Posts Tagged ‘Trent: What Happened at the Council’

imageAm I the Prodigal Son?

I’ve commented often on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because I find the contrast among the characters so striking.  First on the stage is the younger son, who seems unable to do anything right.  Third to emerge is the older son, who seems unable to do anything wrong.  Caught right in the middle is the father, who does his level best to balance his love for two very different offspring.  But his dilemma is painfully obvious to any parent.  Is he too indulgent with one son, while unappreciative of the other?  What’s a father to do in such a situation?

I thought I had this parable all figured out, simply by looking at the people around me and applying a little common sense.  For one thing, nobody I know even remotely resembles the rakish wastrel that is the younger son.  Certainly such people exist, because we read about them all the time.  But they are not us, and those people don’t read parables anyway.  Certainly Jesus didn’t intend to lump me and my friends into that category.

Long ago I also realized that I and most of my friends don’t identify with the father either.  For one thing, I just don’t have the emotional capacity to dole out buckets of forgiveness to the ungracious clods around me.  And even if I did, I still wouldn’t have the time.  I’m way too busy doing all the right things, all the time.

imageThat leaves the elder brother.  He was obedient, hard-working, reliable, and an all-round goodie-two-shoes.  That’s me to a T; and if the truth be told, an awful lot of people relate to him as well.  His is our story, and after each reading of this parable I always know that he and I are kindred spirits.  But then I ran across David Brooks’ recent column on the Prodigal Son, and I shrank back in horror.  As Brooks points out, beneath the upstanding veneer of the older brother lurks some really disturbing qualities.  Could that be me as well?

Brooks makes several points, but two especially resonate with me.  First, this is not necesssarily a bad son/good son story.  “The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every heart.”   If only life were so clear-cut; but we’re all more complicated and nuanced than we had thought.

Brooks also posits that neither son was a paragon of virtue.  There is no doubt that the prodigal son got away with murder, at least figuratively, and I always found it a little disconcerting that the father’s forgiveness let him off scott free.  Still, I’ve prayed that he was tormented with remorse for the rest of his life.  But what if he was only faking it?  Too bad Jesus didn’t do a follow-up parable to let us know what happened to that guy.

imageWhat really jolted me, however, was Brooks’ analysis of the senior son.  To all appearances that guy may have been upstanding and reliable, but he too was riddled with faults.  He may have done everything right, but there’s no denying that it was in his material self-interest to do so.  Worse, there is no generosity of spirit in him; and there is zero inclination to give his brother any benefit of the doubt.  Small wonder, Brooks observes, that the father didn’t put the older son in charge of the “welcome home” party.  There would have been no party.

From this Brooks extrapolates one important conclusion.  Any society that rests itself on one class of wastrels living alongside another class consisting of unforgiving overachievers is doomed.  There can be no successful community when virtually everyone acts entirely in their own selfish interest rather than for the good of their neighbor and community.  That, ultimately, is what the father tries to teach his deeply flawed sons.

I leave it to others to figure out how best to apply this, but for me life under the Rule of Saint Benedict creates the perfect lab conditions for testing this parable.  First off, unlike contemporary society, Benedict does not give absolute importance to individual rights, to the detriment of the good of the community.  Secondly, he also runs counter to contemporary culture with its assumption that personal sins and vices are just that — personal matters affecting no one else.  On the contrary, virtually anything a monk does has a social consequence.  Everything he does or does not do impacts the monks around him, and that goes double for sin.  Ironically, this puts a premium on the individual.  Individuals matter, but only in relationship to the others in the community.

imageBecause all sin has a social dimension, Benedict proposes solutions that are social.  If a monk has done some wrong, it is important to deal with it, first on a person-to-person level.  If that fails, Benedict prescribes the equivalent of an intervention in which two or three senior monks confront the individual.  And if worse comes to worse, the abbot must resort to the “knife of amputation.”  In short, it’s time for the errant monk to “pursue other opportunities,” to borrow a phrase from the business world.  All this rests on a world-view that the abbot shares with the forgiving father: he does not want to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him.  Naturally he wants each monk to be a healthy and constructive member of the community.  But no one monk has the right to put his personal welfare above that of the community.  There’s no room for the prodigal son who refuses to change his ways.

On the other hand Saint Benedict is equally determined to root out any self-righteousness among the monks.  He most certainly prizes hard work, sincere prayer, and the many talents that each monk  brings to the community.  But no monk can become puffed up with pride by the thought of his own greatness.  Such a monk shares the destructive potential of the unforgiving older brother.

imageAll of this is great in theory but a huge challenge in practice.  This explains Benedict’s concern that the abbot be a wise physician to his monks.  Each monk is a gift from God, and each monk matters.  But on any given day each monk has the capacity to be the prodigal son or the self-righteous brother, or both.  I know I see those tendencies in my brothers all the time; and I suspect they’d be more than happy to say the same for me.  Fortunatley, on most days restraint of speech is the better part of valor.

