This blessing has been a favorite of mine since it was first published in a Catholic periodical before the World Wide Web existed. Years later I saw it on the web as “A Franciscan Blessing.” This blessing was written and delivered by Benedictine Sister Ruth Fox of Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton ND about 32 years ago at a Dickinson State University graduation. After some searching, I located Sr. Ruth and was able to contact her. She verified that she did indeed write it. Every time I find it described as Franciscan, I contact the site to request a correction. Sr. Ruth and I are still in touch.
March 22, 2019
Toward the end of his book SAPIENS, the historian Yuval Noah Harari observes: “To satisfy both optimists and pessimists, we may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.”
I was thinking about Harari’s observation this week, following the attacks on Muslims in New Zealand and growing reports of extreme and hardened polarization around the world. Each side is fighting to maintain its identity in a world of change and upheaval. Last Sunday’s destructive Yellow Vest rampage along the Champs Elysees in Paris is another prime example. People wanting to assert their own identity at the expense of — or total destruction of — the OTHER.
History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.
I begin this week’s reflection with a somewhat comical experience, related to contemporary identity issues…..
A couple days ago at my local Belgian grocery store, I was in the check-out lane and a young lady in front of me, probably a student from India, hadn’t weighed the vegetables she wanted to buy. The young fellow at the cash register was polite and told her, in Dutch, she had to weigh the vegetables first. She said in English she didn’t understand what he was saying. In the check-out lane right behind me, a very annoyed lady said to me in Dutch “Just what we need! Another foreigner!” I chuckled and said in Dutch (with my inescapable American accent) “It is a question of perspective. In someone’s eyes, we are all foreigners, even you.” She moved to another check-out lane. Ironically, as fate would have it, when I got to the parking lot I saw her again. Our cars were parked adjacent to each other..
Well, today I have ten brief observations and then a concluding prayer:
(1) If our societies continue on the path of extreme polarization, in which there is no tolerance for the other, we will slip into chaos.
(2) In times of chaos, people surrender to authoritarian rulers. One does not have to think, just follow directives, and without questioning. Let the big boss take control. George Orwell’s Big Brother. Today we see an alarming resurgence of political and religious authoritarianism.
(3) Authoritarian regimes is springing up all around the world, supported and manipulated by people like Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn, in Hungary; President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Turkey; Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro; Brazil’s far-right authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro; and yes his authoritarian good friend in Washington DC.
(4) Authoritarian rulers stress the importance of a national identity, anchored in rigidly extreme and powerful nationalism. Such nationalism is a red flag, because it mirrors Nazism and the other extreme forms nationalism seen in the first half of the twentieth century.
(5) I suggest, however, there is also a good, healthy form of national identity – I prefer to call it patriotism — that accepts the diversity of peoples within a country; that is not exclusive; and is not aggressive. (That by the way, I would say, is what really makes America great.)
(6) This healthy patriotic identity stresses that: we are a democratic community, with shared ideals and political values; and, as a community, we need to work together to support them. We need to integrate people, rather than polarize and divide them according to race, ethnicity, and religion.
(7) Of course Christianity can make a contribution here.
(8) Years ago I was attracted to Jesus of Nazareth because he was strong and courageous and he gave people healing and hope. I was a very religious young man. In high school and college my classmates called “Pious Dick.”
(9) As he grew in his understanding of faith, religion and the world around him, Pious Dick became critical of organized religion and he discovered as well that Jesus was critical of hardened and self-righteous religion.
(10) Religions have many faces. Throughout Christian history, we have had great and heroic men and women. We also have a rogues gallery of men and women who proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and Savior but then contradicted, in the name of their religion, everything Jesus taught and lived. They could talk the Jesus talk but in fact they were cruel, warlike, greedy, racist, and selfish. They could not walk and live as Jesus walked and lived.
To conclude….History has not decided where we will end up, but you and I can.
My concluding prayer is called “A Franciscan Blessing.” I rediscovered a few days ago thanks to a Facebook post from a good friend, who went to high school with Pious Dick…..
