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Father Ronald Rolheiser in review.

Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Toronto, Doubleday, 1999, xi + 257 pp., hardcover, $32.95

Major distortions of theology and spirituality

By Ann Wilson

Fr. Rolheiser is an Oblate of Mary Immaculate of St. Mary's Province with community headquarters in Saskatoon, SK. He once taught systematic theology at Newman College in St. Albert, AB, and was previously the Provincial of his Canadian province of Oblates. He is now best known as a regular columnist in Catholic weeklies across Canada and the British Isles.

Fr. Rolheiser has prairie roots and knows how to tell a story, or a string of stories, which contain a depth of human wisdom and compassion. With a keen eye for catching the undercurrents of everyday life, he has a refreshing, bracing sense of honesty from lived experience that does not skirt the issues we would often rather ignore, hopelessly bewail, or simply deny and bury. He helps us own up to them and realize that we are not alone or without resources.

The stories can grab hold of you and find a place in your heart, then move you to new resolve, courage, self-acceptance, and understanding. They can be homespun, in-depth human psychology at its best, of the genre of the late Henri Nouwen. Writing on the family, Rolheiser sketches a realistic picture of unpleasant familial conflicts and abrasion. But in the midst of this "purgatory", he convincingly argues that we will find here, and only here, our salvation. So turn up for the family meal, and in good cheer, if you wish to get to heaven. This same sort of approach is extended to the parish gathering on Sunday.

In a poll, Fr. Rolheiser would certainly score well, as did the American presidential candidate Al Gore, as "one who cares." However, like Mr. Gore, he would unfortunately not score well on full honesty; that is, in his case, regarding his presentation of Christian doctrine. In a chapter on the spirituality of ecclesiology, he enumerates the reasons why we should go to church on Sunday. There are eight reasons, such as "No. 1. It is not good to be alone. No. 2. To take my place humbly within the family of humanity."

It is not until No. 3 that we hear "Because God calls me there," and even this is toned down to indicate its reasonableness in the "two great, equal Commandments: Love God and love your neighbour." Are they indeed equal? Should I say to God "Look, Lord, you know I love Harry every bit as much as I love you"? The rest of the points are about me and us, not God.

The introductory pages quite frankly struck me as bizarre. The author says not once, not twice, but over and over in several variations like a mantra, that "spirituality is about how we channel our eros." "Ouch!" I cried. "Too close to New Age for comfort." The book never reaches the point of mentioning that spirituality is basically giving ourselves back to God in love to let him lead us into loving union with Him. Rather, one reads more of the same do-it-yourself spirituality: "The task is to manage an ascension."

Sometimes Fr. Rolheiser will say things that make you think he wants to direct the reader away from the extremes in liberalized or conservative Catholicism, New Age, or radical feminist spirituality. But then you find words such as the above, or this credal statement: "One Lord, one baptism, and one God who is Father and Mother of all."

There is some "creative" rethinking of the Sacraments as well. "Thus any one of us who visits a sick or dying person, regardless of how inadequate and stuttering our actual words might be, anoints that person, just as a priest does in the Sacrament of the Sick."

Or, further,

"to state things rather crassly for the sake of clarity, if I commit a serious sin Saturday night and...on Sunday morning enter a church with some sincerity and contrition in my heart, I am forgiven my sin."

Is Fr. Brown to pack up the Ritual and go sit in the pew with all the other men and women who share the common or universal priesthood of Christ? There is nomention of the consecrated priesthood in The Holy Longing, nor is there apparently much need for it, nor even the unique saving power of Christ.

It leaves one with a holy longing for something else to read, something Catholic which values Church doctrine and tradition. The subtlety here is that the hook's title says "Christian spirituality, " possibly designed to include Protestants and Evangelicals. Yet the author never tries to dissociate himself from his Catholic background; rather he frequently mentions it. He thus leaves the reader with the clear notion that he writes as a Catholic and in conformity, therefore, with Catholic teaching. But this is not so.

No doubt some people might be brought back to, or into, the Church through this work, or some who are practicing Catholic believers find themselves encouraged to persevere. It might be a disservice on my part to antagonize them by unbalanced criticism in that event.

Yet it is sad for a well-known priest-author to leave people with these major distortions of theology and spirituality. I hope those persons will find some good books and informed Catholics to win their hearts back to the wonderful truth, power, and beauty of our Catholic tradition of spirituality that does not need re-invention through humanist paradigms.

Ann Wilson is a former teacher and catechist. She recently completed her three years of theology for the Master of Divinity degree at St. Augustine's Seminary, Toronto.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kennedy, Leonard
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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