Monday, February 28, 2011

The work of Another

Pastoral ministry is not for the easily discouraged. I have been reflecting almost all day today about the investment-to-return ratio in ministry. It is not very great. In that way it bears a resemblance to blogging. Both require a lot of effort, at least if one tries to do them well, but do not immediately or even obviously bear a lot of fruit. Therefore, I am heartened that it is not about efficiency, which is not to say that I don't try to learn from my experiences and find ways of doing things better, I do.

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, by Pieter Paul Rubens

Look at Jesus' own ministry, it was not efficient, at least not until after His resurrection and Ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, when it multiplied exponentially. This is why, as we were exhorted in yesterday's Gospel, to put everything we do at the service of bringing about God's reign. It is a matter of trust; the work of Another. It is not my work. I have merely been called to help as a laborer in the Lord's vineyard. I am certainly under no illusion that I am the best, or even the most diligent worker in the vineyard, let alone the most gifted. I am grateful beyond measure to be called to the work I have been given and I pray that I am a good steward of those gifts I have received, as meager as they might be.

Judged by any worldy criteria, we might well determine pastoral ministry isn't worth the effort.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Year A Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa. 49:14-15 Ps. 63:2-3.6-9; 1 Cor. 4:1-5; Matt. 6:24-34

On what or whom do you rely? In who, or what, do you place your trust? Where is your hope? These are the questions today’s readings pose to each one of us. We all know the “right” answer, at least the one we’re supposed to give in church: “God,” we are tempted to blithely say; “I trust in God.” What you are urged to do today is turn that question inward by means of an examination of conscience to see if it is really true, to see if, in fact, you place your trust, that is, yourself- body, blood, soul, and humanity- in God, or whether, as Jesus bluntly says, you serve mammon. It is the difference between living in hope, or living in despair, which is ultimately the difference between life and death.

The criteria for arriving at a determination as to where you sit with regard to the question, In what or whom do I place my trust, are simple: How do I react when things go wrong, when things don’t go my way, when I am having what we call "A bad day"? Another measure is in what do I invest my time, talent, and resources in achieving? A follow-up question that helps in this discernment is do I often find myself worried, even anxious and sleepless, about how things will go, especially those things over which I have no control, but are nonetheless important to accomplishing what I am trying to achieve?

I recently read a New Yorker article about a prominent Hollywood Scientologist who very publicly broke with the Church of Scientology. From what I could glean about Scientology from the article, it seems to be mostly about applying certain techniques to life. I have no doubt that some of these techniques, what we now call "life skills," are very useful and perhaps even necessary for living. Many of the other Scientologists the author spoke to about their religion also took a very pragmatic view, meaning that they were not so much into the doctrines and worldview articulated by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, but in applying the methods they learned through their involvement with this church to their everyday lives. When looked at in this way, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see why it matters whether you belong to one religion or another. After all, you can learn much that is beneficial to living a healthier and happier life not only from Scientologists, but also from Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and certainly, here in Utah, from our LDS friends and neighbors.

Too often we view faith as a self-help program. Hence, if you are successful in all that you aim to achieve, if things are going well with you, it means that God is pleased with you. The reason God is pleased with you can only mean that you are doing things right. Conversely, the opposite holds true, when things are not going well, then God is displeased with you and, so, punishing you. My dear friends, this is not Christianity! It is the anti-thesis of what it means to follow Christ. Following Jesus Christ is not akin to signing up for a self-help program. Christianity is divine help, that is, divine mercy. Simply stated, Christianity, as we will profess in a few minutes, is about nothing else except the Son of God being born of the Virgin Mary "by the power of the Holy Spirit" and becoming man for us and "for our salvation."

It is important to point out that in today’s Gospel Jesus is not telling us to remain passive in the face of reality. He does not teach us to do nothing in the expectation that God will provide. Far less does he judge those whose daily reality is a struggle to survive, who must work hard every day, all day just to provide life’s necessities. So, what is His point? His point seems to be that when your whole attention is centered on bringing about God’s reign in and through everything you do, then those of us who have enough are not obsessed with acquiring more, in the belief that he who dies with the most toys wins. After all, it is a point of fact, quite apart from any theological gloss, that he who dies with the most toys still dies. I have yet to see a U-Haul in a funeral motorcade. Of course, part of what is required in bringing about God’s reign means working towards a more equitable distribution of the earth’s bounteous resources.

In his encyclical Populorum Progresso, which still stands, almost forty-five years after its promulgation, as a prophetic statement, especially in light of the growing inequity of income distribution, both in the United States and throughout the world, Pope Paul VI, quoted St. Ambrose to the effect that by giving from your surplus, "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not [only] to the rich" (par. 23). Or, as Fred G. Sanford once explained why he took towels and ashtrays from an expensive hotel he stayed in, "The Bible says, 'the meek shall inherit the earth' and, well, you have start somewhere." In short, Jesus teaches that neither obsessive anxiety about subsistence nor fixating our desires on accumulating more and more material things have a place in God’s kingdom. However, the Lord is not ever content to leave His listeners merely with a neat little moral lesson.

In everything He says, He bids you, "Follow me." From this summons arises our question, Where to? The only honest answer, as His first disciples discovered to their dismay, is "To the Cross." This is especially important to remember as we begin preparing for Lent. He bids each of you to follow Him every day through the circumstances you face. He calls you to live the irreducible paradox that only by dying to yourself will you truly live. Perhaps a more concrete way of posing the question with which I began is to ask, When He summons you to the Cross, do you follow, or hesitate? A moment of hesitation makes all the difference in the world because in many circumstances, given the paradoxical nature of His call, it is easy to justify not following.

It is only by trusting Him, in His promise that even should your own mother forget you, He will not forget you, that you can follow Him when He tells you to "seek first the kingdom of God" in things big and small (Isa. 49:15; Matt. 6:33). He promises you that if you seek first to establish God’s reign in all your endeavors, then "all these things will be given you besides" (Matt. 6:33). It is only by living in this self-emptying way, in the awareness of your destiny, that you will come to see that, indeed, "Sufficient for a day is its own evil," which, in turn, protects you from all anxiety as you wait in joyful hope for His glorious return, through which will mark the realization of God’s reign (Matt. 6:34).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Repay no one evil for evil"

Having posted last night about Cardinal George's desire to make hearing confessions an important part of his ministry after his retirement from being the archbishop of Chicago, this morning I encountered something via Quaerere Deum on the absolute necessity to forgive. The brief piece, which originated on Desert Wisdom, is about a Russian monk, Elder Sampson Sievers, who passed back in 1979. Like Dostoevsky's remarkable Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Sampson was a spiritual father to many. I guess the best equivalent in the West would be a spiritual director, often conceived of, from the Celtic tradition, as a soul-friend. However, the relationship between a person and her/his spiritual father is a different, deeper kind of relationship. It doesn't take on the kind of pragmatic "let's get down to business" character that seems to comprise a lot of what passes for spiritual direction in the efficient West.

The post on Desert Wisdom says that Elder Sampson "was a man well-equipped to speak on the subject of forgiveness. As a young novice monk, he was arrested by the Communist authorities, shot in a mass execution, and thrown into a common grave. By Divine Providence he survived the shooting, and was pulled out of the grave still breathing by his brother monks and nursed back to health. Later he was arrested again and spent nearly twenty years in Communist concentration camps. But he never held onto bitterness and resentment: He completely forgave both his executioners and his torturers. In his later years, when he was serving as a spiritual father to many people, he was especially tough when his spiritual children refused to forgive someone, even for some petty annoyance. He said: 'I’ve always concluded: this means that they still have not gotten the point, that the whole secret, that all the salt of Christianity lies in this: to forgive, to excuse, to justify, not to know, not to remember.'"

I find this both beautiful and troubling. The reason I find it troubling is the exhortation not to remember evil and even to justify evil. I see why I should not dwell on on evil. I even see that to forgive means, to some extent, to excuse evil, but do I really have to both forget and justify evil? Given his experience, Elder Sampson's teaching cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. There was a conversation I participated in last week about the absolute need for one who follows Christ to forgive as Jesus taught us in last Sunday's Gospel, and He demonstrated by praying for those who killed Him even as the were nailing Him to the Cross: "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father" in the recognition that God "makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Matt.5:43-56).

It is undeniable that we are to pray for our enemies and love those who persecute us. This falls into the category of easy to say, difficult to live. However, what about really egregious things? In no way do we realize that, unlike our blessed the Lord, we are not yet perfect as our Father heaven is perfect than when it comes to the need to forgive. As Elder Sampson directed, forgiving requires at least excusing evil, if not justifying it or forgetting it. Forgiveness, certainly for truly evil acts deliberately committed, as well as very often for trifling things, must be a choice, but it requires grace, too. I believe that this grace takes the form of remembering how much we need God's mercy, Jesus Christ (i.e., "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"). Nonetheless, we sometimes first have to pray for the grace to pray for another, to truly desire the best for him/her. For many who have been gravely harmed by another this is a process, a two steps forward and one step back proposition (or even one step forward and two steps back, depending on the day). The need to forgive, to be merciful because God has given us mercy, always, inevitably, and necessarily brings up the issue of justice.

I his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict reflects deeply on justice and mercy. I think he lays things out more clearly than does Elder Sampson: mercy cannot cancel out the demands of justice:

"To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened" (par. 44).

We cannot neglect weighty matters, that is, our stance towards thos who deliberately commit truly evil acts. Take as an example our opposition as Catholics to the death penalty: I can’t fail to recognize the point-of-view of someone who has had a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a near and dear friend who was brutally murdered and accept their very human response to such an occurrence, which often, at least initially, sees justice as an eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth. We must help them see that result of such a stance, particularly in the face of evil, only has the effect, as Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, sagely observed, of leaving everyone blind and toothless.

In recently counseling someone who is dealing with the rape and murder of someone close to him, he told me about how a close friend had mocked his opposition to the death penalty and his faith by saying to him about the murderer: "I guess you can look forward to shaking hands with that bastard in heaven." The scandal of Christianity is that, while this is not a certainty, it is a possibility. Further, it is a possibility we are called to help bring about. This is how we help accomplish God's purpose, assisting in the divine work of bringing life from death. It is hard work, indeed!

In light of these provocations, as a Christians, let us recognize how far our hearts from are from where they need to be, from where we want them to be (if we are serious about being Jesus' disciples). In order to do so, we have to be reassured of what the Holy Father teaches us; with God there is justice, even for those who ultimately recognize their need for divine mercy. This is no different from what St. Paul wrote a long time ago:

"Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:17-19- ESV).

Friday, February 25, 2011

Where do the most important conversations happen?

Because I was praying and thinking about, as well as planning for Lent this afternoon, something I read in an interview that John Allen did with Cardinal George back in early January struck me. In his response to Allen's question about what he would like to do after his retirement as archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal George responded by first stating that he would like to resume hearing confessions because he missed doing so as a bishop. "The conversations that take place in the sacrament of reconciliation are the most important conversations on the face of the planet. There you meet a soul in the presence of God ... I would very much like to make that ministry a large part of my life."

"Once upon a time ... You threw bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?"

Today's traditio features a video that is a pleasant throw back, as is the song. So, Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone goes out those who, in these difficult times, when the gap between the rich and the poor are greater than ever and growing, seek to deny the right of laborers to collectively bargain. What I find even sadder is powerful interests are succeeding in dividing people against each other and that many have been conned into working towards political goals that are contrary not only to their own interests, but those of the common good. The economy exists for people, not people for the economy. In short, people do not exist to serve powerful and anonymous interests, but the true and living God.

In his encyclical on labor, promulgated on the 90th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, Laborem exercens, Bl. JPII asserted "a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labour over capital" (par. 12). Nonetheless, JPII continues, what tends to happen is that capital is often deployed against labor. Hence, "There is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers…The Church is firmly committed to this cause, for it considers it to be its mission, its service, a proof of its fidelity to Christ…"

As Fr. Joe Scott wrote over on Busted Halo: "Today there are great changes taking place in our national economic structures, as the development of a world economy changes the way companies and factories do business. Labor unions have declined in strength and the most difficult and physically demanding forms of work are once again performed by recent immigrants to our shores. Many of us have forgotten the better working conditions won for our grandparents through the efforts of organized labor. It’s important for us to remember the tradition of our Church in supporting workers in their efforts to achieve a better life."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Egypt and the failure of the so-called fourth estate

One feature of the on-going epic failure and collapse of our so-called fourth estate, namely the news media, is its penchant for making itself the news even in the midst of something as monumental as the Egyptian uprising, which quickly brought Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule to an end. Of course, I am referring to nothing else except the lamentable assault on CBS News reporter Lara Logan at the hands of some male protesters. Let me be clear up-front, Logan was certainly the victim of a violent sexual assault. Sexual assaults are reprehensible, morally wrong, which is why such attacks are universally condemned and punished by civil laws, as they should be. Before cutting to the chase, it also bears noting that Logan was rescued by members of the Egyptian military, along with some concerned Egyptian women who were nearby. So, without blaming the victim in the slightest, I do not mind stating that I find it a media failure that this became the story in the final days of the uprising and continued to be the story for several days afterwards. Are we really to believe nothing else of this sort went on in the lawless atmospehere during the days of protest?

