Friday, May 8, 2020

For the Love of Rome - Reflection by Rev. Shanon Sterringer, ARCWP


May 5, 2020 reprinted from Shanon's blog:

By far, the most complicated and dysfunctional relationship in my life is my relationship to Rome, especially since I chose to follow my call to ordination. It has been a roller-coaster of emotions for several years now.  

There is a conversation taking place within the women priest movement regarding our name. We identify as Roman Catholic women priests (I was ordained within the Roman Rite and in the line of apostolic succession), though some within the movement would like to remove Roman from our name and simply use Catholic (which means universal). While there are valid points on each side of this conversation, I am Roman to the core. There are days I feel "fed-up with Rome" and am ready to cleanse anything and everything Roman from my life, but it is usually short-lived. The truth is, I love Rome and my life mission is grounded in the work of reformation and renewal.  I do not love patriarchy, sexism, unbridled power, greed, sexual abuse, self-righteousness, or clericalism, but I do love the Roman Church. 

I am a dreamer, in more ways than one.  I often have very vivid and memorable dreams.   Many of my dreams are marked by a situation in a parish, diocese, or church context, and there are always clergy present. Apparently this is what is in most need of healing in my subconscious because it continues to resurface. I believe God communicates to us in ways we will understand, and for me, I pay attention to my dreams.  Sunday evening, I had a very interesting dream:  

I was in a diocesan church for a funeral, but was not vested or participating as a priest. I was sitting in the pew and I could feel some of the clergy uncomfortably staring at me.  I looked up into the sanctuary and there were several bishops vested and presiding, one in particular  who looked angry with me.  We just stared at each other for a bit. The procession was about to start and an emergency unfolded in a pew behind me.  While the paramedics were rushing to address it, Fr. Pete came over and sat next to me, fully vested, and said he was going to attend Mass sitting with me in the pew.  

I laughed and said, please don't! There are already enough bishops here upset with me, let's not make this any more difficult than it needs to be.  And with that, I looked again into the sanctuary, and sitting with the bishops were several women in chasubles.  While I was not vested or sitting with them, there was a peace that came over me looking at them there.  It felt as if I was looking somehow into the future where women and men will co-preside.  As I was admiring the presence of women concelebrating, Bishop Lennon (former bishop of Cleveland who commissioned me as a Lay Ecclesial Minster in 2011), proceeded to come towards me with a book.  He handed me an antique book with Barnum & Bailey Circus on the front and spoke the following words, "When this is all over, we will welcome you back..." 

What does this dream mean? Most simply, I believe it means that one day the institution will accept the role of women priests.  I see my role at this point on the journey to do my part in helping to lay the foundation for this to unfold.  To simply "be the change" that the Spirit is calling forth.  Does it mean deep down I am desiring to be welcomed back? Of course.  Community has always been the underlying force of my ministry. But not under the conditions that I stepped away.  I cannot go back to what was - it no longer exists.  There is always a desire to reconcile.  It may not happen in this lifetime, or in this realm, but in the end, "all shall be well" (Julian of Norwich). 
On a deeper level, Fr. Pete, Bishop Lennon and the circus book are also significant. 

The image of Fr. Pete willing to sit in the pew fully vested is a powerful image that needs little explanation. He is a brilliant scholar of early Church history (educated in Rome) and over the years shared with me the stories of many remarkable, and virtually unknown, women from the early Church include Perpetua, Felicitas, Blandina, Nino, Olympias, and others,  His love and support for my personal ministry provided rich soil for me to grow and produce abundant fruit over the last two decades.  It was not by chance that I walked into St. Anthony's Church almost 23 years ago and began the journey of discerning my vocation. 
While Fr. Pete's presence in this dream may be obvious, Bishop Lennon's may be less clear! He came to us from Boston and he terrorized the Diocese of Cleveland for a decade.  He ruled this Diocese as a dictator and there are still consequences lingering from his reign.  I am not sure how he would have responded to my ordination (he died last year), but I am sure it would not have been pleasant.  People were sincerely scared of him, which is ridiculous considering he was functioning in persona Christi  and Christ is not scary... However, I remember fondly the day I met with him seeking to be certified as a Lay Ecclesial Minister.  It was the Feast of St. Nicholas 2011 and I was really nervous as I walked into his office.  To my surprise, he was so kind and gentle.  He praised my theological credentials and assured me that there was nothing for me to be nervous about.   "Why are you nervous? What are they saying about me out there? I'm just a regular guy..."  Of course, there was nothing regular about him, but that meeting changed the way I understood him.  He has made several appearances in my dreams since I have been ordained, and he is always pastoral and kind in them. "When this is all over, we will welcome you back..." These words stuck with me for most of the morning because I don't expect that I will be welcomed back into the institution in this lifetime, but maybe this dream is a promise for another time and place.

