Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome
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Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT

I missed the smoke; I got the idea

By Joan Chittister, OSB


At about 8:00 Monday night, black smoke curled out of the chimney erected on the top of the Sistine Chapel. I didn’t see it.

No one was surprised by anything about it except that it came so late in the day. After all, a Roman supper starts at least by 8:00 p.m. For the cardinals to still be meeting beyond that time, in other words, signaled a clear sign of commitment. These cardinals were clearly not idling into this process. This was serious voting. They were getting on with the process of finding a new direction for the church that was outside the normal rhythm of things. And well they might.

I left the piazza before the smoke swirled over the Sistine Chapel because I had an appointment to meet with two young theologian-journalists who had been living in Italy for five years. I thought the conversation would circle around the various candidates for the papacy. Instead, it became a bolt-hole into what it is like to be a lay Catholic in Italy.

Read Joan Chittister's weekly columns
Previous and current columns from An American Catholic in Rome

Adolescence or adulthood: which? Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
And he shall be called . . .  Posted April 20, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
I missed the smoke; I got the idea Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
The underside of the issue Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT
Antigone or Ismene: The new choice Posted April 15, 2005 at 6:24 a.m. CDT
Win a couple, lose a couple Posted April 13, 2005 at 2:05 p.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations Posted  
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
The purpose of the interregnum Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Be aware of Greeks bearing gifts
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
He was the grandfather of their souls Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
Poignant and paradoxical Posted April 7, 2005 at 8:09 a.m. CDT

Two years ago this week, Sr. Chittister began writing a weekly Web column for NCR. Click on this link to read From Where I Stand by Sr. Joan Chittister,OSB.

In fact, they said, it is almost impossible, certainly lonely.

“Why?” I asked, “Because no one is Catholic here?”

“No,” they answered, “Because everyone is expected to be some particular kind of lay Catholic. If you tell people you are a lay Catholic, they say “But which kind? An Opus Dei Catholic, a Legionnaire Catholic, a member of Communio e Liberazione, an oblate of something, what?”

Catholic lay life here, it seems, has developed into a series of quasi-religious orders, defined, hierarchical, and doctrinaire. The church has become an organization of organizations, lay movements fostered by a church ever more anxious to codify the role and practices of Catholics in the world.

“Being simply ‘laity’ is not enough,” the man said. “Being a good active member of a parish doesn’t count,” the woman said.

The problem is that being a good member of a parish populated by all the diverse people in the neighborhood, reaching out to people of all perspectives and needs is exactly what these young people want.

“If you are one thing,” the young woman said, “the others will not talk to you. Is that Christian?” she implied with a shrug of her shoulders. “It worries me to see it,” he said.

The implications for the couple’s social life and professional options were clear–which, incidentally, is why I have decided not to include their names in this article.

Ironically, it is exactly the renewal of Catholic life that lies at the foundation of most of the 123 newly emerging lay movements now registered with the Congregation for the Laity as ‘Catholic.’

In Italy, for instance, the Focolare movement offers many ways for members to associate with the movement–from regular community life to yearly ‘vacations’ which attract over 116,000 adherents annually. The group ‘Rule’ is based on living out various passages from the scriptures monthly.

The Legionaires of Christ, a body of 600 priests and 2,500 seminarians, like the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America, believe in the need to evangelize the poor but do not question the political or economic roots of social injustice.

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Communione e Liberazione, on the other hand, is quick to maintain that the laws of the land should be based on church teaching.

Opus Dei, a movement of over 85,000 members in 60 countries and a personal prelature of Pope John Paul II, says its purpose is to "encourage Christians of all social classes to live consistently with their faith, in the middle of the ordinary circumstances of their lives, especially through the sanctification of their work."

High aims all.

At the same time, a tendency to put doctrine and the personal discipline of members under the control of the leaders of such groups--to become a cult within the Christian community–and to divide parish communities between those who are members of the movement,”committed” Catholics, and those who are “simply lay Catholics” remains a persistent concern of the critics of such movements.  

Like most everybody else, I watched a replay of the smoke on television. The young woman’s words rang in my ears: “If you are one thing,” the young woman said, “the others will not talk to you. Is that Christian?” she implied with a shrug of her shoulders. “It worries me to see it,” he said. “I just want to be a simple ‘lay Catholic.’”

No, I didn’t see the smoke as it actually curled its way out of the chimney over St. Peter’s Square last night. The conversation with two young theologian-journalists, however, gave the smoke added importance. I realized, thanks to them, that seeing the smoke is one thing; knowing its meaning is entirely another.

Clearly, we need a pope who is not a member of any of the church’s many particular groups. We need a pope who is a lover and a leader of them all. Otherwise, how can we possibly be comfortable in one another’s presence if we don’t feel comfortable in the presence of the pope?

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