WASHINGTON – There’s no need to rehash the recent disastrous track record of the all-male Roman Catholic hierarchy. The sordid abuse of children by priests, the sinister coverups, the callous treatment of nuns, the deaf ear turned toward Catholics who happen to be gay or divorced — it’s all on the front page. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging moral authority.
What’s much more devastating is that it is losing believers, too. If you can’t trust the messengers, why trust the message? It is not too much to say that the crisis in the church is contributing to a crisis of faith in the Gospel itself.
This is a crisis not of management nor of theology. This is a crisis of the spirit. But before the church can address its great moral collapse, it will have to recover its spiritual bearings. The next pope should be a mystic.
A mystic? Absolutely! Contrary to popular perception, a mystic is not a magician or a crystal-ball-gazer. A mystic is rather a person who has had an experience of God’s love so unmistakable that it changes him or her forever, imparting a confidence that cannot be shaken, a humility that cannot be doubted, a freedom that exudes love and gentleness and authenticity. A mystic knows from experience, not books, that we are each beautiful beyond our understanding, loved beyond our capacity to love, united beyond our perceptions of difference and division.
Happily, mystics have a rich history in the Catholic tradition. I’d like to see a pope who is a devoted follower of the anonymous 13th-century author of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” who taught the practice of silent prayer and meditation. Like many contemporary teachers of meditation, this person taught students to enter meditation meekly through a “cloud of forgetting” and discover a state in which “the soul is one with God.” Today’s millions who are disillusioned with metaphysical formulations or religious creeds would love an invitation to that experience.
It would also be wonderful if the new pope led retreats based on the teachings of Saint Theresa of Avila, who wrote that “any real ecstasy is a sign you are moving in the right direction. Don’t let any prude tell you otherwise!” The future of the church depends on its capacity to embrace the healthy and wonderful human longing for love and unity and intimacy. Theresa could be the model who celebrated the love of Christ as a lover would, a pioneer who believed that, through the practice of loving God, we can become better lovers of other human beings.
The new pope could update his iPod with the enchanting sacred music composed by Hildegard of Bingen — a 12th-century hermit who longed to become a “feather on the breath of God.” We live in search of experiences of “flow,” where our identity is swallowed up in a unifying consciousness not all our own. Hildegard would be a wonderful guide in the search for that lightness of being, and her music could illuminate our search.
The new pope might also remind believers of the often painful detachment that comes with the mystical pursuit of the purest love of God. He need only teach the writings of Saint John of the Cross, who found himself “living darkly, with no ray of light.” John is a voice for those who feel the void of meaninglessness, but in that same darkness, he is also given the discovery that often comes with spiritual rigor:
“[L]ove gives power to my life. … Love can perform a wondrous labor which I have learned internally, and all the good or bad in me takes on a penetrating savor, changing my soul so it can be consumed in a delicious flame.”
Today’s searchers can also look to modern-day mystics. American Franciscan Richard Rohr offers guidance about how to seek a heart at peace with others and infused with purpose. Rohr teaches the mysticism of Saint Francis, mysticism as part of everyday life. Rohr reminds us that the Gospel is like the gay rights movement in one way: It’s an invitation for us to come out of our closets and bask in the reckless love of God.
Can a pope be like Saint Francis or Saint Theresa?
It depends on how much the cardinals are willing to risk. They should risk it all, just like Jesus.
Theirs is a church founded on the audacious premise that “God is love.” Jesus trusted that love to enable him to take the greatest risks possible: to love his enemies, to believe that God’s presence was in all things, to teach poverty and humility and the beauty of children and flowers and meekness and peace. It was that depth of spirit that allowed him to say, “[God] the Father and I are one.”
We need a pope like him, a mystic for our times. Nothing less than a mystic can reveal the depth of the beauty of the church to a new generation of seekers, still hungry to believe, still ready to fall in love with God.
Timothy Shriver is the chairman of Special Olympics.