On Re-appropriating My Priesthood

 

Ordination[1]

I’m so appalled at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency and the threats it poses to everyone and everything I care about:  the environment and climate chaos, avoidance of nuclear war, victims of torture and false imprisonment, Muslims, drone attacks, wealth disparities, women’s reproductive rights, people of color, the LGBT community, our public school system, the right to privacy, human rights in general, labor unions – my children and my grandchildren.

In fact, as I’ve written recently, a Trump presidency portends the dawning of a Fourth Reich, where the victims of incineration will be not only Jews, but all of us, as the White House teems with climate change deniers whose policies threaten all species and the continuity of human life itself.

So the question is, what can we do about it? What talent does each of us have to respond to Trumpism? As parents and grandparents, teachers, writers, counsellors, school board officials, musicians, public speakers, church members, and public citizens, what does each of us have to offer these unprecedentedly dangerous times.

My own answer is my priesthood.

Only gradually and reluctantly have I come to that conclusion. After all, 40 years ago I exited the Catholic priesthood, got married and raised a family of three outstanding children. I remained active in my local church. And as a professor at Berea College and associate of Costa Rica’s Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), I continued my role as a theologian with a doctoral degree from Rome’s Academia Alfonsiana. For years I taught in a Latin American Studies Program that took students to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In those capacities, I wrote books and articles and offered courses connected with liberation theology.  However, I resigned myself to my role as lay person – a member of the church’s “loyal opposition.”

And the opposition was absolutely called for. Over the years I’ve found myself dismayed as two consecutive regressive popes (John Paul II and Benedict XV) waged a vicious campaign against liberation theology and systematically removed from the hierarchy and Catholic seminaries progressives and theologians like me. The result over the two generations has been the production of a largely reactionary Catholic clergy who long for the good old days before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

So as a lay person, I’ve often found myself sitting passively in my pew while rebelling internally against the reintroduction into the Catholic liturgy Latinisms and even Latin itself. I’ve listened uncomfortably to well-intentioned priests offer ill-prepared pious platitudes in their homilies rather than reflections connected with the historical Jesus and his relationship to the problems that householders like me face in our private and public lives. And, to speak truly, I was blaming them unfairly. After all, how could they possibly offer what their retrenched seminary training prevented them from receiving?

Still, it struck me as ironic that hundreds of people in my parish come together for about 2 hours each Sunday to reflect on their most dearly held (Gospel) values, but come away having barely tapped into the unlimited power for changing their personal lives and the world itself that those values supply. What a waste, I thought – not only for the parishioners directly involved, but for the world.

Then came a breath of fresh air reminiscent of Pope John XXIII’s famous “opening of windows” more than 50 years ago. Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis – a man intent on recovering the spirit of Vatican II. Deeply influenced by the liberation theology his predecessors had warred against, he published “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.) and then his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ (L.S.). Both publications were bolstered by unprecedentedly honest and refreshing public statements. (Who can forget his question about homosexuality: “Who am I to judge?”)  Francis not only called the church to profound reform; he called the world itself to a “bold cultural revolution.”

As for church reform, Francis called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the Church to embark on a “new path” (J.G. 1, 25) on which things cannot be left as they presently are (25). He called for new ways of relating to God, for new narratives and new paradigms (74). He wanted new customs, ways of doing things, new times, schedules, and language (27) — with emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159).

Despite (lamentably) continuing to exclude women from the priesthood, the pope ordered the church to expand their roles in church life.  He recognized women as generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104).

Clearly, then, the pope was speaking (as he said) not primarily to pastors and bishops, but to everyone (33). Decisions about change, he said, should be guided by the principle of decentralization (16, 32). They should be made at the parish level, because parishes are more flexible than Rome or the local chancery, and more sensitive to the specific needs of local people (28). The inventiveness of local communities should not be restrained, he said, but limited only by the openness and creativity of the pastor and local community (28). Such decisions should be respected by local bishops (31).

As for connecting the gospel with world issues, Pope Francis identified the struggle for social justice as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258). He saw “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (192, 213). He also completely rejected war as incapable of combatting violence caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59). Pope Francis rejected unfettered markets and the “trickle down” ideologies as homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).

In Laudato Si’ the pope issued an urgent call to the Church and the world to address issues connected with human-caused climate chaos.  In this the entire encyclical (see my book, Understanding Laudato Si’: a Discussion Guide) might be seen as a complete rejection of Trumpism and of the entire Republican Party’s denial of that problem.

So, once again: what to do about it?

Experience shows that the anti-Vatican II clergy resistant to Pope Francis remains incapable of responding either to the latter’s Apostolic Exhortation (J.G.) or to his eco-encyclical (L.S.). Much less has it demonstrated a willingness to address the issues of political-economy, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, war, torture, etc.  raised by the emergence of Trumpism. (Once again, it is wrong to blame the clergy for this. Their training has made effective response impossible.)

So I’ve decided to do something about it myself. I’ve decided to reactivate my priesthood.

Honestly, I have to admit that the process of doing so began about 5 years ago following my retirement after 40 years of teaching at Berea College. It was then that I set goals for myself. One of them was an ill-formed, vague resolve to “reclaim my priesthood.”

As a preliminary step, I started a blog. Its center piece was the publication of a “Sunday Homily” each week. The reflections tried to connect world events, personal, and family problems with each Sunday’s liturgical readings.

Eventually, my homilies were picked up by OpEdNews – a completely secular progressive news source run by a Jewish editor. Over the years, I’ve published more than 200 such homilies covering Catholic lectionary readings for all three liturgical cycles. The result has been the creation of a kind of cyber community of readers that averages 1600 views of each reflection every week.

Now, in view of the crisis of Trumpism, I’ve decided that my contribution to resistance will be to translate that cyber community into a real-time assembly of faith. It will actually attempt do something to implement Pope Francis’ summons to church reform, and address in particular issues connected with climate chaos.

What I’m proposing is not a Protestant or even an ecumenical gathering. Rather my call is to an alternative Catholic “parish” in my town. Of course, this is not unusual; most towns of any size have more than one Catholic parish. Though specifically Catholic, all people will be welcome – Catholics, Protestants, atheists . . . In particular, “drop-outs” from our local community of faith are encouraged to join.

I imagine the gathering will be very simple – nothing of a show or performance. Rather, people will gather in my home (to begin with). We’ll sing or chant for a while, read the week’s liturgical selections, and share reflections. Afterwards we’ll gather at the dining room table for a brief Eucharistic breaking of bread followed immediately by a pot-luck meal. The week’s meeting will conclude with a planning session outlining activities for the coming week to resist the inroads of Trumpism.

All of this reminds me of the activities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Confessing Church” in the 1930s when Lutherans and others decided they had to do something to resist Hitler’s fascism. What I’m proposing here is an analogue, where people of faith call on their tradition to confront fascism’s re-emergence.

I’m convinced that only resistance fortified by deep faith can effectively combat that reincarnation. And even if only two or three join me in this proposal, I’m determined to go through with it. After all Jesus did say: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20).