Sunday, October 7, 2018

I get by with the help of some friends

These days I try to be more judicious about what I post on social media about my life. Keeping that in mind, I don't think I am over-sharing by stating that prior to yesterday's breakthrough the past two weeks or so I have been in one of my dark, depressive funks. These episodes come upon me unpredictably and sporadically. Typically, they are not prompted by seasonal change. In the early fall, I usually feel quite energized. I suppose the fact that this is my third post today here on Καθολικός διάκονος is evidence of the uptick, or somewhat "manic" side of my mental equation.

There are 6 things that helped pull me through: 1- the love of God, especially given me in the Sacrament of Penance; 2- the intercession of our Blessed Mother (I was able to pray the Rosary daily excepting one day- the nadir- these episodes make it difficult, sometimes impossible to pray); 3- the selfless patience-to-the-point-of-heroic-virtue of my wife; 4- the intercession of my dear heavenly friends Gianni Molla, Matt Talbot, and Cora Evans; 5- my Guardian angel; 6- the music of Amy Grant.

As to the significance of Amy Grant's music in this latest bout with the metaphorical "Black Dog," this past Tuesday, 2 October, Roman Catholics observed liturgical Memorial of the Guardian Angels. As I was reflecting on this observance, Amy's song "Angels" just popped, unbidden, into my mind. This, in turn, prompted me to retrieve her album The Collection, which I have on CD, so I could listen to it in my car. Who knows perhaps the unbidden remembrance of "Angels," which also took me back to my early days a Christian. It wasn't just a sentimental trip but a calling-to-mind that has really helped me.

Perhaps all-too predictably, our late traditio is Amy Grant singing "Thy Word." Now that it is October, a new month, I will endeavor to be more diligent about putting up tradio post and making a few observations along the way.

I will not forget
Your love for me and yet
My heart forever is wandering.
Jesus be my guide,
And hold me to your side,
I will love you to the end

How do two become one?

Readings: Gen 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6; Heb 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

Given how contentious the subject of marriage has become, I am tempted to avoid our reading from Genesis and the Gospel and focus instead on the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. It is not a surprise to both my readers that, apart from the Gospel of Mark, Hebrews is perhaps my favorite of all books found in the Bible.

It is useful to note that during the long season of Ordinary Time that runs from Corpus Christi to the Feast of the Christ the King, we read from the featured Gospel (we're in Year B of the three-year Lectionary cycle and so that Gospel is Mark's) in a semi-continuous manner. In the Lectionary during this time, the first reading, taken from the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is harmonized with the Gospel reading. The Epistle readings, on the other hand, are also presented in a semi-continuous manner. And so, we spend several weeks reading from one of the New Testament letters. Last week we finished our time in the Letter of St. James. The Epistle reading may or may not be harmonized with the first reading and the Gospel. It would seem, at first glance, that our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this week is not harmonized.

Someone may protest - "Wait a minute! The first reading and the Gospel speak about marriage and the Epistle reading tells us how we are made perfect through suffering. How much more harmony could you ask for, dim-witted deacon?" Okay, okay! There is both a mildly humorous, if very clichéd, and a serious sense in which these readings are in harmony or can be meaningfully harmonized. I know from the experience of being married for 25 years that two being made one flesh is a painful becoming. Anyone who has been married for awhile, even if "happily," can also attest to this reality. The secret to remaining married, as far as I can tell, is just not to give up. You're never beaten until you quit.

If the existential realization of becoming one flesh is having children together, then, like marriage, the difficulties and pains, the joys and sorrows, of raising children is a means of sanctification, a way to become holy together. You must become holy together. Nobody is sanctified all by herself. If, as the Buddha asserted, to live is to suffer, to love, which always requires us to take a risk, is not only to endure suffering but to do so by choice. It's not a one-time choice but one you need to make over and over. If we're honest, in marriage and as parents, suffering is not only that which we endure, but is something we inflict on others due to our weakness, our forgetfulness, our tendency to be very self-centered. So, despite the apparent lack of harmony, there is, in fact, a deep harmony between our reading from Hebrews and our readings from Genesis and Mark concerning marriage and not merely a trivial, clichéd, and mildly humorous one.

As the our reading from Hebrews tells us, Christ is our leader on the way to salvation. Therefore, it becomes necessary as we make our way to the Sabbath rest that the inspired author of this letter, which was probably a long sermon, articulates so beautifully, to unite our sufferings to the Lord's so that they might have salvific value not only for us but for the whole world.

Lest I strike too depressing a note, for most of us, marriage and parenting are not only sources of suffering but sources of life's greatest joys. This seems to be a law of human of life: those relationships that cause us the most pain are also, at least potentially, the source of life's greatest joy.

Of course, as Catholics, we believe that marriage is a sacramental sign of Christ's relationship with his Bride, the Church. We believe that the Church is the sacrament of salvation in and for the world. Being not just a sign, but a sacramental one, which means that it is what it signifies (this is what makes it a mystery), married couples mediate Christ's presence to the world and for it. By making their homes a domestic church, married couples give deep meaning to the Church as the sacrament of salvation. Home is a place where everyone belongs. A place where you come as you are, as who are, and are assured of a warm, hospitable welcome.

In what is known as Jesus's High Priestly Prayer, which is St John's account of Christ's prayer in the garden, after which his excruciating Passion began to unfold, the Lord prayed that those who believe in him would "all be one" (John 17:21). In addition to praying that we all be one, as he one with Father, he intimated how this unity is achieved. Praying to the Father in the Spirit, Jesus prayed: "I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one..." (John 17:23). The relevant question this prompts is: How does Jesus come to be in us? The top-level answer is, Jesus comes to be in us by the Holy Spirit. More specifically, that is, more concretely, Christ comes to be present in by means of the sacraments. More precisely still, Christ comes to be present among us, in us, and through us in the Eucharist. It is the Eucharist that makes e pluribus unum - out of many, one.

It is through his self-emptying in the Eucharist that Christ makes manifest his love for his Bride, which is nothing other than love for the world and everyone in it. Among the expressions of the unity wrought by the Eucharist, marriage might just be the premiere expression, if married couples seek to intentionally live their marriage as the sacrament it intended to be. I am hard-pressed to imagine anything in the world designed to make us less selfish, to make us more self-emptying and self-sacrificial than marriage and parenting. Of course, this doesn't happen through mere sentiment, through affectivity- though it would be impossible without any. It happens by engaging daily circumstances, facing life's ups and downs, all of those possibilities mentioned when we make our vows: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, etc. Like most vows and religious stuff, this much easier sad than done.

While not brought about exclusively through suffering, two becoming one requires endurance through thick and thin. Our Sunday readings these past several weeks have been teaching us about what I like to call the inverse property of salvation: without the cross there is no resurrection and with the resurrection the cross is pointless cruelty. Today's lesson is a powerful one.

Ushering in God's Reign is not primarily a political project

Several years ago I gave up blogging about current events for the most part. In short, I am too busy to keep up with the onslaught of what happens everyday enough to provide commentary on it. Heaven knows, there is enough news commentary without me pitching in my two cents. I cannot imagine attempting to keep up during this made-for-Reality-television presidency. This does not mean I have given up staying abreast of what's happening in my community, state, country, and in the world.

Like a lot of people, I have found the Kavanaugh hearings very hard to take. The outcome (i.e. Kavanaugh being confirmed) is most disheartening. I think the legitimacy of the Supreme Court has been very tenuous for most Americans for decades. Kavanaugh's confirmation, in my view, will only serve to further de-legitimize the court.

As someone who has blogged for 12 years and counting it's difficult not to be somewhat self-referential. With that confession, I will assert again: the Supreme Court, like the presidency, currently plays a role in our republic it was never envisioned to play. This is the result of Congress, both houses, largely abdicating their role. Kavanaugh's confirmation, topped off by what I can only describe as Sen. Susan Collins's very disappointing speech on Friday, is but the latest case in point of this abdication. Don't worry, what follows is not a detailed account of what has transpired these in Washington, D.C. these past two weeks. I haven't the time or energy to produce such a post.

