Friday, March 11, 2011

2011 Ash Wednesday Witness for Peace and Justice

On March 9, 2011, individuals from Pax Christi and other peace organizations gathered in front of the White House to hold a Service of Repentance for War. Ashes were blessed and distributed as part of the service and the group made additional crosses with ashes on the pavement to symbolize our contrition for our country's culture of death and violence. We distributed the following statement:

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is a time for personal and societal repentance, a time for radical conversion, renewal and transformation. Living under the brutal occupation of the Roman empire, Jesus declared: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel." (Mk. 1:15) Living in the U.S. empire, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world," we need to heed Jesus' proclamation now more than ever.
We live in a war making empire, where war is being waged indiscriminately in order to control and acquire resources. The U.S. continues to wage an unrelenting war in Afghanistan, maintains an illegal military occupation presence in Iraq following twenty years of bombings and sanctions, and has increased its military intervention in Pakistan and Yemen. The U.S. also continues to provide military and economic support to Israel for its illegal occupation of Palestine. Corporate, military and political powers are also waging a war against the poor. War, economic exploitation, and global warming claim countless lives daily. The victims cry out for justice. The earth groans in travail.

The purpose of this witness is to call for repentance and conversion of ourselves, our society, and our churches to the Gospel way of justice, nonviolence and a reverence for all life and creation. As we stand here in front of the White House, we call for an immediate end to the sinful wars being carried out in our name. We call for reparations for Iraq and Afghanistan; for total disarmament; the abolition of all nuclear and conventional weapons; an end to U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; an end to torture and the closing of Guantanamo and Bagram military prisons and other military torture training centers like the SOA/WHJNSEC; and an end to AFRICOM and the U.S. militarization of Africa. We call, too, for the eradication of poverty; for universal health care for all; for a just economic order; for climate justice, and for justice for all immigrants. We call for the proposed FY 2012 military budget of $671 billion to be converted to meet urgent human needs. And we call on Mr. Obama to scrap a proposed five-year request of nearly $65 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise.

As historic political changes are occurring in North Africa, in the Middle East and elsewhere, let us take to heart and act on the following words of Dr. King: "These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born...We in the West must support these revolutions...Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when 'every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.'"

Please vigil with the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker and other peacemakers at the White House during the Fridays of Lent from 12:00-1:00 p.m. This vigil is sponsored by Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Pax Christi Metro DC- Baltimore, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Jonah House, Christian Peace Witness, TASSC, and Witness Against Torture.

The love between Clare and Francis of Assisi

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Francis (d. 1226) and Clare (d. 1253), both of Assisi, are two of the most beloved figures of Christianity, of whom we can really be proud. The two were united in three great passions: for the poor and crucified Christ, for the poor, especially the lepers, and for each other. The love for Christ and the poor did not diminish at all the deep love that united them, showing that between people who dedicate themselves to God and serving others, there can be true love and relationships of great tenderness. Between Francis and Clare, there is something mysterious that unites Eros and Agape, fascination and transfiguration. The stories that remain from the time speak of the frequent meetings between them. However, "they controlled such meetings so that the divine mutual attraction might go unnoticed in the eyes of people, avoiding public rumors."

Logically, in a tiny town like Assisi everyone knew everything about everybody. So also the love between Clare and Francis. An ancient legend refers to it with very tender candor: "On one occasion, Francis had heard inappropriate allusions. He went to Clare and said: 'Did you hear, sister, what people are saying about us?' Clare didn't answer. She felt her heart would stop and that if he said another word, she would cry. 'It's time we parted,' said Francis. 'You go ahead and before nightfall, you'll have come to the convent. I will go alone and I will accompany you from afar, as the Lord leads me.' Clare fell to her knees in the middle of the road, shortly thereafter she recovered, got up and walked away without looking back. The path went through a forest. Suddenly, she felt powerless, without comfort and without hope, without a parting word before separating from Francis. She waited a bit. 'Father,' she said, 'when will we meet again?' 'When summer comes, when the roses bloom again,' replied Francis. And then, at that moment, something wonderful happened. It seemed as if summer had arrived and thousands and thousands of flowers burst forth in the snow covered fields. After the initial shock, Clare hurried to pick a bouquet of roses and put it in Francis's hands." And the legend ends by saying: "From that time on, Francis and Clare were never separated again."

