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Much has been written about the Catholic Church’s most recent scandal — the report out of Pennsylvania outlining years of sexual abuse by the clergy and the effort that was made to cover it up. Does more need to be said? Maybe not, but as a Catholic, I AM the church, and so I will endeavor to navigate these tricky waters as best I can.

The problem is not Catholicism. It is not a matter of faith. It is also not merely a problem of sinful men doing sinful things. The problem lies in the structure and hierarchy of the Church — the men who perpetuated the abuse by actively striving to protect the perpetrators. They didn’t just do nothing. They worked tirelessly against the abused and for the abusers.

This problem is so endemic, so deeply rooted in the Church, as to extend to every level of it. It manifests in the local priest who becomes the new pastor of a parish and unilaterally changes everything about parish life to suit his own likes and needs. The people are the Church. A pastor should serve his flock, not the other way around.

I’ve struggled since youth against a culture that declares, “priests are better than you. They know more. You must do what they say.” And that’s at the most basic level. The adulation given to bishops and cardinals increases exponentially. I’m not saying these men don’t deserve respect. Most are hardworking shepherds who genuinely wish to tirelessly serve the people. They are men of God. But they are not God. The Church would do well to remember the humility of its founder.

Any institution that protects its own against its own deserves scrutiny. The Catholic Church deserves every bit of the anger and inquiry being directed at it in the press and around the world. As my husband (a new-ish Catholic) remarked: “People sin and people can be forgiven. Institutions cannot.” It is true. Institutions can only be torn down and rebuilt. It has happened to the Church before, and the Church survived. I believe they can do it again.

On the other hand, this: Men have proven they can screw up every major institution on this planet — from churches to governments. Isn’t it time they move aside and let women give things a try? Just sayin’.

There’s just so much not to talk about today! Take the latest school shooting, for example. Oh, it’s being talked about now. But just give it a few days. Things will settle back to ordinary. And then there will be yet another shooting. It’s cool. We’re okay with this course of events. America has elected a new god and it is guns — singular and plural — and we are perfectly willing to sacrifice our children on our new god’s altar. Eighteen times in 30 days! No one can say we are not devout.

Let’s also not talk about Father James Martin, dubbed the most dangerous man in the Catholic Church for implying, hinting, suggesting that we ought to treat LGBTQ Catholics with dignity and kindness. For this, Father Martin receives all manner of hate mail. It’s good to know that I needn’t turn to another faith practice in order to find the most small-minded one on earth. I can remain a Catholic!

What else should we not discuss? Golly, there’s so much. But no one listens when I get angry. Let me turn instead to my old friend poetry.

Stitch my eyes shut:
I will still see. Numb my mouth
with platitudes and prayer:
I will rouse my tongue.
Tell me I cannot change
people, places, things:
I will wave you away
like a phantasm.
Heaven dropped fire
into my soul. I will scald,
blacken, raise flame.
Even in silence, I smolder.

Let me dazzle you with
incendiary verbiage;
fireworks of thought —
wonder! Delight! Gape
as sparks fly
into upturned mouths.
I need only enflame
one tongue. Then,
and only then,
can I rest in ashes.

  • Father Jacques Hamel, 85, was celebrating Mass when two men entered his church and murdered him in the name of ISIS. A servant of God, a man who could have retired long ago and not continued the active shepherding of his flock, was killed in cold blood doing sacred work for the people of God. This priest died because of his faith. That makes him a martyr. You know what doesn’t make someone a martyr? Dying in a hail of bullets after cutting the throat of a priest. That’s not dying for your faith. That’s committing a criminal act and getting the reaction a criminal act receives.
  • In happier news, Pope Francis is in Krakow today celebrating the 31st World Youth Day. His message? “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). It is one of the Beatitudes, the great and golden rules taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is a particularly timely message. In this period of political divisiveness, mercy is hard to come by. Pope Francis reminds us again: If you want to get it, you have to give it. Even when it’s hard.
  • The Vatican sent out an Apostolic Constitution on women in contemplative life — i.e. cloistered nuns. These are nuns whose life consists of prayer for others. While the Pope praised the nuns, insisting that “The Church needs you!”, he also warned against “listlessness” and suggested ways to run a tighter ship. I find myself saddened by this. First, with all the problems in the world today (and within the Catholic church), listless nuns do not figure prominently, if at all. That these women, who have devoted their lives to God, need to be chided like children strikes me as the height of patriarchal nonsense. Come on, Francis. You’re better than this. (See above.)
  •  The Nuns on the Bus continue their journey apace. Their message? “Mend the Gap” — that is, the economic and social gaps that keep people in positions of inequality. The sisters’ focus is on seven areas: tax justice, living wages, family-friendly workplaces, healthcare, housing, citizenship and democracy. I am rooting hard for these women and their message of inclusiveness and fairness. We seem to have forgotten, as Americans, that “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” (That’s Ben Franklin I’m quoting.) In other words, please try not to listen to people who want to divide us, to cause rifts instead of understanding. As the 2016 election process careens into Fall, it is the best advice I can give.

