Sunday Homily: Pope Francis’ “New Song” – Seven Points You May Have Missed in “Evangelii Gaudium”

Francis Singing

Readings for Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49: 3, 5-6; PS 40: 2, 4, 7-10; I COR 1: 1-3; JN 1: 29-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/011914.cfm

What will Pope Francis do next? Since his election nine month ago, he seems to be in the news on a daily basis.

We all know, for instance, that he was Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” And just last week, the New York Times ran two substantial articles on him. “He has already transformed the tone of the papacy,” one of those articles said, “confessing himself a sinner, declaring ‘Who am I to judge?’ when asked about gays, and kneeling to wash the feet of inmates, including Muslims.”

The article went on to describe the reforms the pope is making in the Vatican. He has disempowered influential conservatives favored by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. The demoted include American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, and Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, along with Archbishop Guido Pozzo. Such reactionaries have been replaced with Francis’ allies like Secretary of State Pietro Parolin whom the pope listed among those he will make a cardinal in February.

Even more broadly, the Times described the pope’s employment of six Jesuit “spies” to assess and report on various Vatican offices. That’s making Roman apparatchiks very nervous. As a result, job insecurity has become the order of the day in Vatican City, where clerical careerists , the Times said, have responded like sulking teenagers plugging in their headphones, retiring to their rooms, and hoping the storm will pass them by.

Another Times report last week detailed Pope Francis’ recent appointments to the College of Cardinals. The Parolin appointment notwithstanding, the nominations represent a departure from tradition in that the majority of the 19 new cardinals will come from Latin America, Africa, and Asia instead of Italy and Europe. The appointees promise to change the tone of the consistory the pope plans to convene at the end of next month where discussions will begin about decentralizing church decision-making processes and about pastoral responses to changes in family structure including questions of divorce and homosexuality.

Couple last week’s moves with last September’s hugely successful mass demonstration in St. Peter’s against the bombing of Syria, with his denunciation of free market capitalism, under-regulated financial speculation, and “murderous” world-wide income inequality, and you have a worthy successor to John XXIII, the soon-to-be-canonized Great Reformer who convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

Put otherwise, in a very short time, Pope Francis has made his own the words of today’s responsorial psalm, “The Lord has put a new song in my mouth.” The song the pope is singing takes the emphasis off formal religion – what the responsorial calls the “sacrifice and offerings.” That’s not what God wants, the psalmist says. Instead God’s desire is “a people that hear and obey” — specifically the law of justice that God has placed in the heart of all human beings whether they think of themselves as believers or not . So far, the pope’s actions show that he agrees.

In terms of today’s gospel reading – a continued reflection on last Sunday’s account of Jesus’ baptism – it’s as if we’re witnessing the descent of the Holy Spirit upon a man determined to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.

Like Jesus, Francis has made a “preferential option for the poor.” He’s signaled justice for the oppressed as the overriding theme of his papacy. He has completely rejected war as a solution to any of the world’s problems. This pope is no hawk or friend of hawks — or of the rich who advocate free market solutions to problems of poverty and its attendant hunger and disease. For him, terrorism is blowback for injustice.

As most of us know, all of this is clearly explained in Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” whose significance in terms of church reform cannot be overstated. But there are some important aspects of the pope’s exhortation that may have escaped notice. Let me name just seven that have special connection with today’s liturgical readings and their emphasis on peace, justice and the Spirit of God. (Parenthetical numbers refer to the relevant sections in the papal document.):

• “Evangelii Gaudium” is not trivial. The pope writes “In this exhortation my intention is to map out the path for the church to follow in the immediate future” (2).So the pope’s concern for the poor and rejection of war are not simply expressions of his idiosyncratic aspirations. They represent attitudes and actions he expects the church and Roman Catholics to adopt.

• As the Huffington Post has put it, “Evangelii Gaudium” also represents a “remarkable about-face” relative to liberation theology. Significantly, the pope met with Gustavo Gutierrez, the doyen of liberation theology, last September. Gutierrez’s themes are found throughout the pope’s Exhortation – the “preferential option for the poor” (198, 199), the affirmation of “popular piety” (122-126), the historical perspective (54), social analysis uncovering unfettered capitalism as homicidal (53, 57), and recognition of “structural sin” (59, 202). . . .

