Friday, February 28, 2014

"My love is vengeance"

Musique de la résistance is our very late Friday traditio: The Who with "Behind Blue Eyes."

This song was written for Pete Townsend's rock opera "Lifehouse," a follow-up to "Tommy." "Lifehouse" was never produced. Our traditio song was written from the point-of-view of "Jumbo," who is the villan of the story and controls The Grid, which is a cyber world somewhat akin to that in the Matrix. Jumbo is angst-ridden due to all the pressure of controlling The Grid. "Behind Blue Eyes" was written as his theme song.

Besides, despite my homily last Sunday, there's a shade of how I feel at present about various things. So, music to salve my wound a bit.

When my fist clenches, crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool
When I smile, tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What about deacons?

Today Pope Francis released a Letter to Families in advance of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that will be held in Rome this fall. In his letter he asks families to pray for the synod, which, he wrote,
is dedicated in a special way to you, to your vocation and mission in the Church and in society; to the challenges of marriage, of family life, of the education of children; and the role of the family in the life of the Church. I ask you, therefore, to pray intensely to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit may illumine the Synodal Fathers and guide them in their important task
I would certainly encourage everyone to pray for the Synod in advance, during it, and afterwards. To pray for married Catholic couples to give joyful witness to this vocation which, like holy orders, has been raised by Christ Himself to the dignity of a sacrament, specifically a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church (Eph 5:32).

Reading the pope’s letter, I noticed something very interesting, at least to me. It interests me because it is something to which I am very attuned: the fact that the Holy Father, in writing that the Synod “will involve all the People of God,” mentioned “bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful of the particular Churches of the entire world,” does not include deacons. In light of the subject of my master’s thesis, which I entitled, Making Up for What Was Previously Lacking: The Importance for the Church of the Dual Sacramentality of Married Permanent Deacons, I am convinced, just as I am convinced that deacons are evangelists par excellence, that married permanent deacons, their wives, and families play a valuable role in bearing witness to this Gospel truth.

It is important to note that while the vast majority of permanent Catholic deacons worldwide are married, not all permanent deacons are married. Some deacons were ordained without having ever married and so took a vow to live a celibate life, others are widowed, and some deacons have even suffered the pain of divorce. Having noted this, I truly believe that the omission of deacons is an oversight, not a calculated slight. But oversights like this one, I believe, are somewhat telling.

While I am in no way devastated, or deterred by the omission of deacons from the pope's letter, I would be lying if I did not admit, as I did when Evangelii Gaudium, the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Synod on the New Evangelization, was published (see "Who stood up for Stephen?: Deacons as Evangelists"), to being a tad disappointed. This would seem, once again, to point to the need to more clearly affirm and further establish the unique ecclesial identity of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry in the Church with a legitimate place among the ecclesial hierarchy, even if, as it is stated in Lumen Gentium, deacons are "at a lower level of the hierarchy" (par 29). I still cringe whenever I hear or read the phrase "Clergy and deacons."

As regards Pope Francis, it bears noting that, according to the website Catholic Hierarchy, that the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, as of 2012, had only 11 permanent deacons. The Diocese of Rome, as of 2011, has 114. One can see in a lovely photograph of Pope Francis’s visitation, as Bishop of Rome, to the parish of St. Thomas the Apostle, the Holy Father being assisted at the altar by two of his deacons (they're the guys kneeling behind the Holy Father).

Photo by CNS’s Paul Haring, a diaconal bow to Greg Kandera for bringing it my attention

Along these lines, making an effort to end on a positive note, despite my realization that anything bearing a title with the word "ideal" used in earnest will, in our despairing and existentialist age, put off many people, I point to Cardinal Francis Stafford’s address, delivered 19 February 2000, when he served as President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, “The Ideal Family of the Permanent Deacon.”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Year A Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Lev 19:1-2.17-18; Ps 103:1-; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Matt 5:38-48

Let’s not beat around the bush. The message of our readings this Sunday is clear and unambiguous. If we would be Christians, we must love our enemies. Let’s be frank. It is difficult to imagine a more demanding commandment. Because it is difficult, we are sorely tempted to water this commandment down, to impose our own, human, limits upon it, bounding what is unbounded, which is what “infinite” means. Dear friends, following Jesus doesn’t merely cost you something. Following Jesus costs you everything, which is why He defines discipleship as taking up your cross, living the paradox that the only way to save your life is to lose it for His sake and the sake of God’s kingdom.

