Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wheat, tares, yeast and the greatness of God

Readings: Wis 12:13.16-19; Ps 86:5-6.9-10.15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43

In going over the readings for this Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I was immediately struck by the first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom. Why? Because while the sacred author acknowledges God's greatness and might, he sees it revealed in God's leniency, clemency, and, yes, kindness. God is great because God is merciful, or, taking a cue from the title of Pope Francis' book, God is mercy. God is what God does. With God there can be no separation between act and being. In human, if perhaps Heideggerian, terms we call there being no separation or contradiction between act and being authenticity.

To be sure, God judges justly. Whenever God condemns he does so justly. But God's greatness, it seems to me, lies in his reluctance and even refusal to condemn. God's mercy, his kindness, is expected of God's people, those who believe in God, revere God, and seek to follow his Son: "And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just [i.e., righteous] must be kind" (Wis 12:19). Being truly just, or righteous, requires a person to be kind. Not long ago I read that Jesus was only ever harsh with those who were harsh with others. While I have not undertaken a quantitative analysis of the Lord's interactions as set forth in the canonical Gospels, but this strikes me as true. It seems to be in accord with what Jesus taught as conveyed in St Matthew's Gospel:
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matt 7:1-3)
If Christ, who has no motes or beams, is clement and lenient and if Christ is himself the kindness and mercy of God, then how much more should we who have motes and beams be clement and lenient, kind and forgiving?

I was also struck by the sacred author of Wisdom's insistence that God shows his "might when the perfection of [his] power is disbelieved" (Wis 12:17). Jesus crucified is the ultimate showing of God's might and Christ's resurrection is the perfection of divine power because these are the means by which God exercises clemency and leniency, kindness and forgiveness. These can be summed up in one word: glory. As the apostle wrote to the Church in ancient Corinth:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:22-25)
I think this why, as St Paul wrote in our second reading, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). We do not know how to pray as we ought because too often we do not pray to God, but to our own reduction, to who we think and would like God to be. Blessed be God for coming to our aid and interceding for us with "inexpressible groanings," which, I think, represent true prayer. Note that the apostles says of the one "who searches hearts"- he "knows what is the intention of the Spirit" in order to intercede for us in accord with God's will, not our own. This is the path to authenticity, to wholeness, to holiness.



Rather than trying to impose ourselves on God through prayer, we need allow ourselves to be formed by the Spirit through prayer. Stated more simply, we must learn to pray as we ought because doing so is crucial to living this way. What way? In the manner of Christian disciples, those odd people who live as if God's reign were already completely established, doing things like forgiving, loving, serving, and praying for our enemies, returning good for evil, caring for the widow, the orphan, the abandoned elderly person, the addict, etc. All those things that are easy to say but hard to bring ourselves to do. In other words, we are to be just and kind, like God. This is how we reflect the glory of God, how we demonstrate that the Church has, indeed, been infused with and continues to be animated by the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

Our Gospel reading today is a nice corollary to the pericope I shared about not judging others harshly so as to condemn them. Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares bids us not to worry about who is "really" a Christian and who might not be. This judgment is reserved to God alone. In the meantime, we act in good faith towards others trusting in their good faith. This may sound trite, but I daily see, especially on social media, Christians questioning the faith of other Christians as if faith could be reduced to a well-studied orthodoxy, or even worse, perfect praxis that is properly called moralism, which brings us back to the motes and beams issue.

Instead of wasting time pronouncing divine judgment on others, we are to be the good kind of yeast, as opposed to the yeast/leaven of the Pharisees (see Matt 16:5-12). Jesus' likening of the kingdom of heaven to the effect a very small amount of yeast has within a comparatively large batch of dough serves as something like the antidote to our all-too-human tendency to attempt to sort the wheat from the tares (I am always to be found among the wheat, of course). There is an obvious parallel here with how we go about evangelization, catechesis, and living out Christian koinonia in our late modern milieu. Jesus uses the mustard seed, too, to demonstrate that God's kingdom begins very small and then grows by the faith of those who make the word incarnate in their lives.

