In Coatzacoalcos there is a great little chapel which is dedicated to St. Francis. The original chapel was constructed under the leadership of the Marist fathers and represents a historical recognition of the Mexican people. It is a round building, with a grass thatched roof, typical of the indigenous people of the region.
If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view a picture of the chapel, and the other churches that I visited today by clicking here.
Snobbish Catholic intellectuals, like me, love chapels like St. Francis chapel in Coatzacoalcos. We think profound thoughts like, “Isn’t it beautiful to see the Church enculturalized!” We have a great appreciation for the uniqueness of a grass hut chapel, while we sometimes fail to appreciate more traditional churches.
The Catholics who worship at St. Francis have the opposite opinion. They couldn’t wait to get out of such a disgraced edifice, and build what they thought was a “real church.” Sr. Marilyn was my tour guide to both chapels. The new chapel is still under construction, and so it remains stark and empty, but it gives the people a great deal of pride.
I guess everyone in the Church has their opinion about things, and is allowed to have their opinion of things, but I grow concerned that there is an increasing lack of appreciation for our differences.
As Sr. Marilyn takes me around to the various chapels in Coatzacoalcos, we encounter various catechism classes. With a lack of resources in this community, there are not separate classrooms for teaching children, so the worship spaces of the chapels double as classrooms. The purpose of these classes is to teach the children about the Faith, and part of the Faith is the Sacraments. As I hear the teacher articulate the Seven Sacraments, I am reminded about another aspect of the church about which a lot of people have a lot of opinions. The priesthood.
Whether it has been appreciated as such or not, Ordination is a Sacrament of the Church.
Sr. Marilyn is not shy about giving me her opinion of the priests in the Diocese of Coatzacoalcos. “This one is too crabby, this one is a drunk, this one contributes to the womanizing culture of machismo, but that one was nice. We miss him now that he’s moved away.”
Sr. Marilyn and I get out of the car at the cathedral in hopes of finding a Mass to attend. As we get out of the car, a brand new SUV has the hood up, the trunk open, and an elderly couple inviting the priest to sprinkle Holy Water into every crevice they could find. It is a vehicle blessing being done by Fr. Uriel.
“Oh good!” Sr. Marilyn leans over to me and whispers with a whisper of jubilation, “He’s one of the ones we like.”
Fr. Uriel is finishing a car blessing, and getting ready for Mass in which he will do seven baptisms, a commemoration of a fiftieth birthday, and presentations of three year olds. When he finishes, he’ll have another Mass for a retreat that has been meeting all day. He runs a Catholic radio program, and is at the forefront of social justice movements in the diocese, but despite his busy schedule he says, “Sure. I’ll meet with you right after Mass, just come to the sacristy.”
It isn’t hard to see why Sr. Marilyn appreciates Fr. Uriel. His homily was enthusiastic, with a forthright theology that was inspiring as well as challenging. It is easy to love him, especially when you compare him to his peers. One is angry and despairing. Another is a power hungry fief. It is sad really. One is left thinking, “How do priests get that way?”
Before I get into a defense of the Magisterium, I want to emphasize that I am not trying to condone or approve of any form of abuse in any way. If the power structures of the Church result in the fabrication of cycles of abuse, they need to be changed. A church that hides behind the mandate to preach the Gospel as justification for any form of abuse is not the church that Christ founded.
I believe a greater part of the Magisterium has, or once had, the enthusiasm that Fr. Uriel has. As Sr. Marilyn and I sit in Fr. Uriel’s office, I am impressed by our discourse. He seems to be a fountain of God’s love, working alongside others who are burnt out and bitter. Everyday he is traveling out to the outstation chapels. He hears Confessions two full days a week. He is constantly on the move.
“When you do you take your day off?” Sr. Marilyn asks.
“I don’t have time.” Fr. Uriel replies.
Sr. Marilyn and I take a deep breath because we both know that is the first sign of a minister who is headed for a crash. Sr. Marilyn has been there. I’ve been near there. That’s one of the reasons I’m on sabbatical right now. Without opportunity to get a clear perspective on things, without proper rest and rejuvenation, any passion can become self-destructive.
I stared into Fr. Uriel’s eyes for a moment, wondering how long it will be before he becomes a power crazed tyrant, an alcoholic, or an abuser, just like his peers. Meditating on his unshaven face, filled with love, but tired and worn, my mind began to piece together the puzzle at the root of many of Church’s problems. The lack of appreciation.
The laity don’t appreciate the sacrifice of the priest as a living sign of love given to the Church, and when priests realize they are not appreciated, they become bitter and jaded. The priest look for an outlet to release their disappointment, which is often contrary to the Gospel they are called to preach. When their actions are made public, they become a scandal, ironically giving the laity a justifiable reason not to appreciate the Sacrament of Ordination.
The priests don’t appreciate the laity and the work the laity do for the transformation of the world, the inbreaking of the Reign of God. When the laity realize they are not appreciated, they become distant and petty, incapable of living out the Gospel, incapable of love. Ironically, this becomes a justifiable reason for the priest not to appreciate the Sacrament of Baptism lived out in the laity.
I hope Fr. Uriel realizes that he is appreciated. As I left his office, I thought back on the day, and how it began with the worn out chapel of St. Francis that wasn’t appreciated. I can only imagine that the attitude of the congregants of St Francis chapel were envious. Other Catholics from other chapels walked around with an arrogance that didn’t appreciate the unique gifts of the indigenous poor. It made the people of St. Francis feel like their gift was insignificant, inferior, unappreciated.
I really don’t know what the future of the Church looks like. I neither know which camps are going to win the debates of philosophy, politics, and poetry, nor how such resolutions are going to restructure the Church of the twenty-first century (as they have restructured the Church during every century of its history). I do know however there is going to be a catastrophic mess if we can’t learn to appreciate the giftedness of each other, but then again, getting into, and out of, such messes seems to be a part of the Church’s history. A similar mess caused St. Paul to write the following in his First Letter to the Corinthians.1 Cor 12:4-31 - There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes. As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, "Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body," it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, "Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body," it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I do not need you," nor again the head to the feet, "I do not need you." Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. Now you are Christ's body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts