Tuesday, December 28, 2010

On Their Way Out

In an America magazine article “On Their Way Out”, William Byron, S.J picks up on a suggestion that their should be a exit-interview for Catholics leaving the Church behind. The rationale is that Church leaders should be concerned enough to learn why large numbers of “Cradle Catholics” no longer find a spiritual home in the Catholic Church. The irony is that bishops don’t care what people think. They think they are the sole founts on truth, and anyone who doesn’t think so can just “go to Hell.” You can find the article at http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=12642

I found the following reader’s response well written and worth sharing…

I am a 51 year old "Cradle Catholic," one of 5 kids raised in a family that went to church every Sunday with parents who made sure we received our sacraments growing up. I am the only one that still attends Mass regularly. I've been active in my church, in music ministry and teaching CCD. And yet I'm on the cusp of leaving as well, for a variety of reasons.

I find Church teaching on gays and women to be immoral, and do not want my son taught that a loving God considers only unmarried, straight men worthy of invoking His presence at Mass. I find the Church response to the pedophile scandal immoral as well - first moving, rather than removing priests, and later insisting that it is all a media-driven conspiracy to undermine Church authority.

In particular I find the politicization of the Church totally unacceptable. I never thought I would see the American bishops oppose providing health care for all - the most shameful homily I've ever heard a Catholic priest give came in the fall of 2009, when he incited parishioners to contact legislators urging them to vote "no" on health care. In opposing health care reform, the bishops have, in my view, forfeited their moral leadership.

Year after year I've listened to the local bishop and priests tell Catholics that abortion is the most important moral issue facing the country and that it must be the primary factor in deciding how to cast our votes in elections. Yet in the 13 years I attended Mass at the local Cathedral, there was not a single special collection devoted to crisis pregnancy centers - not a diaper or jar of baby food was collected. This supposed "priority" also merited no mention in the yearly pleas for contributions to the bishop's Lenten appeal. Moreover, when our bishop decided to undertake a special fundraising effort, it was not to support crisis pregnancy services, but to build himself a fancy mansion to live in next to the Cathedral. What was that moral priority again? These bishops will throw women out of the church for saving a mother's life (Bishop Olmstead), threaten to withhold communion from pro-choice politicians, and make a show of praying the rosary outside of abortion clinics, they will not lift a finger to help women and babies in need, even urging legislators to deny them access to health care. The hypocrisy is nauseating.

The growing emphasis on the Church as institution, rather than the Church as a teacher of Christ, is also a problem. I find that the Church is more closed and inward looking, teaching a faith that can exist only within the church walls, rather than in the wider world - Christ's message was to "go and make disciples of all nations," not, "build walls between yourself and the world."

I also find the growing emphasis on grandeur and finery among the Church hierarchy - ermine cloaks, crowns, lace vestments - a complete contradiction of the Christ who dressed in the simplicity of a Galilean peasant and who was only dressed in fine robes and a "crown" by his tormentors to mock him.

And, given all of the legitimate issues facing the Church in the world, Rome decides that monkeying with the English translation of the Mass is the most important thing it has to do. Is God any less present in the Mass as it is now? Will this new translation improve the "pipeline" to the Divine? Then why bother, if not simply to assert Roman authority? Latin was used in the early centuries of the Church not because it had any special divine significance, but because it was the spoken language of the believers in Rome (assuming they translated the scriptures correctly from the Greek and Hebrew to begin with). This insistence on strict translation of the Latin suggests that the Mass is little more than a magical incantation (see Harry Potter) - say it "correctly," and poof, Jesus appears; say it "incorrectly," and He withholds His presence.

My family and I do still attend Mass regularly, for now, but only because there is a nearby Jesuit parish that emphasizes the Gospel teachings of Christ, rather than the institutional Church. We will see what the future brings.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A reading from the book of WikiLeaks

Even the Vatican didn't go unscathed in the recent WikiLeak revelations. Blogger Justin Sengstock offered up some well-written and insightful reflections on the subject...

