Friday, March 29, 2013

Reflections for the Easter Triduum

This Holy Thursday marked a first for me.  I actually uttered the words, “Well…nooo SHIT” aloud in a cathedral during Mass.  I did not mean to offend or to say it but it slipped out as a spontaneous reaction to the bishop’s homily.  Let me summarize what he said that prompted it: 

1.  He encouraged priests to visit people, telling them they shouldn’t remain holed-up in their rectories. 

2.  He observed that most priests in his diocese were like him and preferred staying home in solitude, as though this was a natural personality disposition for a parish priest – to eschew the people of God (which by the way “People of God” is the definition of “the church” according to the catechism).

3.  He said he had visited parishioners when he was assigned as a transitional deacon decades ago and sympathized that visiting laypeople is “tedious and tiresome.”

4.  He said that when he undertook this “tedious and tiresome” task of visiting people, he also extended an offer to every single couple experiencing marital difficulties to help them repair their marriages but no one accepted his generous offer.

And at that point, imagining a married person being approached by a young seminarian with no marital experience, no training in marital counseling (because seminaries don’t have courses in marital counseling), no training in marriage and family living (because seminaries don’t teach that either), possibly struggling with his own sexuality, and sporting an attitude that talking to them was “tedious and tiresome” but offering to fix their broken marriage,  I let loose with, “Well…nooo SHIT!” at the thought of his generous offer being wholesale rejected.

The event at which this took place was another first for me.  I’d never attended a Holy Thursday Chrism Mass.  This is the annual Mass in which the holy oils for the year are blessed and later distributed to representatives from every diocesan parish – a profound symbolic connection point for the “catholic” (def. “universal”) church. 

At this liturgy priests also renew their vows and re-pledge their obedience to their bishop.  So, it’s a bit of a bro-mance moment amongst the ordained to the point that the bishop began his homily telling the laity that his homily really wasn’t for them.  We were kind of interlopers in their same-gender love-fest liturgy, I guess.  Or maybe we were supposed to serve as adoring fans or props; I don’t know.  But since the message wasn’t intended for me, it gave me the opportunity to listen and reflect as a third party.

Having operated as a business leader for over a decade, I began thinking about organizational development topics which flowed into assembling a hypothetical priest job posting in my head.  When I post a job, I first think about the skills and personality characteristics that are important for the role.  For a parish priest, one might assume “likes people” is at the top of the list along with “likes to interact with people.”  In the business world, we call those “meets minimum” criteria. 

Unlike a priest ordained as a contemplative monk who devotes many hours to praying for people from afar, a parish priest is supposed to work with the people.  Canon law even tells them they have to get to know the people.  I guess I assumed, incorrectly, that a church leader would want to do that versus think it a “tedious and tiresome” part of the job.  And though one can sometimes manage to keep a job in which a major facet of that job is considered a drudgery, it’s hard to see it as a “vocation” (a calling) rather than an “occupation” (something that occupies your time and provides income). 

Also, typically embracing such a major dimension of the job becomes a “critical success factor” for the role.  So, this launched me into wondering what church leadership think are critical success factors versus what the laity think are critical success factors.

There’s the pious theatre dimension of the clergy leading worship - though scripture never indicates Jesus led religious worship services.  The pious theatre dimension arises from an imitation of Jesus’ Last Supper celebrated with friends – the one where he got down on his knees, washed their dirty, sweaty, stinky feet and served them rather than expecting to be served.  Currently seminaries place a lot of emphasis on training pious thespians but the part where Jesus humbly washes feet is often rather lost other than the annual required symbolic re-enactment during the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. 

There’s also the teaching dimension of the clergy in an effort to imitate Jesus who did a lot of teaching.  But usually when Jesus taught it was to the chagrin of religious leaders of his day.  Therefore, imitating Jesus as a teacher requires imitating his teaching style of showing up at places where he wasn’t the leader and often wasn’t welcomed, and then usurping control from religious leaders who are spouting self-serving messages that they attribute to God. Today as in Jesus’ time, religious authorities try to stop people who do this by censuring, excommunicating or mocking them.    

