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Little Monsters

It seems not a day goes by without the words and actions of Pope Francis finding their way into the popular media.

Whether he’s being vilified as a Marxist or deified as the one sent to slay the golden calf of free market fundamentalism, he is sparking discussions on the things that really matter – and not just among Catholics.

I move in several different circles and am stunned by how many of my secular friends who have no love for Catholicism, or any other religion for that matter, are hanging onto his every word with gratitude and genuine affection.
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There is a huge-hearted, broad-minded, open-armed spirit blowing through Rome these days rooted in an authenticity and integrity that is calling us to our better selves.

And isn’t this the way Jesus operates? Loving the life back into people beaten down by the world’s troubles and their own bad choices, choices often made out of fear and desperation.

In fact, I would argue that most of what we call sin is often the consequence of folks looking for love and security in all the wrong places, resulting in an obsessive search that leads to addiction of one sort or another, whether the addiction is to money, booze, shopping or Facebook.

Perhaps no addiction is more pernicious than the addiction to power.

When the addiction to power is yoked to society’s pervasive myth of scarcity and the denial of our essential vulnerability, we are left with the fear-based violence that permeates our world and informs the destructive economic and political policies that are crushing a majority of the earth’s people, especially the poor.

To couple power with the belief that there is never enough – enough money, enough territory, enough resources – is to make a monstrous, devouring idol of one’s own group or ideology for the sake of an illusory security and insatiable appetite for more.

It’s stating the obvious, of course, to say that the Church is no stranger to the sin of idolatry and the violence that always follows when a group prostrates itself before worldly power.

Church history is replete with breathtaking acts of brutality and barbarity in the name of the One who was literally disarmed while being nailed to a tree by the political and religious power addicts of his own time.

I deeply suspect that were Jesus walking the streets today, he would meet the same fate. The authorities did not like him then, and I doubt many would like him now.

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Yet, he forgave his persecutors and executioners and called them to their better selves. To true selves that would shine like the stars if they could summon the courage to cast aside their garments of power and expose their naked vulnerability.

But that’s risky business for those whose very identities are rooted in the precincts of power and the systems of violence that maintain the status quo.

Of all the addictions, this may be the most deeply entrenched and intractable.

Yet, we still live in the age of miracles.

During this past week, the words of Francis spoken at a gathering with religious superiors in late November have found their way into the news.

The topic of the three-hour question and answer meeting was the formation of seminarians on their way to the priesthood.

During the session, Francis was unequivocal in his condemnation of the unspeakable abuse of power at the hands of priests who have abused children. The exploitation of little ones at the hands of those in authority along with the complicity of those who knew and failed to act is incomprehensible, a “huge evil,” as Francis called it, that must be stopped.

But there is another misuse of power that Francis addressed in his talk last month.

Calling clericalism “one of the worst evils,” Francis warned that priests risk becoming “little monsters” if their religious formation fails to bring together head and heart. “We must form their hearts,” he said. “Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me the goose bumps.”

The love of pomp and power in tandem with a purely cerebral approach to religion has indeed resulted in the formation of what Francis calls some “little monster” priests.

While I have been blessed to know and work alongside many humble and even holy priests who give their lives over to the service of others in schools and soup kitchens, I have met others who are authoritarian, emotionally immature, and terrified of “waking up to the world,” as they have been told to do by Pope Francis.

They fear sullying the soft, clean hands that hold the host with the dirt that gets under the fingernails when one digs around the places where Jesus hides in this broken world of ours.

By clinging to the periphery where all the worldly power resides, they miss the heart of the matter.

I write these words with sadness and a sense of grief rather than judgment.

Like so many of the rest of us, many of these men are looking for love and security in all the wrong places. They have developed an addiction to absolute power in the spiritual realm causing inestimable harm to their victims and their own fragile selves.

There is perhaps no kind of abuse more toxic than spiritual abuse and many are the walking wounded, casualties of rigid men who are armed to the teeth with rules and rituals. Without the intervention of grace or some serious soul shaking inflicted by life itself, these men are not likely to disarm.

And this is tragic.

While there may be some who are have enjoyed seeing some of these priests get their comeuppance in such a direct fashion from Francis, a pope who doesn’t mince words, I think there is more to ponder here.

I think when Francis says that “these little monsters mold the People of God,” he is inviting the rest of us to engage in a little examen of our own.

It’s really easy and maybe even downright prophetic to call out the little monsters running around in collars, but what about the rest of us?

We know that surveys have found that more Catholics support torture than any other religious group. In our search for security and power, we often find it easier to pick up a gun than a rosary. We turn the cross into a sword, bless war, and curse our enemies. We succumb to a thousand different “isms.”

In our quest for security, especially, we turn away from the nonviolent Jesus and embrace the false gods of power and might.

But what about those of us who denounce the works of war? Who give our lives to the work of peace and justice? Who challenge the little monsters of our world, both in and out of the Church? Surely we are not susceptible to power’s siren song.

Or are we?

Is it possible that we peacemakers have our own little monsters scampering around inside our hearts? Little monsters that project their own will to power onto others, especially those whom we have dubbed enemies of peace, justice, and equality? Little monsters that have a tendency to feed at the trough of being right and feeling righteous.

Like the priests who refuse to dirty their hands, we sometimes recuse ourselves from the messiness of this big tent we call Church. It is so much easier to stand aloof and untouched than to jump into a messy fray that more often resembles a dysfunctional family docudrama than the Communion of Saints.

Like some priests who prefer to leap frog over anything incarnational in their pursuit of an idealized and abstract purity that avoids this terrible and beautiful and crazy thing called life, we sometimes impose purity codes of our own that are just as severe and exclusionary.

We ourselves can become little monsters who play the same power game that we claim to abhor. Replacing one system predicated on worldly power with another may at times be a good thing for our world, but it is hardly the Kingdom of God.

Regardless of which person, party, or ideology reigns, the dynamics of power and domination remain the same. Some are in and some are out. Good guys and bad guys. Winners and losers. This is the game politicians play, it’s the game that the institutional church often plays and, embarrassingly, it’s the game that we ourselves sometimes play, even while working for peace.

We forget that Jesus did not play this game at all.

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Jesus invites us to play an entirely different game. A far more radical game in which everyone is a winner. A game that allows us to drop our addictions and discover love, security, and meaning inside ourselves and in community with others. A game that allows us to shine like the stars if we’re willing to drop our defenses and disarm our hearts.

But this is no small thing.

The addiction to power is dangerous and deadly.

Whether it shows itself in the classroom or the Congress, the workplace or the White House, the pulpit or the peace vigil, the addiction to power always leaves a trail of misery, and sometimes corpses, in its wake.

It goes without saying that this is not a call to quietism or an acquiescence to injustice. Far from it.

We are still called to lace up our marching shoes and overturn a few tables now and then, but we need to do it in a spirit of humility with all the love in our hearts in a way that keeps us from becoming little monsters.

We need to help others break through the denial of their addiction to power, but we can only do this if we come clean about our own struggles in this area.

I don’t know the Holy Father’s taste in music, but as a Jesuit who professes to “find God in all things,” I don’t think he would object to my giving Jimi Hendrix the final word.

Jimi nailed it and summarized the message of Jesus when he paraphrased an older quote: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

If we take to heart the words of Jimi and Jesus in our work for peace, our true selves will shine like the stars.

And that gives me goose bumps.