Keep the Faith, Change the Church.

Voices Column: August 30, 2017

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By Dennis A. Grohman, VOTF member from Pomona NJ, who shares a letter he sent to Pope Francis. 

Dear Holy Father,

I am writing to you as a lifelong Catholic who is devoted to our Church but deeply concerned about its future. Your papacy has inspired me and other Roman Catholics around the world, and it has infused us with hope for a rejuvenated church that looks more like the one that Jesus imagined.

As an introduction, I am 76 years old and have been married just shy of a half-century. I attended parochial school, where I was an altar boy, followed by a high school run by the Society of Friends. I graduated from Villanova University, which was founded by the order of St. Augustine, and then spent one year in a seminary.

Given your extraordinary faith and leadership, I implore you to lead the Church on a spiritual journey that takes us back to the earliest days following the Resurrection. Despite its later composition, the material presented in Luke/Acts of the Apostles, long before the term “Christian” was coined, presents us with a picture when the followers of Jesus, including the Apostles, were still going to the synagogue. This was a time, as you know better than I, before the issues of low and high Christology surfaced.

I ask this because of your pastoral background, your humility, your love of the poor, your concern for the environment, and your ecumenism. I believe that something, perhaps the essence of early Christianity, was lost in the centuries that followed that peripatetic rabbi, Jesus, who walked the Mediterranean landscape. Too soon did we forget that Jesus was born, raised, and died a Jew! Yes, there was a parting of the ways that took place over the first couple of centuries. We can follow that parting in Paul’s letters and John’s Gospel. But need that parting persist?

I have had the opportunity to visit Rome on a few occasions. My wife and I spent numerous hours in the Vatican Museum admiring the treasures of Christianity. I know that you do not wish to sell those treasures and give the proceeds to the poor, because they belong to the history of the Church. But I wonder what Jesus might say about this splendor should He stop for a Visit.

Yes, one is transfixed entering St. Peter’s, glancing destra and seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta. Bernini’s columns are spectacular, but what about the leviathan statues of past popes, some saints, some sinners, that tower within that great edifice? What do they really represent but that secular power that they once wielded? Where do we see the spiritual? Where do we see Jesus?

I do thank you, Holy Father, for your choice to opt not for the papal apartments and instead choose Domus Marthae for your residence. But how did the Church get to the ostentation represented by the garments and other accoutrements created for the clergy: the bejeweled tiaras, the birettas, zucchettos, mozzetas, mantellattas, etc.? Jesus wore a simple garment and a pair of sandals, not red Prada shoes. Did not much of the ostentation come about as a result of the Renaissance? And I ask, isn’t it time to slough off the vestments and vestiges of an earlier age, along with some of the pomp and pageantry associated with them, in order to recreate a more Christ-like environment?

I am reminded of the words spoken by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J.: “The Church is tired, in the Europe of wealth and in America. Our culture has aged, our churches are big, our religious houses empty, the Church bureaucracy is growing and vestments are pompous.” (Financial Times, 9/4/2012)

Recently in our diocesan (Camden NJ) newspaper The Catholic Star Herald, we were introduced to a newly installed pastor. Interestingly, he is a former Lutheran minister, married and the father of four grown children. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2010. Isn’t this an example of what might be called a contradiction when no such path is open to married Catholic men? This question begs to be answered.

I have a close friend who was raised Catholic but now attends an evangelical church. He recently told me that the minister there asked the congregation whether any were former Catholics. My friend was amazed to see so many hands raised. He tells me that much of the service there revolves around the Holy Scriptures. At Mass, I hear very little of the Scriptures other than the readings. I also know that many priests today have very busy schedules and cannot find the time to prepare substantive homilies. This is a tragedy.

I love the Scriptures and have devoted much of my retirement years to their study and reading good commentaries on them. They are the real treasure of our Church! I recently read a beautiful book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom the sermon was very important. He called it “nothing less than the word of God, a place where God would speak to his people.” Yet so much of what I hear from the pulpit bears little or no relation to how Christianity intersects with the daily lives of parishioners.

I was encouraged by your appointing a commission to study the feasibility of ordaining permanent women deacons. I am sure you will face strong headwinds in this endeavor. I recently read Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future; one of the co-authors, Phyllis Zagano, is a member of that Commission. I would also point to the beautiful presentation on the same subject by the late Sulpician priest and biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown in his The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in the New Testament Times.”

I admired your Laudato Si and I praise your position in Amoris Laetitia, being mindful of Jesus’s words to the woman caught in adultery. I have been following the discussion on Amoris Laetitia in the publication Inside the Vatican.

On a more quotidian level, our pastor recently pointed out that only 16% of our parish parishioners contributed to the annual “House of Charity” appeal and that the percentage of parishioners attending Sunday Mass is abysmal. Trusting that this is not an exception, I believe that our parish is a microcosm of what has been taking place globally for years.

Although part of the blame can be placed at the feet of a complacent laity fearful of challenging Church authority, most is due to extreme clericalism, priestly pederasty, and a sclerotic Church hierarchy that is growing increasingly out of touch with the People of God. In ones of his sermons, Augustine says, “‘Bishop,’ this is the title of an office one has accepted to discharge; ‘Christian,’ that is the name of the grace one receives. Dangerous title! Salutary name!” Dangerous title, indeed, as it carries a heavy onus.

Holy Father, I believe that we have forgotten the historical Jesus, the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, the Jesus of flesh and blood, the Jesus with a human as well as a divine nature, and most important of all, the Jewish Jesus.

Please forgive me if you think my words are in any way pompous, for that is not my intent. For years I was a lapsi, but “the Hound of Heaven” has His way. I only wish I could understand what He wants of me.

Recently you told the Polish youth, “Dear young people, we didn’t come into this world to vegetate, to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason, to leave a mark.” [emphasis, mine]

St, John XXIII gave the Church the aggiornamento. Holy Father, I implore you to shake the Church to its very foundation and awaken it.

Please pray for me as I have been praying for you, with the first three Hail Mary’s in my daily rosary, since you became Pontiff. I remain at your behest, albeit a sinner.

Very truly yours,
Dennis A. Grohman