What Is a Prophet?

My first thought: Whatever they are, we could use a few now.

The word itself is derived from the Greek: pro (for) combined with phanai (speak), so presumably a person who speaks on behalf of another, with the authority, veracity and wisdom of the source, in times past, usually God.

My second thought: Ah, Walter Brueggeman’s Prophetic Imagination, all of us called to be prophets in the sense of resisting the values of our culture and re-envisioning communities in which Biblical values are the abiding norm.

How’s that working out for us? Hogwash is a Middle English derivative, its original meaning being food past its prime and of dubious nutritional value.

Yet every age, especially one as tumultuous as ours, has its prophets, probably going, as Jesus noticed, without honor in their hometowns, which, given the global age, means pretty much everywhere. Time will sort out the truest, although Jesus’ words are still an accurate touchstone. Certainly, Teresa of Avila remains a solid and enduring prophetic voice, notable both for her soul wisdom and her engagement with the world.

The Cresset: A Review of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs published my poem, “Ode to 1577,” in its Easter 2019 issue. In reading and taking comfort in Teresa’s words, I was struck by the topsy-turviness of her times. Everything changing. Centrifugal forces ripping to shreds formerly-held verities. One researched bit led to another (thank you, Internet). And, I won’t further explain the poem, which is available here online. My thanks to poetry editor Marci Rae Johnson for choosing the poem and to editor Heather Grennan Gary for her support.

Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad? Part II

And Old Women. Thank you, kindred spirit Yeats!

As I thought more about the Sean Reynold - Dobie Moser analysis of participant reaction to the ongoing church crisis, "How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” which appeared online in America Magazine (see my April 9 blogpost), I realized that my poem, “Excommunicate,” published February 4, 2019 in TalkingWriting, describes the flight of the Absolute Doubters from a somewhat despairing can’t we see what’s going on vantage point?

While we are on the subject of “Excommunicate,” it contains an etymological leap that I didn’t address in the poem, or elsewhere. If you studied properly for your SATs, you know that the Latin word for wall is murus. Mun can only mean wall through the verb munio, to fortify or protect with a wall. As happens in every language, the root expanded with prefixes in Latin, with the result that English dictionaries take a short cut and use communis, meaning common as in sharing a wall, as the source for excommunicate. Whew! Believe it or not, I actually try to explain the convoluted historical evolution of some words in the etymological series of poems I’ve been writing. I bet you’ll believe this— it doesn’t work. When I reread the more accurate, easy to defend from a linguistic point of view poems, I get lost, think, what are you talking about? Worse, and why are you talking about that? So I cut to the chase with ‘excommunicate’ and have always hoped for an opportunity to explain. Done.

At least the poem is available online. “Apology” is not available, other than in the print version of Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019). If I'm going to stand by the poem in its double Yeatsian madness, it is only right that I make the poem available to anyone who wants to read it. Almost done. (The formatting was a challenge.)

Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology

Long history, that one. Greek, ye olde -log, word,

with apo-, away from. Think Socrates, charged

with not believing in the right gods. Fending off

the accusation, with a little help from his friends. 

Plato. A po LO gi a. How cool does that sound. 

Followed by centuries of let’s-call-them-erstwhile 

Christian apologists, defending the newly-right-God 

against any objections. Using evidence, hard and fast 

like they like, and a long line of each other. 

If you’re catching my drift, you’re noticing that word 

changing horse midstream more than once. Check

out Shakespeare, where good apologies started

to depend on regret, till now when apologizers and

apologists have fully parted ways. Although really,

don’t they still need each other? Our newly sainted

John Paul got on a roll. Apologies: Come one 

and all, you we burned at the stake, sacked with

our Crusades, sold into slavery, stole with legislation,

converted, persecuted, ignored when you needed

us most. We’re sorry. Mistakes have been made.

Are we missing anyone? Oh, them. Of course.

Papal apologies come to town regularly on their 

honking-big camels, struggling for breath through gagging 

halters, nose pegs, buckling under saddles, weighted 

down with bags of gold and Renaissance art. Not as 

much as you might think. The apologists are there to help 

them pass through the eye of an excruciating needle.

