Preaching Like the Pope in Nine Easy Lessons

Francis preaching 3Within the context of a universal call to proclaim the Gospel by all the baptized, the Pope now turns his attention to the liturgical homily.  He refers to the homily as “the touchstone” for judging a minister’s (he specifies “pastor” but given what he is about to say, it would apply as well to all bishops, deacons and presbyters) “closeness and ability to communicate to his people.”  And so he begins his short course on homiletics.

Lesson #1:  The Homily as Experience, Encounter, and Source of Renewal

Youth-PossibilityPope Francis reminds all homilists of the potential of the homily.  Rather than something to be dreaded by all concerned, the homily should be “an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.”  The initiative is all on God’s part: God wishes to communicate with God’s People, using the preacher as His instrument.  The homily is, therefore first and foremost, God’s loving outreach to His People.  Once the preacher thinks he is preaching his own message, the homily is doomed.  This is a great comfort to preachers!  A homily is not just another speech we might devise; it is an attempt to find God’s will and God’s words.  Our focus is on God and on the People: we’re just a go-between trying to help the connection between the two.

Lesson #2:  The Liturgical Context

Francis preaching 2The homily occurs during a liturgical celebration, and this further assists the homilist.  Pope Francis quotes Pope John Paul II: “the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the Eucharistic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people, a dialogue in which the great deeds of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the covenant are continually restated.”  But Pope Francis goes further: “The homily has special importance due to its Eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which leads up to sacramental communion.”  We are told in the liturgical books that when the scriptures are read in Church, it is Christ who proclaims: in the homily during the Eucharist, Christ continues that conversation.  Furthermore, the homily for us is not the only action of Christ during the liturgy!  The pope reminds us that, even though the human skill of the preacher might permit him to drone on and on (well, OK, so the Pope doesn’t say “drone”; but he does say that the homily “should be brief” because if it goes on too long it will affect “the balance and the rhythm” of the liturgy.  Since the homily is itself liturgical, it should “guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist.”

Lesson #3: Talk With Your Mother

mother and childIn a lovely passage (##139-141) the Pope reminds us that the Church is a mother, and so “she preaches in the same way that a mother speaks to her child, knowing that the child trusts that what she is teaching is for his or her benefit, for children know that they are loved.”  But he also points out that the good mother listens to the concerns of her children and learns from them.  The preacher is “to hear the faith of God’s people. . . . The language is a kind of music which inspires encouragement, strength and enthusiasm.”  All of this should be found through “the closeness of the preacher, the warmth of his tone of voice, the unpretentiousness of his manner of speaking, the joy of his gestures.”  Pope Francis speaks of the great dialogue Christ had with the people of his day, a dialogue he wishes to continue.  The secret to Christ’s approach, he says, “lies in the way Jesus looked at people, seeing beyond their weaknesses and failings.”  He is full of the joy of his relationship with his Father.

Lesson #4: Choose Words of the Heart

holding the lightOnce again the pope uses the language of dialogue, which “is so much more than the communication of a truth.  It arises from the enjoyment of speaking and it enriches those who express their love for one another through the medium of words.”  This enjoyment is not simply in “objects” but in the persons participating in the dialogue.  The pope cautions that we are not dealing with “abstract truths or cold syllogisms” but through the beauty of images and wonder, a source of hope from the joyful and practical exercise of the love they have received.  “The challenge of an inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values.  Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart” (#143).   Words mediate meaning, but the right words also join two hearts: God and the People.  It falls to the preacher, who should know both God and the People so well, to find the right words to build up this loving covenant of Heart to hearts.

Lesson #5: Reverence for Truth

preachingorgheader1Turning his attention to the actual preparation of the homily, the pope encourages a “prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity.”  Almost apologetically, the pope says, “I wish to stop for a moment and offer a method of preparing homilies.”  He knows that most preachers are so busy with pastoral responsibilities that it is often hard to find the time to devote to this proper preparation.

Nonetheless, I presume to ask that each week a sufficient portion of personal and community time be dedicated to this task, even if less time has to be given to other important activities. . . .  A preacher who does not prepare is not ‘spiritual’; his is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received.

After prayer, our entire attention is to be given to the biblical text, “which needs to be the basis of our preaching.”  In great humility, we are to pause often and seek a greater understanding of the text.  This is what the Pope calls “reverence for the Truth.”  “To interpret a biblical text, we need to be patient, to put aside all other concerns, and to give it our time, interest and undivided attention.”  The pope is clear: if you’re looking for quick results, you are going about it all wrong.  “Preparation for preaching requires love.  We only devote periods of quiet time to the things or the people whom we love; and here we are speaking of the God whom we love, a God who wishes to speak to us. . . . ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening'” (1 Sam 3:9).

