This is Chapter 29 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. To read previous chapters, just scroll down.
This is Chapter 23 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret.
To read previous chapters, just scroll down.
This is Chapter 21 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. Virtually all the lines spoken by Mr. Castro in this chapter are direct quotes from Fidel on Religion by Brazil’s Frei Betto who personally gave me permission to use those statements verbatim.
To read previous chapters of The Pope’s Secret, just scroll down.
Scroll down for previous chapters of The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera, and Fidel,
This is chapter 3 in my audio novel The Pope, His Chamberlain, the Jinetera and Fidel. (I made a mistake yesterday entitling its uncorrected chapter “Chapter Three.” It was really chapter two.)
Third Sunday of Advent Readings: Zep. 3: 4-18a; Is. 12: 2-6; Phil. 4: 4-7; Lk. 3: 10-18. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/121612.cfm
The lead article in the November 11th edition of our diocesan newspaper, Crossroads, published a sermon by the bishop of our Lexington diocese, Ronald W. Gainer. It had been given on Saturday November 3rd at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington – the Saturday before the General Election. Bishop Gainer called attention to a new and “dangerous, corrosive change . . . at work in the soul of our nation.” “In recent decades,” the bishop said, “forces are working overtime . . . to eliminate religion and God from the nation’s soul.” According to Bishop Gainer, those forces ignore the consistency of the Church’s moral teaching over the centuries – about “the sacredness of every human life.” Those teachings recognize certain acts as “intrinsically evil.” These include “abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and embryonic stem cell research. Being against the intrinsically evil means standing up for the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, the God-given right to freedom of religion, and against the evil of racism. There is nothing wrong with being a single-issue voter, the bishop emphasized; and abortion is the pivotal single issue for Catholics. The bishop concluded that political “candidates who refuse to oppose the evils he listed or who actively support them disqualify themselves from receiving Catholics’ support in the voting booth.”
Curiously, Bishop Gainer’s list of “intrinsic evils” did not include priests raping children. As a result, his remarks came off as out-of-touch, triumphalistic, self-serving, dishonest, and tired. We had heard it all before: “They’re wrong; we have never erred. ‘They’ are persecuting us. Only one issue is important, abortion. Vote Republican, even if that means economic disaster for the poor at home or abroad” (e.g., in the wars and drone strikes which also went unmentioned in the bishop’s remarks).
A little over a month ago, I attended the concluding Mass at the “Call to Action Conference” (CTA) in the Grand Ballroom of the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. CTA is the annual meeting of progressive Catholics who are trying to follow the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. (Vatican II set an agenda of church renewal and reform when the world’s Catholic bishops met in Rome from 1962-1965.) About 1000 people were present at CTA’s concluding liturgy. It reminded me of what spirited worship is like. Our good friend, John Wright Rios was the music leader with a group he assembled of about 15 instrumentalists and singers. There were drums, guitars, piano, trumpet and dancing. Hymns were in English and in Spanish with words projected on four large flat screens. The liturgy featured women in prominent roles, including three of the five concelebrants. Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the bus” fame and who had spoken at last summer’s Democratic Convention gave the homily. What she said was insightful, inspiring, funny, and challenging. It made me see what the church is missing by insisting on an all-male, highly in-bred clergy. Sister Campbell spoke of the deep-seated divisions in our country and the need for universal love even of our enemies. She addressed the spiritual poverty and hunger experienced by all of us including leaders in the church, in politics, in our schools and universities. Poverty and hunger of body and spirit was the focus of Jesus’ work as described in the gospels. The church needs more Jesus, she said, and less triumphalism and pride.
Today’s readings are about religious revival and about the renewed recognition of God’s presence in our midst. In the first and third reading, the message is delivered by severe critics of temple worship – Zephaniah and John the Baptist. Zephaniah was a religious reformer from the seventh century BCE (just before the Babylonian Exile). He was known as the champion of “the poor of the land” (2:3; 3:12), and a fierce critic of Assyrian imperialism and the adoption of Assyrian religious ideology by Israel’s ruling elite. He accused the priests of his day of abandoning Yahweh in favor of Baal and Astarte. The outspoken Zephaniah threatened to drive out the priests and cleanse the temple by force.
Then in today’s gospel, John the Baptist picks up Zephaniah’s theme more than five hundred years later. Luke pictures John at the Jordan River – far from Jerusalem’s temple and its priesthood. John is leading a religious revival in the desert – the place of Israel’s birth long before there was any temple. Like Zephaniah, John is a layman. And his words to the religious leadership are harsh. In Luke’s verses immediately preceding today’s excerpt, he calls the crowd a “brood of vipers.” Matthew’s version is more specific. He says that curse was hurled at the Sadducees and Pharisees, the religious leadership of the day. According to John, they are snakes in the grass.
John contrasts the failed leadership of these men with God’s leadership present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, of course, turns out not to be a priest or rabbi either, but a workingman from Nazareth. Yet according to John, Jesus is more powerful and more worthy than John himself. As a lay leader, Jesus will bring not only the Holy Spirit, but a cleansing fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff – what is essential from what is not – what is nourishing from what is not – the kernel of truth from its encasements. Those shells are now outdated, John says. We are about to enter a new era. Chaff, John declares, is good for nothing but burning in the hottest fire imaginable. He calls the crowds to the kernel of truth: share their surplus with the poor.
This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. It was a movement of reform and revival in the spirit of Zephaniah and John the Baptist. Pope John XXIII was the 1960s embodiment of their prophetic tradition. He summoned that meeting of the world’s bishops and used the word aggiornamento to describe the Council’s project. Aggiornamento meant updating.
Pope John’s vision was one of church revival and reform that connected Jesus with the actual lives and problems of people and the world – especially the poor. Those lives are characterized by either unemployment or overwork, by low wages, poverty, over-priced healthcare, misogyny, racism, inaccessible education, scant prospect of retirement, and by the train of evils introduced by climate change, inflated “defense” budgets and wars largely initiated by the United States.
Today’s readings suggest that serving the world (the church’s mission as identified by Vatican II) involves addressing those problems – the kernel instead of the chaff. Doing so leaves no place for triumphalism, infallibility or wallowing in self-pity about how the church is being mistreated and misunderstood by a hostile world. It does however mean trying to address the very good reasons the world might have for being hostile.
Neither is service of the world advanced by focusing on matters (as important as they might be) far removed from daily life. Identifying Christianity with opposition to stem cell research, gay marriage, contraception, and revoking Roe v. Wade is old and tired. It’s a form of denial that distracts from Jesus’ essential concern for the poor and their problems. It is to mistake chaff for wheat. So is silence about the church’s checkered past, its fallibility, errors, crimes against humanity, and scandals as prominent as priests’ rape of children.
“Call to Action” attempts to recapture the spirit of Vatican II, separate wheat from chaff, and address the “signs of the times.” The “prayers of the faithful” following Sr. Campbell’s homily addressed war, poverty, climate change and the other problems I’ve just mentioned. The response of the people was not the usual “Lord, hear our prayer,” but “Aggiornamento!”
Let that be our response to Zephaniah, John the Baptist, and Jesus today. Aggiornamento!
What might aggiornamento mean for us today?
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