James Patterson’s “Woman of God”: Its Call to Reform the Catholic Church from Below

woman-of-god-image

James Patterson surprised me recently by publishing a book about the Catholic Church and faith. Usually, of course, Paterson deals with the world and adventures of ex-F.B.I. agent Alex Cross. There Patterson’s fiction revolves around spies, the C.I.A., terrorists, murder and general mayhem.

So I was intrigued when I came across Woman of God. I was even more surprised to find it addressing the problem of reform in the Catholic Church. In fact, the book might be seen as a parable – if we understand parable as a fictional story inviting its audience to conversion and action. The action in question is transformation of the Catholic Church independent of established church authority.

Woman of God traces the life of Brigid Fitzgerald, a not particularly religious physician, whose first assignment takes her to Africa’s Sudan. There horrendous experiences with grinding poverty, terrorist attacks, battlefield operations and dying children drive her to rediscover her long-abandoned faith.

The book is filled with prayers and mystical reflections about the unity of creation and of humankind. It also details Brigid’s series of romantic relationships and marriages that all end tragically. As a result, I sometimes thought I was reading one of those Christian romances where each and every plot turn is cloyingly related to God, faith and prayer.

But Patterson somehow pulls this one off.

With her faith deepening with every chapter, Brigid’s second marriage joins her with a progressive Catholic priest. Together they start the Jesus, Mary and Joseph (JMJ) Catholic Church. It offers an alternative to the local parish, but stubbornly continues to identify as Catholic, even over the objections and threats of the local bishop. Eventually, Brigid herself becomes a priest – ordained by a dissident prelate.

Gradually JMJ becomes a movement that spreads across the United States. So does Brigid’s fame as a married female cleric. Accordingly, she receives threats from conservative Catholics and accolades from almost everyone else. A final seal of approval comes from the pope himself, when Brigid (and her daughter) are summoned to Rome to meet the Holy Father. When he eventually dies, there is even speculation that Brigid herself might be chosen pope.

The connections between Woman of God and bottom-up reform of the Catholic Church are obvious – especially in the light of prospects that threaten the very continuity of human life on our planet. As parable, the book calls committed Catholics to actually do something by way of resistance that calls upon the Church’s long (a neglected) social justice tradition. it’s time, the story suggests, to start a JMJ church of our own.  Committed Catholics must become the change Pope Francis called for in his landmark Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

Chris Hedges’ recent article on the state of our country intimates something similar. We’re living in circumstances that parallel events in 1933 Germany, he says. As Hedges argues, all of our institutions – government, military, police, media outlets, schools and universities, churches and synagogues – have been too long silent. We’ve simply gone along with their own gradual corruption. When it’s all over, we’ll stand there scratching our heads and wondering how we could have let it all happen.

Regarding the role of churches, Hedges predicts we will ask:

“Where were the great moral and religious truth tellers? Why did they use the language of identity politics as a substitute for the language of social justice? Why did they refuse to condemn as heretics those on the Christian right, which fused the symbols of the state with those of the Christian religion? Why did they collaborate with the evil of corporate capitalism? Why did they retreat into churches and synagogues, establishing exclusive social clubs, rather than fight the injustice outside their doors? Why did they abandon the poor? Why did they replace prophetic demands for justice with cloying political correctness and personal piety?”

Chris Hedges suggests that only a deeply engaged spirituality focusing on social justice can save Catholics from repeating the “go-along-to-get-along” mistakes they committed under Nazism. We need the U.S. equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church. We need a JMJ community that will make its business resistance of all forms of Trumpism in the name of Jesus’ God.

Recall what Bonhoeffer, Pastor Niemoller, Karl Barth and others did when Adolf Hitler came to power. They saw their churches silent at best, and at their worst actually cooperating with Hitler by giving him their blessings. So they started their “Confessing Church.” Originally the movement concentrated on ecclesiastical threats from Hitler. Later however those foci broadened to embrace persecuted Jews. In the face of concentration camp atrocities, its members ended up asking

“Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? … What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain. (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9)

Catholics should make the Confessing Church’s question our own as Nazism has morphed into the contemporary Alt-right. In the face of its current unprecedented threat, corresponding action is required that works every day for the defeat of the neo-fascism Trumpism represents. And the Catholic Church with its unparalleled social teaching (recently expanded by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’) offers us the guidance we need to shape the responses of a present-day Confessing Church.

Following the parabolic example of Brigid Fitzgerald and her JMJ Church, here’s what we might do:

  • Admit that in most cases, present forms of church are hopelessly disconnected from the unprecedented tragedy and threat represented by the accession to power of the Neo-Fascist Alt-Right.
  • Recognize the power of the Catholic tradition as expressed by Pope Francis as he addresses climate change, environmental destruction, income inequalities, racism, xenophobia, and interminable wars.
  • Publicly move out of our local church building.
  • Open store front JMJ Catholic churches with names such as “St. Francis’ Catholic Church of Resistance.”
  • Invite former Catholics, college students, and other disaffected church members to join.
  • Publish the invitation in local newspapers.
  • Meet in the store front for Eucharist each Sunday at the very times the local church celebrates Mass.
  • Empower faithful women in the JMJ community to preach and celebrate the Eucharist.
  • Gather in the storefront on Wednesday evenings to plan the week’s acts of resistance to Trumpism in all of its manifestations.

Certainly there will come objections from sincere Catholics. They will say:

  • We have no authority to do this.
  • It’s better to continue our reform efforts from within.
  • This will only cause division in our church.
  • The status quo really doesn’t bother me, because I use the quiet provided by Sunday Mass to facilitate my own prayer life.
  • (If, like me, you’re of a certain age) I’m too old for such radical disruption of my life.

To such objections Brigid Fitzgerald might reply:

  • As baptized Catholics, we have all the authority we need. Given the unprecedented threats we face, none of us can wait for top-down leadership to address them adequately. (This was the conclusion of the Confessing Church.)
  • Reform from within? Remember: some of us are operating in churches where announcements deemed “too political” are forbidden. Some parishes don’t even have Peace and Social Justice Committees.
  • Division in our churches? The divisions that already exists are precisely the problem. Papering over such fissures actually prevents even naming the problem of Trumpism.
  • Withdrawing into personal prayer? The times will not allow us the luxury of such pietism in the face of a threat that is truly planetary.
  • Too old? Christian faith will not allow us to identify with the physical as if we were primarily bodies with souls. Our spirits are ageless. The truth is that we are primarily ageless spirits who happen to inhabit temporary bodies. The imperative for action is no less incumbent on older people than on the young. Moreover, the JMJ movement promises to invite energetic college students (and others) to join us as leaders in our community.

This is not time for those with experience to step back and relax. Like Brigid Fitzgerald our experiences have caused us to mature. They have made us wise. That wisdom tells us that time is running out – for us personally, for our children and grandchildren, and for the planet itself. These unprecedented times call for radical response.

Thank you, James Patterson for your parable and its summons to Catholics. It remains for us to respond.

Re-Firement: Five Years On . . .

Cincinnatus_in_retirement

Just this morning I had a conversation about retirement with a neighbor who is a very good friend of mine. “How’s retirement going for you?” he asked. “A lot better,” I answered.

And It has.

Fact is: up until recently, I’ve had a hard time finding my legs in this new phase of my life. With my family not exactly on board with my decision to leave teaching, I’ve experienced some discomfort and second-guessing on my part.

And then too there’s the element that since retiring (five years ago), I haven’t really left the classroom. I taught in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica for several semesters. And then I did some filling-in for a couple of terms at Berea College on behalf of a colleague who had fallen ill. Last year at this time I taught a course there called “Poverty and Social Justice.” (And that was nice, since it brought my number of years teaching at Berea to exactly 40.)

The bottom line is that since my retirement, I’ve been out of the saddle for only two semesters – other than my time spent traveling.

And the traveling has been extensive. I’ve been all over the map – to Mexico (two summers), Cuba (three weeks), India (five months), South Africa (six months), and Italy (twice for three weeks at a time) – and then those months in Costa Rica I mentioned.

