Before my week was over at Chautauqua Institute, I had the chance to attend a number of Masses and hear homilies from the perspective of the American Catholic Church, at least from some individual priests. What a 90-year-old priest said impressed me.
Referring to last Sunday’s gospel on the Good Samaritan, the definitive parable on loving one’s neighbor in deeds and not in words, he referred to the current debate on Immigration that is roiling through the US House of Representatives. He reminded the churchgoers that immigrants were the poor, those in need, people who lead less than human lives because of utter want and a criminal absence of opportunities to rise above their circumstances. If their neighbors do not help, they and their progeny will be condemned to be a dehumanized underclass, all the more ironic and tragic in a world where the rich get richer. This point touched on the week’s debates at the Chautauqua Institute regarding a world of the poor, separating and dividing from the rich at a fast and perilous pace that will be destructive to human institutions and civilization itself. As it recurred in the lectures and dialogues taking place that week, the question of the rich getting richer and the poor poorer as well as the Immigration issue finally boils down to morals – what is right and what is wrong that makes things unequal and unbalanced. Human beings must respect their fellows no matter how different, how deprived, how strange they may seem because of the chasms that divide them in terms of resources – education, health, good prospects, etc. And that must be demonstrated by deeds, by seeing their needs and helping them to satisfy them. The priest in his homily did not specify what the US should do about the immigrants that press to come into their society by any means, only that their answer or solution should be within the perspective that puts morality into the equation.
In his next homily, this priest who has taught Theology for 37 years talked about the new pope. He said that by choosing the name Francis, he has specified the direction he would lead the Church to take – like that of Francis of Assisi, identifying and living as the poor do. Too long has the Church made itself into the Establishment and identified with the rest of that class, close to the rich and better off compared to the larger mass of the poor.
As he pointed out, Pope Francis has done away with palatial apartments, ultra hierarchical embellishments in clothes and amenities (no Popemobile on his current visit to Argentina). He has noted as we all have the Florentine character of the Vatican Secretariat or governance that reeks of materialism, chicanery and hypocrisy and is trying to reform it. He has also signaled that Pope John XXXIII, who initiated Vatican II, to open the windows in the Church, must be fast-tracked to sainthood as against paths to sainthood by others that are being fast-tracked with money, an unpalatable truth in the Church lately.
Yes, the homilist admitted, the Catholic Church is in perilous waters. It has to change and be honest with itself and its members. It must humble itself. He also said that more scandals and mistakes will come to light as Pope Francis in taking the side of the poor tries to put in reforms. He counseled the congregation to watch and wait like the apostles at Gethsemane.
I felt this was an appropriate and welcome message but I had one question which I put to him later: Why did Pope Francis agree with the results of the previous pope’s order to investigate and censure the American nuns because they directed their actions towards helping the poor rather than engaging the debate of family planning? It was a disappointment to hear that and it seemed precipitate to decide without further study. He answered by saying that it was not to be taken as a final decision of the Pope but an oversight or accident. He implied that interested parties put documents hurriedly for the Pope to sign right after his investiture. This priest whose name I will not reveal lest some bishop take umbrage, stated that in fact some mistakes in appointments have already been made which in time will be exposed and corrected, the positive way to deal with them. Again, he counseled to watch and wait and to pray, to keep the Faith, in spite of the errors and fallacies that have brought the Church to its current crisis. I will with the hope that Pope Francis with his compassion and regard for the poor will show us soon in meaningful change how to be Good Samaritans.