Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The canonizations -- an invitation to reflection

By Ivone Gebara (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Adital (Português / Español)
May 5, 2014

The crowd of faithful in St. Peter's Square on April 27th was impressive. The force of Catholicism publicly reappeared again in all its strength, particularly in its power to propose to the living faithful loyalty to a couple of dead men as symbols of a Christianity/Catholicism well lived. John XXIII and John Paul II were raised to the altar and are now "subjects" of veneration of Catholic people worldwide. Many doubts and criticisms as well as endorsements and praise circulated in the media around the nominees. There is no way to reach a consensus of opinion, given the diversity of the "People of God." The clerical hierarchy responsible for the decisions judged the nominations and made the final decision which was executed by the Pope in a solemn Mass. I don't know if the hierarchs remembered the devotions of the poorest who are not much accustomed to venerating popes, who have often been kings and powerful lords. The devotions of the poor are more often tied to the Virgin Mary, to Jesus, and to more traditional saints like Saint Francis, Saint Joseph, or Saint Expeditus whom they believe to be better able to understand their everyday suffering.

The issues I'm raising go beyond this debate between the nominees to a certain extent and aim to raise another issue. Can we imitate the saints, the martyrs, the heroes, the great leaders? How would that be done? Could it be that they, after death, possess superior qualities exempt from the limits of their personal stories? Might we not be distancing ourselves from our historical and personal responsibility to recognize that each of us has to live his or her story and options? Might we not be leaving aside the actions of women and men in the building of our current story to follow models that, although they had their value, can not be imitated? What should we imitate in them? And how do we actually do it? The questions are existential and not abstract, since they will require a certain personal behavior in our current history.

In the imitation concept as proposed by some Catholic Church groups, more critical considerations in relationship to those chosen for sainthood certainly didn't come in. Why not also call attention to the mistakes of the past that should not be repeated? We might perceive more clearly the mixture and contradiction present in human beings and their actions. But probably this critical and realistic procedure would mar the figure of the saint or hero and would be outside the perfectly dualistic scheme present in the Church. It would also be outside of the contrast firmly maintained by most between heaven and earth, between God and man, good and evil, angels and demons. In fact, it has been admitted within the confines of the Church that a saint or a hero has not been perfect, but no one talks directly about what could have been avoided or what may seem objectionable in view of the established and given common good. Those chosen for institutional sainthood appear as prototypes of goodness, courage, and justice so that their weakness and cowardice does not appear. Again, the idealized or "ideal man" as well as the "idealized woman" according to some set parameters, become models for the faithful. This model is out of the ordinary and is able to accentuate useless sacrifices and many kinds of neuroses in the faithful. In addition, we know the lives of saints who inflicted bodily torture and sacrifices on themselves that cannot be imitated now.

I think that we're often not very aware of the alienating implications of imitations. By imitating someone, I stop demonstrating my own gifts, I leave aside my own way of being, I no longer recognize my own ability and, in a certain way, I'm diminished through seeking my personal fulfillment in an outsider. The imitation proposed in Catholicism isn't theatre where the actor or actress interprets a passionate romantic or a cruel dictator and then goes back to being an actor waiting for new roles. The imitation that the Church proposes is a sort of conformity to an ideal of life thought to be more perfect than others and therefore worthy of being imitated. Undoubtedly many faithful know that certain chosen personal experiences cannot be imitated. In that case, the virtues the saint presumably had are exalted and those virtues are proclaimed because they strengthen the convictions of the religious institution. It's interesting to note that the virtue of obedience to a model of human being that the Church deems closer to divine will appears to be a constant in the models of sainthood. The saints are, with few exceptions, submissive to the hierarchical Church and if they weren't in life, became so after death. The saint's life is reinterpreted to serve the interests and values advocated by the institution.

Another issue is knowing what criteria to follow to raise someone to the altar and decree that person's life worthy of imitation. What motivates some people to want to turn another person into a saint? Do they think this might promote and add value and glory to the faithful departed? What reasons does the papacy have for accepting and declaring their sainthood? How can the judges of a cause for beatification or canonization judge that that individual was pleasing to God? What God are we talking about? What model of God is at play? What are the political and economic implications of these actions that suddenly put a halo on the head of a "dead person" and order holy cards printed to be sold or distributed to the faithful? Not even to speak of the extraordinary miracles that are often required to prove someone's sanctity.

Why not say that people, and certainly that includes those who have physically left this story, inspire us, help us to carry our burdens, teach us according to our needs? Inspiration seems a phenomenon that indicates greater freedom than imitation. But canonizations don't go that way. They have to do with the Canon, with laws that have been established for the faithful even as it's said that each one is free to accept or not the life of this or that saint as his or her model.

I realize I have more questions than answers, and the questions manifest my concern regarding the direction Pope Francis is taking in relation to the place of devotions in the lives of Catholics. While recognizing the quality of his person, his words and actions towards the poor of this world, the contradiction in his theology worries me. And this contradiction, in my view, diminishes the strength of his words, especially when we are talking about justice in human relationships.

Sometimes one has the impression that the Pope is captive of a religious scheme established and consecrated by the Vatican. However much he tries to break down the hierarchies and formalities with simpler gestures, in situations like canonizations, he surrenders to these proceedings and becomes publicly complicit in them.

Do we still need canonizations? Might they not go against the affirmation of freedom as a prerogative of human beings? Might they not reinforce the hierarchies so present in our world, hierarchies that exclude some, favor others, and mark social and sometimes even ontological differences between people?

Do we need such pompous ceremonies, attended by chiefs of state, ambassadors, kings and princes to corroborate, in appearance, such actions by the Pope? Undoubtedly many people see all this as a recognition of the power of the Church and, above all, an acknowledgement of the virtues and qualities of the candidates to sainthood. People's need to worship is still alive at the political, artistic, and religious level. This is not about denying different groups the right to build a religious fan club, but helping them to develop a reflection that makes them more free and responsible for the fate of the world and their personal life.

Once more we are invited to think, to try to better understand what is happening to us and what is being proposed. Faith cannot be forgetting our historically established values. It can't be reduced to subscribing to someone else's project, however good she or he may be. Faith is not trivial but vital. Faith is not obscurity and blind obedience but welcoming life in all its diverse aspects, accepting the originality of my character, my path, its lights and shadows. But let us not forget that all this dwells in the diversity of life, not reducible to one model, one form, and one language.

I thinks it's necessary to think, even knowing that many people's thoughts don't influence the masses or the hierarchy either. We cannot let go of the dignity and the great adventure of being able to think about life again and again, to sense it from different places and in different ways, and assume our role on our piece of ground. Such a stance has consequences in our lives, in our beliefs and the relationship we have with people and institutions. Life does not ask us to conform our own lives to those of others, but to let our originality, which is watered by the contributions and inspiration of many, bloom.

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