Next, we must understand the meaning of the words we read.  However, the pope says, while we do want to use all of our critical tools in analyzing the text, the single most important thing is to find its principal message, “the message which gives structure and unity to the text.”  The preacher should also use the text as it was intended:

If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions; it it was written as a summons to praise or missionary outreach, let us not use it to talk about the latest news.

Lesson #6: Personalize the Word

kneeling_in_prayer1The preacher needs a “great personal familiarity with the word of God.”  We must approach the word “with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and about a new outlook. . . .”

It is good for us to renew our fervor each day and every Sunday as we prepare the homily, examining ourselves to see if we have grown in love for the word which we preach. . . .  If we have a lively desire to be the first to hear the word which we must preach, this will surely be communicated to God’s faithful people. . . .”

This wonderful examination of conscience helps us to avoid the anger of Jesus who “was angered by those supposed teachers who demanded much of others, teaching God’s word but without being enlightened by it. . . . The apostle James exhorted: ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (Jas 3:1).  The word of God must become incarnate in the daily life of the preacher.

The preacher’s attitude is one of total humility and dependence upon the Holy Spirit: “the Holy Spirit places on his lips the words which he could not find by himself.”

Lesson #7: Spiritual Reading: Lectio Divina

Fully integrated into the search for the scripture passage’s principal message is the prayerful reading of scripture and finding its application in the preacher’s own life.   The pope offers a wonderful series of questions for reflection:

  1. What does this text say to me?
  2. What is it about my life that you want to change by this text?
  3. What troubles me about this text?
  4. Why am I not interested in this?
  5. What do I find pleasant in this text?
  6. What is it about this word that moves me?
  7. What attracts me?
  8. Why does it attract me?

Lesson #8:  An Ear to the People

Pope Francis, as we have seen so many times in the past, always speaks in terms resonating with the ideas of the Second Vatican Council.  Consider the following citations from the beginning of Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes:

1. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. . . .

4. The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. . . .

Now hear Pope Francis (citing Pope Paul VI’s landmark Evangelii Nuntiandi) as he exhorts preachers to have “an ear to the people.”  “A preacher has to contemplate the word, but he also has to contemplate his people.  In this way he learns ‘of the aspirations, of riches and limitations, of ways of praying, of loving, of looking at life and world, which distinguish this or that human gathering,’ while paying attention ‘to actual people, to using their language, their signs and symbols, to answering the questions they ask.’

The pope notes that we need to truly understand what really affects people’s lives: their experience is what matters, and the pope remarks that “we should never respond to questions that nobody asks”!  The homily is more than a simple challenge of current affairs: we are to respond to human experience “in light of the Gospel”: challenging what needs to be challenged, affirming what is to be affirmed.

Lesson #9: Homiletic Resources

Here the pope challenges preachers to attend to the technical aspects of homily preparation and delivery.  While the primary focus is always spiritual, even these technical components have a spiritual foundation.  He first lists “imagery”: how well do we find and use appropriate images in our homilies?  Not merely examples, which appeal to the mind, but images, which appeal to the whole person.  Again citing Paul VI, preaching should be “simple, clear, direct, well-adapted.”  He cautions that many preachers fall into the trap of using the technical and theological words learned through years of formation and education; we must adapt our language accordingly to be understood.  It must be well-organized as well: there should be “thematic unity, clear order and correlation between sentences.”  Finally, the homily must be positive.  We should focus less on what should not be done, but with what we can do better.  “Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity.”  Let me recap the resources the pope highlights:

  1. Use of imagery more than examples
  2. Simple language
  3. Clearly presented
  4. Well-Adapted
  5. Thematic Unity
  6. Clear Order and Correlation in Structure
  7. Positive

That’s it!  Preaching Like the Pope in Nine Easy Lessons!

“How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive.”


Preaching Like the Pope, Part One

Francis preaching 4Want to preach like the Pope?

Many images have been filling ecclesial cyberspace over the last few days: Pope Francis sending a video to a Kenneth Copeland charismatic rally of Evangelical Christians in Texas, the creation of new Cardinals from around the world, his homilies, his Angelus message and so much more.  During the Angelus this weekend, for example, the Pope observed that “a community does not belong to the preacher, but to Christ”.

Francis to EvangelicalsPope Francis has become renowned for his preaching: not just in his content, but in the way he does it.  Want to preach like the Pope?  Francis gives us all a homiletics class in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, so I’d like to take a closer look at that section of the Exhortation.

The pope’s teaching on the homily is part of a grand chapter on “The Proclamation of the Gospel.”  The chapter consists of four major sections, each of which demands significant attention: “The Entire People of God Proclaims the Gospel,” “The Homily,” “Preparing to Preach,” and “Evangelization and the Deeper Understanding of the Kerygma.”  The homily is the heart of the chapter.  But this heart beats within the larger body of the Gospel, so let’s look a bit at the first section of the chapter.  That will be the subject of this blog post; I’ll follow up with another on the homily itself.

The Entire People of God Proclaims the Gospel

DisciplesPope Francis begins by reminding his readers that “the Church. . . is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God.”  Acknowledging the Church as a Trinitarian mystery, the pope emphasizes that “she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary.”

Everything about the Church begins with God: not simply a human desire for community, but God’s offer of communion and eternal life, an offer that the pope stresses “for everyone”:

Jesus did not tell the apostles to form an exclusive and elite group.  He said: “God and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).  St. Paul us in the people of God, in the Church, “there is neither Jew or Greek. . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Not long ago, reports emerged from several locations about bishops who were objecting to certain songs and hymns on theological grounds.  One example was the song, “All are Welcome.”  The apparent argument is that, in fact, NOT “all are welcome.”  I do not critique the musical appropriateness of certain hymns and songs, but certainly a theology which suggests that the Church is not a place where “all are welcome” is certainly flawed.  All of us are sinners, and all of us need the “hospital” that is the Church.  And, despite recent liturgical translations to the contrary, Christ did indeed die and rise for all.  To suggest that his soteriological mission was selective in intent and effect is likewise flawed.  This is not a facile “universalism”; rather it speaks to the scope and intent of Christ’s kenosis and mission.

The great themes of the Second Vatican Council have always formed the foundation of this pope’s teaching.  Consider this paragraph from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, #40:

Coming forth from the eternal Father’s love, founded in time by Christ the Redeemer and made one in the Holy Spirit, the Church has a saving and an eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the future world. But she is already present in this world, and is composed of men, that is, of members of the earthly city who have a call to form the family of God’s children during the present history of the human race, and to keep increasing it until the Lord returns. United on behalf of heavenly values and enriched by them, this family has been “constituted and structured as a society in this world” by Christ, and is equipped “by appropriate means for visible and social union.” Thus the Church, at once “a visible association and a spiritual community,” goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does. She serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family.

Now, here is Pope Francis, fleshing out that last sentence:

Being Church means being God’s people, in accordance with the great plan of his fatherly love.  This means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity.  It means proclaiming and bring God’s salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way.  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.

The Pope then turns to the role of culture in evangelization, stressing that no one culture incarnates the Gospel; rather, “Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it.”  He speaks of the “logic of the incarnation,” the whole design and effect of God’s becoming human: “Evangelization joyfully acknowledges these varied treasures which the Holy Spirit pours out upon the Church.  We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous. . . .  it’s content is transcultural.”

hulaSuch a teaching raises many questions, challenges and opportunities, of course.  Take just one example from the so-called “liturgy wars”: the elements of liturgy are nothing if not culturally expressive!  While a particular culture may find meaning through particular forms of chant or movement, other cultures — expressing the same religious truths — would be better served by their own cultural lens.  For example, a European-based community might find Gregorian chant and processions evocative and full of meaning.  A Hawaiian community might find mele and hula better suited to expressing the richness of Christianity.  The gesture of striking one’s breast as a sign of penitence has meaning in certain cultures, but in certain African traditions the same gesture is a sign of threat and challenge: to prescribe one gesture over another would make no cultural sense and might actually serve to distort religious truth!  The Pope puts its this way:

We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment in their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.  It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.

The pope then turns to the notion that all are missionary disciples, each and every baptized person.  Furthermore, “all of us are called to mature in our work as evangelizers.  We want to have have better training, a deepening love and a clearer witness to the Gospel. . . . Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing.”

Finally, Pope Francis presents a strong reflection on “the evangelizing power of popular piety.”  More than simple expressions of faith, forms of personal piety incarnate powerful theological richness: “Nor is it devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning, and in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum.”  It appeals to the heart as well as the head.

Francis preachingIn his treatment of personal testimony and the charisms available to each one as an evangelizer, the pope stresses a mufti-faceted approach: through the specific forms of each culture and the varied means of communication: “We should not think, however, that the Gospel message must always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content.  This communication takes place in so many different ways that it would be impossible to describe or catalogue them all, and God’s people, with all their many gestures and signs, are its collective subject.”

It is within this context that the Pope turns his attention to the subject of the liturgical homily.  So do we.

