Sunday, September 28, 2014

Year A Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezk 18:25-28; Ps 25:4-5.8-10.14; Phil 2:1-11; Matt 21:28-32

Our Gospel for today follows on the heels of last week’s Gospel wherein Jesus told the parable of the vineyard owner who went out, beginning at dawn, and brought laborers into his vineyard for the harvest throughout the day, until about an hour or so before sunset. The scandalous part of that parable was that at the end of the day the vineyard owner paid all of the laborers the same wage, which was the usual wage for a day’s labor, thus causing those who began work at dawn to, understandably, gripe a bit. The point of that parable was not about social justice, but about God’s generosity in issuing the call to conversion, the call to salvation, which is given in Jesus Christ. Part of the point being, there is no greater reward than eternal life.

Likewise, our Gospel for today is about Jesus’ call and our response. Faith is nothing more than our response to God’s initiative towards us. Faith cannot be reduced to mere belief; to giving intellectual assent to a set of truthful and well-thought out propositions. Faith that merits the name spurs us to action in God’s service. In today’s Gospel there is no great mystery to figure out. Clearly the son who initially said he would not go, but then went, was the one who did his father’s will, not the son who said he would go, but then did not.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to liken the son who went, even after initially saying “No,” to the tax collectors and prostitutes who, upon hearing the Baptist’s call to repentance, repented, that is, turned around and walked the path of righteousness after deviating from it. But the son who initially agreed, but then did not go, is likened to many of the observant Jews listening to Jesus.

My brothers and sisters, when you were baptized, whether as infants, children, or adults, you said “Yes” to Jesus’ call. Likewise, you said “Yes” when your baptism was confirmed and you received a fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit to aid you in your service to Christ and His Church. Each time you participate in the Eucharist you are called and, at the end of Mass, you are sent forth to do. Do what, you might ask? To make the Lord present wherever you are present, as the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, puts this: The faithful are called by God to exercise “their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel [to]… work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity” (par 31).

In our second reading, taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, most of which, according to New Testament scholars, is taken from an ancient Christian hymn, we see that Jesus Christ, our Lord, both agreed to do and then perfectly did the Father’s will. The apostle urged the Christians of ancient Philippi to have among them the same attitude as Christ Jesus, which is a selfless, self-emptying attitude. Before citing the beautiful hymn, which he used as an example of the attitude they were to have, Paul told his sisters and brothers, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others” (Phil 2:3-4). This is a very succinct description of Christian ministry.

The prophet Ezekiel, in our first reading, chided his hearers, who complained, “The LORD’s way is not fair” (Ezk 18:25). But the prophet seeks to demonstrate to them that God’s way is more than fair, that God’s way, as our Psalm response indicates, is merciful. Indeed, perfectly balancing mercy and justice is something that God alone can do. But the way around this obsession with fairness, as Jesus demonstrated over and again in His teaching and through His life, particularly by humbling Himself and “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), is to get over yourself. This, too, is the witness of so many saints down through the centuries of the Church. It is certainly the witness of St Vincent de Paul, whose memorial we observed yesterday. He was a priest who dedicated himself completely to serving the poor. His charity extended to all classes of people, from forsaken childhood to old age. In a nutshell, our readings today are about joining our words to our actions. Our Lord Himself said elsewhere in St Matthew’s Gospel, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21).

You may have noticed either coming into the Cathedral through the main doors today, or driving by the Cathedral on South Temple some light blue banners featuring a ship, the barque of our local Church, with the words, “Charting Our Course” and “Believe. Celebrate, and Live.” At Bishop Wester’s direction, our diocese has begun the process of putting together a comprehensive Pastoral Plan. The course we are charting is one that leads us to fulfill our mission: “Believe, celebrate, and live the redeeming love of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in Utah.”

What can you do in response to today’s readings in light of Bishop Wester’s call? You can take the on-line survey. There may also be an opportunity for you to participate in a listening session, either a regional one, or one held for a group of which you are a member. Right now the call we have been issued by our bishop is to give him our honest input through this initial portion of the pastoral plan in order to chart the course ahead for our diocese.

