WHO Cares?

During this time of crisis my employer has suggested keeping an eye on the World Health Organization website.  I’ve been doing that with a nearly religious fervor.  I’ve been looking over the daily situation reports.  These not only contain advice not poisoned by government agendas, but also list the new outbreaks and provide pages of statistics.  The numbers differ from many news sources, but WHO tracks new cases, the number of deaths, and the vectors of transmission.  I’m trying to make a learning exercise out of this, instead of just further cause for panic.  More secretive world states, WHO warns, are preventing containment by under-reporting.  You’d think that in a time of global crisis that even autocracies would want to cooperate.  You’d think wrong.  

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

WHO has indicated that some nations (the usual suspects) are keeping numbers down not through effective measures, but through not reporting them.  Since honest reporting helps to trace, track, and understand transmission, such nations are essentially holding out hope that they’ll somehow bend this crisis to their advantage and appear stronger than they actually are.  I’m guessing these nations are male. 

Interestingly, the names of the countries on the overall list don’t always match those I’ve learned in my own study of geography.  The Vatican, for example, is listed as “Holy See.”  I know that’s its name, but it seems kind of odd against Lichtenstein, Peru, and Mozambique.  The Holy See, last time I noticed, had 6 cases.  The number gave me pause.  With a population of just over 600, Vatican City does seem to be a male nation.  It’s a country of clerics. 

Those in ministry toe a difficult line during a pandemic.  Governments are telling people to isolate themselves to halt the spread of disease, and yet clergy, like medical professionals, often have to put themselves in harm’s way.  I think of how Pope Francis had laid hands on the sick, even when it must’ve been difficult to do so.  Local churches have, for the most part, shut down.  Clergy are self-isolating, social distancing.  It is the socially responsible thing to do.  How it fits within an ecclesiastical view of life, however, must be quite a balancing act.  I often think of how I’d be acting if I were a minister.  Would I go to the home of someone suffering in isolation, or would I be afraid of infecting my own family?  Would I be a nation reaching out to the rest of the world with largess, or would I be a holy see cut off from the people?  I don’t have an answer.  I wonder if anyone does.

Bible Misunderstood

Okay, so I wrote a post a couple days ago about evangelicals challenging Trump’s China tariffs because it will raise the price of Bibles.  Little did I know that Miriam Adelson wants a “Book of Trump” added to that very Bible.  Now, heroes are a personal business; to each their own.  Adding someone to the Bible, however, especially when that person has no idea of what Jesus said, is problematic.  Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars know that even if most Christians agreed books simply can’t be added to Scripture.  Many think the Gospel of Thomas should qualify—it may actually be closer to the words of Jesus than some of the canonical gospels and was putatively written by a disciple.  Thomas, however, will never make the cut.  Early bishops and elders in the church set pretty firm limits to the New Testament.  

Some religious traditions, such as Mormonism, have gotten around this impasse by writing entirely new sacred texts.  Loyal Trump followers might indeed fit the description of what used to be called a cult.  Thing is, George W., and George H. W., and even Ronald Reagan were more religious than the incumbent and nobody suggested adding them to the Good Book.  Our world has somehow flipped upside down in the last three years.  All I know is that in the photos of Trump with the most Jesus-like Pope in modern memory the Holy Father wasn’t smiling.  Then again, the Pontiff would likely not autograph Bibles if asked to do so.  Has anyone suggested a book of George Washington?  There’s such a thing as getting carried away.  

The Bible, apart from being the sole recognized authoritative text of the world’s largest organized religion, is an iconic text.  This means that the Bible is recognized as an important book—perhaps even a stand-in for God—without considering what it actually says.  This was a major point behind Holy Horror and it’s essential to understanding American political behavior.  Manipulating Scripture for political ends is generally the most cynical of approaches to the Good Book.  In America you can drive down highways and see the Bible advertised on billboards.  Large segments of an increasingly secular society are still motivated by it.  There was a time when it was believed that such cavalier suggestions as that of Ms. Adelson would constitute blasphemy, or would at least profane the founding book of Christianity.  In the minds of some Trump has clearly become a god.  So it was in Rome before the fall.

