As I wish my readers a happy Christmas, whether they are with their families or alone with the Mystery we contemplate, I have been corresponding with Edward Jarvis who has written two books on the more illusory aspects of independent Catholic ministry in its various forms. Both he and I share a critical point of view about the “true” (institutional) Churches in this world. It is very difficult to see clearly
He and I hope to work together on a book in a constructive spirit.
Should we write something that aims to help those who explore their calling outside of the big ecclesiastical structures, or something aimed at removing some blinkers and debunking some myths about independent churches – or both? Or maybe something focusing on the sacramental aspects, the clerical state, and the old valid-licit confusion?
I keep an open mind. Who would be our audience? Who are we writing to? I have the same hesitations as when discussing details of the Use of Sarum. We have to see the forest in spite of the multiplicity of trees. I am unclear. In a message back to Edward, I wrote:
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There has always been a link between religion and culture, like Buddhism fitting into Chinese civilisation and Confucianism. Christianity, at least in the early days was an odd man out. It had to graft itself onto existing cultures and even take them over like a cuckoo takes over the nest of another bird, getting rid of its eggs before laying its own. Christianity was easy corrupted from its noble ideals and became a kind of “parasite” and then took advantage of the decadent Roman Empire to build the prestige of the Papacy and its power over national kings and princes.
The Church has always existed as this über-political power and the isolated missions, monasteries and communities.
I have been interested in the “intentional community” idea, but they are extremely diverse in their ideas and ideologies. I fear that many are climate fanatics, woke and “cancel culture”. Many are obsessed with one issue like permaculture, so you spend you life farming and gardening, nothing else, giving up personal transport and the greater world view. This will give you an idea https://diggersanddreamers.org.uk/ You either have to buy in at more than the price of a house in the UK, or join what amounts to a cult with a guru who simply needs guys to work for their feudal lord. The serpent eats its own tail. Alternatively, The Oozlum Bird flies around in ever-decreasing circles until it disappears up its own arsehole. In that safe but insanitary situation, it showers shit and sarcasm over its pursuer.
In brief, I don’t know which community I could relate to, perhaps none in existence. At the same time, it would provide the cultural context in which Christianity could prevail. That’s how monasteries work, but they are by definition totalitarian. You leave your personality behind at the door and you obey Big Brother! There is a genuinely spiritual notion behind that idea – as long as the Abbot is a gentleman, with a noble intention. However, if he has a toxic personality… You’re stuck with him. Like in a marriage to the kind of woman I have had to deal with. They gaslight and are never satisfied. Human evil is an insidious poison.
One intuition that came out of some of the independent clergy was the “niche ministry”. The niche can be anything from music, art, sports, sailing, charitable work, anything. The outward expression of Christianity, priesthood and liturgy, takes second place. It is a bit like the post-war Worker Priest movement in France, the Abbé Pierre and Emmaüs and many others who sought to bring Christ into the rough and tumble. Some got too far into political activism, and again, the ideal gets corrupted. I have crewed for Fr Claude Barbarit, a diocesan priest in the Vendée, who has dedicated his life to taking young people to sea and lifting them out of their nihilism. Rather than creating an artificial society in an “intentional community” you relate to people as they are without expecting them to convert to anything. Eventually some ask questions about the goodness and kindness of the person who has dedicated his life, and if that goodness is attributed to Christ, the message can pass credibly.
Obviously, such a notion is going to have little to do with church buildings and beautiful liturgy – or ugly liturgy for that matter. Much of the inspiration comes from 1930’s Existentialism and Dietrich Bonhöffer’s outrage at “official” Christianity supporting the Nazi regime in the hope of its share of some of the spoils. We begin to arrive at Christianity that is much further stripped away than even the woke bureaucracy of the Church of England and the RC institution. We arrive perhaps at the only thing that makes us continue as Christians rather than go away as cynical materialist nihilists – the Person of Christ. That leaves us in the Underground Church, something like bishops and priests behind the Iron Curtain (a new one is being run up on the infernal sewing machine as I write).
