Sunday, November 30, 2014

Year B First Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isa 63:16b-17.64:2-7; Ps 80:2-3.15-6.18-19; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.” So sang the band REM in a song from their album Document, which was released way back in 1987. With everything going on in the world from the outbreak of ebola in west Africa, to the takeover of large swaths of Syria and Iraq by radical Islamists, who gleefully kill our brothers and sisters, as well as other religious minorities who cross their path, to rioting and looting on the streets of cities in our own country, it can easily seem to us now and always that the end of the world is neigh.

There is a story told about St Francis of Assisi, likely apocryphal, in which one of the friars approached him as he toiled in the community’s vegetable garden, and asked him, “Brother Francis, what would you do if the Lord returned right now?” Francis, who was most likely a deacon, agreeing to be ordained only in order to be licensed to preach, said thoughtfully, “I’d continue working in the garden.” True wisdom is simple.

The Ecstasy of St Francis ca. 1437-1444, by Sassetta

We’re all familiar with the image of the street corner prophet standing there wearing his sandwich board that reads on the front and the back: “THE END OF THE WORLD IS NEAR!” Today I’d like to suggest that from the perspective of a disciple of Jesus Christ, St Francis’ approach is the correct one. It is far too easy to have a religious excuse for simply copping out, for writing everything and everyone off as hopeless, to hunker down and wait for the end to come. But this has never been the attitude of Christians, even the earliest Christians, who expected Jesus to return right away.

In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, which was likely the very first book of the New Testament to be written, St Paul wrote that community, which was experiencing a bit of a crisis because the Lord had not yet returned, saying:
When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober (1 Thess 5:3-6)
Brothers and sisters, Christ came to relieve the anxiety of those who would accept the gift of salvation that He offers everyone freely. For those who believe and have received new life, which is eternal life (eternal life is now, not life that begins after mortal death), being a Christian does not induce anxiety, but gives us hope. St Paul in our second reading wrote to encourage just this realization when he wrote, God “will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus [Christ]” (1 Cor 1:8).

As followers, as disciples, of Jesus Christ, we are called to extend His work, to sow hope, through space and time until He finally returns in glory to judge the living the dead. But what does it mean to watch, to stay sober, and to remain alert? What this means for us is simply an extension of last week’s Gospel: we are to engage in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Rather than list them out, I’m going to give you a homework assignment. Go home and look up “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” I especially recommend finding a very useful a three-page document by Joe Paprocki entitled “Practical Suggestions for Practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Use this, or something similar, during Advent to prepare yourself for Jesus’ return and/or our observance of His nativity in a little more than three weeks’ time.

In our first reading, taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear the lament: “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” (Isa 63:16b-17). We are all familiar with the proverb: “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). But let’s not forget these inspired words of hope from the First Letter of John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).



Love is what gives us hope and hope, in turn, relieves our anxiety, our existential angst, our cynicism toward others and toward the world. So, before we get all worked up about keeping Christ in Christmas, let’s endeavor to cooperate with God’s grace and observe a holy Advent. Advent is the season of waiting in hopeful anticipation for the fulfillment of our deepest longings, desires, and aspirations, which are expressed well in the hymn “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”-
Through the way where hope is guiding,
       Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
      Drink of joy from deathless springs.

Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure.
      Thou dost ever lead Thine own
      In the love of joys unknown
If we heed Jesus’ words- “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming” (Mark 13:35), the end of the world should make us feel just fine. My dear friends in Christ, we should eagerly anticipate the Lord’s return, not fear His coming, His Advent. Rather, let's be engaged in the task He gives us: to prepare for His glorious return by setting the banquet table for the great wedding feast. Hence, as we begin the holy season of Advent today, let us pray with added fervor: “Marana’tha!” “O Lord, come!”

Friday, November 28, 2014

"Then again the same old story"

At least for me the end of November is a deeply reflective time of year. In terms of blogging (something I've been at far longer than is probably good either for me or both of my readers) it makes selecting the Friday traditio very easy. This week's traditio is Joy Division's "Ceremony," which I posted a few years ago shortly after Bastille Day to note what a truly sickening event the French Revolution was.



In any case, Ian Curtis' gravity is still felt more than 30 years after his death. It's strange the appeal Joy Division's music holds for many of us who are a certain age. When we first heard it we were kids who didn't know jack about anything, really. Nonetheless, we felt drawn and expressed. It's difficult to describe the effect.



Life's too short, varied, and full of surprises to stand on ceremony...

This is why events unnerve me,
They find it all, a different story,
Notice whom for wheels are turning,
Turn again and turn towards this time

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, the common good, and freedom

Each year I post something on Thanksgiving Day. Typically someone will take exception to the fact that, as a nation, the United States sets aside a day each year, not just to give thanks, but specifically to give thanks to God. Of course, nobody is forced to be thankful or to give thanks, either to God or or their fellow man. As for me, I believe at the deepest level of my being that "It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, creator of the world and source of all life."

Thanksgiving was formally instituted as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln on 3 October 1863, during the Civil War. In his proclamation, Lincoln called upon citizens to do penance. For those of us in the United States, Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on politics writ large, not just focus on specific political issues, like what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri (prayer strikes me as the best response for most of us to the troubles there).

I disagree with any and all who assert that people are not interested enough in politics. In my view, we have become far too dependent on politics in a most unhealthy manner. We look to resolve any and all matters by political means, bringing the tremendous coercive force of an inflated and ever-expanding state to bear even on questions that are not, at root, properly political matters.

This is why I am grateful that a friend posted this by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman today:
The greatest privilege of a Christian is to have nothing to do with worldly politics,—to be governed and to submit obediently; and though here again selfishness may creep in, and lead a man to neglect public concerns in which he is called to take his share, yet, after all, such participation must be regarded as a duty, scarcely as a privilege, as the fulfilment of trusts committed to him for the good of others, not as the enjoyment of rights (as men talk in these days of delusion), not as if political power were in itself a good
Thanksgiving Day seems a fitting day for citizens of the United States to spend at least a little time reflecting on the whats, whys, and wherefores of political power. To wit: when understood properly, political power is a means to an end, not an end itself.



For St Thomas Aquinas political power, when understood and exercised properly, is a means of serving and helping us to realize the common good. It is important not to reduce the common good to utilitarianism, which is a leading cause of an overly centralized state that is not really interested in fostering authentic human community. Since we live at a time when everyone seems to be, even if only in a latent way, an economic determinist, the risk of utilitarianism runs high. Perhaps the most important contribution that engaging in politics for the purpose of fostering the common good is factoring in the transcendent orientation of the human person.

For Aquinas, relying on Aristotle, "The good is what all things desire." When it comes to human beings, this is true whether we're conscious of it or not. Philosopher John Goyette defined the common good, which is the end that political power is but a means: "insofar as many individuals work together for the sake of a common goal they can be said to form a community and to act in common. To sum up: The common good is a good that is one in number and is able to be shared by many without being diminished." The common good, in turn, if it is truly good, serves the ultimate good, which is the fulfillment of the end for which we exist in the first place. Any politics that does not recognize this is bound, sooner or later, to go awry. Freedom, too, is a means to an end, not end in itself. As the late Avery Cardinal Dulles observed in an article on freedom according to Pope St John Paul II- "freedom is meaningless and self-destructive if it is not used in the service of what is truly good."

For this we need look no further afield than sacred Scripture: "For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13).

"Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God" (1 Pet 2:16).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A note on executive orders and the imperial presidency

Thinking about President Obama's executive order on immigration, issued yesterday, 21 November 2014, it seems to me there are two distinct issues in play: what was done and how it was done; the end and the means to that end. Responsible citizenship requires us to consider both.



For those of us who live in the U.S. we must acknowledge that the imperial presidency has been a long time in the making. Abraham Lincoln, it seems, can be viewed as the president who inaugurated it. This is brilliantly set forth in Spielberg's spell-binding movie Lincoln. While chattel slavery is a without a doubt a deplorable evil, one our country needed to be rid of, it obscures the whole issue of states rights. Hence, it bears noting that in exchange for recognition as a sovereign nation by Great Britain and France, the Confederate cabinet agreed to abolish slavery within five years after end of the Civil War. The forceful tendencies of an imperial presidency, coupled with claims of U.S. exceptionalism, has also had a tremendous impact on our foreign policy, especially since the end of the Second World War, making it rather violent and increasingly bellicose.

Considering what is set forth in the scene from Lincoln below, the question arises, Is the only thing that matters the here and now? This is the existential question we face when it comes to ordering our lives together has to do precisely with a certain transcendence. Are we truly satisfied with, "I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power"?



It seems to me that in order to regain the balance of power the U.S. constitution seeks to achieve, Congress needs to start asserting itself across-the-board. Members of both houses of Congress belonging to both parties must start being as concerned, or perhaps more concerned, about how things are done as they are about what is done. Congress needs to be assertive both towards the Executive and Judicial branches, both of which, in my view, have become far too powerful. Bracket for a moment the immediate cause and consider the revolutionary nature of federal judges striking down duly enacted amendments to state constitutions. Even in polity, do ends always justify means? In a democratic republic, does process matter, or are all matters decided in the most oligarchic manner imaginable?

The sad reality is that Republicans denounce President Obama's Executive Order on immigration, not because they are opposed to an imperial (in Obama's case imperious) presidency (they would applaud executive overreach when done on a matter of which they are in favor- the Dems do the same thing), but simply because they oppose what the order mandates. This strikes me as adolescent politics. To highlight this I will, again, point to the part of Spielberg's film that shows how Lincoln's agents went about obtaining the necessary votes and abstentions, which is all artistic license as far as I know, is done in a humorous vein.

Are all saved regardless?: Thoughts on universalism

Once in awhile I am tremendously provoked by my experience of reality. Questions of meaning have been part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember. I am not unique in this regard, questions of meaning are not only part and parcel of being human, these questions, in a very real sense, constitute our humanity. These questions begin with the word "Why."

I remember in the wake of the Haitian earthquake several years ago Msgr Lorenzo Albacete, insisting that our Christian faith does not and, moreover, should not give us easy answers to reality's vicissitudes, saying something to the effect, "Asking 'Why?' in the face of a devastating natural disaster is the most human response imaginable." It is just as human to ask "Why?" when we are confronted with the evil committed by human beings. The result of my provocation yesterday was posting this on Facebook: "If we're universalists, then screw it, I'll do whatever I want and conform my life accordingly. Take your theology with you when you leave lest I beat you with it." Ham-fisted? Certainly. Provocative? I hope so, but probably not.

One question in which I am interested is, Does universalism amount to consequence-free living, at least in the ultimate sense? In other words, do I only have to endure the natural and temporal consequences of my bad choices without fear of an eternal consequence? If so, why should I keep going to confession, one of the key features of which is to take away the eternal punishment due to me as the just response to my sins. More to the point, What about the effects my sinful behaviors have on others? How is justice achieved for them? At least as it concerns me, as a Christian, I relinquish my just claim against others, which is what it means to truly forgive, but what about those who do not relinquish their just claim? Yes, they will be liable to those who, in turn, have a just claim against them, but even so... is such a refusal to relinquish just claims itself a damnable offense?

This reflection strikes me as a very good one as we approach tomorrow's Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, which is all about the end of time and the Lord's return in glory to judge the living (i.e., "the quick"- better to be quick than dead) and the dead.

As a Catholic I believe in what the Church calls "mortal sin." According to the Church's teaching eternal punishment is due these sins, namely hell. If my understanding is correct, if I recognize the evil I have done, realizing I have been the cause of evil effects that I can never correct, and refuse to repent of it, I stand in danger of damnation, which is eternal, not merely temporary.

One friend very usefully asked me to list the names of people I hope are not saved. It was a brilliant provocation. I suppose the most honest answer would be, Anyone and everyone who has ever done me wrong, treated me poorly, slandered me, unjustly impugned me, etc. But such an answer points right back at me and puts me on the list of anyone and everyone I have ever wronged. Jesus came to put an end to the infinite regress of retribution in a fallen world. So, I answered, "Me, after that I am at a loss." Truth be told, like St Paul, I desperately want to be saved, not just as a function of wanting the best for myself, but a deep desire to experience that for which I was made and redeemed.

Last Judgment, by Stefan Lochner, ca 1435


Another thoughtful response asked the question, "is our reason for following Jesus Christ and his Church our love for him, or is it utilitarian: a quid pro quo? I'll be nice if you give me eternal life. And if I'm not, you'll kick my ass. Eternally." These questions are posed rhetorically to demonstrate a point I find frustrating because I find it so difficult to truly love. In terms of the practice of our faith, it's that way with everything- Do I attend Mass because I am obligated or because I love God and want to do what I am made and redeemed to do, namely worship Him, which is my sanctification?

I think it's important not to short-circuit my own concern, reduce it to a cliché and say, "See, problem solved!" I truly believe that there are questions of meaning and significance that do not arise from an utilitarian calculus, even while accounting for the fact that nobody will be saved because s/he deserves it, least of all me. Even now, as defective as I am in love of God and neighbor, I want what God wants- that everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Did I not want this I would be wholly unsuited for ministry. Even so, in this regard the question remains- Do I or do I not have reason for concern in this regard, for myself or anyone else? In other words, does my ministry serve God's purpose over and above any palliative and temporal effects my service might have on those I serve.

