Ever ancient, ever new

A friend of mine, a member of my old parish, received the following email and responded to it. I’m emboldening the text I consider important:

Dear Rally Captain,

Congratulations on becoming a Rally Captain in the 2013 Public Square Rosary Crusade!

At this crucial historical moment, you’re part of a Rosary Crusade scheduled for thousands of cities at noon on October 12, 2013, the Saturday nearest to the 96th anniversary of the Fatima miracle of the sun.

The intention for our Rosary Crusade is to beg God and Our Lady to save America from today’s immorality and secularism.

Please know that here at America Needs Fatima, we’re committed to giving you the best assistance possible for your rally preparations.

My friend answered thus:

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The Francis Effect — Embodying Sacramentality

Pope Francis 2

Sacramental expression is one of the hallmarks of Catholicism that distinguishes it from other Christian denominations. Many other churches recognize sacraments as a theological component to their identities as Christians. Yet, their utilization is not nearly as frequent or central as can be found in the Catholic Church. This spiritual trend emphasizes a fundamental premise that constantly permeates the Catholic faith — that the divine can be found in all aspects of life — birth, death, friendship, celebration, or even during occasions of illness, despair, and anxiety. In the words of Benedictine sister and renowned author Joan Chittister, “The sacramental system reminds us at every stage of our existence  that the God of life touches us through the most mundane of things: through water and fire, oil and light, incense and flowers, bread and wine, salt and the touch of the other. It reminds us of the essential goodness — the godness, in fact — of the natural world. It doesn’t teach us that nature is God or that God is nature. It teaches us that God comes to us through the natural because nature was created by God. Or at least it tries to teach us our immersion in life. When we allow it.”

This philosophy is also a key element to the spirituality that animates the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, of which Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) has been a member for fifty-three years. Discovering the presence of God everywhere and always is what has molded the Jesuit mission into one that is focused intensely on social justice and advocacy on behalf of the poor — embracing the inherent dignity found in all human beings. 

Ever since his election, Pope Francis has consistently put these principles into practice through stirring words and visibly moving actions. Not long after the world had seen the white smoke that proclaimed his election as Bishop of Rome, Francis would embark on a path that would offer a notably different pontificate than has been witnessed in recent decades. Before giving his first papal blessing on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis asked the immense crowd gathered in the square below to extend their blessing to him. He then closed his eyes, folded his hands, and humbly bowed his head, as if to signal that he was receiving the cosmic energy of their prayers. Amazingly, the  throng of faithful who were gathered there to witness history followed suit, and grew silent, all immersing themselves in prayer on behalf of the new pope.

Many more dramatically unprecedented gestures have characterized the manner in which Pope Francis has exercised his ministry since being elected three months ago.

Francis has chosen not to refer to himself as “pope” but rather as the “Bishop of Rome.” The semantic change is important for a variety of reasons. Rather than establishing himself as a monarch, juridically, over all of the other bishops of the Church, Francis illustrates that although he carries out a unique ministry as the leader of the See of Rome, ultimately, he is one bishop among many, in a Church where the entire body of members, clergy and lay, exercise a plethora of ministries — which are blessed and harmoniously guided by the Holy Spirit. To highlight this point, the pope notably only speaks Italian during public occasions. Even during papal audiences where international groups comprise the crowd, Francis reliably insists on speaking the native tongue of the faithful of the Diocese of Rome. While the Bishop of Rome is a universal pastor to the whole Catholic Church, Pope Francis seems to find it important to underscore his dedication to the flock in his own ecclesial backyard.  This concept of collegiality among bishops was foundational to the sessions of dialogue that took place during the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). It is also a theme that has great implications for ecumenical relations. The Eastern Orthodox Church severed its communion with the Church of Rome early in the Middle Ages because of the escalating, unilateral, claims of spiritual and jurisdictional prerogatives that popes were claiming to have over all sees of the universal Church. The churches of the East affirmed that the Bishop of Rome was always reserved a special place, designated “first among equals”, as the leader of the ancient See where two of Christianity’s most prominent apostles, Peter and Paul, were martyred. However, they vehemently rejected the notion that in virtue of this symbolic position, the Bishop of Rome had the authority to settle matters of liturgical and theological practice for all Christians. Since Vatican II, both sides have been working ardently to heal this rupture. Many advances have been made but there is still much work to be done — mainly surrounding the issue of papal primacy. Astoundingly, when Pope Francis was officially installed as Bishop of Rome, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, was in attendance during the solemn liturgy. This was the first time such an overture had taken place during a papal installation ceremony since the Great Schism in 1054.

