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The Long Reach of Pope Francis: how he (and Oscar Romero) touched our diocese & our parish

Pope francis oscar romero

 

I once was once skeptical about Pope Francis.

When he was elected, my first thought was “Can anything good come out of an Electoral College of Cardinals packed so tightly with clones of the reactionaries, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Bergoglio must be one of those carbon copies.”

But I was wrong.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio turned into Pope Francis. Far from a triplet brother of his immediate predecessors, the new pope has proven to be truly Latin American. That’s so even to the point of embodying the ideals of liberation theology, or reflection on the gospel from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed. He has espoused the latter’s “preferential option for the poor,” its trenchant critique of corporate globalization, and its openness to marginalized people of all kinds. What a surprise!

My second thought was, “But he’s already old. His papacy will be short. He won’t be able to accomplish much of enduring impact.

Imagine then my further astonishment, when a mere three years into his papacy, Pope Francis’ touched  in remarkable ways our  tiny and remote diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. Even stranger to say, his reach extended to our little Kentucky parish of St. Clare’s in Berea. It made me wonder if this is happening all over Francis’ world. I hope so.

First of all, consider what’s happened in Lexington.

Our previous bishop was a canon lawyer – an appointee of John Paul II. Bishop Ronald Gainer distinguished himself by urging pro-choice politicians to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. He has since shown other overriding concerns by forbidding Catholic School girls in his new diocese from engaging in sports (such as wrestling, rugby, and football) “…that involve substantial and potentially immodest physical contact.” You get the idea.

After waiting for more than a year, Bishop Gainer’s replacement was at last named. It was John Stowe, a Conventual Franciscan. Father Stowe showed his colors in his introductory press conference. There was not a word about abortion, contraception, or gay marriage, much less about girls’ wrestling.

Instead he introduced himself as “a Franciscan educated by the Jesuits and appointed by a Jesuit Pope who has taken the name Francis.” “I love Pope Francis,” Father Stowe said, “and I will do whatever he asks.”

Turns out, the new appointee is not only a disciple of the pope; he is also a sharp critic of reactionary politics – especially as they affect immigrants. (Fr. Stowe, BTW, speaks fluent Spanish.)

For instance, in 2006, when Fr. Stowe addressed the Mayor’s Congress on Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, he criticized the U.S. Congress saying, “We shudder to imagine what the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might read if it had been erected by the current U.S. Congress.” Promising words indeed.

And that brings me to our parish, the long reach of Pope Francis and its connection with our new bishop.

You see, during this past Lent, for the second year in a row, a small group of us met each week to study the pope’s “The Joy of the Gospel” – the Apostolic Exhortation published in November 2013. In one of our concluding sessions, we were searching for something practical to connect the pope’s words with our community of St. Clare’s.

The calendar told us that the beatification of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero was coming up on the 23rd of May. (Beatification is a major step towards canonization or sainthood in the Catholic Church.)

Romero, you recall, was the martyred archbishop of San Salvador. In 1980, he was gunned down at the altar by an assassin connected with El Salvador’s Arena party which was supported by the Reagan administration. Because Romero is considered the patron saint of liberation theology (which the pope saw as too influenced by Marxism), John Paul refused to even call the archbishop a martyr. Instead, he referred to him merely as “a zealous pastor.”

Pope Francis has changed all of that. Romero, he says, was not only a martyr, but has advanced him on the way to official recognition as a saint of the entire Roman Catholic Church.

Well, our little discussion group thought: Why not have our parish celebrate Romero’s beatification?

“Great idea” we all agreed; “We could hire a Mariachi band, invite the Hispanic community and folks from Berea College’s Union Church” (a Church of Christ with whom people from St. Clare’s traveled to El Salvador on more than one occasion). “And then we could follow it all with a big fiesta.”

Someone else added, “And why not invite the new bishop?”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask,” was the consensus — although we thought his acceptance would be unlikely, since by the end of May, he’d barely have been installed as bishop.

Well, guess what? He agreed to come. That sends a strong signal about his priorities.

So did his letter written immediately after receiving our invitation:

Thank you for your kind words of welcome and the excellent suggestion of celebrating the beatification of Archbishop Romero. I am so happy to know that St Clare’s and Union Church are in a relationship with the Church in El Salvador. That is exactly what Pope Francis is encouraging us to do!

