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After 35 Years: A Return to Reform?

My friends can tell you that I have a bad habit. Actually, more than one, but only this one is relevant at the moment. When going through my email inbox, I tend to scan everything, then work from the least important first ‘saving the best for last’, so to speak. Especially after a busy week, I might spend an hour just sorting through quasi-spam and quick reply messages, clearing the space so I can respond to the really important ones. The problem is that I too often run out of time, and messages from my closest friends or strongest ecumenical contacts languish a little too long awaiting attention. The same logic has log-jammed my blog lately.

Since about two weeks after Pope Francis was elected as bishop of Rome, I have sat down several times to start a reflection on his fledgling papacy. The problem is, every time I do this, I get distracted reading about whatever exciting new thing he has done. Often they are little changes, gestures and actions, but they paint a picture of humility and commitment to reform, openness to dialogue and noble simplicity of faith and its expression.

By now the litany of these little things is well known: He appears on the balcony dressed in the simple white simar, like John Paul I, rather than the mozetta and stole of JPII and BXVI. He asks for our blessing before offering his own. He makes personal phone calls. He demonstrates astute ecclesiological acumen by referring to himself as the bishop of Rome, and his predecessor as bishop emeritus of Rome, exclusively. He stops by to pay his hotel bill in person. He moves an entire liturgy out of St. Peter’s and into a juvenile prison. He washes the feet of women and Muslims. He calls the Patriarch of Constantinople ‘my brother Andrew’. He’s formed a representative committee of cardinals to reform the governance of the Catholic Church – or at least the Roman curia. He has unblocked the path to sainthood of one of the 20th century’s great martyrs, Oscar Romero. And so on…

A couple weeks after he was elected, one veteran vaticanist noted that “suddenly, everyone around here is laughing and smiling.” A senior colleague said “I had forgotten what it was like to be so encouraged and inspired.” A fellow student commented that it “felt as if a burden has been removed that I did not know I had been carrying my whole life [c.35 years]”

Although great joy truly has the reaction of the vast majority of people to Francis, not all have been positive. It took the traditionalist fringe all the way until Holy Thursday (15 days after election) to retreat into the old safeholds of disrespect and antagonism. First, they blame the press for creating a false Francis vs. Benedict comparison, and leap on every fan’s expression of praise for Francis as though it were an insult to Benedict.  Some immediately decried his humility as false, a kind of stage prop, and held up as a paragon of true humility the faithful master of ceremonies of Benedict XVI, novus Marini, for ‘suffering’ the loss of his lace. They have accused him of being a slob, of undermining the office of the papacy. Basically, they are afraid of change, hurt that the first pope since Pius XII to actually like all the neo-baroque nonsense resigned, and afraid of a return to the days when people were excited about the changes that Vatican II promised. [e.g.]

Everyone else had just long since forgotten what it was like to feel excited about the prospect of change in the church.

Earlier this month a Jesuit friend told me how his confreres have noted that the ‘young people’ do not seem to like Francis very much. The problem, though, here in Rome, is that ‘young people’ are judged as is everything else: clerically. The seminarians under 40, the same ones who were drawn to the priesthood as a power structure, certainly are nervous. But everyone else is giddy. The young, the old, the long-suffering and the fair-weather, everyone is happy but for those who invested in birettas and lace surplices (cf. John Allen, Jr.). But even for them, there remains a place in the Church. How could there not? No one is threatening their particular peculiarities and liturgical peccadilloes. But they simply are no longer being championed as the next big thing.

Yesterday, Pope Francis’ comments to the Conference of Latin American Religious were leaked, in which he seems to suggest not taking the CDF investigation of Religious too seriously, bemoans his own lack of administrative organization, acknowledges the problem of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, and identifies as two of the most significant concerns today the Pelagianism of restorationist/traditionalist movements, and the Gnosticism of certain spiritualist movements.

One is the Pelagian current that there is in the Church at this moment. There are some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council… One feels in 1940…” The Pope is then said to have illustrated this with a joke: “when I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups, and they said: “Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure: 3,525 rosaries.” Why don’t they say, ‘we pray for you, we ask…’, but this thing of counting…

(Though, it strikes me now, what will this mean for all the plenary indulgences I have been able to accrue while living in Rome? I have been saving them up for a rainy day, and now the numbers do not matter? Sheesh…)

Yet, lest you fear (or cheer) His Holiness’ critique of the extreme fringe as a radical departure from his predecessor, Andrea Tornielli reminded us of this commentary on the same topic from then-Cardinal Ratzinger:

 …the other face of the same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want forgiveness and in general they do not want any real gift from God either. They just want to be in order. They don’t want hope they just want security. Their aim is to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises, through prayers and action. What they lack is humility which is essential in order to love; the humility to receive gifts not just because we deserve it or because of how we act…

Joseph Ratzinger, “Guardare Cristo: esempi di fede, speranza e carità” [Looking at Christ: Examples of faith, hope and charity]. 1986.

