Waiting for the Pope — Sort Of…

Cambridge, MA. I am sure I am not alone in having mixed feeling about Pope Benedict’s coming visit to the United States. Of course I share the respect and even reverence due to the Papacy in general and to this holy Pope in particular, and of course I share in the prayers of all those hoping that his visit will help challenge and invigorate the American Church, while awakening all Americans to the wider range of religious truths and values for which the Church stands. It is providential that he is on the east coast, while the Dalai Lama is in Seattle. But there are factors that dim my enthusiasm. Perhaps I am a typically introverted Harvard professor, when I lack enthusiasm for big crowds and big media events. I have not contemplated traveling south to join the crowds looking to glimpse Benedict during his visit. I was not invited to any special event, nor do I watch much television, so the week may slip by before I realize it. But it also true that I am one of those who feel that there is a real conversation to be had, most desperately important for the American Church -- and that Benedict, so perceptive and so intelligent, is a person with whom we might conceivably have that conversation: about the direction of change in the Church; about how to speak the faith powerfully to that large segment of Catholics who are disillusioned by the Church and have walked away from our parishes; about clericalism, the priesthood, and religious vocations; about the risks and challenges of that true interreligious learning that draws people back to God; and even about the forbidden issues that are-not-to-be-discussed: the place of gay women and men in the Church; the fact of Catholic women who have discerned it to be the will of God calling them to ordained ministry; the long-running agony even among good Catholics about abortion. Of course these issues are often written, argued, yelled about -- there is no lack of opinion on such topics! But it is still most poignant that when this particular Pope -- again, so gifted, holy, perceptive -- appears in our midst, the needed dialogue -- listening, before speaking -- is unlikely to happen. This is a week of crowds, media events, extensive coverage, papal addresses in large venues and to important invited guests, but it does not seem (according to the media -- I have no insider information) that that tougher, direct, honest exchanges -- where no one gets to speak without listening first -- will occur. So my hope for the success of the Pope’s visit is necessarily dampened by a sense of how much more might occur if his visit were also to proceed in a quieter, off the record manner, where he could stop and listen to a wider and more unpredictable range of Catholics. We can dream: it would be truly providential were Benedict to drop in again next year, unannounced, telling no one that he is coming, perhaps staying at a Catholic Worker House -- and then visit with small groups of Catholics for unscripted and private conversations. Short of that, we must at least remember, this week, that alongside the public event and the lectures, there remains another conversation that needs to occur before the Church can find its voice again. Let us listen to what is said loudly in public, but also for is not said, not listened, not heard, in the days to come.
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9 years 7 months ago
Of the many issues about which Fr. Clooney desires a "real conversation," he cites "how to speak the faith powerfully" to the many Catholics who are disillusioned by the Church and have walked away from our parishes . . ." He also wishes for a conversation "about the risks and challenges of that true interreligious learning that draws people back to God . . ." It is not clear what Fr. Clooney means by "true interreligious learning," but I speculate it has something to do with coming to a fuller appreciation of other religions. As a 26 year old with 8 years of Jesuit education, I can confidently say that it is largely because of religious pluralism and "interreligious learning" that many Catholics, particularly the young, have abandoned their parishes. Steeped in diversity, surrounded by a culture that rejects truth, and exposed to Catholic universities increasingly committed to the secular world, Christianity for most young Catholics becomes one option amidst innumerable paths to personal enlightenment. Diminished belief in Christianity is often preceded by a drop-off of belief in Catholicism. While some Catholics may leave the Church because of, as Fr. Clooney seems to imply, its teachings on abortion or women's ordination, far more never really enter the Church because they have been so badly catechized. Moreover, even if they have been adequately catechized, it is hard to expect them to have much confidence in the authority of their catechesis when theologians, particularly priests, consistently imply that major Church teachings ought to change. Young Catholics, like young people generally, search for reasons to reject authority, and they will seize upon otherwise nuanced arguments that seem to validate that rejection. In my experience, what brings people back to parishes and to Mass is the witness of Catholics, both lay and ordained, who charitably and unapologetically give witness to Catholicism and to its teachings.
9 years 7 months ago
If the pope were to ask himself "what would Jesus do?" I think the answer would be close to what you describe. How incredible it would be for those of us who have left the church to see a more, well, Christ-like Vicar of Christ. One who might cast aside the pomp and ceremony and begin to address the real issues that keep us apart.
9 years 6 months ago
I recently attended a beautiful talk from a teacher of Hindu chant I've been observing for my class with professor Clooney; in it she shared her recent pilgrimage to India to visit the Tibetan community there and several schools she had been helping to support over the years. This was, of course during the ongoing protest crisis with China, and she shared the amazing meetings the Dalai Lama hosted in public squares and temples, sharing and answering questions before thousands of Tibetans and being a powerful presence of solidarity and accessibility in the midst of great turmoil. She shared some of the actual teachings and words he gave, including his ever present humor trying to keep people's spirits up in the midst of profound anxiety.
9 years 6 months ago
(cont.- I noted this elsewhere, but should mention I'm a student of Prof. Clooney at Harvard Divinity) Hearing all of this made me think of Professor Clooney's suggestions of "surprise" visits on the grassroot level as well as some of the incredible acts of solidarity and accessibility which made Pope John Paul II so beloved around the world, to many religions. In this time of healing, I agree that less public, but also less scripted events are deeply needed- and so in the spirit of Christ, who would drop in on a tax collector's house at a moment's notice! I understand Benedict did have a private meeting with some victims, and also an interesting chat with several members of other religions. This is encouraging, but I agree it is a trend which would mean much to the laity if expanded even further. Obviously we cannot expect Benedict to fill the grand shoes of JPII, a high task for anyone, but I think his pastoral message and desire to transmit the authenticity of the Catholic faith to today's generation would be greatly served by further surprising, personal acts. It would go far in a generation which eats, drinks and breathes media, but also desires authenticity and unscripted expressions of faith.

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