It was in South Africa that I started my blog. And that’s been fun – hundreds of entries published. A hundred and twenty-nine of them have appeared in OpEdNews – an alternative on-line news source I recommend to everyone.  And over the past year or so some of those pieces have crept into the Lexington Herald-Leader about every four to six weeks.

In India I discovered yoga, weight lifting and Vipassana meditation. (See my reflections on Vipassana here.)  Yes, I had been meditating twice a day since 1998.  But the method I learned in India challenged so much of what I had been doing – moved it to a deeper level. And that started me on the road to rethinking everything about the spirituality and theology I’ve developed over my 75 years of life.

The works of Ken Wilber, A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson, and Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God have all played a part in that. Walsch’s three-volume work has been especially influential; I’m finishing its close reading for the second time. In many ways it has turned my world upside down.  It has surprised me at some turns, confirmed what I’ve long believed at others, and simply evoked my denial-reflex at still others. In every case Conversations with God has caused me to wrestle with questions I thought long since resolved. Very exciting!

My latest project has been writing a study-guide for Pope Francis’ new encyclical. The 150 page book will be ready for distribution in about two weeks. That’s exciting for me since my approach to Laudato Si’ is to understand it in the context of Latin American history and liberation theology. Laudato Si’ is terrific, as is Evangelii Gaudium. Francis is asking us, I’m arguing, to re-think not only climate change, but capitalism, American history, theology, and understandings of church.

Everything I’ve just mentioned has led me to become more comfortable with retirement. At times lately I find myself thinking that life for me has turned more interesting, engaging and productive than ever before in its new stage.

And I don’t think that’s true only for me.  I mean: what about you? Don’t you think that these are especially exciting, extraordinarily creative, and unusually challenging times? As I see them, they are nearly as exciting and promising as the 1960s, which I was so blessed to live through.

There’s something going on in the world. The positive forces of evolution are aligning on one side and becoming not only more vociferous, but are finding more receptive audiences everywhere. And by the same token, the less-evolved opponents of those positive forces are engaged in a death-struggle they are bound eventually to lose.

More about that next time . . .

The Conversion of Pope Francis and “Why the New Pope Must Resign”

Francis Capitalism

“Why the New Pope Must Resign.” That was the title of an article I wrote just after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. In it I joined Argentina’s Horacio Verbitsky and others questioning the role of Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-’83).

Since then, friends have asked me about that. “What do you think now – in the light of the fresh spirit of reform the pope has introduced – in the light of his tremendous popularity?  Surely you were mistaken in your original, hasty judgment.”

That’s the typical question and observation.

My answer has been that I’m delighted with Pope Francis and the direction his papacy has taken. Both his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and especially his new eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ are magnificent. Their criticisms of capitalism-as-we-know-it as the structural cause of world poverty and environmental destruction couldn’t be a clearer endorsement of a form of liberation theology that is both spiritually moving and politically engaged.

I’m glad the pope didn’t resign. Pope Francis is great.

But in response to my friends, I also add that the issue of Father Bergoglio’s involvement with the Dirty War is not resolved. Nor should it be ignored. Recalling its elements holds lessons for us – about the Roman Church’s history of supporting oppression, about whitewashed historiography, and most importantly, about the possibility of repentance and deep personal change.

Consider the first point, the Church supporting fascist oppression. It happened in Argentina during the Dirty War as it happened in Germany under Adolf Hitler.

When Bergoglio was Jesuit Provincial, he was accused of turning over to the army two of his Jesuit colleagues and former teachers, Fathers Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics. Both had been pro-socialist clerics and members of the Third World Priests’ Movement (MSTM). Such membership was considered a capital crime by the country’s ruling junta.

Yorio and Jalics had been embroiled in a long-standing feud with their Provincial not so much about their MSTM affiliation, but about their activities in a slum community the two priests served and lived in. Bergoglio didn’t have much time for Jesuits in his province being associated with left-wing causes – nor for versions of liberation theology tainted with Marxist analysis.

Like John Paul II and his chief advisor Josef Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI), he preferred a strain of liberation theology that prioritized the poor, but apolitically without revolutionary aspirations. Bergoglio liked to call that strain the “Theology of the People.” It prioritized their reflections on the gospel, and popular devotion to images, novenas, etc. Other versions of liberation theology were too “ideological.”

