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Some thoughts on calling priests “Father”

Recently a well respected (definitely by me) Presbyterian Elder wrote an article entitled “Maybe it’s time to reconsider calling priests ‘Father’” for the NCR (National Catholic Reporter). He had some good thoughts and insights. His article attracted the usual comments, many of them snarky and devoid of charity and respect. Needless to say, I share neither their attitudes nor their often dated and closed/limited theology. I do, however, have a few thoughts on this.

When I was ordained 50+ years ago I enjoyed being called “Father” and always wearing the collar, not to mention cassock and biretta. A few years later I went on active duty as an Army Chaplain, rarely wore the collar, learned to be called “Chaplain” and often being addressed just by my first name. While it took some getting used to, I liked it, and I still do. I spent most of my years as a priest on active duty or connected to the Army. For many of those years as well as after retirement, I have also been called by my street name and call sign, “Frog”, and I enjoy this a lot. It cuts through a lot of protocol. In the Army I had a responsibility just like everyone else in uniform, and “Chaplain” recognized that. I don’t have to be called by a special title to help folks however I can. Crawling through mud and being afraid is a great equalizer. I am on the same journey as everybody else, we are all equal, and we help each other. I have been Jim longer that I have been “Father”, and I have earned “Frog”. I like this. In other words, I agree with Bill.

I don’t think I will ever forget my first week on active duty in a basic training camp in Louisiana. My first night involved having a rifle pointed at me by a guard, being told to drop into the front leaning rest position, and ordered to produce an ID card which I didn’t have. The Thursday of that week I spent the day going through the gas chamber with the trainees. It was not an enjoyable experience. The purpose of the exercise was to show them how to use their gas mask and to trust their equipment and training.

That evening the trainees went through the live fire infiltration course in the dark. Again, not an enjoyable experience. All of us were terrified. Once I had crawled through the course, dodging real explosions and live ammo fired just over my head, I felt very relieved and very scared. One of the soldiers in charge of the training said, “Chaplain, were you afraid? There are some young soldiers out there terrified, and your place is with them, so go out and do your job”. I did for several hours. Being ontologically changed and called “Father” didn’t mean a lot, and obviously I was not wearing a collar (cleric clothes are hard to keep clean in this kind of environment). I did the same things every Thursday for the next six months.

I did everything my soldiers did, to include their training. Gradually I learned that my place was with my soldiers whatever they were doing. Years later in Viet Nam, the best Commanding Officer I ever had told me after I had chosen not to get involved and so had gotten several soldiers killed, “Chaplain, whatever affects your people in any way is your concern, and don’t forget it, get involved and do something to help”.

A number of the comments to the NCR article referred to the ontological change ordination effects in a priest. I don’t see it that way. IMHO the only change is the role a priest plays in the church system. It is an important role for the church, but does not involve a change on the level of being. A priest is a man before ordination, and a man after ordination – nothing changes but his mission. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will be saying the same thing about women.

Several comments talked about the power the priest has to change bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. IMHO the priest has no power, only the mission to lead folks in prayer, and it is the the assembled praying believing community that makes Christ present in his Body and Blood. This is not magic, and the priest is not Harry Potter. It is an act of prayer and faith by a community gathered together for that purpose.

I agree with the Elder that using titles like we have for priests, bishops, etc, continues to reinforce the male only model of the church institution. There is always room for questioning and wondering. With the people doing the questioning these days, it is clear the Spirit is alive and well.

I have found that many good folks want to keep calling priests “Father” to reinforce their notion that priests are removed from real life, to keep priests on a pedestal, in other words to keep clericalism alive. Quite often there is a lot of baggage attached to this.

A few weeks ago I wore a suit and tie to a wedding. Somebody there said to me, “You look just like a real person”. Gee, I’d like to think I am a real person. As a retired priest I help out at nearby hospitals and hospices. I am available when needed, but I will come as I am, e.g. if I am doing cardiac rehab when the ER calls, I will come in my gym clothes. I hear a lot “you look just like a real person”. I have learned that not wearing black does open conversations with folks who for whatever reason do not want to talk with someone in clericals. Its not good or bad, it just is. IMHO I do not have to wear clericals or have a “title” to help people. There is a time and place for them, and it is not every time and every place.

Jesus called ordinary men and women to be his disciples. He did not ordain anybody, he formed a community of his friends who were willing to spend time with him and learn from him, and then he sent them out to live and learn the kingdom of God. The system/institution we know as church came later.

While we will always need folks to lead communities in prayer, I’m not sure we will always need a patriarchal clerical caste. Intentional Eucharistic Communities are doing well with this. IMHO the questions are being asked, and the situation is evolving. The Spirit is at work calling us forward, often kicking and screaming.

The Elder knows what he is talking about.

Just saying . . .

Random thoughts, December 2016

Recently I was asked to join the board of an international organization dedicated to church reform. This has caused, or at least provided an opportunity for, some introspection on my part.

My guess is that if I acquiesce to this invitation, which is not something I really want to do, I will do so out of respect for someone who has devoted his life to educating others, has been instrumental in church reform, and through the years has been a great help to Army chaplains, especially in Europe.