We are in the presence of the symbolic language of legends. They are the ones that keep the meaning of the primordial facts of the heart and love. "Francis and Clare were never separated again", ie, they were able to join their mutual love with the love of Christ and of the poor so that it was one great love. In effect, they never left each other's heart. A witness at the canonization of Clare says with grazie that to her, Francis "seemed so clearly and luminously like gold that she also saw herself all clear and bright as if in a mirror." Is it possible to better express the fusion of love between two people of exceptional greatness of soul?

In their searching and doubt each consulted the other and sought a way through prayer. A biographical account of the time says: "Once, Francis, tired, came to a source of crystalline waters and leaned to look for a long while at that clear water. Then he came to himself and said cheerfully to his close friend, Brother Leo: "Brother Leo, lamb of God, what do you think I saw in the clear waters of the fountain?" "The moon that's reflected in there," Brother Leo answered. "No, brother, I didn't see the moon, but the face of our sister Clare, full of holy joy, so that all my sorrows disappeared."

Now in 2011 we celebrate the 800 years since the founding of the Second Order, the Poor Clares, by Clare. The historical account could not be more full of loving density. Francis made a pact with Clare that, beautifully dressed, on the night of Palm Sunday she would flee from home and come to meet him in the little chapel he had built, the Porziuncola. In fact, she ran away from home and came to the church where Francis and his companions were, with their torches lit. Joyful, they received her with applause and with great affection. Francis cut off her beautiful blond hair. It was the symbol of their entry into the new religious path. Now they were two in one and the same path and up to today "they have never been separated again."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Pare Manel: Faith in Practice Isn't Simple

UPDATE 3/15/2011: The Archdiocese of Barcelona announced today that it has initiated an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the abortion that Fr. Manel Pousa admits to having payed for, to see if it falls under the guidelines for canonical punishment by latae sententiae excommunication. The Archdiocese tempered its statement by saying that "these obligatory proceedings under canon law do not preclude recognition of the social work that this priest has been doing for many years to serve the most needy in our society."

A Marist priest working with the poor in the Archdiocese of Barcelona is in hot water for a recently published biography. Fr. Manel Pousa has been called to account by the Archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach, who was bothered by some of the revelations contained in journalist Francesc Buxeda's Pare Manel. Més a prop de la terra que del cel ("Father Manel: More About Earth Than About Heaven" -- Angle Editorial).

In the book, Pare Manel, as he is known among the people he works with, reveals that he has a "special woman friend" with whom he says he doesn't live and with whom he does not have sexual relations. Pare Manel also calls for optional celibacy and expresses his support for women priests.

More seriously, the priest, while asserting that he is primarily opposed to abortion, admits to having paid for a young woman to have an abortion that was medically necessary to avoid life-threatening bleeding. He has indicated that he believes the Church is too simplistic. "Problems cannot be solved according to prefabricated morality as Catholicism claims. I'm interested in the individual person. It's true that there are ethical principles but there are reasons, for example, that lead certain women to have abortions. I've paid for abortions. And the Spanish Bishops' Conference doesn't realize that the Gospel doesn't condemn, but offers liberating measures."

In the biography, Pare Manel also says that he performed religious ceremonies on request to solemnize the civil unions of homosexual inmate couples.

Pare Manel, who was honored in 2009 with both the Creu de Sant Jordi from Catalunya and the Medal of Honor from Barcelona, was born in Granada in 1945 but his family moved to Barcelona when he was four. He is a priest at the Santíssima Trinitat parish in the Verdum i Roquetes neighborhood of Barcelona, where he converted the rectory into a shelter for ex-prisoners. He visits prisons throughout the region, helps children in poor neighborhoods in Barcelona and their families, and gathers private and public funds for his Fundació Pare Manel. The foundation has also received considerable support from local celebrities such as singer Joan Manuel Serrat, the late Pepe Rubianes, Tortell Poltrona, Sergi López, Miguel Ríos, Joan-Lluís Bozzo y Tricicle, former soccer player Bakero, and his childhood friend Carles Flavià, a showman and former priest himself.

In an interview with El Periódico in 2008, Pare Manel says he became a priest after being involved in a youth movement in the Church in the 1960s. "I was very idealistic, a hippy, and my greatest role model was a man who was a priest. I wanted to be like him." He has been a priest for 35 years.

He has described his work as heartbreaking. "In these neighborhoods, heroin has done a lot of damage. I've seen 14-year old girls shooting up, and a lot of drug trafficking. It was a lawless city."

