WORD FROM ROME: John Allen's Word from Rome column is, as usual, chock full of interesting tidbits. He talks about liberalism (in its classic sense) and the Pope, who has often embraced the liberal ideas of democracy and human rights, and about some Catholic thinkers who wonder whether liberalism and Catholicism are truly compatible. I have a lot of interest in "post-liberal" theology, so I always find this stuff fascinating.
But in keeping with sort of an unstated theme in my posting this week, what I really wanted to draw my readers' attention to is Allen's recounting of how the Community of Sant'Egidio has taken action to help the elderly who are suffering because of the current heat wave:
[In] Genoa the archdiocese and the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church, are involved in a joint project that sends volunteers into the homes of 2,000 elderly people, most of whom live alone. The idea is to keep track of their welfare and to help where needed...
Sant’Egidio has published a guide for home-bound elderly to live a dignified life on their own. They’ve also organized a consciousness-raising campaign entitled “I need you in the summer too,” calling on people to be sensitive to the elderly in their buildings and neighborhoods. In the summer, shops close and public services are reduced, leaving the elderly vulnerable.
Sant’Egidio has thus called for “a civic sensibility that expresses itself in concern for those near us.” If ever such a spirit were needed, it’s right here, right now.
Some of the discussion on the Catholic Blogs this week has been about what the Church needs to do right now. I would submit that what we need is to be people like Jonathan Daniels, Sister Polly Torino, and the people of the Community of Sant'Egidio.
I lost fear in the black belt [kmk notes: this is not a racial reference but a geographic one; the "black belt of Alabama" has black loamy soil, in contrast to the red clay soils of the rest of the state] when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God. I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one's motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it. As Judy and I said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible "communion of saints" --- of the beloved comunity in Cambridge who were saying the offices too, of the ones gathered around a near-distant throne in heaven --- who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and "ends" all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.
This isn't an issue that terribly exercises me one way or another. I don't really feel that having a graven image (hey, wait a minute...?) of the Ten Commandments inside a courthouse is a major violation of the Establishment Clause. The version in Alabama seems to be the Protestant version so I suppose as a Catholic I could be deeply offended, particularly since one of the points of the Protestant re-ordering of the commandments was to attack the Catholic fondness for religious statuary. But even if I was an atheist, I think I might find that there were larger battles to fight than this one.
But I think this battle is even more pointless from a religious perspective. There is a trend in American Christianity to defend rather pointless displays of "civil religion" (e.g. prayers before graduations and football games, "under God" in the pledge, public displays of the Ten Commandments, etc.). These are the ways that the dominant culture lightly genuflects toward a religious sensibility without having to confront the life-changing demands of the Gospel.
Given Alabama's fondness for the death penalty, it seems to be that what Christians really should be doing is bringing picks and hammbers to demolish the monument so that the Word of God would not be profaned by association with the state's machinery of death. That would be an act of Christian witness worth getting excited about...
People are just so tired of institutional conversations. They are so tired of programs and mission statements and policies and long processes that stifle the Spirit. They are tired of layers put by institutions between them and God. The Church is an institution, and its purpose is not to obscure, but to enlighten, to give people not only guidance, but a place, a moment in time in which they know the presence of Jesus - healing, forgiving, binding, nourishing, loving. It is not that complicated: sacramental life, catechesis and service. There is nothing to re-invent. There is merely the ancient charge, the commision of Jesus to heed and put into action.
People need Christ - waves of Asian, African and Latino immigrants, the poor, the abandoned elderly, the young women contemplating awful decisions, the young men who helped them get to that point, materially comfortable, busy professionals contemplating their empty lives, children formed in a culture that teaches them their value lies in their appearance, kids drowning in fantasy worlds in video games, prosperous Americans convinced that other people's suffering is not their problem....everyone, no matter what, facing the daunting reality of death.
Do the bishops want to know how to fix the Church? Look to Christ, and then, if we're still at a loss, look to His saints. Saints - the people who have come closest to perfectly fufilling the commission, to perfectly embodying, within the imperfection of humanity, the great, generous love of God. They were fearless, they were single-minded, they were not bound by their cultures or by politics, they were innovative and they were passionate in their love for God and His children.
GOING PUBLIC: KFOR in Oaklahoma City reports that "more than 160 priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee have signed a letter that supports letting married men join the priesthood. An expert says this is the first time since the mid-1970's that a group of priests has gone on record in favor of loosening rules on celibacy. The letter will be sent to a subcommittee of the U-S Conference of Catholic Bishops. Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan will chair that panel, starting in November."
A DIVIDED CHURCH? In his monthly NYT column, Peter Steinfels writes about a new study of the Episcopal Church that was released at the General Convention, but didn't get much coverage. Entitled "The Ties that Bind" it looks at how Episcopalian congregations are being transformed by and infux of new members who are, Steinfels writes, "quite distinct from lifelong Episcopalians, the study says. These adults saw themselves as embarked on spiritual journeys. Unlike the stereotypical New Age religious seekers, however, they wanted to make these journeys within a community, and they were drawn to the historic Anglican tradition of both Eucharistic worship and room for individual questioning."
I haven't read the entire report, but I did read the first chapter which is available on-line (click here). At first glance, it looks as if the ECUSA is moving toward something that might by termed "high-church congregationalism," with Episcopalians feeling increasingly cut off from the ecclesiastical structures that exist beyond the local chuch. I have to say that I don't personally think this is a very positive development, but the vitality of congregational life in the ECUSA is certainly a welcome and positive thing.
ROOT FOR THEM: Tom Friedman talks about how a rebuilt Iraq could change the political dynamic in the Arab world. Too many Arab regimes are still mired in Nasserite Arab nationalism, where national identity is more defined by whom you are fighting (the Israelis, the Americans) then what you are building. But it's clear that there are at least a few young people in Iraq who are looking for something different. Freidman talks with Hassan Fattah, a young Iraqi-American journalist who has returned to found a new newspaper called Iraq Today:
Talking to young Iraqis such as Hassan, you sense how much they want to break the old mold — how much they want to be Arabs, with an Arab identity, but to build a modern state that actually focuses on tapping its people's talents and energies, rather than diverting them, and one that seeks to base their dignity on what they build, not on whom they fight. Root for them to succeed, for having such a state in the heart of the Arab world would be a very, very good thing.
Who can forget the glorious years of 1831-32. The zeal, the enthusiasm, the boundless hopes, the glowing expectations of that Reform struggle? There had been grievous disorders in past years - over taxation, dear corn, Swing burnings, a general aspect of insubordination, of gloom and dissatisfaction. But the moment the Reform Bill was announced, and its merits had been set forth a little by discussion, it seemed as if a universal medicine had been discovered. Every separate grievance found its removal in that one great remedy; and it was expected that this glorious Bill would be the parent of an almost endless and immortal progeny of healing and restoring measures.
Who can forget the glorious years of 1831-32? Well, I think it's fair to say that those years have been largely forgotten, even by many in England. I suspect some of the issues we wrestle with so deeply today, that seem so very important now, will be little noted in the future, even by historians. In the vast sweep of history, we are not so important as we tend to think, and that is both a humbling thought and a hopeful one.