After being arrested and tortured, both Yorio and Jalics accused Bergoglio of fingering them to the army.

Father Yorio died without retracting his accusation. Fr. Jalics at first didn’t want to discuss the matter, saying that he and Bergoglio had reconciled.

Beyond the case of Yorio and Jalics, there was that of Father Christian Von Wernich. He had been a police chaplain during the Dirty War. After its conclusion, during the process of national reconciliation, Von Wernich came under investigation for his direct roles in police tortures and murders.

In response, while Bergoglio was a member, the Argentine Bishops’ Conference protected Von Wernich by transferring him to Chile under an assumed name. That is, the Bishops Conference treated accusations of torture and murder in exactly the same way bishops throughout the world had often dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children: transfer the offender and cover up the past.

So, the question becomes, was Jesuit Provincial Bergoglio, like the predominant leadership of the Argentine Catholic Church, somehow cooperative with the ruling junta?

This brings us to my second point about historiography.

In defense of the future Pope Francis (and of the church hierarchy in general), his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, offers explanations that end up sounding much like the defense of Pius XII vis-à-vis the Nazis and his failure intervene against the Holocaust. Ivereigh argues:

  1. When the military took over in 1976, Argentina (like Weimar Germany) was in a state of political and economic chaos.
  2. So virtually all segments of society welcomed the military take-over (as Germans and the German Catholic Church welcomed Adolf Hitler).
  3. The military’s brutal Dirty War was secretive about the extremity of its measures. (Fr. Bergoglio testified that it took him some time to realize what was happening.)
  4. So people like Bergoglio didn’t really know what was going on (just as Germans claim they didn’t know about the concentration camps and ovens).
  5. When he did find out (like Pius XII) Bergoglio “worked quietly” to help potential victims escape – while fulfilling his primary duty of protecting the Jesuits from suspicion, investigation and reprisals from the ruling junta.

As with Germany such reasons end up sounding like excuses that raise suspicions of cover-up and historical obscurantism. They evoke the following observations and questions:

  1. Bergoglio gives every indication of being on the same page with John Paul II and Josef Ratzinger who also largely “looked the other way” when confronted with evidence of government brutality in dealing with left-wing elements of the clergy and faithful, e.g. in Central America in general and in El Salvador and Nicaragua in particular.
  2. Bergoglio clearly shared their disdain for priests involved in politics.
  3. If (as Ivereigh suggests) Father Bergoglio was so well-connected and friendly with all factions (including government officials and military leaders on the one hand, and their opponents including MSTM members on the other) how could he not have at least suspected what was really happening?
  4. If Jalics had forgiven Bergoglio (as he originally had said) what had he forgiven?
  5. Why did Jalics apparently change his story a few days after Pope Francis’ election? On being repeatedly contacted by the media about the issue, Jalics said, “The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
  6. Father Yorio offered no deathbed recantation of his charges against Bergoglio.

And that brings me to my final point about repentance and its significance for Catholics today.

As Ivereigh indicates, the prevailing method of dealing with such contradictions is to  reluctantly argue that Father Bergoglio perhaps did cooperate with the military – as did so many other churchmen in positions of authority during the Dirty War. However, in Bergoglio’s case, he also courageously helped many escape – at some risk to himself.

But then at some point, he underwent a kind of conversion and is now a progressive. At least at the administrative level, Bergoglio’s own testimony indicates that he experienced a profound conversion. He confesses that as a young Jesuit Provincial (he was only 36 when appointed), he was too headstrong, uncompromising and authoritarian.

Indications are, however, that the about-face went far beyond managerial style.

The exact turning point in the process remains unclear. It could have come after Bergoglio was virtually drummed out of the Jesuits by progressive elements which saw him as an impediment to the Society’s reform in the spirit of Vatican II.

Afterwards he spent two years in a kind of exile and deep introspection. Ivereigh reports that Bergoglio passed days hearing the confessions of simple shantytown poor people. He also spent hours in semi-depression, simply staring out his window. Colleagues worried that he was sick. Was it some type of breakdown?

