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Today’s Gospel was from John chapter 12. One verse caught my attention.

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“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

 

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In the homily we were reminded of the process whereby a seed grows. It has to be in the right temperature and level of moisture. Then its protective shell has to soften and crack open. Only then can the seed send out a root and a shoot and make food and grow. The hard shell has to be broken.

Two things came to mind as I listened. The first is the obvious prophecy of Jesus’ death and the beginning of the church. Without Jesus’ death would his words have taken root? Without his death would others have been willing to die for their faith? Secondly, I reflected on what happened to bring about his death? He became vulnerable, he let down his defenses, he opened up and spoke the truth that was within his heart.

I recently re-watched a TED talk by Sociologist Brene Brown. She spoke about her discovery that vulnerability is the basis for living a whole life, for being what she calls a whole-hearted person.

“And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

According to Brown in order to be whole-hearted people we have to live with authenticity, “we have to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee, to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love this much? Can I believe in this this passionately?”

Let us hope that as we learn to become more vulnerable, more open, more whole-hearted, we will not be asked to die for the truth the way that Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Romero and so many other martyrs did. But in this season of Lent let us at least stretch enough, and soften our shells enough, to allow growth to happen.

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Over the past few years I have used the opportunity offered by this blog to reflect on many questions about Catholicism – my faith home. Along the way I have left my career as a Catholic religious educator and more recently I have left my home in the Catholic Church for a new faith community in the United Church of Christ. It would be inappropriate to continue to comment on the Catholic Church as if I were a member, and so I will be changing the blog’s name to Christianity in the 21st Century.

I have a new book coming out that tells the story of my faith journey and my journey through grief and loss, if you are interested in my full story.

http://www.amazon.com/Traces-Hope-Surviving-Grief-Loss/dp/1937943275/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1426982211&sr=1-1&keywords=Mona+villarrubia

A history lesson the whole church should be given!

Another Voice

I thought I would take advantage of “sede vacante”……there NOT being a pope……to reflect on facts and fantasies about the papacy.

Concerned about the Catholic Church and the survival of the papacy, one of my pen-pals has been sending emails, reminding people that “Our Blessed Lord picked Saint Peter to be the first pope and he will surely take care of the church today by selecting a new one.”

An American archbishop wrote in his diocesan paper a few days ago that “Our Lord selected St. Peter to be the first pope, making him the rock on which the Catholic Church would be solidly built.”

There are facts, for sure. There are a lot of fantasies as well.

Let’s start from the very beginning……..

Peter was a young married man, probably around twenty years old. Most likely he had children but we don’t know for certain. He must have been…

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“…biblical authors often used humor and the absurd to alert their readers that something very important is about to happen. The births of Isaac and Jesus were my two examples. The idea that either a woman in her nineties or a virgin can give birth is, I said, absurd, and the authors knew this to be so. They never expected their readers to take them literally. Rather they were saying, look these births herald the coming [of] something new into the world and hence break with the normative ways of producing offspring.” Rabbi Rami Shapiro, http://rabbirami.blogspot.com/2012/11/stand-up-theology.html

We all love Thanksgiving dinner and all its trimmings – a beautiful family tradition that brings our families together and mends and heals and nurtures. Now, just a few weeks later we are immersed in the Christmas story and all its trimmings. And, once again, we prepare for family gatherings and for opportunities to renew and reclaim, to nest and remember. But what is it as Christians that we are called to remember? What is the Christian heart of our Christmas story?

Obviously, it’s not Christmas lights and fir trees; it’s not snow men or reindeer. It’s not Santa Claus or even Saint Nicholas – he came much later.

Is it the angels singing in the fields, and the shepherds? Is it wise men from the East and their gifts? Is it Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – that’s hardly festive? Okay, what about the stable and the ox and ass and manger? There has to be a manger because of the song, right? And everybody loves the scene of the angels and shepherd and the baby!

Everybody loves a story of a baby, especially one in which there is danger and pathos and heroism and compassion and beauty and a happy ending with angels singing and a star from heaven guiding a family to safety so a baby can be born under a starry sky….ahhhh! Cue the heavenly chorus. Then add the mysteries and treasures of the Orient and a baby lamb and some portentous dreams. What is not to like about this story? But we still haven’t gotten to the Christian heart of the story. We are still in the Christmas Story. And that is where Christmas stays for so many people it seems, and not just children.

In my experience, adult Christians who have become disenchanted with Christmas have become disenchanted with the Christmas Story not with the Christian Story. In fact they may not really know the Christian story. And here we get to Rabbi Rami’s point.  The Gospel writers, writing decades after Jesus’ death, were not historians of his life; they were not biographers. They were tellers of his Teaching, Death, and Resurrection – and only as an afterthought his birth, and only because, after all, he had to have had one.  In telling about his birth their main concern was to say that God was involved, and that from the very beginning the Jesus Event was a God Event. Not just from the moment of his baptism (Mark), not just from the moment of his announced conception (Matthew and Luke) but even from before the moment of creation (John).

The Gospel writers, when addressing the issue of Jesus’ birth, were giving us theology not biology.  They weren’t interested in eggs, sperm, uteruses – they didn’t know about such things. They weren’t interested in the human person as evil matter versus a good spirit, that idea was a Greek idea that didn’t have any influence on the Gospel writing, obviously, because Jesus clearly had a body in all the Gospel narratives.  The Gospel writers weren’t concerned about Original Sin either; Augustine would create that idea a few hundred years later.

The Gospel writers were telling us, using hyperbole and using Old Testament allusions, that the Jesus Event was a God Event, and that it had always been a God Event, since the beginning of Jesus’ life, or even since the beginning of all time. Moreover, the Jesus Event had been prefigured by many different stories in the Old Testament, showing that Jesus was indeed the true Messiah of Jewish expectation. For example, Micah prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew especially took great pains to connect his version of the Infancy Narrative, as it is called, to prophecies in the Old Testament. For example he connects the family’s trip to Egypt, and the ensuing slaughter of the innocents – two stories no other Gospel includes – to prophecies in Hosea and Jeremiah respectively. It is generally agreed that Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish-Christian and in his use of Old Testament quotes and allusions he may simply be using a literary device to make his theological points: the Jesus Event was a God Event; Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah.  The early Christians hadn’t gone any further than this in trying to figure out Jesus’ relationship to God yet, other than the basic language of Father, Son, and Spirit. The debate about the Trinity took nearly four hundred more years to settle (Council of Nicea 325, Chalcedon 451).

So what then is my point? If we are suffering from Christmas ennui, maybe it’s because we simply have lost sight of the Christian Story.  My solution? Let’s give ourselves the gift of a LITERARY GOSPEL CHRISTMAS. Let’s do some reading of the Gospel narratives with a footnoted Bible translation and/or scholarly commentary at hand and really attempt to understand the Christian Story beneath the Christmas story before we call Bah Humbug to it all!

It seems that I have fallen under the spell of magical thinking. Although clear about the nature of priestly ordination NOT making any kind of magical, ontological change in the persona of a priest, I apparently still harbored similar ideas about religious vows.

I have treated my brother James as if his capacity to bear the burdens of others was deeper and wider simply because he was a professed religious. It didn’t help that he was indeed more compassionate, gentle, patient and tender than most brothers, or Brothers. This in fact made it harder to recognise how we all in the family were taking advantage of him and expecting him to bear burdens beyond those of ordinary mortals or even ordinary friends or siblings.

The truth is he has borne those burdens, often juggling one parent’s or one sibling’s needs against another – often more than just one other in fact. And he has borne them alone. Unlike the rest of us – with husbands, wives, children, grandchildren – he has had no permanent presence in his life. No daily confidant or consoler. And he has lost many of his dearest friends in the last few years, reducing the number of support people in his life and increasing the pain and loss in his own relationships.

I have shared these reflections with my brother and our siblings, but I felt the topic was worthy of public comment also.

For those who are committed to going forward in the community of the Catholic faith it is vital that we reconsider our view of religious and priests, and most importantly our view of the vows that we have taken. Yes, all of us are under vows (solemn promises to perform an act, carry out an activity, or behave in a given way) taken for us by our parents at Infant Baptism, renewed by us at Confirmation, and reaffirmed by us every time we recite our creed and pray the Lord’s prayer. Implicit in these sacraments, faith statements and prayers is the promise to live by the beliefs expressed. We are not promising to support priests and religious as they live out their “calling,” we are acknowledging that we, too, are called, that we, too, are committing to live out this common calling, this shared vocation.

The Catholic faith community will not survive unless all Catholics accept their role, their burden, their joy of living a “vowed” life. The role of priests and religious should be seen as supporting us all in this life, not the other way around. This is a good time to reclaim  not the priesthood of the people but the people of the priesthood, or even better the people of Christ.

This excites me. This energizes me. How will this look?

In his homily on April 15, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the need for penance as a response to the abuse crisis:
“The pain of penance, that is to say of purification and of transformation, this pain is grace….”

I have to wonder how many thousands of times priests and religious participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and admitted to the crime of child sexual abuse and then were given absolution. It cheapens the notion of grace when these criminals were not required by their confessor to report to the authorities before receiving absolution. How else could they show true repentance? How else could they express a commitment to accepting responsibility for real personal change and the avoidance of future sins of abuse?

