Monday, May 14, 2012

The Times They Are a Changin'

Sister Mary Spano, an American
Religious Sister working in Haiti
Years ago when I was living in Rome finishing my doctorate I volunteered one afternoon a week at a soup kitchen run by a phenomenal group of committed Catholic laity called the Community of Sant’ Egidio.  Four days a week they served approximately 1500 meals to the poor of Rome.  The place was a madhouse as the lines to get in snaked down the street and it was our task to serve the meals—excellent meals prepared by the kitchens of Al Italia, the Italian airline---to the crowds in a room that seated about 150.  You had to keep moving people through.  Get them in, get them seated, get the food in front of them, and then move them out to make room for those waiting to be next.  The room was noisy and brightly lit and the narrow aisles between the tables congested with people trying to find a place to sit and eat and volunteers trying to deliver the dinners.  One afternoon amid the chaos arrived Cardinal Josef Glemp, at the time the Archbishop of Warsaw in Poland.  These were the peak days of the John Paul pontificate and Glemp was a powerful figure in Rome as well as at home in Poland.  He had a huge retinue—several bishops, a half dozen monsignori, and a band of priests.  They had come to see the soup kitchen but spectators were the last thing needed—there was no room as it was and the servers couldn’t negotiate their way around the phalanx of dignitaries and the whole work began to congeal and grind to a halt.  An older Spanish nun in her gray habit and veil pushed through to the Cardinal and with her hands on her hips and looking him straight in the eye demanded: “have you come here to serve?”  (In Italian it would mean “have you come to wait on tables.”)  The Cardinal was startled by the question and jumping back a bit, said “no, of course not.”  Then she said with disgust:  “That’s too bad; The Son of Man has come to serve not to be served.” And with a contemptuous gesture she turned her back on him and started ordering people out of the way to make room for the waiters.     Another prelate might have put on an apron and gone to work but His Eminence’s visit was a short one and the entourage was soon speeding away in their black Vatican Mercedes from the lines of the poor waiting to be fed. 
     Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote in his book on Catholicism that the first millennium of the papacy was about witness; the second about power; and the third will be about service.  I think one could expand this insight from papacy to the Church as a whole.  The first thousand years were the years of great witness as the Gospel spread through the then-known world.  The second millennium was the consolidation of power—political, social, and economic—of the Church.  Hopefully we are on the cusp of the millennium of Service in which the Church will focus on how it can put itself, its personnel, and its resources (spiritual and temporal) at the betterment of humankind.  But this shift in the Church’s tectonic plates is frightening to those who know only what has been and cannot see the mission ahead.  When someone like our friend Raymond Burke has waited for years to get his red cape with the nine yards of scarlet silk and ermine trim and now sees that the new tune is about waiting on the tables of the poor—it scares him to the core.  And this isn’t just for the boys who buy their glad rags at Gamarelli’s (or as one campy Monsignor friend in Rome calls it “Glamorrelli’s”), but for the newly ordained parochial vicar in Gaithersburg or Madison (or your town or mine) who wears his collar and cuffs clerical vest and six hundred dollar black suit.  I was invited to lunch in one rectory in the Diocese of Arlington recently.  It was a spontaneous invitation—I had been to a funeral and when the pastor heard I was a Latinist he asked me to look at some books he had bought and help identify them—but the lunch was fabulous—soup, salad, entrée, desert—all served on Lennox China on top of a damask table cloth with matching napkins.  There was a good White Burgundy (from France) in Czech crystal goblets.  This wasn’t over the top and given the neighborhood of the parish was not ostentatious display but it does bespeak a model of priesthood which is oriented towards privilege. 
     I think that is really what the attack on LCWR and so many other areas of tension in the Church are about.  In the days of large motherhouses with polished floors and silver candlesticks on the altar, in the days when a white-veiled novice brought Reverend Mother her tea and cookies on a silver tray every afternoon at four,  in the days when the Sisters taught piano in the parlor to little girls scrubbed pink and in organza dresses,  in the days when the Sisters had to be picked up and driven to a funeral or a meeting with the bishop—it all bespoke hierarchy, good order, and a world in which the Church had power.   The Nuns Story, Sound of Music, and Trouble with Angels, anchored a certain view of Church into the minds not only of Catholics but of the general public.  The “nuns” were the public relations success of the Church.  Today’s nuns, on the other hand, wearing jeans and sweat-shirts, getting their hands dirty at work in women’s shelters,  speaking up in advocacy for abused women and children, and not taking s*** from no one—even the men in expensive black suits and high starched collars—are a sign that the days of Father Chuck Bing Crosby O’Malley and Sister Mary Ingrid Bergman Benedict are over.  That may be a pity but the times they are a changin’ and Saint Mary’s has done lost its bells (and belles).  So get used to it and put on your big-boy pants get busy on turning the model around from power and hierarchy to service and preferential option for the poor.

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