I just returned last night from visiting our Central American Friars; we celebrated the 35th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom although we were in Costa Rica. This past February 1st, I was able to celebrate mass in the hospital where Romero was killed—all this to say, Oscar Romero is a great inspiration in my life and I am thrilled to know of a community that wishes to celebrate his witness.

I will look for possible dates to celebrate the beatification with your community.

Your message is most welcomed!!

Bishop-elect Stowe’s acceptance of our invitation means that everyone in our parish and from parishes nearby will surely attend an event that might otherwise have been overlooked. Everyone will want to meet the new bishop.

He is sure to have some inspiring words to say about Romero, and hopefully about liberation theology, and U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s. This will indeed be a teachable moment.

Do you see what I mean about Francis’ long reach? This is already far better than I anticipated three years ago.

My Secret Thirteen Years in Prison

Silver Creek

Recently my wife, Peggy, and I listened with rapt attention to a CD recording of the John Grisham novel, The Racketeer.  The 2012 Doubleday publication was a page turner from the very start. It caused us to miss a turn on the highway on our way to our Michigan lake house.

The Racketeer is the story of an African-American attorney, Malcolm Bannister, unjustly disbarred and jailed for an alleged and complicated money laundering scheme. It’s about his escape from a federal prison near Frostburg Maryland by means of an equally complicated and fascinating scheme of his own.

Such an interesting novel deserves a separate review. My point here however is different. It’s autobiographical and theological. It’s about the reflections on my own life and on God that The Racketeer stimulated.

You see, Malcolm Bannister’s life in his prison reminded me of my own time served in a similar institution under an infinitely worse warden. It caused me to remember my own escape and the way I finally told the warden off.

From the age of 14 to 27, my life featured the same restrictions as Bannister’s. There was the same dull prison food, interactions with a self-absorbed overseer and redeeming friendships with fellow prisoners. Only, since I was so young, life in prison meant minimal contact with women – nothing at all romantic, much less sexual. The warden had this weird attitude towards sex.  He didn’t care for it at all, and didn’t want us to either.

Like my own, Malcolm Bannister’s prison was minimum security. It had no walls or razor wire. There were no gun towers or barred prison cells. Inmates lived large dormitories or in single rooms with a cot, desk, chair and window. Everyone wore the same uniform. But prisoners were free to roam about the paths winding across the institution’s wooded acres. Escape would be easy, but few “walked off,” because capture would bring reassignment to a real hell-hole. That was my experience too.

The similarities between Bannister’s warden, Robert Earl Wade, and my own were uncanny. As mentioned, both were self-absorbed. But mine was far crueller – the most sadistic person I’ve ever met.

Offending the warden in my prison wouldn’t merely bring reprimands, punitive labor assignments or restrictions on free time. Ultimately, it would result in real torture that was almost unspeakable. We quaked in the warden’s presence. And, no more than children ourselves (at least at the beginning), we had to mouth his praises unceasingly. He was to be our first thought on waking in the morning, and the last before retiring at night.

The warden thought he was God; and so did we. He had ways of knowing everything. We were convinced he could read our minds. And just in case he couldn’t, we were forced to declare forbidden thoughts and deeds to him once a week. (That’s where the warden’s sexual hang-ups played a central part. Yes, we were required to fess up to entertaining sexual thoughts.) As a result, we prisoners were entirely self-regulated in an extremely repressive way.

Almost nothing we did (apart from the prison’s compulsory athletic events) displayed the freedom and spontaneity of the children we were and the young men we became.  For those not athletically inclined, even the requisite “play” was torturous, I’m sure.

As for me (apart from the sports), what saved it all were friendships with fellow internees. That was Bannister’s experience in Frostburg as well. The inmates I lived with were uniformly smart and unusually witty. As a result, they lightened the sameness of our daily life with unrelenting humor – mostly of the inside gallows variety.