A reading from the book of WikiLeaks
Posted by Justin Sengstock on December 16, 2010

When WikiLeaks made its great data-dump of secret diplomatic cables the other week, revealing just how raw the game of international politics can be behind its closed bathroom door, one particular sovereign state flew under the radar for a while. But the inevitable finally happened. Vatican City got WikiLeaked, too.

John L. Allen, Jr., senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote on December 11: “Secret diplomatic cables revealed this morning as part of the WikiLeaks releases confirm that while the Vatican was appalled by revelations of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland in 2009 and 2010, it was also offended by demands that the papal ambassador participate in a government-sponsored probe, seeing it as an insult to the Vatican’s sovereign immunity under international law.”

Therefore the Vatican ruled that the probe be unctuously deferential: “any requests for information should come through proper diplomatic channels.” And this the Irish people resented, as U.S. diplomat Julieta Valls Noyes noted: “Much of the Irish public views the Vatican protests as pettily procedural and failing to confront the real issue of horrific abuse and cover-up by Church officials.”

So it goes. The Vatican would like to be caring. But the institution has become an end goal in itself, and the aura surrounding it must remain inviolate. It is a great power among the great powers. God and the statecraft of Otto von Bismarck are one.

We often criticize institutionalism on practical grounds, for it often hardens the arteries through which noble ideas and efforts might otherwise pass. But it poses a special risk whenever God is involved, as journalist and former divinity student Chris Hedges suggests in his meditation on the Ten Commandments, Losing Moses on the Freeway.

Hedges argues that when people or institutions “sanctify their own power,” promising us that the mystery of God “can not only be known but also manipulated,” they “lead us away from the worship of God into the corrosive idolatry of self-worship.” Our churches, although ostensibly preaching against idols, can become them. “We believe these idols will protect us, never realizing that idols are always willing to sacrifice their own, to ensure their own preservation.”
So the Irish victims discovered when the Vatican insisted on being “pettily procedural.” So victims of abuse everywhere discovered when the successors of the apostles summoned their lawyers, shut their doors, and lowered their shades. Behind those doors and shades they determined whom to sacrifice, to ensure their own preservation—unlike Jesus, who sacrificed himself for our preservation.

I acknowledge that a total indictment of the Church simply because it is an institution would be naïve and hypocritical. I was initiated into sacramental life by a parish in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, and I learned my faith at a high school run by Dominican sisters and the Archdiocese of Chicago. I acquired what radicalism I have, and any theory that backs it up, at a Jesuit university. When I speak as I do about the Church as institution, I inevitably draw on resources that the Church as institution has given me.

Yet, as a believer in synchronicity, I must read John Allen’s December 11 reportage alongside Matthew 21:23-27, the Gospel for the Monday of the Third Week of Advent (December 13 this year). Jesus is teaching the crowd when the chief priests and elders approach him, demanding to know by what authority he works. Jesus insists they answer him first: was John the Baptist’s ministry of divine or human origin?

So the officials begin to debate not the answer, but how whatever answer they give will affect them. If they admit John was sent by God, they will look faithless, but if they say John was not, there might be a riot. Thus the priests and elders say they just don’t know, and Jesus refuses to cite any authority.

Worried about their power and standing within institutional Judaism, the priests and elders were on a different planet from Jesus. He simply had to leave them there and move on, because the Gospel is unintelligible to those who cover their behinds.

I do not advocate throwing away Church structures, but I do advocate poking and pushing those who run them, making them constantly attentive to the possibility that Jesus will leave them there and move on. If WikiLeaks happens to help us poke and push this time, so be it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Secret Lives of Priests

Gene Kennedy recentlyoffered a tribute to the parish priest in a NCR column. Often caught between the conflicting expectations and agendas of the Bishops above and the Church below, parish priests generally show a grace under fire. We would like to share the op-ed piece.


