In 1991 I had an interesting conversation with
a well educated Chamorro business woman and educator who was frustrated in her spiritual life. While well versed in the island
way of being Catholic, she found it difficult to relate to God in any meaningful way through the medium of the traditional
religiosity. The conversation was one of those happenings in life that sneak
up on you and change your life forever. I took her frustrations very seriously, as I shared them in my own haole way. My reflections on her questions resulted in several articles in theological journals and served as
the basis of my doctoral dissertation.
Cultural practices play an important role in
our experience of spirituality. They are a language of symbols and actions that can speak powerfully to the depths of our
hearts. However, for cultural practices to be meaningful they must use symbols and practices that speak to people. Culture
is a living organism in the sense that it changes with the passing of time. As things like way people make a living or how
they entertain themselves change, so do the importance and meaning of the symbols we use. For example, years ago it was common
to use a mantilla at weddings, covering the bride’s head and the groom’s
shoulders. This custom came from the influence of the Spanish culture of the island administrators for many years. It symbolized
the groom’s responsibility to care for the bride and her relative submission to his authority as the man of the family.
However, in recent decades this practice is seen less and less. It is not a custom that is part of the American culture, which
is a strong influence in the islands at present. The relative status of the bride and groom symbolized through this custom
is not consistent with the general understanding of the relationship between women and men today.
This results in a cultural practice that doesn’t
speak in a meaningful way to newlyweds today and one that is used less and less.
So, my friend had a valid point in complaining that some religious practices which were rooted in cultural symbols
that were from a cultural context far removed from contemporary life simply did not
speak meaningfully to her.
People are not angels. While we are spiritual
beings but we are also biological and social creatures who learn and are shaped by our life experience. That life experience
includes our culture, the social currents of the historical epoch in which we live, as well as the unique events and personalities
of which we have been involved. The practices and values of our religious tradition are part of the mix that shapes us and
attempt to speak to us. As indicated earlier, for the practices and values to be communicated successfully the symbolic language
used must be able to speak clearly to its intended audience. It is here that the Church often seems to run into communication
James Cameron, director of the Titanic, has recently produced a documentary about the discovery of a tomb in Jerusalem that is supposed to
contain the remains of Jesus’ family. The discovery is not new. It actually occurred about 30 years ago and has been
reported in a number of books. Biblical archaeologists argue both for and against the conclusion that we are dealing with
the graves of anyone to do with the historical Jesus. However, in light of the popularity of the DaVinci Code, the anticipated documentary taps into a curiosity and interest that has deep roots in contemporary
society. One of the graves in the tomb appears to be that of Mary Magdalene. This raises the same question touched on in the
DaVinci Code. Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?
Now, I’m not going to debate the question
of whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married. I make reference to it because the idea seems to intrigue many people.
Over the centuries a cult of virginity seems to have evolved in Christianity which implies that holiness and spirituality
are primarily the reserve of those who renounce sex, marriage and life in the normal, everyday world. Thus, while Scripture
doesn’t speak clearly to Jesus marital status one way or the other everyone assumes that he was single.
has nothing to do with Christ’s teachings. Back around the time that the Church arose many mystery religions and philosophical
theories rejected physical reality in favor of the transcendent. They saw the physical world as inherently flawed and evil.
Thus, only the mental and spiritual had value. These movements included Neo-Platonism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and other religious
and cultural ideas common at the time. These ideas are not Jewish or Christian ideas, where creation is seen as graced and
the work of God, who pronounced it to be good. However, over the centuries the influence of these other ideas has been significant.
One practical result has been a tendency to see
holiness in terms of these non-Christian ideas rather than in terms of the Jewish tradition out of which Christianity arose.
Instead of seeing marriage as a necessary pre-condition for its religious leaders, as Paul describes in the Epistles, the
practical result has been to popularize a view of holiness that seems to require celibacy as a pre-condition for holiness.
This is apparent in the very few married saints one encounters when compared to the large body of celibate saints. The result
is many examples of heroic virtue, to which very few Christians can relate, since the vast majority of Christians have been
married. If one is concerned about the ability of religious symbols to communicate with people in the modern world, the Church
must speak in a symbolic language that is meaningful to modern people. That language needs to acknowledge that the vast majority
of Christians are married.
Except perhaps for Blessed Mother Theresa of
Calcutta, the Church doesn’t need the canonization of another priest or
sister; there are already thousands of them. What the Church desperately needs are married saints who can provide examples
of holiness and heroic virtue to the over one billion married Catholics in the world!
The attractiveness of the theory that Jesus and
Mary Magdalene may have been married is that it tells married people that it was their way of life that Christ chose and marital
love was very much part of Christ’s life. This would be a powerful confirmation of marriage as a path to sanctity and
reaffirm the inherent value of marriage in a world that seems very confused about the value of marriage. Whether the theory
is true of not, the Church needs to provide a confirmation of married life and celebrate its dignity and inherent value, not
just in pious words but through its actions. Honoring married saints is a helpful first step.
My friend in Saipan is
not the only one who has voiced frustrations about religion and the struggle to find meaning in existing religious traditions.
A few years ago I began correspondence with a couple who are involved in the publication of religious books. They are in their
30’s and are trying to publish books that speak to contemporary “postmodern” women and men.
