Thursday, February 21, 2013

'Nuns on Bus' leader: Next pope should be pastoral

Time for some fearless words from Sister Simone Campbell.

The organizer of last year’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour and a speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Campbell was in Charlotte this week – her fifth stop here in 12 months – to help raise money for the YWCA.

For those who don’t know: Campbell, 67, speaks up for the poor and elderly as the head of Network, a social gospel lobbying group. Her support for President Barack Obama’s health care reforms angered the U.S. Catholic Bishops. And her group was among those singled out last year by the Vatican for its “radically feminist themes.”

In an interview, she told me to expect a sequel to the election-year “Nuns on the Bus” – “Nuns on the Border” will promote immigration reform. I asked her about the biggest story in religion: The upcoming election of a new pope.

 We had a pope (in John Paul II) from a socialist country who, out of his experience, valued living the (Catholic) rules publicly and boldly. And then we had a pope (in Benedict XVI) who is the theologian, academic, cerebral. What I see as missing is a leader who understands pluralism and pluralistic reality. And who is more pastoral, has pastoral experience. So it seems like, in the progression of things, that would be nice. To fill in the gaps of what’s been missing.

Oh, he was pastoral. But he was pastoral out of a socialist experience. We have sisters in Eastern Europe. And when the (Berlin) Wall came down, it was really hard for them to deal with the Western world because they’d grown up fearing hedonistic Hollywood. For them, the goal was to live publicly the rules. That was a sign of their freedom. For them to wear our uniform, for them to be identified strongly as (nuns) was freedom. But they could not understand that, for us in the U.S. and Mexico and Taiwan for that matter, to be free was to live in close relationship with the (poor), not live in the rules.

It’s really hard to predict. I hope they have some really good discussions about the needs of the church…. (When they elected Benedict XVI), it seems like they were just hurrying to get it done. I hope they have some real conversations and maybe some arguments about where we need to go as a church. What’s wrong? How do we atone for all this scandal? How do we clean up the mess in the Vatican money disasters? And how do we be a better church?

It could be good to have someone who is not so connected to the images and culture of monarchy. Because the European model really is the monarchy. And to have someone who came out of a different culture – it could be enlivening.

That he wasn’t as bad as some feared? (Before becoming pope), he’d only had one year of pastoral experience in his whole life – and that was the year after he was ordained. He was a theologian, a guy who’s played the inside of the Vatican forever.

Q. Will a new face at the Vatican maybe curtail Rome’s criticisms of U.S. nuns?

I don’t think there’s too much chance that Dolan will be the next pope. There’s too much power consolidated in the U.S. already.

The Spirit is alive and well. Look at the miracle of this: If Network had never been mentioned by the Vatican, “Nuns on the Bus” would have never happened. The reason it happened was to use our notoriety for mission. I got tired of just answering questions about nuns. What came to me in prayer was: “Ask for help.” It resulted in “Nuns on the Bus.” It was an amazing opportunity to raise up the needs of people on the margins. The Holy Spirit is quite alive, and making mischief.

-- Tim Funk

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shoemaker resigning as Myers Park Baptist pastor

The Rev. Steve Shoemaker has resigned his post as pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church, the church announced Wednesday.

Shoemaker returned to the pulpit last Sunday after a month of being treated for stress and "self-medicating" of alcohol and prescription drugs.

He'll end his early 14 year tenure at the high-profile church with a last sermon this coming Sunday.

In a Feb. 18 letter to the congregation, Shoemaker said that "my new path of wholeness and health demand my full attention, and a period of indecision about my tenure with you would not serve the church well. I am confident that this decision serves me and best serves you, my beloved community."

In a separate letter to the congregation, dated Feb. 19, Board of Deacons chair Richard Pearsall said that he was announcing Shoemaker's resignation "with deep sorrow."

-- Tim Funk

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lectures, workshop for difficult relationships

"Understanding the Difficult Relationships in your Life" will be the subject of two free lectures this week by Tony Marciano, executive director of Charlotte Rescue Mission.

He'll speak Thursday( FEB 21) and Sunday (FEB24), 6:30-8 p.m. each night, in the chapel at Providence United Methodist Church, 2810 Providence Road.

The lectures will be followed by a 12-week workshop, on Thursday nights (6:30-8:30 p.m.) beginning March 7, at the church.

Leading the Christian-based workshop: Mindy Feldman Miralia, a change management consultant. Cost is $25.

