Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Working for Change, Recapturing the Institution

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following is the text of a reflection delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of February 1-2, 2014.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it is my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Some of you may know that I am a college professor and that a lot of my teaching and research is focused on the environment, hunger, agriculture and international development. In some of my classes my students and I get to this moment where we are discussing the need for social change and debating the best way to bring that about. Now my students, typically 20 somethings, by and large see government as part of the problem (and this is in spite of the fact that the vast majority of them are politically progressive). For them, if we are to reform society and change the way government does business, then you really have to work though non-governmental organizations and civil society. For them, this applies equally to situations overseas as well as in the US. So, while these discussions are happening, I am secretly screaming inside. I am thinking, damn it, Ronald Reagan did really win because now even politically progressive students don’t believe in the power of government to do good. So I ever so calmly, and professorially, talk about the ability of government to do good. I give examples: FDR and the New Deal, social security keeping millions of seniors out of poverty, JFK and the Peace Corps, Cuba’s commitment to agro-ecological research, Botswana’s ability to smartly manage its resources and build strong social safety nets, etc, etc. In all cases, these programs were developed with the support of allies outside of government, but it also took key movers and shakers inside government to make them happen. Change was a product of people working on the inside and the outside. And, furthermore, people never abandoned government all together. They believed it could be a force for good and thus worked to change and reform it rather than giving up and creating parallel organizations to do this work. I am not saying my students buy this argument, but it does lead to some very interesting conversations about social change.

This brings me to the Church. I am an outsider to the Catholic Church in many ways as I was not raised Catholic, but as a Presbyterian and then an Episcopalian. The story of how I ended up here is a long and twisted one, in part related to the fact my wife was raised Catholic, and also because my spiritual life had ceased to grow, and in fact was in the process of shriveling up in our previous faith community. This place, Cabrini, revived and reinvigorated my spiritual life with its music, wonderful tradition of lay preaching, healthy group of similarly questioning believers, commitment to social justice, and supportive community. I am at home here.

But then there is the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which tests me everyday. And while there is the bright spot of Pope Francis, my impressions of the Catholic hierarchy over the past several decades have not been entirely positive and, frankly, just seem to be getting worse. Honestly, part of me just wants to throw my hands up in the air and say the heck with it. Why doesn’t this community just break away from a Church that is seemingly un-reformable. People have been talking about Vatican II for decades and, while it led to wonderful reforms of the liturgy, the male dominated, sometimes morally questionable hierarchy of the church seems immune to reform. And so, oddly and ironically, I find myself in that same place as my students, unable to believe any longer that this large institution can do any good, ready to go rogue, to work on the outside, to create parallel organizations to do good work and create social change.

So how is this related to today’s readings? The first reading, from Malachi, chapter 3, is about the messenger that God will send before him – a direct allusion to John the Baptist. There are also several lines that first struck me as typical Old Testament fire and brimstone, until I learned that the phrase about “purifying the descendents of Levi” refers to the Levites, the priests of the time. In other words, it’s a call for the priestly order to clean up its act – a point still relevant in today’s world. The second reading is from Hebrews, chapter 2, which affirms the humanity of Jesus – a point I wholeheartedly embrace.

The Gospel reading, from Luke Chapter 2 is arguably the most complicated for it describes the presentation of Jesus in the temple, as well as the commentary on this event by two elders in the community, Simeon and Anna. It’s complicated because this event likely never happened with many biblical scholars suggesting that this passage was added at some point in the Middle Ages. Whether or not this event happened, and regardless of the reasons this passage was added, this piece of scripture speaks to me for at least two reasons. First, this story describes a moment when Jesus is both introduced as a member of a community and he is being welcomed into an institution representing that community. This is a moment which is unproblematic if the community and the institution are in sync, but potentially deeply problematic if they are not. Secondly, we have these two older people, Simeon and Anna, who are present at this event and see hope in this child. Perhaps they have been waiting for a very long time, waiting for the savior, waiting for that opening for change that never seems to come, and now they see a glimmer of hope in this person, not a divine otherworldly powerful being, but in this human, a child. These themes of tension between community and institution – and of signs of hope raise questions for me. Do the people, the community, take back the institution or do they cast it away? Do we work from the inside or the outside? Do we see a glimmer of hope and an opening for change?