Writing for, Simone Stolzoff asserts that there is a horrendous downside of great perks at the office (see "Cushy office perks are a trap"). Indeed, there are. Her article runs deeper than the title indicates (this is refreshing, in the age of "content" it is usually the opposite). Stolzoff cites Neil Postman, a most prescient observer: "Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history ... As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

I think Orwell and Huxley were both right. On an even more fundamental matter Dostoevsky was correct. This is powerfully demonstrated in a section of his great novel The Brothers Karamazov entitled "The Grand Inquisitor." In "The Grand Inquisitor," Dostovesky powerfully demonstrated that we don't really want to be free. Our resistance to the liberation Christ came to bring has been detrimental for the Church. Instead of standing prophetically against our ultimately nihilistic human impulses made respectable by politics, with rare exceptions here and there (Oscar Romero, pray for us), the Church has often caved into these and, hence, very much become a distortion of what she is supposed to be. Ah, the Casta Meretrix, or Chaste Whore.

Soon-to-be-saint Oscar Romero

Midterm elections are approaching. Obviously, the political stakes in this particular election are high. There are a lot of impassioned pleas to vote, including ones from Christians. I read an article in a Catholic publication this past week that asserted it is by voting that we help bring about the Kingdom of God. This is false. Voting in an election, no matter who you vote for or how well-informed and conscientious your vote, will not usher in the reign of God (i.e., the kingdom of God). This is not an anti-voting screed. Though I think, when one looks at viable candidates, there is a case to be made for conscientiously choosing not to vote. Voting is not a moral requirement. If you conscientiously choose not to vote, you have committed no sin. Not voting doesn't mean you must remain silent, what a bunch of crap that assertion is. I write this as someone who votes and who plans to vote in the upcoming election, despite it largely being an exercise in futility. I am slow to shed the vestiges of moralism.

While politics matter, they are provisional, not ultimate. This is why, as Catholics, voting requires no little prudential judgment. Things like not voting for a candidate because s/he supports abortion-on-demand but being able, morally, to vote for such a candidate despite her/his pro-abortion stance based on other factors is one example of what I mean by using prudential judgment when voting. After all, there are certain social policies that can empirically be shown to reduce abortions. Sadly, most, if not all, of these policies are opposed by many people who also oppose abortion. While opposing abortion is necessary for being pro-life, it is not sufficient. Our bishops in the U.S. have given us fairly good guidance on the prudential judgment voting requires: Faithful Citizenship.

The revolution required for God's reign cannot and will not be primarily a matter of worldly power-seeking, that is, politics. This is where the witness of Bl. (soon to be saint) Oscar Romero can inform us in a very detailed and contemporary manner. As is asserted in Ephesians: "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness..." (6:12). Romero grasped and articulated this very well:
Don't become fanatics because you don't look from within this one organization, of this one project, at the whole political panorama of the common good of our people. You have to be a citizen who, from the perspective of Christian hope, understands another who has a different political project, and work together to seek the kingdom of God so that it might be made flesh...
This is also demonstrated by an observation made by the late and saintly Don Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian prelate who served as archbishop of Olinda and Recife from 1964-1985: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Year B Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Num 11:25-29; Ps 19:8.10.12-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43.45.47-48

Nearly fifty years ago, theologian Karl Rahner observed: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all” (Karl Rahner, “Christian Living Formerly and Today,” in Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke, New York: Herder and Herder, 1971, 15, as quoted by Mary Steinmetz in her article “Thoughts on the Experience of God in the Theology of Karl Rahner: Gifts and Implications,” 1). From a Christian perspective, a mystic, at least for Rahner, as well as in the Church’s tradition, is not someone with her head in the clouds all the time, who lives a life disconnected from the world, its people and their concerns. A mystic is a person in whom God’s transcendence and God’s immanence intersect. Because it flows from the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, Christian spirituality is always incarnational. For the genuine mystic, love of neighbor is the result of experiencing divine love.

Mysticism is the fruit of contemplation. Contemplation, in turn, is the root of Christian action. Thomas Merton put this simply: “Action is the stream and contemplation is the spring” (No Man Is an Island, 73- First Shambala Library edition).

In light of our first reading, we may well ask, “What does it mean to be a prophet?” As Moses’s response indicates, a prophet is a person filled with the Spirit. As we learn elsewhere in Scripture, like the wind, the Spirit “blows where it wills” (John 3:8). As a result, while the Church, being the sacrament of salvation in and for the world (Lumen Gentium, sec. 48), remains indispensable (albeit not in the way we are inclined to think it so), no group or person has a monopoly on God. As the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World stated:
since Christ died for all [people], and since the ultimate vocation of [every human being] is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every[one] the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery (Gaudium et Spes, sec. 22)
If there’s one thing we should learn from Jesus’s life and ministry it is that God is made manifest to us in the most unpredictable ways. Because God is always at work in the world in the most unexpected people and situations, overcoming the idolatry to which we are all naturally quite prone, means recognizing that we can’t manufacture an encounter with the Mystery. Finding God, as it were, is very often counter-intuitive. The most profound proof of this assertion is that the Son of God, Jesus, whom we revere as the Christ, became one of us, not as the emperor Rome, but as a marginal member of a marginal people. From a worldly perspective, Jesus was born a nobody.

In the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus and the Twelve journey to Jerusalem from their native Galilee only once. We are currently reading from the section of St. Mark’s Gospel that is referred to by some scholars as “On the Way” (“On the Way” section Mark 8:14-10:52). It begins with the restoration of the blind man’s sight in Bethsaida and ends with Jesus’s restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight in Jericho just before heading up the mountain to Jerusalem, where he will undergo his thrice-predicted passion and death.

From Bethsaida, Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages in the region of Caesarea-Philippi. It is while making their way to Caesarea-Philippi that Peter, speaking for the Twelve, confesses Jesus as “the Christ” (Mark 8:29). With the first prediction of his passion and death that follows Peter’s confession, the Lord inaugurates what might be called a school of discipleship, which he teaches as he makes his way to the cross (Mark 8:31).

This school of discipleship consists of three lessons, each of which begins with Jesus predicting his passion and death. These lessons follow a three-fold pedagogy: Jesus predicts his passion and death, the Twelve demur, Jesus teaches his reluctant followers what it means to be his disciple. Our Gospel reading for today is part of the second lesson. Last week’s Gospel, which was the beginning of the second lesson in Christian discipleship, ended with the Lord’s insistence that whoever would be greatest must become the least, by which he means becoming childlike (Mark 8:33-37).

In the first section of today’s Gospel, Jesus expands what it means to be the least, to be childlike, which is infinitely different from being childish. The difference between the two primarily consists of the difference between being selfless and selfish.

The first part of today's Gospel is about not being jealous and narrow-minded in a childish way. One of the Twelve, John, becomes upset when he encounters someone driving out demons in Jesus’s name. He was so upset, in fact, that he tried to stop the man from doing it because he did not belong to Jesus’s traveling band of disciples. Jesus challenges John’s indignation directly by stating that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Being much like John, we often reverse this by insisting that “whoever is not for us is against us.”

Of course, in St. Matthew’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (See Matthew 12:26-30). It is important to notice the difference in context between these two utterances. The one John encounters healing in Jesus’s name is gathering with Jesus, cooperating in his ministry of liberating people from their demons. In the context of Matthew’s quote, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of the devil. Those who oppose him in that instance are not interested in the liberation Christ brings, they remain intent to lay heavy burdens on themselves and on others (Matthew 23:4).

