Saturday, July 31, 2021

Thoughts for a Saturday

Today is the last day of July. It seemed fitting, therefore, to post something here on Καθολικός διάκονος. Because, as I mentioned yesterday, mid-July to mid-August provokes the doldrums in me, it is also a time I find it hard to blog (is that a verb?). Whether in the Church or in the world, there is no shortage of things to write about.

I was tempted to post something about Pope Francis's motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes, restricting the celebration of the Mass and other rites according to the pre-Vatican II missal and other liturgical books. But apart from agreeing wholeheartedly with the Holy Father, including his reasons for restricting the use of the older Latin liturgical rites, I don't have much to say about it. This does not mean I am unsympathetic toward those who, in good faith, found benefit from these celebrations. I take heart in the fact that the pope gave much discretion to bishops in the regulation of the use of the liturgy in Latin, something Summorum Pontificum removed from them. This removal, as Pope Francis noted, has been to the overall detriment of both local churches and the universal church.

As Director of the Office of the Diaconate for my diocese, I am continuing to lead the process of forming a new class of aspirants. Aspirants are men who aspire to become deacons. According to the most recent iteration of the National Directory for the Formation, Life, and Ministry of Permanent Deacons in the United States, Apsirancy is now two years. Aspirancy is a time of discernment both on the part of the Church as well as on the part of the aspirant and his wife. With this change, formation for ordination to the diaconate as a permanent deacon is now a bit less than six years. Contrast this with the four years my class spent in formation from start to finish.

Discernment is critical. Discernment is a process. Discernment is a two-way street. If the Church does not call you, you are not called. Like other ecclesial vocations such as priesthood and religious life, it is important for someone who aspires to be a deacon to have enough exposure to deacons and the diaconate for the romance to wear off. Cutting to the chase, the magic of wearing an alb, stole, and dalmatic and sitting upfront in Mass wears off in about a month. A deacon is a servant. Hence, deacons do what needs doing according to their gifts, skills, knowledge, and availability. But if you don't like making coffee, setting up, and putting away chairs, the diaconate is probably not for you. The way I like to state it: Aspirancy is for those who think they aspire to be deacons.

Being on the committee for the planning and execution of my diocese's annual Pastoral Congress, along with the directors of the offices of Faith Formation, Hispanic Ministry, and Worship, I was asked to write an article for our diocesan newspaper on deacons as catechists. Below is a section of the article I have already shared publicly:
The vast majority of Catholic permanent deacons throughout the world, in the United States and in the Diocese of Salt Lake City are married. Because of this, deacons are uniquely called to simultaneously live out the sacraments at the service of communion: holy matrimony and holy orders. Deacon Owen Cummings dubbed these “the diaconal sacraments.”

Most married permanent deacons are also parents. Like all Christian parents, deacons with children, along with their spouses, have responsibility for being the first and main teachers of the faith. This helps them understand firsthand the challenges and opportunities involved with imparting an understanding of Christian faith in the hearts and minds of young people.

Being married clerics also ideally situates many deacons, often alongside their spouses, to prepare couples for marriage. Deacons and their wives should be involved in parish and diocesan marriage enrichment programs as both participants and presenters. Preparing parents for the baptism of infants and small children is also a fruitful catechetical service.

When done well, advocating canonically for those engaged in a marriage annulment process is a chance to offer compassionate pastoral care. Additionally, serving as a canonical advocate for someone involved in an often painful, sometimes lengthy, and far too often incomprehensible annulment process presents an opportunity to assist them in attaining a deeper understanding of and greater appreciation for the sacrament of matrimony.
After it appears in the Intermountain Catholic, I will post the article in its entirety.

Another reason for posting today was to see if I could still sit down and type something coherent and hopefully useful on the blank screen. Whether or not I accomplished that can only be judged by you, dear reader.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Summer sorrow

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but mid-July to mid-August is my least favorite time of the year. I guess because I'm strange, it's the time of year when my gloom gets the best of me. Generally, I do just fine in the wintertime. Reverse S.A.D.? Who knows.

