My First Steps towards Internationalism (Personal Reflections Pt. V)

Silver Creek

In this series, I’ve been trying to explain (mainly to my children) the origin of their father’s “crazy ideas.” And, looking back, I can see that they’ve been shaped by at first unconsciously and later consciously looking at the world through the eyes of non-Americans. In retrospect I see that I’ve been an internationalist most of my life.

It all started at the age of 5 or 6, when I thought I wanted to be a priest. I guess I admired Fr. Burke and wanted to be like him. (When my Aunt Marge heard or my aspirations, she remarked something like, “Yeah, right. Wait till he discovers girls!”)

A little later I started a subscription to Fields Afar magazine published by the Maryknoll Mission Society.  I was thinking of becoming a Maryknoll missionary. But then in my 7th or 8th grade, Fr. Stan Walzac of the Society of St. Columban visited our classroom at St. Viator’s. He told us of the Columbans – a group of about 1000 missionary priests – mostly Irish. The organization had been founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. “Maynooth” was the name of the Irish national seminary.  After 1949, when the Chinese communists expelled foreign missionaries, the Columbans moved their focus to the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Burma and eventually to Latin America, and Pakistan.

I filled out a card-of-interest.  Fr. Walzac was soon in our living room giving us his pitch. Next thing I knew, I was preparing to enter the high school seminary in Silver Creek, New York. That was 1954; I had just turned 14.

“The Creek” was a big medieval-looking building (pictured above) on a 50 acre campus on the shores of Lake Erie.  It had everything you’d expect:  dormitories, classrooms, library, chapel, gym, a beautiful cloister with a pond at its center with big gold carp swimming in it. We had a football field, baseball diamond, tennis courts, and outdoor Stations of the Cross placed on a bluff overlooking the lake. Everyone was required to play intra-mural sports in season – baseball, football, and basketball. I loved all of that, so I was happy. I felt sorry for the friends who had no interest, but were still required to play.

My four years at Silver Creek seemed never-ending. We were in the Buffalo snow-belt and the winters were hard. The food wasn’t great. We spent so much time shoveling snow that accumulated by the ton. My freshman class had 32 members; four of us from Chicago. Three of those Chicagoans persevered till ordination in 1966. We (and a classmate from Iowa) were the only ones from the original group who made it that far. Of course, others joined us along the 13 year journey to our goal. My ordination class had 10 members.

Studies at Silver Creek were demanding. It was the usual high school curriculum. But there was a lot of emphasis on languages – Latin, Greek, and French. Failure to “get” Latin caused so many students to fail out. Others were “bounced” (that’s what we called it) for disciplinary reasons, still others because in their cases, my Aunt Marge’s prediction came true.

And speaking of “bouncing,” I remember once when three of my classmates hot-wired one of faculty’s cars and drove to Buffalo for a night on the town. All three were gone within a couple of days.

The language emphasis at the Creek and being taught by those Irishmen played strong (though completely unconscious) roles in making me the internationalist I referenced earlier. As everyone says, language study does something to one’s mind – causes thinking from other perspectives – especially if the languages are studied on site.

So while French, Latin, Greek (and later, Hebrew) were studied on U.S. soil, my other languages – Italian, German, Portuguese, and Spanish were studied abroad. I picked up Italian in Rome, and then studied German for two summers at the University of Vienna, Portuguese came in Brazil, and Spanish in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to speak more than one of those tongues at a time. Right now, for instance, all my efforts are directed towards Spanish. So if I try to speak Italian, I become tongue-tied.  I hate that.

The reading ability however remains. That’s enabled me to think outside the dominant culture here. For many years I found myself reading almost nothing but Portuguese and Spanish – the languages of liberation theology which over the last 40 years has influenced me so profoundly. Besides theology, I concentrated on history and economics. Those perspectives, I found, were far different from what we take for granted in the U.S.

None of this is to say that in my early years I didn’t think of myself as “American.” As a matter of fact, growing up with the Irish like that made me feel like an outsider and all the more American. It seemed that all of my classmates had parents from the Old Sod. Many were more Irish than the Irish. Some of them could step-dance, knew all the Irish songs, and wore genuine shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile (as far as I knew) I had not a drop of Irish blood in my veins. As I said, I felt a bit of an outsider in those respects – and all the more “American.”

That Americanism was deeply offended when I was perhaps a freshman or sophomore at Silver Creek. For some reason our whole student body (about 100 of us) traveled to another seminary in nearby Dunkirk for a day of recollection or something. I remember an elderly priest (he might have been 60!) gave us a talk after lunch. And in its course he spoke about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (Remember this was just 10 years or so after the event.) The priest referred to bombing as “the worst international crime in the history of the world.” The remark took my breath away. I wondered, how could a priest say such a thing?

I took me many years to answer that question. But I mark the event as the beginning of my critical political consciousness – which was very slow in developing. . .

Next Week: More on this story . . .

How I Became I Child of the Sixties – Thank God! (Personal Reflections Pt. II)

Hippie Art 

The craziness my children see in me isn’t simply knee-jerk. It was a long time in coming and accompanied by a lot of internal resistance.  

In fact, I’m the product of an extremely conservative upbringing. True: I come from a working class family where my dad (a truck driver) was a member of the Teamsters Union. And my parents both claimed to be “Independents” who voted for “the man not for the party.”  However, deep in their hearts, they were, I believe, Republicans. Nonetheless, politics wasn’t a big concern in our family. As a result, I grew up without clear ideas about differences between Democrats and Republicans.  

And then my formal education took over.  It occurred entirely within the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most reactionary forces in the world. That meant Catholic grammar school from K thru 8, then 12 years of seminary training, followed by 5 years of graduate school in Rome, where I received a doctorate in moral theology in 1972. All that time I don’t remember a single teacher who wasn’t either a nun (for the first 9 years) or priest (for the rest). The intense 26 years of indoctrination didn’t end till I was 32.  

The process was entirely apolitical even though virulently anti-communist. Throughout high school and the first years of college, we weren’t allowed to read newspapers or watch television. Luckily we had Christmas and summer vacations at home, where I lived with my family and worked with ordinary people (for me at a Sinclair gas station and later with the grounds-keeping crew on a golf course). I was suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement and of anti-war protestors. Throughout our years of training, missionary members of my order, the Society of St. Columban returned from China, Burma, the Philippines, and Korea with tales of communist atrocities. Communism, we were told, was the world’s worst evil.  (I remember the day Joseph McCarthy died. One of my seminary professors told me, “A great man died today.”

