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Tongues of Fire Burning the Building Down

(Mother of the New Pentecost:: taken from the wonderful site St. Andrei Rublov Icons)

I’ve been reflecting today on the wonderful interview given by Matthew Fox, regarding the publication of his new book, The Pope’s War. Fox is also one of the keynote speakers at the ongoing American Catholic Conference in Detroit. Thanks to Colleen Kochivar-Baker of Enlightened Catholicism for alerting us to this interview and for her own insightful comments, and thanks to Betty Clermont’s posting below, with her provocative question about possible reform, which prompted these reflections: I am waiting for anyone to suggest a path to reform of the Roman Catholic Church which would be more effective than Catholics staying away. )

I’ve chosen several passages from Matthew Fox’s interview which particularly struck me as very prescient of the future of Christianity, and have followed them with my own reflections:

As a theologian I am trying to ponder how the recent events of Catholic history can be seen through the eyes of the Holy Spirit. Is there some good that come out of so much anguish, so much betrayal, so much disappointment with the false direction the church has taken under Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger? And I come to a clear conclusion that Yes, the Holy Spirit is still at work in the events of deconstruction and reconstruction that are at hand. It is time to restart the church. Let many of its forms go; let them die as they are doing.

With the death of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 [most likely by assassination], I felt that we were being given a sign by the Holy Spirit that we were not meant to have a ‘reformed Church’ along the lines proposed by Vatican II, as so many of us of the Vatican II generation were longing for. In a way my hope for meaningful ‘reform’ of the Church died along with the saintly, gentle, collegial and open-hearted Albino Luciani, who reined for only a short 33 days, and who died in such mysterious circumstances which have never been adequately explained to this day. If one ventures down into the crypt beneath St. Peters, which contains the remains of past Popes, John Paul I’s coffin has been placed on the side of the central aisle, the least significant location for any pontiff. Pilgrims rush past it, oblivious to this genuinely saintly martyr to reform of the Church, in their haste to get to the far more dramatic and spacious alcove which contains the remains of his successor, John Paul II, with the ‘eternal flame’ burning to the side and the permanent guard standing by. I always bring a bouquet when I visit Papa Luciani’s tomb, but I have never seen any other evidence of tokens of devotion and affection for this most ‘perfect’ of collegial minded Pontiffs. If the Spirit had intended us to have a reformed Church, without any radical reconstruction, John Paul I would have remained alive to have fulfilled that destiny. His death must be read as a sign of the Spirit that a much more radical purging of the Church was intended and that we were being asked to ‘let go’ of the forms of the old Church, to surrender our longing for renewal itself, even to cut the umbilical cord to Mother Church herself (in her present institutional structure) and to find the courage in the Spirit to venture out into the unknown, living in trust that the Maternal Spirit of Wisdom would find a way to preserve the lineage of Catholic Christianity outside the present, moribund institutional structure. However, I could not have imagined a more terrible or more profound purging and deconstruction than that enacted, albeit obliviously, by Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. Such is the irony of history that the genuine saint is ignored and (taking my cue from Matthew Fox) the ‘schismatic’ Polish Pope in his spacious alcove down the aisle is honored beyond belief. Using the “S” word will be seen as contentious, but I am in agreement with Matthew Fox here when he says:

The “S” word rarely gets used these days but I think that Schism properly summarizes what the past two papacies have been about. They deliberately turned their back on a valid Ecumenical Council and in doing so are in schism. This means that its appointed cardinals and bishops are in schism. They do not represent the lineage of the church. This opens up whole new possibilities of seeing the church anew. All the Yes men and sycophants that have lined up at the papal trough for a piece of the power these recent decades are seen for what they are in their transparent reality.

An ecclesiastical system in schism? Is that too strong a word and does it not make us similar to those ultra conservative Catholic sects (St.Pius X), who consider Vatican II itself to be in schism and every pope elected after Pius XII? A contentious issue and a very strong word, but sometimes honesty, courage and directness in language are necessary instruments to pierce the boil that is infecting the Church. However, rather than hurl invective, I prefer to follow Fox’s inspiration and ask what the Holy Spirit is telling us through these powerful and painful ‘signs of the times.’ It is my own view that we cannot understand the present crisis in the Church without taking into account the overall shift in religious and spiritual outlook in the culture at large. Sincere spiritual searchers are no longer so dependent upon or so trustful of large religious institutions, but are finding alternative sources of nourishment in a variety of places and religious communities. The time for the great institutional structures has past, and what is to replace them remains a mystery and perhaps a cause of anxiety, as we fearfully contemplate fragmentation, splintering, chaos. But I feel such fears must be faced and overcome in the peaceful, interior conviction that the Spirit is leading us towards a radical reconstruction of the whole Catholic tradition and to forms of community which are at present beyond our imagining. Fox continues:

I have tried to sketch out some directions for new versions of Christianity that are needed today with of course the primary emphasis on lay leadership. We do not need another Council (after all the last one was totally stuffed); what we need is a rise and indeed a take over of the church by lay leaders. Jesus was not a clericalist. He never heard of the Vatican (or of cardinals) all of which developed centuries after his death. Time to start over. And with the courage and imagination and generosity that characterizes all authentic spirituality.