Francis preaching 3


A Great Book for Prayer

Sorry for the absence from the blogosphere, but I’ve been engaged in several different things that hit at once.  However, I’m very happy to return now with a warm recommendation for a great gem of a book by Diana Macalintal.

Macalintal Work of Your HandsDiana has added to her repertoire The Work of Your Hands: Prayers for Ordinary and Extraordinary Moments of Grace (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014).  As Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, writes in his blurb for the book: “Every feel tongue-tied in prayer?  Ever wonder what you could say to God and how you could say it?  Let Diana Macalintal help. . . .”  Jim, as always, is so right.  This is a wonderful collection of prayers covering a beautiful array of situations, and my only complaint (Diana, are you reading this?) is that it ends too soon!  I hope that there will be many follow-up collections to come.

Remembering the Shoah

We’ve all heard the number and what it signifies.  At least six million Jews were slaughtered during the Nazi reign in Germany.  Now, a 1,250 page book has just been released which simply, dramatically, and graphically drives home just some of the impact of the Shoah.  Phil Chernofsky has published And Every Single One Was Someone.  Take a look at these pictures from the book and read more about it HERE.

o-AD-900 o-ASLDJF-900

There are no names in the entire book; rather, it simply lists the word “Jew”: “and every single one was someone.”  The book itself has garnered mixed reviews from some who praise it’s impact and others who say that many of the victims were not nameless and that to approach the project with total anonymity denies their personhood.  However one feels about the book, it nonetheless captures the stunning and shocking impact of the Shoah.

img_concilioThis got me thinking again about the landmark document from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate.  This year will mark the 49th year since it was promulgated, and although it has made a huge impact, so much more remains to do!  A few years ago I was honored to give a short talk to an annual gathering of Jews and Catholics who were part of an ongoing dialogue.  Here’s what I said that night:

The Significance of Nostra Aetate 45 Years Later

Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D.

            I have been asked to do in a few minutes what could not possibly be done in a lifetime of study and reflection.  What can I say in so brief a time that has not already been said and written so much more eloquently by so many, some of whom are with us here this evening, during the forty-five years since the promulgation of this ground-breaking document at the Second Vatican Council?  I will attempt two modest things: first, to reflect on the nature of Nostra Aetate as a product of the Council itself; and second, to consider once again the most basic implications of the document on our own lives and ministries.

Nostra Aetate, in the final analysis, is not the work of one person, as influential as so many individuals were in its inception and development: John XXIII himself, Jules Isaac, Augustin Bea, to name just a few.  Rather, the document, after years of often heated debates, is the result of the collective work of the Catholic bishops of the world gathered together in solemn Council.  But what led to this realization by the bishops of the Council?  What events brought them together in the first place, and why did they come?  The newly-elected Pope, John XXIII announced his intention to hold a Council in January 1959, but what led him to that point?

vatican iiIf we were asked today to attend a once-in-a-lifetime worldwide conference to determine the future directions of Judaism or the Catholic Church, how would we prepare for that event?  We would look back over the events of our lives, to those experiences good and bad which shaped us and challenged us and blessed us.  Such a gathering would give us a chance to correct, to inspire, to respond and to lead our people in new directions while valuing the treasures of our Tradition.  This precisely what the bishops did as they prepared for the Council.  As the Second Vatican Council opened in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 11, 1962, what experiences did those bishops bring with them?  The average age of the Catholic bishops assembled at the Council from 1962 to 1965 was somewhere around 60 – 65 years of age, in other words, their lives and the journey of the 20th century overlapped.  They were teenagers during the horrors of that first World War, “the war to end all wars”; they were young men during the emergence of successive totalitarian regimes, only slightly older during a worldwide economic collapse, and many of them had served as priests during the Second World War and Shoah (one young Polish bishop at the Council would later write that World War II was “an abyss of violence, death and destruction never before seen in the world” – Pope John Paul II, 2004 World Day of Peace).  Before many of them were out of their 40’s, the nuclear age had begun, followed by the terribly misnamed “Cold” War.  It’s helpful to remember that the Cuban Missile crisis occurred during that first session of the Council, and that World War II itself had been over for less than 20 years.  In short, if you were a Catholic bishop in 1962, it’s fair to ask: Where were you and what were you doing in 1942?   The great Pope John XXIII himself models the kind of thing I’m talking about: he spent a year as a draftee in the Italian army in 1901, returned to the Army during World War I as a priest-chaplain, literally serving in the trenches.  He entered the diplomatic service where he spent ten years in Bulgaria, followed by nearly ten more years in Turkey, including most of World War II, where he worked with people like Chaim Barlas to rescue as many Jews as they could from Nazi deportation.  Before the end of the War he was in France working on issues of relief and recovery.  My point is this: The Second Vatican Council was no pious gathering of religious men who were detached from the challenges of the real world.  The reason that Pope John called the Council in the first place was so that all the bishops from around the world could together tackle the very real life and death issues that were affecting all people, not just Catholics.  This was not some simple superficial ceremonial event; it was, in fact, an attempt to make faith in God something transformative so that the world would never again find itself in the midst of the tragedies of the first half of the 20th century.  It is in this light, then, that the significance of Nostra Aetate must be seen.