Together wheat and yeast make bread. In light of the recent instruction from the Holy See's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which reaffirmed what constitutes proper matter for the confection of the Eucharist in the Roman Rite (i.e., bread that is "unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition made of only wheat and water" and wine that "must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances" par 3a and 3b), it does not strike me as too audacious, or very original, to point out that we are to be the yeast in just the sense Jesus tells us we are to be in today's Gospel.

Homosexuality, Church teaching, and the pastoral conundrum

There are a number of recent books about the Catholic Church and homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and transgenderism, what is frequently denoted as LBGT. I think it is a mistake to lump trangenderism in with homosexuality. Earlier this year Commonweal magazine featured an insightful piece: "The Church & Transgender Identity Some Cautions, Some Possibilities," which is well worth the time of anyone who is interested in this complex issue.

Yesterday, in the Catholic Herald, I read a review of two recent books on homosexuality, Fr. James Martin's Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity and Daniel C. Mattson's Why I Don't Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexuality. These were reviewed together by Msgr Keith Barltrop in a piece entitled "These two books on gay Catholics are a missed opportunity." It is good that he paired these books because each presents a very different Catholic view on homosexuality that highlight well the tensions in the Church right now. As the late liturgical scholar Mark Searle noted, "Tension creates energy."

Image from Catholic Herald article

Msgr Barltrop's review is very thoughtful. His qualification to write on these matters is his years spent ministering in London to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender Catholics. As someone who has been privileged to serve some of my LGB sisters and brothers, street cred matters. Coming at the issue exclusively by way of various media "takes" is worse than useless. Ideology has no place in pastoral ministry.

One insight I found very useful in Barltrop's reviews arises from the very objective teaching of the Church on the matter of homosexuality, something Fr Martin quite glaringly omits from his book:
if we believe there is truth in the Church's teaching, however imperfectly it may be currently expressed, then surely one way forward is to offer LGBT people, if they will not accept this teaching on its own authority, some tools to make an authentic discernment of their personal experiences of sex and erotic attraction Among such tools a sound moral theology and a spiritual discipline are paramount
Msgr Barltrop goes on to point out that Catholic pastoral ministers have great resources at our disposal: the work of St Igantius of Loyola on spiritual discernment, MacIntyre-inspired virtue ethics, as well as the work of Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, perhaps most accessible to pastoral ministers in his book Morality: The Catholic View. In his work, Fr Pinckaers focuses on what it means to seek true happiness. But these only work, Msgr Barltrop notes, "if a person puts a developing relationship with Jesus at the very center of his or her life and judges every moral decision by the way it deepens or threatens that relationship."

One of the things that verifies this approach is that it is not exclusive to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians. It is simply sound pastoral practice.

"Back on the Chaingang"- being dogged in the dog daze

I had every intention of posting a Friday traditio yesterday. I guess this will have to count as a belated one. As I stated the matter on Facebook earlier this week: "Currently being dogged by the black dog in the dog daze, prayers appreciated." I don't mind saying that late summer and late winter are the two worst times of year for me in this regard.



One afternoon while driving home from work I heard The Pretenders's song "Back on the Chain Gang" on the radio. It resonated a bit. As a result, it is our traditio this week. I like this live version featuring the steel geetar:



A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Year A Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 55:10-11; Ps 65:10-14; Rom 8:18-23; Matt 13:1-23

In theological terms, a mystery is not something unknown and about which we can know little or nothing. Rather, in the realm of faith, a mystery is something we know because God has revealed it. This is important because of the question Jesus was asked by his disciples after telling the “large crowds” the Parable of the Sower: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The Lord did not reply by saying, “I teach them in parables in order that they will better understand my message.” No! He says the opposite. He teaches them in parables so that his meaning is harder to for them to grasp.

