Posts Tagged ‘Cardinal Francis George’

imageContext is Everything

For years one of my confreres at Saint John’s had on his office wall a framed piece of embroidery.  It was plain and homespun, and the dark blue thread on white cloth suggested that it had once hung by the hearth in a colonial New England farmhouse.  It was no great piece of art, and certainly it was not the child-like quality of the stitching that stopped people in their tracks.  No, that honor went to the message, which was a one-word quotation from the Gospels.  “Sin. (John 8:11)”  That was it.  No gospel passage could speak more eloquently — not least because it had an unfamiliar ring to it.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there was more to this message than met the eye.  Even the novice scripture scholars knew instinctively that this passage had been taken out of context.  And if they were industrious enough to look it up, they quickly discovered that John the Evangelist did not intend to encourage more sinning.  Neither then nor now do people need any encouragement in the sinning department.  And for his part John was encouraging quite the opposite.

imageThis may seem an odd lead-in to a reflection on Pope Francis, but perhaps it’s not so inappropriate after all.  We recently observed the first anniversary of his election as pope, and that day yielded a flood of words from pundits all over the place.  Not a few comments were especially cogent, while much of the rest ranged from blatantly self-serving to wildly speculative.  But the one element common to much of this was the eagerness to take the pope’s words out of context.

Despite first impressions, the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks are not mere blathering and unscripted asides.  Rather, they derive from a rich intellectual and pastoral underpinning, and most commentators have neither the time to research it nor the space to include it in their columns.

Remarkably, the honeymoon period for Pope Francis has yet to dry up, and he remains one  of the most fascinating persons on the planet.  Despite that popularity, however, there are not a few who’ve begun to entertain their doubts about him, perhaps because he has yet to deliver on the wish lists that they’d sent in the day after his election.  As far as I can tell, Francis has yet to become the puppet of any one pundit, and that has to be a little disconcerting for the talking heads.

imageThat brings me to the main point as I reflect on the pope’s first year in his no-longer-new job.  If there’s one sure way to understand Pope Francis just a bit better, then I would recommend that you go and read his work directly, rather than read what someone else says he said.  Gleaning snippets of his thought from secondary sources really is no substitute.  From them you will get phrases taken out of context, as well as ideas that are untethered from the principles that have guided the pope through much of his life.

So as the confetti settles after the party, I’ve recommitted myself to two courses of action.  First off, if I’m going to take Pope Francis seriously, then I may as well go straight to the horse’s mouth.  His sermons and talks are readily accessible on the web site of the Vatican Information Service, and that’s the best place to start.  And should I choose to read someone else’s reflection on Pope Francis, it’s always important to consider the source.

imageSecond, as important a figure as Pope Francis may be, knowing about him is no substitute for actually going out and living my own life as a Christian.  I’m indebted for that insight to Cardinal Francis George, who has lamented the fascination with all things Roman as sometimes a little unhealthy.  To that I would add that not a few people seem to hang on every word that emanates from the halls of the Vatican.  Scholars have written about the “creeping infallibility” that has caused some ecclesiastics to doubt the pope’s infallibilty but not their own.  To that I would add that in some minds even the Vatican janitors speak with apostolic authority.  But if the pope is the “servant of the servants of God,” then who might these other people be in the larger scheme of things?

What Cardinal George cautions against is a steady disengagement from parish life, as creative minds wander the Vatican halls, at least in their imaginations.  At the end of the day, this is just another case of fascination with celebrities, but it’s a fascination with an unintended byproduct.   It detaches us from the parish and religious communities where we are most likely to encounter the face of Christ.

imageNow that I think about it, I’ve never found Christ on the internet, nor in the pages of a journal, nor on the radio.  In fact, when I’ve been privileged to see the face of Christ I’ve always been standing next to ordinary flesh-and-blood people.  When I’ve seen Christ in my fellow monks and in my neighbors, I once again realize how important those relationships really are in building the kingdom of God.  That’s where I and all of us show the love and mercy and support and all those other things that Pope Francis speaks about so regularly.  That I suppose, is the real context of our lives.

So I may be citing Pope Francis out of context, and if I’m putting words into his mouth I apologize.  But on his first anniversary as pope, I suspect that Pope Francis might borrow freely from the words uttered by the angel to the apostles, as they scanned the heavens for the ascended Lord.  “Why are you standing around looking up to heaven, or to anywhere else for that matter?  Go out and do the Lord’s work, and get a life while  you’re at it.”