The sense now, for most, is that people are hopeful, but hesitate to be too hopeful. More and more, people are reminded of John Paul I, Papa Luciani, who had the same simple, honest way with the Petrine ministry and the hope that he had instilled that the reforms of the Council would continue, only to have those hopes dashed after only 33 days. Three months after Francis’ election, I think some people are still afraid that their hopes will not have the chance to come to fruition. But hope it is.


Pope Francis – Jorge Bergoglio

Pope John Paul I - Albino Luciani

Pope John Paul I – Albino Luciani


Prayers for for the faithful departed

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

There was a time in my life when it seemed I was bouncing from one crisis to another, from one tragedy to another. Often these were the deaths of friends or family, or the family of good friends. Because of my own losses, I became particularly sensitive to those of my friends, and there was a time when it seemed every email I sent out was a plea for prayers.

As many of my friends know, by the time I turned 21 I had experienced the death of 21 friends, family, and acquaintances – I had been to more funerals than weddings until sometime in my early or mid-20’s. I have learned (or, better, begun to learn) the importance of grieving, of celebrating life, and the reality that death is not the only way to lose someone – sometimes it is not even the most painful.

Whatever fear of death I may have had has long gone, though the fear the loss of people I love remains – but i know even the worst are only temporary. There is a reason for our hope in Christ, our belief in the resurrection and in the communion of saints, after all!

This has been a hard week for a number of people. I have specific prayer intentions that I want to share, but I do so with a certain caveat (or two).

First, by this small series of losses, I am overwhelmed again by the destruction in Haiti and the massive loss of life there, and the ongoing struggle for basic needs to be met in what has long been the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. To steal from another commentator, what has happened there is not one huge tragedy, but the concentration of a million tragedies. The individual story should not be lost in the large numbers. For me, these few stories unrelated to the Haiti disaster have put it in stark relief, and refreshed my prayer for the people there.

Second, these are not self-interested intentions. My breath caught at reading one email, and I can relate to the people most affected, but I am not the one who has lost friends or family this week: So please do not pray for “AJ’s bad week”!

On Wednesday (24 Feb), Dr. Gail Walton, the longtime director of the liturgical Choir at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart died after a long battle with cancer. I knew Gail personally from my four years at ND, as an altar server at the basilica during the same liturgy that her choir served. Several friends, including a couple among my closest at ND, were in the Liturgical Choir and are attending her funeral tomorrow. It is for them, and for Gail’s family and dearest friends that I ask prayers.

On Thursday (25 Feb) it was reported that an alumnus of my high school, Mt. Si in Snoqualmie, WA, was killed in action in Afghanistan. I did not know Eric Ward, as he graduated 12 years after me, but he is the first Mt. Si alumn killed in the war on terror, and I remember vividly how much death can impact the small community there.

On Friday, (26 Feb) one of my fellow Fellows, Fr. M. Thangaraj from Tamil Nadu, India sent a brief email letting us know that his brother, Irudayaraj had died the previous day and was being buried on Friday. Given such a quick burial, Thangaraj was not planning on heading back to India.

On Saturday, (27 Feb) as you all know an 8.8 earthquake hit Chile, the epicenter being not far from Concepción where new Lay Centre resident Claudio is from. He was eventually able to reach a cousin who had heard from his immediate family and assured him that they were OK, but as of yesterday he had not been able to talk to them directly through phone or Skype. Obviously this also reminded everyone of the recent quake in Haiti, where another intended Lay Centre resident, Luis, was working for the archdiocese.

Today (Monday, 1 March) I got another email from Val, our reluctant Fellowship go-to guy, who passed on word that Fr. Thangaraj’s mother had died as well – just a few days after her elder son. Given the loss of mother and brother within days of each other, Thangaraj is heading home to India.

For Thangaraj especially, but for all whose lives have been touched by death and disaster this week, please pray for healthy grief, for healing, for faith in times of trial, and for the perseverance of hope.

Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let Your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication.
If You, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand?
But with You is forgiveness, that You may be revered.
I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in His word.
My soul waits for the Lord more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn, let Israel wait for the Lord,
For with the Lord is kindness and with Him is plenteous redemption;
And He will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.
(De Profundis, Psalm 130)

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