"You never get accustomed to seeing so much pain and suffering, but you learn to go home and think that you are doing all you can do. In the jails, I have many friends and I do for them what a friend would do for you. Sometimes they fool you, but those are the occupational hazards."

Now Pare Manel faces a different occupational hazard -- an irate and embarrassed hierarch.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A suspended priest vows to go on

By Soledad Vallejos (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Página/12 (Argentina)

"If anyone asks me for a Mass or confession, I'm going to keep on doing them," said Fr. Nicolás Alessio, whom the Church in Cordoba tossed from its ranks because, by publicly declaring himself in favor of equal marriage [for same sex couples], he committed a "pertinant rejection of doctrine." The obligatory separation of Alessio from public ministry came after a canonical trial initiated by the provincial Archbishop Carlos Ñáñez in July last year, a few days after the law was enacted. The ruling established, punctually, that Alessio was banned from "practicing sacred powers publicly", which means celebrating Mass and any other Catholic sacrament, receiving confessions and giving communion. With the decision, "the Church remains consistent with the attitude it had last year," said Alessio in a conversation with Página/12. "It's undemocratic, authoritarian and opposed to all those who think differently." Therefore, even though he doesn't seek to continue belonging to the institution, he said he will continue practicing as a priest.

The sentence, which he refers to as "censure", only affirms "what they think: that equal marriage is an aberration, that homosexuals are dangerous sick people who are to be pitied but not granted rights." While the institution still doesn't admonish "pedophile priests" such as Bishop Edgardo Storni and Father Julio Cesar Grassi, he is being punished for "thinking differently." "In this way, the hierarchy affirms what it thinks, and it also seeks to discipline others who may think differently." The priest, 53, was also ordered to leave the rectory where he has lived the last 27 years.

When you argue that your removal is intended to discipline, does that indicate that there are other dissenting voices within the institution?

Here in Cordoba, we were a group of priests who supported equal marriage, for example. But there are others in the rest of the country too. And there are Christian faithful and religious who supported and support it. But through this measure, they want to impose fear. They want to make clear that whoever thinks differently and dares to say so becomes a target to be tried and censured.

Archbishop Ñáñez prevented you from ministering in your parish in the middle of last year, when the trial began.

That was an interim measure while the trial was being held. Now that the trial is over, this ruling has been dictated and the injunction becomes final. I'm prohibited from the exercise of ministry in any public place. Obviously I don't care; I've run myself out of the clerical status. I don't want to be complicit in this structure. But on the other hand, a lady asked me to offer Mass in her neighborhood recently. I'm going to do it, because I don't recognize the legitimacy of the ban. My ministry comes from God's people, not the bishops. If someone asks me to confess them, if I'm asked to help a patient who needs the anointing of the sick, I wouldn't be averse to administering these sacraments, because ministry is a gift for the people and not something the bishops control.

Is that how these months have gone by?

Yes, trying not to create too much tension in the parish community, so at the weekend Masses I ran off and let the interim priest carry on. But I didn't leave the community.

How's your life going to be from now on? How will you survive?

This was my work. And I have a job for at least two more years, as adviser in the Chamber of Deputies, in the block of Luis Juez's party. I advise Deputy Susana Mazzarella, who still has two years in office, on education issues. Between now and two years from now, I'll have to look for other work, because the truth is that one ends up like this, out in the street.

Was it easy for you to start working in the political world?

No, but I had a history of many years of commitment to the poor, the piquetero movements with the reclaimed factories... My social activism has a long history.

None of those things created friction with the church hierarchy?

No. Yes, we have had differences, especially with Cardinal (Raul) Primatesta. But nothing like this absurd thing ever happened for thinking differently. What Archbishop Ñáñez has done is an absurdity, it makes no sense. Only a terribly authoritarian institution could go through with this process.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Call to Be Peacemakers: Rallying for Gun Control

During the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry last week, participants held a rally in support of gun control. A delegation led by the co-chairs of the Congress, Rev. Dr. James Forbes Jr., and Rev. Dr. Michael Pfleger, met with a representative of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to ask for his support for our objectives outlined in the Congress's Call (see below). While the representative declined to commit to specifics, she did say and reaffirmed in writing later that "the governor is fully committed to reducing violence in our state."

