Saturday, September 21, 2013


   By the title of this post I don't mean that we should look to whoever will be the pope after Francis.  I mean that we should follow Francis' example.  Francis is clearly looking beyond himself to the teachings of the church--more precisely to the teachings of Vatican II, and more gloriously, to being a true expression of Jesus Christ.  He is therefore doing two very important, indeed vital, things:

   1.  He is saying that the teachings of the church, especially those of the council, and Jesus himself, are the guiding stars of all Catholics, including the popes.
   2.  He is imitating Jesus, who did not preach himself per se but constantly pointed beyond himself to the loving presence of God on earth, in all people, especially in the poor, sick, outcast, and wounded.

   Vatican II taught that all of us represent the presence of Christ in the world, and it showed us the discerning way and compassionate approach to become spiritually mature expressions of Christ.  As Jesus lived in his everyday world, we are empowered in his grace to live in our everyday world in a way that could elevate it and where necessary correct it, and thus help make it more luminously human--even into eternity.  Francis is opening the world anew to a contemporary, Christ-filled, luminous humanity.  And a humanly/spiritually hungry world is paying attention.

   Two important conclusions follow:  
     1.  While we look to Francis for the spiritual leadership that is truly, plausibly and excitingly Catholic in a contemporary way, we must imitate him and look beyond him to Christ himself, to the fullness of our Catholic faith, and to our own spiritual maturity and actions in and for today's world.
           As a corollary to this conclusion, we must not fall into the trap of politicizing what Francis is doing.  His approach is neither liberal nor conservative.  It is a genuine, Gospel approach, and must be accepted and appreciated in Gospel terms.

      2.  We must be spiritually mature enough to look beyond all popes.  Jesus did not choose Peter to be a Superstar, or a top-down monarch, or the church.  Jesus chose Peter to gather up all the faithful expressions of himself within the world-wide People of God and give these expressions clarity and authority.  Francis is showing signs of being a true Peter.

    It is important to note that while the Spirit is always present within the church, popes bring their personalities and their personal views and histories to the papacy.  John Paul II brought to the papacy his strong personality and his personal history of subjection under Nazism and Communism.  That trauma colored his papacy, making him a strong leader who rightfully preached freedom and justice to the world, but who centralized church power by keeping  the bishops loyal to himself while disregarding the theologians and the everyday faith of the people, thus obstructing the free flow of the Spirit within the church.  

   Benedict XVI brought to the papacy his personal distrust and even fear of the world, a rigid focus on doctrine in a smaller, more orthodox church, and his personal attempt to restore medieval Christianity to the 21st century, even while presenting a very insightful critique of modern capitalism.  Francis' personal history and his Jesuit history make him more pastoral and more open to the teachings of the church and Vatican II.  But even with the Spirit present, Francis could be a happy accident.

   While we certainly accept the true leadership of whoever stands in the place of Peter, we should rely primarily on our Catholic faith tradition in all its spiritual richness, and on our own personal dignity, male and female, as expressions of Christ, in the service of the world.  While we thank God for Francis, we look beyond him and thank God even more for our own faith and for our own vocation and responsibility as spiritually adult members of the world-wide People of God.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


   In a recent article in "America" magazine, a writer noted that the fundamental threat to Catholic colleges and universities is the erosion of the value-added dimension of their Catholicity, manifested in commitment to Gospel values, liturgy, prayer, theology, social justice/service learning and fidelity to church teaching.  I typed value-added dimension in bold type because I believe that this itself is the threat to Catholic higher learning.

   I recently asked a group of students from a Catholic university what made their university Catholic.  I received blank stares.  Later, I asked a graduate of a Catholic university, where I had taught Theology late in the 1960's, "Were you taught that you are an expression of Christ in and for today's society?"  Again, I was met with a blank stare.  Then the student said that he had received a secular education,with theology and Mass added if he was interested.  So much for the value-added dimension of his Catholic education.

   Long ago, when I taught at that student's university, the Catholic students came from Catholic neighborhoods and a strong parish culture in which they were immersed.  They therefore easily accepted the "value-added" dimension of their education.  Today's Catholic students come from depleted parishes and our hyper-individualized, economically driven culture that hides God's presence deep within its fast-moving, shallow activism.  Our Catholic universities must go far beyond just a value-added dimension.  They must become centers of deep Catholic formation.

   I believe that Catholic colleges and universities should see education as an academic incarnation of the universal/global Christ.  They should be centers of a true and deep Catholic formation that prepares their Catholic students to live discerning, prophetic lives as contemporary expressions of Christ in a world where God is present in the streets, among the poor, sick, vulnerable and outcast, and in our politics, economics, sciences, arts, etc.

   In specially designed seminars, Catholic students (and others who may be interested) should be taught to discern and relate to the Mystery of the divine presence that shines within every subject and activity in their curriculum.  For example, they would be taught that every subject shows them a way to be human.  People do math, science, history, art, etc.  And since God is present in the students, as in all people, every subject shows the students a way, not only of being human but of becoming luminously human expressions of Christ.  And they should be taught to imbue their careers and lives with the spiritual disciplines, e.g., order, trust, peace, hope, joy of life, respect for labor, and loving and compassionate service to others, without imposing our religion on anyone.

   Catholic colleges and universities should ritualize contemporary ways to discern and express the presence and intentions of God in today's society and culture, so that the students can prayerfully, and even contemplatively, be inspired to actively work to fulfill Jesus' prayer (and the church's mission) that God's kingdom may come "down here" on earth as it is in heaven.

    In sum, I believe that with serious spiritual effort, our Catholic colleges and universities can change their Catholic students' and graduates' blank stares into the discerning and prophetic outlook of youth fully expecting to transcend their present self and grow into ever more luminously human expressions of Christ in and for the world they will live in and influence.