Finally, I had enough. I did the forbidden thing. I just walked off. But before leaving, I told the warden what I thought of him.  Who did he think he was . . . God? “You’re not God,” I told him. “You have nothing to do with God. You’re just a projection of a system of absolute control that keeps young people from growing up. It keeps us all children! And once those you have ‘schooled’ in your prison are released, they inflict your hang-ups on others. That’s a big reason our world is in such a mess.”

_____

Of course, the system I’ve been describing is the one that trained priests for the Roman Catholic Church. It’s the seminary I experienced from my early teens till ordination at the age of 27. And its warden (the one we thought was God) is a fraud. Unfortunately, he’s still at work in the world – still torturing people.

No, I don’t regret the time I spent in the seminary. Moreover, I’m sure others would see life on the inside much more positively than I’m expressing here. Sometimes I do too. After all, life there gave me discipline and some valuable academic training – absolutely free through my doctoral studies. Without those gifts, my subsequent life as a professor of Peace and Social Justice Studies would have been impossible. For all of that, I’m eternally grateful. Who wouldn’t be?

And I haven’t lost faith. It’s just that my idea of God has changed radically.  No more Prison Warden. Only the Supreme Self in whom we live and move and have our being. Only the God of love. Only the God embodied in his prophet, Yeshua. Yeshua’s God breaks down separation walls of all types. That’s the one who liberated me from prison.

I just wouldn’t want to experience that jail time again. It was the dullest, most restrictive and spiritually wounding period of my life – formative years that (apart from the goodness of my fellow inmates) were little different from Malcolm Bannister’s prison camp. (The picture at the top of this post shows the high school seminary I attended in Silver Creek, New York from 1954 through 1958.)

Those dark years [and (ironically) the academic legacy they gave me] have always stimulated my resolve to help others escape from the confines erected by the false idea of God-as-prison-warden.

That’s been the thrust of my life as a college teacher. It’s what I’m attempting to do on this blog site.

School-Is-Prison-63787456510

 

(Sunday Homily) The Peace of the Risen Lord is Not Merely Interior; It Is about Absence of War! Refuse to Pay Military Taxes!

War Tax Resistance

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3: 15, 17-18; PS 4: 2, 4, 7-9; I JN 2: 1-5A; LK 34: 24-32; LK 24: 35-48

On April 4th, 1967, Martin Luther King infamously called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” That was in his “Beyond Vietnam: a Time to Break Silence.” Delivered at New York’s Riverside Church, it was perhaps his greatest, most courageous speech.  King’s words are worth reading again.

Time Magazine denounced him for it.

Despite the fact that U.S. soldiers had killed more than two million Vietnamese, (and would kill another million before the war’s end), King was excoriated as a traitor. Even the African-American community quickly distanced itself from their champion because of his strong words.

To this day, King’s speech is largely ignored as the daring truth-teller has been successfully transformed into a harmless dreamer – an achievement beyond the wildest dreams of the prophet’s arch-enemy, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover who considered King a communist.

One wonders what Rev. King would say about the U.S. today. For despite what the mainstream media tells us about ISIS, the U.S. remains exactly what Dr. King called it. It’s still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world – even more so. By comparison, ISIS is small potatoes.

Face it: absent the United States, the world would surely be a much better place. Even our sitting President has identified the rise of ISIS (our contemporary bete noire) as the direct result of the unlawful and mendacious invasion of Iraq in 2003. That act of supreme aggression (in the U.N.’s terms) is alone responsible for the deaths of well more than one million people.

And this is not even to mention the fact that our country is fighting poor people throughout the world – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and who knows where else?  “Americans” claim the right to assassinate without trial anyone anywhere – even U.S. citizens – simply on suspicion of falling into the amorphous category of “terrorist.”

Can you imagine the terror any of us would experience if enemy drones constantly hovered overhead poised to strike family members or friends because some “pilot” six thousand miles away might judge one of our weddings to be a terrorist gathering? Can you imagine picking up the severed heads and scorched bodies of little children and their mothers for purposes of identification following such terrorist attacks? This is the reality of our day. Again by comparison ISIS beheadings are completely overshadowed.

I bring all of this up because of the Risen Lord’s insistence on peace in today’s gospel reading.  As in last week‘s episode about Doubting Thomas, the Risen Christ’s first words to his disciples breathless from their meeting with him on the Road to Emmaus are “Peace be with you.”