Other visual gestures the pope has performed have garnered the most news attention. Francis ditched the elegant, red, papal shoes that Benedict, the Pope Emeritus, was fond of wearing, in favor of simple, but purposeful, black loafers. In place of Benedict XVI’s gold-plated pectoral cross, gold papal ring, and gold, imperially-styled crozier, Pope Francis has adopted a recycled, gold-plated silver ring from the era of Pope Paul VI. He has also reverted to the silver, starkly realistic, crozier that was popularized by Blessed John Paul II, which depicts Christ vulnerably hanging in anguish upon the wood of the cross. His pectoral cross is also silver, and unadorned, bearing a simple engraving of Christ the Good Shepherd surrounded by a flock of sheep.

Further poignant acts carried out by the new pope have continued to abound, leaving the mass media and the world at large enraptured with curiosity. Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis personally insisted on paying his own hotel bill at the residence where the cardinal-electors had been lodged during the Conclave, on the grounds of the Vatican. Eventually, Francis would decide to make this hotel his new home, resisting the vast opulence of the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. He later mentioned that he “psychologically” could not comprehend living in such an imposing, sterile environment alone. As a resident of the hotel, Pope Francis has taken to celebrating daily Mass in its chapel, even delivering the homilies, and eating his meals with the public in the dining hall of the residence. Essentially, he lives the same life that any parish priest throughout the world would, attending to the care of those around him rather than expecting menial service on his behalf.

All of these aforementioned incidents are indicative of a profound change in papal style, one that hasn’t been witnessed since the days of “Good” Pope John. Pope Francis, before all else is a pastor. Initially, this was the ancient role that the Bishop of Rome fulfilled, to be a pastor for the whole, universal Church — existing as an avatar of unity for all Christians, while “presiding in charity.” Through the centuries, the papacy has gradually been transformed from a vehicle of pastoral service to one of the last, conspicuous, examples of unchecked, authoritarian tyranny. Contemporary society has grown accustomed to regarding the pope as an archaic reactionary — particularly in terms of the church’s previous two papacies, most notably on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Although Francis is most likely firmly committed to a traditional understanding of many of the controversial pelvic issues that plague the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century, approaching them with an objective, positive tone could make all the difference in how the church is perceived in coming years. Merely by allowing theological discussions to take place on a variety of dicey subjects — such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, divorced and remarried Catholics, and clerical celibacy — would lend to the view that Pope Francis is a genuine pastor, declining to condemn certain targeted paradigms as heresy, but rather welcoming diversity to flourish through a multiplicity of interpretations on the life of the church. The new pope has been intimately familiar with such experiences after serving as the provincial for the Jesuit order in Argentina for a period of six years. In this post, then-Fr. Bergoglio was widely viewed as being very accommodating, respecting and upholding the disparate polarity of theological views that flourished within the Society.

If an instant and tangible shift in various doctrines espoused by the institutional church will not be an immediate reality, could an ecclesial climate change not be the next best thing for a hierarchy that thinks in centuries?  Is it too hard to envision that a renewed atmosphere of objectivity, diversity, and inclusion might ultimately end up, gradually, facilitating those longed-for changes in so many areas of church teaching? Pope Francis himself has stated that he will not consider being an ideologue as one of the components he will be looking for when screening candidates that he will be appointing as bishops. Instead, he specified that he wants any potential priests he elevates to the episcopacy to be, “close to the people, fathers and brothers” and that they should be, “gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.”

If pastoral, open-minded, prelates such as these quickly fill the ranks of the institutional church’s hierarchy, who knows what subtle nuances in theological expression could soon be witnessed?

As Pope Francis continues to exercise a pontificate that is centered on the goodness, and inherent divinity, encountered in all peoples and circumstances, we can only hope and pray that such embracing sentiments will be accompanied by actions that touch the lives of so many who have long felt forgotten, denigrated, and ignored by the Pharisaic prelates of the institutional church.

All of these conjectures may seem supremely naive, but I cannot help but remain the eternal optimist I always have been. The Holy Spirit must have known what She was doing when She prompted the College of Cardinals to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first Jesuit pope. For as long as it lasts, I plan to wholeheartedly enjoy this breath of fresh air that has been gifted to the Catholic Church. May God grant long life, abundant strength, and a constant sense of objectivity to what could be the twenty-first century’s best hope for an incarnation of John XXIV.

Eternal City

Almost exactly seven years ago, I packed a big black bag, boarded my first-ever airplane, and flew to Europe with a friend. I hyperventilated, sure I would drown somewhere in the Atlantic. I didn’t.

