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I find myself among many others who have been pleasantly surprised by the first few days of Francis’s papal ministry. From the first moments of his balcony introduction, when he donned relatively humble attire, to his commentary on the selection of his name, Francis—after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his humble commitment to the most vulnerable of God’s creation, I’ve been experiencing feelings I have so rarely held with regard to a pope: Excitement. Gratitude. Affection. Hope.
Could it be that we find ourselves with a pope who demonstrates, in such a seemingly accessible way, the virtues of Christianity to which many of us have clung for so long? Isn’t this the type of papal leadership that for which we’ve hope for so, so long? With only a few days gone by, I am constantly surprised as I respond to questions like these with affirmation: Why maybe, yes, this is what we are witnessing…for now, yes, this might actually be happening…. Even as Pope Francis simply reflects the values that I have long believed to stand at the heart of Christianity—radical commitments to the weak and to a life of humility and mercy—I am still so surprised to see it in a public figurehead of the Church.
Accompanying all these good feelings and surprising affirmations has been a sense of hesitation, however. It is a lingering pause. A reluctance. These past few days have confronted me with the fact that I live as a Catholic so often expecting disappointment from the high-ranking officials of the Church. This is a protection mechanism. It is how I protect myself from the constant scandal and failure of fellow Christians in these positions of power. Were I to give myself, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, to belief in the Spirit’s transformative power in the ministry of these leaders, to the hope that they might really participate in the actualization of the goodness and mercy that we proclaim, then I might live always with a broken heart. I might live plagued by the failings of Church leaders.
Instead, I live with a very qualified Christian hope in our leadership. “I believe that the Spirit is moving in our world, in our Church, in its leaders,” I say, “but—” Always but. But the temptation of wealth and power. But the corruption of sin. But millennia of shortcomings. “Sure,” I think, “in principle the Holy Spirit is working through the ministry of these leaders, but de facto I no longer expect to see much evidence of it among these higher ups.” If I don’t expect radical mercy and visionary witness from them, then I don’t have to live with so much disappointment, right?
My reflections about this tension—this tension of hope and hesitation—has got me thinking a lot about Thomas, the disciple beloved among doubters like me. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told his friend upon the news that Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Despite dedicating his life to following Jesus, Thomas could not, in that moment, believe that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that had actually overcome death. And I don’t blame him. I imagine we can all relate to Thomas in some way: He was grieving the loss of his friend, and hope in Jesus’s return would be a profound risk of heart—a heart that was already hurting with such sadness and disappointment.
In many ways, Thomas’s doubt was quite reasonable. And, to be sure, there are many good reasons to qualify one’s hope in church officials such as the pope. For one, far too many people invest all their hope for the Church in these men, equating the Church with its hierarchy and overlooking the loving, awe-inspiring work of Catholics living out all sorts of vocations throughout the world. Furthermore, these guys are not God, but sinful creatures like the rest of us. Sin is a reality that does impede our ability to actualize the Christian life to the fullest and freest degree imaginable. We shouldn’t place an unqualified hope in anyone.
Still, Christian life is about courageous hope and love, not enduring cynicism. I am saddened that my response to the witness of charity and humility that I see in Pope Francis is so deeply tainted by cynicism. For, is not the goodness of creation at the heart of the Christian message? Have I not let my fear of disappointment from church leadership prevent me from anticipating the goodness of this man, and so many other Church leaders for that matter? It seems that my doubt in the enduring work of the Holy Spirit has inhibited my ability to believe what I see right before my eyes—moments when the Christian message really comes to life.
While most of us recognize the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas,” I read recently that there is also a tradition of referring to him as “Believing Thomas.” It wasn’t until this week that I marveled so much at the belief he proclaimed after placing his hands in Jesus’s wounds. Thomas doubted—yes, for good reason—but when he recognized Jesus before him he surrendered his doubt—and so humbly. I pray that when we are confronted with the image of Christ before us—be in a pope or stranger or a beloved friend—we too will surrender our doubt, our cynicism, our guards in order to believe in the goodness of the other. “We have to put our hearts out,” commented Catholic blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in her recent reflection on the Pope and her own hesitation to hope for this new papacy. “We have to take the risk. That is what faith and belief demand from us.” That is what faith and belief demand from us—that we all may be a bit more like Believing Thomas.
