Saturday, April 30, 2011

In support of banning further nuclear tests

I was very privileged to be asked by our recently retired Diocesan Legislative Liaison to read the following statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in favor of banning further nuclear tests. I read this statement today in the plaza of our Cathedral to a group of concerned fellow citizens who marched from church to church on this Spring day. Live nuclear tests, while undeniably safer now that they are carried out deep underground, have wreaked havoc on many people from various small communities in southwestern Utah, those known as Downwinders. Probably the best known Utahn to succumb to cancer likely caused by radioactive nuclear tests was our much beloved former governor, Scott Matheson, who is the father of Rep. Jim Matheson. Rep. Matheson, along with former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., has diligently looked out for our state with regards to nuclear testing and efforts to store and transport radioactive waste from other parts of the country and around the world in Utah.

Below is the statement I read:

"The Catholic Church opposes the use of nuclear weapons, especially against non-nuclear threats, and it opposes the development of new nuclear weapons. While possession of a minimal nuclear capability may deter the use of nuclear weapons by others, the Church urges that nuclear deterrence be replaced with concrete measures of disarmament based on dialogue and multilateral negotiations. In its nuclear policy the U.S. should commit to never use nuclear weapons first and to reject use of nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear threats.

"The United States and other nuclear powers must move away from reliance on nuclear weapons for their security. A global ban is more than a moral ideal: it should be a policy goal. In a major victory, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops successfully advocated for ratification of the New START Treaty in 2010.

"The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged the Administration and Congress to view arms control treaties not as ends in themselves but as steps along the way to achieving the goal of a mutual, verifiable global ban on nuclear weapons. Much deeper, more irreversible cuts, in both strategic and tactical weapons, are both possible and necessary.

"Pope Benedict XVI stated on January 1, 2008: 'It is truly necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms.'"

Christos Anesti

Friday, April 29, 2011

"No we didn't light it, but we tried to fight it"

Mr. Billy Joel has this week's Friday traditio. So, I'll start roughly where I entered the picture, on the cutting edge of Gen. X:

Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock

Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline
Ayatollah's in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz

Hypodermics on the shores, China's under martial law
Rock and Roller cola wars, I can't take it anymore

In words of Journey:Oh, the movie never ends/
It goes on and on and on and on!
So, don't stop believin'!

Christos Anesti

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Joy to the world. He's risen, Alleluia!"

It's not Easter morning for me without Keith Green singing his Easter song. Doesn't it feel so good to say and sing Alleulia once again?! As St. Augustine wrote about those who believe in and seek to follow Christ long ago-We are the Alleulia people!

Program note to both my readers: Because today is really what everything is all about, I will post just once more this month, on Friday, for our first Easter traditio. In the meantime, may God fill you with joy and hope througout this holiest of seasons, especially over the days of the octave. I look so forward to the beatification of Bl. JPII a week from today on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Christos Anesti

Urbi et Orbi - Easter 2011



"In resurrectione tua, Christe, coeli et terra laetentur!
In your resurrection, O Christ, let heaven and earth rejoice!" (Liturgy of the Hours).

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Rome and across the world,

Easter morning brings us news that is ancient yet ever new: Christ is risen! The echo of this event, which issued forth from Jerusalem twenty centuries ago, continues to resound in the Church, deep in whose heart lives the vibrant faith of Mary, Mother of Jesus, the faith of Mary Magdalene and the other women who first discovered the empty tomb, and the faith of Peter and the other Apostles.

Right down to our own time – even in these days of advanced communications technology – the faith of Christians is based on that same news, on the testimony of those sisters and brothers who saw firstly the stone that had been rolled away from the empty tomb and then the mysterious messengers who testified that Jesus, the Crucified, was risen. And then Jesus himself, the Lord and Master, living and tangible, appeared to Mary Magdalene, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and finally to all eleven, gathered in the Upper Room (cf. Mk 16:9-14).

The resurrection of Christ is not the fruit of speculation or mystical experience: it is an event which, while it surpasses history, nevertheless happens at a precise moment in history and leaves an indelible mark upon it. The light which dazzled the guards keeping watch over Jesus’ tomb has traversed time and space. It is a different kind of light, a divine light, that has rent asunder the darkness of death and has brought to the world the splendour of God, the splendour of Truth and Goodness.

Just as the sun’s rays in springtime cause the buds on the branches of the trees to sprout and open up, so the radiance that streams forth from Christ’s resurrection gives strength and meaning to every human hope, to every expectation, wish and plan. Hence the entire cosmos is rejoicing today, caught up in the springtime of humanity, which gives voice to creation’s silent hymn of praise. The Easter Alleluia, resounding in the Church as she makes her pilgrim way through the world, expresses the silent exultation of the universe and above all the longing of every human soul that is sincerely open to God, giving thanks to him for his infinite goodness, beauty and truth.

Christos Anesti

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Χριστός ἀνέστη

Christos Anesti!

A thought from silence

"Jesus was not crucified for teaching people to have a cheerful attitude. Jesus was crucified for teaching there was another way to live than adhering to the pharisaical religion of Israel or the brutal empire of Rome...

"As the children who were born at the at the close World War II came of age, they began to imagine an alternative to the hate and war that had defined their parents' generation, and so they sang and spoke of 'love and peace.' The problem was that no one could actually live it. As Larry Norman wryly observed, 'Beatles said all you need is love, and then they broke up.' The 'love and peace' generation of the sixties wasn't wrong in trying to imagine something better than a world filled with hate and war - it was wrong in not finding a better messiah than the Beatles." (UNconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, by Brian Zahnd, pgs. 16 and 18)

Holy Saturday- The Triduum Continues

"Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

"He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: 'My Lord be with you all.' Christ answered him: 'And with your spirit.' He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: 'Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.'" (from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday- 2nd reading for Office of Reading for Holy Saturday)

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Word of Salvation:St. Dismas and us

Reading: Luke 23:35-43

The second of Jesus’ Seven Last Words is called, for reasons that are easy to discern, The Word of Salvation. Tradition hands on to us that the name of the repentant thief whom Jesus forgives and promises entry into paradise is Dismas. Hence, St. Dismas is the patron saint of prisoners, especially those who, like Dismas, who are imprisoned justly, that is, for crimes they committed. In the first word, Jesus addressed our need to forgive those who act in egregiously unjust ways towards us, even those who seek to take our very lives. In the Word of Salvation, he is confronted by a guilty man, a man condemned justly according to the law, the kind of person that it is very hard to forgive. The beauty of St. Dismas is that he recognizes in Jesus, the man who has done nothing wrong and who is condemned to death unjustly, as his Savior.

