“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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“O Sapientia”: O Wisdom!

O Sapientia: O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation. 

osapientiaWe are a people constantly in seek of Wisdom, both as individuals and as People of God.  Pope Francis has said repeatedly that the entire Church is a missionary disciple, a disciple who “needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth.”  It is interesting to think of the entire People of God in this way: as a singular disciple on mission.  Just as I, as an individual Christian disciple, need constantly to grow in understanding, so too does the entire Church.  The Pope reminds those of us who serve in the ministry of theology: “It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help ‘the judgment of the Church to mature.'”  This is a quote taken directly from the Second Vatican Council’s monumental Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, #12).

Pope at Holy DoorWe celebrate the O Antiphons this year in the context of an Extraordinary Year of Mercy.  Today we seek the wisdom of God to rededicate ourselves to mercy which is, according to Pope Francis, “the beating heart of the Gospel.”  This call for a broad and diverse search for wisdom once again calls upon the wisdom of the whole Tradition of the Church, with this particular section supported by an extensive reference to St. Thomas Aquinas; Pope Francis will call to mind the example of St. John XXIII who says essentially the same thing.  Wisdom, in short, is not “monolithic”, nor is it a hoard of theological propositions known in fullness and waiting only to be transmitted verbatim and intact to succeeding generations, cultures and peoples.  The pope writes, in #41: “Today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. ‘The deposit of the faith is one thing, the way it is expressed is another.'”  That is the voice of St. John XXIII, exhorting the world’s bishops at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council.  Pope Francis cautions that when some people “hold fast to a formulation [which] fails to convey its substance,” we can — with every good intention — “sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian.”  He then cites St. John Paul II, who wrote that “the expression of truth can take different forms.  The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning.”  Now apply these thoughts to God’s mercy: what are the myriad concrete ways we might find to be merciful in our own lives?  Mercy is a constant; the ways we convey that mercy are limitless.

We have already seen in earlier posts how the pope is committed to helping the Church recover her missionary purpose, and that this mission is not only to reach everyone in a general way, but in very concrete ways which are understandable to all people today, regardless of culture or history or age.  Past ages found beautiful and creative ways of expressing eternal truths in their own day and time; we must not do the same for our own, and not merely try to repeat the brilliant work of the past which may no longer be capable of communicating truth as it once did.  And specifically, we search for ways to communicating God’s truth through acts of mercy.

ADVENT REFLECTION

As we move more intently into our final preparations for celebrating the coming of Christ anew into our lives, how well do I express my faith to others in ways that are full of meaning, promise and hope?  What about our parish: What customs do we continue to hold onto which — if we were truly honest with each other — no long seem to be capable of expressing the truth of our relationship with Christ and our responsibility to the world around us.  Honestly review our lives as individuals and as parish, and then reflect: Do we unduly “burden” those around us?  Do we have the courage to let go and to let God inspire us with Divine Wisdom in finding new ways to proclaim the Christ to the world. For those of us who serve as deacons, do we continue to grow, not only as disciples, but in our ministerial competence?  Are we open to new ideas, even when those ideas may be challenging to our former ways of thought?   “O Wisdom” is a title given to Christ today; may our own relationship with Wisdom give us the freedom and courage to find new ways of sharing God’s truth and mercy.

Gaudete

 

The “O Antiphons” 2015

oAs we entire the final days of Advent, we have reached the time of the beautiful “O Antiphons”.  The USCCB website has this nice introduction:

The Roman Church has been singing the “O” Antiphons since at least the eighth century. They are the antiphons that accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from December 17-23. They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. Their repeated use of the imperative “Come!” embodies the longing of all for the Divine Messiah.

 

Two years ago I wrote reflections on each Antiphon.  I hope to do the same again this year by updating those reflections through the lens of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

May your blessed Advent continue. . . .