Add to this the death of a dear friend... Yes, my friend, Kyle J. Sutherland, the same one I wrote about visiting to say goodbye last Friday, died last Sunday morning. His funeral was yesterday. Life is short, maintain your friendships. It's difficult but important.

As a result, our traditio for this solemn, hot final Friday of July is "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." This hymn was originally written as a poem by the Scottish poet and hymn-composer James Montogomery in 1855. Celts know how to do sorrow. Family names don't get more Scottish than Sutherland. It was not Montgomery who set it to music. Rather, it was transformed into a hymn in New York City by minister George Coles. Coles gave the hymn the title "A Stranger and His Friend."

This hymn remains in many Christian hymnals, especially in the United States and Great Britain, including in the official hymnbook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As it is handed down, while in Carthage jail, where he was killed, Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., asked one of those with him to sing "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." While not Mormon in origin, ever since, it has been included in the hymnbooks and sung among the Latter-day Saints.

"A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" was the closing hymn for Kyle's funeral yesterday.

Painting by Sarah Merkley

The version of the song I am using for our traditio is one recorded by David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain of that short-lived but monumentally influential band The New York Dolls. The reason they recorded "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" was in tribute to their friend and the Dolls' bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane.

Prior to Kane's passing, due to the efforts of Morrissey, the surviving members of The New York Dolls (Johansen, Kane, and Sylvain) were reunited in 2004. In the 30 or so years between the dissolution of the band and their one-show reunion, Kane joined the LDS Church. A Mormon filmmaker, Greg Whiteley, who was in Kane's ward (a ward is the local LDS congregation), made a documentary about Kane as he prepared for the reunion show. The movie that resulted is New York Doll.

Back home in Los Angeles a little more than three weeks after the Dolls' reunion show at Royal Festival Hall in London, thinking he had come down with a bad case of the flu, Kane went to the hospital. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died a few hours later. Whiteley's movie was not completed or shown until after Kane's passing. This video appears at the of the movie.

Kyle was a gifted musician. While the guitar was his main instrument, he also played piano and mandolin. He played in a number of bands growing up. Given his tastes, I think he would approve of this version as something of my blogging tribute to him. This song certainly captures the difficulties he experienced in the last few years of his life.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Jesus gives

John 6:1-15

This week's Gospel reading, along with those for four of the next five Sundays (on Sunday, 15 August the Solemnity of the Assumption supersedes the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time; the Gospel for the celebration of Our Lady's Assumption is taken from Luke), is from the Gospel According to Saint John. Despite being taken from a different Gospel, not even from one of his fellow Synoptics (Matthew & Luke), our reading for today is a sort of continuation of our readings from Mark from the previous two Sundays.

In last week's Gospel passage, after crossing the Sea of Galilee for some peace and quiet only to find that the crowds had to beat him to his intended destination, Jesus, seeing they were like sheep without a shepherd, taught them. According to the inspired author of Mark, he taught for so long that it grew late and the people were hungry. In Mark's Gospel, this is when the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 occurs. Instead of sticking with the Gospel According to Saint Mark, which is the shortest of the four canonical Gospels, during Year B of the Sunday lectionary, the Church switches to Saint John's Gospel for five weeks. Again, this will be disrupted this year by the Solemnity of the Assumption.

Not only are all five Gospel readings from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-first Sundays in Ordinary Time during Year B of the Sunday lectionary taken from John's Gospel, but each is also taken from the sixth chapter of that Gospel. The portion of the sixth chapter covered on these Sundays is known as Jesus's "Bread of Life discourse." The striking thing about this discourse is the nature of the language placed on Jesus's lips- but his shocking words come will be heard in subsequent weeks.

Unlike last week's relatively low-key passage from Mark, today's Gospel tells about a miracle and a rather spectacular one at that!

Interestingly, our reading from John's Gospel mentions that the Jewish feast of Passover was near. Of course, Passover is the major Jewish Feast. Passover celebrates the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Passover is about freedom. Today's Gospel is about freedom, which is primarily not freedom from but freedom for.

The inspired author lets us in on an important secret. The secret is that Jesus knows what he is going to do but nonetheless asks Philip what can be done to feed the multitude. It is clear that, as in our passage last week from Mark's Gospel, Jesus, his disciples, and the crowd are in a deserted place. There is nothing nearby. Even if they were near to a town not only could they not afford the quantity of food needed but there would likely not have been enough available for purchase to feed that number of people. Despite this, Jesus still tells them to offer the people something to eat. In short, he asks them to do the impossible.

It is Andrew who notes that a member of the crowd, a boy, has five barley loaves and two fishes. He recognizes that it falls far short of the food needed to feed everyone. It may be significant that 5+2=7. In Biblical numerology, seven is the number of balance and perfection. At this, Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people recline. Then the food was distributed. After everyone ate their fill, at Jesus's instruction, what was leftover was gathered up. What was gathered filled twelve baskets. Like seven, 12 is a biblically significant number- the number of Jacob's (named by God Israel) sons and, hence, the number of the tribes of Israel.

Being freely given, nobody was compelled to eat the food. What led people to eat the food was their hunger. John's Gospel uses the feeding of the multitude as a way to bring into bold relief their (and by extension, our) existential hunger. Wasn't it just this that led the people in last week's Gospel to beat Jesus and his disciples to the deserted place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee as well as their attentive listening to Jesus's teaching, which lasted for a long time?

But what Jesus does is not bread and circuses. This is indicated by his refusal to be acknowledged as king by these people. Rather, he left them and went up the mountain by himself. By so doing, he freed not only himself but the crowd. Jesus does not coerce or manipulate, even by his miracles. He gives. What he gives is nothing less than his very self, body, blood, soul, and divinity, as we like to say.

Because it is given, what Jesus offers us cannot be earned. Our relationship with God through Christ is not an economy of exchange, a quid pro quo. The divine economy is a gift economy, an economy of grace. As a gift, it is simply offered. When truly given and received, a gift does not carry an expectation of reciprocity. In fact, the felt need to reciprocate ruins a well-given gift because it is not a gift that is really received. Gifts are freely offered and freely received. Gifts are gratuitous, like the abundance of food Jesus gave the crowd and the abundance we receive at the Lord's Table.

Friday, July 23, 2021

"Through the zero hour we'll walk"

Back to the Friday traditio... Why? Not sure. Inertia? Lack of creativity? Nostalgia? Melancholy?


Last night I received a message from the oldest daughter of one of my closest friends, Kyle. She asked me to call her Mom, my friend's wife, which I did right away. During the call, she explained that Kyle's kidneys are slowly failing and that he was home under hospice care. She told me she was calling all her husband's close friends.

A photo I snapped after my visit today

Like most middle-aged men, I don't have a lot of friends, that is, people with whom I hang out, do stuff with, etc. My close friends, then, are people to whom I was close decades ago. Even when it comes to those, I can count them on fewer fingers than I have on one hand.

My closest friend, Tim, after whom my oldest son is named, died less than two years after we graduated from high school. Another close friend, Steven, died when we were in junior high. I was one of his pallbearers. Steven's funeral Mass was my first exposure to the Catholic Church.

So, this afternoon, I drove about 50 miles to basically say goodbye to someone who means a lot to me. I hope to make it back to Kyle's house before he passes. He was too tired to really interact today. I had a nice visit with his wife and his 2 lovely daughters. He could hear us.

It was Kyle, an outstanding guitarist, who taught me what I know about guitar. It is a testament to his patience. You know those friends you used to sit up talking to all night about anything and everything? Yeah... I thought you did.

Our traditito for this hot, dry Friday in July is Peter Murphy's "Cuts You Up."

