Saturday, 3 April 2010

The monk(s), the abbot, the cow(s), and two archbishops

Pope Benedict XVI has been attacked from various fronts during the last weeks. Most of the missiles are built more or less with information coming from scandals involving sexual abuses by Catholic priests or religious, and covered up by the hierarchy. In one case, the one who misbehaved was a founder of a congregation. For me both JPII and BXVI are innocent. That does not mean that they did not make mistakes or misjudgements, but I am convinced that they did not have the whole picture. And, in the case of BXVI, when he had it, he acted swiftly.

Pete Vere started some time ago to publish stories regarding a monk, a caw and an abbot, that were good analogies of what was going on with the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ. I will use his idea here to go a step forward and show why I think the current pope is part of the solution, and the last one was a holy man, even with this scandal. Here it goes, it's a bit too long...

There was an abbot who ruled over dozens of monks in his abbey. They provided a genuine and well-known service to the villagers. The monks were efficacious in running some farms, brewing inexpensive beer, teaching children how to read, and preaching the Christian faith. Apparently the monks did not have the problems of other monasteries: there were no divisions or different factions inside the abbey. The monks looked happy and healthy. They were even good-looking monks and articulate in their preaching. It was the time in which people had not yet known about the weird and nasty hobby of the abbot: throwing cows down the cliffs.

At the same time, a new archbishop was elected to rule the territory in which the abbey stood. He knew the abbot and monks' good work, and he knew this work was endorsed by the villagers too. At the beginning of his reign, the archbishop was having so many problems with other convents, parishes and abbeys that he really appreciated the good fruits produced in the abbey of this story. The abbey immediately put into practice everything mandated by the archbishop. The villagers were taught to cherish and respect the archbishop. Motivated by the good example of most monks, the villagers founded and organized initiatives in line with what the archbishop felt would improve his church.

New schools were built, a whole innovative system of communication was attempted, there were studies on how to improve Christian virtue in the merchant’s guild and in the shoemaker's corporation. Families became more interested in the Christian education of their children. A new shrine to Our Lady was planned, and the villagers voluntarily organized themselves to provide funds and workers for the project. The abbot would present all these good things to the archbishop as proof of the good work he and his monks were doing. He would even send some of the money to the bishop’s palace, so the bishop could address the needs he had in other abbeys and convents.

Behind the scenes, however, the abbot was using these good deeds as a smoke screen, in order to throw a cow or two down the cliff every now and then. He used some of the gold coins and treasures that the villagers were giving the abbey, to visit a couple of farms in a neighboring kingdom - where he could practice his hobby in the open, without being recognized by local peasants. Although several boys went to the authorities and claimed to have seen the abbot throw a cow down the cliff, none of the witnesses were believed. Such was the prestige of the abbot and his monks that their word trumped that of young boys among the villagers and chancery officials.

By that time, the archbishop was being attacked by people inside and outside his archdiocese. Those attacks were real and ill-willed. They were intended to damage the Archbishop's particular church and reputation. His only goal had been to serve his flock; he had literally poured himself out visiting every parish, convent, abbey and monastery. In the last years of his reign, however, some former monks of our abbey had the courage to approach him publicly about the scandalous conduct of the abbot - which included his peculiar hobby of throwing cows down cliffs. The former monks even mentioned how the abbot had convinced them to cover his back when he was doing wrong, and how certain sheep inside the monastery had suffered the same fate. These monks were treated as enemies of the Church and no one believed them.

The archbishop interpreted the accusations as coming from bitter former monks who were targeting the church and who wanted to neutralize all the good works of the abbey. So he dismissed the accusations as false. He judged the accusations as if they had been directed against him, rather than the abbot. Was not he doing everything he could? Were not his intentions true? Was this not another attack against his archdiocese? The archbishop – mistakenly – thought the abbot was another pious priests – like himself - who was being persecuted by the Church's enemies.

In the last years of his reign, the archbishop tried hard to bequeath a better diocese to his successor. Eventually the problems with other convents, monasteries, abbeys and parishes were solved. Due to his old age and poor health, less and less information found its way to the archbishop. However, he was still convinced that the abbot was a good man.

By that time, the vicar general of the diocese – a healthier and younger man – started to receive more and more accusations about the abbot and his monks in abbey's higher echelons. Coming from different parts of the diocese, the peasants described similar behavior (throwing cows down the cliffs). At first, the vicar general simply dismissed the accusations by using the same rationale as the archbishop: the abbot was a good man cherished by the archbishop himself. But as months went by, the vicar general noticed a pattern. He became convinced that the accusations could be true and that the problem was bigger than what he originally imagined from his office in the archbishop’s palace. It seemed that a ‘Black Death’ was spreading throughout different monasteries and abbeys and even to other dioceses.

The vicar general convinced the archbishop, who was on his death bed, to authorize an investigation into the abbot's activities, given that the accusations were growing way too many. The archbishop gave his approval reluctantly, as he was still convinced that the accusations were simply slander directed against the archdiocese. Nevertheless, he mandated a very discrete process. The archbishop died within the next few months, with a reputation of sanctity, leaving an inheritance of good example and heroic sacrifice for his flock.

The Cathedral Chapter elected the vicar general as the new archbishop. Within the first year of the new archbishop's reign, based on information he had gathered while still vicar general, the new archbishop exiled the abbot to a cave far from church duties and cows. The new archbishop ordered the abbot to pray and do penance for his past conduct. The new archbishop also discovered at least two dairy farms that the abbot had purchased in other dioceses and pressed the new abbot to recognize and publish these facts. At last he ordered a visitation to the abbey carried out by suffragan bishops and other vicars who he trusted.

The new archbishop hoped to save the creative energy that the villagers had discovered during the abbot's free reign, but he also wished to expel the ‘Black Death’ from the abbey. Unfortunately, some of the villagers stopped doing what they had done well and left the abbey altogether. Others, in frustration, decided to dedicate their time to different, less important things. But a few villagers understood that the good things that they had done were well-intended and represented a good service to the archdiocese. They decided to keep on doing them without the oversight of any monk or abbot - not now, and not in the future. They had learned their lesson.

When the truth was made known by the town criers, attacks arose against the former archbishop. The new archbishop suffered these attacks as well, shielded only by the prayers of those peasants who remained loyal to the archdiocese. Some of the attackers unjustly judged past decisions without understanding that the archbishop and his predecessor had been acting on false information planted by the abbot and his monks. Nevertheless, inspired by the example of his predecessor, who the new archbishop had served loyally as vicar general, the archbishop understood that the objective of his life was to sacrifice himself in the service of his archdiocese. Thus he doubled his efforts to eradicate ‘Black Death’ from his archdiocese and suffragan dioceses, knowing that in doing so he would build a stronger ecclesiastical province in the future. And by the grace of God, the Black Death was eradicated.

(N.B. I want to thank Pete Vere for his suggestions and improvements, which were very valuable)