Franciscan Fr Richard Rohr is currently on a lecture tour of Europe, telling people how to become modern-day prophets. Joanna Moorhead met him
WE were all baptised as Prophets, Fr Richard Rohr likes to remind his students. The trouble is, most of us don't have the first idea of what being a modern-day prophet is all about, or of how to become one.
To help rectify the situation, Fr Rohr — a Franciscan set up a "school" to "teach" people how to exercise what he regards as this essential Christian ministry. Each year, groups of interested individuals
— teachers, social workers, and many more — enrol at the school, the Centre for Action and Contemplation, which is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They learn about contemplative prayer and social analysis, about scripture and liberation theology. "What we're doing is helping people to understand structural sin,explains Fr Rohr. "We're looking at questions such as, why are people poor? Why are women and blacks discriminated against?"
The school aims to equip its graduates with the knowledge and confidence to voice, and voice loudly, the injustices which lurk behind these questions. For this, Richard Rohr believes, is the role of the latter-day prophet: "He or she is someone who is able, from a faith perspective, to speak critically to society and to the Church."
There is plenty to be critical about, he believes, principally, the fact that — in his opinion the ego has been allowed, even encouraged, to develop to such an enormous extent. "What I am talking about is the private, the individual ego," he explains. "It has overdeveloped massively.
"People today are only interested in banking up their own power and their own selfimage. Power and prestige have become sought after to such a degree that they are now totally out of control. And the thing is, people who are total gross materialists think nothing of wandering along to church every Sunday and sitting there happily in the front pew."
This relentless thirst for power and wealth is, Richard Rohr maintains, the underlying problem of western Christianity. It is exacerbated, though not entirely caused, by the fact that so many of those in the "privileged" white middle classes never come into contact with the reality of life for those on the bread line. As a result, they are not often put into a position of being able to see either the glaring differences between the haves and have riots, nor the factors which mean the one influences the other, There is no such lack of hands-on experience for pupils at the school for prophets, though. "They spend each morning working with the poor and disadvantaged in a rundown area of town. Only afternoons are spent in the classroom," he says. "Also, each spends a week living down among the poorest of the poor at the US-Mexican border. It means we are acting in solidarity with them, and it enables us as middle-class people to interpret their experience in terms of the bias they suffer."
The school in Albuquerque is not Richard Rohr's first mould
breaking project. He is better known in his own country, in fact, for New Jerusalem in Cincinnati, Ohio, a community of young people which he founded back in the early 1970s. It grew out of a series of charismatic-style youth retreats and was the model for a whole spate of similar projects across America.
"We had as many as 1,000 youngsters involved," he says. "The focus was on relationships and on building up community." The natural progression from this was into the wider community, and after
a while Rohr and other members of New Jerusalem moved into a working class area of town. "In the early years we weren't strong on peace and justice work. But as time went on, it became more of an issue and it seemed important to get involved."
For Fr Rohr himself, as for so many others. it was a visit to the third world that would finally convince him of the right way forward. "I became aware of the great social injustices. And 1 became aware, too, of how much the United States was involved its that injustice. Particularly in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Central America became a big issue for me."
Before setting up his school in Albuquerque, Fr Rohr spent a year on contemplative retreat, including a month in solitude at Thomas Merton's hermitage. This time of quiet learning made him more certain than ever that he should set up his centre: it was, he believes, the kind of risk the gospel is challenging each of us to take. Like so many more who have decided to find God through issues of justice, Fr Rohr is convinced that it is up to each of us to seek out those whom society hurls onto the scrap heap, because only by getting close to their experience can we unravel the real meaning of the gospel for us.