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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

The Eucharist in the world

30 years and 55 countries later, Arthur Jones bids farewell to NCR readers

Part 4
After 30 years with the newspaper, Arthur Jones, NCR's editor at large, is retiring at the end of October. I asked Jones to reflect on his years in Catholic journalism, and I also asked him to sum up his thoughts as he looks at the church today. This is the fourth of four columns. -- Tom Roberts

Dear Readers:

The Divine Comedy is rooted in the ironical twists of history.

I grew up as Hitler’s bombs shook the house and killed my neighbors, yet as I retire after 43 years in Catholic journalism, a former member of the Hitler Youth is pope.

In his predecessor I saw a brilliant autodidact, an intellectual who never went to a formal seminary. Basically self-taught, Karol Wojtyla rose above two brands of totalitarianism to become pope, yet he took on the coloration of his tormentors to create a dictatorial church of his own devising with Fatima as co-lodestar. Always keen to display his own learning, he was not keen to learn about his limitations.

Victor Treadwell, one of my history tutors, known in Oxford as “the historian’s historian,” contended, “Anglocentrism is the curse of English history.” Romacentrism and Eurocentrism are the curse of Catholic history.

Wojtyla and Ratzinger both understood that. They also understood the Second Vatican Council’s call to get over it, but they usurped that call. Courageous in other ways, they lacked the courage of the council’s convictions.

Raphael Samuels, my other history tutor, believed in “popular history,” history told through the lives of the people, from the bottom up. He was an authority on religion, in this case a socially relevant Methodism. It was preached directly to the masses, frequently outdoors, wherever it found the people. It’s rootedness prevented Britain from later going Marxist.

As those who wrecked the church in Brazil watch the existing Catholic poor worldwide flee the church in droves, they ought to note that bit of history. Its parallel in U.S. dioceses is people fleeing city for suburbs because the poor are impossible to evangelize and too big a drain on resources. Tell it to Jesus.

Two popes back-to-back, and most of their bishops, are afraid of a fully engaged educated laity (and not without reason; they’d be held to account). They are even more afraid of fully engaged Catholic women. And surely, the final futility, afraid of fully engaging the church’s theologians, frightened of what they might hear. In theology’s place: canon law and the preoccupation with minutiae. (Jesus had a word or two to say about such obsessive-compulsive teachers.)

I’ve never heard a bishop preach on Matthew 23:1-7, and not many pastors can do it comfortably. Yet I was raised in a church that had little favorable to say about the Pharisees who occupy the chair of Moses. And I look at many of those in the present ranks of bishops and smile at the juxtaposition of it all.

Boston’s first bishop

I think of today’s episcopal careerists (who, amazingly, don’t think their ambition is obvious to all) and contrast them with the life of Boston’s first bishop, Jean Lefevre de Cheverus. He lived poor, served the poor, and still got a red hat (that he didn’t want).

I think of the Edmundite priest, run out of Selma by the bishop for siding with the black community (welcomed back by Selma’s combined black and white churches a quarter century later) and think of priests today who’d be run out by their bishop. For siding with Catholic women’s aspirations, or with the divorced, or the gay, or with those critical of the local fat cats, or critical of their local bishop for playing partisan politics.

I think of the millennia and more that Rome, through its policies and practices, words and actions, its inactions and silences, visited violence, mistrust and abuse on the Jews -- to whom the church has now apologized and made some amends. And I think of the millennia and more that Rome, through its policies and practices, words and actions, has visited violence, inequality and abuse on Catholic women, most particularly married women ordered to be submissive to their husbands -- women to whom it has never adequately apologized or made amends (though it has put out a nice pamphlet or two).

As an arrogant sheep who views these things with curious eyes, to moralize -- such a privileged reporting life I’ve had. The fun of the CIA turning up on my doorstep after Cuba. More silly men who routinely fail to see the big picture clearly. Of being with Fr. Des Wilson in Belfast, Ireland, when the British troops burst in and, says he, quick as a flash, “And now you can go back to New York and tell Americans in your newspaper what we’re living with,” and how the British major led his men quickly back out. And in my bright red rental car the next day, I was followed by an army helicopter from Belfast to Enniskillen.

Or 4 a.m. on the dimly lit streets of Warsaw the weekend Lech Walesa was supposed to receive his Nobel Prize (he was in Gdansk). Solidarity suppressed. Demonstrations expected. And me with a story on my lips if I was arrested that I was on my way to early Mass at Holy Cross Church where Chopin’s heart is! Very early Mass.

Visiting a mosque; being in Tehran and becoming the last person to interview Iranian Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda before the ayatollah had him arrested and shot. So much for religious fundamentalism.

In British Hong Kong at the end, with Chris Patten, the governor and a Catholic, telling me how, to assuage worried staff, he’d had to bury a knife pointed at the (Chinese Communist) Bank of China building to offset bad feng shui.

In Malta when Dom Mintoff (with Libya’s support) was trying to take over the Catholic schools, and my college roommate, who was in the government, saying I was safe for only about 48 hours.