A couple years ago Roger Haight S.J., one of Catholicism’s leading theologians, visited the Paulist Catholic Center here in Boston to offer a three-day lecture series. At the beginning of one Q&A session, an audience member stood in a huff and proceeded to deliver a lengthy, rather aggressive monologue directed at Haight. Those familiar with the controversies surrounding his work might assume that this man took the public lecture as an occasion to echo the harsh words of Haight’s magisterial critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience member argued that the disciplinary measures against Haight were another example of the reactionary shift in church leadership since Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council, he explained, had offered a vision of hope for Catholics that has only been mired by the Church hierarchy ever since.
This is a message I heard repeatedly during the last three and a half years as a staff member at the Paulist Center. One of the major hubs in Boston for Catholics seeking a community of vibrant worship and lefty social justice commitments, the Paulist Center is hospitable to many folks who wish the Church at large looked a little (or a lot) different than it does today. Despite my familiarity with this audience member’s perspective, my shared dissatisfaction with the treatment of Roger Haight and his work, and my own related concerns about the current status of Catholicism, I found myself cringing as I sat in the pew just a few feet away from this man.
When the event concluded I headed to dinner with a group of young adults where I facilitated a discussion about Haight’s talk. As always, I was struck by the earnestness, intelligence, and eloquence of my peers as they reflected on spirituality and our lives as Catholics. These young adults echoed, in content, what that vocal audience member had proclaimed earlier: They, too, where saddened and frustrated to know that our brilliant and kind lecturer had endured so much strife from church leaders. They, too, worry about what our church does and does not look like today.
What was absent from their reflections that night—and most nights—was the aggressiveness and bitterness that made me cringe when I heard very similar concerns from the older audience member earlier that evening. I rarely experience the same bitterness among younger “progressive” Catholics that I witness so often among older members of the community. And I’ve been trying to figure out why for a long time. Have we young adults simply not lived with the church long enough to accrue the degree of anger that we witness in older Catholics? Is it just a matter of time until we also find ourselves taking the mic for a few safe moments to diffuse some of that frustration we’ve been harboring inside? Maybe. Maybe that’s one reason why that man made me so uncomfortable: I recognized much of my own anger in him, and faced with this mirror, I found myself wondering: Has my Catholic faith fated me to a life of bitterness and resentment? Is this what my disappointment and frustration is bound to become? This kind of anger, however sincere and justified, is not what I want for this man, my community, or my life.
I believe these are some of the pressing spiritual questions among many Catholics today. My years in Catholic young adult ministry have shown me that I am not alone in seeking a hospitable space where I can process my frustrations about the Church with a supportive community. This blog is one such space, to be sure. At the same time, there are these moments when there is a temptation to indulge this disappointment and anger in unhealthy ways. We attend to our wounds in ways that cause them to fester rather than heal. With the best of intentions, we proclaim our anger so loudly and so often that we come to associate only words of resentment with Catholicism. When we listen to ourselves we only hear how miserable it is to be a Catholic today.
How do we respond to the pain in a way that brings healing and life? Because Christian work ought to be healing work, I am convinced that all Christians—especially ministers—need to deal seriously and carefully with church-related pain, whether it belongs to others or to oneself. Yet I do not think simply offering a microphone is always the best response; it is rarely a good response if it is the sole response. I suggest this because I experienced a temptation in communities full of genuinely hurt Catholics to join the chorus of anger when it doesn’t quite reflect the complexity of one’s situation of own faith—of one’s own pain. In the safety of like-minded folks such as that audience member, I have found myself spouting dismissive comments about the Church only to realize minutes later that my own words don’t reflect the reality of my life as a Catholic—as a Catholic who is sad and frustrated, but also enlivened and hopeful. Again, admittedly, there are times when I have rather snide things to say about the Church that need to be named in order to be processed healthily. But, when faced with such words, I think I too rarely ask myself and others: Is that all you need to say? Can I help you process this more?
As I have expressed elsewhere on the blog, I do not think the necessary result of this healing process will be a long, carefree life within the traditional boundaries of the Catholic Church. Whatever the concrete results of processing the pain of Catholic life, I believe that healing, life-giving work is the work to which we must faithfully give ourselves. As much as the concrete results of healing are often unknown and always particular to an individual’s own struggles, I am quite sure that a life bounded by bitterness and resentment is likely not what God wants for us.
Over the years, the frank and hopeful insights of the young adults at the Paulist Center have taught me this. These peers afforded me opportunities for honest speech in the context of a larger community of healing, for which I was immensely grateful as I concluded my time on staff there last week. And the healing continues…
Yesterday afternoon I broke from my homework to read the latest NYTimes op-ed on Catholicism, “The Curse of Catholicism” by Frank Bruni. Prompted by Gary Wills’ forthcoming book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Bruni argues that institutional Catholicism has done a disservice to its priests and practitioners by “tuck[ing] priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapp[ing] them in mysticism and prioritize[ing] their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews.” The column, relatively lengthy for an op-ed, goes on to connect explicitly the structural privilege of priests and the power abuses exercised in the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up. I have been reading studies on this connection for years and continue to find it deeply concerning.
