The Way of the Cross

A few weeks ago, the world’s Christian Churches celebrated Easter, their most important day of the year, which is preceded by a three-day period Catholics call the “Triduum.” On Holy Thursday, we commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper. At this meal he showed the disciples “the true extent of his love” (John 13:1) by getting down on his knees and washing their feet, an act recreated in most parishes on Holy Thursday. (I was one of twelve laypeople chosen to represent my fellow parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe, and to get his feet washed by Father Ron, the pastor, at the Thursday Mass. It tickled.) On Good Friday, we solemnly remember Jesus’ death through ritual acts like the veneration of the Cross or the Pesame (in which we give our condolences to the Virgin Mary on the death of her son). Holy Saturday is a day of waiting, of entombment, at the end of which we celebrate a three-hour-long Vigil Mass: our catechumens receive their Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion), and the Gloria and Alleluia can once again, for the first time in forty days, be sung. Finally, there is Easter morning.

Good Friday

For me, the highlight of the Triduum was our parish’s live Via Crucis (“Way of the Cross”) on Good Friday. A cast of two dozen non-professional performers taken from parishes in our deanery acted out the Passion: most notably, a team of men dressed as Roman soldiers, lashing, spitting on, and shouting at the emaciated actor playing Christ, who staggered barefoot through the streets of our barrio hauling a life-sized wooden cross on his back. Wailing women, weeping ceaselessly, followed behind, as did a choir chanting songs of lamentation, and as did we — a crowd of some couple hundred people thronging the narrow streets of the public housing projects. Christ fell three times, and addressed the weeping women with ragged groans, on his way to being crucified. After the crucifixion, the actor’s body was taken down from the cross he had been “nailed” to and was carried into the church.

I was struck by the uncanny realism of the event, which utilized the principle of defamiliarization. When we see a film or a play, the conventional trappings of the screen and of the stage delineate a world which draws upon our emotional investment yet which we understand to be fictitious; but we are not used to the extrusion of drama into the fabric of our daily lives. I’m reminded of Halloween or other such imaginative pageants, where the strangeness of transforming our familiar neighborhoods, under cover of the nocturnal dark, into a network of haunted houses suspends, momentarily, our disbelief in ghosts. So too did seeing our barrio transformed into Golgotha, full of people in period dress and suffused with a spirit of collective sorrow, shatter my comfort and place me squarely in the midst of the narrative. Even when I recognized a few of the actors playing the cruel soldiers, shouting themselves hoarse and never breaking character, their hold on me was greater than any movie star’s could be; it was the very fact that I wouldn’t have expected these people to be particularly good actors which caused the striking realism of the performance to startle me completely.

Beholding the figure of Jesus limping ahead of me under the weight of the cross, I realized that despite my generally philosophical attraction to Christianity and chronic ambivalence towards what many Christians rhapsodically describe as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ as savior,” to be a Christian is to be a follower not of an idea but of a man, who lived in our common history and established his life’s story, according to the will of the Father, as a testing ground for all subsequent ideas, ideologies, and impulses. Whether as a participant then, in Jerusalem, or now, in San Antonio, in the procession of this supposed criminal to the place of his execution, would I be a follower of Christ, or a mute witness to this violation of justice? Would I weep, or would I be above weeping? Over the course of the Via Crucis, an understanding of what it meant for God to suffer came over me, and a sweeping love of the person Jesus followed after it. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that love came first, and understanding after.

I was not alone that afternoon. While my fellow parishioners and I were all Christians, the soldiers did a good enough job of agitating the crowd that I could understand what it must be like to be part of a mob. Christ was not the victim of Herod or of Pilate or of the Chief Priest alone — he was the victim of a paroxysm of violence issued from a collective. The overwhelming feeling of indignation which came from seeing a host of accusers all ganging up on someone I knew to be innocent seems to validate the brilliant work of Rene Girard, the French anthropologist of violence who locates mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism at the heart of the human condition. According to Girard, most of our desires are not original; we don’t just want something because we think it would please us, but because we see others desiring it. All of the desires which circulate in a given society create an atmosphere of covetousness which leads to conflict. In order to preserve social order, the participants in the conflict will designate a third party to serve as a sacrificial victim, or scapegoat, upon whom they can channel their rage in a cathartic outburst of violence. Girard identifies an often overlooked but profoundly telling verse in Luke’s Gospel (23:12) in which the two agents of Christ’s crucifixion forge an alliance as abrupt and unexpected as it is sinister and slimy: “That day Herod and Pilate became friends, though they had always had enmity between them.”

Girard will go as far as to say that this is what makes Christianity so idiosyncratic: that while countless other religions have proposed a scapegoated hero (as detractors of Christianity’s uniqueness are constantly pointing out), demonstrating just how intrinsic this mechanism is to our sense of the sacred and of the social, it is Christianity alone which proposes a doctrine of Atonement. That is, God was not waylaid against his will, but purposefully and knowingly sent his incarnate son to his death in an act of self-sacrifice, thus subverting the mechanism of vengeance whose premise is the displacement of violence upon the Other. Christianity is the only religion to found itself upon this voluntary self-sacrifice, and his disciples were the only ones who broke the mold of history by finding unity not through victory but through persecution. (Eleven of the twelve original apostles, and countless others after them, followed their Master to a violent death.)

I think that Girard’s diagnosis is essentially correct and can explain why Jesus’ death is not just one act of social injustice among many and why taking part in the Via Crucis filled me with such horror; this death was the paradigmatic act of violence, for it involved a) a collective; b) a mockery of the idea of truth (cf. John 18:38); and c) the destruction of a lamb so innocent that he did not even try to escape the dictates of injustice but rushed headlong to the slaughter for the sake of Love. It is in the context of these reflections that I would like to address what for many Catholics was the elephant in the room on Good Friday: the abuse scandal in the contemporary Catholic Church.

Here one must tread carefully. I am not the first to have mentioned Girard in this context. This reflection, on one of my favorite Catholic blogs, appeared yesterday after I’d drafted most of this post; it covers a lot of the same ground as I do, but in reference to the theology of the priesthood. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, mentioned Girard first, in a homily which concluded by comparing contemporary criticism of the Catholic Church to anti-Semitism. However ill-advised, I believe his point was essentially valid. Of course Cantalamessa was not comparing anything to the Holocaust, to the level of whose evil virtually nothing can rise; and he wasn’t relativizing, diminishing, or denying the extraordinary evil of the sexual abuse of children committed and condoned by many within the Church. He was, however, seconding a shrewd observation (first proposed by a Jewish friend of his) that anti-Catholicism — often described, in my view correctly, as the “last acceptable prejudice” in today’s society — structures itself similarly to the way anti-Semitism often has. Austen Ivereigh, another blogger to jump on the Girardian bandwagon, describes it well:

As [Girard] writes in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, the modern scandal excites

“a feverish desire to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, to allot responsibilities, to unmask the guilty secret without fear or favour and to distribute punishment. The person who is scandalised wants to bring the affair out into the open; he has a burning desire to see the scandal in the clear light of day and pillory the guilty party …. Scandal always calls for demystification, and demystification, far from putting an end to scandal, propagates and universalises it …  There must be scandal to demystify and the demystification reinforces the scandal it claims to combat. The more passions rise, the more the difference between those on opposite sides tends to be abolished.”

The scapegoat mechanism comes into play when tensions — often buried and unconscious — accumulate, when those involved must ‘let off steam’ or the social fabric will burst. The energy of indignation and anger is fuelled, over this issue, by the fact that sexual abuse of minors is extremely common in families — 70 per cent of victims have suffered at the hands of a relative — yet almost never talked about, let alone dealt with. The Church has become a surrogate victim, unconsciously  identified as the cause of the tension which society feels but cannot identify.

This is not a way of deflecting from the Church’s real failures on this issue, which the media’s relentless coverage has forced the Church to face. Nor is it a way of deflecting from some of the unique characteristics behind those failures in the Church — not least clericalism, past and present.

But the coverage has now moved into a new, irrational phase. The media have merged with the mob. They are not standing outside the crowd, coolly examining the facts. They are standing in locus vulgi.

Take the way that The Times — which in the UK has led the way in promoting hysteria and distortion in this issue — reports that the taliban atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are planning to “arrest” Pope Benedict when he comes to the UK.  In fact, as Dawkins spells out on his website, they are mounting a legal challenge aimed at whipping up public opinion against the papal visit. Rather than report this as a publicity gimmick, or at least point out how dubious are the legal arguments, The Times reports this as if it is a perfectly sensible response to established facts, and even enlists a semi-Catholic columnist to  agree with the idea.

The mechanism of scandal exerts a fascination which increases in line with the tension. The accusations pile up; facts cease to be sacred; the distinction between truth and hearsay blurs. There is carte blanche to demonise the scapegoat, whose guilt is largely irrelevant to the performance of the mechanism. When it is not in thrall to the mimetic contagion, journalism is one of the best means of exposing the irrationality of the scapegoat mechanism, because it relies on facts and evidence. But when journalism jettisons its responsibility to detachment, it becomes an agent of the hysteria.

Normally journalists are wary of being used by lawyers who have an obvious vested interest in advancing a certain narrative. Yet many media have been supplied with documents — such as the 1985 Ratzinger letter in the Kiesle case — by lawyers bring class actions against the Church on behalf of abuse victims. The interpretations which the lawyers are keen to put on them are precisely those which the media then uncritically adopt. When the scapegoat mechanism is in play, contradictions between agendas vanish. The crowd becomes “one”.

And so Herod and Pilate became friends.

Cantalamessa, then, was not comparing amounts of violence, but the form of related sorts of prejudicial rhetoric. The sexual abuse of children is objectively more evil than the writing of a slanderous article; but at question is whether righteous indignation at the sins of some in the Church can justify the explosion of outrageous anti-Catholic sentiment. Often those critics who carp about clericalism and the suppression of laypeople fail to realize that when hurt is inflicted against the Church, it is not just the Vatican, but lay members of the global Catholic family who feel insulted, hated, and despised; but the New York Times bristled pridefully at Cantalamessa’s preeminently justified observation because it cannot believe that so liberal a newspaper as itself could ever be responsible for propagating a hateful prejudice or that systematically demoralizing a people by assassinating the character of their leader can represent anything besides doing them a favor.

On a related note, it is interesting to read the Times’s continuing coverage of the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital. These are the kinds of casualties we can surely expect when archdioceses suffer. Nor, in thinking about the Catholic family beyond the Vatican, would it be inappropriate to remember the extent of the persecution of Christians across the world today: we are chased out of Mosul, massacred in Sudan, terrorized in India and Nepal, forced underground in China and Saudi Arabia. These persecutions are no more horrific than the segregation, lynching, and systematic marginalization of women, homosexuals, Jews, and racial and ethnic minorities in all times and places, including within Christendom. But it is notable that it is precisely in this expanded vision of the prevalence of prejudice that Cantalamessa situated his comments, in a homily whose most outspoken passages, having to do with violence against women, were almost systematically ignored by the mainstream media:

Much of this violence has a sexual background. It is the male who thinks he can demonstrate his virility by inflicting himself on the woman, without realizing that he is only demonstrating his insecurity and baseness. Also in confrontations with the woman who has made a mistake, what a contrast between the conduct of Christ and that still going on in certain environments! Fanaticism calls for stoning; Christ responds to the men who have presented an adulteress to him saying: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Adultery is a sin that is always committed by two, but for which only one has always been (and, in some parts of the world, still is) punished.

Violence against woman is never so odious as when it nestles where mutual respect and love should reign, in the relationship between husband and wife. It is true that violence is not always and wholly on the part of one…but no one can deny that in the vast majority of cases the victim is the woman.

There are families where the man still believes himself authorized to raise his voice and hands on the women of the house. Wife and children at times live under the constant threat of “Daddy’s anger.” To such as these it is necessary to say courteously: dear men colleagues, by creating you male, God did not intend to give you the right to be angry and to bang your fist on the table for the least thing. The word addressed to Eve after the fault: “He (the man) shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16), was a bitter forecast, not an authorization.

John Paul II inaugurated the practice of the request for forgiveness for collective wrongs. One of these, among the most just and necessary, is the forgiveness that half of humanity must ask of the other half, men to women. It must not be generic or abstract. It must lead, especially in one who professes himself a Christian, to concrete gestures of conversion, to words of apology and reconciliation within families and in society.

For me, the most moving figure in the Via Crucis was Mary. The elderly woman from the West Side who played the role was transfixed like a woman possessed on the broken figure of her son. As the soldiers bullied her and kept her from going to his side, her sobs came pouring out of her like sirens, and her hands twisted and kneaded her tattered robe into knots. Just to look at her was to know the depths of human sorrow. What are you doing to my son? The mute protest could suddenly be our own: What are you doing to our mother? What are you doing to our Lord? What are you doing to our community, to our Church? God’s imploring words to the prophet Micah (6:3), which appear in the Church’s liturgy during Holy Week, sprang to mind: “O my people — what have I done to you? How have I saddened you? Tell me!”

This sentiment speaks to our situation as Catholics today: what have we done to you, o world, that you should hate us so? In truth, there may be a good answer to this question. We count sinners among us. In our theological caution we often lapse into prejudiced conservatism and intolerance. And it may be that some in the Church colluded to keep silent in the face of reports of sexual abuse, themselves scapegoating innocent children — not out of anger or derision, but out of fear or indifference. Just now the Pope has exhorted the Church to face such sins honestly and do penance for them, and I wonder whether, in my haste to defend the Church, I am not sometimes putting a blind and naive love over and above the hard yet necessary truth. For all the people in the Church who have learned the tough lessons of this past decade’s revelations (to wit, recent rushes to action in Knoxville and Denver which can only be called, for good or for ill, draconian), I hear statements like these ones coming from the curial offices I respect so much and feel simply sick to my stomach.

Yet are the sins of some in the Church any reason to despise the entire notion of Catholicism, and indeed the entire Catholic family, as utterly as some in the world clearly do — people who can find absolutely nothing but hateful things to say about us and are completely incapable of granting us any benefit of the doubt? Are we worthy of nothing but contempt? Are we not human, and pricked, do we not bleed? It is no secret to my friends that I am moved, in particular, by the scapegoating of Pope Benedict, the man who has done more than anyone else in the Vatican to reform the church’s process for dealing with abuse. (He makes an easy target. I can imagine this timid academic, introverted to a fault, looking at his own aged, haggard, and fearful face in the mirror on the morning of his election to one of the most public positions in the world, and wondering whether he will be able to force an awkward smile when he greets the crowds of people waiting to catch a glimpse of the new pope in St. Peter’s Square. In front-page photos — like the one below — which depict him gazing cautiously out from sunken eyes, the media hasn’t ceased to pillory him.)

It wouldn’t be self-pitying, I think, to reflect alongside Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh:

“I ache. I’m sick and tired. I’m angry. I’m insulted. I’m confronted by the headlines of newspapers and ongoing stories that seek to once again annihilate the body of Christ. It would be an absolute lie on my part to stand here today to say we bear no responsibility for great sins committed in the past by people who were trusted leaders of the church, by priests, deacons, bishops and others. So that is not what gives me the ache. What gives me the ache is not only the hunger and thirst to rush to judgment without an honest look at the facts, but the absolute hatred and disrespect for who we are and especially for what we believe.”

These were something of my emotions as I followed Christ in the Via Crucis.

Easter Morning

And yet, this is the Easter message: that “we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi). First of all, even and especially in times of trial, the followers of Christ are aware of his closeness to us, are aware that in him God has revealed his inmost secret: he is not a deity immune to pain, for whom we wretched and vulnerable mortals are scapegoats of the divine plan, but a god whose very being is constituted in part by the knowledge of suffering, of the horror of the prospect of his own non-existence as Love. A god who knows all things forever knows suffering forever, too, and this may be why Pascal wrote that Christ is in agony till the end of time. Indeed, is ultimate knowledge of this cosmic agony not what we human beings, who regard equality with God as something to be grasped, also desired to possess for ourselves when we eagerly plucked the fruit (or so the story goes) from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? We are united with God through our shared pain — the pain which we become like God in understanding, by the light of our consciousness, and which God becomes like us in suffering, through his Incarnation in the world. This, I think, is the redemptive message concealed in Bishop Zubik’s “ache,” a message he articulates beautifully at the end of his homily: “We would not be celebrating the Eucharist today if God did not ache.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Eucharist lately. The obscure dogma of the transsubstantiation never made much sense to me until I read a brilliant study by the recently deceased Dutch-Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, OP. Implicit in Schillebeeckx’s approach, which stresses a return to the existential experience of the early Church, is the idea that looking back from the present day at the Institution of the Eucharist with a mind to gleaning the sources of its metaphysical nature would be taking things literally backwards. Rather, we should remind ourselves of the question Christ must have posed to himself on the night he was betrayed: “How shall I continue to abide with my disciples? Will I leave them without a visible sign of my presence?” His solution, if I may put it with these emphases, was not that in the pre-established Eucharist he should abide with us, but that he should abide with us in the Eucharist, which had yet to be instituted. (It existed, of course, as a Jewish seder, but the Christian meaning given to it by Jesus was novel and unique.) According to Schillebeeckx, who reminds us of the Aristotelian complexity of even the Tridentine conceptualization of the doctrine of transsubstantiation, the mean transformation of bread into flesh is not the point of the Sacrament. It is that in the breaking of the bread — understanding the Sacrament, now, as a communal and liturgical action of which the formal words are a co-constitutive part, along with the bread, and not just an inciting agent — we are nourished by Christ’s promised presence among us believers. Schillebeeckx writes:

Originally, the emphasis was not on interpreting this meal, but on celebrating and experiencing it. In celebrating this meal, early Christians had the experience of being a Church — an eschataological community on the basis of their personal relationship with Jesus, whom they had come to know explicitly as the Christ in the resurrection. This personal relationship with Jesus — concretely expressed in community with him at table — was experienced then as a christological and therefore as an eschatological relationship — as being placed before the living God. The primitive church had the experience of being an eschatological community, the people of the New Covenant, on the way to the kingdom of God, in and by celebrating the fraternal meal, as had happened before when Jesus was still on earth…They expressed what the personal relationship — the community at table — with Jesus meant to the primitive Church and continued to mean after his departure — namely, his real presence in the assembled community.

I think it is telling that on Good Friday and Holy Saturday (until the Vigil Mass), no Catholic Mass is celebrated. The resumption of the consecration of the Eucharist on Easter really does symbolize the way in which Christ, taken from us on the Cross, returns to us under the form of bread; in the celebration of our Christian community, which is to say, in the construction of Church; and in memory of him who voluntarily replaced the sacrificial lamb at the offertory table. Were Christ not “really present” in the Sacrament, were the Sacrament just another symbol or sign, then our celebration would be self-serving, and our unity just another treacherous peace secured through the scapegoating mechanism identified so perspicaciously by Rene Girard. But the sign of Christ’s victory over the grave is nonetheless our unity, and it’s in thinking about unity that I’d like to end these meandering reflections.

I’ve sometimes joked that going to the jam-packed 11:00 am Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe is like stepping into one of those season finale episodes of The Simpsons — the ones where there is a scene at the City Hall or some other meeting place, and as the camera pans over the assembly, you see that every character ever drawn over the course of the series is stuffed into that room: Moe, Barney, Apu, Mr. Burns, Milhouse… Similarly, when I scan the church I can see Carlos, Pearl, Lee, Joe, Calie, Don, Stephanie, Carmen…everyone I’ve come to know has her or his little cameo appearance there. And it’s extraordinary. Literally every single friend who celebrates the Eucharist with us makes it a richer and more joyful experience of Communion. I try to impress this upon the youth who do not really care to attend Mass: even though it’s first and foremost about you and God, it’s also about you and us, and even about you and me. I want your prayers and your presence, and you validate me (and everyone who is there) when you attend. Or again: not all of my housemates are Catholic, but when I looked around me on Easter and saw that all of my friends who don’t usually attend Mass were there, I felt a surge of almost ridiculous joy.

I hasten to explain that it’s not about my having “won them over” to Catholicism. I know I haven’t, and that wouldn’t be my top priority, anyway. It’s about my own discovery of the true meaning of the Church: God who is love replaced the Judaic covenant, which had by then deteriorated into legalism and self-righteousness, with a community centered around a person, Jesus, who (after all) prayed on the night of his betrayal “that we all might be as one” (John 17:21). The hierarchy of the Church does not always place this principle of unity first; playing a politics of exclusion with the Eucharist (especially regarding pro-choice politicians), or nurturing an atmosphere of homophobia, Mass can occasionally seem like an invitation-only event for the elite. This has alienated some of my friends from the Church, and I cannot pass judgment on them for their decision to cut themselves loose. Still, I think it is the wrong decision; the least I can say is that every person I know who has ceased going to Church has made the Eucharistic celebration just a little sadder, a little emptier, for the rest of us. We miss them. We need them. We need each other.

I spent some time at the ecumenical community in Taize, France, which is the only place in the world which has an indult from the Vatican to grant Communion to non-Catholics. I do not disagree with the Church’s teaching that one should, in principle, be Catholic to receive the Eucharist — not so that non-Catholics can be excluded, but so that the person who decides to place herself on the road to Catholicism can know the joy of her First Communion, a joy which is heightened by anticipation and discipline (values foreign to postmodern humanity, which demands immediate gratification in everything), like a person who decides to abstain from sex until marriage. Still, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that the spirit of Taize has not permeated me deeply. I was heartened, for instance, when Cardinal Ratzinger, the future pope, offered Communion to the Protestant prior of Taize, Frere Roger, at Pope John Paul II’s funeral. I used to be derisive of people who remained in the Church not because they accepted all the theology but because they enjoyed the sense of community the Church gave them; yet Love is personal in character, not ideological. Certainly relationships should take precedence in our hearts over ideas, however necessary good ideas may be. And the scapegoating mechanism is so pernicious and so prevalent and so central to the definition of evil that perhaps it is first and foremost in community, and in inclusion, that we should look to see it beaten into the dust. This is what’s been informing my interest in the Eucharist lately and giving new meaning to the words of the Agnus Dei: “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. How happy are we who are called to his supper.” In Eucharistic solidarity with the Lamb, may we peacefully oppose the violence of division and derision whose model is the mechanism of scapegoating.

2 thoughts on “The Way of the Cross

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