Exorcising the Ghost of Assisi

27 08 2008

For the devotee of the Lefebvrist movement, 1987 was a water shed year. The ecumenical prayer meeting at Assisi was cited by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as one of the events that led him to consecrate four bishops without the consent of the Pope of Rome a year later and thus incur the penalty of excommunication for all involved in that action. There was no excuse, according to his argument, for medicine men to practice their craft in the streets sanctified by the feet of St. Francis, or for idols to be put atop Catholic altars. Regardless of what side you happen to fall on in the debate, for the typical orthodox Catholic, Assisi just didn’t look right. And it is hard to argue that it was not exactly what it appeared to be. As a former adherent of that movement, these residual criticisms still linger in me.

At this point, I will just add the disclaimer that this is not a short essay intended to berate the late Pontiff for an action that encouraged indifferentism, nor is it an auto-da-fe of an ex-Lefebvrist who has “seen the light”. Quite frankly, I find the tendency of condemning people who have already gone to their judgement and of expressing intense mea culpas regarding former views equally distasteful. Who I was when I was a fire-breathing militant traditionalist and who I am now are basically the same. I have just calmed down a bit.

That being said, I was reading the other day then Cardinal Ratzinger’s analysis of this event in his book Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. In it, of course, he tries to tread very delicately around what happened at Assisi, and he gives some basic guidelines on how inter-religious prayer should be practiced. He is very diplomatic in writing about the event after the fact, and the most he concedes is that there are “many dangers” involved in these exercises and it is “indisputable” that they were misinterpreted by many people. On the other hand, he lays down principles that need to be kept in mind when having such events. Among them, he says that inter-religious prayer cannot be a “normal” exercise, but rather an event that should occur in certain extreme circumstances, such as times of war. For this reason, then Cardinal Ratzinger opines that these events should be rare occurrences. The current Pope thus concedes that the dangers in such exercises are real, to the point that it seems that, for the casual reader, the effort it would take to put the event in the right context is enough to make it far from worth while to hold.

Getting back to the more personal notes in this essay, I must say that I always made for a bad Lefebvrist. It’s not that I am not as stubborn as a mule to assert that I am right in the face of everyone else telling me otherwise (trust me, I am). It is more that I have always been too cosmopolitan of a person to regard others who disagree with me as not having a point even in a limited way. It’s not that I like to focus on “what unites us”. To be quite frank, the people who I have most admired and who have most inspired me in my life were a bunch of hard headed curmudgeons who didn’t have a nice bone in their body when it came to what they believed. El pan es pan y el vino es vino, as they say in Spanish. When it comes to faith, there is little room for messing around. Also, at least in my own little bubble of a world, perhaps being placed firmly in your beliefs to the point of intolerance is not some sort of license to impale your neighbor on your sword, but rather a foundation on which sincere charity (and not superficial “niceness”) is built. Intransigence in the truth means humility before the truth. The good believer (not the fundamentalist) does not reply to invitations to compromise his beliefs with the sword, but rather says a stauch yet somewhat sorrowful “non possumus”: we simply can’t. We are servants of the truth, not its masters.

In the end, the Assisis of the world bother me not just because they “look bad” (I have some other words in mind, but I won’t mention them). The ecumenical gestures of the world bother me because I simply don’t think they are very honest. I don’t think that Hindus become better people by being better Hindus, but I do think that Hindus will be better people if Catholics are better Catholics. The best way for Catholics to show “common ground” with other belief systems is to show that Catholicism is the way of life that can encompass all of them and bring them to perfection, and that means a pure, unadulterated, Eurocentric. logocentric, patriarchal, etc., etc., Catholicism as it has always been. Catholicism simply must “roll over” other belief systems, and in that process, the other belief systems will begin to meld, develop, and blossom new Catholic cultures, very much based on the original, but still very much as native as the pagan religions. All one must do is look to the Philipines and Latin America to see places that are thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly “other”. The traditions of the Word Incarnate invaded and stayed there, went native and colonized all in one fell swoop.

In the end, we also have to develop another culture of culture tolerance. I still reflect at times on Robert Rubenstein’s book, Aristotle’s Children, on Spain under the Muslims where Catholics, Jews, and Muslims lived in some sense of harmony (though unstable and unequal), feeding off of each other and exchanging ideas. Perhaps this is too much of a romantic portrayal shadowed by modern prejudices against the power of the Church and its “monstrous” Inquisition. All the same, I would rather spend my time conversing with my neighbor rather than running him through with my pitchfork. We have to get to the point where we can all “be ourselves” even if I am fully convinced that the guy next to me is wrong, wrong, wrong! I no longer can become indignant at such events as what happened at Assisi, though I think we dismiss the dangers of them at our own peril. It is just that such ghosts no longer haunt me. Call me jaded, or call me apathetic. I just think that as long as we live in a tolerant society, even if we full well know the dangers of it, we should enjoy it.


