Sunday, August 1, 2021

Learning Christ through the sacraments

In my last post on today's Gospel, I mentioned in passing the close connection between the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. I thought I would offer a further word or two about that vital connection. It is important to start with the fact that it is difficult to exaggerate the centrality of the sacraments for Catholic faith and life.

In our New Testament reading for this Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B of the Sunday lectionary, we hear the Christians of ancient Ephesus being reminded that Christ came to liberate them from the futility of their minds. As I grasp it, this is something along the lines of these lyrics written by Bob Marley: "liberate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds." In strictly Christian terms, it is Christ who liberates our minds by the power of the Holy Spirit. This reminder, at least in English, takes the form of the phrase, "that is not how you learned Christ."

How do you learn Christ? Well, being mainly mystagogical, Christians learn faith by participating in the Church's liturgy. As the suffix -urgy indicates, we learn by doing not merely by being told. -Urgy comes from the Greek word meaning "work" or, perhaps more appropriate to this context, "to do." This is why active participation in the liturgy is vitally important. Christian liturgy was never intended to be a spectacle most Christian just passively observe.

Active participation in the liturgy is an act of faith. It is how you do the work of God, which is believing in the One he sent, Jesus Christ. By your participation, you acknowledge the Lord's real presence in and through the celebration. Hopefully, this allows you experience his presence in various ways.

The phrase "the Church's liturgy" refers to all her formal acts of worship, especially the sacraments. Every sacrament is administered by means of a liturgy. This includes the sacrament of penance. Being the liturgy of liturgies, at the center of the Church's worship is the Eucharistic Liturgy, or the Mass.

I understand how impersonal just going to Mass can sometimes seem, especially in parishes where community lacks. But the sacrament of penance is supremely personal. When celebrated in its usual form (one-on-one with the priest), going to confession is intensely personal. Given what happens in the sacrament, it may be the most personal thing in the world, at least for those who conscientiously participate in it. Like all the sacraments, going to confession is an encounter with Christ and an opportunity to experience Divine Mercy for yourself.



Picking up (again) the words we all say together before receiving communion, words that echo those uttered by a Roman centurion in Saint Matthew's Gospel who sought healing for his much-loved servant from Jesus, "Lord I am not worthy...only say the word and my soul shall be healed," it is in the sacrament of penance, often appropriately called "reconciliation," that we personally receive Jesus's healing word. The healing word of Jesus gives us pardon and peace. It also frees us to receive the Bread of Life.

It is customary for many Catholics to cross themselves when the priest says the prayer of absolution at the end of the penitential rite that occurs at the beginning of Mass. The main reason this is not called for in the rubrics is that it is not a major or sacramental pardon. The major pardon, the healing word, as it were, is sacramentally given and received in the sacrament of penance.

When situated properly, the confessional(s) in a church is somewhere between the baptismal font, which should be at the main entrance, and the altar. Being something of an extension of baptism, penance connects the font to the altar. Another way to think about it is that the confessional is an aid station on our journey from the font to the altar, giving us the succor we need to live according to our baptism.

As I mentioned in my last post, Jesus always says the healing word if we, like Matthew's centurion, will but ask. The Lord died and rose to say God's healing word to you. Keep in mind that you are never worthy to receive holy communion on your own merits, no one is!

Today my pastor used Preface VII of the Sundays in Ordinary Time. The heart of this preface makes the point beautifully:
For you [God] so loved the world
that in your mercy you sent us the Redeemer,
to live like us in all things but sin,
so that you might love in us what you loved in your Son,
by whose obedience we have been restored to those gifts of yours
that, by sinning, we had lost in disobedience (emboldening and italicization mine)
It is Jesus's obedience, not your own, that makes you worthy, as Eucharistic Prayer II states it, "to be in [God's] presence and minister to [him]." Never forget, what you receive is nothing other than Christ himself under the signs (yes, signs) of bread and wine.

What work needed doing, Jesus accomplished on the cross. The word "liturgy" is of Greek origin. It refers both to work done on behalf of the public and work engaged in by the public. By your active participation in the Church's liturgy, you participate in the work Christ did on your behalf, a work you are called to extend by living the new life you received in baptism, which includes making recourse as often as necessary to the sacrament of penance. This is how you learn Christ.

