Pages From A Popular History Of Grand Rapids

New River Free Press Interview,

March 1976: By Michael Daniels

Father Edward F. Monroe on:

Role of Christian,

Priest, & Church

I sit in his office in St. Alphonsus rectory, interviewing him. I am here because I have heard northenders (in Grand Rapids, Michigan) say he has a people-centered church. Listening to him, I feel imbued with his desire to be gentle--a gentle reflector of himself and others.

He is 41; for 15 of those years, he has been a Redemptorist priest. It is the goal of the Redemptorist order to work for the most abandoned, to seek out the people neglected by society, and neglected perhaps by the other outlets of the Catholic Church.

His face is bearded, slightly sculpted at the lower cheeks.

Sometimes, as he concentrates and probes his mind for an answer, he rests his right pointer finger on the side of his nose. Sometimes, he closes his eyes and leans forward--almost like as if in prayer--fingers of both hands clasped in front, the two pointers leading forward.

Is he probing his soul?

His spirit is ennobling.

Here, I must state my biases. I favor rugged simplicity for all social, moral, and religious institutions. If we are all God's children, and if I am my brother's and sister's keeper, the only consumption pattern that I can accept in a resource-short world is rugged simplicity. There are few churches, of any denomination, that attempt that.

It was good to see that in his moderate way, Father Edward F. Monroe, C. S. S. R., and his church, St. Alphonsus, were moving in that direction.

In the course of a brief one-and-a-half hours, you can't express all your beliefs, thoughts, philosophy. Nor can you fully understand a person in that time . . . if ever you can . . . But you try. So--

MD: What drew you to the priesthood?
I would say . . . basically, I really wanted to understand me as I was, not putting other people's expectations upon me and I felt inclined to live within the Church and to affirm the goodness that is already in people--to free them, instead of putting religion on them, like a cloak from outside.

MD: What drew you to the Redemptorist order?
EM: I think my desire to be a messenger of hope. And the diocesan priests were too concerned about their own personal wealth--they also lived by themselves and were lonely.

I lived close to a major Redemptorist theological seminary and I saw they cared for one another there and gave support to each other and that it was a good place to live.

My uncle was a Catholic priest. He lived by himself and I didn't want to live like that.

You see, Michael, your idea why you went and why you stayed are two different reasons. There is a maturing process--I really desired to be a part of the priesthood, although I knew to be in the priesthood was not the same for my professor as it was for me--they were committed to the institution, whereas I desired a people-centered life and a people-centered love instead of love for an institution.

MD: As a priest, what do you see as being the Christian's role in society?
EM: I see the Christian's role in society as a prophet. A prophet is one who can see the signs of the time, interpret them with a faith dimension, give to the present another dimension . . . which means the Christian's role is to bring a dimension of hope and encouragement to whatever it is another is experiencing. I just see this as the whole theme of the Gospel . . . Christ is constantly . . . everything he did was imbued with gentleness . . . He had not come to crush or bruise. The role of the Christian in society today, the only valid identity of the Christian is the same identity of Christ, who said I have not come be served but to serve.

I really feel the duty of the Christian, the privilege of the Christian, is to be free enough with myself that I can administer to others without feeling I am less than them, or have less dignity. I should not be so confronted with myself that the rest of the world is cut out.

I also think, Michael, in the personal life of a Christian in relationship to society a Christian cannot function in society specifically as Christian unless that person first of all reflects upon his own faith experience and then tries to give expression to what he has experienced. The prayer experience of a Christian is what makes himself (or herself) aware of his (or her) own smallness.

The reason why we fail, Michael, in our relationships in society is that we come together at a point of strength and we have this idea of our real or imagined strength of ourselves and we try to defend that strength and that really prevents us from encountering the other person. All that "I" am intent upon then is to show how strong "I" am--defending my position of strength. Because of that, I threaten others, or I can choose to manipulate them, and the whole point of encountering others, really meeting others, is missed because I never listened, I never allowed others to be free.

So my point, Michael, is that a Christian then as a reflective person should really be in touch with his own littleness, smallness, brokenness, weakness, and perhaps emptiness. And then the whole thing is if I'm conscious of my smallness, I'm going to be gentle. I don't need to be defensive. I can act with openness to others. Thus, I free the other person not to be defensive with me. When we come together in our littleness, we both lead greater, richer lives.

I really feel in all levels of society everybody desires wealth because it means strength to them: if I have wealth, I can dictate to others.

The identity of Christ was to be a servant--He chose to serve. The paradox is that people don't deliberately choose to be a servant. I feel, Michael, lots of people don't understand Christianity.

