The Roman Catholic Church has been in the news lately. Four characteristic events:
- Bishops are commanding governors and senators not to approach for Communion if their votes and public statements are not in synch with the sex stuff demanded by Rome in its "official teachings."
- A retired bishop in Australia is being condemned by fellow bishops for writing a book criticizing Rome's' abuse of power. Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles has denied him permission to speak in that diocese for his intransigence and disregard of "official Catholic teachings."
- A Polish pastor is in deep trouble in St. Louis, where the Archbishop wants to discard a contract a predecessor made with the parish. The people and their pastor balk. The Archbishop has disbarred the pastor's canon lawyer and will defrock the pastor.
- The Pope visited America and said he was ashamed of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy, went home to Rome, where he elevated the St. Louis Archbishop to two important positions in the Curia and reaffirmed Pope Paul VI's disastrous encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, proving "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose -- the more things change, the more they stay the same."
What is happening in the Roman Church today, May 15, 2008? Benedict XVI has been Pope for five years. We had hoped for " la change" but obviously got "la même chose."
Five years ago, Rome was then in the Conclave from which Josef Cardinal Ratzinger of the CDF had emerged as Benedict XVI. At that time, we were worried about skip to main | skip to sidebar the quandary over the transition from an old pope to the election of a new one, and the following piece was written.
On the Beach, Pine Point, Maine
April 18, 2005.
This being the day long awaited, the 18th of April in 2005, I went to the computer early on, for Rome is seven hours ahead of us, and I wanted to make sure all 115 electors cardinal showed up. Started checking Eastern European newspapers, to get ahead of the time differential, and fell asleep.
Got awakened by a voice at 9:30 am, our time here in the coast of Maine, did a rapid computation and figured it was past noon inside the Sistine Chapel. The voice was not so loud, as it was just simply everywhere, like surround sound, outside the house, throughout the first floor, inside my head, feet and ears, and within my soul, deep, not just scratching the surface.
I heard, "Hey, Paul, come on down."
"Who that? Where are you?"
"It's me, Paul. Peter." Interrupting himself, "My Lord, don't those two names together sound like the old days?. We're on the beach. Come on down."
"You'll find out when you get here. Come alone. Leave the dogs at home, too."
"OK, OK, coming…." and off I went before checking any paper in Europe or even turning on CNN to see if there were Breaking News or a Flash.
Quickly, I reached the bulkhead, a thick wall of concrete yet no bulwark to hold back the Atlantic once global warming warmed and flowed a new coastline far inland near the Allegheny Mountains. Right below the high tide mark, on the soft sand, there was a large crowd of people, rough-hewn people, men and women alike, in those flowing robes Middle Easterners wear to protect themselves from the sun, wearing sandals instead of shoes, talking with their hands and fingers, as they watched their old-fashioned fishing boats bob up and down in the gentle lap of the tide.
It was a gorgeous morning, all sun, halfway to high noon, a cloud or two in dazzling white way up there and moving on towards the east. The sky's blue was the blue of dreams, the kind you know is going to bathe you, come later, much later on, and in another world, too. I clambered down the short flight of wooden steps onto the sand and let my toes curl into the warmth and began the short walk through the high sea grass on the path left from last summer's tourists by the thousands.
Saint Peter left his group of women and headed toward me, beaming, "Took you long enough. Good thing I didn't say this was urgent."
"Saint Peter. Good to see you. Who are all these people. Must be a hundred of them," was my natural question.
His answer wasn't natural, "I want you to meet Jesus' Apostles and Disciples, Paul. Time we talked Church."
And he began introducing me to one small group of people after another, some my age, a lot much younger, a healthy looking bunch, not one fat one in the crowd. And every single one of them looked me directly in my eyes as they spoke my name. Some held both my hands when they did that. Others just gave a little bow, or a nod of the head. But, it was their eyes which I will never forget.
And a flash of a news story came to me that Pope John Paul II never looked anybody in the eye at all, when he spoke with them, a trait, the reporter commented, that was common among Polish priests. I thought it a lame excuse at the time, and remembered it when these simple, common folk took me in, just as if they had known me all their lives. Come to think of it, they probably did.