Opus Dei- the work of God

John 6:24-35

My reflection on the readings for this Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is going to be brief. Like last week, I am only going to comment on the Gospel reading. As I mentioned previously, during Year B of the Sunday lectionary, in pretty decent continuity with the Marcan narrative, our Gospel readings for the next several Sundays are taken from the sixth chapter of the Gospel According to Saint John. These five weeks are interrupted this year on the fourth Sunday due to the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary falling on that Sunday. According to the ordering of the liturgical year, this solemnity supersedes the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Last week our Gospel was about Jesus's miraculous feeding of the 5,000. This week's reading tells of the immediate aftermath of that miracle. After chiding them for perhaps following him only to receive a free meal, Jesus urges those in the crowd not to "work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life." In the same breath, he tells them that "the Son of Man" will "give" them this food. Well, food that is given is not worked for, unlike the free beer and pizza offered by a friend after you've helped him move.

The Lord's exhortation to work for the food that gives eternal life is not lost on the people he exhorted. They ask: "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?" Jesus responded by telling them: "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent." Believing that Jesus is the Christ is the work of God, the opus Dei.



Those who were listening knew that Jesus was asserting that he himself is the One God has sent. Predictably, they wanted a sign, some proof that would help them in their unbelief. But they had already received the sign. The food for which Jesus gave thanks and with which they were all fed was the sign. John's Gospel makes this abundantly clear when, after hearing about the bread "which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" they implore Jesus to give them this bread, he tells them: "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."

There is a reason, just before receiving communion, everyone who is about to commune, including the priest, echoing the words of the Roman centurion who, in Matthew's Gospel, sought healing for his beloved servant from Jesus, says together: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." Here's the thing, Jesus always says the healing word. Do you hear it? If you hear it, you believe it, if you believe it you receive it.

As Jesus made clear in last week's reading from the sixth chapter of John's Gospel, the Eucharist is not an exchange, not a quid pro quo, not a this-for-that proposition, not "You can receive communion because you've been good, you've earned it." I think it is helpful here to mention in passing the close relationship between the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance, a connection that is in danger of being broken and that needs to be better taught, understood, and practiced.

At the end of the day, I worry more about people who think they're worthy to receive communion, especially those who feel they can expaiate on the unworthiness of others, than I am about someone receiving communion unworthily (again, who is worthy?). One is only worthy because Jesus says the healing word. And so, for those who engage in the work of God, the healing word is "Jesus."

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Thoughts for a Saturday

Today is the last day of July. It seemed fitting, therefore, to post something here on Καθολικός διάκονος. Because, as I mentioned yesterday, mid-July to mid-August provokes the doldrums in me, it is also a time I find it hard to blog (is that a verb?). Whether in the Church or in the world, there is no shortage of things to write about.

I was tempted to post something about Pope Francis's motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, restricting the celebration of the Mass and other rites according to the pre-Vatican II missal and other liturgical books. But apart from agreeing wholeheartedly with the Holy Father, including his reasons for restricting the use of the older Latin liturgical rites, I don't have much to say about it. This does not mean I am unsympathetic toward those who, in good faith, found benefit from these celebrations. I take heart in the fact that the pope gave much discretion to bishops in the regulation of the use of the liturgy in Latin, something Summorum Pontificum removed from them. This removal, as Pope Francis noted, has been to the overall detriment of both local churches and the universal church.

As Director of the Office of the Diaconate for my diocese, I am continuing to lead the process of forming a new class of aspirants. Aspirants are men who aspire to become deacons. According to the most recent iteration of the National Directory for the Formation, Life, and Ministry of Permanent Deacons in the United States, Apsirancy is now two years. Aspirancy is a time of discernment both on the part of the Church as well as on the part of the aspirant and his wife. With this change, formation for ordination to the diaconate as a permanent deacon is now a bit less than six years. Contrast this with the four years my class spent in formation from start to finish.

Discernment is critical. Discernment is a process. Discernment is a two-way street. If the Church does not call you, you are not called. Like other ecclesial vocations such as priesthood and religious life, it is important for someone who aspires to be a deacon to have enough exposure to deacons and the diaconate for the romance to wear off. Cutting to the chase, the magic of wearing an alb, stole, and dalmatic and sitting upfront in Mass wears off in about a month. A deacon is a servant. Hence, deacons do what needs doing according to their gifts, skills, knowledge, and availability. But if you don't like making coffee, setting up, and putting away chairs, the diaconate is probably not for you. The way I like to state it: Aspirancy is for those who think they aspire to be deacons.



Being on the committee for the planning and execution of my diocese's annual Pastoral Congress, along with the directors of the offices of Faith Formation, Hispanic Ministry, and Worship, I was asked to write an article for our diocesan newspaper on deacons as catechists. Below is a section of the article I have already shared publicly:
The vast majority of Catholic permanent deacons throughout the world, in the United States and in the Diocese of Salt Lake City are married. Because of this, deacons are uniquely called to simultaneously live out the sacraments at the service of communion: holy matrimony and holy orders. Deacon Owen Cummings dubbed these “the diaconal sacraments.”

Most married permanent deacons are also parents. Like all Christian parents, deacons with children, along with their spouses, have responsibility for being the first and main teachers of the faith. This helps them understand firsthand the challenges and opportunities involved with imparting an understanding of Christian faith in the hearts and minds of young people.

Being married clerics also ideally situates many deacons, often alongside their spouses, to prepare couples for marriage. Deacons and their wives should be involved in parish and diocesan marriage enrichment programs as both participants and presenters. Preparing parents for the baptism of infants and small children is also a fruitful catechetical service.

When done well, advocating canonically for those engaged in a marriage annulment process is a chance to offer compassionate pastoral care. Additionally, serving as a canonical advocate for someone involved in an often painful, sometimes lengthy, and far too often incomprehensible annulment process presents an opportunity to assist them in attaining a deeper understanding of and greater appreciation for the sacrament of matrimony.
After it appears in the Intermountain Catholic, I will post the article in its entirety.

Another reason for posting today was to see if I could still sit down and type something coherent and hopefully useful on the blank screen. Whether or not I accomplished that can only be judged by you, dear reader.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Summer sorrow

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but mid-July to mid-August is my least favorite time of the year. I guess because I'm strange, it's the time of year when my gloom gets the best of me. Generally, I do just fine in the wintertime. Reverse S.A.D.? Who knows.

Add to this the death of a dear friend... Yes, my friend, Kyle J. Sutherland, the same one I wrote about visiting to say goodbye last Friday, died last Sunday morning. His funeral was yesterday. Life is short, maintain your friendships. It's difficult but important.

As a result, our traditio for this solemn, hot final Friday of July is "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." This hymn was originally written as a poem by the Scottish poet and hymn-composer James Montogomery in 1855. Celts know how to do sorrow. Family names don't get more Scottish than Sutherland. It was not Montpgmery who set it to music. Rather, it was transformed into a hymn in New York City by minister George Coles. Coles gave the hymn the title "A Stranger and His Friend."

This hymn remains in many Christian hymnals, especially in the United States and Great Britain, including in the official hymnbook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As it is handed down, while in Carthage jail, where he was killed, Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., asked one of those with him to sing "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." While not Mormon in origin, ever since, it has been included in the hymnbooks and sung among the Latter-day Saints.

"A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" was the closing hymn for Kyle's funeral yesterday.

Painting by Sarah Merkley

The version of the song I am using for our traditio is one recorded by David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain of that short-lived but monumentally influential band The New York Dolls. The reason they recorded "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" was in tribute to their friend and the Dolls' bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane.

Prior to Kane's passing, due to the efforts of Morrissey, the surviving members of The New York Dolls (Johansen, Kane, and Sylvain) were reunited in 2004. In the 30 or so years between the dissolution of the band and their one-show reunion, Kane joined the LDS Church. A Mormon filmmaker, Greg Whiteley, who was in Kane's ward (a ward is the local LDS congregation), made a documentary about Kane as he prepared for the reunion show. The movie that resulted is New York Doll.

Back home in Los Angeles a little more than three weeks after the Dolls' reunion show at Royal Festival Hall in London, thinking he had come down with a bad case of the flu, Kane went to the hospital. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died a few hours later. Whiteley's movie was not completed or shown until after Kane's passing. This video appears at the of the movie.

Kyle was a gifted musician. While the guitar was his main instrument, he also played piano and mandolin. He played in a number of bands growing up. Given his tastes, I think he would approve of this version as something of my blogging tribute to him. This song certainly captures the difficulties he experienced in the last few years of his life.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Jesus gives

John 6:1-15

This week's Gospel reading, along with those for four of the next five Sundays (on Sunday, 15 August the Solemnity of the Assumption supersedes the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time; the Gospel for the celebration of Our Lady's Assumption is taken from Luke), is from the Gospel According to Saint John. Despite being taken from a different Gospel, not even from one of his fellow Synoptics (Matthew & Luke), our reading for today is a sort of continuation of our readings from Mark from the previous two Sundays.

In last week's Gospel passage, after crossing the Sea of Galilee for some peace and quiet only to find that the crowds had to beat him to his intended destination, Jesus, seeing they were like sheep without a shepherd, taught them. According to the inspired author of Mark, he taught for so long that it grew late and the people were hungry. In Mark's Gospel, this is when the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 occurs. Instead of sticking with the Gospel According to Saint Mark, which is the shortest of the four canonical Gospels, during Year B of the Sunday lectionary, the Church switches to Saint John's Gospel for five weeks. Again, this will be disrupted this year by the Solemnity of the Assumption.

Not only are all five Gospel readings from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-first Sundays in Ordinary Time during Year B of the Sunday lectionary taken from John's Gospel, but each is also taken from the sixth chapter of that Gospel. The portion of the sixth chapter covered on these Sundays is known as Jesus's "Bread of Life discourse." The striking thing about this discourse is the nature of the language placed on Jesus's lips- but his shocking words come will be heard in subsequent weeks.

Unlike last week's relatively low-key passage from Mark, today's Gospel tells about a miracle and a rather spectacular one at that!

Interestingly, our reading from John's Gospel mentions that the Jewish feast of Passover was near. Of course, Passover is the major Jewish Feast. Passover celebrates the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Passover is about freedom. Today's Gospel is about freedom, which is primarily not freedom from but freedom for.



The inspired author lets us in on an important secret. The secret is that Jesus knows what he is going to do but nonetheless asks Philip what can be done to feed the multitude. It is clear that, as in our passage last week from Mark's Gospel, Jesus, his disciples, and the crowd are in a deserted place. There is nothing nearby. Even if they were near to a town not only could they not afford the quantity of food needed but there would likely not have been enough available for purchase to feed that number of people. Despite this, Jesus still tells them to offer the people something to eat. In short, he asks them to do the impossible.

It is Andrew who notes that a member of the crowd, a boy, has five barley loaves and two fishes. He recognizes that it falls far short of the food needed to feed everyone. It may be significant that 5+2=7. In Biblical numerology, seven is the number of balance and perfection. At this, Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people recline. Then the food was distributed. After everyone ate their fill, at Jesus's instruction, what was leftover was gathered up. What was gathered filled twelve baskets. Like seven, 12 is a biblically significant number- the number of Jacob's (named by God Israel) sons and, hence, the number of the tribes of Israel.

Being freely given, nobody was compelled to eat the food. What led people to eat the food was their hunger. John's Gospel uses the feeding of the multitude as a way to bring into bold relief their (and by extension, our) existential hunger. Wasn't it just this that led the people in last week's Gospel to beat Jesus and his disciples to the deserted place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee as well as their attentive listening to Jesus's teaching, which lasted for a long time?

But what Jesus does is not bread and circuses. This is indicated by his refusal to be acknowledged as king by these people. Rather, he left them and went up the mountain by himself. By so doing, he freed not only himself but the crowd. Jesus does not coerce or manipulate, even by his miracles. He gives. What he gives is nothing less than his very self, body, blood, soul, and divinity, as we like to say.

Because it is given, what Jesus offers us cannot be earned. Our relationship with God through Christ is not an economy of exchange, a quid pro quo. The divine economy is a gift economy, an economy of grace. As a gift, it is simply offered. When truly given and received, a gift does not carry an expectation of reciprocity. In fact, the felt need to reciprocate ruins a well-given gift because it is not a gift that is really received. Gifts are freely offered and freely received. Gifts are gratuitous, like the abundance of food Jesus gave the crowd and the abundance we receive at the Lord's Table.

Friday, July 23, 2021

"Through the zero hour we'll walk"

Back to the Friday traditio... Why? Not sure. Inertia? Lack of creativity? Nostalgia? Melancholy?

Yes.

Last night I received a message from the oldest daughter of one of my closest friends, Kyle. She asked me to call her Mom, my friend's wife, which I did right away. During the call, she explained that Kyle's kidneys are slowly failing and that he was home under hospice care. She told me she was calling all her husband's close friends.

A photo I snapped after my visit today

Like most middle-aged men, I don't have a lot of friends, that is, people with whom I hang out, do stuff with, etc. My close friends, then, are people to whom I was close decades ago. Even when it comes to those, I can count them on fewer fingers than I have on one hand.

My closest friend, Tim, after whom my oldest son is named, died less than two years after we graduated from high school. Another close friend, Steven, died when we were in junior high. I was one of his pallbearers. Steven's funeral Mass was my first exposure to the Catholic Church.

So, this afternoon, I drove about 50 miles to basically say goodbye to someone who means a lot to me. I hope to make it back to Kyle's house before he passes. He was too tired to really interact today. I had a nice visit with his wife and his 2 lovely daughters. He could hear us.

It was Kyle, an outstanding guitarist, who taught me what I know about guitar. It is a testament to his patience. You know those friends you used to sit up talking to all night about anything and everything? Yeah... I thought you did.

Our traditito for this hot, dry Friday in July is Peter Murphy's "Cuts You Up."

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Hiatus over- Jesus's simplicity

I've taken a few weeks' hiatus from blogging. It's funny, not once during that time did I consider giving up posting here. It was on 19 July 2006 that I began posting on this weblog (there's a word you don't read/hear much these days!). That was fifteen years ago this week! I actually began blogging on 16 August 2005. Between that day and the end of August 2005, I posted six times. It was almost a year before I posted again. The title of my 19 July 2006 post? "How Occasional?"

These days I post less frequently, that is, more occasionally than I once did. Normally, I try to put up a Friday traditio and either my homily (on the Sundays that I preach) or a reflection on the Sunday readings on those weeks when I don't preach. Once in a while, I will post on a topic of interest or when I feel I have something worth writing down and perhaps sharing.

I don't mind mentioning again that this endeavor has been a vehicle of personal growth for me. The fact that what I write and post is public helps in that regard. Looking back, I have grown up a lot over the past decade-and-a-half. "Back in the day," as it were, I would've been all over Pope Francis's recent motu proprio on new norms governing the celebration of Mass according to 1962 Missale Romanum. These days, while I certainly have my thoughts on it, I don't feel the urge to share them, at least not quickly. Suffice it to say that I think the Holy Father's decision, based as it was on concerns expressed by bishops from throughout the world, is a good one.

Now, to this Sunday's readings, particularly today's Gospel from Saint Mark (6:30-34). It is tempting to set upon what Jesus says to his road-weary disciples: "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile." What is notable about this seemingly unremarkable passage is that their plan to retreat utterly fails!

Jésus enseigne le peuple près de la mer, by James Tissot, 1886-1896


Jesus and the Twelve set out in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, headed for the "deserted place" where they intended to "rest a while." Hearing they were leaving and apparently knowing their destination, many people were awaiting them when they arrived at the "deserted place." The deserted place wasn't deserted. Rather, it was teeming with people.

It's safe to say that my response to this would've been impatience, frustration, and perhaps a bit of anger. Jesus, seeing the people, "was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd." After all, there was a reason they made haste for Jesus's destination. They were seeking something, someone. And so, Jesus "taught them many things." In other words, he spoke to their desire, to that inchoate something that brought them to this otherwise deserted place.

Nonetheless, the inspired author of Mark does not write one word about what Jesus said to them on that occasion. The author does not recall/remember/compose a discourse to put on Jesus's lips. I think, rather, that this unspectacular episode is highlighted by Jesus, rather than castigating the people or impatiently shunning them, taking pity on them and taking time with them. After all, he is the Good Shepherd, n'est ce pas?

He doesn't wow them with soaring rhetoric or astound them by pulling off a spectacular miracle. In other words, he doesn't rob them of their freedom by manipulating them in any way. He simply speaks to them, to their desire, their restless seeking, inviting them to recognize/realize who he is: God in the flesh, God coming close, Emmanuel, God with us.

If we follow Mark's narrative beyond the verses that comprise our reading today, it seems Jesus speaks to the crowd for a long time. He does so despite being tired and ready to get some rest. He talks to them for so long that it grows late and people are hungry. Then comes the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

Note: this has a liturgical structure- Liturgy of the Word followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Like what he says to them, which is not even recorded, the meal, apart from there surprisingly being enough to feed everyone present, is a simple affair. "Noble simplicity" to make active, conscious participation easier was the reason for the reform of the Sacred Liturgy.

Learning Christ through the sacraments

In my last post on today's Gospel, I mentioned in passing the close connection between the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. I though...