(Sunday Homily) Hurricane Harvey and Its Three Unspeakable Descriptors

Pope-Francis Harvey

As everyone knows, hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, last week. Apart from its obvious devastation, initial reports said Harvey had caused at least 12 deaths across an area that is home to more than 6 million people.

What most don’t know is that on the other side of the world, in Bangladesh, India and Nepal people are currently experiencing 100 times the initially reported Houston death toll. There torrential rains have killed more than 1200 people and wreaked havoc in the lives of up to 40 million South Asians living in those countries. One third of Bangladesh is currently under water.

At the same time, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have recently published a warning that the parts of Asia just referenced (as well as Pakistan) will soon become uninhabitable for its 1.5 billion residents because of rising temperatures. Incessant heat waves will soon make it impossible for peasant farmers to work their fields. The predictable result will be famine and unimaginable loss of life.

Despite such climate events and dire warnings, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of these disasters. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is especially relevant to a Sunday homily like this. It is a person’s name. The name is “Pope Francis.” In fact, I’ll wager that this Sunday you’ll not hear him or his encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) mentioned in connection with Hurricane Harvey even in most Catholic Churches. And that sad fact (despite Pope Francis’ brave efforts) simply underlines the irrelevance to which the church has been reduced.

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change,” “global warming,” or “climate chaos.” Even during non-stop TV coverage of Harvey, the terms hardly crossed the lips of commentators. That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters. (Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.)

In fact, far from admitting its criminal and willful ignorance, the Republican-controlled presidency and congress are moving in the exact opposite direction of that required to address super-hurricanes (like Katrina, Sandy, and now Harvey), as well as torrential flooding, disintegrating icebergs, rising sea levels, and soaring temperatures. Setting itself in opposition to the entire world, our country has withdrawn from the landmark Paris Climate Accord, and is doubling down on the production and use of the dirtiest fuels at human disposal (including coal) .

Additionally, hardly a day goes by without our president threatening nuclear war. As Jonathan Schell pointed out even before most of us were aware of climate change, that event would also have devastating effect on the earth’s atmosphere aggravating the climate syndrome already so well under way.

So you don’t hear much these days about climate chaos and the devastating effects of climate change denial. The reason? That brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s. Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial isn’t jobs, but capital accumulation. That is, corporations like Rex Tillerson’s Exxon are willing to destroy the planet, rather than respond appropriately to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the deception and hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name along with climate change and profit, is unmentionable in connection with Harvey. Yet, more than two years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.) Still, his dire warnings remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic leaders” such as Paul Ryan and his Republican cohorts. Even worse, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina – to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says,

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for? Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175).

That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Such submission threatens jobs profits. But realities much more important than jobs profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith. It is a matter of basic decency and common sense.

In fact, Hurricane Harvey and the other climate disasters I’ve just mentioned remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis has said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

Last week’s events in Texas demonstrate that truth. Mother Nature is angry, and She’s coming after us.

Are we listening?

A Courageous Pope Francis Knows about Walking on Water: He Calls Us to Do the Same

Francis & Trump

Readings for 19th Sunday in ordinary time: I KGS 19: 9A, 11-13A; PS 85: 9-14; ROM 9: 1-5; MT 14: 22-23

In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water – and of his invitation to Peter to follow the Master’s example. The story is relevant to Pope Francis who believes he is Peter’s successor.

The walking-on-water episode is also relevant to Catholics in general trying to figure out how to comport ourselves in this age of Donald Trump with its renewed threats of nuclear war. Should we risk criticizing the president in the name of our faith, or not? The pope’s example says we should. Speak out, it says, against pre-emptive war, narrow fundamentalism, racism, rejection of immigrants, and environmental destruction. And don’t worry: it won’t kill you. Not speaking out may.

Just last month, the pope gave that message, showing, once again, his willingness to step out of his boat and follow Jesus’ symbolic example of fearlessly confronting the monstrous threats facing our world.

In case you missed it, I’m referring to Francis’ apparent endorsement of sentiments expressed in a controversial article that appeared last month in La Civiltà Cattolica – the Vatican’s quasi-official weekly publication. The article boldly criticized American Catholics who accommodate the Gospel to Trumpism.

More specifically, the Vatican weekly accused U.S. Catholic ultraconservatives of making an alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians in their backing of President Trump. In doing so, the article warned, they have strayed dangerously into the turbulent waters of political polarization in the United States. According to the Civiltà Cattolica writers, the conservatives’ worldview and literal understanding of the Bible is “not too far apart’’ from that of jihadists.