Last week in their own homilies about that greeting, I’m sure that pastors everywhere throughout our Great Country were quick to point out that the peace of Christ is not merely absence of war; it is about the interior peace that passes understanding.

Their observation was, of course, correct. However, reality in the belly of the beast – the world’s greatest purveyor of violence – suggests that such comfort is out-of-place. We need to be reminded that inner tranquility is impossible for citizens of a terrorist nation. Rather than giving us comfort, pastors should be telling us that the peace of the risen Christ is not merely about peace of mind and spirit; IT IS ABOUT ABSENCE OF WAR.

So instead of comforting us, Jesus’ words of greeting should cut us to the heart. They should remind us of our obligation in faith to own our identity as the Peace Church Jesus’ words suggest. More specifically, as Christian tax payers (having performed the annual IRS ritual last week) we should be organizing a nation-wide tax resistance effort that refuses to pay the 40% of IRS levies that go to the military. While it is absolutely heroic for individuals to refuse, there is safety and strength in numbers.

So an ecumenical movement to transform Christian churches into a unified peace movement of tax resistance should start today. All of us need to write letters to Pope Francis begging him on this eve of his visit to the United State (with anticipated speeches to the U.N. and our Congress) to call his constituency to tax resistance – to call the UN and the U.S. Congress to stop the aggression.

Once again: there can be no interior peace for terrorists. And Dr. King was right: Americans remain the world’s greatest terrorists. We are traitors to the Risen Christ!

Focusing on a utopian interior peace while butchering children across the globe is simply obscene.

(Sunday Homily) Doubting Thomas: Our Twin (Jesus’ Twin!) in Denial

doubting thomas

Readings for 1st Sunday after Easter: Acts 5:12-16; Ps. 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; Rev. 1: 9-11A, 12-13, 17-19; Jn. 20: 19-31.

The picture painted in today’s gospel story should be familiar to all of us. I say that not only because we have heard it again and again, but because it’s our story. It’s about a man in denial, the original doubting Thomas. Thomas’ nickname was “the twin.”

Whatever that meant originally, Thomas is undoubtedly our fraternal double in that he depicts our condition as would-be followers of Yeshua. Like Thomas we live in practical denial concerning the reality of Yeshua’s resurrection – about the possibility of a radically transformed life. Recall our twin’s story. Pray that it can be ours as well.

The disciples are there in the Upper Room where they had so recently broken bread with Yeshua the night before he died.  And they are all afraid. John says they are afraid of “the Jews.” However it seems they fear death more than anything else. They dread it because they are convinced that death spells the end of everything they hold dear – their ego-selves, families, friends, culture, and their small pleasures. Besides that, they are afraid of the pain that will accompany arrest – the isolation cells, the beatings, torture, the unending pain, and the final blow that will bring it all to a close. Surely they were questioning their stupidity in following that failed radical from Galilee.

So they lock the doors, huddle together and turn in on themselves.

Nevertheless, the very fears of the disciples and recent experience make them rehearse the events of their past few days. They recall the details: how Yeshua so bravely faced up to death and refused to divulge their names even after undergoing “the third degree” – beatings followed by the dreaded thorn crown, and finally by crucifixion. All the while, he remained silent refusing to name the names his Roman interrogators were looking for. He died protecting his friends. Yeshua was brave and loyal.

His students are overwhelmingly grateful for such a Teacher. . . .

Then suddenly, the tortured one materializes there in their midst. Locks and fears were powerless to keep him out. They all see him. They speak with him. He addresses their fears directly. “Peace be with you,” he repeats three times. Yeshua eats with them just as he had the previous week. Suddenly his friends realize that death was not the end for the Teacher. He makes them understand that it is not the end for them either – nor for anyone else who risks life and limb for the kingdom of God. No doubt everyone present is overwhelmed with relief and intense joy.

“Too bad Thomas is missing this,” they must have said to one another.

Later on, Thomas arrives – our fraternal double in unfaith. His absence remains unexplained. Something had evidently called him away when the others evoked Jesus’ presence by their prayer, recollections, and sharing of bread and wine. Like us he hasn’t met the risen Lord.

