Exile and the prophetic: An open appeal to Cardinal Sean

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Was I too harsh on you yesterday, Cardinal O’Malley? Since I understand you like to be called by your first name, if you don’t mind I’ll take the liberty of addressing you that way.

Cardinal Sean, if I judged too harshly your Easter retreat in Israel/Palestine and words at the interfaith memorial service for the victims of the Boston Marathon, I apologize.

Perhaps it was your Easter retreat that set me off.  You’re aware that Easter raises difficult issues for Jews.  Easter reminds Christians that Jews, the great naysayers to Jesus the Christ, are still around in the world. Throughout European history Easter has been a dangerous time for Jews. Sometimes it got rough.

Today Easter hits Palestinian Christians the hardest.  Though Palestinian Christians love sharing their Jerusalem patrimony with others, watching Easter retreat groups come and go while their situation remains the same – occupied by Israeli power – leaves them ambivalent, if not angry.

Cardinal Sean, I begin with a confession. Sometimes I go too far. I have come to a point where it is too late for niceties – especially when a people are permanently under the gun.

Yes, you were called upon in a specific circumstance to comfort the grief stricken and the frightened.  It couldn’t have been easy for you. 

Is scandal, a word I used yesterday referring to your silence on Palestinians, too harsh?  Perhaps you have made statements of solidarity with Palestinians that I don’t know of.  If so, please let me know.

I’m not referring to broad and meaningless pieties.  “Holy Land” language – the way you mostly described your time in Israel/Palestine – doesn’t make the grade.  Holy Land language drives me and anyone concerned for justice in Israel/Palestine crazy.  “Praying for the Peace of Jerusalem” language also doesn’t do it.  Such prayers should be placed on “Do Not Go There” prayer list.

Jerusalem is not a religious piety.  Real Palestinians and real Jews live there.  Jerusalem is their city.

Cardinal Sean, with all due respect, I think we’re done with “Tikkun Olam” language, too.  I know you were reaching out to the Jewish community but I fear it has become yet another meaningless slogan. 

Was I too harsh on President Obama when I characterized his visit to Israel – and Palestine – as pathetic?  I can’t help feeling that those who travel to a suffering people on a state visit or a religious retreat have a responsibility to set the record straight -in public.

What if President Obama had visited a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank as part of his official state visit and refused to leave until Israel began a full withdrawal to its 1967 borders?  That would be in sync with official American foreign policy. 

What if you and your priests had gone to a Christian church in Jerusalem as part of your retreat and refused to leave until Israel agreed to equally share Jerusalem with the diverse people and faiths that make up its fascinating mosaic? You would have embodied Vatican proposals on Jerusalem.

When viewed through the lens of realpolitik and religious protocol my suggestions sound ridiculous.  Yet how should your leadership be judged if you refuse to sacrifice your own official credibility for the sake of the suffering? 

Who knows, you might be vindicated by history.  You might be vindicated by God.

May I recall for you a time in your life when, as a young priest, you mixed politics and religion in a controversial way?  I’m sure you remember it – you openly castigated the dictatorship in Argentina during the heyday of their “dirty war.”

You did this in public, Cardinal Sean.  You did this while saying Mass, Cardinal Sean.  No one missed your combination of politics and religion.  You had to be aware of that mixture.

Did you give yourself a good talking to before you crossed the political/religious line?  Or did it just happen.  You couldn’t remain silent.

For me, your actions then give me hope now.  They demonstrate how an ordained clergyman can step out of his role.  One day you are the pillar of the community.  The next day you pronounce judgment on injustice. 

Your confrontation has added significance today because of the controversy surrounding Pope Francis’s role during the same time period.  Recalling your courage raises questions about Church history.  It puts others on alert.

For me, it is a reminder of your capabilities.  Sometimes as we age and grow in responsibility, we forget who we are.  We forget our prophetic calling.  Then – boom – out of the blue our prophetic calling reappears.  It can happen even to Cardinals!

Boston Magazine is where I first learned of this.  Here is their take on it:

Interestingly enough, one Catholic priest who did speak out against the atrocities in Argentina at the time was a young priest named Sean O’Malley—now the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Boston, and the subject of papal speculation in the weeks leading up to the papal conclave. In May 1979, O’Malley, then a priest in Washington, D.C., presided over a Mass for Argentina’s Independence Day at the Cathedral of St. Matthew. Facing an audience filled with members of the Argentine military junta, O’Malley castigated the country’s human rights violations and disappearances, equating them to the biblical slaughter of the innocents by Herod. Outraged, the Argentinian military members stood up and walked out. As Colman McCarthy wrote in a Washington Post column at the time:

“The Argentine exodus took but a few minutes. With one high-ranking general leaving first, the underlings followed. In the pulpit the priest kept to his text.

“Outside, the military men were damning him for ‘turning a religious event into a political one.’

“Another of the white-suited contingent, looking as furious as St. George hot to slay a dragon, said that ‘priests have no place in politics. He should have given a sermon on another subject, like the love of God.’”

According to McCarthy, O’Malley’s strong sermon was preceded by the pre-Mass testimony of another young priest, Rev. Patrick Rice, an Irish missionary who had been imprisoned and tortured for two months by the junta.

The young Cardinal Sean had a lot of nerve, a nerve I admire.  Obviously the military officials didn’t think it appropriate.  I don’t know what the present Pope thought of your sermon.  Word gets around in the Church.   He surely knew of it.

“He should have given a sermon on another subject, like the love of God.” The number of times I’ve heard this sentiment are too numerous to relate.   I’m sure you’re sick of it yourself. 

It seems there’s rarely a “proper” time and place to discuss fundamental issues.  They upset whatever atmosphere is deemed “appropriate.”

Cardinal Sean, have you noticed how it’s almost always “inappropriate” to speak of Palestinians?

Until the public silence on oppression of Palestinians is broken, then broken again and again there isn’t much hope for Palestinians or, for that matter, Jews.  Our destiny is bound together.

Ending your silence on Palestine would offend many Jews.  Not all Jews, perhaps not even a majority of Jews.  Jews of Conscience are by your side.

Picture the Jewish establishment as those Argentine Generals who walked out of your Mass.  The Jewish establishment will walk out on you, too. 

There is a “dirty war” against Palestinians.  Yes, Cardinal Sean, Jews are conducting a dirty war.  On your Easter retreat you witnessed it close up.

Today, more or less everyone would agree with your protest against the Argentine generals.  I applaud you for it.  One day the very Jews who walked out on you might thank you for speaking the truth.  You never know.

Cardinal Sean, I await your boldness on Palestine. 

In mutual solidarity for a just world for Palestinians and Jews.


About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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