 

Basic Catholic

One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.

One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.

One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.

Ark Apocalypse

I get lost in the web. Although my work requires that I remain plugged in to the internet all day long, I confess to feeling lost on the weekend. I don’t know what to browse or where to look for titillating new information. A friend then asked me what I thought of Gabriel’s Ark being sent to Antarctica. I had no idea what Gabriel’s Ark might be and I had to hunt through the corridors of rumor and conspiracy that make up much of the worldwide web to find it. Once I did the story grew incredible and also impossible to verify. Maybe this is why I avoid the web on weekends.

337px-Folio_29r_-_The_Ark_of_God_Carried_into_the_Temple

So the story goes like this: Gabriel, the archangel, gave Mohammed a secret weapon called an ark that would herald the last days. This ark was buried in Mecca. So the story goes, it was unearthed in September and it was the power of that ark that led to the tragic crane collapse that killed over a hundred pilgrims in Mecca last year. Days later the weapon went off again, leading to the death that the media blamed on a human stampede. Wanting to rid themselves of the ultimate weapon, the Saudi officials handed it to Russia. A research ship headed for Antarctica took on the mysterious cargo in Arabia before chugging south. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met with Pope Francis, so the story goes, to receive an ancient document to control the ark. The Patriarch then showed up in Antartica to enact a strange liturgy before the trail goes cold on the story.

No major, respected news media carried the story. That only confirms that it is a cover-up in the eyes of many. What is so fascinating about all of this is that those who continue to keep the story alive clearly believe that the end of days is being unleashed not via the Christian apocalypse, but a supposed Muslim one. It’s as if Revelation didn’t deliver, so now we need to turn to some other ancient, obscure document to document the apocalypse. Meanwhile, those who’ve spent their lives learning to read ancient texts by accredited universities scrounge for whatever work they can find. Odd people aspire to very powerful political positions. Money is the only thing that matters. Maybe it is the end of days after all.

Rutgers Presbyterian

It is indeed an honor to be invited to address a church group on topics that matter. While I didn’t directly address global warming in my book, it was in my mind as I wrote it. Early in my teaching career, I wasn’t sure how to cinch up the gap between the lexicography I was attempting and the real world issue that it should address. The seminar portion of yesterday’s program focused on topics associated with the weather, and I was gratified to hear that many of those present felt that a profound weather event had made an emotional impact upon them. Weather has a way of reminding us that we’re small and that forces beyond our control still exist. I’d forgotten how nice it is to while away a few hours with intelligent people who think about the world we all inhabit. I only wish I could have recorded all the wisdom I heard. We tend to think if someone’s not speaking to us from a major media outlet they’re not worth listening to. I am glad to be reminded that this is not so.

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During our discussion of global warming, the question arose as to what we could call “climate change” to make it appropriately terrifying. Various suggestions were made such as poisoning the sky, suffocating the earth, and old-fashioned, and to-the-point air pollution. We are a species that seems bent on its own destruction. The atmosphere is so incredibly large, but, as our host reminded us, so very thin. Life is supported only in what might be considered, in his words, a thousand-story tower. Beyond that, life runs out. We need to take the limited nature of this small envelope of gas surrounding us seriously.

I’ve come to realize that my fascination with the weather largely derives from looking at the sky. Such an activity is so basically human and so profound, that we simply overlook it most of the time. The sky is superior to us. It was, for most of human history, far out of reach. We have stretched our hands up to the realm of the gods and smeared it with our industrial filth. Many of those present, although not Catholic, applauded the Pope’s insistence that the world must be view holistically and that we must stop polluting our home. Pollution used to be an ugly word, but we have been taught to change our language to add ambiguity. “Climate change” is so neutral, with no one to blame. But it’s not at all accurate when it comes to the real costs. We’ve already impacted the weather for a millennium into the future at least. And I, for one, left our session optimistic that intelligent people cared enough to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon discussing it.

Pontificating

I’ve been in a few New York crowds, but this one seemed on its best behavior. I was in the city later than usual since I’m giving a talk today at a friend’s church in the Upper West Side. My wife came to meet me and, knowing the Pope was going to be saying mass at Madison Square Garden shortly after her train arrived at Penn Station (for out-of-towners, Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station) we decided to meet at Herald Square and avoid the other kinds of masses. I walked to the square from work and realized my mistake—34th Street was barricaded and there were crowds already beginning to form. The Pope had a procession through Central Park, but I neglected to check on the remainder of his route. My wife arrived and, taken in by the rush of the moment, decided to stay and see what we could see. We were literally one person back from the road. The police kept saying that they couldn’t confirm he was going to come this way, but the helicopters hovering overhead seemed to tell a different story.

The crowd was so well behaved. No pushing or shoving, and even loud talking was mostly absent. It was, believe it or not, kind of reverent. Sure there were people with placards suggesting that one should get right with Jesus, and the occasional pedestrian saying, and I quote, “Why is there so much people here? The Pope? You’ve got to be kidding—can’t we cross the street?” By and large, however, there was good will. One of my coworkers had emailed during the day saying she’d gone by Saint Patrick’s the night before, but couldn’t see him. The crowd, she commented, was kind spirited. Perhaps that’s what having a kind-spirited Pope will do. After we’d stood for nearly an hour, I was beginning to wonder if the motorcade had taken another route—7th Avenue was closed as well. Then the cheering began.

Pope Francis rode by, the window down, waving at the crowd. My glimpse was only a fragment of a second, but it was clearly him. I’d met an Archbishop of Canterbury or two in my time, but here I was, no more than thirty feet from the Pontiff, if only for a second to two. And it was all pretty much by accident. Life surprises us that way sometimes. Reading his words about climate change to the leaders of the world, I can’t help but think we’ve needed a leader like this man for a long time. He’s as human as the rest of us, and he knows that we have only one world and in that one world are millions of people in need. And global warming will hit them first and hardest. And the God of the evangelicals who say the planet is ours to destroy is not the God he recognizes. He’s just one man, but he is able to bring the largest city in the country to a halt, even if just for a second or two. This could be saying something important for those who have ears.

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Pope-ulation

My brother, who art near Philadelphia, recently told me that the City of Brotherly Love began towing cars from the no park zone a week before the Pope’s anticipated arrival. There are those apocalyptic concerns for the commute into New York City this week as well. Papal visits are always big news, but Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many, Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian alike, because of his obvious and sincere care for people. Mercy, kindness, sympathy, and empathy have long been overlooked in many organized religions, and to have the head of the largest Christian body in the world emphasizing just those things has been a breath of well, spirit. As our world has turned increasingly towards materialism fueled by a rationalism that says this physical world is all there is, a hunger has been growing. People need to be assured that there is some meaning in being people.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Theological purity is all fine and good, but it is only, literally academic. We send our clergy to seminaries to teach them to understand the rational part of faith. Many laity may not realize that a Master of Divinity is a three-year degree because it has to allow time for spiritual development. I was unlike most seminarians, having majored in religious studies. Coming into ministry from all areas of life—science, medicine, politics, business—many seminarians aren’t accustomed to taking school time to get in touch with their souls. It is a foreign concept in a world where we’re daily told we have no souls. Pope Francis is a pontiff with a soul. And the world has noticed.

We need those to whom we can look up. We need heroes not only of the action movie variety, but those of more human dimensions as well. Two of the most populous cities in the country are preparing for a kind of epiphany. America has long been a country of laissez faire ethics. Leave it alone and it will all take care of itself. We can all see through that. The northeast coast is bracing for a different kind of hurricane this season. It will mean traffic headaches, for sure, and no doubt many will be chagrined at all the fuss. Still, I have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a hopeful sign. Perhaps we have a need for religious heroes still, after all.

Pope of Deliverance

As I was out jogging just now, a large gasoline truck pulled across the road, stalling my attempt at healthy living. As I waited for the driver to move, I thought of Laudato Si’. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, the future seems, for the first time in a long time, an optimistic place. I’m not Roman Catholic, but knowing that the head of the largest Christian body in the world has made an ecclesiastical pronouncement about our responsibilities as citizens of the planet is nevertheless authoritative. A world run by blind greed cannot see the signs in plain sight. We have taken what does not belong to us and have left a wasteland behind. I look back over a lifetime of advocating, in the small way my small voice can reach, for responsible tenancy on the Earth, and feel comforted by such a powerful ally. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a property “owner,” buying into the myth that the planet may be purchased, but it has never made sense to me that one species has the right to claim it all for itself, leaving it in a state our mothers would’ve never allowed our bedrooms to have been left, and supposing it is somebody else’s problem. If not ours, whose? We’re the ones paying the rent.

Those responsible for industrial level pollution baulk at the idea of economic fairness. Capitalism rewards the greedy and the only thing to trickle down is tears. Those with money can always count on lackeys to follow, thus when the man in white says this is important, those in red, and purple, and black have no choice but to follow. There’s no escaping the planet. We shouldn’t have to feel we need to escape. We need to take—dare I say it—corporate action. Those of us on an individual level sometimes think we can’t make a difference. Habits can be powerful things. A visit to a landfill can be a mystical experience. The visions you have there won’t be beatific, however. You might begin to understand the Inferno, in any case. We consume, and pollute, as if it is our right to do so. As if our brains have misfired into suicidal sociopaths.

Son, behold thy mother.

Son, behold thy mother.

Where, I have often wondered, is the voice of the church in all this? By far the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are religious. Religious leaders, embroiled in politics that lead to solvency and power, have frequently neglected to turn out the lights when they’ve left the board room. While it may seem to be an abuse that the Catholic Church is extremely wealthy and highly influential, it may be that the humble leader of such an organization is the only person truly capable of getting attention. The Pope’s voice carries farther than that of any other single individual in the Christian tradition. And the media are already buzzing about the long anticipated Laudato Si’. The Pope begins on a positive note, and if those who make any claim to be faithful pay attention to the truly important message—far more important than fighting condoms or ensuring that half the human race is kept out of the club house—there may be a slight glimmer of hope yet. Maybe religion really can deal with ultimate concerns after all.

2015

New Year’s Day seemed to me, as a child, an odd choice for a holiday. We’d just had Christmas a week before. Of course, at the time I did not realize that the date of New Year’s was a symbolic one for the Christian calendar, and the celebration seemed no more significant than getting to stay up until midnight. The systematic changing of the years felt just like the regular progression of numbers, and what was there to celebrate about that? Of course, time cures even itself, and I came to see New Year’s as a time of new beginnings. Resolutions never sat well with me, since improvements, I’ve always believed, should be implemented as soon as the problem is noticed. Waiting until the dead of winter hardly seemed like an inspiration to get things done. Unless the resolution was to get more sleep. Still, we can all use new beginnings.

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s, however, has taken on a more somber tone of late. As an adult, I often brood over the past year, and it seems that just when hope may be on the horizon, we find new ways to make the situation worse. Much of it comes down to politicians and the economy, two things that no resolutions ever seem to fix. Although I didn’t see the point of it all as a child, I did look to the future with optimism. It has gotten so bad now that science fiction writers have to make a case for trying to have a positive outlook. Dystopias are popular, I believe, because they are believable. Given the performance of politicians and church leaders (with the obvious and large exception of Pope Francis) we’ve seen little to suggest that our institutions have the will or the means to improve our lot. Even the Pope has made enemies by being a nice guy.

Already we’ve begun to hear that some apocalyptic groups have targeted 2015 as the year the world will end. We’re just getting over 2012. I think what is most disturbing is the sameness of it all. Another year means the continuation of a job that keeps food on the table, at least it is to be hoped. Beyond that, we will have more antics to watch that, were they not so fraught with consequences, might be thought funny. I haven’t lost my capacity to dream. Those who think me a pessimist don’t know me very well. Dreams are, however, futures that we have to take into our own hands. We can’t spend 2015 waiting for politicians and corporations to suddenly change for the better. In what sense is “business as usual” ever new?

