Friday, May 28, 2010

Something Is Happening Here but You Don't Know What It Is

There is something brewing among the Catholic laity. It is gathering steam and gaining ground. There is a growing concern about abuses and cover-ups, an indignation over a leadership that seems out of touch. I am reminded of Bob Dylan's hard-hitting, if not unsettling song, “Ballad of a Thin Man” that appeared on his album Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. The recurring line in that song is, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

One of my favorite priests, the late Father Pat Sullivan told us one Sunday of a diocesan meeting he had been to. “I looked at all those priests coming out of St. Paul’s Cathedral,” he said in his Irish brogue, “and I tell you people, it was an undertaker’s dream.” He went on to make his point that with ageing clergy and a shortage of priests, the future of the church is with the laity. For years there has been an increasing shortage of priests, and the response from the Vatican seems to be simply to redouble the efforts that have been failing to attract candidates. The church remains adamant about not ordaining women, ignoring the important role played by women in the early church. It continues to resist anything but a celibate male priesthood, even though the celibacy requirement did not come about until the 12th century (a recent development, comparatively speaking, no?). But the biggest hindrance seems to be an insulated old boy network in leadership that seems unaware and uninterested in what is happening out in the real world, and out in the parishes where the faithful are trying to make some sense of faith and service.

Nicholas Kristof has written extensively in the New York Times about the disconnect between the church hierarchy and faithful who serve on the front lines representing the church to the world. There was an inspiring report just a few weeks ago about the work of simple good-hearted priests and nuns serving the poor in Sudan, in contrast to the robed and powerful in Rome. This week Kristof wrote about Sister Margaret McBride in Phoenix who was recently excommunicated for allowing an abortion had St. Joseph’s Hospital in order to save a young woman’s life. It was a decision which physicians, the patient, her family and the ethics committee were all agreed upon. People who know Sister Margaret are shocked. Kristof points out that when comparing the biographies of the bishop and of Sister Margaret, “Sister Margaret’s looks more like Jesus’s than the bishop’s.”

There are many stories of people doing the real work of serving the poor and feeding the hungry, teaching children and ministering to the sick. They are people whose faith is true and real. They are people who often go unnoticed. At the same time, there are the distressing reports of abuse by priests and bishops who cover up those crimes. There is a hierarchy that is moving backwards to pre-Vatican II days, holding firmly to outmoded constructs while leadership becomes more and more distant from the flock they serve. On May 10, America the National Catholic Weekly ran a news brief of the first traditional Latin Mass in decades at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated by Oklahoma’s Bishop Edward J. Slattery. Accompanying the news item was a photo of Bishop Slattery in his crimson-robed regalia processing down the aisle. The picture drew critical response from some readers who saw the stark contrast between that image and the service that is really needed in the world. One reader thought sackcloth and ashes would be more appropriate for a bishop's attire. Something is happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Bishop?

Many are speaking with their feet. If former Catholics were a denomination, it would be one of the largest in the U.S. Many others are simply going about with their lives, trying to live faithfully. Still others are content to let religion be a peripheral matter in their lives, something to remember at baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

Maybe a lay movement will break loose that will shake the foundations of the old boy Church hierarchy, or maybe the influence of the church leadership will continue to wane. Admittedly, the Third World holds a different dynamic and a different set of challenges from those we see in the U.S. and Europe. Who knows what lies ahead for the largest branch of Christendom?

Something is happening here, and the hierarchy does not seem to know what it is. It is not dark yet, not as long as there are true-hearted saints on the front lines such as Sister Margaret McBride and others who are living out their faith. How will all this play out in the years ahead with laity and the church hierarchy, and the true servants of faith? We'll just have to stay tuned and realize that something is happening here but we don't fully know what it is.


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