ShoahIt is in this light, then, that we find Nostra Aetate so profound.  The statement that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy” could sound rather obvious to some readers today, but for those bishops, this was a realization formed out of the real agonies endured by so many within their own lifetimes.  They came to recognize that truth and holiness are not the province of any one church or faith, or form of government or economic system, and that it is only in recognizing this fundamental truth that healing and peace may be found.  In a world still reeling from successive wars and atrocities, the bishops found a greater appreciation of our shared scriptures, especially St. Paul’s famous insight that “God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made” (NA 4; Rom 11:28-29).  They proclaimed clearly that as a world church, she deplores all hatred, persecution and anti-Semitism.

The significance of Nostra Aetate lies in its challenge to all of us living and serving 45 years later.  Nearly all of the bishops who promulgated the document have now passed into eternal life, but we remain.  They brought their own life experiences, and the experiences of their people, into the Council aula, with the hope of transforming the world into a place where all could live in peace and justice.  That mission has not changed for us.  We too must bring our own experiences to bear on the life of the world that still suffers from poverty, war, discrimination, injustice, violence and death.  In what ways, concretely, can we search together for Truth and Holiness?  In what ways, concretely, can we work together – as sisters and brothers in a shared heritage – to end all hatred and persecution?  Just as the bishops then together hammered out a document, a mission, to lay before the world, we “in our own time” (NOSTRA AETATE) must do the same.

Todah rabah

Shalom uvracha!

שלום וברכה

Poetry and Shabbat: Living Life to the Full

poetryThere is a wonderful piece over on Huffington Post by Bryan Berghoef entitled, “The World Needs More Poetry.”  In his reflection on Michael Casey’s book “Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina,” Berghoef observes, “Poetry, like meditation, can quiet us.  Slow us down.  Create a calming effect on our normally rushed way of being.”

The great spiritual practices encourage us to pay attention. A poem, at a different level from other types of writing, also invites us to pay attention. To be aware. To allow the flow of words to wash over us, the images to flicker on the screen of our mind, the senses evoked to become engaged. And yet, poetry can go even deeper than that. Casey reminds us that poetry can “trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness.” It comes at us sideways instead of straight on. It catches us by surprise. It sneaks up on us from behind and suddenly we become aware of a presence, sense or idea that we hadn’t seen coming.

Reading such a poem slowly, repeatedly, a line or phrase at a time, can evoke in us such a deep and profound experience that opens our eyes, widens our perspective, deepens our own moment-to-moment experience. Such reading is a spiritual practice that we could all use more of. As Henri Nouwen put it: “Spiritual reading is food for our souls. We receive the word, ruminate on it, digest it and let it become flesh in us.”

ShabbatAll of this has wonderful possibilities for the human person.  In particular, it can connect us to the Jewish wisdom of “shabbat” (שַׁבָּת).  We Christians often oversimplify the richness of this tradition of “rest.”  There is so much more to it!

The term shabbat is not used during the actual creation accounts in Genesis, although we are told that YHWH rested on the seventh day.  Shabbat emerges more specifically during the sojourn in the desert following the Israelites flight from Egypt.  YHWH provides enough manna on five days of the week to feed the people for each day.  On the sixth day, a double portion of manna was provided so that the people would not have work to gather the manna on the seventh day, the day of shabbat.  This day of rest, modeled after YHWH’s rest on the seventh day, was to give people and animals an opportunity to rest and recuperate in order to face the coming week refreshed in every way, physical and spiritual.  It is a day, not of legalistic restrictions, but for “recreation” of body and spirit, a pursuit of higher things.  It is not simply a day off from work, it is a day freed from work in order to nurture the soul.  In Jewish poetry and music, shabbat is often referred to as a queen or a bride.

We can all benefit from the poetry of shabbat in our lives, can’t we?  Especially in our own day, inundated with activities and errands and responsibilities and demands, the great gift of restful contemplation can seem almost too good to be true.  I know that’s true in my life, and I would guess it is in others as well.  As Berghoef writes, “The world needs more poetry”; indeed, the world needs shabbat.

Jessica PowersBishop Robert Morneau, a renowned poet in his own right, has frequently encouraged others to discover the poetry of Jessica Powers.  Perhaps the following might inspire our own poetic entry into shabbat:


On a dark night
Kindled in love with yearnings –
Oh, happy chance! –
I went forth unobserved,
My house being now at rest.
– St. John of the Cross

How does one hush one’s house,
each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,
the rooms made restless with remembered laughter
or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,
the stairs that vacillate from up to down,
windows that bring in color and event
from countryside or town,
oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?

The house must first of all accept the night.
Let it erase the walls and their display,
impoverish the rooms till they are filled
with humble silences; let clocks be stilled
and all the selfish urgencies of day.

Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.
Caution the doors against both foes and friends,
and try to make the windows understand
their unimportance when the daylight ends.
Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny the passages their aimless to and fro.
Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.
How well repaid that tenant is, how blest
who, when the call is heard,
is free to take his kindled heart and go.

Shabbat Shalom!

shabbat 1

Rush to Judgment?: Sin and Lifestyle — UPDATED

original-sin-garden-of-edenThe social media have been abuzz over the last few days about the story of the Catholic school teacher, single and pregnant, who was fired from her job for violating the morals clause of her contract.  A couple of the better commentaries have been offered by Deacon Greg Kandra at his Deacon’s Bench and Cathleen Kaveny  at dotCommonweal.  At about the same time, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, a Catholic, died tragically.  When it was announced that he would have a Catholic funeral, certain Catholics opined that, because they believed Hoffman to be a “grave public sinner”, he should be denied a Catholic funeral.  My buddy Deacon Greg responded in a CNN opinion piece entitled “Why Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves a Catholic funeral.”

UPDATE: I would be remiss if I did not also include the canonical opinion of Dr. Ed Peters at his blog; read it here.  He is expressing in canonical terms some of the same issues I hope to raise here.

Even before these stories broke, I had been thinking about sin and its effects; these news stories gave a poignant focus to the reflection.  Consider a recent post on the Huffington Post Religion site, “What the Christian Right Gets Wrong About Sin” by Micah J. Murray.  In particular, he asks, “What, in your mind, is sinful?”  Mr. Murray discusses the common tendency to respond to this question with a list of sexual activities, as if “sin” equates to “sex” in the minds of many people.  If “all politics is local,” it seems that for many, “all sin is sexual.”  I don’t want to get into the details of his article; I’m much more interested by the questions themselves.  What DO we think of when we hear the terms “sin” or “sinful”?  In a sense it’s like the old word association exercise, “Say the first word that comes to mind.”

Let’s look at some of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about sin.  In a chapter on “The Dignity of the Human Person,” we find some interesting things.

 THE DEFINITION OF SINcanon-law-book-1024x680

1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”

1850 Sin is an offense against God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.” Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become “like gods,” knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus “love of oneself even to contempt of God.” In this proud self- exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.


1852 There are a great many kinds of sins. Scripture provides several lists of them. The Letter to the Galatians contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. . . .”

1853 . . . . The root of sin is in the heart of man, in his free will, according to the teaching of the Lord: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.” But in the heart also resides charity, the source of the good and pure works, which sin wounds.


1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother. . . .”

sinner1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

In looking again at the case of the Montana Catholic school teacher, we are told that her employment was terminated because her contract obliged her to live her personal and professional life in accordance with Catholic moral teaching.  Fair enough.  But for me, here’s the question: Does a “sin” equate to a “way of life”?  All of us are sinners; that’s a tenet of Catholic moral theology.  When Pope Francis was asked by an interviewer who he is, his first response was to identify himself as a sinner.  So, when an employer puts such language in its employment contract, is it with an expectation that its employees are expected to be sinless?  Such an expectation is clearly unrealistic and impossible!  Does anyone who sins run the risk of losing their job?  We must look further.

The Catholic Church speaks of degrees of sinfulness, with the most serious being mortal sin.  As summarized in the Catechism, three conditions have traditionally been required for a sin to be mortal: grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent of the will.  (Interestingly, in the old Baltimore Catechism generations of us were raised on, the second condition was usually termed sufficient reflection; that is, reflection “sufficient” for the person to realize that their act or omission was grave and potentially sinful.  It seems to me that the Catechism has ramped up this condition to be even more stringent.  FULL knowledge is certainly different from SUFFICIENT knowledge.  But that’s for a later discussion perhaps.)  In sum, for a sin to be mortal, all three of these conditions must be present; the act alone, no matter how grave in itself, is not sufficient to impute sinfulness.  It is only the act considered in light of knowledge and volition which can determine sinfulness.