Somehow church leaders shifted Jesus from the role of a non-conformist who challenged and flaunted religious authority to one of a dutiful, obedient, non-boat-rocking middle manager singing religious leaders’ party line and praises.  They say they work for Jesus but I really think they have made Jesus their subordinate. 

By ascribing their teachings an “infallibility” designation, they declare they already fully know the mind of Jesus and have known it for centuries and anything they don’t know ain’t worth knowin’.  They try to convince the laity that there is no need to explore or discover more about Jesus than what they have bottled and been selling for years.  And like Coca-Cola, they say anything bottled outside their franchise isn't the real thing.  Such explorations and deviations are labeled “erroneous” or “dangerous” by church leaders.

No wonder they try to lock Jesus in the tabernacle and limit access, meting out Jesus through the sacraments that they say they control.  How dangerous it is to let true Jesus imitators operate and how dangerous to let people think they can access Jesus without the clergy dispensing him.  It might make religious leaders truly subordinate to Jesus again and ruin their “Jesus vending machine” business.  

Imitating Jesus’ teaching style also involves teaching from experiential knowledge of people’s day-to-day struggles.  It’s a “heart” and “hand” thing more than a “head” thing mouthing proper thoughts. Thus, it involves teaching a lot outside of the four walls of religious buildings and teaching via actions.  It involves humility.  It involves loving people with an agape love blossoming from inextricably intertwined personal intimacy.

I have difficulty seeing how this leads to thinking an entire diocese of priests who prefer solitude and find interacting with people “tedious and tiresome” is anything other than a huge problem.  I think my kids might use the term "face-palm" at this point. 

O.K. so we’ve identified a problem.  Hopefully it’s just isolated to this one diocese but I kind of doubt it.  The bishop who spoke yesterday has served as seminary rector where seminarians from many dioceses study.  He’s pretty much spent his entire late adolescent through adult life hanging out with priests, and from that context he found his sentiments perfectly natural observations.  So, the question is “What can and should laypeople do?” 

Prayer is always good.  We can and should pray that these guys who carry delusions of being the most superior imitators of Christ have an awakening.  But I think action in the form of interaction is good too.  Regardless of what religious leaders think, they should learn as much or more from the laity than we do from them.  What are we doing to help educate these guys?

We are all called to imitate Christ and that means sometimes telling religious leaders you disagree.  Sometimes a little creativity and humor helps convey the lesson in a non-threatening way.  For example earlier this week I sent the bishop an email inquiring about incense usage due to my asthma, received his reply that incense would be in abundance so I might want to avoid the liturgy, and responded back that I would attend, sit as near the front as possible and let him witness any breathing issues that resulted from his incense overuse.  I explained that I was sure that since incense is just a symbol of our prayers, I knew he’d rather have the real deal in abundance by having me and my prayers there than having an abundance of the symbol.  I attended and incense seemed judiciously applied and the cathedral doors remained open providing good ventilation…no respiratory distress. 

Other times, yes, you will be treated like Jesus was – you’ll be seen as a threat by those in power - you’ll be labeled and ostracized by some.  If you’re not being labeled as a troublemaker by religious authorities every once in a while, are you imitating Jesus as well as you should?

I’ve said before that the power of the papal office is changing and the extent to which it changes depends more upon the 1.2 billion Catholics than the one guy wearing the pointy hat.  If 1.2 billion people said, “no” to clergy abuses, to corruption, to misuse of funds, to uncharitable treatment of people, to the marginalization of women, to the neglect of the sick and impoverished, etc… things would change in a hurry.  If we can die to our own apathy, and desire for either approval or absence of disapproval, the church could be resurrected this very Easter.  Or is that too “tedious and tiresome” for us?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I am closer to believing...

