Sunday, October 23, 2016

Humility, humiliation, and God's mercy in real time

Today's Gospel, Luke 18:9-14, is one of those that really needs to no interpretation in order to be understood. Perhaps all that really can be said about this passage has been said for more than a millennium by the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Perhaps, as Roman Catholics, we don't even need to search that far afield, but only need turn to our own Eucharistic liturgy: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. In either case what is important is that Christ has mercy on us; he says the healing word. You see, the problem with the Pharisee was that in his estimation he did not need God's mercy. He was not in need of a savior. In his view, his "righteous" acts justified him before the Almighty.

The commentary by the inspired author prior to his relaying Jesus' parable makes the point: [Jesus] then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else (Luke 18:9). I think despising everyone else is implicit in being convinced of my own righteousness. Of course, the irony is that despising anyone else, let alone everyone else, eviscerates whatever righteousness I might have. Righteousness, rightly grasped, can never be realized by strict observance of a set of rules, from meticulously obeying prescriptions and proscriptions, checking the boxes on the checklist of holiness.

I should not come to Mass out of some sense of obligation to God, that is, to keep a rule, to obey the precept of the Church that bids me to assist at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation on pain of mortal sin. Like the tax collector, my need for God's mercy given to me in and through Jesus Christ should bring me to Mass Sunday after Sunday on holy days, if not more often. The same is true for going to confession. I am bound, again, on pain of mortal sin to confess my sins and receive holy communion at least once a year. I don't know about you, but my need for God's mercy is made manifest way more than once a year, just as my hunger and thirst for righteousness, for Christ-like-ness, needs satisfying more than once a year.

Due to circumstances and commitments, prior to yesterday evening's Sunday Vigil Mass, I hadn't served at the altar for a few weeks, which is very unusual. At the beginning of Mass, instead of the reciting the penitential litany, my pastor opted to pray the Confiteor. Just as my bishop did when I served at the Cathedral, my pastor likes the deacon to lead this penitential prayer by saying "I confess to almighty God..." During the pause between the priest saying something like, "Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries," and the beginning of the Confiteor, litany, or the other penitential act, I silently pray the Act of Contrition. Being caught a bit off-guard by praying the Confiteor instead of the litany, rather than pause, I began praying the Act of Contrition out loud. As started to recite it, I looked at the congregation and wondered why they weren't joining me. About a second later I realized what I was doing, stopped, and began the Confiteor.

I don't mind admitting that praying the Act of Contrition instead of the correct prayer was humbling for me. I am a deacon who takes doing everything I do during the Mass very seriously. It is important to me to do all things a deacon does correctly and well. It's fair to say that I take pride in so doing. This disposition, at times, causes me to be mentally critical of others who, while serving at Mass, sometimes flub up. After the Collect, as we sat for the for the first reading, I began mentally berating myself, one might say, humiliating myself, for my mistake. By the grace of God I caught myself, remembering what C.S. Lewis wrote about humility: "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less." It was pride, too, that caused me to begin laying into myself. Without a doubt, at the Mass I was privileged to served at this morning, the Confiteor came out loud and clear, but not without a wry smile and a silent "Thank you" to God.

Like most every other Christian, I suppose sometimes I am the Pharisee and sometimes I am the tax collector. As a result, my prayer today is to be more like the tax collector and less like the Pharisee. As we heard in our first reading from Sirach: "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal." Our Psalm response perhaps teaches this even more clearly: "The Lord hears the cry of the poor."

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Deacons and priests need to work together

Yesterday I mentioned that last weekend, along with my brother deacons and many of their wives, I was privileged to once again participate in our diocese's annual weekend-long deacon retreat. It's always a joy to see, spend time among, and talk to many of my brother deacons. One thing that remains clear to me after nearly 13 years of being a permanent Roman Catholic deacon is, generally speaking, priests don't care much for permanent deacons. As in most things, there are certainly exceptions. I don't make this observation in an accusatory way, or because something has recently happened in my own ministry that pissed me off. I make it simply as an observation over nearly 13 years of ministry. For what it's worth, I firmly believe it's something that can be overcome and rectified if it's given the attention it deserves. In my experience, not much caring for permanent deacons is true both of more and less traditionally-oriented priests. It seems this not much caring for deacons takes two forms, which I will seek to set forth in a very generalized manner.