+On March 24th I delivered a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, FL.

+On March 29th I gave a day of reflection for area members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  The event took place at the Newman Center at the University of Washington, which is staffed by the Dominicans.  They kindly offered me gracious hospitality while I was in Seattle, and the day allowed me to reconnect with many local friends from the Order of Malta.

+On March 19th we were delighted by the announcement that our confrere, Fr. Matthew Luft, had successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in liturgical studies at The Catholic University of America.

+On March 21st our confrere, Brother Liting John Chrysostom Long, pronounced his solemn vows at our priory in Japan, Holy Trinity Monastery.  Abbot John was there to receive his vows.

image+On March 26th Bishop Denis Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and chair of the US Bishops Committee on Ecumenism & Interreligious Affairs, spoke at Saint John’s University. His presentation dealt with the anniversary of Vatican II and the document Lumen Gentium.

+On March 29th we were saddened by the passing of our confrere, Fr. Daniel Durken.  Fr. Daniel taught scripture to generations of students at Saint John’s University, and also served for several years as director of the Liturgical Press.  We will miss his wit and wisdom.

+The first five pictures in today’s post come from Monte Cassino, Saint Benedict’s monastery outside of Rome.  During World War II it was completely destroyed, and on March 21st, the feast of Saint Benedict, the monks and friends of Monte Cassino celebrated the anniversary of its restoration.  The next two photos show Brother John Chrysostom pronouncing his vows before Abbot John, and the community following profession.  No doubt Saint Benedict would be more than amazed at the thought that monks would be following his Rule in Japan in the 21st century.


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Saint Alban's Abbey

Saint Alban’s Abbey

Wanted: Pope Who Does It All

I was a little startled to read Cardinal Dolan’s comment about the impending papal conclave.  He was celebrating the Eucharist at Saint Peter’s Basilica, and in the middle of a sermon he blurted it, out of the blue.  “We’ve got to keep in mind — even more important than the pope is what we’re doing right now. The life of the church goes on, and the life of the church centers around what we’re doing right now.”  What he was doing just then was celebrating the Eucharist, not electing a pope.

That kind of comment can hurt your chances to become pope, but it can also provide perspective for viewers of the current hoopla in Rome.  We are a celebrity-driven culture, and it’s very tempting to deal with the church in terms of celebrities rather than personal commitments of faith.  It’s so much simpler to argue about the qualities of the next pope than it is to live out the responsibilities of our faith.

Saint Alban's Abbey.12.ReredosIn the last few days people have asked me about what the next pope will be like, and my answer is short and succinct:  “you’re bound not to like him.”  Probably you’ll like him for a few minutes, but only before you know his name and where he’s from.  But once the hysteria has subsided, you’ll realize you’re stuck with a guy whose favorite color is not yours and who likes the wrong baseball team (or worse: he couldn’t care less about baseball.)  Quickly the luster of the new pontiff will fade, and the cameras will turn off, and our lives will be back to normal.

The fact of the matter is, writers and all of us have expanded the job description of the pope to include “savior.”  Today we expect so much of the pope that we’re virtually guaranteed to be disappointed.  For starters, he must be charismatic and able to inspire people around the world.  He must have exceptional leadership skills and know almost all languages.  He must be  an astute manager of people and resources, but he must spend all of his time preaching the gospel.  He must oversee each and every bishop, but he must leave them alone to do their jobs.  He must rein in the curia but let them do their work without a  lot of supervision.  And he must know all about banking and accounting, but have the material detachment of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Alban's Abbey.11.LanternBeyond that, he’ll need to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Though he won’t have time for leisure or sleep, he still should lead a balanced life, as an example to all.  Plus, he’ll have to change and modernize everything in the the church in order to make some people happy.  And he must affirm the unchanging reality of the church to make others happy.  Lastly, he should visit his flock throughout the world, but he should spend most of his time in Rome, tending to business.

