Friends, I was away from the All Are One community today and Pastor Dick Dahl stood in for me–here is his very fine homily–enjoy! –Pastor Kathy
In his book,The Culture of Education, Jerome Bruner concludes that stories, the ones we tell about others and ourselves, are “the most natural and earliest way in which we organize our experience.” We live and die by stories; they are not mere “entertainments” but organic to our self definition and well being. So I am beginning this homily by telling you a story.
It’s about Joan who is now 73 but who entered the Benedictines in Erie, Pennsylvania when she was 16. During her 50+ years as a nun she helped her community incorporate the changes encouraged by Vatican II which were difficult for some in the community. She helped them realize thatministries, such as their long history of teaching the children of working class people in Erie, Pa, come and go. The community was the constant. Her conviction is that nothing remains static. She wrote, “I have come to realize that church is not a place, it is a process….The church needs to grow in its understanding of the Gospel, and I need to grow in my understanding of myself as I strive to live it. It is, in other words, a journey of conversion for both of us.”
A major part of that journey of conversion is the role of women in the church. In late 1999 Joan received a call from a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, asking her to be a keynote speaker for a conference on the topic of women’s ordination scheduled for 2001 in Ireland. Joan said she would not speak on the ordination topic because she wasn’t an expert on the original documents. She herself had never felt called to the priesthood and it had not been a personal issue for her. However, she did agree to talk about discipleship, something her whole life had been immersed in. So it was agreed that she would start off the conference with a scriptural perspective on what it is to follow Jesus.
A year and a half later, in fact two months before the conference was to take place, Joan’s prioress asked to see her. When they met, Joan was handed the letter the prioress had received. It was from the Vatican agency that oversees religious orders. In it Joan’s prioress was “officially and explicitly directed…to forbid and prohibit Sr. Joan Chittister from participating in this gathering in Dublin.” It went on to warn that failure to follow this command…will result in appropriate punishment.”
Joan later wrote, “I doubled over. I had literally been kicked in the stomach. When she straightened up, she told the prioress, “Christine, before there’s any discussion, before we say a single word. There’s something I need to tell you. I’m going to Dublin. I’m going. These men are not going to do this. They have no right.”
Joan wanted to separate the prioress and the community from repercussions for her decision. Her biographer Tom Roberts said that for her the matter became a justice issue. She herself wrote, “This was not a woman’s issue to me. This was a justice issue that happened to be rooted in the women’s question. It was a matter of ‘Who do you think you are that you can tell me what to think, tell me to whom I may speak, tell me where I can or cannot go? Who do you think you are, Daddy? I’m a big grown-up girl, and I can go into this myself and, trust me, I will maintain my faith and I will be a member of the church. That doesn’t make me a moral infant or an immoral woman, and if we have to shoot this out in the street, we’re going to because I’m going. I am going.”
She said the letter was “the equivalent of mugging a woman in the alley” where the assailant will have his way. Joan said to herself, ‘Well you may, but I refuse to be complicit in the silence. I will scream and I will tell, and I am not going to give in to this kind of intimidation and ruthless, brutal use of power simply because I am a woman without power.”
Psychological research has shown that many people who feel powerless come to feel unworthy and even become complicit in their own oppression. Sister Joan Chittister was not one of them. This is where the first and third Readings today come in. In the first, the Word of the Lord came to Jeremiah and said, “Stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them: For it is I this day who have made you a fortified city….They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” During her years of service to the Spirit of the Gospel, Sister Joan gained the courage to stand up for what was right and just.
I think we can also see in Joan the strength and courage of Jesus’ example in Luke’s Gospel today. The reading describes the way the people in the synagogue turned on Jesus after he gave them examples from Elijah and Elisha, that no prophet gains acceptance in his native place.” They wanted to shut him up and tried to hurl him over the edge of the hill on which the town was built. “But he went straight through their midst.” Similarly, Joan Chittister went straight to Dublin. She and the sisters in her community also went on unharmed.
That’s the story about Joan. Now I have another one—this time about George…well, Jorge in Spanish…actually Jorge Bergoglio, whom most of us know as Francis, Pope Francis. Life is complicated and discouraging at times. Sometimes despite our best efforts; sometimes as a result of poor judgment, or arrogance or inexperience. Problems develop for us or others we know and love. We sometimes feel, and even are, powerless to do anything about them.
When Jorge Bergoglio was 50, his Jesuit superiors sent him to Germany, purportedly to do research for his PhD, but in large part to get him out of Argentina where his leadership of the Jesuit province over the previous fifteen years — as Novice Master, then Provincial, and finally as Rector of the seminary — had divided his religious order deeply and bitterly. He was a man in turmoil when in a German church he came across a Baroque painting done in oils on wood paneling that bore the title, “Mary the untier of knots.”
The story behind it went back to 1610 when a Bavarian nobleman begged the counsel of a priest to help save his marriage. The priest remembered that St. Irenaeus in the second century had written that “the knot of Eve’s disobedience had been loosed by the obedience of Mary.” The priest implored the Virgin Mary to loosen and resolve the knots that threatened the marriage. The couple subsequently overcame their problems and stayed together. In 1700 the aristocrat’s nephew commissioned the painting of Mary unraveling the entanglements of their marriage ribbon. Bergoglio found that the painting gave him much comfort. The knots were the difficulties in his life, the daily difficulties in each of our lives.
When he returned to Buenos Aires, he brought a postcard of the Augsburg painting with him. A decade later parishioners raised money to have a full-sized copy painted. Thousands of people go to see it every month.
Bergoglio had changed when he returned to Argentina. His attitude now incorporated the spirit of Paul’s message to the Corinthians in today’s second reading. That reading is a beautiful homily in itself, perhaps the only homily we ever need to hear. Bergoglio became the priest to the poor, to the people living in the slums. As Paul wrote, “There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, to its hope, its power to endure.” Jorge Bergoglio came to realize and to say, “The most important thing is the person in front of you.” In his inaugural homily as pope, he went on, “Let us never forget that authentic power is service. Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message.”