In the first instance a permanent deacon isn't deemed by the priest to be ministerally competent. Lack of ministerial competency, which does not necessarily, or even usually, imply utter incompetency, usually results from inadequate initial and/or the utter lack of on-going formation, as well as the lack of genuine opportunities to serve, opportunities that allow the deacon to hone his skills. In such cases the priest dismisses him as not being up to the task. Of course, the fact that many priests eschew on-going formation themselves- something that shows in their ministries, often taking the form of the outmoded "Father knows all, makes the decisions with little or no consultation, and does all the things that really matter" view of ministry- is usually overlooked. About those deacons who may be ministerally incompetent, remember, no deacon is even accepted as a candidate for ordination without a strong recommendation from his pastor!

The second generalized instance involves a deacon who was initially well-formed and who actively seeks to improve his ministerial skills. These deacons are often viewed as a threat, as a competitor, someone to be kept in his place by various means. This often holds true despite the fact that people in most parishes are pastorally under-served. But there is no need to compete or priests to feel threatened by competent and active permanent deacons because the pastoral need in most parishes far outstrips the parish's pastoral capacity, even when one thinks about priest(s) and deacon(s) working together at something like full capacity. There are reasons why, by-and-large, Catholics no longer seek pastoral advice and counsel, spiritual direction, if you will, in matters affecting their lives, even when it comes to complex moral issues such as in-vitro fertilization, marriage preparation and counsel, end-of-life issues, etc. In other words, even in matters that seem to call for pastoral consultation and input as a serious Catholic prayerfully discerns what to do, or seeks assistance in trying times, people seem to grasp there is often not much to be gained from seeking pastoral advice, which assumes it's made available when they seek it. This is a challenge for the Church across-the-board.

How both of these states-of-affairs are typically made manifest is the refusal of priests to have anything substantial to do with deacons assigned to their parishes, choosing instead to keep them at arms length. In many situations, it seems, the best a permanent deacon can hope for is a kind of benign neglect that gives him a certain list of things to do which he is then left to do with little or no interference. In my own diocese I aware of permanent deacons willing, able, and ordained to serve who are given either trivial or, in some instances, nothing to do. In short, when it comes to ministry, many permanent deacons are under-employed, which is not only to their own detriment, but that of the entire parish and, in the aggregate, the detriment of the entire Church. Collaborative ministry requires communication and partnership. As in all such relationships, be they personal, professional, or pastoral, these require effort, work, and no little creativity. At minimum the fruitful collaborative relationship between priests and deacons requires a view of pastoral ministry that involves deacons. Fruitful collaborative relationships don't just happen, they require leadership and initiative.

It's surprising to me that priests working with deacons and deacons working with priests does not seem to be given much emphasis in either priestly or diaconal formation. What often passes for this in diaconal formation is for the deacon to be utterly deferential in every way to the priest(s) he serves alongside. While it's not the job of the deacon to play loyal opposition or be a divisive force within the community, much less to play devil's advocate, such an utterly deferential attitude can seriously compromise a deacon's diakonia. A deacon should not reject his pastor's authority, but he shouldn't be shy about speaking up when it's the right thing to do. Ideally, such speaking up is done at a time and in a place when and where it is not divisive for the community, but useful. This means such times and places must exist.

One thing I've never understood is what in reality is a priests' convocation being billed as "Clergy Convocation" while excluding deacons. Why do deacons and priests of a given diocese not come together, say, once a year for a convocation together, an actual Clergy Convocation? Are there dioceses that do these kinds of things? How often do the clergy of a parish, even if it's one priest and one deacon, get together to discuss ministry to the parish and build fellowship with one another in order to foster koinonia in the community they serve? Why is communication often done through intermediaries, like parish staff, and not directly, even in relatively small parishes? Deacons and priests working together strikes me as a matter of great importance for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and other countries that have a well-established permanent diaconate. I think we're overdue for this matter to be given its due.

