Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Making the Good News Bad News

Jean Jacques Olier (1608-1657) founder
of the Sulpicians, valiant foe of Jansenism
Two stories.  Both sad.
Neil Hope had  been picked up off the streets of Toronto at age 10 to play a character in a television special: The Kids of Digrassi Street.  It turned out to be a pilot for another show—Digrassi Junior High—and its sequel, Digrassi High. Mr. Hope played Derek “Wheels” Wheeler.  It didn’t take much imagination to play the part—“Wheels’” life was not that much different from Neil’s.  Both the character and the actor were children of alcoholic parents.  Both would become alcoholics themselves.  Neither had much of a family life.  Neither was to find a niche in society where they could become the “human person fully alive” that Iranaeus says is God’s Truest Glory.  For Neil Hope, the career in television offered an escape from the pain of his day-to-day real life.  He never really benefitted from it in any way.  His parents drank most of the money he made.  He was never prepared for life after television and a career beyond acting.  When Degrassi High went off the air, Mr. Hope was 19.  He went on to operate a fork-lift, to sell furniture, and to work at a pizza shop.  He did have one final contribution to make—one that hopefully was heard by kids like him—and that was that he had an opportunity to say in a documentary to other children of substance abusers: “It’s nothing to be ashamed of because it’s not your fault.”  I only hope that Mr. Hope believed this himself, but from his life story it seems he was preaching a gospel he could not himself take to heart.  Mr. Hope died November 25, 2007 alone, in a rooming house in Hamilton Ontario.  Friends or family were unknown, his body remained unclaimed and he was buried four months later in a pauper’s grave.  It was only at the end of this past year, four years after his death, that his siblings learned that he had died. 
       Another story. Also about a death.  This past Saturday, February 25, a priest, Marcel Guarnizo, the parochial vicar of Saint John Neumann Church in Gaithersburg Maryland denied communion to Barbara Johnson at her mother’s funeral, telling Ms. Johnson: “I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman and that is a sin according to the Church.”  He then left the altar during the eulogy Ms. Johnson gave for her mother.  (How she found the strength to get up and speak after this incident, I cannot imagine.)  He also refused to accompany the funeral to the graveside, pleading ill health.   
     The priest justified his refusal to give communion under canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church.  The canon states: "Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.Ms. Johnson is not excommunicate nor interdicted, so she is, in Guarnizo’s opinion “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin”  She may well be.  I don’t know her.  Granted she “lives with a woman” but there is no sin in sharing a domicile and while I might be inclined to make a judgment, I do not know the particularities of their relationship.  Guarnizo must know the details, to make that call, though he cannot know them in the sacrament of Penance as he would be unable to act on the knowledge if he did.  (A priest can give no outward indication of any knowledge gained in the confessional.)  I don’t think so, but Guarnizo might have been right to act as he did.  That isn’t going to be my point.
      My point is this.  We have some real issues in the world today.  There are a lot of tragic stories about lonely people—people with all sorts of heartbreak, dysfunction, pain.  Christ continues to be crucified in member after member of his Body.  I was touched, no actually disturbed, by the story of Neil Hope.  I know Michael, a guy who comes to my door for food handouts—severely bipolar, becoming schizophrenic, a street person.  His family wouldn’t let him go to his grandmother’s funeral last week because they are embarrassed by him.  Like most street people he doesn’t smell so great.  His clothes are shabby and rarely clean.  Michael would have had a place to live and be cared for before Ronald Reagan closed the mental hospitals back in the ‘80’s, but that is another story.  Michael will end up one day like Neil Hope, an unclaimed and unmourned corpse.    How many people in our world are there who need to receive the “Good News?”  How many are there who are anxious to hear the message that God loves them.  How many are just waiting for that message?  Well, they won’t find it in every Catholic Church, that’s clear thanks to Marcel Guarnizo. 
     But day by day we Catholics seem more and more to be two churches.  You have priests like this guy (you will notice that I just can’t bring myself to call him “Father”) from Gaithersburg who is anxious to discipline and scold.  And you have Catholics who want to bring people to the Church—or bring the Church to people—to hear the message of God’s love.  I am not talking happy-clappy Christianity and clown Masses. I don’t have time for that nonsense.  Nor am I talking cheap love or as Dietrich Bonhoffer called it “cheap Grace”—but real love, hanging on the cross love.  That is the love the Neil Hope needed to have made a difference in his life and he never heard it because we, as Church, were not there to speak it.  That is the love that Barbara Johnson needed to hear at her mother’s funeral, but it is a gospel that some priests just don’t know.  She was unfortunate to get one of the priests who never heard that message himself.  And it is the most famous passage in the New Testament!  God so loved the world, Saint John tells us, that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  God did not sent his son to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.  Get with it Catholics. 
     I saw an article by a Father Jerome Magat in The Herald, the Newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.  Father stated in his article that the central message of Jesus is “Repent.”  Father obviously never had a course in the Gospels during his seminary years.  Yes, “Repent” is a message that Jesus preached occasionally in the Gospels, but it is not his central message.  No scripture scholar would say that.  Jesus’ central message is the Good News (Gospel, in Greek Evangelion—the announcement of a victory) of the Kingdom of God.  Jansenism is alive and well and flourishing among a certain set of clergy today.  Priests like Marcel Guarnizo get cheered on by their local bloggers—Restore DC Catholicism, An Archdiocese of Washington DC Catholic—and will probably be picked up by Michael Voris and other national scene people in the next week.  This style of Catholicism appeals to many.  On the other hand, there are Catholic sources like Father Barron’s Word on Fire that give us a more balanced approach to the faith.  (Listen to his Sermon 581: “Jesus Among the Angels and Beasts.”)  So shall we, as Church, be bearers of the Good News or the Bad News: the Good News of God’s Mercy or the Bad News of condemnation by the pharisees?  When it comes to Marcel Guarnizo and Father Magat and Michael Voris and the various blogs that push this sort of distorted Catholicism, I think only of Jean Jacques Olier’s (1608-1657, the founder of the Sulpicians)  description of such Catholics in his day: “they devour the heart of charity by which the Church lives.”

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