“Jesus is alive,” they tell the Twin. “He’s alive in the realm of God. He took us all with him to that space for just a moment, and it was wonderful. Too bad you missed it, Thomas. None of the rules of this world apply where Yeshua took us. It was just like it was before he died. Don’t you remember? Yeshua brought us to a realm full of life and joy. Fear no longer seems as reasonable as it once did. He was here with us!”

However, Thomas remains unmoved. Like so many of us, he’s is a literalist, a downer. He’s an empiricist looking for the certainty of physical proof. Thomas is also a fatalist; he evidently believes that what you see is what you get. And for him there has been no indication that life can be any different from what his senses have always told him. Life is tragic. Death is stronger than life; it ends everything. And that means that Yeshua is gone forever. Who could be so naïve as to deny that?

Our twin in unfaith protests, “In the absence of physical proof to the contrary, I simply cannot bring myself to share your faith that another life is possible. And make no mistake: Yeshua’s enemies haven’t yet completed their bloody work. They’re after us too.”

Can’t you see Thomas glancing nervously behind him? “Are you sure those doors are locked?”

Then lightning strikes again. Yeshua suddenly materializes a second time in the same place. Locks and bolts, fear and terror – death itself – again prove powerless before him.

Yeshua is smiling. “Thomas, I missed you,” he says. “Look at my wounds. It’s me!”

Thomas’ face is bright red. Everyone’s looking at him. “My God, it is you,” he blurts out. “I’m so sorry I doubted.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yeshua assures. “You’re only human, and I know what that’s like, believe me. I too knew overwhelming doubt. Faith is hard. On death row, my senses told me that my Abba had abandoned me too. I almost gave up hope. It’s like I’m your twin.

“But then I decided to surrender. And I’m happy I did. My heart goes out to you, Thomas. My heart goes out to all doubters. I’ve been there.

“However, it’s those who can commit themselves to God’s promised future in the absence of physical proof that truly amaze and delight me. Imagine trusting life’s goodness and an unseen future with room for everyone when all the evidence tells you you’re wrong! Imagine trusting my word that much, when I almost caved in myself? That’s what I really admire!

“My prayer for you, Thomas, and for everyone else is that you’ll someday experience the joy that kind of faith brings.

Working for God’s Kingdom – for fullness of life for everyone – even in the face of contrary evidence – that’s what faith is all about. May it be yours.”

May it be ours!

A Zapatista Prophet Comes to Berea Pointing the Way to a New World

Gustavo

Last month Peggy and I had a prophet in our home: Gustavo Esteva.

No doubt, the seer would be shocked by my characterization. After all, Gustavo says he’s an atheist. He’s a harsh critic of the Catholic Church — and all religions for that matter.

Gustavo was once an IBM executive, and an official high-up in the Mexican government. At one time he was also a revolutionary guerrilla. Now he calls himself a de-professionalized intellectual and itinerant story-teller. He’s the founder of an alternative university (Unitierra). He has authored more than 30 books, among them Grassroots Postmodernism and Escaping Education.

But I stick with my assertion: he’s a prophet.

In the presence of someone like that, you can imagine the transcendent conversations we had around our dinner table each evening during his ten-day stopover in our home. Sometimes dear friends were there with us. At others, it was just Peggy and I.  We talked of almost nothing else but politics, literature, spirituality and the direction of history.

Gustavo is from Oaxaca in Mexico.

Among his outstanding qualifications is his position as advisor to the Zapatista revolutionaries. Perhaps you remember them. They’re the Native Americans who on January 1, 1994 captured the imagination of Mexico (and many of us outside) when their lightly armed military forces occupied five Mexican towns around San Cristobal in the state of Chiapas.

They were protesting the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they said spelled the death of their culture and way of life. Their courageous Indian Uprising made them instant international heroes. So did their eventual abandonment of armed struggle in favor of non-violent resistance.

On more than one occasion, Peggy and I have led students into Zapatista communities to experience their radically counter-cultural lives first hand.

According to the Zapatistas, women are leading the way they have embarked upon.  In fact, 60% of their army commanders are women.

The importance of women’s leadership was the heart of the extraordinary convocation Gustavo gave at the beginning of his “scholar-in-residence” stint at Berea College. It was a theme to which he returned often during his many classes and lectures there. Women are leading the way, he said, into the “other world” that is not only possible but required if our planet is to survive.