Earlier this week I was browsing through a pamphlet of prayers published and distributed by the now defunct magazine 30 Days In the Church and in the World. The English title of the booklet is "Who Prays Is Saved" (you can view it here). It features an introduction by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. It's basically a little Basic Book of Catholic Prayers.

"Who Prays Is Saved" also contains some catechetical material. Listed number one under the "Six Sins Against the Holy Spirit" is "Presumption of God's mercy." I suppose the relevant issue, stated with considerably more care than my initial provocation, is, What is the source of the tension between the two poles of trying to save one's self by being "good" (Having been raised in a religion that taught not only the possibility, but the necessity, of self-perfection, I have enough experience of this to know that, at least for me, this is not possible) and being presumptive of God's mercy, which seems, at least at first glance, to remove a great deal of significance and meaning from human existence?

In his encyclical letter Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope, Pope Benedict XVI addressed some of this in a most useful way:
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love [here he cited Tractatus super Psalmos, Ps 127, 1-3]. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened
Fred, who is perhaps my best friend that I have yet to meet in person, in a comment noted something I found very useful and provocative: "Universalism is an abstract solution to an existential problem, but this problem has itself been castrated, rendered abstract, by having been removed from the present to the afterlife. What can save me, who can save me, is the question of daily life. Tax collectors and prostitutes know this, and this is why they enter heaven ahead of the Pharisees, who smug in their daily life, feel a kind of anxiety as to whether the ultimate bookkeeper will approve of their accounting."

My critical response to this would be that the existential is the beginning of my question. The question I pose here is not, "Is it possible to live this way," but, "Is it desirable to live this way?" If it is, how so? These concerns do not seem to me abstract, but rather concrete. Again, speaking only for myself, there is way for me to live that comes quite easily, too easily.

I suppose the existential answer would go something like, "Don't go back to Rockville and waste another year."

Friday, November 21, 2014

"Going where nobody says hello"

It's been awhile, far too long, really, since we've had a REM song for our Friday traditio. I was put in mind of REM (one of my all-time favorite bands) by a dear friend who went on a REM jag on Facebook this week. The particular song for us (i.e., myself and both of my readers) is "Don't Go Back To Rockville," a song that resonates with me from experience, a song that, when I was younger and the album new described a particular set of experiences.

Waiting for the bus, by Allan Rostron

Live performances are always preferable to studio recordings. Mike Mills, the band's bassist, takes over lead vocals on this version. Nonetheless, here's a link to the recorded version from the album "Reckoning."



It's not as though I really need you
If you were here I'd only bleed you
But everybody else in town only wants
To bring you down and that's not how it ought to be
I know it might sound strange, but I believe
You'll be coming back before too long

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cardinal O'Malley on ordination

There seems to be a lot of uproar this morning about something Cardinal Seán O'Malley said last night in his lengthy 60 Minutes interview with Nora O'Donnell in his response to her question about why the Church does not and cannot ordain women. Given the cultural climate in which we live, it is an inevitable question for any prelate during such a high-profile interview.

Cardinal O'Malley with Nora O'Donnell

O'Donnell posed her question in a provocative manner, asking, if it wasn't immoral to exclude women from the Church's hierarchy. Cardinal Seán, as he likes to be called, replied simply: "Christ would never ask us to do something immoral. It’s a matter of vocation and what God has given to us." He went on to say something far more important: "Not everyone needs to be ordained to have an important role in the life of the Church." This is not only true, but very important, even vital for the Church.  Cardinal Seán's answer hints at something many of us have sought to point out over and over: the fundamental sacrament of the Christian life, the sacrament by which we are infused with divine life, born again as sons and daughters of God, is baptism, not orders. One of the greatest points of emphasis for the Second Vatican Council was the importance of Baptism, the retrieval of what it means to be baptized.

There should be no consternation over something else Cardinal O'Malley said: "If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests. But Christ founded it, and what he has given us is something different." If this is not your answer and you would not ordain women, if you were founding a church, then fine, you have an honest disagreement with Cardinal O'Malley about a matter that for us, as Catholics, is purely hypothetical in the most abstract sense.

I do not agree that His Eminence's answer was imprudent. On the contrary, I think it was highly prudent. His response shows two things. First, that it is not rank sexism and a commitment to inequality that keeps the Church from ordaining women. Second, it demonstrates, yet again, something the late Carlo Cardinal Martini wrote in response to the question "Why not women priests?", posed to him in his book-length dialogue with Umberto Eco, published in English under the title Belief or Non-Belief: A Confrontation- "The Church does not fulfill expectations, it celebrates mysteries."

In my view, the trouble with too many people is that they see what God has actually done in history as the only possibility and so attempt to confer on all of God's actions a kind of necessity God never intended them to have. Take the old question, Was it necessary for God to save us by means of Jesus' passion and death? Another question, Why is it necessary to go to confession? Is God not able to normatively pardon us and freshly infuse us with sanctifying grace in some other way? More fundamentally, the question I have pondered in my previous two posts- Does being a Christian give us an answer concerning creation that eliminates its mystery? By saying God does not do everything out of any necessity I only mean God could have done things differently, but, in His providence, He did not. What God has chosen to do remains definitive and binding. In other words, as Cardinal O'Malley intimated, we can't simply choose to do things differently simply because there are different ways of doing them, even some ways that have an attractive rationale.

The question, "Why does the Church not ordain women?", goes to the great mystery of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the only begotten Son of the Father, becoming a human being as a male. There is a deep logic, but it's what we might call a theo-logic (along with an aesthetic and drama), to the divine plan of redemption.

Adoration of the Children, 1620, byGerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4:4-6)
Let's not get bogged down in ideology. His Eminence's statement was not an ideological one.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"This is the riddle of creation"

This is a follow-up to what I posted on my birthday and flows from reading Fergus Kerr's After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, which book I started reading Tuesday evening.

There is little doubt in my mind that when Heidegger dismissed Christianity from his philosophical project of bringing the question of being ("Why are there things rather than no things?") back to the center that he had in mind the seemingly static formulations of the Neo-Scholastics. This version of Thomism began to flourish in the nineteenth century, given shape and form by the First Vatican Council in Dei Filius and subsequently by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris.

