Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Childhood Church Revisited: A Lesson in Appreciation

Yesterday I attended the funeral of my uncle, my deceased father’s last remaining brother, who died March 21 in his 89th year. It just so happened that the funeral was held in the church I attended for about fifteen years as a child and as a youth, the church where I was an altar boy, where my sisters were baptized, where my older brother was married. My uncle had been a member of the parish for 55 years. So despite the sadness of the occasion, I was looking forward to revisiting this church.

I was sorely disappointed.

Prior to revisiting this church, I had not thought much about what makes an individual church a place where a liturgy queen like me would be comfortable praying or attending Mass. I did not particularly like my own parish church when I first attended Mass there; I thought that the very high ceilings made it a rather cold place. In those days I had a car, so I decided to frequent a church in another part of town; the building was smaller and warmer and cosier, and I felt more comfortable there. It wasn’t long, however, before I returned to the church that was closer to home, and in the four years I have been a parishioner, I have grown to love it. It did not occur to me to consider why I loved it until yesterday’s experience. Now I am curious to visit other churches in the archdiocese and to see how they make me feel.

Let’s start with the bad news. My childhood church was just plain dowdy. The faux stained-glass windows, glass panels tinted in a variety of unattractive and uninspired colours, were a distracting eyesore. The steel girders, painted white, that held up the ceiling looked as if they had been salvaged from a railway bridge condemned to demolition for its ugliness. The back wall of the sanctuary might have been donated by a parishioner who decided to renovate her 1960s family room; the rest of the sanctuary was cluttered, not in the loving way that some spaces are cluttered, but carelessly. So much for atmosphere.

The funeral Mass was celebrated by the pastor, a man who appeared to be in his early sixties. He had not vested carefully as his alb was shorter at the front than it was at the back. He did not seem to have prepared well for the funeral as he often stopped suddenly, appearing confused or slightly lost, during the various prayers. His homily had not been carefully thought out and thus was singularly unmoving, especially disappointing given the long history of my uncle’s family in the parish (my aunt, who died in 2002, was very active in service to her church). During the homily, which was delivered right at the coffin, the priest’s cell phone rang to announce the arrival of a text message, and only after considerable fumbling in his vestments and after apparently replying to the message briefly, did he continue his already disappointing homily, albeit after several expressions of apology and embarrassment. All in all, I did not receive the impression that this priest was in any sincere way involved in this solemn ceremony. His disengagement and the uninspiring atmosphere of the church (the altar server was an ancient and pious man straight out of a Dickens novel who crossed himself several dozen times throughout the Mass, and the soloist, while generally on key, had an irritatingly shrill voice) left me no feeling whatsoever for what I had just experienced. I was not touched, I was not uplifted, I was not awed. I cannot imagine how my cousins and their families must have felt.

I am sure that some of my criticisms seem petty and certainly they could be misconstrued as resulting from my disappointment that my old church did not live up to my expectations. And there is no question that I was disappointed. But in retrospect this experience was a blessing in that it gave me a much greater respect and appreciation for the care and attention to detail that go into creating and maintaining an atmosphere of reverence in a Catholic church. And I am now more deeply grateful to my own parish priest for the love and the labour he has lavished and continues to lavish on the interior and exterior of the church and on every detail of the liturgy. The difference is remarkable, and our pastor’s effort is even more impressive as he does not have an assistant (my uncle’s parish does).

I am going to take on the study of local churches and parishes as a small, long-term project. While the pastor is a critically important factor in the sanctity of his church, I am sure that there are many other factors, like the number of parishioners, the socio-economic impact of the location of the church, the demographic of the congregation.

More to come.

(The church in the picture above is not the one in which my uncle's funeral was held.)

Holiness and Compassion

What Marcus Borg tells us about the compassionate Jesus has the potential for practical everyday application. In our daily lives and in our interactions with others, we tend to focus on holiness—our own supposed holiness and our requirement that others be holy as well—leading to that self-righteous, holier-than-thou mindset of resentment and to egoistic acting out, not to mention a failure to forgive. If we think we are holy (i.e. pure), the faults of others, no matter how small, stick in our craw and poison our relationships, albeit usually temporarily (but sometimes the sins of others become so overwhelming to us that we feel we can no longer associate with them). We claim that they have written themselves out of our lives. Meanwhile, the friend or relative we have been so terribly—and cumulatively— offended by usually has no idea what the hell has got into us. Holiness in this sense separates us from life because we have closed ourselves off from love, at least for a time.

Practising true compassion—the compassion of Christ—is much harder than practising holiness. It is hard because it requires that we let go of ourselves, and letting go of ourselves means stepping away from our petty issues, from our pet peeves, from our perpetual belief that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Compassion calls for humility, for putting others before ourselves, not because we want them to love us but because we love them. Compassion calls for forgiveness; even when the other is “wrong,” if we are compassionate we will look beyond the wrong to the reason behind it: perhaps the other person is under stress, perhaps they are grieving a loss, perhaps they are preoccupied with beautiful, creative thoughts.

During Holy Week we hear again and again of the compassion of Jesus; even in the most agonizing moments of his life he forgave. How happy we would be and how happy would those around us be if we thought daily of Christ’s compassion and consciously tried to imitate it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Jesus, Compassion, and Homosexuality

I am currently reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. Chapter Three of this fascinating and enlightening book is entitled "Jesus, Compassion, and Politics." Here Borg claims that the compassion so evident in the teaching and in the public life of Jesus "was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community." Jesus' concept of compassion was in opposition to the predominant Jewish paradigm of the day, which was holiness ("Be holy as God is holy"). The issue that reflected this opposition was the law of purity and its social and political, as well as its religious, implications. In the Judaism of Jesus' time, "holiness was understood to mean 'separation from everything unclean'...[and] [t]he ethos of purity produced a politics of purity--that is, a society structured around a purity system."

