Branded yet Reforming

Mary Magdala Community

“Branded yet reforming” ©

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

For some reason Pope Francis’ visits to Cuba and the United States have raised a resurgence of brand loyalty in me, perhaps in you also. Those of us who have the brand of “Roman Catholic” imprinted on us and in us may have had moments of religious “esprit de corps” toward the institution these past 10 days. So, I’m wondering what this brandedness means both for past cementings and future openings. How have these loyalties formed us?   Here’s a story (the shortened version) of my being branded as “Jesuit-taught,” perhaps Jorge Bergoglio, first Jesuit Pope, experienced something just like it.

In my first week at St. Ignatius High School, Cleveland, Ohio our Algebra teacher returned our first homework assignment. This Jesuit Scholastic, let’s call him Mr. Howard, was a short barrel of a man who had a slight waddle when he walked. He waddled into the classroom – saying nothing – and walked across the entire front of the class. He took out the papers of our homework and proceeded to tear them into shreds and threw them at us. He shouted at us, “Don’t even try to give me trash (he didn’t use the word trash) like this again.” And our drill-sergeant for Jesus trained us in the proper way to do homework. Who knew that Algebra could be boot camp in being trained by the Jesuits? That was just the beginning of being imprinted with the brand of the Society of Jesus. Even now – 50 years later, I, like so many of my fellow alums from the trenches can sing that we are “Ignatius men forever” as the Alma Mater states.

Anyway, brand loyalty has emerged this week in me as I heard the commentators falling all over themselves in wave after wave of tributes to Pope Francis. When I heard one voice-over commentator declare that Francis is the inclusive Pope, I had to agree and to disagree at the same time.

Today’s Gospel passage from Mark includes that embracing phrase of Jesus, “If they are not against us, they are with us,” truly an inclusive sentiment and teaching. When one reads Matthew’s version of that same phrase it gets turned around. Matthew’s Jesus says, “If they are not with us they are against us.” What happened between the time of the writing of these two Gospels that turned a phrase into its complete opposite? What happened was that the Temple was destroyed.

The Temple, that center of worship and location of God’s special presence was destroyed by the Romans between the time of the writing of these two Gospels (as the historians tell us). And that experience turned the followers of Jesus into a suspicious lot. Just as the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 turned us Americans into a security and safety fixated people. The World Trade Center was the “temple of capitalism” to those who carried out their devastating and destructive plan.

Our brand loyalty after 9/11 tightened into a “for us and against us” mode. This is a clear example of how the context of life and history affects our sense of loyalty. At the same time such contexts also remind us that along with loyalty we must have a clear sense of the times and events that affect the object of our loyalty. We are called to inspect, to review, yes, and to reform the objects of our loyalty. In this way we keep our institutions on a path of integrity to their highest callings.

Inclusion both inside and outside of our faith in Christ is one such piece of keeping our brand loyalty honest. This call to constantly reform has been part of the church’s responsibility pretty much from the beginning of its existence. After Vatican II one buzz phrase (if Latin buzzes) was Ecclesia semper reformandum est. This means that the church (ecclesia) is always (semper) reforming itself (reformandum). The phrase is attributed to St. Augustine, was picked up by the great 20th century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, and after Vatican II, Hans Kung, that great Catholic theologian, used it to apply to our responsibility to live out the church’s mission in the modern world.

For many people the challenge becomes one of two questions. Does one reform the church from within?   Or, does one overcome current institutional boundaries and “Just Do It!” This certainly applies to the truth of women priests in the Catholic Church. One could apply the word “anachronism” to the TV images of religious rituals that are so completely male dominated.  It also applies to the idea of what constitutes a family, particularly when so many real families are not of a type that consists of one mother, one father, and at least one child. Reforming an inclusive faith as Jesus speaks of it when he says, “If you are not against me, you are with me” means that it is the person and message of Jesus who is our standard, and not an institution.

While I – and perhaps you – resurrect a sense of brand loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church upon seeing a personable and compassionate Pope, may I – and perhaps you – also maintain the reforming spirit of inclusion – Jesus’ Way.


A Prayer (with deference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bob Dylan – JR)

Who are we, O God?

Who are we that believe in you and in your Word, Jesus Christ?

Who are we that put into deeds the intentions that move us?


What might we become, O God?

What might we do fearlessly to proclaim your Name?

What might we humbly ask that your Spirit sustain our care?


Why do you love us, O God?

Why have you sent your Son, the Messiah, to whom we belong?

Why is a kind act the light of the world?

This we know.             We are yours.

With gratitude we pray.




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