Formation of Conscience, Step One: “Mind Your Own Business!”

Italy Greece Pope Refugees

(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Pope Francis never ceases to challenge us across a spectrum of issues.  How we treat the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrant, even nature itself are all matters of grave moral concern.  He reminds us that we best confront these issues through our encounters with one person at a time, by being the hands of God’s own mercy.

Pope Francis bases his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) on several fundamental principles, which I hope to examine in future blog posts.  Here, however, we consider briefly perhaps the most fundamental: the matter of the individual moral conscience. The expectation of the Church, well expressed by the Holy Father, is that we confront life’s challenges in a morally responsible and mature way.  More about that in a moment, but first, what do we teach about the conscience?

76_2731812The core of the Church’s teaching on conscience is found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (GS), 16:

In the depths of conscience, a person detects a law which he does not give to himself, but which he must obey. Always summoning the person to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to the heart: do this, shun that. For the person has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.

VaticanIIOne thing many observers forget, however, is that we are bound to follow our conscience, even if that means we are responsible for errors we make!  GS 16 continues:

The more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

So, in summary: we must make every attempt to properly form our consciences, but we are bound to follow our conscience even if later that judgment is found to be in error.  Saying that something is “in accordance with my conscience” does not mean that it is necessarily accurate or correct or infallible.  It means that we take adult responsibility both for the formation of conscience and our actions taken in response to it.

With this as context (read more about the moral conscience  in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), we return to Amoris Laetitia.  In AL 37, the pope writes:

Pray-for-one-AnotherWe have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. . . .  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

So we arrive at the first point I want to make about the conscience.  The conscience is subjective: it belongs to each, individual, human subject.  While other persons: family, friends, pastors, bishops, deacons, religious, catechists, scientists and teachers may assist me in the formation of my conscience, ultimately, as Vatican II teaches, I am alone with God in my conscience.  Someone else’s conscience cannot serve as — or replace — my own conscience.

Therefore, my first reflection on the formation of conscience is simple: “Mind your (my) own business”!  Consider the following scenario:

SCENARIO:

At Mass, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  John and Jane Doe, longtime parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish, Anytown, USA, join the communion procession, approach Deacon James Jones and receive Communion.

REACTION #1:

Mrs. Smith approaches Deacon Jones after Mass.  “I’m scandalized, Deacon, that you gave Communion to those two!  You know as well as I do that they’re divorced and re-married outside the Church!  How dare you violate the Church’s law?”

REACTION #2:

After Mrs. Smith storms off, Dr. Baker heads over to the deacon. “What the hell is going on, Deacon?  Those two people haven’t received Communion in years.  Yes, I know they’re very active here, but they used to respect our church’s laws.  Now, this?  You know they’re divorced and all, Deacon, and you gave them Communion anyway!  The bishop’s going to hear about this.”

xelr0ija02tp7fwysm351br5fol_largeThe weekend after AL was presented to the world, a friend presented me just that scenario.  “What would happen if a divorced and remarried couple, who had refrained from receiving communion for many years, began receiving communion again?  That would be a terrible scandal, and the pope says we are to avoid scandal!”  What if John and Jane Doe’s story included the fact that they had gone to the pastor and, under his guidance, pastoral judgment and advice, in consideration of many factors known only to the two individuals involved, both John and Jane decide in conscience that each should return to the reception of Holy Communion?  This process of conscience formation, which as the pope reminds us, is not done with a view to sidestepping the law.  However, it is done with due consideration of unique aspects of their own past experiences and current responsibilities for their children and so on.  And, they each reach a decision point in conscience.  And, “according to it [each of them] will be judged. The conscience is a person’s most secret core and sanctuary, in which the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”

BOTTOM LINE: If a person winds up receiving Holy Communion unworthily, the responsibility for doing so rests with that individual, and no one else.  We do not force our own conscience on someone else.  “We are called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

So, consider a third possible reaction:

REACTION #3:

Mr. and Mrs. Williams approach the Deacon after Mass, beaming with joy.  “It was so wonderful to see Jane and John receiving Communion this morning!”

FOR REFLECTION

  1. How do we assist others in the formation of conscience?  Do we get to a point where we “let go” and let them arrive at their own decision in conscience?
  2. When we see someone acting in a particular way, do we presume that they are acting in good faith, or bad faith?  Notice in the first two reactions above: the presumption was being made that John and Jane were acting “in bad faith” and flaunting their “irregular” situation.  In reaction #3, however, the presumption was that they were acting “in good faith.”
  3. At what point do I have simply have to mind my own business concerning others?

Consider St. Paul’s advice to the Romans (14:1-14)(emphasis added):

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

 

 

There is no “Christianity”: Thoughts on Extremism and Christianity

Got your attention?  Now let me explain.

Lenten purpleThe headlines surrounding a recently-released study scream:  “Increasing number of Americans consider Christianity ‘to be extremist'” followed by the quote: “The perception that the Christian faith is extreme,” says Barna Group, “is now firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians.”  [Read the full article here.]  I am in the process of examining the study, so I will have more to say about it once I’ve finished.  However, there is one thing that I believe must be said at the outset: there is no “Christianity”.

Here’s what I mean.  Tragically, there is no singular, undivided, undifferentiated body of disciples known as Christianity.  There are almost as many forms of “Christianity” as there are Christians, so to speak of “Christianity” as a single corporate entity is simply inadequate.  Consider only a few examples.

We have long had distinctions between expressions of Christianity, East and West.  Such variety existed long before the formal break in 1054 AD.  On the positive side, Christianity has consistently acknowledged and accepted the simple fact that unity in faith does not necessarily equate to uniformity in practice.  The “one faith” can be expressed in a wide variety of ways!  Even today, the Catholic Church exists as a communion of some 27 ritual churches, of which the Latin (or Roman) Church is but one.  So, within Catholic Christianity can be found these diverse communities of faith all in communion with each other, even though they have different sacramental theologies and even different canon law.  So far, so good then: it is possible that “Christianity” lived in such a diverse way can be seen as a united faith.

Cuba Pope Patriarch (1) (2)On the negative side, however, since 1054, some of these Eastern churches (not all of them) broke with Rome and became what is referred to now as the Orthodox Churches.  While theology formed a part of the rationale between the split (consider the filioque debate, for example), the larger issues revolved around the authority of the See of Rome.  Only over the last 100 years or so have we seen some real progress in restoring full communion.  Then, of course, in the 16th Century we find Latin Christianity fracturing even more through the theological and ecclesial reforms demanded by Martin Luther, John Calvin and others.  Within the framework of evolving philosophical, theological, political and social trends, these disagreements quickly moved out of the university setting and into the streets, creating the chasms between Christians we still experience today, despite Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper, “that they all may be one, Father, as you and I are one.”

So, today, what IS “Christianity”?  Before one can make a claim about Christianity (such as the claim in the article that “Christianity is extremist”) it seems to me you must clearly define some terms, beginning with the question, “Which Christianity are you talking about?”  While all Christians can agree (possibly) on the nature and role of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah of God,  and that all Christians see themselves as followers of this Christ, after that things get murky quickly.

world viewConsider a basic world view.  How do Christians view the world?  Some groups of Christians have a very positive view of God’s creation, frequently citing the words of Genesis in which God proclaims creation to be “good.”  Creation is, therefore, in this view, good by nature — with evil entering into the picture only later through the deliberate, free will choices of human beings.  Other groups of Christians have an opposite view of the world, seeing creation as inherently flawed.  Martin Luther, for example, frequently wrote things such as, “our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so.”

128756_imagnoConsider how inclusivist (“catholic”) or exclusivist various Christian groups can be.  One of my own saddest experiences in this regard occurred some years ago when I was still on active duty in the Navy.  A good friend was part of the Protestant chapel community on our base.  He was participating in the annual Holy Thursday reenactment of the Last Supper, put on by the Protestant chaplains.  I went over to help get the apostles into their beards and costumes and stuck around to watch it.  Shortly before leaving to go to the Catholic chapel for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, I watched the beginning of the communion service following the reenactment.  The senior Protestant chaplain stood and give directions to the assembly on how to come forward for communion.  Ministers of particular denominations would be on other side, and adherents of those denominations were to go to “their own” minister; a “general communion” was being offered down the main central aisle of the chapel, and those who were not in the other two churches could receive in the “general” line.  Naturally, of course, it struck me that I was about to head over to our own Mass, during which only Catholics could receive Communion.  It left me quite saddened to see — at the moment when you would think Christians could be MOST united — we were the most divided.