Our trip lasted three weeks. We picked up more friends as we moved from Rome to Paris, from Burgundy to Dublin. But Rome was the inaugural and, for me, most important stop.

The first day was hellish. After many cramped hours, we emerged onto the blazing asphalt of Fiumicino Airport. We got into a hot bus that hurtled down a hill, toward a mass of graffiti-bombed walls and knots of umbrella pines. We disembarked at Termini, the Roman rail hub.

My non-Italian-speaking buddy then stared at me hopefully while I, nearly crying from exhaustion, dredged up rusty word combinations I hazily remembered from college. Due panini, per favore. Get us two sandwiches, please. Mille grazie. Thanks so much. Cinquantatre Via Napoleone Terzo, per favore. Please take us to 53 Napoleon III Road. That was our hostel.

Suddenly we were in an elevator that smelled like lavender, rosemary and dust. Then we were in a silent and stuffy dorm room with big old Italian shutters. I had a headache. I went to bed.

The next morning, we got bread and espresso at the neighboring bar. In Italy, when you go to a bar, you go for coffee. Then we walked. Excluding our Wednesday general audience with the pope, for which we had chairs, and our limited hours of sleep, we basically walked for three days.

Rome is not entirely old: we made much use of an internet kiosk on the Via Barberini populated by hipster types. But American cities have nothing like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, the Forum and the catacombs, all impressing upon you the mind-boggling antiquity of everything. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also sensed the city’s oldness in its merchants, those sellers of red-pepper pizza and chocolate gelato and Pope Benedict bottle-openers, who so blandly and efficiently took away our money. They seemed to say: You are mere tourists. You pass away quickly. Rome does not pass away. Rome is forever.

And, while the great Roman forever stretches back to the Caesars, it is mostly the forever of the Catholic Church. You quickly grasp this even while perusing piles of pre-Christian ruins. Stones in the Forum bear relatively fresh Latin inscriptions announcing that Pope Gregory XVI restored the area in the 1830s. And when you enter the Pantheon, emblazoned with the name of Marcus Agrippa and formerly dedicated to all the gods, you immediately glimpse pews and altar, candles and crucifix, reminding you that this is officially the church of Santa Maria dei Martiri, so you should genuflect just as in your neighborhood parish.

Churches. Like Thomas Merton, who gave a wide-eyed account of his trip to Rome in The Seven Storey Mountain, I soon found myself cataloging the endless series of churches I visited, churches that haunt me still. Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, discreetly tucked into the Baths of Diocletian. Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which has really creepy organ music. San Giovanni in Laterano, the papal cathedral, where I attended evening Mass. The Gesu, mother church of the Jesuits. San Pietro in Vaticano, or St. Peter’s to you. Santa Maria Maggiore. San Carlo al Corso. San Paolo fuori le Mura, which boasts portraits of every pope ever, though many are conjectural: who knows what Linus, who came right after Peter, looked like?

I once thought I knew something about omnipresent Catholic culture. I grew up Polish in a small suburb that used to have six Catholic churches and still has three. I have mostly lived and worked in what author Eugene Kennedy called “the thickly Catholic stretches of the [Chicago] archdiocese.” But Rome was another level altogether.

Above all, in Rome I was in constant communion with the dead. I crossed one church threshold after another to find multitudinous slabs bearing the funerary inscription D.O.M., for Deo optimo maximo (“to God, the best, the greatest”). These were usually the graves of cardinals. Pope Innocent III was, rather weirdly, interred directly above the Lateran gift shop. I almost tripped over the tomb of Catherine of Siena. At Santa Maria Maggiore, I paused in a chapel to get my bearings and was jolted to find myself right next to Pope St. Pius V, whose wizened, twisted body was enshrined in glass, protected by silver mask and gloves. More deliberately, I sought out the gold casket of Ignatius Loyola at the Gesu so I could pray there. Rome’s centuries upon centuries of dearly departed are as close, as real, as matter-of-fact as any of the living.

After years of processing Rome back stateside, I realize how much the city molds the church in its own image. The impermeability of the Vatican to outside voices has various reasons, ranging from the theological to the venal, but its physical location matters. Pope Paul VI reportedly once said that 1,500 years was a “brief interval.” It is the sort of observation that makes sense in Rome as almost nowhere else. When you live and breathe Romanita, it is easy to brush off the petitions of progressive American Catholics as myopic and irrelevant: You are mere tourists. You pass away quickly. Rome does not pass away. Rome is forever.

We must indeed demand justice. But we must know the lay of the land first. We need it to inform us as we move forward.