The Church of Jesus Christ in Utah is a growing, dynamic Church, a fruitful vineyard. The Lord needs more laborers and the laborers require a common plan to carry out the Father’s work. We are blessed that the issues and challenges we face as a local Church have mostly to do with growth and vibrancy. So, what is needed for our pastoral planning process to be successful is your input now and your follow-through later.

Bishop Wester’s goals for our Diocesan Pastoral Plan are three-fold: 1) To deepen relationships and encourage a community dialogue around mission; (2) To educate everyone about the diocese as the “local church;” and (3) to encourage participation in various ministries. This not something over and above, or added onto everything we’ve been doing and focusing on, such as stewardship. It is a way of pulling it all together, making it more cohesive, and, above all, making it actionable, which is what our Lord asks of us today.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Kyrie eleison

Because this morning I really need something truly and unambiguously beautiful and today is a penitential day, our Friday traditio is the Kyrie from Palestrina's Missae Papae Marcelli. Palestrina's Mass for Pope Marcellus II is certainly one of the glories of polyphonic sacred choral music.

Pope Marcellus II's coat-of-arms

Pope Marcellus II only served as Roman Pontiff for 22 days in 1555. It is believed that Palestrina composed this Mass in his memory in 1562.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Balthasar on being a Christian

Hans Urs Von Balthasar began Part III of his book Who Is a Christian with a chapter called "Straight to the Center." In this short section he pointed out, "Much is made clear at the outset if we remember a simple rule of logic: knowledge about something is most clearly established where it presents itself in its purest form" (57). Hence, "Anyone wanting to study the essence of a Christian by analyzing a person who cannot really make up his mind whether or not to be one... is investigating the wrong object" (57).

Balthasar went on to assert that the proper object for such an investigation is a saint because "it is precisely the 'saint' (the holy one), the one who endeavors to embrace the Christian thing wholeheartedly, who knows best and most profoundly just how much he is a sinner" (58). Other Christians, he noted "take the dividing distance [between themselves and Christ, between themselves and holiness] lightly or resign themselves to whatever it is that separates them from full commitment" (58). Still some "make up their own conscience," which I take to mean that they decide for themselves what is right and wrong, pick and choose that to which they will adhere, set a self-imposed boundary.

St. Pio of Pietrelcina

"But the saint," Balthasar insisted, "strives to see himself in the pure light of grace and of God's commandment of love and is thereby... utterly humbled and stripped of all illusions" (58). "Who is a Christian?" In order to answer this question, Balthasar insisted that "we must not waste time on the fringes ('someone who is baptized', 'someone who fulfills his Easter duties', and so on) but must go straight to the center" (58). "The minimalist," he pointed out, "is a highly complicated figure, because impenetrable and opaque, from whom no clear information can be expected" (58). "The maximalist, by contrast - if the word were appropriate here, which it is not - represents the simple, luminous figure, so simple in fact that he is the true minimalist, because all the complexities have been integrated within him" (58).
For the minimalist, as Saint Paul tells us, the endless list of prohibitions has been laid down, so that one can scarcely see the forest for the trees; for the maximalist - that is, the person who strives toward Christ - all these negative precepts are reduced to a single commandment, and whoever fulfills this has already fulfilled, as though in passing, all the other commandments. And this commandment, Christ tells us, is not difficult (58)
Today is the liturgical memorial of Padre Pio and so we ask, St Pio of Pietrelcina, holy priest, pray for us! Today is also Day 2 of the Novena to St Thérèse, the Little Flower, whose memorial the Church observes on 1 October.

In the end, Christ's Church will be His spotless Bride and so will only be comprised of saints. As Léon Bloy observed, "There is only one sorrow—-not to be a saint."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts"

Readings: Isa 55:6-9; Ps 145:2-3.8-9.17-18; Phil 1:20c-24.27a; Matt 20:1-16a

When we encounter Jesus' words, "The kingdom of heaven is like...," as we do on this Sunday, we ought to sit up and pay close attention to what follows. What follows, if we open our ears to hear and our hearts to receive, is usually surprising, not just for those on one side, but for people on both, that is, for those who tend to be more exclusive about belonging as well as for those who see no need to make any distinctions at all. It's tempting to wrap this up neatly and assert that Jesus simply moderates these extremes by proposing a middle course. In a sense, perhaps He does. But in a deeper sense He simply blows our neat little (by "little" I mean miniscule) dichotomies out of the water!

