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In this imaginative scenario Tom McMahon is picturing the Roman Catholic Church today as two trains stuck on two different tracks. Essentially neither of them are going anywhere at the moment. One has the potential to go somewhere but ahead of the other only lies a set of twisted tracks. He takes a look inside the carriages of each train today to see who is aboard each train.
Two trains, two separate tracks... who's on board?
This past week end was spent in travel and listening; we attended four erudite talks by John Dominic Crossan and a film festival at Stanford University. Crossan, of Jesus Seminar fame, offered on Paul and the Apostle's matrix in the Roman Empire; a documentary on married catholic clergy was seen on Sunday. I will offer a synopsis of both to Catholica readers shortly. I have become aware that my Polar Express (train of thought) has unconsciously left the main line track of the Trentan priesthood and is careening (like in the movie virtually trackless) thru "dark winter snows". We are experiencing trying times for the ordained male clergy. In my imaginative word pictures we take a peek in some of the carriages on both trains.
I had a short fix-me-upper conversation today with a liberal married deacon, telling him it was the first time I had been to "confession" in 35 years. As the Holy Spirit whirlwinds I needed to talk with someone who is grounded in the midst of the religious chaos of today. I have simpatico with the people of the era of the American and French Revolutions as well as Roman Catholics today.
We left off last week with a promise to x-ray the travelers on the two separate trains that are now on parallel tracks. In what follows todayI break them up into categories (as best I can) using the analogies of railway cars such as passenger, Pullman sleepers and even caboose. In my amateurish attempt to ferret out theological and psychological positions I keep in mind two stories concerning people dangerously stuck in winter snow drifts, both having historically taken place in the High Sierra Mountains near Donner Summit in California and separated by 107 years. Both took place a short distance from our family winter chalet (7000 feet); both experiences the terrain I know well.
In 1953 the Southern Pacific passenger train "City of San Francisco" was ambushed by storm and avalanches and stalled and was entombed for three days at Emigrant Gap. Just 15 miles east the Donner Party of 1846 was frustrated in their attempt to bring their wagon train over the Summit, 42 members surcoming to exposure and starvation as they were stranded in abnormally high winter snows of 20 feet depth. Our chalet becomes embedded in 15-20 feet of snow; I pay $500 a winter for snow removal. The old and the new were in virtually the same locale and were threatened by the same conditions. My modern application of these tragedies will focus on four words: namely storm, stuck, ambushed, and stalled.
The Pre-Vatican Two Train…
Let's look first at the intellectual train marked PRE-VATICAN TWO. I see its aged structure as stuck in medieval 16th century history.
The main line Trentan train has been brought to a halt by John the 23rd's avalanche and appeared to be stalled on the tracks, as liturgy, language, freedom, social and dogmatic change broadsided and engulfed it. Opened to the modern world the institutional church made meaningful changes, letting in John's fresh air until Pope John Paul 2 began to slam shut the windows, a job Benedict continues relentlessly to pursue. Vatican Two focused on the rights and duty of the laity; the Curia's attempt to suffocate Vatican Two has become a warning signal to modern thinkers, encouraging further education and questioning of the old time faith.
Due to the failure of the air conditioning system passengers on board the City of San Francisco in 1953 were found after three days of entombment to be comatose, asleep and close to a silent death from carbon monoxide; rescuers opened windows just in time. The present Pope calls for a leaner, smaller church, not realizing that as they turn off John's air conditioning passengers on board have fallen into a sleep of disinterest and indifference; this institutional train now seems to be full of semi-corpses, merely going thru ritual and routines. Benedict and the Curia seem to be more interested in the mechanical condition of the institution and hierarchy than in the spiritual health of the people. Protecting clerical power is the Roman focus.