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.
March 15, 2019
These days, trying to maintain a youthful outlook as I contemplate my upcoming seventy-sixth birthday, I am gathering information about the Post-Millennials, also called Generation Z or Gen Z. They are the demographic cohort after the Millennials, and the Pew Research Center puts their birth years between 1997 and 2012. They make up about 25% of the current U.S. population. This means they are a larger cohort than the Baby Boomers or Millennials.
The Post-Millennials make me optimistic. They have lower teen pregnancy rates, less substance abuse, and higher on-time high school graduation rates when compared with the Millennials. I see them as thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young men and women. They really want to create a climate conscious and more humane society.
When I told a friend last week that the Post-Millennials give me hope for the future of Christianity, he replied, with a bit of friendly sarcasm, “I guess they can tweet for Jesus and chat about him on Twitter and Facebook; but Our Blessed Lord at least had the wisdom to pick wise, older men to be his closest disciples.”
I have never doubted Jesus’ wisdom. I suggest however that my friend’s understanding of early Jesus discipleship is too narrow and sexist.
First of all the Scriptures clearly indicate that men AND women were disciples. Jewish women disciples, including Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means (Luke 8:1-3). The whole point of the account in Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary is that Mary indeed is also a disciple and shouldn’t be just relegated to the kitchen, because she is a woman. Even stronger evidence for women disciples comes from the accounts of who first witnessed the empty tomb and testified that Jesus had been raised from the dead. All four gospels report that women were the first disciples to find the tomb of Jesus empty. According to Mark and Luke, the first announcement of Jesus’ being raised from the dead was made to women. According to Mark and John, Jesus appeared first (in Mark 16:9 and John 20:14) to Mary the Magdalene.
When we look at the Christian Scriptures about who were considered early Christian apostles, several women are indicated as well as men. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings to a number of people and specifically mentions Priscilla and her husband Aquila. They are mentioned six times as missionary partners with the Apostle Paul. Others are Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionaries with their husbands or brothers. There was Phoebe, a leader from the Christian community at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. And of course we have Junia, whom Paul praises as a prominent apostle.
Jesus’ disciples were hardly just a bunch of OLDER men. In fact, contemporary scholarship suggests that Jesus’ disciples may have all been under 20 years old, with some as young as 15. Again, in the days of Jesus a young man, aged 15, was done with his basic training in the Torah. A young fellow who was bright enough, or whose parents were wealthy enough, could find a rabbi to take him on as a student. One had to show proficiency. Many advanced young Jewish students, back then, had large portions of the Law and Prophets committed to memory. The Apostle Paul’s case may have been like this: a bright Jewish student from Tarsus, who was sent by his wealthy parents to Jerusalem to study under the great Rabbi Gamaliel.
If a Jewish son was unable or did not want to do this, he would enter the workforce by his mid-teens; and in almost every case, he would apprentice under his father in the family trade. Perhaps many of Jesus’ male disciples were apprenticing at their trades when called, as in the case of James and John, working in the family fishing business. They must have been at least older than 15 but not yet 20. By age 20 most Jewish males were married and on their own.
The age factors! One very remarkable thing scholars tell us about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is that she would almost certainly have been 12 to 14 years old when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. We know this because the common custom at that time was for girls to marry early, at that age. The Bible never gives Mary’s age when she got pregnant or gave birth to Jesus, and that is because when something happened that was common in the culture, nothing was said about it.
The questions! Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 record the people of Nazareth saying of Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The traditional Catholic interpretation has been that the Scriptures here are talking either about Jesus’ cousins or children of Jesus’ father from a previous marriage. These are creative imaginative interpretations, because official Catholic teaching has maintained that Jesus’ mother was always a virgin “before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.” (Here I suggest some Catholic dogmaticians and hierarchs need remedial biology.)
