Sunday, June 19, 2016

Faith is a life, not a set of beliefs

"To hear with my heart/To see with my soul/To be guided by a hand I cannot hold/To trust in a way that I cannot see/That's what faith must be," so goes the chorus to Michael Card's song "That's What Faith Must Be." Faith is at the heart of our readings for this Sunday. Our reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians begins, after his greeting the Christians of Galatia, which greeting is inserted into this reading, not forming any part of the passage, as his "brothers and sisters," with "Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26).

It is through faith, the most loving response to which is baptism, that we are, in fact (i.e., really and truly), by the grace of God, born again as children of God and, hence, as brothers and sisters. This is accomplished by Holy Spirit. Grace is nothing other than God's sharing divine life with us- the very life shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the essence of which is love, or agapé (1 John 4:8.16).

Our being made children of God, which (theo)logically makes us sisters and brothers, is what overcomes everything that divides us: ethnicity, social status, even gender. Such is the radical equality of the children of God. It was perhaps the most subversive element of the Gospel in the early Church with regard to the Roman imperium. It is tempting, especially as Catholics, to say, "Wait a minute, isn't the Church a hierarchy?" and "Isn't hierarchy a living out of a fundamental inequality?" No doubt, it is how the Church's communion was understood, explained, and lived out over centuries, especially in a progressive manner during the Church's second millennium.

But the one priesthood of Jesus Christ contains within it two modes of participation: the priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood. It is often the case that the difference between these two distinct modes of participation in the Lord's priesthood is conceived of as one of degree and not of kind. But it is false to hold that those who share in the ministerial priesthood have a larger share of the one priesthood of Christ than do those who belong only to the priesthood of the baptized. In a very real way, the ministerial priest participates in both modalities.

The ministerial priest's participation in both modes does not give him a larger share, a bigger piece of the pie, as it were. In a sense, it entitles him to less pie- "let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant"(Luke 22:26). In the sacred order (i.e., hierarchy) of the People of God, the ministerial priest must be baptized before he can be ordained. Hence, his ordination is but a living out of his baptismal vocation. His ministerial call is to put his whole life, his entire being, at the service of his sisters and brothers. The word "minister" and the adjective "ministerial" denote one who renders service and service rendered, respectively. According to the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, "the distinction . . . between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need" (par. 32). In other words, you can't have one without the other. It is Jesus Christ himself who is the origin of the priesthood and the source of its two modalities, which together make the Church God's priestly people (1 Peter 2:9).

As then-Father Joseph Ratzinger noted way back in 1965, in an article entitled "The Pastoral Implications of the Episcopal Collegiality," in the early centuries of the Church individual Christian "communities called themselves adelphótes, i.e., community of brothers” (24). Taking this observation as our starting point, we can establish that the word adelphoi, typically translated as "brotherhood," is a Greek masculine noun literally meaning "of the same womb." According to this view, the Church is expressed as the brotherhood of the children of God born from the womb of the Church, which is the baptismal font. This is really nothing other than development of the idea Paul introduced in our passage from his Letter to the Galatians. One of the main things the subsequent history of the Church demonstrates is that genuine equality, far from eviscerating distinctions, is the catalyst for the celebration of diversity in unity, which "unity-in-diversity" has both its origin and end in the life of the Blessed Trinity.

In today's Gospel Jesus asks his disciples who people perceive him to be. Their answers basically tend towards Jesus not only being a prophet, but being the prophet who will precede the Messiah's coming, not the Messiah himself. Many Jews expected the return of the prophet Elijah prior to the advent of the Messiah, which prophecy constitutes the final words of the Jewish Scriptures:
Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, Before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day; He will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction (Mal. 3:23-24)
There is explicit evidence in the Gospels that Jesus, or at least the earliest Christians, saw John the Baptist as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Elijah would return in advance of the Messiah (see Matt. 11:11-15; Mark 9:11-13).

After his first query, the Lord asked his disciples the only the really matters- "who do you say that I am?" Peter answered "the Christ," meaning the Messiah, the anointed one, not the one who precedes him, or a great prophet. As Peter and rest of the twelve discovered, perhaps to their dismay, but maybe not: this profession has a profound consequence- if we follow Christ, we must follow him to the Cross and die if we want to live. Our lives, united with his, must in and through him become a daily sacrifice of service on the altar of the world. One of the three ways, as Roman Catholics, we express the mystery of our faith in the liturgy, which is what makes us, is- "We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again."

Indeed, our faith is a reality to be lived, not merely an ideal to be apprehended and endlessly ruminated upon- though apprehension and rumination can and should be done in the service of living. It is Jesus who both teaches and shows us how our faith, which is our life, is to be lived: by taking up the cross daily ("daily" being unique to St. Luke's Gospel) and following him.

As the priest who preached at Mass this morning here at Mount Angel Abbey asserted in his homily: Christ did not come to "insulate or isolate" us from suffering, but enter into it with us so that, through it, the world can be transformed and the reign of God established. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus sets forth the central paradox, or mysterion, of Christian faith: "whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24). Another word for mysterion is "sacrament." This means our very lives, collective and individual, are to be visible and tangible signs of this paradox, of Christ's presence in and for the world. Living this way is what often makes being a Christian a skándalon, sometimes even to our brothers and sisters.

Since here in the United States today is Father's Day, being one myself, as well as the son of a father by nature and a son of the Father by grace, it seems fitting to point out, in light of our readings, that the essence of fatherhood is living in a self-sacrificing way.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

"Misjudged your limits"

With everything happening I have to admit that over the course of the past week I haven't given blogging much of a thought. I began my first (of three) three week long annual residency for my doctorate of ministry here at Mount Angel Abbey in Mount Angel, Oregon. The town of Mount Angel where the Benedictine Abbey and seminary are located is in between Portland and Salem, Oregon. How the residency works is that we do one class per week, all day Monday-Friday. My first class was taught by Msgr. Paul McPartlan, S.T.L., D.Phil: "Communion Ecclesiology Today." Msgr McPartlan, who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster in Great Britain, currently holds the Carl J. Peter Chair of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America. Rather than try to give a synopsis of the course, let me just state that ecclesiology is a vast domain. Nonetheless, communion ecclesiology is not new to me. It is the theology in which I have been formed practically from the time I began reading theology and engaging in pastoral ministry.

St. Stephen, by Giacomo Cavedone

One of the benefits of being a resident student is that I have a lot of time for research and reading outside of class. This enabled to begin researching and even writing my major paper for ecclesiology, which is on the diaconate. As it turns out, Msgr McPartlan has done quite a bit of research and writing on the permanent diaconate. Especially given the uncertainty as to whether I have written thus far will survive in the final draft, I don't mind sharing an excerpt of what I have composed so far:
Section twenty-nine of Lumen Gentium is the final section of the third chapter of the constitution, which is entitled, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate.” Pointing to several ancient sources in the footnotes, this section begins: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.’” This fairly straightforward sentence is the key to understanding the sacramental nature of the diaconate and, hence, the key to resolving many, if not all, of the tensions generated by its restoration. Existing at the lower end of the hierarchy, in a very real sense, puts deacons in closer proximity to the laity. There are, of course, difficulties inherent in designating higher and lower in the Church when one considers the Council’s teaching in Lumen Gentium that “all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ” (par. 32). Nonetheless, it seems evident that there is significance to the placement of the Constitution’s section exclusively on the diaconate just prior to the beginning of the fourth chapter, which is entitled “The Laity,” especially when one considers section twenty-nine is preceded by the treatments of the episcopate and the presbyterate
It was on 18 June 1967, 49 years ago today, Bl. Pope Paul VI promulgated the Apostolic Letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem motu proprio, by which he permitted the establishment of a restored and renewed diaconate as permanent order of ministry in the Church, which could, with papal approval, be conferred on married men: on 1Only because I love The Cure and I heard this song played at the end of an episode of "Moone Boy" before leaving home last weekend, and perhaps because I miss my family a bit.

Also, yesterday was my Dad's birthday. It was his fifth birthday since his passing. Sunday is Father's Day. Sorry for the amalgam.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

"I was standing/You were there/Two world's collided"

A dear friend of mine, a published and recognized poet, recently lamented to me, after he wrote a bit of prose on-line and promptly found himself in the position a lot of us who do this quote often find ourselves in- being corrected, derided, attacked, etc., told me that henceforth he was sticking with poetry. As for me, I wish I could write poetry, but alas, I am about as prosaic as can be. As I've mentioned before, my genre is un-creative non-fiction.

Contrary to the complaints and criticisms of many, especially of many Christians, most of whom I am willing to grant complain and criticize in good faith, contemporary music in all its different expressions and modes, when done well, is poetry set to music. You see, it's as much about the lyrics and feel of a song as it is about anything. The contempt and scorn that is often poured on contemporary music veers into the realm of ironic humor when even the most formal and staid critics invoke Nietzsche, seeking to dismiss the vast realm of contemporary music as so much hedonistic Dionysianism. Unless you're as fragile and precious as Nietzsche, whose closest known rival in this regard was probably J.D. Salinger, all I can say is, "Gimme a break. Relax and listen."

Being married to a music theorist and classically-trained pianist keeps me on my toes as far as music is concerned. I've enjoyed broadening my musical horizons and interests the past few decades. Serving at a cathedral church for nearly two decades also aided in deepening and broadening my musical education. I think she has grown not only to tolerate, but even appreciate, some of the music that moves me.

As proof of the poetic power of good contemporary music, I offer INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart."

My wife and I will be married 23 years this Sunday. So a beautiful love song seems fitting for our very late Friday traditio this week. And so, the late Joe Cocker singing INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart," is our very late Friday traditio. I offer an apology, but only by way of explanation and not contrition, for not posting yesterday because, due to the fact I am leaving on our anniversary for 3 weeks, for my first doctoral residency, we celebrated last night.

When I consider all the ups and downs, the good times and bad, the sickness and health, none of which we foresaw on the day we stood before the altar of God and pledged our troth to each other, I can say that "they can never tear us apart." Centrifugal force pulls you together in the middle. Centrifugal force is how I think God's grace works in marriage- pulling us towards that mysterious center of love who is three and yet one. Driving home from our supper out last night, we discussed raising our children, the ups and downs, the elation and disappointment, the joys and fears. Paradoxically, life is good because it is sometimes bad.

If you can't cope with paradox and the ambiguity it produces it's impossible to remain a Christian. Paradox is love's close companion. Love is the heart of reality, which is why love cannot be reduced to a sickeningly sweet sentimentalism. Love costs you everything and then some because it's God drawing you to himself, changing you, transforming you into who you were created and redeemed to be; the technical name for this is sanctification. This is what Christ on the Cross means to me. I also believe it's why the earth spins at approximately 1,000 miles-per-hour.

I do not write this from a sentimental well of false humility- being married to me must be excruciating. More than twenty-three years ago our two worlds collided. They've been colliding ever since. I hope, as opposed to wishing, that one day, by the grace of God, our two worlds can enter a perfect, harmonious orbit. In the meantime, we continue to joyfully make our way together through this valley of tears:
We could live/For a thousand years/But if I hurt you/I'd make wine from your tears

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Some hopefully ecumenical thoughts on the Eucharist

In Sacrosanctum concilium, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Council fathers set forth their main reason for reforming the Roman Rite:
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people' (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism (par. 14)
I think it's difficult for Catholics today to imagine how un-involved the people were in the liturgy prior to the reforms that began in the late nineteenth century and culminated with the reform effected by Bl. Pope Paul VI after Vatican II. When it comes to Vatican II I am a firm adherent of Pope Benedict XVI's "hermeneutic of reform in continuity" (see Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia 2005).

It was in the centuries between the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council that the devotional life of the Church expanded exponentially. A couple of points before proceeding: there are certainly other views about this and I am not a Church historian. In my view, many of the devotions that comprised this expansion were substitutes for participating in the Sacred Liturgy. Things like praying the Rosary during Mass were fruits of this period. Without doubt, the Church is richer for possessing some of these devotions, but nothing is more central to the faith than the Eucharist, which elicits our full, active, and conscious participation. It is a very good thing to assist at Mass and to pray the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, but it is not good to do both at the same time: the Mass trumps everything.