I fear that somewhere along the line some version of politics will raise its ugly head. Politics has never been my strong suit. One of the neat things about being retired is that I don’t have to play politics anymore, so I just don’t and some folks don’t like it — their problem, not mine. While I was on active duty, every 3 years or so I would have to reinvent myself as I was reporting to a new duty station. I found it increasingly difficult to keep doing this. I do not look forward to having to go through the drill again, even if only through the internet.

I also know that not a few of my thoughts etc are considered controversial, eg, my “personalist” understanding of the Gospel as helping us live with people now rather than keeping a distant judging God happy and earning brownie points for getting to heaven later. To me the Gospel is about people and how we live with and for others. It is a Story of God loving us, welcoming everyone, and not a book of rules to keep undesirables out.

I don’t believe anybody is “intrinsically disordered” — either we are created in the image and likeness of God or we’re not, and no one but God gets to decide, and I think God has already decided. I like what Benedict said: “every one of us is the consequence of a thought in the mind of God; every one of us is important, every one of us is necessary; none of us is an accident”. The more we learn about God’s creation, the more we learn about God.

Also, I do not believe celibate males, of which I am one, are competent to determine a woman’s relationship with her own body. We do not know family life other than our family of origin, so where do we get off telling families how to live their most intimate relationships? I believe love is not limited to heterosexual relationships. 

Reputable scriptural scholarship has shown there is no problem with ordaining women priests. The fact that Jesus didn’t ordain any women doesn’t prove anything, since he didn’t ordain any men either. I learned from my military service that women provide a dimension to pastoral ministry that we celibate males will never have. The same is true about married priests. We pray for more vocations to the priesthood, but it seems we have all the vocations we need. Management just doesn’t want what the Spirit is giving us.

Many in church management, along with their minions, claim to speak in the name of God and really think they can tell people they don’t even know how they have to live their life, what choices and decisions they have to make, and whether or not, usually not, they are in the state of grace, whatever that is. The word chutzpah comes to mind. It seems to me that the only one in our church who is speaking for God is Francis. Look at the opposition he is facing.

My understanding of what it is to serve as a retired priest who is also a retired soldier often does not fit with others’ expectations. But, I enjoy it. I like the military concept of mission. Our mission is to take care of the folks who and when they need us and sort out the details later. I think I identify more as a retired soldier than as a priest, because the way I see things is often quite a bit different from how the priests I work with do. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. Our stories and experiences are different.

My focus is on helping folks wherever I can, not judging them, perhaps a carryover from my time in the Army where the mission is do what I can to help the soldier in front of me. I don’t see laws and rules as paramount. Much of the esoteric dialogue I read these days has little to do with the folks I meet every day. In other words, It doesn’t preach. In a number of ways and in different places and relationships I am helping with folks seriously affected by the devastating number of drug overdoses and the fentanyl curse in our area. This whole mess is causing unbelievable suffering in families, narcotics and law enforcement, first responders, etc.

Then there is the matter of homeless vets and vet suicides. The other day I had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of one homeless vet. There are some real good folks trying to help.

As I type this, I am listening to Lady Gaga singing “Til It Happens to You”, and her talk about living with PTSD, something I am familiar with. She spent time with LGTBQ youth at the Ali Forney Center in Harlem, and said some powerful things to the young people there that are worth listening to. Our LGBTQ folks, especially teenagers, are an important part of God creating, and we need to be with them because so many people are against them. This is especially true in our high schools where people have been disciplined for trying to help them, especially the ones who are “questioning”. There is also what I consider to be a (im)moral issue of bishops making a teacher’s off duty lifestyle or use of social media a condition of their contract and an excuse for firing them. There are similar situations for parish employees, ministers, and volunteers. I know some wonderful people who have been caught up in this. In my opinion this is plain wrong. 

Recently I had the grade school mass at a local parish. Somehow bullying made it into the homily, and this surprised me because it was not part of what I planned to say. At the end of mass before the blessing, and on the spur of the moment, I had a chat with the kids about drugs. Later from the principal and the pastor I learned that some serious bullying incidents, both through the internet and physically on the playground, had happened this week. After mass some adults talked with me about kids taking drugs from their parents’ medicine chests. Seems like grace happened.

As important and interesting as understanding the millennial generation may be, in my day to day life it is not even on my radar screen. I have only so many rounds in my clip, and I try to use them where they will do the most good.

I suppose the main reason I stay active is because I believe Jesus meant it when he said “I am with you always, even to the end of time”, and, “I will send the Spirit who will teach you to observe everything I have commanded you”. I believe this is happening. I also believe firmly in the Eucharist and the Sacraments. To me grace is real. I do not believe the Catholic tradition is the only way to “salvation” or whatever term we use to talk about our next step in life. I cannot tell other folks how to live their lives, I have enough trouble trying to figure out how to live my own. All I can do is share my journey with them, and learn from them.

There are a lot of things I don’t like about the institutional church. I think that as a group the USCCB is useless and irrelevant, more concerned about their own prerogatives and authority, and totally separated from the real life of the folks they are supposed to be leading, and definitely a Francis-free zone. Many seem to be biding their time until Francis dies and hopefully, for them, a new pope will come who will turn back everything Francis has done. But these guys do look cute when they get dressed up, like little kewpie dolls on a shelf. Fortunately there are some pastoral bishops who are doing their best and often are not known outside their diocese.