Back to the Post-Millennials….If they knew what contemporary scholarship says about the early followers of Jesus – his disciples – I think many of our contemporary Post-Millennials would find that exciting and inviting. I mean today’s young people, estranged from religion, but who self-identify as being compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, and responsible young women and men.
About Mary and about Jesus’ extended family perhaps we should simply say: (1) The New Testament writers really didn’t leave a clear picture of what first-century Christians thought about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus or if they had any details at all. (2) Perhaps all one can say for sure is that Jesus’ family tree looks just as complicated as those of many modern families.
PS A man who was a friend and very supportive of me over many years died yesterday: Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. He was a wonderful man, perhaps not perfect, which he realized. But I must say a very good friend. RIP
March 8, 2019
Reflection for the First Week of Lent
We are busy people. Multitaskers. On our cellphones, iPads, and computers. Always connected it seems. After office hours and on week ends and even on holidays. The need to be connected. Our attention always drawn somewhere.
More and more people are connected 24/7. Yet, too often disconnected from what is really important? A young professor, one of my former students, said it well in an email. “I am very busy; but I often think I am not really connected to reality. I keep waiting for the big moment when I can relax and say now my life makes sense.”
I was thinking last week about the old play that, some years ago, had a big impact on me and my reflections about theology and life: Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot.” Two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. When he doesn’t arrive, they get a rope and even contemplate suicide. But then decide to wait yet another day. And on it goes. When the play ends, Godot has still not arrived.
There are many interpretations of what Becket was trying to say, but my interpretation, back then, was that it was about people waiting for their experience of God. I guess I was as well…..back then….but my perspective changed and my vision of reality changed. I began to understand that we have the real and the Real.
I came to realize that one cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally IN the presence of God. What’s absent so often is awareness. It’s a matter of perspective. For busy people it is a contemporary problem. In a post last week, fellow blogger Joris Heise expressed it very well: too many people today have “spiritual glaucoma.”
It is a problem of vision and awareness; and part of that problem is that organized religion is often too concerned about itself and too often skims over the surface of human realities. It tends to prefer and protect either the comfortable status quo or the supposedly wonderful past. What we now see in numerous sexual abuse reports about high-placed religious leaders is that their religion, too often, simply preserved their own power and privilege.
God is deeper than religion. Good religion, however, reveals the Sacred with depth and awareness.
There are certain basic questions that all human beings must come to terms with if they are to take their life experiences seriously: looking and seeing with greater depth and awareness. Questions such as life, death, the meaning of human existence, and the place of God in that existence.
I read last week that toward the end of his career Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, said that he was not aware of a single one of his patients in the second half of their lives whose problem could not have been solved by contact with the “numinous” or the Absolute Center. The “numinous” for Jung, who was estranged from organized religion, meant the presence of Divinity, of the Holy, of the Sacred.
We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking. Contemplation.
Unfortunately, the contemplative mind, over the last five hundred years, has been put on the sidelines. We have become pragmatic and productive. With the “Enlightenment” Western Christianity almost abandoned contemplation in favor of its own form of “rational” thought: we ended up confusing information with enlightenment and confusing thinking with experiencing. People settled for quick and easy doctrinal answers instead of deep perception, which they left to poets, artists, musicians, and philosophers. Yet depth and breadth of perception should have been and should always be the primary focus for all authentic religion. How else could one possibly find God?
Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the American Trappist monk, mystic, and social activist, felt, toward the end and of his life, that even monastic life had lost the contemplative mindset. He observed that monks just “said prayers.” Frankly, I would suggest that without the contemplative mind — honest and humble perception — religion risks becoming a dangerous enterprise. It does happen.
There are many forms of contemplation such as a reflective walk in stillness without your cellphone, quiet meditation, keeping a daily journal: contemplative writing, yoga, wandering in nature, expressing your feelings in art, or returning to regular reflective Scripture reading.
During Lent, try a practice and stay with it for some time, making it a normal part of your day. Put your phone on airplane mode. Tune in to your inner self and the depth of Reality around you.