Let's be honest, even though we know we are all supposed to identify with those who came to work in the vineyard later in the day, for many of you reading this post, as well as for me, as with many of Jesus' original hearers, it is likely easier to identify with those who went into the vineyard early in the morning and worked all day. I can hear the denial already, not least from a place within myself: "No, that is not true!" But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. In other words, it is not about how we emotionally react when we read or hear these Gospel passages proclaimed, but whether or not we live them out in the concrete circumstances of our lives, when these things unfold right in front of us. Jesus here clearly issues a provocation.

Provocation = pro + vocation. Hence, we are challenged for the sake of our calling, that is, for our own good, for our growth, in order to be more conformed to the image of Christ, which nothing other than to be restored to the state of original grace, to bearing not only the image (i.e., imago dei, which is ineradicable), but the divine likeness, which is Christ-likeness, something that is eradicated by sin and restored by God's grace given us in and through Christ. Being provoked, especially by the words and witness of our Blessed Lord, is a great gift. We must always cultivate an openness to being challenged in the way the Lord challenges us today.

Jesus loves us far too much to ever let us grow smug, or become complacent. Today's Gospel is sheer provocation, a direct challenge to our sense of spiritual entitlement, to the idea that God owes us something for those (all-too rare) occasions when we have been faithful. Jesus' teaching is even a provocation for those who immediately identify with the laborers who came later. How? By looking down with a kind of self-righteousness on those who labored all day and who question the "generosity" of the landowner. It is not an unimaginable moral evil to pose this question. It is not wholly unjust to expect more pay for more work. The question to you, dear friend, is, Are you really able to perfectly balance justice and mercy?

In our pondering, let's not lose sight of the fact that Jesus did not come into the world to teach us neat little moral lessons, but to reveal to us our destiny. It is the mystery of the Kingdom about which He teaches in this passage. There is no greater reward than eternal life, which cannot be earned by anyone, no matter how hard you work. Our "work" is to cooperate with God's grace by heeding His call to go into the vineyard, which is a nice segue to consider the relationship between justification and sanctification (see "Becoming holy" and "More on holiness").

Saturday, September 20, 2014

More on holiness

Reading a post on Fr Aidan Kimel’s Eclectic Orthodoxy blog (which is quite a find) prompted a few more thoughts concerning the schema of salvation, which I have characterized (by no means originally, but in the all-too standard way) as the three-fold movement of redemption, justification, and sanctification (i.e., being made holy, theosis, divinization, etc.). In a recent post, in light of Fr Stephen Freeman’s observation, an idea I had was moved from being vague to explicit, namely the idea that justification and sanctification cannot be neatly split apart and (most importantly) that sanctification is not optional, and is not only necessary, but inevitable for a Christian.

In his post, Fr Aidan wonders whether St Paul’s “understanding of justification is governed exclusively by the question ‘Are the works of Torah binding on the (Gentile) Church?’” Once this question was answered definitively- presumably at the proto-Council of Jerusalem, which is described in Acts 15- “justification” was no longer an issue. Fr Aidan better expresses something I have long thought and expressed both in writing and preaching with regards to the sacraments in general, foremost among which, even for Catholics and Orthodox, are Baptism and Eucharist:
Holy Baptism represents the decisive event in which the convert to Christ is initiated into the Church and the trinitarian life of God. It’s not as if one is first justified and then subsequently adopted as a child of God and made heir to the kingdom. It all happens at the same time! As the Apostle tells his congregation in Corinth: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). The Spirit breaks into our fallen world and appropriates us to the life and worship of the messianic kingdom. Only on this basis does our liturgical prayer and ascetical practices make proper sense
This also serves to highlight something to Roman Catholics that seems to require constant attention: Baptism, not ordination, is the fundamental sacrament of the Christian life. Baptism strengthened by Confirmation is even more formidable still.