As he so often does, Peter Hitchens writes very lucidly about this matter. He begins by wondering about a couple of things concerning Logan’s assault, namely why it isn’t always made clear that she was sexually assaulted by protesters, as well as why the fact that her attackers shouted "Jew, Jew, Jew at her" was not much reported. As regards the Western news media’s narcissism, he concludes that certain, relevant details, like the Judophobic taunts of Logan’s assailants, can be left out because they do not fit the approved the narrative, which holds "that the removal of Egypt’s government is a good thing," unequivocally. In the square where the main protest took place, mob rule, "with all the horrible dangers involved," was in effect, but the news media, according to Hitchens, decided that "people power" sounded "so much nicer." The result of this no doubt "strategic" decision was that a "violent sexual assault on a Western woman, tinged with Judophobia, doesn’t fit this picture," especially one carried out by protesters.

As a long-time foreign correspondent, who continues to spend time in the Middle East, Hitchens also goes on to note what anyone who has spent time in this region knows, namely "that a disgraceful and shaming Judophobia is common in that part of the world, even among educated and otherwise civilised people." He is quite correct in noting that only "a very few reports of the Cairo revolt showed posters of the deposed President Mubarak defaced with crude Stars of David reminiscent of Nazi graffiti." "I suspect," he continues, "the men involved also regarded Ms. Logan’s perfectly normal Western dress as improper and sluttish," an honest view that also does not fit the narrative of the "'lovely, warm-hearted' crowd" of the pie-eyed Western media's 1960ish imagination.

I guess all the phenomenon of significant world events turning into stories by the media about the media is simply an indication that this is much easier than finding out and reporting on what is really happening and has the added advantage of appealing to our prurient interests. This is why I am a believer in what is now called the 5th estate- people on the ground, in the action, just tweeting and blogging away. Sure, they have no editors, but this only insures that they are not constrained by ideologically-driven official narrative, even if other motives drive them. Maybe writing from self-declared or obvious viewpoint is more honest than pretending to be objective.

Your present and your destiny

In discussing the relationship most people have to religion, to church, to faith, Giussani likens it to being distracted, to not listening, not learning. He speaks of walking down the street with a friend while passionately making some point, when his friend notices a beatiful woman across the street and becomes distracted, but who keeps mechanically saying "Uh, huh. Yes. Okay..."

Rachel Weisz

Don Gius points out that his replies "are not valid because he did not pay attention to my arguments." "This," according to Gius, "is the offense that the majority of people commit when they face the problems of destiny, faith, religion, the Church, and Christianity because being 'anxious and troubled with many other things,' in these things their minds are 'dead and buried'" (The Religious Sense, 30). Despite this, everyone believes himself capable of pronouncing definitive judgment on these matters, "to have an opinion, partly because it is impossible not to have a viewpoint on these matters" (30). Just as a child cannot help but have an opinion about her parents, no one can avoid "having a view concerning the connection between his or her present and destiny" (30).

Interior of The Cathedral of the Madeleine

While everybody has an opinion, all opinions are not equal, far from it. It is not only possible, but important, to arrive at, to possess, knowledge concerning these matters. For many, their opinions on these issues are rooted in either a preconception or a misconception precisely because they refuse to listen, because listening means turning your attention away from life's distractions, be it a beautiful woman, or paying your monthly bills. Giussani teaches us a method, a way to listen and to judge. Indeed, the more vital and elementary the value of the question that captures your attention "the more nature gives to each of us the intelligence to know and judge it" (30). Hence, either jumping to a half-baked conclusion or taking a powder on life's most serious questions is not a reasonable (i.e., not a human) response to the provocation of reality.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Don Giussani on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

Luigi Giussani's funeral in il Duomo di Milano

Given his complete fidelity to the Church, it seems to me entirely fitting that Monsignor Luigi Giussani passed into eternity on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle. In keeping with this same theme, it also seems fitting that the Successor of St. Peter at the time of his death, Bl. Pope John Paul II, a friend and advocate of Communion and Liberation, sent the future pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who, even as pope, maintains deep personal ties to the Movement, as his envoy to Milan to preside at Don Gius' funeral. As one would expect, the future pope's homily was nothing short of remarkable, meaning wholly fitting for the occasion.

In describing Giussani's "love affair with Christ," Ratzinger noted that this "love story" constituted "the whole of Giussani's life." This love story "was at the same time quite far removed from any superficial enthusiasm or vague romanticism." Don Giussani knew and taught others that "to encounter Christ means to follow him. This encounter is a road, a journey, a journey that also passes— as we heard in the psalm—through the 'valley of darkness.' In the Gospel we heard of the final darkness of Christ’s suffering, of the seeming absence of God, of the eclipse of the Sun of the world. Giussani knew that to follow means to pass through a 'valley of darkness,' to take the Way of the Cross, and all the while to live in true joy.

"Why is this so? The Lord himself translated the mystery of the Cross, which is really the mystery of love, by means of a formula that expresses the reality of our life in its entirety. The Lord says, 'Whoever seeks his own life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will find it.'"

Giussani's grave

Luigi Giussani, on this your anniversary, pray for us.

Tomorrow marks the first ever public celebration of this important anniversary in Utah. A memorial mass will be celebrated in The Cathedral of the Madeleine beginning at 7:15 PM.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Where is Zion?

"It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.' For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isa. 2:2-3).

Being a native Utahn and having grown up LDS, we were always taught that the above passage from Isaiah was an ancient prophecy referring to my home state in general and Salt Lake City in particular. Utahns refer to our state as Zion both jokingly, as in "Life behind the Zion curtain," and seriously. Of course, those who do so in a more serious vein see Utah as a kind of promised land, even if a provisional one. Why provisional, you may ask? Because the LDS faithful believe that the New Jerusalem will be established in Jackson County, Missouri, which they also believe to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden.

Over the long history of its written use, going back over three millenia, Zion eventually came to refer to the Promised Land to come, where God dwells with His people. For Christians, Zion can be anywhere in the world because, as we were reminded at Mass yesterday in our reading from the letter in which St. Paul tells the Christians of ancient Corinth, "you are the temple of God" because "the Spirit of God dwells in you" (1 Cor. 3:16).