“There are not sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments — and it is we alone who desecrate them by our blindness and lack of reverence. It is one sacred universe, and we are all a part of it.” — Richard Rohr
1 March 2019
As we prepare for Lent 2019, some thoughts about confronting distorted belief and its implications.
The current number of USA hate groups has risen for the fourth consecutive year, pushed to a record high of 1,020 thanks to political and religious polarization, anti-immigrant sentiment, and technologies that help spread xenophobic and racist propaganda on the Internet. This expansion of American hate groups was launched during the 2016 US presidential campaign.
Most hate groups are motivated by “in-group love,” a desire to positively contribute to the group to which one belongs, or by “out-group hatred,” a desire to injure an alien group.
Unfortunately, far too many contemporary hate groups claim to be Christian-inspired, following the example of people like Thomas Robb: American far-right activist, Ku Klux Klan leader, and Christian Identity pastor. Robb is national director of The Knights Party, also known as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He took control of the organization after David Duke. Robb’s “Thomas Robb Ministries” website declares that “the Anglo Saxon, Germanic, Scandinavian, and kindred people are THE people of the Bible.” Strange to say the least.
People like the followers of Thomas Robb place such a high priority on their distorted “Christian” view of human life that they undermine the very values found in ALL great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring. In their overwhelming seriousness about their unhealthy beliefs, they do not hesitate to intervene in political and social life trying to force society to conform to their values and behaviors.
The contemporary challenge is an authentically Christian challenge: healthy Christians must courageously speak out to challenge unhealthy Christians who make a mockery of Christian Belief. This is a genuine Lenten challenge for all of us, and it demands much more than just passive piety.
Authentic Christianity builds bridges between groups. It promotes love not hatred. There are no “losers” in this vision. Distorted Christianity builds walls of prejudice and xenophobia. Distorted Christianity says only people belonging to the particular in-group have a right to freedom and a happy life. Those outside the in-group have no rights because they are basically dangerous and evil. This is, for example, the position of “white Christian supremacists,” who have bibles in one hand and guns in the other.
Distorted belief is like a virus that infects people and weakens their basic sense of trust and relatedness to the people around them. It thrives on falsehood, fear, and unchallenged suspicions. It surrenders personal responsibility to authoritarian commanders in politics and religion. It ignores people in pain. It sacrifices them for the good of the institution. It rewards the egotistical self-righteous.
Distorted belief promotes a kind of unhealthy Christianity that thrives on ignorance and demands unquestioned obedience from the ignorant. Healthy Christians are secure in their belief but realize that we grow and develop in our understandings of ethics and doctrines, as we move toward the fullness of truth. Asking questions, for healthy believers, opens new doors and enhances one’s appreciation for God and humanity: for human growth and understanding. Unhealthy Christians condemn those who question and those who advocate change and development. Their’s is a static view of human life and a rigidly literal interpretation of Sacred Scripture, which they use to condone misogyny, racial superiority, and homophobia.
The English word “Lent” comes from an Old English word meaning “spring season:” a time to move into new life and new hope. The Christian season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday March 6th, is our annual Christian check-up and renewal period. A time to examine our Christian health. We observe. We judge. We act.
What is happening in the society around us? What needs to be critiqued and changed? How do we apply the vision of Jesus in contemporary days?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons and daughters of God.
February 20, 2019
This is an early post because Catholic bishops and leaders from around the world will be in Rome, February 21 to 25, for a summit on preventing sexual abuse in the church.
Someone asked me if I am afraid to comment about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. No. Not at all. Off and on I have already written about it; but I will quickly summarize my concerns, because they are part of the current third millennial reformation. I don’t want to bore my readers however with a long post……
Acknowledge the Reality: The reality is serious and world-wide. Catholic priests, bishops, and religious have sexually abused children, adolescents, women and men. Some women religious, “sisters,” have become pregnant and some have been forced by churchmen to have abortions. The primary concern of too many in church leadership has been to cover up, deny, or ignore what is happening to “protect the good name of the church.”