Fr Aidan also posted something by Phillip Cary (who wrote the best theological commentary on the Book of Jonah I have read) concerning St Augustine's view of justification (see "St Augustine on Justification by Grace"). I am not going to try and neatly summarize what Cary has already summed up nicely. I will just note this from his article: "for Augustine justification, so far as he discusses it at all, is not a particular event but the activity of God throughout our lives. When he uses the verb justificare, Augustine is thinking of God’s role in bringing us along in our lifelong journey to Him (cf. the article on “Justice” in the encyclopedia Augustine through the Ages). This image of a journey, pilgrimage or road to God is central to his theology, and any account of justification that is true to Augustine’s thought will really just be an account of that journey, in which we grow closer to God by growing in charity, which is the righteousness (justitia) that consists in obeying the twofold law of love."

"This image of journey, pilgrimage or road to God" is not only central to St Augustine's theology, but also constitutes an important part of the Letter to the Hebrews, seventeen verses to be exact: Hebrews 3:16-Hebrews 4:13, only to be taken up again for additional 53 verses (see Hebrews 11:1-Hebrews 12:13).

I post this because it is quite a boon to me that someone else is taking up these matters concurrent with my own interest, someone who is certainly better versed in the Christian tradition than I am, but most importantly, someone with a personal and not strictly theoretical interest in these most important matters.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scotland: "Come up screamin'"

Yesterday's referendum in Scotland ended with the Scots choosing to remain part of Great Britain by a comfortable majority. I have to admit that, personally, I found the outcome a bit disappointing. By divulging that, I have to admit that I had no skin in that particular game. I understand that there was a lot of uncertainty in Scotland becoming independent after more than 300 years of belonging to Great Britain. It was a gamble for sure. I certainly respect the principle of self-determination. However, now it's time for British PM David Cameron to hold a referendum on the U.K. remaining in the European Union.

Just as David Letterman asked a New York City cabdriver during the Clinton presidency if the word "Whitewater" (who remembers that scandal?) made him thirsty, all this belaboring over the referendum has made me thirsty, thirsty for a Scotch (Laprohaig 10 to be precise). How about Scotland's own Big Country, led by the late and still terribly missed Stuart Adamson, to go with that drink? To Alex Salmond, who honorably resigned as First Minister of Scotland after leading the failed campaign for independence, and all those who longed for such a dream, "In a Big Country" is our Friday traditio:

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou has left in night,
That I here before Thy sight,
       For gifts and grace,
A burning and a shining light
       To a’ this place
— (from Robert Burns' poem "Holy Willie's Prayer")

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Becoming holy

In my reflection on today's readings I mentioned the three-fold movement of salvation: redemption, justification, and sanctification. Today I was directed to a post on a blog I had not read in far too long: Glory to God for All Things, by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest. His post "Christianity in a Plain Brown Wrapper" is what drew my attention this afternoon. In this post Fr Stephen seeks to correct an imbalance that has persisted among Western and Westernized Christians for far too long, namely that in the threefold movement justification is what really matters, rendering sanctification optional. I very much agree with his assessment that it is never enough merely to believe.

Fr Stephen correctly points out that "Nineteenth century revival movements and theology emphasized a single experience that was associated with salvation. Those who concerned themselves with what came later, described growth in the Christian life as 'sanctification,' and tended to imply that it was optional." He is correct, sanctification is not "subsequent" to "salvation." I take him here use "salvation" to express the idea that once you've freely accepted Christ's redemptive sacrifice ("I believe"), which is freely offered (i.e., justification) then you are simply saved, it's a done deal. The epigraph he uses for the post is most fitting for expressing what needs to be conveyed: "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor 3:18).

He next notes "Being saved, in the pages of the New Testament, means the whole of our life with God. And the purpose of the whole of our life with God is to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory. Anything else is simply not the Christian faith." In other words, being transformed into the image of Christ is what it means to be saved. This transformation is what connects the already to the not-yet. Anything short of this is not salvation. This deals effectively with the most prevalent view of salvation among those who claim the name "Evangelical" Christians, which Fr Stephen sums up: "Thus we live in this world as one-time, once-and-for-all conversionists, and hope to simply wake up as saints in the life to come."

It is easy to infer an honest and fair critique of an all-too prevalent Roman Catholic view of Purgatory from what Fr Stephen sees as defective in various views of salvation: "Many Christians recognize that a transformation is supposed to occur within a believer, but have adopted a model that postpones that change until after death." The inferred (and fair) criticism of this view, which does not accurately express the Catholic Church's teaching, is the view that we'll work it all out after we die, no need to strive in the present life.

