Thursday, March 20, 2014

Does Pope Francis Really Want His Message For Clergy To Roll Down Past The Vatican Hills?

Francis may have some logistical issues getting this sentiment outside the clerical culture of the to the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois for instance.

One of the things I've appreciated about Pope Francis is his insistence on conversion with in the ranks of the priesthood.  The whole 'taking on the smell' of the sheep concept.  The problem I have with this idea is I have no idea how he is going to see that this gets done in any kind of meaningful way outside of the Vatican walls.  A point made over and over again by a lot of Catholic commenters is that it's one thing for Francis to project such an image himself, getting lay Catholics all excited in the process, but it's an entirely different matter on the diocesan and parish level. Francis can open a hundred hearts to the Gospel message of Catholicism and the local Church can close 150.

The following article from the Washington Post by Melinda Henneberger is about one such diocese and one such parish.  St Mary's Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Illinois is a singular example of how to close 150 hearts.

An Illinois parish shows why Pope Francis can’t fix the Catholic Church by himself

By Melinda Henneberger - Washington Post - 3/14/2014

Some members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Mount Carmel, Ill., dare to hope that Pope Francis can save their parish after an awfully rough couple of years.

Their beloved longtime pastor was forced out by the bishop in the summer of 2012 for improvising prayers during Mass. Just when things were settling down, his successor announced that he had met someone and was leaving the priesthood to “explore a relationship” with her. For now, the bishop has appointed a newly ordained deacon to run the parish — except the deacon has been married four times, and not everyone at St. Mary’s, the parish where I grew up, is comfortable with that.
“We feel if we can get through to the pope, we’ll get it cleared up,” said Jim Pohl, an usher at St. Mary’s who also tends to the flowers and funeral dinners there. “He’s got a lot of problems everywhere in the world. But “we know he would help us if he knew.” (Given who the bishop is, it's not surprising they are appealing to Francis' pastoral sensibilities.)
For structural as much as practical reasons, the bishop of Rome is probably not going to involve himself in the workings of a parish in a town of 7,000 on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River. But the challenges facing St. Mary’s are the same issues Francis and his global flock of 1.2 billion are up against: the fights over liturgy, the isolation that can accompany priestly celibacy, the shortage of vocations to the priesthood in rich nations and, most of all, questions about divorce and remarriage.
That Catholics have such faith in Francis is a tribute to his ability to make people across the planet feel the warmth of the embrace he gave a disfigured man in St. Peter’s Square last November. But most of the challenges in Rome, Mount Carmel and everywhere in between play out locally, where the bishops are firmly in charge. They are the men with the greatest power to shape the day-to-day experience of Catholicism. And because more than half of the roughly 5,000 bishops in the world were chosen during John Paul II’s 26-year pontificate — including 143 of the 253 active bishops in the United States — it’s still very much John Paul’s church, led by men in his mold, and will be for years to come.  (It's also true that most of these bishops were raised as children in the Pre Vatican II church and ordained from seminaries that further refined their indoctrinated obedience to, and fear of, authority and authority figures.)
That’s certainly the case at St. Mary’s, a 150-year-old community of German farmers and townsfolk that’s come apart in the past 18 months. After Father Bill Rowe was ousted for straying from the approved Missal and his successor, Father Trevor Murry, got up at a Saturday evening Mass — and every Mass the next day — to announce he was leaving the priesthood after a dozen years, the bishop of Belleville, Edward Braxton, had to find someone to run the parish. His choice of Deacon Steve Lowe, who had openly derided Rowe as insufficiently orthodox despite his own multiple marriages, has struck some members as hypocritical.  (A google search of Bishop Braxton will quickly show one that his hypocrisy level has been called into question many many times.)