The Pope’s apparent endorsement of the article showed once again his willingness to confront Monsters like Donald Trump himself along with Steven Bannon, and their Catholic supporters like Paul Ryan, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the German conservative appointed by Benedict XVI (and recently fired by Francis) as the church’s chief judge of doctrinal orthodoxy.

The suggestion here is that the Pope’s courageous stands over the course of his papacy represent his acceptance of Jesus’ invitation to “walk on water” – to follow the example of Jesus in confronting fearful demons that life inevitably forces us to face.

To see the connection, first consider today’s Gospel reading.

The story goes that following Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 (last week’s Gospel focus), Jesus forces the apostles to get into their boat and row to the other side. [The text says, “Jesus made (emphasis added) the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.” Perhaps these experienced fishermen (as opposed to the land lubber, Jesus) saw a storm was coming and were reluctant to set sail despite Jesus’ urgings.]

In any case, a storm does come up and the apostles fear they are all about to drown. You can imagine their cries for help.

Then they see a figure walking on the water in the midst of high threatening waves. At first they think it’s a ghost. Then they realize that it’s Jesus. He’s walking on the raging waters.

Peter, ever the impetuous leader of the apostles, doubts what he sees. So he says, “Prove to me that it’s you, Jesus; let me walk on the waves just as you’re doing.” Jesus says, “Join me then over here.” So Peter gets out of the boat and, like Jesus actually walks on water for a few steps.

Then, despite the evidence, he begins to doubt. And as he does so, he starts sinking below the water line. “Save me, Lord!” he cries out again. Jesus stretches out his hand and saves Peter. Then he asks, “Where’s your faith? Why is it so weak? Why did you doubt?”

Of course, this whole story (like last week’s “Loaves and Fishes”) is one of the dramatic parables Matthew composed. If we get caught up in wondering whether we’re expected to believe that someone actually walked on water, we’ll miss the point of this powerful metaphor. It’s about Jesus’ followers doing the unexpected and irrational in the midst of the seriously threatening crises life forces upon us.

You see, Matthew’s Jewish audience shared the belief du jour that the sea was inhabited by dangerous monsters – Leviathan being the most fearful. And courageously walking on water was a poetic way of expressing what Matthew’s community believed about Jesus, viz. that he embodied the courage and power to do the completely unexpected in the midst of crisis and subdue the most threatening forces imaginable – even the most lethal they could think of, the Roman Empire.

Jesus’ invitation to Peter communicates the truth that all of us have the power to confront monsters if we’ll just find the courage to leave safety concerns behind even in the most threatening conditions, to confront life’s monsters, and join Jesus in the midst of its upheavals.

Problem is: we easily lose faith and courage. As a result, we’re overcome by life’s surging waves and by the monsters we imagine are lurking underneath.

And that brings me back to Pope Francis and the stands he has taken against the secular orthodoxy of the day that accommodates itself to an emerging neo-fascism. Since the outset of his papacy, he has demonstrated unusual courage attempting to join Jesus on the world’s dangerous waves in contradiction to expectations established by his predecessors. Remember:

  • Unlike other popes, he’s adopted a comparatively simple, unpretentious lifestyle.
  • He’s lost no opportunity to condemn neo-liberalism, growing income inequality, and capitalism itself.
  • His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (largely unheeded) called for radical change in the church, and implicitly endorsed the liberation theology his two immediate predecessors had tried to kill.
  • More specifically, he adopted liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as the leitmotif of his papacy.
  • In that spirit, his famous “Who am I to judge” gave hope to the LGBTQ community.
  • In 2014, his Vatican Peace Vigil helped head off President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria.
  • The following year, he addressed the U.S. Congress where he forthrightly called for an end to capital punishment, and urged divestment from the arms industry, whose profits he described as “soaked in blood.”
  • On that same occasion, he called his audience to imitate fierce critics of capitalism and United States policy, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.
  • He helped shape and gave unequivocal endorsement to the Paris Climate Accords (recently repudiated by Mr. Trump) by publishing his radical eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, also in 2015. It arguably remains the most important public document of the 21st  century.
  • His contextual approach to family issues (pre-marital sex, abortion, sexual orientation, same sex marriage, divorce . . .) recognized the sovereignty of individual conscience. In Amoris Laetitia, he admits that moral choices in family and other matters are inevitably conditioned by age, maturity, degree of moral development, economic necessity, and, yes, ignorance and religious misinformation. As a result, no one is anyone else’s judge.

True, his papacy has daringly left safe harbor and courageously sailed into the storm. Francis clearly sees Jesus as his role model in the face of today’s unprecedented winds and waves. Indeed, Francis has gotten out of the boat to trample underfoot the beasts and monsters roiling the seas all around us.

