Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I Believe

Swiss theologian Hans Küng's latest book is titled What I Believe.

He wrote it, he says, in answer to one of the most persistent questions posed to him: "Be quite honest: just what do you personally believe?"

Küng's response is couched in terms theological and philosophical, but not for that reason divorced from everyday life. He writes about the meaning of life, about a basis for ethics accepted by all human beings, about his personal trials and disappointments with Church leadership.

Küng's explanation of his personal beliefs made me ask myself, "And you, what do you personally believe?"

I have never organized my personal credo in such a way that I could write a summa of my faith and life. I suspect I would discover areas into which I have never ventured, and perhaps some that are contradictory one with another.

God, Church, spirituality, ministry, relationships, sin, grace, Scripture, Eucharist, knowledge --these would be at the top of my list of concerns, but I am regrettably unable to spell out conclusively even for myself what I personally believe about each one and whether those various beliefs are compatible with one another.

"Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).

At this moment of my life Church looms large as an area of concern. I have been reviewing the documents of the Second Vatican Council and reading histories and analyses of that historic event. I am old enough to recall those so-called "heady days" when we were surprised by what we heard from Rome and excited about the possibilities.

Fifty years later my excitement has abated and surprise has turned to a heaviness of spirit. The hopes, dreams, and promises of the past have clashed with the polarization, ennui, and regression of today.

In 1932 young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer shocked the congregation which had assembled for Reformation Sunday in Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin when he said that the Protestant Church was in its eleventh hour, and that it was grotesquely inappropriate for them to be in a celebratory mood when they were in fact attending a funeral.

Bonhoeffer advised the assembly to wake up and stop playing church. He saw blindness among his co-religionists; he also saw the coming hegemony of the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer's analysis is eerily appropriate today.

Since I am still assessing what I believe, and I leave open for myself the possibility I will change my mind should I discover something new, I at this moment conclude that the Catholic Church is currently idling, in neutral, low on gas and hesitant about which road to take.

The Church, opened by the council to dialogue and involvement with the world, now sits in a paralysis of navel-gazing, overwhelmed by internal scandal, inept in evangelizing, irrelevant to some of its members, and officiously engaged in re-arranging the oft-mentioned deck chairs.

"No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God" (cf. Luke 9:62).

I believe we have lost momentum, enterprise, and direction. History reports that this has happened before. And that history of confusion, doldrums, and dullness gives me hope. For it is in just such circumstances ("darkest before dawn") that something or someone comes on the scene to breathe new life and effect the answer to our prayer for a new Pentecost in our time.

I believe that both history and the Lord's promise to send the Holy Spirit are reasons to be confident about the future.

"Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (cf. Matthew 28:20).

I may not live long enough to see it, but I believe we are standing on the threshold of a new age in the Church. As Francis of Assisi revitalized the Church in the Middle Ages and Pope John XXIII refreshed the Church in the 20th century, someone or something will re-invigorate the Church of the 21st.

I believe the mission and ministry of the Church will be fulfilled. I believe in the dreams inspired by Vatican II. I believe what Archbishop Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, once professed, "If one person dreams alone it remains a dream. But if we all dream together, it becomes reality."

Perhaps you do not share my beliefs or my dreams, but I think I am in good company when I am with Küng and Bonhoeffer and Camara --and Christ.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Leading Ladies

It seems to me that women are taking on leadership roles in a way and to a degree unprecedented in history.

You can hardly speak of today's political climate without mentioning Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Palin. Angela Merkel is the current Chancellor of Germany. Aloisea Inyumba is a senator in the Parliament of Rwanda. Three women serve as associates judges on the United States Supreme Court.

In religious circles, women have long been recognized as major players in supporting the work of the Church. Even if official leadership roles have been almost exclusively male-dominated, it is clear that women have made major contributions to the Christian mission, whether we think of the women who provided for the apostles out of their means (cf. Luke 8:1-3) or the legions of women religious who serve the Church in prayer, hospitals, education, and care for the poor and broken.

