Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Don't Surround Yourself with Yourself..."

It is early morning Day Four of my Italy tour.  As mentioned in previous blog articles, I joined a tour group being led by the chancellor of my diocese.  We are in Florence now having already visited Assisi and with Rome yet on our itinerary.

As would be expected of a trip that costs thousands of dollars, the people in the group have incomes which support paying that kind of money for a trip.  That statement can be read as us having precisely zero poor people in the group and having several very wealthy people in the herd.  I am probably amongst the minority in that I have at least experienced poverty, growing up in a very low-income home.  I am definitely in the minority in that I am not a member of America’s Republican Party.

Many people on the tour are huge fans of Cardinal Tim Dolan.  Some have moved beyond admiration of the man to adoration and adulation of him.  These people are stunned and incredulous when they learn I do not or for that matter that anyone might not share their opinions of him.     

A telling conversation came about during Day Two’s lunch with some of Tim’s biggest fans in the group.  Their statement was that “everyone I talk to loves the man.”  Yet my reply was, “I know many people who dislike him.”  We will return to this thought momentarily.

Later that same day I read comments Tim made during the recent U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB’s) Fall Convocation.  When asked if the American bishops and the church needed to do anything differently to align better with Pope Francis’ stated desire to be “a poor church for the poor”, Dolan replied, “Can I think of anything new?  I don't think so. I like to think that this is an affirmation of the good things we are doing."  He went on to highlight that most complaints he hears from the people he interacts with are that the bishops emphasize social justice, government cut backs, and the poor too much.

I sent a link to an article about Dolan’s statements to one of the people participating in our conversation – one of the people who said that everyone he talks to loves Dolan.  I highlighted Dolan’s statements about what he hears from the people with whom he communicates.  The common theme between Dolan’s statements and those of my lunch companions was the concept of confining reality to the sphere of “the people I talk to…” 

With whom do Dolan and the Republican Catholics speak?  The rock group “Yes” has a profound lyric in the song, “I’ve Seen All Good People” which advises, “Don’t surround yourself with yourself.”  If one speaks exclusively to those with whom one agrees, growth becomes difficult if not impossible and there is a grave danger of elevating common opinion to the unwarranted status of “unmitigated fact.”

Quite simply, having a “poor church for the poor” requires understanding poverty and the church. 

Let’s start with the second item first – understanding the church.  One must acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of “the church” does not attend Mass and a near majority no longer even considers themselves Catholic.  So, if Dolan and the people with whom I had lunch earlier this week wish to know what “the church” thinks of either Dolan or the hierarchy’s behavior, they must begin not by understanding the views of the pious but with understanding the viewpoint of the church’s majority – those who do not or rarely darken the threshold of a Catholic Church.  They must seek out those with whom they disagree rather than surround themselves with themselves and declare their shared opinion a universal fact.   

Since the disenfranchised and marginalized are the majority of the church, these voices should be the majority of voices whose opinions we thirst to understand.  Sadly, I’m unsure if this demographic group ranks as high as getting even token slivers of the hierarchy and pious circle's bandwidth.  Also, there is a distinct difference between talking with and listening to people.  So we must ask if we are merely "talking" or sincerely listening to the disenfranchised and marginalized.   

Similarly, to determine if one is doing enough for the poor, the place to begin is by talking with and listening to the poor rather than the wealthy.  Very few wealthy people understand poverty so they are not the best or sometimes even credible spokespeople for it. Also,  I see a disturbing trend where people of economic security believe they actually are the poor and thus believe they already know and represent the poor’s opinions.  My little tour group and the U.S. bishops are only symptomatic of the global pervasive trend wherein the hierarchy allies with the wealthy more than the poor – where it communicates with the wealthy more than with the poor.

Many of my friends and relatives have questioned my sanity for joining this tour group because they knew there would be few if any people with similar spiritual outlook to mine.  Side note of good news: so far I have found two others of similar views to mine.   Anyway, my friends and family are correct in that many things the other group members find exhilarating I find stomach churning…be it the commercialization of St. Francis’ poverty, the opulence of shrines erected in his honor, the distracting opulent ornamentation of cathedrals, etc…  

However, I try to live the legacy of my parents – don’t surround myself with myself. I joined this trip to try to understand better the division in the church.  I can’t understand it by only talking to people who see the world as I do.  I can’t understand it by only listening to people who see the world as I do. 

I have been listening a lot and find it fascinating that people can read the same scripture and theology yet come to such different conclusions.  I find it fascinating that people can declare others' views as "wrong" versus being in disagreement with their opinions yet feel they do not judge.  I find it fascinating that people who want to follow Jesus - a guy who instructs us to "be not afraid" - not only harbor fear themselves, they want others to share their fear.

Unfortunately I have not yet sensed that those having the most different mindset from me have any interest in understanding my viewpoint as much as correcting what they believe are my grievous errors.  Perhaps they emulate their hero Dolan, who surrounds himself with himself, relying upon the views of a small minority of the church and allowing those opinions to bounce around in a confined echo chamber to the point of ultimately declaring those viewpoints as “universally held objective truths.”  Maybe this approach is considered part of the "New Evangelization"...spreading the "good news" of telling other people how wrong they are? 

I do ponder how much the ultra-pious, uber-orthodox crowd listens – really listens – to the poor and marginalized (that would be the majority of the church) versus surrounding themselves with themselves.  But with money comes power and so perhaps they feel they needn’t listen to the majority. 

But, the question I leave you all with is this: do you surround yourself with yourself?  In many respects Jesus advised his disciples against doing that.  

By the way, the clergyman with initials "T.D." that I most admire is Fr. Tom Doyle not Tim Dolan.


  1. Maybe you could direct some of your companions to the website: - sounds like they could use a street retreat. Wasn't it SAINT Francis who said, "May I not so much seek to be understood as to understand?" Blessings for safety and peace as your journey continues . . .

  2. There are some very nice people on the trip but I feel like my spirituality is in a very different place than other people's is. An activity that others think is great doesn't necessarily resonate with me. Mostly I do not express when that is the case but the few times I have, it is not well understood. I seem to have different role models also than most of the folks.

  3. Thank you Ewe for prophetic reflection re topic that should be on agenda of every diocesan/parish meeting: A poor church for the poor.

    APCFTP means living means a poor diocese for the poor, a poor parish for the poor.

    Following a wealthy life style should go out of fashion for Christians.
    Luke's Gospel needs to be taken more seriously.

    c.f. Imitating Pope Francis' simple life style:'-simple-life-style.htm

  4. Saw this statement today with the picture of a monkey in a hardware store "The far right never changes because they don't believe in evolution"
    Just enjoy the scenery and keep your expectation low for not ruining the trip.

  5. another well said, and written commentary

  6. Kathleen SchatzbergNovember 17, 2013 at 6:16 PM

    I have to admit that I too am guilty of "surrounding myself with myself" ... but on the left end of the spectrum. Life does throw me into the company of very conservative/orthodox people at times, and I try (and usually succeed) in being cordial and non-confrontational. But among those I truly count as friends, very few come from the right. I worry about that sometimes.

  7. I admire you. I'd not be able to stomach a whole tour with fans of Tim.