Whatever the case, clear evidence reveals a subsequently changed man. Previously he was criticized by more liberal fellow Jesuits and others for failing to ask important questions about poverty. As they put it, “He’s great at ministering to the poor. But he never asks why they are poor.” (The criticism evoked the famous comment of Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”)

But as pope in Laudato Si’ Francis makes no bones about why the poor have no food, or jobs, or homes, or education. With observations worthy of the MSTM members he rejected, the pope says, all of those problems are connected by the invisible thread called deregulated capitalism. His encyclical says that poverty, environmental destruction and a whole host of other problems are caused by capitalism-as-we-know-it. (So, predictably and true to Dom Helder’s words, Rush Limbaugh and others call Pope Francis a communist.)

Evidence of radical theological change goes much further. Consider, for instance, that Francis has:

  • Surrounded himself with liberation theologian advisers concerned with history and structural analysis.
  • Rehabilitated and consulted pro-socialist theologians blacklisted by his two predecessors – most prominently among them Brazil’s Leonardo Boff.
  • Identified Marxism as similar to the teachings of the early church fathers, claimed Marxists as his friends, and referred to them as “closet Christians.”
  • Echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking of Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.”
  • Peppered both The Joy of the Gospel and Laudato Si’ with frequent uses of the loaded word “liberation” contrasting the deleterious effects of “liberation” of markets (from government control) with the liberation of peoples proclaimed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
  • Has similarly made Medellin’s phrase “preferential option for the poor” the watchword of his papacy, even going so far as to identify it with “the gospel itself.”
  • Beatified the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who is considered the patron saint of liberation theology. (Romero did, by the way, confront the ruling military and lost his life as a result.)
  • Described the world’s dominant economic system as running “counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.
  • Worked with the Obama administration to open doors to Cuba which for more than 50 years has struggled to construct an economic alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it.
  • In keeping with the insights of liberation theology, the pope has turned working against capitalism-as-we-know-it into a moral issue. In Laudato Si’ he wrote: “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – is a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in The Joy of the Gospel where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”

All of this represents not only a personal conversion for Pope Francis, but a summons to his Church to follow in his footsteps.

What he has written in “The Joy of the Gospel” indicates that he recognizes in a Church the same crisis he underwent. It is out-of-touch and in need of a complete overhaul. “Everything must change,” he has said.

For too long, he has written, the Church has been mired in an authoritarian judgmental paradigm and in viewpoint-narrowness that has focused on important but non-essential matters foreign to the focus of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom. So-called “pelvic issues” were of little concern to Christianity’s Great Master.

The pope implicitly calls Catholics resembling his former conservative, apolitical self to engage in the process of political, economic, and ideological change before it’s too late. Stop staring out the window at a world falling apart, he tells us. Emerge from denial and obstructionism and come to grips with climate chaos and changing the economic system that causes not only environmental destruction, but world hunger, poverty, high infant mortality, and war.

Those are statements Fathers Yorio and Jalics could fully endorse.

“Laudato Si’” and Its Preferential Option for the Poor (Part Three): the Guiding Principle for Restructuring the World Economy

option for poor

This is the last installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. It attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.”  This third part addresses the meaning and centrality of that option.

In his critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it (reviewed in Part Two of this series), Pope Francis called explicitly for “structural change” in the world economy.  He said, “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”

But what “structural change” does the pope have in mind?

Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ offer the answer. Their “preferential option for the poor” provides the guiding principle and turns the present economic order exactly on its head. This implies that if the present order is possible, so is its opposite.

That is to say that the present neo-liberal order is structured according to a “preferential option for the rich.”  Its sponsoring question is how can we make sure that the banks, corporations, and 1% prosper? Economists explain such concern by various “trickle-down theories.”  If priority is accorded the welfare of the rich, the theorists say, the wealth produced will trickle down creating a “rising tide that lifts all boats.”  [The pope rejects such theories out-of-hand as historically disproven. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he even calls them homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59).]

By way of contrast, the pope’s “preferential option for the poor” begins at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?

