Archive for the ‘Catholic Church’ Category

The Pope of Hope

CVC_TNY_12_23_13_no_date_580pxAn enduring image for me of the decidedly mixed year that is fast passing away is the whimsical cover illustration of a recent New Yorker magazine of the Jesuit Pope Francis spread eagled in the snow, six-year-old like, creating a snow angel. It seems a perfect image of hope in what has often seemed to be a year marked only by discord, strife and bitterness.

From the partisan breakdown in Washington politics, including the now distant memory of a pointless and costly shutdown of the federal government and the more recent abandonment of unemployment protections and reductions in food stamp benefits for millions of Americans, to the deadly and protracted civil wars in Syria and South Sudan and the near civil war in Iraq, from media fixation on the trivial ignorance of Duck Dynasty and Anthony Weiner to the incompetence of the Affordable Care Act roll out, only Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela seemed able this year to cut through the clutter and address something important.

In a superb profile in the same New Yorker with the Argentine snow angel on the cover, James Carroll offers a nuanced assessment of the still-new Bishop of Rome. Yet you come away from Carroll’s profile and the recent reporting of other Vatican watchers believing – even hoping – that this man is the radical that both his church and the world need. And the word radical is used not in its usual polarizing political context of right vs. left, but rather in the context of a moral and spiritual leader who recognizes the need for fundamental change both in tone and substance.

Carroll recounts that the Pope is “a large man with a ready smile” who preaches with fervor and with questions. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?”

Elsewhere it is reported that President Obama sees the surprising Pope as an ally with like-minded notions about the need to shrink the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. However, what Francis has and Obama struggles to obtain may make the Pope a better mentor than a kindred soul. After two successive leaders of the Catholic Church who placed a premium on doctrinaire obedience by the church and its leaders to a our-way-or-the-highway view of social issues like gay rights, contraception and abortion, the new pope seems determined to reform the Catholic bureaucracy and turn the church’s message in a new and better direction with both his words and his deeds.

Symbols are important, as presidents from Lincoln to Reagan have taught us, and Pope Francis seems to instinctively grasp that truth. He has mostly abandoned the Popemobile for a small car, lives in a two room apartment rather than the Vatican penthouse, shuns the red loafers and ermine capes, and, yes, he kisses babies. He has attacked the bloated and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy like a born-again political reformer and dismissed some bishops and scolded others for forgetting – or ignoring – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The spirit of careerism,” Francis warned a recent gathering of new bishops, “is a form of cancer.” And he possessed of enough self-awareness – an indispensable political attribute  – not to shield himself from criticism. “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others,” he wrote in recently, “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.” That sounds a good deal like a radical with a plan laying the groundwork for a new direction.

One suspects that Francis also is a strategic enough political thinker to understand the value of surprise, the power of the unexpected gesture. As a 76-year old with only one lung Francis could easily have been a caretaker pope, but he’s been anything but so far. Rather he seems like a man in a hurry, at least in the context of a church that is defined by glacial change, who realizes he may not have much time to change things. So, with the surprise of his symbols and the courage of his convictions the pope, it seems to me, is executing on a grand strategy.

First he must change the focus of the church from a hectoring, secretive institution that has become comfortable with constantly saying “NO” to one that actually speaks of its real purpose, which is to serve the poor, seek justice, be inclusive even with non-believers, and advocate for peace. Once that moral authority is established and the bureaucracy is better under control he can move on to even more controversial issues.

One of the many remarkable things this new pope has done is to be gentle with the man he replaced. Under different circumstances and with a different leader having the previous Pope Benedict literally living above the store could have been awkward in the extreme. But Francis has done not only the kind and Christian thing, but the politically strategic thing by tending to his relationship with the uber doctrinaire ex-pope who once led the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office dedicated to keeping the church in line. On Dec. 23 Pope Francis visited his predecessor for prayers and lunch, just the kind of small but telling gesture that speaks volumes and resonates on television.

Pope Francis like Mandela, another great leader who was able to transcend his circumstances, are better politicians than most politicians. They understand that change – political and institutional change – come from a careful meld of arts both soft and firm. Leadership requires both moral authority and sense of purpose. It can mean quiet persuasion delivered with a smile as well as fierce determination to succeed coupled with the energy and drive to execute on a plan. Leadership also means outwitting your opponents and, a lesson Obama has yet to learn after five years in office, a willingness to cajole, flatter and co-opt. But it begins with moral authority.

Perhaps the president’s New Years Resolution should be to not merely quote the pope’s speeches, but adopt his political tactics.

Given what may become the long lame duck presidency of Barack Obama and given the dispiriting lack of genuine leaders elsewhere in the world – think of the thuggish Putin or any of the bureaucrats running western European nations – maybe, just maybe we have reason to hope at the end of this mostly hopeless year that God does work in mysterious ways.