In his book Unconditional?, Brian Zahnd asks the straightforward question, "What does it mean to be a disciple?” If someone were a disciple of the great cellist Yo Yo Ma, you’d assume s/he would endeavor to play the cello with great skill. If someone were the disciple of a martial arts master, you’d assume that his/her efforts would be aimed at mastering that particular martial art. We call ourselves disciples of Jesus, but if I were to ask you, “What is Jesus the master of that you are trying to learn?” What would you say? The answer, of course, is that Jesus is the master of life, which means He is the master of happiness. After all, isn’t it the desire of everyone to be happy, that is, truly, genuinely, lastingly happy? You don’t need to be a Christian to want to be happy. You only need to be human. Being a disciple of Jesus is to recognize that He alone is “the master of living a human life as God intended” and that “at the center of Jesus’s teaching on how we should live is the recurring theme of love and forgiveness” (Zahnd 15).

You see, sisters and brothers, in a fallen world populated by sinners, like you and me, there can be no love without forgiveness. The greatest and first act of love we extend to an enemy is forgiveness. This prompts two questions. The first question, in light of today’s Gospel, it seems to me, is “What is an enemy?" "What is Jesus talking about?" The second question is, “What does it mean to forgive?”

The Greek word for enemy that is placed on the lips of Jesus in our Gospel reading is echthros, the meaning of which carries over very well into our English word “enemy.” The word enemy refers to someone “who feels hatred for, fosters harmful designs against, or engages in antagonistic activities against” you. Who in their right mind could tolerate, let alone “love” or “forgive” such a person? A Christian, that’s who, which is exactly what St. Paul is wrote about in our second reading!

In our Gospel today, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, as He does elsewhere in this discourse, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you,” He was challenging the law, the holy Torah. It would be like me standing in this ambo and saying, “You have read it in the Bible, but I say to you…” Of course, the difference between Jesus and I is infinite. He is God, I am not. This is why Rabbi Jacob Neusner, in his short book, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, referring to these passages, wrote, “Only God can demand of me what Jesus asks” (68). Of course, the difference between Rabbi Neusner and I is that I believe that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” and so not only can He demand that of me, He does demand it of me and from anyone who would follow Him.

In our first reading, taken from Leviticus, the non-retributive behavior called for is the way for one member of God’s covenant people to behave towards another member of God’s covenant people. Jesus came to universalize the covenant. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “The mission of Jesus consists in bringing together the histories of the nations in the community of the history of Abraham, the history of Israel” (Many Religions- One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World, 27). This stands in contrast to Exodus 21:23-25, which inveighs the much more human, “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

To forgive another means to relinquish a legitimate claim I can make against him/her. If someone punches me, am I not entitled to sock him back? If someone hurts me, am I not entitled to hurt her? Just as Jesus sought to break the cycle of violence by going to the Cross and asking the Father to forgive those who were nailing Him to it and those who condemned Him to such a painful and humiliating death, we are called to break the cycle of violence, of pain, of hurt, of human dysfunction. As a Christian, my willingness to forgive cannot be dependent on my enemy’s contrition, or sorrow, at having wronged me.

Who can forget the pictures of Bl. John Paul II meeting with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison in order to forgive him in person for shooting and nearly killing him? The question we need to ask ourselves today is, “Who is my Agca?” Who is the person I need to forgive? Forgiveness is a choice. Hence, it is unilateral, something I decide to do. Because of this we cannot confuse forgiveness with reconciliation, which requires the choice of more than one person. If the hurt inflicted on me, the harm done to me, by someone else is very grave and so runs very deep, then I may have to make the painful decision to forgive over and over again.

It is true that Jesus asks more of us than we can give on our own. He does so to show us how much we need Him. We can forgive only because we have been forgiven, which is one of the many great reasons not to avoid going to confession. We can truly love only because we know we are truly loved. Forgiveness is grace and grace is only from God. But we know that forgiveness brings healing, not only to the one who is forgiven, but to the one who undertakes the excruciating work of forgiving. It is often noted that refusing to forgive (a.k.a. holding a grudge) is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die. It would seem that forgiving is more human than we are usually led to believe.

People are fond of quoting St. Paul, who, in the oft-cited passage, is quoting God, to the effect, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19b). What they leave out is the first part of the same verse and the following two verses: “Beloved, do not look for revenge” (12:19a); “Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (Rom 12:20-21). Only God is God and only God can rightly judge.

While your karma may have run over my dogma, I’ll take grace over karma any day. Karma holds that, in the end, you get what you deserve. Grace, on the other hand, stands ready to forgive you of every wrong you have ever committed. What about justice? I like very much what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe salvi: “Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened” (par. 44). Even in human terms, there is a difference between seeking revenge and seeking justice. One of the things that distinguish justice from revenge, is that true justice seeks the good, that is, that reform and restoration, or, conversion, of the wrong-doer, whereas revenge only seeks to inflict injury.

Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, wrote, “The call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.” Bonhoeffer, who was brutally tortured then hung in a Nazi extermination camp, wrote those words in the crucible of real, costly suffering, not from a remote ivory tower. My friends, today the Lord seeks to provoke us, to provoke us to love our enemies all the way into God’s kingdom, which is the only way to true happiness and the only way our fallen world will be redeemed.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Luigi Giussani: religion or anarchy

While yesterday was the 107th anniversary of W.H. Auden's birth, in addition to being the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, today is the ninth anniversary of Msgr. Luigi Giussani's passing. I am so very grateful for him. I encountered his writings shortly after being baptized. His life, his witness, have been a true catechism for me.

Another poem of Auden's, "The Unknown Citizen," put me in mind of the fact that Giussani's father was an anarcho-socialist. He believed and so taught Luigi that beauty is what gives reality coherence. One of my favorite novels (probably my favorite, next to The Brothers Karamazov), Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War, illustrates this wonderfully. I apologize in advance for the political turn this will shortly take, but it is that with which I am currently engaged.

I don't know about you, but I am tired of statist conformity and party loyalty. The lackeys of party and state put religious conformists, whom they typically hold in contempt (unless there is political utility to be derived), to shame. Christianity is not an ideology, though many would be content to make it one. I believe the death of Jesus and the deaths of the martyrs show us that to make it an ideology is a reduction.

Writing about Gius' treatment of anarchy in his seminal work The Religious Sense, a certain "Jack," several years back insightfully wrote:
[Giussani] sees anarchy and the religious man as the only two reactions that capture "entirely the grandeur of the human being". "By nature, man is relation to the infinite: on the one hand, the anarchist affirms himself to an infinite degree, while, on the other, the authentically religious man accepts the infinite as his meaning." Anarchy is appealing, but it leads to denial of an essential fact: man is made. He did not exist, then he is born, then he dies. The religious man is able to respond in acceptance of this fact. It is precisely the fact that the 'elementary experience' is a common and an objective thing that gives us a basis to avoid slipping into anarchy
In short, for Giussani the only two honest responses to reality were anarchy and religion. Pretty radical stuff. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the bourgeoisie eventually threaten to swamp everything.

While I see Christian Anarchy as a contradiction in terms, I don't mind saying that I find Gius, Dorothy Day, Dostoevsky, Ellul, Camus, et al to be lights in the darkness.

The Christian starting point for engagement with reality is the Incarnation of the Son of God. This, too, is the starting point of Giussani's method. Reading the introduction to Paul's New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology, I came across something that describes this well: "this Event of God becoming human is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma..."

Servant of God Luigi Giussani, pray for us.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"To hold off chaos at arm's length"

Since today marks the 107th anniversary of the birth of the great twentieth century English poet, Wystan Hugh Auden, known, of course, simply as W.H. Auden, our Friday traditio is a given.

Without a doubt, Auden is one of my favorite poets. My copy of his collected poems is worn and dog-eared and I wouldn't replace it for the world. Our Friday traditio is a video of Auden reciting his 1969 poem, "Doggrel by a Senior Citizen." My Dutch readers will be happy to learn that it features Dutch subtitles. The video gets off to a ragged start. Here is the first stanza, which is garbled:

Our earth in 1969
Is not the planet I call mine,
The world, I mean, that gives me strength
To hold off chaos at arm's length.

I find his slip-up charming. I am hard-pressed to think of a contemporary English-speaking figure, public intellectual, if you will, of the depth and humanity of W.H. Auden.

Three stanzas from "Doggrel"-

The Book of Common Prayer we knew
Was that of 1662:
Though with-it sermons may be well,
Liturgical reforms are hell.

Sex was of course -- it always is --
The most enticing of mysteries,
But news-stands did not then supply
Manichean pornography.

Then Speech was mannerly, an Art,
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A brief reflection after a decade of being a Deacon

24 January 2014 was the tenth anniversary of my ordination as a deacon. On Saturday, 24 January 2004, along with my 24 classmates, I received ordination at the hands of then-Bishop George Niederauer (who went on to be named Archbishop of San Francisco) and began participating in the sacrament of orders. In honor of this event, Laura Vallejo, writing for our diocesan newspaper, the Intermountain Catholic, wrote a very nice article, "Deacons celebrate 10th anniversary of their ordination."

While writing her piece Laura emailed me with some questions, but I was unable to respond in time for her to meet her deadline. So, I'll post my revised and expanded responses below:
What has it meant for you serving as a Deacon for 10 years?

As most Intermountain Catholic readers know, the word "deacon" means "servant." For me personally, being a deacon these past 10 years has been a tremendous privilege. The offices conferred as a sacrament are not something anyone deserves. We are all unworthy, at least with regard to our own merits. So, the grace of the sacrament of orders has been something I have not only felt, but experienced concretely many times over the past decade.

What is one of your most precious memories from your service as a Deacon?

One memory that was imprinted indelibly in my consciousness happened on Good Friday back in 2004, which fell just a few months after I was ordained: I arrived at the Cathedral quite early to assist at the Good Friday liturgy. As I arrived, one of the funeral directors from a local funeral home, himself a Catholic, was there. He asked me if I would be willing to accompany him right then to the Elysian Garden cemetery to conduct a committal service for a deceased Catholic woman, who was not survived by any close relatives. He told me that it just didn't seem right to bury her with no rite of the Church. I quickly agreed. The woman for whom we held the short service, at which only the funeral director, cemetery workers, and I were present, was in her 90s and had passed away at a rest home in Portland, Oregon. She was originally from Salt Lake City. She had been married, but had no children. Her only relatives were some distant cousins, who had arranged for her body to be sent back to Salt Lake City for internment alongside her parents. It was a very reverent service, the cemetery workers gathered round, took off their hats, and prayed with us. It was raining. I could wax quite eloquent about what this experience has meant to me in succeeding years, but suffice it to say I learned a lot from it, it is something I will never forget, an experience for which I am deeply grateful.

My oldest child, Timothy, and I on the day of his Confirmation

How has being a deacon changed you and your family?

I would like to say that being a deacon has changed me, conforming me more to the image of Christ, through the grace conferred by the sacrament. But that is not a judgment I can make. But by serving others I have certainly come to grasp more deeply, more experientially, how unconditionally and how much God loves me. Experiencing the love of God, given us in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit is the only starting point for diaconal ministry. I think being a husband and a Dad enriches my diaconal ministry and vice-versa. But my diaconal service has also required a great deal of sacrifice of my family, especially my wife, Holly, without whose love and support I could not serve God's people as a deacon. I would be less than honest if I did not say that at times I have caused my diaconal service to be a burden on my family.
Going into Mass yesterday, one parishioner greeted me with congratulations on my anniversary. She said that she liked Laura's article very much. I was most gratified by her telling me that she recognized me in my class picture (the one printed/posted with the article) by my smile. The joy of the Lord is my strength!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The "deepest substratum of human ethics and culture"

Last week in my post, "Teaching the truth about marital love," which was subsequently picked up and published by Il Sussidiario (an on-line publication to which I am an occasional contributor), I mentioned two authors whose works, in my opinion, aide us greatly in understanding our sexuality from a positive Christian perspective: Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, particularly chapter five of his outstanding book What is the Point of Being a Christian?, entitled "The Body Electric," and Bl. Pope John Paul II's years-long catechesis, known now as "Theology of the Body," but originally conceived by him as a book bearing the title Man and Woman He Created Them.

I am currently re-reading the magnificent work of Bl. John Paul II, which he intended, even as he was working on the book while still serving as Archbishop of Kracow, Poland, as an in-depth treatment of what Venerable Pope Paul VI had laid out so succinctly in Humanae Vitae. This morning I read the forty-fifth installment of the catechesis called "Theology of the Body," which Wojtyla delivered 22 October 1980.

In this presentation, Bl John Paul II sought to distinguish between the Manichaen "anti-value" of the body and the genuinely Christian value of our bodies, which is a sacramental understanding of the human body. He does this by seeking to make a distinction between sexual desire, which is part and parcel of being human, and concupiscent desire (i.e., lust). The latter being the deformation of the former. Referring to the "ethos" laid down by Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:27-28 ("You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."), the Holy Father asserted that the "ethical meaning" of the Lord's words "has nothing in common with Manichaean condemnation" of the human body. Instead, he insisted the ethical meaning of Christ's words "is deeply penetrated by the mystery of the 'redemption of the body,' about which St. Paul writes in Romans (see Rom 8:23)."

In contrast to the Manichaean understanding, "ontological evil" is not "a constitutive attribute of the human body." Rather, the need for the redemption of our bodies asserts humanity's "sinfulness, by which [we have] lost, among other things, the clear sense of the spousal meaning of the body," in which the "dominion and freedom of the spirit expresses itself." As a result, any "Manichaean attitude" would inevitably lead to seeing "an annihilation of the body," as in Eastern religions (which is one of the things that renders Eastern practices suspect from a Christian standpoint), as not just necessary to, but the fulfillment of human redemption, with its insistence that redemption is the liberation of the spirit from the prison of matter, which is the body. Of course, this has major implications for the value of human sex.

