THE FEAST OF MARY’S ASSUMPTION

I repost this essay every year since I believe in its importance — not the importance ofmy writing, but the importance of this Festival Day. So here ’tis again, with minor uptates.

As I live through 80th year, I am much aware of death. Many friends and colleagues have died recently, and I can feel “the sting of death” in my body’s decline. I do hope to live longer and to prosper. Yet most of my friends live with a growing awareness of death. St. Paul claims that, with Jesus’ resurrection, death has lost its sting. Wonder if he still thought that as he first felt the bite of the executioner’s axe.

At any rate today is the celebration of Mary’s “dormition” as the Orthodox put it. It concerns death and transformation, body and soul, into a new form of life — “in heaven” we typically say. This reflection was first published in “Hark,” The Denver Post‘s then still extant religion blog .

On August 15, Catholics around the world celebrate “The Assumption of Mary” into heaven. More typically referred to simply as “The Assumption,” to distinguish it from Jesus’ resurrection and “ascension” into heaven, the holy day celebrates Catholic teaching that Jesus’s mother, after the course of her natural life, was taken body and soul into heavenly glory. There is no formal Catholic teaching about whether Mary, like her son Jesus, actually died. Though I assume that she, like all humanity, really did die.

This belief about Mary’s assumption is a stumbling block for most Protestant Christians. My wife, for instance, is a good Presbyterian. We met in a small and entirely Catholic town in Bavaria while studying the German language. The course ran through Aug. 15, a town holiday because it was a Catholic holy day, Maria Himmelfahrt. For my wife, and probably for most of our fellow students, it was simply a day off from school and occasion for a bit of a joke about the word “himmelfahrt.” We knew it meant “journey to heaven,” but the English resonance of the sound “fahrt” was unavoidable. Beyond that, it has remained for her a matter of indifference in our otherwise ecumenically active marriage.

So for her and many others, I offer (again) the following comments and reflections.

The Scripture readings for the feast begin with the description of the pregnant women in the heavens “clothed with the Sun,” from Revelations 12. They then move to Paul’s discussion of Christ “conquering death” by his resurrection and so becoming “the firstborn of many” (1 Corinthians 15). And finally to the Gospel narrative traditionally referred to as “the Visitation” (Luke 1:39) — the young and pregnant Mary’s visit to her older, about-to-give-birth cousin Elizabeth.

Elizabeth greets Mary as “full of grace” and then hears in Mary’s response the poetic canticle still widely referred to as “The Magnificat” (from the first word of the older Latin text). Mary proclaims that her soul glorifies God (“magnificat anima mea Dominum”), who has thrown down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the poor and lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

As liturgical readings — as poetry and proclamation for the feast of the Assumption — these texts are rich in suggestion about the meaning of Catholic belief. I am struck above all by how physical, bodily and worldly is their content. Yes, they celebrate a move beyond the present world, beyond death; yet, they do so in remarkably earthly terms. A heavenly woman gives birth in pain, yet stands as sign of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Jesus really dies, but by his resurrection is proclaimed firstborn of a new creation (a “new world ‘a comin”). Above all, two pregnant women proclaim God’s presence and grace, active then and there, and His work of overturning the rich and powerful of this world and exalting the poor and hungry.

Mary’s story is not about escaping this world, however much Christian teaching and Marian devotion may have been understood in such “spiritualist” terms. Rather it’s about the transformation of the world. And if Jesus by his resurrection is “the firstborn” in this new world, then Mary’s bodily assumption makes her the second-born.

Mary’s Assumption is, in other words, one part of the larger Christian belief about a kingdom that will and does transform this real physical world — where women get pregnant, suffer childbirth, and are so often terribly treated; where the poor are still with us, suffering and oppressed; where the rich and powerful glory in their excess and use terrible brutality to defend their kingdom.

The Assumption is part of that larger, though too easily dismissed, Christian teaching about “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Now about belief in a new creation, a new kingdom coming, I must admit that I’m among the first to doubt — to find such ideas hard to accept, even at times fantastical.

As I write I have a friend who is dying. [True again in 2022, though a different friend.]  Most of us know death, often close up, and know its terrible finality. Just as we daily witness power and wealth increasing their death grip on our national dreams of equality and justice, to say nothing of the dreams of the vast majority of our world’s population. So I’m often not sure what to make of talk about defeating death and some new world ‘a comin’ — perhaps it is just opium.

What I do know, however, and am called to celebrate, is that Catholic teaching about Mary and Jesus — regardless of what some preachers and even some bishops and popes have made of it — is not about fantastical dreams of someplace else. It’s essentially incarnational — bodily, physical, worldly, human, political. It’s about this world and about the hope for its transformation, in God’s good time (which is both now and to come).

Perhaps hard to believe, but that’s what it’s about. And it challenges many, many of our assumptions.

So let me end with Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and writer. He tells of a moment when, on a street corner in Louisville, where he’d gone for a doctor visit, he had this experience of seeing all the people on the street “shining like the sun.” He says that he wanted to shout to them, call to them to see how they really were “clothed with the sun.” Instead he gave his life to writing about how all of us, in our deeper and more real selves, are indeed “full of grace” and “clothed with the sun,” even in the midst of our daily busy-ness, our greeds and lusts and angers, our wars and crimes.

Pay attention to those moments, glimpses, when we notice ourselves or others “clothed with the sun.” Maybe if we did it more, paid greater attention to such deeper presence, we too would occasionally see a new world ‘a comin’ even now. It might even change some of our assumptions.

May I Still Love Russia?

The short answer is “yes,” as long as I also add that I must fear her as well. So let me here count some of the ways and whys for that continuing love and fear.

My purpose in writing now about Russia is to help myself and possibly others remember the messy humanity of Russia and Russians at a time when our media wants us to see “them” only as demonized or demonic.

In service to this purpose, allow me a bit of a ramble that begins with my early education and ends with Pope Francis’ distinction between “a people” and “a nation.” Yet the constant background for these ramblings is Putin and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Feel free to delete or skip around. And, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in response to my writing and, even more generally, your thoughts about this war.


I read both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky during high school and this awakened in me a fairly deep emotional response to many things about Mother Russia. Their books had been urged upon me by a very wise teacher. I see now that there was so much, especially in War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, that I did not understand even as my interests were aroused my affections stirred.

Many events since then — travels and teaching and much more reading — have both increased my understanding of and my love for Russian culture, as well as my deep wariness of Tsars and Commissars and sacred myths about Russian nationalism.

I was dusting some shelves the other day and came across a basket made of thick twisted vine branches. I had bought it from the old peasant with unbelievably gnarled hands who sat on the sidewalk someplace in Moscow in 1993. I am soon to record other such incidents and accidents which still contribute to my admiration to so many things Russian. And my continuing fears.

I do, then, continue to love Russia, even as I pray for the end of Putin’s tyranny. Even as I pray for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, though it will mean serious defeat for many Ukrainians and a subsequent white-washing of Russian war crimes. And probably a renewed cold war.

***

Here are some of the incidents and accidents leading to both the love and the fear — in no particular order.

My son did a “senior year abroad” high school exchange year in Moscow in 1993/4. It was a very tough year for him and for Moscow. He witnessed the circle of tanks surrounding Russia’s White House (Parliament) where soldiers loyal to the old communism had attempted a coup and where they were then surrounded (and eventually ousted) by the army of the new regime. He made close friends with other study-abroad students who formed a sort of survivors’ group to deal not only with the harsh Moscow winter, but also with the breakdown of the schools where they were supposed to be students, and with the more general socio-economic breakdowns evident in long lines, widespread alcoholism, much petty theft, and the emergence of the mafias as the new form of party membership. We visited him there in warmer times at the end of his exchange year (more below), yet the best hotel he could find for us was mafia-run.

