Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Institution and Faith are Not One in the Same

As a Priest of a happy twenty-one years, I have countless times ministered to brothers and sisters who have shared with me that they were mad or upset, or hurt by their Faith and when I uncovered the layers of that hurt, I have always discovered the same thing, that the people who are indeed the Church are not really mad with the core beliefs that sustain them but rather the Institution that is supposed to be embracing them.

Of course there are so many ways that this has been manifest in their lives over the years. Maybe by a parish priest, that sadly abused them physically or mentally or dealt with them and their family in the most un-Christlike of ways. Maybe it was a pronouncement by a local Bishop or the Pope that was so insensitive that it bore no likeness to the compassion and love of the Lord. Now, I know that the Institutional Church is compromised of humans and that humans are bound to fail, that has been and always will be. However, that can't always be the excuse to fall back on, especially in the ongoing revelations of the horrific sex-abuse coverups. Yes the Sacraments and their grace still work their wonders even when those that administer them show no likeness to Christ by their life or behavior. That is the greatness and yet the paradox of our Faith.

I want to make clear in these words to those that read them that if you are upset with your faith, you have every right to be. Yet do understand that you are really not upset and miffed at
the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts in Christ Jesus the Lord, but at the fallible men and women that steer this bark of Peter. I would venture to say in this country alone, there are thousands of thousands of beloved Roman Catholics who have taken a hiatus from the community of Faith simply because they are hurt by the Institutional Church, not that they are mad at their Faith lovingly bestowed on them in Baptism. And many have not made this distinction which is why, as a Priest and theologian, I wish to make this clear difference. Our Faith is a precious jewel that can NEVER be taken from us. As Paul says, nothing can separate us from the Love of God poured out in Jesus the Lord. Can a priest, a pope, a bishop,a pronouncement make us so mad and hurt that we have no choice but to depart and leave. Yes of course, because we all have our limits, and one thing that no one can judge is the primacy of our conscience. Even St. Augustine made that clear.

I know as a fellow Roman Catholic and Priest, who has also experienced the deep human pain of a cold non-compassionate Institution, that my Faith can never be touched or taken away from me. It is a sacred gift that the Lord keeps burning brightly in me and in you with His grace and no one, not one pastor or pope can take it from me. Does the Institution have much work to do to recover its moral stance in the world, you bet it does. But don't allow one person or persons in this Institution keep you from your goal of running the race as Paul so eloquently puts it. If you have been hurt, and many who read this have, seek a loving community of Faith where you can once again worship, where you can feel at home and rekindle your Faith that cries out to you to be re-ignighted. Or find a friend, or Priest that truly understands and cares for your situation and can set you back on the right path toward a spiritual rebirth of your faith. With prayer, discernment and time your hurts will be healed by the Lord. He wants you home with Him, He wants you in his arms. Remember as St. Augustine wrote" Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

There is no question that it is more than OK to be mad with the Institution, because that's how through the Spirit we can, and must enact the changes that are necessary to dispel the darkness and cover-up of the past, and these clear and present dangers amongst us now. Change comes from within, not above. It has not yet, nor do I see it coming from those who say they lead us. Remember the police can't police themselves to use an analogy. So take that desire for the terrible injustice that unfortunately may have been done to you and those you love, or those we know of, and allow Grace to bring forth the light of change this Institution needs. We are the Church, the People are the Church. It is not a building, a dogma or a hierarchical cast system. The Church is the Faith that resides in each of our hearts. Bring it out, place the Faith that is in your heart in your hands and make it alive again. All of us will be the better because of YOU, and so will the Christ. Don't be afraid to reclaim your Catholic Faith, because you will be so much the better for it, and so will each person in your life with whom you interact. Remember, " We hold a Treasure not made of gold, in earthen vessels wealth untold, one Treasure only, The Lord, The Christ, In earthen vessels!" God Bless each of us on our journies to renew our hearts of Faith and rebuild the Church that call us forth. Pace e bene!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Defying church, 12 Catholic women to be ordained here

Thursday, June 15, 2006

By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On July 31, a dozen well-educated, experienced Roman Catholic women will pass into uncharted spiritual waters on a boat cruising Pittsburgh's rivers.

On that afternoon, three women in vestments will lay their hands on the heads of the 12 women and anoint their hands with oil during an ordination ceremony that will be the first of its kind in the United States.

Among the participants is Joan Clark Houk, 65, of McCandless, who with seven other women are answering a call to be priests; the other four are candidates to be deacons.

It will be the fourth such ceremony in the world since 2002, all unrecognized by the Vatican. The women are part of a growing international movement to push for women's ordination.