Despite our understandable tendency to oversimplify Jesus’ parables, it would be foolish to assert his parables always served to make his teaching less clear. In context, the Parable of the Sower in Matthew’s Gospel has to do with Jesus distancing himself more and more from those Jews who refused to see that he is the one who fulfills the purpose for which they were chosen. It is safe to assume that the author of Matthew conceived of the large crowds as exclusively Jewish. In other words, these are the people who should’ve looked and seen; who should have heard and understood, but they did not. Only the small band of disciples, who were themselves Jews (Matthew is a Jewish Gospel written for a mostly Jewish Christian community), heard and understood, looked and saw. Contrary to the paintings we often see, which depict Jesus with a golden halo or surrounded by an aura of light, it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer during his public ministry that he was the Son of God in the flesh.

In our first reading from Isaiah, taken from a section of the book designated Deutero, or Second Isaiah, written during the Babylonian exile, we heard that God’s word accomplishes what God wants to achieve by speaking it. While this may sound like a trite bit of wisdom to us, such an assertion would’ve seemed dubious to many of the Jews to whom it was originally proclaimed. Why? Because they were exiles in Babylon, displaced from the land God promised them. No doubt to many of these exiles God’s purposes seemed to be frustrated, if not thwarted, by Israel’s conquest. In addition to taking much of the population of Judah into exile, the Babylonians also destroyed the first Temple, an event from which ancient Judaism never recovered.

Of course, what God set out to accomplish is accomplished in and through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. As with Israel’s exiles and his Son’s Incarnation, God’s purposes are accomplished in mysterious ways. By “mysterious,” I mean counter-intuitive and usually contrary to our preconceptions. God does not use the means of worldly power to accomplish his purposes. It is often the case that we hear and don’t understand, look and don’t see because we don’t hear and see what we expect or want. We are disheartened when God does not carry out our plans. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but God, as we the cliché has it, writes straight with crooked lines.

Our wanting to dictate to God both ends and means is not only true with regard to how God works in the world, but is especially true when it comes to how God works in our own lives. What today’s readings ask us to do is to examine our own hearts with respect to God’s word and ask ourselves, what kind of soil am I?



Looking at the four kinds of soil onto which the seed is sown, I want to focus on the second and third kinds because I believe these are most relevant to us. Too often we are content with an infantile faith. This is a faith that holds God is pleased with me when things in life are going my way. Conversely, this kind of immature faith also holds that when the going in life gets tough it is the result of God being displeased with me. Sooner or later someone who believes this will either mature in faith, which means realizing that God’s disposition towards her never changes, or, as is the case in the Parable of the Sower, lose faith altogether. We can be confident, to quote St Paul, “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). How can you know you are called according to God’s purpose? This is the call you received when you were baptized. God is faithful because God is love.

We can also become too wrapped up in things that can never satisfy us, spending all of time and energy trying to get ahead, taking one more vacation, purchasing one more luxury, etc. Living like this often creates heavy burdens, like debt, fatigue, the gradual disappointment of the law of diminishing returns, which refers to the point at which the level of satisfaction you derive from something is less than the amount of money, time, and energy you invest in it. This often leads to those afflictions so common to late modern life in Western societies: stress, anxiety, depression, even existential despair, which is life-threatening. Too often we refuse the invitation Jesus issued in last week’s Gospel, to find our rest in him. As with tribulations and persecutions, being overly concerned about or wrapped up in maintaining one’s own material well-being can cause someone who has heard and responded to “the word of the kingdom’ to fall away.

What leads to strong, well-rooted, well-nourished faith, or, stated differently, happiness and fulfillment? I think our second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans goes some distance towards answering this question. It is by experiencing life’s trials and tribulations, which the apostle likens to a woman experiencing labor pains. Experience is how we verify that what we believe is true. What Paul is pointing to in this passage is our rebirth in baptism. Baptism is our passage from the already to the not yet of God’s kingdom because it restores us to the state of original grace, which is characterized by communion. Therefore, Christians are people who strive to live the not yet of God’s reign, which will be fully established when Christ returns.

