Saturday, May 14, 2011

Looking Both Ways

Seventeen years ago this very day, I turned a page in my life's journey that changed me forever. It was the day I received the sacrament of Holy Orders and was ordained to the permanent diaconate of the Roman Catholic Church. It is one of the most pivotal moments of my life. It was and is still one of the proudest moments of my life.

After all is said and done, it is also one of the most sobering and maturing events of my life. Everything that transpired in the preparation for accepting the office and everything I experienced during the five years I executed that office has indeed influenced my spiritual growth and my relationship with God. The entire experience, still being lived out, has brought me a deep level of appreciation for everything that has come into my life since. Without this, I don't know - and don't wish to know - what I might have become.

I was the center of my own universe back then. I was going to have my cake, and eat it, too. I thought I was going to rise above myself, and proved that it's not possible before you are plunged to as deep as you can stand. Only then do you realize that God must be in the details, and only then can God raise you up. Then you realize that the cake you eat as your daily bread is only yours because God has provided it.

In my innocence, or naivete, or both, I once thought that the Church, as God's legacy upon the earth, had all the answers to ensure your ticket on the road that leads to heaven was properly validated. What God has ultimately taught me since is indeed a blessing. No, the Church doesn't have all the answers, something of which the better leaders will tell you if you pause long enough to listen; although there are an equal number of leaders who will still make every attempt to place her as the ultimate spiritual authority on Earth. No matter how many or few 'I's are dotted or 'T's are crossed, God wants you to come to those understandings about Him one-on-one.

I've also been blessed by God with the understanding that His providence is eternally abundant, even when I can't see it. On the other side of the fence, there are numerous examples that God's 'franchisees' - the hundreds of religious denominations that fall under the general umbrella of Christianity, those who claim Jesus Christ at the core of their beliefs - do not understand the importance of demonstrating, in a real and direct way, the abundance with which God gives freely.

As an example, I was following the semi-continuous reading of passages from the Acts of the Apostles; particularly chapter 6, in which is detailed the origin and establishment of the diaconate:

As the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews
because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution (of food).
So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said,
“It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.
Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom,
whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer
and to the ministry of the word.”
(Acts 6:1-4, NAB, emphasis mine)

am thankful that this statement is not attributed to Peter alone, but to the Apostles as a whole. I want to believe there was more than just casual discussion over the issue, because the joint statement and decision of the Twelve seems to have forgotten just how Jesus went about doing things. Not only did he clearly take on the role of servant by feeding multitudes on five loaves of bread and two fish, and setting the standard for the sacred meal that most Christians celebrate with regularity, he also reduced himself to washing the feet of those same Apostles. Seems like they forgot about that somehow, and that's sad. I get the feeling it set the precedent for all those gatherings of what I call the "Old Boys' School", where there is often great debate, perhaps a hefty amount of prayer, but the ultimate result is that nothing gets done to further the single great commandment Jesus left his Apostles: that they love one another as he loved them.

That notwithstanding, I am trying to be a bit more cognizant of my own ability to 'change the world', as it were. In a recent post I wrote that my wife had asked me to consider getting back into the active ministry. The horse I'd fallen from twelve years ago is still there; in fact, I realize that I've been walking alongside it for most of the time. There are many things that would have to take place to reconcile the events that led to my fall. It will take time, in terms of years, to reach that point, if I can do so. This time, if it is to happen, it will mean first to discern the place and scope of where and how God will direct my steps. It will mean assuring that I extend God's blessings to my loved ones to the fullest extent possible. It means now more than ever to consider those who are near their own depths, and to pray that God raises them up as only He can.

Then, after looking both ways and acknowledging my lingering imperfections, I will cross that bridge if it is meant to be.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Blind Obedience vs. Divine Mercy

The Second Sunday of Easter, 2011
Divine Mercy Sunday

While considering the possible presence of a horse without its rider, and the long-term decision I must discern over how God is calling me to serve others in ministry, another story was breaking in nearby Chicago that I am trying not to dwell on, but cannot.