The purity system marginalized those who were considered to be the most impure: occupational groups such as tax collectors and shepherds; people who were not considered to be physically whole, such as "the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, and so forth"; and the "abjectly poor." Women were considered generally less pure than men, and gentiles were "impure and unclean."

But according to Borg, "[i]n the message and activity of Jesus, we see an alternative social vision: a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion." Jesus presented a different concept of purity, one in which inner purity was to be more valued than purity on the outside: "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." Both the teachings of Jesus and his activities were a "challenge to the purity system." He healed lepers and hemorrhaging women and ate meals with tax collectors and sinners. For Jesus, compassion always trumped purity.

In a section of the chapter entitled Spirit, Compassion, and Us, Borg says the following:

The intra-Jewish battle between Jesus and the advocates of the purity system can be seen as a battle over two different ways to interpret Scripture. Both he and his critics stood in the tradition of Israel and sought to be faithful to it. The elites of his day read Scripture in accordance with the paradigm of holiness as purity. Jesus read it in accordance with the paradigm of compassion. Each provided a lens through which the tradition was seen. It was thus a hermeneutical battle, a conflict between two very different ways of interpreting the sacred traditions of Judaism. It was not, of course, the kind of academic hermeneutical argument that occurs today in scholarly circles. Rather it was a hermeneutical battle about the shape of a world, and the stakes were high.

The same hermeneutical struggle goes on in the church today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity.

To use a specific example, I am convinced that much of the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians has arisen because, in addition to whatever non-religious homophobic reasons may be involved, homosexuality is seen (often unconsciously) as a purity issue. For these Christians, there's something "dirty" about it, boundaries are being crossed, things are being put together that do not belong together, and so forth. Indeed, homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism. The prohibition against it is found in the purity laws of the book of Leviticus.

It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. It also seems to me that the passage in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world ["In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female."] also means "In Christ there is neither straight nor gay." Granted, Paul didn't say that, but the logic of "life in the Spirit" and the ethos of compassion imply it.

One can only pray for the coming of the day on which the Catholic hierarchy chooses the ethos of compassion over what Marcus Borg calls "a purity system constituted by external boundaries." One does of course assume - compassionately - that Church attitudes toward and teachings on homosexuality do not involve "non-religious homophobic reasons" for such attitudes and teachings.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A New Pope, A New Church

If it turns out that the Joseph Ratzinger indeed knew about and personally approved of the return of a sexually abusive priest to parochial service and as a result the pontiff is forced to abdicate, who will be his successor? One envisions the election of a new pope from the college of cardinals by the college of cardinals being immediately followed by questions from the press about the possibility of his involvement in cases of abuse cover-up. In fact, why would the press even wait that long? At the time of the election there will no doubt be a group of papabile, those cardinals considered among the most likely to be elected, and their careers will be scrutinized by hordes of investigative journalists from around the world. We can be certain that at least a couple of the frontrunners will be dead in the water before the second cloud of black smoke is emitted from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel. The papal election will become a farce and whoever emerges as the new Holy Father of the Catholic Church will have gone from “popable” to laughable.

The tragic story of sexual abuse and its cover-up by bishops and chancery officials, which is no longer simply an American story reflecting so-called American liberalism and secularism, has exposed to Catholics and non-Catholics all over the world the failure of the post-Vatican II restoration of a monarchical papacy, a blindly loyal episcopacy, and a complacent and obedient laity. The Church hierarchy—and the entire hierarchical system—has lost all the trust it needs to lead the faithful. It is time for the People of God to take responsibility for their Church and return it to its proper place as the loving, welcoming, child-protecting home of Christ.

If a new pope is elected from the ranks of the cardinals, or even if the cardinals are bypassed and a bishop is found who has not been tainted by cover-up or other misdeeds, the likelihood is very high that the hierarchical system and the clerical culture that allowed this tragedy to continue for so long will remain in place. John Paul II was pope for 26 years; his successor—and close friend and loyal supporter—Benedict XVI has been pope for five years. Nearly every bishop in the world has been appointed by these two; and nearly all of them will have sworn an oath of loyalty to the orthodoxy promoted by the restoration papacy. Even a bold and courageous bishop would have difficulty opposing his brother bishops.

I have a suggestion: Benedict should stay. He should humbly bow his head and apologize to all victims of the post-Vatican II Church, including children who were abused; women, who have been denied their rightful place in the Church, to its tragic detriment; gay and lesbian people, who have been marginalized by the Church; the large majority of priests, who have toiled faithfully in the vineyard but whose voices for truth have been silenced by the stifling pressure of doctrine. He should then call a new Vatican Council, one that has equal representation from the laity (men and women) and the clergy; clerical delegates would include ordinary parish priests, male and female members of religious orders, and theologians, as well as some bishops. At the council, the Roman curia would only be allowed an advisory role; it would have no voting rights. The agenda, from which no issue could be excluded, would also be determined by balanced representation. The pope would pledge publicly to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the council’s decisions.