For me the church is the folks in the pews, those who used to be in the pews, and anyone who is interested. With the world in the mess it is in these days, the Gospel offers some powerful insights of how to live justice, love, and mercy. It is a Story of God loving all of us, not a book of rules.

The healing and help we all look for happens when when we let ourselves be led by the Spirit to be there for and with others. All this opens up a whole new insight to the Gospel for this coming Sunday: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.; and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Just saying . . .

Current local events — convocation

As the annual Convocation of Priests approaches, a theme of which is the priest shortage, there have been “consultative” meetings where doctrine from on high is presented to the priests. For reasons mentioned below I have not gone to any of these meetings myself. What I hear from others who have attended is pretty much the same — vague generalities, statistics, double down on maintaining the current clerical structure and not using available “non-clerical” folks to be more involved in parish leadership, no mention of the Eucharist and its importance to everything we do and are, the charade of pretending to consult with the priests.

IMHO, as I talk with other priests, there seems to be interest in having some sort of an off-line get together at the convocation to find out if any others share our views or similar ones. However, it also seems that no one is interested in exercising any leadership in making this happen. So, in all probability, nothing will be done about it.

I include myself in not being interested in exerting any leadership in this area. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I am on the sidelines in all this, and that is fine by me. The way I see it, nothing that happens will affect me, since I will just keep on doing what I have been doing — responding to any pastoral request for help to maintain the parish and area schedules. I consider helping out in this way to be a privilege and an honor which I take very seriously, as do the other retired priests.

Also, I am used to meetings/gatherings where something is actually accomplished, consultation is real not feigned, real prep work is done through ongoing specific consultations with all concerned, with all the appropriate staff sections having input in their lanes or areas of responsibility. Engendering this atmosphere is a function of leadership. There are constant sand table and tabletop exercises to develop planning. When the CG gives the order everything has been thought out, and everyone knows their responsibility and role in the operation, and everybody feels necessary and important for the success of the mission. Obviously this is not happening here, and I get a strong sense that nobody really wants it to. We are just used to being fed pap and pious bromides about praying for more (male celibate) vocations, and are content to let it happen. “Please, sir, may I have some more?” I am not sure I want to be a part of this.

Some other dioceses have become very creative in the staffing of their parishes, using deacons and lay folks in responsible positions. This might be an area where the concept of best practices is worth being explored. While not much can be decided on a local level, we already have enough vocations, but they are not celibate males.There are a good number of our brother priests who have felt also the call to marriage and family. They are still priests, so why can we not make use of their gifts and talents as pastors? Then there are our sisters who have felt the call to priesthood. Some of them, at great personal cost, have acted on their call and have been ordained. They are doing a marvelous job as pastors and bishops in their own communities. This is a reality that cannot be ignored, and must be acknowledged without judgement and name-calling.

As I watch things unfolding and observe when I am helping out in parishes, it is clear that priests are wearing out, folks are walking away, some parishes are withering, others are dynamic. Some places can combine masses, while others, due to space limitations, cannot. We need to communicate laterally among ourselves, since it is obvious, at least to me, that vertical communication, as it is, does nothing but hand down insensitive vacuities: we downtown understand the situation and here is what you are going to do about it. The system does not understand the problem, and the primary goal of a system is to protect itself and its prerogatives. Stovepiping, especially in our current situation, is a fatal flaw. There has to be communication on the ground, and we priests, with our folks – those who still take part in parish life, as well as who used to take part in parish life, are the folks on the ground. There is a wealth of wisdom, experience, and competence in the pews and parish staffs, and we ignore it at our own peril. We cannot say the Holy Spirit is not involved here.

I believe Jesus meant it when he said “I am with you always”, and, “I will send the Holy Spirit to teach you to observe everything I have commanded you”. My question is what does it mean for me, for us, to be a disciple of Jesus in our current circumstances. I don’t think we can afford go take any of this lightly.

“Ride to the sound of the guns!”

Just sayin . . .

VP Biden Officiates Same Sex Wedding

As is fairly well known, recently Vice President Joe Biden officiated at the same sex wedding of two friends of his in his official residence. As would be expected, the management team of the USCCB (American Bishops) responded: “When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics. What we see is a counter witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth”. They were quickly joined by their predictable minions and guardians of orthodoxy — the religious police.

What I find especially disturbing its that the bishops and these good folks are seeking to have what they consider the church’s view of a religious matter imposed on the general populace. It seems to me that churches can do whatever they want in their own internal religious matters (further discussion on this is not appropriate here) but they do not have the right to impose their religious positions on others outside their denomination.

There is a significant difference between the civil effects of marriage and the religious implications of matrimony. Civil marriage is regulated by the law of the land, while religious matrimony is regulated by religious traditions. The bishops are very big on “religious freedom”, but it seems this only applies to the bishops themselves. Good folks of other or no traditions who do not share the bishops’ ideas are said to be interfering with the bishops’ religious freedom. Others it would seem, have no right to this freedom. The bishops seem to think that strict enforcement of absolute obedience to increasingly detailed laws and practices that have nothing to do with doctrine imitates Jesus and brings people to him, and that folks are to fully accept these dicta even though their living experience shows they are neither valid nor true, always of course backed up by the veiled threat of denying Communion. It is no wonder people are just walking away.