St. Petersburg (and its environs) is, I seem to remember, the primary setting for much of Tolstoy’s great fiction and even more for Dostoevsky’s intricate criminal, political, psychiatric, and religious novels. When we visited our son at the end of his year, we travelled with him to St. Petersburg where he and his friends were going to party through the night during the city’s “White Nights Festival.” Even though we stayed in a somewhat rundown and noisy student hostel, I have fond memories of standing before the large bust of Dostoevsky enshrined over his gravesite, and later visiting the small home/office where he wrote most of his later novels. I’ve since not only studied Dostoevsky’s great novels in new translations, but read some major studies of his life and fiction – including one Russian language (with subtitles) film version of his life available on Netflix which I highly recommend – titled simply, if I remember, Dostoevsky.

The second time my wife and I visited St. Petersberg, some 20 years later, we were living high on the hog as part of a prize won at some fundraiser. We stayed at one of the best hotels in downtown, on one of the city’s many elegant squares. We admired Catherine’s great Hermitage museums, and sipped vodka at a small canal-side venue appropriately named “The Idiot” (after Dostoevsky’s novel). We were blessed to celebrate our Western Easter at an Orthodox “Palm Sunday” service in a restored cathedrals (previously used as a museum of atheism!). We were surprised to see so many young professional people coming to church, lighting candles before different icons, attending to the beautiful acapella polyphony which accompanied the richly clothed priests and deacons who paraded, swinging bowls of smoking incense, around iconostasis and altar. Surprised because during our first trip to Russia the only faithful in the few dark but open churches were the old babushkas. Surprised too that on this Palm Sunday it was those babushkas who sat at the Cathedral entrances selling not palm but pussy willow branches – the earliest sign of spring that far north.

Yet whenever I think of St. Petersburg, I cannot but remember that Peter the Great who built his great city to connect Russia and Europe. He was a man of great and passionate vision who did not hesitate to use the labor and the lives of so many tens-of-thousands of slaves and peasants to raise his much-canalled city from the site’s original (and in summer malarial) swamplands. Of course, he was but one of many Tsars (a predecessor even named Ivan the Terrible) who oppressed and murdered to achieve or restore their imperial power. Which eventually led to the great Russian Revolution’s long trail of bloodshed ended only by the terrible new Tsars: first Lenin, then especially Stalin, then a series of successors, and now Putin.

For some reason I have long been enchanted by Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto, especially with its dramatic opening section. I also love what little I know of Tchaikovsky’s other creations – concertos, ballets, symphonies. In Moscow we went to a ballet in one hall that was part of the vast Kremlin complex. It may have been Tshaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Yet the Swan Lake performance could have been later in St. Petersburg where we attended both a classical Russian orchestra concert and a ballet at the famed Mariinsky Ballet. I seem also to remember attending choral performances of Orthodox chant and polyphony at several Cathedrals, in addition to the liturgical “performance” at that Palm Sunday mass. And then an evening of folk music and dance at a museum in St. Petersburg.

There is a wonderful scene in the BBC’s 1972 version of War and Peace (still the best) where young Natasha performs such a traditional peasant dance. Which brings back memories of our first visit to St. Petersberg during the White Nights Festival where song and dance continue to express the exuberant festivity of Russian culture.

In addition to the literary greats, I’ve also enjoyed other serious writings by and about Russia. One is a fictional sketch, epoch by epoch, of the span of Russian history named Russka (2005) by the British novelist Edward Rutherfurd. Then there’s Lenin’s Tomb (1993) by David Remnick, with its detailed account of the decline and fall of the Soviet Empire. And I have also dipped into books about the Russian Revolution as well as biographies of Lenin and Stalin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev, and even Yeltsin. And the immensely important writings of Nobel Prize winner, novelist and historian and exiled mystic, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – most remembered for his multi-volume exposé of The Gulag Archipelago.

Solzhenitsyn’s account reminds me again of Dostoevsky – who had himself suffered and written about his years in a former era’s gulag. Dostoevsky remains for me one of the few great Christian thinkers of our epoch. Which then raises the crucial question of whether his literary achievements, and those of others like Solzhenitsyn, might still nourish (“from under the rubble” as Solzhenitsyn once put it) the re-emergence of a great Orthodox Russian culture now living fruitfully together with Russian Muslims and Jews and Western Christians. (Of course, I ask the same question about so-called American Christian culture, especially in view of the increasingly violent emergence of an intolerant Christian nationalism.)

Russia has been living with Christianity, with brutal tyranny and occasional enlightened leadership, with economic and social unrest, with mystics and artists – living through all this far longer than we in these United States. There is in that history both much beauty and much misery. Only God might weigh the balance. I study the misery in some (probably vain) hope of avoiding it in the future, in Russia but even more here at home. Yet I choose above all to love the beauty and aspiration. To love the literary and musical greats. To draw, as Dorothy Day regularly did, from the fonts of their suffering and wisdom and joy.

In Basel Switzerland, while pursuing my doctoral research, I was gifted by the presence of a Czech theologian, Jan Milíč Lochman. (He had a position in Basel because he had been exiled from his homeland by the Soviet takeover. in 1968.) He hosted an occasional English-language seminar at one of the local taverns on Christian/Marxist dialogue. I read and still have several of his books (in English translation) on that topic — a hot topic. Something Pope Francis has been trying to continue in his outreach to Russia before and since the start of the present war on Ukraine.

***

Just as a final reminder, I repeat my purpose in rehearsing these many memories in this writing. It is far better to light one candle than curse the darkness. In this case, better to seek a fuller and thus more human image of Russia and its people than to be lost in the demonic and demonizing images produced by the present fog of war.

***

I end, as promised, with Pope Francis crucial distinction (in the third part of his great 2020 book Let Us Dream) between a nation-state and a people. Francis is convinced that we cannot respond to our many very real crises if we do not recover (throughout the nations and states of the world) a sense of being a people — with shared roots across many differences, and a shared sense of being God’s people or, much better said, a people who know at some level that they have been “chosen” by God. (The Hebrew-Jewish people are for Francis the model for such a covenantal sense of being a people, but a model that he finds replicated in its own way at the origin of every people.)

Key for Francis is that we – Russians and Germans, Americans North and South – we have all been such “peoples” in our origins and still are in many ways. We have also experienced episodes when that sense of being a people has been reduced to tyrannical nationalism. Yet Francis is especially concerned that today the sense of being a people (locally and globally) has been threatened and weakened by the global economic forces which increasingly structure daily life. Thus he challenges all of us to find ways, locally and nationally and internationally, of recovering and developing the sense of being a people and thence of being part of a global community of peoples.

What we see today in Russia is a terrible abuse of this notion of Russia as a sacred and bonded people. But analogous reductions of are happening with many other forms of “nationalism” or “populism” across the globe and in our country.

It is my hope that the fundamentals of Dostoevsky’s vision for Russia — and yes, I know, he was a terrible antisemite and that aspects of his nationalism have laid the ground for Putin’s — will again emerge in redemptive (and non-semitic and non-nationalistic) ways. That a traditional and very Christian Russian populism will emerge once again “from under the rubble” as the most recent form of Russian tyranny begins its brutalizing and long demise.

I end with the reminder that “we” are not that different – whomever the reader’s “we” happens to be. Our various versions of being a special people – whatever it’s progressive or conservative forms – will inevitably have to be purified by suffering before they recover some of the original sense of being a people.

