Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Matters? The way we manage our lives together

There are many things we get politically worked up about. Some of these things matter, but many do not. When we can be bothered to get worked up about issues that bear on our common life together we very often eschew any level of complexity and insist on over-simplifying matters, which opens the door to rank demagoguery. As the great American cynic and realist, H.L. Mencken, once observed: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” This seems to me an apt, if very generalized, description of much of the Tea Party agenda.

It has become a political cliché this past year, given our serious fiscal woes, to insist that as a country we need comprehensive entitlement reform. I certainly number myself among those who agree with this assertion. Too often the discussion stops there, or progresses to some inane call for cancelling or dramatically curtailing all entitlements. I want to look at two programs that must be reformed if our country is to become fiscally sound: Social Security and Medicare. Regaining fiscal soundness will, of course, require more reforms than these, but Social Security and Medicare together make up the bulk of what needs to be reformed.

Dallas accountant, John Karrick, in a recent letter-to-the-editor of the New York Times, addressed both of these programs. He points out that Social Security is managed like a Ponzi scheme, the only difference being that it is considerably less sophisticated than a successful Ponzi scheme. He begins by pointing out the obviously regressive nature of both F.I.C.A. and Medicare payroll withholding. Indeed, everyone who is legally employed in the United States, no matter how little they make, pays 6.2% of their salary into Social Security. However, no F.I.C.A. is paid on salary over $106,800. He notes that all workers pay 1.45% into Medicare. Unlike Social Security, Medicare has no upper limit.

Simple arithmetic shows that U.S. workers pay 7.65%, up to $106,800, of their salary for Social Security and Medicare, which means the vast majority of workers in the U.S. pay this on their entire salaries. Nonetheless, despite the regressive nature of these mandated withholdings, there is a certain sense of fairness: you pay into Social Security and later receive Social Security (F.I.C.A. is not technically speaking a tax, but paying into an account) and the same is true of Medicare. Beyond that, your employer matches your 7.65% for a whopping total of 15.3% of what you make! Karrick is correct to point out that “[t]his amounts to a tax on employing people in the United States.”

I disagree with Karrick that we can find a better way to fund our Social Security and Medicare obligations. I am against privatizing Social Security, as are an overwhelming majority of people in the U.S., regardless of political affiliation. What is truly problematic, what we should all be much more worked up about, are these government-run Ponzi schemes. In the case of Social Security, Karrick is correct when he writes that “[t]oday’s contributions are used to pay beneficiaries who contributed yesterday, and the surplus of current contributions is ‘lent’ to the federal government and used for general spending.” It is this disastrous reality that has resulted in Social Security’s rapidly approaching insolvency. If everything that U.S. workers and employers had paid into Social Security remained in the trust fund from its establishment, Social Security would be solvent with a surplus (i.e., we could look at reducing contributions instead of ways to increase them- like upping the amount of salary one has to pay F.I.C.A. from the current $106,800). This is what Al Gore was talking about back in 2000 when he discussed his “lock box.”

Arising from my disagreement with Karrick over whether we can find better ways to fund these huge obligations is my opposition to his idea of formally melding Social Security and Medicare into general revenues, taking funds out of other taxes, most particularly the personal income tax. My reason for disagreeing is that rather than “reducing the tax burden of lower-income Americans,” as he asserts, I believe it will raise taxes on them. However, I readily concede that it would remove a disincentive to hire employees.

As Rich Rickman, writing over on Commentary’s Contentions blog (from whence I was pointed to Karrick's letter), points out, “[t]he Ponzi scheme underlying the Medicare system is even more blatant.” He points to the change made to your Medicare contribution in the truly horrible health care reform known as Obamacare: “[t]he legislation dispensed with the interim step of sending the money to the Medicare Trust Fund, to then be ‘lent’ to the general fund and spent on non-Medicare programs. Instead, the money from the new ‘contribution’ will go straight to the general fund; Medicare will not even get a government IOU to hold in ‘trust’.” Unlike Rickman, I am not bothered that the investment earnings of those making more than $200,000 per annum is now subject to the Medicare tax. It is a way of making the tax less regressive and, I believe, serves the common good by helping to shore up Medicare.

Not until we get worked enough to pay attention to details like these will we come anywhere close to making progress on these important matters that affect us all. In the meantime, we will continue to see-saw back-and-forth between the unabashed and ultimately disastrous statism of so-called progressives and the equally deleterious hyper-individualism of so-called conservatives. This is true of many issues, including immigration. In terms of Catholic social teaching it balancing solidarity with subsidiarity that fosters the common good.

Politics in the U.S. has become a net gain/net loss proposition. As it has been said of diplomacy, which is nothing except politics on an international scale- politics is the art of compromise. There are several ways to accomplish the end of reforming Social Security and Medicare, but reform them we must!


"Come and you will see" The Feast of St. Andrew

"The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God!' The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, 'What are you seeking?' And they said to him 'Rabbi' (which means Teacher), 'where are you staying?' He said to them, 'Come and you will see.' So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, 'We have found the Messiah' (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, 'So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas' (which means Peter)" (John 1:35-42).

St. Andrew is the patron of the see of Constantinople. It was three years ago today that Pope Benedict observed this universal feast at the Patriarchate in Istanbul with Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch. On that occasion the Holy Father said:

"Tradition tells us that [St. Andrew] followed the fate of his Lord and Master, ending his days in Patras, Greece. Like Peter, he endured martyrdom on a cross, the diagonal cross that we venerate today as the cross of Saint Andrew. From his example we learn that the path of each single Christian, like that of the Church as a whole, leads to new life, to eternal life, through the imitation of Christ and the experience of his cross...

"The Divine Liturgy in which we have participated was celebrated according to the rite of Saint John Chrysostom. The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ have been made mystically present. For us Christians this is a source and sign of constantly renewed hope. We find that hope beautifully expressed in the ancient text known as the Passion of Saint Andrew: 'I greet you, O Cross, consecrated by the Body of Christ and adorned by His limbs as by precious pearls … May the faithful know your joy, and the gifts you hold in store …'

"This faith in the redeeming death of Jesus on the cross, and this hope which the Risen Christ offers to the whole human family, are shared by all of us, Orthodox and Catholics alike. May our daily prayer and activity be inspired by a fervent desire not only to be present at the Divine Liturgy, but to be able to celebrate it together, to take part in the one table of the Lord, sharing the same bread and the same chalice. May our encounter today serve as an impetus and joyful anticipation of the gift of full communion. And may the Spirit of God accompany us on our journey!"
Of course, a Happy St. Andrew's day to all Scots, too!

St. Andrew, holy apostle, pray for us, especially for the unity of all who follow Christ.


Monday, November 29, 2010

"We eagerly await the coming of our Savior"

In his preaching after yesterday's Angelus the Holy Father observed, "It could be said that man is alive while he waits, that in his heart hope is alive. And from these waitings man comes to know himself: our moral and spiritual 'stature' can be measured by that for which we wait, by that in which we hope."

Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Of course, as Christians we wait in joyful hope the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. So, I think these words of Pope Benedict are complemented very nicely by our reading for Evening Prayer this First Monday of Advent, taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians: "We eagerly await the coming of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pattern of his glorified body, by his power to subject everything to himself" (3:20b-21).

The way subjects everything to himself, that is, his power is nothing other than love. He is the love of God made manifest to us and for us.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Year A First Sunday of Advent

Readings:Isa 2:1-5; Ps 122:1-9; Rom 13:11-4; Matt 24:37-44

My friends, today is the First Sunday of Advent. Today God inaugurates among us a new year of grace! As Bishop Wester reminded us in his pastoral letter, issued just this past week: "The season of Advent has a twofold character: It is a time of preparation for Christmas when the first coming of God's Son ... is recalled. It is also a season when [our] minds are directed… to Christ's second coming at the end of time. It is thus a season of joyful and spiritual expectation." Today’s readings direct our minds "to Christ’s second coming at the end of time," a coming we wait for in joyful hope.

Through our observance of the various liturgical seasons we are called, not just to engage in a lot of nice religious thoughts, but to enact, that is, incarnate the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and glorious ascension, so that we are ready to meet Him when He returns in glory, a return for which our lives are but a preparation. As we were reminded at Mass a few Sundays ago, when we read Jesus’ teaching about His own glorious return, our belief in His so-called second coming is a dogma of our Christian faith, something we not only believe, but for which we yearn. However, if it does not happen before, our own end time occurs when we die.

Of all the liturgical seasons, I think Advent is the most difficult one to clarify, a clarification that is necessary if we are going to fully live it. We fully live this season of grace by striking a balance by means of a certain tension. The kind of tension I am talking about is not the stressful kind that exhausts us and gives us headaches, but the kind we require to stay in balance physically, mentally, and spiritually. As the late liturgical scholar, Mark Searle wrote, this mystery we seek to embody corporately, as Christ's Body, as well as in our homes, the domestic Church, and in our individual lives, is "something which can never be completely understood or adequately defined, for it is always open to fresh insight and deeper understanding." In describing the tension required to celebrate good liturgy, Searle also clearly defines the kind of tension necessary to live Advent: "Tension creates energy," he wrote, "a tension between the present and the future." I would add to this by throwing in the past, too.

It seems to me that this tension is inherent to the Advent season, the result of it being both our preparation for Christmas, when we call to mind in order make present, the first coming of the Son of God, and our thinking about His return. This is the tension we live everyday between the already and the not yet, which is precisely where, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger observed, we always find ourselves at any given moment. It is precisely this that creates the energizing and balancing tension of the Advent season.

Practically speaking, the balance we seek to achieve in our observance of Advent is between giving in to secular culture and beginning to celebrate Christmas even before Thanksgiving, or turning Advent into another Lent. While, as Bishop Wester points out in his letter, Advent is not, strictly speaking, a penitential season, we can’t deny our need to repent when thinking about Christ's return in glory to judge the living and the dead. So, Advent undeniably has a penitential dimension, but this should not overshadow the season.

Pope Benedict has asked the Church throughout the world this Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, to focus time, attention, and effort on protecting nascent human life, giving witness to the dignity of every human life from its earliest embryonic beginnings. This means that in addition to continuing our work to end the evil of abortion, working to bring an end to the destruction of human embryos in research facilities and in-vitro fertilization clinics, as well as advocating for the overturning of unjust laws that permit the destruction of innocent and nascent human life. We also need to pray for a change of heart among those who continue to sin by advocating for, or actually taking innocent human life, and for God to have mercy on all who have sinned against life.

Advent means "coming" or "arrival," and so is characterized by our waiting in joyful hope for the Lord. It is no exaggeration to say that joyful waiting accurately summarizes the Christian life, which is why we mention it every time we celebrate Eucharist, when, in the middle of the Our Father, we pray: "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ." Giving us the season of Advent is one way God protects from anxiety because for too many of us this season is full of anxiety.

The vast majority of human history is an advent, which is not, as too many today seem to think, like that of Samuel Beckett’s tramps, who wait in vain for Godot. Since the Incarnation, human waiting has taken on an added tension, which imparts joy to us and makes our waiting hopeful. We live in joyful expectation because the Lord did not leave us orphans. After His ascension He sent His Holy Spirit to be His resurrection presence among us, a presence made most palpable in and through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. At the end of the day, Advent is about conversion, about being more conformed to Christ. So, the question for each one of us is what needs to change in me? Reflection on this question is the very best way to arrive at how to observe Advent.

It is important to note that it is the Holy Spirit who changes us. Hence, the best way to describe what you do through your efforts to pray more, spend more time reading and reflecting on Scripture, working towards a more just society, especially with regards to nascent human life, and perhaps participating more regularly in the liturgy, is to open yourself to and cooperate more intentionally with God's grace given us in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit. So, heed Bishop Wester's call to enter fully into this season by heeding the Holy Father’s call to work and pray for respect for the dignity of human life from its earliest beginning. Allow yourself to be drawn in by the Holy Spirit, whose primary tools for working on/in us consist of confession and Eucharist. This, I believe, can have no other effect than making your Christmas merrier, but don’t take my word for it, see for yourself starting today.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent begins

This Advent reminder is a production of Ben Bell

"May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May he preserve you whole and entire, spirit, soul, and body, irreproachable at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls us is trustworthy, therefore he will do it" (1 Thess. 5:23-24- reading for Evening Prayer First Sunday of Advent).


Friday, November 26, 2010

Faith, morals, and the necessary application of reason

In the recently released transcript of a lengthy interview with journalist Peter Seewald, published in book form under the English title Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, a book, as Sandro Magister points out, that is "so 'risky' [it] has no precedent for a successor of Peter," the Holy Father is asked questions on a broad variety of subjects. I am looking forward to reading the entire book, just as I read The Ratzinger Report, Salt of the Earth, and God and the World, the latter interview was conducted shortly before Ratzinger became pope and published shortly after his selection as the Successor of St. Peter. In addition to Light of the World, Seewald published the last two of the three previous books. He returned to practicing the faith after his first interview with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, published as Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium

Given the current state of most of the West some frank questions about sexuality were inevitable. It is all too predictable that in the current media environment the answer to one question about the use of condoms to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading HIV in an interview that runs 256 pages would predominate coverage and spark a firestorm. Even more than John Paul II, who spoke about sex more than any of his predecessors, maybe even all of them put together, at least going back a couple hundred years, and who gave us the very salient teaching we now know as the Theology of the Body, Pope Benedict has spoken on several occasions directly to the crisis perpetuated by pseudo-scientific and increasingly ideological takes on human sexuality. In this interview he says about condom use:
"Concentrating only on the condom means trivializing sexuality, and this trivialization represents precisely the dangerous reason why so many people no longer see sexuality as an expression of their love, but only as a sort of drug, which one administers on one's own. This is why the struggle against the trivialization of sexuality is also part of the great effort so that sexuality may be valued positively, and may exercise its positive effect on the human being in his totality. There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."
The quote above is enough to clarify what the Holy Father was trying to communicate, until, that is, it is ripped out of context by journalists who do not know the first thing about Catholic morality and who can't be bothered to speak to anyone who does. Needless to say such an understanding is crucial to comprehending what the Holy Father is saying.

The crux of the matter is that if someone is engaging in gravely sinful behavior (i.e., engaging in sexual relations with anyone other than his/her spouse), employing a condom does not increase the gravity of the sin. So, especially in an instance when someone is employing a prostitute, using a condom to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading HIV does not present a serious moral issue. Now, if that same person who engaged the prostitute is married, whether he can employ a condom while having sex with his spouse is a different moral question. Some may object by making a category mistake and employing an argument to the effect that the Church is indifferent to the spouse of the person who is HIV positive. The Church is not indifferent in the least to plight of anyone! So, the Church's answer to a married couple, one of whom is HIV-positive, is that they abstain from sexual intercourse.

So, if a person is determined to participate in high risk sexual behavior with multiple partners, using a condom does not increase the gravity of the sin (or its mortality, as it were). Keep in mind that while condoms may reduce the risk of transmitting HIV, they do not eliminate it altogether. Epidemiological studies have shown that abstinence and fidelity campaigns in Africa have been more effective at stemming the spread of HIV than the distribution of condoms, which has the effect of officially approving sexual irresponsibility.

It seems to me that throughout his pontificate, as well as prior to it, Pope Benedict has insisted that for us to act as though people are incapable of controlling their sexual impulses is to greatly diminish their humanity. In a time when so-called sexual liberation, which is not really a term we use anymore, is becoming the prevalent ideology in the West (this creates as much hostility between the West and the rest of the world as virtually anything), we have become accustomed to reducing the human person either to his/her libido and/or his/her sexual use. This certainly constitutes one of the greatest threats to our common humanity and, consequently, to our civilization. It is also precisely what the Holy Father means when he says that we must work "toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But [encouraging the use of condoms] is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."

For an accurate and techincally detailed analysis of the Holy Father's comments, I can point you in no better direction that the response of Dr. Janet Smith. It is important not to react when certain members of the news media run amok and to recognize that the Holy Father's comment, even prior to any "clarification by the Vatican," does not represent a change in Church teaching, or even a "softening," to use a less charitable and wholly inadequate term.

The Holy Father was asked by Seewald in Light of the World if he expected difficulties when he became pope, to which Benedict responded:
"I had counted on it. But above all one must be very careful in evaluating a pope, whether he is significant or not, while he is still alive. Only afterward can one recognize what place, in history as a whole, a certain thing or person has. But that the atmosphere would not always be joyful was evident in consideration of the current global configuration, with all of the forces of destruction that are out there, with all of the contradictions that exist in it, with all the dangers and errors. If I had continued to receive nothing but agreement, I would have had to have asked myself if I were truly proclaiming all of the Gospel."

All holy men and women, pray for us

"It's gettin' dark, too dark for me to see"

We started this month during which we remember and pray for our beloved dead a little early with Warren Zevon's Werewolves of London as our Friday traditio to kick-off our three-day festival of saints. So, we'll make his rendition of Dylan's Knockin' on Heavens our last traditio of this reflective month. It is a reversal of what we've been doing, having a departed musician cover the song of a live one. This version is featured on Zevon's last album The Wind, which was recorded as he was dying of cancer.

Advent is a preparation for our celebration of "[t]he light [that] shines in the darkness", Jesus Christ. It always gets darkest just before the dawn:

"That long black cloud is comin' down
I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door."

With Advent beginning at sundown with our celebration of First Vespers tomorrow, we bring our month of commemorating our beloved dead to an end a few days early. So, once again, with everything in our hearts, we commend our beloved departed to Divine Mercy, saying Jesus, I entrust them to you and you alone.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love is everlasting"

Remember today that Eucharist means thanksgiving. It is good that we set aside a day every year to give thanks to God as a nation. As Christians we give thanks everyday, which is why we celebrate Eucharist everyday. It is easy to only see life's challenges and hardships, but it is more important to see life's blessings. The first blessing, of course, as our Declaration of Independence declares, is life, then comes freedom, both of which are necessary for the pursuit of happiness. We must be careful when it comes to the latter because even our nation's founders did not see happiness as a selfish and hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, they had a more classical and, yes, Christian conception of what constitutes human happiness.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In memoriam Manuela Camagni of the Papal Household

UPDATE: For those who are wondering and do not know the circumstances of Manuela's death, she was walking in Rome with some friends on Tuesday evening when she was struck by a car. She died yesterday morning due to serious brain injuries she sustained in the accident. Carol Glatz has a nice post over the CNS blog, in which she writes about the Holy Father mentioning his relationship with his "papal family" in his new book-length interview with Peter Seewald, The Light of the World. He lives with his family of Memores Domini, celebrates daily Mass, shares meals, and enjoys watching movies on DVD with them and, yes my dear ciellini, School of Community!

Members of the papal family eat their meals together and often relax in the evenings watching DVDs, he said in the book. They celebrate the holidays and feast days together, even exchanging gifts, and “there is above all Holy Mass in common in the morning,” the pope said.

“That is an especially important moment in which we are all with each other in a particularly intense way in the light of the Lord.

Press release:
Message of Fr. Julián Carrón on the sudden death of Manuela Camagni, Memores Domini of the papal household

Upon learning of the sudden death of Manuela Camagni, a member of Memores Domini who served in the papal apartment, Fr. Julián Carrón, President of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, sent this message to the entire Movement:

Dear friends, the sudden death of our friend Manuela Camagni is the mysterious modality by which the Lord forces us to think of Him, renewing the certainty that “not a hair on your head will be destroyed," as today’s Liturgy said. Let us draw together ever more intensely in the embrace of the Holy Father, as children who want to share in all his wounded humanity.

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Manuela’s laying down of her life was manifested evidently and surprisingly both through her openness to mission in the experience in Tunis, and in her service of the Holy Father. May her sacrifice renew in all of us the truth of our "I", that the victory of Christ be increasingly affirmed in our hearts.

May Fr. Giussani obtain from Our Lady the gift of eternal happiness for our friend and the gift of consolation for the Pope.

The CL press office
Milan, November 24, 2010

Thank you to my dear friends, Stefania and Sharon for passing this news along.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A milestone

The picture above was taken in Iraq during Midnight Mass, Christmas 2005. With the assistance of then-Bishop Niederauer, I was able to obtain faculties as a deacon in the U.S. Military Archdiocese and assist Fr. Fitzpatrick, who had pastoral care of literally thousands of Catholics, during my off-duty hours, which was a great privilege even though I worked 12 hrs a day 7 days a week!

During this Mass a mortar hit nearby and rocked the tent, which was not our usual chapel, due to the size of the congregation. Father Dave stopped Mass, looked at Brig. Gen. Gorenc, who motioned to just keep going. So we all continued making the Prince of Peace present where He most needed to be, together. During that Advent I was able to participate in and preach at probably the one and only penitential service at which general absolution was given in my whole life. It was done with proper ecclesial approval, given to troops in combat. I know from my pastoral follow-up that many returned to the practice of the faith that year and later made good confessions.

Just a few memories of many over many years of service that has been part of my entire adult life. It will be strange not to have this commitment of service, which I hope, in its own way, was diakonia.

While my military retirement isn't official until 1 January 2011, tomorrow is my last duty day. Today, at my request, I brought my military career to an end in a quiet and unceremonial way by enjoying lunch in my old unit's lounge with old comrades and new comrades, just telling stories about our service together. I was always a reluctant warrior, but somehow it all worked out over the years. I am certainly a better man because of it all. If nothing else (there is plenty "else"), it taught me not to always put myself first and, believe it or not, compassion.

All holy men and women, pray for us

What (Who) is it we lack?

In continuing to focus not on our practice of the spiritual disciplines, but on why we practice them and what we hope to accomplish by performing them, I find these words of the mystic Adrienne Von Speyr, from her work Man Before God, very instructive:

"Man lacks something. His sin has moved him away from the place where he should and could stand... He must make himself so light that grace outweighs everything else in him. He must forget himself - this is the only true conclusion that follows from the recognition of his nothingness - in order to allow grace to stream into the empty space that he is."

Our Christian faith teaches us that human beings originally existed in a state of grace, which state was lost because of sin, something recapitulated in all of our lives. Further, we know that sin is possible because we are created by Love in order to love and that genuine love, which we in the Latin tradition know as caritas, requires authentic freedom. Hence, in and through the waters of baptism God restores us to our original state. As St. Paul writes, specifically in chapters seven and eight of his Letter to the Romans, the hold of sin on us is very great: "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do that I practice" (Romans 7:19). For this reason God sent "His only Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:3-4).

So, we must empty ourselves in order to be filled with grace, which is nothing other than God's sharing divine life with us, the life that is life, which is nothing other than the life of the Most Blessed Trinity.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Monday, November 22, 2010

"we ask that the martyrdom of our people be officially recognized..."

There are many ways we can show our solidarity with the Church throughout the Middle East, especially the Church in Iraq. One is to contribute money through any variety of agencies. My agency of choice, one I have supported for quite a few years, is the Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Association, which is a papal agency established to provide humanitarian aid and pastoral support to churches throughout the Middle East. There is also a recent initiative underway, instigated by Maria Teresa Landi, to send letters of support to Christians in Iraq telling them that you stand with them and, to the best of your ability, are standing for them as they continue to be martyred and persecuted.

The Holy Father's representative at the United Nations last week offered his diplomatic pouch (i.e., his ability to directly mail letters to the Papal Nunciature in Iraq) to deliver these letters. The established deadline has passed, but I would be surprised if letters sent now would be left undelivered. So, you can address your emails to Christian families to His Beatitude Emmanuel Delli, Patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad and email them to tonuncio@gmail.com.

Another way of supporting our brothers and sisters in Christ, probably the most neglected, but the one that will ultimately prove most efficacious, is by fasting and praying on their behalf. To this end, tomorrow, 23 November, many people are praying the rosary for the Christians of Iraq, the Sorrowful Mysteries, please join us for this important initiative, invoking Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who is highly venerated among the Christians of the Middle East.

There is now under way a formal initiative to have the Iraqi martyrs formally declared saints by the Catholic Church. The petition declares that "[d]espite this barbaric act, we, as Arab Christians, want to reaffirm our joy and our desire to live out our Christian faith in the same land where Christ died and rose again for our salvation, and where his apostles told the good news to our ancestors.

"The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity. We have lived here since Pentecost, when the Spirit inspired our forefathers who expressed their faith through diversity as Greek Catholics, Syriac Catholics, Copts, Maronites, Armenians, Latins, Lutherans and Anglicans – all of whom confess on[e] holy, catholic and apostolic church.

"In the tradition of the early Church, we ask that those who died as martyrs be honoured as saints. We call for the canonisation of the following fallen brothers:

"Fr. Thair Sad-alla Abd-al and Fr. Waseem Sabeeh Al-kas Butros and their companions, who were murdered on October 31 by Islamist terrorists. Others mentioned are the Chaldean Sisters Fawzeiyah and Margaret Naoum, killed March 26, 2007; the Chaldean priest Fr. Raghid Aziz Ganni and sub-deacons Yousef Daoud, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Issam Bidawid, killed June 3, 2007 in Mosul; Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj of Mosul, found dead March 13, 2008." I would respectfully add Bishop Luigi Padovese and Fr. Andrea Santoro to this list of Middle Eastern martyrs deserving official canonization.

The petition concludes: "If, as Tertullian said, 'The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,' then we ask that the martyrdom of our people be officially recognised so that we may take root in the land.

"For this reason, we sign this petition calling for all the Christian martyrs of Iraq to be canonised, so that the example of their life and sacrifice be an inspiration to all of us, Arab and international Christians, who are living in the Middle East."

Indeed, it may well be the blood of these martyrs that insures the survival and even the future flourishing of the Church in Iraq. You can add your name to the petition by visiting the Christian Martyrs of Iraq and signing the petition.

I owe a deep diaconal bow to my brother deacon, Greg Kandra, who blogs over on The Deacon's Bench, for bringing this formal initiative to my attention. As we say in Rome Santo Subito!

All holy men and women, pray for us

Master, discipline, disciple

"A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace." ~James Kushiner

On this, her liturgical memorial, we implore: St. Cecilia, virgin and martyr, pray for us. The martyrs show us the ultimate purpose of practicing spiritual discipline in imitation of our Master, Jesus Christ.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"O consuming fire, Spirit of Love

On the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the final Sunday of another year of grace, I thought posting Prayer to the Trinity, by Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, especially given that today, 21 November, is the 106th anniversary of this beautiful prayer, appropriate because in Christ Jesus "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col. 2:9):

"O my God, Trinity whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing trouble my peace or make me leave You, O my Unchanging One, but may each minute carry me further into the depths of Your mystery. Give peace to my soul; make it Your heaven, Your beloved dwelling and Your resting place. May I never leave You there alone but be wholly present, my faith wholly vigilant, wholly adoring, and wholly surrendered to Your creative Action.

Bl. Élizabeth (Catez) of the Trinity

"O my beloved Christ, crucified by love, I wish to be a bride for Your Heart; I wish to cover You with glory; I wish to love You...even unto death! But I feel my weakness, and I ask You to 'clothe me with Yourself,' to identify my soul with all the movements of Your Soul, to overwhelm me, to possess me, to substitute yourself for me that my life may be but a radiance of Your Life. Come into me as Adorer, as Restorer, as Savior.

"O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to You, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.

"O consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, 'come upon me,' and create in my soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that I may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery. And You, O Father, bend lovingly over Your poor little creature; 'cover her with Your shadow,' seeing in her only the 'Beloved in whom You are well pleased.'

"O my Three, my All, my Beatitude, infinite Solitude, Immensity in which I lose myself, I surrender myself to You as Your prey. Bury Yourself in me that I may bury myself in You until I depart to contemplate in Your light the abyss of Your greatness."

All holy men and women, pray for us

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fleshing out Advent, incarnating it

In addition to beginning the week by writing about the inauguration of St. Philip's fast on Monday among the Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics, which prompted a lively discussion about the observance of Advent among Roman Catholics, the bishop of Salt Lake City, who is my bishop, Bishop John Wester, promulgated his first pastoral letter, the subject of which was the observance of Advent in our diocese. In my estimation his letter is a wonderful gift of guidance on exactly the meaning of this sacred season of preparation and how to observe it. I also discussed Advent both in the catechumenate on Thursday night, and last night with those who are preparing to be received into the Church on the Second Sunday of Advent by Bishop Wester at the Cathedral.

For me, it has been a great week in terms of really focusing on, thinking about, praying about, and, yes, fasting about the meaning of Advent, how it draws me closer to the Lord, incorporates me more into His Body, the Church, and helps me live my life in the awareness of my destiny. So, I am grateful to all of those who participated in this discussion either on-line or in person. Genuine discernment is never done on one's own. Today, one week prior to the beginning of Advent, I want to try to synthesize all of these inputs.

Of all the liturgical seasons, Advent is the most difficult to clarify. So, to fully live this season of grace means living a tension. The kind of tension I am talking about is not the stressful kind, but the kind we require even to be alive, to stay in balance physically, mentally, and spiritually. We seek, as Christians, to embody the Paschal Mystery, which is nothing other than Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory, a return for which our lives are a preparation. As the late liturgical scholar, Mark Searle wrote, this mystery we seek to embody primarily in a corporate manner, as Christ's Body, as well as in our homes, the domestic Church, and even individually, is "something which can never be completely understood or adequately defined, for it is always open to fresh insight and deeper understanding." In describing the tension required for good liturgy, Searle also clearly defines the kind of tension necessary to observe Advent: "Tension creates energy... a tension between the present and the future." I would add to this balancing tension by throwing in the past, too.

In his pastoral letter Bishop Wester cites the General Norms for the Liturgical Year: "The season of Advent has a twofold character: It is a time of preparation for Christmas when the first coming of God's Son ... is recalled. It is also a season when minds are directed by this memorial to Christ's second coming at the end of time. It is thus a season of joyful and spiritual expectation." It seems to me that it is precisely this twofold character, preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ again in our hearts and, as a consequence, in the world, and looking forward to His second coming, between already and the not yet, which is precisely where, as Hiedegger observed, we always find ourselves at any given moment, that creates the energizing and balancing tension of the Advent season.

Practically, the balance we seek to achieve in our observance of Advent is between giving in to secular culture and beginning our celebration of Christmas even before Thanksgiving, which is also prior to the beginning of Advent, or turning Advent into another Lent. While, as the bishop correctly points out in his letter, Advent is not, strictly speaking, a penitential season, which is perhaps the most significant way it differs from Lent, when we think about Christ's return in glory to judge the living and the dead, we can't help but recognize our need to repent, to change, to be conformed more to the Lord. So, at least by my reckoning, Advent has a penitential dimension, but it should not overshadow the season, which is a joyful one. Maybe we can let the readings for each Sunday set the tone for our Advent praxis for the following week. After all, in the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent, the Baptizer calls us to repentance in a most forthright manner.

Advent is, indeed, a season of waiting in joyful hope, which characterizes the whole of Christian life and is why we mention it every time we celebrate Eucharist: "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ" (underlining emphasis added). The vast majority of history, with the exception of a mere thirty plus years, is also, in a sense, an advent, which is best summed up as our waiting for an arrival, the arrival of Jesus Christ, which is not, as too many today seem to think, like Waiting for Godot.

After the Incarnation, our waiting takes on an added tension, which gives it its joyful character, because Christ came, lived, died, was resurrected, and ascended, but did not leave us orphans, which is why He sent the Holy Spirit among us. In his second letter to the Church of Corinth, St. Paul writes about the Spirit being something like a down payment on what we will later receive in full. The Holy Spirit, as I never tire of pointing out, taking this description from Luke Timothy Johnson, is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence among us, made most palpable in and through the sacraments, most particularly Eucharist.

As I wrote in one of the very useful exchanges this week- At the end of the day, it is about conversion, about being more conformed to the image of Christ. So, the question is, what needs to change in me? Reflection on this fundamental question is what leads me to sound praxis. I also have to recognize that I don't change myself, the Holy Spirit changes me. Hence, the best way to describe what I do through my efforts is open myself to and cooperate with God's grace given so freely in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit.

Above all, I hope we heed Bishop Wester's call to fully enter into the season of Advent, to allow ourselves to be drawn in by the Holy Spirit, whose primary tool for working on/in us is our Sunday Eucharist. This, I believe, can have no other effect than making our Christmas a truly merry one. This week's goings on here on the blog also made homily preparation much easier. I am preaching the First Sunday of Advent.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Worry, why do I let myself worry?"

Lyle sums it up in his intro.- Willie wrote it, the late, great Patsy Cline made it famous, and Καθολικός διάκονος favorite Emmylou Harris sings, plus offers a little commentary. This, dearly beloved, is our Friday traditio.

"Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you" because for me to truly love someone requires the love of Another, the recognition that I am loved, which is why Amor ergo sum necessarily precedes Amo ergo sum. Only God can say of God- Amo ergo sum, which still falls well short of the Mystery. Otherwise, at least in my experience, it gets a little crazy.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Waiting in Joyful Hope

A Pastoral Letter to the Church of Salt Lake City on the season of Advent

My dear brother priests and deacons, my dear religious, and my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Few would disagree that we live in a busy and rushed society. We rush from one thing to the next; in the end, many of us are restless and tired, yearning for stability and peace in our community and family. You may have noticed that in our hurried society many stores have already decorated for Christmas, radio stations are sneaking in a Christmas song here and there, and even some of our own parishes have begun preparing for Christmas parties for early December. In the midst of all this hurry, the Church teaches us to slow down, to be patient, and to wait.

What is the rush? Are we really so eager to get to all the decorations up, celebrate the event, and quickly dismantle all the decorations so we can move on to the next event? If we truly believe the Church is the sacrament of Christ in the world1, then we must authentically celebrate the story of salvation as it unfolds in the liturgical year so that we can witness God's profound love and mercy to the world. In these final days of Ordinary Time, I want to take an opportunity to write to you about our celebration of the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

The Church's year begins with the season of Advent. Advent is a season of preparation, although it has come to be neglected in many places. Too often, the season of Advent is overshadowed by the "holiday season" as we move too quickly into celebrating Christmas. By the time that the actual solemnity of Christmas arrives, many of us are burned out. We are already tired of all the "Christmas hype." Christmas has become anticlimactic.

The word advent comes from the Latin for" coming" or "arrival". What arrival are we waiting for? The General Norms for the Liturgical Year helps us understand the season a little bit better by explaining:

The season of Advent has a twofold character: It is a time of preparation for Christmas when the first coming of God's Son ... is recalled. It is also a season when minds are directed by this memorial to Christ's second coming at the end of time. It is thus a season of joyful and spiritual expectation2.
You will notice that this is not a penitential season. It is a season of joyful hope, a time of preparation and waiting. "Thus the Sundays of Advent, while commemorating [Christ's] birth and anticipating his return, celebrate in word and sacrament his coming now in the midst of this world."3 This season is not just about preparing for the birth of Christ at Christmas, but for the Christ who is continually being born in our midst and transforming the Church evermore into his body in the world.

In the late autumn of the year, as the world darkens, the Church is called to gather and quietly wait in hope for the coming of Christ, her bridegroom, the Light of the World. I am reminded of a song by Marty Haugen: "For you, 0 Lord, my soul in stillness waits, truly my hope is in you."4 Is our hope really in Christ? Have we really allowed ourselves to wait in silence and ponder the great mystery of salvation? Have we been changed by our reflection on this mystery so that we live differently as our relationship with the risen Christ deepens? In the darkness, we watch for the coming Lord. We must not let our busyness distract us from that, lest we be caught unawares like the foolish virgins in Matthew's Gospel5, The season calls us to be attentive to our preparations for the final day and attentive to the quality of our life in union with Christ.

The liturgies for the Sundays of Advent are intended to focus our attention on these realities and to guide our preparation for Christ's coming. The theme for the first Sunday of Advent /I speaks of the Lord's return and urges watchfulness."6 On the second Sunday of Advent, we hear John the Baptist's call to repentance and preparation. The Baptizer is calling us to be prepared and vigilant as we invite Christ into our hearts, but also as we await that final judgment. The third Sunday, or Gaudete Sunday, introduces Jesus as the one who will fulfill the covenant and bring forth the kingdom. On the final Sunday, we hear the gospel stories that immediately precede Christ's birth. During these four weeks, we prepare for the Light, which comes into the world, both in Christ's birth, and as we await his final return in glory. "In Advent, then, the church is called to be more vigilant in discovering the role of the Spirit in humanity in general and in the life of the church in particular."7

As we renew our sense of the liturgical celebration of time, I encourage you to remain faithful to the celebration of the four weeks of Advent. As I mentioned earlier, it is so easy to be consumed by the hype of the "holiday season": to decorate our churches and houses for Christmas, to spend more time shopping than in prayer, and to host Christmas parties before the season has arrived. I know it is an enormous challenge to remain faithful to the Advent season when we are surrounded by a society which, while claiming to be Christian, does not take the time to reflect and prepare as the church calls us to do.

As Catholics, we must celebrate Advent differently. Our reckoning of time is itself a sacramental witness to the fullness of the paschal mystery. If we were to skip the Advent season or any other season, we would impoverish that witness. We are very lucky to have a Church who has provided us with seasons to bear witness to the great mysteries of our faith. As Christians, these celebrations and our observance of time help us witness the truth and beauty of the risen Christ.

This Advent, I call on every Catholic in the diocese of Salt Lake City to strive to enter into the spirit of the season. As we move forward, I strongly encourage our schools, parishes, and each individual household to celebrate the four weeks of Advent with rich prayer. We must practice and model what we preach in order to instill the rich traditions of our faith in young and old alike.

Here are some particular examples of what this will entail. Schools should not decorate for Christmas, but can decorate with simple wreaths and greenery. They might celebrate "Gaudete parties" before departing for Christmas break. I encourage each home to display and bless an Advent wreath where the family can gather for prayer either in the morning, at dinner, or some other practical time. I urge you to hold-off on displaying a decorated Christmas tree until the season of Christmas begins. You may want to incorporate a Jesse Tree  in your family's observance of the seasons.8 As the season draws to its close, I also invite you to discover the beauty of the 0 Antiphons, which are sung as part of evening prayer from December 17th to 23rd, and are most familiar to most of us in the hymn 0 Come, 0 Come, Emmanuel.

Once Christmas comes, the season stretches far beyond the 25th of December. It continues until the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord on January 9, 2011. We should leave the decorations which are testimonies to our joy up for the entire season. There is plenty of time for us to celebrate our joy at Christ's birth and we should make the most of it. You might consider having a Christmas gathering in the parish, or at home with family and friends during this time.

First, though, before we celebrate, comes a necessary time of waiting and of preparation. The season of Advent refocuses us and reminds us that Christ has changed the world. Darkness has covered this hemisphere, and the world itself is quiet. Because we know that Christ reigns over all of creation, we strain in the darkness to see the light of Christ, our coming King. May our observance of this season renew us and be an example of patience, silence, and joy to our hurried and anxious society.

With profound gratitude for your service in this local Church and with my promise of prayer as we enter into this holy season of Advent, I remain,
                                                                                                      Yours in Christ Jesus,

+The Most Reverend John C. Wester
Bishop of Salt Lake City

Given on November 24, 2010
Memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac, Priest, Martyr, and His Companions, Martyrs

1 Lumen Gentium, sections I, 9, and 48.
2 General Norms for the Liturgical Year, 39.
3 Normand Bonneau, The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press,
1998), 13l.
4 Mary Haugen, ~My Soul in Stillness Waits," © 1982, CIA Publications, Inc. The line is a translation of
Psalm 62:2
5 Mt 25:1-13.
6 Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990), 134.
7 Martin Connell/Eternity Today On the Liturgical Year, vol. I, (New York: Continuum, 2006), 75.
8 More information on Jesse Trees can be found at: http://www.catholicculture.org/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?1d=545 or http://www.loyolapress.com/our-jesse-tree-advent-activity.htm

A quick note:

I personally received a copy of this letter today and posted it only after seeing that it had been posted on the website of the Diocese of Salt Lake City and insuring that it had already been officially disseminated. It is a wonderful gift from our bishop to us on the importance of observing Advent. It is even made better by the many practical directions and helpful suggestions he hands on to us. Indeed, we worry about keeping Christ in Christmas. Well, observing Advent constiutes an important part of doing this, which means entering fully into this lovely season, which begins a week from Sunday. This implies waiting until Christmas to celebrate Christmas, but then celebrating that season fully, too!

"we have been delivered from the law"

In chapter seven of his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul summarizes succinctly the freedom Christians have from the law through Jesus Christ: "For when you were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused through the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death" (v. 5). This is a way of saying that obeying God in a negative, rule-bound, way arouses human rebellion, which goes back to our being weak-willed as a result of the Fall. The law with its 613 prescriptions and proscriptions, according to Paul, does show us what it means to be righteous. But to be truly righteous, that is, holy, goes deeper than merely keeping the rules. After all, there is the what as well as the how and the why of what we do or don't do. Everything must be grounded in the positivity of loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as ourselves, with the caveat that everyone I encounter, especially the one in need, is my neighbor. It bears noting that in this verse the word "flesh" is a translation of the Greek word sarki, which is derived from the root word sarx, which refers, not to the physical body in particular, as does the Greek word soma, but, in Paul's writings, "to the whole unredeemed [person] under the power of sin and death" (Orthodox Study Bible, footnote to Romans 7:5).

Paul goes on to point out that "we have been delivered from the law" by Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the law in His own person, thus doing what Israel, to whom the law was given, was unable to do (v. 6). In and through Christ we have "died to what we were held by," namely sin and death, in order to "serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter" (v. 6). What is important about this is not that what we do no longer matters, though it change significantly, but how we go about doing it and why we do it totally changes. The relationship between faith and works, to put it another way, is reversed, with faith gaining the upper hand. We are only able to do it because the Holy Spirit, who is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence in us and among us, to use an Eastern Christian term, energizes us with God's power, which is power unto (to sound a bit archaic) eternal life.

As Christ himself taught us, we cannot serve two masters. Echoing this teaching in chapter six of Romans, St. Paul points out that you either serve sin or serve God and that only by serving God do you experience true freedom. This certainly has a lot of bearing on fasting in its various forms. After all practicing the spiritual disciplines "is not bondage. It is a rejection of bondage, a pursuit of holiness while gaining freedom from legalism and sinful passions. The freedom of grace is known through the discipline of being bound to God the Father, to Christ, and to the Holy Spirit. Christ fulfilled the law with its demands that we might be free in Him, justified by faith, to live fruitful and righteous lives, obeying the truth." (Orthodox Study Bible Introduction to The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians).

All holy men and women, pray for us

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord"

To say that St. Paul's Letter to the Romans is dense is only to state the obvious and perhaps to have the effect of steering people away from reading it. The density of this text certainly arises from its complexity, but the complexity can be resolved by just reading the letter in an attentive way. Of course, it certainly helps to read from a well done study edition of Scripture, but, at least for me, it needs to be one in which the explanatory notes only serve to elucidate the text, making it clearer, and not add complexity on top of complexity. Today, I am still reading chapter six in which Paul is writing about the effects of holy baptism, what God does in and through the waters of baptism.

One of the things Paul was criticized for by others was that by proclaiming the Gospel of grace so boldly, he encouraged people to sin. So, he asks, as he does in more than one place- "Shall we sin because we are not under the law but grace?" He answers the rhetorical question emphatically: "Certainly not!" Picking up on what I read about yesterday earlier in this chapter, the apostle goes on to point out, mining a vein of the Lord's teaching (Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16:13), that we are the "slaves" of what we obey, to that to which we adhere (v. 16). So, we are either "slaves" (doulos) "of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness" (v. 16).

Paul thanks God that though the Christians in Rome "were slaves of sin" they "obeyed from the heart" the Gospel they were taught, humbly submitting themselves to God by observing the apostolic teaching they received (v. 17). As a result of their submission they were "set free from sin" and "became slaves of righteousness" (v. 18). As I am focusing on the need we have to bring our bodies into conformity with Christ, what Paul writes next is of crucial importance: "just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so you now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness" (v. 19).

Like the ancient Christians of Rome, "when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness" (v. 20). What does this mean? Well, it means something like we are all free in the sense we can choose how we live, how to face whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves. Freedom is certainly one of the inviolable aspects of the human person. The Gospel does not ever seek to rob us of our freedom, but to complete it, to bring us to the full realization of what it means to be free. So, if in our freedom we choose sin, we become enslaved to sin and, as a result, alienated from righteousness. Being slaves to sin, as Paul goes to great pains to demonstrate, not just by his words, but with his whole life, which was so fraught with trials for the sake of the Gospel, is no freedom at all. It is not even slavery. It is death. Authentic freedom, as John Paul II taught tirelessly over the 26 years of his pontificate, is tethered to truth and realized in virtue. Virtue, in turn, is acquired through our free cooperation with God's grace, which in Latin, we call habitus, or, closer to home, habit.

How do you become more patient? By practicing patience in circumstances that cause you to be impatient, something in which prayer plays an important part. How do you become more chaste? By practicing chastity, etc. This brings me back to the point about the necessity of mortification, of deliberately denying myself even things that in themselves are not bad.

Yesterday, the second day of my annual six week preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord, in the mid-afternoon, a group of people returned to the office from lunch. They had gone to a popular wings and barbecue joint, a place that I frankly love. They plopped down on the desk next to mine a big takeaway box full of wings, still hot and smelling delicious. They invited everyone to dig in. I have no problem admitting that I really wanted one and that this desire was in no way a bad desire. Beyond that, it was a lovely act of generosity on the part of my co-workers. I thought not just about what I am doing, but why I am doing what I am doing. I said consciously to myself, "I can have a wing or two. I am free to do so, but I choose not to, not because it is bad or would be in any way sinful for me eat one or two, but because it would interfere with my effort to open myself more to God's grace through this time-proven method."

Chapter six of Romans concludes with his well-known verse: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v.23). For me at least, this is the only end worth pursuing. It is the best gift of all.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why we intentionally live this way

As the second day of the Nativity Fast commences it is important to start again, as we do each day. Starting again during this holy season means thinking about why I am doing what I do. The first thing I need to be reminded of is that to live this way, which can mean nothing other than doing these things, is a free choice. After all, I can choose not to observe this season. Should I choose not to observe it I would not be less of a Christian, or less loved by God. I am not obligated ecclesially to observe this season in the traditional way. This would be true even if I were a Byzantine or Melkite Catholic, which I am not because I am a Roman Catholic.

Fasting is spiritually useless if prayer is not intensified and almsgiving is absent. I see fasting as the connection between prayer and alsmgiving between the interior and exterior. So, I am re-reading St. Paul's magnificent Letter to the Romans. Today I reached chapter six, in which Paul writes about the meaning and effects of baptism. Baptism, the apostle writes, makes us dead to sin "but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v. 11). "Therefore," he continues, "do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts" (v. 12).

In my experience, nothing is more anti-climactic than the moment immediately following giving into a lust. I will illustrate by sticking with the topic of fasting. As I mentioned, I am free in this regard. To fast not only means to be hungry, but oftentimes to never desire food more than when I am intentionally and freely doing with none, less, and/or eschewing certain foods. If I obligate myself on pain of sin, that is, I fail to see myself as free this regard, it becomes a true temptation, a giving into moralism, which is seeking to keep the rules for the sake of keeping the rules and not for a greater end. So, the most important thing, when I feel like giving up, is to remind myself that I am doing this because I choose to do it, which has a way of bringing me back to why I am doing it, that greater end. However, whenever I give in I am beset by remorse because the fulfillment I seek, even through my body, is certainly not to be found in a Little Debbie's snack cake, or a McDouble cheesburger!

The power of sin over our bodies is not an inevitability. Rather, "it is something we allow by our free will." According to ancient Christian tradition, to which we turn to learn the truth about God, ourselves, and the world, the aspect of human nature most damaged in Fall and "the first thing Christ heals" is our will. Christ's "healing enables us to make right choices, especially against sin." Our mortal bodies demand pleasure, at times our bodies scream for pleasure, pleasure for its own sake. Even these burning desires, if we examine them, are nothing except our desire for what is ultimate, our metaphysical rebellion against the contingency of the world, pointing us to what will truly satisfy.

Spiritual disciplines, like fasting, but only when undertaken freely, allow us to direct our bodies instead of being directed by them. The only power sin has over us is the power we give it. Hence, "[o]nly our own listlessness, dejection, indifference or laziness can defeat us." Christ, in and through the sacraments, beginning with baptism, restores our human nature to what God originally intended us to be (all quotes in the above paragraph are taken from the footnote on Romans 6:11 in the Orthodox Study Bible, pgs. 351 & 353). Belonging to Jesus Christ is what allows us to live this way.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Where is the world conscience?"

Last Wednesday, 10 November 2010, the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, archbishop of Chicago, wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to take measures to protect all Iraqis, especially endangered miniorities, like Christians in the wake of recent attacks.

Dear Mr. President:

The October 31 attack on the Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad that killed 58 and wounded 75, together with the recent wave of bombings in Iraq’s capital, are grim evidence of the savage violence and lack of security that has plagued the Iraqi people, especially Christians and other minorities, for over seven years. Some reports even indicate that the October 31 attack may have been more extensive and the failures of security more egregious than originally thought. Enclosed you will find a press release by the Most Reverend Yousif Habash, Bishop of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark for Syrian Catholics.

In the recent Synod of Bishops on the Middle East in Rome, the bishops from Iraq spoke of the terrifying situation facing Christians and other minorities in that country. They recalled murders, kidnappings, bombings, and naked threats that have forced many Christians from their homes and businesses. Ironically, just two weeks before the October 31 attack, Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka of the Syrian Catholic Church in Iraq, whose cathedral was the site of the October 31 attack, addressed the Synod: “The invasion of Iraq by America and its allies brought to Iraq in general, and especially to its Christians, destruction and ruin on all levels. … Seven years have passed and Christianity is still bleeding. Where is the world conscience? All the world remains a spectator before what is happening in Iraq, especially with regards to Christians.”

Archbishop Matoka’s strong words remind us of the moral responsibility that the United States bears for working effectively with the Iraqi government to stem the violence. Prior to the war, our Conference of Bishops raised grave moral questions regarding the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and warned of "unpredictable consequences." The decimation of the Christian community in Iraq and the continuing violence that threatens all Iraqis are among those tragic consequences.

Our troops have served with bravery and distinction, and we welcome the end of U.S.-led combat in Iraq; however, the United States has so far failed in helping Iraqis to develop the political will needed to deploy effective strategies to protect the lives of all citizens, especially Christians and other vulnerable minorities. More must be done to help ensure that refugees and displaced persons are able to return to their homes safely. Having invaded Iraq, our nation has a moral obligation not to abandon those Iraqis who cannot defend themselves.

The murderous attack on innocent Christians gathered for worship witnesses to the need for the United States to redouble its efforts to assist Iraq as our engagement enters a new phase. At a minimum, our country must strengthen its work with Iraqis and the international community to: enable the Iraqi government to function for the common good of all Iraqis; build the capacity of Iraq’s military and police to provide security for all citizens, including minorities; improve the judicial system and rule of law; promote reconciliation and the protection of human rights, especially religious freedom; rebuild Iraq’s shattered economy so that Iraqis can support their families; and assist refugees and internally displaced Iraqis.

To meet its moral obligations to the Iraqi people, it is critically important that the United States take additional steps now to help Iraq protect its citizens, especially Christians and others who are victims of organized attacks. Thank you for your kind consideration of this urgent request.

Sincerely yours,

Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.
Archbishop of Chicago

How many more reasons do yo need to fast, to pray, to give alms and live in solidarity with our brothers and sisters as we prepare again to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord in safety and security? Alms for the Iraqi Church and all the churches of the Middle East are best given through the Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Association, a cause worthy of your support all the time.

The Psalm-prayer for this evening (Monday, Week I of the Psalter), expresses well our concern for our endangered sisters and brothers:

Lord God, you search the hearts of all, both the good and the wicked. May those who are in danger for love of you, find security in you now, and, in the day of judgment, may they rejoice in seeing you face to face. Amen.

All holy men and women, pray for us, especially the recent martyrs of Baghdad

A "dynamic and substantial" relationship with Jesus Christ

"It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26-ESV).

Christ, Pantokrator (Gr. Παντοκράτωρ) is used in the Septugaint to translate both "LORD of hosts"s and "El Shaddai" which title has been attributed to Christ by Christians since the beginning of the Church

"God's righteousness is Christ Himself (1 Cor. 1:30- ESV). To have His righteousness is to have Christ living within us, to be in union with Him, a relationship that is dynamic and substantial," meaning, among other things, not sentimental, which falls more into the realm of longing for something you don't have. The fulfillment of anyone's desire to be in union with Christ hinges on his willingness to be changed. "It is personal, a relationship between Shepherd and sheep, Master and friend, Father and child - not judge and defendant" (footnote to Romans 3:26 Orthodox Study Bible). It is good to be reminded of this as we begin our season of preparing for our celebration of the Lord's Nativity because all our observance is geared towards opening us to God's grace, who is none other than Christ the Lord

All holy men and women, pray for us

The Nativity Fast begins...

Today we begin what is known among Eastern Christians (i.e., Catholic and Orthodox) as St. Philip's Fast (otherwise known as the the Nativity Fast). It is called St. Phillip's Fast because on the Eastern liturgical calendar 14 November is St. Philip's feast. The St.Philip whose feast is observed on 14 November, like St. Stephen, was one of the original seven deacons from the sixth chapter of The Acts of the Apostles (verses 1-7). This fast is similar to the fast of the Great Lent, though not quite as austere in some aspects.

According to Byzantine Catholic practice, on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays one abstains from meat, meat products, and all dairy and dairy products, which includes eggs. Fish and shellfish are distinguished from each other in Eastern Christian dietary practice, are permitted on some days, as are olive oil and wine until 12 December. In something of a reversal on Fridays through 12 December, while fast days, there is no limit to the number of meals eaten on these days and both olive oil and wine are permitted. 12 December, which is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the Roman calendar, marks the last day of the initial part of the Nativity Fast.

St. Philip the deacon, icon by Ann Chapin

Beginning on 13 December, all days through 24 December are days of abstinence that one fasts from meat, meat products, all dairy, fish, olive oil, and wine. Shellfish is permitted. While it is important to take the fast seriously, in the United States, with our observance of Thanksgiving during the Nativity Fast, it is okay and I would say even encouraged to just go ahead and observe Thanksgiving in the normal and expected way. It is similar to how we Roman Catholics in the U.S. typically take a break from our strict Lenten observance on St. Patrick's Day. On Wednesdays and Fridays from 13-24 December it is customary to only eat one very modest meal. During the latter period of the Nativity Fast wine and olive oil are permitted only on Saturdays and Sundays.

As a Roman Catholic who for the most part observes Eastern Christian discipline (because we have largely abandoned such disciplines in the West) I make some modifications in keeping with my own tradition. Sundays are always feast days. So, there are no dietary restrictions on the Lord's Day. Also, I interpret no wine as no alcohol. Observing these lengthy periods of fasting is difficult, which is why the following tips from the website of Our Lady of Fatima Byzantine Catholic Church in San Francisco are necessary, the most salient of which I post:

1. The external observances of our Faith do not make us better than anyone else. No sense of superiority or exclusiveness should be allowed to enter into our practice.
2. Insofar as possible, it is best to fast quietly, without letting anyone know that you are fasting. This is clearly in line with Our Lord's teaching. When ordering at a restaurant, don't proclaim, "No meat for me, I'm fasting!" Just order the dish which accords with the fast.
3. Do not become discouraged if you are unable to keep the whole fast. The Evil Spirit is always on the lookout to fool us into giving up because we cannot do it all. Part of fasting is to learn our weakness and inability to save ourselves.
4. Remember that Fasting includes a) fasting from sin; b) additional spiritual reading and prayer; c) almsgiving and other works of Philanthropia ("the love of humankind"). Do not neglect these as you prepare for the Feast.

So, what to eat? I point you a great website with a lot of links to recipes that enable observance of both the Nativity Fast and fasting during the Great Lent: Sources for Orthodox Fasting. Also, this year, I am enthusiastic about another website, An Orthodox Kitchen.

"By feeling mild pangs of hunger, I realize that I am not sufficient to bring myself into being, or to sustain myself. The desire for food can be a sign to me of my even greater need for God. Every time I pass a 'Jack-in-the-Box' or other fast-food hamburger emporium and want to get an 'Ultimate Cheeseburger,' I am also reminded of the season of the year, of my commitment to the Lord, and that nothing is 'Ultimate' except God." It is an opportunity to make reparation for the times I have loved things more than God and to mortify my sensual desires, especially those I am prone to misuse and/or overuse, not seeking them for a greater good, but only to gratify personal desire. Things are not bad in and of themselves, but by misuse and overuse they can become detriments to me. There are always those who protest that fasting and other conscious deprivations "are artificial or external methods" of drawing close to God. Indeed, they can easily become such, but when done in the proper spirit of humility, in recognition of my need, these are effacaciuous means.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"fasting is an important part of penance"

Romano Amerio's Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century is certainly a tour de force, some might even call it a reactionary book. While I agree that it is the former, I disagree that it is reactionary. In fact, I find Amerio's style to be very dispassionate. There are certainly parts of his comprehensive analysis of the Church after the Second Vatican Council with which I take exception, but very few. In his extensive treatment of the post-conciliar changes in the Church he is intent to look at the subtle and fundamental ways that Church teaching shifted after the Second Vatican Council and shows that for the most part it is detrimental. In far too many instances we threw the baby out with the bathwater. In no aspect is this more true than when it comes to fasting and abstinence, which can only be seen as making a concession to the world, to what Amerio defines as somatolatry.

Amerio treats fasting in both its penitential and mortifying dimensions, a topic I find very important the day before the beginning of what is known in the Christian East as the Nativity Fast. In Iota Unum, published in the mid-1980s, Amerio correctly begins chapter ten, entitled Somatolatry and Penance by stating the obvious, namely that "sexuality has ... been taken as the very forming principle of the human person." It seems to me that he is quite correct in this assertion, which is nothing but a recognition that for the most part we are all Freudians now. As a result of the primacy given to human sexuality, which is a complete overthrow of all previous Christian anthropology, "the cult of the body" has come to dominate culture, a phenomenon he calls somatolatry, meaning the worship of the body (soma being the Greek word for the physical body). He is right to assert that in its modern manifestation we even exceed the ancient pagans in worshipping the human form. More to the point at hand, Amerio observes that "[t]he penitential element and the ascetic demands of the Catholic religion have retreated as a necessary consequence of the advance of somatolatry."

He goes on to trace the beginnings of the shift and identifies a special indult given during World War II "that suspended Friday abstinence from meat, and from all fasting except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday." This indult was only in effect until the end of the war. The connection, however, is obvious because today, as Roman Catholics, normatively the only two obligatory fast days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Friday abstinence from the meat of warm-blooded animals is only obligatory on Fridays of Lent. So, what began as a reasonable attempt to lift heavy burdens from already suffering people, became the norm. Even prior to the special indult of 1941, or the changes put into effect on papal authority after Vatican II, "fasting meant having only one full meal a day, besides a piece of bread in the morning and [when necessary]a light snack at night." This is still the norm for Eastern Christians today, be they Catholic or Orthodox. In addition to abstaining from meat, other types of food were "excluded from daily consumption" during days and seasons of fasting and abstinence. To point to the example of Eastern Christians, such foods are meat, dairy, including eggs, alcohol, olive oil, even including shellfish and fish. In other words, during seasons of fasting, one often eats a vegan diet.

Indeed, "fasting is an important part of penance and," Amerio continues, "it should be remembered that when Christ talks about 'doing justice' he sums up the works of justice under the three heads of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, which are, as St. Augustine explains, representative of benevolence, the desire for God and the control of concupiscence." Concupiscence, of course, means the desire for gratification of the senses for its own sake and not for any greater good. To continuously seek to gratify our sensual desires, which we are encouraged culturally to do, to make pleasure for its own sake the point and purpose of our activities, to live once again according to Freudian principles (i.e., the pain/pleasure principle), is what it means to be a hedonist, which is opposed to following Christ who calls us to live in a new way. Today, the antiphon for the Magnificat for the thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time sums this up well: "By your trusting acceptance of trials, you will gain your life, says the Lord." So, we fast not only to do penance, but also to mortify our sinful desires.

This way of living, which is always new because it always goes against the grain of life in the world, was brought forcefully home to me last night when I watched the lovely film The Passion of Bernadette. My joy today is that in the Latin Church Sundays are always feast days, as it should be, a day that we rest while we rejoice by worshipping God and bask in the glow of Christ's resurrection from the dead.

All holy men and women, pray for us

Koinonia: One God, three persons

The end of our second reading is from the conclusion of Saint Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. Koinonia is the Greek word trans...