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Papal Poverty and Divine Irony Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 24 March 2013

The dictionary defines irony as “a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.” Well, the election of Pope Francis, first of that name, was certainly that.

The cardinal electors, most of whom rarely if ever see poor people, chose to be pope someone who has, day after day over many years. The cardinal electors, most of whom live very well indeed, chose someone who lives extremely simply, even cooking his own meals. The cardinals, most of whom do not even do very much to make sure that Church teaching is followed in their own dioceses, even by their own clergy, chose someone who does.

There are all kinds of religious in the United States, for example, who will now have to face a man who can vigorously follow the option for the poor while, at the same time, being entirely faithful to Church teaching. This will upset the old, dissenting applecart.

It will put the criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religion (LCWR) in context. (Of course, one wonders why only the LCWR was singled-out, since plenty of other groups need to be brought into line as well.). The critique of the LCWR members was for not maintaining a solid religious life while “serving the poor.”

There are male groups who are doing similar things, but they have considerably more leverage within the Church because many of them are clergy – and dioceses are strapped for clergy. Now, if Francis’ more faithful option for the poor becomes the new norm, then the clericalist emphasis will lose some of its strength and influence in diocesan decision-making.

And if there will be a new emphasis on the vow of poverty, there are also going to be many religious who will have to face up to a religious who can live extremely simply instead of spending all kinds of cash to surround himself with the trappings of the upper-middle class. Religious poverty is primarily obedience to live a life of poverty, both in order to follow Christ and also to identify with the poor around us. But as we know only too well, that kind of obedience has evaporated in many religious houses.


     Pope Francis attends a Vatican staff Mass

A big question Francis has raised is whether the ecclesiastical inertia that we have had to pay for and watch from the sidelines for so long is going to finally change. Roman complacency has come from the fact that the United States provides most of the Vatican’s funding. Let’s hope that changes under Francis.

The possibilities are wonderful. Catholic clergy might actually consider letting go of a validating lifestyle that seems to have been inherited from the landed British Anglican clergy of the nineteenth century. The passion for furniture and the good life might finally be separated from the vocation of being a Catholic clergyman. This is a change that has been overlong in coming. If it ever happens, will the seminaries get on board so that they do not pass on anachronistic expectations and external indications of having arrived as a clergyman?

The greatest possibilities following from the election of Francis seem to be in the direction of filling out the mission of the Church to the poor, all of the time. Saint Lawrence’s conception of the poor as the “treasure of the Church” has a real possibility of coming true. This is not to gainsay the excellent work that the Church does already. But now perhaps laity will be able to see that they are an integral part of the Church and not an add-on to the clerical church.

Of course, more laity are going to have to get involved – and be more deeply formed in the faith: maybe with some out-front leadership from the clergy this can actually happen. I have a figure in my head that roughly 15 percent of parishioners are currently doing all the outreach in their parishes. Imagine if that figure were to grow to 60 or 70 per cent!

This country would have a whole different outlook on things like abortion. Instead of abortion being an answer to a social problem, preventing the destruction of these “unwanted” souls could be the possibility for a whole new arm of charitable work through giving them homes and educations. People as such might be seen as valuable again – and not just when they reach voting age.

If the Church got itself re-organized around the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, there are some real possibilities for following this pope and the many initiatives that he will undoubtedly start. In short, Pope Francis opens up possibilities not even imagined by the men who elected him. The Church can become much more authentically the Church and show the face of Jesus Christ to the world and especially these United States, a land that surely needs to see Him more clearly again.

 
Fr. Bevil Bramwell is a member of Oblates of Mary Immaculate and is Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. He has published Laity: Beautiful, Good and True and The World of the Sacraments.
 
 
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Comments (17)Add Comment
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 24, 2013
It's interesting that you mention St Lawrence - a deacon - when referring to a reformation of the clergy. One of the biggest criticisms I have of the entire seminary process is that priests are all ordained to the order of deacons. Yet, if you ask about their ministry of diakonia and how is it being expressed, men awaiting presbyteral ordination will look at you will bemused faces and will tell you that they are "finishing up their coursework, getting invitations printed and getting ready for their 'ordination day.'" They seem to fail to realize that they ARE ALREADY ORDAINED - to the diaconate. Is it any wonder, then, that when they are ordained to the presbyteral order (and for some the episcopal order later on) the ministry of diakonia means nothing to them - contrary to how the current Bishop of Rome seesm to be expressing his ordinations as deacon, priest and bishop? I would suggest that all bishops begin immediately to make the diaconate an entire year of service to the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten - as Francis seems to be reminding everyone. Then, perhaps, when they get to be priests they will not forget that they were once deacons of he Church. And when they wash the feet of 12 men from their parishes on Holy Thursdays it will mean something because they have already literally washed the feet of those to whom Christ came to serve and whom they too are called to serve as they follow in His footsteps.
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written by Bangwell Putt, March 24, 2013
Noble simplicity in every aspect of living together with spiritual poverty will allow us to avoid one error of the past - that of omitting the beauty that is due to God in a well-meaning attempt to demonstrate frugality.