Fr. Michael Pfleger is well known around this area. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I'm not sure whether I should classify him as an activist, a maverick, the proverbial "elephant in the room" - or whether I should even comment on him here. I have chosen the latter, because the latest turn of events surrounding Pfleger is a reminder of something I must face as an ordained minister of the Catholic Church.

Pfleger has been pastor of St. Sabina Church - a white priest leading a parish in a predominately African-American big-city neighborhood - for the past 30 years. This is an unusual exception to policy; Catholic priests in America spend no more than twelve years leading any one congregation. He has publicly campaigned in support of gun control and other urban issues, and rallied his parishioners to do the same. Unlike most Catholic priests, Pfleger's preaching style is more Pentecostal or even Southern Baptist; hence, it's not a stretch to see him as one of the three descriptive words mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

When Cardinal Francis George became Archbishop of Chicago fourteen years ago, he brought with him a conservative approach, as opposed to the more open appeal of his predecessor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.  At one point earlier George tried to reassign Pfleger, which stirred up immediate media attention and set the stage for a confrontation. After several days which included meeting with representatives of the congregation at St. Sabina's, George backed down and Pfleger retained his post. The current situation has all the same earmarks.

When men receive the sacrament of Holy Orders and are ordained priests (and deacons), they take a vow of obedience to their local bishop. Herein lies the rub. On the one hand, Pfleger is uniquely gifted as a priest and has been a good fit, surprisingly so, in a congregation where he immediately sticks out. On the other hand, the policy of rotating clergy is meant so that each priest's gifts or charisms can be shared over the course of his ministry with many diverse people.

Basically, the issue boils down to obedience on Pfleger's part; 'go where I send thee' versus making an appeal for the best potential use of an unusual set of abilities. Unfortunately, Pfleger made one critical error this time; saying in front of local media that he might consider leaving the Catholic Church if things didn't go his way. Pfleger has since been suspended from exercising his ministry as a priest by Cardinal George, pending a meeting in the not too distant future when cooler heads and less attention by the media might prevail.

I remember that at issue in the removal of my faculties back in 1999 was something that could be interpreted as disobedience. I was subject to continuing education requirements that I failed to complete. I had tried asking for alternatives that would allow me to remain active, but no alternatives ever materialized. Should I pursue a return to diaconal ministry, I will be subject to whatever demands are in effect in whatever diocese I should happen to apply for reinstatement. I have no real connection with Rockford anymore. What ministry I do is in the Joliet diocese, and I don't currently reside within its boundaries. On top of that, what I do there as a lay minister is compensated - and in order to assist in financing my ultimate relocation, wherever it is, I can't exactly give that up just yet. My son got very wrapped up in "high church" Catholic liturgy on TV over Easter and again this weekend with the beatification of the late pope John Paul II. (JP II and Cardinal Bernardin were both moderates, in my opinion. They opened up a richer sense of being Catholic by extending the accumulated tradition to include people, icons, and symbology from the present.)

Then there is the attachment I have with the Methodist congregation at Cornerstone. They have not lost their appeal. I see a community with heart that is struggling, yet there's still great hope and encouragement. They are personal and personable; something I never really saw growing up Catholic. Catholics believe in eucharist; Cornerstone acts as eucharist. They don't see me or my son as anomalies. The door always seems to be open there.

That makes discernment all the more difficult. For sure, my outlook has changed; and I am nothing of the character of Fr. Phleger. Having said that, though, God gave me the ability to think. To me, obedience can border on blind acceptance, but should never be so blind as to allow those in power to use that authority in a manner inconsistent with the mercy God has bestowed on humanity - mercy that, Jesus teaches us, is meant to be extended everywhere by every Christian. I believe that God's divine mercy is at the very core of all Christianity; surpassing anything taught or imagined regarding divine justice. Those following Christ in sincerity are still going to have bouts of disobedience. It happens in our human experience.

Since the moving question must be answered soon, I have extended my search criteria to include areas within the Joliet diocese that would still allow us to attend Cornerstone while I continue to sort out what I'm really supposed to do. I think that is what is best served for now. Once resettled, I hope to resolve - with God's help, and the counsel of people whose input I value, not the least of which are my wife and son - where the horse and rider will go.