My thoughts are not entirely clear but they are forming in this direction. It isn’t a universal solution for all, but it is an attempt to be truthful. Christianity needs to graft itself onto expressions of truth, beauty and goodness, in whatever form they take. The narcissistic self-proclaimed prince-archbishop has no place in all this. The camel has to go through the eye of the needle!
I would like you to reflect about all this and try to bring something concrete out of it, something “visible” and “tangible” without being a caricature of itself. The book we could work on can be in the spirit of understanding why some (myself included) go into independent ministry or attached to small churches like continuing Anglicanism. You have a man with a strong ideal and a will to get out of the money-noise-nihilism world, and then is beaten down because he is not participating in the competitive rat-race of money and power. What does he do when he finds himself stricken with a “perpetual canonical irregularity”? The theme is inseparable from the feasibility of Christianity in this world and our ability to discern the “points of entry”, man’s receptiveness to the life of spirit. Christianity cannot be political activism, but a spiritual leaven and the “sign of contradiction”. My mind joins that of Pope John Paul II in many ways, with his experience of both Nazism and Communism in his native Poland.
We should do something to give courage and positivity to the shipwrecked sailors rather than beat them down for the sake of Church institutions that have thrown away their own credibility. I have lived outside the UK for a long time, and I experience the Angst of seeing the way things are going, to the point of restricting people’s right to travel. Our resistance has to be interior, our spiritual lives turned towards martyrdom in the Greek etymological meaning of that word.
Please let me know what you think of all this, to encourage me to be clearer. Read Thomas Mann and Rob Riemen, the latter influenced by the former. Mann went into exile. Bonhöffer gave his life. The book and the film The Mission seemed to show a lot of understanding. In the words of Cardinal Altamirando:
So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.
The noble souls of these Indians incline towards music. Indeed, many a violin played in the academies of Rome itself has been made by their nimble and gifted hands. It was from these missions the Jesuit fathers carried the word of God to the high and undiscovered plateau to those Indians still existing in their natural state and received in return, martyrdom.
The priests in question were not martyred by the Guarani but by the Portuguese colonising armies (the king of Portugal at the time was anti-clerical and a Freemason, just interested in power and money).
Fr Gabriel concluded:
If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that.
Nor do I.
I’m sure we could concoct something out of all that. Watch this space….
Excellent and thougjt ,and absolutely spot on that we need to see Jesus after all the structures have been removed
Thank you for your post. I have been going through my own walking back/ stepping away from institutional Roman Catholicism of late. It’s so very difficult to feel like what was once your secure anchor is just pulling you down. In my own reflection on the issue (the state of Roman Catholicism in Chicago). I find that it is the dispassionate corporatism of the system while at the same time missing some of the basics of American corporatism that is so frustrating to a lay pew sitter with little power other than to close my wallet.
On the one hand I actually do appreciate some of the professionalism and policies. I don’t need to belabor the point, but the RCC has had (and continues to have) issues with those who will abuse their power to harm others (financial, child sexual abuse…). This is not isolated to the RCC as nearly all religions and systems have this sickness (Boy Scouts of America, Jim Jones, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby…). Having policies and a manual for dealing and limiting the damage individuals (staff/clergy/volunteers) can do is extremely important. Although the days of the “mystic in the desert” did have some great spiritual insights, this is not a method for getting the message to the masses since those who truly have this calling are too few and opportunists would gladly fill the gaps for secondary gain.
On the other hand, I am dismayed that despite the corporatism in my religion, we are missing the basics of business methodology. For example in my parish, I’ve tried to convince the clergy that we need live statistics to help guide what and how we do. We don’t even have an agreed upon concrete definition of what success is (financial stability, number of baptisms, confessions, marriages…) and how do we rank these goods relative to each other. In our diocese we only take mass attendance on Sundays in October. Then we extrapolate and assume it is the same for the entire calendar year. Why are we not checking each mass each time? What do the ushers do when they’re not getting the collection?