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Hiatus over- Jesus's simplicity

I've taken a few weeks' hiatus from blogging. It's funny, not once during that time did I consider giving up posting here. It was on 19 July 2006 that I began posting on this weblog (there's a word you don't read/hear much these days!). That was fifteen years ago this week! I actually began blogging on 16 August 2005. Between that day and the end of August 2005, I posted six times. It was almost a year before I posted again. The title of my 19 July 2006 post? "How Occasional?"

These days I post less frequently, that is, more occasionally than I once did. Normally, I try to put up a Friday traditio and either my homily (on the Sundays that I preach) or a reflection on the Sunday readings on those weeks when I don't preach. Once in a while, I will post on a topic of interest or when I feel I have something worth writing down and perhaps sharing.

I don't mind mentioning again that this endeavor has been a vehicle of personal growth for me. The fact that what I write and post is public helps in that regard. Looking back, I have grown up a lot over the past decade-and-a-half. "Back in the day," as it were, I would've been all over Pope Francis's recent motu proprio on new norms governing the celebration of Mass according to 1962 Missale Romanum. These days, while I certainly have my thoughts on it, I don't feel the urge to share them, at least not quickly. Suffice it to say that I think the Holy Father's decision, based as it was on concerns expressed by bishops from throughout the world, is a good one.

Now, to this Sunday's readings, particularly today's Gospel from Saint Mark (6:30-34). It is tempting to set upon what Jesus says to his road-weary disciples: "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile." What is notable about this seemingly unremarkable passage is that their plan to retreat utterly fails!

Jésus enseigne le peuple près de la mer, by James Tissot, 1886-1896

Jesus and the Twelve set out in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, headed for the "deserted place" where they intended to "rest a while." Hearing they were leaving and apparently knowing their destination, many people were awaiting them when they arrived at the "deserted place." The deserted place wasn't deserted. Rather, it was teeming with people.

It's safe to say that my response to this would've been impatience, frustration, and perhaps a bit of anger. Jesus, seeing the people, "was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd." After all, there was a reason they made haste for Jesus's destination. They were seeking something, someone. And so, Jesus "taught them many things." In other words, he spoke to their desire, to that inchoate something that brought them to this otherwise deserted place.

Nonetheless, the inspired author of Mark does not write one word about what Jesus said to them on that occasion. The author does not recall/remember/compose a discourse to put on Jesus's lips. I think, rather, that this unspectacular episode is highlighted by Jesus, rather than castigating the people or impatiently shunning them, taking pity on them and taking time with them. After all, he is the Good Shepherd, n'est ce pas?

He doesn't wow them with soaring rhetoric or astound them by pulling off a spectacular miracle. In other words, he doesn't rob them of their freedom by manipulating them in any way. He simply speaks to them, to their desire, their restless seeking, inviting them to recognize/realize who he is: God in the flesh, God coming close, Emmanuel, God with us.

If we follow Mark's narrative beyond the verses that comprise our reading today, it seems Jesus speaks to the crowd for a long time. He does so despite being tired and ready to get some rest. He talks to them for so long that it grows late and people are hungry. Then comes the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

Note: this has a liturgical structure- Liturgy of the Word followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Like what he says to them, which is not even recorded, the meal, apart from there surprisingly being enough to feed everyone present, is a simple affair. "Noble simplicity" to make active, conscious participation easier was the reason for the reform of the Sacred Liturgy.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Year B Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 2:2-5; Psalm 123:1-4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

In thinking about our readings for today, it’s tempting to conclude that people, like those who dismissed and denigrated Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth, are thorns in our respective sides. I don’t think we should dismiss this too quickly while keeping in mind that the unnamed and unknown thorn to which Saint Paul refers is not just for his benefit but for his salvation.