The Women's Ordination Conference, based in Fairfax, Va., will announce today its support of the Pittsburgh ceremony, which will be held aboard the Gateway Clipper boat Majestic. Pittsburgh was selected because of its central location.

In a three-page letter dated May 9, Mrs. Houk, a member of St. Alexis in McCandless, advised Bishop Donald Wuerl of her plans. She has received no response. Mrs. Houk also sent a copy of the letter to all 360 priests in the diocese.

"It is a sin for the Church to discriminate against women and to blame God for it," Mrs. Houk wrote.

The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said the church "has determined that the ordination of males is a part of the faith handed down by Christ through his apostles and therefore the church is not free to change it. Ordination to the priesthood can only be conferred on a male."

The participants in the July 31 ceremony, Father Lengwin added, are ignoring church teaching. "I would say they have freely chosen to separate themselves from the church," he said.

Mrs. Houk is a cradle Catholic and mother of six. She has served as a pastoral director in two Kentucky parishes, worked on a marriage tribunal, taught catechism and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and worked with her husband, John, to prepare engaged couples for marriage.

"The church has to take a stand for women ... that they are the image of God and are to be respected and treated on an equal, human level. This is really why I have to do what I am doing," she said in a recent interview.

Presiding at the ceremony will be Patricia Fresen, Gisela Forster and Ida Raming, who live in Germany and are bishops in Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an international group of Catholics who support women's ordination.

The women claim they are part of the church's valid apostolic succession because Roman Catholic bishops in good standing ordained them secretly. The women refuse to name those bishops to protect them from reprisals by Vatican authorities in Rome.

Ms. Forster and Ms. Raming joined the "Danube Seven," a group of women ordained on the Danube River near Austria in August 2002.

In January 2003, all seven were excommunicated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The women appealed but the decision was affirmed.

Ms. Fresen belonged to an order of Dominican nuns for 45 years. But she left her order in 2004 after she was ordained a priest in Barcelona, Spain, in a secret ceremony. Since 2004, she has lived in a small village outside of Munich, Germany.

In Roman Catholic tradition, priests and deacons are ordained in churches, but the Roman Catholic Womenpriests' previous ceremonies were held aboard boats, on the Danube in 2002 and on the St. Lawrence Seaway near the Canada coast in August 2005.

"To be honest, the main reason is that no Catholic priest or bishop is brave enough to give us a church," Ms. Fresen said about the ceremonies on water.

A boat is one of the earliest Christian symbols of the church. "Jesus ... taught from a boat. Some of the earliest disciples were fishermen," she added.

One of the outspoken disciples in the women's ordination movement is Ruth Steinert Foote, a board member of the Women's Ordination Conference.

In March, Ms. Foote brought Ms. Fresen from Germany to the United States for six speaking engagements in the Midwest.

"Everywhere that we went, she was received joyfully and loved. She is a wonderful, holy and grace-filled woman. Patricia Fresen is the person that will change hearts," Ms. Foote said.

In a recent telephone interview from her home, Ms. Fresen said her religious order's struggle against apartheid when she lived in South Africa taught her "a great deal about how to fight against gender discrimination. For me, they are parallel."

Ms. Foote, an active member of a Catholic parish in Cincinnati, is a medical technologist and married to an Episcopal priest.

"This movement is not just about the ordination of women. It is about making the Roman Catholic Church a just institution. If women are made in the image and likeness of God, they have the same potential to be called by God that men do," she said.

Christine Schenk, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph and executive director of Future Church, which attempts to effect change within the church, will not openly support the ceremony in Pittsburgh, she said.

Last year, she attended the International Synod on the Eucharist in Rome.

"We took 35,000 signatures to Rome to petition for the ordination of married men and opening the diaconate to women. There was, much to my surprise, a very vigorous discussion about a married priesthood."

Last summer, Ms. Schenk attended the Roman Catholic Womenpriest ordinations in Canada because a friend of hers was among the candidates.

"I thought, if she had been ordained in the Methodist church, I would have gone. I have had a number of women Catholic friends who complete their master's of divinity and then are ordained in other faiths."

The Roman Catholic Church, Ms. Schenk added, has changed more than most people realize.

"Taking interest on a loan -- that used to be the gravest of sins. It was OK to have slaves. Some bishops fought to keep slaves. Eventually, church teaching changed on that. 'The Mass will always be in Latin,' [Pope] Pius XII said. Six years later, it was in English."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Dreams for the church

With 50 years as a priest behind him, retired Diocese of Austin bishop envisions Roman Catholicism for the future.