We do not need to pass civil laws that make it easier for us to live the Gospel. Throughout history Jesus’ followers have lived where laws were pretty much unfavorable to living the Gospel, and they did well. Many folks today are living the Gospel in spite the bishops who themselves are unfavorable to them.
I do not think the bishops have any right to meddle in civil affairs as they are doing here and in several other areas. Joe Biden did not intend to perform a religious act, only a civil one. The two are not essentially connected. When I was assigned in Germany one of my soldiers was going to get married at the Standesamt, the civil marriage office, as required by law. I went along to support him. As it happened, the soldier he had chosen to be his Best Man was too young according to German law to fulfill that role, so I stepped in and served as Best Man. I was taking care of my soldier. I think that is pretty much what Joe Biden was doing — taking care of his friends. I don’t think either he or I had any intention of making a religious statement.

My views on freedom of religion seem to be moving toward the notion of freedom from religion. I resent someone trying to force their religious views on me, and I certainly do not want to force my views on anyone else, but I reserve the right to hold my views and live by them.

From time to time while on active duty there were situations involving the use of wine for catholic mass. There are religious traditions who see the use of alcohol in any form as sinful. Sometimes there would be attempts to ban the use of alcohol in army chapels. These usually came to nothing, and we had a sort of peaceful coexistence. At times there were flareups, as when a supply sergeant from one of the traditions would object to having to order wine – and act he considered sinful. Since our focus was always on serving the command, a military term for doing whatever we could to take care of our folks, we were able to work something out, with all of us respecting and supporting others’ religious traditions.

The United States is not a religious country, much less a catholic country. It does not have a state religion. All religions have equal rights. The bishops don’t seem to get this. They can make all the rules they want for their internal religious matters (room for discussion on this elsewhere), but they do not have the right to meddle in civil matters such as this.

Religious traditions and their differences are important. No one interpretation has a lock on Jesus. All of us together reflect Jesus better than any of us alone.

Just sayin . . .

Thoughts on Abp Chaput’s guidelines

Recently Archbishop Chaput asserted in a new set of “pastoral“ guidelines that “divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, as well as cohabitating unmarried couples, must ‘refrain from sexual intimacy’ to receive Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia”. I’m not sure what disturbs me more – the arrogance and pastoral insensitivity that he shows in these allegedly “pastoral” guidelines, or the lack of charity in so many of the arrogant and smugly self-satisfied comments on the various web pages about this issue. I wonder what it is like to know how everybody else should live their lives in order to remain in the state of grace, whatever that is.

Further on in the document he says that Catholics in same-sex partnerships, those remarried without a church annulment, and cohabitating persons may not serve on parish councils, instruct the faithful, serve as lectors, or dispense Communion. Sounds to me like kicking a guy when he is down.

The folks he is talking about have already been experiencing pain and suffering in their lives, and he is causing more pain for them, claiming, as so many church managers do, that he is acting in the name of Jesus. Hmm, how to deal with that chutzpah.

A great many of us already know folks who are suffering because of previous marriages that have failed. They do not need to be “abused” in the name of Jesus who never abused anyone, but welcomed all to his Father’s love and care. I don’t see much of Jesus’ example in this document.

Our faith is in Jesus, not a book or a code of conduct. Many of the rules and regulations have little to do with God, and a lot more to do with keeping order in the institution, keeping the folks in line, protecting the institutions rights and prerogatives — something Jesus did not seem to be worried about. When following the institution’s rules becomes more important than living the Gospel and being open to the Spirit as we perceive this in our own lives, there is something amiss. Of course, when we know all the rules and all the answers to questions we feel that we are qualified to judge any who disagree with us, because God Jesus would act as we do if he knew everything that we know.

Trying to imitate Jesus, to act as he wants us to in our very particular circumstances is not an intellectual or theoretical exercise. It is hard work. Contrary to what many catechism-thumpers seem to think we are not called to beat folks over the head with our rules and definitions, but simply to be there for them, walk with them, certainly not judge them.

Francis reminds us that the Spirit is not the property of the clergy or the bishops, but reaches out to everybody. The role of the clergy is to help folks come to be aware of the Spirit on their own life, not claim to control access to him — for many of us our own form of arrogance. This is disturbing to those who feel that they know all the answers, as I did 50 years ago before being an Army Chaplain in Viet Nam.

I think a number of priests, and I include myself, need to hear the Good News, and the Better News: the Good News is the Messiah has come; the Better News is that he isn’t any one of us. We are stumbling along just like everyone else, trying to make the best of life that is not always fair or easy. None of us has all the answers for our own journey, let alone for anybody else’s. Aside from our own family experience that we come from, we celibate males have limited awareness of what the families we serve are experiencing on their journey together. We can learn from each other as we journey together. When folks are suffering, cramming definitions or laws down their throat does no one any good. Perhaps we can just walk with each other, help to carry the load together, like soldiers plodding together through rice paddies or jungles — both of which life resembles from time to time.

Everybody in our life has the right and the need to be in our life. Each of us has the need to be open to the Spirit without any conditions whatever, and be willing to do whatever we sense the Spirit to be calling us to.

Just saying . . .