Or we could allow the present pope to resign and then insist that the college of cardinals as well as the entire episcopate be considered ineligible for election and instead elect a humble and holy priest as pope. In this case, I have a few recommendations. How about Jim Martin, the Jesuit from America Magazine? He seems to understand that the Church can peacefully and productively co-exist with modern secular culture. He recognizes that women and gay people have been wounded by their Church. Or we could elect Hans Küng, who after all was one of the chief architects of some of the most important documents to come out of Vatican II. There is also Richard Rohr, the Franciscan who believes in the emerging church, which loves the tradition but recognizes the need for reform.

Of course, none of this is going to happen. The point is, however, that we need a new Church, not just a new pope. We need people of courage and vision from both the laity and the clergy to share their vision of a reformed Church with the grassroots. Sure, the vast majority of the faithful may be as conservative as Benedict XVI and his curial comrades, but are we content to allow a majority that trusts a hierarchical system that enabled abusers of children, that discriminates against women and gay and lesbian people, that silences all dissenters to prevail?

It appears that the structure is beginning to crumble. It can be shored up for a while perhaps, but eventually it will fall. We should be concerned with how the Church will rebuild itself when that day comes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Clerical Abuse: A Lesson From America

In the wake of the terrible storm of the revelation of clerical sexual abuse in Boston and beyond in 2002, priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley wrote a book entitled Priests: A Calling in Crisis. The purpose of the book, according to its author, is to “report the sociological facts about the Catholic clergy as these facts emerge from analysis of survey data” in order to correct the misinformation on the priesthood and abuse of minors disseminated by an uninformed press, inexpert clerical or ex-clerical spokespersons, and individuals and organizations with an ideological axe to grind.

There is a tradition of research on the priesthood that could provide a very different and more nuanced perspective on the Catholic priesthood in the United States, one in which most people were not interested during the fateful year of 2002 because, like all responsible research, it presents a picture that is gray, ambiguous, problematic, and hence easier to quote out of context and to ignore. Reaching back into the late 1960s and extending to an analysis of the 1993 Los Angeles Times study of the priesthood (Greeley, 1995), it presents priests as on average happy, mature, and self-fulfilled men. I hope this book contributes to the continuance of that tradition.

The storm that hit the United States in 2002 recently appears to have begun wreaking havoc in Western Europe. We are already seeing comments about celibacy as a possible direct or indirect cause of the abuse; there is no doubt that homosexuality and the “disproportionate number” of gay priests will be once again dragged out as another probable cause of clerical sex abuse. It is useful, then, to take another look at Greeley’s study, which is based on the 1993 Los Angeles Times survey of the priesthood as well as a replication of the survey, with slight modifications (“The second Times survey is the first time that a national sample of priests have been asked directly about their sexual behavior”), conducted by the newspaper in 2002. Each of the surveys polled approximately 2000 priests.

The 2002 survey revealed that approximately 16 percent of priests “admitted that they were either homosexual or inclined in that direction, hardly the large number claimed by such ‘studies’ as those of A.W. Richard Sipe or the Kansas City Star.” The number is, however, larger than generally accepted percentages of homosexuals in the wider population. While the percentage of celibate heterosexual priests is higher than that of gay priests, Greeley notes that “most homosexual priests appear to be celibate. Thus those who shrilly insist that it is time to say ‘goodbye to good men’ are merely displaying their own homophobia.”

One must consider also the possibility that a priesthood with a higher percentage of homosexuals might provide a haven for child abusers. While most homosexuals are not abusers and most abusers are not homosexuals, the propensity of Catholic conservatives to claim that child abuse is essentially a homosexual problem must be considered. However, those who argue in such fashion, no matter how exalted their positions in the Church might be, have yet to offer anything but their own unsubstantiated assertions to support their argument.

Since many abuses were committed by men who were ordained long before homosexuality became visible in the seminaries and the dioceses, the argument that there is a link between the increased presence of homosexuals and child abuse seems inherently improbable.

A preliminary report commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to investigate clerical sexual abuse has also found that there is no connection between homosexuality and the increased likelihood of sex abuse. In fact, according to a CBS report on the survey, “many experts on sex offenders reject any link between sexual orientation and committing abuse.” The study was prepared for the USCCB by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. At the meeting held for the release of the report one bishop asked a researcher from the college whether “their study indicated that homosexuality should be considered when evaluating a candidate for the priesthood.” The response was that if the exclusion of a homosexual candidate for the priesthood “were based on the fact that that person would be more probable than any other candidate to abuse, we do not find that at this time.”

Celibacy has also been cited as one probable cause of the clerical sex abuse crisis, both in 2002 and most recently in relation to the European situation. The highest ranking bishop in Germany, where victims of abuse have come forward in large numbers in the past few weeks, has denied that there is a link between sexual abuse of minors by priests and celibacy. The eminent theologian Father Hans Küng, no friend of the Church hierarchy, has termed the archbishop’s denials “erroneous.” The London Times reports:

He said it was the case that abuse was found also in families, schools and other churches. But he asked: “Why is it so prevalent in the Catholic Church under celibate leadership?” He said that celibacy was not the only cause of the misconduct but described it as “the most important and structurally the most decisive” expression of the church’s uptight attitude to sex.

In Priests: A Calling in Crisis, Father Greeley notes a similar response to the 2002 crisis in the United States.

Most of those who spoke to the media or wrote on the subject assumed that the reason [the abuse occurred] was obvious. Priests could not marry, either because of church law or because they were incapable of mature sexual love with a woman. Therefore they preyed on the young and innocent. The only way to stop the abuse was to eliminate the foolish celibacy rule and with it the sinister clerical culture that supported abusers. For Catholic “liberals” the abuse scandal provided a rallying point to push their demands for a married clergy, women priests, and a more democratic church.