When Peter took me to a beautiful woman and introduced her as Mary Magdalen, my knees buckled, and she laughed. Embarrassed, my face flushed as scarlet as a cardinal's robes and I tried a chuckle, but it came out a feeble gurgle. Even so, she took my hand and said, "Come with me, I want you to meet the rest of the Apostles."
I looked back towards Saint Peter, who just smiled and nodded his head, "It's OK, she's one of us, she's an Apostle, always was, you know." So, off I went with Mary Magdalen, and it was not reluctantly either. It was great meeting the Apostles. I knew their names, some better than others – still have to go look some of them up from time to time when I can't get to the full count of Twelve minus one – but putting faces to names was like, like – well there is no like, because even I knew this was another great experience in my life.
Jesus really liked to change names when people changed. Ever notice that? Unlike that Paul,who had been a Saul, I've never been knocked down by a lightning bolt. There I stood, as if it were a common occurrence on Pine Point's beach on a sunny day in April, to chat with a group of friends and talk Church.
A big man thrust his hand towards me, "James of Jerusalem, brother of Jesus. You a Gentile?"
When I told him I was, he asked, "How many of you, now?"
"A lot, really, Sir. Almost one billion plus a million or so. Over the whole world."
All he could say was , "Jeeeeze." I took it as a prayer.
And then, I grabbed his hand tightly, looked him right in the eye as he had into my own, and said thanks this way, "I don't think a Gentile has ever had the chance to thank you, for the way you listened to Peter and Paul in that first council of Jerusalem, gave up your own deep, personal views about a Jewish Assembly, and let them go west, even to Rome. So, we thank you, Saint James, we thank you."
He was embarrassed, then winked at me, drew me closer to his great beard and said, "You had better keep a close eye on that gang of cuckoo birds in that so-called secret Conclave in the Sistine Chapel. They're a bunch of loony tunes, they are. Don't your people realize that the German one, Ratsongster his name? is a Docetist? They taught that Jesus was not human, and we knocked that one down real early in the second century. Means the Church isn't human, too, just as the Ratty one is saying now. Be careful of him."
Before I could agree with him, another hand tugged me away, "I'm Phoebe, and we women want a word with you," she pointed to a large group of women arguing loudly with three men, "The men are Peter, Paul and Thomas, in case you were wondering."
"Phoebe? The deacon in Cenchreae?"
"The same. You know your Epistles of Paul, don't you, Paul. Figures."
"Look, M'am… "
"It's Phoebe, fella, P-h-o-e-b-e, Phoebe."
"Look, Phoebe, before I get thrown into a heated discussion, can you tell me why I'm here. I'm a nobody, just an old guy on the beach."
"Well, don't be so modest. That's what's wrong with you so-called 'people of God', you're all so super, super humble, waiting for the bishop or the pastor to tell you what to do. You people are locked into a mindset of humble obedience. Far deeper and far more difficult to overcome, than the one the bishops are stuck in, arrogant superiority and absolute power. Neither one of you can budge. You spout off a lot, both of you, but your ways are frozen solid. We're here to break that ice-jam."
And off we went to the argument. I could hear Peter before we got halfway, "Apphia, stop interrupting Junia, she's an apostle."
The one called Apphia turned to the little guy beside Peter, a bow-legged, tough-looking rooster, and complained, "Paul, when you sent me that letter to Philemon and called me 'Sister', you weren't putting Junia ahead of me, were you? You even went out of your way to show us that we are all equals, men and women alike. When Chloe's people told you about the rivalries in Corinth. Remember?"
Then Saint Paul spoke, "Then why, Apphia, in the name of Christ are you arguing so, now? Did we not all come here to be an example of the earliest days of our church, for these people of Pine Point? We came to show him how to build Church not keep the arguments going forever."
"I'm sorry, Paul, I just get so tired of that Junia lording it over me because she's an apostle and I'm only a sister," Apphia said softly.
She looked so forlorn, I thought wildly that, as a total stranger, maybe, must maybe I could step into the middle of this one, being from away, as they say in Maine, and gave it a try, "Apphia, my name is Paul, too. By the powers invested in me, I hereby consecrate you Apostle of Pine Point. " I thought she grew about a foot and a half before my very eyes.
She beamed, really beamed, then bowed low with a long curving sweep of her right arm, from shoulder to finger tips, just kissing the one lone shell left by the tide, and said, "Thank you, Paul of Pine Point, I will remember you."