• The Exhortation’s position on private ownership is much more radical than many have acknowledged so far. The pope actually states that the goods of the earth belong to the poor, not simply to those who can pay for them. Quoting “an ancient sage,” the pope says “The goods we possess don’t really belong to us but to the poor” (57). Can you imagine a stronger rejection of capitalism’s understanding of private property?

• In general, the Papal Exhortation is friendly towards theologians. This also represents an about-face from his immediate predecessor who routinely investigated, warned, condemned and silenced theologians – 106 of them by Matthew Fox’s count. By contrast, Pope Francis values the role of theologians whatever categories of reason they might use – even, one might conclude, if the categories are Marxist. Consider the suggestion in these words: “When certain categories of reason and the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the message, these categories then become tools of evangelization; water is changed into wine. Whatever is taken up is not just redeemed, but becomes an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world. . . The church . . . appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians.”

• The pope’s appreciation of theologians means that “Evangelii Gaudium” holds promise for women and the campaign for women’s ordination – despite its specific rejection of women priests (104). This is because virtually no theologians or scripture scholars find credible the reasons advanced for restricting ordination to males. Even the pope’s Exhortation suggests the contrary. No sooner does he reject women priests than he falls into the traditional language of “holy mother church” (e.g. 139). The pope writes “. . . the church is a mother, and . . . preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child.” Do you detect the dissonance here – of males alone being allowed to speak as women?? Sooner or later that penny will drop.

• The pope’s promotion of the “sensus fidei” (119) holds similar promise for changes in church teaching on contraception. According to the pope, “God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” For theologians, sensus fidei means that when the bishops, theologians and laity agree on a matter of faith or morals, their agreement represents the work of the Holy Spirit. On the question of contraception, previous popes have cut the laity and theologians out of the equation entirely. In the spirit of Vatican II, the pope’s words promise to include them once again. Theologians and laity overwhelmingly agree that church prohibition of artificial contraception needs change.

• In his Exhortation, the pope shifts away from just war theory to complete pacifism (239). He devotes a whole section to the rejection of war (98-101). Moreover, he identifies inequality as the cause of violence and war. He writes, “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve . . . weapons and violence rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts” (60). What if the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics took the pope’s words to heart?

All of this represents the work of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that today’s reading from John’s gospel describes as descending upon the just-baptized Jesus. John the Baptist describes Jesus as the gentle “Lamb of God.” The Spirit is pictured as a dove – the symbol of peace.

Like John the Baptist on Jordan’s banks, Pope Francis is calling the faithful to “Behold the Lamb of God” imitating Jesus’ identification with the poor and his gentle non-violence.

When a Prophet Visits: Matthew Fox Sweeps through Berea

Matthew Fox came through my hometown, Berea Kentucky, a few weeks ago. I’m still energized by the experience. It showed me what happens when a prophet drops by.

Matt’s the ex-Dominican theologian and spiritual teacher who was hounded out of his Order by Pope Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI). His offense? The same as that of the 101 theologians and pastoral leaders that Fox has posted on his “Wailing Wall of Silenced, Expelled, or Banished Theologians and Pastoral Leaders under Ratzinger.” (The names appear at the end of Fox’s book The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved.)  The names include giants like Karl Rahner, Ivone Gebara, Edward Schillebeeckx, and my former teacher in Rome, the great moral theologian Bernard Haring.

As Matt’s more than 30 books show, he, like the others, was censured by Pope Benedict XVI for being too good a theologian and spiritual guide; he tried too hard to implement the directives of the Second Vatican Council; he was too successful in connecting the Christian Tradition to our post-modern world. All of that our ex-Hitler Youth Pope finds extremely threatening to his overriding pre-Vatican II values: order and Group Think directed from above.

My wife, Peggy, had instigated Matthew Fox’s visit to Berea College. As Director of Women’s Studies she had invited him for her “Peanut Butter and Gender” series of luncheons. Over the years, the twice-monthly event has paralleled the College’s convocation program of speakers and artists.  At “PB&G,” Matt gave a dynamite talk on men’s spirituality. Later on in the afternoon, he spoke to the entire student body wowing everyone in the process.

