Monday, 15 April 2013

The prodigal daughter returns, or, Habeo Papam and reflections on 18 years in the Church

I was convinced St Francis was chasing me. 

No, seriously. In the first week of March, he was EVERYWHERE. Ok, I was re-reading Rachel Remen's Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings, so I knew he was going to appear once, in one of my favourite stories of hers about a young doctor who railed against the system the way I rail against the pastorally incompetent in any field, who found his strength in St Francis' gentleness, remembering that he became a paediatrician to protect innocent life. Totally expected.

'Make me a channel of your peace' at mass in Wokingham before the baptism I attended on 10 March. Suddenly, after months, a Franciscan fiend friend reappeared on FB chat after months of silence. St Francis was quoted in my newsfeed, by a friend in a conversation, and finally, just when I thought I was going to get a break, on telly.

'Et tu, Without a Trace?????' I thought. 'What on G-d's green is going on here? I get it, Lord, I need to shift from anger to a gentler way; my strength is in my vulnerability, my openness.' I simply thought it was the Holy Spirit's way of emphasising Rachel's story, reminding me that it was absolutely ESSENTIAL I shift NOW from my often super-judgmental way of being. 'Ok, ok, I get it, Lord. Really.' But Francis kept showing up everywhere. 

The conclave began soon after, and like a good Catholic, I was wrapped up in it like being wrapped up in a duvet on a lazy, snowy Saturday morning. I was completely entranced by the seagull who seemed to want a bun warmer without fully understanding the consequences. 

That evening, Wednesday, 13 March, I knew something was up when smoke hadn't gone up by 17.30. I was counselling that evening, so I'd asked for texts when the smoke went up and, in the case it was white, for further details as they arrived. I dozed off waiting for my 18.30 client, coming to full wakefulness with a start at approximately 18.14. I fumbled around in my pocket for my phone, to see it blinking balefully at me - and a little white envelope in the top lefthand corner...

...and 7 text messages reading some variation of 'white smoke'.

Damn it. Client in 15 minutes, no chance to hear the announcement live. Damn it! ONE MORE BALLOT, PEOPLE, AND I COULD HAVE DONE THIS LIVE.

Let's just say I was eternally grateful this was a long-standing client who looked down a lot whilst speaking - but my phone didn't blink till end-of-session, 19.20.

"Argentinian" (!)
"Jorge Bergoglio" (Italian descent, nice. Add the Spanish upbringing to that, his Latin is going to ROCK.)
"Jesuit" (Oh. my. fucking. G-d. The Holy Spirit made it in. A South American Jesuit???????????? YESSSSSSSSSSS!)
"Regnal name: Francis."

My heart stopped. I didn't need to ask if it was Xavier, De Sales or any of the others. I knew who it was.

Francis of Assisi. You know, the one who'd been chasing me for the last week.

At last, I knew why.

Then I got an email from a Jewish friend, one who had been Catholic, entitled 'Habemus papam', telling me, 'I love him.'

I went home and watched the announcement; read his biography, read his character.

Something in me, something that had been held tightly for over a decade, since the sex abuse scandal broke out and I had felt betrayed beyond imagining, beyond any possibility of forgiveness, beyond any possibility of healing or remaining in the Church except day-to-day - that something unclenched. No. More like, unfroze.

I wept.

Finally, after years of feeling lost, trapped in a choice of my own, I was home. 

Not habemus papam, but habeo papam. I have a father.

My father being who he was, I have spent my life fighting with male authority. No matter how many wonderful father figures and male friends came my way, I never trusted it, never believed it, never sat with it. Add the fact that my father's brother sexually abused me, and it is hard for me to be held by a man in any sense: emotionally, physically, spiritually. I'm the one who always hugs over, so I'm not trapped. I look for the lie beneath the charm immediately; for the thug beneath the gentleman; the amorality beneath the pronouncement of religious orthodoxy. I look for the serial killer in the pillar of the church, the workplace, the society.

I knew, when I joined the Church on 15 April 1995, that I was joining a church whose leader didn't want me. I looked beneath the adulation and saw a man who, born behind the Iron Curtain and raised to power as we entered the 1980s during the Cold War, spoke out against communism even as he borrowed its tactics: eliminating the Devil's Advocate, so his endless, personal - often politically opportunistic - preferences for canonisation went forward without challenge; wielding the word Marxism to silence liberation theology; going beyond that to silence any dissent or challenge. In addition, his cultivation of the papal celebrity culture and his demand for unquestioning obedience was always going to ensure we stood on opposite sides. But I had grown up with not being wanted, I could handle that: I was coming into the Church for the sacraments, for the home it had been for me through many close friends, but above all, for Christ - for that knowledge I had understood . 

Then came the sexual abuse scandal - and the Pope's unwillingness - and let's be honest, if he could silence liberation theologians, he could defrock Bernard Law and others - to handle it. 

It was like being hit in the solar plexus with a sledgehammer. As it went on and on and nothing happened, I nearly walked, over and over again. Every day was a struggle. Trusting anyone in a collar was a struggle. Watching priests I didn't know or trust with children made me want to throw up. Some days, it is STILL a struggle. 

And now that I can, I want to say to everyone who got impatient with my - or another's - struggle with the Church and our ability to stay within it, or trivialised their feelings by whatever means (it was ages ago, the number of priests was few, etc, etc) - you trivialised EVERY survivor's struggle.  Remember that next time you open your mouth to dismiss someone who couldn't stay in the Church or someone who is tied up in knots about it: you are dismissing your sexually abused friend, lover, cousin, sister, mother - in this case, me - and ask yourself why you feel the need, why your emotions are at such a height - is it because you yourself want to leave, but dare not? Because you were sexually abused and have shut it off? Because it's so horrific, you need to reduce it to numbers to make yourself more comfortable at someone else's expense? Why?

The years of silence stretched on, and John Paul II died to unseemingly hasty calls of 'Santo subito,' a testament to the invasion of celebrity culture/hysteria and the erosion, under his papacy, of the Catholic Church's ability to think deeply, grieve with dignity and take time, counsel and challenge (hence the institution of the Devil's Advocate) when making a decision.

Under the next pope, it felt even more clear I was unwelcome: from his calls for a smaller, solipsistic Church where everyone agreed with each other (erm, sorry? A smaller CATHOLIC church? When Jesus wanted everyone in, from tax-collectors to Pharisees? How does THAT work, then?) to his claim that Protestants weren't 'churches' to his endless :facepalm: moments when it came to other religions - all indicative that he saw non-Catholics as something less than human - it still wasn't working for me. And let's not forget how with one breath he said, 'Sorryforthesexualabusescandal' and in the next said that ordaining women was anathema - as if raping a child and ordaining women were morally equivalent. In addition, the creation of the Ordinariate, a church within a church where Anglo-Catholics can just form their own little ghetto, only serve each other and not give back to the whole Church, simply so more people who claimed a particular, narrow version of lace-brigade, church-as-social-institution, us/them orthodoxy could come into the Church, felt like an complete abandonment of principle: you leave everything to come all the way into the Church OR YOU DON'T COME IN. Simples. The rudeness with which Vincent Nichols treated Rowan Williams at the press conference announcing the Ordinariate made me ashamed to be a Catholic, even more ashamed to be one with him as my representative.

I'm not denying that both these men did good for the Church. But from where I stand, the way in which they lived their office, the implicit values they steeped the Church in, meant big trouble ahead. 

Why do these values matter, you ask? You either believe the rules or you don't, right? Who or what the pope, the leader of your institution is, doesn't matter.

Wrong. If you want to understand the dynamics a classroom, look to the teacher. A religious community, look to the prior/abbot/superior. A family, look to the parents. A political party, look to the leader.

Leaders set the values and create the milieu in which the institution is steeped.

And the milieu set by the previous two popes can be summed up fairly simply: "Agree and obey all dictates without question; conflict/robust discussion is unwelcome and punishable by excommunication; those who disagree/question/are not like us are not human and therefore are not subject to the basic kindness and courtesy we give humans; if it looks orthodox, it IS orthodox, no need to examine any further."

Think that's exaggerated? Then listen to the response I got when I mentioned to a clerical acquaintance that I was horrified by how Nichols had treated Rowan Williams at said press conference:

Why? He doesn't recognise his status as Archbishop of Canterbury; he has no need to acknowledge him. Rowan Williams doesn't have the right to speak.


