Tuesday, May 30, 2006

a day in the life

Memorial Day is a good thing, if that's what it's used for: remembering. If you don't remember, you don't live. You exist. And in our world, that's certainly not a big deal. All kinds of junk exists. But memory... ah, memory means life.

A theology profesor at the Greg once told us that the Holy Spirit is god's memory.
He was a Bulgarian Jesuit, so he may well have had that Massimo Confessore/Origene thang going on in his head. But it IS an interesting thought.

I heard on local am radio today that there have been 16 shootings within the last 50 hours in this city. Of those, roughly half happened within walking distance of this miserable little parish. The mayor has asked for the State Police to be deployed. Till when, I wonder.

The AIDS epidemic is out of control, not only in sub-Saharan Africa... Since Holy Week I have been called to visit terminally ill family members or friends of parishoners at least once a week, sometimes two and three times. This wretched disease has whacked the hispanic community almost as hard as the black Carribean community (Haitian, Sta.Lucian, Jamaican, etc.) and shows no sign of letting up. The last guy I saw - Friday, at a convalescent home - was 42, weighed about 60 pounds and was the most God-awful shade of yellow I've ever seen. He couldn't even uncurl his fingers to receive the annointing of the sick. A breathing skeleton.

An ex-inmate from Osborn came to see me today. Said I spent some time listening to him when he was inside... confession and the like. I can't recall, but this guy was grateful. Said he's working now - the laundry at the hospital - and has visiting rights with his kids. Wants to be confirmed, fix up his marriage...

In this part of town you have to take it as it comes, the good and the bad.
Fix what you can, sure... but something's got to be left to God. Right?

Friday, May 26, 2006

a story too seldom told...

The NCR runs a good story in the current issue, not on the front page, where the Exorcist would have put it, but at least it is there.

Far too little justice has been sought for the many priests that have been wrongly implicated in the sex abuse scandal that has shaken the Church, especially in this lawyer-happy country. Let the guilty be tried, but let not the innocent be brought down beside them or smeared by association.

The words 'sex abuse' have become a shibboleth for critics of the Catholic clergy. Like an evil spell that guarantees results, once applied it makes its target guilty and no degree of favorable testimony or even recanting by the accusers ever undoes its fatal poison. Other types of complaints or grudges that don't attract similar sympathy and outrage can be hidden in this all-encompassing curse before which there is little hope of defense.

Again, we should not deny or explain away the confirmed wrongdoing and horrible offenses that have come to light in these past years of intense scrutiny. But there are many innocent priests who have been discredited and discarded in the stampede - I know a good few of them - and they should not be considered mere collateral damage.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

ascendit in caelum

The kids in this parish pay attention in Mass at the worst moments.

The valiant, lone altar-server of today's early morning Mass actually listened to the Gospel reading. She grilled me afterwards in the sacristy.

"Why did Jesus tell them to pick up snakes and drink poison?"

He didn't actually tell them to, he said that if they did they would not be harmed.

"But why would anyone pick up snakes or drink poison?"

Well, I guess Jesus had figured out by then that his apostles weren't the sharpest knives in the drawer and he wanted to take precautions.

<blink, blink>

Just playing. What I really think is that he was reasserting the radical nature of the change brought about in the human condition because of his resurrection: the primacy of life over death, spirit over matter, hope over despair, good over evil...

<blink, blink>

Aren't you supposed to be in school by now?

Monday, May 22, 2006

my brain hurts...

On Friday, May 19, the press office of the Holy See issued a very brief statement making public the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's decision regarding Fr. Marcial Maciel.

This statement either means something or it does not.

If it does not, we can pretend it never happened and go about our lives enthusiastically and optimistically as before, unworried that an essential part of all that we are and have been part of for many years - in my case, 2/3 of an existence - may have been tainted and discredited.

If it does, the question that haunts us now is: what does it mean?

Those who have had it in for Fr.Maciel from the beginning seem to have little doubt about the meaning of the Holy See's statement. It means that all the accusations, public and private, made against him were found to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. It means that his accusers are the brave and righteous victims and Fr.Maciel is the deceitful architect of an evil empire masquerading as a religious congregation and apostolic movement. This final indictment has finally and definitively pulled the mask off it all. It means he has been 'stripped of his priesthood' by a Pope who was unable to deny the solid and damning evidence of a case so airtight that we can only shake our heads in wonder that it took so long for judgment to be passed...

The ReGAIN mob, SNAP, Berry, Renner, the NCR and others have it all figured out. They know exactly what the Vatican statement means.

The Exorcist is not so sure.

In all truth, those of us who are convinced of Fr.Maciel's innocence regarding the charges of sexual abuse and violation of the sacrament of reconciliation have tougher issues to grapple with when we try to understand what the statement really means. Perhaps that is why the LC has limited itself to a very succinct official response, saying basically that Fr.Maciel accepts and will comply with the conditions dictated by the Holy See.

The only ones that can afford the luxury of an easy answer are those who were convinced of his guilt to begin with. For them, the intentionally guarded Vatican statement has become the umbrella endorsement of their catalogue of crimes and grievances.

For the rest of us, there's way too much at stake to go the easy route.

To begin with, the issue of Fr.Maciel's guilt or innocence is circumvented both by the wording of the statement and the elimination of the possibility of a canonical process. Nothing is said about the allegations themselves: whether or not any of them were found to be more or less credible, whether the decision of the CDF was ultimately even related to the stories of the 9 ex-LC, etc.

Obviously, the Vatican statement is neither the resounding exoneration nor the ringing endorsement of Fr.Maciel that many of us would have preferred to hear. It is disapproving in tone and discplinary in content and that is extremely concerning.

But the unspecific reference to the accusations at least leaves the window open for admitting a certain complexity in the motives that prompted this decision of the Holy See. It is not a question of splitting hairs. It is the need to understand what the statement really says. And I would venture that things are not as cut and dry as Fr.Maciel's adversaries would have us believe.

The recognition of Fr.Maciel's denial of the publicized accusations and the nod to the merits of the LC and the RC attenuate the tone of the statement. The invitation to refrain from exercising public ministry can be read either as a prudential measure or as lenient a penalty as could be found. The specific affirmation that the Pope has signed on to the decision tells both sides that this thing is over.

But, like I said above, those of us convinced of Fr. Maciel's innocence can hardly turn this into a positive. The media's interest in this business will be short lived. As soon as Britney Spears drops her baby in the toilet or Paris Hilton buys a new poodle this apparently anti-climactic bit of ecclesiastic arcana will pass. But the internal grasp of what has happened and what it means down the road for us LC/RC folks is the real, lingering drama to unfold.

Simply stated, two fundamental tenets of LC/RC life and spirit have been assailed: papal approval and the person of our founder. The questions that arise have confounded the Exorcist. To wit:

1. Why was any statement issued at all? I think pretty much everyone, accusers and believers alike, was resigned to this whole thing going to the grave someday with Fr.Maciel. If this statement is 'proof' that the CDF and the Pope deem him guilty because of 'overwhelming evidence', why not say it clearly and hammer him with the full force of Canon Law? If the CDF statement was brought about by the allegations of things that supposedly happened 50 years ago, how were they suddenly verified? The complaints of those 9 ex-LC have been out there forever. Were there issues unrelated to the old accusations? Is a message, entirely different from the one most assume to be evident, being sent to the LC?

2. How do we, who have always put such high stock in even the most insignificant signs of papal affection or approval - his greeting at an audience, a picture taken with him in Paul VI Hall, a postcard from some papal visit - deal with this low key but undeniable sign of disapproval? The only way we can claim that Fr. Maciel is being persecuted or unjustly treated is to tread the slippery slope of saying that the Pope was pressured into doing something he didn't personally agree with. Even suggesting that Fr.Maciel accepted the CDF's reproval to spare the LC or the church some greater damage is like juggling swords.

Are we to think that the many signs of approval given the LC/RC in public and private by Peter's successors - especially John Paul II - were false or have somehow now been overturned?

How are we supposed to deal with this? Some have suggested that we look to the future when, with history's hindsight, Fr.Maciel's name will be cleared and he will be officially recognized as the great man many of us truly believe he is. That, they say, has been the case with many saints who were vilified in life, but vindicated after death.

I suppose we could sit around and pray for the prompt election of Pope Norbert I and at some stage campaign to turn this thing around, but that does little to help us right now. Perhaps our best - and only - option is to hang our heads, take it on the chin and work twice as hard in our apostolates and service to the church. Our perseverance and dedication are, in the long run, the only way to erase the negative effects of this ordeal and turn it into a plus for the LC/RC.

3. What about the internal image of Fr. Maciel as founder and inspiration of the LC/RC and its spirituality? One can argue, as the CDF statement so painfully observes, that the congregation and the lay movement can be considered and even revered independently of the person of their founder. Anyone who belongs to the LC/RC knows that this kind of mental separation is not only impossible, but flies in the face of everything we've lived and been taught in the Movement since the beginning.

I, personally, feel a great debt of gratitude to Fr.Maciel - not because someone's brainwashed me, but simply because I have received so much. He is venerated in the LC/RC and often allegiance and fidelity to one's vocation are confused with personal loyalty to him. His story is told and retold; the LC/RC history with him at its core has been written and rewritten; he becomes, for all our members, a figure that is larger than life. Critics call it a personality cult. I prefer to think of it as a mix of institutional exuberance, cultural folklore and youthful hype...

For all of this and many other ways in which the person of our founder is inextricably enmeshed in the very fiber of LC/RC life, the CDF statement is an industrial-sized fly in the ointment. What are we supposed to do now? Pretend it doesn't matter? Tell the story up to May 17 2006, then close the book quickly and say "...and they all lived happily ever after"?

Or perhaps we're being challenged to make the act of consumate honesty: to say with our hearts, our words and our continued service to the church that the LC/RC never really was about Fr.Maciel (even in the throes of our over-enthusiasm!). That the congregation and the movement really are 'of Christ' as their names imply. That even the blemishes or eventual failings of everyone from the founder right down to the newest member don't undermine what HE does and will continue to do through us...

Does it mean we have to disown Fr.Maciel as if he had been convicted of some crime?


It means we have to be totally, starkly truthful with ourselves and with everyone else. Things are what they are. And if our congregation and lay movement are truly instruments of evangelization, with us or in spite of us they will continue to grow, to mature in spirit and to do Christ's work.

These are some of the things that have been going through the Exorcist's head of late.
I'm not alone. Not by a long shot. I have been speaking, often into the wee hours, with our people in Italy, Mexico, the US and South America. Most of them have kept their thoughts to themselves, but it doesn't mean they're not thinking, not asking themselves the same questions. I would expect no less of them.


coming up blank

More often than not, the Exorcist has an answer.
At least he thinks he does.

But the Exorcist has spent the greater part of this long rainy weekend searching for an answer that he has not yet found. Not one that satisfies all the questions, at any rate.

No one has given me an answer and, I admit, I have been fretfully inarticulate in my stuttering replies to the many people who have directed their questions to me.

One friend suggested that the easy solution would be to stop questioning. But avoiding the question is neither easy nor a solution.

In my case, 28 years of life invested in an all-consuming institution founded as the living extention of the mission and inspiration of one man, make it morally indefensible to push aside the need for understanding... and meaning... and truth. Not asking ourselves the necessary question should make us a whole lot more uncomfortable than asking it honestly.

In my next post, the Exorcist will outline his attempt to come up with an answer.
Prepare to be dissatisfied.
I am.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


It's been very quiet around here since I returned from Chile.

Lent and, especially, Holy Week were busy times. I can't imagine how the Triduum could have been any fuller. Folks seemed to want to be in a holy place... if only for those three days of the year.
This is a tiny parish, maybe 300-325 families, so I was happy to see everyone engaged in some way. Lots of people recently arrived from Latin American countries got the word that there was a very latino Holy Week programmed at the parish - procesión de ramos, lavatorio de los pies, 'las siete palabras', el Vía Crucis viviente, rosario de luto, Misa de Gloria - and we received numerous newcomers from different places.

The Monday after Easter I left for Chile. Ten days that passed in a heartbeat. I went to perform the marriage of a young lady who I met years ago and has been a close friend since then. I baptized some babies, blessed wedding rings and celebrated one or two pre-arranged Masses. Got to see some old friends, didn't get to see a lot more.

My visit helped me to define my strategery. I will take one more shot at finishing my doctorate, this time it's between Yale and Fordham. If I am accepted I will go the distance. If not, I will complete my three year period as promised to the Archbishop of this fine archdiocese and I will head south.

Of course, I could be hit by a bus crossing the street to get the mail this afternoon, too.

That would certainly simplify things.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

sift through the words

It is not easy to get a balanced view of Church affairs in the US. On the one hand, as is often said, anti-Catholicism is the one politically correct prejudice still allowed in America. On the other hand, reporting by those who could conceivably give an accurate reading of events and credible analysis is often so skewed one way or the other it's almost impossible to get a grip on the issues.

Network and cable special reports routinely call in Elaine Pagels, J.D.Crossan, Richard McBrien, etc. to speak about topics related to faith, scripture and church that cannot be adequately dealt with in sound bytes. Unedited, their peculiar intellectual proclivities make them somewhat suspect. Reduced to one-liners, they become damn near unintelligible.

On the other end of the spectrum, Fox News brings in Jonathan Morris who, shiny and eager, glibly simplifies the topics he's asked to comment on. Like a greenhouse plant suddenly relocated to the outside world, his reporting on church issues wilts and disappoints under the heat of live broadcast. Although the endearing simper on his youthful face never fades, he appears at times not to listen to the questions he is asked by the anchors and often responds off the mark. But lack of acumen does not discourage him from talking happily on the air about everything from papal encyclicals to exotic dancers. I found his recent pieces on church and society in Venezuela, labor unrest in France and US immigration issues especially egregious examples of his craft.

Fr. Morris ends a three part series on The Da Vinci Code last week with this line: "A little knowledge is dangerous... for religion and for life. But a lot of knowledge (and a little humility) makes wise men." Remarkable. From the mouths of babes...

The printed word, while arguably more informative and responsible than the evening news, fails to resolve the basic confusion that seems to cloud most Church reporting in the US. I flip between the two NCRs on a weekly basis in the hopes of discerning the middle ground for myself. Neither the Register nor the Reporter goes to great lengths to camouflage its very particular ecclesiology, which, I suppose, is helpful in a way. I read both, aware that the omissions are usually more telling than the inclusions, and am attentive to the bits of information and wisdom that always surface regardless...

As an example: the May 12 issue of the Reporter was, almost in its entirety, a tiresome rant against Bishop Robert Finn and the changes being made in the diocese of Kansas City. Not that there aren't issues and legitimate questions, but the endless feature article seems to reproach the bishop for everything short of hiring an albino monk to do his dirty work.

That said, there are always insights that ring true. The editorial on the back page, No rationale for upheaval in Kansas City, ends with words of wisdom:

"...people can't be made to become a faithful community by controlling them. The qualities of true leadership and authority accrue to those who have a deep empathy for the people they serve... and who understand that relationships, not rules or rubrics or even revered devotions, are the essential thread of the fabric of a community living out the Gospel."

I'm not sure to what extent these lines apply to the situation in Kansas City, but I can certainly think of some folks in other contexts who might be illuminated by them.

Sift through the words, hold on to what is true.
A friendly recommendation from the Exorcist.

Monday, May 15, 2006

reality is worse... way worse

Of the two latest commentaries on the imminent release of The Da Vinci Code in USA Today, one impressed me as unusually cogent. Only a society as clueless as our own could permit such a fatuous debate to distract us from the substantial issues of our busy lives... like who will be the finalists of American Idol or whether the jocks of the Duke lacrosse team are truly the baleful degenerates they so aspire to be.

I find it hard to believe that the Opus has actually entered the fray with interviews, complaints and the request for a disclaimer. An organization that deems it necessary to publicly deny that it harbors masochistic albino assassin monks has only whetted my curiosity as to what they're really up to.

Anyway, all the goofball fiction and ludicrous plot weaving of Dan Brown barely hold a candle to reality. The murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl and the devilish exploits of Father Gerald Robinson are scarier by far.

Instead of protesting, perhaps we should thank the Da Vinci Code for helping us focus on the inane.

Friday, May 12, 2006

good one

We had our yearly confirmations on Monday. 61 confirmands from 4 parishes here in the north end of the city. 29 from our little place by the railroad tracks.

I would estimate that there were 7 or 8 nationalities represented at the Mass, which was celebrated in English and Spanish. We had US gringos, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, St.Lucians, Haitians, those folks from Trinidad y Tobago (Trinitarians and Toboggans?) and one or two other Central American people mixed in for good measure.

The music was provided by a black/hispanic Gospel choir from the host parish and was exuberant. After every song a little kid somewhere in the church would clap his hands and shout, "That was a good one!"

God's people is quite a mix. That way we can make up for each other's shortcomings. Our confirmation ceremony was a sampling. Now THAT is a good one.