Sunday, September 29, 2013

Year C Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 6:1a.4-7; Ps 146:8-10; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

Our readings today seek to challenge our complacency by telling us in no uncertain terms what it truly means to follow Christ, what it means to lose your life for His sake, seeking to bring about what we continually pray for: that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.

Last week we heard Amos’ denunciation of the rich of Israel, who obtained their wealth through dishonest business practices, thus denying people the just fruits of their labor. This week we read about the luxurious lifestyle that such dishonest practices afforded these same rich, who Amos denounced for trampling “upon the needy and the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4).

It is important to note that not all people who enjoy financial success have profited by cheating, or that all wealthy people neglect the common good. Such an assertion is simply false. But as perhaps the wealthiest society in world history, we often seem very unconcerned about anything that does not involve our own prosperity and/or satisfy our wants and desires. What our readings today zero in on is the very human tendency to be concerned only with our own welfare, to define our interests, be they personal, national, or religious, only by what benefits us as individuals, as a nation, or even as the Church.

So provoked was he by this neglect of the poor that Amos gave a warning to Israel, not one to be realized by God suddenly getting angry and shooting lightening bolts out of the sky in the manner of a pagan deity, à la Zeus, or Thor, but a warning to be realized as the natural consequence of neglecting the common good: the demise of Israel, the society on whose existence the prosperity of these rich folks depended.

My friends, we live at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing both globally, as well as in our own country, a state-of-affairs that has only gotten worse these past five years, since the global financial meltdown, which was clearly the result of just the kind of greed Amos denounced in ancient Israel. During his recent visit to the town of Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, a place, like so many poor places worldwide, that has disproportionately suffered over these past five years, speaking to a group of workers, Pope Francis made what I can only call a prophetic denunciation:

Referring to the suffering caused by the seemingly universal idolization of money, the Holy Father said that this is not only a problem in Italy or in certain European countries, but “is the result of a global decision, of an economic system… centered on an idol called ‘money.’”

“God,” the pope continued, “did not want an idol to be at the center of the world but man, men and women who would keep the world going with their work. Yet now, in this system devoid of ethics, at the center there is an idol and the world has become an idolater of this ‘god-money.’ Money is in command! Money lays down the law!"

The recently departed Episcopal priest and writer, Robert Farrar Capon once began a homily he delivered in a wealthy parish in the Hamptons, a well-known playground of the East coast rich, by setting a $20 bill on fire and saying, “I have just defied your God.”

By telling the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus, the ultimate prophet, considerably upped Amos’ ante. It is important to note that the audience for this story is a group of Pharisees, the devout Jews who constantly challenged Jesus and his teaching on the Law, not a group of politicians. So, this teaching is directed first to Israel and by extension the Church. The story of Lazarus and the rich man is a very dramatic story and one without nuance, ambiguity, or paradox, those elements that characterize so much of the Lord’s teaching.

Lazarus, a poor beggar, covered with sores, languished outside the gate of the house of the wealthy man, while that man lived well. The rich man completely ignored Lazarus in his suffering, refusing to even give him scraps from his table, which Lazarus would have gladly eaten. Then Lazarus dies and, in due course, as we all must, the wealthy man dies. Then the tables are turned and the rich man begs Father Abraham to allow Lazarus to ease his suffering, if only just a bit. Notice that it is not Lazarus who refuses to come to the aid of the rich man, such a refusal would be petty revenge, which has no part in the life of a Christian. It is Abraham who refuses to allow Lazarus to do so, pointing out the chasm between them, which represents God's justice.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that calling for a Church closer to the poor, a less worldly Church, is a new thing, first conceived of and called for in recent months. Why, just this past Friday, we observed the memorial of that champion and servant of the poor, St. Vincent de Paul. During his last Apostolic Visit to his native Germany, speaking to a large group of that country’s most influential Catholics, those engaged in politics, commerce, culture, etc., Pope Benedict noted that history teaches us that “when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly.” He went on to observe, “When the Church is liberated from material and political burdens and privileges,” she is able to “reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world” and live “more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbor.”

What did Pope Benedict mean by living our “vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbor”? I think he meant something like this- Mass is not an end in itself. This is clearly shown by the fact that the word “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa, meaning to be dismissed, or, more in keeping with our baptismal vocation, to be sent. After all, one of the marks of Christ’s Church is that it is apostolic, which means it is composed of those the Lord calls only in order to send. Do we not call Catholic ministries “apostolates?” My friends, if the love we seek to show God through our worship does not translate into a deeper love for our neighbor, expressed through loving service for the sake of God’s kingdom, then there is a huge gap in our lives that needs to be filled.

In his 1967 encyclical, Populorum progressio, Pope Paul rhetorically asked how the love of God abides in a person “who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him” (par. 23). He then cited St. Ambrose, who, writing to a rich man, insisted, “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 to the rich” (par. 23, which cites Ambrose's De Nabute c. 12, n. 53). On this basis Pope Paul concluded, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life” (par. 23). Jesus tells us in a very clear way that when people lack life’s necessities it is not, properly speaking, an act of charity to give them what they need to live, but an act of justice. He also reminds us that God’s justice will ultimately be realized.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cor ad cor loquitur...:

... Jesus teaches us to have His Sacred Heart. Or, in the lovely words of Audrey Assad's amazing song, "For Love of You," (think of this as a late Friday traditio) which was inspired by a passage from Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.'s poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire"- "It's Your sacred heart within me beating."

There are three things I want to share this morning. One thing that has nurtured me throughout what has proven to perhaps the most spiritually challenging week I have had in a long time, along with two other things, which compliment the first, one of which I received this morning by "accident."

The first thing is a well-known passage from St. Matthew's Gospel with which Fr. Felix Just, SJ began our annual Diocesan Deacon's Retreat last weekend. Our retreat had three distinct phases: Come/Abide/Go. Being slow, I have yet to get beyond Jesus' invitation to "Come unto Him."

While the passage he gave us was longer, I was really drawn to these three verses, a word of the Lord for me, as it were: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30).

Who among us, if we are really being honest, is not (all too frequently) weighed down by life's heavy burdens? Further, who among us does not long for the heavenly rest, like that we read about in Hebrews 4:6-11? This is the rest Jesus offers us today. To attain this rest (remember faith is our response to God's initiative- what good is belief if it does not move us?) we must take Jesus' easy yoke, which is a light burden, upon ourselves and lay down the heavy burden we daily try to shoulder and "learn" from Him.

The Greek word translated as "learn" in this passage is manthano. Like all words, especially Koine Greek words, given that, when compared to modern standard English, the number of words is quite small, manthano has several related meanings. Sticking with what is perhaps the most neutral meaning, manthano means to increase one's knowledge. While Jesus in this passage does not directly say, "learn from me and here is what I will teach you...," after inviting us to learn from Him, He tells us that He is "gentle" (other translations use "meek") and "humble in heart." While one must be careful about these things, it doesn't strike me as too big a stretch to assert that what Jesus wants to teach us is gentleness and humility. It seems, too, that learning from Him results in my heart changing ("change of heart" is the meaning of the word "repent"- which is not explicitly used here). I am convinced that He wants to make my heart gentle and humble, like His Sacred Heart.