catholic schoolBack to the school teacher: What do we know?  Very little, actually.  We know that she is unmarried.  We know that she has become pregnant, obviously outside of marriage.  We do not know, nor can we presume, the state of her own knowledge and volition concerning this grave matter of sexual relations outside of marriage.  I know, I know, it’s TEMPTING to rush to judgment, but we cannot and must not.  In short, we can’t even say that she’s committed a mortal sin at all; that remains the province of her own conscience and her confessor.   Now, I am not a civil attorney, but I have served as a Catholic school administrator, and it seems to me that her employer has made a flawed logical and moral judgment.  Based on what has been made public, it seems that the administration is taking a single act and extrapolating from that a conclusion that the teacher is living an entire lifestyle at odds with Catholic moral teaching.  Perhaps, of course, we have not been made privy to other additional details (certainly, none of our business!), but if her employment was terminated solely on the basis of one act (having sex outside of marriage), that seems excessive on its face.  Only if one reduces “to live one’s life in accordance with Catholic teaching” to a singular act, which may or may not be sinful, does such a decision make sense.

It also seems important to consider this action from the perspective of Catholic education.  What are we teaching our children in this situation?  In my experience, our children are almost always smarter and wiser than we expect.  They “get” that their teacher has made a mistake here; they probably also know that there is more to her than this one act.  It is this fuller knowledge of her as a person which will inform their own response to the situation.  Instead, what they now experience is an administration (and rightly or wrongly, they will associate this action with “the Church” in general) that is acting in judgment on this teacher for one act, with no opportunity for correction, conversion, mercy or redemption.  I once worked with a great Catholic high school principal.  When a student got into serious trouble, we would sometimes get faculty or other administrators recommending that the student be suspended or even expelled for his or her behavior.  Tom, however, would almost NEVER do either of those things.  When I asked him why, he said, “It’s easy to kick people out; but if they’re not here, we can’t help them to change.  We’re Catholic and our job is to help people change, not to throw them away.”  Good advice.handout

The school might have modeled how we reach out and support one another, even when we fall.  This would have benefited the teacher in question, her unborn child as well as her students, who would experience how a loving Church ministers to one another even during challenging times.

I’m not advocating sinful behavior.  I’m not saying that there are not certain actions which might require immediate termination of employment.  What I am saying, echoing many others, is that in this instance there seems to be many other and better ways of handling the matter.

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-With regard to Mr. Hoffman, Deacon Greg nails it.  The simple truth is that Mr. Hoffman was a Catholic.  Period.  Was he troubled?  Did he always act in the best of ways?  His celebrity certainly magnified his actions for good and ill.  At the core of the matter, nonetheless, he was a Catholic.  And Catholics have a right to the sacraments and consolation of the Church.  Our teaching and even our laws always tend toward the generous: we are to presume the good will and good faith of people.  It’s easy for some folks to look up “black letter law” and make judgments accordingly.  But even canon law concludes with the maxim, “Salus animarum suprema lex” (the salvation of souls is the highest law), which provides a useful hermeneutic for the application of the law.  So, together, we pray for Mr. Hoffman and that he has found eternal rest and peace in the loving arms of the Trinity in Whom he was baptized.

For what it’s worth, just one deacon’s opinion.


More From Deacon — I mean, Pope — Francis which will upset people

francesco blessingIt’s hard to believe, but Lent is just around the corner.  Every year, popes write messages to the world offering a vision for ongoing conversion and how we might better follow Christ as his disciples.  This year, Pope Francis once again demonstrates his profound diaconal vision for the Church.  His 2014 Lenten Message focuses our attention on the nature of poverty itself and our response to it

In the year that has passed since the pope’s election, I have been struck by the profound sense of diaconate which radiates from the Holy Father, especially, during Lent and Holy Week.  Let me start by something which some might think only an arcane bit of trivia, but for me, it is something quite profound.  Some of the first images we had of the new pope came from his days as Archbishop of Buenos Aires as we washed the feet of people — all kinds of people —  on Holy Thursday.  Invariably the images showed the Cardinal Archbishop wearing his stole as a deacon does while washing feet.  This was clearly a deliberate choice he made: to remove his priest’s chasuble and to rearrange his stole diagonally as a deacon wears it.  For people who might not be very familiar with the way these things normally work, this may not seem like such a big deal, so let me explain.  Normally, during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, in the Latin Church,  the priest (or bishop) presiding, the deacons assisting at that Mass, and any concelebrants, will remove their outer vestments: the chasuble for the bishops/presbyters, the dalmatic for the deacons. Francis washing feet In many cases, these same clerics might also take off their stoles as well, although some will keep the stoles on.  Priests and bishops wear their stoles over their shoulder with the ends of the stole hanging straight down in front of them.  Deacons wear the stole over the left shoulder, and secured at the right hip, so that the stole appears diagonally across the deacon’s chest.  So, imagine a priest celebrating this rite: he removes his chasuble and the stole — worn in the priestly manner — is visible.  If he leaves the stole on during the washing of the feet, then that’s what people will see.  If the deacon removes his dalmatic, people will see the stole worn diagonally.  What Pope Francis does is something I don’t think any of us has ever seen before: he removes his chasuble, and then takes his priest’s stole and rearranges it, intentionally, into the diagonal stole of the deacon.  And only then does he begin to wash feet.