Pope for the Planet

According to The Guardian, Pope Francis is about to weigh in on the faux question of global warming. Faux because there really is no question—we know it is happening. Some high ranking Catholic politicians, no doubt, will not be amused. Apart from the fact that Francis has proven himself a true saint from the moment he got out of the gate—distancing himself from European pontiffs far more interested in church politics than what really matters—he has brought a sensibility borne of knowing how people really live and what is really important. Global warming is real, and the science behind the assertions is unquestioned. Interested parties (such as big oil) have hired their spin doctors to confuse the voting public, casting doubt on one of the few certainties we have. Politicians, whose funding comes from business interests, of course choose what to believe. How anyone can be so shortsighted, or selfish, as to saw off the very branch on which they stand I can’t comprehend. Past popes were too busy trying to keep ladies out of the exclusive gentlemen’s club to worry about those who feel the brunt of global warming.

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Nav, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, it will catch up with all of us eventually. I’m not much of a swimmer, and I’m worried. Hurricane Sandy (a superstorm only in the sense that it hit the affluent) showed us just how near sea level Manhattan is. One gets the sense that the fastest growing cities being in Texas is no coincidence. As long as it doesn’t impact me personally, what’s the worry? Some entire island nations stand at threat, but perhaps they should’ve considered that before they moved to an island. Here’s the news flash—all land is island. We need each other, and the lowlands are as important as the highlands.

Organized religions of all kinds have been under fire for years. As science began to explain more and more, religions had to explain their own existence. Many turned internal—not in the spiritual sense, but in the aspect of clarifying the precise points of what makes them right (i.e., different from everyone else). In the United States the small town without five or six different steeples was the exception rather than the rule. Meanwhile, the emissions continued. And continue. At least we know we’re right. At last there is a pontiff who is a realist. A priest who understands that church is all about caring for people—those in the lowlands as well as those in the highlands. Of course, politicians know how to turn off the religion when it gets inconvenient. As long as I get mine, all is right with the world.

Lead Serve

For never having been a Catholic, my life has been strangely tied to the Roman Catholic Church. Like many in my diminishing profession, I was raised in a religious household—in my case non-denominational Protestantism with a strong Fundamentalist streak—and have wandered a bit from my starting point. When my family moved to a small town with just two churches—United Methodist and Roman Catholic—we had no choice which to join. I learned the Methodists were just disgruntled Anglicans, and logic dictated that I would eventually join the Episcopal Church and gain a deep appreciation of Catholicism. My first professional job was teaching at an “Anglo-Catholic” Episcopal Seminary. While there I was interviewed for positions at Roman Catholic schools, and not infrequently brought to campus: the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sacred Heart School of Theology just down the road in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. Most of the time I was in the list of finalists when the position would go to a Roman Catholic, “no hard feelings, right?” Long ago the Episcopal Church, ironically, got out of the higher education market.

It is with this background that I keep an eye on the Roman Catholic Church. Many friends and colleagues are Catholic and we have far more in common than I have with my Fundamentalist forebears. I frequently find myself in wonder at Pope Francis. Many church leaders have made the news over the past several decades, but few of them for such good. In an article on NBC over the weekend, the Pope called for seminary reform, noting that always toeing the line will turn priests into “little monsters.” I taught at Nashotah House for fourteen years, and I know exactly what he means. I encountered students who could quote Paul about being freed from the law and in the next breath lay down ecclesiastical law with enough force to behead a heathen. The Episcopal Church, which is small but disproportionately powerful, should take the words of the pontiff to heart.

A cold day in...

A cold day in…

Pope Francis noted that seminaries need to keep up with the times. Indeed, the laity of most religious traditions have little trouble accommodating to culture while their faith remains mired in the Middle Ages. In a world robbed of essences and meanings, it is difficult to teach future clergy that the spirit of a faith can be honored in outwardly different ways. The idea that we can just hold on ’til Jesus gets back should’ve been questioned once Islam came to be a major force a few centuries after Christianity settled in. Since that time Christianity has fractured into thousands of sects united by little more than essences. Instead of settling in for the long haul as an empire, the Pope is suggesting that the church settle in as servants. That’s a radical idea. And it is one, if I read my Bible aright, that its founder would be pleased to find in force should he ever decide to return.

