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Reflections after a hiatus…

For the next few weeks, I will be perched in a loft suite in what was once the Monastery of St. Andrew, founded by Pope St. Gregory the Great. For its more recent history (a mere millennium or so), it has been under the care of the Camaldolese Benedictine monks.

SGregorioWindow

Working with both US and Roman academic systems once again, several of my jobs have finished for the year – undergrad professor, TA, and residence manager – while others continue for a few weeks: seminary professor, John Paul II Center graduate assistant. With no more undergrads in residence to manage, I have had a week to clean up and vacate myself. For the intervening few weeks while finishing other tasks, this view is mine. Then plans for a little travel in Italy, a three week seminar on Orthodox theology in Thessaloniki, and a few stops in North America before coming back for a new semester in late August.

When I opened my draft file for the blog, I found 15,000 words in notes waiting for me. I should be so inspired on my doctorate! (The oldest is a half written post about the feast of St. Agnes, well known for the blessing of the lambs to be shorn for wool used in the making of the pallium – the unique vestment of metropolitan archbishops everywhere. A friend once asked the sisters responsible for the shearing about their fate, these blessed and cared-for critters, “Que successo?” “Al forno!”)

I will see what I can do about resurrecting a few of the choicer bits, but I really ought to be grading a few last papers anyway. I am keeping a file of funny answers, too, for late publication (along the lines of “Vatican II is the pope’s summer residence, right?”)

What a year it has been, too! I remember a monsignorial staffer under JPII once claiming that the curia were constantly “out of breath” trying to keep up with the then-tireless pontiff. Communications fiascos notwithstanding, one begins to think the Benedict years were something of a breather for them. Now, each week brings something new and interesting for the vaticanisti and the ecclesiology wonks.

Pope Francis is not quite my idea of a perfect pope, but he is the pope I think I have been waiting for, for most of my life. A colleague asked me recently what I thought about him, and opened by suggesting she thought I might be more of a Pope Benedict fan.

It is true, in many ways: my personality is more similar to Ratzinger than either Wojtyła or Bergoglio. I appreciated Ratzinger’s profound theological acumen and ecumenical commitment, his ability to listen, his collaborative style and loyalty to his close collaborators. A lot of pastors and bishops could learn from that example.

He was the first real theologian-pope in a couple of centuries, and in terms of prolificacy, stands among the greats. His sensitive, introverted, and bookish personality made me think that, if I had to choose a kindred spirit from among the three pontiffs which I can remember during my lifetime, it would be Ratzinger. (I was born in the last months of Paul VI, and still in diapers when John Paul I had his brief time on the Chair of Peter).But, the Church is in need of reform. It is always in need of reform, always in need of purification. While John Paul II and Benedict both lead certain areas of reform forward, certain ecclesiological and very practical issues have remained untouched.

The Roman curia and its communications stagnated under John Paul II, the quality and confidence of bishops and bishops’ conferences waned, and a centralized ultramontanist ecclesiology crept back in – really, had never quite been rooted out – but both were overshadowed by the sheer volume of his personality. Under Benedict, many of the inherited flaws began to show through, and he unfairly got much of the blame for issues that went without redress under his saintly predecessor. The sex abuse scandal sits at the top of the heap, finances next, but the whole Vatican communications apparatus was not far behind. Pope Benedict got the ball rolling in many cases – on sex abuse, on finances, on Vatican personnel – but these successes were frequently given short shrift compared to the communications and competence fiascoes. The biggest distraction was unfortunately his ecumenical effort at reintegrating traditionalist sects into the Church via a re-introduction of the Tridentine liturgy on a mass scale [pun intended].

I think I understand Ratzinger’s concern with the abrupt changes to the liturgy in the late sixties. One of his main themes has been about a reintegration, an informing of each other, of the old Tridentine Rite (what he called the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Mass of Pius VI (1570), Revised in 1962) and the ordinary form of the Roman Rite (the Mass of Paul VI, Missal of 1970, last revised in 2002). Aside from the fact that this seems to make Ratzinger a champion of the hermeneutic of discontinuity that he otherwise preached against, for many people the revival of the baroque bling in liturgy was a distraction at best, and a sign of a return to the disastrous ecclesiolatry of the late 19th and early 20th century at worst. Not without reason, for too many people in the Church, the high baroque trappings, the traditionalist interpretation of liturgy, the lace and the maniple et al. all go hand in hand with precisely the forms of clericalism and institutional navel-gazing that allowed the scourge of pedophilia to fester and actually promoted the kind of bishops who would cover up the worst cases.