St Thomas Aquinas

Contra the view of Heidegger and others, the Angelic Doctor did not introduce a kind of drab, deistic, certitude in answer to the mystery of creation. In other words, his theology does not represent a monumental effort to reduce the Mystery to man's measure. In response, Kerr turned directly to the Summa Theologiae: "For Thomas...'God alone is supremely generous' (ipse solus est maxime liberalis), God acts 'not for any advantage but out of sheer bounty' (non propter utilitatem sed solum propter suam bonitatem)" (42). In this Kerr notes that none other than, Karl Barth, notorious for his fierce rejection of the analogia entis (i.e., analogy of being)- Balthasar, in his book The Theology of Karl Barth, demonstrated how Barth's analogia fidei (i.e., analogy of faith) can be taken for a restatement of the analogia entis)- is in tune with St Thomas:
God has no need of us, He has no need of the world and heaven and earth at all. He is rich in Himself. He has fullness of life. All glory, all beauty, all goodness and holiness reside in Him. He is sufficient unto himself, he is God, blessed in Himself. To what end, then, the world? Here in fact there is everything, here in the living God. How can there be something alongside God, of which he has no need? This is the riddle of creation (Kerr 42- citing Barth's Dogmatics in Outline, which were lectures he delivered in 1946 in the ruins of Bonn, Germany after World War II)
Kerr summarizing Norris Clarke's version of Thomism, observed,

Karl Barth
Thomas's 'supreme being', far from being the static deity of substantialist metaphysics [the very metaphysics Heidegger set out to destroy- a worthy project in my view], is the subsistent (i.e., underived) sheer Act of existence, identically Intelligence and Will. Far from being a self-enclosed isolated substance, this sheer Act is also the freely self-diffusing Good, in effect self-communicative love. As participating in the infinite goodness of the Act whose very being is identically self-communicative love, all beings, by the very fact that they are, possess natural dynamism towards action and self-communication
My point? It seems that a proper understanding of Christianity, even when viewed through the prism of Thomism, does not pose the question of being in order to summarily dismiss it and certainly not by means of a simple catechetical formulation (i.e., Why did make you? God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this live and to live and be happy with Him forever in the next- in my view, it is the wonderfully weird and diverse lives of the saints that show us this is no foreclosure), which, when correctly grasped, also preserves the question that Heidegger sought to retrieve.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Smile's from the heart of a family man"

Our Friday traditio for this week is a song by Paul Young, "Love of the Common People." It is a song about which I had nearly forgotten. It is a beautiful song, of a kind that isn't written or recorded much any more. The way I see it, in addition to being an era of creativity during which artists put forth much that was new, was also a time of synthesizing the old with the new. It strikes me, too, how solid common, humane, values were even 30 years ago.



This song, while recorded by Paul Young, was written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins. It is a folk tune, written in the late 1960s. In addition to Young, it has been covered by many artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Waylon Jennings. The attractiveness of the song is not necessarily evidence of the goodness we long for (though it is that), but, even now, a celebration of what many of us have experienced.



You know that faith is in your foundation
And with a whole lot of love and a warm conversation
But don't forget to pray
'Cause making it strong where you belong

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Birthday: being, nothingness, beggaring

Today is the Feast of St Martin of Tours, Armistice Day, Veteran's Day, and my birthday. On this day over the years I have written a lot on these themes, on how I see them converge and even diverge. Today I begin my fiftieth year of life. It hardly seems possible that one year from today I will be 50 years-old. A lot has transpired.

St Martin and the Beggar -- Trento Longaretti (b. 1916)

I remember being in high school and worrying about whether I would ever be able to support myself, let alone a wife and children, about making a difference, about being happy, being satisfied. Unlike many people, I was unable to decide about doing one thing. I wanted to do everything! Doing something, of course, takes time and we are only given so much time. The finite nature of our mortality should be no more lost on a Christian than on a person who takes a more existentialist view of life. If nothing else, time limits our choices by imposing a boundary. There is some good news here: I don't feel old. Frankly, I doubt I ever will. It was amazing to see my Mom last night. She is 73 and looks like she's twenty years younger than she is.

Martin Heidegger (another Martin!) began his famous lectures, delivered during summer semester of 1935 at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, which were later published as An Introduction to Metaphysics, by asking, "Why are there things rather than nothing?" This is the fundamental question of being that Heidegger sought to bring back to the center of philosophical discourse. In order to do this he felt he had to destroy traditional Western metaphysics, which he saw as too corrupt and distorted to be rescued. In his first lecture in this series, "The Fundamental Question," Heidegger shortchanges Christianity:

Martin Heidegger
Anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth has the answer to the question "Why are there things rather than nothing?" even before it is asked: everything that is, except God himself, has been created by Him. God himself, the increate creator, "is." One who holds to such faith can in a way participate in the asking of our question, but he cannot really question without ceasing to believe and taking all the consequences of such a step
Frankly, I beg to differ. First, the answer to the question "Why did God create things rather than simply continue to exist in Trinitarian bliss?" is not self-evident. At the grand level, God could create things for any number of reasons. Secondly, Christians believe that God created gratuitously, that is, there was no necessity for God create anything because God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lacked nothing. So, the question, even when answered with either the traditional catechetical response to the question, "Why did God make you?" (i.e., "God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life and to live and be happy with Him forever in the next"), or with this from St Paul's Letter to the Colossians- "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him" (1:15-16)- is not exhausted.

The above intuition (it is nothing more than that, certainly not a deep philosophical insight, of which I am wholly incapable) is why I appreciate the life, work, and witness of Msgr Luigi Giussani so much. I am grateful that quite soon after I became Catholic I read a booklet of his that was sent out one month with every issue of the now defunct magazine 30 Days in the Church and in the World (a publication to which I was highly encouraged to subscribe by a man I met twice in passing via my work- I was a student working part-time), "He Is If He Changes." In his seminal work, The Religious Sense, Giussani tackles the fundamental question head-on and from many different angles and employing several methods.

In the course of an interview with a journalist, Albert Einstein stated, "... he who does not admit to the mystery cannot be scientist" (50). I believe this is also true for anyone desirous of being a philosopher. Giussani went on to observe
By not admitting the existence of that incommensurable "x," by not acknowledging the disproportionate gap between the ultimate horizon and human capacity, one eliminates the category of possibility, the supreme dimension of reason... Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it [what Hilary White simply calls "The Real"]. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher (50-51)
Turning from science to philosophy, Giussani, after citing Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Act I, Scene 5, lines 166-167), noted, "There will always be more things in heaven and earth - that is reality- than our perception and conception of reality - that is to say in philosophy" (51). This why, according to Giussani, "philosophy must possess the profound humility to be a wide open attempt, earnestly seeking adjustment, completion, and correction; it must be dominated by the category of possibility" (51). If philosophy is not dominated by possibility, then philosophy becomes ideology, operating only on the basis of (often dangerous) preconceptions.

Luigi Giussani


Rather than lambasting Heidegger for misrepresenting Christianity, it is more fruitful to recognize that the predominant Catholic philosophy (Heidegger was Catholic, having been raised in a devout home, he began his academic career with a brief stint as a Jesuit seminarian) at this time was what is usually denoted as "Neo-Scholasticism," which is contrasted with the dynamism of what might be called "authentic Thomism." It was not until the advent of la nouvelle théologie, among the practitioners of which were included Henri DeLubac, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and Yves Congar, that Neo-Scholasticism would come in for a thoroughly Catholic critique and correction. While each one used different methodological approaches, their common objective was to reform Catholic theology at a fundamental level by confronting head-on the dominance of Catholic theology by neo-Scholasticism. Hence, Heidegger can be forgiven for his characterization of Christian faith vis-à-vis "The Fundamental Question."