"The fullness of the Christian gospel, as found within Scripture and the Orthodox tradition, is radically committed to the transformation in this life of the believer." To wit: sanctification is not optional and, while distinguishable from justification, it is inextricably bound up with it. Perhaps one way of expressing this is that justification is the beginning of sanctification. The way of sanctification is the way of grace. We are saved by grace! It is really here that Fr Stephen's article truly begins. I have merely touched on the preliminaries.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

I have always been greatly moved by Jesus' comparison of His being lifted up on the Cross with the bronze serpent God told Moses to mount on the pole, which image God used to save those Israelites who were perishing as a result of being bitten by poisonous snakes in the desert. The parallel is so obvious: just as the Israelites were beset by poisonous serpents, we are daily beset with them too. Perhaps not actual serpents, but ones that are not merely as deadly, but ultimately more deadly than those that fell upon Israel in the desert. We are often beset sins that not only kill the body, but the soul, resulting in eternal death. To think that this is not a possibility is to be greatly deceived and to live in denial of reality.

The good news is truly good news, which is why Christians call sharing this good news "evangelization." The good news is just what St Paul, likely quoting an early Christian hymn, sets forth for us in our reading this Sunday from his Letter to the Philippians: "he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). It is because Jesus humbled Himself for my sake and for yours that the Father "greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name" (Phil 2:9). This is conveyed beautifully and simply in our Gospel for this glorious feast: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17).

In light of the connection the Lord made between His being lifted up on the Cross and the bronze serpent Moses lifted up, let's extend our Gospel reading one verse further: "Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:18). Faith is our response to God's initiative towards us. God's initiative towards is Jesus Christ. Hence, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Can you muster enough faith to just look?

Christ on the Cross, by Heinrich Bloch, 1870

Christ died to redeem everyone, but not everyone will be redeemed because not everyone will receive the gift of salvation God offers through Christ. One indication of this can be found in the words of consecration during the Eucharistic Prayer, which words remain consistent throughout Eucharistic Prayers I-IV:
This is the chalice of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many (emboldening and italics added)
for the forgiveness of sins...
Redemption is an objective fact, without it not one person would be saved. It is true that some will be saved extraordinarily, that is, not necessarily by coming to conscious faith in Christ and being baptized, but by responding in faith to what God reveals to them, living in accord with the law written in their hearts, seeking to order their lives to truth as an act of love, the result of which is usually beautiful. Bl Teresa of Calcutta urged us to make of our lives something beautiful for God. We are justified by faith, by our response to the gift God offers us. Once we respond in faith, then we are on the road to sanctification, to being made holy, to being fully conformed to the image of Christ. This is nothing other than the fundamental good news, the kerygma, the basic message of Christianity.

The road to sanctification, to what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls our "sabbath rest," is often a twisting, winding path over hills and through valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death. When we are beset by sin along the way we need not despair. In such peril all we need to do is to look to Christ on the Cross. Among other things, this means availing ourselves of the grace offered through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. The most efficacious means of receiving God's grace are the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance.

As Paul Tripp observed in a tweet not long ago, "Yes, you are called to worship God above all else. No, God will not reject you in that moment when an idol grips your heart." This is the assurance God gives us through the Cross of Christ. This is why we can say, "We adore you O Christ and we bless you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world."

During the week following tomorrow's feast we have the opportunity, though not the obligation, to observe "Holyrood" Embering. What are Ember Days? See my post "Whitsun Embering: Observing Pentecost Ember Week."

