Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Thought on the Francis Effect

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese recently published an insightful piece entitled "The church is more than just the pope" where he underscores something many of us fail to forget: we cannot put the weight of Catholicism's future on the pope's shoulders. If there is anything akin to an authentic "Francis effect," it will not be a singularly herculean feat of bearing the weight of an institution. The effect will be for all of us to "go and do likewise" and serve as we see him serve.

Last semester, I was privileged to take a course with Lisa Sowle Cahill, a renowned ethicist and moral theologian here at Boston College. One student set before himself the task of combing through the Pope's allocutions and writings to try to piece together some sense of the Holy Father's "Theology of the Cross." In an almost casual aside, Lisa drew attention to the Pope's pectoral cross.

One of the first things people notice is that it's not made of gold or studded with precious gems. Contrary to popular belief, it is made of silver and not steel, but what is most intriguing is not its metallic composition. Instead, as Lisa noted, it is what is depicted upon the cross that is most telling.

If you look carefully, you'll see that Francis wears a cross not as a fashion statement but as further testimony to the sort of Christian each of us is to become. If today many of us wear religious jewelry - or, sadly, religious clothing! - and are satisfied that this external ornament attests to our commitment, Pope Francis should be heard as exhorting us to become what we dare to wear.

Thus his cross depicts the Good Shepherd, the one who loves all of his sheep but will carry the lost one home to safety. The Good Shepherd does not rebuke the wayward lamb, does not threaten or harangue, but lifts it up and bears it back to the fold. This is not a depiction of the Pope supporting every member of the flock, absolving the rest of the Church from having to do anything for themselves. Instead, it shows Jesus at the forefront and head of the Church, leading by example: Jesus has gone to collect the lost and expects those who follow to go and do likewise.

Father Reese, in his post, shares a story of a woman who recently sought sacramental reconciliation and was yelled at. Around this time last year, a young woman I was helping to prepare for Confirmation had a similar experience. Rather than rejoicing at her return, the priest seized the opportunity to lecture her about the entirety of her sinful past, as though she wasn't already quite aware of it! To be sure, a word of counsel may be appropriate, but I simply can't imagine that it's ever necessary to yell at someone (I can't even bring myself to yell at a barista when my "plain black coffee" is somehow screwed up).

It boggles my mind that people expect the Pope to get people back into the pews. He may go a long way in restoring credibility in the institution, but if seekers enter our churches and find frigid and self-righteous congregations or obnoxious pastors, his example will be for naught. The Francis Effect, for it to be authentic, must transform our corporate Affect, helping us to become more welcoming and hospitable.

The Good Shepherd isn't good because he knows how to build secure fences to contain his flock. He is good because even when they stray, he goes out to them. There is none outside the Shepherd's reach and, each day, we are all called to be the hands and feet of the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost of this world.

If you've not received sacramental reconciliation in some time, it might be helpful to hear the formula of absolution. After one has found the courage to confess where one has strayed and expressed contrition, the priest utters these beautiful words:

God, the Father of Mercies, through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

There is no condemnation in these words but only a sense of joy at the return of the lost and wayward. What a difference it would be to the Church were those of us who know something of God's mercy were to show mercy to others, were in Father James Keenan's words, "to enter into the chaos of another" not to take away their suffering but to be a companion in their time of need. If we have received mercy and forgiveness, we must become the mercy and forgiveness we have received. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"You are my beloved"

If you're looking for a counter-cultural message, look no further than today's Gospel reading. In four short verses, the Evangelist Mark presses on two particularly sensitive areas. First, John the Baptist acknowledges something difficult for most, if not all of us, to say: it's not all about me. Second, God affirms something of Jesus that many of us long to hear said of ourselves: You are my beloved...with you I am well pleased.

I'll be the first to admit that there's an ever-present temptation to try to make all things center upon me. When community obligations prove inconvenient, I groan and say, "I have better things to do." When others are given praise, or acquire honors, I might smile outwardly but, inwardly, I sneer or downplay the person's accomplishment.

My spiritual lifeline, however, has proved to be my accordion. Not that the accordion is a talisman able to ward off self-centeredness and resentment, of course. But the many hours I have spent, and continue to spend, playing for Irish dancing competitions reinforces, in my life, that this is not all about me. The music I play provides the context for the dancers to dance, but my task is to prepare their way, to play music enabling them to dance. When a dancer executes a particular dance in spectacular form, it brings me great delight to hear people laud the performance: even though they aren't talking about me, or may not even have noticed me, I am joyful that I've had even a small - even if invisible - part in creating something others love.

John the Baptist isn't looking to take a selfie, or to gather a whole group of people around him. He doesn't come up with a catchy #Baptizer or #I_Baptized_Him or #Dunked_Him Twitter claim. He proclaims a truth surely hard to share: you might think I'm good, but you haven't seen anything yet. The Baptizer must have faced terrible temptations: his words and deeds so touched his listeners' hearts, they came to see and hear him, and he must have been tempted to think that he was the star of the show. Yet he knew at the core of his being a lesson most of us have to learn, and re-learn, throughout our lives.

Second, and probably more difficult for most of us, would be the possibility of hearing God say to us: You are my beloved. You (insert your name here) are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. 

"The Baptism of the Christ" by artist Daniel Bonnell
Again, speaking only for myself, I find it hard to take a compliment. If you say, "Ry, that was a great dinner you prepared," I'll probably discount it: "It was nothing" or "Thanks, but I thought the meat was too overdone." I don't think it's modesty so much as, deep down, a little fear-scar refuses to be healed and I'm always self-conscious about whether the person really means what is said. Better to downplay a compliment, to hedge it with some negativity, than risk being disappointed later.

I think a rather glittering seduction is to invert God's words to Jesus. We try to make it something like, You have pleased me by what you have done, therefore you are my beloved. Our sinful hearts want to believe that God loves us because of something we've earned or merited but, even then, do we believe this much? If I can't take a compliment from my friends and family, do I think I'd be able to receive it from the Almighty?

Fortunately, the God we praise short-circuits our many neuroses. Our being loved isn't tied to an accomplishment, or an achievement, or something we've done or might do. We are loved simply because we are. In the celestial Facebook, God gave us a "Like" long before we ever thought to post a selfie.

You're not loved because you're good, or because your worthwhile. You're worthwhile, valuable, and you can be good only because God loves you. Stop trying to be loved. Love, instead, the great adventure of trying to be a disciple, of growing ever closer to the God who loves and sustains us.

Today it may prove helpful to meditate on Bonnell's powerful depiction of Jesus' baptism. Notice the play of light and shape surrounding Jesus who is cruciform: the Jesus who heard God's affirmation is the same Jesus we, sinful humans who are allergic to the message of God's love, crucified. Nevertheless, our hateful rejection of God's love doesn't silence the message directed to us. Perhaps we could take a few moments today and, in quiet prayer, imagine hearing God address us:

You are my beloved. Yes, you. 
Of course I know who you are. I know you are a sinner.
I know what you've done.
I know how you have failed.
I know of what it is you are ashamed, of what you work
so hard to keep concealed. 
I know the doubt in your heart; I know you struggle to believe
that anyone could love you.
"If they really knew me," you think, "they couldn't love me."
I know you because I am creating you, 
and I love what I create. 
You can say no to my friendship, no to my love, only because
I offered it to you first. 
It is never too late and my words to you never change:
You are my beloved. 
Allow yourself to be who you are. 
You cannot force this. 
You are free. 
You are beloved.
Let yourself be.
Be loved. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame