Saturday, July 18, 2015

Of Miracles and Messes...

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Dear Pope Francis,

I have written you a few letters but never received the favor of a reply.  Nonetheless, I continue writing in hopes that someday we discuss pressing issues in the church. 

I am inspired to write again now after listening to this weekend’s reading from Jeremiah, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD (Jer 23:1).”  With U.S. Catholics’ mere 25% Mass participation rate that’s dropping as I type, I am starting to wonder if it’s possible for the shepherds to destroy and scatter the flock much more than they’ve already done.  Have we not suffered enough from their poor shepherding skills?  Is it not time to stop doubling-down on the sheep-scattering tactics and exchange them for exemplary shepherding skills?

Maybe you too feel dismayed at your brotherhood's individual and collective flock-scattering penchant and prowess.  Is that why during your recent Latin America trip you expressed hopes in the upcoming Synod on the Family to produce scandalous miracles?  Is that why you again exhorted the church’s youth to “make a mess?”  Do you believe the church is already such a mess from inept leadership that it would be difficult to distinguish any further destruction at this point?

I write because I’m confused.  To quote Ghandi, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”

Frank, simply put, what are you waiting for?  Be the miracle you hope to see!  Make the mess you hope gets made!

I offer ten suggestions of miracles and messes you could do today, by mere virtue of the white pointy hats you own and the fabulous chair you sit upon in St. John Lateran’s Basilica.

1.  Re-institute married clergy.  Nothing needed to do this but the stroke of a pen…specifically your pen.  Please take it out, remove the cap, dip it in the papal ink well and scribble away…
2.  Re-institute ordaining women as deacons.  Again, there’s no obstruction to doing this.  Benedict paved the way by declaring that deacons no longer act in persona Christi.  While your pen is out please handle this one too.
3.  Change Canon Law to remove ordaining women as a grave delict and instead add bishops who mishandle sexual abuse cases.  Then please address the numerous bishops guilty of this grave delict.
4.  Tell the truth.  Dispense with clinging to false biological, medical and psychological teachings as foundations to establishing “truths” about human sexuality.   You can’t say you’re the penultimate guardian of truth if you don’t tell it.
5.  Change canon law to prevent Catholic employers from denying their employees access to medical care just because they fear it.  The medications used to treat many female health issues can also be used for birth control.  However, the medication itself is merely a tool.  Indeed it is a tool often used to help conceive life.  It is one particular usage of that tool to which you object, yet the tool is outright banned.  Consistent application of this rule would see the rope cincture around your waist barred since many people have been hanged using ropes.  Furthermore having episcopal review boards rather than medical ones determining whether or not women can have certain life-saving procedures performed at Catholic hospitals is just derelict.  Stop this practice at once.  Scribble that into canon law and make the U.S. bishops fix their medical ethics document to reflect the change.
6.  Lift the excommunications hanging over all people.  Grant general amnesty since, “Who are you to judge?”
7.  Cancel any meetings in Philadelphia that lack women – laywomen – not cheerleaders for church status quo and not only religious women, but regular women who are mothers.  They can teach you much about what it means to be a holy mother as you try to lead “Holy Mother Church.”
8.  Cancel any meetings in Philly that are exclusively with clergy and all meetings with Archbishop Chaput unless he accompanies you to meet with groups such as Fortunate Families being barred from attending his World Meeting of Families.
9.  Take time when you are in Philadelphia to meet with women with such a strong sense of calling that they are willing to endure scorn, rejection and excommunication… Yes, that’s right; meet with Catholic women priests.  Understand why they do what they do after you listen to understand what they do.  Then make them dinner and serve it to them.  This can be done in person and thus save on those expensive charges for overseas cellphone calls you must be racking up with your spontaneous, surprise pope-calls.
10.  Update the papal wardrobe to align with the poor – perhaps a nice pair of second hand jeans and a t-shirt from the St. Vincent de Paul store would be in order.  These are practical work clothes and require far less bleach and fuss to clean than the flowing white gowns you currently wear…  Maybe you can have a big garage sale at the Vatican and sell your white vestments to a traveling band of dentists in dire need of white fabric.  It’s just a suggestion.

I think if you did any one of these ten suggestions, you would definitely cause a mess and be seen by some as creating scandal while to most of the scattered flock seem like you just worked a miracle.  Isn’t that what you’re going for here?  Or are your words just supposed to make good press?

Sincerely,

A ewe…still in the flock despite being metaphorically beaten with multiple shepherds’ staffs as they try to run me out of the flock…  “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the flock of my pasture…”

P.S.  Sorry to rescind my offer of hospitality but it looks like I’ll be out of the country when you come to the U.S.  Enjoy your visit and be sure to have a Philly cheesesteak, visit the Liberty Bell and tour the Philadelphia Mint.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Priorities?