The question is, will we follow him? The monsters we fear can be intimidating:

  • The pro-war mainstream media
  • Those politicians and churchmen I mentioned earlier
  • The relatives, neighbors, friends, and fellow parishioners who might think us too political
  • Our own attachment to our petty reputations and self-conceptions
  • The militarized police at demonstrations
  • The emerging right wing, “brown shirt” thugs who might threaten our political expression

As the crisis this week over North Korea shows, this is no time for followers of Jesus to be silent, to remain in safety inside gated communities, behind our computers, TVs, sports fanaticism, and other entertainment addictions. This is the time for us to follow the example of Jesus and Pope Francis.

Today’s dramatic parable calls us to get out of the boat and confront the demons who keep us silent and compliant.

(Sunday Homily) Everybody’s Right (Even Donald Trump) and Is Doing the Best S/he Can

trump-crowd

Readings for First Sunday in Lent: GN 2:7-9, 3:1-7; PS 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5: 12-19; MT 4: 1-11.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Its liturgy of the word reminds me of what’s been on my mind these days as I’m working on my critical thinking book. For the last two weeks, I’ve shared some of those thoughts here on my blog.

So, I wrote a week ago about the stages of human development – from egocentric to ethnocentric, to world-centric and cosmic-centric. It probably reminded some of the work of Abraham Maslow and Jean Piaget. Actually, though, my principal reference was to Ken Wilber who, in his A Theory of Everything and elsewhere attempts to integrate and transcend those more familiar works. I recommend Wilber very strongly.

In any case, it strikes me, on this first Sunday of Lent that the season’s challenge is to expand our awareness to something approaching what Jesus manifests in today’s Gospel selection. There, the carpenter from Nazareth is depicted as passing forty days in the desert enduring temptation the whole time.

The story not only recalls the history of Israel’s forty years in the desert; it tracks Jesus’ growth through the stages of human development that all of us must pass through. No one can skip any of them. And the limits of our particular stage of growth make it very difficult and even impossible for us to understand stages beyond our own. Thus, for instance, a person like Donald Trump cannot begin to understand someone like Pope Francis.

This means that when we were children at the egocentric stage, we couldn’t really understand ethnocentrism, much less world-centrism or cosmic-centrism. Similarly, those at the ethnocentric stage cannot understand the evolutionary stages beyond their own. To them it all seems like nonsense and even dangerous.

No one is to blame for any of that. It’s perfectly natural. However, the fear of moving forward can freeze some at lower stages of development. Some remain egocentric all their lives. And it’s the same with ethnocentrism and world-centrism. Nonetheless, we’re all called to the fullness of being human as embodied in avatars like Jesus of Nazareth. In his fullness of human development, he recognized the unity of all creation and everyone’s essential innocence. So as the Compassionate Christ, he saw that (given their stage of development) everyone’s right and is doing the best s/he can. As a result, he could even forgive his executioners who (as he said) “know not what they do.”

Jesus was committed, however, to moving human consciousness forward. He called that stage “the Kingdom of God” — a this-worldly reality. To get there, Jesus recognized that it is not at all necessary for everyone to advance to Kingdom-consciousness or even world-centrism. A small group embodying such awareness would be sufficient to move the entire world forward. [In Wilber’s terms, there’s a tipping point at about 10% of the world’s population. He estimates that at present about 40-60% of the world is fixated at the ethnocentric stage. About 25% are at world-centrism, and about 7% stand at cosmic-centrism. Only a 3% growth in the latter would reach the tipping point.]

Notice Jesus growth as depicted in this morning’s highly condensed symbolic story. Jesus’ first temptation is ego-centric – to feed himself by turning stones into bread. His second temptation is ethnocentric – connected with his nation’s temple and the quasi-magical attributes accorded the structure by his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus’ final temptation is world-centric – to exercise dominion of “all the nations of the world.” By rejecting all three (including the imperial, dominator hierarchy implied in the final temptation), Jesus symbolically achieves the cosmic-consciousness we’re all summoned to. The story ends with his being ministered to by angels. (Thus the divine growth hierarchy I’m trying to explain here is affirmed.)

The bottom line is that Jesus’ vision quest in the desert maps out our Lenten path. It leads from self-centeredness to cosmic consciousness of unity with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. There egoism no longer makes sense, nor does nationalism. Instead all the thinking and values of this world are turned on their heads. God alone matters. Forgiveness of everyone – compassion towards all — is natural.

If that sounds excessively utopian, the point is made about the inability of those at lower stages of development to understand and accept the Christ-consciousness towards which we’re all summoned to stretch. Those who claim to be Christians must simply take Jesus at his word, and pray for further growth.