What John Paul II sought to combat, not just by writing Man and Woman He Created Them, but in his earlier book, published in English as Love and Responsibility, was addressed forthrightly by Fr. Karl Rahner in his 1962 essay, “The Theology of the Restoration of the Diaconate.” Hearkening back to my treatment of marriage in my master's thesis, Making Up for What Was Previously Lacking: The Importance for the Church of the Dual Sacramentality of Married Permanent Deacons, I employed Rahner's sage observations about marriage, which he made just prior to the opening of the first session of the Second Vatican Council in regard to celibacy and the restored diaconate, to argue for the genuine sacramentality of matrimony.

Writing about the Church's view of marriage, which was given, due in large part to the efforts of Rahner and then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla, in Gaudium et spes, Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (see the first chapter, paragraphs 47-52), a more personalist, or theological exposition, as opposed to a strictly juridical, or canonical, one, Rahner insisted that the church must move beyond viewing marriage as merely a concession to human weakness. Up-front, the problem with the church’s then-current view of marriage was it turned human sexuality into something inherently unclean. In a parenthetical aside, Rahner called such a reduction of marriage "an almost manichaean intellectual undercurrent in the Church." By insisting that precisely because marriage is a sacrament, Rahner, no doubt alluding to the fifth chapter of Ephesians, wrote that it must be viewed as "the concrete and real representation and living example of the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church."

Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ

Pope John Paul II vehemently insisted that the Christian view of what it means to be human in light of Christ's bodily resurrection must be asserted over and against this persistent gnostic tendency to devalue the human body. Hence, "the Christian ethos is characterized by a transformation of the human person's consciousness and attitudes, both the man's and the woman's, such as to express and realize the value of the body and of sex according to the Creator's original plan [bear in mind the creation of woman and the command for the man and woman to become one flesh, along with the command to multiply, were given prior to the fall], placed as they are at the service of the 'communion of persons,' which is the deepest substratum of human ethics and culture."

It is precisely the transformation of our consciousness and attitudes, that is, a complete change of heart, or that simple word, too seldom used today, conversion, that Venerable Pope Paul VI called for in his triptych of Populorum progresso, Humanae vitae, and Evangelii nuntiandi. How many people could tell you that his penultimate encyclical (Humanae vitae being his ultimate, or final one) was on priestly celibacy, or that John Paul II gave just as rich, if not as deep, a theological account of the value of celibacy for the sake of God's kingdom in Theology of the Body? Paul VI's next-to-last encyclical was, in fact, Sacerdotalis caelibatus. John Paul II dedicated an entire series in his Theology of Body to "Continence for the Kingdom of Heaven."

This seems to me a more-than-fitting post-Valentine's Day subject.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"Welcome to the lion's den/Temptation's on his way"

Only because I have recently discovered that The Young Ones is now available for on demand viewing via Hulu, Madness singing "House of Fun" is our Friday traditio. It seems fitting for this 14 February, on which the Church observes the liturgical Memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

Party hats
Simple enough clear
Comprehende savvy understand
Do you hear?
A pack of party hats
With the coloured tips
Too late!
Gorgon's heard gossip
Well hello Joe, hello Miss Clay
Many happy returns from the day

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Dying to self: the path to life in a world of destitution

Our readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time set before us both the need to let our light shine, which light is that of Christ, as well as gives us instruction as to how we do it.

Beginning with our reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, we see that letting the light of Christ shine in us and through us is not a matter of self-glorification, but of self-sacrifice. It is only through sacrificial, self-emptying, service, through which I am crucified with Christ, thus heeding the Lord's command to take up my cross and follow Him, not through many eloquent words, elaborate arguments, or noticeable pious practices, that I even have a chance of demonstrating God's "Spirit and power" (1 Cor 2:4).

The prophet Isaiah, anticipating Jesus Christ, declares that by sharing "bread with the hungry," giving shelter to the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked, and taking care of our own (something that is often overlooked when we consider such exhortations), "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard" (Isa 58:7-8).

As Catholics what Isaiah exhorts should be recognizable to us from the teaching of Jesus, especially that sobering passage from the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, the one in which Jesus responds to the question He puts on the lips of the "righteous" (i.e., the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison), "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?" (Matt 25:37) Along with burying the dead, we call feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless, the Corporeal Works of Mercy.