Oh, I’ve seen Jesus -- in the folks in the Catholic Worker houses I’ve eaten in and prayed in. In refugee camps. On winter nights with Mitch Snyder on the streets of Washington (never telling vegetarian Mitch I’d added a strong beef broth to the homemade soup he and others were drinking). And in so many, many laypeople across 43 years of writing about them. Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in India, Spiritan Fathers in Haiti, Jesuits and Maryknollers in Asia. The people serving in inner-city Daughters of Charity hospitals or inner-city gyms. The two nuns running a health center in the loblolly pine forests; the lay couple working both sides of the troubled southern border; the couple in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Such a privilege, reporting on people living for others. Always the Eucharist, everywhere. Eucharist in the Mississippi Delta, on the Navajo and Hopi and Mescalero Apache reservations. In the Mogadishu cathedral after helping feed malnourished babies in Somali refugee camps; in churches with no doors in Korou, French Guiana. With the garbage people in Manila, Philippines, and then in the enormous Manila church where the carved corpus, the crucified Jesus, is climbing down from the cross to join the people in the congregation.

In the inner-city church in the United States. A weekday Mass. Unforgettable. A supermarket cart in the aisle. The unkempt homeless woman and her son, about 11, who watched the priest in wonder, and listened intently to the readings. They patterned the Sign of the Cross and the Amens. And, when the handful of people present went up to Communion, they did the same. And the priest, without hesitation as they held out their hands, said, “The Body of Christ,” and they knew by that time to say a quavering, “Amen.”

And they returned to their pew, bowed their heads to pray as best they might (which is all any of us can do). Was Jesus offended? Or had we just witnessed true faith and conversion?

Host in the hands

Eucharist with the older priests and nuns in Hong Kong who’d lived through the Philippines, Singapore, Japan’s occupations, the Mao-driven exodus from China. With the early heroes of Catholic Relief Services. With Fr. Dick Wempe in the Catholic Worker in Kansas City, Kan.; the Spiritans and friends in the Queen of Peace community, Arlington, Va. Mass in Fiji and clerics in traditional skirts. With the catechists commissioned in India, two of whom said that given where they were going, they’d likely soon be dead.

The Eucharist with Tissa Balasuriya in Korea and other places; with Archbishop Francis Hurley in Alaska. On the altar in an Arizona desert chapel with Bishop Francis Quinn; with Bishop Francis Murphy at the bishops’ meeting Masses; with Bishop Tom Gumbleton at St. Leo’s and elsewhere. The Eucharist in the church in Rome where I held out my hands for the host and got my face slapped. The Eucharist in my English village where I faced down my parish priest who’d told the villagers he wasn’t facing the people or giving them Communion in the hand. And he had to do both, and I was his first. The mystics, the Dom Bedes, the Tom Keatings, and the Tom Berrys.

The Eucharist in the monasteries and convents in this and other countries; in people’s homes and hospital chapels. In the cardinal’s highly expensive new sandbox in Los Angeles that nonetheless has an interior worthy of prayer. Cathedrals in Barcelona and Cologne and Liverpool and San Francisco. The crypt at Westminster; the crypt in the National Shrine. Farm Street, London, and Sophia University, Tokyo; and that fine institution Sogang University, in Seoul. In the little chapels in Stanley, Hong Kong and Tijuana.

But only in Episcopal churches have I received the Eucharist from a woman who consecrated it.

And so to my ultimate astonishment: observing a self-satisfied church that hasn’t even got enough priests to celebrate the Eucharist. A church’s vitality ebbing, and already a quarter-century into a free-fall Dark Ages of its own devising, a Dark Ages from which it will not emerge until well into the second half of this century. It takes about 60 years for a socio-ideological cycle to wind down, and we are only 27 years into the conservative-fundamentalist revival that began with the rise to power -- all in a four-year period -- of John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

And Benedict XVI? Some surmise that desk sergeant Ratzinger of the theology precinct, now promoted to police commissioner, will stalk the ’hood. Not so, the rottweiler is the Bavarian hausfrau now: a place for everything and everything in its place. Keep the theological sidewalks swept, make nice to the interfaith and ecumenical neighbors, but not too nice. The Benedict XVI church will be dusted, vacuumed -- but not as battened down as John Paul II’s. Which means the U.S. bishops may find themselves shifting gears a little to stay in line.

When the Catholic Reformation comes, if it comes, I’ll be long dead.

Despite that, I have a peasant’s faith in the Jesus of the Gospels, unshaken by the ebb and flow of Rome’s meanderings. I am enough of a historian manqué to know that on God’s clock all these things are momentary.

Enough of a Catholic to believe in the communion of saints. A communion that includes the nasties -- who’d exclude me if they could, those willing to write out of the church people who aren’t in lockstep with them and their dependency. I love, in sadness, the millions of misled Catholic folk Rome holds in modern-day pre-Luther-like thrall, misled by freshly reprinted and frequently irrelevant rules and rubrics that it uses to guarantee salvation. Whereas only to the extent the institution is actually living the Word and the Flesh and the Beatitudes is it fulfilling its mission.

I am enough of a Catholic to know that God in mystery and the actions of the Holy Spirit can render all my broad sweeps and details irrelevant, ignorant and naive. Yet enough the journalist that when my editor invites me to tell it as I see it, I have.

History helps. I’m an English Catholic raised in the tradition of historian Lord Acton and Cardinal John Henry Newman. Acton who, with one eye on the papacy, said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And Newman who, asked to propose a toast to the pope, said, “To the pope if you please, still, to conscience first.”

Farewell, dear readers. Farewell, editor Tom and publisher Rita, and the folks at NCR.

To any along the way I have hurt through commission or omission, I offer sincere apologies and ask forgiveness.

To any perturbed by my views, do write a letter to the editor.


Arthur Jones

PS: And 35 countries later, if there’s reincarnation, I’m still coming back Italian.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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