Of course, I attended both events. But I was even more privileged because Fox visited our home the night before. Over Manhattans he, Peggy and I compared notes, were surprised by friendships we share with others, and spoke of the dismal state the Catholic Church has reached under the “leadership” of the last two and a half popes (Ratzinger, John Paul II, and the last half of Paul VI’s term in office). Additionally, I had an hour or so in the car with Matt as I drove him to the Lexington Blue Grass Airport the morning after his visit. We spoke of Ratzinger’s 1968 “conversion” to the Catholic rendition of religious fundamentalism, and of Matt’s work with the witch, Starhawk (whom he identified with evident admiration as a “genuine liberation theologian”).

However, the highlight of the entire experience was a potluck supper at our home. Peggy had organized that too – for members of our Berea parish, St. Clare’s. The idea was for the Peace and Justice Committee and other progressives to meet with Fox and discuss how to respond to the drabness and irrelevancy of what passes for worship and Christian community in our church.

After an extraordinary potluck supper, about twenty-five of us sat in a big circle in our living room. Everyone joined in with comments, complaints, questions and concerns. Matt took it all in, responded when appropriate, and then shared his insights.

His most telling observation was to reverse the common perception shared by most in the room. That’s the opinion that progressive Vatican II Catholics have somehow been marginalized by the church. Fox turned that notion on its head. He held instead that we are the ones who are orthodox, while the last two (anti-Vatican II) popes are actually schismatic. They and their Vatican Curia are the outsiders, while we are the faithful ones adhering to the official teaching of the Catholic Church which remains the doctrine of Vatican II.

What to do about it all? Fox was helpful there as well. In fact, at the end of The Pope’s War, he lists “Twenty-Five Concrete Steps to Take Christianity into the Future.”  All of those steps were thought- provoking. However in terms of Fox’s “schism” observation, here’s the one that hit hardest for me:

“Instead of ‘Vatican III’ or a so-called lay synod that is gerrymandered by clerical curialists, let the various lay leadership groups hold national and then international gatherings among themselves – synods that are worthy of the name. Let them give marching orders to church officials instead of the other way around. Let the church officials listen to the laity for a change. Let the laity choose the theologians they wish to be their periti at such synods (if any).”

Along those lines, next month the “Call to Action” Conference will be meeting in Cincinnati. A group from our parish will be attending that convocation of progressive Catholics. Matthew Fox will speak there. I’ll be in attendance with my friends.

Expect a report in this blog.

ReFirement Not Retirement

I have a friend who like me walked away from his job in 2010. Here in Kentucky, where people talk about retirement as being “retarred,” my friend likes to refer to himself as “retarded.” Despite its political incorrectness, his line usually draws a laugh or at least a smile.

Last week when he was speaking at Berea College, the great spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox, had a better line. He said the adjective “retired” should itself be retired. It should be replaced, Fox said, with the word “refired.” Of course, he meant that the “third age” should not be characterized by withdrawal from the struggle for peace and justice. Rather it should represent a time for refocusing, re-evaluating and re-committing.

Matthew’s redefinition reminded me of another friend of mine (also a former priest and one of my colleagues in the Columban ordination class of 1966). A few years ago when we were both attending a reunion of former members of the Society of St. Columban, I had made a couple of public remarks – I forget about what. Afterwards my classmate said, “I can see you still have ‘the fire;’ I just don’t feel it anymore.” And yet as I spoke with him and his wife, it was clear to me that they both had as much “fire” as I did. They were both engaged, reading, thinking, discussing, and trying to be the change we’d all like to see in the world and in the church. They were refired but didn’t see it.

The fire in their bellies and in mine could be called “enthusiasm” in its etymological sense. The word comes from the Greek phrase “en Theos” – being “in God.”  A person who lives “on fire” lives in God; she or he is enthusiastic. She or he recognizes the spark of the divine in herself, in others, and in all of creation. As a result, she lives accordingly. To do so as never before is my refirement aspiration.

So I’m going to stop thinking of myself as retired. Instead I’m now thinking in terms refirement. It’s a time when as never before I’m free to go where the spirit leads me. Doing this blog is part of it. So is being faithful to the daily practice of meditation which by definition is immersion en Theos. Through both the blog and meditation I’m trying do my small part to rescue Jesus’ radical vision of a world with room for everyone (he called it the Kingdom of God).