Back to Basics: Humility and Compassion

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The news about the institutional dimension of the Catholic Church has been persistent and devastating.  Crimes, cover-ups, accusations, bizarre and power-hungry behavior on the part of so many in positions of authority: it’s all been too much for so many.   For people around the world, the Church has lost all credibility and moral authority.  Why should anyone care what we have to say about anything?  As Paulist Father Frank DeSiano observed in a recent column, we still have a mission “to evangelize in difficult times.”  But who will listen?

People are done with words.  Words have too often proven to be false.  Words have too often proven to be hollow.  Words have too often proven to be shadowy caverns of deceit.

It’s past time for action.  Our collective examination of conscience must include thorough investigation, honest analysis, and concrete plans of action and reform.  Pope Francis reminds us that all of our institutions, from parishes through the papacy, need to be reformed constantly so that our mission of spreading the “Joy of the Gospel” may be effective in our own day.  Never has this call for radical reform been more obvious.  Where to start?

Certainly, all of this must be done, and done immediately.  We can’t go on like this.

We must get back to basics.

 1.  “Master, to whom shall we go?”

JoshuaLast weekend’s scriptures focus on the fundamental relationship of the Christian with the Lord God.  Joshua challenges the people to “decide today” which God they will follow, and a forlorn Jesus asks his own followers if they too will walk away from him, joining those who found his teaching on the bread of life “too hard to accept”.  Peter, speaking for the rest of us, responds, “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life!”

Today, we must concentrate  on that fundamental relationship.  The Profession of Faith states it unequivocally. “Credo” refers to the giving of one’s heart.  “I give my heart to God, the Father Almighty. . . I give my heart to Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. . . I give my heart to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. . . .”   Everything else builds on that; without it nothing else matters.

“Decide today!”

 2.  Build From the Bottom: The View of One Who Serves

140417192103-pope-francis-feet-washing-easter-horizontal-large-galleryWe claim to follow Christ – and Christ emptied himself for others, challenging us to do the same.  If our Lord came “not to be served but to serve” how can we do otherwise?  St. Paul reminds the Philippians that they should “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) In Jewish theology, “humility” is the opposite of “pride”: the truly humble person would never exert abusive power over another.  The Christian looks up from washing the feet of others into the eyes of Christ on the cross gazing back.

The reforms we need right now start from that perspective of humility, compassion, and service, and the Church must be one which is in a constant state of reform, renewal and conversion.  The world’s bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council taught:

Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated — to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself — these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.

— Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, #6

Now is the “opportune moment.”  More than that: this is the essential moment.

“Decide today!”

 3.  Religion: Binding Ourselves to God

people-out-perspThe word “religion” refers to binding ourselves to God.  And the letter of James read this weekend should inspire us all in our reform: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  Our religion should be known first and foremost for how we care for those most in need, not by our vestments, our grand churches, our rituals or the brilliance of our teaching.  When people think of Christianity, may they come to think first of the thousands upon thousands of selfless people – laity, religious, and clergy – who pour their lives out in service at home and around the world.  I have a dream that someday when a person googles images of “the Catholic Church” the first pictures shown will not be of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, but of advocates working humbly, tirelessly and fearlessly to meet the needs of others: teachers, medical professionals, volunteers, and yes, spouses and parents giving their all for each other and their children.

Christianity should be about the way we love God and others, about being a “sign and instrument” of intimate communion with God and with the whole human race (Lumen gentium 1). Clergy exist only to support, encourage, and serve the rest in doing that. As Bishop Augustine of Hippo preached so long ago, “For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian.  The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.”

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This is a “crisis” point for our Church: a turning point.  Who are we as the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit?  The choices we make now are as critical as those made by those holy women and men before us who faced their own challenges to reform the Church to respond the needs of their time.

What are you and I prepared to do about all of this?  This isn’t about bishops, cardinals or even the Pope: we the Church are a communion of disciples, and our response must involve all of us.

“Decide today!”

“O Rex Gentium”: The King They Desired

“O Rex Gentium”: O King of the Nations,
and the one they desired,
the keystone who makes both peoples one,
come and save mankind,
whom you shaped from the mud.

22 Dec O Rex Gentium

The Jewish people had always wanted a King, and in Isaiah, the prophet describes the coming Messiah as a King with a difference.  Consider:

  • “For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
  • “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Rex GentiumThe divine King of the Nations is not like any other monarch or political head of state.  I particularly love the line that our King is “desired by the people”; Kings were rarely determined by the desires of their subjects!  But our King is our Desire, our ultimate desire, a King that fills every longing, every need, every emptiness.  The King establishes a reign of peace, a world that no longer even LEARNS about war.  What a new way of thinking about things!  This “novus mentis habitus” had been sought by many recent church leaders, including all of our popes from John XXIII to Francis.  Pope Francis writes:

What is called for is an evangelization capable of shedding light on these new ways of relating to God, to others and to the world around us, and inspiring essential values.  It must reach the places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed, bringing the word of Jesus to the inmost soul of our cities (Evangelii Gaudium, #74).

