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Posted by on Sep 5, 2014

A Church for the Poor – The Vision of Pope Francis

A Church for the Poor – The Vision of Pope Francis


What of kind of church does Pope Francis envision? Jorge Bergoglio, in his initial public statements and even in the choice of his Papal name, Francis, has made it clear that the church needs to be a servant of the poor and the herald of the gospel. These terms come from Cardinal Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and are based on the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965). While most of us tend to see the church as an institution and perhaps as a sacrament, Pope Francis is highlighting the notion of the church as a community, a school of disciples, which is the servant of the poor in its role as herald of the gospel.

This emphasis began before Vatican II but it became especially pronounced after the council in a movement called liberation theology. For St. John Paul II, this approach was more reminiscent of Marxism than the gospel, so he took certain steps to curtail it. Pope Benedict XVI, his successor, took a more measured view and focused on aspects of this theology that started from a pastoral and community viewpoint as opposed to a political one. At an important conference to promote this view in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI chose Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires to formulate this renewed expression of a church for the poor.

In a recent opinion column in the New York Times, Paul Vallely, Director of The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly publication based in London, outlines the history of Liberation theology and the Pope’s restoration and enhancement of it. The pope welcomed Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican earlier this year. Fr. Gutierrez began the movement with his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation. Pope Francis has also removed the block placed by St. John Paul II to the canonization process of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who because of his opposition to political repression was shot while saying Mass. An even more telling sign is the Pope’s treatment of Nicaragua’s former foreign minister, Fr. Miguel D’Escoto Brockman. Fr. D’Escoto had been suspended from the priesthood by St. John Paul II and Pope Francis has lifted the suspension.

A pope who lives in a guest house and stands in the cafeteria line with his own tray has taken hold of the attention and imagination of the Catholic and non-Catholic world alike by being a voice for the voiceless. Pope Francis is leading us to be a different kind of church, one that is closer to the gospel, less secure, less majestic, ready to serve the suffering Christ in the destitute of the world.

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Posted by on Dec 5, 2007

Polarization in the Church – The Kingdom Rent Assunder?

Polarization in the Church – The Kingdom Rent Assunder?


“A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mt 12:25) Many of the sayings of Jesus are hard to understand or accept. This one seems only obvious.

It is often said that the lack of Christian unity is a major hazard or stumbling block – scandolos or “scandal” in Greek – for those trying to enter the Kingdom or the Reign of God. The good news is that various groups have begun to treat each other as Christians and not as minions of the anti-Christ. The bad news is that major denominations are split over the existence of the brontosaurus in the sanctuary.

Some people say the beast is an elephant because people experience it differently – like the blind men in the fable. For some it is a rope, for others tree stumps, for a few it feels like a snake. The “elephant” school says that issues like same sex marriage, women’s issues, and diversity are actually the result of a single problem – the need to update Christian ethics and not to take the Bible literally. Christian behavioral norms, according to this school, should be influenced by more enlightened cultural norms and follow the primary mandate of compassionate love.

Others say that the beast is the “Beast” of the Book of Revelation and these challenges to traditional Christian behavioral norms are the beginning of the test of the faithful. According to the “Armageddon” school, the Beast will consume the compromisers like so much buttered popcorn. Those who have not “compromised” will be caught up in the rapture and spared the thousand year reign of the anti-Christ.

Between these two extremes there is a complete spectrum of different intellectual and emotional responses to these issues. Many people are inclined to think that all of this started in the 1960s, when the world got turned upside down. For many Catholics, the secular cultural upheaval of the 1960s was nothing compared to the tsunami of the Second Vatican Council. A few think that Pope Paul VI, in ratifying the declaration on religious liberty and changes to the liturgy, committed apostasy and left the Chair of Peter vacant – Sede Vacante. According to the sedevacantists, the bishops appointed by Paul VI and the popes elected by those bishops have no legitimate authority.

At the other end of the Catholic spectrum, there are those who see Vatican II as limiting and redefining the centrality of rule from Rome. Local churches, governed by lay people, with lay presiders at the Eucharist, are seen as an authentic restoration of the Church. In response, Restorationists – including many young people – think that all these problems will go away if we return to the Golden Age of the Catholic Mass in Latin, with everyone praying their rosaries while the sacred mysteries are performed.

The beast in question is actually a “brontosaurus”(or Apatosaurus), because it is a much older and more intractable species than the elephant. It is not the Beast of the Book of Revelation because it is all too confused and political – and it doesn’t have the gaping maw. The “brontosaurus” is the challenge of living the Christian life and being church in a rapidly changing and unstable world. This challenge actually dates back to the Enlightenment in the 1700’s. However, the major denominations could contain it until the industrial revolution. The urbanization of rural agrarian populations, the revolution in transportation and communication, as well as the emergence of history and the social sciences as academic fields of study, raised major questions that divided church thinkers – the theologians and philosophers. One of the most unsettling discoveries was that Christian philosophy and theology – like all human endeavors – have changed over the centuries.