What is it about the change in popes that keeps excavating tunes from my rock audio archives? 

When I read that Pope Francis wanted a “poor church”, I thought, “…so said the man who will soon live in opulence and privilege.”  Secretly I held no hope for Francis leading needed institutional reform unless he lived outside the Vatican.  But lo, today I read that he has opted to live in a 2-room suite in the Vatican guesthouse rather than live in the Apostolic Palace’s 10-room papal apartment.  Though he will still reside inside Vatican City, he will do so in one unit of a 131-unit communal residence on the outskirts of the city-state.  Suddenly in my head I heard Greg Lake singing, “I am closer to believing than I ever was before…”

I am encouraged that Pope Frank is comfortable enough in his own skin to break long-held church traditions.  However, so far, he’s mostly dispensed with symbolic traditions.  Does he have the conviction and leadership skills to undertake substantive changes?  That is the difference between being an admirable human and an effective leader.  So far he has proven to be an admirable human.  I await evidence of him being an effective leader.

He recently spoke about the importance of avoiding moral relativism.  I have observed some of the worst moral relativism coming from hierarchical leaders who wantonly violate truth to protect their institution, reputation or power.  I find myself wondering if Francis will address this form of moral relativism. 

Married clergy existed in the church for more years than there has been mandatory celibacy.  Women were ordained, especially as deacons, but also as priests and bishops in the early church.  What will Francis do about the moral relativism re-writing historical facts about married and female clergy?  Will he get his papal pen out and open all seven sacraments to women by permitting the ordination of female deacons and priests tomorrow?  Will he use that same pen to reinstate married clergy?  There is nothing stopping him from doing this immediately – other than clinging to the moral relativism that protects status quo.

Will Francis address the moral relativism that rejects modern understandings about human biology, psychology, and sexuality?  Will he address the moral relativism of active homosexual hierarchy members denouncing homosexuality and advocating discriminatory legislation?  Will he address the moral relativism of sexually active clergy feigning sexual continence while berating the sexual practices of the laity?

Will Frank address the moral relativism of bishops cozying up to the wealthy and politicians who exploit or ignore the impoverished and marginalized? 

There is also the question of his willingness to reform practices and Canon Laws that enabled rapists to continue raping children.  And there are questions about his willingness to help the abuse survivors heal, work to restore rightfully lost trust, and put a moratorium on bishops feigning sympathetic care to lure victims into trust only to violate that trust protecting church financial assets instead.  Will there be new canons requiring transparency or the same old story of people having to battle for every word of information while bishops maintain a public mantra of empty words about how much they want to help victims heal?  What will he do about bishops declaring bankruptcy rather than paying restitution to pedophile victims?

Then there is the question of his willingness to deal with bishops who violate norms for protecting children.  Will there be new canons holding accountable those bishops who enable sexually abusive priests?  Why is convicted criminal, Opus Dei Bishop Finn of Kansas City, MO, still an active bishop, though in 2011 he failed to report a priest to authorities for taking pornographic pictures of little girls’ genitals?  Why are bishops and cardinals who paid and moved clergy still active bishops?  Why is Cardinal Rigali who lied about and permitted abusive priests to continue in ministry still on the Congregation for Bishops (that chooses new bishops), on the Board of Trustees of The Catholic University of America, the Chair of the University Seminary Committee, and on the Board of Directors of the National Catholic Bioethics Center?   What is Francis going to do about serial pedophile enabler Cardinal Law?

There is also the question of what Francis will do about the closing of parishes and selling of church properties.  What will he do about the violations of Canon law here? 

What will Francis do to reinstate the thousands of theologians and lay ministers censured or excommunicated?  What will he do about Canon Law that permits institutional bullying?  What will he do to reform church governance to move away from a feudal system that doesn’t serve the people of God, i.e., the church?