Occasionally someone observed that abusers of the young were usually men with deep and perhaps incurable personality problems and that, if they marry, they often abuse their own children. Marriage then does not seem to be a cure for abuse. Almost no one said that it degraded women to assume that the abolition of celibacy would stop abuse.

Journalists sought out “experts,” mostly former priests, to answer their questions. Some former priests hinted that those who remain in the priesthood are not real men because they do not sleep with a woman. They spoke of the infantilism of the male clerical culture, which produced and protected abusers. They questioned the psychological maturity of priests, and their fidelity to the promise of celibacy.

These “experts” were not widely known in the Catholic population and had little influence in general on Catholic thinking—though most priests have heard about them. However, they used their fifteen minutes of celebrity to reinforce the general assumption among Americans that celibacy is unhealthy and that it was no surprise that celibates are freaks, and perhaps monsters.

Greeley goes on to show that there is no sound evidence, from either psychologists or sociologists, that celibacy results in psychological maladjustment among priests, maladjustment that would lead to acting out through the sexual abuse of minors. Through analysis of the data in the Times surveys, Greeley demonstrates that in fact the opposite is true and concludes:

Priests are clearly happy and satisfied men. They report on the average that the priesthood has been better than they had expected it would be, that they are very satisfied with their lives as priests, that they would choose to be a priest again, and that they are not likely to leave the priesthood. They score higher on measures of satisfaction than do doctors, lawyers, faculty members, and Protestant ministers.

The 2002 Times survey produced some interesting and surprising data about the attitudes of priests to the abuse scandal. Question 60 on the survey asks: "Thinking now about the recent allegations of sexual misconduct by priests….Do you think that most, many, some, or only a few of the allegations are true?” Only 19 percent of the respondents believed that most charges were true. 42 percent thought that many of the allegations were true, and 38 percent believed that only some or none of them were true. “It would appear that most priests even in the summer and autumn of 2002 were still in denial and do not understand the horror of the abuse of the victim and the victim’s family.” In fact, “[w]hen asked what troubled them most about the allegations of abuse, only 5% said that it was the suffering of the victims.”

It would appear that the respondents to the 2002 study tend to wash their hands of personal responsibility. You blame bishops and the whole Church and the media and the cover-up and the reassignment, and you worry about false charges and the greed of lawyers, and you regret the loss of credibility, but not many of you feel any personal responsibility and only 5% of you worry about the suffering of the victims.

You don’t ask yourselves how many times you knew or suspected that something bad was going on in a rectory or how often you demonized a victim and his family or blamed lawyers for causing the problem or how often you insisted that in a given case the priest was innocent. Had he not denied the charges? Had not the doctors and the police cleared him? How often did you admit even to yourself that maybe you were kidding yourself because of loyalty to the priesthood? So, of the various characters involved in the tragedy, the bishops and the media and the victims and the lawyers did bad things. But not priests. Forty-one percent want the responsible bishops to resign, and 11% want them to be indicted and sent to jail. But not the priests who might have cooperated in the cover-ups and certainly not those who knew deep down inside that something was wrong and did not speak up.

Greeley attributes this denial of responsibility to the “norms of clerical culture,” which include a taboo on “betraying” a fellow priest. “The problems in the priesthood come from neither celibacy nor homosexuality. The problems come rather from the iron law of denial and silence that clerical culture imposes on priests.” Bishops also belong to this band of brothers and often their first impulse is to help and protect a priest when he is in trouble.

This is not an excuse for their behavior but merely an attempt to put it in the context of the ideology of clerical culture. Cardinal Egan wrote sympathetically that a Bridgeport priest whom he reassigned was “graceful.” No one had told him that most abusers are charming men and graceful liars. Abusers often seem to their friends to be “one of the guys.” You stand by one of the guys even if you are a bishop.

Greeley believes that the bishops who reassigned abusive priests, especially after 1992, when guidelines for handling abuse cases had been set in place, committed grave sin. The worst of their sins was re-victimizing the victims by refusing to acknowledge them, by refusing to recognize "the terrible wreckage that sexual abuse causes for human lives.” He says that these bishops “were, in fact, according to the strict canons of the old moral theology, necessary cooperators in evil and objectively as responsible for the evil as those who actually did it.”

Priests with “deep and perhaps incurable personality problems” were responsible for the horrific abuse of young people both in America and in Europe. These priests should have been removed from ministry by their bishops. While it is possible that bishops did not understand the nature of pedophilia or ephebophilia when most of these abuses were taking place, it is not possible to imagine that they or their vicars general could not have been aware of the terrible pain suffered by the victims—children, innocent and helpless in the face of demands from such esteemed and holy men as priests—and their families. In his book on the Boston crisis, Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, author David France recounts the experience of a mother, whose son had been abused by the priest Joseph Birmingham, when she confronted Monsignor John Jennings, head of personnel for the Boston archdiocese, about the serial abuse committed by Birmingham at her parish and expressed her concern for the potential victims at the parish to which the priest had just been reassigned.

Monsignor Jennings motioned for the women to sit on chairs arrayed before his expansive desk on a hand-tied Tibetan carpet. Elaine gestured to have her sister tuck in on her left and Judy Fairbanks on her right. “Make sure I don’t lose control,” she said under her breath, “because if I lose control we’ll screw the whole thing up.”

After introductions she got right to the point. “Our main concern is, number one, we want Father B. to have psychiatric help.”

Jennings held up a hand. “We wouldn’t agree to something like that,” he said.

“We want his new pastor to be notified that this problem exists. That way he can keep an eye on him.”

“We wouldn’t agree,” he scowled.

