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WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! Find information about my pastoral consulting at http://www.crosscurrents.us/ or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Monday, July 27, 2015

#434: “Gentleman Jack” Gentleman


When I learned Father Jack Gentleman had died, I realized I would miss our long and productive relationship, which ended even before I knew it.  For it was quite by accident that I came across the news that he had died earlier this year.  But then, our acquaintance had been somewhat accidental from the start.    
Fr. Jack

The first time I arrived at Holy Family Parish in Amesbury, Massachusetts in October 2002, I expected to meet with the late Father Tom Buckley.  It was Tom who had invited me to present a series of talks for Lent 2003, but the planning committee was meeting with me on his day off.  So his co-pastor greeted me at the door.  I had neither met nor heard of Father Gentleman before, but before that meeting ended I was glad I had. 

Our agenda was to establish a series of topics for the Fridays of Lent, when Holy Family offered an annual program that combined evening Mass with a soup and chowder supper and a visiting speaker.  For 2003, for the first time, they were replacing a parade of speakers with a series of talks by one invited guest—me.

We decided to call it “The Anchor Program,” and to present fundamental elements of Catholic tradition that we felt people found timely but difficult.  The planning went until I proposed an evening on “War and Peace,” and specifically proposed contrasting Catholic Just War theory with the conventional standards of U.S. foreign policy. 

The committee members were not comfortable with this.  Wasn’t this topic too controversial?  Wasn’t it odd for a spiritual season like Lent?  I replied that if the U.S. invaded Iraq in the next 6 months, talking about the Catholic perspective would not seem odd at all. 

But they were unconvinced, and then Father Jack spoke up.  I was prepared for the worst; over my years in parish work, pastors often took the “safe” tack to placate their flock.  But this man took up my line instead.  “Our faith is not just about personal goodness,” he reminded them.  “It is also about justice and the common good.  How do we get peace on earth if we never talk about it?”

Father Jack’s words sealed the deal.  And so it was that I spoke about the Catholic view of war and peace on Friday March 21--only 2 days after our nation invaded Iraq.  No one on the committee regretted our decision.

After that session I joined Fr. Jack back at the rectory for snacks and chat.  This became a regular habit, not just in Lent 2003 but in three more years when I was invited back to Holy Family for more presentations.

I soon learned that Jack was waging a serious medical battle of his own.  Three years before we met he had been diagnosed with a rare disease (Alpha 1 anti-trytpsin disease) that compromised his liver.  Between 2002 and 2008 he was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital 15 times--and each time he returned to Holy Family needing extensive bed rest.  Often I arrived for a Lenten evening to find he could not attend.  Sometimes he managed to join us at the rectory afterward.  We all knew he was waiting for a liver transplant, and hoping it would arrive before it was too late. 

In the summer of 2005 I hosted three priests from Paris for a pastoral visit to the Archdiocese of Boston.  Our first full day was a trip to Newburyport and Amesbury.  After we toured Immaculate Conception church and school with Fr. Paul Berube, Jack joined us for lunch (the Parisians had lobster!) followed by a walking tour of downtown Newburyport.  We then drove to Amesbury to tour Holy Family.  My guests were impressed with the facilities and programs at both parishes, but they were especially impressed by the generous hospitality they receive from Fr. Jack.

Shortly after that visit I asked Jack if he’d be willing to proofread my CrossCurrents column.  (Since I generally dictate my blog posts from handwritten drafts, Spellcheck is useless: speech recognition software never misspells words, it just types the wrong words. I needed a human checker).  Jack readily agreed. For the next 10 years my emailed draft would return corrected, complete with feedback (both suggestions and words of praise), within a day or two.  He was still generously sending my drafts back until shortly before his death. 

In 2006 Jack finally got his liver transplant, and I learned that his health improved dramatically. 

But I did not see him much until the fall of 2013, when he invited me to speak on “The Francis Effect” at his new parishes in Manchester-by-the-sea and Essex. 