This association is not one Ratzinger could make, and it is his papacy that convinced me it is not an entirely fair association, either. To him and to many of his fans, there was a certain kind of reverence lost after 1968 that had to be retrieved, and his own personal piety found its comfort zone, like most of us, in the mode of expression he was familiar with in the innocence of childhood. Indeed, in my first few years in Rome, many curial officials bemoaned the ‘crisis of 1968’ as if everyone should know what it was, and somehow never seemed to understand why I (and many of my peers) found it shocking that someone who lived through 1938 could think that 1968 better represented the downfall of moral society!

The real problem was that he was trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak, forty years too late. It might have been a better way to go immediately after the council, to have a slower, longer transition period, maybe with both forms of the rite for a period of time. But now, given the state of the church he inherited, and indeed had some responsibility for, what the Church needed was, and is, great reform. And it needs to be seen making this reform with urgency and integrity. Pope Benedict started some much needed reform, but more attention was given to the moves that seemed to be contrary to reform – even if that was not entirely his intent. It is Francis who is seen to mean it, without qualification and without pining for a long lost ideal that was not nearly so ideal as it seems now, to some. And he has the energy to engage it full-on. If only he were twenty years younger!

The most commonly spoken fear in Rome, these days, is that Francis will be assassinated (a la Godfather III) before his reforms can take effect. It is mostly said jokingly, in a moment of black humour.

The real fear and the reason that even a year after his election there is only a subdued hope and enthusiasm is this: We had a Council. We had every bishop in the world come together and call for reform; for greater synodality and collegiality; for a renewal of the diaconate and appreciation for the vocational contribution of the laity; for uncompromising commitment to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; and commitment to being in, if not of, the modern world; for a renewed and constantly renewing liturgy that called forth full, conscious, and active participation.

Yet, at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the opening of Vatican II in Rome, one participant quipped ‘it seems as if I have come to a funeral, rather than a celebration. Are we here to honor the Council, or bury it?’ Everyone one of the reforms I mentioned was floundering or at least seemed to be unpopular in the halls of power and in the seminaries. “Ecumenism?” I heard one priest say, “They will never make you bishop doing your license in ecumenism. Try dogma or canon law. Ecumenism is a failed experiment anyway.” Within a couple decades of the largest and most comprehensive ecumenical council the Church has ever seen, some of its central acts were being re-interpreted in ways to make them less like reform and more like reinforcement of the old status-quo.

Many reforms remain half-executed. Just by way of example, take the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal order – while we now have permanent deacons, we still have transitional ones as well. The cursus honorem of the seminaries, in the minor orders, though officially abolished, has since the early 80’s has been effectively revived with nothing more than different names and rites. Most people think the major difference between deacons and presbyters is marriage and celibacy, meaning there is no shortage of men called to the diaconate being ordained priests, and men called to priesthood being ordained deacons. And nobody agrees on just what a deacon IS, though too many people assume they are subordinate to priests. Yet there has been very little official movement, and not even the possibility of discussing ordination and marriage in the same sentence, in fifty years. It has even become en vogue to revive the befuddled medieval thought that deacons are not really clergy anyway, since they are not ordained to the priesthood, as such.

If the Council could not achieve a comprehensive lasting reform in all of the intended areas, the thought goes, how can one pope? Especially one who may serve for a decade or less? Will he not so disturb some of the powers-that-be, that when his successor is elected, they will seek to balance the ‘fast-moving’ years of Francis with another caretaker pope? People talk of pendulum swings as if John Paul II and Benedict were conservative and Francis liberal, when in fact Francis is just the middle ground where the pendulum should come to stop and rest.

If we have a century of popes in the mode of Francis (and John Paul I, I suspect), we might be able to fully receive the Council without the continued polarization of the Church in the last five decades. We might be able to fully live out the reforms called for, without undue excess or burdensome reticence, and collectively take joy in being the Church again.

As one of my students recently said, “Pope Francis made it cool to be Catholic.” For her, it was the first time in a lifetime of faith that this was the case; when I shared this with an older student later, he simply smiled and added, “…again.”

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