These words themselves need to be deconstructed and their implications laid bare. A “take-over” of the church by lay leaders ultimately must mean a take over of the sacramental system, and a refusal to be intimidated by the monopoly of control the hierarchy presently maintains over the sacraments through the myth of ‘apostolic succession.’ (Readers of Terrence Weldon’s blog, Queering the Church can find an abundance of documentation for exploring the justification for calling this doctrine a myth.) And here I am in complete agreement with another key note speaker at the Detroit conference, theologian Anthony Padovano, who is simply following the great Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx by insisting that a ‘validly ordained’ minister is not an absolute requirement for a genuine celebration of the Eucharist. In the absence of ‘ordained priests,’ communities must find the courage within themselves, through the most profound and heartfelt prayer and discernment, to bless their own lay leaders and celebrate the sacraments independently of episcopal approval. This is a radical act that requires the utmost trust in the Spirit, because ‘the real presence’ is among the great treasures of the Catholic tradition. Such communities will find themselves under fire and will endure censure and ‘excommunication,’ but it is already happening in increasing numbers of breakaway communities. Until increasing numbers of communities are willing to take this painful step – in the absence of ‘officially ordained’ priests – no real revolution within the church is possible. Lay leaders must rise up and take back the church and that means listening to the interior movements of the Spirit, experiencing the peace and joy which are the signs of the Spirit, when and as they celebrate the Eucharist on their own. The Holy Spirit is already imbuing communities with the fire of Pentecost, the interior joy and consolation that bring with them the assurance of conscience that this step is the right one. We are already being blessed, we are already being assured, we are already being led into the new Church of the Holy Spirit. It simply requires more and more laypersons to listen to this interior call. This will not happen overnight. It is too radical, too frightening, it calls for too great a sacrifice, too painful a wrenching from the security of the Mother Womb, but in my opinion it is way the Spirit is leading increasing numbers of us. The official organizers of the American Catholic Conference in Detroit are ‘following the rules,’ but I would not be surprised to learn that informal Eucharists on the periphery of the conference are fulfilling Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s worst fears. To take such a step, however, requires the most prayerful discernment and this brings me to Matthew Fox’s final points.

I believe, the most important direction that religion needs to go in its reconstruction—that is spirituality, the experiential dimension of religion. The mystical-prophetic tradition I have been recovering including the Cosmic Christ, Hildegard, Aquinas, Eckhart, Julian and others, together with today’s post-modern science, offers new and deeper expressions of healthy religion. They are among the treasure to take from the burning building.

Let us remember what Thomas Aquinas taught about religion. That it is, he felt, primarily a virtue, that is a habit that persons carry within them. Indeed, for Aquinas religion’s essence is Gratitude. Gratitude for existence. This means that institutions are NOT what religion is primarily about. What goes on in the heart and mind and gives birth to outer form is what is at the essence of religion. This means that social constructs like basilicas, cathedrals, churches, vaticans, popes, cardinals, bishops, canon laws, etc. are on the periphery of real religion. And they render themselves religiously irrelevant when their thrust at certain times of history is very far from the love and compassion and service that Jesus preached. They have more to do with accumulation of power and prestige and institutional and personal ego.

(All the more reason, then, for alternative communities to branch out of their own, while maintaining their ties to the larger community through prayerful discernment, counseling, advice, and listening to the authentic voices of wisdom within the community, born of contemplation and prayer. Nothing could be more important than the spiritual witness in peace and joy of lay led communities, celebrating the presence of the Resurrected Lord. The time for waiting upon ecclesiastical leaders for change has past. The ecclesiastical system must be bypassed, and only when increasing numbers of lay led communities are forced by circumstance to take this painful step, and discover within themselves the Pentecostal peace and joy assuring them that the Spirit is with them, will the real revolution of the Holy Spirit within the Church have begun. For this to happen, we need increasing numbers of genuine prophets and mystics who are attuned in the depths of their being to the life giving movements of the Spirit.