The Greek word translated as "gentle," or "meek," is praus. Praus refers to that disposition of heart that enables us to accept that how God deals with us is good, without disputing or resisting. A disposition exhibited by Job at the beginning of his afflictions: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21); "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (Job 2:9). The inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews also encourages his readers to cultivate this same disposition, especially in Hebrews 12:6-9 (I commented on this passage in my post for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross).

The word "humble" is a translation of the Greek word tapeinos, which literally means "not rising far from the ground." I can only speak for myself, but when it comes to being gentle and humble I frequently rebel, have an almost violent reaction (I am prone to cry out thing like, "Lord, are you paying attention to what's happening here?"). My resistance, my lack of meekness, gentleness, my pride are why this week has proved to be such a struggle and a burden.

The second thing is from my dear friend, Fr. Peter Nguyen's blog about his fellow Jesuit, Alfred Delp. Specifically his translation of Fr. Delp's diary entry for 9 October 1938, written during Delp's tertianship. I was struck by the final two sentences of his entry for that day:
From my haste and hurry I arrive through a personal conversation with my God. To love Him, to understand Him, and to find myself in Him.

I notice this immediately, as I become more peaceful and relaxed under the nearness of God in this 2nd retreat. As the ancient fluidity of the Spirit again reveals, and I am glad
My only comment here is, "Amen. Lord deliver me from hurry and haste, from my sinful tendency to elevate the urgent over the important. Nothing is more important than You, O Lord!"

Finally, the "accident." As I set out to pray Morning Prayer today I switched from my one volume breviary, which only contains Evening and Morning Prayer, to Volume IV of the complete Liturgy of the Hours, which contains all the offices. Being used to just finding the appropriate day (Saturday, Week I), reciting the Invitatory, and proceeding to recite Lauds, I began, "accidentally," reciting the first Psalm of the Office of Readings, which was Psalm 131:
O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.

Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest in in its mother's arms,
even so my soul.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and for ever.
As if that were not enough, here is the Psalm prayer:
Lord Jesus, gentle and humble of heart,
you declared that whoever receives a little child in your name receives you,
and you promised your kingdom to those who are like children.
Never let pride reign in our hearts,
but may the Father's compassion reward and embrace all who willingly bear your gentle yoke
I am grateful that after a week of resistance and rebellion that God, in His infinite goodness and because of the merits of Jesus Christ and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Stephen, St. Martin, St. Gianna Molla, St. Edith Stein, Servant of God Cora Evans, my Guardian angel, and I am sure many others, perhaps even Alfred Delp, has not abandoned or forsaken me. This morning I truly recite the Confiteor from the depths of my heart in joy and gratitude. It's because despite my smallness, my stinginess, my hardness, and resistance that Christ lets His Sacred Heart beat within me that tears come to my eyes.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Servant of God Cora Evans in the news

I was surprised this morning to come across an article in the U.K.'s Daily Mail about the cause for the canonization of Servant of God Cora Louise Evans, a LDS convert to the Catholic faith. The Mail Online article, "Little known housewife who 'suffered stigmata and slipped into comas where she walked with Jesus' is put on path to becoming California's first saint by Vatican," was derived from an extensive piece written by Mark Emmons for San Jose's Mercury News: "Vatican considering Santa Cruz Mountains mystic for sainthood."

As both of my longtime readers know, I have posted about Cora twice before- here and here. You can learn much more about Cora Louise Evans by visiting The Mystical Humanity of Christ website.

In one of her ecstasies, Cora was granted a vision of Purgatory. Among the insights she was able to report was this one: "Purgatory is a state of perfection. Could anyone then excuse themselves? Would that be perfection? Could anyone blame a friend? Would that be perfection? Would anyone wish revenge? Would that be perfection? None of these faults enter into the minds of the Purgatorial just. I was given knowledge to know that in the eyes of God no one sins alone. Everyone helps in the path of perfection or in its hindrance."

There is an approved prayer, granted an imprimatur by Archbishop George Niederauer, to offer petitions through Cora's intercession:

First - Visit the Blessed Sacrament

Cora prayed that she would be given the same gift as Saint Therese, the Little Flower, spending her heaven on earth doing good. But, first visit the Blessed Sacrament.

Second - The Prayer - Ask Cora to intercede in your behalf

Dearest Jesus, You blessed Cora Evans with many supernatural mystical gifts as a means of drawing us to a deeper and more intimate union with your Sacred Heart through Your Divine Indwelling, Your Mystical Humanity. I ask You through her intercession to help me in my special request (name the favor) and my efforts to do Your will here on earth and be with You, Your Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph and the whole Court of Heaven forever.

Third - Say three times

The Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be to the Father.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Listening to Amos and Jesus

Helping the poor is part and parcel of being a Christian and is a hallmark of any community that claims the name of Christ. Like everything else it is often easier to assist "the poor" in the abstract than it is to recognize someone in need right before your face and feel convicted by that person's concrete need.

It is true that many people are poor in non-material ways, making it important for us to recognize their need and discern how best to help them too. Nonetheless, there are materially needy people in our midst. Many Christians in need would never think of turning to their brothers and sisters, their parish or congregation, for help. The reasons are many and varied: they don't know specifically who to ask, or how the community might help them, they feel that asking for help would be looked down upon, jeopardizing their standing in the community, etc. The latter of these is the most heartbreaking because it cuts across many issues, whether it's needing material assistance, or struggling with some addiction or compulsion, too many Christians believe that being a Christian means having your act together. In reality, being a Christian means exactly the opposite- recognizing that you don't have your act together, at least not completely. Stated differently, it is easier to recognize another person's need when you are conscious of your own need and have some experience with how your need is met.

As a deacon I have long felt that not enough of my ministry, my service, is devoted to serving the poor. It's not that I feel the bulk of the service I give is useless, perhaps just a bit incomplete. I was very struck by our reading from Amos this past Sunday. I am also struck by the one from Amos, the sheepherder and sycamore tree cultivator from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who God called to prophesy to the Northern Kingdom, for this upcoming Sunday, as well as by the Gospel for this Sunday; the story of Lazerus and the rich man. Cutting to the chase, Amos' message was that acting justly is more important than ritual. In other words, if worship does not result in taking care of the widow, the orphan, the person in need, then what is it good for? If ritual and worship do not have this result, then it is truly empty. If our love of God expressed in worship does not result in loving our neighbor, then we can't even truly say that we love God, at least not nearly to the extent we should.

I am not coming at this in a self-righteous way. These thoughts provoke me tremendously, which is why I am writing this. The need of just one poor person is so great that it can quickly discourage someone who wants to help. As Bl. Teresa of Calcutta observed, "Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love." Let's be honest, for many of us the challenges of our own lives are enough for us, some days too much for us. It's in doing what we can for someone in need and doing it with love that helps us maintain a hopeful disposition, even as it makes us aware of how much human need there is.

Alms-giving, along with prayer and fasting, are the fundamentals of any authentic Christian spirituality. As I have shared several times, I am convinced that there is a connection between these three disciplines. Personal prayer, deep prayer is interior. Alms-giving, which includes selfless service to others for Christ's sake, is exterior. I believe fasting connects these two and bears the tension these generate. I am also convinced that there is more than a theoretical relationship, a correspondence, between these disciplines and the theological virtues: love corresponding to faith, alms-giving corresponding to love, and fasting corresponding to hope. Prayer can take, needs to take, various forms. The same is true of alms-giving. But fasting is an anchor of sorts. Sure we can "fast" from many things, especially those things that get in the way of prayer and alms-giving, in the way of our personal relationships (i.e., watching t.v., being on-line, etc), but the spiritual discipline of fasting, which includes abstinence (abstaining from certain foods and certain kinds of food), is about eating less food, even non at all.