In his first Message for Lent, Pope Francis challenges us along these same lines: "In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope." He goes on write about three kinds of destitution: material, spiritual, and moral. The call Christ gives us today through these readings is about material destitution and our individual responsibility to assist those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, and homeless. If my fasting does not involve spending more time praying, more time serving others, then it is merely dieting, that is, there is nothing spiritual about it.

"Material destitution," the Holy Father explained, "is what is normally called poverty, and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally. In response to this destitution, the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ."

Last night I watched the movie Che: Part 1. I was again struck by the life of the Argentine doctor and revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The film uses his quote about what must motivate a revolutionary:
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he or she must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching. Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the people, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible
Ernesto "Che" Guevara

Contrast this with something said by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: "Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you." So-called "Revolutionaries" are obsessed with material destitution and the immorality that brings it on and/or sustains it. Largely because they tend to be materialists, they do not acknowledge even the possibility of spiritual destitution. In my view, this is usually what leads them to violent solutions.

What Bl. Teresa proposed vice Guevara's "idealization" of the "feeling" of "love," is not "making" love concrete, but acting in the recognition that true love is only ever concrete. This is what the Incarnation of the Son of God shows us clearly and what Christ's life, teaching, death, and resurrection demonstrate. Nothing is as dramatic as reality!

A friend, who is a non-profit director of development, shared a story with me about a friend of hers, who worked in the same field. For a short time her friend worked alongside Bl. Teresa, attending fund-raising events in the U.S. and Europe with her. Of course, these events included people with money to give (i.e., wealthy people). Sensing her feelings towards these folks, Bl. Teresa told her that spiritual poverty (in our schema, read "destitution") is worse than the material variety and that until she learned to love those from whom she raised money as much as those for whom she was raised money, she would have difficulties.

Teaching the truth about marital love

As both of my readers know, I write a lot about marital sexuality, particularly in support of Church teaching as set forth in Humanae Vitae. In his very good book, Sex au Naturel: What It Is and Why It's Good For Your Marriage, Patrick Coffin observed concerning Humanae Vitae
Paul VI didn't deploy any arguments to speak of. In fact, he doesn't appear to have written it to persuade at all. Apart from setting out some basic principles, Paul VI simply reiterates the ancient teaching, albeit in language more in sync with the modern ear (18-19)
While I agree that it seems fairly clear that the Venerable Paul VI did not write what would be his last encyclical in an apologetic manner, he did address several arguments aimed at bringing about a change in Church teaching. To give one example, he addressed the "principle of totality" in paragraph three.

A recent study conducted by the German Bishops Conference revealed something utterly unsurprising, namely that the vast majority of German Catholics reject fundamental Church teaching on matters concerning human sexuality, not only the intrinsically disordered nature of artificial contraception, but the reasons for not engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, etc. Perhaps most telling is that the vast majority of those surveyed had never heard the term "natural law." I try to be careful not to make invalid inferences, but I can't help thinking that one of the major reasons for this state-of-affairs is the reluctance and even failure to teach clearly on these matters, laying out the teaching objectively and persuasively.

Laying out what the truth about human sexuality in light of Jesus Christ is exactly what Bl. Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body (see Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body) did. In addition to John Paul II's comprehensive teaching, when I think of setting forward Church teaching on sexuality persuasively, I cannot help but point to the fifth chapter of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe's book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?, entitled "The Body Electric."

This brings me to a recent article written by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion for our diocesan newspaper, "Reconsidering the Catholic Church's teaching on birth control." Msgr. Mannion is a mentor and teacher of mine, a priest and theologian whom I admire greatly. In fact, without his initial encouragement and subsequent support I would likely never have pursued becoming a deacon. Hence, I was very happy to read his very down-to-earth "take" as to why it would be wise for many people, clergy and laity alike, to reconsider what, in many cases, is merely a reflexive reaction in rejecting Church teaching. I have but two minor critical thoughts concerning the article.

First, is that a more accurate title might be "Reconsidering the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception." When discussing Church teaching on this matter it is important to distinguish between birth control, which, at least as I see it, is an end, and contraception, which is but one means to achieving the desired end, one that the Church teaches is immoral, as opposed to other, morally acceptable means, such as the various methods of Natural Family Planning. My second critical observation is that, while I agree that those Catholics who continue to choose to use contraception should not be made to feel like second-class citizens in the Church, it seems that the greater danger is to treat those Catholics who choose to live in fidelity to what the Church teaches as such.