Laudato Si’ goes even further. It expands moral concern beyond human beings to all forms of life. It asks how we can insure the survival of the planet in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.

None of this means abandoning market dynamics altogether.

It does mean, however, controlling them according to the principle some have expressed in the words, “as much market as possible and as much planning as necessary.” This means maximizing market forces, but controlling them as necessitated by prioritization of the needs of the poor including the environment – once again by the preferential option for the poor.

In practice this entails at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces.

Impossible you say? Not at all. To repeat: if economies can be structured according to a preferential option for the rich, they can be restructured to prioritize the needs and rights of the poor and the environment.

That’s the Global South hope and conviction Laudato Si’ embodies: another world is indeed possible.

Conclusion   

Will Laudato Si’ have its desired effect? That, of course remains to the seen. However, it undeniably has in Pope Francis a powerful proponent.

That is, despite remaining Stalinist skepticism, Pope Francis might well be the most powerful man in the world. Certainly, he is the planet’s most influential moral leader. What empower him, of course, are not the military divisions in which Josef Stalin placed confidence, but his extraordinary consciousness of the unity of all creation expressed repeatedly in his every pronouncement and especially in his recent encyclical. What sets him apart from the Obamas and Putins of the world is his equally unusual courage, compassion, charisma, and credibility.

Additionally, the pope has surpassing constituency. He heads a community of 1.2 billion followers. And this does not even count the untold millions of non-Catholics who admire him and his thought leadership.

With such support, the powerful message of Laudato Si’, and his plans to bring that message to the U.N. and U.S. Congress in September, as well as to influence the Climate Summit in Paris next September, who knows what changes will result? Who knows how he will influence the U.S. general elections in 2016?

In other words, Francis may stand on the brink of surpassing the stature of Leo XIII and John Paul II in terms of changing the world.

Defenders of the old order are already shaking in their boots.

(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!

Sunday Homily: “Lazarus come forth!” Pope Francis Brings Jesus Back to Life

Lazarus

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040614.cfm

A few weeks ago, Fortune Magazine identified Pope Francis as first among the World’s “Fifty Best Leaders.” President Obama did not even make the list. Bono and President Clinton were among the top ten.

Whatever the magazine’s reasons for selecting the pope, it’s clear that the “Francis Effect,” is real. Seventy-seven percent of Catholics say they have increased their church donations since the new pope took office. Francis has brought the Catholic Church back from the dead. More importantly, he has returned to life the Jesus of the gospels whom conservatives have long since hijacked and buried – the very one our world’s poor majority needs as never before.

That’s relevant this fifth Sunday of Lent where our readings have Ezekiel coining the highly political metaphor of God’s “raising the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist’s presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.

Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), Pope Francis embraces not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. To repeat, he actually revivifies Jesus and the Gospel. The pope does so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 35 years. It’s the version, the pope strongly implies, that has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor, not to the rich whom the conservatives prioritize.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.

In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!

So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.

To repeat, Pope Francis strongly implies that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is was chillingly represented last week by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.

The Joy of the Gospel makes it clear that no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan and the pope are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, Pope Francis calls him back to life. He stands before Jesus’ grave and shouts “Come Forth!” Even Fortune Magazine recognizes the resulting miracle.

Consider the Pope’s anti-conservative incantation that brings Jesus back to life. It runs like this:

• Wealth does not belong to the rich, but to the world’s poor (JG 57, 184).

• But the world economy as now structured concentrates wealth among an ever-shrinking minority of the rich (56).

• Wealth must therefore be redistributed (189, 204,215).

• Such redistribution must take place by government intervention in the free market, which (in contradiction to failed “trickle-down” theory) cannot by itself eliminate poverty (54).

• The rich who are unwilling to redistribute wealth to its true owners (the poor) are thieves (57, 189).

• More than that, they are murderers, since the world economy as presently configured is homicidal (58).

• This is a question of being pro-life (213).

• Favoring life certainly includes concern for the unborn (213).

• But “. . . defense of the unborn is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right” (213).