11 January 2015 Baptism of the Lord

A few random thoughts on the season, certainly not theologically profound, but personal in the setting of my journey these days. From the beginning of the Nativity Story it seems that God is showing quite clearly that “He” doesn’t care as much for a religious institution’s rules and regulations the institutions do. The Story is not so much about historical fact as about Jesus’ followers questioning what it meant for them in their time and place to be his followers — the same questioning many of us are doing today in our own lives.

Mary was a young girl who believed when an angel told her she would be pregnant by God, an unwed pregnant girl in a society that did not look favorably on such a thing. Joseph believed when he heard in a dream that, although Mary was pregnant and not by him, he should disregard social convention and not put her away, though by keeping her with him he would not be thought well of.

While we tend to exalt God and place “Him” on high, Jesus ended up being born in a very lowly place, because there was no room for him in the usual places. As the Story of the Magi shows, Jesus was a threat to Herod. In the Story for Jesus’ Baptism, which we celebrate this weekend, Jesus upsets things by insisting that John baptize him. According to the Story there is a voice which says, to us as well as to the folks present then, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. Evidently God approves of Jesus’ attitude to the religious systems of his day. Jesus went on to show the same attitude throughout his life. My question these days is what the Story is saying to me in my life at this time and place.

For most of my adult life I have been a part of two powerful systems — the Catholic Church and the US Army. In many ways I think the Army system is more akin to the gospel than the church’s system is. The Army is focused on accomplishing a mission while respecting and taking care of the people who are doing it. Respect up and down the chain a key part of Army culture. A senior NCO at the Infantry School taught, “Take care of your people and the mission will happen”. I have not found anything like this in the Church, whose attitude is along the lines of “we are the only ones who have the truth and can get you to the real God, so obey our rules or get out and be lost”, and throughout history continues to punished folks who dare to think for themselves. The Army tries very hard to ensure religious freedom for everybody, while church management seems to think that only they are entitled to religious freedom and can impose their values on everybody.

As the Miami Archdiocese shows, some bishops think they can trample on such basic rights as freedom of speech with impunity: even though marriage equality is the law in Florida, any archdiocesan employee who says or does anything public, including posting on social media, in favor of the law can lose their jobs. There is some philosophical similarity to the tragedies in Paris this week with people claiming to act in the name of Allah and Jesus. The Vatican’s statement “Without freedom of expression, the world is in danger” evidently does not apply to some areas of the Church itself. I don’t know what I would do if I worked for that organization. Fortunately other Florida bishops have a more pastoral approach.

Then there is the tragedy of Leelah Alcorn, a young southern Ohio transgender student, who shortly after Christmas, walked in front of a truck on I-71 in Lebanon, Ohio. She killed herself because her parents, for religious reasons, could not accept her transgender status. Many other young folks find themselves in similar positions due to religious standings which their parents choose to follow rather than accepting their child as a gift from God. Catholic teaching is that each of us is an image and likeness of God. It seems, though, that in some cases religious institutions claim to know more about people than God knows. They can never be wrong. God, on the other hand, might not know all that the systems know (and some really believe this). God does not make mistakes. All this in the name of Jesus who reached out to and loved everybody who came into his life.

There are many good folks among us whose first marriages have failed, and are trying to find love in another marriage. The system says that, since they have the audacity to be married without fitting into convenient canonical categories, they cannot receive the sacraments. Law and order management says the law comes first, and any attempt to allow these folks to receive the sacraments is an attack on the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. Bravo Sierra. Celibate males might know the books, but I’m not so sure we understand life. No one is questioning the indissolubility of marriage, only recognizing that some marriages fail. Pope Francis says that is is not so much that we have a right to the the sacraments, as that we have a need for the sacraments. No law can get in the way of this. It is a matter of pastoral caring and concern.

I firmly believe that Jesus meant it when he said “I am with you always”, that the Holy Spirit is very involved in what is going on these days, and Her work happens more in sincere questioning than in pat standard answers. Jesus loved people. As important as laws may be, they do not trump God loving God’s creatures and our responsibility to do the same.

What does it mean for me to be a follower of Jesus these days? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I really want to know. I think it demands great courage which I certainly don’t pretend to have. I know I can’t go along with much of what church management demands, e.g.: telling certain folks they cannot receive the sacraments; denying even in the civil setting folks’ right to marry the person they love; insisting that women cannot be ordained priests because Jesus didn’t ordain women; telling someone that since they do not fit the institutional models of whatever they are wrong and in sin; firing someone because of what they do in their private life; letting church management tell me what to think and what I can or cannot say. I have been the Army too long to accept this. One of the many things soldiers are good at is helping folks who cannot help themselves. I hope I can still think that way. Duty first, and perhaps my duty is to respond to Jesus’ call however I may think I see it. Don’t know if I have the courage to do this.

I feel some anger rising up at all this, and I don’t want it to get control. I remember my angry days, and I don’t want to go back there. Not sure what the Spirit is asking here.

Just saying . . .

Thoughts on Holy Week Liturgies

 

During the liturgies of Holy Week with their appropriate emphasis on ceremonies, and hearing the arguments about liturgical purity, the Tridentine Mass, whether women’s feet should be washed on Holy Thursday, etc,  I can’t help thinking back to the most memorable liturgies I have celebrated, all of them in Viet Nam. Among the most memorable was one of many Masses on Thanksgiving Day 1970 somewhere in the Americal Division’s 11 LIB AO.