All of this allows us to conclude by considering our very challenging Epistle reading, taken from the Letter of James. After the manner of Jesus, the inspired author reminds us that far from being a blessing from God, riches and/or focusing your life on obtaining them is a curse and a path to damnation. This flies in the face of a lot of what passes for Christianity in the U.S. Inexplicably, many U.S. Catholics have adopted this very un-Catholic view. Such a view holds either explicitly or implicitly that wealth and prosperity are God's blessing on the righteous and God-fearing. The Gospel insists on the opposite; riches and material comfort are obstacles to salvation, not assurances of it in the here and now.

Today, my friends, we need to take Jesus's insistence that the greatest in God's kingdom is the least with the utmost seriousness. This means investing your time, efforts and resources in ushering in God's reign. In the end, investing in others, especially in those who lack life's necessities, is the only investment worth making. Orthodoxy means correct confession, or, more simply, right belief. Orthopraxy, on the other hand, refers to correct practice or doing the right thing. As would-be disciples of Jesus, we need to recognize that “there is no orthodoxy without orthopraxy” (Vladimir Lossky cited by Jonathan Warren in “Lancelot Andrewes, the Star of Preachers”).

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Year B Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 50:5-9a; Ps 116:1-6.8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

What does it mean to have faith? Too often we reduce faith to mere belief, to affirming the truth of certain propositions. Defined this way, faith doesn’t require anything other than holding certain beliefs. From a Christian perspective, this way of defining faith is utterly inadequate. This is made clear in our challenging reading from the Letter of James, which tells us not only that faith without works is dead but insists that faith without works is no faith at all.

The flower of faith is hope and its fruit is love. Just as faith does not consist of intellectually affirming a bunch of stuff, love does not exclusively, or even primarily, consist of having positive feelings for others. While love usually has an affective dimension, at its core, it isn’t a feeling, but an act of your will. Love means making the choice to put the interests of someone else before your own. Love, then, is often a very difficult choice.

As Christians, living our faith is not easy. Following Christ doesn’t just cost you something, it costs you everything. Faith that is true brings the person of faith to the realization that the glory of the resurrection only comes after the cross. Hence, it is important not to try to evade or avoid the cross. Besides, in the end, you can’t.

If the Buddha was right about anything, he was right in his assertion that to live is to suffer. Suffering, in some form or another, will afflict you if it has not already. Anyone with any experience of life can attest to this. Hence, you do not need to find ways to make yourself suffer. Spiritualities that bid you inflict suffering on yourself should be avoided. Neither is God the cause of your suffering.

It is difficult if not impossible to preach or write about suffering without sounding glib. As I prepared this homily I thought of many people who have suffered greatly, much more than I have, saying “If you experienced what I have experienced you couldn’t say what you’re trying to say.” In all honesty, these people may be correct. I have no great counter-argument to this.

In a soon-to-be-published book, Cistercian monk Erik Varden wrote: “The anguish of the world… is embraced by an infinite benevolence investing it with purpose” (see “Spirituality without platitudes”- The Tablet Interview: Erik Varden, 12 September 2018, by Maggie Fergusson). When questioned in an interview how you might communicate this to someone experiencing intense suffering without angering that person or at least making her roll her eyes, Varden said, “One can only try to communicate it by trying to embody the benevolence without naming it” (Ibid). Where words fail, works prevail.

How you respond to suffering is a good gauge of faith. Suffering provides you with the opportunity to experience faith. In and of itself, suffering has no redemptive value. What gives suffering redemptive value is the work wrought by having faith, by which you can unite your suffering to Christ’s (Col 1:24). Suffering presents you with an opportunity to experience not only that God is with you when you suffer but shows you just how God works in and through your suffering to accomplish his purposes in you and through you, if you let him. After all, Jesus himself, as we learn in the Letter to the Hebrews, was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:10).

Our first reading today is a passage from one of four so-called Servant Songs found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The central figure in these texts is the Suffering Servant, which, as Christians, we view as prophecies about Christ. The Servant Songs were written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, a time when Israel was suffering greatly. Ancient Israelites believed themselves to be God’s chosen people and Israel was their promised land. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to imagine the cognitive dissonance that resulted from Israel being conquered by a foreign power, having the Temple desecrated, their land occupied, and many Israelites led away into captivity. Is this what God lets happen to his chosen people? Is this how God keeps his promises?

While walking to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi, the Lord asks his disciples what people were saying about him, who they thought he was. Keep in mind, they are still in their native Galilee and have not yet ventured to Jerusalem where Jesus will encounter fierce opposition, much fiercer than what he encountered in our Gospel reading two weeks ago when certain Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem were questioning him about his disciples’ lax observance of Jewish law. This is why the responses to his question about what people were saying about him were positive: John the Baptist, Elijah or another of the prophets.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter, speaking on behalf of the Twelve, confesses him as “the Anointed.” Christos, or “Christ,” is a Greek word meaning “Anointed.” At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is still keeping what some New Testament scholars call “the Messianic Secret.” In other words, despite his teaching, healing, and performing miracles, he is not yet ready to fully reveal himself as the Messiah, the Christ. This is why “he warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:30).

Grasping that his disciples knew he was the Christ, “He began to teach them that [he] must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” (Mark 8:31). His disciples not only found this incomprehensible but unacceptable. This is what prompted Peter to pull him aside and rebuke him. In reply, Jesus told him frankly that he was thinking in a very human way, a way in which the Lord, being human, was also tempted think. This human way of thinking stands in stark contrast to the ways of God. Christ was glorified not just through his suffering and death but by his suffering and death.

The Lord is not content to leave the matter by only referring to his own rejection, “great” suffering, and death. Gathering his disciples around him, Jesus tells them what it means to follow him. Following Jesus means denying yourself and taking up your cross. The ultimate denial of one’s self is the willingness to lose one’s life for Christ’s sake and the sake of the Good News. This could refer to martyrdom or to simply living in a sacrificial manner for Christ.

It bears noting that traditionally the Gospel of Mark is held to originate from the seventh decade of the first century in Rome. The milieu in which this Gospel was written, then, was one in which Christians were being persecuted and even killed by the Roman authorities. One way to save your life in such circumstances is to deny your faith. If we jump ahead three verses beyond where our reading for this Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ends, to the last verse of the eighth chapter of St. Mark, Jesus says something very sobering: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words… the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). To know the Lord and to be ashamed of him, to renounce him, is worse than never knowing him at all.

As Jesus showed us by his passion and death, the road to glory is not glorious. Denying yourself to serve others as well as bearing your own suffering for Christ’s sake is the work genuine faith produces. This is captured well by St. Paul at the beginning of the second chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God (2 Cor 1:3-4)
The point here is summed up very nicely by the first line of the final stanza of the Prayer of St. Francis: "O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console." The final line of this prayer is relevant for us today as well: "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

What Peter does not like about what Jesus tells him after confessing him as “the Christ” is the same thing we don't like, namely, without exception, the cross precedes the resurrection. This reveals that, like Peter, we often think in an all-too-human way. This means we need to repent. Metanoia is the word found in the New Testament that is usually translated into English as “repent” (see Mark 1:14). Metanoia does not mean showing contrition, or sorrow, for your sins . It means having your mind transformed by the Spirit so that you can have what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor 2:11-16). This transformation is a lifelong process, a process in which suffering plays a key role.

Having the mind of Christ means understanding you gain through loss, you win by losing, you live by dying. Far from sparing you trouble, choosing to follow Jesus may be the source of worldly troubles. Faith certainly will not spare you all suffering. Surely, conquering in the paradoxical manner of Jesus is precisely what the inspired author of 1 John refers to when he writes: “And the victory that conquers the world is our faith” (1 John 5:4).

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ephphatha! Open our hearts

Readings: Isa 3:4-7a; Ps 146:6-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

This past week, Wednesday in fact, the Church observed the liturgical memorial of St Teresa of Calcutta. St Teresa is more familiarly known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order that serves the poorest of the poor. I point to Mother Teresa because her life exemplified the overarching point of our readings today, which is that we best perceive Jesus in the poor. It was Mother Teresa who, speaking of the poor she spent her life serving, said: "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." Michael Card wrote and recorded a lovely song about this: "Distressing Disguise."

It is so obvious that we don't notice it most of the time, but Christianity, the Church, at least in the United States and most advanced Western countries, is largely a middle-to-upper class affair. Our churches are comfortable places, which, while theoretically open to everyone, practically have become places in which a person of the kind described in our second reading would likely never set foot. Look around your church this weekend. How many poor people, people on the margins, people who are down-and-out do you see? Chances are none-to-very few. Looking around we probably see people very much like ourselves. Of course, there's probably ethnic and cultural diversity, there are men and women, girls and boys. If you look closer, there may even be some gay or lesbian folks. No doubt, it is good that there is (hopefully) a fairly diverse assembly gathering together to praise and worship God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. A good thing for us to consider today before being sent forth to proclaim the Good News, however, is how committed is your congregation, your parish, to serving the poor and inviting them to the Eucharistic banquet. It's important that our parish's main mission is not serving ourselves. This is just the kind of self-referential sickness Pope Francis is calling on the Church to diagnose and treat.

Our very challenging reading from the Letter of St James ends with the inspired author posing rhetorical question: "Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" The answer to this question is, "Yes, God chose the poor." This is not some metaphor, it is meant quite literally. Most of the earliest Christian assemblies consisted, to a large degree, of the urban poor. This should be a perennial challenge to each of us individually and to our local assemblies.

That God reaches out to all is profoundly demonstrated in our Gospel today, which finds Jesus in a non-Jewish area, the Decapolis. The man who was brought to Jesus was almost certainly a Gentile, as were the people who brought him. At that time, to be deaf and mute was a much worse handicap than it is now. There was no such thing as universal sign language, which meant those who could not hear or speak could not communicate or be communicated with very easily. They were outcasts who were often reduced to begging in order survive. Jesus's healing of the man is a sure sign that he is the Messiah foretold by our first reading in Isaiah.

Something to which we need to attend in these readings is the prophecy and its fulfillment. Isaiah's prophecy is given in very flowery and exalted language. It is given in a way that makes the hearer think "When this happens, I will perceive it." But the prophecy's fulfillment happens in the real-world and in real-time. It consists of Jesus agreeing to lay his hand on a deaf and if not mute then inarticulate deaf Gentile who was brought to him. Look at what Jesus does: he takes the man off by himself, sticks his fingers in his ears, spits, then touching the man's tongue, looks up to heaven while groaning and utters the Aramaic word Ephphatha!, which means "Be opened!" I can only read this as being indicative of Jesus, the Messiah and Lord, laboring to bring about the Messianic kingdom, which is a new creation. This Kingdom is open to anyone and everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews. In God's Kingdom there is no us and them, there is only an us. In short, everything that Isaiah mentions is happening but you can perceive it only if you're paying attention and have idea as to what you're looking for.

All who witnessed the miracle Jesus performed could not keep quiet about it, despite the Lord imploring them not to tell anyone. In fact, the more he implored them to keep quiet the more compelled they were to tell others what they had seen him do. While most if not all of the witnesses were Gentiles, simply proclaiming what Jesus had done (i.e., "He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak"), they hail him as the Messiah. Even if only to his Jewish disciples, who no doubt were with him, it became a matter of Gentiles evangelizing the Jews: "Look! Here is your Messiah!"

How we hear and see Jesus is in the poor, the destitute, the outcast, the victim, which in our current situation is vitally important. There's a reason Jesus proclaimed that tax collectors and prostitutes were closer to God's Kingdom than many who considered themselves righteous. If we fail to see Jesus in these least then we remain deaf and blind. If deaf, then mute, not literally mute, but because our deeds do not match our words they are rendered, not unintelligible, incredible, that is, lacking any credibility. If we remain in this state, instead of being heralds of the Good News, we become purveyors of pious piffle. Today let us pray, "Lord, open our eyes, our ears, and hearts that we might recognize you in all your disguises, many of which are distressing to us."

To flesh this out more, I invite you to read as article by Dr. John M. Perkins that appears in the current issue of Plough, a quarterly to which you should subscribe: "Beyond Racial Reconciliation."

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"There will be an answer, let it be"

I did not forget to post a traditio yesterday. I was simply busy with many things, good things. Unlike my early days as a blogger, blogging is way down on my list of priorities. I have been thinking all week about the Viganò "testimony," which is turning out be mostly false. I have been rather vocal about it o social media. On my blog and henceforth on other social media platforms I am taking Pope Francis's high road, confident that what the testimony declares as it bears on Francis's conduct as pope is simply not true. His story unravels more each day.

I will point to a statement by my former bishop, John Wester, who now serves as archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in support of Pope Francis. More than his public support for the Holy Father, I think he hit the nail on the head when he denounces that smear campaign against the pope as vile in that it detracts from the victims. Exploiting the crisis in this way is cynical in the extreme. In many ways, as a Church, we still do not get it.

On a brighter note, today is the Nativity of the Blessed Mary. Yes, today we celebrate the birthday of the Mother of God, Mary most holy. We need our Blessed Mother's intercession very badly in our present moment. So, pray the Rosary today. May I suggest the Glorious Mysteries, which include the Virgin's bodily Assumption into heaven and her coronation as Queen of Heaven?

A photo I took of a page from a book on the Rosary's Glorious Mysteries we use with our young sons

I can't claim to be a great fan of The Beatles. By no means does this indicate I don't like the band. My ambivalence toward The Beatles is more generational than anything. One Beatles' song I have always loved, even prior to becoming Roman Catholic in my 20s is "Let It Be." In fact, when I was diaconate formation I wrote a reflection on this song for an assignment. In college, towards the beginning of the time I started to think seriously about becoming Catholic, I had a powerful experience with this song. This experience was the focus of the reflection I wrote in formation. It also coheres with Pope Francis's serene approach to the falsehoods.

Unsurprisingly, our weekly traditio is The Beatles' "Let It Be." I am posting it with a twist- the recently departed Aretha Franklin singing it. Yes, I grasp that this twice in just a few weeks I have made recourse to Aretha singing Marian songs. I am weird like that, deal with it.

All in all, another pretty distressing week. Be assured I am working hard on not reducing my blog to a catalogue of woes. I don't mind saying I am finding that pretty difficult right now, which is a reason I have not posted much lately. You see, as a Roman Catholic clergyman in the United States right now it is difficult to write or say anything that doesn't relate to the abuse crisis, lest you be seen as ignoring the elephant in the room. On the other hand, what else is there to say, really? Words fail, get old, begin to make matters worse, not better.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Year B Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut 4:1-2.6-8; Ps 15:2-5; James 1:17-18.21b-22.27; Mark 7:1-8.14-15.21.23

The end or purpose of God’s Law, known by Jews as the Torah, is to “love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Deut 6:5) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Hence, the Torah itself was given to Israel, God’s chosen people, as the means to achieve this end. This is why, in our first reading from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are sternly warned against adding to or subtracting from the Torah. Truth be told, over the centuries, they both added to and subtracted from it.

The result of adding and subtracting was that many in Israel, including the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’s day, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, became very hung up on the minute details of the Law. For many observant Jews, adhering to the Torah meant obeying the 613 mitzvot. Mitzvot is a Hebrew word that means “words.” The 613 words, then, are rules, that is, prescriptions and proscriptions, dos and donts.

The scribes and Pharisees in our Gospel today criticized Jesus’s followers for eating without first ritually washing their hands. Lest we read back into the Gospel in an anachronistic way, it is important to point out that this ritual had nothing to do with hygiene- nothing was then known about germs and microbes. According to St Mark, the ritual of washing one’s hands up to the elbows before eating was a “tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). Stated simply, not only is Jesus saying whether or not you wash your hands before eating has no bearing on whether you are righteous (to the delight of children everywhere), he contends that what you eat doesn’t matter either. In other words, eating non-kosher foods does not defile you. According to Jesus, what defiles are the long list of things he enumerates. These, he states in no uncertain terms, come from within, not from without.