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Dismas’ conversion, which brings to the fore the dire straits he is in, took place as he heard the Lord utter the challenging words on which we just reflected: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) It is easy to imagine Dismas thinking, if Christ willing forgives the ignorant and unrepentant, how much more will he look with mercy on the knowingly guilty and repentant, the one who expresses his sorrow and who recognizes salvation when he sees it? It is only for this that we revere Dismas, a guilty and convicted criminal, likely a seditionist, as a saint.

Christ and the robber, by Ge

Dismas knows he is going to die and is resigned to this. The other thief is not. He, too, wants a Savior. What else can he mean when he says, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”? (Luke 23:39) This is the kind of Savior we not only very often want, but, like the unrepentant thief, the kind of Savior we very often demand!

My friends, on this Good Friday let’s recognize that we are in the same position as St. Dismas, condemned to death justly because of our sins. We acknowledge this each time we receive Christ in communion by saying the words spoken by the Roman centurion to Jesus, which accurately express Dismas’ desire: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” (Luke 7:6-10; Missale Romanum) Implied in this, our confession, is Dismas’ plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)

He was crucified under Pontius Pilate

Good Friday- The Triduum Continues

"When in Matthew's account the 'whole people' say: 'His blood be on us and on our children' (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus' blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconcilation. It is not poured out against anyone; it brings reconciliation. It is poured out for many, for all. 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...God put [Jesus] forward as an expiation by his blood'" (Rom 3:23, 25). (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg 187- brackets in original)

He was crucified under Pontius Pilate

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday- The Triduum Begins

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Master, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered and said to him, "What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later."

Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well." Jesus said to him, "Whoever has bathed 6 has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all." For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, "Not all of you are clean."

So when he had washed their feet (and) put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, "Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (John 13:1-15)

Sometimes it is said and written that, unlike the synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke), John's Gospel has no institution narrative. Of course, John's Gospel has no account of Jesus taking bread, blessing it, and saying "Do this in memory of me," and then taking the cup and saying it is His blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, etc. On the contrary, the first fifteen verses of the thirteenth chapter of this Gospel constitute the Johannine institution narrative. This is but one of many reasons we need four Gospels. This also shows us that Mass is not an end itself.

Typically, at the end of the Mass we are dismissed- The Mass is ended go in peace! Hence, we are sent forth to give witness to the One who dwells in us, to make Him present everywhere we go. At the end of the Mass of the Lord's Supper, however, we are not dismissed. In fact, we are not dismissed again until the end of the Great Vigil late Saturday night, or even early Sunday morning. This is not merely an invitation to prayer, but a summons to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery, the great mystery of our redemption, wrought by Jesus Christ, our Passover and our Peace, to reflect deeply on what implications this has for our lives, which, as with John's institution narratives, calls us to a life of self-emptying service to others in imitation of the One whose disciples we are.

Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goldstone tells the truth about his untrutful report

Back in October 2009 in an article I wrote for Il Sussidiario, I did my level best to point out in a short space the primary problems I had with the so-called Goldstone Report, which is popularly named after the its lead investigator Richard Goldstone, who is a distinguished South African judge who also happens to be Jewish. In a 1 April 2011 editorial piece for the Washington Post, Goldstone himself effectively renounced the report that bears his name.

As one might expect, given what was/is at stake in this volatile part of the world, reaction to Goldstone's coming clean has been passionate on both sides. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the retraction "a poor attempt by Goldstone to cleanse his conscience. There can be no forgiveness for Goldstone for the vicious damage he has done to the State of Israel. Goldstone strengthened terrorist groups, weakened moderates and thereby exacerbated the suffering of civilians on both sides." While I would hope forgiveness would be in the offing for someone who has so publicly admitted his mistakes, I agree with Olmert on the effect of the report. This seems an appropriate real-world take for what (judging by what I have come across today) we all too trivially call Spy Wednesday, albeit one with a repentant Judas.

Of course, Goldstone is also now pilloried on the so-called Arab Street in the anti-Jewish manner that is common in that part of the world, but no less disgusting for its frequency. What Tom Gross, who edits Mideast Dispatch, documents here makes Olmert's forthright statement look very mild.

I continue to wish my Jewish friends, especially those in Israel, a peaceful and pleasant passover. During this Holy Week, may we all pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way for the kingdom

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Week continues

On Passion Sunday we celebrated and commemorated Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Of course, as he rode into the city through the gate called Beautiful, He was hailed as Israel's long-awaited Messiah. This made many of the Jewish leaders nervous and even scared. Matthew's Gospel tells us, "And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, 'Who is this?' And the crowds replied, 'This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.'" (21:10-11) It is easy to lose the thread of the narrative, however. From that day until His betrayal, arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion, He taught in the Temple daily.

His first act, of course, was to cleanse to the Temple, which, at least in Matthew's account, occurs upon His entering the holy city. His week in Jerusalem continues with a whole series of very challenging teachings that challenge the religious authorities, who repeatedly test Him in an effort to trip Him up. Given the overheated political moment we are experiencing here in the U.S. let's look at one such instance that is very relevant:

Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"

Knowing their malice, Jesus said, "Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax." Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?" They replied, "Caesar's." At that he said to them, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. (Matt. 22:15-22)

St. Justin Martyr, the great second century philosopher and Christian apologist wrote, concerning this very passage:
And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavour to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him; for at that time some came to Him and asked Him, if one ought to pay tribute to Cæsar; and He answered, "Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?" And they said, "Cæsar's." And again He answered them, "Render therefore to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's." Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment. But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we shall suffer no loss, since we believe (or rather, indeed, are persuaded) that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merit of his deed, and will render account according to the power he has received from God, as Christ intimated when He said, "To whom God has given more, of him shall more be required." Luke 12:48 (First Apology, chapter 17)

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way for the kingdom

Monday, April 18, 2011

Going to church, what's at stake?

Some Christians suppose that their decision not to go to church represents a kind of higher, purer, spirituality, a more authentic, or mature form of Christianity than does going to church. The Scriptures are not silent on the matter of our need to gather together. As both of my readers know, I have been reading and re-reading The Letter to the Hebrews over the last half of Lent. The primary concern of the unknown author of this letter, which is the best Greek composition among the books and letters that comprise the Christian Scriptures, is the danger of apostasy, of falling away from the practice of Christian faith, leaving the assembly, the ekklesia, the church. The falling away addressed is not the result of persecution, but an apparent weariness of the demands of Christian life, along with a growing indifference on the part of many early Christians. In my study, I have been grappling with some pretty demanding passages that we ignore at our own peril.

For example in chapter ten, the author takes up the issue of attending church, as it were:
Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy. We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near. If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries. Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace? (10:23-29- underlining emphasis mine)
I do not hesitate to employ Scripture in this way. After all, if the word of God is not perennially relevant, then what good is it? My use, however, does not amount to a kind of tin-eared literalism, of which there is far too much, especially in the U.S. But just as the answer to legalism and formalism is not antinomian laxity, so the answer to biblical literalism is not the outright refusal to acknowledge what holy writ hands on to us just because it is demanding.

We understandably wince at so-called "hellfire and damnation" passages, such as this one. Indeed, fear is not much of a motivator. The argument, you should go to church or risk going hell, is not convincing to most people, as negative arguments are never as strong as positive ones. I certainly don't think any effective parish effort aimed at bringing people back to church will consist of billboards, handbills, and home visits that state: Come back to church or be consigned to hellfire. With that said, such outreaches must be driven by our concern for the destiny of those to whom we are reaching out. If not, then why bother?

A few chapters further along the author instructs the church to "[s]ee to it that no one be deprived of the grace of God, that no bitter root spring up and cause trouble." (12:15) Indeed, many who are away have had bad experiences in church, the ever-present sexual abuse scandal being a persistent and sobering reminder of this reality. Many more just stopped going and, discerning that their presence was not missed, have just stayed away.

So, we must resist the temptation to be micro-focused on hellfire, on the negative. Scripture always urges us to look at the bigger picture. Hence, the call in Hebrews is to Christian maturity. It is easy to miss in the above passage the positive, namely rousing "one another to love and good works," which is what we do when we gather together in communion to receive the grace we need to become Christ-like. Let's not forget that Christ is really and truly present to us in a four-fold way in the liturgy. The very first way He is really present is by our mere gathering together in His name. This reality St. Augustine referred to as the totus Christus, the total, or complete Christ- His Body (us), gathered together with Him as our head (priest). Another of the four ways Christ is really present, then, is in the person of the priest, who leads our worship to the Father in persona Christi capitis- in the person of Christ the head.

We must not fail to notice that even this forthright section of the letter ends with a positive exhortation, calling us to remember our faithfulness and the joy of faith, even in hardship:

Remember the days past when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a great contest of suffering. At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and affliction; at other times you associated yourselves with those so treated. You even joined in the sufferings of those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, knowing that you had a better and lasting possession. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence; it will have great recompense. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised. "For, after just a brief moment, he who is to come shall come; he shall not delay. But my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him." We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life (10:32-39- underlining emphasis mine)

Another aspect of going to church that cannot be overlooked because it is fundamental, is the fact that it is precisely at Mass where we encounter the Lord. Pope Benedict XVI, in the second volume of his life of our Lord, writing about Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem captures this perfectly:
The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us toward his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; as a pilgrim, he comes to us and takes us up with him in his "ascent" to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week- From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pgs 10-11)
Who wants to miss out on that? As Annie Dillard wrote about going to church in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters: "Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way for the kingdom

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Year A Passion Sunday

Readings: Matt. 21:1-11; Isa. 50:4-7; Ps. 22:8-9. 17-20.23-34; Phil. 2:6-11; Matt. 27:11-54

"Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." Sound familiar? Well, it should because we joyfully proclaim this refrain around the altar each time we celebrate Eucharist. We do this to herald the One who truly comes in the name of the Lord, just as the people do in today’s Gospel as Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly, hailing Him as the Messiah, the son of David, their long-awaited king and deliverer. In our sacred liturgy for Passion Sunday, in the short space of maybe twenty minutes, we have moved from rejoicing at the arrival of the Messiah, the son of David, who enters the holy city in triumph, to the end of that week, arriving at the day Jesus is betrayed and handed over to the Romans who judge, mock, strip, beat and then nail Him to the cross, an innocent man unjustly condemned, but who allows Himself to suffer unjustly for you and me.

St. Paul writes about this well in our second reading from his Letter to the Philippians: "he emptied himself; taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:7-8) It is easy to make religion something not very serious, an adornment to our lives, or a superstition in which we wait for God work some little magic on our behalf. I am often asked something along the lines of "Did God have to reconcile and redeem the world in this way?" The answer to this question is simply "No". God being God could have reconciled and redeemed the world in any number of ways. The follow-up question then is inevitable, "Why did God choose to reconcile and redeem the world in this way?" The only convincing answer to this question cannot be philosophical, theological, or in any way a cerebral abstraction. The only credible answer to this question is existential, which is just a philosophical way of saying that it is personal.

How many of us have joyfully welcomed Jesus into our hearts as Savior, Lord, and King shouting "Hosanna, hosanna, blessed is the Lord," only to crucify Him when things don’t go according to our plans, when God doesn’t work the magic we expect of Him, when He refuses to play the role of genie and grant our wishes on command? On this score, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us an important wake-up call by saying that "those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy Spirit and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away" recrucify "the Son of God… holding him up to contempt" yet again (Heb. 6:4-6) Such people, the sacred author continues, are like "[g]round that has absorbed the rain falling upon it repeatedly,” but who only bring forth “thorns and thistles." (Heb. 6:8) Of course, ground covered with thorns and thistles is fit only to be burned. (Heb. 6:8) The good news is that our salvation is not dependent on our faithfulness to Christ, but on His faithfulness to us. We know that God desires to save everyone and bring all to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:4) We must come to see, therefore, that in no way does God lead us to our destiny more than by reaching out to us in our pain, struggles, hardships, and challenges.

You see, my dear friends, there is nothing, I mean absolutely nothing that you experience that Christ did not experience in His own person, this includes, pain- physical, emotional, and psychological- loneliness, rejection, abandonment, loss, betrayal, and even death. As St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great Cappadocian theologians observed centuries ago, by way of affirming Jesus’ full humanity- "That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved," which is only to say that Jesus experienced deeply and atoned for all that needed to be overcome in us, in the world, and throughout the whole cosmos, in order to reconcile all things to the Father. This is why whenever we cry out "My God, my God why have you abandoned me," Jesus hears our cry and answers our call. He does not typically answer our cry by magically making it all disappear, but by accompanying us through it, leading us towards our destiny. This is exactly what St. Paul means when he writes that for our sake Jesus emptied Himself.

