How Long Must We Endure?

Today is a really, really, really hard day to be Catholic in Minnesota! If you care to read the details that leave me somewhere between exasperated on the way to enraged you can find them [here].

Let me simply summarize by saying that I called for the resignation of John Neinstedt as Archbishop of St Paul & Minneapolis [here] one month ago today. Now I am confident that it will only be a matter of time!  But how long, oh Lord?  How long?

Perhaps this is perfect context in which to reaffirm that our Christian faith is grounded — not in humans, not in a church or any authority, not even in any human interpretation of Scripture — but ultimately and solely in God alone.

So today is a day in which I feel the cost, challenge and pain of loving a church that is corrupt, sinful and in desperate need of a thorough house-cleaning! All the more need to keep my eyes focused on God alone! All the more reason to stay with the very same theme I had planned for today — living in the dark!

Yesterday, before the bomb shell news report, I could never have anticipated how I would come to value Barbara Brown Taylor’s quote from the 14th century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing: “… darkness and cloud is always between you and God, no matter what you do.”

Let me be clear, the anonymous author of this Christian classic was speaking of “darkness” as that intriguing, beguiling, frustrating mystery of God that is as impenetrable as its opposite, trying to look directly into the sun. This darkness — only metaphorically apprehended in what mystics express as a “dark night of the soul” — is the direct polar opposite of the sin and corruption we so vividly see in the Church of St Paul and Minneapolis.

Keeping our sights singularly fixed on God alone, we acknowledge that some things we will simply never be able to see by the light of human understanding. At times — thankfully not most of the time — faith feels like a forced exile, if not a long captivity, the spiritual life weighs like an imposing burden.

The anonymous text from the 14th century remains a classic because of its incomparable ability to express our universal and perennial experience. Ultimately, like the penultimate lawgiver, Moses, we are able to encounter or “see” the Holy One — if at all — only from within a cloud of luminous darkness.

Moses never made it to the Promised Land, being given only the gift of seeing it beckoning on the horizon. Others lead the People’s crossing over from slavery into freedom.

How long, oh Lord? How long!!! Our trust rests in you alone.

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Barbara Brown Taylor’s reference on p 48 of Learning to Walk in the Dark is from The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Emilie Griffin.  HarperSan-Francisco, 1981. p 15.

Beyond Denial to Genuine Hope

A week ago at church we heard that terrific passage from 1 Peter 3:15 suggesting we should always be ready to give reason for our hope. Yesterday at church I experienced reason for great hope in the most unimaginable way – Father Dale matter-of-factly referred to rape in his homily. It felt like fresh Spring air reviving the church.

Regulars here will remember that I am beyond exasperation with clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. As with the vast majority of rank and file Catholics my outrage transcends those who committed acts of sexual exploitation. Collective outrage correctly rests with a culture of clericalism – like fish, the ordained are typically unaware of the water in which they swim!

For the record, I believe Archbishop John Nienstedt should resign. My reasons are not based in anger or revenge, though I freely admit my anger and belief he must bear the consequences of his malfeasance. He should resign because he has squandered authority and lost the trust of the people. No one can provide moral leadership from such a position of deficit.

He is not likely to resign. Such is the culture of clericalism – ordination is often misconstrued as divine right, direct delegation from God Almighty! He appears to me as one who remains blithely unaware of the water in which he swims. Clerics are too often preoccupied with fulfilling “their” vocations, their individual “call” from God. It’s tied up in power!

If Archbishop Nienstedt were a Good Shepherd he would recognize that it’s not about him! Neither is it about public anger, revenge, power or even legitimate authority. It’s about the church, the People of God. The eight years to Nienstedt’s mandatory retirement age of 75 is simply too long for this Archdiocese to wait for the leadership it deserves and desires.

But neither is my point ultimately about an Archbishop. It’s about hope, fresh air, speaking the truth, proclaiming a Word recognized as the Truth! It’s about what’s happening in parishes in this Archdiocese and across this country. It’s about priests like Father Dale who know the water in which they swim, who love the communities they shepherd, and about mature Christians who recognize and require truth be spoken.

Yesterday Dale introduced his homily, masterfully focused on the Ascension of the Lord, with a passing reference to the death of Maya Angelou and her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In that context he mentioned that she had been raped at age seven and lived for the next ten years not speaking. Rape. Seven-years old. In church, out loud!

This never would have happened in the church of my childhood. Such topics were verboten, unspeakable, mentioned only in the privacy of Confession. That too was an ocean in which we swam unaware of the toxicity of our waters.

Today churches, schools and civic organizations have “safe child” trainings, policies guiding the actions of supervising adults, and a heightened sensitivity to good-touch/bad-touch. This is as it must be. This all is necessary to transform our culture and heal our communities.

But something more was in the air yesterday at church – freedom, truth, openness. It feels like a genuinely safe and transparent community when rape of a child can be factually admitted and publicly grieved. It went far beyond training, policies or supervision!

This was not the point of Dale’s Ascension homily – and that is my point. No more cover-ups. No more denial. No more lies. Truth vivified the air. What a healthy community in which to raise a child. What a truly safe church we really are becoming.

At the Ascension Jesus promised to send us the Spirit. We have good reason for deep and abiding hope!

Forgiveness

I can’t pray the Our Father anymore – at least as I have in the past. Honesty requires that I admit my paralysis. Most of my prayer remains sincere but I now get hung up on “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Integrity demands that I admit deep resistance and objection.