Is That You Spewing Invective?

If you are referring to the publication of “Beleaguered Church Hears the Call for Apology” in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry, then unfortunately, yes, that is my poem. I never thought I would be a voice of outrage in and toward an institution that I have loved my whole life and from which I have gained so much, the Catholic Church. But so it is. This poem is not the only one I’ve published lately which looks, shall we say, askance at the church, but it is the best. 

America Magazine published an insightful article online, April 8, 2019, “How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?” Its authors, Sean Reynolds and Dobie Moser, cofounders of Mustard Seed Consultants, facilitate group workshops about the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. They use the work of George Wilson S.J. to examine levels of doubt among the participants. I regretfully see that I fall into the category of Ethical Doubt, which is one remove from Absolute Doubt, people for whom the Church has proven permanently and deeply corrupt and basically irrelevant. This article helped me identify and categorize my own intensity, but also it is helping me understand why I get so annoyed with conversations that try to deal with the issue on the level of behavioral or procedural fixes. I look around at my Catholic kinspeople and wonder, What are we thinking? Can this possibly be okay with us?

We need women priests, married priests— yes, but we need more than that. We need institutional reform, apologies, restitution—yes, but still more. And deeper. We need metanoia, a complete transformation. We need prayer, humility, corporate and individual penance. A whole new presence in the world. We need God. 

Back to the poem: I’m grateful to Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry (2019) editor Mary Ann Miller for choosing to publish this poem in a venue for readers and writers interested in Catholic poetry and, presumably, Catholicism. For whatever reason, I have felt morally obligated to get into print these jeremiads. I hope I’m done.

Have You Moved On?

In a way, yes. As I previously mentioned, the widespread and worsening political, economic and environmental realities have rendered me disgusted, heartsick, mute and overcome with powerlessness. I’m still dealing with the powerlessness, but the muteness has abated. While I’m more heartsick than anything else, disgust is easier to articulate.

The best antidote to powerlessness, which dehumanizes and creates exponentially more problems, is positive action. Developing and using whatever talents you have. Doing something and sharing it. Yes, I’m getting all preachy here, because the main person I’m trying to convince is myself. Writing matters. I can readily believe that writing helps the writer herself. When I’m not writing, I feel even more unmoored. But it is harder to believe that it helps the world, that the product has use beyond the process. Who is going to read yet another poem, or care? But I stick with my two-pronged program, whenever possible: do the work and share it.

Which leads me to “Excommunicate,” my soon-to-be-published poem online at Talking Writing, as part of their series on Writing and Faith. According to the definition provided at Wikipedia, excommunication is “an institutional act of religious censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a religious community or to restrict certain rights within it, in particular receiving of the sacraments.”

Yes, excommunication still happens today in the Catholic Church, and if my views were to be closely examined, I, an entirely observant cradle Catholic, would be in danger of being excommunicated. And, believe it or not, I would care deeply. But most people would not care; in fact, the Church tribunal’s decision arriving in their mailbox would garner as little interest as a fundraising solicitation or a piece of junk mail. (This juxtaposition fuels the poem, another from the etymology-based series.)

Things change, with time and patience. (How many years have I been saying that?)

I read, with pleasure, of this week’s canonization of El Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was gunned down in 1980 for his solidarity with the poor, while saying Mass. It reminded me of a September day in 1998 when I attended a talk by the former Jesuit Marxist Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal and thought any vestige of Liberation Theology was dead. And now we have Saint Óscar Romero. (Note: Atlantic has made available online Paul Elie’s excellent piece, What Óscar Romero’s Canonization Says About Pope Francis. Worth finding and reading.)

Change is always possible.

It also reminded me that theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson retired this past spring from her teaching position at Fordham University. I attended a talk she gave shortly after the publication of She Who Is, well before the time in 2011 when the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine discovered her book The Quest for the Living God (2007) strayed too far from traditional Catholic teaching. Fortunately, like Teilhard de Chardin, another of my heroes, she was able to allay their suspicions.

Change can be swift or painfully incremental.

Did I mention that Pope Paul VI, author of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the church’s opposition to the use of artificial birth control, was canonized on the same day as Saint Óscar Romero?