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Friday, May 10, 2013

Viri Galilei (part one?)

I keep wondering why the North American Forum on the Catechumenate has been unable to sustain the kind of impetus and financial energy that would make growth and success possible. What, if anything, did we do wrong? Some see it as a symbol of the decline of participation in religion and therefore of the financial strain imposed on all kinds of non-profits. Money is also still short in the wake of the US financial crisis of the past few years.
"We are seeing national lay organizations close due to lack of funds, among other things," said Marti Jewell, assistant professor at the University of Dallas' School of Ministry. "This is a concern as we are in an era when lay ministry is the lifeblood of our dioceses."
Lay ministries are less valued than clerical ministries and receive less diocesan support, said Christopher Anderson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Lay Ministry. Formerly standalone parish offices such as lay formation, religious education and youth ministry are now being consolidated. Many parishes and dioceses have implemented no-travel rules, meaning lay leaders can no longer attend conferences that were once routine." (NCR Online, May 8, 2013, "Lack of Funding Causes Lay-Run RCIA Ministry Organization to Dissolve")
The ramped-up rhetoric to tax non-profits in the USA seems to be a direct result of the disfavor in which churches find ourselves in the wake of financial scandal and the sex abuse and cover-up scandal in the Catholic church. Church pundits blame such bogeymen as "creeping secularism" and anti-Catholic bias, but I would actually call it "health" or common sense. If religion presents a sense of entitlement to contributed funds for ministers' personal or political use, and abets the abuse of children and protection of their abusers by bishops and chancery personnel, then secularism, if not atheism, seems like a good choice. What claim does the gospel have upon the money of the church and wider community, money which in most cases represents (as wages) the little time people have to spend on earth, when it is used in such ungodly ways? How can people inside and outside the church trust us (the church) with great things (their vision, time, and hope) when we have made such a mess of smaller things (their money)? 

A piece on ABC news's website (A Plague on Both Their Houses) yesterday tried to think through the mess of decline in enrollment in churches with the growth of neo-pentecostal churches in the southern hemisphere. It noted that 
"the popularity of these churches is related to the way in which Christianity is linked to access to power. People are drawn to the neo-Pentecostal movement because they believe that their participation will result in some tangible results: financial success, health, successful marriage and so on."
If that is the message they (and, let's face it, we) are sending with our preaching, then it might be better if our numbers dwindled to nothing, because there is a sense that we have lost the gospel.

Another article described reaction to a Chicago government initiative to make larger non-profits pay for the use of city water, a move that would have been unthinkable a generation (or an election) ago. 
The majority of Chicago's non-profit organizations will have to start paying for water after Mayor Rahm Emanuel's revised legislation passed in city council Wednesday.
Churches and non-profits with assets under $1 million will remain exempt, but, groups with assets between $1 million and $10 million are eligible for 60-percent exemption. (Fox News Chicago, 5/8/13)
I have been reading Eighty Days, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World lately. What is apropos of my thoughts this morning is a sidebar to the story, about the attempt to get the money raised to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which was to be a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States at the Centennial. An arm from the statue was on display at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876, but for years, Congress refused to raise the money to have a pedestal build in the harbor. The arm of Liberty came to New York then, and was placed in Central Park, where it remained for seven years while public funds could not be raised. It was then, finally, that Joseph Pulitzer, the editor of the World, the New York newspaper for which Nellie Bly was working, "issued a personal appeal for funds in the pages of the World. From the paper's working-class readers, many of them immigrants, came pennies, nickels, sometimes dollars. Within five months the $100,000 was raised—80 percent of it from donations of less than a dollar..." 

In the church, we're supposed to know this already. We're supposed to know that big things are accomplished by little people who stick together. Solidarity and consensus isn't a shortcut to success. It's the only path that works for everybody.

Forum has always taught that the very nature of the church is rebirth in the Spirit of God, enabled by the Spirit's work in awakening hearts to a gospel message of conversion from self-preservation, greed, and violence, and toward a common life of mutual service. We are reborn through the sacraments of Christian initiation into a new person. We become Christ. Together. We live no more for ourselves, but for each other, and, in a particular way, for those who have not found their way yet, or who have (perceived) obstacles of poverty, disease, ignorance or stigma between them and gospel life. It occurs to me that maybe we're losing the North American Forum on the Catechumenate because we're saying the right things. The goal of church is not power, but service; not fortification but mission. Some of us don't really believe that. We still want the white-horsed Messiah-king who will make those not like us bend to his will. We don't want a church of sinners, struggling to make sense of paschal life serving one another. We want butts in the pews, especially butts with wallets in them.

How are we in the church to be saved from the impotence of shame, the isolation of fear, the paralysis of self-doubt? It seems to me that the very nature of who we are as church is the answer. This is not our mission, it is God's mission. This is not our life, it is the Spirit of God who breathes in us. It is no longer we who live, in fact, it is Christ who lives in us. The "we" is salvation. Whenever we are immobilized by our sinfulness there has clearly been a loss of vision, a looking-inward instead of moving-outward, a desire to build ourselves up, rather than, in the image of Christ and the paschal God, a reaching-down God who "does not cling to godliness," who washes feet, and does not accumulate riches or demand sacrifice and salaam.

What we might need is a two-pronged movement forward. One is of prayer, penitential prayer, prayer that laments our loss of vision, our sinful actions, and again proclaims "kyrie, eleison", that God is God, the Christ the servant is Lord, and that our ways are dust and ashes. Then a movement outward, without demand for remuneration or status, to serve the needy, to heal, to look for need and put our myriad gifts to its service, which is what we were born (again) to do. We need to stop looking for upward movement, and learn to be like God again, and bend down to give breath to, embrace, and rescue all who are "below."
Why stand staring at what has gone before?
Don't get lost in things of the past.
I, says he, will begin something new.
It's beginning already.
Haven't you heard?
(Huub Oosterhuis, "Why Stand Staring?" Gooi en Sticht, 1967, Netherlands)

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