Last week I argued that under the last two popes, the church has proven tone-deaf to completely reasonable arguments against mandatory celibacy. As a result, the end of that requirement and its attendant disasters is as far away as ever. Equally distant seems any practical recognition by the official church of the profound spiritual conclusions inescapably drawn from the ecumenical movement and its powerful expressions over the last century and more.
Closer to our own day, read the current Pope Ratzinger’s reactionary Dominus Jesus (DJ) written in 2000 over the signature of John Paul II. It’s a clear reassertion of a pre-Vatican II vision. Discouragingly it identifies the Roman Catholic Church as representing virtually the only path to salvation. It insults Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam with criticisms about their “superstitious” content. Meanwhile, protestant churches are identified as failing to qualify as “church in the proper sense of the word.” Additionally, Dominus Jesus is totally Eurocentric, and overlooks almost completely not only the documents of Vatican II (e.g. on Revelation, Mission, Ecumenism, and the Church in the Modern World), but also theological developments that have taken place in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, where the majority of church members reside.
This is pretty much the point where I came in nearly 50 years ago, when I took my first hesitant steps towards the priesthood and membership in the Missionary Society of St. Columban. But as indicated in earlier posts, I’ve changed a great deal since then. More importantly so have the Columbans themselves, the church in general, the priesthood – and the world. There is no going back. Attempts to do so as articulated in DJ and elsewhere not only cannot work. They signal as well an irreversible crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, of the priesthood, and of groups like the Society of St. Columban. A crisis is “irreversible” when new consciousness has dawned, problems have been reframed, and old answers prove irrelevant. In the case at hand, nothing less than new forms of church, priesthood and understanding of mission are demanded by the signs of these particular times.
And what would those new forms look like? At the most basic level, they would incarnate a theology and spirituality suggested by Vatican II and its emphasis on the normative value of Sacred Scripture. That means recognizing the reality of the Divine Spirit’s universal revelation. That revelation, I’ve come to understand, is quite simple – “beyond belief,” as Elaine Pagels puts it. Here there is no room for exclusivity in terms of 4th century doctrines and dogmas. Instead, understandings of revelation must connect with personal experience founded on a deep spirituality, and nurtured by practices found in all the world’s Great Religions. Those traditions tell us that all creation is one. The world itself embodies and communicates a Revelation open to everyone. We are brothers and sisters with one another and with life forms in the rest of the universe – which means with everything that is. It’s as simple – and as profound – as that.
The simplicity, profundity and mystery of it all have haunted me since my participation in a seminar at the Atheneum Anselmianum, my second year in Rome. The topic in this very international setting had turned to enculturation – making Christian faith understandable across cultural lines. A young priest from India asked a simple question. “How do you make the uniqueness of Jesus understandable to Hindus? They, after all, believe that every human being is a God-person.” That simple question drove me to examine my faith at the deepest level. I wondered: if I were to translate my Christian faith concept for concept into something truly understandable to Indians, would it come out Hinduism? I still don’t know the answer to that question. I know it’s way more complicated than I suggest. However, my musings sent me on a Merton-like quest to understand what the East had to offer in terms of understanding God and spirituality.
Eventually, all of that brought me to a position I’ve (re?)discovered over the last fifteen years. It’s centralized the practice of daily meditation, but in a form much simpler than the Ignatian method introduced to young Columbans during our “Spiritual Year,” when we all were about 20 years of age. Other elements include repetition of the mantram (aspirations), reading from the world’s great mystical traditions, training the senses, slowing down, practicing one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and association with those who are following the same spiritual path. It’s all explained quite simply, for instance, in many books by Eknath Easwaran, but especially in his Meditation. However I’ve been drawn to this path, not on someone else’s recommendation, but because my personal experience has shown its effectiveness in terms of changes in my life and behaviour. Absent that, I’d stop the practices.
I sometimes wish that form of spirituality and spiritual formation had been the foundation of my training for the priesthood. In that case, I might still be a Columban, simply because such practice would have resulted in a radically different form of priesthood. Instead, the spiritual direction I experienced in the seminary and especially after ordination was as heteronomos as the (non)instruction offered us about celibacy. For the most part, both were formal, uninvolved and lacking in real insight for young aspirants desiring to lead genuinely spiritual lives. By no means was this the fault of the good men who tried to guide us. It’s just that the prevailing spirituality, the method of prayer and meditation, the books offered for “spiritual reading” and the spiritual practices we followed were all grossly tainted by dogmatism, formality and legalism.
Those are the very characteristics that eventually drove so many of us away from our supposed priestly calling.
Next week: Series Conclusion