Heidegger, a student of Husserl, mined the phenomenological vein, as did Edith Stein, Max Scheler and others. Phenomenology was also the philosophical method employed by Pope St John Paul II.

As far as St Martin of Tours and the beggar, I think Martin, who encountered Christ, was only able to take pity on the beggar because Christ took pity on him, a beggar. In the words of Don Gius: "Existence expresses itself, as ultimate ideal, in begging. The real protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sin, confession, justice, and mercy

Thinking a bit more about confession in light of the scene from the television show Copper I referenced in my last post it occurred to me, once again, how important evangelism is to catechesis and how important catechesis is to living a Christian life. The two characters, Kevin "Corky" Corcoran and Francis Maguire, both of whom, as Irish immigrants and NYC police detectives in the city's roughest section, have done and seen evil acts, muse, a bit like Protestants, about how easy it is to turn to the sacrament of mercy, confess your sins, say an Act of Contrition, receive absolution and then fulfill your penance. If I understand the scene correctly, they are puzzled by what they see as a lack of justice in that schema. Here's how Corky stated it: "Confession, penance, grand reconciliation between man and God. See Father Burke, say a few Hail Marys, and you're free." There is no doubt from the scene that both men have deep regrets, they are contrite, sorry for what they've done and the pain it has caused others and themselves. Among the effects of their actions is the ruination of their lifelong friendship.

Indeed, to make a good confession, one must be sorry for his sins and be committed to not doing what is wrong again. Of course, especially in areas of weakness, we need God's grace to keep that commitment. Receiving the grace necessary to overcome weakness is one reason to make recourse to the Sacrament of Penance and then the Eucharist. What is removed in and through this sacrament is the eternal punishment due to sin, namely hell. What is not removed is the temporal punishment due to sin. It occurred to me that this is the part they were missing in their dialogue. It is not as though all the effects of sin are erased once they are confessed, absolved, and satisfaction (which can never by given or received as if one is redeeming himself) is made.



In his Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina, promulgated on New Year's day 1967, that is, after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Bl Pope Paul VI wrote of temporal punishment:
These punishments are imposed by the just and merciful judgment of God for the purification of souls, the defense of the sanctity of the moral order and the restoration of the glory of God to its full majesty. Every sin in fact causes a perturbation in the universal order established by God in His ineffable wisdom and infinite charity, and the destruction of immense values with respect to the sinner himself and to the human community
It seems to me that this is a fitting reflection for the month of November.

How interesting it would be for a television series to have a well-catechized character who, in a situation like this, discussed temporal punishment and maybe even made reference to seeking indulgences. "An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints" (General Norm 1 from Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Indulgentarium doctrina). In this context, such an understanding would provide a sound explanation as to why Maguire has been sitting in the Church night after night.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Confession: longing for freedom

I have been "binge watching" the BBC America original series Copper. It is a compelling drama about the Irish set in the Five Points section of New York City in the 1860s. I heard about this series in, of all places, Gilbert magazine. One scene, that is a climax of the first season, but not yet a catharsis, takes place in the parish Church between two NYPD detectives, Kevin Corcoran and Francis Maguire. Two great friends with some dark secrets that are about to gush forth in a confession (Season 1, Episode 9 "A Day to Give Thanks").

After returning Maguire's police badge that the parish priest found on the floor underneath one of the pews and that he, in turn, gave to Corcoran under duress. "Corky" was looking for Francis in order to settle scores. Here's the relevant bit of dialogue:

Corcoran: Churches are the only places in Five Points that are unlocked day and night. Even the taverns close eventually. I guess that means a man can go without a drink for a few hours, but not without the chance to repent. I haven't been to a proper Mass since before the [Civil] war. But, if you're Irish and Catholic, the teachings are in your head, inside you, forever, right? Confession, penance, grand reconciliation between man and God. See Father Burke, say a few Hail Marys, and you're free.

Maguire: It's what they taught us.

Corcoran: Indeed it is. (Repeating himself) Indeed it is.



At least for me, the beauty (yes, beauty- true beauty is an awesome/awe-full experience, which is why, to borrow from Don Giussani, it leaves us wounded) of this scene is how the masks fall off and both men, in their confrontation with each other, are forced confront themselves. Maguire, who, it turns out, is guilty of several murders, all related to the matters they discuss, confronts himself more honestly than does Corcoran, the show's protagonist.

I am always struck by these words from the Act of Contrition, when, after I make my confession, I say to God, "In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things." I am struck because I realize in that moment how distorted my heart is. I hope one day to make a truly a good confession because I long to be free. Of course, it is in and through the Sacrament of Penance that the same sanctifying grace that God, in His infinite goodness, infused into our souls in Baptism, is given us anew: amazing grace, indeed.

As St Thomas Aquinas noted- grace builds on nature. More accurately, grace builds on fallen, deformed nature. It is through grace that God sets about reforming nature. The Sacrament of Penance is where grace confronts deformed nature, but only in order to reform it. Before being confronted by God, I must confront myself with the Truth.

It is by judging myself now and asking for God's mercy that I hope to survive God's final judgment. There one who accuses me "before our God day and night" (Rev. 12:10). I do not believe that this accuser accuses me of false charges. He only accuses me of things I have done. As difficult as it is to believe at times, I have an Advocate before God's throne and another one, the Parakeltos, who walks beside me. I also have my brothers and sisters who comprise the communion of saints, along with the angels, to intercede for me.

I cannot live more than a few hours without the chance to repent. We have a one word name for that: hope.

Faith, experience, ideology

Given that today Roman Catholics throughout the world observe the Feast of the Dedication of St John Lateran Basilica in Rome, which is the Mother Church of Christendom, I went in search of something I posted on a different blog a number of years ago only to find that I copied it over here to Καθολικός διάκονος shortly after I posted it there (see "Faith and memory on the universal Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran"). Prior to Morning Prayer today I prayed the Office of Readings, something I don't do very often. The second reading for the office for today's feast is from a sermon by St Caesarius of Arles.
My fellow Christians, do we wish to celebrate joyfully the birth of this temple [the Temple of the Holy Spirit that is our bodies after Baptism]? Then let us not destroy the living temples of God in ourselves by works of evil. I shall speak clearly, so that all can understand. Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins
That, indeed, is what we might call a good, old-fashioned sermon that gets to the heart of the matter by taking seriously the mystery, that is, the Paschal Mystery, we are called to live. In other words, St Caesarius made a judgment according to the criteria of divine revelation, which is what makes what he said then relevant now.