Friday, October 21, 2016

"Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true"

Last weekend, along with my brother deacons of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, I was on retreat in beautiful Park City, Utah. During our afternoon break on Saturday, after hitting gym, I did something I do far too rarely, as one priest to whom I confessed recently told me- relaxed. What did I do? I went to my beautiful hotel room, featuring a colorful autumnal (another word I can't pass the chance to employ) view of the east side of the Wasatch mountains, I brewed a cup of coffee, turned on the Cleveland/Toronto baseball game and read the "Review" section of weekend 15-16 October edition of the Wall Street Journal.

I know, I know, I'm a wild man who, at 50 (nearly 51), needs to slow down, throttle back. Truly, this is the kind of thing I don't do often enough. It was so nice I briefly considered skipping Evening Prayer and the social hour, but I resisted taking things that far.

Vienna, Austria

Reading the "Review" section of the WSJ, I ran across a brief article by Sophia Amoruso, a 32 year-old fashion entrepreneur, who spoke to journalist Marc Myers about Billy Joel's song "Vienna." The short piece was entitled "Out of the 'Vienna' Woods. The article originally ran on Tuesday, 11 October.

In the piece Ms Amoruso discusses her fairly long history with the song, to which she danced with her Dad at her wedding. From what I could tell, her marriage lasted less than a year. Short-lived marriages are not the subject of this post. What is the subject? I guess it's the power of songs, how music helps us make sense of things.
Post-divorce, "Vienna" is no longer about leaping into life’s next phase but waiting for life to reveal itself over time. Hearing the song makes me feel as if I’ve taken a step back and I’m sitting on a bench, observing life go by instead of rushing into it.

I know now that life has all kinds of things in store for me if I just let it play out. I also have no regrets about the divorce. As long as I can look back and understand how I got here, I’m good
Billy Joel's "Vienna" is our Friday traditio.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"Her sin is her lifelessness"

Readings: Exo 17:8-13; Ps 12:1-8; 2 Tim 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8

In today's Gospel reading prayer and faith are inextricably linked together by Jesus himself. It seems fitting to hear this teaching during the month we dedicate in a particular way to praying the Rosary more and more intensely. The Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary isn't merely one means among many we have at our disposal to pray always, but a major means to pray persistently, to call out night and day, entrusting to the unique and irreplaceable intercession of the Blessed Virgin our petitions and prayers, our hopes and aspirations, our worries and our cares.

I think sometimes, like those to whom our Lord addressed the teaching the Church addresses to us today, we worry that we're pestering God, bugging him, by praying each day for many of the same things over the course of weeks, months, years, or even decades. I think parents, like St. Monica, are especially prone to repetitive prayers on behalf of our children. Perhaps, like St. Paul, we experience some thorn in our flesh, some need, that drives us to God. Jesus doesn't only tell us not to worry about pestering God, he urges us to persist in so doing. By entrusting our prayers and petitions to the intercession of our Blessed Mother we can be confident our prayers are heard. Because the month of the Rosary precedes the month during which we remember our beloved dead, which month begins on All Hallows eve, followed by the solemnity of All Hallows and All Souls, I would add that praying through the intercession of the saints, too, is another expedient and important means we have of praying always and doing so from within the communio sanctorum.

Our reading from 2 Timothy tells of the importance of knowing the Scriptures. One way of knowing the Scriptures from the inside is to practice lectio divina. This passage from 2 Timothy also tells us why it's important to know the Scriptures: they "are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15). It bears repeating often - even as Catholics- we're saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But faith cannot be a passive endeavor, something as slight as giving mental assent to a proposition. Faith is not a non-binding resolution that we merely ratify. Because it requires living in such a contradictory manner, faith requires the wisdom that we can only receive through divine revelation.

