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.)