Pope of Deliverance

TimePopeIt’s the Time of year. The time of year Time chooses a person of the year. Not for the first time in recent memory, a religious figure has been chosen. Granted, Time declares the person of the year is the most newsworthy, not necessarily the best to emulate morally. Notorious scoundrels have made their way onto one of the nation’s top news magazine’s covers, while many more worthy will never be selected because they just don’t garner the notice. Despite this, Pope Francis is certainly the most deserving pontiff in living memory. Over this year he has demonstrated that the Catholic Church does have some historical memory of its original call and mission to the Christian faith.

Ossification is a natural tendency with institutions. We tend to think the earliest universities are still the best (in some cases that may be true), while in fact better educations are often found elsewhere. We want to believe that as it was in the beginning, is now, and do I really have to finish it? Times change, institutions evolve. Within half a millennium the Christian movement went from a bunch of persecuted, fearful peasants hiding in corners to the power brokers of a powerful empire. Problem is, once you’ve tasted empire, there’s no going back. Until now. How odd it is to see a person who could live a life of opulent self-service giving it up to be kind to his fellow humans. It is almost as if the Vicar of Christ has somehow become incarnate. A pope who is one of us. And the world stares in wonder.

I don’t mean to pick on the Catholics here. We see it in many religions. Someone humble and spiritual joins a religious movement for obvious reasons. They then grow through the ranks, acquiring a craving for power. What a temptation it must be to stand before an audience of thousands, knowing that by television hundreds of thousands more are watching you—hanging on your every word. Our underlings tell us we are great and it isn’t so hard to believe them. The man who steps down from his kingly throne to mingle with the laity, who doesn’t ride bulletproof cars to represent a man who willingly, so the story goes, gave himself up to die. What saddens me is that this is newsworthy. Not to detract from the spirit Francis has injected into a stony Vatican, but that we find it incredible is a comment on what has come to pass for religion in this time. Thanks, Time, for holding up this important mirror to our society.

Unusual Thanksgiving

Believe it or not, preaching was once part of my job description. At Nashotah House all faculty were called to the pulpit, ordained or not. Falling into the latter camp, my obligations were generally held down to once a semester. My first homily, focused on the lectionary readings for the day, was about the problems of social inequality. Afterward the senior faculty member came to me in the vestry and said, “It has been a long time since I’ve heard the social gospel preached from that pulpit.” This little incident came to mind as I was reading a CNN Belief Blog story my wife pointed out to me. The article highlights some of the provocative comments by Pope Francis in his recent document Evangelii Gaudium. Francis, in a startlingly refreshing vein, suggests that the church must get back to basics. Human basics. I agree with those who say the church has not gone far enough on gender equality, but the idea that the cut of your surplice demands more divine attention than the homeless and starving has got to go.

At Nashotah House many students who wanted to be Catholic priests but also wanted to be married (the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak) had Pope cards, rather like baseball cards, in their chapel stalls. This was in the era of the great conservative John Paul II, affectionally known as J2P2 in the theological ‘hood, when men ruled and a congregation might split over the use of a maniple. The gnat-strainers were clogged in those years. Camels fled for their lives. I wonder what these priests now make of the very head of their favorite chauvinistic church stating that even the papacy itself must change. I keep wondering when Pope Francis will have his accident, or unexpected heart attack or stroke. As the Belief Blog makes clear, not all appreciate the challenge to the status quo. There is too much power at stake.