No wonder I ended up being a Republican myself.  I cast my first vote for Barry Goldwater.  

In the seminary I wasn’t a great student until my freshman year in college. I tried hard. But I remained pretty much a high “B” student.  I did well in languages – especially Latin, which was extremely important in those days, but also in Greek and French.

Outside of class, I was obedient and pious, so I always ended up being the equivalent of “the head boy,” which we called “Class Senior,” and eventually “Senior of the House.”  Till college (and long afterwards) my real interests were basketball, baseball, running, ice hockey, and (to some extent) football. If it hadn’t been for sports, I don’t think I would have survived the seminary.

Then as a freshman in college I met Fr. Jim Griffin, the most important teacher in my life. He finally awakened my inner student in a serious way. Father Griffin was tough: unmerciful in his criticism of our writing, and unsympathetic about excuses of any kind. He was a worldly, Renaissance man who loved poetry, classical music – and golf. Father Griffin enkindled in me a love for the kind of music I had always resisted, for art, drama and for poetry which till then I thought of as somehow unmanly. Most significantly he exposed me to what is now called “critical thinking” and to the art of literary criticism. (The latter joined with exposure to modern scripture scholarship subsequently gave me courage to trust my own analysis of biblical texts.) I am forever indebted to Jimmy G. who died about 15 years ago. I remember him every day in my prayers.

That was the other important element of my education – I mean exposure to modern scripture scholarship.  Here I must mention my second most important teacher, Eamonn O’Doherty. Over our four years of State-side post-grad theological studies (for which we received no additional degree) Eamonn helped us understand text criticism and form criticism. To this day that orientation remains the firm foundation of what I’ve learned since from the Jesus Seminar and liberation theologians (more about that later).

As for politics, a turning point came for me in Rome where I finally escaped the seminary hothouse. My real education began there as I was exposed to new thought and ways of looking at the world I had never considered before.  It was all so new to me after all those years cooped-up in the seminary. During two summers I traveled on my Vespa through Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, Poland, France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland. I also studied German for two sessions at the University of Vienna. In 1970 and ’71, I spent two one-month periods in Ireland, where I was a delegate at the “Chapter” of my order which was rewriting its constitution.  Two of my summers I returned to the U.S. and worked as a priest in St. Augustine’s parish in Culver City CA. From the day I arrived in Rome, I began seeing the world in an entirely new perspective.

In “the Holy City,” it didn’t take me long to discover that the dozen or so young priests I was living with (from Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand) at Corso Trieste 57 were much more advanced than I was in their understanding of the world – and of theology. I remember feeling embarrassed about that and determining to catch up. I became a voracious reader.

That was 1967, right after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council which had ended two years earlier. The city, the church and its theological universities were still electric with the new ideas the Council represented. Everything was up for grabs. Everyone was calling the unquestionable into question: the church, the priesthood, mandatory celibacy. My student colleagues (mostly priests at the Atheneum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana) were generally quite critical of the United States. They came from all over the world – Europe, Africa, Latin America, Australia, the Middle East . . . I was playing basketball for a minor league affiliate of the Roman pro team (Stella Azzurra) — scrimmaging the pros, interacting with my Italian teammates, fans, and officials. It was all so very exciting. I found myself reading all the important books, rethinking everything, and debating my friends endlessly.

It was the sixties! Back home the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were in full swing. Even from Rome I felt the influence of the Democratic Convention in 1968, the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia, Jane Fonda’s visit to Vietnam. . . .  Martin King was shot, then George Wallace, and Bobby Kennedy. “What kind of country do you come from?” my friends asked. “What’s wrong with America?” Like other Americans, I was wondering that myself.

There is so much to tell. But I’ll cut to the chase. . .

A year or so before leaving Rome, I had already nearly decided to leave the priesthood. But before doing so, I requested from my sponsoring missionary group, the Society of St. Columban, a year of discernment. I had changed so much that I was suddenly perceived as too radical. I was no longer pious obedient Mike. So my superiors decided not to assign me to seminary teaching as they had originally planned. Instead, they wanted me to take up missionary work in the Philippines. However since that would involve even more (language) schooling, I asked to be given a more immediately pastoral assignment. After all, at 32 years of age and six years into my priesthood, I still didn’t really know what it meant to work full-time as a pastor.

My request was granted. I was assigned to work with the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) in Kentucky.

(Part Three: next Tuesday)

Returning to Rome after 43 Years!

St Anselmo

(My Alma Mater: the Atheneum Anselmianum, Rome)

So there I was, last July 24th returning to my old haunts in the Holy City. As mentioned in previous postings, Peggy and I had returned to Italy with our family – with my daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and their four children, with our youngest son, Patrick, one of our nieces, and with my brother-in-law and his family of five. Late in the trip, a friend of Maggie also joined us. In all we were 17 people!

It was hard to believe that so much time had passed since those halcyon days when I was studying in Rome. I had actually spent five wonderful years there from 1967-’72. It was a time of unprecedented personal growth for me as I passed from my late 20s to my early 30s.

The Second Vatican Council had just concluded (1965), and the city was still electric in the aftermath. Everything I cared about was under question – the nature of God, Jesus, morality, the church, papal infallibility, the priesthood, and mandatory celibacy.

After 12 years of being cooped up in highly regimented seminaries in Silver Creek, New York; Bristol, Rhode Island, and Milton Massachusetts, I had at last been ordained. In Rome I found myself living in a community of 20 priests also involved in their graduate studies. Our home was a sprawling house belonging to the Society of St. Columban, of which I was a member. It was located on Corso Trieste 57, right next to the Russian Embassy. I can still smell the fumes of the city busses that passed our front door.

Only two of us in our community were from the U.S. The others came from Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, Scotland and New Zealand. I was studying systematic and moral theology. Others were similarly occupied or focused on Canon Law, liturgy, or Sacred Scripture. Daily meals around our huge refectory table were usually raucous affairs as we bantered over the new theology or political questions – often surrounding “the troubles” then afflicting Ireland or the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements in the United States, or the youth revolution sweeping Europe especially in France. The times couldn’t have been more exciting.