It’s one of those weeks. My brain has not got a single, complete, coherent thought in it. I am beset on all sides by questions spiritual and temporal, moments of joy and phases of confusion. There is nothing for it but to let it all out. Excuse, in advance, my rambling.

  • I just got back from a trip to St. Mary-of-the-Woods, IN, my alma mater and home to the Sisters of Providence, of which I am an Associate. The visit, for a board meeting, was equal parts mentally invigorating and exhausting, but overall, filled with joy. I got to see many of the faces I love, my friends Maria, Sheila and Martha, Jen, Monica, Diann, Li-Chih and Kathleen — among others — as well as many of my most beloved Sisters of Providence. How I wish I scoot Missouri out of the way, like one of those puzzles where you rearrange the squares to form an image, so as to make Indiana closer to Kansas. (Sorry, SueBE! I did think of you with great fondness while whizzing past your hometown on the interstate.)
  • The Synod on the Family has ended in something of a jumble. Some bishops have shown base disrespect for the Pope by dissenting, before crucial subjects could even be discussed, what they perceive as the “hidden agenda” of the synod: namely, to allow divorced, remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion, and to accept into the fold those who support homosexual marriage. All poor Pope Francis has to say is, “let us have understanding and be accepting,” and all the scared chickens start shouting that the sky is falling. They’ve issued a petition, which (to date) 182 bishops and 600,000 people have signed, begging the Pope not to alter, in the least, Church teachings or doctrine on these matters. That’s right. Let’s just slam the door in the faces of people, deny them the forgiveness Christ extends with open arms, and put a boot on their necks so they don’t forget they are sinners. Also, let’s deny that times change as human understanding changes. (Maybe the earth is the center of the universe!) I wonder if special technology will be developed so that I can be identified at the church door as a liberal and thereby banned from the pews.
  • Her name is Salome. She recently turned five, and she lives in Colombia. In her photo, she stands, arms akimbo, head tilted, a wry smile on her face. I loved her at first sight. (Although, yes, as my husband guessed at the time, I was looking for a child from Costa Rica so I would have another excuse to visit my friend Tina, who lives there, growing chocolate and making the world a better place.) I am sponsoring Salome through the group Unbound (unbound.org). She has a “complicated” family life, and a home that makes mine look like the Taj Mahal. And I am doing the absolute least a compassionate human being could do to improve her life. There is so much need out there, at times I feel at a loss. And then I remember that even a single, small gesture of kindness can kindle a flame that might, in turn, spark another, and another, into life. It is hard to hope for a conflagration, and yet, at times, hope is all we have.

And so, with happiness and heartache, sadness and celebration, we come to the end of my news. So many things bubbling away on the stove! Who knows what will be added to the pot next week? We can only face it with prayer. (And maybe some lunch. Who’s hungry?)

Of late, the popularity of Pope Francis has plummeted, particularly in the U.S. I guess some people (particularly Conservatives) don’t like what he has to say. Which is really funny when you think about it — because there’s nothing that Francis is saying that hasn’t been said before, by Jesus himself.

Feed the poor? Check. The rich man will not get into heaven unless he changes his ways? Check. Blessed are the suffering and outcast? Yep, that too. Honestly, you’d think the Pope was saying something radical. Anyone who’s read the Gospels knows who the real radical was and is. It’s why Jesus was put to death: Instead of leading an army against the Romans, He took the side of the marginalized. He wasn’t what the people of the time expected from a savior. Nor is Francis what you might expect from a Pope. He eschews pomp and circumstance for humility and simplicity. He doesn’t try to be popular.