Francis and John

A couple days ago at work, I took a call from someone who wanted to know what I personally thought of Pope Francis. I knew what she meant. She didn’t mean what I think of him in general. She meant what I think of him now.

Now, because Francis recently reaffirmed the Vatican “reform” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest umbrella group for U.S. sisters. In April 2012 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put LCWR under the control of three U.S. bishops. Vatican concerns included “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

I thought for a second and said yes, I was disappointed by Francis’ response to the LCWR issue. But I added that I still like him. Francis has open contempt for power and careerism, for triumphalism and money. Inasmuch as reform begins with the pope, I’m not sure he could change anything else unless he starts with those problems anyway.

I also pointed out that someone we now consider a liberal, John XXIII, really wasn’t the liberal of legend. It was John as catalyst, not John as progressive, that mattered. And with that in mind, lately I think a lot about John and Francis, Francis and John.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII on October 28, 1958, was then 76 years old. Although conversant with the socially-engaged Catholicism of his home diocese, Bergamo, he was also thoroughly steeped in traditional nineteenth-century Italian piety: Jesus and Mary and Joseph, devotions and saints, obedience and mortification. His diary and de facto autobiography, Journal of a Soul, reflects as much. His career was solidly bureaucratic, that of a consummate uomo di fiducia, or “reliable man”: three decades in low-key Vatican diplomacy and five quiet years as cardinal-patriarch of Venice.

When the conclave elected Roncalli, one of the qualities his brother cardinals appreciated was his obvious loyalty to his predecessor, the conservative Pius XII. And Roncalli continued some of Pius’ more overtly conservative policies. For example, John–or at least his Curia–would uphold Pius’ decision to shut down the French worker-priest movement, in which clergy took jobs as ordinary laborers to better connect with their flock.

John was also an old-fashioned church historian by avocation, devoted to classical and medieval literature, author of a series of books about the sixteenth-century St. Charles Borromeo. So it was really no big surprise when he issued the 1962 Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia (“The Wisdom of the Ancients”), which pointedly promoted the study and use of Latin. Catholic intelligentsia, riffing on a then-current anti-Communist slogan (Cuba si, Castro no), joked that here was a case of veterum si, sapientia no (“old men, yes; wisdom, no”).

I doubt all of what transpired in Catholicism later in the 1960s and 1970s would have met John’s approval.  You can make a strong case that, despite his now-infamous encyclical against birth control, the real liberal pope of the Second Vatican Council was Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Paul VI. But Paul, while he would continue the council, also admitted that it simply wouldn’t have occurred to him to initiate it.

And there lay John’s great gift: just to know that something had to be done, that something was missing, that we needed a gust of wind, a new Pentecost, even if he could not precisely envision it. And he intuited that only a gathering of many others besides himself could envision it. By calling the council, which only completed one session before his death, John XXIII had a sweeping effect that far transcended him.

I can see Pope Francis fulfilling a similar role. I know he will never agree with me about many causes for which I work. But I also sense a man with a holy impatience: a pope who, to paraphrase his own pre-conclave words, cannot abide a self-referential church that gets sick choking on its own stale air.

He gives many signals that our self-referential, royalist climate is finished. There is his name, his emphasizing his local role as bishop of Rome, his refusal to move into the nineteen-room papal apartment, his paying his own hotel bills, his black pants and black shoes, his cheap iron pectoral cross, his insistence on constantly dialing up random friends and telling them “it’s Jorge calling,” his historic appointment of eight international cardinals as an advisory council (seven of them metropolitan archbishops, and only one Vatican official), his reported “unblocking” of Oscar Romero’s beatification, his celebration of Holy Thursday in a juvenile detention center. At the Vatican, in many ways a small village where symbolic gestures foreshadow programmatic changes, all this matters very much.

So for now I retain the hope that Pope Francis is himself a catalyst, that he too will have an  impact far transcending his own conscious intent.

(P.S. I’m not the only one pursuing this comparison: Historians ask: Is Francis a John XXIII? | National Catholic Reporter)

YAC Blog welcomes Call to Action’s New Director!

Call to Action announced today that the board has chosen a new director, Jim FitzGerald. Jim  has served on the Call to Action board and is the coordinator for Next Gen Faith Sharing CommUnions in the Boston area. (See the official announcement about Jim’s background below.) It is so exciting to have a member of our own young adult community assuming leadership!

The YAC Blog Team congratulates Jim on his new position and offers prayers of hope for his and Call to Action’s success and growth.

At this exciting time of transition, what are your hopes for the future of Call to Action, of the church reform movement, and for young adults within these movements for justice?

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