Richella Parham, in wonderful resource, A Spiritual Formation Primer, which she composed for Renovaré, shared an insight about fasting that I was rather struck by. After noting that the devil tempted Jesus with food after His forty days of fasting in the desert, she pointed out that how this is usually explained, even in preaching, is that after fasting for 40 days Jesus was hungry and so particularly vulnerable to being tempted by food. She concedes that this was likely at least part of the devil's calculation. I would add that we have to keep in mind that Jesus was free, like we are free. His response was not pre-programmed and inevitable. Parham asks, "what if those 40 days of fasting actually made Jesus stronger? Jesus was not fasting to make himself weak so that his resistance to the devil would be impressive. He spent that time fasting so that he could devote himself completely to being with his father. After 40 days of unbroken communion with God, Jesus's spirit was in a state of great strength, not weakness. I think that resisting the temptations of the devil was actually pretty easy for him at that point."

In addition to people I have encountered personally as of late, I was struck by something else I read recently on the Christianity Today website about the provocation of living as a "rich Christian in an age of hunger."

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Where have I been? What have I been up to?

It's been an entire week since I posted anything here. I have been meaning all year to step back, to post a bit less, like last year. But 2013 has been such an eventful year in the world as well as in my own life. I didn't even post a Friday traditio last week. I can't remember the last time I did not. My reason for that is that just today the deacons of the Diocese of Salt Lake City concluded our annual retreat.

It is always a great joy to gather with my brother deacons, together with our wives, for a few days each year. Our retreat master was Fr. Felix Just, SJ, who serves as the Executive Director of Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, California. I can't imagine how wonderful it must be for Catholics in Orange County, Los Angeles, and beyond to have such a place. This is the second year in a row that we have a had a Jesuit retreat master from Loyola. Last year our retreat focused on Ignatian spirituality and discernment. This year, Fr. Just, who is a New Testament scholar, took as our theme "Abide in/with Me," a focus on St. John's Gospel (our bishop, John Wester, has "Abide in Christ" as his episcopal motto). I was excited to learn about Fr. Just's personal website, Catholic Resources, where he makes many of his Scripture resources available for free. As both of my readers know, I focus a lot on Sacred Scripture, on the inexhaustible riches the inspired texts contain for us. One can no more "completely" master Scripture than one can come to a complete, definitive understanding of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One aspect of the retreat I personally found most fruitful was using no electronic media whatsover at anytime (i.e., no Android phone, no computer, t.v., radio, etc.). Prior to heading for our retreat on Friday afternoon, I printed Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.'s entire interview with Pope Francis, which appeared in the U.S. in America magazine, as well as on their website, under the title "A Big Heart Open to God." In addition to being able to spend quite a bit of time in personal prayer, I read this interview along with the Scripture texts Fr. Just gave us to meditate and pray with (I also finished re-reading N.T. Wright's Simply Jesus- I was almost done) during my time alone on the retreat. Rather than even try to summarize the effect all of this had on me, let me just say I came away greatly blessed, refreshed, and encouraged. I am sure I will have a few things to post arising from from my reading of the interview with the Holy Father and our retreat. If you have not yet, I urge you to read the pope's interview its entirety. In addition to being greatly interested in what I will call his cultural formation (i.e., what literature, music, movies have moved and influenced him), even while he discussed it in the context of his own life and ministry, I was struck by what the pope had to say about discernment.

Old and New Testaments, by German artist Rudolf Koch (1876-1934- from

Finally coming to our readings for this Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, the operative word both for this week's readings and next week's, on which I will preach, is challenging. This is not only true of our Gospel readings, taken from the sixteenth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, but extend to our two readings from the Book of the Prophet Amos, which strike me as smacking more than a little of what the pope is trying to convey to the Church, especially to the her ministers (i.e., people like me). What do I mean? In answer, I offer this much-quoted passage from his interview:
I see clearly... that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up (second ellipsis in original- first added by me)
From our first reading for today: "Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land," proclaims Amos before describing the ways in which the needy and poor are trampled upon and ending with this- "The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!" Of course, the "they" to whom the prophet refers are those who trample on the poor and needy.

Dear friends, we'll see what the coming week has in store for us. In the meantime, may the peace and blessing of Almighty God be with you all.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Jesus' prodigal parable is provocative

Blogga-logga-logga-doodle all day. Well, no, not really. What prompted a third post in one day? An exchange begun by my dear friend Fred with a comment on my last post. His first and subsequent comments provoked me (an utterly good thing- the provocation was not to anger). I am deeply appreciative of such exchanges. I realize that it is easy to come across as defensive, but it is not always the case that I am. While it is true that I am not going to abandon my position merely as the result of being challenged (like a boxer who, seeing his opponent come to the center of the ring when the bell rings for the first round, simply drops to the canvas), I welcome the chance to clarify, deepen, hone, sharpen, and, when warranted, abandon a speculative position in the confidence that I have come to a deeper understanding as the result of such an exchange.

I think it bears noting that the point I sought to make in my last post was quite simple: in order for there to have been a party in the first place, the prodigal son had to return to his father's house, that is, repent, have a change of mind/heart, turn around. This in no way violates the integrity of Jesus' parable. If the prodigal son had not come to the realization that he was better off working even as a servant for his father than he was in the far away country fighting pigs for food then we would have no parable. As obvious as this may sound, I am convinced that it is important to it point out. To apply this as I might in a homily, I could ask you, dear reader, the same question I pose to myself- What pig trough do you prefer to eat out of instead of being fed at the Lord's table?

That this point is important to comprehend is shown by Jesus' words at end of the first of the preceding two parables: "I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Luke 15:7). I do not think it is a case of engaging in so-called "scrip-torture" to see the irony in these words of Jesus- that there are not ninety-nine righteous people in the whole wide world who have no need of repentance. If there were, they, too, would rejoice heartily in the repentance of a single sinner because, well, they are righteous. The first two parables also show us that the Lord, while not violating our freedom, does not merely passively wait for us to return, but actively seeks us out.

I think I can describe my approach, without being too inaccurate, as an Ignatian one. It is interesting and useful, at least for me, to look at Jesus' most common parables, like that of the Prodigal Son, from the perspective of, say, the older brother, who is not an evil person, not by half.

Why? Several reasons, foremost among which is my tendency to be like the older brother. I think it is easy to over-identify with the prodigal and to oversimplify the story by just rushing to the conclusion, "We're all prodigals," and leaving matters there. What? Nobody ever acts like the older brother? It is certainly true that we are all prodigals. Despite that, we also tend to act like the older brother at times, sort of in the same ridiculous mode as Jonah. I also take this approach because the pre-canned grasp of the unveiling of God's kingdom in the parables often does not provoke a sense of wonder in me.

The older brother's response, if we are honest with ourselves, is very understandable to us, all too understandable, which is precisely the problem. In the end, I think we have to realize that we can't take the stance of the older brother because, like the prodigal, we are sinners in need of forgiveness, even before standing outside the party huffing and puffing, a ridiculous act, which only adds to our woes.

