church visible or invisible, whichever church one wishes to associate one's self with at any given moment.  And yes, I know, one can find grace during a solitary walk through the woods, or a week at the side of a lake; I've had that experience too, and I crave another such moment.  But there is grace also in the brotherhood and sisterhood that Christ calls us to, the human family (flawed and divided though it may be) that Christ died to give life to.  (In every way, at every turn, Christianity is full of paradox.)

Hat-tip to PrayTell for the link to Redmont's letter.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Consequences of Mandatory Celibacy (Part I)

The last couple days, I've been reading a collection of short essays by Joseph Girzone, the retired Catholic priest who attained fame thirty years ago as author of the popular Joshua series of books.  I've never read the Joshua series because, after a single glance many years ago, I thought they sounded cheesy.  I still don't know whether they're worth a read or not.  Based on how much I've been reading Girzone's nonfiction work, My Struggle with Faith, the Joshua books may well deserve a second look.

In one of the last chapters in My Struggle with Faith, Girzone considers mandatory celibacy for priests within the Catholic tradition.  He first makes a good case for how the celibacy requirement has resulted in a shortage of priests in the modern church, which manifests itself most acutely in the reduced access that many Catholics have to the sacraments, including Sunday Eucharist.  Girzone writes:
Churches are closing.  Many people have difficulty finding a church wehre the Eucharist is celebrated by priests.  Old folks find it almost impossible to find a place to worship.  Priests are overworked to the point where it can only serve to shorten their lives, as more and more responsibilities are laid on them at a time in their lives when responsibilities should be lightened, not weighed more heavily on them.  The sin is that nothing is being done to respond to the needs of the people.
Girzone is right on target; his analysis (published in 2006) is up-to-date.  I can't imagine a patient who is about to undergo emergency surgery, or someone who is in hospice care, would have an easy time finding a Catholic priest (rather than an ecumenical chaplain) to celebrate the annoiting of the sick or reconciliation (confession), both important healing sacraments for any Catholic, but particularly the individual who is in great pain or near death.  The teenager who is pregnant or suicidal or who has just discovered a parent's infidelity is out in the cold; priests don't have time to be there to listen, to offer perspective.  (Not that many priests probably feel comfortable these days spending much time with individual young people of either sex.  But that's another post.)  Many parishes are overseen by a priest who has three other parishes to tend to, and the priest has limited time to spend at each parish, with only one weekend liturgy (at best) to celebrate at each location.  Catholics are being deprived of easy access to the sacraments (not to mention the guidance and spirit of friendship that a good priest, frequently on-site, can bring to a parish).

Girzone continues his analysis,  however, in a tone that I can only guess is meant to be tongue in cheek.  He writes:
 I know it is not cowardice that prevents bishops from speaking out and forcing change.  I know they really care about their people's need for Mass and the Eucharist.  I know it is not fear of censure or of losing a promotion that paralyzes them from taking a bold stand.  I know they realize that there are hundreds of thousands of faithful people who are being deprived of the Eucharist and the sacraments in hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes.  What I cannot understand is why they are doing nothing to provide priests for our people.
Seriously?  It's not cowardice that keeps priests and bishops from speaking out about the consequences of mandatory celibacy?  Surely Girzone, who has kept up with the political culture of the church as the church grows ever more conservative in the last few decades, understands that John Paul II did his damnedest to stifle even the hint of debate around both celibacy and women's ordination to the Catholic priesthood.  JP2 attempted to take the topic off the table.  Bishops dare not speak up, neither in the national conferences of bishops nor in interviews, for fear that they will end up with a coadjutor bishop being appointed to help run their diocese.

Bishops like the late Ken Untener, who did dare to speak up on both celibacy and women's role in the church, faced large-scale opposition from ultra-conservative, traditionalist groups, and it's easy to imagine that his twenty-four tenure as bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, was born not only of his love for the people there (which I have no doubt was sincere) but also from the refusal to the hierarchy to consider him for appointment as an archbishop anywhere.  Dissenting bishops unfortunately do not get a proper hearing as the prophets they may in fact be.  Instead, they end up getting squashed -- or, if they're lucky, simply ignored.  Certainly cowardice is one of the consequences of the church's refusal to reconsider the thousand-year-old tradition of celibacy for priests.  Smart people who hold leadership positions in the church know they cannot discuss in any detail possible changes to the celibacy requirement.  Those changes have been ruled out of bounds by the Vatican (except, of course, when it comes to married Anglican clergy whom the Vatican hopes to poach).

Girzone is back on track when he observes:
I cannot believe that the Holy Spirit is not calling people to the priesthood.  Maybe we are rejecting many whom the Holy Spirit is calling.
Indeed, it's all too easy to see this as the most significant consequence of the church's intransigence.  The church has made itself wiser than the Holy Spirit.  The church dismisses the calls of people with a vocation to marriage -- as well as women, as well as people who are gay -- to serve as the priests God may very well be calling them to.  "Can't happen," the church says.  "Not possible.  They aren't really called."  Even though all things, of course, are possible in Christ.