For those who might be unaware, St John Lateran is the Roman Pontiff's cathedral church as Bishop of Rome. It is the oldest of the four major papal basilicas in Rome (the other three being St Peter's, St Paul Outside the Walls, and St Mary Major).

St John Lateran Basilica

The other post I came across that seemed more than fitting for today's feast, as well as for my forty-ninth birthday, which is coming up on Tuesday, the feast of that glorious saint and holy bishop St Martin of Tours, I entitled "each of us knows in his own experience when he judges it." I wrote this reflection more than five years ago (18 August 2009) in light of the Spiritual Exercises for the year of Communion & Liberation: From Faith, the Method. This explains why some of the references are a bit dated. So, with just a little editing, here it is:

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There is a difficult passage near the end of the final Assembly at this year's Exercises [2009 Exercises], the one about following the experience of a person and not of the person per se. It is not difficult to comprehend. Rather, it is difficult because it is all too clear and runs counter to my inclinations. I have had the experience of a person saying, doing, being a certain way that moved me, that changed me and who has turned around and become very off-putting to me. This confuses me because it causes me to call the authenticity of my experience into question. I remember when Ted Haggard's sins were revealed, his meth use and consorting with a male prostitute. It made many question whether their being moved through him toward Christ was real. So, the question remains: Is it the person, or the Spirit? This is not a question that someone can answer for anyone else. This is what Carrón had to say about the charism given to Giussani and our experience of it:
Father Giussani communicated an experience that he had to us, and this is true even if tomorrow I betray it. It is true and will always be true, because what makes for a correspondence or not is not what I say or what Father Giussani says, but is what each of us knows in his own experience when he judges it. This is why one follows the experience of another, which he communicates to you as best he can, gropingly. We do not follow the person because of [his personality] [the translation as it appeared in the English booklet of the Italian word "personalismo", was "a personalism"], because the boss said so. This is not human; it is not human! But if he is communicating an experience to you that he is having and if you are interested in learning, following that person means following the experience that he is having, in such a way that you can make it your own. And it will remain yours even if he would betray it. I do not want us to repeat Father Giussani’s sayings (or mine), but I want that this be our experience, that it become ours, because when we want something we want it to become ours, as we wanted what the mathematics teacher taught us to become ours. Do you not want this? Father Giussani says this when he explains obedience: obedience is following until, at a certain point, one is following himself, struck by the experience that another has had, because he is so entirely one with himself that, in the end, he follows himself, struck by another’s experience. If we do not do this, we keep on repeating the sayings of Father Giussani, but we will not have the experience that he has (italicizing emphasis mine- From Faith, the Method, pg. 64)
Papal cathedra in St John Lateran

It was interesting to watch the dynamic at the Green Day concert I went to the other night [16 August 2009], it made me think about what Alice Bag wrote about her discussions with Darby Crash regarding music and fascism. Green Day is certainly not fascist and I saw Billy Joe Armstrong as having an awareness of the potential and not pushing it too hard- the potential is there, just as it is in CL, or in the church writ large, it seems to be an all too human tendency to drift toward ideology, which I employ to mean wanting a pre-conceived system of iron clad certainties all packaged up and ready for purchase, like everything else in our consumer society. This is an emotivist reduction: I have my ideology and you have yours and our choosing them is just a matter of preference and/or pre-disposition having little or nothing to do with my experience or yours and certainly nothing at all to do with correspondence. I guess my point here is that to follow the charism given to Giussani is not to follow Giussani, but the experience communicated to me through him, through Carrón, through Albacete, through Fred, Sharon, Suzanne, Alex, Greg et al., making it my own through my experience, which is my unique path to destiny.

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In light of all this, it bears noting that it was 25 years ago today, 9 November 1989, that the Berlin Wall was breached and torn apart. In his still relevant book, A Turning Point for Europe?, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, writing in the wake of that momentous event, noted, "The Church's first task in this area is to keep alive in fidelity to her holy tradition, the basic criterion of justice and to detach it from the arbitrariness of power" (60). This fidelity to holy tradition is the faithfulness to the experience that not only spawned, but continues to constitute, that is, make, what we revere as "holy tradition," which, in turn, makes us.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Ecumenism: some thoughts on Mark Driscoll

When it comes to Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll, who recently resigned, rather than be reinstated after an investigation cleared him of anything really serious, as head of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, it is time for the Christian circular firing squad to call a ceasefire. He's been scrutinized, criticized, and berated more than enough. Sure, Driscoll, who was borne and raised Catholic and who abandoned the Church for the same reason many have over the past several decades, namely that post-conciliar Catholicism is often watered-down and vapid, if not in its essence then often in its presentation, said and wrote a number of outrageous and cringe-worthy things. All of which, I might add, he has owned and for which he has apologized. When it comes matters sexual, Driscoll, like many men raised in the era dominated by the baby-boom generation, remained very rooted in an adolescent mindset.

Mark Driscoll

For those of us who have been critical of Driscoll and who are his age, or older (he's 44), I think it bears asking ourselves the question, What was I doing when I was in my mid-twenties and early thirties? Chances are you were not pastoring a church that took off and grew beyond your wildest dreams. Please stop for a moment and consider what kinds of half-formed, half-baked opinions you were spouting. You've never been called to account for them simply because nobody cares what you said back then. You are likely among those who don't care.

Former Mars Hill deacon Seth MacGillivray, who has been publicly critical of Driscoll in the past, recently put all of this into some perspective, not just any perspective, but what I see as a Christian perspective.

First, how did Driscoll draw people? Here's what Seth recalls: "I was a new Christian, and had a view of most Jesus-followers as a cross between Ned Flanders and high school girls who listened to DC Talk. Here was something new: an ultra-orthodox view of the bible combined with a liberal view of the world."

Seth then goes positive:
I loved Mark's bold preaching style, and his call for men to act like men according to Scripture... One of the things he always stressed was our need to willingly place ourselves under authority: authority of Scripture, authority of our elders, authority of friends we trusted. When the time came for him to model what that looked like in a real-life scenario - the elders of Mars Hill found him disqualified for leadership, and put in place a discipline and restoration plan - he resigned rather than submit, and squandered an opportunity to show men all over the world what it looks like to humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, and to allow Him to lift you back up. How beautiful that would have been
It would've been beautiful. I still hope for a beautiful ending, albeit mine would differ from Seth's and would see Driscoll come home to Rome. Hey, stranger things have happened.



I don't want to end this post by violating my call for a ceasefire. So, I will simply note, as a minister who preaches, it is much easier to preach the Gospel than to live it. This is true even for those of us who take preaching the Gospel seriously and work hard at it. It's easy to develop a myopic way of seeing, which is why we need to be accountable in just the way Mark Driscoll preached it. There is a petition prayed during Evening Prayer for Monday, Week IV of the Psalter: "Watch over the priests and ministers of your Church, so that after they have preached to others, they themselves may remain faithful in your service."