You don't have to attend Mass very long or in a lot of parishes to notice that much of the time the laity are still reluctant to fully, actively, and consciously participate, even when encouraged to do so. The answer that many people propose to this is to simply go back to the way things were before, to the status quo ante. Even in the era of Pope Benedict XVI's Apostolic Letter, issued motu proprio, Summorum pontificum, which created a unique situation by establishing a Roman Mass in two forms: ordinary and extraordinary, with the Latin Mass from the Roman Missal last revised in 1962 being the extraordinary form, going back is not the answer. My personal expectation is that at some undetermined point in the future, not likely during the pontificate of Pope Francis, who, wisely, I believe, wants to defuse the divisive and often toxic liturgy wars, there will be a reform of the reform, resulting, again, to having one Roman Missal for the Latin Church. I expect one aspect of that reform will be celebrating the Mass ad orientum.

Prior to the reforms, not only in liturgy, but with regard to Scripture, the Church, the Church's relationship to the world, ecumenism, religious freedom, and inter-religious dialogue, orders, etc., it seems to me that the prevailing Catholic mindset with relation to the orders of nature and grace was more than a little mechanistic. This resulted in reducing sacraments to functioning ex opere operato, that is, to the strident insistence that the sacraments "work" automatically with no reference to the faith of the recipient(s). On the contrary, I think the effect of the sacraments in the life of the recipient has a lot to do with his/her faith and disposition. God doesn't withhold grace, but you can refuse it, or block it, if you will. While I agree that the sacraments have an objective character, they are not, in essence, juridical realities, which is the logical conclusion of a reductive ex opere operato mindset, but sacred mysteries that, by immersing us in the Paschal Mystery, draw us into the very life of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not, cannot possibly be, a mechanical function, a magic trick, or something that just happens. Such an understanding runs the risk of possibly positing the Eucharist as fact in the world without much significance.

I am convinced that grasping Christ's fourfold presence in the Eucharistic Liturgy, which culminates in him being present as bread and wine, is important to understand: he is present in the assembly of the baptized, in the person of the priest, and, in a manner similar to the bread and wine, in the proclamation of the Scriptures, which enter us through our ears (put down the missalette and listen; lectors proclaim well).

God does not force or impose himself on the world, or on us. Rather, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God gives himself to us. God's giving requires someone's receiving. In other words, no faith = no sacraments. The Lord himself asked, "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8) As with most aspects of orthodox Christian belief, there is a tension generated between our belief in the objective nature of the sacraments and the faith the sacraments both require and elicit. Relaxing that tension on one side or the other not only leads to theological defect and error, but to less than a Spirit-filled life, for life that falls short of the new, eternal life Christ died, rose, ascended, and sent the Spirit in order give us.

It seems to me that the matter of how the objective and subjective relate with regard to receiving Communion was very much in play during the Reformation controversies concerning the Eucharist. Thomas Cranmer ultimately settled on an understanding that posited Christ was truly present in Communion only when the recipient has faith. Of course, that is an oversimplified explanation of Cranmer's position, which, while limited, is certainly not a ridiculous position, as a certain contemporary Catholic "apologetic" mindset, which would likely overlook the premises that give rise to this conclusion, would probably hold. But if you really want to play that game, it's no more ridiculous than the aforementioned reductive view that the sacraments "work" in a strictly ex opere operato manner, which strikes me as mechanical and, therefore, reflects a view that very much needed to be reformed.

Discussing just these kinds of tensions in the recognition that, as a result of reacting to each other, both sides are prone to exaggerate, is the stuff of fruitful ecumenical effort, the kind aimed at unity, not more dialogue. When it comes to ecumenism, my personal struggle is with those Christian communities the center of whose worship is not the Lord's Supper.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

"follow his steps to the fullest truth of my Easter"

Readings:1 Kings 17:17-24; Ps 30:2.4-6.11-13; Gal 1:11-14a-15ac.16a.17-18; Luke 7:11-17

As the title of a very good book by Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, puts it, God is The God of Life. Our readings today, all of them, including our Psalm, declare this.

In our first reading from the First Book of Kings and in our reading from St. Luke's Gospel a widow has lost her only son to death. Added to the incomprehensible pain of a mother losing her child is the reality that in both of these instances the women, being widows, lost their sole means of support. This was a harsh reality for women then, as it remains for women in certain parts of the world today. It might mean something as drastic as becoming a beggar, or, perhaps turning to prostitution. It was a serious matter that we shouldn't simply dismiss by noting that there was no "social safety net" in ancient Israel, or in what was, in the first century, known as the Roman province of Palestine.