Sacramental marriage and the absence of faith revisited

In two earlier posts I wrote about the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family. In both I wrote about faith and the Sacrament of Matrimony, about whether or not it matters that when a man and a woman celebrate this sacrament in the Church they both have faith, at least enough faith to enter into this sacramental way of living, intending to do what the Church intends couples who are married to do, or whether they merely have a lovely day at Church and are married with quite a different mindset. The question about lack of sufficient, evident, or minimal faith at the time of marriage as a potential grounds for an annulment was first broached by Pope Benedict XVI in his final annual speech as Supreme Pontiff to the Roman Rota on 26 January 2013. Pope Benedict began that speech in a rather straightforward manner:
I would like to reflect in particular on several aspects of the relationship between faith and marriage, noting that the current crisis of faith, which is affecting various parts of the world, brings with it a crisis of the conjugal society with the whole burden of suffering and hardship that this entails, also for the offspring. We can take as a starting point the linguistic root that the Latin terms fides and foedus have in common. Foedus is a word with which the Code of Canon Law designates the natural reality of matrimony as an irrevocable covenant between a man and a woman (cf. can. 1055 § 1). Mutual entrustment is in fact the indispensable basis for any pact or covenant.

At the theological level, the relationship between faith and marriage acquires an even deeper meaning. Indeed, although the spousal bond is a natural reality, it has been raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized (cf. ibid.).

The indissoluble pact between a man and a woman does not, for the purposes of the sacrament, require of those engaged to be married, their personal faith; what it does require, as a necessary minimal condition, is the intention to do what the Church does. However, if it is important not to confuse the problem of the intention with that of the personal faith of those contracting marriage, it is nonetheless impossible to separate them completely
In early July I mentioned this in an interview I did for an article (see "A Few More Thoughts on the Instrumentum Laboris"). Later in July, after reading excerpts from Cardinal Müller's lengthy interview on marriage, which will soon be published by Ignatius Press with the title The Hope of the Family: A Dialogue with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, I wrote about it again. This post sparked a lively and largely charitable discussion (see "The validity of marriage and presence or absence of faith").

Earlier this week I received the most recent issue of Communio. This issue is dedicated to Marriage: Theological and Pastoral Considerations in advance of the Extraordinary Synod. The first piece I read in this issue was Cardinal Scola's "Marriage and the Family: Between Anthropology and the Eucharist" (you can read the article for free here). My point in drawing attention to this particular article is that towards the end of it Cardinal Scola takes up the issue of faith and the validity of marriage in a section entitled "Faith and the sacrament of matrimony":
Among the questions requiring further examination we should mention the relation between faith and the sacrament of matrimony, which Benedict XVI addressed several times, including at the end of his pontificate [the footnote here directs the reader to the speech I linked to above]. Indeed, the relevance of faith to the validity of the sacrament is one of the topics that the current cultural situation, especially in the West, compels us to weigh very carefully. Today, at least in certain contexts, it cannot be taken for granted that spouses who celebrate a wedding intend “to do what the Church intends to do.” A lack of faith could lead nowadays to the exclusion of the very goods of marriage. Although it is impossible to pass final judgment on a person’s faith, we cannot deny the necessity of a minimum of faith, without which the sacrament of matrimony is invalid [all italicized words in original]
An interesting parallel to this is something I read a few weeks ago in Hans Urs Von Balthasar's recently translated Who Is a Christian? (also published by Ignatius Press) that touched on a related matter- infant baptism. In one of the short chapters that comprise Part I of this work, entitled "The Burden of the Dead," Balthasar commented on the need to reform or even do away with old, useless, and unnecessary structures and practices in the wake of the Council (this book was originally published in German in 1983): "Let us not shrink from naming the most questionable of these... I refer to infant baptism" (18).
The preempting of the proud, once-in-a-lifetime decision for God on behalf of one still in a state of unawareness; the awakening to the use of reason and the capacity to make choices, only to find oneself faced with an already accomplished fact that one must either ratify or not - what a problem this is! And, indeed, still more so today, when the popular traditions, the sociological embedding within a generally accepted Christianity, are dwindling or have, indeed, in many cases already completely disappeared
In some comments he made in a documentary film released several ago, Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, highlighted the issue about which Balthasar wrote, when he said, "It requires maturity on those people who want their children to become members of the church community and maturity on those people who say 'I don't believe in God and I really shouldn't be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don't really believe in it'" (see "Archbishop Martin on acting in accord with conscience"). As Catholics, we, too, acknowledge that God has no grandchildren.

