REAL POWER, SHARED AUTHORITY – FRANCIS AND LUMEN GENTIUM

Moments following his election as Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, now, Francis I eschewed the custom of going up to a high platform and sitting on a white throne.  Instead, he stood on the floor and greeted his brothers, one by one.  We already know he hopped on the bus instead of taking a triumphal ride in the Pope-mobile.  And the name Francis, he said, came to him when his friend said “remember the poor” – it’s also a name which speaks of purity, simplicity, and a man of the people.  Just yesterday, in his first Sunday as Pontiff (17 March), Francis gave his security detail a headache when he wandered out in public, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and pats on the back, not only before but after saying mass at St. Anna’s Church.

POPE FRANCIS
outside St. Anna’s Gate on Sunday, 17 March 2013

Image consultants call this very good “buzz.”  The secular media – which, let’s be honest, simply does not understand religion – calls Francis “spontaneous” and “a Pope of the people” and then, in the very same breath, says something about how conservative he is and that little is going to change in the Roman hierarchy.

The press he’s getting is obscuring the point.  Most likely, Francis is not doing what he’s doing for good popularity ratings nor does he see any contradiction between his theology and taking a stroll on the street corner to kiss babies near St. Anna’s gate.  This is not about publicity.  Neither is this is not about conservative versus liberal.

This is about the Roman Church and indeed the rest of Christianity coming into its own, bringing to fruit the ideas shared a half-century ago.  From 1962 to 1965, the Second Vatican Council was an opportunity, in the words of Pope John XVIII, to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air.  It purported to carry on the essential teaching of the Councils of Trent (Catholicism’s 16th century conservative reaction to the Protestant Reformation) and Vatican I (the church’s 19th century engagement of the modern world which resulted in a decidedly more monarchical papacy), yet Vatican II also articulated a hope, as John XVIII said, for a “new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind…; that this certain and immutable doctrine be…reformulated in contemporary terms.”

Francis, I think, is trying to move our attention to Vatican II’s teaching about power and authority in the church, expressed in the Council’s 1964 document Lumen Gentium.  Specifically, Francis’ early actions suggest he might be preparing to turn the church for the first time into a body in which real power is claimed and authority is shared.  Vatican II did a new thing in trying to balance monarchical authority and conciliar decision making, and Francis is the first Pontiff who grew up with that approach.  Interestingly, in 1964 Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio; he was not yet ordained and was teaching high school literature in Argentina.  It would be another five years before he became Fr. Bergoglio, SJ.  In that same year Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was Josef Ratzinger – a well-respected professor, priest and theological consultant at the Second Vatican Council.  Francis lives and breathes the spirit of Vatican II in a way his predecessor simply could not.

Lumen Gentium is characteristic of conciliar thinking: it tries to straddle the line, draw continuity between what was and what should be.  In its third chapter, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular on the Episcopate,” it both affirms the real power of the papacy and (re)introduces concepts and practices of shared authority.  “[F]ollowing closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council,” in its words, Lumen Gentium acknowledges a monarchical papacy – not wanting to go against Vatican I:  “The pope’s power of primacy over all … remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.” (L.G. 3.22) That said, it also tries to enrich papal dominance by reprising the Catholic conciliar tradition:

“…the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character.” (L.G. 3.22)

In case you thought this was about American checks-and-balances — checking unbridled monarchy by instituting shared decision making – the next line is a quick rebuke: “…But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.”

The same journalists and media types who are trying to figure out Francis’ odd behavior would also call this strange.  In fact, Vatican II so confuses secular political thinking that hardly anyone these days is talking about it.  No one, that is, except the man in white.  This is deep in Francis’ heart and it’s certainly influencing his behavior.  Francis – along with many faithful Catholics, Roman and otherwise – sees no contradiction between claiming real power and sharing authority.  Lumen Gentium describes it in richly spiritual terms, seeing this “collegial union” as an invitation to practice more deeply what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth, expressing in our very existence “the bond of peace, love and unity.” (L.G. 3.23)

A highly vaulted Roman Curia, along with a Pope seen as ruler of the rulers of the earth, is what has gotten the church in great trouble.  That kind of thinking trickles down into very dangerous behavior.  For this reason, the butler who stole papal documents is a criminal but, to many, a hero.  To his credit, I suspect Benedict XVI tried to bring about the reforms that young Ratzinger described, but there is a world of difference between understanding something, envisioning something and having it as part of your world entire.  Part of me wonders if Benedict resigned because he knew that the reforms he dreamed of could only come about from the heart of one who embodied those ideals, one who grew up in that church, one who was younger than he.