What we take away is up to us, but is no less important as a result. Jesus does not tell us whether the older brother went into the party and the inspired author does not tell us how many, if any, of the Pharisees that heard Jesus tell this parable changed their mind that day. Not to sound smug, but I really don't care because both of those things are beside the point. What matters to me? Whether and how the parable moves me and what resistance I offer to being thus moved. Even if I am not moved at all, or successfully resist the Lord's pull, He'll take another shot next Sunday. I am still trying to address the concern that far too often, in my view, the take away is that no response is required.

This brings me back to my main point: faith does not require a response, it is our response to God's initiative towards us. As such, it is a free (i.e., not compelled, pre-programmed, or inevitable) response, even if one, as we saw in Lumen fidei, that takes many surprising forms, arising, as it does, from real people living real lives in the real world.

Parable of the Prodigal Son extended

Just as Jesus did not extend the Parable of the Prodigal Son to tell us how the older, faithful son responded or reacted to his father's reassurance (i.e., whether he went into the party and celebrated or not), which arose from his complaint about the indulgent manner in which he welcomed back his errant brother, the Lord does not tell us a parallel story about what would have happened had the prodigal chosen, or felt compelled out of pride (i.e., unwillingness to acknowledge his mistake, to admit he was ashamed and guilty), to remain estranged from his father, his brother, and far away from home. But I think we can draw a parallel by way of inference and/or implication.

First, had the son felt himself unable to humbly return to his father and beg for his mercy, it would have done nothing to change how the father felt about his errant son. He would have loved him and kept hoping for his return, willing to extend mercy and love, willing to be reconciled, to welcome his son home. Second, this would not have changed things for son, however. He would have remained a swineherd, fighting the pigs for a share of their slop in order to keep body and soul together.

Extending Jesus' powerful parable in this way helps us to see, while it remains for Christ to judge and to determine our eternal destination, it challenges that lazy kind of universalism that we so easily fall into. If the ripe fruit of theological reflection is that everyone goes to heaven no matter what, then why worry about anything at all, let alone repenting? While it is true that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves, it is necessary for us to grasp this and, like the prodigal, like St. Mary of Egypt, about whom I wrote yesterday on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, cry to God, who is the Father in Jesus' parable, for mercy. Otherwise we are merely offering cheap, or even counterfeit, grace. "This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost" (1 Tim 1:15).

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained it, "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." Or, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body" (1 Cor 6:20). Faith is not something we possess, but is our response to God's call- God, who is the Father who runs to meet us, but who loves us enough to respect our freedom.

"Have mercy on me, O God"

Our readings for this Sunday are dominated by, and rightfully so, Jesus' telling the story of the Prodigal Son. Of course, we can all relate to the prodigal because, in a real sense, we are him. But what about the older brother, who, quite understandably, takes exception not so much to his father welcoming back his errant brother, but the lavish manner in which he does it? This is the aspect of this parable that is usually passed over silently. Yes, the older brother is wrong, as Jesus' words convey, but his feelings and expression of them are understandable, very reasonable. The father in the story is gracious and merciful to his dutiful son too. He urges him to join in the celebration even while reassuring him that his faithfulness will be rewarded. It is a summons to joy. Whether the faithful son continued to brood, or, accepting his father's reassurance, joined the party and rejoiced both at the return of his brother and his father's love, Jesus does not tell us.

There are two things Henri Nouwen observed in his book on this stunning parable that I think are worth handing on, two things that shed some light on the choice faced by the faithful son at the end of the story: "You don't think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking" (echoes of the inaugural words of the Lord's ministry, "Be repenting and be believing"?- Mark 1:15) and "Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."

In His Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus not only highlights the fact, set forth in our second reading, that He "came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15), but gives us deep insight into how He accomplishes what He came into the world to do.

Our Responsorial Psalm today is Psalm 51, known as the Miserere mei deus (i.e., "Have mercy on me, O God"), the first Psalm of Morning Prayer each Friday, a day of penance. The Psalm begins:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.

While it easy for many of us to over-identify with the prodigal and to ignore the tendency we have to act and think like the older son, it is even easier to miss the larger point, which is the great love the father has for them both, which results in his gratuitously dispensing such amazing grace. If that does not cause you to rejoice and at least desire to live in a new way, I don't know what will.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tradition must not become an empty shell

Most days driving home, or to the Cathedral, after work I listen to a local radio program on a Christian station in which two Evangelical pastors discuss the Bible book-by-book. A few weeks ago, as they were making their way through 1 Corinthians, they began to discuss the role of tradition in the life of the Christian Church. The more temperate and learned of the two exhibited what I think was a very balanced and even good grasp of tradition. He began by frankly admitting that tradition is inevitable and even valuable in the life of churches, even in their fairly large non-denominational denomination in which most view anything called "tradition" with great suspicion, or even contempt.

What prompted the discussion on tradition was the second verse of the chapter the two hosts were discussing: the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, in which the apostle wrote- "I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you." The trouble with any specific tradition, the pastor noted, is that it becomes perfunctory, performative, and, frankly, empty when it loses its connection with the reason it was deemed valuable enough to hand on in the first place; it becomes an end instead of a means.

Keep in mind that "tradition" comes from the Latin word tradere, which is a verb meaning the act of handing on. It also has a noun form- traditio- which is the content of what is handed on. The Greek word Paul used, paradosis, which, at root, means surrender, giving up, or giving over, can also be used to refer both to the act of handing on, the "giving over," and, logically, also to what is given over.

As Catholics we have many, many traditions and customs. As my example I will use a little custom- making the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads, over our lips, and hearts after the deacon, or, in his absence, the priest, prior to reading the Gospel passage for that day, says, "A reading from the holy Gospel according to [insert canonical Gospel here]." A non-Catholic, or someone in the process of becoming Catholic, will often ask, "What are you doing?," followed by, "Why do you do that?" Of course, this custom is nowhere called for in the rubrics and is not, at least to my knowledge, a universal practice. It is widespread, it seems, throughout the United States. I wonder how many people know, or say, any prayer connected with that gesture, such as, "May the word of the Lord be written in mind, be on my lips, and in my heart." I also wonder how many people realize that the reason for doing this, apart from asking the Lord to open us up to receive his word, is to remind ourselves to listen to what we are about to hear.

I won't presume to provide a guess, but I have no hesitation about giving an anecdotal answer based on my experience working with those who are in the period of inquiry as their first step towards becoming Catholic. Typically, when they ask Catholics these things, the person they ask simply does not know, they just do it. How many of our traditions seem to outsiders to have become, or, in the lives of many of the faithful, have actually become, disconnected from the reason(s) we do them, or any reason whatsoever? Perhaps asked a bit more directly, how many people have ever had someone help them, even if only by way of explaining it, make the connection in the first place?

Of course, the "tradition" to which St. Paul was mainly referring in 1 Corinthians 11 was that of the Eucharist. So, to round this out, here's something I posted almost seven years ago: "Our concern is that He should remain present."

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today we Exalt the Holy Cross of Christ. This is one of those feasts, like that of Sts Peter and Paul, the Assumption, to name just two, that is of ancient origin and so is celebrated by Christians in the East and West, both Catholic and Orthodox (excepting Old Calendar Orthodox) on the same day. Hence, it is an important feast.