It was a rainy day and I was flown out to the hillside in a Primo 11 BDE Aviation LOH. It was not a nice neighborhood, and the locals were not friendly. First, I held a non-denominational service with whomever wanted to take part. The soldiers who did not take part provided security. After this service the catholics came together and the other soldiers pulled guard. About ten of us were huddled together in a very small tent made of shelter-halfs. We all sat crossed legged (I could do that back then). The altar was the soldier sitting across from me, his hands on his knees: one hand held the paten, the other held the chalice. For communion we passed the paten and chalice around. It was a brief Mass, but an emotional experience for each of us. Considering what came later, it was worth while.

No doubt some folks will be upset with this. Everything I needed for masses I carried in my pockets as the chaplain’s kit was too big for some operations. I did not wear vestments, since doing so would not be a good idea in a semi-tactical situation when the idea is to blend in and not make oneself a target. We did not have an Entrance Procession or an Offertory Procession. We did not kneel for the Canon, as it was called back then. Also, I did not use latin or celebrate “ad orientem”. I did not ask where the soldiers stood on optional celibacy, ordination of women, contraception, abortion, marriage equality, if their marriage was valid by church law, who was catholic, etc, since it just didn’t matter. All of us on that hill were living our own ministry of “selfless service”. A common thread back then, and in all of my military service, was taking care of each other.

That experience, along with many other similar masses, leads me to see the current hot-button arguments about liturgical things as so much fluff having more to do with egos than anything else. I have learned to adapt liturgies to the circumstances and exigencies of the given situation. There are times and places for liturgical extravaganzas and for simple celebrations. Whatever it takes to serve the folks – do it.

I think I learned to hear confessions on a hillside in Viet Nam. As we were waiting for the helicopters to come and take us  out to a bad place, a soldier asked me to hear his confession. He was in the kind of situation that meant he could not receive the sacraments. When I told him this, he cried, literally washing my boots with his tears. Then it was as Jesus himself was standing there with us asking me who was I to decide who he would forgive. Wow! So, I asked the soldier to forgive my pride and stupidity, and went on to hear his confession and a plot of others. It was a life changing event for me. I owe that young soldier a lot. The rest of the afternoon was bad.

I have known many folks whose marriages were/are “irregular”. So what does that have to do with approaching Jesus? As that young soldier on the hillside taught me, nobody has the right to to tell anyone not to come to Jesus. There is enough suffering in life, and we need not add to it while claiming to act in Jesus’ name and doing something he never did.

Just sayin  .  .  .

Easter Thoughts 2014

Jesus’ Resurrection is so great and profound that there are any number of ways to hear it speaking to us in our lives now, and not just offering hope for us after death. As important as the Resurrection Event is, what might be more important is who was raised. Jesus was an outcast, rejected by both the religious and civil authorities of his day because he did not accept their values and classifications, a person who reached out to other outcasts and folks on the peripheries, accepted everyone as they were regardless of what the institutions of his day said. He ate with sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the crippled, lame, divorced, etc. Today he would be accused of spending time and eating with gays, lesbians, divorced and remarried, women who feel a call to be priests, men who feel a call both to be priests and married, folks who dare to talk about or favor forbidden topics, folks whose own life experience does not reflect the demands of religious systems and whom these systems reject or discriminate in some way. He was motivated by his Father’s love, and not a desire for power and control.

Because of his deep relationship with his Father he had a strong sense of the oneness of all creation, everything arising from his Father’s love. He reached out to everybody, and excluded no one – something it seems religious systems are unable to do. His teaching that “the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath” would not go over well with the religious systems of our day. Folks who today try to live as he lived find themselves in big trouble, just as he did.

Being open to Jesus in this way takes some faith and courage on our part because it is easier and, perhaps, safer, to limit him to our rules and dogmas, and not take the chance of looking to where they point us. We might prefer to keep Jesus in the tomb, outside our locked doors, or run away from him for our own comfort and safety.

Recently Pope Francis spoke about what he calls “the idolatry of a narrow mind and thought, a closed way of thinking that is not open to dialogue, to the possibility that there is something else, the possibility that God speaks to us; the idolatry of their own way of thinking – ‘it has to be this way, and nothing more’”.

All the Easter Stories (Empty Tomb, Mary in the Garden, Disciples on the way to Emmaus, Disciples behind locked doors, Doubting Thomas) suggest Jesus breaking through the defenses his followers had set up to protect themselves against the unknown. They were so afraid of losing Jesus as they had come to know him that they could not recognize him in his new way of being.

Jesus comes to us in the people who are in our life. We try to keep Jesus in the tomb when we refuse to accept him in folks whose lifestyle does not meet our standards. Each of us is as God creates us in God’s own image and likeness, “the consequence of a thought in the mind of God – important, necessary, not an accident”. When we choose not to accept folks unless they conform to our rules, perhaps labeling them as “intrinsically disordered”, we are refusing to accept the Risen Lord as he tries to come to us. Yet, as the Story tells us, he rose from the tomb in spite of those who tried to keep him there. He is doing so today.