There is the question of how he will handle the most recent Vatican Bank scandals.  As some history, that bank has endured scandals almost since Pope Pius XII first established it in 1942.  One example of scandal in its history occurred in 1982.  The Vatican Bank was a major shareholder in Banco Ambrosiano which went bankrupt that year causing the Vatican Bank to lose hundreds of millions of dollars.  Soon afterwards its chairman, Roberto Calvi, died hanging from a London bridge in what has been ruled an unsolved homicide.  

More recently an Italian priest and a lawyer were charged with defrauding insurance companies and using the Vatican Bank to launder the money.  Earlier this year, European Union (EU) banks weren’t allowed to conduct transactions with the Vatican due to lack of financial transparency – again concerns about money laundering.   Until the Vatican found a non-EU Swiss bank to use, it couldn’t do things like process credit card transactions at the Vatican Museum.  Prosecutors investigating financial crimes repeatedly experience the bank’s “haughty resistance to European Union laws” with communications being ignored or rejected. 

Benedict did try to address the bank’s scandals by issuing a papal letter in 2010 forbidding money laundering and established an oversight watchdog organization.   But the bank fired its chief, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi in 2012 because he was being investigated for – money laundering.  I guess the Vatican is not as persnickety about adhering to papal edicts associated with financial corruption as they are to ones about keeping women out of ordained ministry.  Or maybe we could call that moral relativism?

How will he handle Vatileaks and restitution to the whistleblower who was imprisoned for calling attention to the rampant corruption in Vatican Curia?  Will he reform the Curia as the Cardinals have desired since before the 1964 Second Vatican Council?  Will he publish the Vatileaks report and show transparency?  His brother cardinals requested copies of the Vatileaks report before holding the conclave that elected him.  Now that he’s pope, is he going to treat them as equals and share the information or continue the Vatican perennial sport of secrecy? 

I realize this is a rather long list of needed reforms and it’s not even complete.  I don’t expect Francis to address them all immediately.  But if he wants me to get any “closer to believing” he needs to make some profound progress on at least one of these.  If given the choice, I prefer he retain the traditional custom-made red shoes but make progress on any one of these substantive matters. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Who is Pope Francis - the artist formerly known as Cardinal Bergoglio?

I hear the 115 Roman Catholic Cardinals selected a new pope – a Caucasian conservative male Roman Catholic Cardinal.  Many pundits found this a surprising choice.  I’m not sure why.  There were only 115 from whom to select and they’re all male, varying shades of conservative, and about 90% Caucasian.  It’s like reaching into a refrigerator that contains 90% vanilla pudding and being surprised that you grabbed vanilla pudding.  This time it’s just Jesuit rather than Franciscan, Dominican or Diocesan brand vanilla pudding – but it’s still vanilla pudding. 

There’s little information about him other than a small set of repeated messages bouncing around in an echo chamber – some of which are contradictory.   

He took the bus, lived in a simple apartment and cooked for himself – all good things.  But wait - he is moving into the 10 room Papal apartment, getting a cook and staff, and will take a helicopter for the whopping 15 mile journey from Rome to Castel Gandolfo.  (By the way, having made the trek to Rome from a hotel by the pope’s Castel Gandolfo residence, I’m puzzled by the helicopter ride and also confused how it supports his “love the environment” message from today’s homily, but sometimes I’m easily confused.) 

Some say he sided with the military junta and economic elite that abused and oppressed the poor during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”  But wait – others say he actually helped the marginalized and poor during the same war.

Many say he is genuinely humble because he checked out of his own hotel room and asks people to pray for him.  But wait – others say he is merely a highly skilled politician and his humility is just a well-staged act.

He is conservative and doesn’t like homosexuals.  But wait - he washed the feet of AIDS patients.

He is an educated Jesuit, trained in chemistry.  But wait - he seems to uphold doctrinal orthodoxy over scientifically proven facts.

