Easter Sunday 2010 marked the last Mass at Historic Saint Peter Church in Cleveland, Ohio. After over 150 years of continuous use, the oaken doors of this sacred space on 17th and Superior were closed and locked. In rich irony, the building that once had been the womb of a vibrant inner-city Catholic community closed like a tomb on the very day when the Christian church around the world celebrated the feast of Christ breaking the bonds of death and rising triumphant from the grave. The official ecclesiastical act of “suppression” that closed the church building was intended likewise to roll the stone across the grave of the vibrant parish community that inhabited that domus ecclesiae. But Christians know that Resurrection happens. Easter cannot be stopped, not even by bishops.

The Pascal Candle led the recessional at the end of Easter Sunday Mass 2010,
the last before the suppression of the parish by Bishop Richard Lennon.

Almost before he set foot in the door of the Chancery in Cleveland, Bishop Richard Lennon announced his intention to close one-third of the 180+ parishes in the diocese. Sixty-three parishes were to be selected for elimination based on the criteria of declining membership and financial dependency. Not surprisingly, many of the faithful were quite disturbed at this announcement. The diocesan spokesman sought to reassure them: “We don’t close parishes; we close empty buildings.” “Alright,” I thought, “maybe this won’t be so bad as it sounds.” And at first, that looked to be the case.

As the “clustering” process progressed, however, the bishop’s actions gave the lie to this initial assertion. The case of Historic Saint Peter Church provides perhaps the most striking counterpoint to the claim: the parish was solvent; it was up-to-date on the diocesan assessments that help provide financial support to needy parishes and missions; the physical plant was in top condition due to the recent restoration work in honor of the parish’s 150th anniversary; and the parish was growing, gaining members steadily. Regardless, the bishop made it clear that the church was to be closed. An anonymous donor offered $2.5 million for an endowment fund if the bishop would keep the parish open; the chancery declined. In canonical terms, the parish was to be suppressed and its far-from-empty building closed.

The parish spent months in soul-searching, individually and corporately discerning how to respond to the bishop’s plan. Legally speaking, a bishop owns all the ecclesiastical properties in his diocese. If he wants to close the church building, the building will be closed. However, the bishop does not own the consciences of the faithful. Some parishioners shifted to other churches closer to their domiciles. Many parishioners decided to embody dissent and incarnate resurrection, creating a not-for-profit corporation named “The Community of Saint Peter” (CSP). From a church-law standpoint, the CSP is a schismatic community: it self-identifies as a Catholic community, uses the Catholic liturgy, and is pastored by a Catholic priest, but the community is not supposed to exist and the priest is no longer supposed to minister.

The Community of Saint Peter celebrates the Great Vigil of Easter (7 April 2012)
at their new “storefront” location, 7100 Euclid Avenue.

Although I have spent nearly my entire career studying heretical, schismatic, or otherwise dissenting movements in formative Judaism and early Christianity, it took this event for me to understand—on a personal and experiential level—the human dynamics of “schism.” In my research, I have discussed the significance of various theological debates and explored the various power dynamics involved. In the midst of this “thick description” of social, economic, gender, racial, political, and ideological disputes, still I did not grasp the acute disappointment with established ecclesiastical authority structures, nor the anguish involved in making the decision to dissent and resist cooptation, nor the tenacity of hope required to inaugurate and sustain a “schismatic” movement. Far from being an easy choice, schism is a community’s response to the challenge of annihilation. Like a bear gnawing off its own leg to escape an iron trap, schism arises when the only other available option is to capitulate in one’s own oppression.

My work has been driven by the conviction that contemporary believers can learn a great deal from the “heretics” and “schismatics” of antiquity. The inauguration of the CSP has taught me there is much to learn from contemporary dissenters and schismatics as well. One does not have to enjoy conflict to recognize that significant and widespread dissent arises in an environment of serious power dysfunction. Schism, as one significant form of dissent, clearly points to a non-responsive, autocratic “authority” structure that permits the pervasive abuse of power. The CSP resulted from ecclesiastical minds closing, communications closing, and finally doors closing. Divested of walls, the CSP exemplifies the “Church in the City,” intentionally making its home among the poor of Cleveland. In this season celebrating the “tenting” of God amid the human race (John 1:14), and especially among the poor of this world, this “schismatic” group challenges observers to hold to this hope with just such tenacity.

The “Tenting” God and the Tenacity of Hope, cross-posted from the “Feminism and Religion” blog, 8 January 2012.

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Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

The first chapter of the Gospel According to John narrates the enlistment of several of Jesus’ early disciples from the town of Bethsaida. Andrew and Philip, disciples of John the Baptist, joined Jesus’ group by means of the ancient version of LinkedIn: they were referred by John. Jesus’ networking system continued rolling and resulted in Andrew and Philip recruiting their brothers, Peter and Nathanael (respectively). In response to Philip’s urgent and credulous invitation to come and meet the messiah promised by Moses and the prophets, Nathaniel shows himself a true skeptic. His initial reaction, according to John, was to inquire “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As a rhetorical question, the unspoken but nevertheless predictable answer to this query should be “certainly not!” “Come and see,” his brother urges. So Nathaniel the skeptic, whether out of curiosity or a sense of fraternal duty, comes to meet Jesus and see for himself whether Philip’s enthusiasm is well-founded.

An artist’s sketch of Philip talking to his brother, Nathanael, urging him to come with him to meet Jesus.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47; NRSV)

But would honesty be a main virtue of a “true child of Israel”? For Jesus, yes. For his contemporaries, not really. And for us? How many lies have you heard so far in this presidential campaign, or from church officialsa concerned in the pedophilia and parish-closing scandals, or from rich corporate executives of the me-first-and-last-and-who-cares-about-anyone-else mindset? Thank God for groups like the Nuns-on-a-Bus, or one may have been inclined simply to crawl into a hole and hibernate until Christmas.

Nathanael (whose name means “gift of God”) is the kind of person who says exactly what he thinks, without hedging. His rhetorical question in response to Philip’s invitation (v. 46) makes clear his skepticism from the start: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If Nathanael were an American, he would be from Missouri, the “Show Me” State. Not so credulous to accept Philip’s testimony without evidence, yet he is willing to “come and see.”

Once Nathanael meets Jesus face-to-face, he does “see” and, totally contrary to cultural norms, changes his mind publicly. In Middle-Eastern culture, especially for men, “saving face” is paramount, and “scoring points” or gaining leverage over another man runs a close second. Men are expected to lie and dissemble to gain social advantage. (Have politicians like Messrs. Aikin and Ryan mentally moved to the Mediterranean Basin? Have some of our prelates done the same?)

If Nathanael had been wise in the ways of the world, he would have remained stubbornly skeptical, “hedged his bets” by attributing his assertion to others (cf. Matt 16:14), or at least waited until a private moment to declare his change of mind. Instead, he clearly and simply said what he meant, without duplicity or self-interest, testifying to the Truth he now recognized: that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel. An Israelite without guile? From the perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries, this would have been an insult, or at best a self-contradiction. From John’s perspective, however, it is high praise indeed.

Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus is epigrammatic of John’s model of true discipleship: hearing the gospel inspires Nathanael’s search; meeting Jesus reveals the identity both of the seeker and of Jesus himself; revelation gives rise to conversion and further testimony. Note that evangelist makes Nathanael, not Peter, the first one to witness to Jesus’ true identity. Even the guileless can be used to score points.

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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