Monday, February 25, 2013

Politics & Prayer in Filling St. Peter's Chair

The occupant of Saint Peter's Chair holds the most visible and powerful position in all of Christendom. Therefore, the selection of Pope Benedict VI's successor is a matter of concern for all intelligent Christians, no matter what their denomination. Given the decisive role that John Paul II played in the downfall of Eastern European Communism, it is arguable that whoever becomes the next Pope is a matter of concern even for every human being on the planet.

My hopefulness about the Papacy skyrocketed with Benedict's resignation, signifying as it did, I think, that it is possible for the ancient and venerable institution that is the Roman Catholic Church to make needed changes. If a Pope's physical and mental capacities are no longer equal to the tasks set before him, it is good that this can be admitted honestly and the underlying truth of the situation handled through his resignation. The alternative, namely for Benedict's work, in the face of his incapacity, to be handled through the inevitable machinations of a power elite surrounding and covering for him, would NOT a good thing. So, Benedict's resignation is a very good thing, perhaps his strongest legacy, hopefully setting a precedent for all his successors to follow in similar humility.

My hopefulness about the papacy just plunged with the news that the winsome leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has been forced to resign. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, just two weeks away from the Papal conclave, tendered his resignation after decades-old accusations suddenly, mysteriously came to light. The timing cannot be mere coincidence, but suggests that Vatican politics is rearing its ugly head. Cardinal O'Brien had just admitted in a BBC interview that he believes that priests should be allowed to marry, as they had been permitted in the early church (listen here: BBC interview).

Of course, whenever even just two humans gather, the politics of power come into play. Politics cannot be avoided, but they can be waged in a good-hearted and transparent way, thoroughly grounded in prayer. Therefore, may no Cardinal speak or act, except as the Holy Spirit prompts him. Christendom's supportive prayer might now become that all the inevitable political behavior involved in the upcoming Papal election serve God's purposes. May the next Vicar of Christ be the man who is most Christ-like. May the Vatican's political processes serve to identify that man, and that nothing other than God's will be done. The future and flourishing of all Christianity is at stake.

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UPDATE Normally reliable sources are providing contradictory information on the details in this story, such as whether Cardinal O'Brien will participate in the Conclave or not. I humbly call an end to my attempts to pass along the latest versions, and commend the whole matter of the Papal election to every reader's prayers.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Yes, HAPPY Lent!

It's only Day 2 of Lent, and already I've met with a few raised eyebrows indicating that wonderment, "Are you bonkers?" One person even gave voice to their puzzlement, "Whaddya mean--happy?. This is Lent, we're not suppposed to be happy!" Au contraire. I love lent; it makes me happy, so the natural greeting for me this season is "Happy Lent!"

I'm actually in good company with this tendency towards happiness during Lent. For catechumens preparing for baptism in earlier centuries of the church, Lent represented the home stretch--soon they would be initiated into full participation in the church during the upcoming Easter festival. Likewise for notorious sinners who had been assigned public penance: soon they would be restored to the community during the Easter Vigil. True, there was a challenging path ahead, but Lent was the beginning--of the end--of their troubles, so, indeed it was a happy time.

The best rationale, I think, for being happy and wishing people happiness during Lent is found in the Bible itself. In the Greek language of the New Testament, "makarioi" is accurately translated either as "blessed" or "happy." That is why we see the more popular "Blessed are the meek..." right alongside the "Happy are the meek" of newer translations. If we're comfortable with the idea of wishing people, "Blessed Lent!" perhaps hearing greetings of "Happy Lent to you!" will trigger some thinking as to what "blessed" actually means. Somberness is not the sine qua non of blessedness. In fact, joyfulness seems to be the more usual manifestation of holiness. Even in the midst of her long "dark night of the soul," people were constantly struck by just how joyful Mother Theresa of Calcutta seemed. And John Paul II was famous for his natural good cheer, even amidst his rigorous self-discipline, to mention just two famous examples.