The Catholic church responded by not only condemning the modern world, but also by rehabilitating the logical approach of Aquinas and Aristotle (See Arraj Chapter 2) as a means of presenting and logically defending the faith against any thought or political action that challenged it. Instead of the medieval spirit of inquiry, students got summaries of pre-digested questions and answers. Not all thinkers went along with this, but they were marginalized or condemned. This gave the appearance of well-being, but like a person with emphysema, the overuse of steroids provides comfort while it destroys the bones. On the positive side, Pope Leo XIII and other Christian leaders, led a social gospel movement to protect the interests of industrial workers. This movement continues today, with the “preferential option for the poor.”

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, the Curia had prepared draft agendas and documents for the bishops. No one foresaw that the octogenerian pope, who had been elected as a caretaker, would encourage the bishops to take matters into their own hands in his opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.

Having chafed under the control of the Curia, the bishops set their own course. Theologians and philosophers who had been silenced or put to the side were chosen to fill the intellectual vacuum. One of the young superstars was Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The major problem was that this new school of thinking had never been tested in the open forum of discussion and debate. Conservatives did what they could to stem the tide, but the winds of Aggiornamento (updating) filled the sails of the bishops, the clergy, and more importantly, the people in the pews who now became the “laity.”

In the United States today there are approximately 3,300 men in seminary programs studying for the priesthood. There are also 33,000 men and women in graduate ministry and theological programs who are not studying for the priesthood. The vast majority of them share the same classrooms with the students for the priesthood. However, the newly ordained priests tend be in their 30’s and 50’s and are already formed as people. Many of them are more conservative and many bring with them an entrenched clericalism from their Philippine and Vietnamese cultures.

The growth of the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church, and other denominations in Africa and Asia – the global south – has already created substantial tensions due to the immense cultural and economic differences which support more traditional behavioral codes and religious perspectives.

So the brontosaurus is alive and well – or at least it will be until we deal with these tensions so that others once again can come to know us as Jesus’ disciples by our love (Jn 13:34-35).

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Posted by on Oct 11, 2007

Polarization in the Church – The Kingdom Rent Assunder?

Saint of the Day – Blessed Pope John XXIII

October 11 is the feast day of Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1965). The son of Italian share croppers who worked in the fields with his brothers and served as a stretcher bearer in World War I, he became a Church diplomat, Cardinal Archbishop of Venice, and Pope. This might seem like enough for more than one lifetime. Yet Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli would launch an institutional and cultural revolution unprecedented in Church history. By convening the Second Vatican Council (1961 -1965) and calling for “aggiornamento,” a renewal and updating of the Catholic Church, Angelo Roncalli opened the door to the Post Modern Church. Although he did not live to convene the second session of the Council, it is hard to appreciate the depth of the change Pope John XXIII and his successor Pope Paul VI brought about.

It is not enough to say that the Mass changed from Latin to the everyday languages of the faithful, because the change in the liturgy only symbolized a much deeper change of mentality. Christ is present among His people in their signs and symbols, in their language. “The Church” referred not only to the leadership of the Pope and bishops, but to its body – the faithful. We now use the term “faith community” somewhat lightly, without realizing the complete change of thinking the term represents.

Pope John Paul II, who declared Pope John XXIII Blessed, represented a completely different mentality. The difference is aptly summarized by Tom Fox in the National Catholic Reporter.

“How seemingly different is the mood among the hierarchy in Rome today. If images speak, then in place of the smiling John XXIII, we see a pained John Paul II, his face grimaced, his tired body leaning on his crosier, carrying the world’s burdens on his shoulders. Pope John gave us Pacem in Terris, a map to worldwide human understanding. Pope John Paul II gives us an analysis of the “culture of death,” an acknowledgment of global human failure.

This is not to say John did not understand the cross or John Paul the resurrection. It is to say their views of how grace operates in the world are radically different. John saw the church as an instrument of cooperative acts. John Paul sees the church as a fortress tested by evil. John saw the world, the playground of God’s love, as primary. John Paul sees the church, instrument of salvation, as primary. Operating out of John’s vision, the church not only can but also must adapt. It changes because the world changes. Operating out of John Paul’s vision, the church must strengthen itself by purification. It must not adapt because to do so is to blur the sign of contradiction.”…

“The late NCR Vatican Affairs Writer Peter Hebblethewaite once said the deeper underlying problem with John Paul’s black and white assessment is not that the world is so black but it makes the church so white. So unrepentive. So resisting of change. The perfect instrument of God requires no change. Further, it must not change.”

Tom Fox – Analysis – Second Special Synod for Europe, October 1999.

Blessed Pope John XXIII, pray for us.

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