In other words, the Christ-consciousness that Jesus attained can look at those whom we at lower stages of development might be tempted to vilify and despise and simply forgive them. Our forgiveness recognizes that we too passed through the stages at which they might be frozen. Put still otherwise, we can recognize that the childish, the greedy, the nationalists, and others seduced by the thinking of our world – and we ourselves – are right (given our respective stages of growth) and are doing the best we can.

So Lent challenges us all. Our path this season cannot be traveled without struggle. Its goal cannot be achieved without breaking free from selfishness, xenophobia, and the arrogance of life in an imperial center whose ways are unsustainable and far removed from its evolutionary roots. That’s the point of Lent’s prayerfulness, penance, fasting, and abstinence.

Practically speaking realizing our True Self this Lent – being transformed like Jesus – moving the world’s consciousness forward — might mean:

  • Renewing our prayer life. Even unbelievers can do this. How? I recommend reading Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to find out. Yes, meditate each day during Lent. It will bring you into contact with your True Self. (And, I predict, you won’t stop at the end of 40 days – it’s that life-transforming.)
    • Abstaining from fast food and reclaiming the kitchen. Leave behind for forty days the typically chemicalized, fatty, sugar-hyped American diet, and perhaps experiment with vegetarianism. That seems far more beneficial than traditional “fast and abstinence.”
    • Shopping locally and refusing to set foot in any of the Big Boxes during Lent’s 40 days. Think of it as homage to Jesus’ counter-cultural resort to the desert.
    • Escaping ethnocentrism and imperial sway, by adopting as your news source OpEdNews and/or Al Jazzera rather than the New York Times.
    • Resolving each day to actually respond to one of those many appeals we all receive to make phone calls and write letters to our “representatives” in Congress.

In the “Comment” space below, please share other suggestions.

Yes, it’s Lent once again. We faced up to our origins in dust last Ash Wednesday. A good Lent which leaves behind selfishness, ethnocentrism and allegiance to empire will also challenge us to move the world forward towards the Christ-consciousness that Jesus embodies.

“No Priests” Is the Remedy for the Priest Shortage: Notes for a Home Church (Pt. 4 of 4)

helpwanted

A friend of mine recently told me, “If you’re trying to initiate something new (like reclaiming my priesthood) and the response isn’t ‘Hell yeah!’ you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Well, I haven’t yet heard many “Hell yeahs!” in response to my efforts to (as I said here) re-appropriate my priesthood and start a house church in Berea, Kentucky.

Oh, my very good and generous friends have humored me by showing up on Saturday evenings. But even the closest of them have made it clear that they were doing so out of a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm.

On top of that, my own reflection on our gatherings has been less than “Hell yeah!” And that’s led me to think that perhaps the whole form of Eucharistic gathering (Mass) might be passé. Certainly, as Garry Wills has pointed out in his book Why Priests? “priesthood” as we’ve known it is beyond recall.

That’s not surprising, since the office of priest turns out to be foreign in the experience of the early church. In fact, no “priest” is mentioned In the accounts of Eucharistic meals found in the first two centuries of Christianity [e.g. in the Dialog with Typho and First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165)]

Instead, we find mention of a presider – a proestos in Greek – whose function was to stand in front of the congregation, call it to order, and keep the meeting on track. That’s what proestos (the Greek word for the presider at the Eucharist) literally means – the “stander-in-front.”

“Priests” came in much later – and definitively after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Christian Eucharist took on the trappings of Roman “mystery cults,” like for instance the cult of the Sun God, Mithra, a favorite of the Roman army, whose birthday was celebrated each year on December 25th.

Mystery cults worshipped gods and goddesses like Mithra, Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother. All of them descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, and then ascended back to heaven. From there they offered eternal life to followers who in at least one cult ate the divine one’s body under the form of bread and drank his blood under the form of wine to attain eternal life.

Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does, because that’s what Jesus became under the aegis of Rome. And priests were part of the syndrome. The new Christian Holy Men dressed up like their mystery cult counterparts, and performed a liturgy so similar to the pagan sacred meal rituals that most Romans probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Nonetheless, the pagan cults were eventually swallowed up entirely by Christianity, and believers were left with a ritual that resembled neither Jesus’ “Lord’s Supper” nor a blood sacrifice. Even the bread stopped looking like bread, but more like a plastic wafer.