“Three, not to have any contact with young children. If he has to be around them put him in with the high school kids, and they’ll probably knock his block off if he tries something funny.”

Jennings shook his head as though to say the entire matter was out of everybody’s hands.

“Why can’t you have psychiatric treatment for him?” one of the women interrupted.

In its wisdom the church had done what would be done. “It’s not in the cards,” he said.

The women pressed their agenda, futilely visiting and revisiting the group’s three goals. Ultimately Jennings signalled the end of his patience. “Ladies, “ he exploded. He raised a scolding finger at Elaine. “You must be very careful of slander.”

Elaine climbed to her feet, tugging against her sister’s efforts to restrain her, insane with anger. If the desk had been any narrower, she knew she would have slapped the monsignor’s face. In her mind his collar had disappeared and he was no more noble than any common man. She raised her own finger back at him.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she said. “where do you think my husband would be if he pulled this shit? If he pulled this shit he’d be in jail. He’d never be able to have another teaching job in his life. Furthermore, if this archdiocese doesn’t have enough money to send Father B. for psychiatric care, I don’t know what religion is if it doesn’t even take care of its own. And if you can’t afford it, I suggest you people hock this Oriental rug!”

Elaine and the ladies left Jennings’ office and went immediately to see Father John McCormack who had previously been pastor of their parish and whom Elaine knew well. She was sure that he would help her, but all she got was a blessing.

She would never set foot back inside a Catholic church. She would even withdraw her son from St. John’s Preparatory, where he was expected to begin his freshman year in the fall. “I don’t know if you’re harboring the same type of men at your place or not, but I can’t take that chance,” she explained. The administration refused to refund her $500, and that became the last penny the Catholic church ever got from her or her family.

Even so, it did nothing to assuage her guilt and bitter self-recrimination. Over the following year she was back and forth to her doctor for high blood pressure and anxiety. She wasn’t sleeping. Her doctor said he had never seen such profound stress in such a young woman. Before the year was through, she would suffer a massive stroke that would freeze the right side of her body and close one of her eyes. She was thirty-seven years old.

The case of this woman and her son symbolizes the pain of families all over the U.S.—and as is now being revealed, in many countries of the world—caused by the callous indifference of the clerical hierarchy to the profound suffering of victims of abuse. I was going to say that the example was perhaps extreme and France’s retelling of the story somewhat melodramatic. On second thought, I am certain that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar “extreme and melodramatic” stories, all of them true, in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Ireland, and elsewhere.

I have said before that I am an unabashed moral relativist. The bishops—and particularly the Bishop of Rome—have emphatically declared that they are not. Yet it seems to me that the repeated victimization of children and the abetting of that victimization by the very shepherds who are divinely charged with watching over them is always and absolutely morally wrong. Blaming the horror of sexual abuse on homosexuals in the priesthood or on clerical celibacy is either monstrous ignorance or, worse, a smokescreen to cover the real sin. And the real sin is the failure of those in high positions—and perhaps even the highest position—to love and protect the children of God, and their failure, when their sin is exposed, to retreat in shame and in penitence to a monastery.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Not Minding What Happens

I love this little piece in Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to your Life's Purpose:

J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, spoke and traveled almost continuously all over the world for more than fifty years attempting to convey through words - which are content - that which is beyond words, beyond content. At one of his talks in the later part of his life, he surprised his audience by asking, "Do you want to know my secret?" Everyone became very alert. Many people in the audience had been coming to listen to him for twenty or thirty years and still failed to grasp the essence of his teaching. Finally after all these years, the master would give them the key to understanding. "This is my secret," he said. "I don't mind what happens."

He did not elaborate, and so I suspect most of his audience were even more perplexed than before. The implications of this simple statement, however, are profound.

When I don't mind what happens, what does that imply? It implies that internally I am in alignment with what happens. "What happens," of course, refers to the suchness of this moment, which always already is as it is. It refers to content, the form that this moment - the only moment there ever is - takes. To be in alignment with what is means to be in a relationship of inner nonresistance with what happens. It means not to label it mentally as good or bad, but to let it be. Does this mean you can no longer take action to bring about change in your life? On the contrary. When the basis for your actions is inner alignment with the present moment, your actions become empowered by the intelligence of Life itself.

This is indeed profound. So often in life we attach ourselves emotionally to what happens, so our actions are then controlled by our ego with the result that the wheels just spin and spin and spin and we grow more and more angry, more and more frustrated. How much better if first we "do not mind what happens," then we take the empowered action (or non-action, depending on the "what happens") of which Tolle speaks.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Saying "Yes" To Everything

In Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Joseph Campbell names and explains the four functions of mythology. The first of these, he says, “is to reconcile consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence; that is to say, to the nature of life.” He goes on to point out that life for primitive peoples was nothing short of monstrous. Yet, unlike the so-called advanced or civilized cultures, their response to life was predominantly affirmative.

The first, primitive orders of mythology are affirmative: they embrace life on its own terms. I don’t think any anthropologist could document a primitive mythology that was world-negating. When you realize what primitive people run up against—the pains and the agonies and the problems of simply existing—I think it’s quite amazing. I’ve studied a lot of the myths of these cultures around the world, and I can’t recall a single negative word in primitive thought with respect to existence or to the universe. World-weariness comes later with people who are living high on the hog.