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6 responses

4 09 2008
Jaya

Has anyone read the Autobiography of a Yogi and his visit to Therese Neuwman the stigmatic.
They prayed together and she is a saint and miracle worker.

3 09 2008
evagrius

You should read about Abhishiktananda, ( Dom Henri Le Saux).

I’d like to see your responses.

30 08 2008
Jasper

The 1987 prayer meeting struck some as something of a throwback on the part of Pontifex Maximus.

You write: “That being said, I was reading the other day then Cardinal Ratzinger’s analysis of this event in his book Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions… he says that inter-religious prayer cannot be a “normal” exercise, but rather an event that should occur in certain extreme circumstances, such as times of war.”
Does he cite any precedence for his assertion?

29 08 2008
triunepieces

Hindus being better Hindus. I’ve heard this attributed to Blessed Mother Theresa, but I’m not sure if it’s true. If it is true, then I struggle with it.

I also struggle with the Maryknoll kind of Catholic approach, in which sometimes the program seems a bit soft on “conversion” in the traditional sense, and the focus is more on the ministry of being in and among the people, for the sake of being in and among the people. (And then there’s some of the eye-rolling titles of Orbis Books, but that’s another subject.) A gentler form of Charles de Foucauld if you will. A life completely hidden as a foreigner among people with a foreign God. There’s beauty to it. But, yet, I wonder, in what way does it build the Kingdom of God.

(Then there’s the persistent nagging of what ways am I serving the kingdom of God with my full belly on my couch at home?)

Then I think of Brother Zeno, the veritable Holy Fool who served with Father Kolbe in Japan who was only given limited rites as a priest. I can’t imagine that he had the social or the educational skills to convert many, yet I’m told he had such love and simple devotion to the people of Japan, that he in fact converted many, even if he didn’t preach with silver tongue.

Did Charles de Foucauld ever pray with the Muslim bedouin of Algeria? Did Brother Zeno ever pray with the Shinto of Japan? Did Theresa ever pray with the Hindus or Muslims of Calcutta? I don’t know. If they did, I’m sure there were no media present to document it as a gesture of union between religious leaders for the humanitarian benefit of the world. It was probably a moment of thankfulness from people who actually relied on their God/gods to live and fulfill their day to day existence.

I do know that living arm in arm with people of different religions can definitely transform the expectation of what God’s Kingdom is supposed to look like. I have found far more in common between my devotional life to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary and that of the bhakti (devotion) my Hindu neighbors to their Krishna then I’ve experienced in common with the Dutch Reformed Calvinists I’ve lived among.

27 08 2008
The Shepherd

I can understand Levebere and other traditionalists point about Assisi. Traditionally Catholicism have taken the “Hey you kids get off my lawn!” approach to inter-faith dialogue.

27 08 2008
Leah

Part of the problem is that there seems to be confusion as to what exactly is supposed to be the outcome of all of these inter-religious and ecumenical gestures. Is it to just have a nice chat with other people? Is it to convert people into the Church under the guise of talking? To prevent anti-Catholic violence? To me anyway, it’s not particularly clear. As heated as discussions of ecumenicism and inter-faith dialogue are among Internet “Church nerds” of all types, how many regular pewsitters believe that their particular sect, denomination, or church is the “true Church”? How many actually know what theological position they claim to profess by virtue of attending a church of a particular denomination? Very few, I would think. Hence, I would think that most modern Americans by default are religiously indifference, regardless of their supposed affiliations. Assisi or not, I think it’s a fair guess that when most people think of John Paul II, they think of a “hard-liner” and a “traditionalist,” as opposed to a man unwittingly undermining his own Church.

I agree with you that conversing with one’s neighbor is more preferable than trying to stone them into submission. I think that real dialogue comes from regular people just talking about religious matters, rather than high-ups publishing high-minded but confusing documents about how much we have in common with (insert whichever group). For example, I recently completed an internship at a Jewish museum, building a website for them. During this period, the Jewish workers would ask me questions about Catholicism and I would ask some questions about Judaism. However, one thing that was quite obvious was that they would never convert to any form of Christianity out of principle. It wasn’t explicit, but there was a feeling that I got that some of them drew a straight line from Jesus to Auschwitz, and that the Catholic Church essentially started antisemitism. I don’t want to give the impression that it was an awful experience – they were actually some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and I wouldn’t mind working there permenantly – but it gave me some insight into the limits inter-religious dialouge.

This illustrates what I believe is the primary problem with inter-faith dialogue between Catholics and Jews. Based on their own collective experiences, Jews don’t want to be the object of evangelization and view it as offensive when Catholics do so. Catholics, on the other hand, think everyone needs to join the Church, regardless of one’s ethnic or previous religion. To not evangelize is letting others needlessly slide into perdition. These premises are like two parallel lines that will never meet. To really speak the truth about what these two groups believe about each other without being religiously indifferent will offend at least one party. Offending someone and expecting disagreement seems to be a vital part of the process that few people involved in ecumenical and inter-religious activities really want to experience .

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