Our threatened survival is where Gustavo started. He said our world stands in a position of unprecedented danger. It is threatened by climate chaos, oligarchical governments, tremendous wealth disparities, an economic system that simply doesn’t work, schools and communications media that propagandize rather than inform, and by an emerging and universal police state with its system of perpetual war that (suicidally) defends the status quo. Under the present world order, the line between governments, the military, the police and the judiciary on the one hand and the criminals and thugs on the other has completely disappeared. Not a pretty picture.

During his general convocation, Gustavo held us all spell-bound as he outlined the seven principles to guide us out of the morass just described. They represent the North Star that guides the Zapatista movement as Native Americans once again mark out the path to planetary survival. The Zapatista principles call into question our entire way of life.

Here they are as Gustavo explained them:

    1. To serve others, not self. For Zapatistas, the goal of life is the common good, not the accumulation of money or power.
    2. To represent, not supplant. The Zapatista model of revolution is not the seizure of power (supplanting one government with its mirror image), but the representation of the majority without reproducing old relationships of domination.
    3. To construct, not destroy. The new order cannot be built upon violence.
    4. To obey, not command. However, the Zapatista model of obedience is not that of servant to master or of soldier to comandante, but of mother to her infant child.
    5. To convince, not to win. The Zapatista way centralizes respectful dialog based not primarily on logical argument, but supplementing logic with intuition derived from the experience of life.
    6. To propose, not impose. Imposition represents the violence rejected by Zapatismo.
    7. To go down, not up. For Zapatistas the geography of social discourse and action has changed. Old categories of left and right, conservative and liberal are no longer applicable. The new more relevant topography directs our gaze up and down, north and south – to recognize the gap between the one-percent and the rest of us.

Not surprisingly, not everyone welcomed that message of coöperation, non-violence, care and acceptance. During the Q&A following Gustavo’s principal address, a particularly articulate young man posed a question that must have been on the minds of many “exceptionalist Americans” in the audience.

“You’ve described a rather bleak world, Gustavo,” the young man said. “But surely you’re talking about a reality outside the United States. After all, here we enjoy extraordinary freedom and prosperity. That’s shown by the fact that so many foreigners are anxious to come here. Isn’t that true?”

Gustavo responded, “I have bad news for you, my friend. The United States you describe is fast disappearing, and is harder and harder to find. Your country with its pot-holed highways, homeless beggars, and falling bridges increasingly resembles what you call the Third World.

“And that’s the purpose of your politicians’ New World Order – to create a reality where we’re all racing to the bottom, while they enjoy the cream on top. Unfortunately, that cream is also fast evaporating. Soon the system benefitting the 1% will collapse entirely. (In fact it’s happening before our eyes.)  There is simply no exception to the collapse I’ve described. To save ourselves we have no alternative to a complete change of guiding principles. The Zapatista principles I’ve just described and which centralize women’s ways of knowing show us the way.”

That’s the way real prophets talk. They’re usually right. This time however the warning is planetary and universal.

Will we listen and adopt the Zapatista way?

(Easter Homily) Pope Francis: Of Course Jesus Arose; Resurrection Is A Law of the Universe!

Francis Easter

Readings for Easter Sunday: ACTS 10: 34A, 37-43; PS 118 1-2, 16-17, 22-23, COL 3L 1-4; JN 20: 1-9. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/042014.cfm

On this Easter Sunday, it’s appropriate to address the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Did he really rise from the dead? Or is that doctrine simply a remnant of childhood like belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus? And for those of us concerned with social justice, what can the Bible’s resurrection stories possibly mean?

This reflection tries to address those questions.

In response to the one about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection, let’s look at what the Christian tradition itself tells us. It indicates that the resurrection accounts are not based on the physical resuscitation of a corpse. The experiences portrayed in tradition were more visionary and likely metaphorical.

As for the sociopolitical meaning of Jesus’ rising from the dead, Pope Francis addresses that question quite meaningfully in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.  Life is stronger than death, he reminds us. Despite appearances, vital forces will always triumph in the end. But we’ll get to that presently.