But the priests remained, accompanied by an ideological lore that justified their existence by claiming that:

  • Jesus was a priest.
  • His apostles were the first Christian priests.
  • In fact, Jesus’ right-hand man, Peter, was the first pope.
  • Priests were necessary to forgive sin.
  • And to offer what was now called “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Such convictions meant that priests became separated from ordinary Christians. The cleric’s alleged power to miraculously change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ did that. Performing the miracle seemed to be something between priests and God. Mass was often “celebrated” by the priest alone accompanied by an altar boy.  Even in public, Mass rubrics had the priest facing away from the congregation in a sanctuary fenced off from the congregation by a “communion railing.” There priests completed their duties more or less in secret and using a language (Latin) that few besides the clergy could understand.

Mandatory celibacy also contributed to the otherness of priests. Largely to protect church property from priests’ heirs, the requirement became de rigueur for all priests in the Roman dispensation after the 12th century. Priests were so special that contrary to Jesus’ specific teaching about calling no man “Father” (MT 23:9), they could assume that title for themselves (as in referencing the pope as “Holy Father.”).

Priests signified their specialness by even dressing differently from other Christians – with the pope assuming all the trappings of the Roman Emperor.  Eventually, ecclesiastical life revolved entirely around the “clergy.” They alone were allowed to preach and even touch the sacred elements.

In all of this, the “faithful” were reduced to the role of spectators at priestly cultic events. All such rituals centered on the “Host” consecrated at Mass, and afterwards taking on a life of its own in its “tabernacle,” or displayed for “benediction” in a monstrance, which was sometimes carried ceremoniously in Eucharistic processions.

All of that changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when the Church of Rome finally caught up with the Protestant Reformation. The Council recognized the “priesthood of the faithful” that Martin Luther had celebrated. Vatican II also described the Eucharist as a “sacred meal,” rather than simply as a “holy sacrifice.” The altar became a “table” and was turned around and moved closer to the people. More and more frequently, liturgical periti (experts) at the Council described the priest as a “presider.” Lay people were allowed to touch and distribute the sacred elements. Council fathers recognized Jesus’ “real presence” not simply in the Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture and in the community they referred to as the “Pilgrim People of God.”

Meanwhile the “search for the historical Jesus” that had begun in earnest with the work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 took a giant leap forward with the emergence of liberation theology and its adoption by CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Liberation theology was reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed, especially in the former colonial world.  It recognized Jesus as a poor peasant like his Third World counterparts. He was seen as thoroughly Jewish and as a resister to Roman Imperialism.

Far from being a priest himself, he was a foe of priests and all they stood for.

Such developments – Vatican II, its theological and liturgical reforms, new insights about the historical Jesus, and re-evaluations of the priesthood itself –  brought priests down from their pedestals; their office became déclassé. With their own baptismal priesthood affirmed, the faithful felt empowered. They spontaneously stopped “going to confession.” Priests everywhere experienced identity crises. Mandatory celibacy entered full debate. As a result, thousands of priests worldwide left the priesthood to marry.

In response, the hierarchical church tried to backpedal. While recognizing the teaching of Vatican II as its own official teaching, the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) followed by that of Benedict XVI (2006-2013) gave Vatican II Catholics the feeling that the hierarchy’s honoring of the Council was mostly lip-service.

John Paul II and Benedict systematically replaced cardinals and bishops who had taken to heart the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. The reactionary popes also packed the College of Cardinals (who would elect future popes) with conservatives, made it more difficult for priests to “return to the lay state,” suppressed liberation theology, silenced and removed creative theologians from teaching posts, returned Latinisms to the Eucharistic liturgy, cooperated with neoliberal political regimes, and were generally backward-looking.

Perhaps most importantly, formation programs in Catholic seminaries took a sharp turn to the right. The priests who emerged from them showed little sympathy for conciliar reforms. They displayed ignorance of modern scripture scholarship or awareness of ecumenical theology, as well as any inclination to connect the Gospel with contemporary issues other than abortion or gay marriage.

Such rightward drift came to a sudden and unexpected halt with the election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, and the first Global South pope in the history of the church. Ordained in 1969, Francis is a product of the Second Vatican Council and inevitably influenced by liberation theology, which was largely a product of Latin America.

His Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG, 2013) was seen as his manifesto announcing an acceleration of Vatican II reforms. It called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” on which things could not be left unchanged (JG 25). Preaching had to improve, he said (135-159). The roles of women needed expansion (103-4). Outreach was necessary to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246). And the struggle for social justice and participation in political life was an inescapable “moral obligation” (220,258).

As for priests, Francis’ Exhortation continued the clerical downgrading implied in Vatican II reforms. The priesthood, the pope taught, represents simply a church function. It is a service not necessarily distinguished in dignity, holiness, or superiority from those rendered by other baptized Christians (204).

And there’s more. Recently, Leonardo Boff (a Brazilian liberation theologian silenced under John Paul II, but reinstated by Pope Francis) spoke glowingly of the current pope. “He is one of us,” Boff said – presumably referring to liberationist Catholics. In any case, Boff went on to speculate that Francis is about to address the Brazilian priest shortage by making possible the reinstatement of the country’s thousands of laicized priests. Boff also conjectured that the pope might be on the brink of allowing women to become deacons. Both changes would represent giant steps towards eliminating mandatory celibacy for priests and towards ordination of women.

CONCLUSION

But is any of those measures sufficient for resolving the priest shortage – or for addressing the irrelevance of the church noted at the beginning of this series of four essays? I doubt it.

That’s because the very bases of priestly powers are in practice no longer believable. I’m referring to the quasi-magic ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the authority to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. On these two functions, hangs all priestly authority and the entire special identity of the Catholic clergy.

And like the Protestant Reformers before them, many adult, thinking Catholics can no longer accept either. As we have seen, scripture scholars have shown that neither power enjoys biblical endorsement. They are inheritances from post-first century fundamentalists who lacked sensitivity to the rich symbolism of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament.

As explained earlier, that rich symbolism finds in a loaf of bread a wonderful image of the human condition. Its single reality summarizes it all. Bread is the product of seed, earth, sun, rain, and human labor. When shared it miraculously creates and sustains human community. Wine is similar. Throughout his life, Jesus celebrated the community that such simple elements manifest. His teachings reinforced that basic insight. He was a prophet, a spiritual master, and a religious reformer who preferred rough illiterate fishermen over pretentious, exclusive priests. That was a radical and liberating message.

The Protestant reformers saw all of that quite clearly. And so they did away with priests who insisted on being separate and special, while being honored with titles Jesus forbade.

All of this means that the reforms of Vatican II didn’t go nearly far enough. Pope Francis is correct. To survive, the church must embark on that “new path” he called for.  There nothing can be left unchanged (JG 25). The roles of women need expansion (103-4). Ecumenical cooperation with other denominations and religions must be centralized as well as the struggle for social justice (220, 258). Until all Christians in close cooperation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists cooperate to attack injustice, the survival of the world itself is in doubt.

Evidently, Pope Francis himself has not perceived the implications of his brave words. Certainly, church leaders have not. It remains for the rest of us to take the lead.

Taking that lead was the thought behind my initial “Hell yeah!” to the idea of house church.  

 

 

To Make a Nation Great Again: Trump’s Cabinet vs. Jesus’ (Sunday Homily)

fishermen

Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23

Well, it’s happened. Donald Trump is our new president. We saw the know-nothing real estate magnate, casino king, reality show star, and unrepentant assailant of women sworn in last Friday at noon. Many of us are still in shock.

As everyone knows, the new president’s announced program is to make America great again. His cabinet picks evidence his strategy. It’s to run the country “like a business.”

Look at them all. Every one sitting around the table where decisions will be made about our lives and the fate of the planet comes from the 1%. They are all billionaires, multi-millionaires, generals and Christian fundamentalists. (One of them boasts that killing is fun.) Ironically, they claim to prefer biblical science to what our world’s finest minds (including Pope Francis) tell us about the errors of “the American Way.” Evidently, for Mr. Trump the best and the brightest are the richest, most venal, and violent.

The new president’s cabinet picks reveal his underlying philosophy. It’s austerity for the poor (and the planet) complemented by welfare for the rich. They want to defund public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA. They oppose raising the minimum wage. Meanwhile, they want to drastically lower tax rates for themselves. It’s the tired old “trickle-down” theory revisited with a vengeance, even though it’s been completely discredited. In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis called the ideology homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at its root (59).

Yet many Christians (even Catholics) voted for Trump and see him as somehow the instrument of God!

Providentially, all of that is extremely relevant to the readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (and first in the Extraordinary Time of the Donald).  That’s because today’s Gospel reading in effect records Jesus’ selection of his own “cabinet picks” as he begins his campaign to make his country great again. Today’s reading from Matthew records his selection of the first of his twelve apostles – the successors to the great patriarchs of Israel.

It’s no stretch to say that Jesus’ program was to “Make Israel Great Again.” In his day, the country could have no such pretensions. (In fact, it probably never was great.) It was a poor backwater – an obscure province of the Roman Empire.

Yet its prophets remembered days of prosperity, when God seemed to be on Israel’s side.

Those were all times of liberation from oppression specifically by the rich and powerful – the ancient analogs of Mr. Trump’s cabinet. The first glorious period followed after Yahweh freed slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. Another came in the 6th century, when the Persian monarch, Cyrus the Great, released captives from the long Babylonian Captivity of 70 years.