Accountability of bishops: Pope Francis has disciplined the 88 years old former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He is now “Mr. McCarrick.” I can think of some other bishops who should be disciplined. The organization Bishop Accountability makes a strong case for the laicization of Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota; Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron of Agaña, Guam; Bishop Aldo di Cillo Pagotto of Paraiba, Brazil; Bishop Roger Joseph Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium; and Bishop Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Yes they should be disciplined. Frankly I have difficulties with the term “laicization.” Many still call it “a reduction to the lay state.” As a “lay” Catholic I find this derogatory, as if being lay is a lesser state in the church.
Clericalism is an old boys club problem: Catholic ordained ministers (priests) must always keep in mind that their mission is to serve others and not claim superiority over the people entrusted to their care, Pope Francis said last year in November when meeting with a group of Catholic seminarians. “Clericalism,” Francis said “is our ugliest perversion. The Lord wants you to be shepherds; shepherds of the people, not clerics of the state.” I agree of course but the problem will not be solved with just pious exhortations. There must be STRUCTURAL changes: dropping the celibacy requirement, having married Catholic ordained ministers; and having women ordained ministers and women bishops. Yes. It has to happen!
Power and authority in the church: We need a thorough examination of the understanding and exercise of power and authority in church ministry. Sexual abuse is about power over people. We need to remove structures and understandings more reminiscent of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages but incompatible with the message and witness of Jesus of Nazareth. Ordained ministers can not be understood as authoritarian power-bosses. Through compassionate service they should empower people to take responsibility for the welfare of children, men, and women in the community of faith. Jesus is the model for church authority: his ministry was about compassionate understanding, healing, forgiveness, and calling to growth.
Human sexuality: Once again I would stress that the Catholic Church needs an updated understanding and appreciation of human sexuality that must CHANGE Catholic hierarchical attitudes and behavior, Catholic “official teaching,” and Catholic education at all levels.
Homosexuality Vatican style: A new exposé on homosexuality in the Vatican is coming out very soon: In The Closet of the Vatican, by the French journalist Frédéric Martel. No doubt you have read about it. The author asserts that most of the higher-ups in the Catholic Church are gay, making the Vatican one of the world’s largest homosexual communities. That assertion needs to be critically appraised but I have no doubts that there are gays in the Vatican. Let’s be clear and honest: there is nothing wrong per se with being gay, whether in our outside the Vatican. AND to suggest, as many readers of this book will conclude, that sexual abuse is a gay problem is absolute nonsense. Such an assertion avoids the issue. Sexual abuse is an abuse of power over people. Sick people (many very “straight”) use and abuse people for their own satisfaction.
The victims of sexual abuse: Too many reports about sexual abuse still focus too much on the abusers and ignore the abused. How does on repair the damage done? How does one compensate? Here we really need to be a church which is a community of faith, characterized by understanding, compassion, support, respect, and love.
Other victims of sexual abuse: There are also other victims of the sexual abuse issue: the healthy and good ordained ministers (priests) and bishops. As a caring community of faith we need to acknowledge them and support them as well with compassion, support, respect, and love. AND we need to encourage them to be active and effective change agents in the church.
Next week something else…….. Jack
February 15, 2019
The most important element in the Third Millennial Reformation is something I have not yet touched on: a contemporary spirituality. As a good friend said recently: “we need a reform in the direction of contemplative consciousness/living/being: Teaching people not just prayers but an experience of prayer.” Without this, whatever we do will end up superficial.
This week-end therefore, a reflection about God, from a spiritual master whom I greatly respect: Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He posted this on his website in July 2014.
It takes a long time for us to allow God to be who God really is.
Our natural egocentricity wants to make God into who we want or need God to be. It’s the role of the prophet to keep people free for God. But at the same time it’s the responsibility of the prophet to keep God free for people. This is also the role of good theology, and why we still need good theology even though it sometimes gets heady.
If God is always mystery, then God is always on some level the unfamiliar, beyond what we’re used to, beyond our comfort zone, beyond what we can explain or understand.
