Monday, January 24, 2005

A Tree Grows in Phoenix 

I was reading about the two suspended Phoenix, AZ priests over at Amy Welborn's site (where does she find the energy?) Over time, I've lived through some congregational splits over pastors and over change. I've also been on the sidelines for other splits over building projects, behavior, growth, money, etc. There's no end to the causes that can split a parish or a congregation.

A couple of winters ago, an ice storm brought down a large limb from my neighbor's maple tree onto our garage roof. Our neighbor is an 80-something widow and we've lived next to her for over twenty years, even before her husband died. Our kids and my wife and I mow, rake, shovel and otherwise try to help out. Our neighbor decided to take down the tree so this wouldn't happen again. Rather than pay for tree-removal, her son came over and cut off all the branches and then topped the tree so that only a 10 foot high stump remained. It was quite a production.

I used to trim trees for a mobile home park when I was in college (hang with me here, and I'll get back to those suspended priests). We were trained to never take more than 1/3 of the tree at a time and always trim so that there was a clear "leader" branch at the top of the tree. Our boss told us that he had seen trees survive when 2/3 of the tree was taken, but he prefered being safer with his investment so we only ever took away 1/3 of a tree. I drive by those trees now, 25 years later, and am proud of how high and strong and well-formed they are. Every year, we would cut off the bottom branches so that eventually the lowest branches would be too high for kids to hang on, too high to be in the way. Every year we would cut off branches that rivaled the "leader" branch so that eventually the main trunk rose straight without curves and bows and weaknesses. And, of course, every year the nearby families complained about us butchering their trees.

Anyway, despite all my training and experience, I was surprised to see my neighbor's bare, 10 foot high, maple tree stump continue to sprout small limbs and leaves. I was amazed to see it, year after year, struggling to come back. The stump survives to this day, with limbs growing stronger and starting to spread, once again, overtop my garage.

I know nothing of the cases of those two Phoenix priests beyond what I've read in the article above. But I understand that in each case the congregations, the parishioners, are loyal to their priest and consider the whole thing (in each case) a misunderstanding. I have lived through this and have seen it lived through. Sunday, which should be a day of peace and focus on God, becomes embattled. If only there was some immunization for this kind of thing. Change is constant and if we compare the Catholic Church to the trunk of my neighbor's tree, you can almost hear the congregational limbs under the saw's attack. What are the people in this analogy if not the leaves, the leaves that bring life and light to the tree. I doubt one tree in 100 would survive the stripping of all its branches and leaves. The trick, I would think, the immunization, if you will, would be to have the leaves sprout right off the trunk.

I think that's what a good RCIA program brings to a church. One of those priests in Phoenix preached that women should be ordained priests and that gay folk should be welcome at the Eucharist. What a weakness that brings to the tree! The RCIA class at that church must be quite confused to learn one thing in class and have the priest teach another on Sunday. You can see the weakness in that tree... the central branch, the "leader," has a rival and it should be trimmed. A tree with two leaders grows off-center, leads the congregation away from the central truth.

I like our priest. When he teaches RCIA, I have yet to hear anything about, "oh, you can ignore that part, it's dated and we don't follow it here." But there are those who do not like our priest, and it would be so hard, if and when he leaves, to follow someone who doesn't really believe the teachings of the church. But if worse comes to worse, and the branches and leaves are lopped off our parish, I hope our strong RCIA program has immunized our parish well enough that the people, the leaves, would continue to sprout from the trunk and seek truth and light and life.

Tree trimming doesn't always make people happy. Often, people are used to what their trees look like and happy with the shade the way it's cast. Healthy trees, though, must needs be trimmed despite the uproar, ill-will and sense of loss so many feel.

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