Outside, protestors heard from various individuals who had lost loved ones to gun violence. These included Jennifer Bishop Jenkins who spoke about her sister Nancy and brother-in-law Richard and their unborn child who were killed, Sarita Villarreal who brought along a photo of her late brother Antonio Marquez, and Ron Holt, a Chicago police veteran, whose son, Blair, was shot to death. A quick poll of those assembled indicated that about half had also been personally affected by gun violence.

At the end of the day, Fr. Pfleger who himself lost his foster son, Jarvis Franklin, in 1998 to stray gunfire on the streets near his parish, urged participants to be in the struggle for the long haul. He called on those from Illinois to keep calling the governor's office and to print the phone number in their church bulletins and encourage their parishioners to do the same. Unlike the NRA, he said, we may not have money "but we have moral authority. We have Holy Ghost power." Check out the SCUPE Action Alert for more information.

Pursuing the Call to be Peacemakers in a Culture of Violence, the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry

that peacemaking is an imperative for Christians; that it is at the core of the Christian faith; that Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace is their model, exemplar and guide in this vocation;

Understands that without justice, peace is empty; that in order to achieve just-peace peacemakers must also be justice-seekers;

Grieves that many people in the United States today live in fear, often an unjustified fear of the other; and that this fear is stoked by some politicians, media and corporations to benefit their vested interests;

Proclaims the consistent message of the angels "Fear Not!" which encapsulates the core of the message of the Gospel;

Declares that it finds unacceptable that in an average year 100,000 Americans are shot or killed with a gun, that every day on average 300 Americans are victims of gun violence and that they are disproportionately African-American or Latino/a;

Opposes legislation that has already become law in many states that allows ordinary citizens to "conceal and carry" guns in public, and supports legislation that would strengthen background checks, close the so-called "gun show loopholes", prevent the sale of high-capacity semi-automatic or automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips to the general public and prevent the private sale of firearms;

Commits to "Seek peace and pursue it" by becoming effective peacemakers; joining with churches, engaging with other religious communities and with allies and partners across our cities, states and the nation.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Visiting Saint Sabina

UPDATE 3/17/2011: It seems that negotiations are underway again to try to get Fr. Pfleger to step down from St. Sabina where he has served some 30 years, three times longer than most priests are allowed to remain in their parishes under normal circumstances. So far, Fr. Pfleger has neither confirmed nor denied these stories, though his homily last weekend sounded like a man wrestling with his fate. The Faith Community of St. Sabina has issued a brief statement saying that his departure at this time would be "devastating" but also asking for input into the selection of his successor.

Last week I was in Chicago for the 2011 SCUPE Congress on Urban Ministry and one of the benefits was being able to make a site visit to Saint Sabina, a parish located in the heart of the predominantly African American community of Auburn Gresham, a church I had known only through watching its weekly webcasts.

Cynthia Stewart, a lay leader in the parish, shepherded our little tour group, but once we were in the sanctuary, Fr. Michael Pfleger, the pastor, took over to explain the church's history, pastoral philosophy, and challenges.

The church began on July 9, 1916 in a storefront on South Racine Avenue. In 1931, during the Depression, construction began on a cathedral-like structure with elaborate woodwork and stained glass imported from France. At the time, the area was white and relatively more prosperous than it is today. On June 18, 1933 the church building was dedicated by George Cardinal Mundelein.

During the turmoil of the 1960s, African American families moved into the area and whites moved out. The parish and its surrounding community underwent considerable socio-economic decline. By 1967, the parish had dwindled to just 530 families where it had been over 3,000 strong.

Fr. Pfleger came to the community in 1975 as a newly ordained associate pastor and with already somewhat of a reputation as a nonconformist. He enjoyed the style of music and preaching in the black churches and began to incorporate these elements into his own liturgies. Five years later, the pastor died abruptly and, by popular demand from the Saint Sabina community, Cardinal Cody appointed Fr. Pfleger "permanent administrator", a title that, as Fr. Pfleger derisively adds, "doesn't exist in canon law." It was meant to be a short-term solution, but thirty years later, Fr. Pfleger is still pastor of Saint Sabina and all attempts to dislodge him have been met with so much resistance from the parishioners that they have come to nought.

Under Fr. Pfleger's leadership, the parish took on the look and culture of its surrounding community. The congregation is now almost entirely African American. The church's European traits exist only on the periphery. African vestments hang in a sacristy in wooden cabinetry that could be mistaken for the interior of any major European cathedral. African wood carvings and an altar covered in kente cloth form the center of the sanctuary. This transformation of the church is not unlike the transformation in Fr. Pfleger himself. He may look like a blue-eyed white man but his heart beats polyrhythmically.

In 1984, the most striking and best-known feature of St. Sabina was added -- the "For God So Loved the World" mural behind the altar. Painted by a Mexican born Jesuit, Fr. Fernando Arizti who would attend services at St. Sabina, it depicts a young black Jesus in the powerful hands of God who is offering Him to the world.

The image is stunning. It draws the eye and the mind away from everything else in the church, including the preacher. It is impossible to think you are God's gift to the Catholic Church when you have to preach each week in the shadow of this constant reminder of who IS the gift and the center of our faith. The mural is a call to humility and it is also a reference point for Fr. Pfleger's homilies. The habit of turning and pointing to this Christ is so ingrained in him that sometimes, when he is preaching in other venues, Fr. Pfleger will turn and point to the space where this Christ lives in his mind's eye, where He would be if the pastor were home, in St. Sabina.

As the parish and its liturgy took on the sounds and feel of Africa and the Black Diaspora, the straight lines of European church architecture were blurred and bent. The design is now circular, like a clearing in an African village where people would gather. The altar and the ambo are in the center of this "clearing" on the same level as the congregation that surrounds it. The altar is a table at which all are welcome and, in fact, Fr. Pfleger told us that a surprisingly high number of the estimated 2,200 people who attend services at St. Sabina's each week are not Catholic. He also said that many Catholics who have become alienated from mainstream Catholicism for cultural or ideological reasons have found a home in his parish.

The altar area is not a space set apart and above as it is in most Catholic churches -- a space that only the ordained or specially commissioned lay persons may enter. At St. Sabina's, the laity are often invited by Fr. Pfleger to come and join him in this sacred space to praise Christ who is above everyone. The design reflects a deliberate de-emphasis on clerical privilege, running counter to today's tendency to draw ever sharper lines between the ordained and those they serve.

Another feature of St. Sabina that makes a distinctive theological statement is the placement of the tabernacle. Again, the current trend is to make the tabernacle central, above and away from the people -- the receptacle and its holy contents an object of veneration. At St. Sabina, the Body of Christ is not so much a consecrated host as the "body of Christ", the faithful who ARE the Church, so the tabernacle is in the background. This is not a place for passive adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; the emphasis is on exteriority rather than interiority. The whole design says: "If you really love Me, go out into the world and feed My sheep." As Fr. Pfleger likes to put it, church is "huddle time" and from there you go forth to play the game, to "change the atmosphere" through loving service and working for justice.

Turning towards the back of the church, one notes the beautiful rose window, but its prominence is diminished by the banner hanging from the balcony that confronts parishioners with the key question: "Discipleship will cost. Are you willing?" At St. Sabina, discipleship means not just responding to God's call to work for peace and justice, but also tithing, a practice that Fr. Pfleger has been able to implement successfully and that has given the parish financial independence and credibility. Through tithing, it has been able to pay off its debt to the Archdiocese and has one of the largest weekly collections in the local Church.

As the topic turned towards the future, Fr. Pfleger grew pensive. He's willing to stay on at St. Sabina as long as his health and circumstances permit but the reality is that he is aging (62 this year) and the conflicts with the archdiocesan hierarchy, which have never abated, are wearying. The young men currently emerging from seminaries are too conservative and not interested in serving in a progressive parish in a poor, crime-riddled neighborhood, much less one in which the clergy seem to serve at the pleasure of the laity rather than vice-versa. Fr. Pfleger has built up a cadre of lay leaders to take on any and all aspects of the ministry they can perform under canon law, but they can't do it all.

He is trying to recuit and mentor priests from Africa who have come from countries plagued by the same poverty and violence that wrack his community and who are used to preaching the gospel from a social perspective. The problem with this strategy, Fr. Pfleger candidly concedes, is that these men are at the mercy of the archdiocese. If they do anything controversial, the archbishop can send them home immediately.

As dusk fell, Fr. Pfleger retired to his quarters to nurse the flu that had been dragging him down all week and Cynthia took the group on a tour of St. Sabina's extensive social ministries that have transformed the neighborhood from vacant lots and boarded up buildings into a thriving and safer community that even includes regular retail businesses like a drugstore and BJ's Market where we stopped for dinner. This changing neighborhood may be the best symbol of Fr. Pfleger's lasting legacy at St. Sabina.