A third time of liberation and joy is the one Isaiah references in today’s first reading. The ecstasy he describes came in the 8th century BCE, when leaders from Israel’s Northern Kingdom returned home after a captivity (under Assyria) of some 20 years. Then, he says, bitterness and sorrow were turned to joy – specifically, for orphans, widows and resident aliens.

The bitterness began, Isaiah notes, in the regions where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali lived.  That was in the region that by Jesus’ time became known as Capernaum – the city in the Galilee that Jesus adopted as his own (MT 9:1). Significantly, in today’s Gospel excerpt, Matthew has Jesus beginning his public career in the very place where Israel had first become oppressed – in that region of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Matthew’s point is hard to miss: Jesus has come to end all (especially foreign) forms of oppression with his announcement of the advent of God’s Kingdom. It would be a reality mirroring what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Prostitutes and beggars, n’er do wells, the halt and the lame would enter that kingdom, Jesus promised, before the rich and professionally holy (MT 21:31).

The Kingdom would represent a system that favored workers rather than rich landlords, bankers, and oligarchs. “Blessed are you poor,” Jesus would say, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements betray an approach that might be described as “percolate-up” rather than “trickle-down.”

So does Jesus’ selection of the New Israel’s 12 patriarchs. From the viewpoint of the world, it’s almost comic. In today’s reading, Jesus chooses ignorant, illiterate working men as successors to Old Testament saints like Joseph and Benjamin, Zebulun, Naphtali, and their eight revered brothers. In their place, Jesus installs smelly fishermen Peter, James, and John. Later he’ll add a reformed tax collector, and at least one insurgent against the Roman occupiers. Women who had no political power at all would be central in his band of followers.

All of that gives us a God’s eye view of how to make Israel, America – the world – great. Apparently, according to the divine order, it’s not by making the rich richer. To repeat: unlike Donald Trump, Jesus doesn’t begin by enlisting the services of his country’s great landlords, its generals, or its bankers. (As a poor peasant himself, the carpenter from Nazareth didn’t even have that option!) Instead, he starts from below, where all truly effective social change must start.

All such reflections give direction to those attempting to follow the Master from Capernaum today. Our readings call us to join Pope Francis and other critical thinkers in rejecting all forms of trickle-down theory. As the pope reminds us, history and common sense lead to that rejection.

Today’s Gospel supplies a more profound reason for doing so: trickle-down is not the way of the Jesus’ God whose universe is not run like a business, but is a gift system. The world itself is an expression of God’s generosity to all of us. And something is drastically wrong when workers and their children go hungry, when people are forced into prostitution to make ends meet, and when beggars cannot find work.

Something is also profoundly out-of-order when would-be followers of Jesus support politicians convinced that the way to make a country great is by giving even more wealth to the obscenely rich, while forcing austerity measures on the poor.

Starting a House Church: A Faith-Inspired Response to Trumpism (First in a series of four)

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Recently, I surprised friends and readers of this blog by announcing plans to “re-appropriate my priesthood” and start a house church. It would be a faith-based response, I said, to Trumpism and its planetary threat. The community, I hoped, would mobilize the spiritual power that in fact dwarfs the U.S. presidency and the president’s capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the mightiest military in the history of the world.

Some of my former priest-colleagues wondered, “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

After all, the church is for all practical purposes dead and the priesthood along with it.

And good riddance. By and large, the church remains sexist, religiously fundamentalist, and arguably the most conservative force on the face of the earth.

“And there’s more,” they said.  “Virtually no one believes in priestly powers any more. According to Catholic faith, it all hangs on two quasi-magical endowments that priests alone allegedly have to: (1) transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ, and (2) forgive mortal sins that would otherwise send their perpetrators to hell. Few who think about it take such beliefs seriously any more. The others are just coasting along in thoughtless denial. Their children however perceive the nonsense and are jumping the sinking ship in droves. That’s why if ‘former Catholics’ were an actual denomination, they would constitute the third largest church in the United States.

“Moreover, Catholics are virtually indistinguishable from Protestants (or non-believers for that matter) in their life-styles and political positions. They even practice birth control in exactly the same percentages as other Americans. It’s a similar case with divorce and same-sex relationships. And many Catholics vote Republican, despite papal social teachings on social justice, the environment, and war.

“So what’s the point of the Catholic Church with its anachronistic priesthood? It has become a mere social club – good for keeping old friendships alive, but little more. Most of its committees, sodalities, youth and men’s groups are self-serving. Do-gooders could easily find other organizations elsewhere to satisfy their passion for social change – without having to fight resistant Catholic fundamentalists in the process.”

