Sunday, August 19, 2018

invasive species

So you’re going to New York? asks Dad, on our way with the dog to the local sandbar-on-the-lake where we let our dog paddle to his heart’s content and swat at schools of blue gills in the shallows. You can’t do this in New York, I comment—the sort of neutrally inane observational comment which makes up most of life in a family. He agrees, a little wistfully.

My father was a Green Bay born-and-Catholic-elementary-school-bred boy. And he loves whatever has been given him to love with his entire heart and he believes, even in the thick of conflict, that everything will get better, because he loves with such entirety that he cannot imagine it not.

He is keenly aware of how astronomically quickly the world has changed. And the church, to him, I think represents in many ways the preservation of what is good in the past. Change means things you love and ways of being in the world that you love disappear. It is hard to let go of what you love. And if there is an institution that promises to be unchanging in the midst of a world of change, that is certainly an institution worth sticking with.

There are many people like my father, who hold onto the church because it is something steady in an unsteady world, who find meaning in their lives through marking liturgical seasons, who chart their children’s growth through first communions and confirmations, who delve the depth of their own lives through rites which accompany them through finding love, starting families, and meeting death. In a world in so many ways that disbands and disperses our small human communities, that distances us from working with our hands, that strips our lives of their earthy human meaning, the church offers us this primal need to have a life that is ritualized, that is connected to history, that is lived with an eye towards those who have gone before, that locates God in our bodies, that connects us to each other and to God in an intimate ritual of communion.

Yes, the church is a resource of rich thinking, and its treasures includes heights of heady philosophy and theology, esoteric meditations upon the heart of reality itself. Theologians chart diagrams that try to map out the Trinity like a mathematical formula or complex sentence. Their intellectual endeavors only attest to the richness of the truth offered in each small parish church—the liturgy that this community celebrates has given birth to a canon of sacred writings and spurred great minds to delve deeply into truth, to articulate the mystery of each mass.


The intellectual beauties of the church exist, like the hierarchy, only to support the church’s task of bringing light and beauty to the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Several years ago, when Francis was elected, I was there in Rome, in the thick of the glamour of an extraordinary moment of ecclesial drama. But as I stood there in the middle of St. Peter’s square, surrounded by ordinary pilgrim Catholics that: All that extraordinary fuss exists for the ordinary, I wrote. The Church exists for the little second-graders in Stillwater receiving their first Holy Communion. It exists for the young couple getting married and starting a regular family. It exists so that a small piece of unleavened bread can be transformed into the body of the Savior of the World. — the grandeur of St. Peter’s is simply the grandeur that is in every tiny little parish church, with the veil of the ordinary removed. The extraordinary moments pull back the dim guise of ordinary-ness that we live our lives in, and reveals to us just how extraordinary each everyday moment truly is.


The church is here to offer ordinary people the extraordinary that is located both in their everyday lives and themselves. It is not the intellectual playground of the overly-educated, it is not a library of great authors, it is not the fraternity of brothers-in-arms-against-the-rest, it is the heart of the world, pumping the life of God into our own lives.


As we left the lake, my father—who faithfully drops two envelopes into two collection baskets each Sunday, his promise of fidelity to the place that promises it to him—and I broached the topic of the apology our pastor offered in lieu of a homily.

Although I spent last night reading the Grand Jury's report of the Pennsylvania dioceses, and I felt the pain of angry father's fighting for their children, and my heart and body hurt reading of the violence practiced against victims, and I read with disgust the blind, self-interested negligence of bishops, I don't know that the full weight of the crisis until I heard my father express his own sense of betrayal. I have rarely heard my father speak ill of the church (an institution and ecclesial body I love deeply, but am certainly not slow to offer my critique to), and I have never seen my father so disappointed, discouraged, and betrayed as when he spoke about these bishops who cannot seem to hold themselves accountable unless examined by grand jury, exposed by journalists, or dragged to civil court to the tunes of millions, so appalled by a clerical culture that has seemingly made its peace with evil.


Although our pastor offered an apology today, it seemed to me slightly off-the-mark. Not half-hearted, in the least, but as he didn't quite understand the crime committed. He didn’t seem quite to realize—or at least failed to convey his grasp of—the breach of the faithful's trust committed by the church's ordained authorities. 

Yes, the sacraments are brought to us by broken people. Yes, the church is the body of Christ made of sinful humans. Yes, we all fall short of grace. But there is a crucial space between a sin and a crime. Surely, yes, all priests are sinful humans, but surely a criminal ought not to be a priest. Surely a human who has committed a crime should not be a shepherd. When persons commit crimes that are against the very people entrusted to their care, they should be removed from positions of caring for those people.

These are common sense statements, but they are common sense statements that have not guided the bishops of this church. The allegiance of the clergy has clearly been to one another. This is only human and understandable, but it is short-sighted, unchristian, and should be eradicated at whatever origin point from which sentiment arises. There is a culture, clearly, among the ecclesial elite that is not just spoiled by a few bad apples. It is a culture that tolerates rot, perhaps foments it, and instructs the "good apples," (to really milk this metaphor) to stay quiet and out of the way. This clerical culture seems to assume this rot is in some way normal and to be expected and is just another occupational hazard of getting in the barrel.

This church's leaders have failed us. They have made a mockery of our faithful tithing, and our sacraments, and the quiet faith of good people seeking meaning in an often dark and harsh world.

Well, my dad said, after punctuating a mournful topic with a coda of silence, Did you see the black walnuts in the back yard? The neighbors told them they are an invasive species. But that's what plants do, he laughs. They take over the environment—plowing over the other flora in the forestto ensure their own survival.

There have been a number of choruses that repeat the refrain: we are not Catholic because we think all priests good and perfect, because the church is without sin, we are Catholic because we love Jesus and this church offers us access to his body in blood both in the Eucharist and in baptism into the Christic body of believers. 

If only those who bring Christ's presence to our altars could make Christ their sole aim as the grandmothers who populate the pews do, as the eager young people seeking a noble purpose at all the pious collegiate worship services I never went to do, and as my father does, who strives to be not-perfect-but-good, with unassuming determination, and who is not shocked, but only heartbroken when the men who lead his church can't do the same.

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