Shrine of Saint Alban

Shrine of Saint Alban

Given everybody’s expectations for the pope, no wonder this is such a tough job.  Should anybody be surprised that Jesus gave all authority to Saint Peter and then got out of town? He’d been crucified once already, and now it was Peter’s turn.  And even if a few popes have failed miserably or exploited the papacy for their own benefit, most have tried to do a decent day’s work of it.  Most have tried to live out one of their most ancient job titles: Servant of the Servants of God.  In practice that meant that you were head of a church in which everyone had an opinion on how the pope should do his work.  As pope you may look and dress like the chief shepherd, but it’s the sheep who are really calling the shots.  And the sheep include cardinals and bishops and priests and lay people.  All of them have solid advice on how to run the church.  And all of them will listen carefully to the shepherd, and carry out exactly what they judge to be most important.  And all of them are infallible.

You can now see why I don’t aspire to be pope and have not turned in my application.  Nor should others who are in their right mind.  It’s a thankless job.  You’re overworked; and you live in a fish bowl.  People with thin skin should not throw their hat into the ring for this position.

Monks' Gallery

Monks’ Gallery

Three or four years ago Cardinal George of Chicago wrote in one of his books that Catholics think too much about the pope and the Vatican.  Obviously he referred to the cult of personality, as it prevails not only in the church but in politics and society at large.  But he also had in mind the use of the pope as a reference point in the lives of people.  If some people  don’t like the pope’s teaching, it’s a convenient excuse for apathy or dropping out.  Still others, who may love what a particular pope preaches, will use that message as a weapon.  In either case, they have absolved themselves of personal responsibility for their own faith.  They also tend to absolve themselves from participation in parish life.  After all, what could take precedence over Vatican politics?

Medieval Fresco

Medieval Fresco

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict does present a chapter on “What kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  At the end of the day, however, his is a rule for monks rather than a manual for management.  He not only presumes, but he specifies, that people come to the monastery to seek God in the context of community.  But they don’t enter in order to find an abbot they like or dislike.  The onus of responsibility for a monk’s life cannot be pushed off onto the abbot, because it is the monk’s calllng to lead a good life.  If the abbot doesn’t live a perfect life, in no way does that exonerate a monk from  having to try himself.  It’s the monk who must decide whether to seek God, and for that he gets the credit or the blame.

In coming days there will be a new pope, and after three days you’ll either like him a lot or be deeply disappointed.  But remember that the pope is neither the  savior nor the enemy.  He’s there to teach the tradition that has been  handed down since New Testament times.  That’s his job.  And my job as a monk is to get on with the life of being a Christian.  Regardless of whether the pope is learned or simple, charismatic or dull, or gifted or inept, my own calling is to be a fellow pilgrim on the path to God.  I cannot use someone  else’s situation as an excuse for me.

Between the lines and behind the headlines, that’s what Pope Benedict was really trying to say.  And he took his own words to heart; and he was so serious about it that he gave up being pope in order to become a simple pilgrim like the rest of us.  What could possibly be more important?


+On March 4th I flew from Minneapolis to London for a series of meetings and to say Mass for a family gathering at the Farm Street Church, the Jesuit parish in London.  Happily, the plane lifted off from Minneapolis just as the second biggest snow storm of the season was rolling into the airport.

+On March 6th I had the opportunity to visit Saint Alban’s, which is about thirty minutes by train north of London.  It was one of the first spots I ever visited in England, and I’ve been enthralled by this tranquil place ever since.

Founded by the Romans as Verulamium, it became the site of one of England’s most important abbeys.  Built on the site where Alban was martyred by the Romans, ca. 250, the church is now a cathedral.  The shrine has been restored, and pilgrims once again light candles to honor the saint.

Abbey Gatehouse

Abbey Gatehouse

The pictures in today’s post all come from Saint Alban’s.  Among the most interesting is that of the wooden gallery that stands next to the shrine, where monks could unobtrusively stand guard to make sure no zealous pilgrim ran off with the relics.

+Saint John’s University alumnus Sebastian Gomes (BA ’07 and MA ’09) is currently having the time of his life.  Sebastian works at Salt+Light TV, a Catholic production company in Toronto, where he assists Fr. Thomas Rosica, the director.  Last fall Fr. Thomas and Sebastian came to Saint John’s, where they produced a lengthy interview with Abbot John Klassen, OSB.  Now they are both in Rome, where Fr. Thomas is working as a media consultant with Fr. Federico Lombardi and the Vatican Press Office.  If you’ve watched any coverage of the papal conclave, you’ve likely seen Fr. Thomas fielding the questions that come to them in English.

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