The message, therefore,  is crystal clear and sacramentally significant: In this act of washing feet, we are imitating Christ the Servant, Christ the Deacon, who was pouring out his life for others just as he was pouring out the water over the feet of his disciples.  It’s all about diakonia.

Want more?  Guess when Pope Francis actually signed his Lenten Message?  Oh, it was only released over the last couple of days, but if you look at the end of the document, you will find that he actually signed it on 26 December, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr.

With this as background, let’s look at some of the things the Holy Father has to say.  The pope cites St. Paul: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”(2 Cor 8-9), and asks, “What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today?  What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today?”  He immediately responds that first this “shows us how God works.”  He speaks of how God chose to reveal himself in poverty out of a desire to be close to us, “a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved.”  I was reminded of the words of St. John Paul II, who wrote in his great encyclical Fides et Ratio, when he referred to kenosis as “a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return” (#93).

Pope Francis reminds us that this was a “logic of love,” and that God did not desire salvation to “drop down from heaven”; rather, Christ was among us “to comfort us, to save us, to free us.”  He continues, “In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.  Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope.”  The pope lists three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual; as we go through them, how can each of us — especially those of us who are clergy of the Church — address each of these?

destitutionMaterial destitution refers to those living without the essentials of human dignity, “those living without who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally.”  The pope observes that “the Church offers her help, her diakonia, in meeting these needs and binding these wounds. . . .”  He powerfully reminds us that in the poor and the outcast “we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ.”  He goes even further, striking a now familiar theme: “When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth.  Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing.”

Moral destitution is “slavery to vice and sin.”  The pope speaks of those who have lost all hope of finding meaning in life, suffer from addictions of all types (he cites alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography), or suffer from lack of “equal access to education and health care.”  Moral destitution is all about a loss of hope and meaning, often due to unjust social conditions, by unemployment and a loss of dignity.

Spiritual destitution is experienced when people turn away from God and reject his love. “If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through CHrist, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall.”  The pope reminds us that it is the Gospel which is the “real antidote to spiritual destitution:

Wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.  The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope!

We many not yet be thinking about Lent, but the Pope is.  And would it really hurt any of us to start our spiritual preparations now?  He prays that all of us be “ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message. . . .  Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.  Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.  I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”

So, my friends, are we living and serving in the image of Christ?  Are we are truly imitating Christ, “who became poor and enriched us by his poverty”?  Have we emptied ourselves so that others may live?

St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr, Pray for Us!


Sunday Reflection: Serving in Back

This is a simple personalOrdination, March 25, 1990 reflection.  No big agenda, no big point to make.

I love being a deacon for many reasons.  But one of the things that is always a blessing is something I’ve been doing most of my adult life, even before being ordained a deacon: distributing Communion at Mass.  It is one of the most profound and moving experiences of ministry.

eucharistic ministerAt my current parish we have been encountering growing numbers of parishioners over the last couple of years, so much so that we’ve had to adapt our normal arrangements for communion to meet this need.  At our most highly attended Masses, after I distribute the Precious Blood to other communion ministers, I take a ciborium and head to our “cry room”.  Then I walk to the back of the Church and up the stairs to the choir loft, which is actually used for overflow seating (the choir is down near the altar), and then I go back downstairs and take a position at the back of the Church and begin distributing communion back there.

What I have come to love about doing this is that it feels very “diaconal” to be taking Christ to people who are “in the back” for a variety of reasons.  Some are there because the want a head start getting to the parking lot after Mass; but they are there.  Others are back there because they have little children and they want to be able to do what might be needed if the kids get fussy during Mass; but they are there.  Still others are there because they were running late or because they don’t like to move toward the front for some reason; but they are there.

Normally we take a position somewhere near the sanctuary and remain statically in place while people come to us for Communion.  What I find wonderful is the idea of a minister going out to where the people are.  It communicates so well that, not only during Mass but at all times, we are to carry Christ to wherever he is most needed, and not simply wait for people to come forward.

Gotta love it!