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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.

A Brief Introduction to Pope Francis’ “Let Us Dream”

For this writing I’m developing notes from a presentation I gave about Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream. The response of the audience, a study-group a local Methodist church, and the discussion that followed, are what lead me to write this introduction. It’s longer than my typical posting, but still a brief introduction to the 150-page book.

I had been asked to talk about “Healing Our Polarizations” and I decided to focus just on this book. It provides an important pathway or (as Jesuits say) a “way of proceeding” towards that healing. Yet I’m sure Francis would be the first to note that his Path to a Better Future (the book’s subtitle) is but one of many such efforts. For today, thankfully, many are also working towards that healing, both by writing and by more immediate and practical efforts.

I focus on Francis not just because he is the Pope and I am Catholic, but because he is at present one of the world’s most important spiritual leaders. He is, I often think, one very wise dude, a kind of Jesuit “spiritual director” for our world. He speaks to people of different faiths and different social positions – to business folks as much as religious people, to politicians and the poor, to the wealthy and the colonized.

In 2020 Francis wrote a major encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, calling all people to recover a sense of social friendship and trust. (I have written previously on this site about that encyclical.) Yet it was during the subsequent Covid lock-down that this more popular follow-up to the encyclical was conceived and written – in separate English and Spanish editions – precisely as a call to both personal and cultural transformation during this “Covid Moment.” In the book’s “Postscript,” co-writer and papal biographer Austen Iverleigh describes the email-exchanges between he and Francis that led to publication. He also gives an excellent review of the book’s key themes.

Yet no summary of the book’s rich content is possible because of its very personal and somewhat rambling style. As Iverleigh says, “As so often with Francis, the ideas came as flashes of intuition” (141). In what follows, I simply wish to give an outline which evokes Let Us Dream’s rich content. Above all I hope to invite the reader to take up the book itself. I also want to suggest that it needs to be read slowly. Perhaps in prayerful quiet. And in discussion with others.

***

Lest it get lost in what follows, let me note three themes which are central to this book – themes found in all of Francis’ writing and embodied in the witness of his life:

1) his critique of our dominant economic system as a “throwaway economy” (that throws people to the margins), an economy of profits over people;

2) his “option for the poor,” calling his church and others into the streets, seeing from the margins, opening ourselves to human suffering, and learning from popular movements for change;

3) his continual call for both personal and social transformation.

***

The book’s three chapters follow the “see-judge-act” model familiar in many social movements. I will follow that three-fold development here, with the reminder that Francis’ insights and arguments are typically repeated in different ways in each of these chapters.

***

Francis first challenges us to really SEE the multiple crises we face – from Covid to climate change to a very violent world and a reigning economic/cultural system which marginalizes so many and leaves others uprooted and without spiritual grounding. He also challenges us to SEE the many ways we avoid seeing: our various forms of indifference and cynicism, our sense of paralysis, feeling overwhelmed and retreating to privacy or taking up simplistic (and polarizing) ideologies. He urges us (not just Christians) to sit together and talk in an attempt to discern the “spirits” moving within us – our many forms of denial as well as the many forms of compassion still moving within and among us.

His opening lines emphasize that ours is a “time as a reckoning” when “categories and ways of thinking get shaken up; priorities and lifestyles are challenged” (1). He further describes the present as “a time of trial” akin to what the Bible describes as “passing through the fire.” These times force us to choose, and “in making your choice you reveal your heart” (1).

Francis frequently speaks of ours as a “covid moment.” At one point (39-43) he describes three major and transformative “covid moments” in his own life. Yet he also warns against focusing only on the pandemic and assuming that after this everything will return to “normal” and we’ll hardly have to change anything. Rather, he challenges us to see with equal apprehension the multiple and overlapping crises we face.

“Think, for example, of the wars scattered across different parts of the world; of the production and trade of weapons; of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity; of climate change” (4-5). (That latter and larger crisis was the focus of his great 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’.) “Just look at the figures, what a nation spends on weapons, and your blood runs cold. Then compare those figures with UNICEF’s statistics on how many children lack schooling and go to bed hungry…. In the first four months of this year, 3.7 million people died of hunger. And how many have died from war? Arms spending destroys humanity. It is a very serious coronavirus, but because its victims are hidden from us we don’t talk about it” (4).