Beautiful, simple, and noble churches and schools, preservation of the artistic inheritance of the Church in music and architecture, its classic forms, uplift us, the poor. They inspire desire for the virtues; they lead us to God.

Beauty inspires; one seeks for its source. It inscribes itself on the soul of a well-taught child and is a shaping resource for a lifetime.
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 24, 2013
Amen Fr. Bramwell. And amen Deacon Ed and Putt.

Father B - for the of health of the whole Church, there ought to be a way to assure devout families who are not only trying to help their children hear God's call to married life, but also the possible call to priestly life. I am concerned here about directing a young man to a good seminary.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, March 24, 2013
Wonderful thoughts deacon. Chris you might also consider whether an individual has a call to religious life. As far as "good seminaries" I don't know them all but the ones that I do know - without slamming the good people who work there and go there - still seem to me to be 'property oriented' if I may coin a term. The US culture is so oppressive in some ways, materialism being one, but another way that is not mentioned enough is the suppression of personal care for strangers. This comes from materialism but also from egoism. Charities do extraordinary work here but most people do not reach out, they do not even know their neighbors. So I would say that for the next twenty years until Francis has his influence the "good seminary" will really be a question of the good candidate going in. A loving outward looking young man who prays is crucial.
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written by petebrown, March 24, 2013
Thanks Father for the upbeat column. Here's my sense of the problem in America as opposed to Argentina. In the US, the practice of Christianity including Catholic Christianity is largely and increasingly an educated middle --upper/middle class suburban phenomenon. (Not so in Argentina, I would be willing to wager, where Churches are really filled on Sundays with the poor.) The is especially the case in the US if you look at non-Hispanic non-African American Christians. So if we want to understand how the Church in the US became so bourgeois, this is where to look. And naturally homegrown clergy come from the same demographic background as Catholics in general. So there you have it. This is going to be very hard to undo.

Diocesan Priests probably feel like they are already doing alot of self-abnegation with their celibacy vow. And now they are going to give up their bourgeois life too? I'll believe it when I see it. To make something like this practical we really need what Francis calls "a Church of the poor" not just a poor clergy, vowed or otherwise. You can only be so poor when your flock resides in a high income suburb--very rich by world standards.
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written by Fr. Bramwell, March 24, 2013
Pete thanks for the response. I would point to one problem though - who has ever given up enough to become a priest? There is the US problem - the US culture is imagined to have something so special that it trumps the spiritual reality of the priesthood. The culture is converting the Church rather than vice versa.
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written by bonzano, March 24, 2013
Fr. Bramwell - Thank you for this EXCELLENT article. I hope, pray and expect that the changes Pope Francis implements will be in conformity with the changes that are most needed in the Catholic Church today. It's been a long time since I've been so enthusiastic regarding the success of the mission of the Church.
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written by Manfred, March 24, 2013
Please don't worry about vocations. Poverty is not the answer but rather Truth. The FSSP, at it's seminary in Denton, Nebraska, currently has seventy-four seminarians. When these are ordained they go out to their chapels and teach the truth that contraception is mortally sinful. As a result their flocks have large numbers of children. While these people are mostly educated with good jobs (they would have to as they have one-income families),they have very little "discretionary income". The seminary is expanding in order to train larger numbers of priests each year. BTW, the FSSP is also providing bishops with priests as the dioceses have closed their seminaries due to lack of vocations! After all, what man would want to live a celibate life in order to be a "presider" at a "liturgical meal" once a week?
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written by Jacob, March 25, 2013
How do we convince members of the Church to be Catholic again?

Then it would be obvious to them that they should be welcoming new members to the Church and perhaps we would have a cohort capable of fighting the many priests of death.
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 25, 2013
Fr. Bramwell, PeteB and Manfred:

I do believe it is about poverty and truth. As to poverty, poor in spirit. A "rich man," such as those mentioned by Manfred, can be poor in spirit. I am in the position of those men named by Manfred. And a poor man can be greedy. It's what you worship. But as Fr. B indicates, there is an idolatry of affluence.

Re PeteB's note on Mass attendance in Argentina, without looking for recent stats, I somehow doubt that Sunday Mass attendance there is any better than the US (which is admittedly not good).

I agree with Fr. B that the US culture has become a golden calf, and it is creating a counterfeit Catholicism.
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 25, 2013
Tp PeteB re: Mass attendance in US and Argentina...

The level of attendance is the same - low 20's as a percentage.