Every couple of weeks we’d have special guests at table (bishops, theologians, politicians, intriguing women). All of them were passing through Rome on business or vacation. Those, I remember, were special feasts. The guests enriched our table-talk. And the elaborate dinners were always followed up by “retiring” to our community parlor for cognac and cigars. Then the guitars would come out, and everyone would do their party-pieces. It was all great fun. Unforgettable.

So on July 24th I was trying to recapture some of that. On that day, our daughter, Maggie, had arranged for a tour of Rome in long “golf carts” to accommodate that family party I mentioned.

I begged off saying I’d rather revisit my old schools – the Athenaeum Anselmianum (where I had gotten my licentiate in systematic theology), and the Academia Alfonsiana (where I received my doctorate in moral theology). Generously, Maggie and everyone else let me go. I had a great day.

Two years ago, when Peggy and I were in Rome, I had tried to do the same thing. But at both my schools, the portieres were so uptight that they wouldn’t let me in. This time was different.

At the “Anselmo” (pictured above)  I met the same dour doorkeeper of two years ago. But this time, I somehow persuaded him to let me enter – though he stipulated “for one minute only!”

So I walked quickly around the monastery’s ample cloister where the main classrooms were located. I poked my head into the Aula Magna, where I recalled the life-changing lecturers of the great Magnus Lohrer. I had so admired him – that chubby red-cheeked German theologian (who I was told died about six or seven years ago). He was such a great teacher. I wanted to be like him – smart, committed, energetic, enthusiastic, interested and interesting. It was such a pleasure sitting at his feet – even when the lectures were in Latin!

Despite the portiere’s injunction, my personal tour took at least five minutes. Afterwards I went to the monastery chapel to do my day’s second meditation. I was slightly distracted by a couple whispering in a pew across from me. It turned out that they were celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary. They had been married in the Convento Church where the three of us were sitting. When we spoke outside, they told me of their wedding, their life together, their children and grandchildren. They seemed so happy to be in Rome. I was too.

Next, I took a cab to the Alfonsiana, just down the Via Merulana from Santa Maria Maggiore. The portiere there let me in with no stipulations. I explored the rambling set of attached buildings at my leisure. I recalled lectures by Bernard Haring and Francis X. Murphy (who mysteriously had reported on Vatican II for The New Yorker under the pseudonym, Xavier Rynne).  In theological terms, Haring was a giant. I didn’t really hit it off with Murphy though. That was probably because he gave me a lower grade expected on a paper where I argued that Vatican II represented the Catholic Church finally catching up with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. I remember appealing that grade to no avail. I still think I was right.

As I left the Alfonsiana, I spoke with a very pleasant 45-year-old Polish woman who directs maintenance there. (She had been a librarian in Poland.) She asked me about my impressions of the school after so many years. I told her it all seemed renovated, shiny and up-to-date.

Finally, I took another cab to Corso Trieste 57. There I had a most interesting conversation with Fr. Robert McCullough, the Procurator General of the Society of St. Columban and the rector of the house that now has a much-reduced population.  Fr.McCullough had a lot to say about Pope Francis.

I’ll tell about that in a future posting.

Pope Francis Beatifies Oscar Romero: No More Bullsh*t!

bullshit

I’ve been agonizing about this little talk I’m to make tomorrow evening at the beatification celebration of Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Everybody will be there: parish members, guests from other churches (Protestant and Catholic), former pastors, and John Stowe, our brand new bishop.

So I’ve been boring my friends (and readers of this blog) with draft after draft. To begin with, my worries have centered on the writing concerns I’ve inflicted on my students over the years. You know, the ones about having a sharp thesis, a clear preview of the points to be made, good follow-through on those points, and a strong conclusion.

More than that, however, I’ve fretted about possibly offending my audience. I mean, if I really articulated what I think must be said about Oscar Romero, many listeners might just turn me off. “Too political,” they’d say, “inappropriate,” “polarizing,” “ranting.” I’ve been warned against all those things. (In any case, I’ve been told by a prominent member of my church that “90% of the people are offended by what you write in the Lexington Herald-Leader every month!”)

Yes, I’m worried.

But then I thought of Dan McGinn, a mentor of mine during my doctoral studies in Rome. Like me, he was (but Dan still is) a priest in the Society of St. Columban. He was always refreshingly outspoken and unfailingly called things by their names.

Dan was fond of saying that if he ever “made bishop,” he’d put a special motto on his coat of arms. [Every bishop has a coat of arms with his motto at the bottom. For instance, the motto of the new bishop (John Stowe) heading our diocese of Lexington, Kentucky is “Annunciamus verbum vitae” (We proclaim the word of life.)] Well, Dan said that if ever made bishop, the motto under his coat of arms would be “No more bullshit!”

Bottom line is: I’ve decided to follow Dan’s implicit advice and throw caution to the winds. I no longer know exactly how my talk will come out. But I intend to say something like the following:

Oscar Romero

Good evening.

I’ve been asked by the parish Peace and Social Justice Committee and by the Lenten “Joy of the Gospel” Study Group to say a few words reminding us of why we are here.

Of course, we’re here to celebrate the beatification of Blessed Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador in El Salvador. But why should we care?

We should care, I think, because Romero’s beatification personifies and embodies Pope Francis’ basic call in “The Joy of the Gospel.” There the pope summons the entire church to reform, to be converted, to repent, and be transformed. Nothing can remain as it has been, the pope says. The church must become relevant to the problems of poverty, inequality, and war that afflict our world.

So I suggest that the pope’s decision to beatify Oscar Romero dramatizes the pontiff’s exhortation.

But which side should we take in a politically polarized world? Which side are we on?

The side of the poor, the pope says. And by that he doesn’t mean greater generosity in making up our Christmas baskets or giving an extra dollar in Sunday’s second collection. He means doing what Oscar Romero did – what Jesus of Nazareth did.  He means identifying with the poor, their ways of seeing the world. He means refusing to support our culture’s favorite way of dealing with them – treating them with “tough love,” depriving them of life’s basics, waiting for wealth to “trickle down,” and when push comes to shove, killing them (whether that’s in Ferguson, Baltimore, Bagdad or Palestine).

In other words, Oscar Romero provides a case study of the kind of conversion and relevance the Holy Father urges us to embrace.

Like most of us – I speak for myself – Oscar Romero started out uncritical and unquestioningly patriotic. Until he was 60 he supported a system that had 1% of El Salvador’s population controlling 90% of its wealth. He sided with his county’s police and military which were at war with its own people to keep things that way.