Again, he challenges us to recognize the obvious and more subtle ways by which we fail to face these multiple crises. Perhaps better said, by which we refuse to see them. For many will just shrug, saying what can I do anyway, it’s all too overwhelming. Others will take the path of “functional retreat” that Francis sees playing out in the parable of the Good Samaritan – passing by because I have a job to do, and I can’t afford to have my way of living disturbed. While others, motivated by deep fear as much as anger, will turn to passionate forms of belief in “our way” of thinking and acting. Ideologies which further polarize hearts and minds. “Right now,” Francis says at one point, “I see a lot of digging in” (44). He regularly emphasizes such refusals throughout the book since recognition of them is where our transformation, personal and social, must begin.

Finally, Francis argues, “You must go to the edges of existence if you want to SEE the world as it really is” (11). Go to the marginal areas of the world, of our nation, of our hometown, of our own selves. Why? For two reasons (at least). First because an exposure to suffering – really touching the wounds of our world – can and should deepen our sense of compassion and of active response. Too often, he suggests, we see only quick pictures of suffering in news reports. It remains distant and abstract. We need to really be in touch with the suffering parts of our humanity which we find “on the margins.” We need the kind of seeing involved in touching and being touched.

Yet, secondly, we also need to go to the actual margins of our societies because there, he argues, among the poor and the least, perhaps especially among the young, we will find a resurgence of hope in popular movements for different ways of structuring our societies. (Think, for example, of BLM and Me-2, and of the many popular movements, some representing indigenous peoples, demanding greater change to respond to our climate crisis.)

***

As we see, we must then also JUDGE OR DISCERN. We must learn to discern among the various currents of ideas and feelings (passions) moving within each of us and in our larger culture and world. To discern among the spirits (evil and good) moving us.

For Francis, of course, we must above all discern how the Spirit of God is moving us. “It’s like God says to Isaiah: come let us talk this over” (Is. I:18-20). Which I take to mean both let us talk with God about this, and let’s let God move us to talk with each other. That’s my own sense of SHE WHO IS or the Great Mother. SHE provides counsel to our discernments and urges her children to seek counsel together. “Come let us talk this over.” Let us have the courage to dream together about our common human future.

For Francis, this judging process is simultaneously both individual and communal. You can’t have one without the other.

We clearly must discern the tendencies of our own hearts. Yet for such discernment, he immediately notes, we need “a robust set of criteria to guide us” (51). Jesus gave us just such criteria when he summarized “the grammar of the Kingdom of God” in those Beatitudes which shake our categories and challenge our lifestyles (52). These gospel criteria, Francis then says (52-4), have been developed over centuries by Catholic Social Teaching about solidarity and the common good.

Of course, for discernment we also need “a healthy capacity for silent reflection [and] places of refuge from the tyranny of the urgent (52). Yet the need for criteria even in such private reflection further illustrates how much we need community – talking together, at every level, from small groups to church bodies to professional groups and political groups – all seeking to discern the common good or our country and world. For our criteria come to us from the larger communities of thought and practice within which we live and work. For Catholics and other Christians, such criteria come to us, as noted, from Jesus and the tradition of Christian social thought. Equally robust criteria for discernment come from other religious communities, from humanist philosophies, and from the mission statements and practices of many professions and corporations.

Yet there are also many pernicious criteria for judgement which pervade our world and lead us to refuse to see. Business, after all, is business; the market must remain free; religion must stay out of politics; we all have our individual right to do and see as we please; and so on.

The Pope’s own primary way of enabling such common discernment is the “synodal process” he has called the entire Catholic church to undertake. A process of “coming together” as people of God which officially began in each Catholic diocese throughout the world at Mass on Oct. 11 of this year. In Let Us Dream (81-93), he provides an extended discussion of the meaning of synods and of recent Catholic synods (especially the Synod of Amazonia in October of 2019). There he also explains the guidelines and goals for this unique worldwide synodal process. His words also make it clear, at least to me, that a synodal mentality is much-needed not only in religious groups, but in all kinds of secular groups whatever names they may give to their “sitting together.”

***

Francis has been criticized (often justly in my view, yet often narrowly and ideologically) for his failures to promote the role of women in all such processes of governance and discernment. Yet he stresses that “A sign of hope in this crisis is the leading role of women” (62). In subsequent pages (62-68) he provides a significant discussion of the role of women in society and then in the church. He talks about his recent appointments of women to key roles in the Vatican. He affirms the real leadership roles that so many women already play in churches and church groups throughout the world. Then argues the controversial position that the real problem in the church is not patriarchy but clericalism – the ingrained belief that clerics alone (and thus men alone in Catholicism) must lead the church. We need, he urges, to transform our churches — including, I add, Protestant and Orthodox churches which also have a major problem with clerical castes — so that many lay women and men will officially and actually be leaders in the Church. Speaking of his recent Vatican appointments, he says he chose these women “because I believe women in general are much better administrators than men” (67).

Some may see his whole discussion of clericalism, and this particular line about women’s administrative abilities, as little more than a sop thrown to his critics. I personally find what he says “right on” even as I continue to support women’s ordination to specific clerical roles in the Catholic church, not only presiding and preaching at worship, but baptizing and confirming, hearing confessions, anointing the sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead, and so on. I think of these as separate ordinations for crucial ministries, not as the entrance of women into a clerical caste. But I do support the ordination of women to the office of bishop in Catholicism.

***

Francis’ third chapter challenges us to ACT on the basis of what we have seen and judged. On first beginning this chapter I had expected to find a series of proposals for action. Nor does Francis avoid broad proposals for action here and in previous chapters. Proposals that, for instance, we work to change our agricultural systems in response to world hunger. Or, more broadly, that we must transform our entire global, “neo-liberal” economic system in response to poverty and inequality. And that we must then change political systems and vastly reduce the militarization of our economies and international relations. (Francis, I would add, continually makes such proposals in his messages, for instance in a recent “tweetstorm” that gave a long list of much-needed structural changes.)

Above all he regularly argues that we get out of the way and allow poor countries to develop their own economies and poor peoples’ movements to transform our societies. Indeed he ends this third chapter with some very good pages (128-32) on the systemic transformations demanded by such movements, what he and they call “the three L’s” of Land, Lodging, and Labor. For people everywhere need to recover the use of their own land and its resources. They need good, secure housing and good, dignified work.

Such proposals will be dismissed as typical socialist idealism. Or as religious entanglement in politics. Neither is true. They are visionary proposals, not specific policy or political programs. Yet they call us, together, to find specific policies and programs in response to our multiple crises. Above all to let people themselves, locally and nationally, find such policies and programs by “sitting together.”

Yet while the final chapter (and the entire book) contains many such “proposals,” the fundamental ACT Francis calls for throughout his final chapter is action to restore our sense of being a people, in every country and region. This, he argues, is the foundational form of action without which all specific proposals will again turn into polarized positions. We must, he says, recover the sense tradition and memory whereby each national and regional group knows itself to be a people. We must recover a deeper sense of “being in this together” than one finds and feels in simply being a society, an economy, or a national state. For “Without the ‘we’ of a people, of a family, of institutions, of a society that transcends the ‘I’ of individual interests, life quickly fractures and becomes violent, a battle for supremacy between factions and interests…. [Yet, he adds] We are not there yet. This crisis has called forth the sense that we need each other, that the people still exists” (46).

“A people is not the same as a country, a nation, or a state, important though these entities are” (100). Rather, a “people draws on and expresses many sources: historic, linguistic, cultural (especially in music and dance), but above all a collective wisdom and memory. A people is held together by that memory, treasured in history, custom, rites (religious or not), and other bonds that transcend the purely transactional and rational. At the beginning of the story of every people is a quest for dignity and freedom, a history of solidarity and struggle” (96-7). This was true for the people of ancient Israel, “the archetype of what we are discussing” (103). And equally true “For the nations of the American continent [where] it was the struggle for independence” that gave and still gives them a sense of being a people (97). True for our United States and his Argentina, for Mexico and Canada and so on.

