Friday, June 27, 2008

Setting our ecclesial gauges

In this week's column, John Allen highlights the 150th anniversary celebration of the Paulist Fathers, which was celebrated last week in Washington DC, and culminated with the Ordinatinon to the Sacred Priesthood of my former seminarian brother, Steven Bell CSP.

In the column, Allen summarizes Fr. Ron Rollheiser's address to the Paulists, which he characterized as "Ten Commandments for Catholic Life" today, a way to "set our ecclesial gauges." It's worth a read, and is full of that sense of the Catholic both/and. These caught my eye especially:
3) Be for the Marginalized without being Marginalized Yourself

Sometimes, Rolheiser said, Christians who emphasize service to those on the margins -- the poor, those alienated from the church, and so on -- tend to end up marginalized themselves, stressing the need to "speak truth to power" to such an extent that they drift out of the mainstream.

In the end, he argued, doing so undercuts the effectiveness of one's ministry. The trick, he suggested, is to be an effective voice for the margins but from the heart of one's own community.
(6) Be Equally Committed to Social Justice and Intimacy with Jesus

A balanced Catholic, Rolheiser argued, should be ready both "to lead a peace march and to lead the rosary." As an example, Rolheiser offered Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Too often, Rolheiser suggested, Catholics tend to choose between social activism and a deep spiritual life, when in fact the two belong together.
(8) Ponder as Mary Did

Another way of putting this bit of counsel, Rolheiser said, is to "eat the tension that's around you."

Rolheiser warned that sometimes the Mary of popular Catholic devotion threatens to obscure the Mary of Scripture. He noted that Mary is the only figure in the New Testament described as "pondering" the words and deeds of Christ; typically, his disciples and the crowds are said to have been "amazed."

"Amazement," Rolheiser said, is akin to an electrical current -- all it does is transmit energy. "Ponder," on the other hand, he compared to a water purifier. It "carries, holds and transforms" what enters it, so that it comes out more pure.

At the foot of the cross, Rolheiser said, Mary wasn't simply "amazed" by the suffering of her son, a response that might have led to a lust for vengeance. Instead, she "pondered" it, so that hate was transformed into grace and love.

"We need ponderers at every level of the church," Rolheiser said.
Overall, I'd characterize it (at the risk of sounding rather impertinent), as a message the order really needed to hear. During my time with the Paulists, one question I found myself asking was whether the order had consciously taken a tack, in response to the direction the Church has been taking since the Pontificate of John Paul II, to be the "resistance" of a certain kind of "left wing" or "liberal" Catholicism that had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. Many Paulists responded in the negative, and I am quite sure they were sincere. In one memorable conversation, a well known Paulist moral theologian said that this is something the order has just consciously started tackling, and they had not, at least not at a conscious level, taken such a "resistant" tack. My sense was that, conscious or not, this was the default mode of the community, and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life fighting uphill internal struggles. While this was not the only reason I decided to leave, it weighed a lot in my discernment.

I'd like to add some further thoughts on Fr. Rolheiser's first comment:
(1) Be Beyond Ideology

Rolheiser urged his audience to position themselves "beyond liberal, beyond conservative" -- in other words, to "have an unlisted number" with respect to the ideological infighting in Catholicism that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Instead, Rolheiser advised being "women and men of faith and compassion," going wherever those instincts may lead.

In that regard, Rolheiser noted the irony that two of the most popular, and most controversial, movies of 2004 were both from filmmakers with a Catholic background: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." It's remarkable, Rolheiser said, that Catholicism can contain both of these ways of seeing the world, "though not often in the same person."

Setting one's gauges correctly, Rolheiser suggested, involves being able to see both the wisdom and the defects of each of the Catholic sensibilities expressed in those two movies -- and many others beyond them.
I can't emphasize just how important this is: the perception we give of always squabbling over internal ideological issues, or reducing people to their ideological positions and throwing charity out of the window in our dealings with them, we absolutely compromise our witness to the Gospel. We become like salt that has lost its taste. [An aside: see the Anchoress' coverage of the story of a non-Catholic DC journalist who wrote about receiving Holy Communion at Tim Russert's funeral. This sparked a rather acerbic (though predictable) response from the Catholic League. What kind of witness is acrimony?]

At the same time, I don't think we are yet at a position where accepting the fullness of the teaching of the Church on faith & morals, as it comes to us from the Magisterium, is simply a given. In fact, simply stating this places one in a particular "camp" in the internal culture war of the Church. This is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of post-Conciliar Catholicism. I would qualify Fr. Rolheiser's words a bit, or put them next to something John Allen said in his speech to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative in 2004.
Fifth and finally, we must foster a spirituality of dialogue that does not come at the expense of a full-bodied expression of Catholic identity. There is no future for dialogue if convinced Catholics sense the price of admission is setting aside their convictions. If dialogue means we have to go fuzzy on abortion, to take one obvious example, it is dead. To return to our earlier question, why didn't Common Ground work? It's not because it failed to respond to a real need. In fact, I sense a deeply felt desire among Catholics to overcome our internal bickering and divisions. That desire, however, is not the only, and probably not the strongest, trend coursing through Christianity. Today, I would assert that the strongest single impulse in the Christian community pivots on identity - the desire for a robust assertion of what it means to be a Christian. You can't explain the phenomenal success of "The Passion of the Christ" without understanding this impulse. It is perhaps most strongly felt by younger generations whose members did not acquire a strong sense of identity either in the home or in school, even Catholic schools. Hence the spirituality of dialogue needed is one that combines a vigorous assertion of identity, opening up our distinctive language and rituals and worldview to those who hunger for them, without ending up in a "Taliban Catholicism" that knows only how to excoriate and condemn.
Speaking the truth in love -- always a difficult balance, and never achieved without humility and prayer.