MD: Why is that?
EM: Because to be a real Christian is such a risk. If I choose to be a disciple of Christ, a follower of Christ, if I choose to be a servant as he was, a servant doesn't have rights, a servant doesn't dictate, call the shots, control. And this is not attractive. It's easier to observe religious practices and be classified by my external behavior to be religious, but that's superficial, Christianity on the outside, on the shell.

I feel it's just . . . I think a lot of people would like to take the Gospel seriously, but it's so risky. People are so afraid what others will say. I think so many Christians today don't have the answers because they don't know what the questions are.

MD: Do you think it's the Church's role to ask fundamental questions about people's lives and society's functioning?
EM: I think it's the Church's role to proclaim to individual persons and to society the truth of the Gospel, the dignity of persons, the future of persons. I feel it's the role of the Church to give humankind a vision of what can be and who they can be. I think it's the role of the Church in any age to raise the sights, to raise the vision beyond the present problems confronting us and to give us a perspective with reference to all of history.

I'm not saying, Michael, that the Church should be a crusader. I'm saying the Church must be a voice that speaks, not to dictate or control, and yet not to cop out. I guess I see the role of the Church in society as another dimension needed within the local community and the larger community. It's not a single dimension thing. There is in every community the role of the philosopher, the role of the politician, educator, scientist--leadership being a shared thing. I see the Church as being not separate from the rest but imbuing the rest and being imbued by the rest of society.

... A welfare system that just puts food on the table or clothes on a person's back is a dehumanizing system that has no respect for a person.

MD: What is the role of the true Christian in liberating the Church and society from the dehumanizing elements in charity--which is often a substitute for love?
EM: The ideal system--when the needs of everyone was taken care of and everyone had a place in society which wasn't based on wealth but on what they were. This is happening in the Catholic community where people are living in common households--in Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Haven, and even to a small extent in Grand Rapids, I think.

The call is to live in community and share their goods, each one contributing to that community according to their ability so that each person's rating is not related to their ability to make money.

That's so small related to the vastness of the question. I don't know, Michael, I like to see all of us as guests in this universe. And a guest is invited to somebody's place and uses as much as there is need, but a guest doesn't stockpile. It's so idealistic, but I believe it's so simple. We guests--we have right to what we need--but we don't need to accumulate great wealth. I guess it sounds anti-capitalistic, but I guess Christianity is that.

This whole thing of holding two jobs. Some need that for basic expenses, but some do that to increase their buying power or to feed their desires for more.

MD: I guess the problem I have with the Church, as I do with the Right to Life movement, is that they are asking fundamental questions about whether we have a right to decide who shall have life, but they don't go on and raise fundamental questions as to whether society has a right to take away life, through waste (which leads to Hunger), social injustice, capital punishment . . .
The basic literature coming out of the U. S. Catholic Conference of Bishops shows that they are addressing themselves to all the phases, or facets, of life and the dignity of all levels of life--the whole question of social justice, criminal justice, death with dignity, mental retardation, prison reform . . . There is no aspect of life relating to humankind's dignity that the Church is not really involved in. So anyone who says that the Church is concerned only with Right to Life . . . that's an extremely unfair and unjust statement.

There has been that type of education going on about action that they didn't feel responsible for. Last week, I preached on how our waste contributes to the world food problem. . .

I think the people in this parish have had a broad view of Christianity and of their own personal relationship to the rest of the world. People in the parish have sons and daughters working in Asia, South America . . . and they have been exposed to many speakers from all parts of the world and they have been generous in their response. TV bringing a war into your living room, the Guatemalan earthquake . . . I think this has brought to the people how much of the world we are. I think they fully realize they have to respond to these situations.

MD: What is the role of the priest in society?
EM: Dividing the role of prophet and leader . . . The Christian role of the priest comes from the Jewish tradition of the role of the priest to offer sacrifice. So one of the primary important roles of the priests is to offer the sacrifice of the New Testament, the new covenant, which in the words of the lay people would be to celebrate the Eucharist. So in the Catholic Church the role of the Catholic priest is to be the principal celebrant of the life of Christ in the Eucharist. The priest could be seen as the ordinary minister of the sacraments in the Church.

As a prophet, a priest would be first of all a reflective person, an experienced person in prayer. I don't mean by that saying a lot of prayers but to be really able to reflect on his own life, to really reflect on sacred scripture, to reflect on the whole gamut of life and then to share that reflection with people . . . by helping them to pray, by helping them to reflect, helping them to really grasp the meaning of their experiences in their life--individual, family, community, or the larger world--just bringing meaning and fruitfulness to this process to what at times appears futile, that leads man to despair.

