It's a familiar question these days: What would Jesus do? Or what if we came across Jesus living in our suburb or community today, how would we react? Emmy Silvius came across a book recently that's been around for a while and has become an unexpected best-seller around the world for its priest-author, Fr Joseph Girzone. Readers who are not familiar with Fr Girzone's books will enjoy this introduction and how this book in particular relates to the questions we started this introduction with.
If Jesus were amongst us today...
I found inspiration for this article after reading Joshua: A Parable for Today by Joseph F. Girzone. Though fictional, it very much inspires thinking of how Jesus would act towards the various church authorities if he were living amongst us today. Girzone has Joshua being the newly incarnated Son of God which he refers to as Father in his book. Personally, I would have preferred Joshua to be Jessica and God the Father to be called God the Mother, but this is of little significance when we focus on the relevance of the message.
At 30 years of age, Joshua moves into a simple house on the edge of a small village and usually keeps to himself, though he does engage with the townsfolk when he goes for walks or buys food in the local store. He is very much the topic of conversation as he makes an impression on those he encounters, mainly because of his calm and compassionate manner and seemingly deep knowledge of all matters pertaining to God and religion. As it turns out everyone is curious to know what this stranger, who also happens to be a woodworker, thinks of religion. Particularly as he not only attends the various denominational churches but also goes to the synagogue in the City, which adds to the growing curiosity. Joshua did not preach of his own accord but when asked he would readily speak passionately about faith issues:
"Real religion is in people's hearts, not in buildings. Religious leaders always felt they had to organise people and structure the practice of religion in such a way that they would become the highly respected mediaries with God, and religion then became the practice of doing what religious leaders told one to do and deteriorated into the measurable observance of manmade laws.
Religion doesn't have to be like that. Jesus taught that people are free, free to enjoy being God's children, free to grow and become the beautiful people God intended. But this is impossible in the presence of rigid authority that needs to control people's thinking and their free expression.
The Catholic Church shows a beautiful tenacity to the precise letter of Jesus' teachings, but it has missed the message of freedom that was so essential to Jesus' spirit, and it has done shameful things to enforce the observance of the letter of the law in its devotion to dogma (emphasis mine). That was what the chief priests and the Pharisees did in their time. They failed to see the main thrust of Jesus' life, which was to free the human spirit from the theological prisons that religious leaders construct for people. Fidelity to the teachings of Jesus cannot be forced by threat of punishment. Jesus never wanted that. He wanted the human spirit to find him in freedom and to embrace him joyously and spontaneously."
As you can imagine not everyone was pleased with this type of preaching. Before long a group of conservatives confronted him and let him know that they were quite disturbed with his claims that their religion deprived people of their freedom. In particular, they were offended that he commented on how people who stick to the old ideas are incapable of growth, and that Catholics are stuck more on the external observances of religion than on loving God and their neighbour.
This is exactly what exemplifies the frustration many of us feel today. So many people long to live out what they feel in their hearts to be the real meaning of their faith but are unable to make the link with their local faith communities. Why? Because they are tired of being talked down to; of the focus being on the rambling of words rather than the movement of the Spirit. They have grown weary of all the bullying, cover-ups, and discrimination – the list goes on... Ah yes, and all the rules – there are so many rules that one looses sight of the message. It's a bit like not being able to see the forest for the trees. Yes, there are a few brave priests and bishops running the gauntlet of their superiors whilst attempting to be the good shepherd for their people. However, they can only go so far before their own futures are threatened and fear brings them back into line. Indeed, where is the freedom? Why is freedom so feared by the authorities? The focus of the hierarchy appears to be on public display and power rather than spiritual matters. Which is more important?
More insights from Joshua...
Let us return to my intriguing book. The local bishop and chancellor send a letter of complaint to the Vatican; greatly exaggerating what they perceive as Joshua's spurious ideas. His popularity was growing to such an extent that they feared the possibility of a schism. Surprise, surprise, within a short period Joshua was summoned to Rome to be questioned by the Congregation for the Doctrines of Faith. By this time Joshua had become so popular that when the local community learnt that he was to report to Rome, journalists came to interview him. This is what Joshua told them:
Church officials are concerned about order among people; prophets are concerned about people's relationship with God. There will always be tension between the two. Only when officials try to suppress the voice of prophets is real damage done to people and to God's message. This tension would be lessened if spiritual leaders were as knowledgeable about spiritual things as they are about the worldly business of the Church. The real key to progress in the kingdom of God is not in legal structures but in allowing people to enjoy their freedom as God's children and to grow as individuals, not constrained by rigid laws that prevent growth. The Church has to get away from the role of universal moral policeman and judge of human behaviour. She must learn to guide by inspiring people to noble ideals and not by legislating human behaviour. The sheep will always flee when shepherd try to bully them. Human behaviour must be free if it is to be pleasing to God.
The final two chapters of the book tell of Joshua's journey by ship to Rome and his interrogation by the Vatican officials. By this time many people are starting to question his real identity, some even wondering if he could indeed be of divine nature. He had not done any formal studies and yet he had such knowledge of God and matters of the Church. He had also left miracles in his wake. The Cardinal and Bishops thought they could outsmart this simple uneducated man but as the proceedings progressed the more frustrated they became that he seemingly had an answer for everything. When he was asked whether he accepted authority, he replied:
Authority is necessary, but the proper understanding of authority is essential. Jesus taught that his apostles and shepherds should be like lights in darkness, giving light and inspiration to the flock and treating the flock, not as beneath them, as subjects to be ruled, but as brothers and sisters who need compassionate understanding and at times, rare times, firm admonition when they endanger others. That is different from looking at people as subjects to be ruled by regulation and decree as civil officials do their subjects. There is no room for that kind of authority in the Church. It demeans people and creates a caste system, which is totally foreign to the mind of Jesus.
As it happened, the Cardinal suffered a stroke towards the end of the proceedings. Joshua then walked up to him and cured him with the touch of his hand. The Cardinal's eyes were opened. From that moment on he tried to convince the Bishops present to be more compassionate with their questioning but to no avail. Afterwards the Cardinal spoke with the Pope but his heart was 'hardened' as well and he would not believe the message the Cardinal was desperately trying to express. For those who would like to know how the book ends, I will convey that it is a bit of a mystery — Joshua apparently vanishes into thin air after clearly being observed walking into his room.
I have no doubt that most, if not every single church leader, started their ministries with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, it would seem that somewhere along the way, the exterior appearance of 'cloak' and 'ring' smothered their humble motivations. Consider how opposed Jesus was to the robes and pomp and ceremony of the Pharisees in his time. These learned men were very well versed in Scripture, yet they were so fixated on their laws that they missed seeing the living Christ walking amongst them in the streets of Jerusalem. It was obvious that Jesus was extremely opposed to the outward manifestation of the Temple. Indeed he prophesised the destruction of the Temple. Could it be time for another 'Temple' to be split in two? It seems that history just keeps repeating itself — the identity of the people may change but the attitude remains very much the same.
There is no doubting that God indeed lives amongst us and within us in many forms beyond our wildest imaginations. If we but could see! The many outspoken prophets of our day are certainly proof of this. It seems to me that we are living in a significant time within the history of our Church. The wheels may be turning slowly but they are turning. It is up to all people of good will to make sure the wheels are on the right track — the track that Jesus mapped out for us.
Emmy Silvius submitted to Catholica 12 May 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?