This Thanksgiving, this old Protestant finds himself unaccountably thankful for a Pope that is willing to start turning things in the right direction. It will take decades, if not centuries, before the church can possibly catch up with the realities faced by the vast majority of the powerless, disenfranchised, and the needy. These are uncomfortable realities. When I saw a picture of Pope Francis laying his hands on a badly deformed man during a service in Rome a few weeks back, I could almost believe that someone was taking the message of Jesus to heart. That message was, and is, a radical one. We only have all-male disciples because we can only count to twelve. And we tend to forget that just about all of those guys were working-class slobs. Maybe if we could really be thankful for the gift of people all of this might just come to mean something significant after all.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Com-Passion

I suppose it is always premature to hope that ancient institutions are likely to improve. Like many other followers of developments in religion, I was pleasantly amazed to read reports of Pope Francis declaring that, in my vernacular, that the church should not be so stuck in the rut of doctrinal abstemiousness that it forget mercy and charity. How sad to see that hours later he was forced, Galileo-like, to recant somewhat. The forces at work are far more powerful than the vicar of Christ. In some minds religion is doctrine. I know whereof I speak. For several years of my professional life I worked for a doctrinaire institution where any hint of mercy was considered a kind of Protestant mewling before a God who would’ve made even Jonathan Edwards tremble. Although officially released “without cause,” I can’t help but think that my own pastoral sensitivities were at fault. I don’t believe that religions thriving on condemnation deserve the title.

Ironically, I was at Notre Dame University when headlines about the Pope’s declaration that the church should not obsess about homosexuality and abortion appeared in the papers. It was with a kind of wonder that I heard an academic say, “the Pope is sounding more Lutheran all the time.” I’m not naive enough to suppose that the pontiff is suggesting a change in doctrine—there are rocks so heavy that the Almighty himself can’t lift them—but that the leader of the world’s largest church was suggesting mercy and compassion outweigh legality felt as if Amos or Micah had just walked into the Vatican. The next day the Pope had to come out and strongly condemn abortion. Politics, it seems, will always trump human understanding.

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We live in an era of iron-willed religions. The human element often vanishes beneath a frowning providence that wishes for clocks to be turned back decades, if not centuries. These religions have no place for improving the human lot in this sinful world—it is much easier to condemn than to contemplate compassion. Religion is hard, for people find forgiveness a difficult doctrine to accept. Jonathan Edwards dangled his spider over the eternal fires of hell, but ecclesiastics today suggest that swift shears taken to that silken web would solve all the problems. Time for change? Not in this century. Religions, too, evolve. But evolution doesn’t equal improvement. Many an agnostic has become so because of the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw.”

Palming the Truth

For some today is Palm Sunday. For others it is not. And I’m not referring to those outside the Christian camp. For many Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lent is just beginning as others prepare to celebrate Easter. Such divisions in the priesthood of all believers. The message was brought home to me when a friend emailed me an article from Archon News headlined “For the first time since the Great Schism, Ecumenical Patriarch to attend Pope’s inaugural mass.” For those of you outside the thrill-a-millennium Catholic-Orthodox drama, it might help to know that about the middle of the eleventh century, Christianity experienced its first major schism. The issues were insignificant to all but those who had far too much time on their hands, but the list of grievances grew and festered for centuries until a clean-shaven Pope and heavily bearded Patriarch stopped inviting each other to one another’s parties. It seems that Pope Francis may be seeing the beginning of the end of that particular tiff.

Christianity is one of the most fragmented faiths in the world. Tens of thousands, yea, myriads of denominations exist. And if some of them got together and compared notes, I suspect they’d be shocked to learn that they are just the same as some of the others. Religious belief is deeply personal and highly individualistic. Belonging to a religious body is more a matter of commitment than it is a full agreement on every point—rather like a marriage, I suppose. The funny thing is people join religions that they like, suspecting that these copacetic beliefs will somehow save them from Hell. You can literally write your own ticket to Heaven, based on this system. No religion is right because all religions are right. And we wonder why people are eager to kill one another over matters of belief.

So, is it Palm Sunday or not? It depends entirely on your point of view. Roman Catholicism, followed by many Protestant groups, considers the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox to be Easter. Never mind that all this equinox stuff smacks of its Pagan forebears—even Easter is named after the Germanic goddess Ostara. I can’t pretend to know how various Orthodox groups calculate their Easter, but the fact is that both dates can’t be right. Unless, of course, one of them is really a celebration of Ostara. Or maybe both are. And if it comes to a matter of debate, it will mean the birth of even more denominations.

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Ostara laughs to see such sport