That’s the first function of mythology: not merely a reconciliation of consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence [“The organs of life had evolved to depend on the death of others for their existence. These organs have impulses of which your consciousness isn’t even aware; when it becomes aware of them you may become scared that this eat-or-be-eaten horror is what you are”], but reconciliation with gratitude, with love, with recognition of the sweetness. Through the bitterness and pain, the primary experience at the core of life is a sweet, wonderful thing. This affirming view comes pouring in on one through these terrific…myths.
Campbell says that in about the eighth century BC this affirming attitude changed and new mythologies developed, “mythologies of retreat, dismissal, renunciation—life denial.” People started saying “no” to life.

Then a third system developed, which Campbell calls an “ameliorative mythology.”

This worldview expresses the notion that through certain kinds of activity, a change can be brought about. Through prayer, or good deeds, or some other activity, one can change the basic principles, the fundamental [evil] preconditions of life. You affirm the world on condition that it follows your notion of what the world should be. This is like marrying someone in order to improve him or her—it is not marriage.

Campbell reminds us that this mythology “has come to us by way of the late stages in the biblical tradition and in the Christian tradition of the Fall and the Resurrection.”

One can confidently assume that primitive life featured frequent and devastating change: death and forced migration by disease, natural disaster, sudden attacks by other tribes or by wild animals. Pain, loss, and flight must have been frequent occurrences for these people. Yet their rituals and myths all reflect an affirmation of life—not only acceptance of change but “reconciliation with gratitude, with love, with recognition of the sweetness.”

I have recently been thinking about change because changes are taking place in my life. I have no control over these changes, yet instead of recognizing them as the gifts from God that they are, instead d of embracing them as part of life—and life is growth—I resist. Every year in my garden I see the beautifully fragrant lilac flowers, the miraculous roses with their lovely colours and their delicious scent, fall and die. The leaves on my gorgeous Japanese maple, so rich and vibrant in the spring and summer, die in the fall, leaving a bare framework of twigs to face the winter. These creatures of God do not resist the change; they accept everything. Yet I have not learned from them.

What we cling to most, it seems, and where we are most resistant to change is relationships and situations of so-called security. We are lulled into complacency by the comfort of friends who always call or e-mail or who are regularly available for a coffee or a meal or a concert. The occasional strains and slights are ignored because the person is loved and because these are part of every relationship. Once in a while, however, there is an event that occurs apparently out of nowhere and precipitates a major change in the relationship. When that happens, we are surprised and disappointed and confused and often deeply hurt. The fact is, however, that first, upon reflection the change is rarely as sudden as it seems, and second, if the change is recognized as God’s gift and accepted as such, growth can take place and peace can be experienced.

A very close friend of some years, who has in fact been mentioned in this blog, recently and rather suddenly stopped communicating. He had been busy for several months, deeply involved in courses he was taking. Our communication, which a year ago had been frequent and intense, had lessened somewhat since last summer. While I missed the contact and the intellectual stimulation that often accompanied it, I recognized and blessed his need to focus on his journey. I was not prepared, however, for his complete “disappearance.” I was by turns surprised, disappointed, confused, and hurt. And because the complete silence was so unusual (this person has been the antithesis of silent), I was also worried. But if he had decided to cloister himself utterly, I wished to respect his choice. Finally, my concern forced me to e-mail him and ask him to just assure me that he was okay. This morning I received his reply, in which he asked me to accept his silence.

We often fail to recognize that, like the trees and flowers in the garden, we are changing. For those who make a conscious choice to follow a certain path, and especially when that path involves passionate and creative exploration, change will be more intense and perhaps more frequent. Once we open certain doors, it seems, we have begun a process which takes on a life of its own and which cannot be reversed; that process opens other doors for us and pushes us through. My friend’s “disappearance” is a sign that I am going through or have already gone through another door.

I have always been a listener. What that means I am not sure; perhaps because I was confused about my path, I never really had anything I wanted passionately to say, perhaps I lacked confidence—it doesn’t really matter. Naturally, I have often attracted people who were in need of a good listener. My friend was one of these: I have had telephone conversations with him which have lasted for nearly two hours and in which I have hardly spoken. I have sometimes been resentful of this one-sidedness, but I recognize now that it was a reflection of where I was at that point in my journey. Moreover, very often what was said was deeply meaningful to me and profoundly influential in my life; it led me to explore new ways of thinking and of seeing life.

Since I have found my path, however, I am no longer just a listener. I have something to say, most of which I say through this blog, most of which I am passionate about. When I started the blog one of the people that I most hoped would read it and talk with me about the thoughts raised in the articles I posted was my “disappeared” friend. Now I understand why he has not, to my knowledge, read any of the articles. It is not because he does not love me or care about what I think or do; it is simply that he does not have the nature of a listener.

The truth is that I have grown and this incident is telling me to say “yes” to the change “with gratitude, with love, with recognition of the sweetness.”

I would not likely have been moved to ponder the whole notion of affirming life’s changes if another significant change were not about to take place in my life. Our long-term “homestay student,” who has been with us for five years and whom we have known for over ten years and who is truly a member of our little family, has accepted a job in his native country and will be leaving us in ten days. This is an important step in his life as he will be gaining valuable experience in his field and advancing his career. We love this young man very much and his absence will be keenly felt as he has been a big part of our lives. Naturally, we will stay closely in touch, but we must let him go.

This beloved son’s departure will have not only an emotional impact on us, it will also have a financial effect on me. The income he provided through his “homestay” fees has been steady for five years. I am not sure when and if he can be replaced. As I am a writer who makes no income from his writing, the homestay income I receive every month is how I pay my bills and my debts; any gap in the flow of this income can be problematic. As other students come and go much more frequently than every five years, my “security” is tenuous at best. Yet this is a change I must also embrace with joy because if I trust the process of doors opening, I know that this too is part of that process.

In A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle speaks of abundance:

The source of abundance is not outside you. It is part of who you are. However, start by acknowledging and recognizing abundance without. See the fullness of life all around you. The warmth of the sun on your skin, the display of magnificent flowers outside a florist’s shop, biting into a succulent fruit, or getting soaked in an abundance of water falling from the sky. The fullness of life is there at every step. The acknowledgement of that abundance that is all around you awakens the dormant abundance within.

Saying yes again.

Most of us do not endure anything like the pain and privation suffered by the primitive peoples. Yet we must learn (and I say "we" here, because I must learn), for our own happiness and peace of mind, to affirm life in all of its forms. What we often think of as bad—scarcity, separation, loss—is a natural part of the life cycle—of God’s divine plan—and if welcomed with gratitude and love, leads to new and healthy growth. Of course, I am not saying that we should not reject injustice, cruelty, and useless and unnecessary suffering; we must look these clearly in the eye when we encounter them and fight them to the best of our ability. But it would help us to remember that these too were faced by primitive people yet did not prevent those people from irrepressibly saying “yes” to life.

One of the keys to living a healthy and happy life is, I think, awareness or consciousness. The more we can be non-attached and alert to what is happening around us and to us, the less likely we are to be taken by surprise and the more likely we are to say “yes” to everything. Non-attachment does not mean coldness or indifference; we can and should be passionate. But it does mean not allowing our egos to cling to the issues that arise in our lives and to drain away the joy and the sweetness of living.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

True Confessions: A Review

Here is what The New York Times critic Vincent Camby wrote about True Confessions when the movie came out in September 1981: “Quite simply it's one of the most entertaining, most intelligent and most thoroughly satisfying commercial American films in a very long time.” I have to agree that this is indeed an excellent film. While the film I recently reviewed, The Third Miracle, is really saved by the fine performances of Harris and Heche, True Confessions is nearly flawless in every aspect—acting, writing, directing, cinematography.

The movie stars Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall as brothers, the former a monsignor, the latter a cop, who become embroiled in a murder case in 1940s Los Angeles. Duvall’s character, an angry and bitter crusader for justice, clashes with the powerful but less than savoury friends of the archdiocese, of which De Niro’s character is the very ambitious chancellor. In the end, no one is free of the odour of lust and greed and the hunger for power. The monsignor becomes the scapegoat for the sins of the archdiocese and is banished to a parish in the desert, the same parish to which he was ordered to pasture an elderly priest whose self-appointed role as clerical conscience was more than his jaded cardinal could tolerate.


As the single-minded Tom Spellacy roots around in his investigation of the murder, he finds links between the victim and Tom's sometime mistress Brenda (Rose Gregorio), who runs what is crudely though accurately described as ''a $5 cathouse.'' There also are connections between Lois and Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning), a big-time Los Angeles contractor and pillar of the Catholic Church, a fellow who is one of Msgr. Desmond Spellacy's softer touches. Jack Amsterdam, former pimp, now receives introductions to the Pope, builds church schools at cost and gets honored as ''the Catholic layman of the year.''

As the investigation continues, the connections become increasingly complicated and dangerous for just about everybody, except, perhaps, the urbane Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack), who has made his archdiocese one the the country's wealthiest, and Frank Crotty (Kenneth McMillan), Tom Spellacy's partner. Crotty is a cheerfully crooked cop who takes small bribes but who would never railroad an innocent man to the gas chamber, as Tom might.

A web of sin and corruption connects nearly every character in this story; the tawdry and tainted atmosphere—noir on the surface but actually something deeper and more disturbing—is almost palpable. The innocent and wayward are the victims of the powerfully evil, and as the movie ends there is but a tiny glimpse of redemption in the self-awareness of the monsignor and the tentatively expressed love between the brothers.

The writing in this film is nothing short of superb. There is barely a contrived or artificial note in the entire movie and not one scene is predictable. When Tom Spellacy meets the parents of the murdered girl at the train station from where they will accompany her body home, he discovers a clue that will connect a big-time property developer to the case. The father is talking about his daughter and produces a small notebook in which she has written a sweet but sophomoric poem which the father begins to read but cannot finish. He gives the notebook to Spellacy who completes the poem and discovers on the same page a telephone number. In any other whodunit (which, of course, this film is not) the notebook would simply have appeared and the number found as the detective searched through it. Here, however, the pathos of the father’s loss completely disarms the viewer and overshadows the discovery of the number until a subsequent scene when a reverse directory reveals that the number belongs to the developer.

The characters, even the most minor of them, are fully drawn, from Brenda, the “$5 cathouse" madam, subtly and beautifully portrayed by Rose Gregorio, to the parents of the dead girl, who appear in only one scene. Unlike the caricatures of bishops we see in films like The Third Miracle and Priest, the cardinal in True Confessions, played by Cyril Cusack, is so brilliantly understated in his inhumanity we are compelled to believe he is real.

The performances of De Niro and Duvall, as well as several of the supporting actors, are also outstanding.

Mr. De Niro and Mr. Duvall are at the peak of their talents here. They work so beautifully together it sometimes seems like a single performance, two sides of the same complex character. But then the film is stuffed with memorable performances. They include those of Mr. [Charles] Durning and Ed Flanders, as the most prominent laymen in the monsignor's parish; Burgess Meredith as Seamus Fargo, an ancient, crotchety, seriously committed monsignor who's being given the expedient sack in the course of the film; Miss Gregorio, who has never before had a film role to equal this one, which she brings to vivid life, and Mr. Cusack and Mr. [Kenneth] McMillan.

True Confessions is more a morality tale than a classic film noir. In the film, the powerful and corrupt, whether they be businessmen or cardinals, may be clever enough or well connected enough to escape the judgment of the law, but they cannot avoid the final judgment—eternal damnation by the body of the faithful to the miserable hell endured by all cinematic villains.

Every time I watch this film, it stays with me for days. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Making Room for God

I have been engaged, more or less full-time, for the past several years in a personal study of the Catholic faith. This study has not been systematic in any way; I have simply trusted my intuition to take me wherever it wanted me to go. My journey, and my feelings about the journey, have been fairly well documented in this blog in the short time it has been in existence; blog postings have also been random, the result of inspiration rather than of a particular agenda. The main characteristic of the study and the writing has been unrelenting passion.

I have stated previously that I understand, as a mature Christian, that God is not the bearded old man who appeared on the glossy pages in the family Bible of my childhood. I recognize that God is within me as he is within every particle of creation. Yet in these years that I have been so engrossed in studying and reflecting on faith, I do not feel that I have truly connected with God, experienced God, participated fully in the mystery that is God. I have not felt the God who is within.

A great deal of emotion has been involved in the journey, but it has also been a deeply intellectual exercise. I have reached the point where the intellect and the emotions have become reasonably well integrated, but I have so far failed to integrate the spiritual and create a truly whole person (or a true holy person?). I have so far been unable to banish the ego in order to make room for God, and as long as I allow the I/me illusion to dominate my daily life, God will remain hidden.

There is a large hole in the mosaic I have been creating since my return to the Church; what is missing is prayer. I have heard many people say that prayer is the key to truly experiencing God, but I have yet to succeed in finding a method of prayer that works for me. For some reason, I am not motivated to pray. At the end of my first meeting with the pastor of our church, shortly after I joined the parish, he gave me a rosary that he had bought in Rome and that had been blessed by the Holy Father. I have prayed that rosary many times, both in church and privately, but the repeated Our Fathers and Hail Marys prayed silently or aloud do not speak to me. I have participated in the Liturgy of the Hours, which on our church is chanted before the weekday morning Mass; it is very beautiful and often quite moving but God is just not there for me in those prayers. For some reason, I always end up thinking about what I am going to cook for dinner that night. I wonder if I should just pray the rosary as a kind of mantra and create a space for God to enter, or if I should follow Eckhart Tolle and create stillness so that God may enter the spaces between thoughts? At this point I just don’t know about prayer.

Another significant piece that is for the most part missing is the Bible. I have read about the Bible. I have heard others speak knowledgeably about the Bible; I have even studied two of the Gospels (John and Matthew—according to Scott Hahn). But I have not taken this document and made it my own. I have not “wrestled with Scripture,” as the Jews do with the Hebrew Bible. I haven’t listened to the words of Jesus and contemplated their meaning for my life and for the contemporary world. I have not tried to locate, through my own effort, the connecting points and the points of disconnect between Jesus and the hierarchical church. I have not truly reflected on how I might imitate Christ in my everyday life.

I have also become aware in the short period since my return to the Church of a profound disconnect between the militarily hierarchical and politically and socially influential character of the Church, which often seems to predominate, and the truly pastoral, which tends to be overshadowed by the desperate effort of bishops to keep the Church out of the modern age. While I am sure that many bishops demonstrate considerable pastoral concern for their flock, what we ordinary Catholics hear are the incessant polemics of the pro-life, anti-gay, investigate-the-nuns, reform-the-reforms positions of the Curia and the national bishops’ conferences. Naturally, these polemics are exactly what the media thrive on, but we are not so naïve as to think that the bishops do not use the media for their own purposes. I cannot find God in any of this.

The institutional Church, then, with its overriding concern for policing adherence to doctrine, does not help me to experience God’s love. Because the priests in the local churches (at least in my archdiocese), as well as the local diocesan media, which is of course controlled by the chancery, are in lock-step with the bishop and thus with Rome, for laypersons seeking a glimpse of the true God, a huge iron fence of orthodoxy has been erected before them. Am I wrong in thinking that the main purpose of the Church and its leaders is to help the ordinary Christian, the ordinary Catholic, to experience the goodness, the love of God through the sacraments, through effective preaching?

Again, I think of Hans Küng, who has clearly shown that the spiritual relationship between Jesus Christ and the institutional Catholic Church is tenuous at best.

Through his actions this man from Nazareth became involved in a dangerous conflict with the ruling forces of his time. Not with the people, but with the official religious authorities, with the hierarchy, which handed him over to the Roman governor and thus to his death....Even in today's Catholic Church might he have become involved in dangerous conflicts if he so radically put in question the dominant religious circles and cliques and the traditional religious practices of so many pious and fundamentalist Catholics? What if he even initiated a public protest action against the way in which piety was practiced in the sanctuary of the priests and the high priest and identified himself with the concerns of a popular church movement "from below"? Jesus was anything but the representative of a patriarchal hierarchy.

It seems that Catholics who find themselves in conflict with the religious authorities of our time need to reclaim the Jesus of the Gospels and to seek God through Jesus’ unconditional love, his acceptance of everyone, his forgiveness of those who persecuted him, and his simple but profound wisdom. We love our Church, but we must see it for what it has become: a powerful and influential organization in which only a few are actually in touch with the ideals of its supposed Founder.

I am not disappointed or bitter that I have failed to find God in my Church. As I have said before, I know that God has led me onto the path that I am now traveling on. I only seek to feel him traveling with me.