But this is not only a message for and about the Roman church.  Similar to the ecumenical awakening which followed Vatican II, this is an opportunity for Catholics to lead the rest of Christianity.  Specifically, this is an opportunity to model for all Christians a church in which real power is claimed and authority is shared, a church in which there is no apparent contradiction between the two.

JOSEPH CARDINAL BERNARDIN
1928 – 1996

Many of us know all too well the dangers of monarchical leadership.  But what we also need to appreciate are the limitations of conciliar thinking, at least as a singly dominant organizational theory.  Power is still there; it’s always been there, it always will be.  Desperately needed in more conciliar churches, then, are leaders who have enough self-confidence to be honest about what power is and how they’re using it or striving not to use it.  One of the most dangerous things is eschewed power — which can become, in truth, a wide opening in which one may act as if consensus guides the process while, behind the scenes and because of power’s implicit yet subtle presence, effectuate its use in passive-aggressive ways which make the body ill.

This is our danger as Episcopalians.  We’ve confused shared decision making and consensus discernment with an utter abandonment of power, leaving power, then, in those dark corners from which no good can emerge and much bad still does.

There’s a story many Chicagoans know and treasure about the late Cardinal Bernardin — even I know and love it, and I’ve never been Roman Catholic.  In 1982, introducing himself to the priests of his new archdiocese, he said “I am your brother, Joseph.”  A clear departure from the style of his predecessors, Bernardin’s words were like a lightning bolt to that assembly and were quickly reported to the city and nation and world.  His biographer, Tim Unsworth, says “Bernardin set an entirely new style, one marked more by gentle leadership than feudal authority.”  As Bernardin showed us, there is no contradiction between claiming and using real power and sharing authority in the councils of the church.  Erring on one side or the other, I’d say, is where danger lurks.  Perhaps in Francis, then, we have an opportunity to get honest about call and responsibility, about owning and sharing — all of which are essential parts of maintaining those bonds of “peace, love and unity.”

DANCE, DANCE WHEREVER YOU MAY BE

Even before the title comes across the screen, you get the sense that the 2006 movie Little Miss Sunshine – if it is, in fact, a comedy – is going to be a pretty dark one.  You’re introduced to the Hoover family, one by one.  First, you meet seven or eight year old Olive Hoover in the living room of her Albuquerque home.  She’s watching Miss California win the Miss America contest, rewinding it and watching it again and again, mimicking the acceptance poses.  Olive, it strikes you, isn’t necessarily beauty pageant material, not that that’s a value in itself.  Then there’s Olive’s dad, Richard, a motivational speaker who’s peddling his nine-step life philosophy.  According to him, winners choose to be winners, and losers choose to be losers.  (Not such a great father, you fear.)  Your first glimpse of Olive’s mother is of her driving somewhere in some apparent haste.  She’s on the phone with Richard.  He asks if she’s smoking again; “No,” Sheryl says, tossing the cigarette out the window.  She’s on her way to the mental hospital to pick up her brother, Frank, a brilliant academic, who tried to take his own life following a bad breakup and loss of a research grant.  The 15-year-old Neitzsche-reading brother, Dwyane, has taken a vow of silence until he can enter the Air Force Academy, and Edwin, Olive’s grandfather, is also at home after being kicked out of a nursing home for some untoward activity.

Obviously, this is a collection of broken and dysfunctional people, to say the least, all of them except Olive – the one redeeming, honest, pure character in this whole story.  More than that, they’re all dealing with an incredible weight of stress, and most feel like they’re on the verge of breaking down; some already have.

