A Sign of Hope

We have ground for hope, genuine signs of vitality and reason to risk optimism! Regular readers will recall that I recently expressed blunt criticism and serious disappointment in Pope Francis [link] accusing him of being insensitive and out of touch regarding clergy sex abuse.  I bemoaned the fact that he seemed to defend a perverted “clericalism” that underlies a corrupt power-structure in the Catholic church.  I had largely concurred with canon lawyer and priest Thomas P. Doyle: The survivors of abuse and countless others from the church and from society in general have been waiting for three decades for evidence that the institutional church “gets it.” There not only is no real evidence that it has, but from all appearances the hierarchy will remain on the defensive, hoping the problem will go away.  Fair is fair so I am here today to suggest — to express genuine hope — that I was premature in my harsh criticism and profoundly wrong.

Over the past 24 hours media have favorably reported on the new Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors.  It has to be significant that the first to break this story [link] in the U.S. was John L. Allen, Jr. for the Boston Globe.  You may recall it was the Globe who tenaciously pursued and really broke open the American clergy sex abuse scandal in 2002.  In a journalistic coup and demonstration of its resolve to provide ongoing and incisive coverage, the Globe recently recruited Allen from the equally tenacious, progressive and independent National Catholic Reporter. My purpose is not to repeat what is already well reported but to express welcome surprise and highlight reasons to be hopeful.

Of the eight commission members, four are women.  I have long argued that had women held meaningful leadership in the Catholic church – or the male hierarchy of college sports a la Penn State — the scandal of sex-abuse would have been addressed and resolved much more swiftly and with immediate reforms.  Five of the eight commission members are laypersons.  That in itself is a refreshing change.  Significantly, one member is an outspoken survivor of rape by a priest when she was 13 years old. Corroborating this non-clerical, non-hierarchical composition is that Pope Francis explicitly left it to the eight commission members to choose their own leadership and selection of additional members.

It also has to be sobering for bishops and national conferences of bishops to recognize that their only representation comes with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM — of Boston! Having only one bishop on a pontifical commission of such import sends a pointed message.  Equally significant, and something I have not seen adequately appreciated, is that the other two ordained members are Jesuits.  The fact that all three “clerics” are members of religious orders is a message that cannot be lost on church hierarchs!  As religious, these three have had very different formation than their diocesan brothers and are much more insulated – and one would hope inoculated – from the careerism that is endemic to ecclesial bureaucracies.

The commission is bound to face strong head-winds of resistance, centuries of entrenched power interests and decades of denial – such is the nature of all abuse of power as with this distinctively “Catholic” manifestation. We owe them gratitude and uncompromising support

Commonweal magazine provides a little known reason to inspire additional hope [link].  In the current issue editors cite sources suggesting Jorge Bergoglio possesses the finest-honed political instincts of any Argentine since Juan and Eva Perón.  Let’s all pray the editors are right — we need such gifts right now!

Bread for the Journey

This weekend I am participating in a LOGOS Lenten retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, popularly known as the Casa.  My family has been associated with the Casa since 1974 when our parents moved to the Valley.  My sister, with whom I’m staying while in AZ, was married there. We celebrated my brother Jerry’s funeral there last July.  Many memories ground me in this space — deeply consoling.

Our retreat theme is “the Patriarchs” (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc). Our leaders bring a rich perspective — one earned his doctorate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, another is an Arab Christian from Egypt and the other is a rabbi from Massachusetts.  We began Friday evening and continue through Sunday until 1 p.m.

With these memories and focus for my weekend, I leave you with two favorite quotes from Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey:

  • The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves.
  • Being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty…such experiences can bring us deep joy. Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family.

Both messages appeal to me for very different reasons.  Each provides good fodder for my Lenten reflection.  Perhaps they will challenge and enrich your day as well.

Growing Up

Back in high school Kings was the place to be.  Tiner’s, with poodle-skirted car-hops in roller-skates, was so passé.  After a Friday night football game or a Saturday movie everyone who was “anyone” – in adolescent parlance that means everybody and no one – needed to make an appearance at Kings. I would slide in with the protective cover of my group, grateful to have established the right to say next week at school that I’d been there.  How I envied – and despised – the self-appointed “kings” who commanded both attention and comment as they appeared through the door.  They knew who they were and the rest of us did too.