It is in the ebb of flow of living, that is, in the ebb and flow of various relationships (i.e., marriage, parenting, siblings, friends, co-workers, parishioners) that we “practice” being Christians. Being a Christian is nothing other than living the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

It’s safe to say that in the course of a normal year, week, month, or even day we have multiple opportunities to put into practice what Christ teaches in terms of loving others as we love ourselves. This is particularly true when it comes to how I respond to those who seem to have no love for me. It is almost as safe to say that when it comes to loving our enemies, praying for them, and doing good to them, each of us probably fails as much or more as we succeed. The Good News is that because of Christ our failures don’t define us as long as we rely on God’s mercy and grace.

It is through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can make recourse to God’s mercy and grace. In this regard, it bears reminding ourselves that good works do not result in faith. Rather, faith results in good works. It is very important, even vital, to understand this!

Christians call faith, hope, and love the “theological virtues.” But the word “virtue” in this phrase is perhaps misplaced. In normal usage, virtue is acquired through habit. Faith, hope, and love, by contrast, are graces- unmerited gifts from God. Hope is the flower of faith and love, caritas/charity, is their fruit.

To be a person of faith is to be someone who, despite her failures, continues to place her trust in God through Jesus Christ. Christianity is not, as many suppose, a self-help program. While it is important to realize the role of the spiritual disciplines in acquiring virtue through habit, it is of fundamental importance to grasp that you can’t perfect yourself, try as you might. As anyone who has ever tried can tell you, there is nothing more self-defeating and ultimately discouraging than trying to perfect oneself.

A Christian is someone who knows s/he needs Jesus Christ. It is certainly easier to confess Jesus as Savior than it is to profess him as Lord. But “If you want to be transformed by the Messiah, the first step is recognizing the Messiah in your midst.”1

Our Gospel today brings into relief an aspect of miracles sometimes overlooked: faith precedes the miracle. If you pay close attention, Jesus’s attitude toward his own miracles can best be described as ambivalence.

Just like you can’t argue someone into faith using apologetical means and methods, miracles don’t usually result in faith. And true faith does not demand miracles. Giving birth as it does to hope, even in the most distressing circumstances, like the one we heard about in last week’s Gospel: the death of the young daughter of Jairus the synagogue official.2 Hope, the flower of faith, lies beyond optimism.

During Jesus's delay, while he healed the woman with the hemorrhage, Jairus’s daughter died. Some people who had been at his house came and said: “Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?”3 In his moment of despair, Jairus heard Jesus say: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”4 As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, in the wake of death faith is hard, sometimes even impossible. It’s not so much that faith makes miracles as it is that faith is the miracle- hope is the result.

Isn’t it a miracle whenever I respond gracefully to an attack? Bearing a wrong patiently, too, is miraculous. Persisting in faith in the face of disappointments and setbacks is also miracle.

Jesus is God incarnate. But the inspired author of Mark highlights a fact that is present throughout his Gospel: it is not intuitively obvious to everyone who encounters him that this Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, is the Lord. While conjuring a miracle may invoke wonder and curiosity, it does not often produce faith.

As the Lord said to Paul: “power is made perfect in weakness.”5 Hence, Jesus’s most powerful moment did not occur as he "owned" the scribes, and Pharisees in a dispute, or healed a sick person, or while casting out a demon, or even when he raised someone from the dead. His most powerful moment is hanging on the cross. Not only is there no resurrection without death, but there is no resurrection without crucifixion.

Those who live by faith know through experience the reality that power is perfected in weakness. In light of this, Christians need to understand the difference between genuine persecution and thwarted self-assertion, especially when that assertion is aimed at dominance. If you listen to Jesus, he sometimes tells things you don’t want to hear and asks you to do things you don’t particularly want to do.6

As the divine maxim “power is made perfect in weakness” shows, Christianity is a religion of paradox. The central paradox of Christianity, according to Jesus, is that you save your life by losing it for the sake of the gospel.7

1 John Martens, The Word on the Street, Year B: Sunday Lectionary Reflections, 95.
2 See Mark 5:21-43.
3 Mark 5:35.
4 Mark 5:36.
5 2 Corinthians 12:9.
6 The Word on the Street, 95.
7 Mark 8:35.

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...