In my imagination I see cars marked PRE VATICAN TWO as having further identification, a sleeping car reserved CLERGY ONLY, cars labeled CATHOLIC GRADE SCHOOL KIDS, still supervised by the thinking of the old time nuns in holy habits, and three or four cabooses filled with NOMINAL CATHOLICS who know that their parents had them baptized and they can't be "saved" without some connection to Romanism and who wonder how they ever got on board. One might say that many find themselves on board the caboose going along just for the ride and surely have no idea of the papal engineer. There is a partially filled car marked ACADEMICS, some of whom are mindful of job security and hesitant to transfer trains and whose need is to quote a select group of long dead theologians. The most important sign on the whole train is its destination, "BOUND FOR HEAVEN". I venture to say that this PRE VATICAN TRAIN has not only stalled but is stuck in the grip of old time Europe. Its driveshaft has been disconnected and it appears to have no future. Perhaps the most disturbing signs throughout read "DO NOT DISTURB". Old trains never die they just museum away. Will Rome and the papacy join the rest of the antiques that tourist come to see?
The Vatican Two Train…
Now whose on board that VATICAN TWO TRAIN — and can we honestly say it idles alongside its Vatican One predecessor? Our grandson Sebastian watches no TV at his home; he is treated to fifteen minutes of Thomas the Tank Engine when visiting his grandparents. Each cartoon train has a name and in the mind of a toddler it would be easy to say an older train gives birth to a young one; so let's say the medieval train of Trent and Vatican One gives birth to the Roncalli Express, the Council of 1962; the latter has swiftly moved worldwide by way of electronic communication.
At the time of Pope John the 23rd's death a nine-year-old black stopped this writer who then wore a roman collar, the boy obviously from a Baptist family, and said "my family offers sympathy at the passing of your great preacher". John was ecumenical as was his teacher Jesus. The railway cars on track Congar-Roncalli are a mixed bag of passengers with diverse ethnic backgrounds; some are found in the dining car feeding the poor, while others are on leave picketing at Fort Benning in Georgia, and some pass their time getting to know one another and reading and they are anxious that the train move on as they have work to do in this world. This train is powered by what we used to call actual grace. I notice reading material from authors like Kung, Bausch, Shillebeechx, and Morwood; I see an article by the former monk Thomas Moore (His new book is "THE JOY OF DISCOVERING WHAT YOU WERE BORN TO DO").
In the September-October 2008 issue of SPIRITUALITY AND HEALTH under the caption "Care of the Soul", Moore offers "the appearance in life of a new possibility, the hint of a new self, can be challenging, frightening, and confusing … life is always a mixture of creativity and destruction." Thomas furthers with encouragement to open new doors, as he has done, discovering new spirituality, particularly in the realm of parenting. This former monk speaks of leaving behind the old ways and embracing new possibilities. I'd say he is not entombed in the past and has a seat on the Roncalli Express.
Sunday I attended the 80th birthday party of my classmate John Kelly; John started seminary with me when we were 13 years old in 1942 and is a ordained member of the Menlo Men of '54. John left institutional ministry after 25 years of parish and high school teacher service. The people of St. Mark's, Belmont, Ca. knew in advance John was saying his last mass yet were surprised when he took off his cassock publicly, dropping it to the floor and sang in his beautiful tenor voice BORN FREE. John was fast into a full-time Jesus ministry.
I have valued John's friendship for 68 years. His party was hosted by his family and attended by over two hundred — people who were once affiliated with John in the Cursillo movement and his founding and administrating SAMARITAN HOUSE, an outreach sanctuary for the under privileged in San Mateo, Ca. a wealthy county to which the Irish fled after World War Two from San Francisco. John spends two days a week at San Quentin Prison, teaching and counseling It is well known that as John walks across the prison courtyard many are the voices that call out "hi John" and "good to see ya, John". John encouraged his birthday guests to be aware that there are many repentant saints in prison who need our support and forgiveness for crimes they committed when 18 years old. John is a Christian, a frequent flyer on his own Polar Express. I hold him as the finest priest ever ordained from my seminary.
Perhaps James Joyce's HERE COMES EVERYBODY fits the passenger list on board the Roncalli Expresss … everybody who takes Jesus seriously as Lord of our thoughts and guide.
The train moves on next week toward station MARRIAGE.
Tom McMahon from outpost San Jose, Ca. 05/11/2008
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?