Perhaps you are familiar with this story about the great Catholic mystic, Hildegard of Bingen? She was the mother superior of a convent somewhere around the 13th century – the salad days of the institutional church as a temporal kingdom under the direction of the Pope and the bishops. A controversy arose when a man with a notorious reputation – I think that he was a soldier – died. Plans were made to bury him in the cemetery belonging to the convent because none of the surrounding Catholic burial grounds would accept the body. When the local bishop heard about the plans, he forbid Hildegard to allow the burial. Hildegard informed the bishop that this would not be possible as the man had been already interred. The bishop ordered that the body be dug up. Hildegard offered no protest but when the bishops’ delegation arrived at the graveyard they ran into a bit of a problem. All of the gravestones had been removed!
The unrepentant adolescent within me gets a certain thrill of pleasure upon hearing any story that involves someone who is able to outfox authority.(Which is quite an interesting reaction considering that I make my living as a teacher!) What I like about this particular story, however, is that in it’s own way it points to the two distinct but legitimate pathways of authority that continually exist in a healthy- and, occasionally, downright ugly – relationship in the Church. There’s authority that comes from the sacrament of Holy Orders through which certain individuals are designated as leaders in the Church. There is, however, also a certain “charismatic” authority that occurs when individuals are called directly by the Holy Spirit. These folks can pop up in the most unlikely places. A Jewish pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, for example. Or two radically generous souls whose zeal and means of ministering to the poor didn’t fit any of the existing ways of doing that – St. Clare and St. Francis of Assisi. How about an atheist turned Communist turned Catholic lay woman who dared to suggest that Christianity, capitalism and militarism might not mix?
Of course, this tension is not unique to Christianity. Remember that Jewish prophet who kept insisting that the spirit of the Law which called for compassion was so much more important than the letter and who openly questioned the legitimacy of the single most important religious establishment of his day – the Temple in Jerusalem?
Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)
You can find more catholic characters in my book, “Turning Points – Unlocking the Treasures of the Church” available through Twenty Third Publications (www.twentythirdpublications.com)