The first scene is all of them in the Hoover home for dinner on the night Sheryl brings Frank home – all of these wounded folks shoved together with individually-tailored, dark clouds of anxiety and stress.  Dinner, for what it’s worth, is a bucket of chicken served on paper plates with popsicles for dessert, a meal obviously grabbed and served in haste to a collection of individuals being pulled apart at their own seams.  All except Olive, again, who at that dinner asks gentle and sweet questions.  All except Olive.

A few weekends ago, Olive entered a beauty pageant while visiting her aunt and cousins in California.  The Hoover’s got a call earlier that day, announcing that the winner was pulled out and Olive, as runner up, is eligible to compete in that weekend’s Little Miss Sunshine contest.  That’s just the spark to ignite the powder keg.  A screaming back-and-forth fight ensues between Richard and Sheryl – whether they can go and whether they can afford it and who would go and if they can use Richard’s seed money for his motivational book for this expense, a fight which makes any feeling that you have dysfunctional family gatherings palatable, at least.

Eventually, they decide they’re going.  With an elderly grandfather and suicidal brother-in-law who can’t be left alone, in fact, the entire family has to go.  All of these incredibly broken people cram into a VW Bus and make the 800 mile trip to southern California, thus kicking off a great road trip comedy.

Stress only builds and challenges mount throughout the trip.  From beginning to end, each character, Olive included, face serious difficulties.  Each character, for themself, has to chose by movie’s end whether they’re going to let the outside stressors and anxiety knock them out of whether they’re going to just quit playing that game.  In typical fashion, little Olive is the one who leads – culminating in the final, great scene: Olive’s talent offering at the Little Miss Sunshine competition, an exotic dance number her grandfather choreographed set to Rick James’ hit “Superfreak.”  When the pageant coordinators try to forcibly remove Olive from the stage, Richard jumps in and protects his daughter.  He starts dancing, in turn.  Frank, too, hops on stage and dances, joined by Dwyane who by this time has started speaking.  Laughing, Sheryl also joins her family on stage and, together, they dance and smile and, for the first time in the entire movie, seem to be sucking the nectar out of this thing called life, all of them dancing together.

It’s a moving, lasting image – dancing when the world has got these folks by the throat.  It’s true in our own lives, isn’t it?  In every one of our lives, when the air outside gets thick and oppressive, when relationships become fractured and the demands increase, we take that into our souls and selves, somehow, sometimes in ways we’re not fully aware of.  And we also, from time to time, take it out on others.  Too often we inflict on others the hurts and harms others have shoved on us, oftentimes in unthinking, reactive ways.  That’s just the nature of life.

But redemption, we know, isn’t achieved in the nature of this life.  No, redemption’s a different, an ironic choice to break the mores of this world and dare to be different, dare to risk new life in a world which feeds and feasts on finality and mortality.  To dance while the world won’t and dance, at that, to a song others don’t want to hear or simply cannot.  Dance, anyway, then.  Dance on.

The gospel author, John, records a wonderful story about an evening Jesus and his disciples enjoyed at the home of his close friends, Lazarus and Mary and Martha, siblings who shared a home in Bethany, a little town just outside Jerusalem.  This was “six days before the Passover”, the gospel tells us, and the reader is aware that by this time things in the ministry of Jesus have changed substantially, so much so, one suspects, something bad is going to happen on or near that very Passover, something imperiling the life of Jesus.  Days earlier, Jesus had raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead.  That sign – the last and greatest sign John records – drove the Pharisees and chief priests into conclave with one another.  They said to themselves, “What are we to do?  This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (Jn.11:47-48)  The high priest, Caiaphas, arguing a shrewd and yet, you might say, perfectly normal political philosophy, instructed the Council that it would be better to have Jesus executed than to suffer that fate for the entire People of God.  The gospel tells us, then, that “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”(Jn. 11:53)  And that “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews” but hid away with his disciples (Jn. 11:54)