By Eileen E. Flynn AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Monday, June 05, 2006

Bishop John McCarthy writes everything down on neatly organized pieces of scrap paper: household tasks, phone messages and, on a recent morning, a list of his dreams for the Roman Catholic Church.

McCarthy is conscious of his life passing — at age 75, the days are precious — and of the possibilities he imagines for the institution to which he has given his life.

He's promoting reform in an institution famous for its resistance to change, taking public stands on controversial issues such as celibacy and divorce that have put him at odds, privately, with the Catholic hierarchy over the years.

He's known by friends and admirers, hundreds of whom helped him celebrate his 50th anniversary as a priest at a special Mass in Houston on Sunday, as a champion for the oppressed and a man unafraid to challenge authority.

But McCarthy, who led the Diocese of Austin from 1986 to 2001, believes he's merely offering loving criticisms, not throwing grenades from the safety of retirement.

A hopefulness lights his blue eyes when he talks about the church's worldwide growth, but there's worry on his face, too.

Because of the priest shortage and church law on marriage, McCarthy says, millions aren't receiving the Eucharist, the communion wafer that Catholics believe literally becomes the body of Christ during Mass.

He would like to see the church reconsider its rules on priestly celibacy and the denial of communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried. He envisions bishops becoming more accountable to lay people and establishing a vehicle for change through more frequent gatherings of Catholic leaders worldwide (much like the historic second Vatican council in the 1960s but on a smaller scale).

"Our goal ought to be a better world, a better world for Roman Catholics, a better world for Muslims, a better world for everybody," he said. "That's a tremendous challenge before us."

Six years into his retirement, McCarthy has eased into a quieter existence. He moves slowly, often feels tired and spends his days "reading, writing and telephoning" at his diocese-owned house, an airy Spanish-style mansion in Northwest Austin.

A simple coffin he bought years ago serves as a bookcase for his volumes of Irish folklore and literature, standing against a wall near the back door, useful even before its final purpose.

"You're going to die," he says. "You might as well be ready."

He approaches the decline of priests and the changing face of the church with a similar pragmatism.

In the past four decades, the number of priests serving in the United States has dropped from about 58,600 to about 43,300, while the American Catholic population has risen from 45.6 million to 64.3 million, according to church reports.

Before his retirement, McCarthy wrote letters to the Vatican and to his fellow U. S. and Texas bishops, urging them to confront what he saw as a looming crisis and to consider a possible solution: optional celibacy. These days, he wants to share his ideas with a broader audience.

McCarthy doesn't have a specific plan in mind, but he makes clear that he doesn't want to scrap the centuries-old tradition of priests abstaining from marriage and sexual intimacy.

Celibacy "has been a terrific gift in the life of the church for the last thousand years," said McCarthy, adding pointedly, "It was not dominant for the first thousand years."

In the 1980s, the church began making exceptions to the celibacy rule by allowing married Protestant ministers who have converted to Catholicism to serve as priests, but it has otherwise reaffirmed its stance on mandatory celibacy.

The lack of priests has left some parishes without a resident pastor and forced many to close or merge. The U. S. church frequently turns to foreign priests to meet its needs.

The most devastating consequence, McCarthy says, is that there are people who do not have access to the Eucharist because there are no priests to consecrate the wafer and wine.

"The priesthood and the Eucharist in the Catholic Church cannot be separated," he said, "and we cannot bring the Eucharist to people without priests. The present system of utilizing the priesthood has got to be examined."

But McCarthy has had little luck convincing church leaders. Fellow bishops and Vatican officials either ignored his letters or responded politely but did not pursue his suggestions.

Louise Haggett, founder and president of rentapriest. com, an organization that supports men who have left the priesthood to marry, says many bishops are afraid to challenge the rules. McCarthy, she says, is a rare example of someone "willing to make public his views on the rejuvenation of the church."

Friends say McCarthy has always spoken his mind while remaining, as longtime friend Pat Hayes says, "right down to his toes, a man of the church."

"His desire that in the church there's an open dialogue about things is rooted in a deep love for the church and faithfulness to the church," said Hayes, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Seton Healthcare Network and past president of St. Edward's University, a Catholic college in South Austin.

McCarthy, a native Houstonian, began his career in Pasadena, a blue-collar industrial town south of Houston. He served at several churches and began a steady ascent through the ranks, working for national church bodies in Washington and leading the Texas Catholic Conference in Austin.

All the while, says Patrick Flood, a former priest and Austin interfaith leader, McCarthy used his sharp tongue against the establishment.

When McCarthy was appointed head of the bishops' committee for Spanish-speaking Catholics, which was staffed by Anglos, he made sure his successor was Hispanic. In the 1960s and 1970s, he served the national church on social action issues, lobbying the government on open housing and voter rights.