He bought the line that those opposing the system were communists. So while his country was on fire, his sermons addressed the usual banalities: the afterlife, heaven, hell, and individual salvation.

The United States supported El Salvador’s government too. All during the 1980s, it gave its military more than one million dollars a day to fund what was called “the El Salvador option” for defeating the country’s insurgency. It was a “death squad” solution which killed everyone who might be connected with the insurgency – teachers, union organizers, social workers, priests and nuns. The slogan of the military’s “White Hand” death squad was, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

That slogan took on new meaning for Archbishop Romero when his good friend, the Jesuit, Rutilio Grande, was martyred by the White Hand. Grande was killed because El Salvador’s government saw how he lived among and served peasants and slum dwellers sympathetic to the insurgents. So they considered him a terrorist.

In reality, Father Grande was entirely motivated by the Gospel. He had come to see the world from the viewpoint of the poor. That was the essence of Jesus’ message, he said – good news for the poor. In the gospels, Grande found, Jesus not only saw the world from the viewpoint of the poor, he identified with them becoming one of them. He shared the values and characteristics of the poor that El Salvador’s rich despised.

For instance, Jesus’ skin was black or brown, not white like the elite of El Salvador. Jesus was dirt poor. He was conceived out-of-wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He belonged to the working class. His hands were calloused; his clothes were sweat-stained. Jesus liked fiestas and was accused of being a drunkard, possessed by the devil, and friend of sex workers. He was harassed constantly by the police and died a victim of torture and capital punishment, because the occupation forces of Rome considered him a terrorist.

That was the Jesus Rutilio Grande worshipped and preached – a Jesus completely like the people he served.

And so the “White Hand” or “The Secret Anti-Communist Army” (or one of those death squads) killed him – along with 75,000 other El Salvadorans. (Imagine the impact of those deaths in a country of just 6 million people!)

Grande’s death profoundly changed Oscar Romero. He said, “When I saw Rutilio lying there dead, I knew I had to follow his path.” And he did.

Archbishop Romero began speaking out against the government, army and police. He saw that the soldiers fighting against peasants and poor people weren’t heroes, but misled and brainwashed victims. Just before his death, he fairly shouted at them in a final homily: “No soldier is bound to follow orders that contradict the law of God. Don’t you see; you are killing your own brothers and sisters? . . . I beg you; I implore you; I order you: stop the repression!”

Those words sealed San Romero’s fate. The next evening while celebrating Mass for nuns in a hospital chapel, a sniper got him too. He became the first bishop to be murdered at the altar since Thomas Beckett at the beginning of the 12th century.

That’s the Romero story. It’s the story of a churchman converted late in life to centralizing peace and social justice concerns. And that’s the “Joy of the Gospel” connection. In that Apostolic Exhortation, the pope calls us to a similar centralization. The beatification of Oscar Romero reinforces that message.

To understand all of that, you have to grasp one shocking fact: Oscar Romero was killed by Catholics. And when he was murdered, there were fireworks and celebrations in the neighborhoods of El Salvador’s elite. These people were friends of the Vatican.

As a result, Pope Francis’ predecessors (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) were not anxious to canonize the archbishop. He was too polarizing, they thought. He too clearly took the side of the poor in their struggle with the rich. They even wondered if he had been duped by the communists.

And besides, how could Romero be classified as a martyr? After all, martyrs, by definition are defenders of the “true faith” against non-believers. But (again) Romero was killed by Catholics and hated by people who went to Mass each Sunday and believed all the right things about abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and divorce.

So John Paul II and Benedict XVI blocked Romero’s canonization and put the process on hold.

Francis has removed the block. Do you see what that implies?

It implies that “the true faith” is Romero’s faith. Its hallmark is identification with the poor in their struggle for justice — not those other narrow “moral” concerns. The true faith addresses issues like the justice of our economic system, wide disparities between the rich and the poor, and an economy based on war. It addresses climate change as a moral problem. All of these are themes central to “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Can you imagine what would happen to our state if the diocese of Lexington followed Romero’s example and became famous and distinguished as “that little peacemaking diocese in Central Kentucky” that everyone’s talking about?

Can you imagine what would happen in Berea if St. Clare’s worked closely with Union Church and cooperated to become as outspoken as Oscar Romero about issues of economic justice, racial and gender equality, war and peace?

Can you imagine what would happen in the world if 1.2 billion Catholics adopted Archbishop Romero’s spirit? What if Catholics on principle decided to absolutely reject war as a solution to the world’s problems and adopt economic justice instead? What if (in effect) we decided to drop books, hospitals, and schools on our perceived enemies instead of bombs and drone “hell fire”?

This evening, as you listen to the words of Oscar Romero during our celebration, please keep those questions in mind. They are vital to our faith.

What I’m saying is that all of us should care about Oscar Romero. He remains relevant to us; he challenges us today.

Archbishop Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus Himself call us to radical change – to take sides. In effect, Oscar Romero’s beatification raises that old question: “Which side are you on?”

What’s your answer?

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Reflections on a Reunion of Former Priests

806

The Catholic Church is a sinking ship. So are its orders of priests and nuns. The “reforms” presaged by the election of Pope Francis are like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They’re busy work for those whom history has rendered superfluous.

Similarly, for all the good will behind them, efforts at reforming orders, congregations and societies of priests and religious are doomed from the start. Typically they endorse the hierarchy’s negligence by failing to address the substantive causes of the crises that afflict the sinking church and its semi-submerged sub-organizations.

These are the conclusions I drew after attending a joyous reunion of priests and former priests (and their wives) belonging to the Society of St. Columban. That’s the Irish-founded missionary group I joined in 1954 (when I entered the minor seminary at the age of 14) and which I left in 1976. I had been ordained in 1966 (ordination photo above — taken by my classmate, Tom Shaugnessy).

The reunion took place in Bristol, Rhode Island over a three-day period just last week (July 21st-23rd). It was great getting together with friends, colleagues, teachers, former priests and their spouses. It was wonderful to see so many of my one-time missionary friends with their beautiful wives from Ireland as well as Japan, Korea, Chile and other “fields afar” (as the title of one missionary magazine used to put it). Several men’s spouses were former nuns. I can only imagine the wonderful love stories each of those couples might tell.

As with all reunions, there were the usual reminiscences from years long past. We made wisecracks about how all of us have aged, and observations about how quickly time has flown. There was catching up to do about retirement, children, grandchildren, illnesses, deaths of former colleagues, and plans for our declining years – and always in a light-hearted spirit. We even went for a cruise around the Newport Harbor. Great fun!