As with previous generations, we carefully complied with prescribed dietary rules and social rituals.  Malts were soooooo “Tiner’s!”  At Kings we’d have fries and a Coke on Fridays.  On Saturdays it had to be a hamburger and a Coke.  All this ordered from vinyl booths on Princess telephones at each table connected to the kitchen switchboard.  I was always happy to defer to someone else the task of calling-in the table’s order.  I accepted my place in the social hierarchy and was compliant to group norms.

Unspoken as much of adolescent culture and compliance remains today, we consciously knew and obeyed the rules.  We were happy – even grateful – to do so.  Unspoken we knew that we ordered fries and a Coke on Friday because it was meatless.  We gratefully ordered a Coke with a hamburger (only yellow mustard and dill pickle, no ketchup for me, please) on Saturdays as long as it was before midnight.  Because of curfews our choices were always simple and prescribed. We felt secure.

Catholics of my generation remember Friday abstinence and Sunday fasting before communion.  Of course we rebelled. That was a necessary part of growing-up.  Some still grouse about “growing-up Catholic”.  Some still remain unwittingly rule-bound in their inability to give-up the grousing. Some actually mastered the fine art of breaking rules – a life skill more of us would do well to acquire if we are ever to become mature adults.  But I digress!  Of enduring importance for all who navigated the Kings experience, we knew who we were! We felt secure in our respective and multiple peer groups.

Several Australian Catholic bishops have recently said they would support re-establishment of year-round Friday abstinence from meat – without any sanction of “sin” – following the lead of England and Wales in 2011.  American Catholic bishops ended obligatory abstinence just about the time I graduated from high school.  Looking back at the decision to end Friday abstinence, Australian Bishop Elliott wonders if it was a “pastoral and spiritual mistake” stating, “I can understand why that happened, in the mood of that era, but I believe it failed to take into account human psychology.”

Acting through their episcopal conferences, bishops have used their authority to establish norms “they consider the most opportune and efficacious” in regards to fasting and abstinence.  Catholic norms continue to state that “the penitential days and times in the universal church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent,” but that any conference of bishops can “substitute other forms of penance” in place of abstinence.  Consistently through my adulthood Catholics have been encouraged to fulfill the spirit of Friday penance through prayer, self-denial or helping others. However, based on personal practice and observation, it is only honest to admit we simply have ignored the opportunity that is ours.  Encouraging folks to work out their own spiritual practice may have been a noble affirmation of human freedom and presumption of maturity.  But I would concur it was overly idealistic and naïve.

Our dominant culture remains “adolescent” in our preoccupation with brands, labels and social hierarchy. Such norms, parameters and indicators are not evil in themselves.  We all need a secure sense of self, a clear identity and a sense of belonging.  Peer group and external rules enable us to navigate that transition to personal freedom and social maturity.   Dietary prescriptions, even outright prohibitions, have been part and parcel of religious practice across human history because they aid in this process. Turkey on Thanksgiving and oyster stew on Christmas eve fulfill a corresponding function still.  They help us understand and express who we are as a person, a family, a nation, a people.

As much as we said we hated it – that in itself was socially prescribed “rebellion” – compliance with Friday abstinence at Kings promoted our personal identity and sense of social connection.  We remembered who we were and knew with whom we belonged. We took a hidden but much needed comfort and pride in it.  Fifty years later I increasingly recognize so much more that was good and necessary in those challenging teenage years – and am grateful.

Today I welcome  the questions Australian, British and Welsh bishops are asking. But why wait for the bishops?  Who’s stopping me now?  My peer group?  C’mon, it is so past time to give-up and get-over my adolescent insecurities and rebellion.  Time to grow-up!  Meatless Fridays wouldn’t hurt one bit.  In fact, they might just help, at long last, as an expression of freedom and hard-earned maturity.
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Quotes and references are from an article by Matthew Biddle with Catholic News Service and is available [here].

From the Playground

Riley, my nephew’s senior Golden Retriever stood at the fence with tail wagging.  On the other side were young children on the playground of Villa Montessori.  Shouts of freedom, tromp of running feet and rhythmic squeaks of swing sets offered a consoling din to our conversation.   Lunch on the patio with a favorite sister-in-law marked another consoling ritual renewed.  Among memories recounted and updates feverishly made, Marilyn reminisced, “Remember how Mom used to love being out here when the kids were on the playground?  She loved their running, yelling and screaming!  She’d never tire of their energy and joy… reminded her of her own childhood, the kind she always wanted for kids.”

