by guest writer William M. Shea
… your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Joel 2:28
When I was a kid, maybe nine or ten years old, attending St. Raymond’s School on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, I had to walk everyday to and from school, a distance of about ten blocks. As I turned onto Tremont I faced a Lutheran church across the street. And when on my own time I walked down St. Peter’s Avenue just two blocks to Westchester Avenue and under the EL, I faced another church, a church which I found out later was high church Episcopalian with an altar and confessionals no less and vestments galore. I was intrigued by both buildings, maybe because my teachers told me it would be a mortal sin to enter them, something to do with “cooperating in false worship.” I tried to imagine just what went on in there that could deserve hell. As a young priest I even hesitated (i.e. gave it a brief thought) whether I should travel downtown to hear Fr. Dan Berrigan speak on Vietnam in St. Mark’s Episcopal in the Bowery. I didn’t know what sort of sin that would be, probably a sacrilege since I was at the time a sacred person. My sacrality ceased in 1980.
Taken with a pinch of salt
Those are dim memories made bright only because of what my father told me at ten years. He read the religion text I was studying that year and asked me what the Brothers had to say about the eternal destiny of Protestants. I said that if they didn’t return to the True Church before they died they would go to hell; if their ignorance were invincible maybe not. He said “That’s bullshit”! That shocked me: didn’t he know that this is doctrine? He said for me to sit down and told me a story:
My grandfather and grandmother were thrown off the Shea land in Kilmoogue. They were to inherit the two hundred acres. I saw it when I was thirty five: stunning deep green after a rain. My great grandfather, the fertile old goat, married a second time intending to have a second family, and my wicked step-great grandmother wanted the land to go to her first born and that meant the first batch of children had to go. So my family of Sheas, eleven of them, were on the road with nowhere to go. They had a neighbor family named Power who were Protestants, maybe Church of Ireland. They gave my grandparents and their children a small house and plot of land on their property, enough to raise vegetables and tend bee hives, rent free.
“Do you think the Powers are in hell?,” my father asked me. That stuck with me and loosened just a bit the hold that the ordinary Magisterium had on me. When I got into my teens, old enough to guess what he was talking about, he said that I should “put a pinch of salt on every priest’s tail” (tale?) because they didn’t know much about real life, especially about marriage. That helped when in the seminary the moral theology professor waxed, and didn’t wane, about the damnable guilt attached to birth control. Thank God for parents of a spirituality better attuned to real life than the priests’!
What might the church be?
I am a son but surely not a prophet, I’m not young enough for visions. But I am an old man who may dream dreams. I’m dreaming these day and nights about what the church might be. Maybe I do so because the Spirit has been poured out on all of us. Such matters are too deep for me, and in fact I often worry that there just may be another spirit at work. So be forewarned.
I dream that the Christian church is already one entity, one Body with an endless number of different names, like Protestant, Episcopalian, Lutheran, SBC, Evangelicals and (even Mormons if they can just get their language straightened out a bit). What make the catholic church one in my dream are faith, hope, and love energized by the Holy Spirit and exercised in the name of Jesus. These “churches” and “ecclesial communities” (as Roman Catholics call them) in their quite different organizational structures and ritual practices are distinguished by matters that should be regarded as secondary and nowhere so important as to threaten the significant unity of the Holy Spirit who is the source of the church’s life. The one church should get over the differences that seem to divide it by means of a never ending dialogue, by hearing the one Word, by sitting at the same meal, by proclaiming from the outset and agreed to by all that we are already one in Christ.
The one church of my dream holds a basic loyalty to the scriptures both Jewish and Christian, to the formative apostolic and sub-apostolic writings, to the ways of life and beliefs of the early church when we were one, albeit loosely. Each tradition of understanding and action deserves recognition and common acceptance, from east to west, early and late, from Ignatius of Antioch through Cyprian of Carthage and Augustine of Hippo, from Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther and John Calvin, from Charles Hodge to Hans Kung and even Pope Francis. Sometimes they were all mistaken, some times stupid and venal, but often they were not. Often they were smart and holy. Let’s learn from them in common how to speak the Christian languages and not make so much a fuss when they disagree. They, from the Twelve on, are the cloud of witnesses. We should only worry them if they deny that Jesus in the flesh is the Christ, the Son of God. All should prize their doctrinal and ecclesiological distinctives yet be ready to put them on the table of dialogue. Trust the Spirit! Learn! We don’t need another five hundred years of enforced division.
I’ll tell you my one of my convictions that I’d like to see on that table: The one christian church needs to confess that we spring from and still live off the tree of Judaism. As large as the church is we Christians remain a footnote to that saving tree and do not replace it. Historically, many nominal Christians have been flaying our mother. I would like to argue that our separation from our Jewish parent is the original sin of the church. This is particularly important in these days of renewed anti-Semitism.
A second conviction that needs arguing at a common table is whether there is a single divinely inspired church order and governance, or whether such is a matter of time, place, convenience and Christian inventiveness and the movement of the Spirit, not a matter of binding divine revelation. The church (the churches) decides what fits, what works to establish and flourish communities within the one Christian church.
Finally, my dream church is constituted by conversion of heart, by baptism in water by the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus, by confession of the one faith in the truth which grounds its very existence. That faith is expressed in the kerygmatic proclamation that the meaning of God for human experience is found in the fulness (pleroma) that dwells in Him. He is the End for which we all wait. “Mission,” the heart of the church’s active living, springs from this, as does our continuous eucharist.