It was on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross that St. Mary of Egypt had her life-changing encounter with Christ. An invisible force prevented her from the entering the Church in Jerusalem in which the True Cross was being elevated and venerated by the faithful. She tried going into the church several times, but each time she was stopped, unable to move forward. Shaken up, she went to a corner of the churchyard and was suddenly struck by the wickedness of her life and began to be contrite. Only then did she realize why she was not able to enter the church. She burst into tears and started to beat her breast. As she did so, she noticed a statue of the Blessed Virgin above the spot where she was standing. She began to implore our Blessed Mother to help her, to allow her to enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross. She promised to turn her life around and go wherever she might be led. After this, she was able to enter the church and to venerate the Cross. Afterwards, she was led across the Jordan River, where she spent the rest of her life as a hermit.

Writing in Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright notes something that is an appropriate reflection for today:
Celebrating Jesus the world's rightful king- as we see them doing in our earliest documents, the letters of Paul- was indeed a way of posing a challenge to Caesar and all other earthly "lords." But it was a different sort of challenge. It was not only the announcement of Jesus as the true king, albeit still the king-in-waiting, but the announcement of him as the true sort of king. Addressing the ambitious pair James and John, he put it like this: "Pagan rulers ... lord it over their subjects... But that's not how it's to be with you" (Matt.20:25-26 [ellipses in original]). And, as he said to Pilate, the kingdoms that are characteristic of "this world" make their way by violence, but his sort of kingdom doesn't do that (John 18:36). We all know the irony of empires that offer people peace, prosperity, freedom, and justice- and kill tens of thousands of people to make the point. Jesus's kingdom isn't like that. With him, the irony works the other way around. Jesus's death and his followers' suffering are the means by which his peace, freedom, and justice come to birth on earth as in heaven
With everything going on presently, this strikes me as a good reflection, especially as we continue to pray for peace in Syria, Egypt, the Holy Land, throughout the Middle East and, indeed, the world.

It's not enough to exalt the Cross as a ritual and liturgical act. If we don't exalt the Cross in our own lives, then all of that is but an empty gesture. Our worship should encourage and empower us for living- there must be a strong connection between the two. The twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, which we covered in our next-to-last session on this book last Wednesday, teaches us quite well about the role the Cross plays in our sanctification. In verse seven we are exhorted: "Endure your trials as 'discipline'; God treats you as sons."

The Greek word used for "discipline" in Hebrews 12:7 is paideia. Paideia primarily refers to comprehensive training and education of children, but can be undertaken by adults, including intellectual and moral training, as well as training and care of the body. It is a feature of paidea to employ reproofs and to consist of whatever cultivates the soul, especially correcting mistakes and curbing passions. "Discipline," in this verse is not punishment, not by a long shot. The sacred author goes on to note that if you reject the Lord's paidea you are a nothos, that is, a "bastard," not a child.

Let's face it, Jesus does not beckon us to follow the path of least resistance, but summons us to take the path of greatest possible resistance, which is the path to inconceivable glory. It is only in the light of the Cross of Christ that we come to experience for ourselves the saving truth of its paradox and to know what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10).

Friday, September 13, 2013

I "pour contempt on all my pride"

In honor of tomorrow's ancient and venerable Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross it strikes me that a great Friday tradition is the Choir of King's College, Cambridge singing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.

As St. Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth: "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Truth is not relative, but relational

Pope St. John Paul II’s insisted that we can know the Truth because the Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, who said of Himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). While this is an attractive thought, it needs to be worked out a bit lest it become an empty slogan.

One fruitful starting point for such a working out is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which cannot be understood when separated from what has been described as “his christological understanding of reality.” For Bonhoeffer, ethics prescind “from the reality of God as revealed in Christ.” Of course, the same could be said for the philosophy of Karol Josef Wojtyla.

What brings this issue to the surface? A letter written by Pope Francis in response to an article written by the former editor of Italy’s most widely read daily newspaper, La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, a self-professed atheist and secularist, but addressed to unbelievers. In the article to which Pope Francis’ letter is a response, Scalfari asked three questions.

One of the questions posed was about the nature of truth, asking if truth is absolute. Like Bonhoeffer and Wojtyla, Bergoglio described truth as a dynamic relationship between each Christian and Jesus. While this does not mean that truth is relative, it does mean it is relational. To one Jesus will not say, “Have an abortion” and to another “Don’t do it.” I am tempted here to digress about the various means Christ uses to speak to us (i.e., Scripture, the Church’s magisterium), but I will resist that temptation. We can know the truth because the truth is a person, one who actively seeks us, while at the same the time resting in the assurance that this person, Jesus Christ, "is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb 13:8).

To be a Christian is to live in freedom, which means, among other things, not having truth imposed on you from without. Rather, it means being faithful to someone you love, letting your love for Him guide your actions and words (something far easier to write than to do). Faith is proposed, something issued as an invitation, like, "There's someone you simply must meet." It certainly does not mean remaining silent in the face of evil. Pope Francis dealt with this in his answer to another question posed by Scalfari about whether, or in what manner, a non-believer may sin (hearkening perhaps, to the distinction made by St. Paul in Romans between those who have the law and those who do not in the second chapter of Romans). To stick with the speaking/hearing metaphor, the ear that listens, as St. Paul also noted, is the human conscience. As the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus used to insist, rather than What Would Jesus do, we need to ask, What would Jesus have me do?

The Holy Father went on to assert that we experience the truth as a living relationship. The Holy Father wrote, “We don’t own truth, but truth embraces us.”

I think it is safe to say that this living relationship has everything to do with Jesus’ two great commandments, loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is the Christian answer, the answer that keeps us from reducing faith to mere morals. Christ is the answer that overcomes moralism, who keeps us from reducing truth to something external and static, a burden and chore, instead of liberation and joy.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The nature of grace is gratuitous

Yesterday, on the Christianity Today website, I came across a wonderful tribute to a man who is easily overlooked and even forgotten, the recently passed away Robert Farrar Capon. The author of the tribute is Rachel Marie Stone, a contributor to the CT's Her.menutics blog (one that I read quite regularly even though is for women by women). I was moved by Stone's tribute because she does a great job articulating how Christ's victory looks in reality this side of heaven. I found the following passage particularly insightful:
But after 27 years of marriage and six children, Capon divorced his first wife, Margaret. "As it has turned out," he wrote in The Romance of the Word, "there were a lot of departments in which I was not a success, not to mention several in which I was, and still am, a failure. … I dedicated a great deal of time and effort to my children's religious formation, only to find them now mostly uninterested and non-practicing." The failure of his first marriage and subsequent remarriage ended Capon's career as dean of a diocesan seminary and priest-in-charge of a mission church. His was not a life of "triumphant goodness or heroic efforts" but of "dumb luck and forgiveness"
Fr. Robert Farrar Capon

"This," Stone writes, "only underscored his gratitude for God's grace and mercy; elsewhere he wrote: 'Grace cannot prevail … until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.'"