To register: Questions? Contact Miralia at

-- Tim Funk

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Traditional pope takes modern step

It's something the Benedictine nuns told me -- then told me again -- during my years in parochial school: The pope is the successor of St. Peter, the apostle Jesus singled out as the leader of his church.

“You are Peter,” Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “and upon this rock, I will build my church.”

Well, by the time I went on to Jesuit high school, I had learned more about the world and history and the papacy.

And while I’m not saying I came to disbelieve this idea of Peter-as-the-first-pope, I sure could tell that Pope Paul VI – the pontiff during my growing up years – looked nothing like a humble fisherman.

A medieval king was more like it.

Like the monarchs of old, he wore royal garb, he had a Roman numeral behind his name, and he planned to rule until he drew his last breath.

All of those attributes applied to every pope I’d ever heard of.

So imagine my shock last Monday when, at 6:15 a.m., a stunningly loud CNN news alert on my iPhone woke me from a now-forgotten dream.

Pope Benedict XVI will resign Feb. 28,” it read.

“Resign?” I said out loud. “Popes don’t resign.”

You know the rest of the story: The 85-year-old pontiff is, indeed, giving up his throne – the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years.

I talked to a lot of Catholics in the hours after the news broke. And the comment that opened my eyes to the real significance of Benedict XVI’s decision came from the Rev. Frank O’Rourke, pastor at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte.

In resigning, O’Rourke told me, the pope “recognizes that the papacy and the church are bigger than him. When he realized he didn’t have the stamina, he stepped down. It’s a good witness to leadership: It’s a leadership of service, not a leadership of power.”


Turns out Benedict, who seemed to be the ultimate traditionalist, had done something very modern.

I’m betting he was sending a signal to his flock that being pope is not about reigning, it’s about serving. And when you can no longer do that job, it’s time to let somebody else try.

It took grand humility for him to turn over the keys to the kingdom, er, the Vatican while he was still alive.

Maybe it’ll help convince his successor that, in the 21st century, maybe it’s time to get rid of all the royal trappings and the divine-right-of-kings mindset and, well, start acting more like a humble fisherman.

These last few days I’ve been thinking of that 1960s movie, starring Anthony Quinn, about a Russian archbishop who becomes pope. At his papal coronation, he removes his crown and announces that he plans to sell most of the church’s treasures to feed the world’s poor.

It’s called “The Shoes of the Fisherman.” But it reminded me not of Peter, but of his boss. In the Gospels, it was Jesus who told the rich man who wanted to follow him to first sell all he had and give it to the poor.

Now, wouldn’t that be leadership of service.

-- Tim Funk

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Readers speak up about meanings of "pro-life"

Many of you accepted my invitation last week to send along your thoughts about what “pro-life” means. Should it be limited to abortion? Can a person be both “pro-life” and “pro-gun”?

Here’s a sampling:

“The number of deaths (from abortion) is similar to Sept. 11 repeating each and every day! Yes, all life is sacred and must be defended. But based on the facts, isn’t it clear why the primary pro-life focus is against abortion? – Bob Desch, Charlotte.

“I have always wondered about that juxtaposition of ‘pro-life and pro-gun’ and thought it incongruous at best. The best time to be poor in America is within the womb.” – Jenny Fuller, Charlotte.

“To me, the term (‘pro-life’) means protection of innocent life. A fetus, thanks to medical science, is viable earlier and earlier. To me, there is no question that this is an innocent unborn child. By contrast, if a man broke into my home, intending to do harm to my family, I would have no problem shooting and killing that man. A gun is an instrument that can be used for good or evil. There is no reason that the pro-life position and the pro-gun rights position would be mutually exclusive.” – Joanna Reynolds, Charlotte.

“War is just as important a life issue (as abortion). We have become so accustomed to supporting war with our dollars and military hero worship that we fail to recognize war is killing – just as abortion, euthanasia and suicide are. Are there really any victims of war who are not innocent? Are military personnel ordered to kill or be killed not also innocent victims, as are the children killed almost daily by our drone strikes?” – Kenneth Schammel, Cornelius.

“How about following up on the ultimate hypocrisy of liberals who are pro-choice and anti-death penalty? They are willing to grant the right to life for convicted rapists and serial killers and yet deny that same right to innocent unborn children.” – Stuart Smith, Salisbury.

“Here’s a bumper sticker which expressed my opinion on the subject. (It reads): ‘GET REAL. Like Jesus Would Ever Own a Gun & Vote Republican.” – Rollin Raymond, Charlotte.