Somehow, I read all these conflicting accounts and hear the quibbling nuns from the Sound of Music.  They could be describing Maria or Pope Francis, “(S)he is gentle!  (S)he is wild!  (S)he's a riddle!  (S)he's a child!  (S)he's a headache!  (S)he's an angel!  (S)he's a girl!”  Oh, scratch that last one.  Ix-nay on the irl-gay thing.

Is this really a case of selecting a guy with a limited public record or a case of selecting a guy who carefully controls his public image, repeatedly feeding the press the same limited assortment of sound-bites?  I don’t know.  But I do know from undergoing press training that repeated sound-bites are trademarks of a carefully groomed public image.

I also know that before Benedict resigned until Francis’ election, the press was occupied reporting the deluge of stories related to corruption in the Curia, bishop accountability, clergy sexual abuse, Vatileaks, and the Vatican Bank scandal.  Suddenly the press has been enrapt with an image of the pope much like humble and loveable shoe-shine boy (Google the Underdog cartoon for reference). 

Without any reforms addressing the church’s core issues around governance, inclusion or equality, all those stories about the church’s problems magically began evaporating from the press.   But the problems themselves have not disappeared. 

One sexual abuse survivor sent me a series of notes expressing frustration that the world sat on the edge of its seat watching the color of smoke and seemed to forget the hundreds of thousands of men and women raped by priests as children and the dozens if not hundreds of bishops who enabled this to happen.  This still remains unresolved.  Having a pope who wears a smaller, less ornate miter does not heal their wounds, or restore their dignity. 

I am humbled by the thousands of people who visited my blog since Benedict XVI announced his resignation and Francis was selected.  I feel as though people are looking for me to say something.  However, I really don’t know what to say about Francis other than maybe this:  Until significant visible effective measures are taken to address the church’s abundant issues, you can call this guy Francis, Francis I or Pope Franky, but my friend George is going to call him Pope SOSO CCLXVI (Pope “Same old – Same old” the 266th).  The Who might sing, “Meet the new pope; same as the old pope.”  I guess until I see appreciable progress on any of the issues, “I’ll get on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again” by someone skilled in public relations.

In the meantime, I wonder, what is it we’re waiting for from the pope?  We know Jesus calls us to care for the poor and marginalized.  We know that about 5 million children die from poverty each year.  Did we really need to wait for a pope who dressed in simple cassocks rather than elaborate, expensive lace, capes and furs before we followed this instruction? 

The U.N. estimates that 70% of the world’s poor are females.  Are we going to wait for Francis to address the causes of systemic poverty especially amongst women, or are we going to do that regardless of what Francis does?

We know we need to protect children and hold clergy accountable for abuses.  Even if Francis doesn’t, are we going to let the issue drop and abandon the abused?

We know there is no theological justification for mandatory clergy celibacy and that this could be changed by the simple stroke of a pen.  Even if Francis doesn’t address this, are we going to stop advocating for married clergy?

We know there is Scriptural and historical evidence of female apostles leading worship.  Even if Francis doesn’t acknowledge or address this, are we going to stop advocating for women whom the Spirit has called to ordination?

We know that Pope John XXIII’s papal commission recommended that the church adjust its birth control stance because science and theology indicate it’s not justified and prima facie evidence from married couples indicates it damages numerous marriages.  Even if Francis doesn’t address this, are we going to stop advocating for women’s health and healthy sexual relations between married people?

We know many of the church’s issues stem from an outdated, ineffective governance model.  Even if Francis doesn’t address church governance which permits clericalism and clerical abuses of sexuality, power, and substances, are we going to tacitly permit these injustices to continue or use our prophetic voices to demand reform?

We know most of the bishops’ funds to help the poor come from government sources and that most of the faithful's money donated to the church actually pays for church salaries instead of helping the poor.  Regardless of what Francis does, are we going to continue to fund such a financial model?

I read many promising things about Francis and other things that give me pause.  But while the passage of time allows events to sketch his character, what is stopping us from doing what we know is right?  Let us all say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).”