The Gun as Anti-Sacrament

I first posted this essay in 2013 on the Denver Post’s religion blogsite “Hark.”  I then posted it (with minor corrections and additions) on this blogsite in in 2017 when we as a people were again in a seemingly fruitless discussion about gun control.  I posted it again in 2021 and again today because of the recent killing of little children at a school in Uvalde, Texas. Please make replies below (on this site) and feel free to share with others if you find it helpful.  John

First, a short version:

In trying to understand the passionate outrage of some folks at efforts to pass gun-control legislation, I have come to think of “the gun” as an “anti-sacrament” – not so much the actual gun one might possess or want to buy, but the symbolic gun that pervades thinking and provokes passions.  (Yet we should not underestimate the significance of holding the actual weapon, of its sense of weight and power for the owner and user.) For Christians, sacraments are ritual actions involving physical things like water, bread and wine – actions which evoke a sense of safety and salvation because they embody a narrative about what really hurts us (evil and sin) and what really heals (God’s love, grace, and assurance). Their ritualized repetition, in other words, enacts a story about what we should fear and resist, and also about what we most need for help and hope. In the contemporary gun debate, it often seems that those resisting any infringement on gun rights are held captive by a different story about fear and hope – fear of governments and other threatening powers, of criminals and intruders and strangers, of the dangerous and unexpected; and hope in self-reliance and self-defense, in “our way of life” and the possession of guns. In this latter narrative, perhaps especially by ritualized repetition at rallies and protests, the gun becomes a kind of sacrament – a symbolic or sacred object that embodies a pervasive sense of what threatens and what protects and saves. I call it an “anti-sacrament” because its narrative distorts realistic fears and hopes to such a degree that it produces an illusory but absolute sense of both evil and salvation – and thereby contributes to even more real evil and much less actual safety.

Now a longer, more nuanced version:

I am writing this essay in an effort to understand the passions of many gun-rights folks in this country – passions I find quite terrifying.

I write as someone who has never owned a gun, but once had a typical American boy’s fascination with them. (I allowed my son to indulge that fascination at age 13 with a pellet gun – something he himself chose never to touch again after he killed a chipmunk with a lucky shot.)  Thus I write from ignorance about the hunting culture which grew from the necessity of food to become today an ecological necessity. I admit as well to some ignorance about our cultures of security – the world of police and military and others recruited to “serve and protect.” I have no insider understanding of these cultures. I accept their necessity, yet view them with wariness and studied skepticism.

I write as someone who thinks that most proposed gun control legislation simply makes common sense, that the 2nd Amendment’s meaning has been distorted beyond recognition by its supposed defenders, and that the most powerful opposition to gun control comes from those who profit most – manufacturers and dealers and the propaganda they hire.

I have little interest in these contemporary gun-runners other than to expose the deceit of their proclamation of principle which really serves to mask their far more fundamental pursuit of profit. Yet I do want to try to understand the ordinary folks – a term I intend here as a title of respect – those who are whipped into fury by the NRA and other propagandists. I want to understand their fear and resentment, as well as their anger and righteousness.

My title’s description of the gun as an “anti-sacrament” tries to suggest both the roots of such fear and the dangers of such anger.

The idea of a “sacrament” is, of course, a traditional Christian one, especially favored by Roman Catholics and Orthodox, but also affirmed by Protestants, and found as well in different ways in most other religions. At root it expresses the belief that certain rituals (like baptism and communion) are sacred ways whereby we are opened to God’s healing presence. More specifically, it is the belief that life-sustaining material things like water and wine, bread and bodily touch, can become vehicles for such opening and healing. In traditional language, sacraments are earthen vessels that mediate God’s grace, assurance and salvation.

By extension, sacraments are found widely in human experience – in special places (like holy mountains or sacred springs) or in special moments when the ordinary (like a glass of wine, a sunset, or a song) becomes extraordinary. Writers of good fiction of have helped us imagine such extensions of the sacred into everyday experience. Admirers of Andre Dubus, for instance, know not only his stunning reflection on the sacramental peanut butter sandwich infused with parental love, but his even more remarkable ability to evoke sacred presence (without naming it as such) in his stories about ordinary and mundane events. The same, of course, can be said about many other good writers. It can also be said about much good cinema and television, where writers and actors, cinematographers and directors, at times conspire to evoke the sacred in secular settings and stories.

Yet it is also painfully evident to most of us that contemporary cinema and television, as well as much fiction, is filled with repeated and ritualized presentation of what I am calling “anti-sacraments.” For if sacraments are objects and actions that evoke real healing and protection, anti-sacraments are objects and actions which, while pretending to protect and heal, actually achieve the opposite. They mislead our fears, misdirect our hopes, and actually increase our hurt and insecurity.

What, then, does understanding the gun as an anti-sacrament tell us about the passions manifest in the present gun-control debate?

It tells us that people have important fears about real dangers – the danger of crime and violence; the danger of strangers in our midst; the danger of political and economic systems over which we have little control; the danger of change happening too fast and also beyond control. It tells us that people rightly resent forces that intrude with great power, yet with too little care. It tells us, most fundamentally, that we fear hurt and death.

Yet the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” also reminds us that legitimate fears and resentments too often grow beyond all relation to reality. Fear alone can do this, but the disproportionate and illusory effect happens mostly when our imaginations are manipulated – by sensational news and propaganda, by deliberately distorted and exaggerated stories and cinema and television.

And the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” should remind us that thus-distorted imaginations and fears have real and very dangerous effects, in individual lives and in the shared life of society. They are anti-life, not protective of life. They drive us into defensive postures that cut off healing contact with others, and with the real. They drive us to anger and violence both in imagination and, too often, in reality. They thus pollute our lives and our politics.

Of course, in saying these things, I may be indulging my own distortion and exaggeration. Yet I actually fear that, if anything, I err on the side of understatement. For the narrative embodied in the gun as anti-sacrament is today pervasive in our culture and our politics. It has, for too many hearts and minds, replaced not only the once honored (even if only rhetorically) religious narrative about evil and safety, but also the kind of common sense reasonableness we used to count on finding among ordinary folk – in our towns and neighborhoods, among parents and elders.

And, to repeat, this replacement and pollution of once sane and shared stories has not happened by fate or accident. It has happened because of the power of money – that most fundamental anti-sacrament we are forced to live with these days.

Of course we need money for all sorts of exchanges, just as some need guns for various legitimate purposes (from hunting to policing).  Yet like guns, money so easily becomes “sacramental,” part of a narrative about security and power, and “anti-sacramental” when that narrative nurtures illusory fears and hopes.  The result, in the case of guns and even more in the case of money, is a culture and society dominated by illusion and violence.

Which, I submit and urge, is very much where we are today in this country and around the world.

Natural Law, Anyone?

I am writing about “Nature” and more specifically about “natural law” since the topic came up in one of my recent zoom sessions. It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for years, have a number of books about, and have always thought made sense. Which led to the following ramblings. Please feel free to delete 🙂

I will begin with and gradually introduce broader concepts and analysis. At least I hope so to proceed.

Weather permitting, I often sit on our porch in Grand Lake – coffee or scotch in hand, themselves wonderful products of nature.  I talk to the trees and wild grasses, to the birds (crows and jays, ducks and geese, hawks and the occasional eagles) and animals (from squirrels and chipmunks to deer and moose –of late we’ve actually had a young moose nosing around our back yard, with big mother never far away).  I do talk (internally) but more often it’s non-verbal communing, and sometimes I’ll even break into (mile-hi) song.  Right now, with several feet of compacted snow gradually beginning to melt, I welcome nature’s awakening from winter slumber – the trees and grasses and flowers, but also the migratory birds.  Spring will really be here when the nesting Osprey return as the ice melts on our lakes.

I grew up on the Atlantic shore and still return whenever I get a chance to walk sandy beaches (Summer or Winter), picking up shells and driftwood, feeling engulfed by the roar of the surf.  Same when last we were in Costa Rica.

I also find myself doing similar listening and watching in Denver.  I sit with our dog (a wonderful link to the animal world) on the plaza outside Union Station and watch the parade of people.  I call it the greatest show on earth, and with the coming of Spring the clothes come off – lots of skin, and not just the women.  There are the tatted toughs of all races and genders, and the dandies, male and female.  There are the elders, some with walkers or canes.  Towards evening one sees and hears the stumbling drunks, and at any time of day the doped and their dealers.  (City’s cleaning up the Station area but it’ll just push this savage world elsewhere.)

In Denver more than in the mountains I admire (and occasionally despise) the many works of “man” – much marvelous architecture (old and new) and significant public art, as well as the terribly noisy Harleys and low-riders. Mile-Hi Stadium (Broncos), Ball Arena (Nuggets and Avalanche), and Coors Field (Rockies) are all within walking distance. As are the many moving tent-cities of homeless folk.

