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Friday, March 15, 2013

Will the new pope join the universal church?

Habemus papam! A fellow Companion of Jesus no less. Francis I, S.J.

He seems to be a man who understands the ravages of poverty and the obscenity of unrestrained capitalism and of a political-economy that only focuses on financial wealth, not social, civic, intellectual, environmental, spiritual wealth. He also seems to be a man of humility recognizing his own weaknesses and mistakes and so in solidarity with the rest of us. So I have hope.

When my brother-in-law saw that a Jesuit was Pope, he, knowing my Jesuit background, joked to me "I thought you had to be a Catholic to be Pope." Well I also pray that Francis encourage the Roman Catholic leadership and congregations to become a part of the Universal Church--the all-inclusive assembly or ecclesia. Many of us who were bred in the Catholic tradition would welcome this.

I learned in catechism that the marks of the Church are one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. At the present many RC bishops, priests, and congregations (not all!) have left the universal Church in favor of a more narrow, exclusive, sectarian, divisive, and even cruel institution. And we want you back.


There is no unity without diversity. To be one does not mean saying or believing exactly the same thing. It is the diversity of opinions, viewpoints, beliefs, hypotheses and theories that is the condition for communication and community.

This is not to neglect the importance of working out principles, creeds, and beliefs. As a facilitator of strategic plans for community, business, and education organizations, I know the importance of bringing all stakeholders together and, after assessing the changing environment and the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, to develop common mission, vision, and goal statements in order to build the unity and commitment in and to the organization. Part of the unity of a community is the participative development of constitutions and charters. But this is an ongoing exercise.  It is not the statements or words that unite but the relationship building of the interaction.

An organization becomes a community, a communal unity, when it listens and struggles and tries to accommodate differences in one another in response to changing environments. Unity is more in the intentionality than in any set of statements, beliefs, or practices. The Church is One when it is is the continual, dialectical process of creating common ground.


To be holy is to be whole. This means to live, act, and be with integrity. A spirituality of integrity is an existential stance towards oneself, others, and the world, a stance of total oneness with all that is, was, and will be. It is a consciousness of connection with everybody and everything and with the universe as a whole including the earth and all creatures of the earth.

A spirituality of integrity is, as I have said elsewhere, integrates the "creation spirituality" of St. Francis and Mark, with the "incarnation spirituality" of St. Dominic and John, and the "resurrection spirituality" of St. Ignatius and Luke/Paul.

Jesus, like other great spiritual leaders, fought against the "purity" definition of holiness that divided us lepers and prostitutes, menial workers and slum dwellers from the elite of society. To be holy, to be spiritual is to be united with creation, grounded in matter, and transforming towards justice.

And, yes, here is where social justice fits in. Some have rightly said that a mark of the Universal Church is its intention towards social justice. And I think they are right on target. Social justice is integrity in action. The Church is Holy when it is seeking and practicing integrity in the world.


Universal is how you translate "catholic." Universality means inclusive, open and welcoming of all, inviting anyone and all to break bread at the table unconditionally and equally without regard to wealth, age, race, education, sex, sexual orientation, livelihood, past history, culture, belief system, politics. There was only one sign of the church for the early companions of Jesus "see how they love one another." Unrestricted, unrewarded, undeserved love where persons are honored as creative agents, not as passive objects is what makes the ecclesia universal.

An institution that excludes people from the hospitality of the table because they do not hold the same beliefs does not image the universal church. An institution that treats some people as lower class does not image the universal church. An institution that condemns teachers as heretics because they explore new ways of thinking and speaking does not image the universal church. An institution that treats women or persons of color or of different sexual orientation as inferior does not image the universal church. An institution that allows the ravage of the earth and the consumption of its resources does not image the universal church. An institution that denies that there are many paths to the fullness of human development does not image the universal church. An institution that claims exclusive avenue to the truth or immunity from error does not image the universal church. An institution that denies and covers up the cruelty of its leadership does not image the universal church.  Such an institution also falls short of integrity or holiness, of unity in diversity, and of connection to its founding moments.


Apostolic means connected to the time and person of Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to mean choosing Christianity over against other faith traditions and therefore to violate the other characteristics of universality, integrity, and unity.

But not so for those who have come to know who Jesus really was and is for so many. Not for those of us who still consider ourselves as "companions of Jesus," sojourners, seekers, wayfarers, still searching with others as we make our paths.

Jesus probably was such a sojourner without many possessions or a permanent home. He was on the road, not getting stuck in any place, not giving allegiance to any political or religious institution, questioning and reinterpreting all that was said before. That made him a threatening person to the established state and religion (as was Socrates and the Buddha). He clearly identified with the poor  and disempowered (women and slaves) over against rich and powerful patrons. The answer, as always, was to get rid of him and then make him an icon of the establishment building a monument to his memory.

If the Christian church is apostolic, it is that Jesus before Christianity whom it recalls. Not as a separation from other spiritual traditions but in union with their founding moments. Jesus before Christianity is the connection to the spirit of innovation and creation in all of us no matter what language we speak, culture we inherit, or religion we practice. Even for those of us who do not consider ourselves as exclusively Christian or even religious believers.

Pilgrim Church

We are all in via. We are all seeking unity, integrity, universality, and faithfulness to our foundations. We are all in the process of developing the universal church, ecclesia, gathering, congregation, synagogue, ummah, assembly, sangha. We are not yet there. We are not the church triumphant nor will we ever be.

We are the pilgrim church, a struggling people in search for the unity of infinity, the spirituality of integrity, the universality of unrestricted love, the connection with the foundation that makes us whole with ourselves, each other, and the universe. And yet we are here and now in our own congregations and communities that take on the marks of unity, integrity, openness, connectedness.  Here and now we are committed to keep questioning, keep looking, keep opening to the new, keep inviting strangers, never judging, never excluding, never dismissing, never demeaning. It is not a juridical order or a set of beliefs that make us part of the universal assembly. It is the joining of minds and conversations along our ways.

But even pilgrims sometimes burn witches and heretics. Narrow triumphalism and fear of aliens overcome our universalism.  It's when we have it all that we have nothing. It's when we know the infinite that we are ignorant. It's when we find the only way that we lose it.

I hope and pray that Francis I will lead RC leaders and congregations back into communion with the universal, seeking, pilgrim church. But to do this he has to humbly admit that many of his following have wandered from the unity, wholeness, universality, and inspiration that Jesus and some of his earliest companions were seeking. He has to ask for forgiveness for the complicity of the institution he now directs with oppressive regimes, with the rejection of science, with the subjugation of women, with the destruction of the earth, with anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, with colonialism, and above all with policies that maintain people in poverty. Here he has a rich history in Catholic Social Teaching to draw upon.

And that's no Papal Bull.

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