Gaudete

Islam: Unfinished Work of “Nostra Aetate”

popejewishfriendToday in Rome the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews released a new document exploring unresolved theological questions at the heart of Christian-Jewish dialogue.  According to Vatican Radio,

The new document, entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable”, marks the 50th anniversary of the ground-breaking declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’. It was presented at a press conference in the Vatican on Thursday, by Cardinal Kurt Koch, Fr Norbert Hofmann of the Vatican Commission, together with two Jewish representatives, Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and Dr Ed Kessler, founding director of the Cambridge Woolf Institute.

intro-judaismIt has been a distinct privilege for me over the years to serve as a Hebrew linguist in a variety of contexts, and five years ago I was asked by the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies to give a very brief reflection on “The Significance of Nostra Aetate” on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of its promulgation by the Second Vatican Council.  So what I am about to write should not be read in any way as a criticism of the great efforts that have been made over the past fifty years to celebrate the relationship of Jews and Catholics!  And, as the new document released today underscores, so much more remains to be done in this regard, and I fully embrace that effort.

But. . . .

Nostra Aetate is about much more than the relationship of Catholics and Jews.  In today’s world, we need to pick up the other threads of that marvelous document, including what it has to say about Islam.

I love the scripture that is the title of the new document: “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable” is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 11:29.  Indeed, God has given many gifts and many calls, and Nostra Aetate focuses on those which have been given to those outside of Christianity.

nostraLet’s take a closer look at the document itself.  Much has been written about the genesis of the document, so there is no need to rehearse all of that here.  Suffice it to say that 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.  The people of those conciliar days, people of all faiths and of no faith at all, had lived through the horrors, violence, death and destruction of the first half of the 20th Century.  The scope of that violence had so expanded that old dividing lines began to disappear.  A bomb, after all, doesn’t discriminate when it explodes between ages, religions, military status, or wealth.  Following the lead of St. Pope John XXIII, the Council itself soon embraced the reality that its work was indeed for “all people of good will” and not simply for Catholics.

christ dachauThe 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.

It is a brief document of only five numbered paragraphs; only one of them, paragraph four, specifically addresses Judaism.  The other paragraphs, therefore, must be seen in their application to ALL “non-Christian religions.”  Paragraph #1 sets the stage:

1. In our time, when day by day humankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among all people, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what people have in common and what draws them to fellowship.

What are these shared elements among all people?

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth.  One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.

People expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the human heart:  What is a human being? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?

medicine-man-cheyene-healerSo far, then, the Council is focused on all people.  Now, in paragraph #2 the bishops turn to people who have found “a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.”  These comments apply to a wide variety of religious expression, from various Eastern forms to Native American and on and on.  Then they turn specifically to certain Eastern religions:

In Hinduism, people contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust.

BuddhaBuddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which people, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.

Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites.

And here comes the money quote, the teaching that encapsulates the entire document, in my opinion:

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.”

She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people.

IslamParagraph #3 specifically addresses Islam:

3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

kidAnd in language made even more poignant over the last generation, the bishops write:

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Paragraph #4, as I mentioned above, treats Judaism.  I leave that paragraph aside for this posting NOT because I do not firmly believe in its profound significance but because I am trying in this instance to offer the broader context of Nostra Aetate, especially vis-a-vis Islam.  So we now turn to the concluding paragraph of the document, paragraph #5:

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any person, created as he is in the image of God. Humanity’s relation to God the Father and the relationship of people to their brothers and sisters are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

Therefore, the bishops conclude with these words.  Please notice well that these words apply UNIVERSALLY and are not restricted to our relationship to Judaism alone.  Indeed these words apply to ALL OTHER RELIGIONS given the scope of this documents.  Do they inform us today in our dealings with the followers of Islam?islam-prayer

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against anyone or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men,(14) so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.(15)

It 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).

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 — not only with Islam as a religion but even those fringe elements who hate us and would destroy us.

St. Pope John XXIII is said to have remarked about Communism: “Communism is the enemy of the Church, but the Church has no enemies.”  That insight — that the Church has no enemies — can enlighten us no less today, especially during this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

 

Connecting the Dots: Mary, Vatican II and the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy

Pope_Francis_before_the_Holy_Door_of_St_Peters_Basilica_during_the_convocation_of_the_Jubilee_of_Mercy_April_11_2015_Credit_LOsservatore_Romano-255x255The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis today in Rome, actually began fifty years ago with the solemn closing of the Second Vatican Council on 8 December 1965.  When dealing with the Catholic Church it is always good to step back and take a long view on what is going on, and today’s events in Rome are no exception.  Let’s connect some dots.