“How can I look up to [Lowe] when he’s been married three or four times?” asks the 78-year-old Pohl. “How can I go to church with him up there?” His voice cracks when he considers the alternative. “I’ve been a Catholic all my life.”
What seems to bother parishioners most is the apparent capriciousness of kicking one guy out for praising Jesus at the wrong moment, then installing as his replacement someone whose chief credential seems to be his loyalty to the bishop. In a parish of 450 families, attendance at weekend Masses has slipped from a couple hundred to mere dozens. Rod Paille, a lifelong parishioner who owns a vitamin shop just a couple of blocks from St. Mary’s, has stopped going to Mass but still attends a weekly Bible study that Father Bill has led for many years — but that he must now hold in the basement of the local Lutheran church. “So many people are leaving,” Paille says. “It’s a sad situation.” (It's a predictable situation too.)
And one Francis is unlikely to take on, either by firing the bishop or the deacon. Power in the Catholic Church is far more diffuse than generally understood; despite all the focus on Rome, most local decisions are made by local bishops, who are only rarely removed, whether for heresy, financial misconduct or on moral grounds. Even if Braxton, who oversees 116 parishes in Southern Illinois, is so unpopular that a majority of his priests signed a petition urging him to resign in 2008, the church is not a democracy.  (In short, this is the shoal on which the good ship Francis will run aground and sink.)
It simply isn’t organized to deal with modern personnel problems, either, says Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “Our structure was created to deal with princes and nobles,” he said, “and the only way you can get rid of princes and nobles is by poisoning them.” (And no, he doesn’t recommend it.)      (Shades of John Paul I)
“But,” he asks, “do we really want [Francis] acting like a CEO with the bishops as branch managers?” He wouldn’t have wanted such concentration of power under more-conservative popes, Reese said.  (No, but laity might like Francis to put more over site accountability on the hands of local laity.)
Francis is trying to address the problems felt so keenly in parish communities, where both the Gospel and the grievances are lived out, but change in the church comes slowly, largely through the pope’s example and through the appointments he’ll make over time. This October, church leaders will meet in Rome to discuss a range of family matters, including divorce. Recently, Francis preached with great compassion about failed marriages, even calling divorce a “misfortune” that should evoke caring rather than denunciation.  (Francis' two predecessors also used the concept of rolling one head to send a pointed message to 1000 others.)
When a marriage fails, we must “accompany those people who have had this failure in their love,’’ the pope said. “Do not condemn; walk with them.”
Deacon Lowe clearly does feel condemned for his multiple marriages, and he returns the sentiment: “They want to do nothing but piss and moan,’’ Lowe said of his new flock, adding that only about one in five parishioners, by his reckoning, are “stepping up instead of stepping away” at this time of crisis. Bringing up his marital history, he says, just shows how out of sync with Francis his critics are. (Hmmm, a certain Deacon also seems to have missed the 'Who am I to judge' message.
“Yes, I’ve been married four times, but only once in the church,’’ meaning that the first three marriages were not considered sacramental unions. Lowe, who worked in a tool factory that closed down more than a decade ago and now has a car-detailing business, has been married to one woman for the past 20 years; she was married to another St. Mary’s parishioner when they met but later obtained an annulment. (Right or wrong, there’s a widespread impression among Catholics that annulments, which are granted on the diocesan level, depend more on favoritism than facts.)
“I am trying my damndest” to hold St. Mary’s together, Lowe said, despite his suspicion that “there’s a certain percentage of people looking for an excuse not to go to Mass.”
On the contrary, what’s so poignant to me is how much his unhappy flock does yearn to be in those pews. “My great-grandfather and grandmother and aunt have their names on the windows’’ of St. Mary’s, built in 1900, says another lifelong parishioner, Clare Kidd. “It’s our church.”
That is true, of course, whether or not our family names are etched in stained glass. It is our church. And in the end it will be up to us, and not just Pope Francis, to fix it.