On the final day, things turned more serious. The newly-elected Regional Director of the Columbans spoke to us about the Society of St. Columban today. After introducing himself, this comparative youngster of 51 years informed his appreciative audience of recent efforts to update the Society in the face of zero vocations over the last number of years in Ireland, the U.S., England, and Australia. The situation is aggravated by the advancing ages of the 400 or so priests who remain in the Society – so many of them over the age of 75.

In response, we were told, the Columbans have made efforts at recruiting seminarians from the “mission” territories. As a result, Columban ordinations have taken place in the Pacific Rim – in Korea, Fiji, the Philippines, and also in Latin America. The Society’s directorate has changed accordingly. With its headquarters now located in Hong Kong instead of Ireland, the current directing council is a rainbow blend of Irish, Latin American, and Philippine “superiors.” Additionally lay associates, both men and women have become more prominent in the Columban scheme of things.

Besides such developments, there have been efforts at dialog with Muslims, especially in Pakistan and the Philippines. Social justice for the poor and ecological concerns have become central themes of documents recently authored by Society “chapters” or long-range planning sessions. Above all continued emphasis on brotherly love and legendary Columban hospitality continue as hallmarks of this group about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding as the “Maynooth Mission to China” in 1918. (“Maynooth” was the name of the Irish National Seminary back then.) With China now open, Columbans are currently making efforts to reintroduce themselves into that continent-sized country thus reclaiming the Society’s original focus.

All of that seemed encouraging. Such updating demonstrates the good will, generosity and continued vitality of men and women still intent on doing good in the world and serving the God their faith envisions. Columbans remain for me the most inspiring community of its kind I’ve ever known.

However questions surfaced for me about the reforms just mentioned. And unfortunately there was little time to raise – much less probe – them during the discussion period that followed the new Regional Director’s fine presentation. For instance:

• What does it mean that Pacific Rim Catholics are more open to the priesthood and mission than Europeans and North Americans? Is faith stronger in the former colonies? Are candidates European wannabes? Or has a pre-Vatican II brand of Christianity been introduced in the Pacific Rim that avoids the crises of the celibate priesthood that emerged following that historic Council whose 50th anniversary we’re currently celebrating?
• Does the incorporation of women and laymen as associates give them equal voice and vote in Society matters? Will there soon be a woman Superior General governing the Society of St. Columban?
• What is the point of Columban-Muslim dialog? Is it conversion of the Muslim dialog partners? Is it enrichment of all conversation participants? Is it collaboration and cooperation? If so, what is the shared project?
• For that matter, what’s the point of missionary work itself? After all, Vatican II recognized the value in God’s eyes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths. Are missionaries still trying to convert faithful people whose culture seems so distant from a Christianity so long and fatally associated with empire and exploitation?
• What specifically are Columbans doing about ecology and care for the planet? It’s easy for organizations nowadays to claim “green” commitment, but where does the rubber meet the road? Are Columbans encouraging vegetarianism as spiritual and ecological discipline? Are they cutting back on air-conditioning? Are they mandating that their cars be hybrids or have targeted miles-per-gallon ranges? Are they mounting campaigns focused on global warming and the introduction of genetically modified seeds in Latin America and Asia?

Those are some key questions that necessarily remained un-discussed at our Columban reunion. But I did get the opportunity to pose one whose answer led me to draw the conclusions I shared at the beginning – about the Columbans, organizations like them, and the Catholic Church itself being sinking ships. I asked:

• The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, has observed that the Holy Eucharist is constitutive of the church. Without Mass, he said, there simply can be no church. Therefore it is positively sinful on the part of church leadership to deprive Catholics of Eucharist because of an artificial priest shortage caused by blind commitment to mandatory celibacy and an all-male clergy. What are the Columbans doing to lobby for fundamental change in the church to make the Eucharist more available to the communities Columbans serve?

Understandably, the Regional Director gave the expected answer – the only one possible, I think. “Of course,” he said, “where 2 or 3 Columbans get together those questions are always discussed. However, we’re such a small and relatively insignificant organization, we have so little clout. So, no, we haven’t discussed petitions or protests on those matters.”

In other words, the sin of mandatory celibacy for priests, the sin of an all-male clergy will continue until the Vatican repents. But even Francis I is not about to don sack cloth and ashes in that regard.

That institutional obstinacy was underlined for me in the Mass that concluded our magnificent reunion. Two male priests stood before a congregation of “priests forever” – the latter adopting subservient positions in the pews instead of concelebrating. No woman had any role in the Mass. Additionally, the recently mandated pre-Vatican II Latinisms reminded me that the church is actually regressing:

• “Consubstantial” (instead of “one in being”)
• “And with thy spirit” (rather than “also with you”)
• “Shed for you and for many” (not “all”)
• “It is right and just” (instead of “fitting”)
• “Come under my roof” (rather than “receive you”)

The Latinisms are not trivial. They represent subtle messages that the signature liturgical reform of Vatican II is over. In the context of the Columban reunion, they demonstrated how hemmed in good people are by decisions from above.

Talk about rearranging deck chairs . . . . I could almost hear the water bursting through the Ship’s gaping hull.

Alexander Being Here Now

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Alexander Kinne-Coyle

This morning’s post is the one I promised last Saturday. This meditation comes from Declan Coyle, a former colleague of mine in the Society of St. Columban, who was ordained in 1969. He later left the priesthood after living for years in slums and poor barrios in the Philippines and Taiwan. Here he reflects on what he and his family have learned from his youngest child, Alexander. Thank you, Declan, for allowing me to share this with my friends.

Alexander
Alexander has Mowat Wilson Syndronme. He cannot eat, walk or speak, and he is doubly incontinent but boy can he communicate.
He is unconditional Love … as near as we’ll ever get to it.
He doesn’t do the past. He doesn’t do the future.
He only does the present.
Here.
Now.
His simple message is always the same:
Be Here Now!
The essence of Zen.

You are only doing what you are doing.
“Chopping wood, drawing water!”

Not the mental noise of the thinking mind goaded into the future by the Ego that cannot live in the now with its victim stories: “how many more years will I have to chop this wood? Why do I always have to draw the water?” “Why is it always me?”

Alexander always invites us to be here now. Fully present. Fully alive. Awake. Aware. Alert.