MARY AND THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION

The first dot is Mary, under her title of the Immaculate Conception.  Celebrated in one form or another from the 7th Century, this Feast was established for the entire Church in 1708 by Pope Clement XI.  Fifty years ago, this date was deliberately chosen for the solemn closing of the Second Vatican Council.  6a00d834516bb169e201b8d0bcba63970c-250wiThe Church’s teaching about Mary was originally crafted as a separate document by the curia before the Council began.  However, the world’s bishops rejected this arrangement, rightly including Mary at the heart and climax of its dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium.  Mary, our sister and our mother, the first disciple of the Christ, is held up to all as the model of Christian discipleship.   Fifty years ago, therefore, standing on the same spot where Pope Francis stood earlier this morning, Pope Paul VI ended his homily with the following observation:

While we close the ecumenical council we are honoring Mary Most Holy, the mother of Christ and consequently. . . the mother of God and our spiritual mother. . . . She is the woman, the true woman who is both ideal and real, the creature in whom the image of God is reflected with absolute clarity. . . .

Is it not perhaps in directing our gaze on this woman who is our humble sister and at the same time our heavenly mother and queen, the spotless and sacred mirror of infinite beauty, that we can terminate the spiritual ascent of the council and our final greeting?  Is it not here that our post-conciliar work can begin?  Does not the beauty of Mary Immaculate become for us an inspiring model, a comforting hope?  Oh, brothers, sons and all who are listening to us, we think it is so for and for you.  And this is our most exalted and, God willing, our most valuable greeting.

VATICAN II

1115_p12b500Vatican II is a gift that keeps on giving.  The great historian of the Church, Hubert Jedin, once observed that it takes at least a century to implement the teachings and decisions of a general Council.  If he is correct, and I believe he is, we have only now just reached the fifty yard line as we say in American football.  For all the progress made, much more remains to be done.  Let’s take a closer look at those closing ceremonies to the Council, because there are some significant elements there that point the way to what happened earlier today.

THE SERVANT CHURCH

First, on 7 December 1965, Pope Paul celebrated Mass with the Council Fathers.  This was the last general assembly of the Council and the day before the Solemn Closing.  In his speech to the Fathers, Paul summarized the four year work of the Council:

deacon-feetAnother point we must stress is this: all this rich teaching is channeled in one direction, the service of mankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need. The Church has, so to say, declared herself the servant of humanity, at the very time when her teaching role and her pastoral government have, by reason of the council’s solemnity, assumed greater splendor and vigor: the idea of service has been central.

Later, Pope Paul referred to this service in a particular way when he spoke of the service of the Good Samaritan as the role of the Church in the modern world.  But I’m getting ahead of myself!  More about the Samaritan a little later.  For now, this identification of the Church as servant can serve as a valuable hermeneutic when studying the work of the Council as well as the efforts of our leaders ever since.  In particular, this can be a profound insight into the way in which Pope Francis exercising the Petrine ministry — and in a most special way — his declaration of an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy.

UNIVERSALITY

In his homily fifty years ago, Paul VI begins by proclaiming that his greeting, his message, and indeed the message of the entire Council is universal.  He refers to his brother bishops, to the representatives of nations who were in attendance, to the entire People of God, “and it is extended and broadened to the entire world.  How could it be otherwise if this council was said to be and is ecumenical, that is to say, universal?”

Paul-VIPope Paul digs deeper, using the image of a bell:

Just as the sound of the bell goes out through the skies. . . so at this moment does our greeting go out to each and every one of you.  To those who receive it and to those who do not, it resounds pleadingly in the ear of every person. . . . No one, in principle, is unreachable; in principle, all can and must be reached.  For the Catholic Church, no one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is far away. . . .  This is the language of the heart of one who loves.