Still not convinced? Consider the Gospel advice from Ash Wednesday not to feign sadness or gravity when fasting. Instead, look your best and wear a bright smile, we are told. For some, perhaps that smile will seem a bit forced at first. I maintain, however, that any forced quality to that smile will melt with the satisfaction of knowing that we are on the right track. Isn't it a GOOD thing to be praying more, disciplining ourselves with some sort of fasting, and consciously giving more to the poor this season? Solemnity would be the appropriate accompaniment to blowing off Lent, not to our endeavors to keep it. If we truly feel deeply out of sorts or ornery as a result of our Lenten discipline, perhaps we need to lighten up a bit. Snacking on a small slice of cheese does not destroy a fast; it's not the ego-gratification of perfection we are seeking, but rather a heightened attentiveness to God, our short-comings, and thus our need for Him. If a little nibble enables you to replace those overwhelming thoughts of a cheeseburger with something a tad more spiritual, I say, bring on a few peanuts! And, if you grab your small snack in thankfulness that you have the means to do so, unlike so many in the world with empty larders, that would make for a rather good start to Lent indeed.

Resurrection Sunday will soon be here. Meanwhile, may your Lent be HAPPY and fruitful!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Who's your Daddy?

As all the various Christian denominations seek to create new believers in a spiritually hungry world, I hope we can avoid the competitiveness that insists that our own particular "brand" is best. I know that a deep confidence in our own tradition of believing and worshiping is necessary in order to be willing to share the tradition with others. Still, that deep confidence need not overshadow the knowledge that other denominations are seeking to do God's work in the world, as well.

In all honesty, I come to this concern with a certain axe to grind. Favorite authors of mine and even close personal friends tend to speak of basic Christian tenets as "Catholic," and they don't, unfortunately, mean the "little c catholic" that we refer to when reciting the Nicene Creed. As Roman Catholics, they even claim the word "catholic," but I don't think the non-Roman portion of God's "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" is willing to let the word go.

Actually, we "little c catholics" ourselves give away more than makes sense. We tend to acquiesce to the notion that the early and medieval church and everything not explicitly Protestant is by default Roman Catholic. It would be more accurate to say that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism share the same roots in early Christianity and in the medieval church. Just because the Roman Catholic branch is by far the largest branch does not mean that the other branches do not still draw their primary nourishment from the roots of Christianity.

The branching off process was not an abrupt or tidy process. Luther's congregants were still buying indulgences in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the Cathedral door, and Henry VIII was named Defender of the Faith for opposing Luther in 1521. Queen Mary would reinstate Catholic Mass in place of the Book of Common Prayer's Communion service a full thirteen years after Ignatius of Loyola finally managed to get his famed Spiritual Exercises published. Reformation leaders did not have lobotomies that cut all of Roman Catholic piety out of their brains. And, yes, it is true that reciting the Angelus and Ave Maria remained an integral part of the personal spiritual practice of Luther and other key reformers.

So why, in explaining the spiritual influences in his life, does the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, refer to the Benedictine and Ignation influences as Roman Catholic? He needs to claim them proudly as his Anglican birthright just as clearly as I cling to Copernicus, Kosciousko, and Chopin as part of my Polish heritage. That my branch of the Polish family tree now stretches across the ocean to America does not expunge my ancestry. Likewise, the Reformation did not expunge Protestantism's ancestry. It is ours forever, to be shared with loving respect for the other descendants of our beloved ancestors who also cherish our common roots.

Pride in our respective denominations is a good thing, but may it not devolve into an unhealthy religious jingoism. Paul figured this out 20 centuries ago in writing to those quarrelsome, egocentric Corinthians. Is claiming denominational supremacy any less a manifestation of jealousy than claiming Paul or Apollos? Christ is the destination: leaders and denominations are only the vehicles, wonderful though they be.

Let's be circumspect, generous, and honest in claiming and studying our roots. Doing so will make us more attractive and convincing in our efforts to spread the Gospel in a diversely-populated world.