• Human rights include the right to food and shelter, education, health care, employment , and a just wage (191, 192)

• Respecting human rights involves renunciation of war and preparation for war (60).

• It also connects with environmental stewardship – defense of soil, insects, birds, fish, and the seas (215).

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews the faith of so many of us who had given up on the church.

Our faith is renewed because we recognize in Francis’ Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.

What should we do as a result of encountering the Jesus Francis has resurrected?

• Be bold in appropriating the vision of Pope Francis that is not at all idiosyncratic within the Catholic tradition. In fact, it represents the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII to Vatican II and was even articulated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

• Accordingly and courageously incorporate into progressive political discourse the language and powerful ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It can move people today just as it did in the times of Ezekiel and Jesus.

• Join Francis in refusing to cede the field of religion to the reactionary forces of neo-liberal conservatism.

• Expose that conservatism for the destructive fraud it is.

• More particularly, expose Paul Ryan and other Bible thumping Republicans as the heretics they are as they defend the interests of the rich and starve the poor in the name of the Gospel.

• Insist that our pastors get on board with Pope Francis in universalizing his pro-life vision to foreground issues of hunger, war and peace, capital punishment, full employment, universal health care, affordable housing, environmental protection. . . .

Francis reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo the pope’s cry: “Jesus, come forth!”

Sunday Homily: Pope Francis’ “New Song” – Seven Points You May Have Missed in “Evangelii Gaudium”

Francis Singing

Readings for Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49: 3, 5-6; PS 40: 2, 4, 7-10; I COR 1: 1-3; JN 1: 29-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/011914.cfm

What will Pope Francis do next? Since his election nine month ago, he seems to be in the news on a daily basis.

We all know, for instance, that he was Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” And just last week, the New York Times ran two substantial articles on him. “He has already transformed the tone of the papacy,” one of those articles said, “confessing himself a sinner, declaring ‘Who am I to judge?’ when asked about gays, and kneeling to wash the feet of inmates, including Muslims.”

The article went on to describe the reforms the pope is making in the Vatican. He has disempowered influential conservatives favored by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. The demoted include American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, and Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, along with Archbishop Guido Pozzo. Such reactionaries have been replaced with Francis’ allies like Secretary of State Pietro Parolin whom the pope listed among those he will make a cardinal in February.

Even more broadly, the Times described the pope’s employment of six Jesuit “spies” to assess and report on various Vatican offices. That’s making Roman apparatchiks very nervous. As a result, job insecurity has become the order of the day in Vatican City, where clerical careerists , the Times said, have responded like sulking teenagers plugging in their headphones, retiring to their rooms, and hoping the storm will pass them by.

Another Times report last week detailed Pope Francis’ recent appointments to the College of Cardinals. The Parolin appointment notwithstanding, the nominations represent a departure from tradition in that the majority of the 19 new cardinals will come from Latin America, Africa, and Asia instead of Italy and Europe. The appointees promise to change the tone of the consistory the pope plans to convene at the end of next month where discussions will begin about decentralizing church decision-making processes and about pastoral responses to changes in family structure including questions of divorce and homosexuality.

Couple last week’s moves with last September’s hugely successful mass demonstration in St. Peter’s against the bombing of Syria, with his denunciation of free market capitalism, under-regulated financial speculation, and “murderous” world-wide income inequality, and you have a worthy successor to John XXIII, the soon-to-be-canonized Great Reformer who convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

Put otherwise, in a very short time, Pope Francis has made his own the words of today’s responsorial psalm, “The Lord has put a new song in my mouth.” The song the pope is singing takes the emphasis off formal religion – what the responsorial calls the “sacrifice and offerings.” That’s not what God wants, the psalmist says. Instead God’s desire is “a people that hear and obey” — specifically the law of justice that God has placed in the heart of all human beings whether they think of themselves as believers or not . So far, the pope’s actions show that he agrees.

In terms of today’s gospel reading – a continued reflection on last Sunday’s account of Jesus’ baptism – it’s as if we’re witnessing the descent of the Holy Spirit upon a man determined to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.