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Our dear bishops in the U.S. concluded their semi-annual meeting two days ago and I'm sure we're all elated that they had the courage to tackle some really challenging topics during that meeting. 

Their first vote addressed that vexing problem plaguing so many American Catholics...what to do about the canticles used in the Liturgy of the Hours.  Well, friends, sleep peacefully tonight.  They voted to use a new English translation of those canticles - "in a style similar to the Revised Grail Psalms, with emphasis on sprung rhythms and faithful translation."  Whew!  Glad they got that sorted out!  It's easy to see why they voted on this first, and quite frankly, a bit surprising that they didn't handle this pressing issue at an earlier date by calling a special meeting or something.

Their second vote pertained to priest formation / seminary training.    If you love the "bells and smells," non-pastoral, uber-orthodoxy with a heaping helping of spiritual and emotional immaturity emerging from seminaries of late, you are in luck because they decided to continue existing priest formation norms without any changes whatsoever for the next five years.  As Mass participation plummets and young folks flee the church, at a vote of 179 "yes", 1 "no" and 1 abstention, they overwhelmingly decided to pat themselves on the back and continue current course and speed.  Can we conclude that further reduced Mass participation is their desired outcome since they voted to continue a formation program that seems to contribute significantly to laypeople's disgust with and departure from the Church? 

Their third and final vote approved the working draft of their strategic priorities for 2017 - 2020.  Those priorities are:
  1. Family and marriage - a topic where they have minimal to no expertise and instead rely upon sexist stereotypes and unrealistic fairytale-caliber romanticized notions which reinforce sexist stereotypes
  2. Evangelization - their euphemism for spreading the "good news" of how infallibly right they are
  3. Religious freedom - their program for obstructing the religious freedom of others, controlling women, promoting sexism, and discriminating against gays
  4. Human life and dignity - which lately has had a focus confined almost exclusively to in utero life
  5. Vocations and ongoing formation - which by their previous vote seems to be a strategic priority to do nothing for the next five years
In my company, domestic trips average about $1,500 per person but we have very frugal travel expense policies.  We might surmise that a group of guys who live in mansions do not so let's round up their average to $2,000 per person.  With 181 bishops in attendance, an assumed one lackey per bishop, and adding in venue costs that likely comes out to about $750,000 - $1,000,000 invested (squandered?) on gathering in person to make these decisions.  They will again meet in November and again incur this magnitude of expense.  Might I suggest using Skype and Survey Monkey in the future?  The expenses then might better align with the value of their discussions and decisions.

I've read several articles bemoaning that these priorities do not reflect those of Pope Francis.  How much do they reflect Jesus' priorities? 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Have we become comfortably numb?

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I arrived at Dublin airport only a few hours ago but in time to attend Sunday Mass at a nearby neighborhood church.  Mass began with the deacon reading Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin’s pastoral reflections about Ireland’s upcoming constitutional referendum on marriage equality.  Spoiler alert: he’s against it.

For those unfamiliar with this Friday’s referendum in Ireland, the proposed constitutional amendment would insert the following text in a new subsection to Article 41 of the Irish Constitution.  “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

Anyway, I was the first person to arrive for Mass – the very first - though I arrived about 10 minutes prior to Mass.  The parking lot had but one vehicle as well so I began to question the accuracy of the Mass time posted on the internet.  No worries, a priest greeted me at the door and reassured me that a Mass actually would start in a few minutes; I was just early, said he.  Despite his reassurances, as I opened the door to the empty sanctuary the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” popped into my head…“Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody in there?”

I thought, “O.K., the stampeding herds here must slide into their pews just before Mass…kind of like Ty Cobb sliding into home base on a steal.”  I sat awaiting the rush. 

Well, if the teeming masses came to this Mass, they were invisible because what I saw was barely more people in the pews than on the altar. We had two priests, a deacon, a lector, an altar server and an old guy whose role never became clear to me – all to attend to just a few dozen mass goers.  The PPP (priest per person) ratio was pretty high today, enough so to cause me to doubt lamentations about priest shortages.

As the deacon read the Archbishop’s statement, I found myself musing about what must be going through his mind as he reads this pastoral reflection practically to himself.  I again heard Pink Floyd playing in my head, ”just nod if you can hear me…is there anyone at home?”

The Archbishop’s reflections included advising people to reflect carefully upon same sex marriage’s implications for the family and parenthood.  He also admitted, “…the severity with which the Irish Church treated gay and lesbian people in the past – and in some cases still today – makes it difficult for some to understand the Church’s position…” on homosexuality and same sex marriage.

Yes, witnessing the mistreatment of homosexuals does make it difficult for many Irish to understand the Church’s teachings on homosexuality.  Adding to their confusion, in this part of the world many people recall Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation on March 3, 2013, in which he said "I ... admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal." 