One of my personal heroes, Nelson Madiba Mandela, the former president of South Africa, died late last year at the age of 95. I cannot help but think of him, and the movement behind him, when I reflect on social change. For a black man living in South Africa, most of 20th century was a very, very dark time. Racial oppression and disenfranchisement had existed since Europeans fist arrived in the 17th century, but it became significantly worse in the 20th century. Of particular note is when the National Party came to power in 1948, ushering in High Apartheid, a highly formal, extensive and oppressive system of racial segregation. Nelson Mandela helped form the Youth League of the African National Congress (or the ANC) in the 1940s. Mandela quickly established himself as a leader of national and international stature in the 1950s and he also traveled widely to different African countries during this period to cultivate relationships and allies. At a time when things just seem to be going from bad to worse in South Africa, it is important to remember that Mandela could have just left. He could have written off South Africa as the last bastion of colonialism, and started a new life in some place where Africans were in control of their destiny. But I don’t think that was ever an option or question because Mandela loved his homeland, he loved South Africa no matter how oppressive, undemocratic and racist the ruling regime.

Now I am not equating the Church with the Apartheid regime, but I do think (like Mandela and his relationship to South Africa), many cannot leave the church because it is their cultural home. No matter how frustrated they are with the hierarchy, they just cannot leave. And so they have been waiting and hoping, they have lived through countless e-mails and Facebook queries from friends asking them, 'Why?' Why do they just not leave the church? How can they live with the sexism and misconduct in the hierarchy?

In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. He would spend the next 26 years behind bars, much of it on Robben Island. I can’t even imagine how challenging this must have been. My family and I have been to Robben Island; it is a wind-swept, desolate, and cold place. Then, in 1990, at the age of 72, he was released from prison. Prior to his release, Mandela had been secretly negotiating with the South African government. The government assumed it could outsmart this old man in prison, co-opt him, and then use him as a symbol. But Mandela did not compromise. He kept in touch with his compatriots within the ANC who worked tirelessly to put pressure on the South Africa government, along with international allies who reluctantly joined in a boycott of South African during the waning years of regime. The rest of the story is history. In 1994, Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa. Before and after his election, Mandela would lead by example, above all preaching, and more importantly showing, his countrymen how to reconcile with each other. But, lest we not forget, Mandela was only the tip of ice berg in this seismic, political shift that no-one foresaw happening in the relatively peaceful manner that it did. He was an important symbol, a moral example, but thousands and thousands of South Africans are the ones who made this change happen.

We now have a Pope who seems to be creating an opening for change, someone who is leading by moral example. He is a glimmer of hope for many who have been waiting for a very long time for change, for those who can’t leave the church because it is their cultural home, for those who understand that the church can be a force for good, and even for those like me who love this place but are baffled by the hierarchy. Yes, for the Simeons and Annas in this room we see a glimmer of hope. But we must also remember that one person, even the Pope, does not make change. Now, more than ever, is the time to push for change within the Catholic Church. And if you think you’re too old for that, then think of Mandela who didn’t get out of prison until he was 72, was president of his country from the ages of 75-81, and didn’t really retire from the public spotlight until he was 90. Yes, it is finally time that we resolve this tension between the community and the institution, the people and the hierarchy, it is time we finish the job of Vatican II.


  1. Thank you! I couldn't agree more.....

  2. Thanks, Bill. I am always baffled by the rejection of institutions too, among 20 somethings and also among 70-80 somethings. Maybe the benefits of the institutions are so woven into everyday life that it is hard to be aware of them. Another idea pops out at me from your homily--people waiting for change. I think you are right on to use organizers for models. Jesus organized a community of disciples to raise consciousness; Mandela organized a community to make change happen. Waiting is not going to get the job done. Finishing the job of Vatican II--Amen.