In the fourth century, St. Augustine said, “If you comprehend it, it’s not God.” Would you respect a God you could comprehend? And yet very often that’s what we want—a God who reflects our culture, our biases, our economic, political, and military systems.
The First Commandment says that we’re not supposed to make any images of God or to worship them. At first glance, we may think this deals only with handmade likenesses of God. But it mostly refers to images of God that we hold in our heads. God created human beings in God’s own image, and we’ve returned the compliment, so to speak, creating God in our image. In the end we produced what was typically a tribal God. In America, God looks like Uncle Sam or Santa Claus, or in any case a white Anglo-Saxon male, even though it states in Genesis 1:27 that “God created humankind in God’s own image; male and female God created them.” That clearly states that God cannot be strictly or merely masculine.
Normally we find it very difficult to let God be a God who is greater than our culture, our immediate needs, and our projections.
The human ego wants to keep things firmly in its grasp; and so we’ve created a God who fits into our small systems and our understanding of God. Thus, we’ve required a God who likes to play war just as much as we do, and a domineering God because we like to dominate.
We’ve almost completely forgotten and ignored what Jesus revealed about the nature of the God he knew. If Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) then God is nothing like we expected. Jesus is in no sense a potentate or a patriarch, but the very opposite, one whom John the Baptist calls “a lamb of a God” (John 1:29).
February 8, 2019
I begin with an observation from the American historian, Eric Alterman. Writing this week in the New Yorker about “The Decline of Historical Thinking” he says: “Last year, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that, for the past decade, history has been declining more rapidly than any other major, even as more and more students attend college.”
I am not surprised about this development because, for many Americans, historical awareness and sensitivity have long been secondary issues. Many would resonate with Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) the founder of the Ford Motor Company, the father of the assembly line and of mass-production: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today” (Chicago Tribune, 1916).
The current White House occupant, so well-known for his lies, falsehoods, and ahistorical assertions is an example of the ahistorical person gone wild. Historical ignorance, whether willful or not, distorts reality and misleads people.
Historical ignorance and ahistorcal assertions impact religious beliefs as well. That is my focus today.
As the Third Millennial Reformation continues to unfold, historical knowledge is becoming the big change agent. History clarifies, questions, and challenges.
Today I offer historical reflections about some key ecclesiastical issues: bishops as successors of the apostles, women in ministry, seven sacraments, the first pope and church structure, and sexuality and sexual abuse.
Bishops as successors of the apostles: I remember a friendly chat with an American archbishop. He attended one of my lectures in which I stressed that all who are sent out to proclaim the Gospel are truly successors of the apostles. He reprimanded me (privately) and reminded me that at the Last Supper Jesus went around the group and ordained the apostles as the first bishops. I asked him, with a chuckle, if Jesus also gave each of them a pectoral cross, ornate episcopal ring, and a pointed-hat miter. He was not amused.
Early Christian history is quite clear. Jesus did not ordain anyone. There were male and female disciples of Jesus and male and female apostles. An apostle is one sent out to proclaim the Gospel.
Women in ministry: Pope Francis, and his papal predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have been emphatic: “women cannot be ordained as priests.” With all due respect, popes too need remedial and ongoing education. History in fact says judgments against women’s ordination are wrong and based on a mistaken view of history. In the early church, heads of households presided at Eucharist. We know that women as well were heads of households. We know that several women were key leaders in the early church. Fortunately today we have women historians and women scripture scholars who help us see beyond male prejudices and narrow stereotypes. And, most importantly today we have a growing number of ordained women! To assert today that women cannot be ordained is like standing in a departure hall at O’Hare Airport and saying “women can never fly.” I recommend two books about women in ministry: Crispina and Her Sisters, Women and Authority in early Christianity by
Christine Schenk, and The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West by Gary Macy.
Seven sacraments: After the sixteenth century Reformation, the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563) proclaimed that the historical Jesus instituted seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, confession, marriage, holy orders, and extreme unction (anointing of the sick). Historically there is no foundation for this dogmatic assertion. As Joseph Martos points out in his excellent book, Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual, the New Testament makes reference to rituals such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the laying on of hands, but it never calls them sacraments. The scriptures also talk about forgiveness, about healing, and about ministry, but they speak only indirectly about rituals that may have been connected with them. Sacramental rituals were created by the Christian community, not as something one received but rather as ritual moments in the Christian life and ministry. History tells us we can and we should be freely creative in our ritual celebrations of Christ’s presence in the community. It also tells Catholics to be a bit more understanding of “Protestant sacraments.”
The first pope and church structure: I have touched on this in some detail in previous posts. History is quite clear about Peter the Apostle. He was never a bishop of Rome. It is only with a highly symbolic theological imagination that he can be described as “the first pope.” Church structure? Imperial Rome has had a great and long-lasting impact on the Roman Catholic Church. One of my friends yells at at me (an email yell) that “the church is not a democracy!” when I criticize the power-hungry and self-serving behavior of institutional church leaders. Ok. I agree. Nevertheless, it should not be an imperial and monarchical authoritarian organization either but a fellowship of believers in which compassion, collaboration, and shared decision-making prevail. There are still too many holdovers from ancient Rome in contemporary Catholic structures and behavior.
Sexuality and sexual abuse: Here history haunts us. Sexual abuse of children, young people and adult men and women has a long history. Priests and bishops have been perpetrators. Priests and bishops have known this history for a very long time and have closed their eyes, covered their ears, and closed their mouths about it. This history now haunts us and will continue to push people away from the institution. A big part of the Third Millennial Reformation has to be an enhanced understanding of human sexuality and a healthy living-out of human sexuality. There is indeed a problem with mandatory celibacy and a still unhealthy approach to sexuality within the church. Church language and teaching about sexuality has to be examined and changed. Too many innocent people have suffered because of the failure of those in authority to face up to this haunting historical issue.
Well my friends this is enough for today.
When history says: this is what happened in the past, it also asks the key question: what should be happening today?
February 1, 2019
A brief reflection while thinking about family and friends under the polar vortex that grips the Midwest in a deep and dangerous freeze……
A few days ago one of my friends, during an adult discussion group, suggested that Muslims, as a growing religious group, are subverting and taking over the United States. I was dumbfounded by his remark and surprised that a few people in the group shook their heads in agreement. So to get some healthy data for my discussion group, I decided to check, via the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life, what is really happening religiously in the United States. There is much phony information floating around these days…..and too many people ready to believe it.
First some basic statistics and then some research observations about contemporary American (USA) values.
Statistics about USA Christians: 70.6% of the US adult population claims to be Christian. Members of the largest Christian group are Evangelical Protestants (25.4%). The second largest group are Catholics (20.8%) followed by Mainline Protestants (14.7%).
When it comes to USA non-Christians, 1.9% are Jewish, 0.9% Muslim, 0.7% Buddhist and 0.7% Hindu.
The largest, and fastest growing, non-Christian group are the Unaffiliated (the “nones”) with 22.8%.
When it comes to political ideology, 36% of adult Americans are conservative, 33% moderate, and 24% liberal. Looking at major religious groups again, 55% of Evangelical Protestants are conservative, 37% of Catholics and 37% of Mainline Protestants. Only 18% of the Unaffiliated are conservative.
When it comes to big values questions, 53% of adult Americans favor the legalization of abortion, 62% think homosexuality should be accepted, 53% favor same-sex marriage; and 57% believe the country needs stricter environmental laws and regulations.
When it comes to a belief in absolute standards for right and wrong, 64% of the adult population hold that there are no clear standards and that right or wrong depends upon the situation, with 45% saying one should just use “common sense.”
As a country the USA is a fascinating mix of religious and moral values. Perhaps it always has been. In any event, what does this mean for the 2020 presidential election? We have to ask, as well, how the US religious and moral perspective will change once the millennials and post-millennials makeup most of the American adult population? Perhaps a galactic change? (See my earlier posts about millennials and post-millennials.) Nearly half of the post-millennial group belongs to a racial or ethnic minority. The clock is ticking for white Christian American.
