In thinking about church reform – and what Catholic isn’t these days – it’s easy to see it as something “they” should do. “They” being, of course, the church hierarchy, from the Pope to the cardinals to the bishops to the clergy to leaders from the laity. And clearly, “they” do need to reform – desperately.
But what about us? “Us” being rank-and-file Catholics, or even people of other faith traditions that may be struggling with similar issues?
That was, it seems to me, the unspoken question informing last month’s talk by Franciscan Friar and Priest Father Ross Chamberland, Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement at St. Bonaventure University. It brought a Franciscan perspective to the Church on Fire – Stay With Us! lecture series organized by Blessed Sacrament Church, underwritten by Catherine M. and Paul W. Beltz, for which Buffalo Rising is the media sponsor.
This series of lectures, concerts, and presentations is bringing a series of perspectives to the issue of church reform and the question of how to stay relevant during our time of existential challenges for organized religion and self-inflicted wounds. In 2020 the series debuted with the Vincentian perspective and resumed last fall, after a COVID hiatus, with a discussion on the role of the laity. Next week, on Thursday, February 24, we will hear from a Jesuit (see below).
Father Chamberland was introduced by Parish Council President Michael Pitek, initiator and organizer of the lecture series.
You can view the entire lecture here:
Having heard Father Chamberland talk, I can see why the students at St. Bonaventure would appreciate him so much. He talked about sitting outside the student life center smoking a cigar to help make himself visible and accessible to students. In his lecture, which was just as much a sermon, he shared ideas from sources one doesn’t often find in Catholic sermons, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. He was very candid about his background and talked openly about the death of a friend who gave him a coat that he still wears.
In a way, he reminded me of Buffalo’s own most visible Franciscan friar, Father Jud Weiksnar, who is similarly available to his congregants – and the entire community through events such as the Holy Roll – and candid about his background.
An excellent collection of highlights from the lecture can be found in WNY Catholic, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Buffalo, including the following:
- “We see the world with sacramental eyes when we experience love. What happens when someone you love…dies? That relationship doesn’t end.”
- “One person makes the difference. And sacraments are a way of pursuing reality.”
- “We need to see divinity and humility, and give God the access codes to our hearts.”
- “Beyond our brokenness and pain there is something more. We are told we are not alone.”
Father Chamberland also discussed one of the less popular, most overlooked of the sacraments among contemporary Catholics: penance.
“We need to do it, and the Church needs to do it,” he said.
“The Church needs to do it,” “it” being penance, may be the closest that Father Chamberland came to calling for church reform in his lecture on church reform. Had I missed something, I wondered? The next day I posed that question to Michael Pitek, creator and organizer of the lecture series. He told me,
- His presentation certainly addresses “rebuilding the church” but from a very personal perspective;
- His whole discourse about sacramental imagination and sacramental eyes is based on trust, openness, etc…I felt they definitely apply to us in the buffalo Diocese;
- His is a call to personal deepening of one’s own faith, relationship to God;
- He speaks to a re-centering on the sacraments as a way for an individual to rebuild his/her relationship with God: a sort of “rightsizing” of the “Faith Boat;”
- He also speaks to the relevancy of God in our lives…something that seems too have dimmed given all of the scandals, etc…how do we rebuild our relationship with God?
While I couldn’t disagree with any of that, I was still having trouble seeing it as a “reform” message. After all, in church history we associate reform with loud calls for change and even agitation: 95 theses nailed to a church door or fiery preaching of the kind that made upstate New York the “Burned Over District” during the Second Great Awakening. Yet that was not the kind of message Father Chamberland gave. Why not?
I think I found, after digging into the life of St. Francis, that the answer is this: it would not be Franciscan.
For one, as I was surprised to learn, there is no evidence St. Francis even intended to be a reformer. In fact, he was surprised when others began to follow him. As Franciscan Father Don Miller puts it:
It appears from his writing and behavior that he did not intend to found an order or start a movement. He simply chose a way of life that he felt God was calling him to live. As a result, Francis never condemned those who did not choose to live as he did. He was more focused on his own need for conversion than on that of others. But in that very attitude, he created the change that was needed.
St. Francis also attempted to return to an original version of Christianity by not only taking a vow of poverty but also living and working among the poor and outcast. Christ and the Apostles had done the same, founding a faith that spread like wildfire, particularly among the vast underclass on whose labors the Roman Empire was built.
And if that wasn’t radical enough, St. Francis also began to espouse a revolutionary view of nature that ran counter to the anthropocentric Judeo-Christian view of humanity’s centrality and dominance. Instead, he saw all of nature as connected and worthy of respect.
Clearly, Francis is a saint for our own time, an era like that of the early Church in which unimaginably powerful, vast empires are built on the backs of a vast underclass fed bread and circuses – only now on such a vast scale as to jeopardize the well being of all nature and all people.
In such an environment it is no surprise that our Pope would take the name Francis despite being a Jesuit. Pope Francis’ efforts at reform, like his namesake, began with himself, rejecting many of the trappings of office. As a Cardinal, he took the bus and spent much of his time among the poor of the favelas of Argentina.
An in his most notable proclamation as Pope, his remarkable encyclical on the environment, he borrowed heavily from Franciscan teachings. He even took the title of his encyclical, Laudato Si, from the first line of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures.
Father Chamberland’s message on reform then, was indeed a very Franciscan one: reform needs to start with us. And St. Francis’ teachings, embraced by Pope Francis, tell us we also need to reform our relationships with our fellow humans, and our relationship to nature.
And those acts, in this age of imperial wealth and power, plague, pestilence, wars and rumors of wars, and runaway climate change, may put Christians as much at odds with principalities and powers as in the earliest days of the faith. But it also may be the only thing, now as then, that makes the Church relevant to the rest of society and true to its founding teachings.
The teaching continues next week with the next presentation in the Church on Fire – Stay With Us series.
NEXT UP in the Catherine M. and Paul W. Beltz Lecture Series:
St. Ignatius of Loyola – Then and Today: Ignatian Spirituality
Rev. Thomas Slon, S.J., Rector of the Jesuit Community of Buffalo
Thursday, February 24, 2022 @ 7:00 PM
Blessed Sacrament Church, Delaware Avenue at Utica
Free off-street parking is available in the parking lot behind the Catholic Academy of West Buffalo, 1069 Delaware Avenue. The lot can be accessed from two locations: Delaware Avenue and Lexington Avenue; and from Linwood Avenue.