The RCC as an institution is not responsive in the least. Pope Frank has asked for a global listening session. Our parish did one and the results were that the laity are largely apathetic, disengaged, and felt the listening process was a sham. I felt my calling to try and build some concrete community so I tried to organize a potluck group. The entire point of this was to get parishioners who are largely disengaged to form real relationships with people in the parish over a low stakes meal. I wrote up a document and met with the associate pastor, the lay pastoral associate, the pastor and parish council multiple times over a 6 month period before finally hearing, “we don’t know if something like this will take hold here.” Essentially we’ve tried nothing and it hasn’t worked. I even tried to help them see a risk: benefit ratio (I leave the lights on all night and you have to pay a slightly higher electric bill: this may be part of a cure of widespread apathy in this parish) to no avail. The joke of listening and responsiveness even continues to our Archdiocese’s own summary document of the responses they got. To give you an idea there is an entire section on what was not in the responses, but should have been. LOL!, ‘You didn’t give the approved answers when we asked you for your honest and “Spirit Guided” answers’. It looks like the laity were right; this was all a sham.
Finally and what troubles me more than any of the above is the apparent disconnect between what we say we believe as an institution and what we do. For a pew sitter, most noticeable to me is the lack of confession availability and the number of communicants each Sunday. We formally teach that a single mortal sin condemns you to hell forever if unrepented and changes partaking of eucharist from salvific to damning. I go to confessions ~1 per month and see the same 5-8 people in line. I see 95% of the congregation take communion each week (I personally take communion only on a few major feasts). It feels like there is a disconnect. In fact a local shrine recently cut their confession times in half (it certainly was not because of too few people in line that place is always packed for confession) and have no confessions during the Christmas season. I can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon about confession or sin for that matter.
In summary for me the issue is the middle ground of blandest of bland that the RCC has chosen to take that makes me struggle so much. It’s fine to be on fire. It’s fine to close up shop and say this was all a long con, but when we’re in some middle ground where our leadership is satisfied with the bare minimum so long as their cushy lifestyles are not impacted, it’s hard to see this as a place where my faith can grow.
I don’t know what the future holds for the laity, but I don’t think I have another 60 years in me where I show up for my 60 minute mass on holidays of obligation, and otherwise keep my real spiritual life confined to saying the office in my home office and having an incarnational view of the world and its events. At times it would be great to have a large institution on which I could rely for assistance in my spiritual growth. However at this point I’m not even sure I would want to talk about my spiritual struggles with a priest because between myself and my close circle of engaged lay Catholics, I think I would find better spiritual guidance than anything my clergy could provide. I’ve joked of late with my wife that my new year’s resolution should be to relax by taking my faith as seriously as the clergy take theirs.
I greatly appreciate your thoughts. It is difficult for me to appreciate the situation in America given the political associations with some forms of Christianity. Europe is different. We can’t depend on what other people are doing and saying, because the tendency would be to pull us down into shrill ideologies or complete indifference.
I agree with you that abuse of weaker people together with the cult of power and money is not restricted to the RC Church or indeed any institutional church. You will find toxic human personality in any corporate structure or society of people. Getting the message to the masses? I can’t say that bothers me very much. Humanity goes through cycles of times like before the World Wars and after the same wars. When we grieve our dead and behold our devastated homes and cultural monuments we tend to think of the spiritual meaning of our humanity and of freedom. That is when man becomes receptive, and at a deeper level than the modern business world.
Methods for evangelism? I leave that to Americans and Evangelicals. I live in an area where people are “immune” and cynical. Corporate management of parishes is something that is as alien to me as being a billionaire CEO of a big firm. I work on my own to earn a living as a self-employed translator, and that influences my relationship with churches. I belong to the ACC, but live as a remote diaspora priest, cut off from the “usual channels”.
I cannot escape the role of a contemplative hermit even though I have little in the way of monastic discipline. Perhaps we should cast off our Catholic “superstitions” and become mega-church Evangelicals after having emigrated to the USA! Not me. If that were the only choice, I would prefer to be a “religionless Christian” as in the thought of Bonhöffer. Again don’t worry about others, who have the discover the right thing for themselves and what may follow their deaths, but our own role as the leaven in the dough.
I cannot advise you or judge what is right for you, even less for those I don’t know or understand. Yes, say the Office, read the Scriptures, Fathers and good theologians. Increase your knowledge. Write books and articles. Do a blog on the internet.
I wish you every happiness and consolation in this New Year.