I mention these since it seems to be human nature to build things for shelter and business, for eating and drinking — though we typically refer to such building as culture rather than nature, that’s often a distinction without a difference.  My one significant book is titled “Building the Human City” and that’s something I feel very called to.  One of my colleagues at Regis (a photographer of the American West) is currently doing a series about Mormon tabernacles in Wyoming – from large to storefront churches and very small meetings in very small towns.

I’m still a firm believer in “natural law,” though I know the very idea is much disputed and has often been much abused, by Catholic bishops as much as racists.  And here the nature-culture distinction takes on some significance.  My wife and I have been blessed with many opportunities to travel – to Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zanzibar) and to Latin America (Belize, Costa Rica, and Argentina) and Asia (China, Viet Nam, the Philippines), and much of Europe (from Ireland and Spain and France to Hungary and Poland and Russia).  We’ve been even more blessed with opportunities to live abroad – a sabbatical in Australia, seminary (for me) in Switzerland, language study (for both of us) in Germany.

I mention these many places not to brag but to indicate my experience of the way that nature comes to different expressions in different cultures.  When my son was tutoring in South Africa, his students would often ask how he could manage to sleep without a two-eyed pillow (a woman), this while he was helping the high school students develop skits about AIDS and condoms for younger kids.  Feminine modesty was the rule in Viet Nam until the recently pervasive assault of Western advertising.  I also vividly remember attempting to shake hands with one of my female Muslim students at the graduation ceremony only to have her quickly withdraw because I, while a good friend, was not family. 

I’m one of the fighting Irish with deep anger inherited from my family, an anger rooted in 500 years under the British boot.  Yet there is also so much I admire and enjoy about British culture. 

It’s largely considered “natural” in this country to make as much money as you can in almost any way you can (or can get away with).  Yet what’s “natural” for liberal and neo-con economics is “unnatural” and deeply sinful for Catholic Social Teaching.  And then what many of us are coming to consider natural because of LGBTQ activism and education is still considered unnatural by Catholic and much Christian teaching.

I continue to believe in and to try to understand the idea of natural law, manifesting or expressing itself through different cultures, and terribly abused by different ideologies. It’s a challenge. As I’ve said, I have come to see “queer” folk as quite “natural,” I nonetheless find much tragedy in their struggles, and continue to believe that our media have taken up their cause because it implicitly affirms the media’s money-grubbing embrace of promiscuity.

Nature means, literally, that which is born.  And, as a consequence, that which dies.  For nature lives according to the rhythms of time In fields and forests, among all creatures great and small. 

Of course, with mention of “creatures” I have introduced what is probably the most foundational of my beliefs — that God is Creator and all of nature is Her endlessly-fruitful creation, and that is good. (We humans, and at least some animals, and mother nature herself are creative only in a secondary and derivative sense.)  Spinoza’s suggestion that nature is God loses, for me, the crucial distinction between creature and Creator and thereby (or so it seems to me) the crucial distinction between good and evil.

That which is natural is deeply good.  The anti-natural is evil, or perhaps better put, evil is that which is anti-natural. That’s one simple way of summarizing Francis’ magnificent Laudato Si’ as well as his constant condemnation not just of the arms trade but of all supposedly “liberal” (or throw-away) economics.  The contemporary destruction of nature is predicated on a supposedly scientific (Newtonian) or enlightened separation of the human from nature — a separation driven more likely by power lust and greed, a separation reducing nature to resource.  (My good and too early deceased friend Dave Toolan, SJ, wrote a wonderful book about all of this before he died:  At Home in the Cosmos, Orbis 2003.)

Let me try to tie these ramblings together by urging that through our different cultures we must continually struggle to both recover and discover the good of nature, of our human nature and of the natural world.  I reject the radical separation of natural facts and values or ideals.  It’s a tempting way to think, but quite wrong-headed.  For facts involve both is and ought, both what we discover about the natural and what the natural claims of us. 

Love to hear more about all this from any who’ve read this far. John

Temporary Vows?


This, I promise, will be a short read!

I’ve always been intrigued by the Buddhist practice, at least in some parts of Buddhism, of allowing lay folks to spend some time living as a monk or nun. I think I read that the King of Thailand spent some of his formative years in this way.

I myself took temporary vows as a young Marianist, but such vows in Christian religious orders are simply a step towards final (life-long) vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (and for Marianists also a vow of stability).

So too, of course, marriage vows – until death.

Yet, starting with the latter, I believe that many, perhaps most young folks these days take temporary vows on the way to marriage vows or as an alternative to them. Serial monogamy or something like that. An understanding to be faithful or exclusive for as long as both parties want that.

And I suspect there is something similar going on in Catholic religious orders – women and men joining to try it out, perhaps only with the intention of trying it out for a while.

At any rate, I know that my years as a professed member of the Society of Mary — which I intended to be my permanent calling but soon enough realized was not to be – were for me an invaluable period of training in prayer, in learning, in vocational practice. I do not any longer practice poverty or chastity or obedience (except in my marriage – to “she who must be obeyed” as one wag put it), yet I sense that I do continue to live the vow of stability as I understand it. I still consider my life as a teacher and writer (and husband) a continuation of vocation as a Marianist.

So why not officially endorse and support this idea as Buddhism seems to?

Take the idea of “temporary fidelity” before or in place of marriage. It’s a reality which ain’t goin’ away soon. And far better than hook-up promiscuity. Etc.

And, my real point here, why not make this an official (canonical) category for Catholic religious orders and even for diocesan priests?

I’m not sure what the economics of this arrangement would be (though I suspect that many older women and men might readily help pay for the cost of their years in the monastery). But I suspect the richness such folks would bring to the monastery would only be exceeded by the benefits to the temporary member – and to the larger society to which they would return.

I also believe that the “thou art a priest forever” is both nonsense and true.

All of the men I know who were ordained as Catholic priests and then left the priesthood have continued to be priests in many ways – as priests in Episcopal or Lutheran denominations, as good priestly doctors and lawyers, judges and business leaders. (And for most Protestant denominations there seems a regular pattern of ordained ministers serving in other ways after leaving a position as pastor.) So in a real sense they remain “priests forever.”

But the idea is also nonsense. With too many men locked into positions for which they are no-longer (or never were) suited. Or shunned for leaving the priesthood. Why not understand (canonically, again) that the training they’ve received and the ordination given may serve greater good outside the church, or even for other forms of service within the church?

Maybe this is an idea which needs to be floated in Francis’ synodal process?

Just a thought. 😊

Thoughts about war

I write in an effort to achieve what Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, called “the clarification of thought.” Which led, if memory serves, to the regular Friday (?) evening sessions with guest speakers and open discussion at the Worker House in the Bowery. Dorothy Day still lived there the one time I attended one of these sessions for the clarification of thought.

It’s a regularly forgotten commonplace that truth is the first casualty of the fog of war.

So I really hope that my quick and fragmented and probably simplistic thoughts here might serve as an invitation to others to join me (hopefully with responses and reflections on this site) in an effort to clarify thought about Ukraine and Russia, the US and Nato, and more broadly about Israel and Palestine, the Sudan, and all the other places where wars are murdering innocents and combatants alike. And also about violence here at home which not only increases in our cities and towns but threatens our democracy. And also to ask the perennial question about where God is in all this?

Here, then, the first of my fragmented thoughts. I’m guessing that Putin is a messianic megalomaniac. With models in Russian history from both Tsars and the Commissars (think Stalin), and more broadly from mass murderers like Mao and Hitler. Now once again with the blessings of his Orthodox bishops and a sacralizing state media.

I see Trump in similar terms, a madman albeit with fewer models he can explicitly endorse and (so far) more limitations imposed by democratic processes, yet equally dangerous and probably at least somewhat to blame for Putin’s seeming fearlessness about the US.

Biden is (as I see him) a pretty unrepentant cold warrior in term of foreign policy, a man well-schooled over many years in the instincts and ideas of the US Foreign Policy establishment. I like Joe, admire what he’s trying to do in domestic policy. Yet I believe he and most in DC (and most in US politics generally) want to expand NATO and stiffen its opposition to Russia (and, by the way, expand US arms sales to the region as throughout the world). I hope that Francis has called Joe about Ukraine and other wars, and I wonder what he said to him.

Francis himself has already said so many important things — strong criticisms, calls for diplomacy and a negotiated peace — and done some extraordinary things such as inviting himself to the Russian Embassy in Rome for a full half-hour “visit,” then speaking directly with the President of Ukraine, and (I suppose) ratcheting-up multiple charities for refugee and war relief. And he has prayed for peace and urged us to pray and act for peace — in this major European crisis and in all the other wars throughout the globe. His writings have made it very clear that the Catholic Church no longer considers a just war possible and they also express his withering criticisms of the arms industries (led internationally by the US and Israel and Russia ? and ???).

I can still remember vividly (because I watched it on TV) the first visit of a pope to the UN (and thus to New York). Paul VI spoke in French to the UN General Assembly in 1965, just when our war in Viet Nam expanding. “Jamais plus la guerre! Jamais plus la guerre!” he exclaimed loudly and dramatically. “Never again war! Never again war!” Some years earlier, Vatican II had declared the legitimacy of Catholic pacifism and conscientious objection to war. And since then the moral teaching of the Church has gradually loosened its millennia-long embrace of the idea of a just war. Francis’ latest statements make it clear, though many Catholics including I suspect many Bishops haven’t heard the message, that no warfare can be morally justified because, as Ukraine is showing us once again, notions like the proportional use of force and the protection of innocent civilians are simply absurd given the nature of modern weapons and the tactics they dictate.

I hope Francis talks, in his paternal and challenging way, to Joe about this. Yet I doubt it will dent this decent Catholic president’s conscience. Nor, more to the point, am I sure how I personally receive this teaching. I escaped participation in the war in Viet Nam only because I happened to be in the Catholic seminary at the time. I have two good friends who fought in that war, and two good friends who are deeply committed pacifists, one a Catholic Worker who spent hard time in a federal prison for draft refusal. Yet I was happy this morning when I read that Germany too is now supplying armaments to the Ukrainians, as I’m glad every time I see a news photo of a blown-up Russian tank or plane. I’ve never been able to be a pacifist. Too little faith or courage. Maybe that will change with this latest and closest war — involving modern white Europeans just across the pond, in cities like many I’ve visited and lived in.

Permit me to shift focus (and please allow yourself to skip this section) to another violent conflict I’ve been studying for years and have written about quite often on this site — the Israeli-Palestinian war. I will not here repeat what I’ve written previously, but I call attention to the reporting done by B’Teselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territory. Indeed I urge you to spend some time on their website learning or renewing your understanding of the brutalization of Palestine by Israel’s apartheid regime. And I note that Catholic Joe has long been one of the major Washington supporters of that Israeli regime and that Congress across all aisles continues to fund that brutality to the tune of 3-5 (I’ve read different figures) billion dollars annually in military aid.

As was evident when he spoke in 2015 before that same Congress — when he held up as models of American peacemakers Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and if I remember correctly, Abraham Lincoln and when he openly criticized the greed of the arms industry — as was evident when the camera took in an audience filled with stone-faced patriots, Francis has a lot of work to do in this country, as do those who profess to follow his lead in following the Prince of Peace.

Finally, then, the inescapable question for believers, where is that Prince in all this mess of violence and hardened hearts along with so much compassion and peace work?

I have for almost two years been involved in a “Cosmic Christ Reading/Zoom Group.” And that has been, in one way or another, our constant question. We’ve read Rohr and Teilhard, Pope Francis and N. T. Wright. And we’ve discussed practical efforts for justice in our country which reveal or express the Presence of the Kingdom. That the God of Mercy, through the Spirit of Jesus, is active and present, bringing the Kingdom in both unexpected and obvious ways, I think the entire group does not doubt. How that Spirit is moving us through the mess, through what’s happening in Ukraine and on the streets of our towns and cities — there we have helped each other by discerning the Presence of the Kingdom each in our different ways.

A closing image from Francis: It is through the deep furrows carved in our hearts and in our world by evils like war and the suffering of much pain — it is through these deep wounds that the grace of the Holy Spirit flows to nourish seeds of new ways of thinking and acting about how we live together in this world. To which I add, I hope so.

I’ve rambled enough. SO WHAT DO YOU THINK? What might you, dear reader and friend, add, by of objection and criticism or of addition and elaboration, to this exercise in the clarification of thought? What might you say to shed light amidst the continuing fog of war?

I Thank You God For These 80 Amazing Years


I want to write a prayer of gratitude on the occasion of my 80th Birthday. I’ve written previously about prayer, but not previously written an actual prayer. I hope that my prayer might encourage others to pray. And I want to thank e. e. cummings for my stolen title.

***
I pray in gratitude to YOU WHO ARE THE GREAT MYSTERY grounding and surrounding my life.

I thank YOU, GREAT SPIRIT, for the love and joy given to me through my family, for the faith they have given and sustained in me.

I thank you for the many friends who’ve walked with me at different times – friends and sweethearts in different schools, so many students over the years, and so many colleagues. (I pause to let their faces stream before me.)

I thank YOU, FATHER CREATOR, for the worlds you have made, for the amazing evolution of those worlds, and their developing goodness and truth and beauty. And I give thanks that YOU forgive even as you correct us for all we’ve messed up, and for the promise that YOUR new creation or kingdom is already here in Denver and in the many places I’ve been privileged to live or visit. (Here too I pause to allow a stream of memories from those places.)

I thank YOU, HOLY TRINITY, for having made us in your marvelously crazy image and thus given us the marvelously crazy goodness of our humanity. I give thanks for my mind and spirit, for the goodness of my body and for the ways it enables me to live in relationship to the world. And I give thanks for my freedom and for Your Spirit’s helping me grow gradually into the person I’ve become, sins and all.

I thank you, JESUS, my brother and boss, my teacher or lord. I thank you for being a Mensch and living the goodness of human things — from good food and good wine to the gift of language which you spoke so remarkably; from celebration and sorrow to ghe gift of touch in love and friendship. And for initiating while you lived with us your Father’s new creation. And above all being with me and others as we try to live into that creation.

Finally, I even want to thank YOU, GREAT MOTHER, for the losses I’ve experienced, even for the death of my son. And for the diminishments of recent years, the gradual loss of hearing and strength and memory. For I’ve learned over the years that such sufferings are invitations leading me deeper into YOUR INFINITE LIGHT.

This all this I pray, Amen.

Francis Does it Again

Sorry for the deliberately ambiguous title. And apologies to whomever for breaking whatever copyrights. This is the first time on my blog that I’m not just quoting Francis, which I often do, but in a sense giving the whole posting to him.

Below, then, copied from Religion News Service, is an article about a great new Netflix series about the old and the young, and their great need to talk with each other. For me the series is a great source of humanity and hope in the midst of all our crises.

Francis has center stage in the beginning. And why not since he is these days probably the world’s great spiritual teacher who keeps reminding us of the need for the generations to talk with each other, so that the young might learn from their elders’ experiences and so that elders might find hope in the young.

Soon, though, as the article makes clear, centerstage is filled with other elders from around the world. And that leads me, and I hope all viewers, to remember all those others whom they know, both young and old, who share their wisdom and hope. Parents and children, students and teachers, professionals (one hopes) in every sphere of life….

Herewith, then, my illicit posting. (And here’s the original link: https://religionnews.com/2021/12/28/in-new-netflix-series-pope-francis-insists-old-have-lessons-for-the-young/.)

In new Netflix series, Pope Francis insists old have lessons for the young

Though focused on aging, the documentary sheds light on his views on climate change, migration and polarization in the Catholic Church.

