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A Prayer for Francis

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When I was a kid, I went to church a lot.

I went to a Catholic parochial school in Brooklyn in the '60s. It was then called Our Lady Help of Christians. There were two classes, A and B, for each of eight grades. There were slightly more than 50 students in each class, so more than 800 of us in the school. The parish was the center of everyone's social life. We played baseball and basketball for the parish team and joined the parish Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The fathers were in the Holy Name Society. The mothers were in the sodality and the PTA.

There was a 9 a.m. Mass each Sunday, just for the kids. Attendance was not optional. The nuns watched all 800 of us fidget in our seats. If you spoke to the friend next to you, and you were seen, the ushers removed you to the back pew, a sort of march to perdition. It was also all spit and polish. We dressed for church even better than we dressed for school -- collared shirt, tie, blazer, creased slacks and shined shoes.

Vatican II started when I was 3 and ended when I was 9. While it was going on, none of us kids knew anything about it. But when it was over, the parish erupted in change. We altar boys had painstakingly learned the Mass in Latin; we re-learned it in English. The priest had previously always had his back to us. Now he was turned around. Soon, the old ornate altar was gone, replaced by a marble table and a multi-colored resurrection mosaic on the back wall. As the tumult of the '60s was broadcast on the nightly news, Mass became more hip and, we thought, more relevant. Guitars replaced the organ and folk songs replaced hymns. The hippest priest -- Father Duffey -- quoted Simon and Garfunkel in one of his homilies. We all had to be that bridge over troubled water for the poor and the possessed.

In 1970, I went to a Catholic high school -- Xavier in Manhattan. The Jesuits taught there, and there were lots of them. In fact, Jesuit scholastics -- members of that religious order who were in training to become priests and who, as part of that training, did mandatory years of service as teachers -- made those schools. They were intellectual evangelists who grabbed the minds of outer-borough teens and convinced them that they could be -- in fact, had to be -- something. And that the something had to combine success and ethics in at least equal measures. The one to whom I became closest, now a Jesuit psychologist and professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., taught me the most important lesson of my life: "to pray as if everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on me."

So I did.

And in doing that, I questioned where my church was going over the course of the next three decades. I didn't get it.

And still don't.

I don't understand the whole anti-gay thing. The higher-ups say it isn't that, but c'mon. Being gay is not an "objective disorder" any more than being left- or right-handed. Gay marriage, adoption and child-rearing are not "'move[s]' of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God." They are about love and embrace all the problems and possibilities of other families. But the Catholic hierarchy routinely trouts out the first canard and the new pope has proclaimed the second.

I don't understand the assault on reason. If Thomas Aquinas did one thing, it was to put the Catholic church firmly in the camp of requiring that faith comport with reason rather than being at war with it. But the hierarchy's position on reproductive rights is a mass of contradiction. They are for natural family planning but against artificial birth control on the theory that all intercourse must be open to procreation. But no one who practices the "rhythm" method of birth control is open to that result; in fact, they are actively seeking to avoid it.

They claim that personhood begins at conception, but this is a position that two of the most renowned fathers of the church -- St. Augustine and Aquinas -- opposed. Neither thought early term abortion the killing of an ensouled person and both have contemporary science on their side given what we now know about embryological and neurological development. This does not make abortion an issue without ethical consequence, but it does make it one where the black and white of curial absolutism should have no place.

I don't understand the obstinacy, the secrecy, the hypocrisy of Rome. Even if you grant them some good faith in confronting the scandal of abusing children, and they are due more of that than their critics allow even on the best of days, the bungling brought on by these sins of pride has been breathtaking. That they ostensibly answered to God did not excuse them from answering to man in the case of criminal conduct with utterly tragic consequences. Zero tolerance should not have become the new policy. It should have been the policy all along. This, moreover, is something the Jesuits knew from the outset, which is why they were way ahead of other religious orders in psychological testing of candidates for the priesthood and have had the lowest incidence of priestly abuse cases within the institution as a whole.

And finally, here in the United States, I do not understand the politics. A church that proclaims a "preferential option for the poor" really should be careful to avoid the appearance that it favors a party or set of positions that, over the course of the last decade or so, has created more of them. But the Catholic hierarchy has done just that, praising the supposed courage of political conservatives on right to life issues while downplaying the larger consequences of conservative ideology. You can't simultaneously be against poverty, unemployment, hunger and a whole host of economic and distributional ills brought on by this generation's love affair with Mammon, and for the very people whose policies generated those problems in the first place.

What is wrong?

The problem is not that the Catholic church is not "liberal" enough.

The problem is that it isn't holy enough.

Holiness is about many things, but charity and love and compassion and openness to the other are among them.

We Catholics now have a new pope. He is an Argentinian Jesuit. He has done some great things and said some dumb things, the latter of which probably explains why a lot of Jesuits in Argentina reportedly did not like him. He will be the first to admit that he is very human. He is, as one of my friends who knows put it, "genuinely anti-pomp." As a cardinal, he gave up a palace and rode the bus. He is the first non-European pope, the first South American pope, the first Francis, and...

He only has one lung.

He will need it.

Because he has to breath a new spirit of holiness into a church that needs it.

Yesterday, he asked us to pray for him. And I did. I offered up my own version of the prayer of his namesake, St. Francis:

Lord, make him an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let him sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Master,
grant that he may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.