A Vocation Lived to Challenge and Support
There are two sides to the coin: challenge and support. This is how I understand, at least in some part, my vocation as a religious in the Church is to both challenge and support the community that I have come to love and associate with the Body of Christ seeking to proclaim the Kingdom of God — no easy task. What is particularly difficult, I should note right away, is striking the balance between the two.
Oftentimes there are those who wish to do nothing but challenge the community. This type of person primarily sees the flaws in structure or governance and has lost sight of the fact that the Church is not an end in itself, but a community of human beings striving to actualize Gospel life in the world. The exclusive challenger is one who does nothing the build up the Body, but acts only to tear it down. It is sad and unfortunate, such behavior strikes me as disappointingly pessimistic.
On the other hand, there is an equally if opposite incomplete approach to the Christian community: the blind supporter. This type of person expresses acknowledgement of no flaws in the community, its leadership or the public expressions of faith and disciplines of the Church. Every aspect of his or her experience or perception of the Church is exalted, resulting in a tireless effort to defend all actions and words stemming from the community composed of imperfect and finite persons striving to follow Christ in the world. The ‘Church can do no wrong’ in this worldview.
Both of these approaches are inherently problematic because their equally myopic outlook limits a fuller appreciation for the complexities of a community established by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, while composed of sinful, imperfect, finite and fallible human beings. Like the discovery of a virtue between two vices, so too the Christian vocation is lived somewhere between these two extremes. This is especially true for religious in the Church, and it is the ongoing modus operandi for those who follow the Franciscan way of life.
I am not the first Franciscan to speak out in a matter concerning a bishop and a politician. In fact, it was Francis of Assisi himself who, on his deathbed, sought to resolve a conflict between the bishop of Assisi and the mayor of that city. What guided the poverello‘s intervention was the dual-commitment reflected in his love for the Church and his understanding that there are times to challenge it too. He is credited with helping to bring peace between the two leaders — the Church and the state — and that event is captured in the penultimate section of the famous Canticle of the Creatures where we hear what the human vocation is: peacemaker.
There is another aspect to Francis’s way of life that is timely at a moment when some members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, are disputing the proper way to respond to a politician or other public figure who approaches a minister of the Eucharist to share in Sacramental Communion. This is found in the Saint’s writing on how one is to live his way of life.
In the Rule of 1221, Francis dedicated a chapter to how the friars were to engage with the Muslims. This section of his Rule was inspired by his 1219 trip to Damietta, Egypt to peacefully dialogue with the Sultan — which, it should be stated up front, was in direct disobedience to the Church, both in terms of the mission of Pope Innocent III in his directives for the Fifth Crusade and more locally disregarding the Cardinal in charge of the Crusaders outside Damietta, who did not want Francis crossing enemy lines.
Chapter XVI of the Rule says that the way the friars were to go among the “saracens and other nonbelievers,” that is non-Christians, was “not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians” (v.6). This last line is most important for our day. When engaging with who the pope called “perfidious saracens” and another bishop of the time described as “sons of the antichrist” (both referring to the Muslims that the crusaders were fighting), Francis says that they were to be treated as ‘one of us!’
Those that were dehumanized by the Church as enemy and less-than-human, were elevated by Francis and his followers to ones-like-us, acknowledging that they are already Christian — that they were to be seen and treated like any member of the Body of Christ.
How much more so is this disposition, this attitude necessary today? Especially in light of the fact that we are indeed talking about someone (and others) who are Christians.
I know that there are those people out there who do not like what my response to the Bishop Hubbard and Governor Cuomo situation has been, but I believe that I am only striving to live up to my vocation to remain loyal and faithful to the community of believers we call the Church, while at the same time following the way of life I have professed, which demands that I speak out against injustice — even injustice within the community of the Church — and lovingly challenge the Church when such instances become manifest.
On a final note, I want to say that I appreciate Edward Peters’s joining the conversation here about his take on Canon 915 and the situation in Albany involving Bishop Hubbard and Governor Cuomo. For those who don’t know, he is the one originally cited in the news stories making this matter public. I respect his expertise and interpretation, although, as one can read among the many comments to that earlier post on this website, I join a number of other canon lawyers, theologians and ecclesial ministers in interpreting the prescriptive action of the canon in a different way.
Prof. Peters did make reference to my comments here at DatingGod.org in his own blog some days ago, selecting an introductory line that included a reference to Francis’s devotion to the Eucharist that I believe was then treated in a way that diminishes its relative significance and used out of context. This was more apparent in subsequent citations by other bloggers more than in Prof. Peters’s own post, which is not so polemical (I believe Prof. Peters does try to be fair). Here I refer to the rather disrespectful and contextual-less comments of a blogger who goes by the name “Fr. Z (Zuhlsdorf).” Who recently wrote:
However, in the context of his most recent entry, Peter also educates a “young Franciscan” who, it seems, thinks that St. Francis would have given Communion to anyone no matter what that implied or what the Church’s law is.
I am right now thinking of some of the things the real Francis wrote and did in his life. Francis wasn’t just bunnies and birdies and Sister Moon.
While I may be young, I also happen (to use Prof. Peters’s own use of the distinction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’) to be a professional in the field of Franciscan studies, both by religious profession and by virtue of my scholarly work including more than 20 academic and popular articles, conference papers, invited public lectures and books. If anyone involved in this current conversation knows “the real” Francis, I believe it would be me. This “Fr. Z,” clearly an amateur by Prof. Peters’s terms, obviously does not know about whom he is speaking, by which I mean both Francis and me. I would be the last person to characterize Francis as being about “just bunnies and birdies and Sister Moon.” It certainly made me laugh to read that.
What “Fr. Z” and others must realize, as I hoped to have briefly highlighted above, is that Francis and his followers (myself included) are much more complicated than some of these commenters would like to suggest. There is a profound loyalty to the Church that is part and parcel of our way of life, but there is a prophetic call to be the loving voice of challenge too, calling all Christians to return to a Gospel way of life.