No, it isn't. It's NOT a Church. They're apostate.

At which point, my internal response was, 'Wow. You really ARE a cunt, aren't you? 'WHY?' How FUCKING OBVIOUS IS WHY? BECAUSE HE'S A HUMAN BEING, AND ANYONE WITH EMPATHY WOULD TREAT HIM AS IF IT WAS HIS CHURCH, WHATEVER THEY MIGHT BELIEVE. Man, bet you treat waiters and people who serve you like shit, because, 'They're not priests. They're not real people.' Thank G-d you're not someone I would ever have to consider going to for pastoral care.'

As per the above example, it is in those most invested in the institution, dispensing its ways - the clergy - that the milieu manifests itself most strongly. Let's take the values: obey without question, no need to think; those who are not 'us' and question can be treated as less than human; if it looks orthodox, it IS.

What is the common thread here? Most clearly, a lack of self-awareness and examination; a lack of depth; appearance = what is real; consensus = orthodoxy/faith, conflict = heresy, which leads to an atrophy of the ability to grapple with the difficult. A lack of discernment and discrimination, an inability to deal with complexity and read subtext. Also, a profound inability to do that which a Trinitarian G-d does best: relationship, which requires the ability to acknowledge and navigate conflict.

Now imagine those values creating an influx into the priesthood. Who's coming? Certainly not those with a deep sense of service to G-d and others, or those with deep self-awareness and willingness to listen and change, or those with an ability for deep relationship and intimacy. No. The influx becomes those running away from their issues, whatever they may be; the eternal Peter Pan for whom the priesthood is about extending university rather than taking responsibility and entering adulthood; those who want to parrot the lines and gain easy status; those who equate agreement/acquiescence with love and are threatened by conflict; for those who want some measure of power over others, pounding them from the pulpit, using them to dump unconscious emotions and prop up fragile egos. From what I've heard of seminary interviews, they're none too discriminating as long as you give the right answers. Easy enough to lie or fudge an answer. But beginning one's ministry with a lie, conscious or not, never ends well for anyone.

That's not to say there aren't some amazing entrants with deep pastoral gifts into this fray - and if you're a friend of mine, you know I consider you part of this narrowing thread. But the problem is this - it is extraordinarily difficult to root oneself healthily and deepen against considerable pressure: if you are pastorally gifted and minded, but liturgically more relaxed, the constant snark, borderline bullying and little 'Oh well, he's...not quite one of us,' is the Chinese death by a thousand cuts, requiring an immense sense of self - and more than a bit of the rebel - to resist. Because, you know, we're all wounded in some way. It becomes hard not to wear a mask and pretend for much-needed relief, but to quote Kurt Vonnegut:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.

To those with a true pastoral calling: it is best not to pretend, or one day, you will find yourself being cruel in the confessional; avoiding the call of your pastoral gifts; going through the motions. You will find yourself losing your most profound gifts and your vocation. 

Observation indicates some truth to my extrapolation: from clerics who expound proper dress for mass, yet titter about being dressed up as a geisha to being obsessed with a 'sunrise' of drainpipe trousers to the times I've talked people down from hurtful confessions to story after story of requests for pastoral help ignored in the hopes it would go away, I really hate to admit that this trend seems real. You can also see it in the shift in how priests write: go to someone like Cormac Rigby or Timothy Radcliffe and compare them with most of the newer priest writers. Their thoughtfulness, depth, and ability to construct an argument wipes the floor with every last one of the current crop.

As the influx of the emotionally unaware, pastorally ungifted, self-absorbed, style-obsessed parrots of orthodoxy increases, that leaves more and more of the real work on the shoulders of the pastorally gifted and competent priests. Add to that the lowered expectations of the laity when it comes to pastoral care, and the unwillingness to help priests become better pastors by lovingly challenging them, and the situation becomes even more precarious.

As that ratio reaches tipping point, the Catholic priesthood heads into pastoral clusterfuck.

That pastoral clusterfuck is exacerbated by the dynamics that are then set up in churches - so those who support their fragile egos or naturally enter into the dynamics they unconsciously need will get preference, those who don't will get shunted aside. Lather, rinse, repeat over parishes around the world and the laity get increasingly unhealthy as well. Witness the polarisation in the Church; the shrillness on both sides, and the childish equating of "good = agrees with me; bad = disagrees with me."