Flood and McCarthy helped found the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a national church organization that provides millions of dollars in grants to grass-roots organizations serving poor communities.

In those tumultuous days, when social activism was a key component to church life, priests longed to offer a prophetic voice, and McCarthy fit that bill, Flood says.

When he became bishop of Austin, McCarthy met other challenges. The largely rural, 25-county diocese was poised for rapid growth. During his tenure, the Catholic population more than doubled.

McCarthy spent hours covering the diocese's 22,000 square miles, guiding some 200 priests and interacting with a diverse flock that included new Vietnamese immigrants and fifth-generation Anglo Texans.

Because the bishop's office wields so much power, he says, he could solve the problems he had time to address. As bishop, he said, "it was easier to make decisions."

But not all decisions were easy.

McCarthy took heat from the Vatican for allowing Brackenridge Hospital, run by Seton, to perform tubal ligations, which conflicts with church law on birth control. He also carried out the unpleasant task of asking Rome to defrock an abusive priest in 1987.

McCarthy says his approach in that case reflects his general philosophy on handling a problem: "Deal with it aggressively and as forcefully as you can immediately."

He says bishops could have stemmed the sexual abuse crisis by taking that attitude and trusting lay people with the truth instead of covering up the scandal, a lesson on accountability and transparency he hopes the church will heed.

Bishop Gregory Aymond generally avoids addressing McCarthy's views, but he speaks warmly of his predecessor. "We thank him for saying yes to God not only on the day of his ordination but for every day of 50 years," Aymond said.

Since his retirement, McCarthy has repeatedly said that the diocese needs only one bishop and has remained in the background. But as he scans his list of dreams scrawled on scrap paper, McCarthy says he's still moved by the needs of Catholics, including those alienated from the church because of divorce.

Millions can't receive the Eucharist because church policy bans Catholics who have divorced and remarried from taking communion, he says. He quickly adds that he doesn't want the church to turn a blind eye to "flippant" marriages and divorces or to alter its theology, which states that marriage is indissoluble unless deemed invalid by the church and that those who divorce and remarry commit adultery.

"But when the situation goes by for years and people who are believing Catholics who believe that the Eucharist contains the reality of Jesus' presence in their lives, to tell them they can't (receive communion) because of a terrible mistake they made 18 years ago," he said, "no, I don't hold it."

McCarthy knows how difficult it is to change a 2,000-year-old institution. "Substantial change will only occur when and if our holy father decides that substantial change is necessary," he said of the pope.

Convening councils of bishops worldwide every 10 years might provide a "comfortable, manageable vehicle" for reforms, McCarthy says.

The last such council, known as Vatican II, was in the 1960s. It lasted four years and resulted in major reforms, including accepting the validity of other Christian faiths and dropping the requirement for Mass to be celebrated in Latin.

McCarthy may not live to see the next major reforms of the church, but "the last of the progressive bishops," as Flood called him, is not discouraged.

He has faith that, given time, the church will make the reforms necessary to be "a servant to the world."

"I may be naive," he said, "but I think that we're moving into a time where we're beginning to see that."

eflynn@statesman.com; 445-3812

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Going to Church by Staying at Home

Clergy-Less Living Room Services Seen as a Growing Trend

By Michael Alison Chandler and Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 4, 2006; A12

After Sunday dinner at Joe Rodgers's Rockville home, guests adjourn to the living room for church.

In his makeshift chapel, wooden kitchen stools and a floral print couch act as pews, a portable keyboard substitutes for an organ and the host, an electronics technician by day, serves as pastor.

But just as there is no formal name or dress code for this church, there is no sermon or pastor-led prayer. When it came time to bow their heads on a recent May evening, each of the 10 adults in attendance had something to contribute: One man prayed for success with his new fitness program; another sought guidance as he prepared for his upcoming marriage.

The worshipers have different faith backgrounds, including evangelical, Episcopalian and Catholic. What they share is a dissatisfaction with traditional church services.

"You can't ask questions in most churches. You might make an appointment with the pastor, get in his daybook for a quick lunch," said Rodgers, 50.

A growing number of Christians across Washington and around the country are moving to home churches -- both as a way to create personal connections in the age of the megachurch and as a return to the blueprint of the Christian church spelled out in the New Testament, which describes Jesus and the apostles teaching small groups in people's homes.

Estimates vary widely for a movement that is by design informal and decentralized, but the consensus among home-churchers is that they are part of a growing trend.

George Barna, a religion pollster, estimates that since 2000, more than 20 million Americans have begun exploring alternative forms of worship, including home churches, workplace ministries and online faith communities. Barna based that figure on surveys of the religious practices and attitudes of American adults that he has conducted over the past 25 years.