This is the situation while Jesus and his band of loyal followers dash off to Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ home for dinner.  The air outside was thick with death threats and fear, not to mention likely strategizing on the part of the twelve: how to get him out of there, how to save his life, how to save their own lives, how to cut a deal, whether this will turn fatal.  Talk about stress and anxiety.  Within that looming, palpable scene, there in that house, Mary takes a pound of incredibly expensive perfume, pours it over Jesus’ feet and rubs her hair in it, so much that the aroma of flowers and buds overpowers that small abode.  Let me add a visual:  this is a pint of amber-colored oil, a pint of an aromatic perfume, a pint of oil drawn from a flowering bush found only in Nepal or India or China, far, faraway from Bethany and wildly expensive.  And Mary just pours that all over Jesus’ feet, all over the floor, all throughout her hair.  Oh, did Mary ever dance that day.  While the others stand there, watching.

Not all characters in the story just stand there, though.  Indignant, Judas Iscariot argues against the obscenity of this scene, making, I’d say, a rather compelling point – they could’ve sold that oil for “three hundred denarii”, the pay an average Galilean would’ve earned if he worked for three hundred consecutive 12-hour workdays!  They could’ve done great good with that money.  They could’ve actually helped the poor, given bread and real care to the widows and orphans and all those marginalized by society, those whom Jesus reached out to save and redeem and love.

Jesus errs on the side of Mary’s extravagance, though, praising her wildly irrational, complete abandon.  “Leave her alone,” Jesus says.  Mary is celebrating, he indicates, enjoying the feast, dancing while the world was too busy getting stuck, stuck on itself.  Mary may be the only one doing the right thing, and yet it’s such a strange, unexpected thing.

It’s so easy, when life gets us by the throat, to turn inward, to fret and fear, to struggle and wrestle.  That is, I fear, the beginning of a deep and profound illness.  Of all the things remarked by and about Pope Francis, I was moved this week by his sense that there’s value in a church which strives to get out of itself, even if that means a church which will fail and fall and have “accidents,” as he put it.  In an interview while still Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina, Francis said,

“There is a tension between the center and the periphery. … We must get out of ourselves and go toward the periphery. We must avoid the spiritual disease of the Church that can become self-referential: when this happens, the Church itself becomes sick. It’s true that accidents can happen when you go out into the street, as can happen to any man or woman. But if the Church remains closed onto itself, self-referential, it grows old. Between a Church that goes into the street and gets into an accident and a Church that is sick with self-referentiality, I have no doubts in preferring the first.”

Like the church, we all struggle with what Francis calls a “spiritual disease” – turning too dangerously inward, becoming too self-referential, too closed off.  It’s understandable.  Of course it is, given the stress and anxiety with which we wrestle.  But if that’s our only turn, only inward, we’ll never reach out, let alone dance.  We’ll never strive towards redemption, never come close to joining that Lord of the dance, as the song goes.

I wish I could say that I’ve done this most of the time, but I can’t because I haven’t.  Like you, I know how hard this is, how taxing and counter-intuitive it is to go against the tit-for-tat trends of this world.  But I can also say that those times in which the circumstances of this life have come close to suffocating my spirit, those moments in which stress and anxiety have truly weighed me down, nearly to a breaking point, I, too, have become sick and self-referential; I, too, have turned inward and foisted my own struggles on to others.  And it is in those moments in which I have hurt myself the most, and in very significant ways.  I have also hurt others, I’m certain.

But life also gives the choice, again and again, in fact, day after day.  And it turns out that the choice whether to dance isn’t easy but, if you can set aside the difficulty, it’s just a little bit different and twisted and ironic and contrary to the way you and I are sometimes wired.  Turns out that we’re a whole lot better at dancing, maybe we could say we’re supposed to dance, and perhaps dance to a song this world doesn’t want to hear or simply cannot.  Dance through life, then, or strive to … especially when the stuff gets too heavy, too much, too daunting, the air too thick outside the thin walls of your soul.  Dance, then, towards Easter.  I’ll bet you’ll find your own new life, in turn.

……….

A Sermon preached at St. George’s Church on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, year C (17 March 2013).