What's with the circus book? That was an interesting element, especially given the fact I abhor the abuse the animals endure in this context. However, when I was six years old, my dad died.  I was in the first grade at St. Gregory the Great Church (now called Sacred Heart of Jesus) and the pastor was Msgr. Novicky, a legendary figure in the South Euclid area for decades.  Some loved him, others (including my little Italian grandmother) despised him.  When he died, the diocesan auditors uncovered a huge financial scandal (involving millions of parish dollars) which left many in the community very upset and angry with him and the Church.  It was disheartening. However, I have to say my memories of him were pastoral.  The year my dad died, I remember him calling me and my brother into his office and giving us a Christmas tree ornament (which we still have).  Earlier that same year, the school had a pumpkin carving contest.  The winner of the contest was promised a trip to the Barnum & Bailey Circus with our teacher.  I was so excited to carve my pumpkin - I remembering using toothpicks to hold it's free floating eyes in place! Long story short, I won the contest and went to the circus.  I don't know if my pumpkin was actually that good or if the school felt sorry for me because of my dad, but it meant so much to me at  that time and clearly that experience is still very much alive within my psyche, hence the circus book...

Where am I going with all of this? Rome carries with it so much baggage.  Centuries (long before Christianity) of inappropriate use of violence and power.  How do we undo all of the negative connotations? Do we remove ourselves from it? Do we demonize it? Do we tear it down?  Is it salvageable? Can it be healed? I have wrestled with all of these questions.  

How do we renew and restore an institution that seems to be unwilling to grow, change, or even listen to the people and our needs?  We start with one person, one relationship, one experience at a time. We start the long and tedious task of rebuilding with our own context and our own situation.  Healing starts within.

We have two choices in this life: to love or to hate.  At the end of the day, that's all there is.  Deus caritas est - God is love.  God does not hate - that would contradict God's very nature.   The challenge is to always strive for love.  Not superficial, fuzzy, feel-good love, but deep, heart-wrenching, self-sacrificial love. The love that Jesus modeled. The kind of love that may cost us everything. 

For a long time, I wanted to hate this institution.  Somedays I still do. The pain it has caused is inexcusable. But, I also recognize that without the institution, I would not be an ordained priest today.   I am who I am today because of my Catholic upbringing, not only as a child but even more so as an adult. My vocation has come entirely through my experience of the Church including grade-schools, seminary, parishes, dioceses, and deep-rooted friendships. How does one simply remove that from her/his being? I simply cannot begin to imagine who I would be disconnected from my Catholic roots. 

Whether or not he was an honest man, Msgr. Novicky planted a seed in my mind and heart that grew into a vocation.  This does not justify or excuse his bad choices, but it does challenge me to look beyond one's faults and failing in order to believe in the inherent goodness of every human person. It helps me to understand the complexity of our human experiences. 

There are many terrible clergy serving in the Church - some who have done unspeakable things to children and women, and they should be dealt with appropriately.  But, there are also so many wonderful clergy and religious, working hard for change.  Most of my closest friends are clergy and religious and they are beautiful people, fully aware of their shortcomings.  While my divinely ordered path called me to a place outside of the institution, it doesn't negate the important work that they are doing within.  We are on different paths, but working towards the same end goal.

I have come to understand, we will never change the institution by attacking the top. The seeds of change are planted at the grass-roots level. We start by healing and transforming our personal world, one relationship, one situation at a time.  "Evolution, not revolution" will bring about authentic change, a brilliant priest once told me. For me, I have had to work on a broken relationship with a bishop - for you, it will be something entirely different.  We start with our own personal experience. From there, healing and transformation will continue to grow until one day, maybe not in our lifetime, but one day, the institution will have been transformed by our collective acts of radical forgiveness and reconciliation.. 

I am devastated by the way COVID-19 has ravaged Italy, including Rome.  Never would I have ever imagined Pope Francis to be celebrating mass for those buried in mass graves due to the virus.  As angry as I get at the Vatican, never would I have ever wished to see the tragedy befall Rome as it has since this pandemic broke. Never would I have ever wished to see an empty basilica for Holy Week and Easter.  As I watched Pope Francis move about what is normally a bustling space, without any crowds, it truly broke my heart. I first felt like crying, and then I realized, what I was really feeling was love. For good or ill, I still deeply love this place we call Rome. 

Love is patient.  Love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.(1 Corinthians 13, 4-13)

The pandemic is offering us an opportunity to put the past behind us, set aside judgements,  and choose today to follow the call to love. I choose love.

Yes, I am a Roman Catholic. This relationship is not without serious challenges, some of which have kicked my ass over the years and have changed my life.  Nonetheless, it has shaped me into the person that I am today and for that, I am grateful. 

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