Friday, February 22, 2013

Into the unknown – Part 2

Having expelled Father Zahm from the expedition, Roosevelt and crew plunged down the River of Doubt, woefully unprepared for what lay ahead. That breathtaking story is breathlessly (perhaps too breathlessly) told by Candice Millard. But it is Zahm I am interested in, and his reported insistence that Indians were meant to carry priests.

Let me say at once that I have known men of Father Zahm's congregation who have devoted their lives unselfishly to the poor people of South America. They would scoff at the idea of riding in a sedan chair carried by the people they serve. It is through no fault of their own that they belong to an institution -– the Roman Catholic Church -– that is hierarchical in structure, and replete with sedan chairs, real and metaphorical.

Garry Wills asks in his newest book Why Priests?. He is questioning the whole top-down notion of God's grace being administered through a collective hierarchy of celibate men who uniquely have the power to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He longs for a bottom-up notion of the Church, with the people encountering God directly through a communal meal of fellowship.

Some of what Wills asks for was accomplished at Vatican II -– turning the altar and priest around to join the congregation, replacing a language only the priest understood with the language of the people -– but the spirit of Vatican II has not been much in evidence during recent papacies. Now a gathering of sedan-chair cardinals, appointed to office from above, is about to elect a new pope, setting the Church off on another expedition on the River of Doubt.

Teddy Roosevelt may have been the most famous person in the world when he explored the Brazilian rainforest. He did not ask for a sedan chair, even when he could barely walk. He shared the nitty-gritty and dangerous work of the lowest man on the expedition's totem pole, while maintaining, of course, the measure of authority the expedition required. Oh, he carried a big ego and a big stick, but when the straits got dire he knew it was one for all and all for one.

Will we get another sedan-chair pope, ensconced in his (his!) Renaissance palace, claiming infallibility and monarchical power? Probably. Maybe dogmatic religions claiming to be the One True Faith can only function with a top-down authoritarian structure. But who knows? John XXIII came seemingly out of nowhere, and gave a brief, hopeful glimpse of something new. Grace, said Bernanos's country priest, is everywhere.