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?


  1. Ah! So it was like pulling teeth to have a priest come anoint me or mom because meeting with the laity is icky. So it would stand to reason that when a person is ill, they are even ickier which would make visiting them beyond tedious and tiresome. I'm so glad I didn't die from my sepsis so I could still be around to hear this. (Yes, folks, this is MY diocese.)

  2. Madeleine BarrowsMarch 29, 2013 at 3:58 PM

    Such a relief to find someone else feeling the same. My priest (ex-Benedictine contemplative) finds it hard to catch someone's eye.He is obsessed with adhering to the rules so we now sing endless plainchant, including lots of Latin.... (as someone with an MPhil from Oxford in NT, I don't recall any sensible scholar ever suggesting that Jesus normally spoke Latin). This afternoon I found myself at the headof the queue for communion after the altar servers, who all genuflected before receiving communion. I wondered what was going on but carried on as normal, simply standing, to find that a disapproving glare came my way. Why is it that he cannot be happy unless the laity a re fully obedient?? Just who is the church?? Thank you Ewe, you keep me sane and just about within the Church.
    Of course, no priest ever thinks to ask this simple laywoman about the meaning of the NT: with only 7 years of theological study, four on NT with some of the best scholars, what do I know????

  3. Yes, I do believe we have to be the change we want to see.

  4. Not only the church, but the world at large basically suffers from only one thing: male hubris. And nothing that can be done about that. The male biology was not designed to cope with equality, let alone promote it. God is not male, but the devil certainly is!