Junia, smiling as well, was no retiring feminine, though, "What powers, Paul, may I ask?"
Liking her hands on hips stance and that smile that promised so much understanding, I dared a step further, "Me own, Apostle Junia, me own. I make them up, as I go along. Quicker and easier than trying to get in touch with the bishop."
And, honest to God, she took a quick step closer, gave me a hug, whispering in my ear, "That's exactly what we all did, to get started. Welcome to the club of Catholics."
For once, I was without words. A stupid grin on my face, and a real bright light shining in my eyes, I let myself be seated by Nympha of Laodicea, who had a church in her own house, and Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth in Thyatira, who listened to and was baptized by Saint Paul, then opened up her home to Paul's friends. They held my hands as they talked on and on about keeping it simple, avoiding conflict with authority figures, doing things by themselves, picking out presbyters to make the bread and wine holy in memory of the Last Supper, as Jesus had told them to do.
What struck me as being so simple, yet to us here in Maine, so difficult, was their quiet trust in the Lord, as each of them set out to do what they thought he would have wanted them to do in setting up a church. As I listened, I felt like Nicodemus who had first gone to Jesus in the night, and then, Apphia, reading my mind? said, "Nicodemus is here today. He' like to meet you later on"
As they went on about how they completely ignored the laws and codes and canons and scriptures and speeches of all the authorities around them, high priests of the Jews, temple hangers-on from the Greek cities and towns, Roman soldiers and their pantheon of gods and laws and laws and laws, I thought long and hard about Nicodemus who had been a Pharisee and a sanhedrist.
Then, he came over, waved on by Apphia, "Just to say 'hello' and pick a bone with you."
Baffled by his sense of familiarity, all I could do was repeat his word, "Bone?"
"Yes. But an old bone for you. You played me in a Passion Play in Dorchester's part of Boston back in the 1940s, and you didn't catch my character at all. In fact, you were lousy." he smiled as he got that one off his chest.
"I remember that!" I exclaimed, jumping to my feet. "That was the night the brace broke on the Sanhedrin's Jury Box, and I was trying to hold it upright with my hands and forgot my lines. They made me a stagehand the next year."
"Well," he said, as he turned to leave, "as Junia says, welcome to the club. Good luck in engaging the future. It's no play, you know. It's for real, this time."
I left the group of women priests and drifted in an out of one small group after the other. It was good to stop and listen to Priscilla and her husband Aquila, from Ephesus, who reminded me of how they listened to the eloquent Apollos of Alexandria, and how he spoke to them of Jesus in such learned and scholarly tones -- he was a noted authority on the scriptures – until they took him off to one side and told him to cool it, keep it simple, and to stop looking for a confrontation. Apollos listened well and did much better when he crossed over to Achaia.
In another group, I listened closely as they shared their stories of doubt and anxiety, even fear of the unknown future, and the great gifts of faith that were granted to all of them. The more stories they told, the more I realized how hard the first few years must have been in those home churches.
My namesake came back and walked with me a while, just the two Pauls. He asked a funny question, "Do you know why our assemblies, churches, were in homes?"
"No, I never really thought about it."
"There weren't any Catholic Church buildings around. Kind of simple isn't it? Plenty of synagogues, but they weren't renting space on the Sabbath. Roman Shrines and Greek Temples were off-limits. We were pretty poor, too. We really didn't get buildings until Emperor Constantine made us his state religion. We got church buildings then and promptly began to lose our Church. From where I look and see, not much Catholic faith in any of the huge, monstrous buildings you have all over the earth. Wonderful looking buildings you can't use, almost like paintings you can't take down off the walls and carry around with you wherever you go." He looked so sad, when he said that.
Trying to cheer him up a little, I said, "Well, from where I look and see, you had real churches in those homes, real servants of the servants of God. You didn't need an ecumenical council to tell you that you were the people of God, and your bishops didn't ignore you and lock you out. You were church."
"That's why we're here, Paul," he said, "to show you the way, because it looks to us that you have all lost the way and you're waiting for high priests to bail you out. First thing we did was get as far away from our high priests as we could and we put together the Four Gospels and some Epistles. Later on they made it into the New Testament. We got by with copies on parchment and we just kept passing them on and on from one small group to another. You can do the same thing, you know, but for goodness sake, you've got to keep it simple."