After a decade of revelations about sexual and financial scandals among priests, you would think that there is nothing more to learn about these men who were once revered in the Catholic culture and respected in the culture at large.

While it is undeniable that we know more than we care to about the once hidden lives of some priests, there is a far larger and deeper territory that might as well be the cave next to Bin Laden’s even though it can be entered at any time in the rectory just down the street.

This is the largely unexplored setting of the secret lives of the good priests all around us. Sated with lurid reports about fallen priests few people and no reporters have much interest, much less curiosity, about how faithful priests are living, what they are doing, or how they are feeling.

Goodness never gets into the newspapers. Check the headlines on any day’s paper for the common denominator of a negative word – fraud, investigation, death, fire, failure – and we understand why priests who have kept their promises and stayed at their posts are literally too good for words.

Despite the withering fire of the sex abuse wars, they have not deserted and they don’t complain much either. The reason for that may be that their people have troubles enough of their own and they don’t want to hear any of Father’s. No matter what they have been through, we want our priests to be the same as they have always been, on duty, on time, and on the ball.

I experienced a revelation about their secret lives in a letter from one of the finest priests I know. He wrote that “My soul has turned into a cinder, hard dry and burned out. I’d been running on empty for quite awhile, and I prayed but there was no warmth or juice in the communication from the the Great Generous Comedian…. My job means I (work) with people whose jobs occur in a very intense arena of good vs. evil, life and death….I felt saturated with exposure to human evil, suffering and degradation. In two weeks I was exposed to human sex trafficking of children, a newborn infant thrown in the trash by the mother, an unclaimed body of a policeman who died in a nursing home estranged from his family, and ministering to 5 terminally ill people. I’m not complaining, I’m simply saying that I was running on fumes for a long time. The phone would ring and I’d get irritated instantly, ‘What do they want from me now?’

“I love my job, I love my people, and my work is meaningful to my soul but even though I pray I get worn out ….all the exposure to human degradation, accumulates and goes unresolved….I have not set limits to protect myself from absorbing the pain…we are taught just the opposite: Feel it, roll in it, absorb it…

“It’s an astonishing sea change among priests of my generation that we cannot wait to retire. We’re fed up with apologizing for the Church and trying to explain the profound unending nuttiness (e.g., a seminar on exorcism) that just never stops…. We agree that something of God is rumbling among the people of the Church, the Holy Spirit of God seems to be at work, and it will not stop or be defeated.”

The secret lives of our best priests are not dissimilar but it is hard to get to their stories, if they are printed at all, when the front page still streams with variations on clergy sex abuse from all corners of the world.

This priest’s letter made me think that we really don’t know much about the secret, that is, inner life of Jesus either. From what we read in the gospels, Jesus would understand from his own experience what today’s hardworking priests are enduring.

Jesus preached in an era of institutional religious hypocrisy and was followed by crowds of people who had been struck by His words. Each of them wanted something from him, a cleansing of their leprosy, a cure of their illness, the raising to life of a beloved daughter or friend. Like today’s priests, Jesus emptied himself in order to fill those around Him. He went into the desert, as good priests now do “to rest awhile,” but Jesus returned to the city of man, to respond less to sin than to human suffering. And, reflecting the way many priests now feel stranded, the Lord said that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head.

What did Jesus feel and was it really any different from what our best priests do? What did He mean by that mysterious phrase, “Power went out of me,” if not that, as the suffering touched His garments, He experienced the same drain on His energy that our priests feel every day when wounded people crowd around our priests seeking relief for their sorrows. Power goes out of them as the human price for emptying themselves for the sake of others. We discover the inner life of the Lord in the inner lives of our hardworking priests.

There is no secret about this. It is just, as with Jesus, we do not read between the lines of the scriptures to see that Jesus’s mission was to identify with our suffering more than to condemn our sins. That is the essence of the overlooked lives of our good priests, the ones who never get their names in the paper but who are emptying themselves on our behalf every day.