To be frank, I find such objections persuasive.  Despite the best efforts of Pope Francis, the church seems more dead than alive. For all practical purposes, it whistles past the crises that characterize our age. The Sunday Masses I attend completely ignore the unprecedented contemporary context of threats from nuclear war, climate change, racism and sexism.

And yet, I remain firm in my intention to proceed with the house church. That’s because despite the institutional church’s having lost its way, I still find in my faith a source of spiritual strength and political resistance that for me is irreplaceable.

I intend to start a house church also because the objections just mentioned overlook the fact that Catholic Church pews also seat resisters like me. There are people whose faith has been shaped by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In the spirit of the conciliar document, “The Church in the Modern World,” their faith engages them not only with world events, but with one another.

For instance, in my own community, a group of more than 20 has met regularly over the past two or three decades as our church’s Peace and Social Justice Committee. Our gatherings often find us reflecting on liturgical readings. Discussions connect them with political organizing, welcoming refugees, war-resistance, the environmental crisis, and with the needs of local unemployed and impoverished families. Work with Habitat for Humanity has been a constant commitment.

I’m loathe to let such relationships and commitments go. At the same time, I’m convinced there has to be a better, more focused, more regular and consistent way of harnessing the deep faith the 20 or so of us share, especially in the face of Trumpism. To repeat: we’re in an unprecedented situation that calls for an unprecedented response.

I’m convinced that the best response is to experiment with house church Sunday liturgies that would bring our sub-community and others together on a weekly basis to reflect, pray, break bread, and plan creative acts of resistance. The liturgies will take place on Saturday evenings (i.e. on the Sabbath) and thus allow those wishing to attend Mass in our church the next morning, to do so.

In the end, my reasons for starting a house church are rooted in history and theology – in post-Vatican II understandings of church, of Eucharist, and of priesthood. A changed understanding of each – more in accord with the leadership of Pope Francis gives hope and direction.

I will try to explain what I mean in subsequent postings over the next three weeks.

Catholic Action vs. Trumpism: An Invitation to an Alternative Weekly Mass[1]

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As indicated in earlier postings (here and here), the ascension of Donald Trump and his group of billionaire confidants to national leadership calls people of faith in general and Catholics in particular to adopt extraordinary and vigorous responses to the grave threat their ascent signifies.

This posting represents one such response. Its call is especially urgent in the light of the fact that the Trump administration and Republicans in general embody what Noam Chomsky has termed “the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.” Their unanimous climate-change denial accords them the title. In fact, they not only deny the human causality of climate chaos, they plan to proceed full speed ahead with the practices (oil and gas drilling and fracking) that our planet’s finest minds identify as its causes. The Republicans (with the Democrats not far behind) are leading us all like lemmings to the precipice of planetary destruction and the end of human life as we know it.

This is no exaggeration.  As Pope Francis has written so eloquently:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be           leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.” (Laudato Si’ 161).

It is clear that despite Francis’ strong words, “decisive action” in the face of Trumpism’s climate-change denial and other destructive policies has no chance of issuing from the diocesan Catholic Church nor from our local Catholic community in Berea. So the invitation here is to Catholics and other people of faith to create an alternative (or, if you will, a complementary) community of faith to celebrate a house-church Mass each week. Its liturgy will be characterized by sharp awareness of the unique political context we are now entering. Each will be followed by discussions planning direct action against Trumpism in all of its forms.[2]

The Mass will be simple and prayerful. It will take place on Saturday evenings in a home (Peggy’s and mine to begin with). Together we will sing some inspiring songs, reflect on the week’s liturgical readings in the light of the Church’s rich social justice tradition, and break bread eucharistically before sharing a pot-luck supper. Each meeting will incorporate planning for specific acts of resistance.

The first convening of this alternative community will take place on Saturday, January 21st, the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration which is scheduled for January 20th. Here are the details:

Berea’s Weekly Alternative Home-Church Mass

Place: 404 Jackson St.

Time: 5:00-7:00

The Mass:

  • Welcome (5:00)
  • Singing, opening prayers, & Liturgy of the Word (5:00-5:45)
  • Eucharist (around the dining room table) & Pot Luck (5:45-6:45)
  • Planning the week’s direct action (6:45-7:00)
  • 7:00 (promptly): Dismissal

Beginnings, no doubt, will be small and modest. But we should not be discouraged. Ideas about how to proceed more inspiringly will surely develop as all group members share their suggestions.

[1] Starting next Tuesday, I will start a 4-part series here explaining the history and theology behind home liturgies including an explanation of current theologies of the Eucharist and “Real Presence.”

[2] For those who remember: The faith community envisioned here might be thought of as a more spiritually-focused Berea Inter-Faith Task Force for Peace.