At the bottom, the crisis in Roman Catholicism is a crisis in spirituality or the lack thereof. Real people want spirituality. The church as we know it today is the last place they go looking. We are talking about the future of religion, the future of spirituality and very likely the sustainability or unsustainability of our species on this planet. This is why the issues at hand are of deep importance to us all, whether within or outside of organized religion.

I would like to close these reflections with these moving words from another contemplative teacher of the Catholic mystical tradition:

DIARMUID O’MURCHU: There’s certainly a part of me as a human being, a part entirely of being a Christian, that feels I don’t want to abandon any sister or brother on the journey of life and the journey of faith. But this is a very real question for me and for people who are like me who facilitated for renewal programs and chapters of religious congregations, because this one comes up often. What do you do with the people who don’t want to move, that want to keep things as they always were, and are so rigid and frightened and scared, and you can’t get them to move without badly damaging them, which I don’t feel I have any right to do or anybody else has a right to do. And so I think the delicate balance has to be something like this and for me Gerry Arbuckle is the person who has named this very, very clearly. Supposing you have this group…and let’s put this into percentages…and you have 50% that are totally rigid and stuck, if you like, and you have 50% that are yearning to go. Insofar as there are people that are committed primarily to life and to the evolution of life, the primary energy should move with the 50% that want to move. And then we keep a secondary energy to try and help and maintain the others in a meaningful way. So this principal is that you go primarily where the life is! I think the tendency, particularly in churches, is that we try to keep everything at the lowest common denominator to please those who want to keep things the way they are. That, in my opinion, is not what Jesus would do. That is not Christian gospel. I think we need to go where the life is, primarily, without abandoning the others. And we need to try and bring them with us, in so far as we can, in love, in charity, and also in challenge! And ok, if they choose to remain totally stuck, or totally where they are – let me not be too judgmental about it – ok, that is their freedom, that is their right if you like, but I think in the overall sense of things, whether at the human level, at the religious or spiritual level, I think this commitment to life always has to be honored. And so go where the life is primarily, put your energies primarily there. And then also spare some to try and maintain, in kindness and dignity, those that pretty much want to remain. And a corollary of that, of course, which is much more difficult and this requires a lot of skills, we do not allow this subgroup to dictate. And I think that’s where leadership has a huge responsibility. Leadership has to put it’s commitment with the new primarily.

Website for Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu : http://www.diarmuid13.com

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6 Responses

  1. Jayden, thanks for the magnificent post. I trashed mine as totally inadequate – stupid actually – compared to your words and those of Matthew Fox and Diarmuid O’Murchu. Bravo!

  2. Oh dear, Betty, you didn’t have to do that! Thanks for the kind words, but I did think you made some really valid points. Many of the well intentioned participants in the Detroit conference will no doubt go back to their parishes intending to have another round of meetings and discussions and then wait in hope for a more positive, open response to be forthcoming from their bishop and higher ups in the hierarchy – but I believed, sadly, they will wait in vain. The system is too entrenched, so that even bishops who might like to step forward are cautioned by the Bishop Morris treatment. Still, as Colleen’s post makes clear, the rebels are out there and stepping up to be counted. Who knows what startling changes the winds of the Spirit may bring us?
    I think we also need to counterbalance Diarmuid O’Murchu’s saintly patience and forbearance with Matthew Fox’s prophetic outrage. One passage from Fox’s interview I did not quote has him describing Pope Benedict as a ‘bully surrounded by a wolf pack.’ In such cases, compassion must give way to principled and outspoken resistance. Our primary compassion must be towards those who are being harmed by such fascist bullying.

    • I agree with Jayden’s response. As I have already indicated by email, the points you made were valid, and sufficiently important to evoke swift reaction by both Jayden and myself. That should tell you something. This interchange between the three of us is leading to some really important topics, I believe – I’ve been thinking of little else all day.

      Please retrieve your original post from the WP trash bin, and repost – if for no other reason, that our readers can see what Jayden and I have been responding to.

  3. Jayden, you are so right about balancing Fox with O’Murchu. I myself spend too much time on the Fox end of things, while forgetting O’Murchu’s point that we have to take people where they are at and see to it that they feel at least secure if not safe. On the other hand we can’t let them run the show.

  4. [...] feast of Pentecost – which produces his wonderful, fully descriptive title for his post: “Tongues of Fire Burning the Building Down“. This is precisely what is happening: lay Catholics and junior clergy, whom the the Vatican [...]

  5. [...] feast of Pentecost – which produces his wonderful, fully descriptive title for his post: “Tongues of Fire Burning the Building Down“. This is precisely what is happening: lay Catholics and junior clergy, whom the the Vatican [...]

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