Just as Jesus riled up the powers-that-be, Francis disconcerts the mighty. As well he should. Who said being a Christian was going to be easy? Anyone who thinks so is barking up the wrong tree (in the medieval sense, where “tree” meant “cross”). It is the Pope’s job to disconcert. That is how change occurs.

And, as ever, we need to change. Thousands and thousands of years post-Christ and what have we learned? We still choose war over peace, division over communion, and money over just about everything else. We still lack in love. We would still crucify Jesus for not being what we want.

If Christ came back tomorrow, I daresay he would be even less popular than Francis, especially in America, a country that many (especially those in power) call “Christian,” a country that claims to be “one nation under God.” Which begs the question: Do we really know what being Christian means?

Look to Francis for answers. And if you don’t like those answers, feel free to be disconcerted. You should be.

The Pope is coming! The Pope is coming! Already he is in the Americas, being besieged everywhere he goes by happy, hopeful people. Our Papa is a ray of sunshine after a very long stretch of darkness. I’ve lived half a century, and Francis is the first Pope that has prompted optimism in my soul. No, the Church isn’t actually changing much, but even hearing words of acceptance, possibility and radical positioning with the poor and marginalized causes me ineffable joy. As it does in many others. This is where the Church should be going.

Alas, Francis has hinted that his papacy may be short-lived. While I sympathize and understand — being Pope must be the most exhausting position possible — I hope it will not be so. The Church needs the breath of fresh air Francis brings, and I fear that if he steps down (or God forbid, dies), the Cardinals will waste no time in reacting with a swift slamming of the door, almost certainly installing a Pope more reactionary and conservative than even Francis’ predecessors. While Francis is certainly loved, he is also feared by those who would keep the Church immured in the Middle Ages.

What else is in the news? Reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage, that’s what. Already some people are nervously squawking about religious freedom being breached. Don’t worry, chickens! The Church is not changing. Yes, civic marriage is legal for homosexuals. But they cannot receive the sacrament of marriage from the Catholic Church. The Church decides who receives which sacraments (and why). They cannot be made to change by anyone outside of the Church.

Which is not to say that homosexuals cannot receive sacraments. Clearly, they already do. Still, it’s safe to say that whether you (or anyone) is “good enough” to receive one sacrament but not another is an assessment that only the Church in its infinite mystery is allowed to make. Women, for instance, cannot receive Holy Orders. In fact, only a man can hope to attain all seven sacraments. The rest of us are excluded not by unfitness so much (though many in the Church hierarchy might argue this point) as because of things we cannot control. Because we were born women. Or gay.

Is this fair? I don’t think so. But I don’t make the rules. However, I believe I can state (as our pastor did) that the Church will not be performing gay weddings anytime soon. On the other hand, our pastor also warned me not to express the opinion I just expressed at the top of this paragraph. I will continue to do so. Because what has sustained me though all of the dark nights of the Church is my right to dissent.

Sometimes prayers are answered when you least suspect them. Francis is proof of that. Let us pray for many more open doors.

There is a very real temptation to constantly focus on what the Catholic Church does wrong. And wrongness in the Church does abound: from statements of non-inclusivity by those who ought to know better to crimes against innocent children. But there are heroes, many heroes, whose praises ought to be sung. Let’s let the rafters shake:

  • For the religious men and women of India, the Middle East and Africa. It takes tenacious bravery to live your faith in regions of the world where 71-year-old nuns are raped and their convents ransacked. There is nothing on earth that can rationalize such acts. God be with these courageous men and women.
  • For our Pope, Francis, who continues to speak with boldness on subjects such as mercy and acceptance and social justice, going so far as to call failure to provide living wages a mortal sin. I am proud that Francis is my Papa.
  • For all the men and women who will become Catholics at the Easter Vigil this year. There are more than 200 of them in the Wichita area alone. My husband is one of them. It takes guts to choose, with open eyes, a faith tradition with such a rich history, both good and bad. Catholicism has been celebrated and deeply maligned, even through the first half of the 20th century, when Catholics were not allowed to teach at public schools, when crosses were burnt on the lawns of Catholics by hate groups, when riots by Lutherans targeted Catholics in major cities across America. The same anti-Christian bias continues around the world. These men and women are taking a real chance in walking away from their previous lives and into the Church: One of the women in my husband’s group is being shunned by her family, who are all Mormons. Additionally, members of our parish have taken significant time out of their lives to act as sponsors to these candidates — my husband’s sponsor is an amazing example of faith in action, deeply involved in parish life and a busy husband and father to boot. This change, this decision to enter the Church, has called for a heavy investment of time and spiritual energy by the RCIA candidates. This is not something entered into lightly. I am so proud of them. While I am eternally grateful to be a “cradle Catholic,” I cannot imagine the fortitude and faith required to take this leap as an adult.
  • To all the good shepherds out there, including our own pastor, who deal daily with budget shortfalls and the pressing needs of their sheep with good humor and holiness. There are an awful lot of them out there. You don’t hear news stories about them. They are unsung heroes.
  •  To all the faithful who struggle with the Church’s teachings yet hang on, hoping for change. To all of us who keep the ship sailing ahead with our work in ministries large and small. And to all people of faith, everywhere, who accept one another and celebrate the diversity of faith around the world and in our own country without prejudice or the arrogance of supposed superiority. Let’s all pray together for a better world. Amen!

 

My husband is taking classes so that he can join the Catholic Church….and boy, am I learning new things! For instance, only nuns who live in cloisters can rightly be called “nuns;” all the rest (you know, the ones you actually meet on the street, who teach your children and tend to the sick) are “sisters” or “women religious.” I have never heard this differentiation in my life.

And the practice of holding hands with one’s pew-mates during the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer during Mass? According to my husband’s teacher, this is “not an official part of Mass.” In fact, she doesn’t know why anyone still does it. I could tell her why: Community.

Church services are a celebration of Christian community. Otherwise, why not hold our own private services each week? The body of Christ is comprised of all of us who believe, and we — like it or not — are human beings. And human beings are tactile creatures.

I just happened to glance out my window. A car just pulled into my neighbor’s driveway. A man got out. Upon seeing my neighbor, the two men embraced. That’s what friends do. Why? Because, as Mary Gordon once wrote, “Flesh is lovable.” Or, as Finn, protagonist of the show “Adventure Time” (yes, I watch cartoons!), would say, “Hugging helps.”

When we get together to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, touching ought to be involved. Yes, of course, there is the Sign of Peace, a moment to connect with one’s neighbors, but to me, that’s not enough. Holding hands during The Lord’s Prayer shows solidarity of faith — here’s what we believe, and look how we are proud to demonstrate it! I think that’s what Jesus would have wanted from his prayer, both remembrance and affirmation, all in one.

Some people blame the post-Vatican II years for bringing too much sloppy emotion into the Church, too much Counterculture kumbaya-ing, too much hand-holding. But they forget that this was a reaction to centuries of icy cold rigidity: the priest facing away from the people, the Mass said in Latin rather than the language of the people. There was a remove between God’s people and God’s word. Vatican II brought down that wall. One can hardly be blamed for rejoicing.

As times have grown more serious (the ‘60s and ’70 may have been politically tumultuous but they were also rather silly — fluorescent pink hot pants and fringed leather vests, anyone?), a good deal of the touchy-feeliness of the post-Vatican II Mass has been toned down. But I, for one, would hate to see it dissipate entirely.

I belong to a parish community. These people are my friends. We share a faith, a home, a belief system. Why shouldn’t we embrace at every opportunity?

So if you ever happen to be seated next to me at Mass and I extend my hand to you, I hope you’ll take it. It may not be de rigeur, but love never is. Love is a choice.