What did our Lord empty Himself of? His divinity! This is what we mean when we recite the Creed, which we will do in a few moments, and say that for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man. As we recite these words of the Creed we bow, which is our way of acknowledging and reverencing the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. Immediately after this we say, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” As we approach the Triduum, let’s each of us take some time and reflect on the great mystery of our redemption wrought by no one other than Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Do not recollect in this way to wallow in your sins. Rather, think on this so that you can clearly see what great love, mercy, and tenderness God has for you. I use “you” in the second person singular, not the third person plural, meaning You!

If what I have preached this evening still remains abstract, take a question from a New Yorker cartoon I saw several years ago as your point of departure this Holy Week. In the cartoon two women, standing next to each other, are looking up at a crucifix on the wall. One turns and says to the other, "If I’m okay and you’re okay, what’s he doing up there?" My friends, I’m not okay and you’re not okay. The state of the world and the state of our lives, even the state of the church, are proof enough of this! As the famous convert Malcolm Muggeridge, commenting on what made him turn to Christ in middle age, observed in his old age: original sin is the most empirically verifiable fact the world. Of course, we recapitulate the original sin each time we sin not only by rejecting God, but seeking to be god, that is, deciding for ourselves what is right and what is wrong with no reference to the purpose for which God created, redeemed, and is now sanctifying us. The proof of this is the effect our sinful behavior causes. Our sins are not only personally destructive, but societally and globally destructive as well. St. Paul tells us that God’s great love for us is proven "in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) This, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is good news, indeed!

Prepare ye the way for the Lord. Prepare ye the way for His kingdom

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Passion Sunday

Prepare ye the way for the Lord. Prepare ye the way for the kingdom!

Going to church: it’s important because it’s not about you

I recently read an article in which the author seemed surprised that so many young people find church boring. The surprise was confirmed by ”googling” some variant of "church" and "boring," which apparently yielded millions of returns, most of which are posted by young people who are either made to go to church, or who experience a strong parental expectation that they will attend church and face parental disapproval if they do not. For anyone who currently has teenage children, or who has had teenagers or even for those of us who simply recall being a teen, perhaps the greatest hallmark of this period of life, at least in Western societies, which invented adolescence, is truly believing that it is all about you. Hence, one of the greatest challenges adults have is to show young people that while they are important and have value beyond their wildest imaginations, true happiness is not found in being selfish, but by being selfless, in imitation of Christ. Going to church is an invaluable means to this end. Of course, it is not the only means, but it is an indispensable one. Studies show that the best predictor as to whether a person will continue attending church as an adult is if s/he grew up going to church, whether they were bored or not does not seem to be a factor. Attending church during one’s teenage years seems to be particularly crucial for practicing one’s Christian faith as an adult.

So, might I humbly suggest that, at least from a Christian perspective, going to church is not primarily about you? I mean, if all we’re proposing is indulging the already self-indulged, then we are beaten before we begin. Sure hikes are nice. I find spending time in nature very spiritual, but it is not a substitute for going to church. In my experience, nothing becomes more quickly outdated and irrelevant than fervent attempts to be relevant, to be hip, to be with “it”. This is not an excuse to be slackers when it comes to our corporate worship of God. After all, God is deserving of the very best we have to offer in music, in devotion, in the churches we build to God’s greater glory.

In a world of constant and rapid change, more than ever, we need stability. I very much like the way I once heard Archbishop Niederauer address this very issue in a homily. He said that people frequently shared with him their preference for going golfing, skiing, boating, hiking, or even working in their yards on Sunday to attending Mass. His reply, which I paraphrase, was beautiful because it was a simple call to discipleship: Jesus did not say, “Go golfing in memory of me,” “Go boating, skiing, hiking, to the mall, or out to brunch in memory of me.” Rather, Jesus said “Do this in memory of me.” As he spoke those words of Christ he made a sweeping gesture around our beautiful Cathedral here in Salt Lake City. He went on to say how none of the things people often prefer to going to church were bad things, on the contrary, they are good things, but they are made better, that is, more meaningful by our participation in the liturgy in faithfulness to Christ’s summons. You see, it is both/and, not either/or. Likewise, dealing with the issue of church and boredom is also a both/and proposition. We certainly need to find ways to help young people see the importance, the vitality, the beauty, the importance of going to church, but we will not succeed by trying to come up with something new every time a young person, or a group of young people complain that church is boring. Another aspect of this that I will but mention in passing is tradition, which is not stultifying and static, but life-giving and dynamic. I guess my plea is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As a Catholic, the liturgy is the rock to which I cling in the rapids of life. Last New Year’s Eve I was waiting for a Mass at which my oldest daughter, who is fourteen, was singing in the choir, to end. For some reason I made a conscious decision not to attend this liturgy, opting instead to do some work in my parish office. Nonetheless, I desperately wanted to be there at the end of the Mass when the choir sang the Te Deum. You see, my Dad had just been diagnosed with the cancer that over the course of the next few weeks would take him from us. I was hurting and sad, but I felt a deep need to give thanks to God at the end of a difficult year, which I recognized as a great grace from a loving Father. I walked into the church, removed my hat, knelt and joined my heart to this beautiful hymn, being sung in Latin no less. The church was not full (it seats 1,100), but there was a decent-sized congregation, maybe two hundred people. The choir was comprised of all young people most of whom were probably bored. But I know these kids and I know that if I could ever express to them how much I needed what they offered to God that night on my behalf they would agree it was worth it to be there on New Year’s Eve, delaying their plans, their parties, their fun. I am certain that I was not the only one in the church that night who had this need. This is but one example of how going to church is not about you, one that shows why it is so vitally important that you go.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Friday, April 15, 2011

"it may be the devil or it may be the Lord..."

Phil Keaggy plays with Paul Clark and the Word of Life Church Band performing Dylan's Gotta Serve Somebody, which is this week's traditio. For those who don't know, Phil is what you might call a guitarist's guitarist.

This song is off Dylan's Slow Train Coming album. These days and for a long time now, Dylan is cryptic about faith and religion, but not altogether silent. For several years, however, he was very forthright about it. Along with Saved, Slow Train... is an unapologetically Christian album. True to form, John Lennon's answer to this song was Serve Yourself

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

During this period, Dylan said:

"Years ago they ... said I was a prophet. I used to say, 'No I'm not a prophet' they say 'Yes you are, you're a prophet.' I said, 'No it's not me.' They used to say 'You sure are a prophet' They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, 'Bob Dylan's no prophet.' They just can't handle it."

Indeed, as even John Lennon was forced to concede, despite thinking himself and his bandmates "bigger than Jesus," you gotta serve somebody, even if it's yourself à la Sheilaism from Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart.

So, on this last Friday of Lent, maybe it is a good time to ask yourself, Who do I serve?

It's been 21 years to the day since I decided who I wanted to serve. Am I the best servant? Heh! Not by a long shot! Only Jesus can turn my filthy rags into riches.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Making political judgments: where truth confronts ideology

Without a doubt the U.S. is currently experiencing a time of great political tension caused by the clashing, not of political philosophies (we abandoned those along ago), but of competing ideologies. It is all too easy for Christians to get sucked in on one side or the other. Nothing is more indicative of an ideology, which at the practical and personal level means approaching things in a preconceived manner, than sloganeering or repeating memes that have the effect of reinforcing preconceptions borne of a given ideology.

Today on Facebook I saw this meme posted by a quite a few people. Because I was bothered by this, I let it serve as a provocation:

Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither
The point, assuming I understand it correctly, is that by seeking to de-fund Planned Parenthood, NPR, and PBS, while continuing to allow oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and rewarding bad behavior on the part of major financial institutions, members of a certain party in Congress are perceived as intentionally refusing to do the morally correct thing across-the-board. What could be more outrageous than that?!

Such a dense compilation of issues doesn’t bear up under examination. The best way to describe it is as an incoherent rant, which, if we’re honest, most of us go off on from time-to-time. On my view, what makes it worthy of an extended commentary is that I believe that many who posted it think that it makes some over-arching point and provides us with moral guidance on how to resolve our current political stand-off.

The first indication that this is ideology at work is that it lumps things together that need to be considered separately. It also seeks to establish moral equivalence between matters that have no moral equivalency whatsoever. This is also a sign of ideology, the kind that is engaged under the guise of righteous indignation. I mean, are defunding public broadcasting and PP morally equivalent?

I look at everything mentioned in the meme and think: I oppose the attempt in Wisconsin to deprive state employees of their ability to collectively bargain, which, as a Catholic, I take to be a right, which is not to say I think unions always act in the best interests of their members, or the common good. I am against de-funding public broadcasting. I favor de-funding PP. Despite its success, I remain opposed to TARP, precisely because it rewarded bad behavior and also provided cover for many people who are guilty of serious crimes that impacted the lives of millions, not only insuring they will never be brought to justice for their misdeeds, but that they will walk away with more money than ever! I have registered my discontent about this on a regular basis in posts going back more than two years. Nonetheless, I must begrudgingly admit that the TARP money has been repaid and that taxpayers actually made some money off these funds. There still remain deep, systemic problems with our financial system, such as it is.

Another prevalent argument against de-funding public broadcasting and PP is that they amount to a small drop in an inkwell full of red ink. Indeed, they do. There are two reasonable answers to this argument. The first and perhaps the most obvious is that every bit of cost-cutting adds up. Still, the argument that those proposing to eliminate government funding for these organizations are thereby making a claim to balance the budget misses their point, namely that these entities have no value, are of negative value, or, pertaining especially to public broadcasting, they go beyond the scope of what government should do. It bears noting (skipping back to the issue of moral equivalence) that the issue of whether or not to de-fund public broadcasting is very much an issue of prudential judgment, as is whether one supports or laments TARP.

To demonstrate that ideological moves are not the sole property of one viewpoint, I’ll use Sen. Kyle, a Republican from Arizona, as an example. Over the past few days the senator has rightly been taken to task for saying on the Senate floor, while arguing for the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, that 90% of what they do is perform abortions. Not only was Kyle’s statement incorrect, it turned out to be a woeful exaggeration. Apparently performing abortions amounts to only about 3% of the services provided by this nationwide non-profit group that receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year from our federal government via grants and contracts. In a similar vein, Rep. Michelle Bachmann called Planned Parenthood "the LensCrafters of Big Abortion."

Let’s approach the question from a different angle, without exaggeration or making analogies, which are always problematic, or, as in Bachmann’s case, intentionally incendiary: without a doubt PP is not only the largest abortion provider in the U.S., but throughout the world. Thanks to an executive order signed by Pres. Obama on 22 January 2009, just days after taking office and on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade no less, reversing the so-called Mexico City policy, implemented by Pres. Reagan and reinstated by the last Pres. Bush, Planned Parenthood and other NGOs now use your tax dollars to provide abortions overseas. According to its most recent annual report, in 2008-2009 Planned Parenthood received some $363 million in federal funding. During this period the organization performed 324,008 abortions in U.S. alone, setting a new record for the number of abortions it performed in a year. In fairness, they provided 9,433 adoption referrals, which is not quite 3% of the number babies it aborted. According to one commentator, there seems to be a correlation between the steady rise in federal funding for PP and the number of abortions they perform.

I think it always bears noting that if we put our faith in Christ into political action, which are encouraged to do if in no other way than when we vote, we look pretty incoherent to those whose views are shaped by secular forces. According to the prevailing political labels, when it comes to marriage, family, and life issues we are seen as very "conservative", with the exception of opposing the death penalty. When it comes to labor matters, immigration, and many issues of social welfare we come across as considerably more "liberal". In a very broad statement about the on-going budget debate, which presents the occasion for all these issues to come to the fore, thus tempting us to lump everything together, Bishop Hubbard of Albany, NY and Bishop Blair of Stockton, CA, who chair the International Justice and Peace and Domestic Justice and Human Development committees respectively, gave a threefold criteria for judging budgetary decisions in a way that challenges us to move beyond ideology:
1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity. 2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects 'the least of these' (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first. 3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times

Let's keep in mind that Jesus was no more a liberal democrat than He was a conservative Republican.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Priesthood of all believers

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2)

What does the apostle mean?