One reason I can be sanguine about Msgr Mannion's plea to treat married Catholics who choose to live in a manner at odds with Church teaching so leniently is because, as the German study demonstrates, their choice usually has to do with conscience formation. In other words, the greater responsibility is on those of us whose calling it is to teach. What seems clear to me in reading the findings of the German study, and other like studies, as well as my own pastoral experience, is that not many of the faithful have had their consciences well-formed by sound teaching. In fact, it is often the case that couples who use contraception have been told that that what they are doing is just fine, perhaps even good, at least for them. In the Letter of St. James we come across this warning: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly" (3:1). Before closing out that sentence, the sacred author notes, "for we all fall short in many respects" (3:2a). I take this to mean that, even for those who teach, repentance is possible.

Don't get me wrong, the answer is not beating people about the head and shoulders with a hardbound copy of Humanae Vitae. When we're not busy getting our "takes" on what Pope Francis says from the secular media, we might notice that what the Holy Father is trying to communicate, at least it seems to me, is that the Church's teaching on human sexuality is part of a greater whole, that is, it has a context. When we lose sight of the overarching context we come across as unhinged in the opposite direction than those who simply reject or ignore Church teaching.

An insight that I would love to have the time to follow-up on in detail is that, along with Populorum progresso and Evangelii nuntiandi, Humanae vitae constitutes the core, the heart, what I have termed a "triptych," of Venerable Pope Paul VI's unique papal magisterium, the largest part of which was implementing the Second Vatican Council.

Friday, February 7, 2014

"Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place"

Because I have been making my way through the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, our Friday traditio for today is Richard Burton reading the poems "The Leaden Echo" and "The Golden Echo," known together as "Maidens' song from St. Winefred's Well."

St Winefride's Well (often spelled "Winifred's"), located in Holywell, Flintshire, North Wales

Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ was always disturbed by inner turmoil. This turmoil welled up within him because of his self-perceived inability to deliver himself wholly to God. Hence, his poetry, which he never gave permission during his lifetime to be published, often expressed his deep dissatisfaction.

Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Lest we forget Anna, the prophetess

As I was at Mass this morning, as well as earlier as I prayed Lauds, I was struck by what short shrift Anna, the prophetess, is given in the liturgy for today's Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Along with Simeon, whose canticle is well-known, Anna recognized in the infant Jesus Israel's long awaited Messiah and her Redeemer. She is certainly very significant. Otherwise she would not have been mentioned in St. Luke's account of our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph presenting the Christ child in His Father's house, as prescribed by Jewish Law.

Using the King James Version of the Holy Bible, here's what sacred Scripture tells us about her:
And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38)
The Prophetess Anna, by Rembrandt, 1631

The name "Anna" means grace, or favor. Along with Simeon, she personifies Israel's waiting for the Messiah, who, in the Christ child, she recognizes not only as Messiah, but as Redeemer and, arguably, as Lord. According to the commentary on St. Luke's Gospel by Robert Karras, OFM, found in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, "The pairing of Simeon and Anna corresponds to that of Zechariah and Elizabeth... and foreshadows an impressive theme in Luke." For the "impressive theme," Karras turns to German scholar Helmut Flender's St. Luke, Theologian of Redemptive History- "Luke expresses by this arrangement that man and woman stand together and side by side before God. They are equal in honor in grace, they endowed with the same gifts and have the same responsibilities."

In light of my current re-reading of Bl. Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body catecheses, I find Flender's assertion about the fundamental equality of men and women before God most timely. It bears noting that equal does not mean identical, which is precisely what this pairing of Simeon and Anna demonstrates. If it were not so, no such pairing would be required because a man could stand in place of a woman and vice-versa.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Rather than being the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, this Sunday, being 2 February, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. By keeping this feast, we celebrate and commemorate that day when the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph presented the infant Jesus before the Father in the Temple. This act was prescribed by Jewish Law in both Exodus and Leviticus for every firstborn son among the Israelites. Of course, this event is the fourth of the Joyful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary. The fruit of this mystery is obedience.

In modern standard English the word obedience means something like, "compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another's authority." Hence, to us now, it is a word that smacks of oppression and mindless, that is, unquestioning, submission to someone else's will. Many people think that to be religious in general and to be a Christian in particular consists exclusively in just doing what the Church, the Bible, your pastor tells you to do without question or delay. In other words, to be a Christian is just to carry out orders.