I just don't see how laity are going to fix this problem short of doing exactly what the parishioners of St Mary's have done, and that's walk out the door.  Nothing they do will move Deacon Lowe, much less Bishop Braxton. Both these men believe they have God's annointed authority and those sheep who won't follow their authority are self centered slackers, non believers,  even anti Catholics.  There is no middle ground here and consequently no pastoral solution short of Pope Francis rolling Braxton's head, and if that happened it wouldn't be because Braxton made a mess of St Mary's it would be because Braxton has a clergy revolt simmering in the Belleville Diocese.
I think the more likely scenario for a solution will come when Francis announces his choice to replace Chicago's Cardinal George, who as Braxton's superior,  has always had his back.  The Chicago appointment is perhaps the biggest message Francis will be able to send US Catholics about how serious he is about pastoral leadership. 
I have a sick feeling that this appointment will not be in the Bernardin mode, but more in the Wuerl mode---a moderate political type who won't upset the 1% and threaten their cash flow into US church coffers.  I hate to write that, but I can't help but notice how different Francis is with Northern European bishops whose flocks are taxed to support the Church.  In this case Francis is supporting these bishop conferences, especially on the divorce issue.  I expect that's because the agenda is not to antagonize the dollar base any further than it already is and a more pastoral approach with the laity will hopefully stem the tide of those who have renounced their Catholic tax status.  The US is a different story where all such cash flow is voluntary and one multi millionaire is worth 50 St Mary's parishes.  Francis has already started back tracking on some of his more pointed digs at unregulated capitalism, at least to the extent he hasn't bothered to correct some of the spin coming from Cardinal Dolan.  Additionally, Francis has most certainly given the green light to continue the USCCB 'religious freedom' charade, whose consequences are far more important to certain wealthy Catholics than it is to the vast majority of parishioners in places like St Mary's.
I hope I'm wrong about my speculation.  I'd like to believe the "In God We Trust" that Francis preaches is not ultimately about a certain kind of paper those four words happen to be printed on.  I'll have a better idea when he announces his choice for Chicago.


  1. He certainly does want the message to pass on through all levels of the Church, as should we all!

    The question, really, is about how do we best implement renewal in the Church. Your prescription of passing more directing power to the laity at a local level is a common one, and would resolve some problems, but I don't think an enduring solution lies in that sort of quick fix. Though I agree that any lasting solution must be active at a 'grass roots' level, rather than by top-down command.

    There are promising signs in the UK that improved Church youth activities and university groups have helped to give young people the encouragement and the prayer life not only to discern possible vocation to the priesthood and religious orders, but to pursue them maturely in an atmosphere of charity and purpose, well-supported by sound catechesis.

    It is possible that such a broad-base fostering of healthy Catholic culture for the younger generations could also take root in the US.

  2. Invictus, back for more? We have locked horns before, and I see that others are trying to engage you once again.

    Your answers are always the same, the orthodox view of life. You have decided that the church is right, and adherence to the church is always correct, even when it doesn't seem so. That puts you in with Augustine, and may I say that you are in intelligent and faithful company.

    That view doesn't work when your sexual abuser is held in place to abuse again. It doesn't work when multiple lies are exposed and you find that the abuse goes on in every diocese in the world and through time, and the statistics are always underplayed until secular (!) authority reveals true numbers. It doesn't work when Christian people are told they aren't really in a church unless it is ours. It doesn't work when all gay people are disordered unless they close their senses and live in denial. It doesn't work when women are only held in esteem when they shut up and sit down.

    Christ was asked to break it down to the bottom line. He demanded that we love God, each other, and ourselves. I've learned to look for that. I have stopped being shocked when "good Christian people" can't recognize when someone around them is loving. It's fear that gets in the way, a learned response of "holy fear" taught and nurtured by those who want control. It is evil, the devil if you wish.

    You won't change until you give God Her due, when you place love higher than rectitude. And I'll bet you many here will be able to see it.

  3. I certainly have no problem with engaging the enthusiasm of youth. I suspect you and I would have a problem with what constitutes 'sound catechesis' because a 'healthy Catholic culture' can not be fostered from a foundation of fear and unquestioned obedience to authority.

    Way back when I was asked to meditate on military training vs spiritual training. I came to the conclusion that the insistence on obedience to authority, fear, and camaraderie worked extremely well when the task was kill or be killed. When the task is to love and be loved, that military approach does not work well, and in fact is antithetical to the mission of love. When it comes to love, being open to others, compassion, non judgement, and a willingness to subsume the ego by serving others, are key attributes. I do not think the current seminary system, historically based on the military model, is helpful in engendering Pope Francis' desire to end clericalism. For me the core change must be in our conception of, and training for, our spiritual leadership. We need more mystics, not more ritually based priests......and that's where women and elders come into play.