If we are serious about knowing the Risen Jesus in our everyday life, we might want to take a good look at the defenses we set up to protect ourself from losing Jesus as we have known him thus far in our life. As did Jesus’ disciples, who knew him better than any others, we might have our own idea of who he is, and are reluctant to let go of it. But our idea of Jesus says more about us than about Jesus. Often we are heavily invested in our idea of Jesus, comfortable with it, perhaps to the point of keeping him in the tomb and away from our everyday life, reducing him to words, ideas, and laws, and not letting him burst into our life and become an experience which we live every day. We know all there is to know, and will not let him teach us anything new. He is safer for us in the tomb, outside our locked doors, back in whatever we are running away from. We set rules for how others must live if we are to see them as images of our Jesus. There is safety for us in rules, because we have all the answers and can tell others how they must live if they want to please our god and enter our heaven. Of course, any who do not agree with us are wrong.

A church that knows all and has an answer to everything is not believable. It separates itself from life as lived by the folks, and reduces everything to rules and doctrines. In trying to follow Jesus we do not have a set of unchangeable doctrines and laws that we have to enforce and defend, but an invitation to encounter the Risen Jesus as he is in our real everyday life. Our commitment to him is open ended and without any reservation. We try to go where he draws us and let him show us in very specific circumstances how to live as he did. This might entail some serious growth for us. We don’t have to know, but to believe and trust – something Jesus’ Apostles learned from him.

The Risen Jesus offers unlimited hope and love, and this has to happen through us every day. So, if we are serious about letting the Risen Jesus touch our lives, we have to look at what we are doing in to keep from recognizing him as he is in our life. He shows us the importance of people as instances of God to be loved, respected, and cared about, not judged and condemned as he was. He offers us a relationship of trust and willingness that enables us to rise above our fears and prejudices and come to know that goodness that each of us is. All of us, regardless of lifestyle, are precious images of God, more alike than different, and each of us uniquely reflects a facet of God.

Just sayin  .  .  .

 

 

 

 

Jan 27, Thoughts on Good Samaritan

It is an accepted principle that the Scriptures speak to us in the setting of whatever is going on in our life when we hear or read them. This is especially true of Jesus’ Parables. Since they deal with Truth there is never only one way to understand them. What is going on in one person’s life may be completely intelligible to someone else, and so might someone’s understanding of a Parable.

Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As we have heard so many times, a man on the way to Jericho was robbed and left for dead. Two church officials, a priest and a levite, passed him by without helping. They both had legitimate institutional reasons for doing so – ritual impurity etc. Then a Samaritan, who was strongly rejected by the religious institution simply because of the race God had given him, stopped to help. This was unheard of. In the eyes of the religious institution Samaritans were not good and were to be avoided by the institution’s members in good standing.

There might be some parallels today. The religious institution rejects folks in certain lifestyles that, for its own reasons, it considers “intrinsically disordered”. The folks have no more control over how God creates them than did the Samaritan over his race. The institution justifies its attitude on its own self-developed moral principles. In some cases it goes so far as to forbid its members and functionaries from providing any religious or pastoral care to these folks. So, as in the Parable, when the institution and its functionaries pass on by with institutionally legitimate reasons, other folks not of the institution step in and provide the needed pastoral care. Management proclaims that it hates the sin but loves the sinner, and then in many cases actively discourages pastoral care for the folks until and unless they adopt a lifestyle approved by the institution.

What is especially disturbing, too many of our brothers and sisters, feeling cast off and betrayed by the institution where they looked for God’s help and comfort, have left religion altogether. Through no fault of their own they have ben told to believe they are not accepted by God, when, in fact, they reflect God’s love and mercy in a way that few others can. Many have known intense suffering and pain that that defies description: the pain of feeling unaccepted by God; the perception by some that they are in sin because of who they are; the desire to be accepted for who they love; the sense of struggle as they determine who they are; the desire to do what is right in the eyes of society, especially painful when it means they are denying who they know they are. And so, they are learning to live without the God who creates and ives them as they are. While the Jesus of the Gospels offers healing and love, some institutions claiming to act in his name, set up obstacles. A number of traditions, Christian and other, offer the pastoral care the folks need – good for the folks, bad for the institution. And the institution continues to proclaim its self-righteousness. While Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?, the institution says, “we’ll do the judging for you”.

Then there are our brothers and sisters whose marriages, for whatever reason and without assigning blame, have failed. They have moved along on their journey and entered into new marital relationships. Yet, since their journey and their new marriages do not fit the institution’s categories, these good folks are denied full participation in Eucharist, something that, according to the institution’s own teaching, everyone has a need for. They are told to go through the annulment process which can be painful, and does not always work. The reasons for an annulment process make sense according to the legal structure and system, but not in the sense of personal relations and feelings. Folks don’t always understand the legal nuances, but they feel their own pain and want it to stop. They look to the institution for help and support, and, unless they are in the approved categories, are told they cannot receive communion. As did the priest and levite in the Parable, the institution walks on by, and the folks remain in pain.

Law is black and white, real life is not. The good order of the institution and the safety and preservation of the “sacramental system” seem more important than pastoral care for the folks on their journey. Some folks feel their first marriage was good and valid originally, but somehow fell apart, and so taking part in an annulment process would be a violation of their conscience, as well as humiliating and painful. They feel they are being punished for a painful time in their life, and this would, in fact, seem to be so, in spite of the institutional explanations and justifications. As so many have put it, “no one has the right to tell me I cannot receive communion”, and so they choose of themselves to continue receiving Communion, which they need. Many others have found welcome and support in other traditions, and in no tradition. And the intuition proclaims its self-righteousness.