What brought these verses from Isaiah to mind this morning was that today's canticle for Morning Prayer, as it is every Monday when we pray the third week of the psalter, begins with this passage. On this glorious winter morning in the mountains of my Zion, I am reminded of a lovely hymn I grew up singing:

"O ye mountains high, where the clear blue sky
Arches over the vales of the free,
Where the pure breezes blow and the clear streamlets flow,
How I’ve longed to your bosom to flee!
O Zion! dear Zion! land of the free,
Now my own mountain home, unto thee I have come;
All my fond hopes are centered in thee."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Holiness, being a fool for Christ

We all have ideas about what holiness means. If we're really honest, most of our ideas about holiness are abstract, having little or nothing to do with reality. In a word, they are sentimental. Many people these days equate holiness with self-righteousness and often put the word in "scare quotes." I would be hard-pressed to think of something more at odds with holiness than self-righteousness. The truly holy person is one who does not think s/he is holy.

In our readings for today there are two exhortations to be holy. The first one comes from the Book of Leviticus, with God telling the Israelites through Moses, "Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy" (19:2). It is necessary to point out that even in this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures holiness is defined by love, culminating in a commandment that later fell from the lips of Jesus: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Today's Gospel concludes with the exhortation- So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Jesus makes holiness concrete and real, which means challenging, yet doable. For example, He lets us know that it is not enough to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, but that, as His disciples, we are to "love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]." In all of this we see that holiness is nothing except loving perfectly, which means to love as Jesus loves.

In light of these readings, St. Paul tells us not to deceive ourselves, namely about what it means to be holy. If you consider yourself to be wise in this, or any, age, you must become a fool in order to be truly wise. Of what does this foolishness consist? It consists of things like loving your neighbor as yourself and, moreover, loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. A tall order, indeed. But, as our Psalm response reminds us again this week, The Lord is kind and merciful.

In words of a song by Michael Card, God's Own Fool - "And so we follow God's own fool and only the foolish can tell/Believe the unbelievable and come be a fool as well."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The remarkable diaconate

Last night I spent some 6 hours revising my literature review for what is called in the master's degree program I am trying desparately to complete, the Integrated Pastoral Research project, which is just a more technical term for thesis. My thesis is about the importance of married permanent deacons in the life of the church, namely their simultaneous and full participation in the sacraments at the service of communion: matrimony and holy orders. I have to say that while I am deeply interested in my subject, my enthusiasm for the project overall is waning given the demands of the rest of my life, including my very active ministry. I am committed to finishing it, however. So, I appreciate all the prayers anyone would care to offer on my behalf as I continue to trudge this road. In order to finish I will spend the balance of this long weekend writing chapter three of this five chapter endeavor.

So, for today I offer a brief passage about the development of permanent diaconate from the late nineteenth century to it's renewal and restoration just a few short years after the Second Vatican Council:
"What is truly remarkable is that it took less than a century between what is viewed as the initial proposal to restore the diaconate, even conferring holy orders on married men, and when the restoration, which was also an expansion, actually occurred. Only seven years elapsed between Pius XII’s declaration that the time was not yet ripe to restore the diaconate and the call of an ecumenical council to restore it. It bears noting that, from the very genesis of the proposal to restore the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry, married men with families, who worked in secular occupations, were primarily the ones envisaged as deacons by those advocating for its restoration, renewal, and expansion."

Friday, February 18, 2011

"If there's Lord above... give me something in to believe in"

It is funny how much blogging becomes part of my life. Not having posted for two days seems like a long time. I think the Friday traditio is a good way to get back in the saddle. Today I do so with Poison's Give Me Something To Believe In. The heavy metal/glam/hair bands of the '80s were nothing if not melodramatic, but many times they struck heart chords. For my money the best songwriter in the group is Brett Michaels.

So-called existential angst is part and parcel of the human condition. As Christians, we attribute this to our fallenness, which is the result of original sin. I recapitulate the original sin each and every time I sin; those times I usurp God and seek to be self-determining, deciding for myself what is right and what is wrong with no reference to God or other people. This usually takes the form of me putting myself first, looking out for number one, as it were. Nothing could be more antithetical to following Christ, who calls me to self-emptying service of others, the most important feature of the diakonia to which I am all called first through baptism and then by ordination.

Writing about Israel to the church in Rome, St. Paul said- "As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all" (verses 28-32 underlining emphasis mine).

God's mercy is Jesus Christ. Hence, I don't need something to believe in, but Someone and not just any old body, but someone who believes in me, not just enough to die for me, but to rise from the dead for me and to remain with me by the power of His Spirit! As Pope Benedict declared at the end of his first Easter Urbi et Orbi message back in 2006: "Christus resurrexit, quia Deus caritas est!", or "Christ is resurrected because God is love." The Gospel isn't free, but it doesn't cost money, it costs me everything, but what I receive is infinitely greater that what, even at my best, I am capable of giving.

Let's not forget the veterans of today's conflicts, especially those traumatized and shaken, wounded physically, mentally, and spiritually, by asking that they come to see and leverage God's love and mercy for them, just as we pray for ourselves. As Brett's heartfelt lyrics remind us, especially when he remembers his friend, experience always trumps ideology.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"God alone is my rock and salvation"

Tonight is one of those nights I wish I had something really catchy to post, but I don't. Life can be scary and disorienting if you let it, but I don't. Reality doesn't scare me only because I trust in God. Tonight it bears reiterating that karma is far inferior to grace. With karma you always and inevitably get what you deserve; with karma what goes around comes around (how does reincarnation as a cockroach sound?).

Grace works differently, as the U2 song indicates- "Grace/She takes the blame/She covers the shame/Removes the stain/It could be her name." I mean, if I only get what I give, then, if I'm honest, I should not expect very much, if anything, except probably winding up with a negative balance. Besides, to truly love means to give with no expectation of return, which is why truly loving another is a form of ascesis. It is a difficult thing to gaze at myself as Christ gazes at me.

In times like these the Psalms are a great comfort that provide me a way to realize, that is, make real the strength God gives me to live my circumstances. Tonight I think especially of Psalm 62, which begins:

"My soul rests in God alone, from whom comes my salvation. God alone is my rock and salvation, my secure height; I shall never fall. How long will you set upon people, all of you beating them down, As though they were a sagging fence or a battered wall? Even from my place on high they plot to dislodge me. They delight in lies; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah. My soul, be at rest in God alone, from whom comes my hope. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my secure height; I shall not fall. My safety and glory are with God, my strong rock and refuge. Trust God at all times, my people! Pour out your hearts to God our refuge! Selah" (verses 2-9).
The word "סֶלָה" transliterated as selāh (i.e., Selah) sparks curiosity. It does not mean "rock," but is often translated as such. The Hebrew for "rock" is סֶלַע, or sela'. There are several possibilities given for what selāh might mean: "stop and listen," or "forever," or, from a root word, even "to weigh." I don't know why I wanted to introduce that, but it is curious for the average reader to repeatedly encounter this word while reading the Psalms.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Cyril and Methodius Day!

Contrary to popular belief, today, at least on the reformed Roman calendar, we mark, not the liturgical memorial of St. Valentine (i.e., one Valentinius), but of Sts. Cyril and Methodious, the great missionary brothers who evangelized the Slavs. On the Eastern calendar their feast is observed on 11 May. St. Cyril is credited with devising the cyrillic alphabet, which is the alphabet associated with most Slavic languages. However, Catholics who abide the by the liturgical calendar associated with the extraordinary form of the Mass (i.e., the old Latin calendar) still observe today as St. Valentine's day.

The Roman calendar, like so much of the liturgy, was reformed following the Second Vatican Council. The reason for St. Valentine not having a memorial on the reformed calendar is that St. Valentine's existence, like that of St. Christopher and a few other "saints," cannot be pinned down with any certainty. It is likely that St. Valentine, as he came to be remembered and memorialized, was a composite figure. He is listed as a Roman priest/martyr and, as such, appears in some Roman martryologies, though none that date back to the times of Christian persecution, but only in some dating back no later than the fifth century. The name Valentinus is also associated as a North African martyr, as well as the bishop of ancient Interamn, which is modern Terni. All of this information is readily available in the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius

One of the reasons for reforming the Roman liturgical calendar was to eliminate the feasts of saints whose actual existence was dubious. Christianity is, after all, an historical religion and saints are real people, this is no small thing.

The same Encyclopedia article goes on to state that "popular customs associated with Saint Valentine's Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair." As a demonstration of this idea, many historians point to lines 309, 322 386 of Sir Geoffrey Chaucer's poem, Parliament of Foules, which the poet later re-titled Book of St. Valentine's Day of the Parliament of Birds:
309 For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
310 Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
311 Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
312 And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
313 That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
314 So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
315 For me to stonde, so ful was al the place
Of course, this should do nothing to dampen having a romantic supper and evening with your beloved. Enjoy! Clarifying this, in my estimation, does help to insulate faith from a kind pie-eyed, squishy sentimentalism and remind us that hedonism is never alright. In any case, true love is a kind of ascesis.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Choosing life over death; what it means to follow Jesus

Today's readings are truly challenging. As Christians, we too often act as through Jesus taught us no positive commandments, no dos and don'ts. Today's Gospel, taken from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, puts that notion to rest. Instead, we are taught that the commandments are not enjoined on us from without, that is, they are not externally imposed. Rather, they are proposed, set before us as the path to life, thus they are not just life-changing, but life-saving.

More often than not keeping God's commandments is a choice. Sometimes we make it more complicated than that, which is called rationalization. Today's reading from Sirach makes this clear. It also tells us that keeping the commandments will save us, not because we are capable of making ourselves perfect, but because keeping them is an act of trust in God, who sets before you "fire and water" and leaves you free as to which to choose, that toward which you "stretch forth your hand." So, God sets in front of you "life and death, good and evil" and whichever you choose "shall be given" you. God commands nobody "to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin." This why the psalmist sings "Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!"

Jesus teaches His disciples at the beginning of today's Gospel, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place" (Matt. 5:17-18). Of course, Jesus fulfilled the Law in his own person, which only He could do. He emphasizes the importance of keeping the commandments and of teaching others to do so as well. Only after this does the Lord proceed to move us from an empty, external adherence to the Law to a full, internally-accepted change, called metanoia, meaning repentance or conversion. He does this by setting forth the so-called theses and anti-theses. The former being what the Law says, the latter being what it means to choose life over death, good over evil.

"You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment" (Matt. 5:21-22a).

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" ( Matt. 5:27-28).

"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.' But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt. 5:31-32).

"Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.' But I say to you, do not swear at all...Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.' Anything more is from the evil one" Matt. 5:33-34.37).

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (Matt. 5:38-39).

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:43-44).

These weeks leading up to Lent are a good time to assess how you are doing with regard to the things that really matter.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The need for humanity in the so-called cyberworld

With last Sunday's near fatal crash of my blog, I have been reflecting all week on blogging. My reflection was intensified somewhat by the decision of a friend to discontinue blogging for wholly healthy and good reasons. From time-to-time I like to step back and evaluate my on-line endeavor, which I began tentatively back in August 2005 and took up in earnest in July 2006. Since then blogging has constituted part of my daily life. Yesterday I decided to "Google" Καθολικός διάκονος. Predictably, most of the returns were links back to this blog. More disturbingly and downright puzzling were several links to sites like and Huh? I can't think of another arena of endeavor in which one's brand, if you will, can be so easily high-jacked and associated in any way with purposes with which it is so at odds. Overlooking the fact that nothing could be more contrary to the tone and tenor of what I post here, such sites are a truly sad commentary about what many people look for on-line.

What people are looking for, whether they know it or not, is fulfillment, satisfaction, happiness. What makes it sad is that seeking hook-ups, looking at pornography, even playing W.O.W. for hours, or days, on end, will never result in any of the above. The nature of addiction, which results in wanting and needing more, more, and still more of whatever it is you are addicted to, even unto death, demonstrates this quite well. Nonetheless, I am happy to join with others who seek to be salt and light in the cyber realm, pointing people to what (more accurately, Who) can truly satisfy.

I have never had site meter on this blog, nor will I ever. Up until late last summer I truly had no idea how many people visited Καθολικός διάκονος on daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Well now, Blogger automatically applies Google Stats to all blogs and with a few mouse clicks I can pull up and look at not only how many people visit, but where they link here from, and what posts they look at. For those of you who are concerned about privacy, there is no individual information provided, all data is aggregated. The reason I mention this is because sometimes in the daily stats I will see a huge surge in visits to my blog from some weird source, like this one "local news update. Welcome to the digital jungle!

On a much more positive note, I found that my blog made the Our Sunday Visitor reader's choice The very best of the Catholic Web list. I was even more surprised that I had been submitted under the opinion category by a friend, who was a professor of mine, Susan Windley-Daoust, who wrote: "Good intellectual thoughtful op-ed on matters in the Church and spiritual life by a deacon in Salt Lake City." Dr. Windley-Daoust blogs under the name Ironic Catholic. I appreciate this endorsement very much and certainly hope those who visit Καθολικός διάκονος find all that and even more. Not just by way of a courtesy quid pro quo, I highly recommend adding the IC (as her blog is known by the cool kids in the Catholic blogosphere) to your favorites.

Having to reconstruct the design of my blog was an opportunity to freshen it up a little, while maintaining continuity with the past. One thing I did not change was my statement of purpose, which appears under the title. I really worked at shaping and honing this for a long time. Therefore, I truly mean that "This is a public cyberspace in which I seek to foster Christian discipleship in the late modern milieu in the diakonia of koinonia and in the recognition that 'the Eucharist is the only place of resistance to annihilation of the human subject.'" The quote at the end of the sentence is from Archbishop Francisco Javier Martinez.

The Internet and our ever more advanced means of communication bring many advantages to us, but also present many threats and pitfalls to our common humanity on a deeply existential, that is, relational level. The so-called cyberworld is just another aspect of the real world, albeit one that expands our notion of reality and alters, at least to some extent, our relationship to time and space. Over and above the concerns with which I began this post are other concerns about how all of this impacts us both individually and collectively. I have been struck of late by a series of commercials by Sprint Mobile that do a far better, not to mention more entertaining, job of highlighting these concerns than I could do by writing about them:

Friday, February 11, 2011

"I wanna tell you, oh, how much I love you"

I thought that Led Zepplin lead singer Robert Plant's cover of Phil Phillips' Sea of Love, which he did with his short-lived post-Zepplin group The Honey Drippers (that also featured his Zepplin bandmate Jimmy Page along with Jeff Beck), would work for this particular day. I chose this song largely due to the fact that, in addition to being the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, today is my lovely wife's birthday. So, hearkening back to an earlier era, I dedicate this to her.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us
St. Bernadette Soubirous, pray for us

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heaven"

Time is a funny thing. Even though it was only Sunday, it seems like forever since I last posted.I am tempted to make this post one of those entries where the writer lists his complaints is an off-beat intentionally humorous way in an effort to laugh away his feelings, but I am not going to do that. Rather, I am going to point to the need we have to worship God, to always and everywhere give Him thanks through Christ our Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of the things I frequently get to do as a pastoral minister is to give others advice, counsel, suggestions on how to deal with the challenges they face. So far this year I have had numerous and on-going opportunities to follow my own counsel, which is what keeps what I share with others (hopefully) from being abstract theories about which I have read, or, even worse, empty clichés and pious platitudes that help no one, but sound good perhaps to me in the moment, but leave both people feeling empty and dissatisfied. That the Lord is not just good, but is Goodness is axiomatic, a given, an atomic statement, everything prescinds from this, which is why each time we participate in the Eucharist, we are invited to taste and see His goodness by eating and drinking Him. This is reality at its most fundamental and concrete.

I am grateful this morning that Morning Prayer began with Psalm 36, which includes this strophé: "Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heaven; your truth to the skies. Your justice is like God's mountain, your judgments like the deep."

In light of a long conversation I had last night with someone struggling with what I can only describe as a great evil before encountering my own comparatively minor tribulation, I was thinking again of the Holy Father's magnificent encyclical Spe Salvi, to which I turned for my homily on the beatitudes a few weeks ago. This morning I re-read paragraph 37, which begins-

"We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.."

Not being content to give us an abstract answer to the most existential and urgent human question, after invoking the Cross, Pope Benedict proceeds to cite an amazing and challenging passage written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857):

"I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever (Ps 136 [135]). The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me ... How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see emperors, mandarins, and their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? (cf. Ps 80:1 [79:2]). Behold, the pagans have trodden your Cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love. O Lord, show your power, save me, sustain me, that in my infirmity your power may be shown and may be glorified before the nations ... Beloved brothers, as you hear all these things may you give endless thanks in joy to God, from whom every good proceeds; bless the Lord with me, for his mercy is for ever..."
In the combox of my last post, responding to a comment on the redness of my blog, I stated that it is the color of the Holy Spirit and of martyrs, that is, of spirit and blood, which why this morning I implore- St. Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, holy martyr, pray for us. Yesterday we remebered St. Josephine Bakita, whose story the Holy Father also relates in Spe Salvi. So, we implore her as well: St. Josephine Bakita, pray for us.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Failed technical experiments in blogging

Okay, today I got the bright idea to update my blog template because Καθολικός διάκονος has had the same look for a year now. Well, it was a failed experiment that ultimately forced me to delete my blog and start over again. Even though I back my blog up as a .xml file at least every month and usually more frequently, some elements were irretrievably lost, like my list of people who read my blog.

Every failure is an opportunity to start again. So, I urge all my long-time readers and any new readers to "Follow" Καθολικός διάκονος. I refer to it as my list of people who encourage me. I guess like Paul, I only urge people to follow me to the extent I follow Christ and I am very certain I am not nearly the disciple Paul was ( 1 Cor. 11:1). I invite you join me on this on-going journey of faith, hope, and love.

Deceptive simplicity

The words deceptively simple mean for me something that is easy to understand, but difficult to do. When we look at what Jesus asks of us, namely to love the Lord our God with our entire selves and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, I can comprehend this, at least to some extent (especially with his parable of the Good Samariatan in Luke's Gospel, Jesus certainly expands my understanding). I find there are two really big obstacles to doing this: myself and other people. By other people I am referring to what I wrote yesterday; not people in and of themselves, at least not most of the time, but how I often relate to others. Similarly, spirituality is nothing but opening ourselves to God by practicing the spiritual disciplines, foremost among which is prayer.

When I think of opening myself to God in prayer, I think about listening, which is summed up well in one of the Gospel acclamations we frequently sing during Mass at my parish as we prepare to hear it proclaimed: "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. You have the words of everlasting life." This, too, is deceptively simple (i.e., easy to understand, but difficult to do). Yesterday, while attending the final day of the Southwest Liturgical Conference here in Salt Lake City, I went to a workshop led by Dr. Barbara Sutton of St. John's University (Collegeville, MN) on Visio Divina, or Seeing the Word, which is a wonderful way of practicing lectio divina. Cutting to the chase, what I like about lectio is that it works on the assumption that God has something to say to me everyday and not just something, but something important!

In my pastoral and teaching experience I would say that the biggest challenge many people have in opening themselves to God (i.e., listening) is that it is hard for them to believe God wants to talk to them. I would be less than honest if I did not admit that sometimes I feel that way, too. Despite myself at times, I have found that God is faithful. Hence, whenever I quiet myself and listen, that is, open myself, God always has something to say to me, which is the most important message I will receive all day. It always comes as a great relief to me when I realize, yet again, that all of this depends on God's love and fidelity and not on my inconstancy.

Does Jesus not tell us in today's Gospel that we are both "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world"? Remaining savory and bright is very much dependent on us staying connected to God through prayer. To that end, don't get too hung up on how to pray, just pray. Finding the right technique is not what brings us into God's presence because, as St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle even now reminds us, we must "remember that we are in the holy presence of God." Recognizing this is a matter of awareness, of paying attention to the circumstances in which I find myself at any given moment.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An early morning ramble

UPDATE: One drawback of writing an early morning ramble is typing incoherently. So, I have cleaned up this post in the hope of making it more readable.

I am very grateful that I do not suffer from very many sleepless nights. Last night was one, however. It's funny what I start to think about at 2:00 AM. Mainly I start to think about people I have met and gotten to know over the course of my life. As a result of thinking about people, I start to think about places, which makes me remember growing up in Ogden, Utah. Even when I was a teenager, even though I wanted to, I never felt I would go anywhere or do anything. So, it always amazes me to think about the places I've been and the things I have done. In kind of a circular sweep, I once again start thinking about some of the people I have met along the way.

Frankly, if I did not know so many wonderful people, I would be a misanthrope. This is how experience not only shapes, but sometimes overrides what I think. I guess I have been very blessed to meet and to get to know so many truly wonderful people. I admit that it is often the case that it takes time for me to like many of the people I meet. I realize that this flows from my own insecurity. In other words, it is easy and kind of natural for me to see others as a threat. A lot of this is the result of essentially being an introvert (being introverted is not synonymous with being shy).

I remember when I was in formation to become a deacon and during one of our third year sessions Deacon Owen Cummings said something like "We have to learn to see others as blessings and not as threats." This is a challenge for me on many fronts. One of those fronts is consciously trying to be a blessing to others and not, out of insecurity, try to be intimidating, which can be done in a number of ways. Trying to be physically imposing, or intellectually imposing, or even spiritually imposing.

At the end of my late-night musings, I can't help but think of Christ, not least because I start to worry, especially about others. I think of all the people I have been privileged to serve, even before my ordination. I think of the many people I have encountered through RCIA and think of those I have not seen in a long time. I wonder where they are, how they are doing, whether they are still attending Mass, going to confession, and otherwise living and growing in the faith, living in the awareness of their destiny, recognizing in Christ their origin and end. Thinking about these things becomes burdensome, which is why I start to pray for them; for those who seem have been laid upon my heart, whose faces I see clearly. I am reminded that the Lord is kind and merciful, that He is our Savior. I think of how much responsibility my bishop has, how much our vicar general, who is also our vicar for clergy, has, how much is entrusted to the rector of our Cathedral and I pray for them. I also thank God that I am called to help them and pray that I can be a good deacon, a good servant.

This morning I was led to a passage from the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel, which is God's word for me today, a word of comfort and of joy:

"All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (verses 37-40).

Jesus, I trust in you.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"there's a warnin' sign on the road ahead"

In my estimation Neil Young is right up there with Bob Dylan as a man, a songwriter, a musician, whose integrity remains completely intact. Many of Young's songs, like Rockin' in the Free World (This Note's For You also comes to mind in this vein- to complete the irony YouTube has an advert up-front), which is our Friday traditio, cut through the B.S., the propaganda, the ideology. Way more often than not, he succeeds in telling the truth. As one prominent rocker said of Neil Young, "His lyrics never suck."

Got a man of the people,
says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn,
got roads to drive.

Remember, you're only tragically unhip if you think not being hip is a tragedy.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Democratic perils in Egypt

This morning it is necessary to follow-up with some observations concerning yesterday's post. I cannot restate too strongly the need to approach what is happening in Egypt with cautious optimism. To that end, despite calls from the both the left and the right to speak more clearly, that is, more simply about what is an irreducibly complex situation developing in the land of the Nile, the Obama Administration deserves credit for maintaining its cautious optimism while continuing to call for a for a methodical and well-planned transition to democratic rule in accord with the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people.

A Pew Forum on Religion survey conducted last April and May in seven countries with Muslim majorities: Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria, reveals that a sizable majority of Egyptians want democracy. In fact 59% of Egyptians agreed "that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government." However, 22% of Egyptians felt "that in some circumstances, a non-democratic government could be preferable" and some 16% "said it did not matter what kind of government is in place for a person in their situation."

More to the point I was trying to articulate earlier, another survey for the PewResearchCenter's Global Attitudes Project showed that 82% of Muslims in Egypt are in favor of stoning "people who commit adultery." 77% of Egyptians support "whippings and cutting off of [the] hands" of thieves and robbers. Most saliently, 84% of Muslims surveyed in Egypt supported "the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion." These views stand in contrast to the more moderate view of Muslims in Turkey, Indonesia, and Lebanon, who "largely reject the notion that harsh punishments should be the law in their countries."

The plight of two Egyptian women, Camelia Shehata, who is the wife of a Coptic priest, and Wafa Constantine serve as an examples of the lack of religious freedom in Egypt even now. As their stories have it, both women were Coptic Christians who converted to Islam. However, rather than being able to register with the government as Muslims, they were returned to their Christian families and not allowed to convert. Now, the stories of both women are hotly disputed and, as a result, are too complicated to hash out here, but the point is that religious freedom in Egypt is already non-existent and, judging from the Pew data, likely to get much worse.

In Dignatatis Humanae, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council pointed out that in the first instance "[r]eligious freedom... has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society" (par. 1). This landmark declaration goes on to assert that "[t]he human person has a right to religious freedom" and that all people "should have such immunity from coercion by individuals, or by groups, or by any human power, that no one should be forced to act against his conscience in religious matters" (par. 2). According to the magisterium of Pope John Paul II, the only human right more fundamental, that is, necessary than the right to worship God according to one's own conscience, is the right to life.

It bears noting that the Pew Forum data does not bode well for the twenty-two point Islamic reform set forth by leading Egyptian intellectuals late in January, which I posted in full yesterday.

A deep diaconal bow to Sandro Magister for bringing the Pew Center research to my attention.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt: perils and possibilities

I think enthusiasm over what is happening in Egypt needs to be tempered by who is likely to gain and who is likely to lose, especially if the regime of President Hosni Mubarak is toppled prior to elections scheduled for this September. As a result of the popular uprising against his 30-year rule, Mubarak announced that he will not run in the upcoming elections, which, with the assistance of the international community, will be much more free and fair than any elections in the history of the modern state of Egypt. It is in the best interests of everyone to have a smooth transition of power in Egypt and not the collapse of a stable government that plays a very strategic role in the world's most volatile region.

Without a doubt the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings with a plan to make a power grab, especially should the government topple prior to elections. This would mean an even more difficult plight for Egypt's Christians, most of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Coptic Christians comprise approximately 10% of Egypt's more than 80 million people. Even now, Coptic Christians are severely under-represented at all levels of government in Egypt, even in places, like Alexandria, where they are concentrated. So, as euphoric as we tend to get when we see popular, democratic uprisings, our euphoria must be tempered by reality, which is what keeps it from turning into the opposite of what we'd all like to see. Another crucial factor to consider when thinking about political change in Egypt, not to mention Jordan, where King Abdullah seems to be panicking, is Israel.

Nonetheless, even on the religious front there is, to quote the title of Sandro Magister's most recent Chiesa article, A Glimmer of Light in an Egypt in Revolt. Specifically, on 24 January there appeared on the website of an Egyptian magazine- Yawm al-Sâbi (i.e., The Seventh Day), something called Document for the renewal of religious discourse. Accordng to Magister, by the night of 24 January this document appeared "on more than 12,000 other Arab websites."

This document bears the signatures of 23 important Egyptian Islamic intellectuals, including Nasr Farid Wasel, former grand mufti of Egypt and Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. The document is concise, consisting of 22 bullet points that lay out an ambitious plan for reforming Islam, seeking to counter those who have turned it into a religion of "superficial and external practice." The goal of the signatories is not to accomdate Islam to modernity, but make it truer to itself, that is, more authentic.

Magister provides a translation made by the Egyptian-born Jesuit Islamic scholar, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, for the Vatican-operated Asia News:

1. Reexamine the collections of the Hadith [the sayings traditionally attributed to Muhammad] and the commentaries of the Qur'an, to purify them.

2. Subject to analysis the political-religious vocabulary of Islam, for example the gizah [the special tax required from the dhimmi, the non-Muslim minorities subjected to limitations].

3. Find a new practice of the concept of interaction between the sexes.

4. Clarify the Islamic view on women and find convenient forms for marriage rights.

5. Islam is a religion of creativity.

6. Explain the Islamic concept of jihâd [inner and outer holy war], and specify norms and obligations that regulate it.

7. Stop the invasion of external religiosity and the extraneous practices that come to us from nearby countries.

8. Separate religion from the state.

9. Purify the heritage of the first centuries of Islam (Salafism), eliminating the myths and aggressions against religion.

10. Give adequate preparation to the missionary preachers, and in this field, open the doors to those who have not studied at the university of Al Azhar, according to very clear criteria.

11. Formulate the virtues common to the three revealed religions.

12. Give guidelines on Western customs, and eliminate incorrect behaviors.

13. Clarify the relationship that must exist among members of the different religions through schools, mosques, and churches.

14. Modify the presentation of the biography of the Prophet in a way adapted for the West.

15. Not keep people away from economic systems with the interdiction of dealing with banks.

16. Recognize the right of women to become president of the republic.

17. Combat sectarian claims, [emphasizing] that the flag of Islam [must be] one.

18. Invite the people to go to God through gratitude and wisdom, and not with threats.

19. Make the teaching of al-Azhar evolve.

20. Recognize the right of Christians to occupy important positions [including] the presidency of the republic.

21. Separate religious discourse from power, and re-establish its connection with the needs of society.

22. Improve the connection between the da'wah [the call to conversion to Islam] and modern technology, the satellite channels and the market for Islamic recordings.

Each of these points are discussed in detail by the signatories of the document, which makes Fr. Samir's analysis for Asia News a must read for anyone who is interested in what is happening. None of these reforms is a given, especially in a chaotic overthrow of Mubarak's government, which would find the Muslim Brotherhood well-positioned to seize control. This would be an utter disaster on many fronts.

Stated simply, we need to be careful before draping the mantle of righteousness over a movement that might yet spell disaster, especially for Egypt's Christians.

Candlemas- Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

In past times the Feast of the Presentation marked the end of the Christmas season. This feast is also known as Candlemas. Traditionally, people would bring candles they used in their homes to the Church to be blessed. Even today some parishes carry on this lovely tradition. On this feast we commemorate and celebrate the day when, in accord with Jewish tradition, Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to God as a firstborn son. In like manner, the Code of Canon Law states that Christian "[p]arents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks." Of course, we meditate on this event as the fourth Joyful mystery of the Rosary. The fruit of this mystery is obedience.

According to St. Luke's account, upon their arrival at the Temple, Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon and the prophetess Anna, both of whom were anxiously awaiting Israel's Messiah. Simeon had received the assurance of God that he would live until he saw the Messiah. Upon seeing the infant Jesus he broke into the prayer, which is recited every day as part of Night Prayer throughout the Church, known as the Nunc Dimittis:

"Lord, now let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).

St. Sophronius (AD 560-638), who was patriarch of Jerusalem at the time it fell into Muslim hands in AD 637, preached a wonderful sermon on Candlemas, which is the second reading for today's Office of Readings, in which he said,
"Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

"The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

"The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God..."

In hastening to meet Christ today, let us be reminded in the lovely words of Gerard Manely Hopkins that "Christ plays in ten thousand places...," perhaps even in a little creature known as Punxsutawney Phil, according to whom spring will blossom early this year. Happy Groundhog Day!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Give us this our daily bread

It's hard to believe that the first month of 2011 is over. So, today we began the month of February. One way to look at the way we mark time, whether by the Gregorian calendar or the liturgical calendar, is that we have many opportunities for new beginnings. I think the month of January for many people is often disastrous because of all the New Year's resolutions they heap on themselves. Maybe February is the month of recovery from our self-imposed tyranny. Appropriately, most years Lent begins in February, though not this year, due Easter arriving quite late (24 April).

Here in Utah February is very possibly the coldest, deadest month of the year, at least in terms of what goes on outside. For example, our high today will not top 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) and it will not snow. No sooner than I start being affected by all of this we'll have a sunny, relatively warm day, a day that reminds me Spring will come. Of course, the parallel to this obvious; it is a sign of something more than Spring. It is also a reminder that God gives us what we need, most often not in dramatic fashion, but in a quiet, steady way.

These thoughts put me mind of the episode in 1 Kings 17, in which Elijah goes to stay with the widow of Zarephath during a famine caused by a severe drought. When the prophet tells the widow, who barely has enough to feed herself and her son, to feed him, too, she protests, saying, "As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die" (verse 12- ESV). Elijah responds: "Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth'" (verses 13-14- ESV).

The widow did what Elijah told her to do and as a result "she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty" (verses 15-16- ESV). There are plenty of things to point to in this story, lessons, as it were, but for me today the obvious thing is that God is faithful to His promise. The woman did not wake up the next morning to find her larder filled to overflowing with oil and flour (what good would that do?), but everyday there was enough for her, her son (who soon died and was raised from the dead by Elijah), and for her guest, the prophet.

I suppose an alternate title of this post could've been "Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can", in which case it would need to be rolled, poked, and marked with an "E" and thrown in the oven for Elijah and me!

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...