And we were back with the main group of people. Judging from the sun in the sky, it was some time after the noon hour. I was getting hungry, wondering whether these people ever ate.
Now, I know you won't believe this, but all of a sudden a meal was prepared in front of all of us. Yes! Yes! Loaves of bread and lots of fish. Startled, I looked around to see if Jesus himself was there in the small crowd. Moved beyond any religious feeling I ever felt before, I stammered at Peter, "Did, d - d - did you d - do this?"
"Heavens, Paul, no. Nicodemus sent some boys down to the Clambake for a take-out, and picked up the tab for all of us. We always make sure to invite him along on trips like these."
Then, in the quiet, when they all stopped laughing at my blushing scarlet hue, Peter stood and called for silence, "We are here to share with Paul of Pine Point, a solitary man who has been writing pieces about the terrible disaster of this diocese of Portland, Maine, of its kindly yet monkish old bishop now retired who was mentally and physically unable to rock the boat and had but one dream, to get back into his monastic cell the minute he turned 75. His successor is younger, more vigor, but he spends his time in New Orleans teaching catechism a couple of thousand miles away, and when he's here, just can't be bothered to talk at all with his own people, whom he calls 'clusters.'"
The Doubting Thomas roared, "What the hell's a cluster? That's a new one. Can I hold one in my hand? Touch it with a finger?" And he laughed just as loudly and sat plump down.
I was right next to him, so while Peter droned on, I explained to him Bishop Malone's carving up the great state of Maine into 27 clusters, because of the shortage of priests, and that all it meant was we had to drive further to get to church on Sundays.
St. Thomas grunted, "Silly hierarch, he's arranging things for a bigger disaster. Why doesn't he just go and find some priests? Plenty of married ones all over the place. Look around you here. We had as many women presbyters as men. Frankly, Paul, they were much better. How the devil does arranging parishes into clusters make for more priests? Doesn't make any sense at all, does it? " Thomas was more than a doubter in my eyes, he could see through fallacies better than most lawyers I know.
When Peter finished, he asked me if I had any questions. I said, "Just one. Where'd you get the presbyters?"
"From the people, of course."
"Who ordained them?"
"What's 'ordained' mean? In our times? Or do you mean later, when the Sacraments were put together by a bunch of learned people, like theologians and those Johnny come latelies, the bishops?"
"I mean 'ordained' as in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Hey, you're Saint Peter, the Rock, the first Pope, you trying to kid with me?" I was flustered and a bit impatient. Being a Catholic in this diocese has a way of getting to you. Frustrating.
"Yes, dear Paul, yes, I was teasing you, hoping you would see your own blindness and sheeplike nature. We ordained our own presbyters just by picking out the best ones, whether men or women, the ones who were obviously people for others and not just for themselves. Why are you always waiting for a bishop to give you people permission to breath? Act! Be! Do! We did."
"Easy enough to say that. You didn't have any bishops anyway. No popes either. You were never ordained at all, were you?"
"No, I was not. So what? Well, Sir, I was crucified, downwards. That make you feel better?" Peter drove home hard lessons. He was, and is, after all a Stone, another translation for the Greek Cephas."
"Sorry, Peter," I apologized and cooled my Irish temper.
He went on, as the leader of fishermen that he was, "You and your friends are hung up on two thousand years of Church History which was based on Roman Law and Greek Philosophy, both of which are so foreign to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament that most of us here are sorry we went West via Greece and Rome, rather than East through India, South East Asia and the Far East. Those people are more our kind of people than the westerners, especially those Romans, and all the Emperors and Kings and Princes and Dukes that came after them and corrupted our Catholic Church so badly."
"I see that, but what do we do now? We are westerners. And we are waiting for the Cardinals in Conclave to stop their fooling around and get it over with. We need a Pope."
"Do you?" was Thomas' very, very quiet question. "Why? You didn't like the last one very much."
I just stared at him, the doubting one, always I confess, my favorite Apostle. History knocked him around a bit, but he was, and now is, my kind of man. Why, indeed, so much fuss about a single man, a Pope? This Greatest Show on Earth has been going on ever since John Paul II went in for that tracheotomy, and the Conclave has just begun, first ballot up in black smoke. I don't think I'll forget those two lines for a long, long time:
"We need a Pope."
