Banned in Venice

This week has turned out much different than expected. I returned from the Call To Action National Conference in Milwaukee where I had given a presentation on “The Nonviolence of Thomas Merton.” I also attended many wonderful liturgies and attended great presentations.

I immediately began finalizing arrangements and the materials for a retreat on Merton I was giving to a parish peace and justice group on Florida’s west coast this Friday and Saturday. Then, out of the blue, I was notified Wednesday evening that the retreat was canceled because I was no longer approved to speak in the Diocese of Venice. I had been approved last March to speak on Merton in San Marco and understood that once approved, further approval was not necessary. The retreat coordinator in October was told that I was approved when he inquired to make sure. What?

I arose early after a restless night and called the contact person. The chancellor had had the person in charge of the deacons call the deacon who was coordinating the retreat to deliver the message. Speaking of dialogue, openness and transparency! The only reason I have been able to find so far is that I support the ordination of women as priests. I now join a select group of people who I been told are banned in Venice–Joan Chitt5ister, Charlie Curran, Anthony Padovano. I also suspect that Roy Bourgeoise and John Dear are on the list.

How do they know this? In typical patriarchal, bureaucratic, un-Christ like manner the chancellor, who had my contact information on file, never called me to ask whether I supported the ordination of women as priests. Given the timing, I believe that I was disallowed to speak because I had attended Call To Action and given a presentation there. The chancellor has not had the decency or charity or even common courtesy to return my phone call or respond to my email so Iam forced to speculate on his reasons.

[If you are not familiar with Call To Action go to and browse their web site. There were over 2,000 CTA members 9 2 or 3 PLUS!) in Milwaukee—all committed to reforming the church. The ordination of women as priests is tops on their agenda and Father Roy Bourgeoise of SOA Watch, has been talking around the country—obviously not in Venice—about removing the stained glass ceiling.]

As I read this morning’s reading from the Book of Wisdom, my lectio on the text led me right to oppression. Listen to Wisdom:

Over this crossed the whole nation sheltered by your hand,
after they beheld stupendous wonders.
For they ranged about like horses,
and bounded about like lambs,
praising you, O Lord! their deliverer.

Wisdom is recalling Israel’s deliverance from oppression. Jesus came to set free the oppressed. Then, it struck me. I am now among the oppressed. This is a new experience, especially for a white male. White privilege usually insulates us from oppression but not in the Diocese of Venice and many other dioceses around the country and world. Oppression kills the human spirit. Notice how Wisdom says that the Israelites were dancing around like horses and lambs rejoicing at their liberation from oppression. How I love the dancing metaphor. Merton writes extensively about it.

Sister Louise Akers from Cincinnati gave the keynote at CTA. [Father Bourgeoise was at his dying Father’s bedside.] She described how the archbishop was oppressing her. She was ordered to renounce her support for women’s ordination. Otherwise, she is banned from teaching in the archdiocese after many years of faithful service there. If the only thing the patriarch has is a hammer than everything is a nail. Wham! Silenced!

The call of CTA is even clearer now. The church is becoming more oppressive in many places. Did Jesus intend to found a church where the progeny of his mother, Mary, Mary of Magdala, and the other Marys and faithful women who stuck with him cannot become priests when the men fled under cover of darkness? I think not.

This is an issue of justice in the church. It is discrimination based on gender pure and simple. It is a sin! There is ample evidence that women played key leadership roles in the Jesus Community and even presided over Eucharist. Slowly but surely, as the Bishops of Rome consolidated power, women were relegated to a second class status in the church.

A church—really not the church, the people of God, but a patriarchal hierarchy determined to preserve male privilege at all costs—that will not even allow discussion around the issue is not the church Jesus envisioned.

When I woke during the night the other night, I thought, “God loves me.” I usually think this, curl up in the warm embrace of God’s love, and roll over and go back to sleep. This night, however, I heard something more, “I want you to help Me reform the church.”

Ok—I am not claiming to be Hildegard of Bingen or Meister Eckhart, but Merton has taught us to honor the sapiential tradition where wisdom comes bottom up from our lived experience and no top down from authoritative figures and dogma. We can encounter God in our personal, lived experience.

I will answer the call. When I write, speak, and lead retreats, I will speak for justice in the church. I will not be silent though some may try to silence me. I will speak out for the priests in our church who are oppressed because their sustenance and retirement can be threatened.

The pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests are not the church as much as some of them would like to think they are. Together with us they are the People of God. We, the people—clergy and laity, have been created in the image of God and endowed with religious liberty. Listen to the words of the Declaration on Religious Liberty from Vatican II:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom.

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.

It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded.

The people who would have participated in the Merton retreat have really had a learning experience that is probably more important than anything I could have taught them. I have since packaged the materials so they can do a self-directed Merton retreat. “All things work together for good.”

Torquemada has died, the Inquisition is history, and we need to make every effort to bury the remaining vestiges. We need to make sure that the windows Pope John XXIII opened stay opened!

Let us rise up. Let us “range like horses and bound like lambs”–we habe been liberated by Jesus who came to set us free. Let us begin anew to reclaim our rightful role in the church as the people of God. Jesus came not to oppress us but to set us free in the Kin-dom. In the meantime, woe to the modern scribes and Pharisees!

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