As Rumi said, “the future and the past veil God from you. Burn both of them with fire.”

He brings all that “be fully present and live with joy in the now” stuff from the gospels alive.
“Take no thought for tomorrow …”
“Look at the flowers of the field how they bloom …”
“Don’t put your hand on the plough and look back … the negative past is a backpack full of manure … learn the life lessons and cut the backpack straps and live fully in the present …”
“Enter through the narrow gate of the now, the present moment …”
“By waiting and calm you will be saved, in quiet and trust your strength lies.” (Isaiah 30:15)
“Be still and know that I am God!”
“Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest.” Mt. 11.28
“Unless you become like little children …”

Like the poet Rumi he says to us,
“Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment, awe and wonder!”

He is God’s gift to us, God, who as St John of the Cross said, hears “the silent language of love.”

Reminding us like Moby Dick author Herman Melville that, “silence is the one and only voice of God!”

Alexander shows us the pearl of great price right there in the centre of our being telling us not to try so hard.
Be one with life.
Go with the flow of life. Let go and let God.
A flower doesn’t work hard or try to bloom. It just does. The sun shines. No effort.

He is all about being here now.
Like the sun, all he wants to do is shine love into our lives even though the clouds of pain often cover his face.
Even then he’s reminding us that we are all children of the resurrection not the crucifixion.

When his laughter returns his constant reminder is to look at the crucifixion, that energy pattern of fear, but not to dwell on it. Not to make the victim-story our home. To look at the darkness, but to proclaim the light.

While we may look at the hands or the side on the Galilean carpenter and victim of abuse, the message is never the victim-story but rather the radical message of new life: “peace be with you, joy be with you!” Not the finger-pointing blaming, “will you look at what they did to me!”

Apart from the times Alexander is in pain, he is almost always smiling, waving and clapping his hands.

P.J. Cunningham saw him at the seafront in Bray one time waving at every single passerby and he said “he’s like a little pontiff!” That little royal or pontifical wave. He is not hard or tough. He is soft. But there is a huge strength in his softness.

Like the Tao Te Ching, Ch. 43:
“The softest thing in the universe overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.”

The ‘softest thing’ referred to is water. We see how, in the course of time, water can erode rock; how, without trouble, it disappears into the earth. Water looks soft, but really is very strong. Because it is silent and unpretentious, seems to have ‘no substance’, it achieves its purpose.

It is not worried about efficiency and profit. But eventually it is more successful than frantic work, because it is based on being.

Non-action tries to imitate this approach. It aims at being, not at producing immediate results. It does not make claims.

Chuang Tzu (300 BC) explains the same idea with reference to the art of target shooting.

“When an archer is shooting for nothing he has all his skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle he is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold he goes blind or sees two targets – he is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him. He cares now about winning.

He thinks more of winning than of shooting and the need to win drains him of power.”

His attachment to the outcome caused him to lose the present, the now, the moment. Process is lost in outcome addiction. The future fear-fuelled focus destroys the now. Fear replaces freedom and fun. Then the action in the now withers and shrivels and loses its free flowing power.

The poet T.S. Eliot captures the doing/being challenge in his poem “The Rock.”
“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not silence;
Knowledge of words, but ignorance of the Word!”

Anthony De Mello says that despair is always five minutes ahead, never now. These great thinkers encourage us to “enjoy the precious present!”
D. H. Laurence said: “One’s actions ought to come out of an achieved stillness, not out of a mere rushing on.”
Alexander introduces us to the Being behind the Doing. The God of life behind all the action.

His presence invites us to slow down and step out from the fast pace of this world and reflect. To go receptive. To once again be here now. To allow ourselves to be guided, to be healed and to be loved by God. To dissolve resistance into an aware allowing.

Alexander is not under time pressure. He’s not working on his Ph.D. He teaches us what real love is all about. He shows us that we are not what we do (our work, our job, our title,) nor are we what we have, or even what other people think of us, our reputation. Rather than what we do, it’s who we are and who we become in his presence that matters.

The Chinese word for busy-ness or persistence is “knife” or “killing” and “heart!” When we’re busy we kill what the heart wants to achieve.
The heart wants to connect, to observe, to drink in, and to be aware and awake. But we’re too busy. We rush on past. Maybe tomorrow? We’re asleep.
“It is only with the heart that one sees rightly,” said the Little Prince.
“What is essential to the heart is invisible to the eye.”


Alexander is our “now” teacher. “Am I living well now? What is life teaching me now? What’s the best use of my time right now?”


Now is my gift.
The present has three meanings:
1. A gift.
2. Here.
3. Now.
Wisdom is knowing how to maximise the enjoyment of each moment. Being fully present enables people to give of their best and also to be able to receive the best that is on offer. Every day is a gift for those who really believe that every day is a gift.
When he looks at you, when he smiles, it’s as if he’s saying, “just fuel every moment with the best that’s in you now, and let fear and doubt go. Live out of love and freedom.”
There’s a story in the Orient about a monk who had a little bird on his shoulder who could see and foretell the future. Each morning the monk would ask the little bird, “Is today the day?” Meaning is today the day that I am going to die.
The bird would always reply, “no, but live as if it were.”
When Steve Jobs has his close encounter with life-threatening illness he resolved to live each day as if it were his last.
Being fully present answering the two great mystical questions:
“Where am I?”
“Here!”
“What time is it?”
“Now!”
If we cannot live in the now or discover Zen meditation washing the dishes or changing a dirty nappy there’s no way we’ll find in a cave on a mountain in Nepal or Tibet.
Alexander is our guru of “Being!” He is our master of power of now, the precious present. He is the ultimate cure for destination addiction or outcome addiction. He instinctively knows that the mountain of success is going to be very lonely if we don’t enjoy the climb, the view and the companionship on the way up.

It’s always the journey, never the destination.

He doesn’t label. He doesn’t judge. He doesn’t evaluate you and then decide how he’ll respond to you.
He lives in the unconditional love zone.
He has opened a portal to another world for us.
The world of ‘Being.’ So radically different from the world of doing, but also so root connected with the power of doing.

With Genevieve and Fionn, his brother and sister, when they were growing up, it was often the world of action and doing.
“Brush your teeth.”
“Do your homework.”
“Tidy your room.”
“Hurry up! Get ready!”
“Put away the dishes.”
“Come on! Let’s go … now!”

The doing is fine, but if that’s all there is then life is so so diminished.