When most we need a reminder of what one man can do on a journey from a jail cell to the Nobel Peace Prize we end 2013 reflecting on Mandela’s remarkable life. And when most we need to believe that someone can articulate with real moral authority the universal truths of compassion, respect, inclusion and peace we at last have a Pope of Hope.

 

The Power of Humility

The-Pope_2514251bMy reaction to the remarkable interview with Pope Francis that dominated the international news cycle last week was hardly unique. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote Sunday about having the same feeling.

“It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture,” Bruni wrote that was truly remarkable. “It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term ‘infallible’ is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naïve, worried that he’d been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.”

As a general rule Pope’s don’t do interviews or if they do they speak in a certain Vatican code that is as difficult to decipher as a Ben Bernacke news conference. And when a pope speaks it is not typically in a whisper. Yet, the Argentine Jesuit who has been surprising the world since moving to Rome earlier this year sat for three different interview sessions and then gave the transcript the papal seal of approval by looking it over. In all his answers he spoke like a real person on everything from the Church’s fixation with abortion and gay marriage to his own taste in movies and art. Even before the blockbuster interview that appeared around the world in Jesuit journals Francis was shunning popely convention, as well as the royal trappings and red shoes of the Bishop of Rome, by living in a guest house and working the phones.

Remarkable. Also hugely important, not just for his message of inclusion and self-reflection, but for his style. His Holiness has provided a lesson to leaders – or alleged leaders – in our modern culture, whether they be in business, politics or entertainment on how to lead.

If you are an American Catholic who believes the Church has strayed from the Gospel message focused on works of charity and taking care of the poor and disaffected the Pope’s lengthy interview provides a welcome dose of hope. For those inclined to embrace the Church’s unfailing focus on abortion and gay marriage the Pope has no doubt created some heartburn in the pews. Even the doctrinaire Archbishop of New York had to admit that the big-minded Pope had created “a breath of fresh air.”

Reading the remarkable interview one come away with the impression of a man of faith who, like most of us, struggles with that faith. In how he wages that struggle is the essence of leadership in the modern age – humility, candor, humor, an appeal to reason and above all inclusion.

Contrast Pope Francis’ approach with the senseless bickering and daily preening of small-minded leaders in Washington, D.C. Oh but to possess the certainty of a Sen. Ted Cruz, a young man who has been in the Senate for weeks and has seen his head grow daily ever larger as he speaks as the oracle of the ages that he apparently believes himself to be. So full of their convictions and themselves are Cruz and his Tea Party acolytes that they threaten, bluster and filibuster the country to the edge of another fiscal cliff to unfund a law that both houses of Congress passed and the president signed – three and a half years ago.

In the depressing aftermath of another mass murder by guns, this time in the nation’s capitol, the NRA’s mouthpiece rails against the “broken” mental health system, but nowhere hints at even a tiny bit of humbleness that might acknowledge that the gun culture the NRA helped create might – just might – have something to do with the outrageous level of gun violence in America. In this ever-so-sure world there are never shades of grey only moral certainty articulated in a loud voice.

Or consider those members of Congress like Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman who voted recently to throw several million poor Americans off food stamps in a move that the Congressman casually says “eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.” Mr. Stutzman’s appeal to reason doesn’t look so good when you understand that he  took away $39 billion in food assistance with one hand, while cashing in on his own $200,000 farm subsidy with the other and he wasn’t alone. A “fiscally responsible path” obviously only leads to the other guys door.

I could go on, but you get the drift. Little wonder Americans have essentially given up on their political leaders handing the Congress a 20% approval rating, which is actually up a couple of points apparently because voters are embracing Congressional reluctance to rush into another war. Imagine that. Still compared to the enormous problems we face – from gun violence to failing schools, from climate change to a middling economy – the swelled heads who might actually try to tackle those problems seem so very small, so very petty and so very lacking in humility.

As Frank Bruni wrote of the Pope, “authority can come from a mix of sincerity and humility as much as from any blazing, blinding conviction, and that stature is a respect you earn, not a pedestal you grab. That’s a useful lesson in this grabby age of ours.”

Pope Francis, the Jesuit scholar who loves Mozart, Puccini and Fellini’s films, knows something most people in modern public life seem unwilling to learn. You lead not by having the best daily soundbite or finding the newest, most novel way to insult your opponent, but by walking in the other person’s shoes, understanding their motivations and fears and by appealing not to the crassness of partisan politics, but to the sweet reason that is the product of  facts and candor and trust.

“We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus” says the pontiff from Buenos Aires. This still new Pope is doing something Washington, D.C. hasn’t done for a long time. He’s making sense.

The Church Endures

For those of us who seek to understand the enduring Catholic Church and all its modern challenges, it is best to take the long view and to remember that the church, a religious entity, is also fundamentally a political – small “p” political – institution. 

