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.

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