I do have some contentions with the article—namely, Bruni’s emphasis at one point on Wills’ claim that Christianity was “opposed to the priesthood” from the start, an argument that strikes me as anti-Jewish and rather untenable in view of the tradition of understanding Jesus as the High Priest, as showcased in the Letter to the Hebrews that the church prayed with just this past week! Still, despite this and despite the fact that I have been brooding over the connection of church structures and power abuses for nearly a decade now, something about this article affected me anew. Skimming my computer screen, my heart felt so heavy I thought I might have to hunch over to lean my elbows on the table, just to manage of the weight of it.
Perhaps it is because the details of the article reminded me that I am simply so close, so entangled in the ongoing terrible tragedy that Bruni narrates. A good deal of the piece rehearses new reports about the extensive cover-up of clergy sexual abuse carried out by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former Archbishop of Los Angeles. He signed my paychecks in 2009 when I served as a minister in the Archdiocesan Office of Religious Education. Every day I worked just a few floors below him. I ministered at liturgies where he presided. I probably shook his hand once or twice. Or maybe I was struck by my closeness to all this because I read that article from a seminary library—a library I occupy nearly every day—that was sold to Boston College by the Archdiocese of Boston in its scramble to attain excess cash for clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. The window I sat beside looks out over Cardinal Law’s former residence, which also sits on the property. The mere mention of his name still infuriates the people of Boston.
In moments like this when I am reminded that I am frighteningly proximate to this scandal, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of complicity. This Church—led officially by many people who have abused power, and defined by structures that enable them—I am a part of it. I choose to be a part of it. My religious life, my professional life, and so many of my friendships are entirely entangled in this Church. If the structures of this community enabled some leaders to commit appalling abuses, and I am a part of this community, am I not somehow indirectly complicit?
This question is terribly uncomfortable, but whenever it confronts me I have the conviction that it is not to be easily dismissed. So yesterday afternoon, after closing my computer screen, I let that question haunt me. I sat with it before bed and I woke up with it. And then I read that famous passage about the Body of Christ from the First Letter to the Corinthians, which appears in today’s liturgical readings. Despite decades of familiarity with it, something about this passage affected me anew when I read it this morning. It was two brief sentences that struck me, actually: “Now the body is not a single part, but many….Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The first sentence reminds us that we cannot reduce the body—the church—to a single part, to oneself. Or to anyone else for that matter—a pope, a priest, a parent. The second sentence, however, emphasizes the opposite: we are distinct individual parts within this larger body. We do not lose our particularities in our belonging to this larger body, as if conflated or erased. This is a tension of being Church: We are many and we are one. We belong to each other but we do not lose ourselves as individuals. We are responsible for one another, but we are also responsible for our own actions and inactions.
So, again, this question: Am I complicit? In view of the vision of church we find in today’s reading, I think we ought not set aside the question of communal responsibility, of structural sin. At the same time, we must keep in mind the obvious fact that people must take responsibility for their own individual actions and inactions when it comes to this terrible scandal. The Church as a whole cannot be conflated with any of its figureheads; in turn, any priests’ sin is not every Catholic’s sin. We must learn to live in this tension as church, and we must learn to live with it in a way that doesn’t leave us so heavy hearted that we are paralyzed. We cannot let the difficulty of church keep us from being the best of church–
More on that last line in the next blog post.
My heart sank last week as I read Kate’s blog entry, “Done.” In her testimony about trying to leave Catholicism, she wrote, “I’m feeling these days like I’m in the midst of a breakup, you know, the really horrible kind where you know it isn’t going to work but you want it to so badly that every fifteen minutes you manage to get yourself entirely convinced that it actually can work, only to remember five minutes later why it can’t, only to repeat the cycle over and over and over until it makes you crazy and you can barely remember who you are let alone the reasons why you’re breaking up.” Kate wondered whether other ex-Catholics had experienced the same heartbreak in their final days with the Church. I am not one of these ex-Catholics, and honestly, I can barely imagine leaving Catholicism—but to the little extent that I can, I imagine it would feel exactly like a horrifying breakup.