The essence of Jesus’s criticism of the hand-washing ritual was that the scribes and Pharisees with whom he was disputing were substituting man-made rules for divine commandments. We need to always keep in mind, as truly observant Jews then and now certainly do, that the Torah was given as a means to the end of loving God and neighbor. God’s Law has no other purpose. This is why Jesus calls them hypocrites. Hypokrites is a Greek word for an actor whose face is hidden behind a mask. In this context, Jesus is telling the scribes and Pharisees who are criticizing his disciples that because they mistake the means for the end they are phonies, play actors, observing the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit and purpose.

Never once did Jesus denigrate the Torah. How could he? Who the Lord is critical of are those who add to and/or subtract from it. He is critical of those who seek to make the means the end, who think righteousness is simply a matter of rule-keeping, not love. Jesus always teaches from the heart of the Torah. The commandment to love God with your whole being is given in the Torah- Deuteronomy 6:5- as is the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself- Leviticus 19:18. What is sin after all if not my failure to love? That sin is a failure to love is indicated in the Act of Contrition, which we say after confessing our sins and before receiving absolution: “in choosing to do wrong and failing to good I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all things.” We all know first-hand that it is easy to honor God with our lips while keeping our hearts far from him. A big part of what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

Heaven knows, as Catholics we have plenty of rules: fasting one hour before receiving communion, observing Fridays as days of penance, abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays of Lent, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, coming to Mass each Sunday and on holy days, going to confession at least once a year, materially supporting the Church, etc. As disciples of Jesus, all of us should routinely practice the spiritual disciplines taught us by the Lord himself: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Far from disparaging any of this, I think they are important enough to find out why we are obligated to do them and then to do them in the proper spirit, which means doing them in order to learn to love like Jesus loves.

In light of what’s recently been revealed recently, about which we have spoken the previous two Sundays, this Friday, 7 September, the first Friday of this new month, Bishop Oscar has called for a day of prayer, penance and reparation in all parishes and schools throughout our diocese. Apart from giving us the specific intention of penance, healing and reparation, our bishop has only asked of us what our pastor, Fr Rene, asks of us the first Friday of each month going back several years: to set aside a time on First Fridays for a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, to celebrate Benediction and assist at Mass. I think it is important to point out that this is not an obligation. It is not something you must do. You are free to participate or not. If not an obligation, this Friday certainly presents us with the opportunity to come together as a community formed by the Eucharist and together turn to the Lord, who is Mercy. Coming together around the Eucharist also gives us the chance to resist the temptation to divide into “us” and “them,” the “goodies” and the “baddies.” Christ became human, became our brother, became one of us in order to make of humanity only an us without a them. His means of doing this is the Church, which is made by the Eucharist.

Our reading from the Letter of St James challenges us not to just be hearers of God’s word but to be doers of it. To receive God’s word and not act on it, James tells us, is to deceive yourself. Much religion, I think we can safely say, is bad religion. Even Christianity can be twisted, distorted and put to evil use. Such forms of Christianity, of course, are not genuine. Too often we are content to worship a God of our own making, which is idolatry, the first thing the Ten Commandments forbid. By contrast, being a Christian means constantly having your understanding of God challenged and so deepened. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has challenged the Church repeatedly on this point.

True religion, James reminds us, demands that we care for the afflicted and keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” These are not two separate things; they are integrally related. Grasping that caring for the afflicted and keeping ourselves unstained by the world are inextricably linked enables us to do away with the false distinction between “compromising activities” and “pure realities.” Compromising activities are activities we must engage to some extent simply as a matter of being alive and human, things like “the family, the state, the individual body, psyche” (Rowan Williams The Wound of Knowledge, 11). “Pure realities,” on the other hand are those things held by people who adopt this kind of dualism as being “really real,” “the soul, the intelligible world,” etc (Ibid).

Christianity is easily co-opted by various kinds of reality-denying Gnosticism, which quickly turns into spiritual solipsism. When this happens, a person becomes completely concerned with something called individual holiness. If holiness consists of loving God and neighbor after the manner of Jesus, then it is impossible to attain holiness all on your own, without other people. After all, one person is no person. Proof of this is that God is a communion of persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Far from keeping our distance from the world, in order to remain unstained by it we must engage with the world precisely as Christians. Doing this requires a community, which is why we have a parish and why our parish is not merely some kind of spiritual fill-up station. Rather, being formed by the Eucharist, we strive to be an authentic community.

At the end of Mass, we are not sent forth to hideout until we gather together again next Sunday. Rather, we are sent forth to “glorify the Lord by our [lives]” (Roman Missal, sec. 144). We do this by living our daily circumstances through Christ, with Christ, in Christ and for Christ. We do this, in turn, by loving God with all that we are by loving our neighbor in all that we do.

Friday, August 31, 2018

"She bought a clock on Hollywood Boulevard the day she left"

A month ago I went to a concert here in Salt Lake City. Three bands played, The Fixx, X, and Psychedelic Furs respectively. Friday the week of the concert (3 August) "Stand or Fall" by The Fixx was our traditio (see "State your peace tonight"). It was my intention over the following two weeks to use a song from X and then one from the Furs as our Friday traditiot (correct plural nominative). Well, my friend and brother deacon died and then all hell, quite literally, broke loose. Oh, and that great musical gem, Aretha Franklin, also went to the Lord.

X- John Doe and Exene Cervenka- not DJ Bonebreak on drums- he was playing another instrument to Doe's right- 31 July in Salt Lake City, UT

"Los Angeles" by X is our traditio for this last Friday in August, not merely to get back on track but because it seems fitting. It's a song about fear and suspicion. It is about a divided world in which people are at odds with each other. Of course, this is a fitting description of the Church and the world these daze. I am firmly convinced that we are in dire need of a punk rock revival.

It was a great privilege to see X live.

Year II Twenty-first Friday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Cor 1:17-25; Ps 33:1-2.4-5.10-11; Matt 25:1-13

What does it mean to be wise? According to St Paul in our first reading, wisdom consists of knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified. I imagine that many first-time visitors to our church are struck by the giant crucifix suspended over the altar. Despite spending a lot of time here in the church, I am often struck by it. Somehow, I think St Paul would approve of our giant crucifix.

Because it is a great mystery, Paul is correct, it is difficult to speak eloquently about what Jesus accomplished by being crucified. The point he is making is that nobody comes to know the wisdom of God by being really smart or studying really hard. Knowing the wisdom of God results from experience. The experience that results in our grasping, even if in a small way, God’s wisdom is by encountering Jesus Christ, who wasn’t just crucified but who also rose from the dead.

Jesus spent the forty days after his resurrection appearing to the apostles and teaching them things they could understand only after experiencing his death and his rising from the dead (Acts 1:3). On the fortieth day after his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven (Acts 1:6-12). Ten days after he ascended, he sent his Holy Spirit upon the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles on the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). It is by means of his Holy Spirit that Christ remains present in us and among us until he returns in glory.

In a few moments when we receive Holy Communion, Christ will be in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit, after all, who transformed the bread we will receive into Christ. Because he comes to be in us in this amazing way, Christ can make himself present through us to others in an equally amazing way. Each time we gather together and receive the Body of Christ, in addition to once again being made his Body, we are sent forth to make Christ present wherever we are by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is summed up very nicely by a quote that is usually attributed to St Teresa of Ávila:
Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world
Wow! That’s a lot to think about. But we have to think about it not only to believe and understand but, more importantly, in order to live like Christians. Believing this and trying to live it might look foolish to a lot people who don’t share our faith. I think you agree that being a Christian can sound kind of crazy. As Christians, instead of getting back at those who do us wrong, we seek to forgive them. Instead of hating our enemies, as Christians, we are supposed to pray for them and seek their good. As Christians, instead of spending all our time and energy trying to grow very wealthy, we are to live below our means and use our money to help those in need. Instead of complaining about the suffering that comes our way in life, as followers of Jesus, we are take up our crosses. All of this is summarized in these words of Jesus: “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25).

Crucifix, St Olaf Church Bountiful, Utah- taken by Deacon Scott Dodge

The Greek word St Paul for wisdom in our first reading is sophia. All of you probably know at least one person named Sophia. In Greek, sophia does not just refer to wisdom, it means something like “awareness of reality according to all the factors that together constitute reality.” “Say what?” you might be asking. To make it a bit easier to understand, what I mean is that, even before God enters the picture, there are plenty of things that make up reality that we don’t perceive with our senses.

Let’s now bring God into the picture by turning to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who taught elementary school for a few years. He experimented with teaching algebra to kindergartners. Let's just say it didn't go very well. Anyway, Wittgenstein observed: “To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning” (Notebooks, 1914-1916, 8.7.16).

You realize the meaning of life by living wisely. This brings us to the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel today. Before going right to the parable, in addition to believing in Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension and his sending the Holy Spirit, we believe Jesus will return again. As his disciples stood watching him ascending to heaven, two men dressed in white stood beside them. One of the two, speaking to Jesus’s dumbfounded disciples, said: “why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). As Christians, we live in anticipation of Jesus’s return. This is what Jesus’s parable is about in today’s Gospel.

Jesus’s parable is an allegory. Christ is the bridegroom. The ten virgins are those who believe in Christ. Because they believe in Christ they eagerly await his return. The Bride, who is not explicitly mentioned, is the Church. The wedding feast is what we usually refer to as heaven. Of course, the wedding feast cannot begin until the groom arrives. It is the duty of the ten virgins to greet the groom when he turns up. It is important to notice that all ten fall asleep as they wait for the groom, who is delayed. When the groom finally arrives, waking up quickly, those who were prepared by bringing extra oil quickly prepared to greet the groom, while the other five tried to run out and buy some more oil. When they came back, it was too late, the wedding feast had begun without them and the door was locked and, despite their banging, the groom would not let them in.

The important question is, what does the oil represent in this parable? In all honesty, there is probably more than one way to answer this question. Jesus used parables as provocative illustrations, not precise expositions. Because of this we have to tread lightly when interpreting them. I think the oil just might be the presence of Christ in us. As we discussed, even in the Eucharist, Christ comes to be in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as it is the oil that keeps the fire burning in the lamps, it is the Holy Spirit who keeps “the flame of faith alive” in our hearts so that “When the Lord comes, [we] may go out to meet him with all the saints” (Rite of Baptism for Several Children, sec. 64).

By receiving the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, but also by going to confession regularly, we receive the oil, or grace, we need to live wisely, which is to live for Christ. Perhaps the price we pay for living wisely is to look like fools to some who don’t believe.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Make abusive and gravely errant clerics penitents

Like many Catholics I am troubled by the notion of “reducing” an errant cleric to the lay state. Such language clearly implies that the clerical state is superior to the lay state. It is not. All of us in orders are ordained to serve our sisters and brothers. While the need for the transitional diaconate (something that I go back-and-forth on) is questionable, the fact is every priest, which means every bishop, is ordained and so remains a deacon. Taken to its logical conclusion, at least when approached from a Catholic perspective, such a view also implies that men are superior to women, despite protests to contrary. Because of Baptism is the foundation on which all other vocations are built, including clerical one, belonging to the order of the laity is an elevated state. The alb we clerics wear under our vestments, over which we don our stoles and other vestments (i.e., chasubles, dalmatics, copes, etc.) symbolizes our Baptism. In view of this, it would be perfectly acceptable for all the baptized to wear an alb at Mass. I understand that most lay women and men who read this will say, "No thanks." I understand. I am simply trying to make a point using an illustration. I feel the same way about wearing clerics, something I do a few times a year.

I remember then-Bishop George Niederauer (he went on to serve as archbishop of San Francisco) sharing a story about another bishop. As I remember it, at supper for men who he was ordaining to the priesthood the next day, this bishop, who was going to ordain them, stood and addressed them with words like these: “Tomorrow the Church will ordain you priests because she can't trust you to be good laymen.” It is a famous story. I am sure someone could easily supply the details in a comment should s/he be so inclined. It is the not the details of the story in which I am interested but the point of the remark, which I am confident I have conveyed accurately enough. In his homily at our ordination Mass, Niederauer warned my classmates and I against thinking of ourselves as "Special Catholics." We were being ordained to serve our sisters and brothers and the wider world, not to gain some status for ourselves. Thinking about it now, it seems that at ordination we were reduced to the diaconate.

While this may be a proposal others have made in some form, what follows is my own formulation:

Instead of "reducing" erring clerics to the lay state, the Church should consider bringing back the order of Penitents and reserve this order only for abusive and gravely errant clerics. Upon their removal from the clerical state, abusive and gravely errant clericss are enrolled in the order of penitents. They remain penitents for a fixed minimum of time, which can be extended until such a time as they show the fruits of conversion. Only after this can a man be, once again, elevated to order of the laity. If an errant cleric refuses to become a penitent, he is automatically and publicly excommunicated. The only way he can ever be admitted back into the Church is via the order of penitents. Once excommunicated, the Church bears no responsibility to maintain him materially, except through her charitable programs, which we extend to anyone in need. Essentially, he's on his own until he wants to repent in sack cloth and ashes, literally. Even as a penitent, he is reduced to a very simple existence, which is both part of and conducive to repentance. I think, if done correctly, this can be restorative justice.

More fundamental still, I think Roman Catholics in particular require a saner, more biblical, more historical, that is, more Traditional, theology of holy orders. No reform is acceptable that does not include a more authoritative role for members of laity and women in particular. This should pertain not only to episcopal accountability but to the selection of bishops. After all, Baptism, not ordination, is the fundamental sacrament of Christian life.
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28)
In my view, the problems the Church continues to face do not flow from the Second Vatican Council, unless it is in reference to the Church not yet fully implementing it, but from the First Vatican Council. Vatican I, as it is called in ecclesiological short-hand, was the culmination of the ultramontane bender the Roman Catholic Church went on in the nineteenth century. This summer I read three books that really brought this home: the late Archbishop John R. Quinn's Revered and Reviled: A Re-Examination of Vatican Council I; John W. O'Malley's Vatican I: The Council and the Ultramontane Church; Hubert Wolf's The Nuns of Sant'Ambrosio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal.

In our current situation, the Church could use more bishops like John Quinn. Not that he was perfect but he was a committed Christian, which translated into being a committed and serious bishop, one who demonstrated how a bishop needs to learn and to grow, to read the signs of the times while remaining faithful to God's revelation in Christ as handed on in Scripture and Tradition. This summer I also re-read Quinn's Reform of the Papacy: The Costly Call to Christain Unity (Ut Unum Sint). While the program of reform he suggested in this book was a good-faith response to Pope John Paul II's invitation, issued in his encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint, Quinn was marginalized for setting it forth. We would be wise to consider much of what he proposed.

Instead of a response, Vatican I was a reaction to a rapidly-changing world. Vatican I was the climax of the Counter-Reformation, which went on way too long. One of the overarching goals of Vatican II was to bring an end to the Counter-Reformation. Ending the Counter-Reformation clearly falls under aggiornamento, an Italian word used by Pope John XXIII in his speech of 25 January 1959. It was in this speech Good Pope John surprised the world by announcing he was convening an ecumenical council. Essentially, aggiornamento refers to "bringing up to date." Along with the French word ressourcement, which invokes a return to the sources (i.e., Scripture and the early Church), aggiornamento constituted the program of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. With regard to re-establishing a better theology of the sacrament of orders, ressourcement is precisely what I am calling for. It's time to fully recover from the effects the Church's nineteenth century bender. Among other things, the current crisis presents the Church with an opportunity to do this.