Regardless, Muslims are not about to take over the United States……and Americans have more important things to worry about. At the very top of that list is an unprecedented socio-cultural polarization, which fears change, glorifies ignorance, promotes fear and hatred, and galvanizes hostility: and the unthinkable becomes acceptable. Somehow we seem to have lost touch what I would call the genius of the American civic and political experience: how people with great differences and coming from a variety of backgrounds could effectively collaborate in the shared pursuit of life, liberty, and human happiness.
Yes America is going through a harsh winter; but there will be a new spring again…..
January 25, 2019
On January 3, 2019, the Boston Globe published an article by the Catholic journalist and historian, Gary Wills: “Celibacy isn’t the cause of the church sex-abuse crisis; the priesthood is.” Writing about clerical sexual abuse he noted “The church response has consistently been to doubt, dismiss, or minimize reported acts of abuse. “ He asks as well “How, we have to wonder, can men dedicated to the Gospel allow or abet such a response?”
I am not commenting about celibacy or clerical sexual abuse this week end but about ministry and power.
Wills correctly pointed out, I believe, that sexual abuse is about power over people. We know today that it has existed for a long time because institutional leaders wanted to preserve and protect their institution and their own institutional power.
For Wills, however, the problem comes down to “priesthood” which he sees as “an affront to the Gospel,” because priesthood is historically about power over people. I would like to quote from Gary Wills’ article and then offer my own reflections about ministry and power.
Wills: “There are no priests in the Gospels, except the Jewish priests, some of whom plotted against Jesus. Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where he is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek – and even there he is the sole and final priest. Peter and Paul never call themselves or any other Christian a priest. Outside the Letter to the Hebrews, the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episkopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus).
None of these offices gave any of them a pivotal role in what would later become the seven sacraments. Baptism was, from the outset, the entry ritual for the Christian community, but it could not originally be administered by priests, who did not yet exist.
As the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages, it tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendence – from childhood (baptism), to adolescence (confirmation), to mid-life (matrimony, sacred orders), to devotions (eucharist, penance), to the end of life (last rites). No wonder church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life, trying to mute or erase any demeaning revelations of priestly predation.”
I resonate with Gary Wills in his biblical and historical analysis. For some Catholics, however, it becomes a very sensitive point, because they still understand “priests” as superior to Protestant “ministers.” Nevertheless, there were no Christian priests in the early church and the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone. Christ is present when we gather for community worship not because we have a priest but because of the assurance we read in the Gospels: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
As the Catholic Church now moves into the necessary and inescapable third millennial reformation, I hope the words “priest” and “priesthood” will gradually fade away. For a renewed vision of church, we need to change our vocabulary, because old words often come with their own particular baggage. The baggage of “priesthood” is institutional power, patriarchy, and clericalism. Yes of course I know many very fine and wonderful “priests” (and came close to being one myself). The key issue here, however, is ministry.
I prefer to speak about “ministry” and “ordained ministry.” (The only place where I still use the word “priest” is when writing about “women priests,” because I see that as a way of affirming that these Catholic women are indeed bonafide Catholic ordained ministers. The day will come, however, when we can drop the term “women priests” and recognize, acknowledge, and support women and men who are ordained ministers: married, single, gay, and straight.
Ministry is about service. It is not about power. Matthew 20 reminds us that Jesus did not come to be served but to serve…. Ordained ministers are called and appointed to be reliable Christian guides. They help us understand and live in the Spirit of Christ. Their ministerial words and actions are expressions of service: inviting conversion and building community, promoting acceptance and belonging, bringing healing and strengthening, and offering forgiveness and reconciliation.
Ministry is not about power over people. Institutional church leaders are not here to be served. They are called to serve and promote unity and collaboration. As brothers and sisters in the community of faith, we must also call them to that as well….