His sexual conduct that had “fallen below the standards” expected of him?  He repeatedly made homosexual advances towards seminarians and young priests.  You see, like many clergy, Cardinal O’Brien is gay…yet he preached about the perils of homosexuality all while living a closet homosexual’s life.  Unlike many gay clergy, Cardinal O’Brien’s sexual orientation is no longer hidden in the closet.  But his expression of truth meant he couldn’t hang with the homosexual clergy deniers club any longer.  I can only imagine what kind of self-loathing occurs when a person preaches as indisputable truth that one’s very self is “intrinsically disordered.”

Since gays are people’s beloved children, relatives, friends, co-workers and neighbors, I can also imagine people – were they in attendance – responding to the Archbishop’s reflections by borrowing from Pink Floyd, “You are receding - a distant ship smoke on the horizon…”  My dear bishops… your relevance and credibility seem to be fading like the distant ship smoke on the horizon.  This sentiment echoed in today’s cavernous empty church.

I’m uncertain which statements by the Archbishop most inspired my mouth to hang agape – the “We’ve historically treated homosexuals like crap but, trust us; we’re the experts on what’s best for them...” or the ones about family and parenting.  I thought it took a special kind of gall for the dear Archbishop in a country more severely and recently damaged from the Church’s vast clergy sexual child molestation and cover-up scandal than the U.S. to think people might actually care what the Church had to say about children’s well-being.  Granted, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin personally has been more of an advocate for victims than most bishops, but he still represents an institution that has repeatedly botched handling sexually abusive clergy and shown deplorable insensitivity towards sexual abuse survivors. 

I wonder how many people view the hierarchy’s advice about marriage, family and parenting as being akin to Pink Floyd's lyric, “Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying…”

I spent a lot of time meditating upon the church’s vast emptiness today.  I think the majority of laypeople feel the bishops have become comfortably numb – to their concerns and contributions.  And still the bishops preach…to increasingly empty pews...assuming the laity are who have become comfortably numb.  

Have you become comfortably numb? Is numbness to an organization that has become comfortably numb to children, homosexuals and women a bad thing?

“Hello, hello, hello….is there anybody in there?  Just nod if you can hear me… Is there anyone at home?” 

Side note to my Irish followers.  I am in Dublin for about a week.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Who Would Jesus Shoot?

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I leave the country for a few weeks and I guess I cannot trust my diocese and bishop to keep themselves out of the funny papers while I’m gone.  The hubbub?  Fr. Ed Fride, pastor of Christ the King parish in Ann Arbor, sponsored and started holding concealed pistol license (CPL) classes at the parish presumably with emphasis on answering those vexing doctrinal questions, “Who would Jesus shoot?” and “What would Jesus carry?”

As a personal parish of Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea, Christ the King is not confined to territorial boundaries as are most diocesan parishes.  It prides itself on being a “charismatic, contemplative, Eucharistic and Marian” oasis within the diocese.  I think Fr. Ed was just trying to expand that "points of pride” list to include other terms typically associated with Jesus such as “kick-ass,” take no prisoners,” and “combative.”   That’s quite a spiritual weapons journey for Ed, a former Vietnam War Conscientious Objector…from pacifist to pugilist.

To give you some idea about the parish in question, rumor has it that Domino’s Pizza Founder and uber-orthodox sugar daddy of Ave Maria University, Tom Monaghan, also bankrolls this uber-orthodox parish.  This seems plausible since Christ the King, Ann Arbor sits across the road from Ave Maria Radio and adjacent to Domino’s Farms.

Nonetheless, despite the large preponderance of politically conservative parishioners at Christ the King, some folks took exception to using their faith community’s space…named after the Prince of Peace…for target practice.  They complained and Pastor Ed responded by sending a multi-page meandering epistle entitled, “We’re Not in Mayberry Anymore, Toto!” to parishioners.  

To call this letter “fear-mongering” would be very kind.  It’s a combination of him expressing his paranoia and trying to bully parishioners into sharing it by enshrouding it in pseudo-theological justification.  For example he explains that one female parishioner said having CPL classes (which include several hours of shooting practice) on parish grounds made her fearful and that he responded by asking if she feared rape.  He continues explaining that we have a moral duty to protect our families and, evidently, he believes that makes a theological case for carrying concealed weapons…because if you don’t and someone you love gets raped, it’s your, not the perpetrator’s fault…  Well, come to think of it, that example does reflect the “blame the victim” mentality expressed by the hierarchy regarding children raped by priests, but I digress.

I'm trying to imagine confessions with Fr. Ed.  "Bless me Father for I have sinned.  It's been three weeks since I fired a gun."  Or, "Father, I tried to turn the other cheek to my oppressor."  "Bill, you know that is a sin.  Your penance is to go buy a gun and carry concealed....oh, and two Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys while you're doing target practice.... I hear it improves your aim.  Our Blessed Mother is a huge fan of blasting your enemy and will guide your hand."  

