Friday, June 19, 2015

New beginnings...

I opened my computer Monday to the shock of news I’d hoped to hear for years. Archbishop Nienstedt, leader of the Catholic archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, had resigned from his position.

On some important level, this event doesn’t concern us Protestants. Nor can I claim well-studied knowledge about the man and his leadership, simply impressions and vignettes that built over time. Besides, my six year-old reminds me often, “Shane, when someone gets hurt, you’re never supposed to laugh.” And that’s right. Christians shouldn’t gloat, ever. We’re called to love mercy.

Nevertheless, I think it’s very good he’s gone. This resignation provides an opening for renewal in that church and the broader religious community. Perhaps a kinder, more compassionate and open Christianity will emerge in the public consciousness, one long held at bay.

Let explain why I say that. My hairstylist grew up Catholic. He’s gay. His parents were highly involved in their small Catholic church for decades. Until 2012, when the archdiocese funded an aggressive campaign to write marriage restrictions into our state constitution. At the Archbishop’s insistence, priests were asked to distribute anti-LGBTQ messages and materials, use their religious authority to sway votes. My hairstylist’s parents decided they supported their son more than Archbishop Nienstedt’s inflexible ideology. So they left the church home they’d long loved, which hurt their souls. But they loved their son more. I told him I found that act spiritually courageous, that it rang of the Gospel to me.

Many more families wrestled with such painful division due to the archbishop’s desire to deny LGBTQ citizens equal rights. I, obviously, don’t agree with his theology. But that’s not the issue. I respect diverse beliefs. But this went beyond theology for me. The situation felt like a powerful man using Jesus-speak to actively contribute to other people’s marginalization, without shame or caring. I find that troubling.

Besides, I heard colleagues say, “Shane, this isn’t why I became a priest. I wanted to show mercy to the poor, help the hurting, guide the lost. I didn’t want to fight culture wars. But that’s what my leadership demands.” May these faithful servants now breathe fresh, freeing air.

Finally, while writing, I just overheard child care kids outside my office, waiting for the bathroom. A boy just said, “Hey, don’t touch my body!” It was two three year-olds innocently wiggling for wall position. But those words evoked the issue that’s haunted our Catholic sisters and brothers for years. And, more importantly, has haunted the lives of too many victims of clergy assault. Not only the abuse, the unconscionable cover-ups too.

I lead our region’s clergy ethics investigation committee. So I’ve pondered what I would do if someone accused a clergyperson I know and respect of crimes against children. My answer: I’d cringe at the thought, pray it’s untrue, and immediately contact police. The protection of innocent victims is more important protecting my church or colleagues. Under this archbishop’s watch, though, clergy were given more special treatment than victims, some of whom were sidelined or silenced. Whatever after-the-fact child protection procedures were instituted (and I’m told they were good), justice demands accountability.

So a new beginning looms. I’m glad for our Catholic neighbors. And for us. After all, if you look past culture warriors, and encounter Catholic teachings and ministry regarding serving the poor, welcoming the stranger, advocating peace, they do it as well as-often better than!- most denominations. I think this leader stymied local efforts to unleash that full goodness on our community. That’s unfortunate, because given his church’s size and prestige, a more robust Christian witness was possible. We could’ve helped more people, and lost less worshipers to disgust.

The new archbishop, of course, won’t necessarily embody the merciful, compassionate leadership my priest friends long for, that I’d love to see and partner with. But I trust the Holy Spirit to whisper words of hope and grace always. May the Pope listen for that guidance as he decides who leads our neighbor Catholics next.

And let us pray for the former archbishop, grateful he stepped down, finally. May he find a renewed focus on care and devotion, rather than division or fear.

Grace and Peace,

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