“Just once I would like to hear some writer/reporter tell the true reason 20 children were killed in Newtown: A mother of a disturbed son went to a gun store and bought guns for her son, took him to a firing range and taught him how to use the guns, then did not lock up the guns when they returned home. The number of guns, or the rounds the guns held, had nothing to do with the slaughter of innocent children.” – Archie Pearson, Taylorsville

And for the sake of balance, here’s one from a reader in Davidson who asked that his name be withheld:

“There is simply no question that (Catholic) Church authorities, despite Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin’s powerful teaching of the Church’s position as a ‘seamless garment of life,’ have for decades abandoned that position for a very narrow focus on abortion to the exclusion of all other issues. That’s why the Church is losing so very many of us. It wants attending, but not attentive, Catholics. Sorry padres, but I was actually paying attention to everything you taught me through university, and the one who’s straying from Catholic teaching is you, not me.”

-- Tim Funk

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Myers Park Baptist pastor plans Feb. 17 return

The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, who checked himself into a 30-day treatment center late last year, plans to return to the pulpit at Myers Park Baptist Church on Feb. 17.

Shoemaker -- pastor of the 2,200-member liberal church for 13 years -- told his flock in a Dec, 28 letter that, after struggling with depression and anxiety as well as recent self-medication with alcohol, "I'm physically, psychologically and spiritually depleted and must get help."

He entered a treatment facility in Maryland.

In an email this week to church members, board of deacons chair Richard Pearsall announced that Shoemaker had returned to Charlotte and would soon return to the pulpit.

"He is in the process of establishing an active aftercare program," Pearsall wrote. "Steve will return to our pulpit on Sunday, February 17. I hope you can join us for worship that day to offer him a warm welcome back."

Observer interviews with members of the church last month turned up much support and understanding for the high-profile preacher.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, February 1, 2013

Are you 'pro-life and pro-gun'?

Over the years, as a political reporter (when I wasn’t a religion reporter), I've heard more than a few candidates use this phrase to identify themselves ideologically: "I'm pro-life and pro-gun."

It has become shorthand for: “I’m against abortion and I’m against gun control.”

I get that. Still, the pairing of “pro-life” and “pro-gun” in the same sentence always made my head spin a little.

Even in religious circles, the term “pro-life” has been commandeered by anti-abortion activists to refer mostly to the right of fetuses to be born. This pro-life movement has the support of conservatives from various denominations. But it has long appeared strongest in the Roman Catholic Church, whose hierarchy – from the Vatican to the bishops – has clearly identified abortion as the church’s main social issue.

So it was newsworthy last week when a group of liberal Catholics – theologians, priests, nuns and ex-ambassadors to the Vatican – released a letter calling on those who consider themselves “pro-life” to expand the meaning of that term after the slaughter of children and their teachers in Newtown, Conn.

These victims of gun violence also had a right to life, said the group, arguing that “the defense of human dignity extends beyond protecting life in the womb.”

The letter was especially meant for conservative Catholics in Congress. That includes House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, but also GOP Reps. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land, S.C.; Patrick McHenry of Cherryville; Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk; Walter Jones of Farmville; and Renee Ellmers of Dunn.

From the letter: “Pro-life citizens and elected officials have a responsibility to show greater moral leadership and political courage when it comes to confronting threats to the sanctity of life posed by easy access to military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines.”

Ellmers, a member of Congress’ Pro-Life Caucus, recently released her own statement, accusing President Barack Obama of “exploiting (Newtown) for political gain” with his plans to restrict some high-powered weapons.

This “pro-life” debate is old.

In 1983, Cardinal (and S.C. native) Joseph Bernardin of Chicago famously said in a speech that Catholic social teaching favored “a seamless garment of life” – his metaphor, taken from the Gospels, for upholding the sanctity of life from the womb to the tomb.

His call for consistency meant opposing not just abortion and euthanasia, but also nuclear weapons, the death penalty, most wars, and policies – including draconian budget cuts – that destroyed the poor’s quality of life.

Today, the Vatican and the U.S. bishops agree with Bernardin on many of those issues – at least on paper. They’re also on record as favoring “sensible regulation” of handguns and other firearms.

But most of the church’s activism still focuses on abortion. Take this month’s Marches for Life in Washington and Charlotte.

Some years ago, various Catholic bishops – including Bishop Peter Jugis of the Charlotte Diocese – issued orders to deny Communion to Catholic elected officials with “pro-choice” voting records.

Will they ever extend that ban to Catholic politicians who are “pro-life and pro-gun”?

What do you think “pro-life” means?

-- Tim Funk