Then the bandy legged one showed he had to speak, "Paul, I used to write letters, too, but it's personal contact that counts. Why do battle with a bishop day in, day out? You can't win. Neither can he. He's too scared. More scared of Rome than of you. He knows the Roman institution is faltering and may even implode soon. People are leaving the church for other religions. Nobody wants to be a Roman Catholic these days. And all of your bishops are pretty dense human beings, like those Roman jailers who always went by the book, but forgot to lock the window bars, so I escaped in a basket. Escape that bishop. Leave him be. Let the Cardinals put on the gala shows they want. They're just empty processions, meaningless theater."
"It was pretty bad, wasn't it?" I volunteered.
"Bad? It was gross, Paul, a gross insult tossed at the intelligence of this modern world of yours. The Caesars put on better shows in ancient Rome's Coliseum than these birds did in St. Peter's Square. So excessive." He obviously didn't like the obsequies.
"Be your own Catholic," he continued after catching his breath. "Ordain your own priests, if you have to, but tap that pool of married priests and send all those women willing to be for others off to school, then ordain them. By the way, the school for priests shouldn't take more than one year at the most. All that other stuff is the baloney that's been built up over two thousand years of saving everything."
"You know, St. Paul, you never had to put up with a Roman Institutional church. It was easier for you, when you stop and think about it." I was getting bolder.
He ignored me and kept right on going strong. "Build a church. We did. Ignore or laugh at all that cockamamie stuff that comes out of Rome. They're so cocky and so hopeless. About the only thing they're good at is putting on those extravaganzas for the entertainment of the world. You don't need all their disciplines and theologies and writings and speeches. My goodness they're bossier than all the Roman Emperors we used to know put together. Actually, Paul, all you really need is the New Testament. That's all. It's all in there. Take it from one who wrote some of it."
I was dumbfounded. It hit me like a thunderbolt. I, the lawyer, who never let the other lawyer set up the playing field to take my issues away from me, not even once in 40 years, had rolled right over and played humble, obedient, layman to the bishop and spoke to him in his own language with his own words and his own years of theological studies. I bought book after book on ecclesiology, alternate dispute resolution, mediation, negotiation, theology, Christology, screamed at JPII and his Curia, wrote thousands of words, and stood still, locked in my own boots welded in my own past, unable to move.
I prided myself for thinking outside the box and knew now that I had never left the box. I was constantly thinking Rome and Hierarchy and Dogma and Disciplines. I was not thinking Church, Assembly, A Gathering of Two or More in My Name. I was not thinking People of God. And I had to find somebody to blame, so I was blaming my local bishop, abusing and deviant priests, neo-cons, the CDF, the Curia, the Holy See, the Pope, the College of Cardinals, and all the Bishops of the world. Everybody except myself. And they all played me for the utter fool that I am and toyed with me on their custom playing field with their theologies and canons and ecclesial way of doing things.
Then, the Pope died. And I fell into the dream of maybe, maybe, maybe, the next one will be like us, will listen to us, will turn things around, will help us build church in the 21st century, once again putting all my hopes in one solitary man in Rome.
I looked at the hundred or so people, all very quietly looking at me, with smiles of understanding as they saw enlightenment flow from them into me. I took the book of the New Testament from Saint Peter's hands, stood, and joined them in the Our Father. I wanted to, and did, hold hands with St. Thomas and with Apphia. St. Paul grinned and patted me on the back, "Keep writing, friend, somebody's reading the stuff."
St. Peter had to give me his bear hug, before he stepped into the Atlantic and gave his boat a mighty shove, then hopped in. At least he didn't try to show off and walk on water.
Then, I watched the rest of them get back in their boats and head out to open water, where they slowly began to disappear. I prayed that they were heading to the Conclave for a meeting as solid and as hopeful as the one with me, or maybe to another group of people who wanted to be people of God, but were stuck in a soundless duel with a tough bishop.
As I went back up through the high grass, I knew what I wanted to say at the VOTF meeting where I'd been asked to speak, come next Tuesday, on engaging the future of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.
Who knows, we might even have a new Pope by then. Perhaps, that will make a difference, and then again, it may not. Who knows? We are the people of God and we have work to do.