As a group, the postmodern generation is skeptical
about large organizations, anyone who says they have the absolute truth—whether religious or scientific, and tends to
focus on individual experience as the criteria for giving credence to anything. Community is not rejected but community is
seen as communion among a group of people and not necessarily as an organized social unit. They are open to spirituality and
religious experience but not to the religious organizations that have been the medium for such experience in the past.
So, my friends have a deep faith and commitment
to Christ. They are loving people and remain affiliated to their small parish church even through their ideas on religion
are different in many respects from the older generation believers who make up much of the congregation.
Their ideas are not all that radical. They are
scandalized by believers who reject ideas like evolution, convinced that truth must be one and that religious claims can not
be contrary to well founded scientific knowledge. This is something that they share in common with the late Pope John Paul
II, who admitted that evolution is more than just a hypothesis and was a part of human knowledge that must be understood and
They are frustrated when religious leaders seem
to play games with the believers, seeming to spend more energy on who washes dishes after mass or what material the dishes
must be made from, rather than focus intense attention on genocide in Darfur, AIDS in Africa, poverty in South America, exploitation
of children and women in Asia and the scandal of self-satisfied complacency and imperialism in the United States and Europe.
While none of these issues are things over which the Church has significant direct control, attempting to get people to focus
attention on their neighbors and the demands of social justice as an essential element of the commandment to love your neighbor
can stimulate a great deal of positive action in the world. This is a generation that has little tolerance for fine words
that stop before any effective action results.
A recent study, undertaken by scholars at the
Catholic University of America, reports that while young adults (postmoderns) have a good Catholic identity, they do not have
much commitment to the institutional church or its moral teachings. They think of themselves as Catholic. They get involved
in a few parish activities and usually like the pomp of Christmas and Easter. They often have a good personal prayer life.
Yet, regular Sunday worship is a relatively low priority. They often feel that religious leaders are out of touch with reality
and unable to speak to their daily life issues. Many traditional ideas and spiritual practices are often seen as so much superstition.
Yet, this generation is willing to put in a serious level of effort and time on meditative and contemplative prayer forms
once thought only the realm of monks and nuns.
The recent sexual abuse scandals have not scandalized
them as much as the older generation, as they are naturally suspicious of the institutional Church, as well as most other
social institutions. When your expectations are low, you are not surprised when people behave as you expected them to behave.
However, the scandals have created another barrier in the minds and hearts of young adults that further distance them from
This generation is a serious challenge for clergy.
Postmoderns are often well educated and religiously well read. They are knowledgeable not only of the Christian religious
tradition but of Buddhism and often Islam or Judaism as well. They want their questions answered. They want to be able to
integrate their secular knowledge and understanding of the world in some meaningful way with their religious and spiritual
insight. The cleric can no longer simply state the teaching and expect anyone to take him seriously. The logic behind the
teaching must be explained and be able to stand up to the logical and philosophical demands of the university educated. They
want liturgical celebrations that are able to speak to their hearts and engage the assembly. They want preaching that feeds
them spiritually. They want religious leaders who make a positive difference in the community, living the beatitudes. Further,
they have little tolerance for the religious leader who is unable to do this. They might not directly confront the ineffective
religious leader but simply move on in search of someone more capable. A previous generation may have remained out of respect
for the parish; not this generation.
The Church is crying for vocations to the priesthood
and religious life yet few people answer the call. Young people want to do something worthwhile with their lives to make the
world a better place. They are not convinced that the priesthood or religious life, as currently structured will provide that
It is easy to put the blame on Church leaders,
for they legitimately do carry some of the responsibility. However, if we allow
ourselves to get caught up in a blame game we are just as guilty and do nothing in the long run to improve the situation.
The Church is not a building or just the clergy
and religious. The Church is the People of God, which means that you and I are just as much the Church as is Pope Benedict
XVI. We may not hold the office for which he is responsible but we have the grace and the responsibility to make the Church
into a meaningful reality for the people of the present “postmodern” generation. If we wait for the Church bureaucracies
to reach out to young adults, to speak to the new generation of eternal truths in language that is meaningful today, or to
provide a lived example of the beatitudes we will be waiting for a very long time.
We must reach out to young adults. We can share with them our own struggles to understand the Good News in words and symbols that are meaningful
today. We can pour out our lives in service to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. We can be committed to our marriages
and to the pursuit of holiness as spouses and parents. Church leaders might continue to miss the boat when it comes to providing
the example of married saints but the quality of our lives will shine brighter than any titles. It is the quality of our personal
example that will provide the needed inspiration for young people, as demonstrated in research on the various influences that
shape our spirituality.
The people of the Northern Marianas
have been blessed with a bishop who has taken his responsibilities seriously and has the courage to take strong moral stands,
as well as to value the role of culture and its symbols as means to speak to the heart. He has been open to planning activities
that provide for two way communications in the local Church and has taken the needs of his people seriously. If many US
bishops were only half as dedicated and effective as him, the quality of the American episcopate would increase significantly.
Yet, even with excellent Church leadership, the
responsibility on our shoulders for the quality of Church life and the positive impact of the Church on the lives of others
is no less. We fail as Catholics and as the Body of Christ when we expect others to be holy for us and to make moral decisions
for us. If we take our responsibilities seriously the Church will be a powerful positive moral influence in the world, even
if some Church leaders fail to lead.