Sunday, February 10, 2008

charism (1)

At a time when I am as busy as I have been since coming to this city to work, the death of Fr. Maciel has quietly burdened my soul.

We are seriously understaffed in this archdiocese and nowhere is it more acutely felt than in the three impoverished inner-city parishes that now lay siege to my every waking hour. These ethnically dense and financially crippled communities have gotten the short end of what was never a very long stick to begin with.

And while the challenges of an administrative role I have temporarily assumed and am ill-prepared for should be more than enough to keep me occupied fulltime, my mind constantly slips away and goes to that familiar place...

In hindsight, I am honestly astounded by the degree to which the man – priest, founder and unquestionably charismatic leader of souls – absorbed and dominated my mind and my will for so many years of my life. I was totally, and still am to an extent – although more consciously, more critically – under the spell of his story, his writings, his personality and his spirit like the collector who loses himself in the search and justifies all his quirks and eccentricities by the one rare object of his fascination.

The true visionaries of the Church – prophets, theological luminaries, founders of movements and religious orders, etc. – hardly ever scale the rungs of ecclesiastic hierarchy. Their role at any given moment of the Church’s history is ordained by their charism. And charism, as St. Paul adverts us, is a very tricky thing.

Charism is untamed obsession, indefinable grace, spiritual overflow. It is other-worldliness that provokes the ire and suspicion of this world and its finely tuned reasonableness. It is inconformity of the least politically correct kind. It is the grating irritant that produces – often after a very long time – the unexpected pearl.

Often charism comes laced with the contradiction inherent in the human mold. It can be hard to detect and even harder to accept. If charism clashes with authority or rattles institution usually only time and the Spirit will lend discernment...

The one word descriptions of Fr. Maciel, from either side of the aisle (‘saint’ or ‘fiend’) do him no justice.

The NCR’s story on the Founder’s death talks about ‘legacy’ and reverts predictably to the debate surrounding the accusations that mounted against him in the later years of his life. The gist of it is roughly that the moral turpitude of the man (apparently unquestionable in Berry’s mind) leaves a permanent blemish on his life’s work... the ‘flawed legacy’.

But for so many of us who lived in close proximity with Fr. Maciel and never saw, heard or caught the vaguest whiff of immorality the true issue that now confronts us is quite different. The serious and vexing topic of the accusations and the ambiguous response of the Vatican to them cannot be ignored or shrugged off. Yet at the end of the day, after nearly thirty years of direct personal contact with Fr. Maciel, I must trust the evidence of my senses and the conclusions of my own reflections and memories.

For those of us who believe that it is entirely possible, if not certain, that God called this unusual and enigmatic man to serve the Church and to found a new religious order peculiarly adapted to the reality of our times the question that arises with his passing is not about ‘legacy’. It is about charism.

(To be continued...