In his Letter to the People of God, Pope Francis pointed to clericalism as the root cause of abuse and cover-up. Citing a letter he wrote to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who, in addition to serving as Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, serves as President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Holy Father noted that clericalism "not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people." Continuing, the Pontiff wrote: "Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say 'no' to abuse is to say an emphatic 'no' to all forms of clericalism."

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What can it mean to say "I do"?

Josh 24:1-2a.15-17.18b; Ps 34:2-3.1-21; Eph 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

Jesus tells his listeners in today's Gospel, many, if not most, of whom seem to be in the process of walking away- "the spirit gives life, while the flesh is of no avail" (John 6:63). In a seemingly incongruent manner, he says this in the context of telling them something they found not merely scandalous but deeply offensive to their religious beliefs and sensibilities, something that causes them to walk away from following him and return to their former way of life: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:54-56). The language that Jesus uses in describing himself as life-giving food and drink is very literal language. His listeners, who the inspired author no doubt conceived of as exclusively Jews, grasped this. Observant Jews are not even allowed to eat (think blustwurst- blood sausage) or drink the blood of animals, let alone human blood. To eat human flesh would be as unthinkable to them as it is to us and probably far more disgusting. There is a reason that one charge that was sometimes brought against Christians in the early Church was that of being cannibals.

Each Eucharistic Prayer in the Roman Missal features an epiclesis. Epiclesis is a Greek word meaning "to call down." Saying the epiclesis with hands extended over the bread and wine, the priest calls down the Holy Spirit upon these gifts. Here is the epiclesis for Eucharistic Prayer II:
Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body + and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ
It is the Holy Spirit, then, who transforms our gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Based on this, which, in turn, is rooted in the Incarnation as well as the death and resurrection of the Son of God, it seems the Spirit gives us life through the flesh and blood of Christ. It is by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ that together we are made the Body of Christ, the Church. The Church is Christ's Bride.

It's not such a big leap from the Body of Christ to the Bride of Christ. In St. John's Gospel, Jesus's public ministry begins with the miracle at a wedding feast in Cana. As I am sure you remember, at his mother's behest, the Lord turned six twenty-to-thirty gallon stone jars filled with water into the most excellent wine so the party could continue unabated. Mary's role in this event is highly significant. This strikes me as a coherent way to connect our reading from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians to our Gospel reading.

I hope that your parish used the longer the version of the reading from Ephesians. I hope this because reading the entire passage is the surest way to understand what is being communicated and to avoid the pitfalls of a truncated interpretation. It is of the utmost importance to note that this passage begins by establishing the equality of wife and husband: "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21). The equality of spouses is affirmed in the Latin Church's Code of Canon Law:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized" (Canon 1055 §1)
In Latin, which is the original language of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, the word translated into English as "partnership" is consortium. Consortio ("con" = with + "sortio" = casting lots). Forming a consortium by being married, two people cast their lots together. In English, "consortium" remains part of our business lexicon. Translated a bit more smoothy, a consortium, as it relates to marriage, means for two people to be "bound by the same destiny."

Failing to grasp the fundamental equality of spouses is bound to lead to a disastrous interpretation of this passage, especially verses 22-24. Understandably, many women lectors preparing to proclaim this reading and many who make a point of pondering and praying with readings over the course of the week, dreaded reading or hearing this passage at Mass. Too often these three verses (22-24) are cited independently and so out of context, thus turning Scripture on its head and making a mockery of God's inspired word. The word translated into English as "subordinate" or sometimes as "submit" are the appropriate forms of the Greek word ὑποτάσσω, which transliterates as hypotassō. Hypotassō means "set under." Especially to my female readers, before you start muttering to yourself, "Oh crap, here we go!", let me note that a wife is "set under" her husband as the Church is set under Christ. So, before bailing on me, let me try to answer the question, "How is the Church set under Christ?"

Sticking with St. John's Gospel in seeking to determine how the Church is set under Christ, it is important to point to the section of Jesus's Last Supper Discourse in which he says to his disciples: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father" (John 15:13-15). What command did the Lord give to his disciples? "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you" (John 15:12). As theologian James Alison noted in a deeply insightful essay, "Theology Amidst the Stones and Dust" - "love depends on equality" (in Faith Beyond Resentment, 49). Alison's main thesis in this essay is that Jesus is our teacher because he made himself our equal. Because equality is necessary for love it is a requirement of divine pedagogy.

It is only by dealing with all of that we can move on to how husbands are to set themselves under their wives "out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21): "husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body" (Eph 5:28-30). Because marriage is a sacrament, in this way, too, flesh becomes life-giving spirit by the power of the Holy Spirit. Such a life-giving manner of life was intended by God from the beginning. Genesis 2:28, which is the Bible's Ur verse on marriage, is then cited prior to pointing out that this entire passage is about the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the Church, human marriage serving only as an analogy. It is Genesis 2:28 that proved decisive in Jesus's disputation with the Pharisees about divorce (see Matt 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12).

For anyone who is married or has been married it goes without saying that, eventually, there are plenty of reasons to leave, to get a divorce. In order to remain married both spouses must look for reasons to stay. This two becoming one flesh, while nice in the context of conjugal relations and pretty awesomely manifested by having children- a human being who, while being distinctly herself, is also a combination of both spouses- is agonizing work. I think much the same thing can be said about belonging to Christ's Body, the Church, particularly right now. I would imagine nearly all practicing Christians, lay and clergy alike, could tell of times when leaving the Church, or at least quitting our active participation, has been a serious consideration and often for good reasons. Many Catholics have walked away. For example, how could you blame someone for leaving as the result of experiencing abuse? While some who have left have returned, many have not. As our first reading indicates, we must choose each day whom we will serve. Stating it like this makes it seem like the choice is as easy as it is obvious. Often it is neither obvious nor easy. Staying can sometimes be a more difficult choice than leaving.

Whenever we hear or read Scripture we can't help but imagine the scene. It is inevitable that we do this, unless you're not paying attention. Keeping in mind what had happened prior to the passage of the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel we read today, I don't imagine Jesus asking his disciples the question "Do you also want to leave?" in an accusatory or taunting manner. I imagine him asking it earnestly and with great affection, perhaps in a tone indicating "I wouldn't blame you for leaving." This just goes to show, yet again, that God never compels us, but respects our freedom completely. Our rejection does not unleash God's wrath, as many people have experienced for themselves by staying home on Sunday morning instead of coming to Mass and living to tell about it. Believing otherwise is childish.

A naturally valid and/or sacramental marriage hinges on the free consent of spouses. If there is some defect in the consent of either spouse, meaning if their freedom was impeded in some significant way, there can be no valid marriage and certainly no sacrament. Our participation in Mass also requires our free consent. We have to get out of bed, get ready, and go. With Peter, recognizing Jesus as the Holy One of God, as the one who has the words of eternal life, as the One who is the Word of Life, we come and we stay because we have learned there is no one else to whom we can turn, which is just to say we have experienced the Father's love, given us in Christ, by the power of their Holy Spirit. And so, each Sunday, we participate in Mass, which is both something of a participation in and anticipation of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Tony Campolo was correct in his assertion, which he used as a title for one his books that I read quite a few years ago, The Kingdom of God is a Party. I don't know about you, but a great party would be suit me down to the ground right about now.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Hope or hopelessness? Updated

In the wake of last week's flurry of bad news, once again, I decided to do make some dramatic changes concerning my use of social media. After five years, I decided to delete my Facebook account and start over. I did this in 2013 after about 4 years of being on Facebook. In the past I have had a Tumblr and Instagram accounts but I deleted those. I still use Twitter and G+, albeit much less.

What prompted this was posting an article on a speech given by the Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, to The Meeting in Rimini, Italy. The Meeting is an international gathering held each year in Rimini. It is hosted by Communion and Liberation, an ecclesial group of which I am formally a member but, for the past several years, not a very good one. Here is what I posted above the link to the article:
I met Pierre briefly last year. It was a nice encounter.