We met for lunch, planned a program, and he hosted me for two weekly sessions.  We also spoke of bringing me back to work with the parish pastoral council, which needed to develop a future plan, but his time came before that project could be launched. 

Seeing Jack again in 2013 was such a pleasant surprise!  He looked years younger, he was trimmer, his color was good, and he moved with an energy I had never seen.  For years he had been pairing with a Boston marathon runner to raise money for the American Liver Foundation.  His aim was to help others who were suffering as he had suffered.  And now he was able to function as a full-time priest.

Over the years I had been able to observe Jack with his people.  His soft-spoken humor and quiet warmth gave him the kind of disarming personality that many Catholics have rarely encountered in their pastors. His charm was totally without affectation, and people found it easy to like “Jack” as a person even while respecting “Father Gentleman” as a pastor.  The knowledge that he had suffered so long only reinforced their affection and admiration. 



In 1892, the longtime Heavyweight Champion of the World, Boston’s own John L. Sullivan, was finally dethroned by “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Corbett had earned his nickname because of his gentle demeanor and cultivated style.  As the website Eyewitness to History.com explains it:

Jim Corbett represented the new age of boxing. He had learned his craft not on the street but from a coach. He had attended college and worked as a bank clerk before turning to the sport. He began his career in 1886 and had fought all of his matches wearing gloves and under Queensberry rules. Because he wore his hair in a full-grown pompadour, dressed smartly and used excellent grammar when he spoke, he became known as "Gentleman Jim.”

But the sporting public knew--and his 21-round triumph over Sullivan proved--that he was also a fearless fighter.  Thus the irony of the nickname “Gentleman Jim.”

The same was true of “Gentleman Jack” Gentleman.  No one who knew him doubted that Jack was a complex man who combined the gentle soul his friends and his flock were so fond of with the fearless fighter who never gave up his battle for life.

Jack Gentleman could say, like St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight”--and now he has his reward.  I feel privileged to be among those who are missing him.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

#433: 10 Reasons Why Pope Francis’ Ecology Encyclical Is a Game Changer—Part 2



As Pope Francis begins his campaign for an environmental revolution by traveling to Latin America this week, I list 5 more reasons why his new encyclical may well mobilize enough support to bring real change. 




6. Francis Draws from Catholicism’s Core.  Conservative naysayers can complain all they want that France and should “stick with his job,” should “keep out of politics,” should “focus on making us better people.” It is all camouflage designed to disguise either their ignorance or the truth or both.  The fact is that Francis is synthesizing 20 centuries of an evolving Christian worldview and 125 years of modern Catholic social teaching to arrive at his positions.  His job as pope is to communicate the Catholic tradition to the world and offer its wisdom for the benefit of all.  That tradition, at its core, rejects hard divisions between religion, social justice, and politics. The Church’s engagement in social justice issues is long-standing, and its concern for the environment is rooted in the Book of Genesis. The naysayers don’t understand (or don’t WANT to understand) either Catholicism or the modern papacy (see #7).

Moreover conservative Catholics should be wary: by dismissing or undermining France’s integral vision they expose themselves as people whose economic and political values come from the conventional wisdom of modern secular culture, rather than from their own faith tradition. In short, Francis has become a challenge to their Catholic identity.


7. A New Role for the Papacy.  I have argued before that every pope since John XXIII (1958-1963) has transformed the papacy in some way.  Thus Francis was elected to an office vastly different from the papacy of Pius XII (1939-1958), who never left the Vatican but ruled his flock in isolated, regal splendor.  John XXIII deleted the pomp and opened the Vatican; Paul VI (1963-1978) became the “Pilgrim Pope” for his wide travels (including his historic U.S. visit in 1965); John-Paul I (1978) was the “Smiling Pope”; John-Paul II (1978-2005) was pope as global globetrotting superstar; Benedict XVI’s (2005-2013) resignation ended the papacy as a lifelong office.