I guess Fr. Ed did not get to the part in the gospels where Jesus tells his companions to sheath their weapons and even repairs the physical damage done by one of his buddies in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Or maybe he just doesn't understand it.

I applaud Bishop Boyea for canceling the remaining CPL classes but I hope he is also examining the fitness of this priest for ministerial work.  Ed’s judgment lapse in sponsoring the classes, holding them on parish property, writing a lengthy bizarre letter to parishioners filled with twisted theological ideas as well as harboring and cultivating seemingly irrational fears might signal it’s time for Fr. Ed to retire and enjoy a quiet life of prayer. Bishop Boyea has certainly revoked other priests' faculties for lesser ills.  But I think all those priests tended toward Democratic Party political alignment, so perhaps voting Republican in secular politics washes away priests' shortcomings in this bishop's eyes.

By the way, Fr. Ed teaches theology at Siena Heights University and serves on the diocesan school board in addition to leading this rather large parish.  I believe he also regularly speaks on EWTN.  My point is he’s pretty prominent and in a position to influence many people.   Therefore his pseudo-theological mutterings are cause for grave concern if not scandal.  This is bigger than a mere “oops, I forgot to pickup my dry-cleaning” kind of mental lapse. 

Ed’s half-hearted statement about ending the classes hardly convinces one that he understands what he did was wrong…  He basically just says that the bishop is in charge and the bishop says no.  There’s no apology or explanation for his strange letter.  There’s no expression that he realizes he’s a bit paranoid.  There’s no statement that he made inappropriate comments.  

I listened to an April 22, 2015 Catholic Connection radio show from … you guessed it … Ave Maria Radio (carried on EWTN also) in which Al Kresta, the CEO of Ave Maria Communications analyzes the situation along with the show’s host, Teresa Tomeo.  Listening to this station and show were both firsts and eye-opening for me.  I could not figure out how to fast-forward to the segments on Fr. Ed and guns so suffered through listening to a lengthy segment about a new Catholic fashion magazine for girls.  The show's host seriously said she likes to be "faithful and fashionable" equating what I might call "empty vanity" with "adorning your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit."

Anyway, managing to avoid having my mind numbed by the fashion mag segment's appalling theological distortions, I listened intently to the segment about Fr. Ed.  Al said a couple of notable things that gave me pause for reflection:
1.  Al, who is a parishioner at Christ the King parish, felt holding the class on parish grounds was inappropriate – repeatedly saying that it just fed this image that conservatives are merely all about loving God and guns.  Um…if the image fits….???
2.  Al clearly seemed to feel whoever leaked the story and the letter to the Detroit Free Press was a traitor.  In Legion of Christ style secrecy he felt that it was a private discussion to occur within the parish “family.”  I guess the other billion+ Catholics around the world who might be interested in this perversion of their faith are not considered part of Al’s family….???
3.  Al repeated several times that Fr. Ed is beloved and mentioned that he is responsible for 23 priests coming from that parish.  Aha! Suddenly I understand the painfully poor quality of paranoid younger priests in our diocese… 

The show's combination of "fashion and guns for Jesus" interspersed with medically questionable attacks against hormone therapy (aka "birth control") and advertisements promoting cult-like messages to patronize cult-like businesses and denigrate mainstream medical professionals gave me pause to marvel that the bishop saw the CPL classes as crossing some line.  To me it was all varying shades of twisted truth and untruths bordering on paranoia and aimed at cultivating fear.  I had difficulty distinguishing degrees of difference and nowhere heard "good news" unless one equates fear and illogical thinking with "joy, peace and love."

Perhaps this prevalence of fear-mongering based upon strange theological interpretations which has become rather mainstream amongst clergy of late is why a friend told me when he reads stories like the CPL class he no longer has any confidence in the bishop to even bother contacting him.  His instinctive reaction is to yank his children out of Catholic school to protect them from this kind of irrational thinking.

With the Vatican finally forcing convicted criminal Bishop Finn to resign, I wonder how warm Pope Francis will be to Fr. Fear-monger's antics?

As an aside, Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan, rival school to Michigan State University and The Ohio State University.  It's a very affluent place with a high concentration of academically gifted people.  The crime rate is pretty low unless you consider trash talking rival schools a felony.  And, even if you do, I don't know that it warrants use of a gun in response.

Finally, I don't have time to record this but Fr. Ed inspires me to re-write lyrics to a popular hymn, "Be Not Afraid."  Perhaps I'll call it "Be Quite Afraid."

You shall cross the barren desert but you shall not cross unarmed
You shall wander far in safety only in your fantasies
You shall speak your words in foreign lands and shoot those who don't understand
You shall see the face of God in your ammo

Be quite afraid
I go before you but you
Still need to pack
'Cause I ain't got your back