Sunday, December 10, 2023

Year B Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5.9-11; Psalm 85:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

Despite being a short liturgical season, Advent has a twofold character. Extending from the Feast of Christ the King, which is the final Sunday of each liturgical year, Advent begins by focusing on Christ’s Second Coming and the final judgment. Hence, during the first two weeks of Advent, we are exhorted to repent and live in readiness, to be watchful because we know neither the hour nor the day of the Lord’s return.

In human terms, two thousand years seems like an awfully long time. As our reading from Second Peter reminds us, for God a thousand years is like a day. This reading also bids us to be mindful that one way God makes his mercy manifest is through patience. God gives us time to repent. While God is infinite, by its very nature, time is not.

God graciously gives you time to acknowledge your sins and, moreover, to endeavor, with his help, to change. This scripture passage not only tells us that repentance makes you ready for Christ’s coming (Advent means to come or to arrive) but that it hastens “the coming of the day of God.”1

A Christian, that is, someone who repents and believes, far from living in fear of Christ’s return, eagerly awaits, anticipates, even longs for this day. This is why the one-word Aramaic prayer Maranatha was often on the lips of the earliest Christians. Translated it means something like “Come, Lord.” As Christians living nearly two millennia later, we should make this prayer our own.

Discussing the hypothetical, “What would you do if you knew the Lord was returning tomorrow?” is often telling. Of course, the first problem is, you will never know the hour or the day of his return- this is precisely the point made over and over in the New Testament by Jesus himself and a variety of inspired authors. But the answer is usually something like a laundry list of things you should already be doing and know you should be doing but perhaps aren’t and then feverishly doing those things in the brief time you would have.

Advent reminds us that, since Christ’s Ascension, it is always the end of time until the end of time.

The call to repent and to be repenting is not a rebuke. Rather, it is a generous invitation, an offer of genuine hope. It is, as our reading from Isaiah says, “good news.”2

Our Gospel today is the first eight verses of Saint Mark’s Gospel. In this passage, the inspired author identifies John the Baptist as the messenger from Isaiah sent to herald the coming of the Messiah, to prepare the way for Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Throughout most of the Church’s history, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist has been highly revered, much more so than he is today. Sadly, he is often relegated to a minor figure. But he is a major figure in salvation history and should be venerated as such. During each year of the Sunday cycle of readings, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the Baptist’s call to repentance.

So, the question is not “Have you heard the call to repentance?” Rather, have you listened to it and heeded it? Hearing is different from listening. I can hear someone speaking without listening to what s/he is saying. In other words, I can relegate someone’s voice to something like that of Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher, or I can pay attention to what s/he is saying. The Baptist’s cry is as urgent and necessary now as it was when he first made it on the banks of the river Jordan. Listen to him!

Saint John the Baptist, by Alvise Vivarini, ca. 1475

A few verses on in the first chapter of Mark, after being baptized himself by John and emerging from his desert sojourn, Jesus’ message echoes the Baptist’s: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”3 Translated more literally, the words of Jesus as handed on in this Gospel are “Be repenting and be believing in the good news.” Note the present active tense, which gives these words a dynamism and an urgency the standard English translation lacks.

There are two things worth noting in both John's and Jesus’ call to conversion in Mark. First, it is a mode of life, not a one-off event. What emerges from this is a dialectic: you are both always already saved, and every day is the day of salvation- no "once saved always saved," which relegates salvation to a static past event instead what God is always doing right here, right now. Second, repenting comes before believing. It was Saint Anselm of Canterbury, the same one who noted that theology is faith seeking understanding, who pointed out that one does not know in order to believe; one believes in order to know.

Christianity is not a philosophy or a theory but a mode of existence, a way of being in the world. Christ leads you, via the Paschal mystery and the events that constitute your daily life, into the very heart of reality.

This is dramatically illustrated a bit later in the first chapter of Mark, which is without doubt one of the densest chapters in the New Testament, when Jesus calls his first disciples: Peter and his brother Andrew. Seeing them fishing, Jesus says to the brothers, with no greeting, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”4 The following verse simply says, “Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.”5

Jesus did not say to the brothers, “I ‘d like for you to follow me. So, go home and give it some thought and get back to me.” Neither did he lay out for them an irrefutable argument as to why they should drop their nets, all their commitments, everything and follow him.

As the Gospel According to Mark, which we will be reading during this liturgical year, unfolds, it becomes clear just how much Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the twelve had to learn and how slow they were to grasp it both in whole and in part. This is what repenting and believing looks like existentially. To follow Jesus is just that, following him without knowing the twists and turns along the path all the while trusting him to lead you to your destination, to the realization of your destiny, that for which you are made and redeemed.

And so, my dear friends, let us heed the exhortation found in the reading for Morning Prayer for this Second Sunday of Advent, taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
…it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand<6/sup>
Or, if you prefer- “Be repenting and be believing in the good news!”

1 1 Peter 3:12.
2 Isaiah 40:9.
3 Mark 1:15.
4 Mark 1:17.
5 Mark 1:18.
6 Romans 13:11bc-12a.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Hope is expectation

Well, with Evening Prayer yesterday, we ushered in a new liturgical year, a new year of grace, the Year of Our Lord 2024. Think about it, 2,024 years! That's a long time!

Towards the beginning of his short text, The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days, philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out that in many respects the Church of Christ has lost its eschatological edge. Over time, many Christian sectarian movements have sought to sharpen, to regain this edge by making predictions about the end times, about Christ's return. Those sects that survive the disappointment of the failure of their initial predictions, like the Mormons, find ways of attenuating the original end-time emphasis and subsequently tamping down eschatological expectations.

Martin Heidegger, prior to writing Being and Time, delivered a phenomological lecture on Saint Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians (as well as lectures on Galatians and 2 Thessalonians- these, along with lectures on figures such as Augustine, Kierkegaard, Luther, etc., are collected in a volume The Phenomenology of Religious Life).

For those who may not know, written about AD 50, 1 Thessalonians is very likely the first book of our uniquely Christian scriptures to be written. 1 Thessalonians has a very sharp eschatological edge, as does 2 Thessalonians. It is the eschatological edge of these texts that drew Heidegger. His take on these texts was big step on Heidegger's path on his quest to recover the question of being. His quest, in turn, is about living life authentically and, given the limits of our mortality, living life with urgency.

Christian living that takes on a dull eschatological edge easily becomes just another philosophy of life. When this happens, Christianity not only looks but actually becomes exhausted, tired, one option among many and maybe even not a very interesting option. What seems to me the root cause of this dullnes is the lack of the theological virtue of hope.

Waiting requires hope. Samuel Beckett's play, the work for which he is best remembered, Waiting for Godot, is an advent play. In this play, the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for Godot. They wait in the hope that Godot, who said he would come, will show up at some point.

As we all know, the difficult thing about waiting for someone for a lengthy period of time is the fear we will miss their arrival. Think of the old jokes about the cable guy- he will arrive sometime between 10am and 4pm. Well, you're trapped for up to six hours. The minute you decide to pop out for some reason, that is when the cable guy will inevitably come leaving a note on your door indicating that he came.

Advent means arrival. Due to its being the first season of the liturgical year, advent can also mean beginning- "The season of Advent is the advent of a new year of grace" or "The advent of Spring Training," etc.

Waiting implies expectation. I think hope is more akin to expectation than it is to wishing. Nonetheless, we often use wishing and hoping synonymously. As our Gospel (Mark 13:33-37) for this first Sunday of Advent shows, waiting for a long time for an expected arrival we tend to grow weary. It often seems to me that Christians have grown weary in our waiting. Our expectation, that is, our hope is waning.

Our weariness causes us to employ different tactics. One tactic is to point out something that, at least on Christian terms, is true, namely that Christ remains present and has never left. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence- until he returns. What is then urged is for us to "look" for Jesus in the here and now. Don't get me wrong, this is not terrible theology and it is a good exhortation but it is existential as opposed to eschatological.

Another tactic is to point out that we don't the hour or the day of our own death, neither do we likely know how we will die. So, be ready for death! This is certainly true regardless of whether or not you are a Christian or otherwise believe in God. As we heard last Sunday in our reading from 1 Corinthians 15 (verses 20-26. 28), at Christ's return all will be raised from the dead. According to Christian teaching, whether dead or alive, you will experience the parousia, Christ's second coming.

When looked through the lens of salvation history, beginning with ancient Israel, it is easy to see that most of human history is advent, waiting expectantly for God. Think of the first verse of the Advent hymn we sing every year throughout the season of Advent:"O come, O come Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel/Who mourns in lonely exile here/Until the Son of God appears." One reading of this is that Emmanuel, which means "God with us," came and ransomed Israel, thus ending this mourning, lonely exile.

In light of this (here comes the oft-repeated alright/not yet dialectic), taking our cue from the embolism- the short prayer said by the priest during the recitation of the Lord's Prayer said between "...but deliver us from evil" and "For the kingdom, the power, and the glory..." "as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ." Hence, our waiting is joyful expectation, not mourning loneliness. After all, even now, God is with us.

Maybe it makes a difference that as Christians we are waiting for someone specific, someone who has already come and has promised to return. We know Him and He knows us. Hope, then, is not only expectation but trust. Trust is the issue Vladimir and Estragon face- Godot said he coming. Is he coming or not? They're not sure. The play ends with them deciding to end their waiting and leave but as the curtain falls they remain where they are.

We need to make the prayer of some of the first Christians our prayer: Maranatha. It is an Aramaic word, the precise meaning of which is difficult to determine. It means something like "Come, Lord."

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Readings: Ezkl 34:11-12.15-17; Ps 23:1-3.5-6; 1 Cor 15:20-26.28; Matt 25:31-46

In the Creed we profess that Jesus Christ “will come to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”1 That Christ will return as King to Judge the world and definitively usher in God’s Kingdom remains, nearly two thousand years later, an article of Christian faith. It isn’t difficult to see that over the centuries the Church has lost a bit of its eschatological edge.

Eschatology is the word used to describe the study and explanation of ultimate things. As Christians and as Catholics, in addition to Jesus’ return, eschatology refers to the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Purgatory is not included because, like mortal life, it is transitory. Set forth more formally,
Immediately after death, each person comes before God and is judged individually (the particular judgment) and enters heaven, Purgatory, or hell. Yet at the end of time, a final judgment will occur when all are assembled before God and their relationship to God is made public (the general judgment)2
In our day religion is not, as Karl Marx insisted, the opiate of the people. Rather, the opiate of our day is living one’s life as if there is no God as if there is no day of reckoning. It stands to reason that if there is no day of reckoning, there is no need to repent, no need to change, no need to be converted.

While a necessary part of or, more accurately, a preamble to, sorrow for one’s sins is insufficient for repentance. When we make the Act of Contrition in the Sacrament of Penance, we pledge “to sin no more and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.” This is a pledge of repentance.

Before stating our firm intention “to sin no more” when making an Act of Contrition, we acknowledge our need for God’s help to make this more than merely an intention: “I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more and avoid whatever leads me to sin.” Another name for God’s help is grace. It is this same grace, given us through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, that will enable you to survive the day of reckoning, not your own righteousness.

This is heavy-duty stuff. The kind of thing we are told turns people off. I believe what many people find off-putting is the prospect of self-examination. Because, as the apostle Paul points out in his Letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”3 In any honest self-examination, you are bound to come up short. This might seem like bad news. It certainly is bad news if one ignores the good news.

The first bit of good news is that death is not the end for anyone. Because of Jesus Christ, all will be resurrected from the dead. Especially in our very medicalized time, we often speak of and worry about our “quality of life.” Rather than merely being an earthly concern, quality of life should be an eternal concern as well. Wisdom bids us to live sub-specie aeternitatis, that is, to live life under the aspect of eternity, to live as if there is a merciful and just God.

Christ the judge at the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Rather than causing us to turn a blind eye and/or a deaf ear to life in this world, living this way bids us to pay closer attention to the quality of life of those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. To live sub-specie aeternitatis is to live mercifully, to live tenderly, to live like Christ. This means practicing the works of mercy. There is a simple calculation to this, one for which our Gospel today gives us the formula: if you want mercy, be merciful.

But calculation is too cold, too formal, too impersonal, too transactional. We must never forget, “God is love.”4 God is agape. God is self-giving, self-emptying, self-sacrificing love. Here is the good news: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”5 The inspired author continues: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.”6 Bearing witness to God’s love is evangelization. But this does not mean
adopting the sentimental reductionism that marks so much contemporary Christianity, characterized by a spiritualism that replaces Christ with love, an approach that, echoing Feuerbach, says not that God is love but that love is God7
Hence, we do not propose Christianity “first of all, as a doctrine or a moral law but… as a reflection of the attitude with which Christ relates to the world.”8 Christ relates to the world through tenderness and mercy, not through harshness and condemnation. Any self-examination that would yield the fruits of repentance needs to be done by gazing on yourself with the same tenderness with which Christ gazes on you. In such a self-examination, you must seek not only to discover what you need to be forgiven, but who and what you need to forgive.

Only God is God. Being God trumps being a king. Christ can only be King because he became human. Through the Incarnation, God, to quote Pope Francis, “gets involved and meddles in our miseries.”9 Jesus, now by means of the Holy Spirit,
gets close to our wounds and heals them with His hands… It is a personal work of Jesus. A man made sin, a man comes to cure it. Closeness. God doesn’t save just because of a decree, a law; he saves us with tenderness, he saves us with caresses, he saves us with his life10
Jesus Christ is a King unlike any other king, no matter how benevolent. He establishes his kingdom not by through politics, nor by force, not through threats and coercion, nor through laws and decrees, but through tenderness and mercy, which require patience and forbearance. Jesus Christ is the triumph of grace over karma. This is why, in the major discourse of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”11 The merciless have no need of God’s judgment. They judge themselves.

1 Roman Missal. The Order of Mass, sec. 18.
2 USCCB. United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (p. 161).
3 Romans 3:23.
4 1 John 4:8.16.
5 1 John 4:10.
6 1 John 4:11.
7 Borghesi, Massimo. Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis (p. 241). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
8 Catholic Discordance (p. 240).
9 Catholic Discordance (p. 241).
10 Ibid.
11 Matthew 5:7.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Thanksgiving Day

Readings: Sir 50:22-24; Ps 145:2-10; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Luke 17:11-19
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right and just.
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks. Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God
So, begins the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer.

“Eucharist” is a verb and it means to give thanks. Giving God thanks is always and everywhere both our duty and our salvation. What specifically do we thank God for always and everywhere? In short, for everything: for creation, for existence, most especially for salvation through Christ our Lord. This morning we gather around the table of the Lord's word and body to celebrate together the Thanksgiving feast of all Thanksgiving feasts.

It is more than fitting that we gather for Eucharist on the day our country has long since designated as Thanksgiving Day. As Christians, everyday should be a day of thanksgiving. While all of this makes sense and is surely the kind of thing you expect to hear at Church, like many things we hear at Church, this is easier said than done. We must constantly battle forgetfulness and the vicissitudes of life.

At least for Christians, being thankful cannot mean being smug, smacking our lips and rubbing our bellies in a self-satisfied way. True thanksgiving, as our Collect for today indicates, requires us to be mindful of others, particularly those who might feel they do not have much or maybe even anything for which they can be thankful. In short, just as faith gives blossom to hope, which, in turn, bears fruit in love, genuine thanks results in giving of ourselves and of our resources.

Today’s Gospel is about thanksgiving. Jesus healed ten people of leprosy instantaneously on the spot. In other words, these ten people were very visibly afflicted with an illness, and, with a word, Jesus healed them. In the blink of an eye, they no longer had leprosy. Can you imagine?

Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests. This was important, at least for the presumably nine Jews, so they would be ritually pure and able to participate in Israel’s worship. As they went, they suddenly noticed that they were cured. But only one of the ten, 10% of the total, came back to thank Jesus. The Greek word translated into English as “thanked” in this passage is euchariston.

I snap I took with my phone today that seems to illustrate what giving thanks often looks like

It is significant that the one who returns to thank Jesus is a Samaritan. Translating this into our context, it would be like Jesus healing ten people in Bountiful, Utah, nine of whom are Catholics while one is a Mormon. And in the end, only the Mormon comes back to thank him. Rather than overly dramatizing this episode from Luke, it probably under-dramatizes it significantly. But it is only the “stranger,” the non-Jew, the unorthodox one who thanks the Lord. Jesus himself loudly points this out. His point would not be lost on those who heard him.

As Brother David Steindl-Rast observed, “The opposite of gratefulness is just taking everything for granted.” While you can’t be grateful for everything, you can be grateful in every moment. Yes, every moment, even painful and distressing moments, maybe even particularly in painful and distressing moments. At times, being thankful takes some work and no little grace. But, as Christians, it is always and everywhere our duty and our salvation so to do, as Jesus himself and so many holy women and men have shown and continue to show us.

You can’t wait until you’re happy to be thankful. Thankfulness is not produced by happiness. Rather, happiness is the result of being thankful. It isn’t incidental or accidental that the Eucharist, or, using it as the verb it is, simply eucharist (i.e., giving thanks) is the central act of Christian worship. This is why it isn’t just nice but necessary for all of us to take an active part in the liturgy. We give thanks in worship by singing the songs, taking the postures (standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing), making the gestures, and saying/singing the responses, etc.

Perhaps the biggest mistake we can make when engaging Scripture, especially when reading the Gospels, which constitute the heart of God’s word, is to understand them as stories told or events that happened a long time ago in a land far away, in a culture not our own. The question today’s Gospel poses is not whether you’re a leper. Rather, the question is whether you’re a grateful or an ungrateful one. The fact that you’re here on Thanksgiving Day indicates the former.

As Brother David also observed: “Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.” Jesus came that we might not only have life but that we have it in abundance (John 10:10). In this Eucharist and every Eucharist, he gives us life in abundance by giving us himself.

Like the grateful leper, we come to give God thanks and we are sent forth to continue giving him thanks. By fulfilling our duty to give God thanks always and everywhere, we realize that our salvation lies in our lives becoming continual thanksgiving, eucharist. Besides, I can only imagine how eager the healed Samaritan was to tell others what Jesus had done for him.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Repenting, changing, believing

Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-23

From some reports I read, an interesting discussion took place at the recently concluded Synod and synodality, at least in some English-speaking and Spanish-speaking groups. What was this discussion about? It was about Christ's call and how any genuine response to his call is an acknowledgment of one's need to repent. It should go without saying that Christ calls everyone and accepts everyone who responds to his call. We must not forget that a significant part of responding to Christ's call is the desire and determination to repent.

No doubt this discussion arose in the context of other discussions about the Church being for everyone. Again, Christ calls everyone, bar none. But, as the Lord himself expressed, not everyone responds to the call and even some who say "Lord, Lord" are not committed to repenting. And so, from the beginning, the Church has had hypocrites. Even hypocrites can and do repent.

To repent is to change, to be converted, to commit yourself to being more and more transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is nothing less than committing to dying in the hope of being reborn.

Contrition, being sorry for one's sins, is necessary but insufficient for repentance. To repent is to change. The fruit of the third Luminous Mystery of the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary is Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom, which occurs after his 40 days in the desert fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil. If we translate Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom literally, at least according to the Gospel of Mark, his message is in the continuous tense: "be repenting and be believing" (see Mark 1:15). I don't believe it is mere happenstance that repenting comes before believing. On this view, seeing isn't believing, doing is.

Life ends with death and not necessarily with Christ's return. This is what Saint Paul reminds the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki in our New Testament reading. They are dismayed because believers are dying and Jesus has not yet returned. He reminds them that while life ends with death, death ends with resurrection. In the meantime, this requires us to wait in joyful hope. What interests the Apostle ought to interest us. He is not interested in "the last day," in the end of time. Rather, he is interested in the time of the end. What's the difference?

In his short booklet The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Days, philosopher Giorgio Agamben, referring to the above difference, writes what interests Paul is "the internal transformation of time that the messianic event [Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension- the Paschal mystery] has produced once and for all, and the consequent transformation of the life of the faithful" (pg 14).

The Fourth Wise Virgin, from the series The Wise and Foolish Virgins, by Martin Schongauer, 1470-1491

Whether we're talking about the mystery of iniquity or the Paschal mystery, which are inextricably related and together comprise one mystery, in Greek a mysterion is a dramatic action, not something unknown and unknowable. This why the Greek word for sacrament is mystery. The liturgy is certainly dramatic action. The dramatic action of the mysterion is an apocalypse, an unveiling, a revelation that unfolds mystagogically we might say. It is a cosmic unfolding on an existential scale.

Today's readings are all about the transformation of our lives resulting from "the messianic event." According to the parable, as believers, we are all virgins waiting for the Bridegroom, who is Christ. Therefore, the question becomes whether you are a wise one or a foolish one. As regards the oil, I think perhaps this is an opportunity to consider grace.

Grace isn't magic. Even practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving does not magically make you holy or even necessarily holier, at least not in some idealistic or hagiographic way. But even when your practice serves the end to which these disciplines are the means, it isn't usually noticeable to you.

For most people what happens when you fast is that you get hungry. The question is what are you really hungry for? Perhaps more to this point is what happens when you abstain: you want that from which you are abstaining. I remember a number of years ago, two friends of mine who live near New York City met up to walk in the huge Way of the Cross that transits the Brooklyn Bridge each Good Friday. Good Friday, of course, is a day of fasting and abstinence. As they were making their way across the bridge, one friend said to the other, "I've never wanted a hamburger worse than I do right now."

Grace requires cooperation, consistent, persistent cooperation. This cooperation is an act of hope, hope that what I am doing or not doing is good and will bear fruit for the Kingdom. No matter how you want to parse it, faith without works is dead. Remember repenting before believing? Remember Jesus from last week's Gospel, do what they say and not what they do because they don't do what they say?

One way to view the virgins is that the foolish ones operate on the presumption of God's grace, which presumption bids them do nothing, whereas the wise virgins do not wait in that way.

As we near the end of one liturgical year and look forward to a new year of grace, it's important for each of us individually and for us as a Christian community to examine our consciences and our lives and recommit ourselves to following Christ, to letting the Holy Spirit transfigure us (the fourth Luminous Mystery of the Rosary is Jesus' Transfiguration and the fruit of that mystery is to desire holiness), recreating us evermore into the image of Christ, our Lord, whose Kingship we acknowledge.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Deacons in the Synod Synthesis Report

The past few days I have had the opportunity to start reading XVI General Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops Synthesis Report- A Church in Mission. It is a synthesis of the first of two gatherings in Rome. The second is scheduled for next October. I have not yet had the chance to read through the entire report. As you might guess, my attention immediately went to that part of the report that deals with the diaconate.

I will start by mentioning that I found it somewhat gratifying to see in
n) There is a need to find ways to involve the clergy (deacons, priests, bishops) more actively in the synodal process during the course of the next year. A synodal Church cannot do without their voices, experiences or contributions. We need to understanding [sic] better the reasons why some have felt restraint to the synodal process
My gratification, however, is tempered by a critical observation: At least as it pertains to deacons and to priests serving as pastors (i.e., parish priests), more or less excluding them from the Roman Synod needs to be seen as a lost opportunity. Therefore, at least a partial answer to how the Church can involve parish priests and deacons is to, well, involve us in every phase of the process, not to the exclusion of others but being included along with others. It seems that a Francis-led gathering of this sort would prioritize pratictioners over theoreticians.

The diaconate is taken up in PART II – ALL DISCIPLES, ALL MISSIONARIES 11. Deacons and Priests in a Synodal Church (pages 24-26). My comments on this part of the Synthesis track along the same lines as the comments I made for an Our Sunday Visitor article by Maria Wiering: "Permanent deacons have 'unique perspective' to offer at synod, they say" published last summer.

The absence of deacons is evident in Part II section 11 g-i. These sections dealing with the diaconate are more or less a catalog and rehash of known issues and seem to be set forth with little or no awareness that significant work has been and is being done in all of them. It really breaks no new ground whatsoever but repeats what we see over and over again when it comes to the present state of the diaconate as addressed in Church documents.

I feel quite certain that the perspective of knowledgeable and experienced deacons would have resulted in a much better treatment. A better treatment would set the table for a fruitful year of discussion between now and the gathering in Rome next autumn.

I also see II. 11.h that states the need for the Church to see "permanent deacons" as the diaconate's "primary form" in an effort "to understand that diaconate first and foremost in itself" as a reason for hope.

But in light of this, I have to ask, where is the consideration of the need to divorce a Catholic understanding of the sacrament of orders from the cursus honorum, the origins of which lie in the Roman imperium? The Council's recommendation that the Church ordain married men to permanently serve as deacons and Paul VI's acceptance of this recommendation was a big step in this direction. In my mind, this issue needs to be seriously engaged, at least in the Latin Church, before there can be a meaningful consideration of admitting women to the diaconate.

Building on the above, how does a "transitional" diaconate, which is only a canonical (as opposed to sacramental) category, hinder any understanding of the diaconate "in itself" and not reduce it to "a stage of access to the presbyterate"? Does the transitional diaconate contribute to an understanding, even sometimes a self-understanding, of permanent deacons as holding either a truncated priesthood or being a highly visible lay person?

In addition to deacons being absent from the Synod, parish priests were not really represented either. In light of the ironic comment about finding ways to involve us, it's important for us not to see this as something someone "up there" dreamt up that we will need to implement. This is an important if pedestrian observation. I am aware that, ideally, this isn't how synodality works. But programs aren't how evangelism works either, but look how many of them there are! Trust me, there will be programs.

This also brings up the important question as to what instruments of synodality already exist. It seems to me that one outcome of this excursion into synodality is that dioceses should really focus on developing well-functioning pastoral councils, liturgy committees, and finance committees at both diocesan and parish levels, school boards for Catholic schools, etc. These are instruments of synodality and, when done correctly, in co-responsibility. While formally these are "advisory," it seems that pastors and administrators should more or less bind themselves to what these committees recommend unless there is a really good reason not to do so in a specific instance.

Circling back to the diaconate in particular, section II.11.g of the Synthesis betrays what I can only call ignorance of what constitutes the heart of the diaconate according to the Second Vatican Council. This the Council set forth in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium sec. 29. According to this magna carta of the restored/renewed diaconate, diaconal ministry is constituted by the threefold munera of liturgy, word, and charity. Part II, 11.g of the Synod Synthesis Document seems to reduce diaconal ministry only to the munera of charity.

In II.11.g. the Synod seeks to make a fairly valid point- deacons aren't [just] substitutes for a shortage of priests. What it neglects is the concrete situation in many local churches that makes this all but inevitable. So, while deacons are not exclusively substitutes when enough priests aren't available, we certainly can and do help fill that gap. Further, it is appropriate for us to do so. To suggest otherwise is to put some kind of abstraction over current and future pastoral reality and the needs of people as well as unduly squelch the diaconate.

At least on my reading, what this section winds up doing is reducing and unduly restricting the ministry of deacons by positing a dichotomy between diakonia/munera of liturgy and charity leaving out altogether the ministry of the word. This strikes me as quite a fundamental misapprehension, one that will not help clarify or build a solid theology of the diaconate and may well serve to harm the many efforts underway.

Speaking of my own personal experience as a deacon for 20 years, I grow weary of what I have taken to calling the "Hegelian approach" to the diaconate. What does that mean? It means always defining the diaconate by what it is not. More often than not this boils down to either a misunderstanding of the restored/renewed diaconate as intended by the Council, which means either being ignorant of or simply ignoring the extensive and deep pre-conciliar positive case for the diaconate as a permanent order of sacred ministry, or, sadly, animus towards the diaconate, or, as you might guess, a combination of the two.

Next up, a brief post the Synod Synthesis Document and clericalism.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Malachi & Jesus against clericalism & a Pauline solution

Readings: Malachi 1:4b-2:2b.8-10; Ps 131:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9.13; Matthew 23:1-12

Our readings for this Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time are very harmonious. Fundamentally, they are about pastoral leadership among God's People. It is actually our New Testament reading, taken from 1 Thessalonians, that gives us the model for pastoral leadership. Likely written about AD 50, it bears noting that in addition to being an authentically Pauline letter (i.e., it was written by Saint Paul), 1 Thessalonians is probably the first book of the New Testament to be written- its only rival for this distinction is 1 Corinthians.

I also want to point out that, like Jesus, Paul lived the words he preached. He pioneered what today we call "bi-vocational ministry." In other words, in addition to his apostolic ministry, wherever he went, Paul supported himself as a "tent maker," the proprietor of a canvas and awning business.

In light of something I posted on another platform this morning, it's interesting that these are the readings for today. Or, perhaps, it was these readings coupled with an experience I had this past week that drove me to post what I posted. It's a chicken and egg scenario. It would be easy, oh so easy, to address these readings in a way that ignores the elephant in the room.

What is this elephant? The elephant is clericalism. Clericalism is something that Pope Francis has been addressing since the beginning of his pontificate (see Daniel P. Horan's "Pope Francis reminds us — again — to reject clericalism"). So, it's been a focal point in the Church for more than a decade. The most likely way to ignore the elephant is to fast forward to the end of the Gospel and apply it to the assembly at large. But the target of these readings, if I may use that term, or, less stridently, those to whom these are directly addressed, is clearly those in Church leadership. This would be a great Sunday for a member of the laity to share a reflection on the readings!

Sadly, I would have to say, on the whole, clericalism is on the rise in the Church in the U.S. Hence, I think in many dioceses a reckoning will occur. I can't say with any certainity what this might look like anywhere, let alone everywhere, but it will happen. Venturing a guess, taking my own twenty years of pastoral experience as the starting point, I think it will look like more of what we already see: steady attrition.

Let's face it, most disaffected people just quietly slip away. Given that it's unlikely their presence is missed and so no one will reach out to them, I think that will be the way it continues to go down. I doubt that most people who leave will reaffiliate. They will probably personally retain vestiges of Catholic belief and practice but it's unlikely these will be handed down to the next generation. Unlike some countries, the United States does not have a deeply Catholic culture, so there aren't many opportunities to participate in public processions and the like.

In thinking about retaining vestiges of Catholic belief and practice, I recalled reading about John Waters' (Irish writer) Dad, an Irish postal worker. His Dad didn't go to Church and was, understandably for anyone of his generation in Ireland, quite anti-clerical. Nonetheless, he prayed the Rosary every night. Another example that comes to mind is Edith Piaf's lovely devotion to the Little Flower, which followed this same contour.

A mosaic in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome depicts Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Shutterstock

While there are other factors that contribute to clericalism, a leading one is current programs of priestly formation. It seems to me that in many seminaries formation in priestly identity has regressed to a largely pre-Vatican II understanding. The trend now is for men to enter priestly formation younger than was the trend for several decades. This is neutral in and of itself, but this makes seminarians much more impressionable, thus making what they're taught more important.

A friend of mine, who is not a priest and who teaches in a seminary, told me about the seminary having a visiting professor several years ago for a semester. The visiting professor was a priest-theologian from France who had done a lot of work on theology and cinema. All of the students in the seminary's theologate had to take his seminar on theology and cinema. At the first seminar, one seminarian protested, asking why he had to take this "stupid" class when they should be studying weightier matters. The visiting Prof. responded calmly, "My dear boy, in France nobody goes to Mass but everyone goes to the movies."

A priest friend of mine, someone who embodies the kind of priesthood we should be creating, shared his experience of studying some years ago in Spain. He noted that, especially during Holy Week, huge crowds turned out for public processions and exhibited great piety and faith, Christian faith, but on Easter Sunday the churches are as empty as ever. In speaking with his Spanish professors, he learned that it was because people didn't trust the hierarchy of the Church due to their support of Franco. He described this as a "priestless Catholicism" in the streets. You know what? I think that probably sounds really good even to a lot of faithful Catholics right now.

In today's Gospel, Jesus does a total takedown of clericalism. Make no mistake about who both today's Old Testament reading and Gospel are talking to and about. How many Catholics are aware that calling priests "Father" is a relatively recent development? So many clerical honorifics! Jumping down to verse 11 of the twenty-third chapter of Saint Matthew's Gospel, Jesus repeats what for him, according to the Synoptics, is a common refrain: "The greatest among you must be your servant."

In Greek, the last word of Matthew 23:11 is diakonos. So, "the greatest among you must be your deacon." Probably the best title the Pope bears, one Francis seems to take seriously, is "Servant of the Servants of God"- Deacon of the Deacons.

One reason for the restored/renewed diaconate, being at what Lumen Gentium calls "the lower level of the hierarchy," is to work in this gap (sec. 29). I often think we're not doing this as well as we might. At least in some instances, because we're not allowed to. At a more theological level, in the Latin Church, the restored and renewed diaconate certainly rocked the cursus honorum, a huge shift that has yet to fully resonate theologically, that is, ecclesiologically.

Year B Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5.9-11; Psalm 85:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8 Despite being a short liturgical season, Advent has a twofold cha...