A legitimate question might be what the Parable says to the institution, and not just to individual folks. There are many in institutional management who care very much for their folks but often are limited by the system in what they can and cannot do.

Also, there are many wonderful pastoral ministers of all kinds, ordained and not ordained, authorized and not authorized, who are doing their best to provide pastoral care for all who need it. The institution does not always make this easy, and often does its best to prevent it. These ministers are very creative and often private about what they are doing. Any who, at any level in the institution, are trying to serve pastorally face some difficulties and challenges, especially from the “religious police”.

Pope Francis keeps saying that the institution has to get out beyond itself and its rules and walk with the folks on the periphery. Many are on the periphery because this is where the institution has put them. Each of us has to respond to the Parable in the setting of our own life, and not demand that others agree with us. As Francis has said, we need to be docile to the word of God as we hear it, and not require that others follow our understanding. We trust in the Spirit, and go where this takes us.

Just saying  .  .  .

20 January 2014, Trust

In Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 4:12-17) Jesus invites several fishermen to follow him, and “They left everything and followed him”. This Story might suggest a context for what happens on our journey when we are serious about  trusting Jesus – it ain’t always nice. We need to remember, as Francis tells us, that Jesus does not call us to ease and comfort, nor does he offer us certainty. He invites us to have faith, to trust in him and let this trust be the basis of our life.

It might be that we are called to think in a new way, to be open to persons we just don’t like, to take part in an activity we’ve never thought of before, or to do or say something that is well outside our comfort zone. At times it seems our journey with Jesus is forever beginning anew, and it is not always easy to put our trust totally in him. He isn’t always that obvious or clear. Doubt and questioning are, it seems, an integral part of following him.

It could be that Jesus is asking us to move in a direction that could bring us to difficult times with others who do not share our views on whatever. Throughout church history there have been prophets in the church who said what needed to be said at their time in history and were treated harshly for doing what they perceived to be right. There are prophets among us today who are also suffering for doing or saying what they believe is right. Jesus did not offer his followers an easy life, nor did he promise his followers would be loved and appreciated. He told them, as he tells us, to take up their cross every day and follow him. When we dare to express opinions that others, whether individual folks or the institutional church, don’t like, we get an idea of what the cross is. People and the institution can be very nasty and vindictive, always, of course, in the name of Jesus, who never acted that way himself.

In Scripture the image of journey is both important and dangerous. It marks a departure from the known to the unknown. Usually there are dangers along the way. Since the Scriptures speak to us in the setting of whatever is going on in our life when we read or hear them, the scriptural notion of journey has meaning for us in our life. There are dangers when we journey with and to Jesus. The institution is not very forgiving to any who do not toe the line. We need only look at prophets in our own day who have been silenced, thrown out of the church and/or their religious order for saying things the institution did not like or talking about institutionally forbidden topics. Again, always in the name of Jesus. But, as the saying goes, “sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do”.

One particular area is the way our LGBT brothers and sisters are treated. While there are a number of instances of ministry recognized by the institution, it seems often that many would serve pastorally in this area have to do so below the radar, since the institution can be very nasty to folks who don’t follow the party line to the letter, as many have found out. The institution does not seem to be aware of or concerned about the pain it’s decrees inflict on images and likenesses of God who don’t meet the it’s standards for “intrinsically ordered”, and so are proclaimed to be “intrinsically disordered”. If it is a matter of same sex marriages, any who appear to cooperate, support, or provide any pastoral ministry other than accusing the couple of sin is in for a rough ride from the institution, again, in the name of Jesus. It seems that we cannot even pray with, for, or over a same sex couple without incurring wrath from somebody in the power structure. The “religious police”, the catholic taliban, are especially active in making life difficult for any who do not follow their particular brand of orthodoxy.

Again, good things are happening below the radar. In some cases it is more like spec ops. Fortunately there are many pastoral bishops who are doing their best to serve their people with pastoral sensitivity. It is the public face of the system, and a number of public managers, that are causing much of the harm.

What really bothers me in all this is what we pray in the Eucharistic Prayer IV for Various Needs:  “Open our eyes to the needs of our brothers and sisters; inspire in us words and actions to comfort those who labor and are burdened. Make us serve them truly, after the example of Christ and at his command. And may your Church stand as a living witness to truth and freedom, to peace and justice, that all people may be raised up to a new hope”. In many cases this seems to be more a stated value than an operational value. Folks just want to be accepted for who they are, not condemned because they don’t measure up to someone else’s standards. When they look to an organization that claims to represent Jesus and are told they are wrong and in sin, no wonder they walk away, often hurt and angry.  Who can blame them? How is the institution comforting those who labor and are burdened, or serving them truly? Fortunately for them there are many other Christians who welcome and minister to them. Not so fortunate for the institution, though.

Pope Francis keeps saying the role of the Church is to live Jesus’ mercy with everyone, especially the folks on the peripheries, the hurting, the lonely. As yet the institution doesn’t seem to get it, but many do, and so good things are happening for some folks, perhaps in spite of the institution and its police.

All we can do is respond to Jesus as we know Him, and as He knows us, and, in the words of Pope Francis, discern what is His word to us in our very personal circumstances.

Just saying .  .  .