I know He holds my life, my future, in His hand"

I'm afraid that my fervent blogging in October left me a bit exhausted. Well, it's November now, the month we pray in an especially fervent manner for the souls in Purgatory. We cannot ever lose sight of the reason we do this. This reason is summed up well by St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all" (15:19).

The Resurrection of Christ, the right wing of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece


Keeping it simple and spare, our traditio for this first Friday in November is Matt Maher's new song "Because He Lives." It is the answer to the question, "Why do you we pray for the souls in Purgatory?"



Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because he lives
every fear is gone
I know he holds my life, my future in His hand

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Sixth Circuit Court and sanity

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Cincinnati, ruled today to uphold the constitutional amendments and statutes passed in four states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) that legally uphold marriage. It seems now the Supreme Court will be forced to do what it has assiduously avoided doing for the past several years, make a ruling on this issue.

The way I see it, there are two ways to approach this question. The first is from what, for the sake of brevity, I will call the moral viewpoint. The second is from the constitutional/legal viewpoint. Ideally the two overlap, especially from a Christian point-of-view, or any point-of-view that arises from a natural rights perspective. What has become so troubling and divisive is that the moral and the constitutional/legal have, over time, drifted further and further apart as our nation has become more and more secularized. It seems to me that the rate of divergence has increased exponentially during President Obama's presidency.

According to the Sixth Circuit Court ruling, the major concern of the two judge majority (it is a three judge panel) in the ruling was on constitutional/legal grounds: "the question whether to move the nation toward same-sex marriage in every state is for the people or the states, and not for judges applying the national Constitution." But this is only mentioned after establishing the pedigree of marriage, which, it is noted, "has long been a social institution defined by relationships between men and women. So long defined, the tradition is measured in millennia, not centuries or decades. So widely shared, the tradition until recently had been adopted by all governments and major religions of the world."

The majority opinion went on to note:
Of all the ways to resolve this question, one option is not available: a poll of the three judges on this panel, or for that matter all federal judges, about whether gay marriage is a good idea. Our judicial commissions did not come with such a sweeping grant of authority, one that would allow just three of us—just two of us in truth—to make such a vital policy call for the thirty-two million citizens who live within the four States of the Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. What we have authority to decide instead is a legal question: Does the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit a State from defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman?
This reminds me of a question, posed by Justice Scalia to Ted Olson during oral arguments in Windsor v. United States, which challenged the constitutionality of the congressionally-enacted Defense of Marriage Act (one of those bills that President Obama would not defend), When did it become unconstitutional for states to hold that marriage is only between one man and one woman? Implied in Justice Scalia's question is the historical fact that the prohibition of same-sex marriages, polygamous marriages, marriages within defined degrees of consanguinity, etc., have not been understood as unconstitutional for most of the history of the republic.



While perhaps not implied in Scalia's question, but something that is certainly relevant, is that among the most compelling reasons for such an understanding of marriage one will not find rank prejudice. This is not to say such prejudice did not and does not now exist and sometimes manifests itself. If this were the case, then we'd be wise to simply broaden what marriage means. In other words, those of us who hold to traditional marriage are not simply big, biased meanies, as many erroneously and uncharitably suppose. One way of attempting to demonstrate this erroneous supposition is by comparing so-called same-sex marriage with interracial marriage. In reality, this is a classic comparing of apples to oranges. Same-sex marriage can in no way be equated to interracial marriage (see "On marriage: refuting a stupid argument"). The best reasons show us that such a broadening is simply not possible and is certainly not without serious consequences for everyone.

It was Chesterton who wrote, "Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead called tradition."

In any case, I was encouraged to read the Sixth Circuit majority opinion because it shows that some judges understand that our country was not constituted to be ruled by black-robed oligarchs. In these matters, especially in light of the minority opinion, which invoked "an independent judiciary" to justify legislating from the bench, I am reminded, yet again, of the First Things, "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics," published back in 1996. Fr Neuhaus, who started and oversaw this journal, was lambasted (literally) left and right for publishing it. I imagine many who took issue with it then see things more clearly now.

I believe that there is a discernible difference between adjudicating and legislating. I also believe that the idea that matters of huge importance to our nation are to be exclusively decided by judges would be utterly repugnant to our nation's founders. Hence, I find it heartening that Judge Sutton, author of the Sixth Circuit's majority opinion, and hopefully other federal judges, understand this point.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Souls: a reflection on death

Death can be scary. If nothing else, death is a mystery. Even in the blinding light of revelation life after death has its awesome (awe-filled/awe-full) aspects. Hence, it is understandable that in the face of death we are tempted to sidestep the reality that confronts us. It seems to me that the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass helped Christians for centuries face the reality of death in a hopeful and yet unsentimental way. In light of that, I am always puzzled when, during funerals the deceased is raised to the altar, that is, canonized. I am even more puzzled when the celebrant then, via the liturgy, which is theologia prima, or "first theology" (thus showing is theology is concrete and not a mere abstraction), implores prayers for the one who has passed. If s/he is heaven, there is no further need to pray for them, right? At least to my mind, this discloses how frequently incoherent our understanding of last things has become. I am going to go out on a limb and insist that nothing impacts how we live more dramatically than our understanding of Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and hell.

Let's be clear. For the human person, looking at death from the perspective of Christian revelation, death is the most unnatural separation imaginable. God never intended death to happen. Hence, death is not, as many aver, "The most natural thing in the world." Death is the least natural thing in the world, which is why it fills us with awe, if not downright fear. For Christians, death is a temporary dislocation/dissociation. This is confirmed by St Paul in the fifteenth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for 'he subjected everything under his feet'" (verses 26-27a). This gives me the chance to draw attention to something written recently by my friend, the brilliant young scholar Artur Rosman: "FACT: Christians DON’T Believe in the Immortality of the Soul."

All Souls Day, by William Bouguereau, 1859

In an article he wrote back in 2000, "Good Grief and Bad", Msgr Lorenzo Alabacete, who passed into eternity just last week, gave beautiful expression to the inevitable questions that arise in the face of suffering and death, questions that do not lend themselves, at least not ultimately, to facile answers:
I suspect that today we are not supposed to expect that much of life. We are supposed to settle for less. What, then, do we expect of grief counselors? To help us suppress these embarrassing expectations of the heart? Is consolation after all a lowering of expectations? If anything, I am consoled by the Book of Job, which derides those who tried to explain Job's suffering to him. God does not seek to console him; He just shows up, and this is enough. It was not explanations Job wanted, but solidarity, compassion, love
By sending mixed signals, even though done with the very best of intention of giving comfort to those in grief, succeeding perhaps only temporarily, one chooses to simply set aside the deep and inevitable questions, thus causing cognitive and spiritual dissonance by approaching mysteries in a superficial manner. Do we no longer trust, or believe, what Scripture and Tradition tell us about Last Things? The specter of death coupled with any grasp of the awesomeness of God is something we all prefer to utterly avoid, which is why I found this observation of Von Balthasar's, made in his short book Who Is a Christian, so comforting: "But the Word of God holds us ineluctably and is so clear in what it states that it can at any time withstand the sorry amalgams into which people mix it."