 Certain bishops, such as Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, have recommended not offering the Eucharist to those who have a public record of supporting abortion rights. Has anyone ever suggested not offering the sacrament of Reconciliation to those who have a public record of child abuse? Or to those who have privately confessed the crime of child abuse on multiple occasions but have refused to take public responsibility for these crimes? God’s grace is not the magical removal of guilt and responsibility, and the born should be offered at least the same protection as the unborn. Such selective imposition of restriction to a sacrament cheapens the idea of God’s grace, reducing it to a political weapon.

 To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before … Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Up until now the abusive priests, bishops and religious have been offered and have relied upon only a cheapened notion of grace. There has been no transformation. It is time for them to pay the cost; it is time to pluck out from our church those that have caused it to stumble.

Every April, spring comes to the earth. No matter how bleak things have been through the winter, no matter that all our grass died in the hardest cold spell in decades, all is greening once again.

Catholics should draw hope from this. There has to be a death for there to be a resurrection. If we can experience the death of clericalism, misogyny, and financial and moral corruption in the very governing structures of our church, then there is the chance of a Catholic “spring.”

Imagine a new church. What would it be like?

I dream of a future church where gender is not a qualifying factor in the discernment of vocation. A future church where celibacy is not a pre-requisite to priesthood. A future church where authority is decentralized from Rome to national bishops conferences, where the “power” of the papacy is that of spiritual leadership.

Imagine if, instead of palaces, the pope lived in monastic simplicity and prayer was the currency of favors. We wouldn’t need cardinals. The position of pope could be voted on by the bishops conferences in conjunction with the national leaders of all the religious orders. The pope would not have to be multi-lingual, professorial, or even male. The primary quality would be holiness. And there could be a limited term, just as there is for provincials of religious orders. I can’t help it, these dreams give me a flicker of hope.

In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (see below for the link)  I am reminded of some of the reasons I choose to remain Catholic. Here are some excerpts:

A Church Mary Can Love ,  By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF. Published: April 17, 2010

It wasn’t inevitable that the Catholic Church would grow so addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies. Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma, and went out of his way to engage women and treat them with respect.

The first-century church was inclusive and democratic, even including a proto-feminist wing and texts. ….

Yet over the ensuing centuries, the church reverted to strong patriarchal attitudes, while also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with sexuality. The shift may have come with the move from house churches, where women were naturally accepted, to more public gatherings.

The upshot is that proto-feminist texts were not included when the Bible was compiled (and were mostly lost until modern times). Tertullian, an early Christian leader, denounced women as “the gateway to the devil,” while a contemporary account reports that the great Origen of Alexandria took his piety a step further and castrated himself.

The Catholic Church still seems stuck today in that patriarchal rut. The same faith that was so pioneering that it had Junia as a female apostle way back in the first century can’t even have a woman as the lowliest parish priest. Female deacons, permitted for centuries, are banned today.

That old boys’ club in the Vatican became as self-absorbed as other old boys’ clubs, like Lehman Brothers, with similar results. And that is the reason the Vatican is floundering today.

But there’s more to the picture than that. In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/opinion/18kristof.html?src=me

“Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin called on his episcopal colleagues to take responsibility for the Irish Catholic Church’s failures in dealing with child sexual abuse by priests….
“The church tragically failed many of its children: it failed through abuse; it failed through not preventing abuse; it failed through covering up abuse.”
America Magazine, April 5 2010

It is becoming more and more apparent to me that secrecy not celibacy is at the root of the child abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. What other organisation has offered protection from criminal prosecution, a guaranteed access to hundreds of children, an “old boy” network of support for abusers, and a system of intimidation of victims. Add to this the guarantee of “sacramental absolution” from other priests, what Catholic pedophile would not have been attracted to the priesthood?

 It is a surprise only that any psychologically healthy men could have put up with what was going on around them.

The bishops of the Catholic Church are not pro-life.

If they were pro-life they would have been anti child molestation, rape and sodomy. Clearly they have not been.

If they were pro-life they would have been anti priests who were child molesters and rapists. Clearly they have not been.

If they were pro-life they would have been pro children and not have allowed the destruction of the lives of thousands of young children from sexual abuse by clergy. Clearly they were not.

If they were pro-life they would have been pro-health care reform for children and adults who have no health care coverage because of poverty or pre-existing conditions. Clearly they are not.

The Catholic Church needs to rename its position: pro-unborn, or just be honest and say pro-clergy above all else and above all others.

Sorry if I sound bitter….I am.

Michelle Lesley

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