Words from Fr. Frank Cordaro

April 21, 2002

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2, 14a, 36-41, 1 PT 2, 20b-25, Jn 10, 1-10 Acts 2:14, 36-41

What are we to do, my brothers? (Acts 2:37)

Last week I raised the question, "Where did Peter and the disciples get the courage to speak the troubling and dangerous truth behind Jesusí crucifixion?" This week a clear answer emerges from the four point program Peter offers the crowd. Itís still Pentecost, and we are at the end of Peterís speech to the people of Jerusalem. The text says the whole crowd was "cut to the heart" and asked Peter, "What are we to do?" Peter offers a four-point plan: Repent. Be baptized. Accept Forgiveness. Receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). For Peter and the other disciples these were not abstract spiritual steps as might be laid out in a Catechism or found in a Sunday school workbook. They were real life experiences that they had to go through. All of them abandoned Jesus in his hour of need, and Peter denied the Christ. They had much to be forgiven.

For the disciples to repent, they had to change their hears and experience a metanoia and leave behind the fear that paralyzed them and cross over to the risky world of truth and life. For them it was a baptism of fire. Once they truly accepted the forgiveness as offered by the Risen Lord, the gift of the Holy Spirit was received, and the courage to proclaim the truth was given.

Peter and the disciples were offering the people of Jerusalem the same deal. Their need to repent and be forgiven was no less real. These are the same people who earlier in the story cried out to Pilate, "Crucify Him!" and nailing Jesus to the Cross. The text ends with three thousand people accepting Peterís message and choosing to be baptized. Accepting Godís forgiveness is no easy thing. My being locked up has me reminded me anew just how difficult it is for some people to accept Godís forgiveness. My current cellmate, Joe, is a good example. A white, tattooed, forty-one year old military vet and biker type, and diagnosed with some mental illness, Joe has logged in over eight years of prison and jail time. A heavy drinker, his drug of choice is Meth. He is here on a P.U. parole violation and is looking at another fourteen months. Joe has a problem with anger management. Combined with drug and alcohol usage, he can be violent. He demonstrates racist, sexist, and misogynist tendencies. Crude and vulgar language is a consistent part of any conversation with Joe. At first (second, and maybe even a third) glance He does not seem to be an appealing human being. Yet he does have some endearing qualities. He has a problem with authority figures and a rebellious spirit. I like that in a person. Heís been in the hole twice (solitary confinement) since arriving here in February: once for making "hooch" and once for refusing to make his bed and threatening a correction officer. Heís got a good sense of humor if he werenít so vulgar and crude. And heís really got a good heart, once you get to know him. Joes tells me he wants to change, that he is getting too old to be hanging out with Bikers, getting drunk and into fights, messing with drugs and guns. He has a sincere desire to turn his life over to Jesus and be saved. He sees my being locked up with him as a sign from God that he can make the change. Iím not so sure. Last week Joe had me talk to his mother on the phone to prove to her that a priest was really his cellmate. She told me that I was an answer to her prayers for Joe. She asked if I could perform an exorcism over her son. I told her I did not think her son was possessed by a personified devil, as is traditionally understood, but that he was truly plagued by troubling spirits. There is not a night that goes by that I am not awakened by Joeís thrashing and struggling in his upper bunk, cursing and fighting with someone in a dream. Then Joeís mom asked me if I could help him with the self hate that has consumed him most of his life. I told her that I would do what I could, that I would pray for him and with him. I made no promise of success. Sometimes when I am talking with Joe, I look into his eyes and see a woundedness that is beyond reach. Self hate may well be at the heart of Joeís woundedness, but how does one heal such a wound? Joe knows right from wrong. He knows when he has done wrong. In his better moments, he is truly sorry for the wrong he has done. However, when it comes to accepting Godís forgiveness, he just canít get there. His woundedness prevents it. Joe is not a rare bird. His spiritual state is common among his peers here. Itís one of the hardest things for me to deal with - a measure of my lack of faith.

John 10: 1-10 Every Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on this Sunday the Gospel is taken from the tenth chapter of John, the Good Shepherd chapter. The chapter continues the theme of Jesusí attack on the Pharisees in the story of the "man born blind" in chapter nine. Jesus heals the man. The man is brought before the Pharisees and questioned about his recovery of sight. At the end of the story the Pharisees refuse to believe that Jesus really cured the blind man and excommunicated him.

