By Ken Trainor
Sooner than later, the Archdiocese of Chicago will have a new archbishop. Cardinal Francis George has reached retirement age (75). He's also suffering from cancer.
When the day comes to name his replacement, Rome will not be asking for input from Chicago's Roman Catholics on what they expect from their new prelate. That's unfortunate, but it's the current reality.
However, that doesn't mean we can't offer our input anyway, which is the idea behind a new book put out by ACTA Publications. An Irrespressible Hope – Notes from Chicago Catholics attempts to answer a question that hasn't been asked.
As the book's editor, Claire Bushey, writes in her introduction, "Taken collectively, these essays from pew-sitters and pulpit-pounders alike would document the splendid variety and vibrancy of the Chicago Catholic church at this moment in its history."
Very likely the Papal Nuncio in Washington D.C., who will name George's replacement, will receive a copy.
"While I do not expect the powers-that-be to select Chicago's archbishop based on the wisdom in this slim volume," Bushey writes, "I do believe this: An idea is a durable thing. It lays around, strewn on the floor of the cultural consciousness until the day it is needed, when an individual or a society or even a religion picks it up, dusts it off and puts it to work. This is the reason to answer unasked questions."
Among those contributing are Patricia Crowley O.S.B., prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago; Rev. Dominic Grassi, pastor of St. Gertrude in Edgewater; Jean Morman Unsworth, Sister of Mercy and professor of fine arts at Loyola University; sixth-grader Mairi Glynn; Robert McClory, writer and retired Northwestern University journalism professor.
And yours truly. Here's an abbreviated version of my contribution, "Where two or more are gathered":
Most Sundays, I take my elderly mother to Mass at Ascension Church in Oak Park, a large, vibrant community of roughly 2,500 families. I was baptized there 60 years ago this June.
So our roots run deep. We sit up front because my mom is 86. The first pew provides real immediacy. Sometimes a little too much. Frankly, many Sundays are a struggle for me. I'm a critic. It's my profession and my nature. Sitting through the Liturgy of the Word and the preparation for the Eucharist makes me want to subject this ritual to a rigorous rewrite — and that was before the "new translation." Now I wince as my fellow parishioners gamely say "consubstantial" and "He was incarnate of the Blessed Virgin" — tone-deaf, leaden language from bureaucrats in love with Latin derivatives. It holds us at a distance.
Christianity, when you break it down to essentials, is elegantly simple. It centers on love-of God and our fellow humans. The more removed we are from these essentials, the more trouble we get into. The hierarchy has gotten into lots of trouble. What does it say about the Catholic Church when the word "love" fails to appear in either version of our creed?
It says we need to refocus.
But just when I'm about to despair, a remarkable thing happens. People leave the pews and head toward the altar, a long procession, single file, accompanied by music. Some literally believe they are receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Some believe this as a beautiful metaphor. Some simply receive a circle of unleavened bread and a sip of sweet wine. Somehow it all produces the same result.
I have a ringside seat for this remarkable parade of humanity, dazzlingly diverse in body type and fashion sense, their demeanor a reflection of lives joyfully and painfully lived. I know some of their histories, their struggles, their setbacks, and accomplishments. But in all, you sense the goodness. There are families with small children, looking up in awe at the priest or communion ministers, who smile and put a hand on their heads or shoulders. There are adolescents looking painfully self-conscious. There are elders, bent and battling their bodies.
Some exchange a few words with the pastor. Some look sleepy, some indifferent, some thoughtful, some happy, some not. They represent the full spectrum of understanding, feeling, and belief. Each is a vast ocean of consciousness, a complex mystery. Each has an odyssey worth telling. It reminds me that Jesus the God/man never wrote anything down. He attracted a small group of disciples, imparted his wisdom, then left it up to them.
He left it up to them. Talk about an act of faith.
It could have been anyone.
It could have been us.
Something happens each Sunday as this ragtag confederacy of isolates is transformed into a "people," the people of God, what Vatican II defined as "church." I realize anew, with the freshness of epiphany, that communion isn't host and wine, body and blood, bells and smells, hymns and prayers. Communion is the shared experience of communal union, which happens whenever two or more are gathered in God's name. The Spirit inhabits the space between us until there is no space at all.
What am I looking for in the next archbishop? Someone who has experienced this, who recognizes that Catholics are all over the map and doesn't lose sleep over it, who doesn't demand doctrinal correctness or obedience oaths.
I want someone who is deeply moved when this procession shuffles toward him each Sunday.
Will the next archbishop of Chicago read these essays? It depends entirely on the character of the person named, but he can learn a lot about us if he does.
You can find out more about An Irrepressible Hope at www.actapublications.com. A portion of the royalties will be donated to the National Center for the Laity.