In our reading from Exodus what is Moses doing if not interceding for Israel? Being human, not divine, Moses needed the help of Aaron and Hur to keep his arms stretched out. It wasn't the nails that enabled Jesus to keep his arms stretched out on the Cross until the battle was won, it was his love. But even as his love kept him on the Cross, he prayed. What did he pray? A prayer from Israel's and, subsequently, the Church's prayer book: a psalm. Particularly, Psalm 22, which begins:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief (Psalm 22:-3)

No doubt you're familiar with these words. You're probably less familiar with how But Psalm 22 ends:
All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God; All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage. And I will live for the LORD; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought (Psalm 22:30-32)
Jesus is the deliverance God wrought and has brought. We, reborn through baptism, are the descendants who serve God. Prayer is a service to God and others. It is the way love of God and love neighbor are fused together, which is why prayer and faith are inextricably bound together.

Traditionally, on Sundays we pray the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. The fourth Glorious Mystery is the Blessed Virgin's bodily Assumption into heaven. The fruit of this mystery is the grace of a happy death. It's difficult for me to imagine a happy death without prayer. When the Lord returns, whether it's to definitively establish God's reign, or merely to bring us to himself, will He find faith? Too often the biggest obstacle to prayer is setting aside time to do it and, when the times arrives, to actually pray.

In concert with what Bob Dylan sings about Shakespeare's Ophelia in his epic song "Desolation Row," you can only keep your eyes fixed on Noah's rainbow while peeking into desolation row. Why else do you think we pray to the Blessed Virgin: "To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears"? Prayer is the language of God's kingdom. Fluency in prayer is the only way we can dwell there happily. God's kingdom is not just a community; it's a communion. In God's kingdom we can only speak what is true, good, and beautiful. It's where we're known as we've always longed to be known. This is why the first step of prayer is rid yourself of all dishonesty, pretense, and superficiality. Baring your soul through prayer not only to God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but to our Blessed Mother and the saints is an important language lesson, the way you already belong where you hope to dwell forever.

Friday, October 14, 2016

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

Bob Dylan ergo Dylan Thomas:
And death shall have no dominion. Dead man naked they shall be one With the man in the wind and the west moon; When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, They shall have stars at elbow and foot; Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion. Under the windings of the sea They lying long shall not die windily; Twisting on racks when sinews give way, Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break; Faith in their hands shall snap in two, And the unicorn evils run them through; Split all ends up they shan't crack; And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion. No more may gulls cry at their ears Or waves break loud on the seashores; Where blew a flower may a flower no more Lift its head to the blows of the rain; Though they be mad and dead as nails, Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; Break in the sun till the sun breaks down, And death shall have no dominion
Dylan Thomas

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts"

Earlier today it was announced that Bob Dylan will receive the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Without a doubt, Dylan elevated lyrics above music, making many, most, perhaps all, of his songs poems, really. I chuckled when I read about Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, saying, in addition to him being "a great poet in the English speaking tradition," that Dylan is someone who has been re-inventing himself for 54 years, "constantly creating a new identity." The fact of the matter is, he has been doing no such thing. Apart from trading his last name, Zimmerman, for the given name of the great 20th century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, he's remained himself. You see, Dylan always insists he's nothing more (or less) than "a song and dance man." All the re-invention has been, at least in my view, his way of poking fun at the vagaries of popular culture and media. I'll grant that Bob Dylan isn't who most of the media think he is, but it isn't because he changes identity. It's rather that he rejects the ideological nonsense many have been trying to project onto him since the 1960s. In my view, the only person who routinely has as much fun monkeying with the media is French author Michel Houellebecq.