Johnís use of the shepherd motif follows a well-known pattern set in the Old Testament in which the figure of a shepherd is used as an allegory for Israelís poor leadership. (Exodus 34, Genesis 48 & 49, Micah 7, Psalms 23-80)

In this weekís first of two parables, Jesus the Good Shepherd is compared to the thieves, the false leaders, the false shepherds. Those who recognize the shepherdís voice are those who understand the meaning of Jesusí teachings. Love is the key to recognition, and this love is made visible in the relationship between the Good Shepherd and his sheep. Blessed Bishop Maurice Dingman - A Good Shepherd.

We are hearing a lot about poor leadership in the Catholic Church these days surrounding the revelation of sexual abuse by priest and the cover-ups, buy outs, and reassignments by Bishops and church officials of abusive priests. A dark time for our church and a good time to lift up the memory of the good shepherds we have had. For me, the top one on my list would be blessed Bishop Maurice Dingman, the bishop of the diocese of Des Moines between 1968-1986.

A Vatican II bishop if there ever was one, Bishop Dingman took the Vatican II documents to heart and put them into practice. He was always quoting the documents and the pope. He was a shepherd who knew his sheep and his sheep knew him. With what he called patient and constant dialogue, Bishop Dingman spent a lot of his time listening and learning from the People he served. He really believed that the People of his diocese were the People of God and he should trust them wherever he wanted to lead them, he had to first find out who they were and where they needed leading.

Those were exciting years in the Catholic Church. With a spirit of openness and shared governing our whole national church structures were made over. Bishop Dingman was with us each step of the way, not at the head of the crowd, giving directives but with the crowd: listening, sharing, suggesting, agreeing, disagreeing, agreeing to disagree, seeking the consensus, believing the process just as important as the outcome and when a consensus was reached, one that he could live with, he stepped out of the crowd, put on his bishopís mitre, and confirmed and pronounced a decision that all could claim a measure of ownership.

This type of leadership did not happen with a forty hour work week nor by following the efficient guidelines of a modern corporate CEO management plan. Bishop Dingman easily worked at an eighty hour a week work pace year in and year out, most of his workday time spent listening to people. What impressed me the most was that he made it a point to listen to those who disagreed with him the most, showing them respect even if they were not willing to respect him.

He took this model of leadership to his external Church work. To the faith communities of Des Moines and Southwest Iowa he was a breath of fresh air. He became a key person in the ecumenical movement, helping to establish a spirit of mutual trust and respect with denominational leaders. Once these personal bonds of trust and respect were established, great things were done jointly and collaboratively across a wide range of concerns. And when there were disagreements, there was no loss of respect, and friendships endured.

The area that Bishop Dingman impressed me the most was his leadership in the areas of social justice, both within the church and in the world. To name just a few, Bishop Dingman was an early and faithful supporter of womenís equality both within the church and in society. He was an advocate for due process in inner church disputes. He took up the causes of welfare and prison reform, the full range of life issues of abortion, war, death penalty, and human rights. He spoke out against nuclear weapons and U.S. foreign policies. He was not afraid to take on the systemic issues of racism and sexism. And most dear to his heart he took up the cause of saving the family farm.

In these areas of social justice the Bishop did not always have a consensus from the people of the diocese; often he didnít even have a majority supporting him. In these instances he was willing to step out of the crowd and support unpopular causes because he believed them to be true and needing his support. Whenever he did this, he never demanded that others follow him. He acted on his own conscience and respected those who disagreed with his stance.

It was in this manner that he lead the Diocese of Southwest Iowa, and in doing so he became a beloved good shepherd for people of all faiths within and outside the state of Iowa. Advice from a Good Shepherd, I once asked Bishop Dingman if he ever got angry at the Church when authority is abused and the institutional church hurts and mistreats people. He looked at me and his eyes got real big and said, "Oh, I never want to get angry with the Church because anger leads to despair and despair will lead you out of the Church. When I see the Church hurting and mistreating people, I grieve for love of the Church. And then I try to change the Church for the better."

I have found this to be good advice for I stay in the Church for love of the Church. And though I see a lot of things I donít like about how the Church is run and lead, on the whole the Catholic Church has given me so much more than I will ever give back.

When I see the Church hurting people and making mistakes, I try not to get angry. Instead I grieve for and with the Church. And then I work to change the Church for the better. Grief is a good place to start when suffering from injustice is my experience. According to Walter Brueggeman in his book, The Prophetic Imagination, it is in the experience of grief that comes from injustice that the energy and vision of prophets are born.