After greeting specific groups of people, especially those who are ill and imprisoned and suffering, he continues:

Lastly, our universal greeting goes out to you who do not know us, who do not understand us, who do not regard us as useful, necessary or friendly.  This greeting goes also to you who, while perhaps thinking they are doing good, are opposed to us. . . . Ours is a greeting, not of farewell which separates, but of friendship which remains and which, if so demanded, wishes to be born. . . .  May it rise as a new spark of divine charity in our hearts, a spark which may enkindle the principles, doctrine and proposals which the council has organized and which, thus inflamed by charity, may really produce in the Church and in the world that renewal of thoughts, activities, conduct, moral force and hope and joy which was the very scope of the council.

people-out-perspFinally, at the end of the Mass closing the Council, a remarkable thing happened.  Most people today are unaware that it even took place, and that is a real tragedy, for it sheds a light on the whole proceedings, and points the way to our contemporary Jubilee.  A series of messages from the Council Fathers was read to the world.  The bishops of the Council prepared these messages because they wanted the world to realize that the Council had not been simply an exercise of ecclesiastical navel-gazing; rather, the work of the Council was focused outward, to the very real needs of the people and the world.  In the introduction to the messages, the bishops write:

We seem to hear from every corner of the world an immense and confused voice, the questions of all those who look toward the council and ask us anxiously: “Have you not a word for us?”  For us rulers?  For us intellectuals, workers, artists?  And for us women?  For us of the younger generation, for us the sick and the poor?

These pleading voices will not remain unheeded.  It is for all of these categories of people that the council has been working for four years.  It is for them that there has been prepared this Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which we promulgated yesterday amidst the enthusiastic applause of your assembly. . . .

Before departing, the council wishes to fulfill this prophetic function and to translate into brief messages and in a language accessible to all, the “good news” which it has for the world. . . .

Then, dramatically, a number of the bishops stood up, and in a variety of languages, read out the messages.  To each group, support and encouragement was offered, as well as the challenges within each area to benefit the entire human race.  The seven messages were addressed:

  1. To the Rulers of the World: Those Who Hold Temporal Power
  2. To People of Thought and Science
  3. To Artists
  4. To Women
  5. To the Poor, the Sick and the Suffering
  6. To Workers
  7. To Youth

It is important to recognize that in every Holy Year celebrated since the Council, there have been particular celebrations during the Year for various groups of persons, which extends this pastoral outreach first demonstrated here at the end of the Council.  This is true of the Extraordinary Jubilee just begun.

MERCY

And so we connect the final dot.

Again we find ourselves assembled in honor of Mary, and Pope Francis reminds us that the “fullness of grace” such as that we recognize in Mary, “can transform the human heart and enable it to do something so great as to change the course of human history.”  In Mary we see the love of God, along with a realization that “the beginning of the history of sin in the Garden of Eden yields to a plan of saving love.”

Yet the history of sin can only be understood in the light of God’s love and forgiveness.  Sin can only be understood in this light.  Were sin the only thing that mattered, we would be the most desperate of creatures.  But the promised triumph of Christ’s love enfolds everything in the Father’s mercy.

In speaking of the Council, Pope Francis recalls and connects the dots for us:

Pope_Francis_prays_after_opening_the_Holy_Door_in_St_Peters_Basilica_Dec_8_2015_launching_the_extraordinary_jubilee_of_mercy_Credit_LOsservatore_Romano_CNAToday, here in Rome and in all the dioceses of the world, as we pass through the Holy Door, we also want to remember another door, which fifty years ago the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council opened to the world.  This anniversary cannot be remembered only for the legacy of the Council’s documents, which testify to a great advance in faith.  Before all else the Council was an encounter.  A genuine encounter between the Church and the men and women of our time.  An encounter marked by the power of the Spirit, who impelled the Church to emerge from the shoals which for years had kept her self-enclosed so as to set out once again, with enthusiasm, on her missionary journey. . . Wherever there are people, the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel, ,and the mercy and forgiveness of God.  After these decades, we again take up this missionary drive with the same power and enthusiasm.  The Jubilee challenges us to this openness, and demands that we not neglect the spirit which emerged from Vatican II, the spirit of the Samaritan, as Blessed Paul VI expressed it at the conclusion of the Council.  May our passing through the Holy Door today commit us to making our own the mercy of the Good Samaritan.