Nobel Prize awardee, Robert Zimmerman

Over the years I've posted plenty on Dylan. Without a doubt the one I remember the most from all the way back in 2009 is: "YouTube orthodoxy and Saturday miscellania." The occasion was an interview he'd done with Douglas Brinkley for Rolling Stone. Here's an excerpt:
Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Dylan for Rolling Stone, writes: "I decide to push him on the importance of Christian Scripture in his life. 'Well, sure' he says, 'that and those other first books I read were really biblical stuff. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben Hur. Those were the books I remembered reading and finding religion in. Later on, I started reading over and over again Plutarch and his Roman Lives. And the writers Cicero, Tacitus and Marcus Aurelius...I like the morality thing'." Here is where Dylan says something so wise and concise you might miss it: "People talk about [morality] all the time. Some say you can't legislate morality. Well, maybe not. But morality has gotten kind of a bad rap. In Roman thought, morality is broken down into basically four things. Wisdom, Justice, Moderation and Courage. All of these are the elements that would make up the depth of a person's morality. And then dictate the types of behavior patterns you'd use to respond in any given situation. I don't look at morality as a religious thing"
Dylan's view on morality is really quite Catholic, rooted as it is in natural law.

I'm going then with two for our early Friday traditio. First, Bill Murray and Bob Dylan doing a duet of sorts on "Shelter From the Storm" in Murray's recent movie St. Vincent, a very good film, one I highly recommend:

Followed by Bob himself with a fairly rousing rendition of "Shelter From the Storm":

It's easy for me imagine the "she" in this song as our Lady. It's the month of her Most Holy Rosary, pray it daily.

I believe in miracles

It is impossible to read about Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, more popularly known as Padre Pio, without reading accounts of many miracles. Nothing makes some people more uncomfortable than a miracle, than the idea of miracles, than the thought that God at times and quite unpredictably directly and inexplicably intervenes in the world at the behest of someone. Among those made uncomfortable by miracles and miracle-workers are theologians, especially of the systematic variety. Miracles and miracle-workers tend to disrupt their carefully constructed reality, to challenge their theories, which have room for the divine, but only so much. I don't believe it's too strong to assert that, at least for some, God's intervention in the world is viewed as interference, or undue influence. They create space for God in their accounts of reality, but place fairly strict limits on the amount they're willing to grant Him.

St. Pio of Pietrelcina

In his book Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérèse of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity, Hans Urs Von Balthasar noted:
In modern times, theology and sanctity have become divorced, to the great harm of both. Except in a few cases, the saints have not been theologians, and theologians have tended to treat their opinions as a sort of by-product, classifying them as spiritualité or, at best, as théologie spirituelle. Modern hagiographers have contributed to this split by describing saints, their lives and their work almost exclusively from a historical and psychological viewpoint, as though they had no bearing upon the task of theology. This task, however, demands corresponding alterations in method: rather than consider the psychological unfolding from below, it should work out a sort of supernatural phenomenology of their mission from above
Fr. Marcello Iasenzaniro, in his his book The "Padre," St. Pio of Pietrelcina: Charismatic Priest, pauses in the midst of many accounts of the miracles Padre Pio worked on behalf of people to attempt a brief explanation of the role miracles play in Church and in the world. It is not a quaint, outdated, or silly thing for verified miracles to normally be required by the Church for the beatification and then canonization of a saint. Sometimes the proliferation of miracles, like the many worked by Venerable Matt Talbot on behalf of former alcoholics and addicts, are difficult to capture and verify, yet they happen. I hope, as he did for the canonization of Good Pope John, Pope Francis proceeds to beatify Venerable Matt, perhaps during his visit to Ireland next year. It's also good that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints still seeks testimony against the canonization of someone. For example Christopher Hitchens and Aroup Chatterjee, both harsh critics, both gave testimony against canonizing St. Teresa of Calcutta. Any testimony critical of a claim of a miracle is also included.