The Canticle of Simeon, by Aert de Gelder, ca. 1700-1710

Let's not forget that it was Jesus Himself who told His disciples, picking up the passage I cited in my Friday traditio post-
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another (John 15:11-17)
In his Apostolic Constitution on indulgences, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, promulgated in 1967, that is, after the Second Vatican Council, Venerable Pope Paul VI (whom Pope Francis referred to this week in one of his daily homilies as "the great Paul VI," a shout out that melted my heart) noted,
Christians throughout history have always regarded sin not only as a transgression of divine law but also—though not always in a direct and evident way—as contempt for or disregard of the friendship between God and man, just as they have regarded it as a real and unfathomable offense against God and indeed an ungrateful rejection of the love of God shown us through Jesus Christ, who called his disciples friends and not servants (par 2)
As the Online Etymology Dictionary shows, our English word "obedience" comes from the Latin word obedire, or oboedire, which, as an analysis of its roots demonstrates, is ob, meaning "to" + audire, which means "listen", thus literally meaning to "listen to," "pay attention to," "give ear to."

This relates to faith in that faith is not mere belief because faith elicits a response, a voluntary response, it's what the one who hears desires to do. To listen to Christ, to pay attention to Him, is to open yourself to who He is and what that means for you. This is expressed beautifully by Simeon in today's Gospel reading:
Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32)
This declaration, this profession of faith, this prayer, is traditionally called the Nunc Dimittis, which is Latin for "Now you dismiss." Just as Zechariah's canticle, known as the Benedictus, is recited as part of Lauds, or Morning Prayer, each day, and that of the Blessed Virgin, the Magnificat, is recited daily in Vespers, or Evening Prayer, the Nunc Dimittis is recited during the praying of the office called Compline, or Night Prayer.

To wit: Jesus did not come into the world to force you to do the will of the Father, but to invite you into a relationship that we call grace, a relationship brought about by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, one that seeks to draw you into the life of the Most Holy Trinity. It is difficult to imagine our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem merely out of a sense of obligation, let alone out of fear. The Code of Canon Law stipulates that "Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it" (Canon 867 §1). But what believing parent would not want do so as soon as possible and eagerly?

In tradition, today is also known as Candlemas. It was on this feast, formerly known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, that people would bring the candles they were going to use in their homes to be blessed at Church. Thankfully, the blessing of candles remains a part of this glorious feast in many places today. After all, as Simeon noted of the Christ Child, He is "a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel" (Luke 2:32).

"Someone very much wanted us here"

I am getting ready for Lent, not because I am so eager for it to begin, though I do look forward to the season as a time of renewal each year, but because this morning I had time to do some preliminary planning. I don't mind divulging that I am using Hilary Brand's book The Power of Small Choices: A Creative Approach to Your Lenten Journey as my spiritual aid this year. A big reason for this is because I love movies and she takes two films, The Shawshank Redemption and Babette's Feast, as her starting points.

The more honest reason is that I tripped over a box of books as I walked into my den not long ago, books I was going to give away, books that were given to me in passing by someone who was moving a few years ago, and re-discovered her book. I'm not sure what caused me to pick up The Power of Small Choices and look inside. Call me superstitious, but I tend to take such things as signs.

Reading the introductory parts of Brand's book, I came across this, which she, in turn, found in Keith Ward's book God, Chance and Necessity: "Mathematician Roger Penrose has calculated the probability of a universe ending up exactly like ours as one in ten to the power of 123." Brand goes on to show the significance of this: "I'm told that even if every proton in the entire universe was used to write a single digit on (and protons are so small that the dot on this 'i' could hold around 500,000,000,000 of them), it couldn't express the number of variant universes possible. Out of all those variations, the universe as it actually turned out is the only possible variant able to sustain to life as we know it" (13).

Based on this, Brand is correct to assert that, whether you believe in God or not, "the fact that we are here at all is pretty amazing." Despite these calculations, which nobody really disputes, some still insist that it all likely occurred "by blind chance." As for me, I agree with Brand and others that "a far more reasonable explanation" is "that Someone very much wanted us here." It further occurs to me that if Someone very much wants us here there is a reason for our being here. If this is so, then the relevant question is not, "Does life have purpose and meaning," but, "What is the purpose meaning of my life in the context of the overarching meaning of human life on earth?"

I don't do this every year, but only every so often, but I am following a program of reading through the whole Bible in year. One could compare the pros and cons of this exercise, but I think one of the best reasons for so doing is to become aware of the story that seeks to answer the relevant question as posed above.

Of course, stories, at least well-told ones, unfold. As Aristotle long ago outlined the dramatic structure [of Tragedy, no less) in Part VII of his Poetics: "A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles."

All of this can't help but put me in mind of the second part of Balthasar's magnificent trilogy, his five-volume Theo-drama:
God's revelation is not an object to be looked at: it is his action in and upon the world, and the world can only respond and hence "understand", through action on its part

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...