To broach such questions is not not legalistic, or an attempt to impose legalistic criteria. On the contrary, faith constitutes the cornerstone of Christianity, not just ecclesial faith, but personal faith in Christ. Even as Catholics we believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. So much of what we do presumes personal faith, which, in turn, has an ecclesial dimension. It is important never to lose sight of the fact that, being a theological virtue, faith is a gift from God. But it is a gift offered to all. So, faith entails a choice, a choice to receive the gift, the acceptance of which justifies us and puts on the road to sanctification.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"You say that I am blessed because of this"

Only because 14 September falls on Sunday this year, the Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on a Sunday. It is a fixed feast and so is observed on 14 September every year. One way of telling the importance of a feast such as this is the fact that it "trumps" Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. This means that next week we are free to observe the autumn Ember days on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is an ancient Christian observance and marking St Helena's discovery of the true Cross while in Jerusalem in the early fourth century. It was on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem that sometime in the mid-to-late fourth century that the dramatic conversion of St Mary of Egypt happened. Her liturgical memorial is observed on 1 April, which I find fitting. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross did not become a Western observance until the seventh century. An indication of how ancient is this celebration is that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans all observe on the same. After all, what binds Christians more closely together than the Cross of Christ? As St Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
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)

So, in light of the fact that a few weeks ago I preached on Jesus' teaching about the necessity for anyone who would follow Him to take to die to self, live for others for His sake as the way to take up the Cross and the fact that this Sunday, 14 September, we'll celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, our Friday traditio is Audrey Assad's song "Carry Me" off her amazing The House You're Building album. I know, subtle, huh?

And we all falter
'cause we are broken
We're all just tryin' to
turn the shadows into light

Monday, September 8, 2014

Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Looking at the Proper for tomorrow's liturgy, I am deeply moved by the first option for the Prayer Over the Offerings:

May the humanity of your Only Begotten Son
come, O Lord, to our aid,
and he, who at his birth from the Blessed Virgin
did not diminish but consecrated her integrity,
by taking from us now our wicked deeds
make our oblation acceptable to you.
Through Christ our Lord

Birth of the Virgin, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1661

May the Lord, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, make your oblation, that is, your life today, acceptable to God, the Father. I urge everyone who reads this to do two things:

1) Pray the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary

2) Pray at least one Memoraré

If there were a third "thing," I'd urge you to attend Mass.

Hail Holy Queen, Mother of mercy.
Hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we come, poor, banished children of Eve
To thee do we send our sighs, mourning, and weeping in this valley of tears...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Love, truth, and correcting each other

Our readings for this Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, prompt us to ask ourselves, "What do I owe and to whom to do I owe it?" In this day and age, at least in what we call advanced Western countries, most of us owe money. I know I do, more than I should, truth be told. As brothers and sisters in Christ, don't we owe each other the truth for love of God and one another? Even though this is one of those things that makes all of us a bit (maybe a lot) uneasy, it is important. So important that our Lord Himself addressed it in a very head-on way.

St Paul was not shy about issuing corrections when he saw they were needed. He viewed issuing such corrections as a necessary part of his apostolic and pastoral duties. It was a duty he exercised out of love for those receiving correction and out of love for Christ's Body. We need to clearly understand that our readings today pertain only to corrections among members of Christ's Body, the Church, who are our brothers and sisters by virtue of our common baptism and on-going communion with each other.

It is far too easy when we are having a problem with a priest, a deacon, a fellow parishioner, or a group within our community, to tell everyone else except the person, or group of people, with whom we are having the difficulty. Not only is this passive-aggressive, it often takes the form of rumor-mongering. Anyone who has been in the Church for awhile and who has been deeply involved in the Church's life has probably been both a perpetrator and a victim of these things. I know I have. Jesus' words today inform us that our first gambit when we feel the need to issue a correction is most assuredly not to fire off a letter to the bishop!

Far too often we think of pastoral ministry only in terms of comforting people. Of course, we should comfort people always and often, as often as hurting, grieving people need it. But sometimes a situation arises that requires us to challenge someone by means of a correction, by telling them the truth. These situations occur more often than we'd like to admit. How many of these do we just let pass, hoping it will magically disappear, or somehow fix itself?

In the vast majority of instances to effectively challenge someone, to lovingly correct another, first requires that we have the kind of relationship with that person that makes them open to receiving our correction. Stated simply, they must know that we love them before we seek to correct them.

