Sunday, May 15, 2022

"Behold, I make all things new"

This Sunday's readings, far from being disparate, constitute a unified whole. I don't think this is evident at a glance. So, in this reflection I seek to bring the unifying thread to the fore.

Revelation 21:1-5a- The city of God comes down from heaven. We don't go up. There is probably no worse distortion of Christianity than the idea that heaven is up there somewhere. Believing in the resurrection means believing that human beings are embodied beings, not disembodied spirits. Hence, there has to be a place for us to dwell. That place, according to the New Testament and the beliefs of the ancient Church, is earth. In short, how we live now matters. We can't disconnect life from salvation. Going up to heaven is not a reward for good behavior down below. Besides, such a market exchange understanding of salvation is inimical to Christianity. The last line of the passage that constitutes this reading serves as a key: "Behold, I make all things new." Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato 'si profoundly deals with this reality.

John 13:31-33a.34-35- Love, agape, is how we are to live now and forever. The mission of the Church, the mission of Christians, that which we are sent forth to accomplish at the end of every Mass, is to make make God's kingdom a present reality. This means making heaven present here and now. Agape, best described as self-giving/self-sacrificing love, is the means by which we accomplish this is in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives. Loving one another as Christ loves us is its own reward. "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16). Loving others is how we make God's kingdom present now. It is practice for the heaven on earth that is to come. In other words, if you don't like living this way now, what makes you think you're going to like living this way forever?

Acts 14:21-27- Paul and Barnabas take up the mission of spreading the Good News of God's love given us in Christ. They do so by the power of the Holy Spirit. What they experience they also teach: "It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." To love is to make yourself vulnerable. If to live is to suffer, at least to some extent, then to love is to suffer, as we all know. Love entails a risk.

Paraphrasing the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe: If you refuse to love, you're already dead. If you choose to love, they'll kill you. While loving others in a Christlike way may not expose you to the risk of being put to death, it is how you die so you can live the new life you received when you were baptized. Being a Christian means to become selfless in the service of others, especially those in need. A fine example of what McCabe was getting at are these well-known words of the Archbishop Hélder Câmara: When I feed the poor, they call me saint. When I ask why they're poor, they call me a communist. Aquinas, taking his cue from Saint Paul, noted that love is to put the good of the other person before your own. Simple to say, hard to do. But maybe I am projecting.

It means something quite specific to insist that "God’s dwelling is with the human race." It points to something quite profound to say that God will dwell with us and that "God himself will always be with [us] as [our] God." Far from being a rhetorical flourish, this is deep theology.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Year C Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 13:14.43-52; Ps 100:1-3.5; Rev 7:9.14b-17; John 10:27-30

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It is on Good Shepherd Sunday that the Church celebrates the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. All too frequently, for Catholics, the word “vocation” means only two things: the call to become either a priest or a consecrated member of a religious order.

Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, a verb meaning “to call,” In the context of our faith, it means to discern or figure out how best to serve God. In Baptism you’re called. In Confirmation you’re strengthened for your call. At the end of every Mass, nourished by the Eucharist, you’re sent to fulfill your calling.

There is only one Christian vocation. It’s given to you in Baptism: follow Christ. This is your call, my call, Father Andrzej’s call, the call of Bishop Solis and Pope Francis too. It’s easy to forget that it is not the sacrament of Orders but the sacrament of Baptism that is the fundamental sacrament of Christian life.

When the ordained vest for Mass, the first liturgical vestment we put on is an alb. Albs are white because they are baptismal garments. Over the alb goes the stole, a symbol of ordination. Over the stole goes the distinctive vestment of office: a chasuble for bishops and priests or a dalmatic for deacons. Baptism is the foundation of the sacrament of Orders.

Just as hope is the flower of faith and charity is their fruit, Baptism is the font from which all Christian vocations flow. The Church is the field watered by those who faithfully respond to God’s call. And the world is the recipient of the bountiful harvest.

What the world needs now is not finger-wagging moralists, “prophets of gloom,” or culture warriors who engage in endless and fruitless political and ideological battles. What the world needs to experience is the witness of the new life you received in Baptism. The Fruits of the Spirit, which are born from the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts, are what characterize Christian life: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.1

Pope Saint Paul VI noted that the Church’s “first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal.”2 Each day, each moment is the decisive time for Christian witness. Each moment of witness is an occasion for Spirit-led discernment.

Considering this, the important question for all of us together and each of us individually is- What is God calling me to? If your first vocation, received in Baptism and reissued and strengthened by Confirmation, is to follow Christ, your secondary vocation is to determine to which state of life you are called.

Yes, priesthood is a vocation. Religious life is a vocation. But married and family life is also a vocation. Being single and not ordained and not belonging to a religious order can also be a vocation.

For most Catholics, your tertiary vocation is what you do for a living. Yes, your secular work, where you spend a lot of time, engage with people and, hopefully, strive to make the world a better place, should be part of your baptismal vocation. As Christians we seek to live integrated, not compartmented, lives. At the beginning of the chapter entitled “The Laity,” the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, teaches that “the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.”3

The laity, that is, baptized and confirmed members of the Church who are not ordained and who do not belong to religious orders, the Constitution continues,
are called by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity4
By way of example, it’s been noted that the Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes. This is one way a Christian gives glory to God in all things.

It's easy to see that the scriptural metaphor of sheep, even when written as coming from the mouth of Jesus, as in today’s Gospel, has its limits. While discerning one’s vocation is to seek to follow Christ, it is not a mindless, sheep-like undertaking. On the contrary, it requires the discerning person to engage with her/his entire being. Discernment starts with considering what you like, what you’re good at, and, yes, considering what you want, as long as what you really want is to do God’s will.

One of three kinds of people Saint Ignatius of Loyola identifies in the part of his Spiritual Exercises devoted to the process of prayerful discernment is the person who does everything except the one thing necessary.5 What is the one necessary thing, according to Saint Ignatius? The one thing necessary is not only to discern but to do God’s will. It is only by freely doing God’s will, Ignatius insisted, that you attain interior freedom.

Seeking to discover God’s call is an act of love. How better to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” than by seeking God’s will for your life?6 What better way of loving your neighbor as you love yourself than by faithfully living out your God-given call?7

Echoing words Bishop Solis’ words to the young people of our parish who were confirmed in this church on Friday, for those of you here who are still deciding your state of life and/or your educational and vocational future, I urge you to give some thought, just some thought and maybe some prayer to whether you are called to the priesthood or religious life. No matter what, prayerfully and in collaboration with your parents, teachers, mentors, godparents, confirmation sponsors, and other trusted people, seek God’s will for your life. Then, trusting God, take the risk, and set out to do it.

Our second reading today, taken from the Book of Revelation, provides us with what we might call “a mystical glimpse” of the destiny awaiting those who respond and are faithful to God’s call. What else can the washing and the wearing of white robes symbolize except Baptism?

1 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 390.
2 Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, sec. 41.
3 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], sec. 31.
4 Ibid.
5 Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, sec. 149-155.
6 Matthew 22:37.
7 Matthew 22:39.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

On the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade

If what was leaked from SCOTUS yesterday is true and Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned, it is a not a time for triumphalism by those who have worked to overturn it. Rather, it's time to take up the responsibilities opponents of Roe have had all along. Foremost among these is materially assisting women and children, ensuring that they're housed, fed, clothed, and have access to healthcare. During the long regime of Roe, these social policies have proven effective at reducing abortions.

Especially if you are a Christian, gaining a legislative victory cannot be the end you seek. Such an outcome can be but a means to the end of creating a civilization of love. Pope John Paul II did not contrast what he called a "culture of death" with a culture of life. Rather, he advocated for building "an authentic civilization of truth and love" (Evangelium Vitae, sec. 6).

In short, overturning Roe returns abortion back to the democratic process. At least in the beginning, it becomes a matter for the states. While there will be states like Oklahoma, Alabama, South Dakota, etc. that effectively ban abortion, there will be other states that either codify Roe, as New York has already done in anticipation of it being overturned, or even expand abortion. So, the outcome is far more complex than many have assumed.

While this is an immensely difficult issue for women- those on both sides of the abortion debate- many legal scholars here and abroad have noted over the years that the fundamental problem with the abortion settlement in the U.S. is that it was made by judicial fiat and not democratically. Again, if/when the anticipated decision is handed down, it simply returns the matter to the people.

In case you haven't noticed, democracy is a messy business. Demonstrations resulting from this Court ruling will no doubt be vociferous, maybe even vicious. But these, too, within reasonable legal limits, are part of our constitutional system and a healthy part at that.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Memorial of Saint Athanasius

Readings: Acts 6:8-15; Ps 119:23-; John 6:22-29

Today the Church remembers Saint Athanasius, a bishop who lived mostly in the fourth century. To be a bit anachronistic, Athanasius was the champion of orthodoxy at the Church's very first ecumenical council: the Council of Nicaea, which started in AD 325. The particular point of Christian orthodoxy for which he strongly advocated was the real divinity of Jesus Christ. Prior to this first Council, perhaps the most widespread understanding of the Son's relationship to the Father was the one set forth by another bishop: Arius

Arianism insisted that the Son was the first creation of the Father. According to this view the Father created, or made, the Son before creating anything else either invisible or visible. A good summary of Arianism is there was a time when the Father existed when the Son did not exist. Time, of course, is a function of change. Athanasius rightly understood that this meant that Jesus Christ was, at best, a sort of demi-god.

Far from being "true God from true God," a demi-god is a being who possesses only partial or lesser divine status, a minor deity, maybe the offspring of a god and a mortal, or a mortal raised to divine rank. The classical world was full of such second and third-rate deities.

The particular term Athanasius introduced into Christian theology, the word he thought best-describes the relation of the Son to the Father is the Greek word homoousios. Like most complex, philosophical terms, homoousios is difficult translate. In the third English edition of Roman Missal, promulgated in 2011, homoousios is translated as "consubstantial," as in "consubstantial with the Father."

"Consubstantial" is used in the current English edition of the Missal because it is translated from the Latin consubstanialem Patri and not from the original Greek. But the translation of homoousios used in the second English edition of the Roman Missal, taking its cue from the Greek, is probably a better one: "one in being with the Father."

In the Nicene Creed, we also profess that Jesus is "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made." Distinguishing between begotten and made is vital for confessing Jesus' divinity. You make what is unlike yourself (someone made this ambo). Like begets like. So, human parents beget a human child. A divine Father begets a divine Son.

Far from being a demi-god, Jesus is truly God and truly human. Just as he is consubstantial with the Father, through the Blessed Virgin Mary, he consubstantial with us! In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, it is confessing Jesus' divinity that lands Stephen (one of the Church's first seven "deacons"- see Acts 6:1-6) in hot water. It is Stephen's unwavering confession of Jesus' divinity, his Lordship, that, imitatio Christi, results in his being stoned to death.

Jesus' divinity was not some late development. It is in the New Testament- think of the Prologue to Saint John's Gospel (see John 1:1-5) or this passage from the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians- Col 1:15-20, to pick just two.

It is, nonetheless, difficult to describe the mystery of one God in three divine persons. Because it is really the mystery of love, grasping it at all is probably more experiential than it is intellectual. But as Jesus says in today's Gospel: "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent" (John 6:29).

Sunday, May 1, 2022

What it means to entrust yourself to Jesus

Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Ps 30:2.4-6.11-13; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Today is a rare Sunday that I have off. I served at the Sunday Vigil Mass last night. In the past, I have tried, albeit with limited success, to take a break the first Sunday of each month. It feels kind of weird.

Last Sunday, Sr. Sophia Michalenko's The Life of Saint Faustina Kowalska: The Authorized Biography fell into my hands. I started reading it in conjunction with re-reading Faustina's Diary. Now, I probably have more reservations about private revelation than most Catholics. One of the unique features of private revelations, even those Sister Faustina claimed to receive that are "approved" by the Church, is that they are not de fide (i.e., of the faith). In other words, nobody is required to believe in them. In fact, a good Catholic can reject them.

But I do think that since 2000, when Pope John Paul II, in accordance with what Christ asked of Faustina, declared the Second Sunday of Easter "Divine Mercy Sunday," thus making Faustina's message of Divine Mercy universal in scope, that it's hard to simply ignore it. It is also the case that there is likely no sustained instance of private revelation that does not present some theological difficulties.

I personally believe that Helena Kowalska, whose religious name is Maria Faustina, was chosen to bring the message of God's mercy given us in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit to the world. I believe this despite the apparent likelihood that some of the message with which she was entrusted was imperfectly conveyed and maybe even interpreted by its recipient in problematic ways. It really should go without saying that, at least in parts, some passages in St. Faustina's Diary are very timebound, conditioned by her milieu, as well as her human limitations. But this is also true of Sacred Scripture.

Tying my reading of the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska to the readings this Third Sunday of Easter, particularly the Gospel, yesterday I came across these words, words that make a phrase I've used in my preaching for several years: "love is stronger than death" (#46). This is preceded by "Love endures everything" and is followed by "love fears nothing" (ibid). I can think of no better way than to describe the message of today's Gospel. The context of these words, which are Faustina's own, describes her experiencing "the Passion of the Lord Jesus in [her] body" (#46).

Crucifixion, by Caravaggio, 1601

In our Gospel we are told, before his touching encounter with Simon Peter, that this "was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead" (John 21:14). (There's something about both three and the charcol fire in this passage.) What follows is Jesus asking Simon Peter three times whether he (Simon Peter) loves him (Jesus). In each instance, with what seems to be increasing frustration and perhaps a little impatience borne of humiliation, Peter answers not just "Yes, I love you, Lord" but buttresses his yeses by saying to Jesus "You know that..."

The humiliation that likely gives birth to Peter's frustration and impatience is his memory, which the Risen Lord surely seems to want him to recall, of his three-fold denial after Jesus' arrest. No doubt, remembering this caused Peter great pain. It is not until his final reply to Jesus's question "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" that Peter bares his soul, as it were, to the Risen One, saying "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you" (John 21:17).

Our Responsorial today highlights something easily missed: remembering our sins in order to be forgiven them. Such a calling to mind is as painful as it is necessary. Either you do this or there is no way of truly experiencing Divine Mercy. And so today we sing: "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me."

You see, the question is never "Does Jesus love me?" He loves you and there's nothing you can do about it! It is his love for you and for me that raised him from the dead (Christus resurrexit quia Deus caritas est- Christ is risen because God is love). Hence, "love is stronger than death!" Do you love Jesus enough to entrust yourself completely to his care come what may? In this moment, Peter does just that.

As a result of the mercy he receives, Peter, in this frank encounter with the Risen Lord, repudiating the fear that caused him to deny the Lord three times, entrusts himself wholly to Jesus. This prompts Jesus to then allude to the "kind of death [Peter] would glorify God" (John 21:19). Tradition hands-on that Peter was crucified in Rome, possibly during the Neronian persecution.

As the story goes, not considering himself worthy to die in the same way Jesus died, Peter demanded to be crucified upside-down. His being led where he would never have gone on his own ties back to Saint Faustina's experience, which somewhat mirrors that of the Little Flower, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (with whom Faustina claimed to have a mystical encounter) of what it means to entrust yourself wholly to Divine Mercy, which is but another name for Jesus Christ.

Sadly, death is real. Its inevitability weighs on us more and more the older we get. So, the question becomes more pressing over time: Is love stronger than death? This question can only be answered existentially, that is, through the experience of courageously enduring "everything" in love. This brings to mind a passage from one of the most sublime chapters that can be found in our uniquely Christian scriptures:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:18-19)
This is what it means to say with Saints Peter, Thérèse, and Faustina- "Jesus, I trust in You."

Friday, April 29, 2022

The hidden mysteries of Divine Love humanly experienced

Today the Roman Catholic Church observes the Memorial of Saint Catherine of Siena. In 1970, along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. Teresa and Catherine were the first two women Doctors of the Church.

On 14 April 1990, I was baptized, confirmed, and received my first Holy Communion in Saint Catherine of Siena Parish/University of Utah Newman Center. Fittingly, then as now, this parish and student center is run by the Dominicans. This great saint and mystic played a role in my conversion.

As I was free, this afternoon I went to my parish church at 3:00 PM to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy- a devotional practice I am trying to rekindle. Because I did not recite Morning Prayer this morning, I also went to pray the Office of Readings for Saint Catherine's Memorial. The first reading for the Office, taken from the Common of Virgins, was from the seventh chapter of Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. In this passage, the apostle wrote: "If you marry, however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that."

Saint Catherine of Siena, at Blackfriars Oxford, England

On one level this is kind of funny, cohering as it does with the cultural way we joke about being married. This way of joking is surely rooted in the lived reality of most married people. On the other hand, if you think about marriage from a Catholic perspective, that is, as a sacrament, it makes sense that you experience affliction in and through being married. Keep in mind that at the beginning of the passage under consideration, Paul admits that what he is about to write about marriage is "no commandment from the Lord." Rather, he gives his opinion.

In my personal pastoral view, when lived properly, the afflictions of marriage help me overcome myself, my inherent selfishness. The afflictions of marriage help relieve me of my desire to always get my own way, my tendency to pursue my own interests and pleasures without regard for others. I am not sure why the apostles wants to spare Christians the afflictions of marriage.

The second reading for today's Memorial is taken from Saint Catherine's Dialogues, particularly her dialogue on Divine Providence. This dialogue points to the same reality towards which Christian marriage points: divine love. There is no earthly relationship, including marriage, that will fulfill your deepest desire. While there may be sublime moments here and there, it is placing way too much of a burden on any person, including your spouse, to expect her/him to fulfill you in the way you truly long to be fulfilled. At root, this is often a source of discontent and perhaps even conflict in a marriage, maybe a launching pad to serial monogamy.

"You are a mystery as deep as the sea," Saint Catherine says to God in this dialogue. "The more I search," she continues, "the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you." She concludes this thought by admitting "But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more."

Because God is love, love is infinite. Hence, you can never reach the end of love. This brings me back to that phrase that has resonated with me since last Saturday when I encountered it in the ninth day of the Novena- Divine Mercy is an "abyss." What is mercy but love in action? Infinity, with its negative prefix in, means unbounded. Love is an abyss, a fathomless depth.

The first stanza of the Responsory to this reading provided in the Office is:
My sister and my beloved, open yourself to me, you are a co-heir of my kingdom, and you have understood the hidden mysteries of my truth
What is love if not an opening to another? What is a wound if not an opening? This is indicated by the repeated verse of the Responsory:
You are enriched with the gift of my Spirit, cleansed of all sin by the shedding of my blood
If love, then, is opening yourself to another, and that opening is a wound, then how can married love not entail affliction. The affliction, it seems, is necessary for everyone.

For our traditio today, I am turning again to Colin Hay. This is a cover from his album of covers: "Ooh Lal La," by Ronnie Lane. First recorded on the eponymous 1973 album by Faces, a band whose members were Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones, Ronnie Wood, and Rod Stewart.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Feast of Saint Mark

Readings: 1 Peter 5:5b-14; Ps 89:2-3.6-7.16-17; Mark 16:15-20

It is the long-held consensus among New Testament scholars that the Gospel According to Saint Mark was the first of the four canonical Gospels to be written. This first Gospel is believed to have come into being shortly after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. It is the backdrop of the Temple’s utter demolishment that contributes to Mark’s apocalyptic tone. For Jews in the final third of the first century of the Common Era, the destruction of the Temple seemed like the end of the world.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are together called the “synoptic” Gospels. They are designated as such because they are related to each other in various ways. According to the four-source hypothesis that seeks to explain the various relations between these texts, both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source. But Luke and Matthew seem to have had another common source, which is often designated “Q.” “Q” refers to the German word Quelle, which simply means source. While thirty-five percent of Luke is unique to that text, only 20% of Matthew’s Gospel is unique material.

Together the Gospels of Matthew and Luke utilize 76% of Mark. Matthew uses another 3% that Luke does not employ, while the inspired author of the Gospel According Saint Luke uses an additional 18% that is left untouched by the compiler of Matthew. Hence, only 3% of the text that constitutes Mark’s Gospel is not utilized by the other synoptic writers. It is also the consensus among New Testament scholars that the oldest part of the Gospel According to Saint Mark is the passion narrative.

It is also bears noting that in its original form, Mark’s Gospel did not contain an account of anyone seeing Jesus risen. The original ending of the first Gospel ends with “Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome” going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.1 As they walk to the tomb, they wonder who is going to roll the stone away from its entrance so that they can perform the ritual anointing.

As the three women arrive, they see the stone is already rolled away. Upon entering the grave, they encounter a young man in a white robe sitting on the right-hand side of the cavern. He says to them- “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”

So, the original ending of the Gospel According to Saint Mark is 16:8. What does this verse say? “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So, our reading this evening, while certainly considered by the Church to be inspired, was not part of Mark in the Gospel’s original form.

This sits well with our Gospel from yesterday, the Second Sunday of Easter, especially the part where Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”2 It is notable, too, that the young man told them to tell the others that they should all return to their native Galilee. He even reminds them that Jesus himself had told them this.

You see, in light of the destruction of the Temple, God’s presence was no longer exclusively associated with the holy city, Jerusalem and the Temple. Returning home, as it were, was where they would encounter the Risen One.

It was there, presumably, that Jesus, risen from the dead, according to the Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-18), after rebuking them for their unbelief, sent them to proclaim the Good News to the whole world. While it was the end of the world as they knew it, it was only the beginning of proclaiming the Good News.

Maybe it is in service to this call to spread the Gospel that the symbol for Mark, the Evangelist, is a winged lion.

1 See Mark 16:18.
2 John 20:29.

"Behold, I make all things new"

This Sunday's readings, far from being disparate, constitute a unified whole. I don't think this is evident at a glance. So, in this...