In Lauren Winner’s memoir, Girl Meets God, she recounts her transition from Orthodox Judaism to Anglican Christianity. Couched among the tales of her various love affairs, the story of Winner’s tumultuous conversion mirrors her romantic relationships with men. Winner writes of how she found herself consistently enamored by Jesus while persistently fighting against her burgeoning devotion. In the end, she gave in to the love affair. I read this book for the first time when I was sixteen—at the age of first love and first heartbreak—and undoubtedly, it gave me a paradigm for understanding my increasing attraction to the Catholicism of my upbringing. If becoming Catholic was like falling in love, perhaps leaving would feel something like a break-up.
We have rituals for break-ups, for mourning the loss of a lover, a once-constant life companion. We let ourselves cry. We call our friends, and they show up, sit on our couches, and hold us as we try to catch our breath, like Kate. We take down pictures and put old letters into shoeboxes that we shove into our closets, perhaps opening them from time to time for grieving. When we have no paradigm for life without that ex-companion, friends tell us to wake up in the morning, to get out of bed, and they promise that someday it will be a little bit easier. Those around us testify to a hopeful future until we believe it.
Later in the day after reading Kate’s blog entry, I sat at dinner with my boyfriend Jack, telling him how I had carried her heavy words with me all day. Jack leaned forward to speak—then paused. “I have a frank question for you, if I may?” he asked. “I know you don’t think you can leave, Jessica. But do you ever wonder if you could, maybe some day?” Jack has stood beside me during Episcopal liturgies where I wept silently, yearning to belong to a community like that—a more egalitarian space where, for instance, a woman could consecrate the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Afterward, I told him I was crying because I could never imagine leaving the Catholic Church, even in the moments when I want to. Feeling stuck in my relationship to the Church hurts sometimes—but I have no paradigm for life without the liturgy and people and tradition that I have loved for so long, even with its major imperfections.
“Sometimes I think it’s possible,” I responded. “But, I think I would need a funeral first.” Jack tilted his head, wearing a confused look. This was not a clever way of saying I will be Catholic until I die. It had simply occurred to me, “I would need some sort of ritual. You know, at funerals everyone who loves you gets together, and they celebrate your life with them. They mourn your absence but they commend you into another space. At the very least, I think I would need that to leave Catholicism. To feel okay about it.”
For many people, leaving Catholicism is a courageous decision made in response to the painful circumstances imposed on them by the Church. Many suffer within Catholicism for many years before they leave, and for many leaving is a concerted effort to salvage Christian faith. It is not a rejection of it. More than ever, it is apparent to me that we need a pastoral response for those who need to leave. We need some way of communicating those messages of condolence and hope that we share with our friends as they mourn the loss of a lover: “It seems that this is the best thing for you right now, even as it hurts,” or simply, “It’s going to be okay.” We need to go sit with them, and listen to the stories of their grief. We need some way to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry…”
It was a friend’s mother who gave me Girl Meets God in high school. She was raised Catholic, and during her college years she increasingly attended a local Protestant church. She became involved in their ministries, and eventually she found herself identifying with this new community much more than the Catholicism of her upbringing. One summer she was at a Christian camp with young people from her church, and she befriended a Catholic priest who was also there with a group from his parish. She told him about her life in the Church, and how she had decided to leave Catholicism for this new Protestant community. This priest offered to say a prayer with her, one that would mark her departure from Catholicism and her entrance into this other Christian community. And indeed, their prayer marked this transition for her all those years later.
When she told me this story as a high school student, I thought it was so strange. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would intentionally seek a mark of separation from Catholicism. Excommunication was the only thing I could equate to this type of event, and that is something forced on people—not sought out. But today I wonder what a prayer like that could do for people like Kate, or for many of the people I know and love. And I wonder what the offer of a prayer like that would do for me.
In the process of juggling the heavy chalice and coarse white napkin during my first occasion of serving as a Eucharist Minister, I managed to spill the sweet, red, consecrated wine—the Blood of Christ. It spilled all over my shaking hands. It formed a tiny puddle atop of the burnt red tile of the Mission Church floor. I shook with panic and embarrassment, but could not manage any productive move in response to what I had done. I had been careless with the gift of the Eucharist. I had spilled the Blood of Christ. And everyone watched me.
I was amidst an intimate evening liturgy with the Jesuit community and a small collection of guests from our university community. There were maybe thirty of us in attendance. Everyone could see me as I fumbled around with our Faith. This was at the heart of my momentary, paralyzing anxiety. My panic did not stem from a burden of personal shame about carelessly handling the Eucharist—I was confident this mistake was not unforgivable in God’s eyes. It was the gaze of my fellow Christians that terrified me. I knew how much the Eucharist means in our tradition, and I feared being judged a sloppy, unfit Catholic because of this incident. In my struggle to participate and serve the community, I had committed a grave liturgical sin, and everyone watched me do it.