Any institution that has survived and thrived for two thousand years is, by the very nature of its longevity, conservative, traditional and resistant to change. The truly surprisingly news that Pope Benedict XVI is planning to resign next month is just the kind of nearly unprecedented event that happens so rarely in the long history of the Catholic Church.

The last pope to resign – Gregory XII – did so amid a “crisis” in the church that makes many of the problems and challenges that face Benedict’s modern church seem almost quaint. As the New York Times noted with regard to Gregory’s long ago resignation, “Three rival popes had been selected by separate factions of the church, and a group of bishops called the Council of Constance was trying to heal the schism. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Donald S. Prudlo, a papal historian at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., said Gregory XII had offered to resign so that the council could choose a new pope whom all factions would recognize. It took two years after Gregory XII’s departure to elect his successor, Martin V.” 

So say that the Catholic Church is in “crisis” is almost an oxymoron. The Church endures despite the crisis.

The world-wide media coverage of Benedict’s announcement has spawned a vast amount of speculation about a successor, stories about where the ex-Pope will live and, of course, competing takes on whether the resignation is proof the Church’s fundamental strength or proof of its enormous challenges. Truth be told the Church’s challenges – and there are plenty of challenges from the clergy sex abuse outrages to the role of women in the Church – nearly always take a back seat to its traditions. A transformative Pope comes along rarely. John XXIII was such a leader. The “reforms” ushered in by his combination of pastoral humbleness and the historic Second Vatican Council he convened have defined much about the modern Church and those reforms, as becomes the Church, are still both praised and lamented.

By contrast, given his substantial communication skills and while celebrating his substantial moral role in helping force the end of Communist influence in his native Poland, the much beloved John Paul II was more a consolidator of the Church’s traditional theology and skepticism of the modern world than any agent of change. Pope John Paul II made it certain that there would be a Pope Benedict. The princes of the Church who will now select the next Pope are fundamentally disciples of the two men who appointed all of them to their positions of leadership. Remember after all, nearly 100 years separated the Vatican Council in the 1860′s that put in place the doctrine of papal infallibility from John XXIII’s Council in the 1960′s that largely ended the Latin Mass. That Benedict, in the age of Twitter, surprised the world and the faithful by announcing his resignation in Latin proves how bound by history and tradition the modern church remains.

While many American Catholics yearn to see a modernizer in charge at the Vatican, a man who might lead a renewal that deals realistically with the abuse scandals, does more to bring women into Church leadership and more effectively employs the Catholic notions of works of mercy and charity to address the modern world’s challenges, the Church’s 2,000 year history holds little hope for anything like a quick transformation. The new Pope will be both a spiritual and a political leader and, in all faiths, spiritual leaders are constrained by tradition. Political leaders, most at least, are constrained by fear – change is risky and change is hard.

Popes come and popes go – more than 250 men have ruled the Catholic Church in its two millennia – but the Church as an institution endures and change comes to the institution about as frequently as a resignation of the Bishop of Rome.

 

Father Riffle

     It is no secret that my Catholic Church has suffered – continues to suffer – through an enormous leadership crisis. The Church’s child sexual abuse scandal remains an open wound largely because too many top leaders continue to treat it as a public relations problem rather than a profound moral failing of an entirely male dominated organization. And don’t get me started on the silly fight that the bishops of the Church have picked with the nuns, those saints on earth who in many many cases remain closer to the folks in the pews than any bishop.

All this makes the passing last week of Father Donald Riffle, a retired priest in the Diocese of Boise all the sadder. Father Riffle was there is no other way to put it, a remarkable fellow – pastoral, principled a man with a message and a wicked sense of humor who profoundly influenced so many folks fortunate enough to stumble into his path.

Riffle died January 3, 2013 while in Hawaii, a place I think he considered a bit of heaven on earth. Before his health began to slip he would joke about his regular pilgrimages to the land of sun and balmy breezes to play golf. For many years in an around his beloved golf he took good care of the faithful at Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral. Most Catholics considered Riffle’s homilies better – and his jokes spicier – than they had any right to expect from a Church that places a premium on doctrine often at the expense of a coherent message to its people. Riffle always had a message. I never saw him use a note, an index card or a script. He’d walk down from his chair at the appointed time, place his glasses gently on the alter and talk directly to me and to the several hundred folks who it often seemed came mostly to hear him preach. The guy was a remarkable communicator and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. After a Riffle homily, I’ve often thought that the Church should have set him up as a homily coach for young priests. Father Don was the best.

Father Riffle also had a remarkable facility for remembering names and after a service he would stand at the door shaking hands, hugging and calling everyone – everyone – by their first names. I remember when our oldest son was in grade school and would accompany us to Mass, Riffle would thank him for bringing the old folks to Church. He had a soft heart for Bishop Kelly High School and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. He was known to cut the Mass short if an important football game might conflict with an overly long service.