Just as it is wise to demur from romanticizing something special about US Catholicism, it may be a romantic notion that the poor go to Church more than anyone else.

At the core of it...it is about worshiping THE TRUTH...which includes poverty of spirit. Abraham was a rich man...but he was poor in spirit. The thing is, Abraham didn't place his riches before serving God...he seems to have been blessed with them as a gift of first offering eveything (his only son) to The Lord.
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written by petebrown, March 25, 2013
Chris: my point was about the demographics of the respective countries. I bet you'd find its mostly poorer Argentines who are at Mass on Sundays. In the US its the reverse. Not a question of romanticism, but raw demographics.

Read Charles Murray's recent book. People who attend weekly services are becoming increasingly well-to-do and educated. This is definitely true in the Catholic Church. Inner city churches have been closing for decades. New parishes are mostly in suburbs.
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 25, 2013
PeteB:

I'm sorry for misunderstanding. As to who's going to Church in Argentina, poor versus rich, I'm not sure we know if that's a fact, so its dicey to speculate about.

Yes, I see that inner city churches are closing. I would say that this seems to result from the confluence of multiple things, firstly the thinning out by the demographic move to the suburbs, then compounded by the decline of Church-going/faith. I am sure that Murray's demographics about the decline of Church-going/faith in the lower econ classes also operates.

There may be a big drop for The Catholic Church experienced in very recent years, perhaps not confined to the cities. For instance, the suburban parish where we live reports that weekly Mass attendance has dropped 31% in the last 8 years. Granted, the clergy and parish council are a dissenting community, and many traditional families have been repulsed and go to Mass at outlying parishes.

But the Catholic high schools and colleges, which are often peopled with "dissenting" lay and clerical teachers, have been taking their toll on the children of the "well-to-do" and "educated," demolishing the faith of 2 generations.
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written by WMeyer, March 26, 2013
A wonderful column, Father! I have just recently discovered a problem in the recent formation of a very traditional priest of my acquaintance: he has decided to leave his diocese for another, because where he is, he is constantly criticized for almost everything he does. I fully appreciate how unsettling such criticism can be, but I know that there are some in the parish who do their best to support what he does.

Not meaning to demean this man in any way, my question is, with all the troubles in the Church in this country, how can any seminary form a priest without making abundantly plain to him that this sort of criticism (and even harassment) is simply a part of the cross the priest must bear?

We in the laity face challenges, as well, and many of the same sort: criticism for our belief in the Church, the Magisterium, and Church doctrine in preference to popular desires. We bear this, as we know it is a fact of daily life. And we soldier on, as well as we are able, knowing, too, that positive change requires even our own small contributions.

But Father, we do need strong priests in the trenches. It is easier by far to feel there is hope if we have even one priest who is true to the teachings of the Church, than if we are in the wilderness of Haugen, Haas, communal "meals" and feel-good homilies.
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written by Sally, March 26, 2013
"a whole new arm of charitable work" by giving the "unwanted" babies a home and an education! Yes, yes, yes!!! Please God, inspire the new religious orders (or even the old ones) to resume the beautiful work of orphanages! If we are going to fight for their right to life, we need to provide for them when born. This is the necessary witness of the Church in order to have credibility in the pro-life arena.
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written by florin, March 26, 2013
March 26th: I am so grateful for Pope Francis' simplicity and commitment to holy poverty and his determination to 'clean house', especially the curia. And I believe that even simplifying vestments and other expensive externals is good..but, for some reason, I am disturbed by Pope Francis deciding to stay in the Guest house, just one Priest/Bishop with other Priests/Bishops. In the Rule of St. Benedict, he says that once we belong to God, our bodies are not our own. Pope Francis, a humble man, may find himself discussing important and confidential church issues with the workers who live with him. He is no longer his own...he belongs not only to God and to the Church but to the people of God and choosing not to allow the Holy Thursday celebration simplified is, to me, like shutting out the people of God who need to be able to see their Pontiff, their Holy Father. I am sure Pope Francis, a holy man, will do what is best for the Church even if it makes him uncomfortable. He could live in the Papal apartments and have all the ornate furnishings taken away and furnish it simply...he can, as Pope John Paul did, invite people to dine with him...I trust him, honestly, but something about this desire to just be like others worries me...
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written by Fr. Bramwell, March 27, 2013
In replying to WMMeyer,there are problems with the way that formation is framed in a seminary. My next column will be on that. Perhaps for this priest the criticism became unbearable. Unless he has a network of fellow priests and lay folk around him he will feel very isolated.

Sally, thank you, if we have a moral teaching then we should take on all of its consequences as well so as to make the teaching as easy as possible to follow. Otherwise we are no better than the pharisees laying unbearable loads on the people of God.

Great point Florin.

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