With Alexander, when you touch him, hold him, cuddle him, smell him, put his cheek to your cheek, scratch his legs and get him laughing you enter the other portal into the world of Being.

He takes his mother Annette, and Genevieve, Fionn and Mary his friend and godmother, Hugh his godfather into this world of Being. Through that portal. That door. And they are always at their best in that space. Fully alive … here … now … in the moment with him.

As you look at, listen, touch or help him with this or that you are alert, still, completely present not wanting anything other than the moment as it is.

You are the Alertness, the Stillness, the Presence that is listening, looking touching … the Being behind the Doing.

The Loving Living God.
The kingdom inside.
Life to the full.
Joy pressed down, overflowing.
Holy Communion on a weekday.
Eucharistic thanksgiving.

Down in St Catherine’s in Newcastle where angels disguised as nurses and helpers look after him every morning and give him therapy sessions.

The children in his class are getting ready for Holy Communion next May. I asked him how he felt about that. He gave me that look as if to say, “Why should I take a bus to Bray when I’m already in Bray!”

When St. Francis said, “we must preach the gospel, but only if absolutely necessary use words,” he could have been talking about Alexander.

A slice of an apple pie has to be like the apple pie, like the source. Not like a slice of rhubarb pie. Exactly like the source.

Alexander is like a little slice of God. Just like the Source.

Blessing us with his presence all the time.
Reminding us of who we really are.
With him, you’ve entered another portal of life.

He lives what the monk Thick Nhat Hanh wrote about:

“Waking up in the morning, I smile
Twenty-four brand new hours before me
I vow to live fully in each moment
and look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.”

Alexander looks at us all with the eyes of compassion, with the eyes of joy, with the eyes of unconditional love. Never with the eyes of judgement. Never with the eyes of misery.

That’s how he enriches Annette, Genevieve, Fionn and Mary and all who come into his presence.

Last words to Dr Roisin Mulcahy from Bantry: “Children with special needs like Alexander … they soften the hard edges of society.”
Magic!
Here’s how Genevieve captured that magic in a poem she wrote about Alexander some years ago or as she playfully calls him Alexie Balexie Boo:
My Alex

At three minutes to midnight on December the 10th,
You were new to the world and took your first breath,
A gentle baby boy with wide-set eyes,
They sparkle when you’re happy and shine when you cry.
People often comment on your beautiful eyes,
their expressive colour, ever trusting, never shy.

You achieve what you do, you do what you can,
It’s hard to perform with Mowat Wilson syndrome.
Yet the ability to love, to “live in the now,” that’s pretty rare, but you know how.

Your happiness is special, the tint of your hair,
you’ve been sick a lot, and I’ll always be there.

The sounds of your chuckles are laughed with great taste,
It’s something I can’t describe,
it’s nothing I could paint.
Strangers are your friends, you stop, smile and wave,
What a beautiful little boy in that little walking frame.

My baby brother, Alexander,
I love you in every single way,
If it weren’t for you, would I still be the same person I am today?

I love to hug you and keep you very close,
It’s one of the things I love to do the most.

I’m proud to be your sister and also Fionn’s too,
Our beautiful baby brother, Alexie Balexie Boo.

Meet Declan Coyle, a Real Liberation Theologian (Sunday Homily)

Declan

My Easter homily two weeks ago evoked a wonderful response from one of my former priest-colleagues from the Society of St. Columban – the missionary community of priests I belonged to before I left in 1976. The colleague is Declan Coyle (pictured above).

Declan, it turns out, is a wonderful and witty writer. In a future blog I’ll share his moving piece on his son, Alexander who has Mowat Wilson Syndrome. It’s a truly inspiring essay on the meaning of living in the present moment.

When I asked for permission to share his Easter thoughts, here’s how Declan responded.

Of course Mike you can share it with you audience.

I soldiered (how easily the old militaristic verb crops up, “Who has a blade for a splendid cause … our horses are red to the hocks with the blood of the heathen”) with the Columbans for 27 years from seminary to moving on to marry Annette, an Australian in 1990.

I studied Liberation Theology in St Paul’s Ottawa after ordination, and then I asked the Superior General for five years in a slum in Latin America or Asia. After nine years of post-high school academic study I felt I was not fit to teach in Boston. But I knew that if I got some years in a slum where the slum dwellers who had survived and graduated from the University of Life taught me some life lessons, and I got these in my blood and my guts and my bones and my being, then I could teach Liberation Theology with passion and enthusiasm.

I got five years in the Philippines and six in Taiwan.

I got married to Annette, my wife in 1990. We have three children, Genevieve (19), Fionn (16) and little Alexander who is eight. He is a very special child. He has Mowat Wilson Syndrome. It was only discovered in 1997 and he was the first child in Ireland to be diagnosed with it. I’ll attach a reflection I wrote recently about him. He’s the epitome of the idea that he’s not a human being having the odd spiritual experience, he’s a spiritual being having a human experience.

The last 90 days I was in the Philippines I buried 65 children under two years old … all who died from hunger or hunger related diseases. In the slums we lived Jesus’ Synagogue Speech and Matthew 25 and life to the full and joy overflowing.

From where I’ve lived my so called Christian life, you’ve got your hand on the heart and the soul of the gospel and what the carpenter poet of Galilee was all about. I’m still baffled as to why John Paul II didn’t jump on a plane and go out and finish that Mass that stopped when Romero was shot. Would that not have been a symbolic gesture to lift the hearts of the poor and baffle Reagan?

Every blessing in your great work. You are real good news for the poor. You are real liberation for those oppressed by the historical accretions of the empire and real new sight for those of us who have been blind to the real meaning of the gospels for our world today. You remind me of the great prophet Micah whose words you live: To act justly, to love tenderly with kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

All the lovely things of the Holy Spirit on this Easter Week.

Declan

And now Declan Coyle’s Easter Reflection:

Years ago here at home our eldest two children Genevieve and Fionn were playing hide and seek all over the house. All I could hear all day was, “ready or not, here I come!”

That evening Genevieve asked me how did Jesus rise from the dead. I told her that on Easter Sunday morning the soldiers were outside the tomb, cooking their Easter eggs in a pot on the fire. Then suddenly from the tomb came this thunderous voice, “Ready or not here I come!” Then the rock rolled away and out came Jesus.

The two soldiers fainted with the fright.

The following week, the teacher asked the children to explain how the resurrection happened. Genevieve told her how. The teacher was not impressed.

