It’s a question I get asked everywhere I go these days, “So what do you think of the new pope?” It’s not a question I am used to being asked; steeped as I’ve been most of my life in Protestant circles. But now that I wear the collar and rub shoulders with Catholics more often, I field this question a lot.
My first response is usually to attempt to explain to people that as an Old Catholic priest our jurisdiction doesn’t follow the Pope. We consider him a Bishop, a colleague, a brother in the faith, but not as someone with supreme control over our church. Generally that explanation is met by some blank stares; people can’t seem to understand that there are many different strains of catholicism and that not all of them are in communion with Rome.
My second response is generally to make a joke: With how popular Pope Francis is, he’s hurting my market share! With all of these people loving on the Pope and returning to the Roman Catholic churches of their childhood, the number of people who fall into the camp of “Recovering Catholics” (and who communities like mine draw on) is dropping. I’m joking, of course. At least mostly joking. It’s not a competition around church attendance and I’m thankful for people feeling like they can return to a church they had been alienated from.
But it does raise larger questions for me.
- It’s sad to me that the Pope is getting so much attention for simply preaching the Gospel. Why is it news when someone calls capitalism tyranny? Or questions our economic priorities? Or speaks of a church giving itself away for the poor and marginalized? It’s news because so often the church hasn’t given itself away. The church has sided with the rich, protected it’s own interests (financial and otherwise), and in general followed the whims of the market. Pope Francis’ words are a gut check to people who have forgotten what it means to follow in the way of Jesus.
Certainly there have been people speaking prophetically over the years, but they haven’t had the platform and reach that Pope Francis does (which should maybe raise some questions about how other liberal churches get their message out, but I’ve been writing about that for a while).
- It’s also sad that people feel that the only legitimate Catholic church is the Roman one. Old Catholics trace themselves back to the Union of Utrecht; our priests and Bishops have apostolic succession. Our sacraments are valid and we offer the same ones that the Roman church does: Eucharist, confession, marriage, baptism, ordination, anointing of the sick, etc.
(Just a note, if those things aren’t important to you in a church, that’s fine. I’m not saying that only churches who do those things are valid, but just that if those things are important to you, they way they are done in the Old Catholic church is just as valid as the Roman Catholic church.)
- I am frustrated that, because of the economic message of Pope Francis, people are willing to go back to an institutional church that denies women ordination and continues to marginalize queer and/or transgender people.
I understand that there are people who are called to work for change within institutions, but at some point, remaining in those institutions becomes problematic. Your presence in the pews allows those doors to remain open. You putting money in the offering plate allows injustice to persist (because that money goes all the way up the chain and pays for things you may or may not support).
- A change in tone is welcome, but a change in practices is going to be slow coming. Just on a practical level, when you have a church as large and spread out as the Roman Catholic church, substantial change is going to take a long time to trickle down. Which means that practical policies could take years or decades to shift. (And let’s be clear: on issues such as women’s ordination and inclusion of queer and/or transgender people there hasn’t been any hint of a call for a change in practices.)
Obviously I’m biased. I’m a part of an independent Catholic movement. I’m invested in my calling to plant a church (and my belief that church planting is the way to go). I’ll put my cards on the table: I believe that the independent movement (when it’s working at its best) can be powerful and has the potential to grow and to reach all sorts of people. I believe that the independent movement is where we should be placing our time, resources, and energy.
The independent church has very little overhead. Almost all of the priests and bishops work full time jobs which means that the money that goes to support the church is going a lot farther. Most of our churches don’t own buildings and so there is less overhead around upkeep. (Most of us pay rent, but that is a lot less than heating a giant building and paying a mortgage, taxes, repairs, etc.) And the fact that priests are relying on local communities for all of their finances means that they can preach and teach prophetically when needed. They can preach what the Spirit is leading them to day. They can tell the truth.
We’re small which means we can respond quickly. If there is a pastoral response needed we don’t have to run it through fifty chains of command in order to get something approved. We have Bishops, but the hierarchy is there to support and serve, not to rule over and micromanage.
We are open, without question, to all people. We don’t have to hide our welcome and inclusion of women and queer and transgender folks in the priesthood. We don’t have to play games about whether or not divorced people or people who use birth control are allowed to take communion. We can march in Pride parades and hold Transgender Day of Remembrance services without fear of excommunication. You don’t have to wonder if this priest will turn you away when you approach the altar or that you’ll be kicked out if you hold your partner’s hand at Mass.
If you have a calling to the ministry you don’t have to worry that you’ll be turned away because of your gender, gender identity, or marital status. You don’t have to wait to see what happens, to see if the rules will change. You don’t have to have a covert ordination or serve on the fringes or sidelines of the church.
We offer the sacraments. You don’t have to be deprived of the sacraments or of being a part of a community that speaks your theological language. You don’t have to worry that you’ll hear hatred from the pulpit during the homily or that the Mass will be used to alienate and wound people. You don’t have to check your personal beliefs or conscience at the door of the church (and you don’t have to lie about what you believe).
But since we are a small movement, there is a certain investment required. People might notice if you only show up to Mass once a month (not because they are being judgmental, but because they miss your presence)! There will be times when “all hands on deck” will be required to staff a booth at Pride or to work on a service project for people in your town.
I am thankful that Pope Francis’ actions seem to match his words (and sad that that is such a rare occurrence). I, too, have been moved at the photos of him embracing people, taking selfies with students, and with his stripped down and simple style. I think that he offers important words that churches and priests need to take to heart. I am definitely learning a lot by watching and listening to him about what my own priesthood means.
I appreciate that he is calling the church back to (some of) the core of the Gospel. His words about the meaning of the Eucharist, about homilies that don’t suck (my words), about a church that is in the streets, are important for all churches (not just Catholic ones) to listen to.
But in the end, for me, it comes down to inclusion and impatience. I don’t have time for the larger institution to get it together and start welcoming all people. People are dying (literally) for places where they can have their souls fed while being all of who they are. They don’t have time to wait for the change to trickle down. They don’t have time to wait for the powers that be to change their minds about the humanity of queer and transgender people or about the callings of women. We don’t have time to wait to start doing justice work in our communities. And as more and more people leave the church, never to return, while still longing for community and religious tradition we don’t have time to wait.