Now Francis is positioning the papacy as the world’s most visible protector of the planet.  This also makes the papacy the world’s strongest voice promoting the future of humanity--and especially the future of humanity beyond the prevailing capitalist model.


8. Confronting Power with Truth.  Those committed to (or bought by) the system Francis criticizes have resorted to every sort of ad hominem attack, calling him “out of is depth,” “socialist,” “sounding more like Marx and Stalin than Jesus,” or even “anti-Christ.”

These people have two things in common: they all speak for the powers that be and they are all in denial.  They deny the science of climate change.  They deny the flaws of capitalism, especially its centralization of unaccountable power and its role in promoting inequality and thereby violence and terrorism.  They deny the exploitation of global trade.  They deny the ongoing destruction of our energy, our waters, our air, our food supply.  They deny the soul-deadening impact of consumer culture.  They deny what Francis has called “the globalization of indifference.” Above all they deny his call to make the common good priority #1.

But Francis speaks the truth, and he represents not the 1% who hold the planet’s power, but the 99%--and especially the very poor, whose future is bleak unless someone--someone like Francis--has courage, the humility, and the wisdom to speak truth to power. 


9. Breaking Down the Walls.  Perhaps the chief way the powerful protect their power is by constructing phony “walls” that separate life on our global home into neat compartments. This allows the powerful to pretend either (1) that all is well, since no one compartment threatens global disaster by itself or (2) but nothing can be done, since reforming any ONE compartment will not solve our problems--or, worse, will create others.

Against this phony worldview, Francis offers a comprehensive, holistic vision that breaks down the phony barriers.  In that vision, environmentalism and economics and business and public policy and politics and social justice and politics and human solidarity all fit together--for better or for worse.  Thus, when someone says that he should “avoid environmental issues and stick to talking about human sin,” Francis has this direct reply: our current environmental practices are human sin! 

In short, the pope’s “integral ecology” leaves no place to hide, no room for evasion, no loophole to pretend that our global life is just unconnected compartments.  For him, we are all one human family who inhabit one globe and need one a strategy to secure its future.


10. The “Bulliest” Pulpit.  One irony of Catholic social thinking, which tends to be more “leftist” than the Democratic Party, is that since 1891 most of its development has been driven by papal documents.  Thus a vision championing the poor and protecting the dignity of each person has emerged mostly through proclamations from on high. 

But in this encyclical we see a change.  Instead of a life-long diplomat (as was Paul VI) offering his Olympian views, we get a longtime bishop from the barrios of Buenos Aires.  Instead of a former academic (Benedict XVI) providing scholarly analysis, we get an activist. Instead of a native of Europe offering hope to the third world, we have a natural-born third-worlder speaking up for his own southern half of the world.  And instead of a document content to quote scholars and scriptures and official proclamations, we get significant input from the on-the-ground insight of bishops’ conferences from around the world.

In other words, when we read Francis we are not reading simply one man’s words.  We are reading the words of many leaders, who work with many of the world’s poorest people.  Francis is not just speaking to the whole world he is speaking for the whole world. And his pulpit is not confined to a church; his pulpit is the planet itself.




Of course, no single document can change the world.  But a single document can be the catalyst, the tipping point that pushes a revolutionary vision from futile resistance to active momentum.  If Francis’ words can mobilize widespread suffering into discontented solidarity, than perhaps it will bring the courage that millions--no, billions--need to finally say “we want a better world, more livable future--and we can have it!” And with that, Francis will have changed the game from hopeless suffering to hopeful joy.

© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Saturday, July 4, 2015

#432: “Everything is Connected”—10 Reasons Why Pope Francis’ Ecology Encyclical is a Game Changer


The wave of media attention that initially greeted Pope Francis’ new encyclical was submerged almost immediately by last week’s news cycle, moving from the Charleston shootings to the free trade vote to the Obamacare victory to the legalization of same-sex marriage. But the real test is: what impact will Francis’ document have long term?

Few actions by any pope have received as much public attention (from media, candidates, office holders, scholars, and ordinary readers) as Pope Francis’ new ecology encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home.” Naturally, some embrace it, some dismiss it, some rationalize their opposition, others debate its pros and cons. But in the eyes of history, these reactions matter less than the answer to the most basic question: “Will it make any difference?” 

My quick response, after merely scanning the document and its commentators, is “Yes, this document could indeed turn out to be the game changer that alters the course of public policy, business practice, and personal behavior for years to come.” I offer 10 reasons. 

1. A Compelling Vision in which “Everything is Connected.” Many commentators wrongly described the encyclical’s theme as “climate change.” In fact Francis presents climate change as just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. He roots the problem of climate change in runaway carbon emissions, which are generated by our unsustainable reliance on fuels needed to power a runaway capitalist system that treats self-interest and greed as our most important social virtues. This system despoils the global environment while generating not only intolerable levels of pollution but also intolerable levels of inequality. The result, he says will be a progressive degrading of earth’s ecological systems which, while caused by the world’s wealthy, will disproportionately affect the world’s poor. Violent resistance (what Francis says is already "World War III") will continue to block the road to peace. The solution to this massively dysfunctional global system is nothing less than a planetary ethical revolution that dethrones runaway capitalism as we know it and replaces it with a system that reflects more authentically humane values. 

In short, rather than focusing on science or environmentalism or economics or public policy or social justice or religion--Pope Francis has integrated them all into one big coherent vision. No wonder he calls it “integral ecology”: it is not just the “big picture,” it is the biggest picture of all. 

2. Perfect Timing, Part 1. Elected in March 2013, Francis has arrived in the world stage at the very moment of history when our ecological challenges are approaching the crisis point. The signs of environmental decline are everywhere. The scientific consensus makes a compelling case for action, and the resistance to economic inequality is cresting. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people--especially the poor--sense the urgent need for change and demonstrate their unwillingness to passively accept the words of those defending the status quo. It is at this moment that the papacy--one of the planet’s few truly global offices--is occupied by a certified champion of the poor from a southern hemisphere country, trained in chemistry, whose warm simplicity has made him the most popular man in the world and given his voice a public power without rival. At the very moment any revolution would need a moral authority to believe in, Francis is the man of the hour.

3. Perfect Timing, Part 2. In the next six months at least four major events will provide Francis high-profile opportunities to promote his message. In September he will visit the U.S., and will become the first pope ever to address a joint session of Congress, where his audience will include enough climate change deniers, unfettered free market apologists, and 1% millionaires to sink Noah’s Ark. They will have no choice but to listen, and they will also know that millions of American viewers are also hearing this stunningly popular man speak truth to power. They may not like what they hear, but they will dismiss his message at their own peril.
The pope will also address the General Assembly of the United Nations, where his message will have an international (even global) audience. And since the U.N. has already taken the lead on environmental matters, Francis will be linking his moral authority and the global reach of his Church (2/3 all Catholics live south of the equator) with the political influence of another international organization.

December will bring two more events. December marks the 50th anniversary of the closing session of Vatican Council II, which secured the support of the world’s 2000 Catholic bishops for much of the vision that Francis has embraced. And the U.N.’s own summit conference on climate change will be held in Paris, where delegates pushing for radical governmental reforms and regulations will find ample ammunition in Francis’ vision.
Francis of Assisi, Patron of the Environment

4. Linking Faith and Science. Since Galileo, faith and science have too often seemed at odds, going their separate ways and even forming separate and conflicting worldviews. (The Catholic Church has not always been the worst of offender: witness how fundamentalist Christians have dug in their heels by proposing “creationism” to deny evolution.) The result has been a scientific community that often shies away from ethical categories to avoid unscientific intrusions. But Vatican II’s vision called for the reconciliation of science’s power with the wisdom needed to guide it toward the common good. And now Francis has linked the wisdom of Catholic social teaching to the powerful scientific consensus of our day--and the scientific community is acknowledging that this can give their concerns both a popular and a political impact they cannot achieve on their own. This historic breakthrough might even restore the ancient notion that faith and reason are only truly relevant if they are together.

5. Preaching Beyond the Choir. Like John XXIII before him, Francis addresses not just Catholics, but “every person living on this planet.” He is speaking on issues that concern us all, and he is evoking facts and values that are relevant to us all. He seems perfectly aware that his papal office allows him to command worldwide attention, and moreover he seems perfectly ready to use the office to do just that. Stop and think: what other public official can command such attention?


NEXT: 5 More Reasons

© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

#431: We Need the Right Kind of Leadership

Events in Ireland El Salvador can teach powerful lessons for the leaders of the Church in the United States. 

The recent Pew Research Center study on religious affiliation brings disquieting news: the number of American Catholics who have stopped practicing their faith has increased, especially among the millennial generation, since the last Pew study in 2007.  The Catholic Church is losing members faster than ever, and faster than any other Christian church.
But this begs the question: how can we stop, or even reverse, this trend?  I suspect there is no single answer, but last week’s events in two other countries suggest that one answer is: we need the right kind of leadership.
These countries are Ireland and El Salvador, and their contrasting experience shows the difference between two kinds of leadership: the right kind and the wrong kind.
This contrast may surprise us, since on the surface these two countries, though distant, are similar in several respects.  Both are small countries with small populations  (Ireland 4.6 million, El Salvador 6.3 million).  Both have overwhelmingly Catholic populations.  Both countries’ church hierarchies have had powerful cultural and political influence.  Both share a history of oppression at the hands of a foreign colonizer.  And both have seen grinding poverty.
Yet last week we saw sharply contrasting events.  In Ireland, the vast majority of Catholics, refusing to follow the Irish hierarchy’s opposition to same sex marriage, approved a constitutional revision legalizing civil marriage between gays.  That same week, thousands of Salvadorans attended (and millions celebrated) the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, soon to be Saint Oscar Romero.

Common sense tells us that leaders cannot lead if no one follows.  This raises a new question: why did Romero inspire such following, while the Irish hierarchy inspired rejection?  As we Americans witness so many (especially young) Catholics rejecting their Church, the question is both practical and urgent.  So the cases of Ireland and El Salvador are not just relevant, but also instructive.
One can argue that both the Irish and the Salvadoran church leaders have bad track records.  Once Ireland gained independence from Britain, the country’s clergy were among its most powerful figures (some have called Ireland at that time a Vatican colony!). Before becoming Dublin’s archbishop, John Charles McQuaid was a major architect of the Irish constitution, constructed on the principle that Irish law should reflect Catholic doctrine. The constitution specifically notes the "special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church" in national life. As Scholar Timothy White wrote:
By the time [Irish leader Eamon] De Valera wrote and Ireland enacted a new constitution in 1937, the Catholic religion was guaranteed a special role in society and the entire document adapted principles of corporatism that were popular in Church thinking at that time….De Valera’s constitution provided an effective and formal merger between the Catholic Church and the Irish nationalist elites.
Ireland was, as the New York Times wrote, “a theocracy in all but the name.” Many public institutions (like the schools) were in fact run by the Church. Several generations were thus raised by a domineering and harsh hierarchy who taught a version of Catholicism obsessed with rules and sex and guilt.  The result was not only a morally repressive culture but an appalling array of oppressive Catholic institutions (from parishes to schools to hospitals to convents to orphanages to homes for single mothers) that achieved the psychological and even physical enslavement of many Irish Catholics.
In my first parish job, in 1972, I asked the pastor and his assistant priest, both Irish nationals, why they had come to America to work.  Without hesitation or reflection, both give the same answer: “I came to escape the Irish clergy.” Since then, revelations of widespread clergy sex abuse and exploitation of girls has reinforced popular disgust with the hierarchy.
In El Salvador, the story was slightly different.  Independence from Spain left in place a moneyed elite that owned most of the country’s land and dominated its institutions, including the Church itself.  The Salvadoran clergy, as part of the country’s small educated elite, came mostly from the wealthy landowner families.  This was especially true of many Salvadoran bishops.
Thus El Salvador’s Catholic leadership maintained a longtime partnership with the ruling elite (including the military) that maintained its status by perpetuating the gap between rich and poor.  By preaching that their suffering was God’s will, the hierarchy helped keep the poor in their place.
But by Romero’s time, the hierarchy was shifting its mission, as Vatican II (1962-1965) inspired change in the Church in Latin America. At the historic Medellín (Colombia) conference in 1968, the region’s bishops decided to abandon their traditional role as defender of the status quo and to support the poor struggling for social justice.
Romero was known as a conservative, skeptical of both Vatican II and Medellín. Yet on his appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero became almost immediately outspoken in opposing injustice and defending the poor. He had witnessed the suffering poor and government violence even against priests in his previous role as bishop in Santiago de María, which made him distrust authorities and fear for his people.