This brings us round to the original challenge of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I always knew I never aspired to be the wastrel son.  Who does?  But after reading David Brooks I certianly don’t want to be the smug older brother either.  I also know that no monastery can long survive with a cloister full of both types living side by side.  Nor can the Church or society, for that matter.

imageThe solution may entail a middle course to which the forgiving father hints.  Perhaps in all  humility each and every one of us needs to admit we are a smidgen of both.  On any given day I will commit my sins, just like everybody else.  And on any given day I can also be self-righteous and point out how different I am from the rest of people.  But if, in fact, I am both of these people, then the line between good and evil runs right through my heart.

Is there a happy moral to this?  Yes.  The good news is that I guess I’ll never run out of work to do when it comes to putting my life in order.  The even better news is that God need never go looking for “other opportunities.”  God will always have more than enough to do with the likes of me, and maybe even you.


+On February 19th I gave two presentations on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint Mary’s College of California.  In the afternoon I spent two hours with faculty members from the Department of Theology, and in the evening I spoke to an audience of ca. 150.

+It’s nice to know that not all of the difficulties of travel relate to airports and weather.  At Saint Mary’s this week I put my watch down on the tech cart at the start of my talk.  At the end of the presentation I visited with several members from the audience, while a superefficient student rushed the cart off to storage in another building.  We retraced the path of the cart and eventually located it, but there was no watch to be seen.  I resigned myself to never seeing it again and drove off.  The next day someone pried open the inside of the cart, only to discover that my watch had slipped deep into the bowels of the equipment.  Happily, we hope to reunite when we both return to Minnesota.

Yet another inconvenience involved a dinner meeting with a member of the Order of Malta.  We had hoped to visit at an event weeks earlier, but we sat opposite each other at a round table of ten, in a huge and noisy room.  Frustrated, we rescheduled, only to have the restaurant catch fire the afternoon of our dinner.  I genuinely fear the results of any future attempts to meet.

image+Last week I wrote about John O’Malley’s book on the Counciil of Trent.  Among the myths that have grown up in its wake has been the assertion that Protestants got the pulpit and Catholics got the altar.  In fact, O’Malley points out that there was a significant emphasis on preaching in Catholic churches in the centuries following Trent, as the architectural evidence gives witness.  What happened in the 19th and 20th centuries is another story.  In the last two years I’ve taken photos of various pulpits for just such a post as this.  At top is Saint John’s Cathedral in Malta; second is St. Sulpice in Paris; next is the cathedral of Oliva in Poland; and then are several from south German churches.  They support O’Malley’s contention quite dramatically.

+On the morning of February 17th we were stunned to learn that Br. Aelred Reid, OSB, had died of a heart attack in the course of the night.  Brother Aelred was a monk of Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND, and he had been studying theology at Saint John’s for the last two years.  May he rest in peace.

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imageOn Creating a Cardinal

In a few days Pope Francis will “create” a new group of cardinals.  I’ve always been a little ambivalent about that word “create,” since it conjures up the story of creation from the Book of Genesis.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and Genesis asserts that God created them out of nothing.  That’s a vivid image, meant to emphasize both the imagination and the power of God as Creator.

But when popes have “created ” cardinals they’ve usually had a little more to work with than God did.  Flesh and blood humans have stood before the pope.  With all their talents and faults they’ve stood there, and most popes haven’t been entirely clueless about what they were dealing with.  Most have also had some vague idea about what they wanted to accomplish in appointing them.  Still, the history of papal management of cardinals and the curia is a bit like the history of herding cats.  Popes never knew exactly how these guys would turn out once they put on the red hat.  Sometimes there have been pleasant surprises, and sometimes they’ve gotten exactly what they wanted.  But not a few times in the history of this business there have been a some nasty surprises.

imageAs readers of the New Testament are well aware, neither the Gospels nor the Epistles devote a single word to the concept of cardinals.  What the Acts of the Apostles does reference is a Christian community that grew in size and complexity, and so arose the need to deal with an ever-expanding workload.  The first instance of such improvisation was in the appointment of deacons.  Jesus had scarcely ascended into the clouds when the apostles chose deacons to take on a lot of the administrative work.  The job description included the care of widows and orphans, the collection of alms and the management of the financial resources of the Church, and such like.   Quite naturally, and justifiably, the apostles decided that time needed to evangelize left them little time for those sorts of activities.  Thus deacons became the inner ring of an ever-expanding network of ministry within the Church.

imageIn time virtually every bishop had to have such an administrative corps to take care of an ever-growing diocese.  Sometimes they borrowed from existing Roman practice, and the term “diocese” itself is lifted right out of the Roman administrative lexicon.  “Curia” was another of those words.  Every bishop had a curia, and every bishop of a diocese does so today.  That often comes as a surprise to many people, who tend to think of The Curia at the Vatican as the only and one true curia.  Not so.  It never was unique; but because we assume that was the case, we give it a reverence all out of proportion to its real function.

Through the centuries the growth of papal government saw the department heads within the curia take on special responsibilities, and eventually the cardinals emerged as the stand-out figures in the curia.  In the Middle Ages this same group assumed the additional responsibility of electing the pope, and ever since then the cardinals have retained the exclusive right to do so.

imageA lot of ink is being spilt these days in anticipation of the stamp Pope Francis intends to leave both on the curia and on the college of cardinals.  Happily, some of the speculation is well-grounded.  Sadly, some of it is ludicrously ill-informed, to be charitable about it.  What is largely absent from the discussion is any sense of historical perspective.  Whenever I hear commentators apply terms like “first-time ever” or “never before” to the Church, I immediatley think of rock music’s equivalent word — “forever” — as in “our love is forever.”  That, of course, means that “our love will last at least a day or two,” which roughly corresponds to the historical memory of a great many commentators both within and outside of the Church.

This situation does not arise from a lack of worthwhile texts to read, because there’s plenty of good stuff out there.  I was reminded of this recently when some good friends sent me for Christmas a book I had been coveting for weeks.  John O’Malley’s recent tome entitled Trent: What Happened at the Council (Harvard University Press, 2013) touches on some of these very issues.  While sections of the book might be a stretch for some readers, he pitches it deliberately for the non-historian who would like to learn more about a pivotal episode in the development of western Christianity.  I recently finished it, and I recommend it to any who would seek a context to many of today’s issues in the Church.

imageIn a later post I want to return to some of the issues that O’Malley raises, but for the moment I want to satisfy myself with his occasional references to the cardinals and the papal curia in the 16th century.  Suffice it to say that if you think that Pope Francis is dealing with issues that are unique to our time and the worst in the history of the Church, it’s because you’ve been reading from the pages of the myopic writers.  Throughout his text O’Malley cites great cardinals like Charles Borromeo and others who pushed along the reform of the Church.  Thwarting them at every step of the way were other cardinals and curialists who held onto their influence or lifestyle or power at all costs.  And we’re not even talking here about the naughty cardinals.  Nor can we begin to guess what was going through the minds of the two teenagers on whom Pope Pius IV conferred the red hat.  In an otherwise decent record as a reform-minded pope who helped complete the work of the Council of Trent, Pope Pius remains a bit of an enigma.  Who knows what he thought these kids might bring to the table when it came to the future of the Church.  But God works in mysterious ways.

imageSome have argued sagely that the very survival of the Church through such horrid times as the 15th and 16th centuries is proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  While O’Malley does not make that point explicitly, he does suggest that the reform and the vitality of the Church in the centuries after Trent was due in no small measure to individuals who went out on the proverbial limb and risked everything for the vision of a Church reformed.

What emerged from Trent, in addition to volumes of documents, was a simple yet straightforward expectation that I think runs through the mind of Pope Francis.  On the eve of the Council of Trent not a few priests and prelates led less-than-stellar lives.  For decades after Trent many had absolutely no desire to change anything.  What the Council of Trent did produce, however, was a simple expectation that slowly took root.  Nothing less than a devout personal life and attention to pastoral duties should be the expectation of each and every member of the clergy.  That goes for deacons, priests, curial cardinals and even popes.  It’s not about them or their personal glory, because it’s about the people they serve.

If you want to understand what Pope Francis hopes from those men who will stand before him in a few days, it may be as simple as that.


+On February 15th I witnessed the wedding vows of my nephew and his wife at Saint Mary’s Church in Tulsa, OK.  It was a nice event, and I was a little awed that four priests and one deacon gathered around the altar.  I was far from being the one who came the greatest distance, since the bride’s grandparents flew in from Milwaukee.  But the prize for distance travelled went to the brother of the groom (also my nephew) who flew in with his wife and two-year-old son from Amman, Jordan.

+On February 13th Bishop Donald Kettler visited Saint John’s to lead a student discussion on The Catholic Church, Politics, and Social Justice.  Since he came from Alaska to the Diocese of Saint Cloud last fall, Bishop Kettler has made four visits to Saint John’s, and as an alumnus of the University we are always delighted to welcome him.  In the picture below Bishop Kettler stands with a former neighbor from Alaska, who is now a freshman at Saint John’s University.

image+On February 15th Abbot John clothed Robert Kirkley as a claustral oblate in the Abbey.  For ages we’ve had an oblate program for those wishing to associate themselves with the prayer life of the Abbey; but they live outside the Abbey.  On rare occasions, however, we have welcomed someone to live as an oblate within the monastery.  Before coming to Saint John’s Brother Bob lived in the Houston area and taught chemistry at San Jacinto College.  Prior to his investiture he lived for a year with us as a candidate.

+We are on the verge of leaving behind the coldest days of winter, and we won’t miss them.  But as an example of how previous generations of monks dealt with the cold, I have enclosed pictures of a ceramic stove, still housed at the Benedictine abbey of Reichenau in Germany. In addition to conducting heat, the lovely tiles portray various saints.  I suspect they provided meditation for the monks as they huddled around the stove for warmth.

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