Like Jesus, Francis has made a “preferential option for the poor.” He’s signaled justice for the oppressed as the overriding theme of his papacy. He has completely rejected war as a solution to any of the world’s problems. This pope is no hawk or friend of hawks — or of the rich who advocate free market solutions to problems of poverty and its attendant hunger and disease. For him, terrorism is blowback for injustice.

As most of us know, all of this is clearly explained in Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” whose significance in terms of church reform cannot be overstated. But there are some important aspects of the pope’s exhortation that may have escaped notice. Let me name just seven that have special connection with today’s liturgical readings and their emphasis on peace, justice and the Spirit of God. (Parenthetical numbers refer to the relevant sections in the papal document.):

• “Evangelii Gaudium” is not trivial. The pope writes “In this exhortation my intention is to map out the path for the church to follow in the immediate future” (2).So the pope’s concern for the poor and rejection of war are not simply expressions of his idiosyncratic aspirations. They represent attitudes and actions he expects the church and Roman Catholics to adopt.

• As the Huffington Post has put it, “Evangelii Gaudium” also represents a “remarkable about-face” relative to liberation theology. Significantly, the pope met with Gustavo Gutierrez, the doyen of liberation theology, last September. Gutierrez’s themes are found throughout the pope’s Exhortation – the “preferential option for the poor” (198, 199), the affirmation of “popular piety” (122-126), the historical perspective (54), social analysis uncovering unfettered capitalism as homicidal (53, 57), and recognition of “structural sin” (59, 202). . . .

• The Exhortation’s position on private ownership is much more radical than many have acknowledged so far. The pope actually states that the goods of the earth belong to the poor, not simply to those who can pay for them. Quoting “an ancient sage,” the pope says “The goods we possess don’t really belong to us but to the poor” (57). Can you imagine a stronger rejection of capitalism’s understanding of private property?

• In general, the Papal Exhortation is friendly towards theologians. This also represents an about-face from his immediate predecessor who routinely investigated, warned, condemned and silenced theologians – 106 of them by Matthew Fox’s count. By contrast, Pope Francis values the role of theologians whatever categories of reason they might use – even, one might conclude, if the categories are Marxist. Consider the suggestion in these words: “When certain categories of reason and the sciences are taken up into the proclamation of the message, these categories then become tools of evangelization; water is changed into wine. Whatever is taken up is not just redeemed, but becomes an instrument of the Spirit for enlightening and renewing the world. . . The church . . . appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians.”

• The pope’s appreciation of theologians means that “Evangelii Gaudium” holds promise for women and the campaign for women’s ordination – despite its specific rejection of women priests (104). This is because virtually no theologians or scripture scholars find credible the reasons advanced for restricting ordination to males. Even the pope’s Exhortation suggests the contrary. No sooner does he reject women priests than he falls into the traditional language of “holy mother church” (e.g. 139). The pope writes “. . . the church is a mother, and . . . preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child.” Do you detect the dissonance here – of males alone being allowed to speak as women?? Sooner or later that penny will drop.

• The pope’s promotion of the “sensus fidei” (119) holds similar promise for changes in church teaching on contraception. According to the pope, “God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” For theologians, sensus fidei means that when the bishops, theologians and laity agree on a matter of faith or morals, their agreement represents the work of the Holy Spirit. On the question of contraception, previous popes have cut the laity and theologians out of the equation entirely. In the spirit of Vatican II, the pope’s words promise to include them once again. Theologians and laity overwhelmingly agree that church prohibition of artificial contraception needs change.

• In his Exhortation, the pope shifts away from just war theory to complete pacifism (239). He devotes a whole section to the rejection of war (98-101). Moreover, he identifies inequality as the cause of violence and war. He writes, “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve . . . weapons and violence rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts” (60). What if the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics took the pope’s words to heart?

All of this represents the work of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that today’s reading from John’s gospel describes as descending upon the just-baptized Jesus. John the Baptist describes Jesus as the gentle “Lamb of God.” The Spirit is pictured as a dove – the symbol of peace.

Like John the Baptist on Jordan’s banks, Pope Francis is calling the faithful to “Behold the Lamb of God” imitating Jesus’ identification with the poor and his gentle non-violence.