"These are people who are less interested in attending church than in being the church," said Barna, who became a home-churcher last year. The alternatives are attractive to those who want to deepen their relationships with God and one another, and they also suit Americans' growing taste for flexibility and control of their schedules, he said.

Although many Christians still participate in their old churches while trying out a new one, Barna predicts that over the next two decades, traditional churches will lose half their "market share" to these alternative start-ups.

His estimates far exceed the best guesses of home-church networks. The Orlando-based Dawn Ministries places the number of home churches in the United States in the tens of thousands, based partly on the size of online directories and attendance at home-church conferences.

Home churches are usually nondenominational and consist of a dozen or so friends or family members who often meet without an ordained pastor.

They have historically proliferated in countries with repressive regimes. In China, millions of people have converted to Christianity in unauthorized home churches over the past half-century. But the United States has seen only intermittent swells of activity.

The free-form style of fellowship got a boost in this country during the 1960s and 1970s with the hippie Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Renewal, a worldwide movement best known for embracing speaking in tongues and other emotional expressions of faith. Those movements downplayed hierarchy and emphasized broad participation.

The more recent rise of home churches has been facilitated by the Internet, said John White, a Denver-based coordinator for Dawn Ministries, one of several organizations that helps plant new home churches.

White said that when he tired of the "endless" church administration meetings and quit his job as a Presbyterian minister to start a home church eight years ago, it was difficult to find anyone to join. Now he has an e-mail list of more than 800 people nationwide who receive his postings about practical issues of home churching -- addressing such matters as how to organize child-friendly services, how to handle tithing, and what to do if the church gets too big.

With more access to religious information online, people are realizing that they don't have to rely on a pastor with an advanced degree to lead them, White said. Instead, they can learn how to create an alternative in a few steps. The result is an overall "flattening of the church," White said.

This is in keeping with God's plan to have a "kingdom of priests" in which everyone participates in his or her religious life, he said.

With next to no overhead, home churches are easy to set up. Dawn Ministries has been sending missionaries, or "coaches," to establish home churches around the world since 1985 and now has about 2,000 volunteers working in about 150 countries.

The model has been less successful in the United States -- until recently. Responding to the growing interest in home churches, over the past year the organization has increased the number of coaches working in North America from about five to 70, mostly in the Midwest, California, Texas and Colorado.

Critics of the home-church movement warn that, by meeting only in small groups with lay leaders, Christians could become disconnected and stray from orthodox beliefs.

"We human beings are prone to error; we need each other," said Scott Kisker, an associate professor of evangelism at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. He said that even the early home-based churches were connected through the apostles and that "many books of the New Testament are letters from the apostles calling churches to more faithful doctrine."

But Kisker said that a growing home-church movement could be good for traditional churches by encouraging them to foster small breakout groups, something he agreed is necessary for people to feel connected.

Many traditional churches do have midweek Bible study groups or cell churches. For some, these can be a first taste of home church, said Greg Windsor, a real estate developer and a member of the Rockville congregation that meets in Rodgers's home.

Windsor, 48, became interested in home churching almost 10 years ago while he was attending a megachurch in Montgomery County.

"The person sitting next to you in the pew could be close to dying, but people don't really know one another," he said. By abandoning the steeple, the pastor and the crowds of people, Windsor said, his tiny congregation is trying to live according to the New Testament.

"A lot of embellishments happened over the centuries," Windsor said. The modern Christian church is "like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy," he said. "It starts getting distorted and changed."

Windsor and his wife started reading about home churches and broke off from a bigger church to meet with a group in northern Maryland. After several years, that group grew too large -- about 30 people -- and the couple broke off again, starting the home church in Rockville.

Stripped to its most basic elements, he said, his group can focus on developing "deep friendships" and "helping one another grow spiritually."

The service changes from week to week, depending on what members are going through or thinking about; they might organize a Bible study or discussion around managing their finances or overcoming depression.

On a recent Sunday, they watched a film by Focus on the Family that chronicles the lives of early Christians and their attempts to convert the Greeks. Afterward, they talked about how those experiences compare with challenges in spreading the faith today.

They sang hymns and put money into a small cardboard box, to be donated to homeless programs and victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. As the Communion bread and wine were passed around the circle, music played while others swayed and whispered "Oh God" and "Merciful God."

By about 9 p.m., it was time to go home. But Windsor said church does not end when the service is over. Members might meet several times during the week, and church can continue over coffee at Starbucks or during a biblical discussion at a family barbecue.

For them, church is not tied to a building or confined to a couple hours a week, he said. "It's a way of life."