And from whom are our future seminarians drawn?

Into the fray, enter Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, a man whose central values revolve around relationship and pastoral care, who eschews grandeur and appearance - a man who prefers public transport to being driven; who has refused the papal apartments; who wears simple black shoes; who chose to wash the feet of prisoners; who cooks for himself and drinks yerba in the Buenos Aires slums. Oh, and cancels his own newspaper subscription.

Which, of course, gets him damned for being liturgically less ornate than the previous pope; for not wearing the red shoes and the mozzetta; and even more heinously, for his 'trouble pronouncing Latin' - which could only be said with a straight face by linguistically challenged, arrogant Northern Europeans who have no concept of Latin vowels. His Latin, FTR, is swoonworthily perfect. Do remember that he has one lung and his 'trouble' is stopping to catch his breath. 

The intense reaction to the new pope is fascinating: branded 'Uriah Heep' by the most arrogant of tradofascists; 'concern', which smells far more like fear, from many clergy; and the need to put him in a box with JPII and Benedict: 'What we believe', 'Why we believe' and 'Doing what we believe' for one of the more inane posters I've seen.

Amazing how afraid of real power people are, isn't it? Power that is centred in a real, loving relationship with G-d that then spills over onto his people. Does this man need a mozzetta to show his power? I think not. He is completely centred in G-d, authentic, and in a moment of true meeting with another. 

So he's in relationship, you shrug. That's doing. But that's not all. The man's a JESUIT, people, with degrees in CHEMISTRY, PHILOSOPHY and THEOLOGY. The stupidity of assuming that because he practises his faith, he can't THINK it, is beyond mindboggling. And I can tell you from his face, in picture after picture, he is constantly discerning - there's a ferocious intelligence and perception behind those eyes; Jorge Bergoglio doesn't miss a beat.

This need to split, to say 'He does, so he doesn't think like Benedict did,' shows the depth of the rupture our Church has experienced, and explains the paucity of deep thought and theology in recent years. An unwillingness to hold conflict is not a strength; it is a weakness, a brittleness. Anything that moves us away from wholeness, away from being able to hold opposites and paradox, makes us more shallow, less nuanced, weaker. It makes union an impossibility.

But now we have a pope who can hold it - and us. And that's terrifying, because he is going to ask us to level up - by example. Laity will look to him and go, 'Oh, that's what pastoral care looks like,' then demand it of their priests, far too many of whom believe their priesthood is all about them. We will ALL be forced to look beneath style to substance, to our relationship with G-d and others. We will all be made to think about how we love.

I will be forced to really examine my thoughts a week ago, when we were called to offer one another the sign of peace on a Monday, and I looked hard at the priest, thinking, 'Don't make me do the sign of peace on a Monday. I don't want to touch these people.'

These people - those not like me, those I perceive as self-absorbed, playing the victim, faux pious - those I see as less than human. Yes, I too, am part of that milieu, part of the problem. Let change begin with me - it's the only change I can make.

Habeo papam.

This man, this pope, this...Papa - he will challenge me to the core. He is far more doctrinally conservative than I am; he will do things with which I disagree; I may well be upset by some things I discover about his past. 

But our hearts, nuestros corazones, are one. At the centre of our values is a yearning for G-d and the pastoral: the people. Being there for those who need us, no matter the cost. I have a clergy friend who cycled to a suicidal young woman in the rain. THAT. Always THAT, and the readiness to sacrifice oneself for that which is greater than we are.

I can rest in that. I know I am wanted - because I am loved, held precious, because I am part of the flock, one of G-d's own - contingent on...nothing. And bring on the challenge - I can't wait - this is going to be exhilarating.

Finally, I can put down the self-imposed burden of shouting warnings and leave that where it belongs - in the hands of one whose heart is with the people. I can trust that I am held, valued and loved, and in that trust, I can worry about MY faith. 

Considering that today, 15 April 2013, I've come of age as a Catholic - I'm now 18 - it's about damn time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love him too. So shy on that balcony and the only way of overcoming the, Romans, my flock, my diocese, pray for me. Francis is there for sure, but it's also a Philippine papacy.