Because I am me and not the person I sometimes fantasize about being, I found this both consoling and encouraging. Thinking on all this early this morning, this passage from Psalm 130 came into my mind:

If you, LORD, keep account of sins,
Lord, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness
and so you are revered (verses 3-4)

We live in an age when we try to make of God's grace a great, noisy spectacle. Most of the time, however, God goes about His work in us rather quietly, helping us to see, time and again, that it is Him, not us, who is the author and finisher of salvation. God has an infinite capacity to work with whatever material is there. If God created the universe from nothing, ex nihilio, as it were, then God can surely transform me, though, some days (take Monday for example), I'm pretty sure creating the universe from nothing was the easier task. My own salvation will be the miracle of making a silk purse of a sow's ear. Thanks be to God!

9/11 seems a good day to evoke God's grace, a good day to pray for and practice peace, even as we recall the horrors of twelve years ago.

Tullian Tchividjian also posted a nice remembrance of Fr. Capon: "Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)," who passed away on 5 September.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On reading Sacred Scripture

Cutting to the chase, as he often did, St. Jerome once insisted that "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." I could point to the writings of other Church fathers who state much the same thing. Take for example Origen, who said, writing of King David, he "knew that the one perfect and harmonious instrument of God is the whole of scripture. The one body of truth. You are, therefore, to understand the scriptures in this way: as the one, perfect body of the WORD."

It is not just reading Sacred Scripture (though that is a great place to start), but how we read the Scriptures, how we engage these inspired writings. In the first chapter of his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, Cistercian monk, Fr. Michael Casey, discusses very well how to engage Scripture in a meaningful manner. He insists that it is not enough to read Scripture in the way we read so many things these days (i.e., merely looking for information, scanning in a superficial way).

It is important to note that the Holy Spirit inspired, not the books of the Bible, but the authors of the books of the Bible. Hence, in addition to the divine imprint, the books of Scripture also bear the imprint of the human authors. It is not stating the matter too glibly to write that, through our careful reading, we need to get to know the inspired authors, have a feel for who they are, where are coming from, etc.

As to the divine imprint, when, in 2 Timothy 3:16, we read, "All scripture is inspired by God," the words "inspired by God" are the English translation of one Greek word: theopneustos, which literally means "God-breathed." As the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum, teaches us clearly, "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church" (par. 10). They "form one deposit" of divine revelation because Scripture is tradition written down and handed on (tradere = the act of handing on; traditio = the content of what is handed-on) in a specific manner. I could write much more about this, particularly the acceptance of the Church of the Hebrew Scriptures we call the Old Testament, but this suffices for my purpose here.

When it comes to Tradition, Fr Casey does us the favor of pointing out that it "is meant to be a servant of the present and the future, not a tyrant imposing its own preferences on a very different world." This is to more concisely make the point Pope St. John XXIII made in his address to open Vatican II: "In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of human activity, with reference to individuals, to families, and to social life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate."

When reading Scripture we must enter deeply into what we are reading, giving ourselves over to it. Citing St. Paul as an example as to why this is necessary, Casey notes that Paul never begins his writings by getting to the point. Hence, each one of Paul's letters is constituted by a "unity"; "one part cannot be understood without reference to the totality." Paul is often misinterpreted not so much because he is so difficult to understand (though there is something to that when it comes to certain passages), but because in our rush to reinforce our own preconceptions, or merely arrive at some meaning, we simply don't read him in the careful manner befitting an inspired text. Fr Casey is spot on when he observes that because "God's word is addressed to us for our salvation," it is easy to "forget that this gift of salvation often runs counter to our own perceptions and expectations." Therefore, we must approach reading the Scriptures with "a willingness to be guided and changed." In other words, we need to "approach our reading as a disciple comes to a master: receptive, docile, willing to be changed."

We also have to be willing to venture into parts of Scripture with which we are not familiar because, as my current reading through the entire Chronicles of Narnia with my 8 year-old son is showing me:
God's saving of us takes place by dragging us beyond our own comfort zone into new territory and new adventures. It is an act by which we are drawn or even compelled to leave behind the boundaries that our selfhood has imposed upon our lives. We are called to transcend our own limited vision of the good life and to accept something of the all-inclusiveness of God's plan for human fulfillment
Having finished the next-to-last (I resisted using "penultimate"- 2 days in a row seemed gratuitous) story of the Chronicles- The Silver Chair- just this week, this insight of Fr Casey's strikes a very resonant chord with me today. Casey further insists that the Bible "is an instrument of salvation only because it challenges our habitual beliefs, attitudes and behavior" (italics added by me). Because of this, Fr Casey notes the utter importance of safeguarding "the Bible's radically alternative viewpoint."

I don't think that it's an exaggeration to note that many people avoid reading Scripture, preferring instead to hear someone tell them about it, preferably someone who reinforces and justifies their own preconceptions, precisely because what personal exposure they have had to God's word has challenged their way of seeing God, themselves, others, and the world.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

St. Paul lived the Gospel

This Sunday we read from St. Paul's Letter to Philemon, a rarity in the lectionary for sure. In the passage we read from this short missive, Paul is pleading with Philemon to take back his slave Onesimus, who escaped, as it were, to be with Paul. As Paul makes clear, both Onesimus and his master Philemon are Christians.

At this point, Paul himself is a Roman prisoner "for Christ Jesus." From a worldly perspective, like Onesimus, whom he affectionately calls "my own heart," the apostle's freedom is greatly circumscribed. In this set of circumstances it would seem that only Philemon is "free." Paul sends Onesimus back because he "belongs" to Philemon even as he pleads with him to welcome back his runaway slave as he would welcome the apostle himself, as "more than a slave," as "a brother," gently reminding him that all of them, Paul included, belong to Christ.

It is interesting, though easy to exaggerate, I suppose, that the apostle writes that Philemon will have Onesimus back "forever." The Greek word translated as "forever" is aionios, which means, in this context, "without end, never to cease, everlasting." It is a word that appears no less than 67 times throughout the New Testament, usually in passages not as seemingly mundane as this one. I believe that such a thought could only emerge from the apostle's pen in light of both Philemon and Onesimus being brothers in the Lord and his spiritual discernment that Onesimus going back was somehow important either to both of their salvation, or to Philemon's, who may have been embittered by his slave departing to be with the apostle.

St. Paul and Onesimus

Jesus tells us in our Gospel for this Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time that we if are His we are not our own, that following Him does not just cost us something, but everything, even our very life. The Lord calls us today to live with detachment towards earthly goods, choosing Him before all else. St. Paul exercised the detachment called for by Jesus when he sent Onesimus, whom he loved dearly, back to Philemon for the Lord's sake, which means for Philemon's and likely Onesimus' sake, the sake of their salvation, which, at least it seems to me, Paul understood needed to be worked out together in some way.

Just as in last week's Gospel, we see once again how difficult it is not to put ourselves, our own needs, concerns, and wants before the good of others. To do so is exactly what it means not only to carry own cross, but to embrace it, relying on the Lord, trusting in His mercy, goodness, and tender care. Indeed, the Lord is our refuge. Besides, there is no person, apart from the Lord, who is capable of shouldering the weight of our great need. Comprehending this by experiencing it for yourself, verifying it in reality through the circumstances you face, is truly liberating.