May this Jubilee be a celebration of this spirit of the Samaritan in each and every one of our own relationships and encounters.kindness2

Deacons and Synod 2015

Synod Press ConferenceAt a recent press conference (6 October 2015) held in Rome highlighting some of the points raised thus far in the Synod, Father Thomas Rosica summarized one particular area of special concern for deacons.  As phrased by Father Rosica, some Synodal Fathers were asking, “How can the permanent diaconate come to the aid of so many people who are in need of mercy?  Are there new ways of using the permanent diaconate and those who are permanent deacons to be real ministers and bearers of mercy?”

Here is a link to the full press conference.  Father Rosica’s brief questions on the diaconate begin at about 24:08.

Before going on, let me point out that by focusing on this particular issue I am not ignoring other and far more substantive matters before the Synod!  However, deacons are not often mentioned in a context such as this, so it seems important for those of us interested in the diaconate to stop and take a closer look.

thomas-rosicaFirst: this was a summary given by Father Rosica.  It suggests that the questions may have been present in the interventions by several bishops, but we don’t know any other details.  Therefore, the phrasing of the summary is Rosica’s alone and we want to be cautious not to read too much into it as we would if it were contained in some kind of magisterial document!

DurocherSecond: Although Father Rosica doesn’t allude to the intervention of Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec (who was also present at the press conference but remained silent on this point), I’m guessing that it was within the context of “how can permanent deacons be real ministers or bearers of mercy?” that the Archbishop may have offered his intervention that there should be a conversation about women deacons.  From what I’ve seen so far, however, there’s no way to confirm that.  So, I do not wish to sidetrack onto that specific question in any case, because I think that Rosica’s questions themselves have foundational importance to how we understand and employ the diaconate in general.

Third: Although the Synod is, of course, focused on the family, notice how the questions on the diaconate refer in a particular way to mercy itself, so these are very broad based questions that suggest important opportunities for the diaconate in general, not simply within the context of the family.

So, to the questions.

new way“How can the permanent diaconate come to the aid of so many people who are in need of mercy?”  My first reaction to this question was to think of all the ways deacons already are coming to the aid of so many people!  In fact, I admit to a bit of defensiveness: What did the bishops (or, perhaps this was Father Rosica’s misperception) think we were already doing?  But then I settled down and thought, “What more COULD we be doing?”  And, of course, “How effectively are we already doing this — or not?”

  1.  Are we truly ministers of mercy?  If yes, how precisely are we doing that, across the spectrum of Word, Sacrament, and Charity?  Am I full of mercy when I preach and teach?  Am I full of mercy when we celebrate baptisms and weddings and all the myriad liturgical and sacramental ministries we’re involved in?  Am I full of mercy when offering a helping hand to the sick, marginalized, and the dying?
  2. After this examination of conscience, are there specific ways — more intentional ways — of conveying God’s mercy to others.  What are the very concrete ways (the “concrete consequences” of the deacon’s ministry referred to by Herbert Vorgrimler) we can be better at this?  After all, if the bishops (or Father Rosica) don’t perceive that we’re already doing this, then that perception is problematic and we need to work to fix it.

The second way Father Rosica phrased the question was interesting, too:

“Are there new ways of using the permanent diaconate and those who are permanent deacons to be real ministers and bearers of mercy?”

Here I sense several significant opportunities:

First: Notice the distinction he makes between the diaconate itself and those of us who are deacons.  This suggests that there is interest in the very nature of the diaconate, the fundamental core of the Order.