Oscar Romero had the courage to break with bad leadership and lead another way.  He took the side of the poor, decried their oppression, and became a prophetic voice for all the marginalized and destitute of El Salvador.  But this break made him not only a threat to the elites but even a traitor to his class, and his punishment was assassination during Mass at the hands of a government-sponsored death squad.
The 1980 Funeral of Oscar Romero
Thus Romero became a blessed martyr because he championed the suffering poor against their powerful oppressors.  In this he communicated the truth of the Gospel.
But the Irish hierarchy, meanwhile, was not the partner of an elite oppressor - -it was itself the perpetrator of oppression.  And unlike Romero, it never broke from its harsh and abusive practices.  Instead, as Ireland grew more prosperous and Ireland’s links to other countries (especially the U.S.) grew stronger, the nation’s culture drifted away from the rule of bishops.  In effect, the Irish began to assert a “second independence” (first from the British, now from the Church).  The huge turnout for the gay marriage referendum and a 2-to-1 vote in favor was the result.  For many, the vote was not so much about redefining civil marriage, or about accepting gays, or even about expanding constitutional rights.  Instead, for many Irish voters, this was their “Declaration of Independence” from the Catholic hierarchy.
For me, the lessons from El Salvador and Ireland are obvious and important.  First, leadership that distorts Catholic tradition to serve some other agenda (especially the preservation power) is bad leadership, so finally people refuse to follow.  Second, defending systematic inequality as God’s will is one such distortion of our faith.  Third, rule by sexual repression is another such a distortion of faith.  Fourth, only by breaking away from such distortions and preaching the authentic Gospel message can Catholic leaders restore people’s confidence in their own leaders.  Only then will people follow the leader.
For American Catholics, these lessons invite reflection.  If we are losing members, especially young members, is our leadership somehow responsible?  Has our hierarchy championed the Gospel message?  Has it been, like Jesus, committed to “preach good news to the poor”? Has it, like Jesus, chosen “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed”?
Or has our hierarchy too often complacently accepted the growing gap between the 1% in the 99%?  Has it too often been sidetracked by its “culture wars” obsession with all things sexual?  Has it lost the trust of millions of millennials by its horrific failure to protect children and discipline their priestly molesters? 
In short, is the hemorrhage of U.S. Catholics best understood not as a crisis of faith among the young, but rather as a crisis of credibility of among our leaders?

Blessed Oscar Romero inspires millions of Catholics (in America as well as El Salvador) as a model of holy, courageous, and effective leadership.  Does he also inspire our bishops?  Can they become credible leaders like him?  If yes, perhaps more of us will be inspired to follow them.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015