When we consider these two women in light of our Psalm response, we can say that, with their sons who were raised from the dead, they could proclaim with deep gratitude- "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me." At the end of the first reading the widow declares, after Elijah raised her son, "Now indeed I know that you are a man of God, and it is truly the word of the LORD that you speak" (1 Kings 17:24). Our Gospel today tells that after Jesus raised the widow's son from the dead and "gave him to his mother," those who witnessed the miracle proclaimed, "'A great prophet has arisen in our midst,' and 'God has visited his people'" (Luke 7:16).

God- who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- is not merely the God of life, God is life. Without God there is nothing. Without God there could be nothing. Why? Because nothing from nothing is nothing: 1,000,000 x 0 = 0.

Our second reading, from St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians, is also about God giving life. Presumably, the two men brought back to life by Elijah and Jesus respectively eventually died again. Paul writes in gratitude about what St. Augustine, writing to a wealthy Roman woman, Proba, called "the life that is truly life." Objectively, what God accomplished in the life of Saul of Tarsus was a greater miracle than either Elijah's raising the son of the widow of Zarephath or Jesus' raising the son of the widow of Nain:
For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it, and progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my race. But when God, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles
When he finally made it to Rome and appealed his death sentence to the emperor (I believe Paul thought he would be acquitted and then use Rome as his base for further missionary journeys), Paul was not spared. While I can imagine Paul being disappointed by his appeal being denied, I think it would only be his concern for the spread of the Gospel that caused it. How can this be? Because he had already died, been buried, and risen with Christ! After his conversion, Paul lived with the fearless freedom with which every Christian is called to live.

Taken by Lawrence, OP

A more contemporary example of this can be found in the witness of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine, Algeria, who were killed by Islamist militants 20 years ago this year. In the beautiful film made about them, Of Gods and Men, there is a particular scene in which Frère Luc Dochier, the doctor, who is old and in poor health, tells his abbot, Dom Christian, that he is firmly resolved to remain at the monastery despite the danger to his life, but he understands if others want to leave. At the end of the conversation, he declares himself a free man because he doesn't fear death. Therefore, he is free to remain serving the poor Muslims, as well as the odd wounded Islamist fighter, in the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel.

Seven monks, including Luc and Christian, were taken from the monastery in a nighttime raid conducted by the Islamist group fighting the Algerian government and were later executed in very much the same way we see ISIS murder people today.

We must not reduce the proclamation of the Good News to merely engaging in a discourse. We must embody, that is, incarnate the Good News. Then, like Elijah, on whose presence the widow of Zarapheth initially blamed the death of her son (and indirectly on God), like Paul, like the Cistercian martyrs of Algeria, when we speak we can speak with credibility and the power of God, which is the power of love and nothing else.

Today, 4 June, marks the 20th anniversary of the funeral and burial of what of the monks' remains were recovered. Muslim villagers, the ones the monks had served so diligently and sacrificially, to the point of laying down their lives, lovingly dug seven graves in the monastic cemetery of the then-abandoned monastery. Not long before being captured and then killed, the monastery's abbot, Dom Christian de Chergé, wrote at the end of one of his poems: "Finally, my friends, let's get it straight: I belong to him and follow his steps to the fullest truth of my Easter."

Several years ago, the husband of a friend from high school, who she was in the process of divorcing at the time, committed suicide. You can imagine the pain and perhaps the guilt she felt. One day she asked me how I could believe in life eternal, specifically in the resurrection. While I can't recall the exact words I used, I said something like, "In order for resurrection to be more than a wish it is necessary to experience it. That way it becomes a reality, a part of your experience." This is why those who have experienced the gift of new life, like Paul, with the Psalmist, can rejoice, singing: "You changed my mourning into dancing; O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks."

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"And who can say they've never stumbled"

This artists for this week's traditio need to no introduction. Together they're known as The Highwaymen. "Everybody Gets Crazy Now and Then" isn't a terribly complex song. It's one from the heart.

As the late Rich Mullins sang, "We're Not As Strong As We Think We Are."

Msgr. Giussani observed, “The more we discover our needs, the more we become aware that we cannot resolve them on our own. Nor can others, people like us. A sense of powerlessness accompanies every serious experience in our lives."

I take comfort in the fact that as I grew older I am never less alone than when I am alone. It's good to have friends, to have people who love you and care for you. Cherish those people because, frankly, you won't meet too many.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...