December 28, 2021
By Claire Giangravé

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — No one outdoes Pope Francis when it comes to staying on message. 

Since his first months as pope, when he urged the crowd at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro to engage in dialogue with the elderly, the pope has repeated his appeal in his public audiences, Masses and in his publications.

It’s there too in the first scene of a new documentary released on Netflix on Christmas Day, “Stories of a Generation With Pope Francis”: “For me today, it’s important for the future of humanity that young people talk to the old,” Francis says to the camera.

The pope’s vision is based on a passage from the biblical book of the Prophet Joel, which Francis sums up in the documentary: “The dreams of an older person are the richness of life, which they offer you,” the pope says.

The documentary, based on Francis’ 2018 book “Sharing the Wisdom of Time,” is divided into four hourlong episodes, each addressing a fundamental lesson to be learned through the experiences of the elderly: love, dreams, struggle and work.

The format for this multilingual, multicultural effort is simple: Director Simona Ercolani captures a series of conversations between men and women over 70 with people under 30. The filmmaker Martin Scorsese and primatologist Jane Goodall are two of the more recognizable elders, but most are everyday heroes who have overcome challenges despite staggering odds.

Francis’ own life is among the lives that are examined, and he offers insight into spirituality, climate change, the plight of migrants and refugees, and polarization in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the first episode, “Love,” Francis takes the viewer to his native country of Argentina. Before becoming pope, Francis — then Jorge Mario Bergoglio — was a provincial of the Jesuits in the country during the political unrest of the 1970s known as the “dirty war,” when agents of the ruling military junta kidnapped and killed supporters of the leftist opposition.

The 90-year-old Estela Barnes de Carlotto tells the story of losing her pregnant daughter, who was among those known as the “desaparecidos” or the disappeared. Many children were taken and raised by their parents’ killers.

After the loss of her daughter, Barnes continued to fight the regime by founding a movement of women who denounced the government while trying to reunite broken families.

Many of the contributors have some connection to the pontiff. Scorsese met Francis at the Vatican in 2016 at a screening of Scorsese’s movie “Silence,” about the life and martyrdom of Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan. In the “Love” episode, the documentary visits the director’s home, where he talks with his youngest daughter.

The story of an Italian ice cream maker, Vito Fiorino, 72, is among the most touching in the series. While sailing near the island of Lampedusa in 2013, Fiorino found over 200 migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. He managed to save 47, whom he now regards as his children.

Lampedusa was also Francis’ first destination as pontiff, where he laid a wreath in the sea to commemorate the plight of migrants and refugees — another major focus of his pontificate. Another immigrant, Gisèle Assoud Sabbagh, 87, tells about uprooting her life twice as a refugee from Syria and then Lebanon in the third chapter of the series, “Struggle.” 



The documentary shows the elderly not as static individuals, but as dynamic sources of strength and inspiration. “Old people need to dream, if not they fall into nostalgia,” the pope says, and while nostalgia might allow the elderly to relive the beautiful moments in their lives, without dreams they become “hardened.”

The notion is applied in the course of the documentary to those critics of Francis who want the church to remain unchanged. Francis praises tradition as a “struggle to keep the roots” but clarified that this “does not mean that we are traditionalists,” adding, “A static tradition is useless.” 

The final episode, “Work,” follows the story of a Vietnamese shoemaker, a Nigerian artist and fashion designer and a Mexican midwife who has helped bring more than 3,000 children into the world. The trio exemplifies for the pope the unbroken line weaving together the artistry, knowledge and suffering of people’s pasts with the optimism, energy and expectations of future generations.

“I love teaching other people. It’s like planting a seed,” says the 70-year-old Nigerian designer, Nike Okundaye, “and that seed will grow.”



LET’S CELEBRATE! (Thoughts about Christmas, and leisure, and worship…)

Yes, Christmas cards are in the works, snow has finally fallen in Grand Lake, my wife is setting up our winter village and creche in the bay window. And the annual national Christmas celebration is well underway. For better and worse.

I do share the concerns of many about this major glut of consumption in a world of such suffering, and the only marginal presence of Christ in this whole hoopla. Yet I do welcome fragile efforts to bring greater tolerance and openness into this season, some actual celebration of our religious and racial diversity.

Here, though, I’d like to take another kind of look at our Christmas or Seasonal celebrations. I’d like to ask what makes real celebration, a real experience of festivity, possible. And I’d like to explore the idea that real celebration of any sort is not possible without some kind of grounding in the experience of worship.

Worship is my real subject in this present writing which makes it my second recent posting on prayer. In another recent posting about the Catholic Church’s 2-year synodal process, I had argued that “We must work for a further renewal of worship in our church.” I admitted there that “I am not sure how we best imagine further renewal. [Yet] I am convinced that worship is a fundamental human need and aspiration.”

A good friend responded with a good question: “even though it is frequently invoked, I have always been somewhat puzzled by the term ‘worship’. What do you mean by worship?” A very good question that sent me searching through dictionaries and other resources, but mainly searching my own experience.

***
My sense that worship is fundamental to our humanity and to the possibility of real celebration and festivity, is something I learned from one of the best books I’ve ever read, Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. First published after the Second World War and still in print, this book by a very important German Thomist philosopher argues that Western societies have become “worlds of total work.” They are so dominated by the reality of work that there is little room for anything unrelated to that most necessary aspect of life. Such a society has been growing for centuries. It reached an apex of sorts with the total mobilization on all sides during World War II. It is a world that has created great wealth along with great inequality and much violence, all at the cost of human spiritual impoverishment. It’s the world in which we today live – virtually all of us both East and West. A world where we value ourselves almost entirely for the work we do, and we spend all of our free time – even our parties and holidays (no longer “holy” days) – getting rest and relaxation in order to return to work. Put another way, it’s workdays and nighttime entertainments.

Real leisure – time and activity that is not related to the necessities of work, that is truly free for the celebration of all those aspects of our humanity unrelated to immediate needs – real leisure and real celebration or festivity are possible, Pieper argues, only when grounded in the experience of divine worship.

And what, for Pieper, is such worship? It is not necessarily something that happens in churches or in the name of religion. For too much religious “worship” these days has become just part of the R&R required for work. Often simply a better “escape” from work than other entertainments; often simply a kind of cheerleading for the national purpose (which, of course, is production and consumption).

Real worship must involve the divine, the gods, and for most of us in the West at least some vague sense of the God of Abraham and Jesus.

Thus the dictionaries provide synonyms such as adoration and veneration and reverence, praise and glory.

For Pieper worship involves some real sacrifice, especially a sacrifice of our time, a real movement of our spirits from focus on necessary things to a personal and communal openness and reverence. Yet he goes further. We cannot make this happen (for to make things happen is the fundamental character of the world of work). Rather we open ourselves to the inspiration, even the command of the Divine – Keep Holy the Sabbath (with its analogues in other religions).

In this sense – both our openness and the ‘incoming’ of the divine – worship becomes an experience of ecstasy (which is the opposite of escape). Though the word “ecstasy” may more typically mean a simple (!) stillness of spirit than any speaking in tongues; more typically a heightened awareness of goodness or justice than any mystical rapture.

To all this I will add one key element implied in all of the above. Worship is communal. It is the full-throated song the Christian congregation raised in “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” and “Amazing Grace”. It is the low congregational murmuring of the Rosary at Catholic wakes. The street quiet of Muslim prayer at appointed times in Dar Es Salaam and Cairo, and in mosques and offices in New York and Denver. And the immensely colorful dancing and chanting of so many Hindu festivals.

Even the isolated hermitess joins continually in the larger prayer of the saints arising from every corner of the globe.

***
There is more that need be said about worship, distinguishing the authentic from the awful, the real from the phony. And lamenting, with Pieper, the so many ways that the world of work has coopted the reality of worship and blocked the restoration of real leisure. Sunday (or Saturday for most Jews) is, after all, time for coffee and the Times, for laundry and shopping, for the ball game or the zoo.