As disciples of this new Messiah-King, we find ourselves in the midst of these new “narratives and paradigms.”  How can we best enter the story?

ADVENT REFLECTION

What new ways of relating to God am I being called to?  How are we nurturing that relationship?  Prayer, study, service?  What new ways of relating to others am I being called to?  And what new ways of relating to the world around us?  Where, specifically, in our communities, are these “new narratives and paradigms” being formed?  In our inner cities?  In agriculture, family farms and migrant worker camps?  On our campuses and businesses?  How do I share in forming those new narratives?

4 Advent Candles

“O Clavis David”: Keys to Open Doors

O Clavis David: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

20 Dec O Clavis David

Today, 20 December, the “O” Antiphon is O Clavis David (O Key of David):

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead prisoners from the prison cell,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Today the Church, again using the language of the prophet Isaiah, refers to the Messiah as the Key of David. Consider the following passages from the prophet:

  • Isaiah 22:22: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.”
  • Isaiah 42:6-7: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

The notion that the Messiah has the power of the key is further referenced in the New Testament when Christ gives the “power of the Francis washing feetkeys” to Peter.  While, of course, the Key can “shut, and no one can open,” the hope of the Antiphon is on the opening of dungeons and the liberation of people from bondage.  With Christ comes freedom.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis often uses the language of freedom and openness to all in their need.  Consider, at #63:

We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people.  In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization.

O-Key-of-David-1While the pope clearly criticizes certain cultural and societal shortcomings which devalue the human person and keep them “locked up” in various ways, he continues to level criticism as appropriate on the structures of the Church itself and the attitudes of some of its people.  For example, at #70:

It is also true that at times greater emphasis is placed on the outward expressions and traditions of some groups, or an alleged private revelations which would replace all else, than on the impulse of Christian piety.There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic “popular piety”.  Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others. . . . It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition.  Growing numbers of parents do not bring their children for baptism or teach them how to pray.  There is also a certain exodus towards other faith communities.  The causes of this breakdown include: a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism which feeds the market, lack of pastoral care among the poor, the failure of our institutions to be welcoming, and our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape.

This is quite a review!  So how does the “Key of David” open us up to address this general breakdown?  We believe that Christ, fulfilling those prophecies of Isaiah, IS the light to the nations, and he IS able to open the eyes of the blind, and to set those imprisoned free.  Since this is a blog dedicated to all things diaconal, we can ask specifically of all who are ordained to this service: How are we to “use” the Key of David in our ministries?  How might we address that rather bleak checklist of “prison cells” enumerated by the pope?  Each one of those items is, in fact, hampering the freedom of all, and we are called to help break down those barriers.  How can we improve family communication, use the power of the media in positive ways, preach the objective truth that God loves God’s creation and wants all to live in freedom, the use of resources for the common good of all, reach out with new energy to the poor and the marginalized, be a more welcoming parish community, and assist in developing a healthy Christian spirituality?  Christ is the Key, and he has called us all to participate in the use of that Key in the world today.

ADVENT REFLECTION

Take a look around the parish.  What structures, policies and practices can and must be reformed so that the Key (Christ) can be more effectively used?  Are there things keeping people “in their place” rather than setting them free? Now look beyond the parish?  What needs in the community are not being met at all?  How can we move outside parish and even Church boundaries to carry the Key to all of those imprisoned?  Do we use the Key to open or to close?

Advent-Christmas-candle-10

 

 

“O Adonai”: Freedom through God’s Strength and Mercy

“O Adonai”: O Sacred Lord of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

18 Dec O AdonaiThe “O Antiphons” are titles to be associated with the Messiah, the Anointed One; on 18 December, the Messiah is linked to the Lord of Israel who saved Israel.  The connection continues through the allusion to Moses, called to lead the people to freedom in God’s name, and to whom God would give the Torah on Sinai.  Although in English we tend to interpret “law” in a sense of “rules”, that is not the way it is understood in Hebrew and the Jewish tradition.  Torah refers to instruction or teaching.  In the covenant relationship with God, these instructions describe the practical nature of how the covenant is to be lived.

adonai_10God’s part of the covenant is to rescue us.  When Pope Francis promulgated Misericordiae Vultus announcing the Extraordinary Year of Mercy, he chose to evoke this scene of the all-powerful God with Moses:

1. Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature.  . . .  Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.

Pope Francis hears confession during penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican

Our relationship with God is not about law enforcement but about faithfulness and compassion in the relationship.  Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium #44) reminds pastors and others who serve in ministry that, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur.”

I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.  A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.

handsThe Church, the pope reminds his readers, is always open because God is always open to all.  “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open” (#47).  In addressing the pastoral consequences of this radical openness, the pope tackles a current issue head on:

The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness.  Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.  But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.

The pope concludes the chapter by recalling his frequent exhortation that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”  In his opening of the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s, he challenged us all to be mindful of the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Spirit of the Samaritan.