First however consider the nature of the resurrection traditions themselves. They were inspired by women and emerged from the bleakest depths of despair not unlike what many progressives might be feeling today as our fondest hopes appear further than ever from fulfillment – as a rogue U.S. empire wreaks havoc and its savage economy destroys the planet.

Think about it.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples returned to business as usual – fishing most prominently. It was their darkest hour. Yeshua, the one on whom they had pinned their hopes for the liberation of Israel from Roman domination was dead. Their world had ended.

But then unexpectedly, women among them reported an experience which effectively raised Jesus back to life (MT 28:1-10; MK 16: 1-8; LK 24:1-11). He was more intensely present, they said, than before his execution. Their tales changed everything.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, visionary and prophetic?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I COR 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that at best the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.)

In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark not only are there no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes un-proclaimed. This in turn indicates either that Mark didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone present was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (JN 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (JN 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” Once again, it doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (MT 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (LK 24:30-32)?

Regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of Jesus’ dead body or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities resisting empire and serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

It’s here that Pope Francis helps us. In The Joy of the Gospel (JG), he relates the resurrection accounts, (whatever their factual basis) to our own despair – just as real and hopeless as that of Jesus’ bereft disciples. Francis writes to encourage us who might be worn down and hopeless in the face of a world:

  • Pervaded by consumerism and pleasure-seeking without conscience (JG 2)
  • Governed by merciless competition and social Darwinism (53)
  • Economically organized by failed “trickle-down” ideologies that idolize money (54, 55)
  • Controlled by murderers (53) and thieves (57, 189)
  • Torn apart by wars and violence (99)
  • Rooted in growing income inequality which is the root of all social ills (202), including destruction of the environment and its defenseless non-human animate life (215)

In the face of all that, here’s what Francis says:

“Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed . . Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history . . . May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope! (276, 277)

Here the pope says that the power and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is not found in the past. Neither is there reference here to the resuscitation of the Lord’s body. Instead, the pope explains the resurrection in terms of a story that calls attention to the persistent power of Life itself:

* Of nature and spring after a long cold winter

* Of goodness in a world that seems governed by evil

* Of light where darkness reigns unabated

* Of justice where injustice is simply taken for granted

* Of beauty where ugliness is worshipped as its opposite

* Of hope over despair

* And of activists who refuse to stand on the sidelines

No need for despondency, the pope says. Despite appearances, Life and its irresistible forces are on our side! They will not – they cannot – be controlled even by imperial agents of death as powerful as the Rome that assassinated Jesus or the United States whose economic and military policies are butchering the planet.

Even post moderns, skeptics and agnostics can embrace a story with a message like that.

After all, it’s spring! Life goes on! Jesus has indeed risen!

Palm Sunday Homily: Parish Renewal Inspired by Pope Francis

J.C. Superstar

Holy Week begins today with Palm Sunday.  Fittingly, last evening my wife and I listened again (as we do every year) to Webber and Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  (You can listen to the 1970 version here; last year we attended the actual play.) The familiar score and story always have me tearing from the overture on.

Of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a brilliant musical that captures the final events in Jesus’ life.  As in today’s liturgical readings, the play takes us from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his cleansing of the city’s Temple, his betrayal by Judas, his trials before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod. It finishes with his death on the cross and a reprise of Judas’ questions about Jesus’ place in history and among the world’s other spiritual geniuses.

Through it all we agonize with Judas about accepting blood money and with Mary Magdalene about her unrequited love. We shake our heads at Jesus’ uncomprehending, self-interested and cowardly disciples. We’re amazed at the fickleness of the crowd and by Jesus’ compassion, indecision, fear of death, and forgiveness of his executioners.

The rock musical score is haunting. The lyrics are hip and inspiring. I find it amazing that the story though repeated so often retains the power to move its audiences. I feel grateful to Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for their audacity in making the tale so accessible and meaningful to contemporaries.

Similar feelings have been evoked last year by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” That too was on my mind as I listened to “Jesus Christ Superstar” this year. That’s because during this year’s Lent, members of my parish community have been studying (for the second year in a row) the pope’s publication.

