Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Who are you? What have you got to say for yourself?"

I have a confession to make.  Oh, not a sacramental confession as in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but a confession nonetheless.  My specializations in Theology deal with ecclesiology, the theological study of the nature of Church, but my motivations for going into this field were not based on some grand academic quest.  Rather, I found at a very early age (13 to be exact), that ecclesiology was the most fascinating part of theology, since that was what the Second Vatican Council was all about.  Since the Council was just going into its second session (1963) as I was entering high school seminary, this was an understandable focus for a young seminarian.

As the Council progressed, then ended, and the Church moved into the implementation phase following the Council, so much about how we were Church evolved.  No longer was ministry something that only priests and sisters did, for example.  We had recovered a sense of baptism as the primal sacrament of ministry, and the Council has described the Church as a pilgrim in the world and servant to the world.  All members of the Church, we read in the Council's documents, were called to be evangelists, and the Church herself was to be "a leaven and a kind of soul" within the world.  However, all of this came at a cost.

Vatican II was convened because many bishops, including Pope John XXIII, believed that the Church was out of touch with the demands of the modern world.  Churchmen of the first half of the 20th Century were deeply concerned over the Church's failure to be a more effective witness of Christ during that time, and worried that the Church had been ineffectual at confronting the issues that led to two world wars and the rise of three totalitarian regimes.  The Council was an attempt to give a renewed missionary drive to the Church, to empower all of the members of the Church to be "co-responsible" as evangelists to the world, with all believers being called to perfect holiness, despite our state in life.  The Council was, as Pope Paul VI put it, "the great Catechism of our time."  My generation of seminarians found ourselves inspired to be at the forefront of these renewed efforts in the Church and the world, and enthusiastically responded to the Council's call.

Nonetheless, following the Council, we watched as public institutions, including institutional Churches, continued to lose credibility in the contemporary world.  Despite our best efforts in the 1960's and 1970's to find creative ways to be a prophetic witness of Christ to the world, efforts which are now routinely mocked by certain reactionary elements even within our own Church, people continued to find, as they had even before the Council, that certain aspects of the Church -- usually described as the "institutional" dimension of the Church -- to be irrelevant at best and harmful at worst.  Increasingly people began to say that they were spiritual, and maybe even go so far as to say that they were spiritual Catholics, but not in the sense of being churchgoing religionists.  As a friend once said to me, "The Catholic Church is great once the institution gets out of the way."  Perhaps the most troubling thing to watch, for me personally, was how members of my own family were treated by certain priests and other "good church-going Catholics," who very successfully drove these family members from the Church through their stupidity, narrowness and arrogance.  I watched as repeatedly, my loved ones would try and try again to reconnect, only to encounter the same kind of things all over again until they felt they had no choice but to leave.

And here's the real point of all this: my family's situation is not an isolated case.  Recently, on an international list-server for deacons, a brother deacon asked the group how many family members in our own extended families still "practiced" Catholicism.  I won't depress you with the final answers.

Author Eric Weiner, writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times recently, asks "Americans: Undecided about God?" Read the whole article here.  It's a most thought-provoking piece, and many folks have been blogging about it.  At first I was going to pass this one by, but as I was preparing homilies for this Third Sunday of Advent, I came back to Weiner's piece.  The questions asked of John the Baptizer remain the questions asked of us today: "Who are you?  What have you got to say about yourself? 

Weiner concludes his column with his own take on an answer:
What is the solution? The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
While I'll leave the comparison to Steve Jobs alone, I do rather like his observation that what he's looking for is "not a new religion but a new way of being religious."  That, in my opinion, was PRECISELY was the Second Vatican Council was calling us to do.  Sure, those bishops used the Latin term novus mentis habitus (a "new way of thinking"), but there it is, in contemporary terms.  How can we, followers of Christ, find a new way of being religious, a new way of being Catholic, in the contemporary world?  A new way of being Catholic that proclaims Christ in ways that are -- like Christ Himself -- always inviting and open to all.  We shouldn't be excluding ANYONE from our assembly, precisely because we proclaim ourselves to be a people called by God ("ekklesia"), not by "the Church".  And this people called by God has always, throughout the Tradition, called itself to be catholikos -- catholic -- open to all and universal.  If we were truly finding a new way of thinking, a new way of being religious, people who now feel excluded from our communion would instead be welcomed!  No matter how else society might be treating them, they would find a warm, welcoming home with us!  "These Christians!  See how they love one another!"