It’s easy in conversation to accept that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves is pretty radical. In every day practice we might be able to transcend our urge to extract “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. But love my enemies, pray for those who persecute? Offer forgiveness, not just once but seven times seventy? Do not resist an evil doer but offer the other cheek as well to the one who strikes you?

Last weekend we went to see The Railway Man, a searing account of a former prisoner of war who is unable to overcome the emotional trauma of his past. Based on a true story, Eric Lomax was one of thousands forced into slave labor to build the notorious Burma Railway, known as the “Death Railway” because of the thousands who perished during its construction.

“The Railway Man” begins three decades after the war. It’s long shadow of looms over his marriage. Lomax has terrifying nightmares, and his behavior is erratic, at times violent. His wife sees he is shell-shocked and desperately wants to help. But Lomax refuses to discuss what happened in the internment camp. Intending revenge, Lomax instead travels to Asia to confront his tormentor.

How are such victims to forgive? Are they to be forgiven as they forgive those who have trespassed against them? Locally, two men “sucker punched” and kicked in the head of a young dad who now lies in critical condition struggling for his life. What should “forgiveness” look like for this wife and mother?

Perhaps the ultimate test for our generation is clerical sexual abuse. We all know too well that such a victim never does fully recover from such a profound violation of trust. Unspeakable pain lingers. Emotional landmines lie hidden while spawning a veritable tsunami of collateral damage. Relationships are forever poisoned.

Our generation has been collectively victimized, violated, traumatized. One need not have experienced explicit physical exploitation to know the deep pain. What angers us, what hurts most, is not simply the reprehensible behavior of initial perpetrators. We have come face to face with the fact that the Church itself has failed us all. Unconscionable behavior by the hierarchy seems relentless — like [this] out of Seattle yesterday.  We are all victims of their abuse.

How do we pray with integrity “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? One thing I have recognized is my tendency to link my need to be forgiven with my willingness to forgive – quid pro quo, we are forgiven as we are capable of forgiving. I’m doomed if my forgiveness is contingent upon or in proportion to my capacity to forgive.

Where is the hope? And, yes, there is always hope! Whether a prisoner of war like Eric Lomax, an anguished wife and mother in Mankato or a “cradle Catholic” in the pew on Sundays, forgiveness sometimes requires a superhuman act. In reality only God can forgive.

“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” remains as pressing in our day as for the Pharisees grilling Jesus. (Luke 5:21). Despite the normative teaching of Jesus in the Our Father, forgiveness is really only possible through God’s saving action in Christ (Rom 3:25f).

Ultimately, God has reconciled us to Himself and to one another while we were still sinners (Rom 5). That gives me hope despite my paralysis in prayer. That is the sole grounds on which we may have hope for the Church as well.

God save us!
_________________
Again, I am indebted to Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2013 for prompting much of these reflections; esp., pp 138-142.

 

Party-Pooper

Okay, so the Catholic world is gathering this weekend in Rome to celebrate the saintliness of two popes. Probably harmless enough. Perhaps even helpful for those of a certain cultural religiosity. Me? I will read/watch the news reports but would rather spend my time enjoying a really beautiful Spring weekend in Minneapolis with family and friends.

Count me among those party-poopers like the highly regarded Vatican-expert Thomas Reese, SJ who believes that “canonizing popes is a dumb idea.” [link] It’s all too politicized from my perspective. Too many want their favorite “made a saint so he can be presented as the ideal pope that future popes should imitate. It is more about church politics than sanctity” according to Reese.

Thank God for Pope Francis! Traditionalist Catholics and Polish nationals adored JPII and began an intense push for immediate sainthood. Although the cardinals and bishops of Vatican II expressed a similar spontaneous call for John XXIII upon the conclusion of the council, his cause languished for fifty years.

Francis has tempered the “political/ideological” fervor with the ingenious pairing of the two. Reese insightfully notes that Pope Francis is fighting the same divisions that Paul faced in Corinth, where some would say, “I belong to Paul,” and others, “I belong to Apollos” or “Cephas.” We are bigger and better than all of that!

That having been said, we must not gloss over genuine concerns and just “make happy”. Count me as well among those who think we have moved way too fast with John Paul II. In no way do I question the man’s global influence, considerable brilliance, obvious holiness and long-suffering virtue. But should we rush to canonize his “saintliness”? More time should have been taken for his full legacy to become known. That sort of patience and forbearance is the wise practice and time-proven tradition of the Church.

Specifically, I am curious about his culpability in the global sex abuse scandal. Sufficient evidence indicates he was apprised of the burgeoning crisis as early as 1984. He consistently defended a model of clericalism, hierarchy, power and prestige of the priesthood that rank and file Catholics recognize as the real source of  the sex abuse crisis.  Thomas P. Doyle has written a blistering critique based on his first hand experience of transmitting information to the Vatican as a staff assistant to U.S. papal nuncio Cardinal Pio Laghi. [link]. 

Ultimately, millions of people coming together to celebrate the holiness of others cannot be a bad thing. What’s going on in Rome will be a memorable moment of grace and religious zeal for those who participate. That’s good! It’s a true blessing.

Then after those of us who actually remember John XXIII and John Paul II pass on to our own heavenly reward, their memories will fade along with that of St. Pius X (1903-14) who ferociously fought the “heresy of Modernism” and went kicking and screaming trying to keep the Catholic church from embracing the 20th century!

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!