Through it, I think Pope Francis is calling us to do something like what Webber and Rice have done – make Jesus and the church once again relevant to a world that has long since dismissed them as quaint and detached from daily life.

As we’ve studied “The Joy of the Gospel,” all of us have marveled at Francis’ own courage, boldness and audacity. Almost from the beginning, our group has asked each other, “But what should we do in this parish in response to the pope’s general directions?” That same question surfaced last Lent, when I put forth a proposal published here.

Then it was well-received, but there was virtually no follow-through. Virtually nothing has changed in our church as a result of the pope’s exhortation. For us it’s still a question of “business as usual.” And our numbers of aging parishioners are dwindling as a result.

This year, things are different. Pope Francis’ planned visit to the United States next September has inspired our parish Peace and Social Justice Committee to reformulate the proposal in a way that honors his visit. And this time the formulation has legs. We’re actually might implement it.

Here’s a shortened summary of our revised plan (all parenthetical references are to sections in Francis’ exhortation) :

 “The Joy of the Gospel:” St. Clare Moving Forward

A Proposal for Parish Renewal Guided by the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation

Rationale: The visit of Pope Francis to the United States provides St. Clare Parish with a unique opportunity to highlight and appropriate the pope’s directions for church renewal offered in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG). Those directions called on the church to embark on a new chapter in its history and a new path, where things cannot be left as they presently are (25). Pope Francis urged Catholics to adopt new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74), along with new customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules, and language (27). Parishes were instructed to act boldly, and without inhibition or fear (33), in implementing processes of reform (30) adapted to particular churches (82).

With the above empowering directives and guidelines in mind, the Parish Peace and Social Justice Committee suggests adoption of the following plan towards beginning implementation of the renewal processes suggested by JG:

  • In preparation for the pope’s visit to the United States (September 22-27, 2015), the parish will be invited to read his forthcoming encyclical which is expected to be published this June. (Reading the encyclical is intended as a vehicle for revisiting and applying the pope’s vision found in “The Joy of the Gospel.”)
  • Copies of the encyclical will be purchased for each member of the parish over the age of 16 who wishes to receive a copy.
  • CCD teachers will be encouraged to develop study guides for younger children.
  • The encyclical will be discussed on the two Sundays preceding the pope’s visit, viz., September 13th and 20th.
  • To maximize participation and to experiment with on-going adult education (or “Sunday School”) discussions will be held from 9:00 to 10:00 on those Sundays and also on October 4th (see below).
  • Sunday School sessions will be followed by a half hour for coffee and snacks in the Friendship Hall and then by Mass in the church at 10:30.
  • On those days, (to highlight the unity of our parish) the 10:30 Mass will be the only Mass at St. Clare’s (“inconveniencing” everyone.) The 10:30 celebration will be bi-lingual incorporating both the Anglo and Hispanic communities and concelebrated by Fr. Michael and Padre Eulices (the clerical leader of our parish’s Hispanic community).
  • On Sunday, September 27th, there will be a viewing of the pope’s addresses to the U.S. Congress (9/24), and to the United Nations (9/25), as well as his homily delivered at the papal Mass concluding his U.S. visit.
  • The viewing of the pope’s addresses will take place in the parish Friendship Hall at 6:00 p.m. and will be preceded or accompanied by a special spaghetti dinner..
  • On their return from attendance at the papal visit, members of the St. Clare delegation will give formal reports during the “Sunday School” session of October 4th.

Follow Up

Following these events, an ad hoc committee (including the pastor) will review the entire experience outlined above.  It will formulate a strategic plan for the parish for later discussion. The plan will address issues such as:

  • Improved community outreach.
  • Closer relations between the Anglo and Hispanic communities.
  • Specifically how to better integrate the Saturday night and Sunday morning communities.
  • Prospects for institutionalizing adult education “Sunday School.”
  • Ways of improving Sunday liturgies taking advantage of the unique resources in our parish.
  • Revising the St. Clare Mission Statement to make its expression more inclusive.
  • Expanding roles for women (103, 104).
  • Specific plans for drawing young people back into the worshipping community.

So what do you think? Are we in tune with Jesus, Pope Francis, and Webber & Rice? Is this pointing the way to Easter Resurrection? What else might we do?

Discussion follows.

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