Sometimes I think this is what it is like, being a theologian, or a minister, or simply just a Christian in our world today. We publicly take up a faith, a claim to a community, an allegiance to particular authorities (however ambiguous or ambivalent that may be), and everyone is watching us do it—fellow Christians, religious skeptics, curious inquirers. Everyone is watching.
And sometimes all I can do is stand there before everyone, the Blood of Christ dripping from my fingers, all too keenly aware that I am not the appearance of what a good Christian should be.
Seeing the shock and embarrassment in my frozen expression, Father Ravizza rescued me. This kind, gentle man stepped out of the communion line, came forward and leaned in close to me. “I spilled,” I said in a whispered confession. “It’s okay,” he replied. “Let’s do this…” He removed the white napkin from my clinched fingers, unfolded it and covered the small red puddle on the floor. He hurried over to the side altar for another napkin, and before I knew it he was at my side again, placing a clean cloth into my hand. He did not tell me to sit down. He did not replace me with another more competent minister. “Go ahead,” he said, nudging me back to the patient people in the communion line. “The Blood of Christ,” I began again…
When I struggle with the public imperfections of my Christian life, with the guilt of not being the community member I wish I was, or the person that I should be, I return to this moment for a reminder of redemption. Jesus will step out of the communion line to clean up this mess with me. And Jesus will tell me to “Go ahead,” again.
Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared.” –Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle
There is a class at Harvard in which all MDiv students (those earning degrees in preparation for ministry) must recount their “spiritual autobiography” for those in the class. I’m told this process of vulnerable sharing, listening, and exchanging feedback can take many class sessions. Yesterday a friend told me about his recent experience of presenting his autobiography, wherein he admitted to his classmates that he is unsure about whether ordained ministry is actually what he pursue upon the completion of his degree.
“Well, would that ministry utilize your gifts?” they responded, “What are your gifts?”
My friend said he hesitated in his response. He felt uncomfortable claiming the (many, really extraordinary) gifts that he possesses. He said this felt out of character, and counter-cultural to both his faith community and the decorum of where he was raised.
Although the two of us come from different hometowns and denominational traditions, I imagine myself responding similarly was I placed in his position. I, too, experience the tension between a sense of real, genuine humility, on one hand, and the importance of recognizing one’s skills for discernment and effective ministry, on the other.
Recently, I have not only been confronted with this tension in my friend’s story, but also in the writing of Teresa of Avila. The professor who assigned her book, The Interior Castle, for this week’s reading warned the class: “Teresa has an extreme tendency toward self-deprecation—it can be quite disturbing, but just push through!” Sure enough, within the first few pages of the book she had already made it quite clear to the reader that she, herself, is useless, and only writes out of obedience to God and her monastic order.
As I have read on, however, it has become clear that Teresa was blessed with extraordinary gifts, as a mystic and as a communicator of those experiences for the betterment of others. Even as she communicated an extreme, self-deprecating humility, she must have written out of an undeniable knowledge of her giftedness. This is evident in one of her rather ironic warnings against the danger of a false sense of self-knowledge:
If we are always fixed on our earthly misery, the stream will never flow free from the mud of fears, faintheartedness, and cowardice. I would be looking to see if I’m being watched or not; if by taking this path things will turn out badly for me; whether it might be pride to dare to begin a certain work; whether it would be good for a person so miserable to engage in something so lofty as prayer; whether I might be judged better than others if I don’t follow the path they all do. I’d be thinking that extremes are not good, even in the practice of virtue; that, since I am such a sinner, I might be a greater fall; that perhaps I would not advance and would do harm to good people; that someone like myself has no need of special things…Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared. So I say, daughters, that we should set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His Saints. There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced, as I have said, and self-knowledge will not make once based and cowardly.
Like Teresa, I realize that every person is blessed with unique gifts, and that I should celebrate this by sharing my gifts with others rather than letting fear and false humilities get in the way. The kind of humility that Teresa implores (perhaps in a self-directed message!) is a humility that does not deny giftedness. It acknowledges God, and it acknowledges the giftedness of others, but it does not prevent one from the sense of peace and joy that comes with doing what one is really good at!
How can I foster this sort of life-giving humility? How can I let go of the false, fear-inducing humility that so easily distracts me from my gifts? And how can I help others do the same?