Second: What are the possible “new ways” of using the diaconate?  Taking just one example: might there be a re-opening of the question of deacons anointing the sick under certain circumstances, perhaps?  Most of the ways we can be used are already included in our canon and liturgical law, so something “new” would seem to be suggesting a willingness to look at things not previously considered.  I am using Anointing of the Sick only as an example here; I am not promoting it or suggesting that this is what is being suggested at the Synod.  But if the bishops are open to looking at “new ways” of using deacons, what might come up in the discussions?

Pope-Feet-2_2522628bThird: When Father Rosica alludes to deacons becoming “real ministers and bearers of mercy,” the first thing I thought of was what is happening with our priests in this regard.  Remember that the Holy Father has found new ways for priests to extend the hand of God’s mercy through sacramental reconciliation, and that he’s even identifying priests to go around the world to offer reconciliation.  Again not wanting to read too much into Father Rosica’s words here, but what additional responsibilities — what “new ways” — might the bishops find for deacons to take on?  Again, I am not proposing anything, and in particular, I am not suggesting that we start hearing confessions!  However, the questions here are most intriguing, and it will be interesting to see what the bishops might discuss.

If for no other reason then, these questions give us much to pray over and to ponder in the days and weeks ahead.  How can we deepen and extend our existing activities even more to convey God’s mercy to all?

Reflections on the Pope in DC, Part Three: The Speech to Congress

Pope-in-Congress-2-512x300The Pope and the Congress of the United States.  Who could ever have imagined such a scene?  After all, it hasn’t been all that many years since it was considered impossible for a Catholic to ever be elected President!  And here was “the Pope of the Holy See” (as he was announced to the members of Congress) standing there between two other Catholics, lawmakers from opposing political parties, about to deliver an historic address.

Much has already been reported about the speech.  The steady drumbeat of “the common good” punctuated the Pope’s remarks as he schooled, supported, and challenged the legislators in their mission.  He also took the opportunity to address all U.S. citizens through our shared “historical memory”, invoking Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.  Truly a stunning list and, undoubtedly, one which is simultaneously affirming and challenging.  American politicians of each party are fond of aligning themselves with Abraham Lincoln, and most would also include Dr. King today.  But certainly most of our lawmakers would perhaps not even recognize the names of Day and Merton and, if they did, would find them uncomfortable!  The Pope detailed his reasons for recalling each of them, summarizing:

Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

Let’s consider some highlights from the pope’s own words:

Abraham_Lincoln_seated,_Feb_9,_1864Abraham Lincoln:

This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”. Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.

In addressing the current polarities found in public life and discourse throughout today’s world, the Pope challenged the popular tendency to sharpen those polarities:

But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

Such a challenging assertion!  Do we, indeed, as a people, reject this temptation to polarity, both in our public political discourse and even in our religious discourse?

We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. . . .

Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.

dr-martin-luther-king-1Martin Luther King, Jr.:

In recalling the great “dream” of Dr. King for equality of all persons, the Pope expanded upon it:

We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. . . .

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

The Pope’s invocation of the Golden Rule resulted in a standing ovation from all present in the chamber, and it was here that he pointedly addressed issues of life itself, including the death penalty:

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule alsoreminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

Dorothy-DayDorothy Day:

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded theCatholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

While acknowledging that much progress has been made, the Pope reminded us all that “much more still needs to be done” to assist those who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.”

Included in this renewed sense of social justice for all was a strong call for economic and ecological reform, again and always for the common good.  There is also a steady stream of quotations from his encyclical Laudato Si’ punctuating this entire section:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).

In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

This powerful section linking and expanding what we include in the category of “social justice” was particularly powerful and moving, challenging all to develop that “culture of care” for all of God’s creation!

merton-photoThomas Merton:

A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. . . .  Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

In this spirit of dialogue, the Pope explains to the lawmakers both HIS role as pontifex: a bridge-builder, and THEIR role as political leaders:

It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.

As we saw above:

Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

The Pope calls us all to spiritual greatness, recognizing our God-given identity and responsibility:

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

Challenging.  Supportive.  Hortative.  Inspirational.  Imaginative.  Pope Francis struck every note, creating a chord of compassion, commitment to the common good, and collaborative leadership.  It will be wonderful if not only our political leadership will take his words to heart but indeed all of us!