"The 'encounter with Christ happens in and through the church,' the archbishop said. 'There is an ecclesial dimension to the encounter. The pope calls the whole church to accept its responsibility for facilitating this personal experience of Jesus, who fills life with joy'
With almost no pause, certainly not one long enough to read the article, one "friend" chimed in asserting that Archbishop Pierre's speech was nothing more than "damage control." Not missing a beat, another "friend" went on a diatribe asserting the Church has not done enough. I readily grant that the latter point is accurate enough. The trouble with making that point in this context is that neither Archbishop Pierre nor I had said or implied any such thing. In fact, quite to the contrary. Keeping in mind his speech was directed to Roman Catholics, the most provocative thing Pierre is reported to have said, at least on my reading of the article (a quote I was first tempted to post on FB is conjunction with posting the article, but I thought it might be too provocative and so did not), was: "We must never stand outside the church to judge her; we are the church. We all are responsible for the church, including when there are problems in the church." To my mind, judging from within looks very different than judging from without.

"Friend" one had been pushing all week for some inchoate but very radical reformation of the Church. Making an attempt to engage on this, I employed a reductio ad absurdum:
here's an idea. We can remove all bishops, laicize the rest of the clergy, sell all assets, and divvy up what remains after setting debts proportionally among contributing members. We can meet up at local sound stage, sing Hillsong United songs, listen to a 30 minute talk loosely based on the Bible. It could be our post-modern version of the Scottish Reformation. I am just kidding, of course, and trying to inject a bit of sarcastic humor
My point was, this is not the route of reform the Church should take. In fairness, I readily admit to liking some Hillsong United songs. I even used one as a Friday traditio a few years back (see "And there I find You in the mystery").

Arriving at my point, this is where "friend" two told me he was offended by my reductio ad absurdum concerning Church reform. He made it very clear that he thought I didn't take abuse seriously and strongly implied that my comment about Church reform somehow made light of clerical sexual abuse. Here is the second of my two-part final comment on that thread:
When I converted and became Catholic at 24 I risked a lot and lost a good deal. I love the Church and am deeply grieved by what we are going through right now. This is not a mere emotion. As a permanent deacon I serve the Church with as much creativity, intelligence and energy as I can muster while also working full-time, being married and being a Dad. Granted I am not that creative and probably not all that intelligent. I am okay recognizing my limits. I do it all essentially without any remuneration. I felt I needed to put that out there and let it sit before taking a social media break and completely re-calibrate my engagement on this platform. I am pretty thick-skinned but everyone has limits
An overreaction? Perhaps. But it is really the culmination of something that has been building up for awhile based on these kinds of things happening not just on a regular basis and not just to me but with increasing frequency on many threads. Frankly, I don't want to be in that kind of milieu if I don't have to be. I certainly don't have to be on FB.

What bothers me the most is that was the reaction to posting something hopeful. Archbishop Pierre, who was likely asked to speak at The Meeting many months ago, addressed the issue. He said that, given his position, he had to speak discreetly at present. What he said was not offensive nor was it dismissive of victims or the grave harm done to them by the abuse to which they were subjected. He did not seek to evade or avoid responsibility for the abuse, the subsequent cover-ups, re-assignments, etc. While I can understand the anger, disappointment, grief, perhaps even a touch of despair concerning the release last week of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, coming as it did on the heels of revelation of McCarrick's abusive behavior, which took place over many years, I refuse to believe there is no hope for the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, I think the Church needs further reform.

Specifically, I think the Church needs reforms with regard to the accountability of bishops. With many others, I think any bishop who was involved in covering up abuse, silencing the victims of abuse, and/or reassigning abusers, thus endangering others, should resign or, failing that, be removed. I think this should happen even if such complicity occurred before the man became a bishop, especially if he was serving in a senior leadership role, like Vicar General or Vicar for Clergy. Just a such a resignation took place in Australia recently. Archbishop Philip Wilson resigned as archbishop of Adelaide because he failed to report or act on abuse he knew about as a young priest some 40 or so ago (see "Adelaide archbishop Philip Wilson resigns after covering up child abuse").

I will push matters even farther. I hope every diocese is transparent enough to welcome an investigation of the kind conducted in the six Pennsylvania dioceses. Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis has invited the Missouri Attorney General to review his diocese's files (see "St. Louis archdiocese agrees to open files to AG’s office"- in light of the fact the archbishop basically asked for the review, this headline is a bit misleading). While we're facing up to the truth, let's face the fact that the sexual abuse of children and young people is society-wide scourge. This goes back a long way, at least the 70 years covered in the Pennsylvania probe. Of course, pointing this out excuses the Church of nothing. What happened by way of abuse and cover-up is inexcusable (NB: only that which is inexcusable requires forgiveness).

At least in the U.S., I doubt there's any other institution that serves children that has looked into itself (many dioceses conducted the mandated 50 year review in 2002 and publicly released the results in an honest and forthright manner) or been looked into more than the Roman Catholic Church. Far from being a criticism, I am grateful that this comprehensive looking into continues to take place. I hope it continues until all that has been kept in darkness is brought into the light. As we learn more, we need to begin to reckon with what needs to change in the Church. What needs to change in the Church runs deep and is very fundamental as it concerns our humanity. To give you some idea of what I am talking about, I will point again to Fr. James Alison's writing on this issue, prompted by the revelations concerning Theodore McCarrick. While the articles appeared in the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, they were helpfully posted together on his website under the title "We're in for a rough ride." You can even download them as a .pdf. Serious enough for you? I still don't think the Church's divine constitution should be chucked out the window.

Our Friday traditio is Charlie Peacock singing "Now Is the Time for Tears" off a wonderful album he did with a number of other contemporary Christian artists in 1992, Coram Deo- In the Presence of God. As you might've guessed from the album's subtitle, Coram Deo means "in God's presence." In Christian theology, the phrase has typically been used to explain that Christians, even now, because of Christ's death and resurrection, live in God's presence.

Our traditio is dedicated to all victims of sexual abuse. I can only imagine how all of the news of the past week or so must be triggering for so many people. At the expense of being self-referential, I am going to re-state something I said in my homily last Sunday: "Here’s the truth: Jesus is always on the side of victims." With that, I am giving FB a break and, barring any more ghastly revelations or worthwhile developments, like resignations or removals, I am giving blogging about clerical sexual abuse a break, even as I continue to fast and pray for abuse victims and for the Church, which is the entire People of God, not just its hierarchy.

While there's still a long row to hoe, I choose hope. With Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Holy Father (see his Letter to the People of God), and I am sure many others, I see the Gospel, the Good News that is Jesus Christ crucified and risen, as the answer to sin and hopelessness. The Good News is, indeed, communicated by and through the Church. Hence, in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, we have the remedy for ails humankind. What ails humankind is sin unto death.

On this penitential Friday, it bears repeating this passage from the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: "While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled (Heb 7:26) knew nothing of sin (2 Cor 5:21), but came to expiate only the sins of the people (Heb 2:17), the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal" (sec. 8).

In spirit of the Holy Father's letter and as Catholics should each Friday, I urge you to make today a day of penance. Abstain from meat and maybe forego some other good things, perhaps no Friday beer, wine, or cocktail. I encourage you to pray more and more fervently today, especially for victims of child sexual abuse. Finally, find a way to serve someone else selflessly. Prayer is linked with faith, hope is tied to fasting, and love is shown in service (i.e., alms-giving). These things, my friends, form the basis of any spirituality that can be considered Christian. I certainly dispense any victim of sexual abuse from these penitential acts.

As for me, I will also try to exercise the Spiritual Work of Mercy that bids me, as a follower of Christ and in imitation of him, to bear perceived wrongs with greater patience.

I get by with the help of some friends

These days I try to be more judicious about what I post on social media about my life. Keeping that in mind, I don't think I am over-sha...