It's hard to think of a faith community that doesn't at some point struggle with internal dissension. Sometimes, in fact, those disagreements result in schism. Indeed, the United Methodist Church is the current prime example of that in American Protestant Christianity.
“Oh,” he says, pointing to one building, “this is my church.”
“And,” he continues, a little sheepishly, “the other is the church I used to attend.”
So even in a one-member church there can be divisions.
When we're talking about larger traditions, we find that Christianity is divided into such categories as Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox; Judaism's divisions include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist; Islam's divisions include Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi. And on and on. (Here, by the way, is a story about internal religious division that once was declared to be the funniest faith-based joke in the world.)
So when I report to you that there are disagreements about what's going on in the world of the Jesuits within Catholicism, it should come as no surprise.
But any divisions within religious traditions can be painful and can test the core of the faith of followers. In some ways, that's a bit of what seems to be happening among the Jesuits, a Catholic order known for its commitment to education. (Its symbol is displayed here). Indeed, Rockhurst University in Kansas City is among many Jesuit institutions of higher education across the country.
One sign of internal trouble in the Jesuit world is this opinion piece at TheCatholicThing.org by Francis X. Maier. Its title tells you quickly that Maier thinks things have gone terribly off track: "The Jesuits: What Went Wrong?" Maier, by the way, has long been among Catholic leaders who have identified as theologically conservative and who have been resistant to the reforms authorized by the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II.
In his article, Maier asserts that "enough prominent Jesuits have said enough strange things lately to invite concern." And then lists several examples.
He then shares answers from unidentified sources, people whom he asked to respond to the question of what's going wrong with the Jesuits.
The anonymity he grants to the sources of the quotes tends to make me ask why he uses their words that way instead of requiring that they be open about their questions. In other words, it seems like a way to let people take potshots at the Jesuits without accountability, a criticism sometimes aimed at practices in the traditional media.
So there's that. Another reason for me to bring up the Jesuits at all is that there is considerable pain among some Kansas City area Catholics at the recently announced news that the Jesuits are leaving St. Francis Xavier (SFX) Catholic Church, located right across Troost Avenue from Rockhurst University. Members of the congregation tell me that they're heartbroken about this news.
It's worth quoting a letter from the SFX pastor, the Rev. Jim Caime, and the parish administrator, Ann Sheridan, sent to parishioners earlier this fall:
"In January of this year, Fr. Jim Caime, S.J., Pastor, and Ann Sheridan, Pastoral Administrator, were asked by Fr. Tom Greene, S.J., Provincial of the Jesuit Central and Southern Province, to prepare a presentation about our parish. His request came within the context of the Jesuits’ 10-year plan published in 2020. In that plan, the number of parishes the Jesuits intend to mission with Jesuit priests is slated to decrease from fourteen parishes to seven.
"For the presentation, we were asked to provide demographic and financial information about St. Francis Xavier, along with a description of our response to the Universal Apostolic Preferences. We were asked to describe the impact of our Jesuit parish in the wider community. We also recorded a video talk by our local bishop James V. Johnston in support of continuing the Jesuit leadership at St. Francis Xavier Parish. Fr. Tom Curran, S.J, then President of Rockhurst University, and others also weighed in heavily on the importance of SFX for the community as a Jesuit parish.
"Fr. Jim and Ann made a presentation to Fr. Greene and members of the Central and Southern Province Commission on Ministries in St. Louis in late April. As we have previously reported to you, with your help, we felt the presentation accurately represented the dynamics of our parish. We were informed that a decision whether St. Francis Xavier parish would continue to be missioned by Jesuit priests would be made in Fall 2022.
"On Tuesday, September 13, Fr. Jim and Ann learned in a call with Fr. Tom Greene that the Jesuits will not continue to be missioned to St. Francis Xavier Parish. The responsibility for staffing parish priests will transfer back to the Diocese effective July 31, 2024.
. . .
"St. Francis Xavier Parish will carry on as we always do -- offering sacramental development and faith formation programs; sponsoring committees and events focused on eradicating the scourges of racism and poverty; building a parish community that is warm, loving, and supportive; making a difference in our community and beyond; and living the Apostolic Preferences. Diocesan leadership has affirmed their commitment to provide priests and other forms of support to help foster the life of our parish.
"This is hard. We are deeply saddened. We are asking everyone to pray and discern how to accept this information knowing that our faith and trust in God will carry us through."
At a recent dinner honoring Kansas City gem Alvin L. Brooks, I happened to run into Bishop Johnston and asked him about the SFX situation. He said he still had a least a little hope that Jesuit provincial leaders would change their minds and keep Jesuit leaders at the church. But he acknowledged that eventually he may be required to appoint a diocesan priest to lead that congregation.
I told him that I understood there was much disappointment and angst among SFX congregants and that if the Jesuits really left, Johnston would need to keep in mind the congregation's disappointment and to find someone to lead who would be sensitive to that. And Johnston indicated to me that he's well aware of that.
So we don't yet know what finally will happen with SFX, but it's clear that this congregation is not the only area of controversy within the Jesuit world.
Beyond that, of course, it's far from the only controversy across the wide range of religious traditions around the world. Perhaps one day people of faith can be consistent models for how to live in peace and harmony. But today isn't that day. Sigh.
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A PLACE TO BEGIN: 'WE'RE SORRY.'
Many faith communities -- from Methodists to Presbyterians to Quakers and more (plus the federal government) -- were part of the indefensible boarding school system that sought to take Indigenous children from their communities and turn them into white children. I wrote about the recent federal report on this outrage here earlier this year. Now this RNS report raises the good question of what healing from this scandal might look like. It's a good question, and here's one answer suggested in the article: "The first step is an apology." Apologies are not opportunities for the current generation to take responsibility for what previous generations did. But they do provide a chance to acknowledge what happened and to begin working to fix the consequences that extend to the present time. There is much to regret in the history of how white European invaders disrupted Indigenous life in this land and destroyed countless lives and cultures. Knowing that history also provides the opportunity to begin to recognize how many Indigenous people (millions in nearly 600 federally recognized tribes) still exist today and to offer to be an ally when that would be helpful.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland now is online here. It's about how shrinking, huge old churches are trying to create new futures for themselves.