Monday, February 16, 2015

Pope Francis, the Spirit of Herod, and What's Important

My Car is Under There
Recently while conversing with someone a heavy sadness came upon me that I couldn't shake.  The person mentioned to me various factions and power struggles that exist among the clergy.  It is that ugly side of the Church where politics, ideology, and careerism fester and bring with them the poisons of gossip, cynicism, and rivalry.  I've done my share of these things, so I'm not setting myself above anybody else.  But, I was really struck by how empty and sad the whole conversation left me.  

In contrast to this experience was the peaceful joy that I've experienced during the past 24 hours at the BU Catholic Center.  For the past month, Boston has had one or two major snowstorms a week.  Last night and today a blizzard dropped another foot of snow on the 75 inches of snow already piled up around the city!  Because today is Sunday, I decided that I would camp out at the Catholic Center last night so that I could be here today for Masses.  Yesterday morning I went shopping, bought food, and then cooked dinner for a few students last night.  We leisurely ate dinner and conversed about all sorts of topics.  After dinner, one of our interns arrived so that he too could be here for everything that was happening on Sunday.  After dinner, we hung out and watched a movie.

This morning, after a healthy breakfast of bacon and eggs, we opened up and welcomed a group of students who are part of the retreat planning team.  Today was our last meeting before the retreat next weekend.  The whole team showed up for the 10am meeting (pretty good for a Sunday morning on a college campus), walking through what the news is calling "a snow hurricane."  After the meeting, we all went over to our first Sunday Mass of the day where approximately 75 students attended.  I was edified that these kids made the effort.  They're living in a culture that doesn't place much emphasis at all on worshipping God, so it is impressive to me that they fought the elements and came to Mass.  (Obviously, there were people who couldn't get to Mass today because of the weather.  I'm not suggesting that they should have come.  I'm just saying that I'm impressed by the commitment of these young people).

After Mass, about twenty or so students participated in a couple of hours of prayer that included Adoration and Benediction.  Throughout the day, I've had the opportunity to hear confessions.  Right now, as I'm sitting in the warmth of my office, I hear two sounds.  One is the hurricane force winds that are whipping across the Charles River.  The other sound is that of shovels digging out our parking area.  A group of students are charitably and joyfully making it possible for me to get out of here and go home tonight.  (I just heard one of them yell, "Union Break!")

In all of this (despite the fact that I despise winter more and more), my heart was filled with a tranquil joy.  In my experience with them during the past twenty-four hours, my heart has been moved toward Christ and toward a greater love for the Church.  In our approach to the Church, we often emphasize what is of little consequence and we become dismissive of what is at the heart of the Church and at the heart of the Gospel.  Priests (of whom I am one!) are often the worst offenders.  We sometimes place way too much emphasis on what happens in diocesan and Vatican offices and in the power struggles--local and universal--that exist within the Church. The more priests act like this--even if the people don't see it--the more "important" these things become.  But, in reality, these things are not ultimately what's important in the life of the Church.

Here, I can only speak of my experience.  What saves my priesthood on a daily basis and what saves my Catholic life is all of the seemingly "unimportant" stuff. It's seeing Facebook posts by other college chaplains that I know who are being a father to their students.  It's seeing brother priests who banter back and forth on Facebook with their parishioners.  It's in living close to lay people who live the Catholic life in the midst of the world.  It's having a meal, watching a movie, shoveling (or today, watching other people shovel!), or joking around with the kids at the Catholic Center.  It's hearing the words, "Hey Padre."  What attaches me more to the Church and to Christ is the experience of living the Catholic life close to others.  We speak a lot these days about evangelization, but I always feel that I need firstly to speak about how I am evangelized.  I come face to face with the joy of the Gospel in and through the encounter with other disciples.  I am evangelized daily through the encounter with those with whom I live and work.  They awaken within me the newness of life in Christ and, through their companionship, they strengthen my attachment to Christ and to His Church.

In St. Matthew's Gospel, we are told that the Magi, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, "went home by a different route."  In other words, instead of confronting Herod on his own turf, they simply went around him.  There is a temptation in the life of the Church to fight against ecclesiastical politics by using . . . ecclesiastical politics.  The Magi, however, show us a different way.  They went home by a different route.  Herod's power was minimized by the Magi's decision to go home by means of a different road.  

Among the things that I think Pope Francis is trying to accomplish in the life of the Church is to circumvent the spirit of Herod.  In his emphasis on reaching out to the peripheries, the Holy Father is saying that what matters most is not what happens in the palace of Herod, but what happens in the "unimportant" places.  It's what happened at a well in Samaria that is important. It's what happened at Peter's house in Capernaum that's important. It's what happened to a leper who approached Jesus that's important.  It's what happens in parish churches, Newman Centers, prisons, hospitals, and homeless shelters that's important.  It is in these places that Christ is encountered and the joy of the Gospel is experienced.

So many blogs and commentaries on the life of the Church focus on Church politics.  But does talking about these things draw people closer to the Church and to Christ?  When we focus too much on Church politics (of which there is plenty), we make Church politics important.  Instead, we ought to act like the Magi and go home by a different way.  In the new life of the Gospel, Herod' palace is of no significance.  What is of central importance is encountering Christ in and through the life of the Church.  

Herod's palace is a place filled with emptiness.  If we take the road to Herod's palace, we too become empty.  The other route--the route of encounter--fills us with the joy of the Gospel.  This is the road that saves me.


  1. I agree, for what my opinion matters,...but, what you term " church politics" may be very necessary also. When. Cardinals, bishops, and priests overlook actual scandalous statements from high ranking prelates, then that must be countered with conviction. And do you honestly believe that you r local diocesan newspaper will print it if you write a letter to the editor? And isn't this duck and run habit what cost many diocese s to go bankrupt ? I love your blog. Father, but, we must also be wary of wolves in sheep clothing,do we not?.

  2. Good post, Father. You know what saves me? Priests who pray. I love to see a priest reading his brievary in church. How about walking while praying the Rosary! Better than seeing Father in prayer is the look on the parishioners faces when they see Father, and smile to themselves.