The God of Israel, Adonai, is the God of all.

ADVENT REFLECTION

In serving others, do we accept the challenge to be missionary, to be constantly reaching out to others rather than sitting in our churches waiting for people to come to us?  Do we act as “arbiters of grace” or “facilitators of grace”?  Are we guilty of treating the Eucharist as a “prize for the perfect” or do we understand Eucharist as Adonai reaching out to all in mercy?  Adonai, the Lord God of Israel, comes to set us all free, and we who serve in any way, are challenged to be instruments of that freedom.

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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.”

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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

 

Some Wonderful Resolutions for the New (Internet) Year

The great God-googler, Mike Hayes over at BustedHalo.com, has put together a wonderful list of New Year’s Resolutions based on the teaching and example of Pope Francis.  Do yourself a treat, if you haven’t already, and go read the whole list here.  So, I hope that Mike won’t mind if I do a riff from his list, with particular emphasis on how we Catholics “live” on the internet these days.  The National Catholic Reporter, for example, as well as many bloggers and others, have decided to disable comments on their websites because the language used in responses crosses the line of courteous, let alone CHRISTIAN, discourse.  With a profound nod to Mike, therefore, I’d like to reflect on his seven resolutions as they might apply to internet courtesy.  My friend and brother deacon, Greg Kandra, did something similar during Advent with an Internet Examination of Conscience; read it here.

But first, a bit of fun.  As I have made clear here and elsewhere, I have a profound admiration for Pope St. John XXIII.  Mike posted a picture of Pope Francis as part of his blog post; is it just me, or is there not a remarkable similarity between Francis and John (in more ways than one)?

Pope Francis or John XXIII pope-john-xxiii-during-ecumenical-council

Here’s Mike’s list of resolutions, based on the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelium gaudium:

Resolution #1: Be Joyful

Joy, as I pointed out in an earlier reflection on the Exhortation, is “the infallible sign of God’s presence” (to quote Teilhard).  If we truly believe the Truth of the Gospel, we should be filled with Joy and gratitude at the very core of our being!  There should be no such thing as a “sourpuss” Christian.  I resolve to reflect such joy in this blog.  I also hope that in the words used and responses to other posts will always be characterized by that joy.  I ask that visitors to this site try to do the same.

Resolution #2: Share Your Joy

The Pope is so right: We must not only BE joyful; we should all share that joy.  We should be the kind of Christian who says, “I’m good; the rest of you are on you are on your own!”  That’s one of the goals of this blog.  I am proud of our great Tradition, and I become quite frustrated at attempts to restrict the Tradition to one or another theo-political point of view!  I resolve to do my best to present the joy of the Gospel from the point of view of the whole of Scripture and Tradition.  This will be guaranteed to arouse the ire of extremists on either side of the spectrum, but so be it.  More about this later in the list.

Resolution #3: Exclude No One and Restore Dignity

The Pope has always stressed, as have his immediate predecessors, that God excludes no one from his love, and the salvation is open to all who come to God.  Perhaps it’s simply our flawed human nature that leads us to want to choose sides, one over and against another.  “We’re right and good; you’re wrong and bad.”  Another way to think about this is the tendency to have an “us versus them” attitude.  Some websites and blogs — even Catholic ones, even Catholic ones hosted by clergy! — seem to thrive on exclusionary language, mocking others who may disagree about things.  I resolve not to do such things here and invite people who may feel I have crossed such a line to draw my attention to it so I can correct it.

ThinkResolution #4: Diet From Devouring

While the Pope’s emphasis in this regard is largely economic, I think there’s a clear application to cyberspace as well.  A famous Catholic priest-author was once said to have “never had an unpublished thought”!  There’s simply no need to respond to every little thing (or big thing, for that matter).  I resolve to post only on things that are of particular interest or concern.  On the other hand, if folks would like to raise certain topics or suggest lines of inquiry, just let me know!  The questions would be “do I want to post on this?” and “Do I need to post on that?”

Resolution #5: Serve, Don’t Rule

OK, as one of my own teachers once opined, “The job of a professor is to profess!”  However, all such opining here is, I resolve, designed to serve the common good.  Ii hope that this blog can be a service for others, not a platform for bloviating.

Resolution #6: Practice Non-Violent Communication

Words matter; they can heal, they can hurt, they can destroy.  I resolve to attempt a level of discourse that reflects healing, peace and harmony.  Again, should readers find the language here offensive, please let me know.

Resolution #7: Combat the Tendency Toward Extremes

Extremism is almost always problematic.  As the old adage has it, “virtus in media stat”: Virtue stands in the middle.  As before, I resolve to avoid extremes and promote balance in all things.  There are so many sites in which extremes are promoted in language and attitude; I hope NOT to be one of them.  It seems to me that culturally we have lost civility and balance in discourse.  When we disagree with someone, there is a tendency to demonize them.  I hope that here we can disagree with courtesy and respect.

Thanks, Mike!