  4. Christ asked us to let go of our religious training wheels and ride the bike of spiritual life, trusting in our own ability to balance. Scrapes, bumps, and bruises are part of the effort, but the hardest part is choosing to take off the training wheels. Invictus will get there...especially if he keeps hanging around here.

  5. The Church doesn't teach child abuse though (as if I even need to state it!), so your argument against the truth of the Church is wrong.
    We love one-another, and we love the Church, as we love God. Cut any one of those out, and problems arise.
    We are called to fidelity and obedience just as we are called to love. They are connected.

  6. Agreed. I hope we all get there.

  7. The church, the people of God, is indeed led in truth. But the church has allowed child abusers to continue their ways in every diocese. Let's repeat that, every diocese. Remember when Ratzinger said it was an American problem? The man who had all the data? The historian who knew the documents of the 5th and 11th centuries about this very problem? Is he lying to us out of love?
    Reasons given mostly concern scandal, obedience, and the shortage of priests. Most times no reasons are given. So your response is tangential. What does a person of faith and love do when the leaders act so unlovingly? Does love supercede obedience? Jesus, eating with unwashed hands, seems to think so. Those abused by the priests, gay people, women called to lead, and more have faced this dilemma. Those who have learned compassion feel it.

  8. Until and unless these parishioners refuse to nonsense it will continue because the ONLY vote ... particulary in such a dysfunctional diocese ... they have is their checkbook. If bringing the parish to its knees is an outcome, then that might be a price to pay. Other parishes exist.
    Until and unless the priests of this diocese refuse to tolerate Braxton and his bully-boy tactics, they will continue. He can't fire them all, and if he tries the resulting stink will force the Papal Nuncio and "The Vatican" to finally deal with Braxton.
    Temporary inconvenience is better than permanent disempowerment.

  9. ...because that is precisely what sheep and lambs of a flock are encouraged by a shepherd to do? To throw off discipline and get into trouble?

    This is not, and has not been, a part of the teaching of the Church.

    Is the Sacrament of Reconciliation a restrictive 'training wheel'? Is weekly Mass attendance? Is rejection of contraception and abortion? Is the Angelus? I struggle to see which "restrictions" you say ought to be thrown off.

  10. You're not clear on precisely what it is you think victims of abuse, people with same-sex attractions, and confident women leaders should do.
    Surely they should be encouraged to discover God's love for them, the gifts He has provided for them through His Church, and to prayerfully and faithfully live the vocation they have been called to?
    Or, had you another suggestion?

  11. I can't really relate to this, and I do not believe that military or seminary training is rooted in fear. This is not my experience.

  12. Well, I suppose it depends how close the next nearest parishes are. I don't suppose there's anything preventing them from going to another Mass. Many people do this already out of love for the Old Rite, or out of special connection to a particular priest or locality.

  13. I'd also consider places that are not Catholic. There is a plethora of opportunities to enrich the spirit. God is everywhere and I don't think God wants to abandon us -- we just need to look around a little more.

  14. Jim I think you are right on about the priests in this diocese. Cardinal Law wound up in Rome because enough Boston priests collectively agitated for his removal. Look at Austria, their priest's initiative has not been effectively shut down because there are too many of them.

  15. It's mental Invictus, not sacramental. And yes, both the Sacrament of Reconcilliation and spiritual mentoring can be training wheels. In the case of the Legion, both went way beyond training wheels. They resulted in flat tires, broken chains, and followers WALKING in lock step behind Maciel.

  16. What are those vocations exactly Invictus? Last I knew, the gay vocation was to bear their cross of enforced loneliness and suffer for the sake of...... heterosexuals I guess.

  17. Both are rooted in the fear of authority and failure. They are designed to create members who think and act alike and they severely punish those who get outside the box....except for the really intelligent ones who are allowed to get outside the box, like in Military Intelligence or the Vatican Diplomatic corps.