But at the moment this is the best I can come up with in answer to my friend’s good question.

***

So I return to Christmas and the possibility of real celebration, real festivity, even in and with the totalized pressures of Christmas as organized frenzy.

I do believe that very many of those who write cards, set up a creche, go to a Christmas worship service – that very many do experience at least some remnant sense, and perhaps a still-vibrant sense of real worship. As do, I believe, my largely secular Jewish friends who celebrate Hannukah and other festivals. As do those many minds and hearts, of whatever faith, join in reverence (albeit expressed in different ways) for the celebration of a marriage, or for the welcoming of a newborn, or in various funeral rites.

I do believe, then, that the actual experience of celebration remains possible among us however residual its roots. At this time of year and many others.

Pieper, it seems to me, is right about the big picture, about the shifts in culture and society which diminish the regularity (and the reality!) of worship. Yet on the smaller scale, even on New York’s 5th Avenue with all its frantic commercialization, there will be flashes of real celebration.

Because there the gift of worship, the grace for it, is given still and received. Even if it’s still considered ephemeral by the standards of the real world.

***

Here my sermon ends. I hope for and await such moments of celebration this holiday season. I hope we all find occasions to lift up hearts and minds even if just for a moment now and again.



Reimagining the Church in Response to Pope Francis’ Way of Synodality

One of the good things about this continuing “covid-moment” has been time to read and think with others via zoom groups. For me this has involved several groups of older Catholic guys, though some might prefer a “former Catholic” designation, and one of the groups is involved with a larger synodal process involving women, the young, and others who are typically marginalized. While each of these groups has its own rhythm and focus, they share a common concern to reappropriate basic Christian beliefs and to re-imagine Catholic structures and practices.

Said differently, while only recently responding explicitly to Pope Francis’ call for a Church-wide synodal process, these zoom groups have actually been engaged in that process for some time. One group has read and discussed Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream which gives, I believe, the best short explanation of what synodality is and demands of us.

What I’m attempting to write below are my take-aways from these zoom experiences. I hope that it might contribute to the further development of “the way of synodality” for both church and world. Since this essay will be longish, readers should feel free to scan and skip.


For anyone interested, this writing continues the reflections of two previous postings on this blog. The most recent is an introduction to Pope Francis’ Let Us Dream which gives my understanding of what Francis means by “the way of synodality.” A few months earlier I had posted an essay on my understanding of “Being (Roman) Catholic.”


First, a brief autobiographical note. I’ve also been using this covid moment to clean out files from courses I’ve taught over the years as well as lectures I’ve given to a variety of audiences. I’m amazed at how much concern for reform of the Catholic Church has been central to my teaching and lectures over many years. No surprise, I suppose, since I did both my theological studies and my doctoral work in philosophy of religion in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. Perhaps “reverberations” is a better word than “aftermath”. For the entire world of religious thought and practice was deeply affected by Vatican II’s call for reform of Roman Catholicism – a call which led to major changes in relations between Christian churches (i.e., ecumenism) and between the world’s religions (i.e., interfaith dialogue and collaboration). My present commitment to Francis’ “way of synodality” is simply the latest chapter in that half-century of concern for the transformation not only of Roman Catholicism, but also of relations between all religions and the relationship of these religions to the culture and politics of their regions.


I shall be using numbered sections to identify major elements of my own “reimagined Catholicism.” Yet with awareness that these sections inevitably overlap and repeat ideas found in other sections. There is, in other words, no specific sequencing of these numbered sections.

1. We must work for A MORE INCLUSIVE CHURCH. That has been a theme in every discussion I’ve participated in. And in all my courses and lectures. It’s summarized in an old tag line about “Catholic means here comes everyone” — a reference to the immigrant church in the US with Italians and Germans, Irish and Poles, as well as the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, and so on. Yet that tag line took on far greater meaning at Vatican II when the Old Lady shook herself from a centuries-long slumber and determined to become far more catholic, far more a church of everyone.

For some reason a funny story from the 60s comes to mind. It’s about a beggar and the then notoriously conservative Cardinal MacIntyre of Los Angeles. His eminence was presiding at the Cathedral when people began to hear bells moving up the central aisle. Turns out it was a well-known street guy who wore bells on his ragged garments. He headed directly to the Cardinal seated up front. Holding a fig newton in his rough hand, he offered it to the Cardinal saying “peace brother”. That’s all I remember of this perhaps mythic story. Not sure how it turned out. Yet it comes now to my mind as a wonderfully ironic metaphor for catholic inclusiveness. I have little doubt that in an analogous situation, Pope Francis would have accepted the cookie, invited the beggar to sit, and offered him communion with no questions asked. Of course that’s my myth.

The reality is that we need to imagine a church that includes the poor as well as the wealthy, the gay as well as the straight, the black and brown, yellow and white. And, of course, women as well as men.

As I imagine it, this inclusiveness is not just letting folks in the door, but urging all to active participation – in worship and communion, speaking and listening, leading and following. Perhaps like that Gospel parable about the master sending his servants into the streets to invite everyone to the feast when the special guests have failed to come.

One participant in my zoom groups imagined a church experienced as circular rather than a hierarchical pyramid. I agree with the image of an inclusive circle, but also (see below) think there is need for some sort of hierarchy. It’s both-and rather than either-or.

2. We must work for A FURTHER RENEWAL OF WORSHIP in our church. I say “further” renewal since we experienced a major, but initial renewal in the years after Vatican II (in the 60s and 70s). And that initial renewal was both welcome and disturbing. We turned the altar around, built semi-circular churches, largely did away with communion rails separating presider and people, and encouraged communion under both species with lay folk as communion ministers. All good starts in my view. Yet, again in my view, we lost some of the sense of sacrality, the special smells and bells associated with the old churches and Latin masses. In emphasizing the centrality of the Eucharist, we effectively lost much of the devotional life which had characterized pre-Vatican II prayer and worship – things like novenas, adoration, and the rosary (even if Joe still carries one in his pocket and I often mumble the words while falling off to sleep). We’ve also lost people in our church communities, both folks who were at a loss without the older forms of sacrality and those who felt that things hadn’t gone far enough in terms of lay involvement, especially the leadership of women and more regular lay preaching.

I am not sure how we best imagine further renewal. I am convinced that worship is a fundamental human need and aspiration. Yet I also know we have a long way to go in developing forms of worship that will meet that need for the many, not just for the few. Better forms of music and song. Better leadership in presiding and preaching.

Clearly we need women clergy (eventually bishops and popes), but Francis is right in arguing that the deeper problem is clericalism itself, a problem which will not be solved by ordaining women and married folks. Evidence for this failure can be found in the still-pervasive clericalism in all those churches which already ordain women and the married.

My one suggestion would be that we imagine the sacraments as different forms of ministry and ordination. So that we would have an order for those (women or men) who are confessors – those who are good at confession and spiritual direction. And an order for liturgical presiders. Another for preachers. Another for those who care for the sick and bury the dead. Said differently, we do need trained clerical leadership in many dimensions of the church’s sacramental life. But we need to work against clericalism, against the reification of a clerical caste. This is, of course, only one suggestion, and perhaps not a good one. We will need a long period of trial and error, with great tolerance and love for those who do not find new developments adequate or who resist them tooth and nail.

Yet, as another participant said, the Eucharist must remain the center of Catholic life whatever forms and structures develop.

3. So too with ECUMENISM AND INTERFAITH COOPERATION.

There is so much we can learn from the others in terms of their experience with worship and leadership.

The spread of Buddhist forms of meditation and mantra among many Christians is but one example of such learning. So too, I suspect, the development of a great variety of musical forms among other Christians, perhaps especially among evangelicals.

I remember during my years of teaching how many students (Catholic and other Christians) sought out the “rock liturgies” of some of the area’s mega-churches. They seemed to find there a kind of fellowship lacking in more traditional churches. I never agreed since I much preferred (and still do) the more monastic solemnity of chant and the magnificent polyphony of Orthodox churches. Yet many of my students did find solace and hope in these more hyped evangelical liturgies.

In the end, though, I wonder why we need to sanctify only one form of worship? I suspect it’s because of the clerical need for control. Yet the Catholic history of different forms of spirituality and worship associated with different religious orders (Benedictine and Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit) and with different rites (Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) gives evidence of legitimately different forms within the one “catholic” whole. Why not more of the same today?

We Catholics can also learn from Hindus and Jews, from Muslims and Indigenous Peoples. And not just with regard to worship. We can learn to collaborate for justice in our global community. Pope Francis has clearly made outreach to and collaboration with Muslims utterly central to his mission. Probably because that is the central issue facing Europe today. Perhaps for those of us in the US such outreach and collaboration is especially needed not just with Jews and Muslims, but with our Native Peoples.

I have colleagues who regularly led Holy Week trips to New Mexico to witness the interweaving of Native and Catholic ceremonies among the Navajo and Pueblo peoples there. I regularly had students read Black Elk Speaks in my “intro to religion” course. Always supplementing the book’s account with the fact that Black Elk himself (after the battle of Wounded Knee where the book effectively ends) became a Catholic catechist among his people for the many years of his later life. A friend, a Lakota Franciscan Sister, wrote a short “Retreat With Black Elk” for use not only by her fellow indigenous Catholics, but by all of us. And it is for me a great consolation to know that Black Elk’s cause for canonization is presently being encouraged by Francis himself.

4. And then there is the difficult matter of DOCTRINAL AUTHORITY AND DEVELOPMENT.

There are many among so-called liberals who want to de-emphasize doctrine as too left-brained (or is it right?), while the self-described orthodox fight mightily to preserve traditional teachings and the authoritative voice of the hierarchy in matters of both faith and morals.

Such “conservatism” may be noble, but it is a lost cause, though always recurring. There is simply too much compelling evidence that Christian and Catholic doctrine has always undergone significant change and development, even reversals and contradictions. Certainly the inevitable ordination of women will contradict JP II’s causa finita. To say nothing of the pervasive Catholic rejection of teachings about artificial birth control, pre-marital sex, and divorce-and-remarriage.

Yet while the opposing “liberalism” is also often noble, it is also terribly simplistic. Something akin to Robert Frost’s description of poets writing free verse without ever learning traditional techniques: it’s like trying to learn tennis with the net down and no lines. They are angelic romantics, hoping for all in terms of feeling and intuition while cutting off their heads.

It is clear that doctrines develop and change, and even reverse themselves. Capital punishment and justified warfare were accepted Catholic teaching for millennia. But no more. No more. Though it not clear what has replaced them. And that fact, of course, indicates the need for forms of authority to ride herd on an always burgeoning conflict of opinions.

Put more bluntly, we need bishops as guardians of tradition and regulators of debate. We may disagree with them in conscience or on good theological grounds (for we also need the theologians, saints, and mystics to guide us). But without such care for both tradition and development, the center cannot hold. Indeed, there is no center to hold. Not only no Catholicism, but no Christianity at all. Just an endless proliferation of sects and idiosyncrasies. And the same is true for the other great religious traditions with their different forms of authority and ways of judging fidelity.

For us, of course, the cornerstone and criterion for such judgments is Jesus. But Jesus is known only through the Gospels which themselves are documents written and made canonical by the authority of the early church. And they have been interpreted and handed on by the creeds of various councils and by the witness of saints and the writings of mystics, and of course not only by the great theologians (female as well as male) but also by movements of popular piety through the centuries, such as the great upswelling of Marian devotions throughout the 19th Century.

I believe that Pope Francis has provided us with the best contemporary way towards integrating tradition and change – the way of synodality. He’s very clear that synodality is NOT the same as parliamentary democracy. It’s not a matter of popular vote or some such. Rather it is a way for Catholics and other Christians to encounter each other, listening above all, in an effort to understand the meaning of fidelity to Jesus in our times and our different situations.

In this “way of synodality,” we will need the refereeing or governing authority of the Bishops and the Pope. But that governing role will only work when they too have really engaged in the “here comes everyone” process of synodality, have really listened and discerned with the rest of us.

5. Next, there is the crucial matter of INTEGRATING WORDS WITH ACTION in efforts to EMBODY THE KINGDOM which God is always-already nurturing among us.

One of the zoom participants was deeply concerned that this whole synodal business would be just more blah, blah, blah. All talk and no significant action. I very much agree, perhaps especially because I am a talker and he is an admirable man of concrete action for the immigrant and the poor.

That’s why we need to follow Francis “to the margins” of our societies (and to the poor and suffering parts of our own selves). As he says, we must touch and be touched by human suffering. We must listen and learn at the margins – not only from human suffering, but especially from the popular movements of protest and transformation which are emerging there.

Contra Augustine, at least to some extent, the reign of God’s Spirit is to be experienced less in the church than in the world, or at least as much in the world as in the church. Thus, again with Francis, the churches must move into the streets, into the mud and mess of our world. Our synodality must not only open church doors to include those on the margins, but must open doors into that world. Even as worship/eucharist remains central. It’s once again a both-and.

6. Another zoom participant urged a REVISIONING OF PARISHES so that they are composed of many SMALL COMMUNITIES WITHIN THE UNITY OF A LARGER PARISH.

His intention is NOT to encourage enclaves of withdrawal within the larger parish; rather it is to engender a revitalization of faith within the larger parish by means of revitalization in the smaller groups. Even more, it should enable the members of both the smaller communities and the larger parish to move with faith and courage into the world via the work and other public engagements of individuals and families in the parish.

Two of my zoom groups are composed entirely of present and former Marianists (members of the Society of Mary). The vision of the Founder of that religious order (Blessed William Joseph Chaminade) was to re-Christianize French society after the secularism enforced by the Revolution by means of “sodalities” or small communities of lay folks (women and men) who lived and worked in various sectors of modern/secular society. Bringing the Reign of God’s Spirit, in other words, into post-revolutionary France less through a recovery of traditional parish structures than through the presence of such disciples (or evangelizers or witnesses) within the many different institutional sectors of society. It is that vision that has led Marianists today to leadership roles in the “small Christian community movement” for the revitalization of parishes and the evangelization of the world.

7. There are many more aspects of a re-imagined Catholicism that should be noted. Yet the final question I wish to raise here concerns whether all such re-imagining of the Church is mere fantasy, something totally unrealistic in view of the deep “liberal-conservative” polarization within the Catholic and other Christian churches in this country, and within all of the great religious traditions. Mere fantasy, especially in light of what seems subtle but strong resistance to serious participation in the synodal way in many dioceses in the US?

The answer, as I see it, is twofold. First, whatever the polarizations and resistances (which are very real), the effort to reimagine church is worth it. Our ideas can be sent directly to the Vatican where they will be received and perhaps heard. Yet even were that not so, it remains an act of fidelity for us, as individuals and groups, to try to discern the movements of the Spirit among us and to embody them in our own practice.

Yet there is a second, deeply ironic reason for hope that such imaginative action is not a waste of time and energy. I refer to the major crises we humans are now facing and will continue to have to face – whether we want to or not – for the foreseeable future. From Covid to climate change, with the great migration of peoples and the consequent violence and warfare they will entail. We, in the churches and in the world, will be forced by tragedy and suffering, to reimagine the nature of our institutions and beliefs.

Yes, the most immediate response to such crises is a resort to tyranny – from Trump and Putin to Hindu (and even Buddhist) nationalists, and so on. And that continually recurring response will cause much death, many “holocausts” large and small. Yet I am certain that the spirit of the Gospel – and, I believe, the meaning of Torah and Quran, of Hindu and Buddhist texts, of Confucianism and the Tao, as well as the great streams of humanism which run, in different ways, throughout world history – I believe that these great currents of meaning cannot long endure the iron cages of tyranny and ideology.

That, at any rate, is my hope.