An effective way to test the soil of your soul is by meditating on the central paradox of being a Christian, of what it means to be someone who hears and understands, who looks and sees. In St Matthew’s Gospel, this is found a few chapters on from today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus tells us:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Making an important point in an unconvincing way

I am back after a month away from posting regularly. Sometimes it is important to let my mind lie a bit fallow. Perhaps I invest too much of myself when I post. By the end of May, while rewarding, blogging was starting to feel like hard work. Since it is something I do because I find value in doing, it is important that I enjoy it and want to do it. One thing about being an independent blogger, whenever you take an extended break you almost have to start all over in terms drawing readers. Another thing about being an independent blogger, I don't financially profit from my efforts and so building readership is not paramount. Nonetheless, I certainly hope some people find what I humbly offer worth reading.

Cutting to the chase, this week an Italian Jesuit publication, La Civiltà Cattolica, published an opinion piece that has stirred up a lot of controversy in the United States: "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism" (at the time of this writing the magazine's website is inaccessible). La Civiltà Cattolica is unique among Catholic periodicals in that the contents of each issue are vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State. This relationship means the magazine enjoys something of a quasi-official status. This relationship is nothing new, it has been published this way for a long time. The article in question was co-authored by Fr Antonio Spadaro, S.J., who serves as editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Presbyterian minister Rev Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentinian who is editor of the Argentinian edition of the Vatican's newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Predictably, the article has come under fire from some of those who feel they were subjects of the article's rather pointed critique. I don't want to wade too deeply into matters that are beyond my competency, but having read two critiques of the La Civiltà Cattolica piece ("On that strange, disturbing, and anti-American "Civiltà Cattolica" article" and "Antonio Spadaro has discovered a brand of Protestantism he doesn’t like", the latter of which is not adequate to the task it undertakes) along with numerous social media criticisms, I think the central thesis of Spadoro's and Figueroa's piece was lost.

Before coming to the thesis of the article, I want to explain why I think it was lost. How one arrives at a conclusion matters. The more precise the argument the more convincing the conclusion. What was offered in the article as the explanation of the brand of U.S. politics at which the authors took aim maintained a cruising altitude of 50,000'. In other words, it was too general and not nearly nuanced enough in its consideration of the relationship between Christianity and politics in the United States over roughly the last century. In my view and that of some more expert that me, Spadoro and Figueroa did not provide a credible exposition of the historical dynamics that have led to so many Catholics adopting what they see as an un-, perhaps even anti-, Catholic the political stance. Hence, their "take" is subject both to criticism and correction.

However deficient Spadoro's and Figueroa's historical explanation might be, when it comes to describing the current state-of-affairs, specifically how many Catholics came not only to vote for but enthusiastically support Donald Trump and his political agenda, which offends against Catholic social teaching on many matters (this is the case with both major political parties in the U.S., which is why I belong to neither), I think they do so quite accurately. I don't think their oversimplified history negates their main point, which is to set forth something that is at the heart of the Franciscan papacy, which is truly post-secular:

Pope Francis, a post-secular Pontiff
The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the 'final clash.' Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need
It seems to me that many Catholics in the U.S. today try to draw parallels between the Church's current situation and that of the Church's first 3+ centuries. For sure, there are parallels to be drawn, but the situations, on close examination, are quite different. For one thing, the early Church did not have the burden of centuries of Christendom to bear. The Christian message is often crushed by this weight.

One thing I think everyone agrees on is that Christianity no longer enjoys the cultural and political hegemony it once enjoyed in Western nations. Such influence wanes more all the time and shows no signs of waxing. Nonetheless (and this may be disappointing to some), I don't believe we're in imminent danger of full-out persecution in the West. People are simply more indifferent towards and suspicious of religion in general and Christianity in particular. If we're honest we must acknowledge that, along with the bad reasons, there are a some good ones. This indifference and suspicion will cause us some problems; it already has.

Right in tune with Pope Francis, in fact preceding him, is the work of the Czech priest, psychologist, philosopher Tomáš Halík, who insists the Church needs to go through the purification of secularization. In other words, we must grow accustomed to what Havel called the power of the powerless. In my view, for Christians today this is the power of joyful witness to God's mercy given in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Stayed tuned to Καθολικός διάκονος; tomorrow my homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.