As my friend Mary-Claire would say, “Open mouth, insert foot, turn sideways.” Cardinal Raymond Burke, who would be laughable if he didn’t have adherents, recently delivered the following opinion on today’s Church: It’s too girly. This from a man who celebrates Mass in lace, satin, gloves and jewelry. (Clearly, he doesn’t mind womanliness when it comes to looking FABUUULLOUUUS!) Specifically, all those women up on the altar (female altar servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers) are “turning off” men from becoming involved in the Church — and worse, from becoming priests. This “feminization” of the Church, Burke claims, has repelled men who “respond to rigor and precision and excellence.” (What do women respond to, you may ask? Apparently, slovenliness, imprecision and a sense of “meh, it’s good enough.” Maybe we’re just cranky because we’re on our cycles.) He also says men are afraid to marry because: Feminism.

I really shouldn’t dignify this guy with any more attention than he’s already received. (Although can’t you just picture Burke as Yosemite Sam, shooting indiscriminately and bellowing, “Dadgum wimmin! What with their fooferalls and lady parts!” While nearby, Bugs Bunny chuckles, “What a maroon”?) There are some (few) folks who’d like to turn the Church into the He-Man Woman-Haters Club, complete with a sign on the Vatican that says, “No Girls Allowed” (only the “S” in “Girls” is backwards because awww…who can stay mad at those mischievous scamps?). Well, Ray (can I call you Ray?), I hate to tell you, but women in the Catholic Church are here to stay.

Who do you think gets the kids to come to Mass on Sunday? Who makes them go to Catholic school? Who keeps the local parishes up and running? Who do you see at Perpetual Adoration? In the Church Office? At the fundraisers? Without us, there would be no Church. Frankly, Raymond Burke is the best argument I’ve heard in a long time for the Catholic Church allowing women priests: Surely, we could not do worse than this.

In better, brighter news, a consortium of bishops in the state of Kansas are working to review the practices of “payday loan” shops, who so often end up victimizing the poor they claim to help. This move is right in line with Pope Francis’ message: We must tend to the disenfranchised, the marginal, the oppressed. That is what God wants from us and what Jesus came to do. Good for them! This is what the Church should be up to.

Finally, I’d like to express my sadness over the recent terrorist attack in France. And I want to say this: My God can take a joke. If yours can’t, maybe you have the wrong god. Consider it.

 

Have you heard? The synod of bishops (basically a “sampling” of bishops from all over the world, plus some other folks) is meeting at the Vatican to discuss “Family.” I could make a joke here about a large group of celibate men discussing marriage and family, but I won’t, because some very serious issues are on the table, including, divorce, annulment, gay marriage and more. The bishops are talking. People are talking.

Will the Church change? Can the Church change? Hope abounds, even as the Supreme Court has begun striking down laws that prevent gays and lesbians from marrying. Are we on the brink of a new awareness, a new embrace of people who have been marginalized for years? I surely wish it so.

The Catholic Church moves more slowly than the rest of the world, and understandably so. We must be cautious that we are not undermining the rich, deep and beautiful foundations of our faith. I completely understand trepidation. I do not, however, understand excluding people from the life of the Church based on marital status or inborn characteristics such as sexual preference.

My sister was married for more than 20 years. Then, one day, her husband came home and announced that he didn’t love her and never had. What does one do with a declaration like that? She is divorced now, but if she were to meet and marry a good, loving man, she would — as things currently stand — be denied access to the Eucharist, the very life-giving heart of Catholic life.

Of course, it is less likely that a person would be shunned for being remarried than for being gay. Many of us have heard about the two men who recently got married and were asked to leave their parish (of which they were active members) unless — and this is a big unless — they promptly got divorced and signed a paper saying that marriage is only right, honorable and sacramental between a man and a woman. That’s not a choice; it’s blackmail.

Some of the comments I read regarding this case made me angry. Some merely bemused me. “So leave Catholicism and become an Episcopalian!” wrote several observers. Don’t they understand that people like me, whose Catholicism is in their blood and bones and woven so tightly into the fabric of their lives that it is quite inextricable, cannot leave the Church? Will not? Must not? “If you don’t like it, leave,” has never been a cogent argument to me. I am Catholic. I am the Church, the Body of Christ. I can no more leave Catholicism than I could tell my arm to drop off my body and onto the ground. And why should I — or anybody — have to?

I pray that the synod of bishops will hear what faithful Catholics are saying to them. I pray that they will work to include those who have been excluded, to fold them back into the fold. The world changes. Family changes. So too must our thinking — and the Catholic Church’s.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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