The role of the priest as leader . . . The only person who can lead is one who can be in touch with himself. If I'm in touch with myself, I'll be gentle with others. A priest as leader--by his preaching, by his communication on the local scene, invites them to a new vision of life. He's not the crusader--I got this good for you, you accept it; a crusader is a disrespectful person, he doesn't see if others have something to offer to him. A priest invites people to view the worthwhileness of their lives and the worthwhileness of life in society and I guess increasing or deepening their own expectations of what can be in relationship to their own happiness and in relationship to the good and happiness of our brothers and sisters whoever they are and where they are.

You see, Michael, I translate my basic concept of my priesthood as being available to whomever. I see myself being a leader of prayer and ministry in teaching. I see myself as being limited, but if I can teach people of their possibilities, I have multiplied, expanded, the scope of my own ministry.

A priest who has pinpointed his role--becoming a representative in Lansing--has limited himself. I would rather have my parishioners run for public office or help at Capitol Lunch program than doing it myself. I don't like the concept of priest as an expert; he should not be identified with a single facet of life.

MD: What do you think is the role of the Church in society?
EM: The Church has redefined its role. The Church in the early history of the Church knew what it was and wanted it to be accepted as that. But in the 60s, under Pope John, the Church recognized it was people. Pope John said that the Church is at present like a pyramid. He said that it should be turned upside down--where people speak to the Church what their needs are and the priest/bishop responds. The Church is not eager to dictate to the lives of others.

When you refer to the Church today, you can't refer to Church as hierarchy only. When you say Church today, you embrace the total concept--the people of God. The official aspect of the Church today is the continuing education of the people that they are the Church--they touch every element of society and they bring back from society their experiences of living in the broader community.

MD: How does that reflect itself in the day-to-day functioning of the Church?
EM: Lot of what we're talking about does not reflect itself in the liturgy, but it might reflect in that instead of only praying for myself I pray for the total dimension of society . . . No Catholic would consider himself (or herself) as fulfilling his (her) life as a Catholic only by religious practices--it also involves society.

At one time, the teaching of a priest dealt only with personal salvation. Today, we would consider that one dimensional. Today, the priest in his preaching must heighten the consciousness of the people on the whole spectrum of our shared consciousness.

MD: Let's take an example, say World Hunger. How would you focus the role of the priest, Christian, and Church in relationship to World Hunger?
EM: Role of the priest would be to bring about the awareness, to deepen the level of consciousness within people. The role of the Christian would be to accept the challenge and confrontation presented us by World Hunger and come to a personal realization and conviction that what is needed is to be a real change in attitudes and life style, because only as the level of consciousness among many people rises will there be sufficient change in life style to address itself to the magnitude of the problem. There are lot of things that can be done. On a family level, waste of energy and food is unfair. If you multiply that by the 1,800 families in this parish becoming aware you have a bigger effect. The example I gave in my sermon was on looking for the crispest head of lettuce and so contributing to the waste of other heads of lettuce that are not crispy. Change in life styles is a real awakening. I would like people to become aware of the quantity of meat they eat and what that means to countries that don't have it.

But on a simple scale for a complicated, complex problem, I would see priest, church, and Christian acting thus: First, the priest as prophet reflecting on the problem and from his own experience, inviting his people to reverse a bad situation.

MD: What is the role of worship in the life of the Church, priest, and Christian?
EM: . . . In the Catholic Church there is much ritual. Ritual is a language of sign, symbol, sentiment, song, words that are a vehicle to express the faith experience of a people. In other words, ritual doesn't come first. A real faith experience, a real awareness, that we are not alone, we are called to community, we express that experience through external ritual--that is a coming together of what we commonly experience. The ritual enhances what we commonly experience and causes it to deepen.

The Christian message is that you're not isolated--you are called together. A shared faith experience is expressed in ritual. When you ritualize the original faith experience is enhanced. This is what worship is. Worship is the acknowledgment of the dependent role of humankind in its relationship with God and our own interdependent relationship with one another and among all. And so man ritualizes that experience that God calls man to be in relationship with him and others. It's the verbalization, the ritualization of this experience of being with God and one another that is celebrated and becomes deepened by the celebration.

MD: How does the Christian take this back with him to his daily life?
EM: Experience I don't think can be defined or expressed, Michael. What I bring back to life is what I have experienced. I'm enriched by the experience and gratified that I can express to some extent what I have experienced and it alerts me to be aware of in the long run other experiences of my life and leads me to reflect on them--"What does it mean to me?"

That's what worship really is--it's not just external expression of gesture, it's external expression of an internal faith experience.


From the New River Free Press Interview,

March 1976: By Michael Daniels,

Editor & Publisher

Can't write anything.

A New River Free Press Reprint/March '76

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
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