In this context it's a bit ironic that what Balthasar is probably most famous for are some the "sorry amalgams into which" he (at least seemed at times) to mix Last Things. In the view of many, he did this in his provocative book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?: With a Short Discourse on Hell,. While I think what he wrote is understandable and within the bounds of orthodoxy, many argue that he pulled back at the last minute from embracing the heresy of universalism (i.e., the belief that, in the end, everyone will be saved and/or that hell is temporary, not eternal- the latter postulation has its Christian source in the theological speculations of that great theologian of the early Church, Origen, and is known by its Greek name apokatastasis).

In the view of some, especially theologian Alyssa Pitstick, Balthasar, in his theology of Holy Saturday, also mixed a sorry amalgam. In her doctoral dissertation, which was published as a book entitled Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell, Pitstick called into question Balthasar's assertion that Christ, between His death and resurrection, actually suffered the pains of hell (in the Apostles Creed we profess that Christ "descended into hell"), instead of descending into what is known to Tradition as the "limbo of fathers," where the souls of the righteous went to await Christ's resurrection. In his doctoral dissertation, published recently as Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, Dr Ralph Martin sought to clarify these issues in light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

It seems to me that as Christians we can do nothing other than commend those who die to God. This sounds easy, but it is not. In commending those who have died to God we are forced to acknowledge that judging them, one way or the other, is not up to us. Commendation of the dead to God is a huge act of trust, which is what makes it an act of hope. So, when we auto-canonize or auto-condemn (something I am pretty sure never happens at a funeral these days, which is good), we seek, wittingly or unwittingly, to steal God's prerogative. This is why through St Faustina Kowalaska, the Lord taught us to pray, "Jesus, I trust in You."

Since I invoked the saints, it is necessary to note that there may well be instances in which the holiness of the deceased person seems evident. But in even in such cases, before we proceed off-the-cuff, we need to know more in order to judge better, which is why there is a formal canonical process. There is no harm in noting the good qualities a person may have possessed, or even some of the good things s/he did that are memorable, or even exemplary.



Fr Anthony Paone, S.J. observed in a reflection that is published in the popular daily devotional My Daily Bread:
Death, Judgment, Heaven, and hell --- these are the four last things toward which we are moving each hour of the day and night. They will never frighten us if our conscience is clear. If we love God in our daily life, that is, if we are sincerely trying to know and follow His holy Will, we have no reason to fear.

By keeping this eternal goal ever before us, we shall think straight when life’s problems and difficulties face us. In making the following meditations, we must strive to become *eternity-minded*. We must seek to guarantee to ourselves, as far as is in our power, the unending success and unmarred happiness of Heaven (p. 25)
We call this, living sub specie aeternitatis, that is, "under the aspect of eternity."

All Saints: "love lived out to the end"

After reading late last night about the serious implementation of the New Evangelization, which strikes me as slippery a concept as ever existed, effectively meaning what anyone wants it to mean, I was struck by the witness and effort of the the current archbishop of Malines-Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard, who was appointed that venerable see by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. What I read was a short piece that appeared in the on-line version of First Things under the title "In Belgium, Two Types of Bishops," by Filip Mazurczak. In his piece Mazuczak mentioned Fr Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, after whose priestly and pastoral witness Archbishop Léonard established a priestly community at the center of Brussels, in a Church that was to be de-consecrated and used as a fish market, Eglise Sainte-Catherine, rightly calling Fr Michel-Marie "a French luminary of the new evangelization."



What struck me in my reading and re-reading is how serious Pope Benedict was about the New Evangelization, which he saw, at least throughout the West, as a re-evangelization. This is precisely why he chose the papal name "Benedict." It bears noting that a similar effort is underway in the Netherlands, where the majority of bishops were selected by Pope Benedict. It strikes me as more than a bit sad that Archbishop Léonard is nearing retirement age. I pray that he will be able and willing to serve a few years beyond 75 and that his successor will continue his efforts on the model set forth by St Paul: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth" (1 Cor 3:6).

In his final book-length interview prior to becoming the Roman Pontiff (he did one after becoming Pope: Light Of The World: The Pope, The Church And The Signs Of The Times), God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, commenting on Seewald's observation that the Church teaches "man is not capable, by and for himself, of giving a meaning to the world or to his own life," said, in part- "Meaning is not something we can simply manufacture. What we manufacture in that way may be able to grant us a momentary satisfaction, but it will not serve to justify the whole of our existence or give meaning to it... What the Church says, that meaning is not created by us but is given by God, should be understood in this fashion: Meaning is something that carries us, that goes ahead of us and beyond all our ideas and discoveries - and only in this way has it the strength to sustain our lives" (184-185). He went on to say, "our life tends in the end toward a discovery of love, toward receiving love and giving love. And the crucified Christ, who presents us with love lived out to the end... lifts this principle up into the realm of absolute reality. God himself is love. In this sense, love is indeed both the fundamental rule and the ultimate aim of life" (185).

The above merely echoes the answer to a question posed in the Baltimore Catechism, "Why did God make you?" The answer to which is, "God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next." While existence certainly introduces complexity, the truth, at least as far as grasping it in order to live it, is beautifully simple. It is this simplicity that the saints grasped and held onto as they experienced the inevitable complexities of human life in a fallen world. Rather than despairing, they chose to cooperate with God in the redemption of the world, which is only possible because of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict's episcopal motto, chosen in 1977, when he was ordained a bishop, is Cooperatores Veritatis (i.e., "Co-workers of the Truth").

In his homily for this Solemnity back in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI observed
Today, the Church is celebrating her dignity as "Mother of the Saints, an image of the Eternal City" (A. Manzoni), and displays her beauty as the immaculate Bride of Christ, source and model of all holiness. She certainly does not lack contentious or even rebellious children, but it is in the Saints that she recognizes her characteristic features and precisely in them savours her deepest joy
Venerable Solanus Casey- pray for his beatification

Dear friends, on this All Saints Day let us remember that in the end the Church Triumphant, Christ's spotless Bride, will only consist of saints, as He will separate the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. Let us keep always before us this deep insight made by the French writer Léon Bloy: "There is only one sorrow: not to be a saint."