I think A.W. Tozer gives us a pretty good idea:

"The 'layman' need never think of his humbler task as being inferior to that of his minister. Let every man abide in the calling wherein he is called and his work will be as sacred as the work of the ministry. It is not what a man does that determines whether his work is sacred or secular, it is why he does it. The motive is everything. Let a man sanctify the Lord God in his heart and he can thereafter do no common act. All he does is good and acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For such a man, living itself will be sacramental and the whole world a sanctuary. His entire life will be a priestly ministration. As he performs his never so simple task he will hear the voice of the seraphim say 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.'" A.W. Tozer The Pursuit of God

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spirit and flesh on the Fifth Sunday of Lent

In writing reflections on our Sunday readings over the course of this holy season, my focus has been exclusively on the Gospel passages. On a day that we hear yet another dramatic event from St. John's Gospel- Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, I want to focus on our second reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, in which the apostle also writes about what it means to be raised from the dead:

"Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you." (Romans 8:8-11)

St. Paul, when referring to "the flesh" in this passage is not writing about the body. If he was simply referring to the body he would've used the Greek word soma. Instead, he uses the word sarx. Before unpacking this term a little bit, it is important to note that a truly Christian anthropology is not dualist, meaning that we do not see the body as something evil, as something to be overcome, to be set aside, to be escaped from. On the contrary, we will be bodily resurrected and live forever as embodied beings. Rather, God created us as we are, redeemed us through the bodily sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son, who for our sake became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, His bodily resurrection from the dead, and His bodily ascension into heaven. He now sets about sanctifying us in our bodies by the power of the Holy Spirit- Just think about the sacraments! All of this is necessary because the temptation to gnosticism is ever present and has been from the beginning!

Like most every word in a lot of languages sarx has a number of meanings. In its most straightforward, that is, literal sense, sarx (i.e., "the flesh") refers to the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood. It also means the sensuous nature of humankind, what we might call our animal nature. According to just about any New Testament Greek lexicon, sarx, which is used in the writings of St. Paul to refer to our sensuous nature, does not automatically suggest depravity, but does refer to those bodily cravings that lead us to sin if we follow them unchecked in a hedonistic manner.

A great example of the distinction St. Paul makes in this passage is found in Matthew 26:36-41. This passage is Matthew's account of Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Before laying bare His soul before His Father, our Lord says to Peter, James, and John- "My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me." Going off to pray and asking the Father to let the bitter cup that He is about to drink, even the dregs, the Lord returns to find the three fast asleep. His disappointment and sorrow are evident when He says, "So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." It is not difficult to imagine the three, when asked by Jesus to keep watch with Him, responding positively. I further imagine it growing later, colder, darker, making them even more tired. So, huddling together, they warmed up and, perhaps even fighting their drowsiness, fell asleep. If you follow the passage, they fall asleep more than once! Hence, St. Paul's constant injunction to wake up, to stay awake, etc.

It is good that we hear this late in Lent, a season in which we try to open ourselves to God by more intensively practicing the spiritual disciplines, putting off the flesh through acts of self-denial in order to live according to God's life-giving Spirit (i.e., "the Lord, the giver of life"). In this passage from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul sets forth something James Kushiner summarizes very well: "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." I think "flesh" in the sense Paul uses it in this passage can certainly be called "ego".

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Jesus Christ makes all the difference in the world!

As with most things in my life, excepting God and my family (thank God), I have a pretty ambivalent relationship with blogging. On the other hand, I would be lying to say that I don't enjoy blogging. I would also not tell the truth if I were to write that I don't feel like it is something of a burden at times, but one internally imposed. Since I am always in discernment about my on-line activities, I appreciate very much Sarah Payne's article on E-zine, Why You Shouldn't Be a Blogger. While I could answer her point-for-point in writing and take some exceptions to her piece, I will take her challenging piece and add it to my Lenten discernment.

Along these same lines, just when I am about to despair, things start to pick up. My post from last Saturday on the incompatibility of Christian faith and Qu'ran burning was published on-line over on the English site of Il Sussidairio, which is always gratifying. As with my initial post on Archbishop Sheehan's challenging pastoral letter, more gratifying still was a conversation sparked by my post on Christian-Muslim relations.

The particular issue addressed was concerning my assertion, which I have made on these pages before, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, which is the meaning of the Arabic word Allah, which word is used in Christian liturgies that precede the advent of Islam by centuries. My first and most direct response would be, after the manner of Jesus, to answer a question with a question: Did Israel of old worship the same God, that is, the God of and who is Jesus Christ? Of course this is what we call a rhetorical question because I assert that we worship the same God, but failing, or even refusing to see Jesus as God, like the Israelites of old and of today, Muslims have not received the invitation to call God "Father". It also bears noting that as Christians we are not a people of the book. We are the people of the resurrected and living Lord, who sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in and among us, thus making us temples in whom God dwells.

Nonetheless, it is easy for me to see how what I wrote can be taken as something that tends towards a certain religious indifference. In defense of Miroslav Volf, whose Christianity Today interview about his new book in which he addresses this question, it is too much to say that he leaves out the fundamental reality that God is love. (1 John 4:8.16) While he certainly does not mention this in his interview, which is very short, I cannot say that he omits this in his recently published book, which I have yet to read. Of course, this will be something for me to pay attention to when I read it. It is fair enough to say that my treatment deals exclusively with the question, what is God, and does not really address the infinitely more important question, who is God? The answer to the latter question, of course, is that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I do not believe for one moment that the quote I employ from Nostra Aetate can be dismissed as political because I think a decree by an ecumenical council, even one that is not dogmatic, cannot be dismissed with the wave of a hand. It is worth pointing out that at the time Nostra Aetate was promulgated, the troubles we now experience were not yet realized because even the Islamic world, under the influence Nasser and the rising Ba’athists, was embracing secularism.

What does it mean for a Muslim to revere Jesus as a prophet? It means that the one we revere as our risen and glorified Lord is seen by the Muslim as one who speaks the authentic words of God, even if he does not revere Jesus as the Word made flesh. This is altogether different than how a Communist might revere the man Jesus. Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of God bodily dwells, is, indeed, an "ontological" and "insurmountable difference between our Allah and their Allah." Jesus Christ, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, makes all the difference in the world! (Col. 2:9) After all, the only answer to the question, why be a Christian, is Jesus Christ!

Living as I do in Utah, God as He is worshiped by Muslims is certainly more recognizable to me than the God of the LDS, who even describe the Father as having "a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s." (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22) It was Lorenzo Snow, an LDS prophet, who said of God the Father (who the LDS insist is both separate and distinct from the Son and the Holy Spirit): "As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become." They also hold that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob "have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods." (Doctrine and Covenants 132:37) I do not mention this to start an argument, just to note the relative and objective difference with regard to various understandings of God and how well they measure up to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, which revelation, as Dei Verbum explicitly teaches us, has two modes of transmission- Scripture and Tradition. (par. 10)

I guess the question I pose in my article is what challenge does Christ- Allah made flesh for us- give to us who follow Him with regards to the Muslims, who see God as full of mercy and infinitely just, but not fully as love? To wit, surely not burning the Qu’ran and denouncing them as monsters, people we hate! Indeed, to say that God is love implies the Trinity because love requires an Other and, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted long ago, love is profuse. So, at least in Western Trinitarian theology, we see the Holy Spirit precisely as the love between the Father and His Only Begotten Son, who for us and for our salvation became our Lord, Jesus the Christ born of the Virgin Mary. How does one give faithful witness to the love of God given us freely in Christ? I know that burning the holy books of others who worship God, even if they do not fully know Him, is one way not to give such faithful witness.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

More on marriage and pastoral care

I have had a couple of very insightful comments from two people I admire very much concerning my post on Archbishop Sheehan's recent pastoral letter, Marriage as a sacrament of salvation, a channel of God's grace. One from a brother deacon in Los Angeles, Eric Stoltz, and one by none other than the IC herself, who had the great misfortune of being my theology professor in graduate school. Along with Deacon Vince Tomkovicz, Deacon Eric co-authored the fantastic book, which is our RCIA text, Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation. I also recommend the IC's book, Dear Communion of Saints: amusingly foolish advice for Christians (as a non-writer myself, I am always happy to give plugs for friends with gifts).

Commenting on Facebook, Deacon Eric, who has a passion for reaching out to those on the margins of the church, expressed his concern about the punitive approach taken in the letter. Indeed, there are six consequences listed for those in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe who are cohabitating without ever being married, those who were previously married and are now re-married without having their previous marriage annulled, or their attempted marriage officially voided by the church, as well as those who are Catholic and only civilly married. In my previous post I listed three of the six specific instructions given by His Excellency in the letter.

As to cohabitation prior to marriage, I think it is always good to point out to couples who are cohabitating, or are thinking about it, that those who live together before marriage have a significantly higher rate of divorce than those who don't. Many mistakenly believe they are setting themselves up for success, when they are doing the opposite. Msgr Francis Mannion, one of my early mentors, summed this up well well when he said "People who live together before marriage tend to keep living together after they are married."

While I am writing about this issue I feel the need to highlight the pastoral failure of the church in providing extensive, thorough, and high quality marriage preparation. As I mentioned in my previous post, if marriage is truly a vocation to which most Christians are called, one akin to being a priest or a professed member of a religious order, then why is the preparation for this state of life often slip-shod or even non-existent? Look at the resources we dedicate to priestly formation, diaconal formation, and lay ecclesial ministry formation, then consider what we put into marriage formation. Now, admittedly, the hope is that those who are formed for pastoral ministry do a lot by way of marriage formation. However, even granting that, my point is still valid.

How do we do in equipping couples to fully live out their vocation, one challenging dimension of which is preparing them to observe what the church teaches with regard to sexuality? I think Bishop Olmsted exhibited a lot of courage and genuine pastoral concern when he began requiring all couples seeking to be married in the Diocese of Phoenix to take a full-blown course on NFP, learning how to do NFP, instead of the one-shot, 3 or 4 hour overview, where couples learn about NFP, which is all most dioceses require. Getting involved with marriage preparation strikes me as a wonderful opportunity for married permanent deacons and their wives, collaborating with other committed married couples in their parishes, to be of great service to the church! In other words, the issues Archbishop Sheehan brings up are a call to action, not to sit in the bleachers and cheer.

Thinking about the need for better marriage preparation prompted me to remember when Holly and I were getting ready to be married: other than Engaged Encounter and the mandatory NFP class, from which we were exempted due to the fact were planning on using NFP and so were working weekly with a certified instructor, all we did was meet with our associate pastor twice. One time was to go over our FOCCUS results, which were scored improperly (before computer scoring), making it useless, and the other was to plan our wedding liturgy. But he thought because we were both committed Catholics we didn't need anything else by way of preparation.

While our associate pastor was a truly a wonderful priest, frankly, I don't think he had much to offer us. So, we did some intensive preparation, including a weekend retreat, in an Evangelical Christian setting. It was a great decision, something which has benefited us as a couple in terms of our need to pray out loud together, read Scripture together, etc. In fact, because our spiritual life together has been on the wane this past year, just last night we started reading together Couples Who Pray: The Most Intimate Act Between a Man and a Woman, which includes the 40 day challenge. You can poo-poo such things all you want, but here's my question- If you're married, how often do you pray with your spouse? Plus, we need something simple, not a discourse on prayer!

The IC wrote in wondering what effect reading the archbishop's letter from the ambo of every church at each Sunday Mass across the diocese had on those who were suddenly and, likely, unexpectedly "called out," as it were. I have to honestly admit that I have no idea. So, while I certainly laud Archbishop Sheehan for tackling head-on an urgent and persistent problem, I also hope his pastors, associate pastors, and deacons have been diligent in their pastoral follow-up with those who are affected by these episcopal directives, actively reaching out to those affected in their parishes, realizing the potential for disaffection and offering them a helping hand, a sympathetic ear, and even a shoulder to cry on. I have absolutely no doubt this is Archbishop Sheehan's intent. While I believe that such a straightforward approach has the potential to do great good, we also have to be careful about lobbing hand grenades and then ducking behind the altar. In my view, if this not taken as a call to pastoral action, it won't amount to much apart from more people leaving, opting to either stop attending church altogether, or moving to where they perceive themselves as more welcome.

Since I am privileged to serve quite a few people who are in irregular marriage situations (I stopped doing marriage prep a several years ago, but in my ministry I still deal with some who are cohabitating) this is something with which I personally have a lot of experience. I can honestly say that I cannot think of any person who has not been most eager to resolve these issues and have their marriage convalidated in the church. The trouble, as far as I can tell, is that nobody has ever reached out and offered to help them do this. In fact, quite a few people thought their situation was irresolvable and were overjoyed to learn it was not.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Friday, April 8, 2011

"Don't discard me...Just because you think I mean you harm"

Just as we sometimes feel oppressed because people expect too much of us, we often expect more of others than they are capable of giving, more than is fair to expect. This inability, which is the result of our human limitations, does not eradicate the need we have, which is why, especially on Fridays, I pray, Jesus, I trust in you!

"But these cuts I have/They need love to help them heal."

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Marriage as a sacrament of salvation, a channel of God's grace

Very often when we speak or write of "being pastoral" it is a euphemism employed to justify our refusal to speak the truth in love. Just as frequently, those of us engaged in pastoral ministry view our role as one that requires us to be unfailingly comforting and never challenging, even when the situation calls for a challenge, perhaps even a mild provocation, aimed at helping those we serve live more fully in the awareness of their destiny. Of course, there is an art to pastoral ministry, which is necessary for discerning what approach to take with people in life's myriad of situations. However, this is more about means than ends because the end is always to draw people to Christ by drawing them more fully into the Church, Christ's Body, to which they were joined at baptism. The key ingredients are taking the necessary time, always acting out of love, which means never being adversarial, and approaching each pastoral encounter prayerfully.

On 3 April 2011, Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a challenging and provocative way, issued a pastoral letter: Pastoral Care of Couples Who are Cohabitating. He begins his letter by clearly setting out the issue he is addressing:
"We are all painfully aware that there are many Catholics today who are living in cohabitation. The Church must make it clear to the faithful that these unions are not in accord with the Gospel, and to help Catholics who find themselves in these situations to do whatever they must do to make their lives pleasing to God.

"First of all, we ourselves must be firmly rooted in the Gospel teaching that, when it comes to sexual union, there are only two lifestyles acceptable to Jesus Christ for His disciples: a single life of chastity, or the union of man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony. There is no ‘third way’ possible for a Christian. The Bible and the Church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman and opposes same sex unions.

“We have three groups of people who are living contrary to the Gospel teaching on marriage: those who cohabit; those who have a merely civil union with no previous marriage; and those who have a civil union who were married before”

He goes on to issue six specific instructions, among which are the following:
"People in the above three situations cannot receive the Sacraments, with the important exception of those who agree to live chastely ('as brother and sister') until their situation is regularized. Of course, those in danger of death are presumed to be repentant....

"Nor are such people to be admitted to the role of sponsor for Baptism or Confirmation... It is critical for the sponsor to be a practicing Catholic - and can anyone be seriously called a practicing Catholic who is not able to receive the sacraments because they are living in sin?"

"Those who are married outside the Church because of a previous union are urged to seek an annulment through our Marriage Tribunal. If it can be found that the first marriage lacked some essential quality for a valid marriage, the Tribunal can grant an annulment. Your pastor can help someone start a marriage case for this purpose. It is important for such couples to continue to pray and get to Mass even though they may not receive Communion, until their marriage can be blest in the Church."
He ends his letter with this encouraging, yet challenging exhortation: "Our popular American culture is often in conflict with the teachings of Jesus and His Church. I urge especially young people to not cohabitate which is sinful, but to marry in the Church and prepare well for it.

"I congratulate and thank those thousands of Catholic married couples who role model the Sacrament of Marriage according to the teachings of Jesus and his Church."

One of the most rewarding aspects of my ministry is assisting people in resolving just the kinds of marriage issues Archbishop Sheehan courageously addresses in his very challenging and, hence, very pastoral, letter to his flock. I have convalidated many marriages that did not require resolving a previous marriage, or attempted marriage. Conversely, I have assisted many people in resolving marriage issues before the Tribunal of our diocese. Many of these have been simple lack of form cases that can be resolved in just a few weeks. But I have also worked with people and seen them through the lengthy process of seeking a full-blown annulment. It is amazing how healing and strengthening this process is for many people, especially with the proper pastoral support and encouragement.

Conversely, when parents bring their children to be baptized, one of the questions I ask is if they are married in the Church. At least in my own experience, increasingly parents, even when both are Catholic, respond, “No”. So, I ask, "Were either of you married previously?" The answer to this question is often, "No". Then the obvious, "Why didn’t you get married in the Church?" The same is true about completing Christian initiation by being confirmed. Even when couples answer, "Yes, there has been a previous marriage," and we discover that, say, it can be easily resolved due to lack of form, there is quite frequently no follow-up (i.e., the required documents are not submitted) and so they go on as before.

Over the course of each year, I have the opportunity to teach the parents of our young people who are preparing for their first confession, confirmation, and communion. Our first session always consists of discussing the 5 precepts of the Church, (see Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 431-432). I always add to this list the obligation we have to observe what the church teaches with regard to marriage. This means reminding people that, as Catholics, if we are married, or planning to be married, we are just as obligated to be married in the Church as we are to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, go to confession at least once a year, observe days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church, receive communion at least once a year, and contribute to the material support of the Church.

After all, like priesthood, religious life, or the diaconate, marriage is a vocation. Look at how long and diligently people prepare for these other callings. Why should marriage, which is certainly more challenging in many regards, be so different? Rather, as Archbishop Sheehan implicitly asks, why should Christians who marry be so indifferent?

This is a good time to once again draw attention the USCCB's terrific website For Your Marriage. This is an excellent resource!

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Hope is not wishing, but trusting in God's promise

Over the course of Lent I have been reading repeatedly the Letter to the Hebrews. I read fours chapters per day, which means that I finish the book every three or four days. Because Hebrews has thirteen chapters, I am forced to vary for either one or two days reading four chapters. Technique is not important, however. It never ceases to amaze me how rich God's word is, as Hebrews says, it "is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart". (4:12- ESV)

Sunday I was reading Hebrews 11, which is a breath-taking exposition on the theological virtue of faith, which it links closely to the forgotten, or least understood, of these God-given gifts, hope. Hope is the fruit, or flower, of faith. Put less poetically, hope is the product of faith. The chapter begins- "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." (1-3- ESV)

The author proceeds to give examples of those people of old, how they lived by faith, that is, lived hopefully: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah. Between Enoch and Noah the author of this letter, what Bible scholar Daniel Harrington calls a written sermon, notes that "without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him". (6- ESV)

Writing aboout Abraham and Sarah, the author commends them for going to the land promised them, thus acting on faith. Filled with hope they looked "forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." (8 and 10- ESV) "By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised." (11- ESV). Hence, the author continues, "from one man, and him as good as dead [meaning Abraham, who was past the age of child-bearing himself], were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." (12- ESV)

What is the point of discussing these "people of old"?
"These all died in faith, not having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire the better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (13-16- ESV)
In other words, they died not having experienced in their own lifetimes the fullness of that which God promised them. They did not die bitter, or unfulfilled. They passed filled with hope; trusting in God's fidelity to His promise.

The inroit for Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Lent refers to our longing for the city of God: Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts (Isa. 66:10-11) Indeed, "here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come." (Heb. 13:4- ESV) The new Jerusalem.

In his encyclical Spe Salvi, to which we have paid too little attention, the Holy Father pays great attention throughout his letter to this important book from the Christian Scriptures. I only wish to cite here the passage in which he wrote: "When the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christians here on earth do not have a permanent homeland, but seek one which lies in the future (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Phil 3:20), this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage." (par. 4) The church is supposed to be a foretaste of the heavenly city.

Meum cum sim pulvis et cinis

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-6; Ps 5:2-7; Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus, Ahab, or Jezebel? This is the question posed to us by our readings. What do yo...