Several years ago I had a situation arise that required me to remove someone from a position of leadership for many reasons, foremost among which were a sorely apparent lack of leadership and some fairly significant integrity issues. In reality, I should not have let the situation persist as long as I did. Without going into great detail, after his dismissal I was left feeling unsettled because it did not go down well. In fact, it made him very angry and he directed his anger towards me. In thinking about it and praying over it for several days afterwards I developed a threefold criteria to use in similar situations:

1) Am I doing the right thing?

Assuming it is the right thing to do,
2) Am I doing it for the right reason (How's my heart? Are there traces of pettiness, vindictiveness, etc.)?

If "Yes" is the answer to the previous two questions,
3) Did I do it in the right way (The "right way" being honestly and gently)?

My failure in the above situation was that I did it in the wrong way. It was the right thing. I was doing it for the right reasons. Because I was fearful about how he would receive the news, I did it in the way I believed would spare me his anger. Well, I blew it and it still didn't spare me what I feared. I was simply trying to avoid conflict in a scenario in which it was probably inevitable.

Once in awhile circumstances arise that call for immediate and unambiguous correction. For the priest, the deacon, the lay leader, we should be fostering the kind of relationships, living with the kind of integrity, and bringing things to the Lord in prayer so that it softens the blow for even these kinds of situations. As St Paul exhorted: "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law... Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom 13:8.10)

A wise teacher, mentor, and friend once told me, "If you're too busy to pray, you're too busy." While this is true for life in general, the context for this statement was a discussion about pastoral ministry. Someone engaged in pastoral ministry simply must pray and pray often. If you don't, sooner rather than later you will be rendered practically useless. St Francis de Sales was a most practical pastor. Proof of his practicality is this advice: "Every one of us needs half an hour of prayer a day, except when we are busy-then we need an hour." Fairly frequent confession doesn't hurt either.

Truly loving another means to love his/her destiny. As Pope Benedict XVI used to note with some frequency, without truth there can be no love. Nonetheless, it is completely possible and often the case that we speak the truth without love. Not speaking the truth and speaking the truth without love are equally ineffective and inherently uncharitable.

Hopefully we see the huge challenge God's word sets before us. I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that ever since the situation I shared above that my conduct has been completely flawless. To cite just one example, a year or two after that I had to make a similar decision, but for very different reasons. Again, I blew it in the same way for the same petty reason. The difference? Once I realized I blew it, I met with the person one-on-one, told him that, while I was confident I made the correct decision, I handled it poorly and asked him to forgive me. He was most gracious and forgave me. We are friends to this day. It was also one more lesson for me on the dangers of underestimating the love of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the words of a Phil Keaggy song (it is a cover of a Van Morrison song) I cherish deeply, "When Will I Ever Learn?"

Friday, September 5, 2014

Contemplate Jesus Christ crucified

This is my first post for the month of September! For what it's worth, I intended differently. I am beginning to really see and feel the benefit of less is more when it comes to blogging. I don't mind divulging that I currently find life a bit exhausting.

In one his often amazing daily homilies, which he delivers during the daily Mass he celebrates at the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta at the Vatican, Pope Francis yesterday said, “the privileged place for an encounter with Christ are our sins. If a Christian is incapable of seeing his sins and his salvation in the blood of Christ, he has only gone half-way. He is a tepid Christian."

By Matthias Grunewald

I am privileged to teach the faith to a lot of people. In discussing the Sacrament of Penance, it is always worth noting that confession is not where we go to admit defeat, but where we go to claim our victory, won for us by our magnificent Savior.

Our Friday traditio, off their album Redemption Songs, is Jars of Clay (a personal favorite) singing the hymn "O Come and Mourn With Me Awhile," which is fitting fare for a penitential day.

O break, O break hard heart of mine
My weak self-love and guilty pride
His Pilate and His Judas were
Jesus our Lord is Crucified

Another hymn covered on Redemption Songs is "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder," which features these beautiful words:

Let us love and sing and wonder
Let us praise the Savior's name
He has hushed the law's loud thunder
He has quenched Mount Sinai's flame
He has washed us with His blood

Don't forget the week after next are the fall Ember Days (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which falls on a Sunday this year and trumps the Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

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...