"Who are you?  What have you got to say for yourself?"

Indeed.

6 comments:

  1. I hope you won't mind if I copy and paste my comment on this story on Deacon Greg's blog.

    Every once in a while, I have to tell my Fr. Christopher story. Fr. Christopher was a monk in his late 50′s who was his monastery’s liturgist and taught the college course on sacraments of initiation. He had had a heart attack, and it was believed to be just a matter of time before he had another, probably fatal, one.

    It was a few years after Vatican II. One day in class he said something along the lines of, “You join the monastery and you figure as long as you obey your abbot and follow the rules, you’ve got it made. Then, as you’re approaching the end, you learn it’s all about love, and you find yourself wondering if you’ve made the grade.”


    It seems to me that Fr. Christopher came to understand the new way of thinking which the Council called for. In my job for the government, I came to the conclusion that there were two types of government employees: bureaucrats, and public servants. For the former, the supreme rule was to do everything by the book; for the latter, it was to provide the service to people which was the reason their agency existed. I'm afraid we have the same thing in the Church, and not just among the clergy. There are Catholics for whom the most important thing seems to be to obey the commandments and canon law. For others, the most important thing is to spread the Kingdom of God by showing God's love to the world. Some of us in the first camp are perfectly self-satisfied; others of us struggle to learn how to live in love and show that love to the world while continuing to respect the fact that the bishops are the successors of the apostles — to follow the law in a way which is consistent with the overall mission of the Church and our part in it.

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  2. It strikes me that the Council was calling Catholics to a commitment that went much farther than the "pray, pay, and obey" mindset of the past. I don't see any desire to make such a commitment on the part of those who say they prefer to be spiritual rather than religious. If anything, they seem to be saying that the "religious" part is just too burdensome.

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  3. Dear Ron,

    While I completely agree with your statement that the Council was calling us all to more than a "pray, pay and obey" mentality, we'll have to agree to disagree on your assessment that you see "no desire" on the part of those who say they are spiritual but not religious. My experience differs from yours on this point: I've encountered many people who do want more than an inchoate spirituality in their lives, but have not been able to find it in religion, AS IT IS CURRENTLY EXPERIENCED. That's my point: we need a new way of doing religion, one in which people DO find a spiritual home.

    You're right: for many people, "religion" has become a burden too hard to bear. And then I think of the Christ's words, "Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden light." Seems to me that we've walked a long way from Galilee.

    God bless,

    Bill

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  4. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment.

    Perhaps we just need to get back to the gospel, the way the early Church was, before we became over institutionalized ?

    Perhaps we need to be more humble, openly admitting that we don't have ALL the answers and even some of the things we do teach come with some doubt and the possibility of theological development.

    For example:
    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/pcb_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030510_ratzinger-comm-bible_en.html


    A new way of being Catholic that proclaims Christ in ways that are -- like Christ Himself -- always inviting and open to all. We shouldn't be excluding ANYONE from our assembly, precisely because we proclaim ourselves to be a people called by God ("ekklesia"), not by "the Church".

    Amen to that.

    how members of my own family were treated by certain priests and other "good church-going Catholics," who very successfully drove these family members from the Church through their stupidity, narrowness and arrogance.

    My great fear is that I might become like that by narrowly following the institutional rules without sufficient charity.

    But there must be a way to apply the institutional rules charitably, right ?

    To authentically interpret the Law/Torah, as Jesus did. To apply the law/rules in a way which heals the brokenhearted, sets the prisoners free, liberates the captives, brings glad tidings to the poor.

    Even if the reaction is the same as what Jesus encountered when he preached that, his own villagers wanting to throw him off the cliff.

    God Bless

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  5. Wow Bill. A great post. There's a lot here to chew on. Having converted to the Church at 24 (I am now 46) I have always been glad not to be burdened with the load with which so many of of my sisters and brothers are burdened. Even if I had been born and raised Catholic, I was born in 1965.

    I have to admit that it took me awhile in ministry to really understand where a lot of people are coming from with regard to all of this.

    Recently, I had an on-line extended conversation with someone who took exception to what I preached about marriage in a homily. My correspondent seemed to think I had made a grave theological error by rooting the Christian life in baptism and insisting that all the baptized have gifts and the call to out them at the service of the church and the world.

    I appreciate these words very much. I don't know how I missed this!

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