Anonymous said...

I worship at a Paulist parish. As a convert to the Church I chose this parish because of a particular Priest,who led me to the faith, and because it is my geographical parish (I live within its boundaries). For a while I was part of a faith formation group that suggested ideas to the Priests. Each time I suggested opening the door to the traditional church by some activity,say an evening of Gregorian Chant, or a once a year Tridentine Mass, or a workshop on JP II's Theology of the Body I was either ignored or gently reminded that those type of activities might not be the "best" fit for this particular parish. Everyone was exceedingly pleasant,polite and respectful but I felt that my ideas and interests were deliberately marginalized without a fair hearing. It is possible that the congregation would not have been interested in those ideas, but they were never apprised of them. Although it was never made explicit the subtext was that this is a Vatican 2 parish and we are not interested in change.

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

@anon: thanks for sharing your experiences. I can't say I'm surprised. However, I also know that some Paulist places are open to more "traditional" stuff, including chant and adoration and so on. These would mainly be campus ministries, which are trying to respond to the "needs" of the younger set of Catholics. From what I gather, even in such places, the resistance to this comes from the more entrenched "Vatican 2" generation that, well, doesn't want to move ahead from the 1970s. Interesting how dogmatic and intolerant so-called "liberals" can be as well.

It's interesting: I frequently got this response to my question, "Is there room for someone more traditional in the Paulist Fathers?" -- "Do you mean style or substance?" I heard this, verbatim, at least three times. I am not sure entirely what that meant -- but, I think the idea was "is it [the "traditionalism"] just cosmetic stuff" (wearing habits, wanting more Latin) or something more "substantial." I never really thought of it that way, because for me it's all tied together ... it's not like I want to be a Vatican 2 "dissenter" who dresses everything in Latin as a camouflage -- if that was what was the meaning.

They really are good guys, and they do stuff that often others are wary of tackling. They need young men who are on fire for Hecker's vision and can put up with all of this. Pray for them.

Anonymous said...

There is a campus ministry in my parish, and their emphasis is slightly more conservative. Through student initiatives there are praise nights, weekly rosaries, and once a month eucharistic adoration. All worthy and important activities but they are part of the campus ministries and thus somewhat off limits to non students. I could probably show up but as a man in his forties I would feel somewhat out of place, and also I wouldn't want to intrude on the students worship. I resent this, and were it not for the Priest who helped bring me to the faith I think I would start attending Mass at a different parish. One of the reasons I joined the Church, aside from my experiences in the parish, was the Magisterium, and all that it entails. To have all that history, tradition, and thought and not make use of it is, well, sad. So as long as this Priest remains in the active ministry I will continue to worship at this particular Paulist parish, but once he leaves ministry I will leave with him.

Anonymous said...

I think many of the Paulists are actually MORE conservative than given credit for. Many are very traditional liturgically--mostly because they want to call attention to themselves and the more traditional liturgy style highlights the priest over the community and is somewhat anti-lay participation in some circles and certainly anti-women.

I think a few issues stand out with them. Issues of homosexuality seems to be the big dissenting point for many--but I would think that's true in most seminaries and religious communities as a good deal of clergy is in fact, homosexual.

But in terms of life issues--including abortion, war, social justice, biblical exegesis and even a good deal of moral theology--I think the Paulists are exemplary in their upholding of Catholic tradition.

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

@anon (Mon June 30): Many are very traditional liturgically--mostly because they want to call attention to themselves and the more traditional liturgy style highlights the priest over the community and is somewhat anti-lay participation in some circles and certainly anti-women. Hmm. When you say "traditional liturgy" do you mean the Tridentine Latin Mass? Or a more "traditional style" Novus Ordo? If the latter, well, it's the same Mass. If the former, I know of no Paulists who champion that cause. And pray, how on earth is "traditional" liturgy in any sense "anti-women?"

Anonymous said...

I posted on 6/27 and 6/28. As someone new to your blog (I came through tom Gibbon's kicking and screaming blog) I wonder if you have adressed the perceived distinction of traditional style vs traditional substance that you alluded to in your remarks? I understand that you are not out to cause pain or injury to the Paulist community, and I agree that they are good men doing good work, but I am curious about how your interest in tradition was treated within SPC.

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

@anon (Jul 01): Not much really. When I was in formation with the Paulists I avoided anything related directly to formation on here. Of course there were tensions and stuff. If you're interested, drop me an email (gashwingomesAThotmailDOTcom) and I'll be glad to share more over email. This stuff is in the past, and I'd rather not bring it up on the blog.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Fr Rolheiser came in and did exactly what he is good at doing. He said what needed to be said, and he did it with a spirit of gentleness, as is necessarily prescribed by good old Saint Paul. I am happy that I am submitting my application to the Oblates this year.