Nearly the age she was then, we affirmed her truth as gospel.  Perhaps a little wizened by age, it felt refreshing to cut through the flurry and noise of our lives – years – to cherish memories, reclaim life’s gift, reaffirm what matters.  Unknown to Marilyn I was distracted by another flash of memory.  A few weeks ago at a formal dinner preceding a panel discussion at a university, Rabbi David Wirtschafter grounded us with a quote by Reinhold Niebuhr: “Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”   My overly primed intellect had resonated with the truth of Niebuhr’s insight and envied the rabbi’s brilliance.   Nussled with  sounds from the playground, recalling a mother’s joy, they were reconfirmed now by maternal wisdom.

With all this rippling through my day, I became intrigued with a story spotted during a routine iPad survey of favorite sites.  What really drew my attention were remarks by Jesuit Superior General Fr. Adolfo Nicolás marking the 100th anniversary of a Sophia University in Japan. Likening religious experience to a person who can appreciate the intricacies and variations of classical music, Nicolás explained that “religion is first of all very much more like this musical sense than a rational system of teachings and explanations.”  In this Jesuit’s teaching I heard the wisdom of Rabbi Wirtschafter and Pastor Niebuhr affirmed.  Even more, I heard music that charmed my mother’s ears. 

Here to escape the harshness of winter and soak up the warmth of Arizona family, I resonate with Nicolás’ lamenting how many people have lost our attentiveness to music because of the many other distractions of the modern technological age: “Just as this musical sense is being eroded and weakened by the noise, the pace, the self-images of the modern and postmodern world, so is religious sensitivity… [We] must first of all work toward helping people discover or rediscover this musical sense, this religious sensibility… This awareness and appreciation of dimensions of reality that are deeper than instrumental reason or materialist conceptions of life allow us.”  AMEN!

Being reminded of how Mom used to love hearing children at play – their running, yelling and screaming being music to her ears, renewed by their boundless energy and joy – I am again grateful for the way she taught me to pray.
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Joshua J. McElwee’s report on Fr. Adolfo Nicolás’ remarks may be found [here].
The quote by Reinhold Niebuhr is from Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.

Our Capacity

Today I repeated a forty-year ritual – it began at 4 a.m.  In 1974 I drove my parents to their retirement in Arizona.    Today I am the age they were then and have begun taking early Social Security.  Rushing down Concourse F to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Phoenix I recognized the change.  I could readily identify the demographic – faded polo shirts ten years out of style, denim pant suits, either a profusion of jewelry or none at all, sensible soft-soled shoes, demeanor suggesting a 4 a.m. wake-up every morning, and all the gray hair …or cocker spaniel blonde.  Even before getting close to the gate I recognize my companions on Delta this morning.  How did we get here? …so soon?

My Dad died in Phoenix more than twenty years ago.  We are now in our fourth generation of Phoenicians.  It’s my first visit since my brother’s funeral in July.  His son took my grand-niece to a father-daughter dance last weekend.  Change imposes its will on all of us. I am staying with my sister who was the fourth sibling to flee the wily Midwest for winter warmth.  In the guest room where I write the flag that draped the casket of a brother-in-law I knew since age nine sits atop a bookcase.  Laughter from my sister and her “new” husband ripples from the living room.   Life changes quickly.

I need this break.  Forecasters anticipate consistency: lows in the upper 50s, highs in the lower 80s.  No chance of precipitation.  Humidity today was 4% — low even by desert standards.   It’s been a harsh winter in MSP with more than just a few storms along the way.  I need the warmth that Arizona family has afforded these many years.  Reflective of the season, I fell on the ice this morning at 4:45 when Jeb the Dog took me out for my morning walk.  Jeb can be left to roll in the anticipated four inches of additional snow by himself.  Some things just can’t end soon enough!

The aridity of a three-hour flight has a way of focusing attention.  Time to reflect.  Remember. Read.  It returned me to an accumulation of unfinished books on Kindle.  Today I found a long neglected biography of Dag Hammarskjold.  A quote from the Secretary General jumped off the screen:  “To remain a recipient – out of humility.  And preserve your flexibility. To remain a recipient – and be grateful. Grateful for being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand.”  Hammarskjold never had the luxury of a long life or the reminiscence proffered by retirement.  He died too soon in a plane crash at age 56.

For those given the gift, a quote from Hammarskjold’s Markings frames our arrival: “Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back.  It must be held out empty – for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.”  Today I arrive empty hoping to remain a recipient, to be grateful, to listen, to carry, to give back.  The gifts of family, companionship, place, years and memory dispose me to trust my emptiness as the markings of capacity.
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I highly recommend: Hammarskjold: A Life by Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan Press 2013.

“Let Your God Love You”

Be silent.

Be still.

Alone.

Empty

Before your God

Say nothing.

Ask nothing.

Be silent.

Be still.

Let your God

Look upon you.

That is all.

God knows.

God understands.

God loves you

With an enormous love,

And only wants

To look upon you

With that love.

Quiet.

Still.

Be.

Let your God –

Love you.

– by Edwina Gateley
from In God’sWomb

No Jumping Allowed

Reverend Fred Phelps, the founder of the nefarious Westboro Baptist Church, is reportedly dying at a hospice in Kansas.  We all know him for organizing protests at the funerals of anti-LGBT hate crime victims, soldiers, and celebrities under the slogan “God Hates Fags.”  It was a proud Sunday morning about twelve years ago when we at the Church of St. Luke warranted his angry attention.  Never had the 9:30 lower church community sung “All are Welcome” with as much vigor, resolve and celebration.

I wish we had done something explicitly prophetic to merit Westboro’s ire. “Lukers” truly were a community of faith-filled, joyful, inclusive, prayerful and socially committed Christians. Truthfully, we were simply one of a series of churches targeted by Phelps in a media-mongering march to our neighbors at St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church.  Reformation had recently called a lesbian to serve as an associate pastor.  Still, this moment stands out as a very proud day within a very distinguished history of what was Church of St. Luke.

It came as a shock to learn that Fred Phelps had been a champion of civil rights.  Unbelievable.  Hard to imagine but the evidence is irrefutable.  In a PolicyMic post on Twitter, Matthew Rozsa explains the inconceivable. After moving to Topeka in 1954, Phelps developed a reputation for taking civil rights cases that other attorneys — black as well as white — refused handle. Phelps’ reputation reached the point that he became the go-to litigator for victims of racist persecution. Rozsa reports, even after he received numerous threats and had his windows shot out, Phelps persisted in his work. By 1987 Phelps won an award from the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP for his “steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney.”

So what happened?

Rozsa debunks the argument that Phelps merely took those cases to make money. He also discredits as far too simplistic the idea that Phelps’ subsequent hate-mongering proved his earlier work was insincere.  We want to believe there is an impermeable wall between that which makes one person a “hero” and another one a “villain.” Rather, the frightening fact we so tenaciously want to deny is that good and evil simultaneously reside within each of us.

Rozsa’s uses Phelps’s life to illumine the truth we want to flee – not only can good and evil co-exist within each of us, they often spring from the same source. Rozsa credits philosopher Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer when explaining: Individuals who invest their life’s work in larger social causes often do so for psychological as well as ideological reasons. Regardless of the exact beliefs of the movements in question — whether they are religious or political, left-wing or right-wing, intellectual or visceral — people who become “true believers” in those causes frequently do so to fulfill a variety of needs to both their egos and their ability to comprehend the dauntingly complex external world. Indeed, as Hoffer demonstrated, this fanatical personality type could be found behind causes ranging from Communism and Nazism to Christianity and Islam… with “true believers” able to flip from one point-of-view to a seemingly contradictory one precisely because their core psychological needs were still met.

Consequently, instead of viewing Phelps’s earlier civil rights activism as an angel to his subsequent raging homophobe’s devil, we should see them as different manifestations of a single root drive. We need to recognize that the same fervent conviction and inner belief system that can fuel the cause of justice can also be used to deny justice to others, even though the genesis of both those forces can sincerely hold that each is serving a righteous cause.

Nothing excuses malevolence or hate.  But it helps, especially during Lent, to hear the warning implicit in Fred Phelps’ tragic life:  Everyone — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, centrists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists — is capable of being both a hero and a monster. We all believe what we do as much out of pride and the need to be swept up by a “greater cause” as we do out of detached intellectual and moral analysis.

It’s not just about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church is it?  It’s not about self-congratulatory contentment with communities as objectively praiseworthy as St. Luke’s.  It is not about a single protest or revolting slur.  It’s not outside “us” or about “them.”  It is about me, you, us, all of us together. It’s about each of our faith communities and our nation.  It is about sin, violence and all that lurks in the human heart.  It is about grace, love and becoming the Imagio Dei we are at our core.  It’s about giving ourselves over to the paschal mystery.

It’s about not leap-frogging Lent in our desperate need for Easter.
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Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist.  His article on PolicyMic is available [here].