I asked Genevieve which story she preferred. She said yours Daddy. In one fell swoop, she turned me into the fifth evangelist – a storyteller with a myth, a story, a lie that tells the truth. She understood hermeneutics.

In our recent discussions I told her that if ever she is tempted to go literal, she’ll lose the meaning. Always go symbolic. If you go literal, then you’re wondering at Christmas was Jesus born in a stable, or a cave or was it a kindergarten for the Essenes?

Literal is a dead end. But when you go symbolic you realize that the Christmas story simply means that great power comes in humble packages.

Keep up the great work Mike.

And send your material to Pope Francis.

Happy Easter. Declan

More Happiness in the Barrios than in the Suburbs

Moon-lightening

Here is a thoughtful comment on my posting of February 6th, “Why Bother with the Historical Jesus?” It’s authored by a friend of mine, Jim Cashman (photo above), who studied with me for three years at St. Columban’s Major Seminary in Milton, Massachusetts when I was there from 1961-1967. Jim was an exchange student from Ireland, where he was ordained in 1964. Like most of us from that era, he left the priesthood after the Great Awakening which followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65). Jim writes:

In my view if all we have is subjective and “bias” and hence doubtful history on Jesus, then the more digging one does, especially based on modern science, the better it is for us getting to the reality on Jesus. The Jesus uncovered by science is vastly superior to the faith or propaganda-based version. I have always been dubious about taking anything on faith. It leads to too many wars! What we seek is the truth not support for our environmental brainwashing.

The thing which I regard as above debate is the focal point of your blog. I’m referring to the nature or qualities of God. Factually we know so little about that – maybe nothing. Given that reality, it seems better not to think of Jesus as the son of god or of God being Jesus, but as simply reflecting the nature of God. That seems to be the important point you make. I never had any hang-up/special needs for the divinity of Jesus or the virginity/motherhood of God. I do not feel it is central to the Jesus message. It might be central to Catholicism, but not to understanding of the meaning of my life. Why the hell am I here?

What I find central is that Jesus (like many of the prophets), reflects the core nature of God and that is Love. I feel this Love is not what we think it is. It’s not charitable foundations or helping old folks like me cross the street?

Maybe as Paul hints we are not yet sufficiently evolved or “spiritual” to accept Jesus’ very simple revelation about the nature of God as Love. Now we known in part; then we shall know fully – even as we are fully known. From Krishna to Christ this is the common unifying thread of human development: giving without any payback or satisfaction!. All of this contradicts where we are in the world of greed, self interest and now the ultimate decadence – endless ‘shopping.’

If we all take from nature only enough for what we need, then the poor we could “always have with us” – as equals. Even with the little they have, the stats show there is more happiness in the barrios than in the suburbs.

The worst outcome we could have from the present move against the hypocrisy of Rome (and Washington) is that we achieve “renewal” and leave the real task – the search for truth, for another millennium.

Keep pushing out the boundaries, Mike; we are at the early stage of evolution. And in your downtime you might find this of interest:
http://archive.org/details/ACanticleForLiebowitz The irony like. “1984”, is chilling. Jim

PS – the “stream” may need some manual help in this dramatized audio edition.

In Memoriam: Fr. Norbert Feld

This evening I received the very sad news that Father Norbert Feld (Society of St. Columban ordination class of 1949) died today at the age of 87. Fr. Feld was my philosophy professor in the early ‘60s when he was in his mid-thirties. Norbie was one of my most memorable teachers at the major seminary level in Milton, MA, which I attended from 1960 to 1967.

In fact, each morning I remember him in my prayers as one of my three most influential professors at that level along with Eamonn O’Doherty and John Marley. From Eamonn I learned the science and art of scriptural interpretation. His impact on me can’t be measured. From Fr. Marley I learned about liturgy; he also introduced me to theological giants like Hans Kung, Teilhard de Chardin and Edward Schillebeeckx. Not insignificantly, Fr. Marley was my spiritual director who sympathetically helped me through the crises involved in exiting the priesthood after so many years of preparing to enter it.

I’m not sure how to characterize what I learned from Fr. Feld. I don’t remember much of what he taught me about philosophy – except that he once said that Rene Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” But I think Fr. Feld woke me up to politics and the art of independent thinking. That, I think, is why I remember him as so influential.

Hearing that from me might surprise some of my seminary colleagues, since Norbie was an extreme conservative, while I’ve become the polar opposite. William Buckley and the editors of The National Review were his heroes. Norbie disliked the Kennedys, and had little sympathy for the anti-war protestors. I don’t remember what he thought of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

As for his philosophy classes, they were memorable for his avoidance of the topic. I mean Fr. Feld would devote half to three-quarters of almost every class to discussing “current events” rather than the Scholastics, Enlightenment thinkers, or Existentialists. We’d always encourage my classmate, Frank Hynes, to egg Norbie on. “Hynie” (who later became a Boston politician himself) was much more politically literate than the rest of us who had been cooped up in the seminary since puberty. He was also more liberal than Fr. Feld. So he knew how to “get Norbie going.” It worked every time, and we all loved it.

Fr. Feld was also an athlete. He played football with us, and always hit hard; he was good about taking hard hits too. He’d play baseball with us as well. However, his best sport was hockey. He was as good as any of us. And “he didn’t need no stinkin’ shin guards” either. Instead he’d protect his legs with folded cardboard cartons tucked into his hockey socks. I remember one time he led us all in the building of an outdoor hockey rink in the seminary quadrangle. He was really serious about it. And each evening in the coldest weather while we were in “study hall,” we could see him out there sprinkling the rink’s surface to make it smooth for the next day’s play.

When we weren’t studying, he’d be after us to work on the rink with him. “Holy Honk!” he’d say, “you all want to play hockey. But you gotta to do the work. ‘Criminetley,’ get out here and help!” Maybe I learned that from him too – the expectation of hard work, and how to ‘swear’ like a priest.

Along with others, I’ve told Eamonn how much I appreciated what I learned from him. I’ve also thanked Fr. Marley for what he taught me about liturgy and theology, and for the help he gave me when I needed it most. I regret that I never expressed my gratitude to Fr. Feld for all he gave me.

Again, I’m not quite sure how to name his gift. But it was real. And whatever it was, I’ll remain eternally grateful to him for it.

Thank you, Father Feld. Please rest in peace!

SPIRITUAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD (Pt. 4: Why I Left the Priesthood)

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