First of all, Fr. Iasenzaniro, observed, a miracle "is an intervention of God, which is visible and verifiable and indicates that He is present in the [midst] of his people and works for their well-being." By verifiable, I take him to mean that what occurred can be shown to really have happened and that it defies natural explanation. Taking his cue from Dostoevsky perhaps, he understands miracles largely, though not exclusively, as means God uses to strengthen faith, not produce it. In other words, faith precedes the miracle. Iasenzaniro went on to assert, A miracle "also educates Christians to see all the happenings of life in the light of faith and to live faith itself better." Citing the contemporary spiritual master, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, who, like Padre Pio, is a Franciscan of the Capuchin order, he seeks to strengthen the relationship between the miraculous and the every day:

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
In Divine [interventions], a miracle serves to break routine; it impedes [one acting] in a repetitive ritualistic way that reduces all to "half-baked notions of human customs"; produces an examination of the conscience, keeping ["awe," or "wonder"] alive which is indispensable in [one's] relationship with God. The actual miracle helps one grasp the habitual miracle of life and being, in which we are immersed and easily take for granted and [render banal]. At the same time it helps to confound "the knowledge of knowledgeable", that is put in a healthy crisis the pretext that reason can explain all and refuse all that is [inexplicable]. It breaks both ritualism and dry rationality. In a biblical sense, it serves to uplift and not to lower the quality of religiosity [I have sought to improve the translation with my words in brackets]
It's easy to see the complementarity between what Von Balthasar wrote about the saints and the use of Cantalamessa's insight concerning miracles by Fr. Iasenzaniro. Frankly, any theologian whose theology either dismisses these two insights or refuses to address them is wholly inadequate to the task s/he undertakes. One might go to the extreme and argue that such theologies are attempts at reducing the Mystery to our measure. After all, what is a miracle but the in-breaking of the Mystery for those with eyes to see and ear to hear?

While not mentioned in its index, the word "miracles" appears ten times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 156, 434, 468, 515, three times in 548, 561, 1335, 2003). It is always plural: "miracles" never "miracle". I will stick with citing only the first occurrence:
What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe "because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived". So "that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit." Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church's growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability "are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all"; they are "motives of credibility" (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is "by no means a blind impulse of the mind" (par. 156)
According to Padre Pio is not enough to say that faith precedes the miracle. Faith must be put into practice by means of fervent and frequent prayer. This how you put yourself into the hands of God, it is how you surrender. One Nina Campanile reported that Padre Pio once told her: "The Lord is ready to do miracles, but there is a lack of faith." Getting back to something noted by both Von Balthasar and Cantalamessa, Padre Pio also averred that God, in His mercy, withheld miracles from the learned in order "to not make the scholars more responsible" when they faced judgment.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

To profess belief in miracles in the manner urged above is not to believe we can manipulate God, or that God will answer every faithful prayer according to the desires of the one praying. Implied in every petition to God is that act of surrender uttered by our Lord Himself during his agony in the garden: "not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). Many times, when asked, Padre Pio did not give the petitioner his/her desired answer.

Speaking of miracles, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This will be reflected in to tomorrow's Friday traditio.

Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, pray for us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Havel & St. Pio: Life, faith, and prayer

At least in my mind, which is an odd place no doubt, some things, some people seem completely incongruent. This incongruency is often dissolved by juxtaposing (like "penultimate," how can I ever pass up the opportunity to use "juxtaposing"?) two seemingly incongruent people, things, ways of thinking. What gave rise to these deep diaconal thoughts? Reading yesterday from two books: Summer Meditations by Václav Havel and the poorly translated (from Italian), but still well worthwhile, The "Padre", Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, Charismatic Priest. In my reading I noticed not so much a convergence, but a certain continuity. This post is nothing more than an attempt at making a connection.

I will begin with passage from Havel that struck me. He wrote Summer Meditations in the summer of 1991 after he had been duly elected as president of what was then still Czechoslovakia. The book consists of five meditations. Yesterday I began reading the third meditation: "What I Believe."

Václav Havel
The attempt to unite all economic entities under the authority of a single monstrous owner, the state, and to subject all economic life to one central voice of reason that deems itself more clever than life itself, is an attempt against life itself. It is an extreme expression of the hubris of modern man, who thinks that he understands the world completely - that he is at the apex of creation and is therefore competent to run the whole world; who claims that his own brain is the highest form of organized matter, and has not noticed that there is a structure infinitely more complex, of which he himself is merely a tiny part: that is, nature, the universe, the order of Being
Havel goes on to point out that "Communist economics was born of an arrogant, utopian rationality that elevated itself above all else." Capitalism, so called, runs the same danger, even as it does not seek to organize everything under the state. Multi-national corporations merit analysis under the rubric of an economy for people, not people for the economy. Elevating theory, what is abstract, over what is real, or concrete, such "pseudo-scientific" utopias, according to Havel, lose a sense "of the enigma of life, and lack humility before the mysterious order of Being," which leads to the "turning away from moral imperatives 'from above' and thus from human conscience."

Havel is insistent that what he generically calls "the market economy," which he is pretty careful to distinguish from "capitalism," which he viewed suspiciously as an ideology on par with communism, best "corresponds to human nature." He argues because the market economy is obviously in tune with human nature it does not and cannot be reduced to "a world view, a philosophy, or an ideology." "Even less," he continued, "does [the market economy] contain the meaning of life."
A chemically pure theory is incompatible and practically unrealizable. Life is - and probably will always be - more than just an illustration of what science knows about it. There is no such thing as a "pure system", anywhere. Social life is not a machine built to any set of plans known to us - which is why new theories are constantly being fashioned: the flow of life, which is always taking us by surprise, is the only permanent challenge to the human spirit to strive for new achievements
While agreeing that scientific analysis should be used by policymakers, Havel insisted two things must always be kept in mind when doing so:
In the first place, scientific knowledge can serve life, but life is certainly not here merely to confirm someone's scientific discoveries and thus serve science. And in the second place, science may be a remarkable product and instrument of the human spirit, but it is not in itself a guarantee of a humane outcome. A familiar example: science can lead people to discover atomic energy, but it cannot guarantee that they will not blow each other up
October, as both my readers know, is a month dedicated to the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Pio of Pietrelcina taught: "Hold on tightly to the Rosary. Be very grateful to the Madonna because it was she who gave us Jesus. Love our Lady and make her loved; always recite the Rosary and recite it as often as possible." Padre Pio never tired of urging and exhorting everyone, no matter his/her state of life, to pray always. To a group of priests who visited him in June 1955, he urged them to pray, telling them prayer is "the only way to save the world." To a group of young male students he said, "Young men, study, but most of all pray! Prayer alone can save souls."

Padre Pio in the confessional

Prayer is the way we engage the mystery of Being. Through prayer we learn the point of existence. Prayer enables, empowers, our humanity. Through prayer we develop an immunity to ideology and develop resistance to "chemically pure" theories by remaining humble "before the mysterious order of Being," which is but another name for God. We should have the utmost veneration for she through whom the Mystery became flesh.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Year C Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; Ps 98:1-4; 2 Tim 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

After being cleansed of leprosy by heeding the words of Elisha and bathing himself seven times in the Jordan River, Naaman the Syrian offered Elisha a very generous gift, which the prophet steadfastly refused. But before proceeding any farther, I think it’s important to back the story up a bit.

Upon first discovering a leprous spot on his body, Naaman, the commander of the whole Syrian army, on the advice of a young Israelite woman, who had been led away captive and made a servant to Naaman’s wife, sought out an unnamed "prophet in Samaria" for a cure. Prior to leaving for the territory of Israel with a large amount of money with which to pay for his cure, Naaman sent a letter to Israel’s king announcing his arrival and the purpose of his visit. The king, convinced that it was a trick by the far more powerful nation to the north that would lead to war, tore his clothes because he did not know how Naaman was to be cured (2 Kgs 5:1-8).

When he heard of his king’s torment, Elisha sent a message to the king of Israel, telling him to send Naaman his way so the Syrian leader would "find out that there is a prophet in Israel" (2 Kgs 5:8). When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s abode, the prophet himself did not go out to meet him, but sent a messenger, who told the general, "Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean" (2 Kgs 5:10).

