Thursday, March 28, 2013

Early signs of renewal sprouting from the Vatican

Francis seems intent on orienting the Church, and all people of goodwill, to the gospel of service.

Less than a week before Easter, a blanket of snow still covers a portion of our front lawn.  It has been a long winter, and I am grateful that the back yard faces the sunny south.  As long as I keep myself oriented to the south, my heart feels the lightness of spring.

My heart leaps up when I behold...
My first inkling of spring, though, comes well before the snow melts with the appearance of a variety of hellebore orientalis, Easter Rose. Every year, my heart leaps up when I behold its stem poking through the leaf mulch.  This pretty, yet humble flower with its droopy head brightens the late winter garden and thrills me with its promise of new life.

The Easter Rose in the late winter garden
Louise McEwan photo

The garden in full summer's bloom
The foliage of the Easter Rose visible between the pink phlox
Louise McEwan photo
Holy Week inspires the same sense of newness within my spirit. This year, I feel it even more intensely because of the hopeful signs of renewal within the Catholic Church.  While the newly elected pontiff, Francis, may or may not usher in a “Vatican Spring” of sweeping institutional reforms, the early signs shooting forth are pointing towards renewal.  Nowhere is this more evident than in his genuine concern for the poor.

The pope signaled his concern for the poor immediately, when he chose the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, a saint loved for his embrace of poverty, devotion to the poor, and respect for creation. 

The little things that Francis does are harbingers that something new is under foot.  It’s things like asking the crowd for a blessing, and kneeling to receive it; passing up a ride in the papal limousine; expecting to pay a hotel bill; and, my personal favorite, hopping off the pope mobile to greet, kiss and bless a disabled man.  It’s the humility and authentic desire to be Christ-like that resonates with me and makes me optimistic.

Taking the words of Jesus seriously
Francis really seems to take seriously the words of Jesus, “whatever you do to the least of my people, you do to me.” He framed this in his homily at the papal installation, saying that the pope must “embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.” (Matthew 25. 31-46)

This Thursday, Francis puts his words into action. He will celebrate Holy Thursday with young offenders in a youth detention center, a practice he began in Buenos Aries. Why is this significant?

Washing the feet is a sign of God's extravagant love
Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper. On Holy Thursday, the celebrant of the Mass (priest, bishop, cardinal or pope) kneels before twelve representatives from the community and washes their feet.  Popes take this ritual one step further and kiss the feet that they wash. 

This ritual not only commemorates an act of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples the night before he died, it recalls the cleansing waters of baptism. The pouring of the water over the feet is a visible symbol of the outpouring of God’s grace in our lives, and an expression of God’s extravagant love for every individual. It is a ritual that calls the Church to renew its commitment to the gospel imperative for service, especially to those people society ignores, and whom Francis specifically mentioned in his homily at the papal installation.

In choosing to celebrate with prisoners, Francis brings God’s love to some of the most marginalized people in society. He brings hope into the winter of the lives of those who are imprisoned, and he subtly throws out an example of service for the rest of us to emulate.

Coaxing the Easter Rose out of its winter sleep
While Francis is giving many Roman Catholics reasons to hope that there will be change in the institutional Church, right now, he seems intent on orienting the Church, and all people of goodwill, to the gospel of service. Perhaps this gentle approach, which is like the touch of the sun coaxing the Easter Rose out of its winter sleep, will effectively awaken hearts and create a springtime of renewal.

Scripture readings for Holy Thursday

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The moral tragedy of Steubenville, Ohio

That August evening in Steubenville saw the convergence of two powerful cultural influences – football and technology – on a group of young people.  The sad result of this mix was a collective failure of morality.  

 In August 2012, two high school football players were charged with the sexual assault of a 16 year old girl, and last week the court ruled on their guilt. In this case, as in others that are hitting the news, technology and social media factor into the offence. In Steubenville, the sports culture was also a factor. To read more of my thoughts on this, please go to 
where you will find an opinion I wrote for Troy Media.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pope or pew warmer: everyone has a vocation

"Vocation is our willing participation in God's dreams for us... Pope, pew warmer or neither, God has dreams for each one of us. We glimpse those dreams in the pattern of call and response." 

"Who would ever want to be king?"

A couple of years ago, Cold Play had a hit song called “Viva la Vida”.  It was a song my family played repeatedly and loudly one Christmas, as we danced around the kitchen doing dishes. The lyrics are difficult to decode, and I’m not quite sure what the song actually means.

One verse in particular makes me think about the challenges of holding a position of immense responsibility and authority.  The lyrics convey the sense of isolation, the difficulty of making decisions, and the criticism of being top dog: “Revolutionaries wait/For my head on a silver plate/Just a puppet on a lonely string/ Ah, who would ever want to be king?”

These lyrics have been clattering about in my head, over the last week as I followed the media coverage on the election of a new pope.  With the myriad of challenges facing the institutional Roman Catholic Church and with increasing public pressure on the cardinals for reform, I found myself wondering,  “Who would ever want to be pope?”

The newly elected pope, Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, inherits a Church in crisis. He will have to respond quickly to the social realities of the times that contradict Church teaching. He must reach out compassionately to the growing number of disaffected Catholics in many countries of the developed world. He will need to reform the dysfunction within the institution.

Hans Kung, one of the most highly regarded theologians of our age, noted in a New York Times article, that the Church could “fall into a new ice age and run the danger of shrinking into an increasingly irrelevant sect” if the new pope fails to usher in a “Vatican Spring”.

In this climate, why would anyone want to be pope? Why would anyone want a position that Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet (who was considered a top papal contender) once quipped would be a “nightmare”?  Why would anyone accept a ministry that leaves him isolated, despite the many advisers around him?  Why would someone be open to public criticism regardless of the leadership style he takes, decisions he makes, or reforms he institutes?

Personal ambition alone cannot supply the answer

While I am not naïve enough to totally rule out a cardinal’s personal ambition in the desire to become pope, ambition by itself cannot supply the answer. The fullness of the answer lies within the concept of vocation.

Vocation is not limited to those people who are ordained or consecrated to religious life. I like to think of vocation more broadly; it is our willing participation in God’s dreams for us. Vocation has a way of tugging at our heartstrings, stubbornly refusing to go away until we make some sort of response.  It is a mysterious inner movement that draws us out of uncertainty and reluctance into service for others.

Like the prophets of old, we do not always choose our vocation. Sometimes, it chooses us. Sometimes, we feel compelled, though we are hard pressed to explain why, to assume a task or a position we do not seek. Once we respond, it may surprise us with delight, or burden us with dismay.  I have experienced it both ways.

I recall my reaction when asked to teach a catechism class. I hung up the phone, flopped on the bed with my arms outstretched, and humorously whined, “No! Why me? I don’t want to do this!”  At that moment, I had said “yes”, and I was glad that I did.

There have been other times when my “yes” became a heavy burden. While I did not enjoy those moments, I learned much from those experiences, and in retrospect, I am glad for them, too.

Call and response: the rhythm of faith, the stuff of life

Life is a series of calls and responses. Some calls are easier to handle than others.  Some will leave us uplifted, enthusiastically embracing the task and living life with élan, while others will leave us discouraged, battle scarred and weary.  During those moments, we may wonder, “Ah, who would ever want to be me?”

But here’s the thing. Pope, pew warmer, or neither, God has dreams for each one of us. We glimpse those dreams in the pattern of call and response.  This is the rhythm of faith, and the stuff of human life. Responding to God’s call, be it grand or humble, helps us to decode the lyrics of our own song, until we find their meaning in our ultimate vocation: oneness with God.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pope Francis

What's in a name? I'm hoping that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's choice of Francis I for his new identity as pontiff signifies that some reform is going to blow through the Church, that there will be good stiff breeze of fresh air to clear the stuffiness of an institution that is growing a bit musty.

It must be significant that his man did not pick the name of any previous popes. Is he trying to tell the world that he hopes to bring something new to Catholicism? Will he chart a new course for the bark of Peter? A course that is in keeping with the charism of Saint Francis, who saw a Church in need of change, and went about changing lives?

From the balcony above Saint Peter's square, Pope Francis said that the Church begins a journey today, "bishop together with people", and expressed the hope that this journey will be "fruitful for evangelization". Then Pope Francis knelt before the crowd and asked  that the "prayer of the people bring down the blessings of God".  And,  for a moment, a crowd of 100,000 individuals were united in prayer. After the people had prayed for him, Francis gave the papal blessing to those assembled, and by extension to the whole world watching the events live on television. 

The people and the Bishop of Rome were engaged in a dialectic of prayer -a giving and receiving of blessings - a mutuality in Christ. May this mutuality inform the journey ahead, and be a source of blessings for the Church and the world. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Benedict's resignation resonates

While visiting the hair salon last week, my stylist asked me what I thought about the pope’s resignation, which took effect February 28.  This resignation has been fodder for the rumor mill, and, as you might imagine, we had a lively discussion. 

Speculation and innuendo have been companions to the resignation of Benedict XVI. While Benedict said he was resigning due to a loss of “strength in mind and body”, many believe that the continuing cascade of scandal during his pontificate influenced his decision. Others think the Curia (the cardinals who help govern the Church) forced Benedict out. Some queried the pontiff’s motives, arguing that with his resignation Benedict would be positioned to influence the selection of his successor. As other commentators have noted, this is material for a Dan Brown novel, with innuendo and twists of plot drawing us into a world of intrigue that blurs the distinctions between fact and fiction. 

Beyond innuendo to an essential truth
Benedict’s resignation draws me in for reasons other than the intrigue filtering down from the Vatican through the media.  The text of his announcement takes us beyond innuendo to an essential truth of human experience – our mortality. At some point, the aging process summons us to accept our diminishments, and begin the process of detachment.

In the announcement of his resignation, Benedict publicly stated that due to his age, “both strength of mind and body” have “deteriorated in me to the extend that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”  There is a compelling wisdom in this honest admission of decline; beyond the admission, there is the example of resigning one’s self to the realities of aging. While Benedict’s resignation may set a precedent for future aging and ailing pontiffs who (with the exception of a couple of historical examples) hang on until death, it has meaning for us as well.

We avoid admitting our decline
In a culture that worships at the altars of youthfulness and physical vitality, it is no small matter to recognize and accept one’s own decline. We take measures, like coloring our graying hair, to conceal the visible signs of aging. We avoid admitting the diminishment of our physical abilities, balking at using a cane or wearing hearing aids. We express our fear of cognitive impairment, laughing at lame jokes about “senior’s moments”.  We hang onto our driver’s license long past the point of prudence. We do not want to admit, let alone accept, our diminishments.

and detaching ourselves from worldly things
This resignation also points to a process of detaching one’s self from worldly things.  At the pinnacle of clerical success, with the privileges of a head of state, and the status of a celebrity, Benedict relinquishes some of the most sought after signs of success in the world - power, authority, privilege and fame. This pope, who was severely criticized in the early days of his papacy for wearing red Prada slippers, and who likes to appear in the princely regalia of a bygone era, will also have to detach himself from this fondness for the Church’s past with its beautiful trappings of office. In our consumer society, where the accumulation of material possessions, wealth, and the good opinion of others has become a virtue, this resignation reminds us that we go out of the world the same way we came into it – with nothing.

From action to passion
In stating his wish to serve the Church “through a life dedicated to prayer”, Benedict moves from an active lifestyle to a more passive, yet no less vital, way of being. While the movement from action to passion accompanies profound change at any stage in life, here it underscores loss of youth, of wholeness of body and mind, and of the tasks that once defined a person.  When we reach an advanced age, this movement may help us to reflect on our mortality, and aid us in our preparation for dying.

My intention in this column has not been to venerate or defend Benedict XVI.  While I have not been a fan of the conservative direction of the Church under his guidance, and the scandals of the old boys club of which he has been the head grieve me, Benedict’s resignation resonates with truth and deserves my respect. Whether or not the innuendo and rumor have any basis, the truth, symbolized in this resignation, is that eventually we have to accept our graying hair.