We’re back to reading from the Gospel of Mark. For the past four Sunday’s we took a bit of a detour, and reflected on the entire 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, the great teaching on the Bread of Life. Sadly, our reflection on the Eucharist was jolted by the release of Pennsylvania’s Grand Jury report on the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.
I suffered writing last week’s Pastor’s Reflection as I attempted to respond pastorally to this horrendous event in the American Church. It was so difficult for me to think clearly. The flood of reactions and emotions pouring out through the media, friends, and parishioners put my brain on overload. I stared at my computer screen for days, but all I saw were words of anger and frustration aimed mostly at our leadership. My thinking process was frustrated even more by the latest events in Washington, and the garish unfolding of yet another episode of our national soap opera.
I finally realized that I had abandoned the scripture I intended to break open, the passage on the Bread of Life. It dawned on me that for the past few days I had been locked in the Upper Room with the frightened and disillusioned community in the days after the death of Jesus. I was asking the same question they asked: “Where in the name of God do we go from here?”
The answer was right in front of me, literally: chapter 6, the Eucharist, the nuclear reactor of the Church. The Eucharist lifted the disicples out of isolation and fear. It will be the Eucharist that sees us through these dark days in our Church, and our country. It’s our connection to the kingdom community, and to the very person of Jesus. I hope that I was true to the Spirit in the reflection I finally published last week. It helped me. I feel stronger. I hope it helped you.
This Sunday, Mark’s Gospel brings us into a battle Jesus waged with the religious leaders of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. They had imprisoned the glorious tradition of the Chosen People by formulating thousands of picayune laws. The great Law given to Moses was essentially the Ten Commandments. He also passed on lesser laws governing the religious holidays and festivals, the liturgy, and a few specific dietary and hygienic laws. There were also the two commandments that Jesus cited from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul, and with all your strength,” and Leviticus 19:18b, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The scribes and Pharisees, in their compulsion to define and articulate every possible aspect of each law, eclipsed the lofty principles of the great Law. Instead they focused their religious spotlight on non-essentials. They couldn’t tolerate Jesus challenging their legalism. They retaliated, and eventually had him killed.
My first thought as I worked to connect Jesus’ struggle with the scribes and Pharisees to our day, was to look back 50 years to the Second Vatican Council. When Pope John XXIII called for a pastoral, non-legislative, ecumenical Council on January 25, 1959, he said that the Church was in need of aggiornamento. He was saying that the Church needed to open its windows. The air inside had gotten stale. This call for aggiornamento unleashed a polarization that had been brewing for many years among the intellectuals of the church, “the liberals” and the traditionalists, “the conservatives.” The membership of the Council, in spite of the tensions it experienced, published four pastoral Constitutions that addressed the nature of divine Revelation, the Church, the Church in the modern world, and the Liturgy. When the Council closed in 1965 the pent up yearning for renewal let loose. It seemed that a hurricane was blowing through the Church.
Millennials have no idea of the rapid changes that took place. The Roman liturgy was simplified, re-connected to the spirit of the primitive Church, and put into the language of the people. Reaction – many people felt that the “mystery” was taken away from the liturgy when it began to be celebrated in the language of the people instead of Latin. The loosening of the laws regarding fasting and abstinence made some people feel that they had lost traditions that marked them as Catholics, Lent and Advent fasting and meatless Fridays.
People didn’t understand the depth of the renewal of religious life the Council had initiated. They reacted to the changing of the accidentals. They felt, for instance, that when nuns, priests and brothers began exchanging their “religious garb” for “secular clothing” they were giving up the respect they once enjoyed, and that they would disappear from the public eye. People didn’t understand that the Council was encouraging a return to the original spirit of religious life, not what nuns, brothers and priests wore.
Like the political hostility we experience today between “liberals” and “conservatives” in our country, the Church began experiencing overt polarization. The two popes who nurtured the Spirit’s movement in the Council, John XXIII and Paul VI, tried to work with the Spirit by keeping the Church focused on the pastoral nature of the Council.
Two of the popes who followed them, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, interpreted the ongoing call for change from the “liberal” camp as a threat to the Church. They tried to legislate a return to the time before the Council. But rather than bringing stability, their efforts deepened the rift in the Church, polarizing “liberals” and “conservatives” even more.
Our present pope doesn’t speak in terms of legislation, so he’s labeled as “liberal” by conservatives, and as a “do nothing” by liberals.
I can only hope that the recent revelations here, in Ireland, and in Chile, wake us up, liberals and conservatives alike. Things deep inside the structure of the Church need to be addressed. We need to name the demon(s) inside our structure that allowed, or perhaps even fostered, the abominations that have been reported.
For these many years since the Council we’ve dwelt on on the accidentals of Catholicism. We thought that changing the way we celebrated the Liturgy would “reform” the Church. We thought that dropping dietary laws would somehow move the Church into the modern world. We were wrong. These “changes” were just accidentals.
Now, as never before, we need to invite the Spirit into our struggle. Substantive change doesn’t come overnight. It will take time, dedication and determination. A Grand Jury removed the veil that hid a terrible darkness in our Church. Now that we see it, we need to beg the Spirit to light the way as we struggle to reform the structures of the Church. We need, once again, to open the windows so that the Spirit can enter like a mighty wind, and that tongues of fire can once again burn over each and every one of us.