Friday, June 10, 2011

How the Catholic Hierarchy Can Learn from a Lay Community

As I started to write this, I was sailing from Ku┼čadasi, Turkey to Patmos, Greece with Fr. Richard LaMorte, the chaplain at Marist College, and students in my religious studies course “In the Footsteps of St. Paul.”  If you read my previous post, you’re probably wondering, “How can you teach theology when your own religion calls you ‘morally disordered’ and fights against equal rights for you?”  A revelation of sorts (ironic, since Patmos is where the evangelist John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation), came from a discussion I had with John Boss, a Marist junior whom I’ve come to know and respect over the past two years, with whom I’ve had many honest conversations.

John asked me about the difference between religion and faith.  It is a great question and while John wanted my answer to help enlighten him, it was he who helped me reflect on who I am and where I am going in my life.  My response centered on my personal belief that faith is a reason to believe in a particular set of principles, religious or not, in my case, based on the teaching of Jesus Christ.  Religion, on the other hand, is humanity’s imperfect attempt to codify those beliefs into a set of rules to live by – the dos and don’ts of a particular religion.  Human attempts at interpreting the Divine Will will always be flawed because we are imperfect beings.  We try to understand the mind of God, but since we are obviously less than God, we cannot reach the perfection of knowledge embodied by a Divinity.  Yet, groups of people try and form bonds based on a particular set of beliefs. 

All through history we have seen abuses of power that occur when a particular religion says it possesses the truth and those outside that sect are “morally deficient,” which is what the Catholic Church says about anyone who is not a Catholic and says of Catholics who don’t walk in lockstep with every single tenet of the Church.  It is that type of thinking by any religion that leads to wars, whether the Crusades, “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, or terrorism in many forms that threatens our world today.

Faith and religion always played a role in my life.  As a matter of fact, I once studied to be a Catholic priest, including two years at the North American College in Vatican City and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, called, respectively, the West Point and the Harvard of the Catholic Church.  That time in the seminary system exposed me to both tremendous good and unquestionable evil by people who claim to represent God.  I worked with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in a soup kitchen and shelter for homeless men, served as an officer and Chaplain Candidate in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, stationed with the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing in Bitburg, Germany, and made friends from throughout the States and from several countries.

I also experienced first-hand the psychological head games played by priests in charge of a man’s “formation,” a nice way of saying brain-washing.  I won’t go into details here, after all, I need to keep some material for my book (which I’ll probably never get to write) – “Looking Through Stained Glass.”  Today’s seminarians preparing for ordination need to remember that the faithful in the pews come from a wide variety of backgrounds – age, experience, education, financial status, culture, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.  I see such rigidity in today’s Catholic seminarians and priests ordained in the last ten years that leads me to believe they will get what they probably want – a smaller, “purer” Church, but in no more sole possession of “the truth” than any other religion.

I am now flying from Rome to New York, at the end of our two-week study abroad course that took us to Greece, Turkey, Rome and Vatican City.  The past two nights, I took the students to Trastevere, my favorite section of Rome, its equivalent of Greenwich Village.  My favorite Church is there – Santa Maria in Trastevere, parts of which date to the 4th Century A.D., or the “Common Era.”  With its luminous mosaics and Cosmatesque floors, it is a beautiful building, but its true beauty comes from the people who use it as their parish church – the Community of Sant’Egidio

The Community of Sant’Egidio began in Rome in 1968, in the period following the Second Vatican Council.  Today, it is a movement of laypeople and has more than 50,000 members dedicated to evangelization and charity in Rome and in more than 70 countries throughout the world.  The Community of Sant’Egidio is a “Church public lay association.”  The different communities, spread throughout the world, share the same spirituality and principles which characterize the way of Sant’Egidio: prayer, communicating the Gospel, solidarity with the poor, ecumenism, and dialogue.  They quote Blessed Pope John XXIII, who called on the Church to be the “Church for all and particularly for the poor.”

Whenever I question my faith or whether I should stay in the Catholic Church, I get these little signs, sort of like Jesus saying “Hey, don’t give up on me! Yeah, I wish my followers really lived the spirit of my teaching, not the law I came to abolish, but they don’t listen to me.  Hang around awhile longer, OK?”  Such was the case the last two nights of our stay in Rome, when I attended Sant’Egidio’s Evening Prayer.  Their services are lay-led, with beautiful singing (something for which many Catholic parishes are not known), and a sense of community that draws in everyone.  

The first night, I attended with Father LaMorte, the second with Father LaMorte and John Boss.  While I understood the liturgy and the Italian, John didn’t, but our experience was the same, a true sense of belonging to something bigger than who we are as individuals.  At the beginning of the liturgy, a woman gave John the community’s prayer book so we could follow along, and at its conclusion, a man, probably in his late-20s (you don’t see many people under 60 in U.S. Catholic churches today, especially men), looked over at John and me, smiled, and wished us a “buona sera,” or good evening, with a smile that said, “You are welcome here.”  The members of the community stayed in the Church and hugged, kissed, and talked for more than half an hour.  Contrast that with something that happened in my home parish in Poughkeepsie recently.  Four parishioners, all middle-aged and active in the parish, were talking while standing in the vestibule of the church – not in the sanctuary, where the community was communicating at Santa Maria in Trastevere – and were scolded with a “Shush!” by a priest younger than all of us who was ordained about three years ago.

I picked up a prayer card in the back of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It contained a photo that epitomizes the spirit of the Sant’Egidio Community.  The pews were removed (they are not permanently affixed in these ancient churches) and tables were set up to serve lunch to Rome’s hungry at Christmas.  They came to the church to be fed – physically and spiritually.  Isn’t that what religion is supposed to be about?  For Christians, isn’t that was Jesus asked us to?  Thirty to forty years ago, that’s what the Church did through its social ministry, fighting for equal rights for women, African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, working men and women, and expressing a “preferential option for the poor,” woefully out-of-fashion in the Church and in our country in 2011.

If it weren’t for the pastor of St. Martin dePorres, Msgr. Jim Sullivan, I probably would no longer be a member of any parish (unless I felt like commuting to St. Francis Xavier on 16th Street in Manhattan, like I did for a few years in the 90s).  He is what priesthood is all about – honestly prayerful, leading through humility, accepting (not just “tolerating”) others, humorous and capable of delivering a serious message through great homilies or simple actions from which the newly ordained can learn much.  We are blessed to have him.

This is a long entry, so I will wrap it up and fill you in later on what our class did during our two weeks abroad.

One last thing…props to Delta Airlines.  Their music selection for June includes “Delta Pride,” with this description “Party in the Sky celebrates Pride.  Delta is proud to be an official sponsor of Pride celebrations in Atlanta, New York City, and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.”  My message to Delta:  I’m proud to be a Sliver Medallion frequent flyer on your airline.