"My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross"

By most media accounts, around 100,000 people turned up in St. Peter's Square for the Vigil for Peace led by the Holy Father himself. While there are a few other things on my mind, nothing is more important today, at least for me, than the Universal Church praying for peace in Syria, Egypt, throughout the Middle East, and the whole world. I was greatly blessed to gather with around fifty people in The Cathedral of the Madeleine today to pray the Rosary and have adoration of and benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.

In his remarks at the Vigil he called for last Sunday during his weekly Angelus address, Pope Francis asked, "Is it possible to walk the path of peace? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?" He concluded that, yes, with God's help through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salus Populi Romani (i.e., Health, or Help, of the Roman people), Queen of Peace, "it is possible for everyone!"

Madonna in Glory, by Carlo Dolci, ca. 1670
From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone! Or even better, I would like for each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it! My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken. This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!
Preparing for our penultimate (like "fortnight," I can never find enough places to use "penultimate") meeting to discuss the Letter to the Hebrews this Wednesday, I was reading the twelfth chapter of this book of Sacred Scripture this morning. Undoubtedly due to the focus of the Church on this day, I was struck by verse 14, which says, "Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord." These types of verses, which stand up quite well on their own, are often overlooked. The Greek word for "Strive," which is sometimes translated as "Pursue," is dioko. In this context it means "to seek after eagerly, earnestly endeavor to acquire." In other words, we are to be the initiators of peace!

In tune with what the Holy Father said, I am reminded of what St. Paul writes elsewhere in Scripture: "For in [Christ] all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross, whether those on earth or those in heaven" (Col 1:19-20).

If I may be so bold, please permit one more personal aside. Since the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary will, rightly, be superseded by Sunday tomorrow, instead praying Evening Prayer I of Week III of the Psalter, I prayed Evening Prayer for the Blessed Virgin's Nativity. The first psalm for this office is Psalm 122, which is surely a prayer for peace. It ends with these words-

For love of my brethren and friends
I say: "Peace be upon you!"
For love of the house of the Lord
I will ask for your good.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Kyrie eleison

It seems fitting not only because it's Friday, but because it's the eve of the day of fasting and prayer the Holy Father has called for tomorrow for peace in Syria and throughout the entire Middle East, to have the Kyrie from Bach's Mass in B Minor for our Friday traditio:

Acknowledging our need for God's mercy, so freely given in and through Christ Jesus, is a good way to begin our prayer, which is why the Penitential Rite comes at the beginning of Mass. Certainly when it comes to resorting to violence, most everyone of us needs forgiveness and a firm purpose of amendment.

I was most blessed to have been able to observe a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament in my favorite prayer chapel at Holy Family Church in South Ogden on my way home from work. When I arrived there was one brother, whom I had never met before, we prayed together. An even better blessing. God is good. By way of encouragement, here's a bit of a bonus, an oldie by Wayne Watson, "When God's People Pray."

This Friday traditio is the 2,600th post on Καθολικός διάκονος.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Moralistic political theater

I had the misfortune this afternoon to watch and listen to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Syria. Before the committee were Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey. Of these three, the only one whose remarks and answers were coherent was Gen. Dempsey. No case could really be made as to why we should attack Syria apart from standing up to the tyrant Bashir Assad who crossed an administration-imposed "red line" by using chemical weapons on his own people. But the concern expressed by those senators not deprived of their critical faculties for political reasons was, What would such an attack mean for the people of Syria, who are fleeing and flooding as refugees into neighboring countries at an alarming rate, or, even more, for those who have not fled? What would this mean for the U.S., whose stated intention is dislodging Assad, but according to Kerry and Hagel, not by means of this military strike, which, they seemed to insist, would be done for purely moral reasons, as punishment and with the hope of inflicting damage on Syria's command and control infrastructure, thus preventing future use of such weapons?

According to some open sources, like Juan Cole, writing on the blog "Informed Consent," the decision to employ these weapons may not have flowed through the national chain-of-command, but were likely made by a local commander with access to these weapons. We're certainly not planning to destroy chemical weapons with kinetic strikes.

The same case Kerry and Hagel were trying to make was made in the British House of Commons last week by Prime Minister David Cameron, only more forcefully and more eloquently than the self-contradictory bumblings that passed for making an argument today at the U.S. Capitol. Commenting on Cameron's case, which he lost, the Parliament refusing to give the go-ahead for a strike, Peter Hitchens, who nobody can accuse of being a soft leftist, writing about these "moral" arguments, said, "these days, our moral worth is not judged by such things as constancy and trust close to home, but by our noisy readiness to bomb people for their own good." He went on to note that "[t]he moral bomber is one of the scourges of our age. He gets it into his head that he is so good that he is allowed to kill people (accidentally of course) in a noble cause."

Even as this hearing was in progress, the Obama Administration was busily preparing to provide more aid to the Syrian rebels, most of whom are Islamists, who represent for Syria what the former opposition now governing Libya is for that beleaguered and betrayed country, which is actually worse off as a result of our armed intervention. Syria, with its proximity to Israel and Iraq, it's complicated relationship with Iran, it's involvement in Lebanon, is far more strategic than Libya.

Secretaries Kerry and Hagel before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Unlike Libya, there is too much at stake in Syria to screw this up. In this context, it is important to mention that we have been aiding Syrian rebels for quite sometime in an attempt to bring about the collapse of the Assad regime. In December 2012 the U.S. even went as far as to recognize the Syrian opposition as Syria's "legitimate" government, only then to see this same opposition, now with U.S. recognition, refuse to participate in peace negotiations this past March. The Assad regime also balked at these negotiations, not seeing the U.S. as an honest broker. This is not the path to peace! While Assad and/or his minions bear full moral and legal responsibility for using chemical weapons, morally, we need to ask how much the success of the opposition, which coalition consists mostly of Islamist groups, brought about the level of desperation.

Senator Rand Paul, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appearing Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, noted, as he did when this same Senate Committee incomprehensibly voted to provide aid for the Syrian opposition, which he voted against, pointed out that "the Islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the Christians. All of a sudden we'll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted." There is a lot more that could be said about all this, including the insistence of both cabinet secretaries that the president does not require Congressional approval to launch a strike, which, forces the question, Then why, apart from seeking to mitigate political risk, is the president, especially a president who has eschewed working through the Congress whenever he has been able, asking for a go-ahead? But these are political questions, which increasingly do not interest me very much.

During the hearing Secretary Kerry floated what I would call the most improbable outcome of such an action- making him arguably an even greater fantasist than PM Cameron- getting Assad to the bargaining table to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power. If the consequences of such constant warfare were not so dire, this would be funny stuff coming from a man, who as a senator voted for and then later opposed military action in Iraq, claiming during his 2004 presidential run to have been bamboozled by the Bush Administration (famously summarized as "He was for it before he was against it"). Given that the administration issued an ultimatum (i.e., "red line"), isn't it safe to assume that they will feel obligated to follow through, with or without Congressional approval?

As with Libya, where we "led from behind," I thought we could expect better from President Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for "extraordinary effort promoting diplomacy and nuclear disarmament."

Even as we prepare for our fasting and prayer for peace this Saturday, let's pray that Congress, like the British House of Commons, will be resistant to the propaganda they are being fed and insist on a different, even more strenuous course of action, in concert with our allies, and vote not approve such a strike. This Saturday, 7 September, let's gather together, as the Holy Father has asked, "in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace!"