It’s worth a confession to admit that a major reason I converted to the Catholic faith many years ago is because of Don Riffle. He was skeptical at first that I was serious and I think always harbored a little doubt that a former Methodist could really make it. Yet his was a warm, but challenging kind of faith. The kind of faith that acknowledged that for most of us every day is a struggle but that you must keep trying.

Don Riffle also taught me an enduring lesson about the power of the Catholic bureaucracy. Over breakfast many, many years ago, I was lamenting how some now forgotten issue was being handle in the dim and mysterious recesses of that bureaucracy. He smiled and essentially said to forget about trying to change such worldly things in a mammoth and often out of touch organization. Your job, he said, was to attend to the little things we can impact like an envelope in the collection basket, a box of groceries for a family down on its luck at Thanksgiving and our own daily interaction with all the other souls we come across who are, like us, struggling quietly along. The Catholic Church, a mirror to the rest of our society perhaps, is a flawed and all too human institution. It disappoints as well as elevates but at its best it bestows upon the believers a sense that we were put here for reasons bigger and more important than ourselves. Don Riffle’s life as a priest gives us reason to believe that God can do wonders here on earth and Riffle would remind us to be open to the possibilities.

There is a golf game somewhere today where every drive ends in the fairway. All the birdie putts drop and the temperature never demands a sweater. Bets are being placed on the Irish-Alabama game and no one will lose. People are smiling and the libations are tasty. I haven’t a clue what heaven is like, but I’m confident the quality of the humor and the level of the conversation is a whole lot better there today.

 

Quit Digging

st.+petersThe First Rule…

The Roman Catholic Church has violated the first rule of addressing a crisis – again.

That old and true rule: when you find yourself in a hole – quit digging.

I say this with love for my Church, but with a profound sadness about the inability of its leadership to understand how badly – and repeatedly – the now world wide sexual abuse scandal has hurt. Not to mention how inappropriate has been the response of Church leaders to a crisis that seems to grow more serious by the hour.

First, a long line of American Catholic Bishops failed to address the issues of abuse by priests dating back, in some cases, for decades. When the lawsuits began to unravel the cover ups and the media attention increased, the church took precisely the wrong stand. It circled the Catholic wagons, stonewalled, avoided responsibility and blamed the media. Eventually some Church leaders saw the light and realized their first duty was to the victims and not the institution, but in the interval much lasting damage was done.

Now the whole, awful pattern seems to be playing out again in Ireland and Germany and beyond. The Pope’s handling of the mess, and his handlers handling of the mess, prompted a well-known parish priest in Idaho, who is also a canon lawyer, to go public with a call for Pope Benedict to resign. Father Tom Faucher in Boise suggested in an Op-Ed in the Idaho Statesman that some of the problem is generational. Benedict is 82. But, there is nothing generational about failing to aggressively, sensitively and completely address this cancer on the Church. We’re talking about the safety and well being of children, after all. Even a bunch of old men must know the importance of doing that.

The real first rule of crisis communication – whether its a clergy abuse scandal or a Tylenol recall – is to simply, humbly and honest do the right thing. There is no substitute.

As USA Today noted in a recent editorial: time and again in the recent past the Church has faced a choice to protect children or protect the Church. The choice has been to protect the institution. Doing the right thing begins with admitting the obvious. This is a crisis of leadership, a failure of fundamental decency, an abdication of candor and responsibility. None of it will be fixed by blaming the New York Times or equating criticism of the Pope with the horrors of the Holocaust.

There must be a collection of Cardinals holed up deep in the inner sanctums of the Vatican who see this is just another PR problem. If only we shift the blame, they must be thinking, and spin the issue to make it about anti-Catholic sentiment all this will fade away. Nope.

The pithy, often very wise, cradle Catholic Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, said what I suspect many Catholics feel: this year the Church gave up its credibility for Lent. Sounds about right.

We know how this is going to end and it will not end well. Every great crisis of responsibility and accountability has an arc, a trajectory. The crisis of confidence and leadership will continue to get worse. Responsibility will be assigned. It is only a question of how long it takes and how much more damage is done while we wait.

In the meantime, it will be said time and again that the Catholic Church has survived scandal and worse for 3,000 years. But, these times are different. This is the age of Facebook and Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle. Judgments are faster and last longer and the impacts are world wide. The only way to spin this crisis is to confront it and accept responsibility. The sooner the better.

Someone in a high position – the highest position – must say, as that patron saint of lawyers Sir Thomas More did upon the scaffold, that one can be the servant of an institution, but first one must be the servant of God.

As Maureen Dowd notes in her column today, Catholics live and believe on faith. “How can we maintain that faith, she asks, “when our leaders are unworthy of it?”

Catholics around the world wait for their leaders to do the right thing.