Throughout his final chapter, Francis also distinguishes this sense of being a people not just from the state and nation, but from the reigning neoliberal sense of the nation/state as a free collaboration of interests (108-17) which has increasingly destroyed the more fundamental reality of being a people. He also distinguishes the reality of a people from contemporary nationalist or “populist” movements which co-opt the idea of a people even as they destroy its reality (117-19).

He believes and hopes that times of crisis “reveal not just popular feeling but the feeling of a people, [of] its ‘soul’…. It may seem strange to say it [he adds], but it’s true: the people has a soul. And because we can speak of the soul of a people, we can speak of a way of viewing the world, an awareness. Such an awareness is the result not of an economic system or political theory but of a personality shaped in key moments of a people’s history. These milestones have imprinted on the people a powerful sense of solidarity, of justice, and of the importance of labor” (101). (Think, for instance, of the many historic landmarks by which we in the US identify and celebrate our identity as a people.)

Approached from another angle, “To speak of a people is to appeal to unity in diversity: e pluribus unum” (102). This was true for the 12 tribes of ancient Israel and remains tenuously true today for the 50 of our United States. And, of course, true for the diverse regional groups (even language groups or dialects) of so many contemporary countries in Europe and Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Specifically, I must add (because of our war there), it’s true for the people of Viet Nam. Their recent history has seen violent divisions and now endures the forced unity of communism. Yet the soul of the Vietnamese people, at home and in diaspora, still hungers for a more real unity of its many parts.

Not surprisingly, Francis begins this third chapter by stressing that “In times of crisis and tribulation, when we are shaken out of our sclerotic habits, the love of God comes out to purify us, to remind us that we are a people” (97). Later, in a remarkable historical reflection on the meaning of “People of God” (103-07), Francis develops this idea.

“The dignity of a people—even the poorest, most wretched, enslaved people—comes from God’s closeness. It is God’s love and closeness that confer dignity, and always raise up a people, offering it a horizon of hope” (103).
This was true for the people of Israel and “Jesus is a child of the Jewish people’s history of grace, of promise, of redemption. His is a story of a people seeking liberation, conscious of its dignity because God has appeared and come close and walked with them. Jesus comes to restore Israel to the remembrance of God’s closeness, to return to the people the dignity of the promise…. Jesus restores dignity to the people in acts and words that perform God’s closeness” (104).

“To be Christian, then, is to know that we are part of a people, a people expressed in different nations and cultures yet which transcends all boundaries of race and language. The People of God is a community within the broader community of a nation, serving the nation, helping to shape that nation’s self-understanding, while respecting the role played by other religious and cultural institutions. But if the Church has a particular role to play at times of crisis, it is precisely to remind the people of its soul, of its need to respect the common good. This is what Jesus did: He came to strengthen and deepen the bonds of belonging—of the people to God and to each other” (104-5).

Said differently, the Christian churches must not only recover their sense of being God’s people, but must serve the larger national culture within which they live by enabling it to recover its soul, its historic sense of being a people, its feeling of being in this together, in solidarity for the common good.

In a long section at the end of the chapter (118-32), Francis returns to his conviction that we must go to the margins of our societies, especially to meet and learn from the popular movements which have arisen there. His long personal experience (in the barrios of Buenos Aires and since) leads to this conviction that through such movements we too may recover a sense of what it means to be a people. For there he finds evidence of the recovery and emergence of “peoples” rising against the more dominant forces of liberal democracy and nationalist populisms. Earlier in the book (25) he had even made specific reference to the world-wide response to the murder of George Floyd, a response exemplifying the popular movements in which he puts such hope

Francis concludes this third chapter with a final call to action: “By making the restoration of our peoples’ dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions. To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future” (132-33, emphasis mine).

***

Of course, many will find this book and the entirety of Francis’ papacy to be little more than a totally unrealistic dream. I will admit that I am also tempted, as I read the daily news (with reports of such deep divisions in our politics and culture, of so much deadly violence, endless lawsuits, and mindless political debates), to wonder whether what Francis calls for is an impossible dream. Yet there is also contrary evidence in the news, such as recent suggestions that the pandemic has led a large number of people not to return to their jobs but to seek better, more humane and meaningful work. Or reports from abroad of many popular movements for freedom and equality. And also much much evidence in our cities — in the many movements and systems, often small and little noticed, for service and solidarity.

In the end, I am personally compelled by the overall impact of the book — with its many ideas and arguments and its references to many sources of wisdom and grace, what I’ve previously referred to as its richness of both content and style. Compelled by the urgent truth of its challenge. I hope this may be true as well for most who will take and read.

When Two Or Three Are Gathered… Some Reflections on Prayer

I began trying to write something about prayer more than a month ago. 

I’m continuing now having recently returned from a trip to Europe which included several days of retreat at Stift Goettweig, a Benedictine monastery (Stift) founded in the 11th Century on a mountain overlooking the Danube in Austria.  I assume its name is medieval dialect and means something like (the deliberately ambiguous?) “God’s Way”. 

And after the Jewish High Holy Days of Atonement and New Year, and at the end of Sukkot. Traditional forms of ritual prayer and celebration. 

***

In what follows I give, without any special sequence or order, a number of personal reflections on prayer. In these reflections I’m going to allow myself the latitude to make asides about this and that; tell an anecdote or cite a passage.  And you, dear reader, must allow yourself the similar latitude of skipping around or just deleting.  At the end I indicate that this will be the first in a series of posts on prayer. 

 ***

As always, I invite readers to respond with their thoughts and questions, doubts and beliefs, about prayer.

***

As an opening teaser, I note that while usually connected, prayer and God are not necessarily connected.  I know, for instance, that at least some secular Jewish friends follow the High Holy Days and Passover, mostly at home.  Yet not because these rituals connect us with some G-d, but simply because they are healthy human practices, important communal and family traditions.  And, of course, Buddhist practices of meditation imply no connection with any god.  Only later in Buddhism did the gods arrive in some Buddhist traditions.

Yet I suspect that most Christians who practice Buddhist meditation do so within the horizon of Christian belief in God.  (See subsequently about my prayer to Quan Am, goddess of mercy.)

Then there is this from Pope Francis on 9/21 (from his daily prayer site “Journey With The Pope” — which I highly recommend):

“I would like to reiterate that if we want to preserve fraternity on Earth, we cannot lose sight of Heaven.… Yes, true religiosity consists in adoring God and loving one’s neighbor. And we believers cannot exempt ourselves from these essential religious choices: rather than demonstrating something, we are called to show the paternal presence of the God of heaven through our harmony on earth.”

I also believe that most of us continue in a variety to pray to the old pagan gods.  We as a nation make immense sacrifices at the altar of Mars.

And I hope at some point to reflect on the ways many atheists pray.  

Perhaps we all pray, with or without gods?

***

I have prayed, or tried to, throughout my entire life – even before words came to me.

I’ve long been a student and professor of religious studies and have developed much appreciation for the prayer beliefs and practices of different religious traditions.    

Yet I am also a philosopher trained to habits of criticism as well as appreciation.  For there is much that is phony in religion, and much that is at times very dangerous.  For me that means especially the many forms fundamentalist belief and practice found throughout the world’s religions (though hardly limited to religions). They need to be criticized since they contribute in so many ways to polarizations and violence.

And though I continue to pray, I have my share of doubts and serious questions about prayer.  I suspect that Freud (and Marx, etc.) may have been right about much prayer – simply seeking illusory but much needed comfort or reassurance in tough times.   But then who am I to judge the character of anyone’s prayer?

***

I’m still filled, two weeks after, with my days at Goettweig, so allow me to ramble a bit.  And perhaps go to their excellent website Benedictine Abbey Göttweig – place of encounter (stiftgoettweig.at) for photos that may provide images for fmy words.

I had no “retreat” program. It was just several days of quiet, with walks through the now large monastery’s shaded grounds and gardens.  The weather was clear early fall. I sat for what seemed hours at this or that valley overlook, and spent time reading and scribbling. I made occasional “visits” to one or the other of the monastery’s churches.   One evening I just happened to walk into a sung High Mass in the very large and very baroque cathedral church.  There were trumpets and drums and full choir accompanying the magnificent organ, and up front a good number of monks in choir stalls and at the altar.  I have no idea what the occasion was, but it filled my heart to experience this baroque brilliance with a full congregation of masked and local folk – farmer and business families from surrounding villages, many of whom work the monastery’s fields and forests. 

Did I mention that the food was great; that the monastery not only makes its own beer, but seven different kinds of wine, as well as specialty apricot liqueurs.  The monks, about 60 (with quite a few elderly) are pastors at many area parishes, minister at several prisons, and have an active ministry to youth.  So the beer and wine and other goodies – including the meals at the monastery restaurant – are these days the work of employees from the surrounding towns. 

And all of it – from the food to the quiet to the services and sights – was for me a form of prayer.  Which may have something to do with the constant stream of daytime visitors – mostly hikers and bikers, but many family cars and occasional tour busses.  It’s hilltop grandeur and historic significance make it a natural tourist stop.  Yet  I can’t help but think that some sort of sacred aura (whatever that might mean) nonetheless draws folks there.  Even the many couples and family groups who seem simply to come for the superb restaurant.  The place resonates hospitality.  As it’s website says, it’s a place of encounter.  Not accidentally with several churches, a museum of monastic art, and the cloistered apartments for the monks. An aura of prayer.

One other surprise.  One evening while I was dining on their beautiful terrace restaurant, I noticed noise and loudspeakers on another terrace above.  I wandered up and discovered an electric car show – new electric models from VW and BMW, Porsche and Peugeot, and several Asian carmakers.  One could sign up to drive any one of these on the roads circling the monastery.  And, lo and behold (or LOL), there was the Abbot in his black Benedictine robes wearing a bright red stole and holding a prayer book.  Next to him was someone carrying a holy water bucket and sprinkler.  The announcer was calling for quiet while the Abbot read a prayer of blessing and then walked with the sprinkler blessing both cars and crowd.  (The pervasive cameras were, I’m sure, for newspapers.)  After watching this ritual, I approached the Abbot and told him that Pope Francis would have loved this.  A Laudato Si’ event.  He agreed and also suggested that this was simply one part of the monastery’s ministry of hospitality and prayer.

***

That’s it for now.  Hope to post more on prayer soon enough.  Vaya con Dios.

Purgatory, a Test

Not sure the title makes sense. I’m sending this short piece on purgatory as a test of my efforts to restore a mailing list among those of you who said you wanted to continue to receive my blog postings. (If you get this, but didn’t want to continue, please just let me know.)

And, of course, one way to understand purgatory is that it is a time of testing. Perhaps like a thesis defense, or like a final exam in a very challenging course. Saints get a free pass, but most of us need some final testing.

Belief in purgatory has been laughed off the stage of contemporary Christian consciousness for all sorts of reasons. That it’s medieval Catholic nonsense with no basis in scripture. That God’s grace or mercy saves everyone, no matter what their lives or final state when appearing at the pearly gates. You know, Peter as parking manager rather than passport examiner.

At any rate, I continue to think the idea of purgatory is a good one, even if a medieval invention. There are lots of good (and lots of bad) developments in Christian thought that have no basis in scripture. One is Luther’s sola scriptura, which remains a pretty bad, and at times a very dangerous, idea!

My dad (who by now is well out of purgatory) used to sit at his bedside every night praying the rosary for the “poor souls.” I’m sure he thought of and perhaps spoke to deceased members of his family and friends, perhaps even to enemies. I’m sure he thought he’d be joining them. I too believe that. I’m no saint. Lots of Catholic guilt, but much of it real. Time for a good cleansing after death before I get to the pearly gates. And to talk especially with enemies whom I expect to join there.

I don’t share Dante’s image of purgation by fire. When I try to imagine purgatory (which may not be a good idea), I imagine some process of sorrowful reflection and repentance for all the stupid and sinful stuff I’ve done – the vices and vanities, etc. And for reconciliation with enemies.

Of course, I know rationally that all this talk of afterlife “processes” is confused by our inability to understand what time might mean after we leave this time. But I’ll leave that as a teaser for the philosophically inclined.

For now that’s enough for my test.