Naaman, who was clearly a man used to being catered to and getting his way, started to leave very angrily saying, "I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand there to call on the name of the LORD his God, and would move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot. Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?" (2 Kgs. 5:11-12). Stated simply, Naaman was angry because God didn’t do what he wanted God to do in the way he wanted God to do it. If we’re being honest, are we not often very much like Naaman?

Ultimately, the Syrian general heeded the pleas of his servants and did as he was instructed. The result was his immediate and complete cure from the terrible disease. Refusing his generous gift, which was likely the money mentioned earlier, Elisha sent him away with two mules loaded with earth from Israel, even as Naaman assured the prophet that henceforth he would only worship the one, true God, the God of Israel, the One who had healed him and to whom he owed a debt he could never repay.

My dear friends, this is a homily in itself. But I think it is important to add that Jesus, about whose healing of ten lepers we hear in today’s Gospel, which event took place as he made his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, fully reveals to us the one God, living and true, whom Naaman worshiped from the day of his healing forward. To paraphrase the psalmist, Jesus is the revelation of God’s saving power to the nations. More than healing us from any physical ailment, Jesus heals us from the ravages of sin and its ultimate consequence, death. Both stories point us to what happens when we are baptized. We are not baptized into water. We are baptized into Christ. The healing we received in baptism is given us anew each time we make a good confession and also when we receive the sacrament of anointing the sick, which is why we call these two sacraments "the sacraments of healing."

As the lepers and Naaman demonstrate, anyone who has experienced God’s saving power through Christ cannot be anything but grateful. We should all be grateful lepers thanking Jesus.

Like Naaman and the grateful leper, who was a Samaritan, that is, a non-Jew, someone not a member of the chosen people, we too should express our gratitude for what Christ has done and continues to do for us. One way we express our gratitude by worshiping God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and Him alone, forsaking all idols, like the healed Syrian general.

Let it not be lost on us that what we are doing right here, right now is called Eucharist. "Eucharist" is simply the Greek word for thanksgiving. While we use it as a noun, the Greek word is a verb. The Greek word translated as "thanked" in our Gospel is euchariston, which literally means "thanking". To fully, actively, and consciously participate in our worship is to do nothing but obey the first of Jesus’ two great commandments- "love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27). We do this because, as our reading from 2 Timothy assures us, once we truly belong to Christ, he remains faithful even when we are unfaithful (2 Tim 2:13), which, if we’re honest, is often.

My brothers and sisters, worshiping God in gratitude is precisely what makes us members of his chosen people, not genetics or heredity. What ought to bring us to our knees in gratitude is our personal encounter with God’s mercy: Jesus Christ. This is why we kneel when we say, after being exhorted to "Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world…," using the words of the grateful Roman centurion, whose servant Jesus healed, "Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed" (Matt 8:8).

I believe with my whole heart that Jesus really did cure ten lepers and that God healed Naaman of his disease too, just as these things are handed on to us in Sacred Scripture. I find all of this easy to believe because it pales in comparison to what Jesus has done and continues to do for me. He can and desperately wants to do the same for everyone. But he can only heal you if, like Naaman, you relent and let him do it his way, which, we can trust, is the best way. Then, like the grateful leper, we will fall "at the feet of Jesus and" thank Him (Luke 17:16), both now and forever, which is how long his love and mercy endure.

Friday, October 7, 2016

"Ave Maria, gratia plena..."

Today Roman Catholics observe the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. This religious observance marks the anniversary of the defeat a fleet of Ottoman vessels by a Christian fleet off the West coast of Greece in 1571, known to history as the Battle of Lepanto. Initially, the feast was dubbed Our Lady of Victory. Christ is our victory and the Blessed Virgin Mary is the one through whom Christ came to win our victory, naval victory or no naval victory.

So, for the first Friday of this month during which we focus on praying the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary even more intensely than usual and on the day we celebrate the memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary, it seems fitting our Friday traditio is a lovely choral setting of Ave Maria composed by Anton Bruckner and sun by Schola Cantorum: