Saturday, November 23, 2013

"You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church..."

I have returned from what I call my “Bones and Basilica” tour of Italy and am reflecting upon some of my experiences.  As previously mentioned, I think I was called to join the tour to better understand the church’s current polarity by better understanding the church’s pious yet powerful minority.  Rest assured, the powerful and pious were well-represented on this tour.  The group included ordained clergy, diocesan leaders, business owners, family members of the previously mentioned groups and several staunch Republicans as well as the chaplain for and at least one member of “Legatus”, a 2,000 plus member Catholic business executive organization founded by Tom Monaghan (also founder of uber-orthodox Ave Maria University). 

Though everyone’s reaction to any experience is unique, I found my reactions to the "bones and basilicas" repeatedly differed significantly from those of other group members.  However, never was that difference so pronounced as during the Vatican’s Scavi tour of the ancient Roman necropolis over which St. Peter’s Basilica is built and which many pious Catholics believe contains St. Peter’s mortal remains.  Here is a synopsis of the Scavi tour: 

  • A seminarian takes a small group of 10 – 15 people beyond publicly accessible parts of Vatican City and provides some historical information - that a Roman Circus used to be where the Vatican is, and that it is believed St. Peter was crucified upside down at that circus, quickly cut down by severing his feet and immediately buried in a nearby necropolis so that Peter’s body would be protected by Roman law from movement, cremation or desecration.  The part about Peter’s burial and burial location is conjecture. 
  • The seminarian also explains that a few hundred years after Peter’s demise, Constantine, the first Christian emperor, built a basilica above the believed resting spot for Peter’s remains.  That basilica stood until the 1500s when construction began on what is now St. Peter’s Basilica at the same site. 
  • As the Scavi tour continues, the seminarian describes the modern discovery of the necropolis in the 1930s and the ensuing search for St. Peter’s remains over the next few decades.  We were told the dig occurred in sanctioned secret despite one important monsignor’s opposition.  Because the dig was secretive, all excavation occurred at night.  Though the official secret archaeologists did find some bones where Peter’s remains were believed to be buried, testing in the 1950s indicated they came from 3 different people: two males of the wrong age, and a woman.  But do not despair.  The story continues. 
  • Years after reporting the disappointing findings, the official secret archaeologists learned that the monsignor who opposed the dig had his own cadre of non-sanctioned super-secret archaeologists who evidently must have been “secretly” digging in broad daylight since we were told the official secret diggers worked through the night.  The monsignor had the super-secret archaeologists go through the dig site daily after the official secret archaeologists finished their night-time work to extract any partially exposed bones.  Evidently he felt partially exposed bones were not respectful treatment for ancient remains.  These bones were squirreled away in the monsignor’s super-secret ancient bone repository duly labeled as to their original location.  They were discovered years after the disappointing results from the official secret dig were reported. 
  • Please do not faint from surprise that the bones supposedly found by the super-secret diggers (not to be confused with the official secret diggers) below the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica matched the gender and age approximation that might have matched St. Peter’s remains.  Eventually these remains were declared Peter’s and re-interred under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.  Hollywood soap operas must bow in proper deference to such protracted drama.  To me it is only slightly more believable than if the guide had said St. Peter's relics emerged from someone's holy rectal orifice like pulling a rabbit from a magician's hat.
  • After explaining all this, the seminarian reads MT 16:13-19 containing the famous biblical quote where Jesus says, “…you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
At this point the majority of people in my group were in tears.  Yet, my mind was streaming thoughts associated with critical analysis such as, “Any archaeologist worth their salt would notice the absence of partially exposed bones they found the previous day.” 

To me this story that moves so many people, contains numerous gaping holes and is what my father would call “fantastic” as in “filled with fantasy.”  To accept that these are Peter’s bones one must at a minimum accept as truth folklore about Peter’s burial and burial location, that after hundreds of years Constantine correctly placed the first basilica, and that the Vatican employed shoddy archaeologists who wouldn’t notice missing bones or properly record when a bone was found.  By the way, if you’d like some information about how meticulous excavation of human remains is, here is a short instruction paper easy for non-archaeologists to understand.

Do I believe the bones of the Scavi tour are St. Peter’s bones?  I am not even close to convinced.  But beyond all that – whether the bones discovered belong to St. Peter or not, I asked the question, “So what?”  Does it matter and if so, why?  

On this Italy tour I realized how little “bones and basilicas” inspire my spirituality and relationship with God.  What inspired me were the people - whether they were fellow group members, the highly educated Muslim bus driver who speaks 5 languages (4 more than most on the tour yet assumed by many on the tour as having lesser education than them), the person selling me gelato, or the attendant cleaning a public bathroom.

I found it interesting that the same summer  in which Pope Paul VI announced this fantastic story about finding St. Peter’s remains, he promulgated the very controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae upholding the church’s longstanding ban on artificial birth control, an encyclical that expressed the exact opposite of what his own papal commission advised him to do.  The coincidental timing fascinates me.  On June 26, 1968 a month before he published Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, he announced something that laid the groundwork for dramatically reinforcing his papal authority, something that likely would be challenged the moment he published his encyclical on human reproduction.

Not surprisingly, not long after the announcement about finding Peter’s remains, Scavi tours began (of course for a fee) and seem aimed at reinforcing papal authority via well-orchestrated emotional manipulation: show people some old stuff, offer a few facts, fill in the rest with conjecture, describe a fantastic tale filled with Hollywood-style intrigue, and end by quoting Jesus saying Peter has keys to the kingdom.  However, I have a few concerns about the Scavi tour’s orchestration:

  • Calling Peter the first pope requires accepting revisionist history ignoring all the early diverse Christian communities and pretending they were one organized, united front.
  • The Catholic Catechism teaches that “the church” is “the people of God.”  It is not buildings or the hierarchy.  However, the profound effect the Scavi tour hopes to inspire requires people to believe incorrectly that “the church” is the hierarchy and buildings.  Without that there is no reason to be moved that here is a church building for the highest member of the hierarchy built upon Peter.
  • Jesus tells Peter in MT 16:19 that he can hold things loosed or bound but he also tells the exact same thing to the disciples (not apostles…just your everyday garden-variety Jesus followers) in MT 18:18 – that they hold things loosed or bound.  But the desired effect of the Scavi tour reinforcing papal authority requires a person to ignore the MT 18:18 passage completely.  It was not mentioned in the tour and when I asked about it shoulders shrugged and the question ignored.
Throughout the 10-day tour of Italy several fellow travelers tried to help me fix problems I didn’t think I had and many assumed I, a daily Mass attendee, was a lapsed Catholic.  But the last time during the trip I was questioned about my status with the church, I had a profound thought.  The scene transpired following a farewell dinner when another group member asked me if I would return to the church after this pilgrimage.  As I replied that I attend daily Mass and never left the church this thought about “the church” being “the people of God” especially struck me and stuck with me. 

The church is the people of God not the hierarchy or buildings.  Yet, many of God’s people, indeed the majority of the church, are so wounded or disgusted that they neither align with the hierarchy nor frequent ecclesial buildings.  When I answered the question I answered correctly that I have never left the church because in addition to frequenting the buildings and interacting with the hierarchy, I remain strongly connected to the true definition of church – the people of God – including and especially the overwhelming majority who disassociate themselves from the Roman Catholic institution. 

However, I found myself wondering how many of the hierarchy and its fans have abandoned the church – the people of God?  It’s ironic that many of those who think they are most tightly connected to the church because of their fusion to the hierarchy and its buildings often are the people least connected to the actual church – God’s people.  Who is really “away from the church?”   

What is our responsibility as members of one body to help reconnect the hierarchy and its fans to the church – the people of God – the majority of whom eschew ecclesial buildings and hierarchy? 

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