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Year C Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 3:17-8.20.28-29; Ps 68:4-7.10-11; Heb 12:18-19.22-24a; Luke 14:1.7-14

Humility is a virtue the value of which is now and probably has always been underrated. To be humble is really to go against our fallen human nature, which bids us to assert ourselves, to hold our own, to win the argument, not to be shown to be in any way lacking physically, intellectually and, yes, even spiritually.

The Christian assembly, or, to use the word employed by the sacred author of the Letter to the Hebrews in our second reading, paneguris, meaning a festive gathering of the entire people for a public celebration, something very like what we mean when we us the word "liturgy," in an important sense, is nothing more than a gathering of sinners who recognize that our need for God’s mercy is gratuitously met in and through Jesus Christ and made perceptible to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, especially in this Eucharist.

To acknowledge each day our need for Christ is an act of humility because it requires us to recognize and acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient and that our humanity is largely constituted by our need, our incompleteness, which surfaces each time we take a self-centered approach to life. According to the author of Hebrews, what constitutes "the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven," is that they have been washed clean by being sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ, who is "the mediator of a new covenant" (Heb 12:23-24) of grace.

Sirach, in our first reading, tells us the more we humble ourselves, the greater we are, adding that it is by humbling ourselves, living in the awareness of our great need, that we "find favor with God" (Sir 3:18). As a natural virtue, as opposed to a theological virtue, humility is acquired through habit, that is, by training ourselves. The Catechism exhorts us, as people reborn in baptism, to "train" ourselves "to live in humility" (par. 2540).

Traditionally, when virtues are discussed in Christian terms, we also discuss the contrary vice that a particular virtue is cultivated in order to overcome. The vice to which the virtue of humility is opposed is envy. But even when it comes to the natural virtues, we find that we can do nothing apart from Christ, and even as we seek to cooperate with God through the experience of our everyday lives, we continue to require healthy helpings of God’s grace; the sacraments are the objective and effective means of acquiring God’s grace.

Elizabeth greets Mary, the Mother of her Lord

Not surprisingly it is the Blessed Virgin Mary who gives us a wonderful example of humility when she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who, like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, unexpectedly and by the intervention of God, conceived a child in her old age. Of course, this event is the second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. The fruit of this mystery is love of neighbor. We know from reading the Gospel of Luke that our Blessed Mother and St. Elizabeth were so happy for each other. As the great preacher St. John Chrysostom averred, "Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother's progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised" (Catechism par. 2540).

Other objective means God uses to impart grace are daily prayer, Scripture study, alms-giving, which includes acts of selfless service, especially when these require us to sacrifice something we would really rather be doing for the good of others and not done simply to make us feel better about ourselves. This is exactly why Jesus exhorted His hearers in today’s Gospel that when they hosted a meal not to invite people who would feel obligated to repay them, but to serve precisely those who were wholly unable to pay them back (Luke 14:12). Sirach also asserts, in a phrase reminiscent of something we find in St. James’ letter (i.e., "love covers a multitude sins" 5:20), that "alms atone for sins" (Sir 3:29).

The experience of Christians throughout two millennia has also demonstrated that engaging in penitential acts, such as fasting and abstinence, are also means God uses to impart His grace because by practicing them we humble ourselves, acknowledging our great need, our dependence on God.. We can be confident that these means work because the lives of holy women and men throughout the entire history of salvation bear witness to their efficacy. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up. Never forget that Jesus was never more exalted than when He hung on the Cross for you, "the just for the unjust" (1 Pet 3:18).

Love of neighbor is one of the two great commandments given us by our Lord Himself, which, along with loving God with our whole being, fulfills the Law and the prophets. In our Gospel today, just as He did elsewhere in St. Luke’s Gospel when He taught the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus seeks to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?" "Who is the one I am to love, not to envy, not to feel threatened by and so seek to put myself above?" Jesus’ answer is a difficult one, everybody, but especially the person towards whom I am the least inclined to esteem myself less than! Stewardship, my friends, is all about discipleship, which amounts to nothing more than following Jesus, listening to Him, keeping in mind what Sirach tells us, "an attentive ear is the joy of the wise" (Sir 3:29), and doing what He says. This is what it means to step out in faith as an act of hope, an act of trust.

There is no better way to bring this reflection on God’s word to an end than with the words of our Lord Himself, spoken as a challenge to us today: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14:11). I challenge everyone to take some time today to think and pray about how Jesus’ challenge applies to your life, to your circumstances. Consider what person, or group of people, you look down on, consider yourself better than, and then set about doing some concrete act of selfless kindness for that person or group this week. I can tell you that it is only by taking up Jesus’ challenge that you will ever see others the way Christ sees them and experience for yourself what it means to be God’s friend.

Pope Francis pleads for peace and calls for action

Today in his Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis declared this coming Saturday, 7 September, which is the Vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as the Holy Father noted, is the Queen of Peace (her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, being the Prince of Peace), "a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world." He invited "each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative."

I fervently urge all readers of Καθολικός διάκονος to participate fully, that is, to fast and to pray in an especially fervent manner from sundown on Friday, which is already a day of penance (offer your Friday sacrifices for this intention too!), to sundown on Saturday. I encourage you during this period to pray the rosary and/or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. If you can, pray before the Blessed Sacrament. As we do so, let us bear in mind what we read in Sacred Scripture: "For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens" (Eph 6:12).

So, let us use the weapons appropriate to our warfare- prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (give aid to humanitarian organizations who serve the refugees: Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Association and Catholic Relief Services, to name just two). Our job is to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:19-21). As the Holy Father noted in his urgent plea, "How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in that martyred country, especially among civilians and the unarmed! I think of many children will not see the light of the future!"

During the Crusades Brother Francis, who some sources indicate was a deacon (we know he was never ordained a priest), traveled to Egypt and Palestine. In Egypt he met with the Sultan Kameel in order to bring an end to the fighting, as well as to testify to Jesus Christ before the sultan. Befitting his namesake, Pope Francis today pleaded for peace- for negotiations, a ceasefire, and not retaliation. He did this even as he vehemently condemned "the use of chemical weapons," noting "that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable!" He went on to plead-

A Syrian family flees the fighting
With all my strength, I ask each party in this conflict to listen to the voice of their own conscience, not to close themselves in solely on their own interests, but rather to look at each other as brothers and decisively and courageously to follow the path of encounter and negotiation, and so overcome blind conflict. With similar vigor I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people.

May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries. May humanitarian workers, charged with the task of alleviating the sufferings of these people, be granted access so as to provide the necessary aid.
Then Pope Francis said, "I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace." Let us respond with a fervent and heartfelt "Amen" by fasting and praying for peace in Syria and throughout the Middle East and providing aid for those in need.

Preparing for my weekly meeting with a man who is on the verge of becoming Catholic, I was reading a passage on the Church's catholicity from Introduction to the Christianity, which is a book-length reflection on the articles of the Apostles Creed, written by then-Professor Josef Ratzinger, which struck me as quite relevant to all of this: "In a world torn apart, [the Church] is to be a sign and means of unity; she is to bridge nations, races, and classes and unite them. How often she has failed in this, we know..." (346). Let's seize this opportunity to succeed!

As Pope Francis said in his Angelus address: "All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to every Christian of other confessions, as well as to followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs all of humanity!" Let's heed his call!

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...