Every pastor knows that it is mostly the women in his parish who make the programs work. They are the teachers in parochial school or CCD, the bulk of the congregation at weekday morning Mass, the Marthas who launder the altar linens and clean the sacristy, the cooks who organize and provide parish dinners, the most likely to attend faith formation classes or hours of Eucharistic adoration.

It's a common saying that "behind every successful man, there's a woman." It may not be universally true, but I do note that Francis of Assisi had Clare, Vincent de Paul had Louise de Marillac, Francis de Sales had Jane de Chantal, and (dare I say it?) Jesus had Mary Magdalen.

How many of us learned the truths of faith and life at our mother's knee or seated before a woman teacher in a classroom!

Today, however, women need not be and are not behind anyone. Pope John Paul II refused to admit women to the priesthood, but a report by Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service maintains that Pope John Paul II looked more closely at the role of women in the church than any other pope in modern history.

She notes that during his pontificate "women took over pastoral and administrative duties in priestless parishes, they were appointed chancellors of dioceses around the world, and they began swelling the ranks of 'experts' at Vatican synods and symposiums. In 2004, for the first time, the pope appointed two women theologians to the prestigious International Theological Commission and named a Harvard University law professor, Mary Ann Glendon, to be president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences."

The pope opposed the cultural assumption that God intended women to be subject to men and affirmed their equal dignity. He further explained, "It is universally admitted - even by people with a critical attitude towards the Christian message - that in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ became a promoter of women's true dignity and of the vocation corresponding to this dignity" (Mulieris Dignitatem, 12).

One might protest that the Church has not gone far enough to respect the dignity of women, and whether one likes or dislikes the ladies whose names are given above, there remains the indisputable fact that women are playing major leadership roles in politics and religion.

And that influence is a good thing. The arrogance of thinking that homo sapiens can or should disbar half its members from human endeavors is a mental disorder. It flies in the face of reason.

It may have been true in the past, I mean that observation that "behind every successful man, there's a woman." But it's less likely today. The ladies are now out front, and in many cases the men are trying to catch up. It only makes sense --you can't lead from behind, and the ladies are leading.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

God's Good Humor

I am reading Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, a account of her extended visits to a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota.

One consequence of her experiences at the abbey was a growing respect for the Liturgy of the Hours, and especially for the liturgy's use of Sacred Scripture.

Norris recalled with a smile the observation of poet Oscar Wilde that one of the chief argument's against Christianity is the style of Paul's letters.

Anyone who has lectored at Mass knows the challenge of proclaiming one of Paul's long and convoluted sentences. By the time you get to the end you forget how it began; his meaning becomes elusive somewhere between the first subordinate clause and the third parenthetical observation.

For example, And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:11-14).

Norris said that listening to (as opposed to reading) Paul's letters (she didn't mention that it takes a good, interpretive reader to convey his message) allowed her "to take unaccustomed pleasure in the complex play Paul makes of even his deepest theology."

She heard the divine sense of humor in 1 Corinthians 1:21, For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.

If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that we come to know God not through human wisdom but through what it seems to be divine foolishness. Isaiah (29:14) said something similar centuries earlier.

Norris said, "Hearing the passage read slowly one night at vespers, I suddenly grasped the exasperation there, and God's good humor, and it made me laugh."

In 1966 Father Raymond Nogar, OP, wrote The Lord of the Absurd, part of which was a defense of his contention that it is not the order of creation that proves there is a God but rather the disorder, waste and inefficiency of our chaotic world.

The book's title caught my attention more than Nogar's argument. The God I encounter in my life as well as in my religion is indeed the Lord of the absurd.

Is it not absurd that God should create with a big bang, that creation should unfold over billions of years, that the Creator of it all should become part of his creation, that God should succumb (even temporarily) to the penalty of death?

There was a cross on the wall of the sanctuary at Sacred Heart Church in Fairfield, Ohio. It was an odd design. Some parishioner wanted it replaced. Rather than discard it entirely I put out it of the congregation's sightline, on the wall near the sacristy. I had a small plaque placed on it with these words: "You must look for the Lord even in the absurd."

Most parishioners have never seen the plaque. A few thought I intended ridicule. Many got the point: God is everywhere, and the divine sense of humor suggests that we ought to look for that presence all around us and in everything --in Paul's convoluted sentences, in the chaos of the universe, in oddly designed crosses, in the absurd events of our lives.

Protestant Kathleen Norris found God in a Catholic abbey. If I am open to it I can find God in unlikely places as well. God's good humor does explain the Lord of the Absurd.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lifelong Learning Challenge

The Fall Quarter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute began this week at the Raymond Walters Branch of the University of Cincinnati.

That information hardly makes a banner headline, but it does explain why I was part of a panel of representatives of four major religions: Islam, Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism. The course is called "Religion Beyond Dogma." It is one of many offered for senior citizens.

I was asked to explain in seven minutes "the core beliefs of your faith." Needless to say, I couldn't do it in seven minutes; the question-and-answer period allowed me to say more.

It was a challenge to listen, speak, compare, and try to be a worthy representative of my Church.

To listen is hard to do. I suspect that's why the daily prayer of the Jew begins with the admonition, Shema, Israel! "Listen, O Israel, Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone!" To really listen one must be quiet, be open, be attentive. Faith comes through hearing.

To speak is easy. But there is a huge difference between having to say something and having something to say. I wanted to be orthodox but practical.

If, as poet John Donne says, "Comparisons are odious," I have to think that contrasts are odiouser (is there such a word?). And yet it is in comparing and contrasting one religion with another that we sort out the truth.

Hardest of all is being a worthy representative of my Church. I know that there are certain beliefs (dogmas) that every Catholic must hold or risk being judged non-Catholic. For example, Catholics are monotheists, but believe in a trinity of persons. They believe that God created the world, that all human beings are made in God's image, that there is life after death. On these we all agree.

But when it comes to representing practices, spiritualities, and theologies, Catholics differ among themselves. For example, most priests in the Roman Catholic rite are not married; in the Eastern rites most are. Catholics pursue a variety of spiritualities: Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian, or a hybrid of eclectic devotions. Catholic theologians interpret doctrines in different ways. The Catholic umbrella is large.

As I listened to my colleagues explain their core beliefs, I recognized that they too have personal takes on what their religion holds. I heard myself say things to the audience that some Catholics would quickly disavow.

I do not think one religion is as good as another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said something that I think applies: "If you board the wrong train, it's no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction." Nonetheless I concluded that each of us must apply our religious tradition in a way that translates it into our individual and personal faith.

I think the confrontation between Peter and Paul over Jewish law or the controversy over faith and good works serve as examples that this individuation and personalization occurred even in New Testament times.

Some disagreements allow only one answer, but some permit a variety of solutions. That the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ is dogma --you have to believe it to be a Catholic. Whether communion should be distributed only on the tongue is open to discussion and differing practices.

I am not proposing that Catholics should pick and choose beliefs and practices simply as they please. Cafeteria Catholicism is not my focus.

Rather, what came to me as I participated on the ecumenical panel was the need for all believers to personalize their religion if it is to be more than an academic exercise or a practice of culture.

Religion should be an interiorized, personalized expression of one's relationship with God. Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Catholics all share a common family bond --we are children of Abraham. But we deny that relationship if we do not make it personal.

I may not always agree with my brothers and sisters but they remain my family. If the ecumenical movement is to be successful, if Jesus' prayer that they all may be one is ever to be answered, it will require each family member to do his or her best to translate that truth into real life.

To be faithful to one's religious tradition and yet make it one's own is the lifelong learning challenge of every authentic believer.