diversitySo, today, we have Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians, Evangelical Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Non-Denominational Christians, along with other forms of Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, and on and on and on.  Because of many reasons, such as the “world view” distinctions mentioned above, some of these Christians look for everything to be black and white, clearly distinguished.  Sin, for example, is sin.  Something is either sinful or it is not.  There is no gradation in sinfulness: telling a lie (regardless of situation or intent) is as grave as murder.  In this view, you are either with me totally and completely or you are against me totally and completely.  Other Christians seem to say that anything goes if it’s what you want.  You determine everything yourself about what you will choose to believe and so on.  Then there are Christians in the middle, who marry philosophy and theology, reason and faith.  Given this diversity then, we come to the question raised by the article: Are Christians extremists?

InterreligiousThat raises the need to define the other term of the argument: How do we define “extremist”?  In the list of statements included in the study, I found myself agreeing that some of them certainly reflected “extremism” as I understand it, while others do not.  However, ALL them made me think and to reflect, and that is always a good thing.

For example, statements such as “using religion to justify violence against others” and “refusing standard medical care for their children” or “refusing to serve someone because the other person’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs” certainly bespeak extremism in a negative sense.  Others, however, such as “demonstrating outside an organization they consider immoral” [would this include the civil rights marches of the 1960’s as well, I wonder?] or “attempting to convert others to their faith” [depending of course on the methods used!] do not.  Read the full study and see what YOU think.

So, is “Christianity” extremist?  What a terribly loaded question!  Depending on what a person thinks is “extremist”, coupled with the tragic differences among Christians ourselves, the only reasonable answer, it seems to me, lies in the middle:

“Some are, some aren’t.”

LENTEN REFLECTION: As a Lenten reflection, we can all ponder what forms extremism, especially religious extremism, can take.  Perhaps it is, like Benjamin Franklin used to say about treason, more easily discerned in others than in ourselves!  I offer this post not to start an argument over this particular study, or to offer some kind of societal critique.  I offer it simply as a point of departure for a Lenten reflection on how we live out in concrete terms the implications of our faith.

Getting Christmas in a Real World

Questions“Christmas — who cares?”

“It’s for the kids; I’m too old for that nonsense.”

“Christians are all hypocrites anyway.”

“I used to be a Catholic; then I grew up.”

“It’s all about the money: the malls, the churches: all the same.”

xmas-homeless-jesus-12-24-12-copy“I just get so depressed at Christmas.  I’ve lost the innocence of youth and there’s no connection to family any more — and this just makes it all worse.”

“With all of the violence and craziness in the world, why the hell should I get involved with all this make-believe?

As we enter another Christmas Season (and remember that for Christians, Christmas Day is just the beginning of a whole season of “Christmas”!), perhaps we should reflect a bit on why we even care about it.  “Christmas” as an event has just become, for so many people, a civic holiday, a commercial opportunity, and mere Seinfeldian “festivus”.  Let’s face it: for many people,  “Christmas” is simply something to be endured and survived.

Why do Christians care about Christmas?  What does it — what should it — mean?  Are Christians who celebrate Christmas simply naive children who won’t grow up?

immanuel1 (2)In my Advent reflection yesterday on the Hebrew expression “Emmanuel” (God-with-us) I stressed the intimacy of this relationship with God.  No matter how we may feel at any given moment, the God we have given our hearts to (which is actually the root meaning of “I believe”) is with us through it all — even when we can’t or don’t recognize it.  Think of a child in her room playing.  Does she realize that her father out in the kitchen is thinking about her, listening for sounds that may mean that she needs his help, pondering her future?  Does she realize that her mother at work in her office is also thinking about her, loving her, and making plans for her future?  The love of parents for children is constant and goes beyond simply those times when they are physically present to each other.

God is like that, too.  Sometimes we feel God’s presence around us, sometimes we don’t.  From our perspective it might seem like God has left us — but God hasn’t.  That’s the beauty of “Emmanuel” and the great insight of the Jewish people which we Christians have inherited: regardless of what I may think or feel at any given moment, “God is with us.”

Christmas celebrates that reality.  But there’s more to it than that.  God isn’t with us as some kind of superhero god with a deep voice and stirring sound track like a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic.  God “thinks big and acts small” and comes to the world as a weak and helpless baby.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God is in the manger.”  We’ll have more to say about that in a moment.  But for now, consider the mistake that many people make.  As we get older and set aside childish ways, some people assume that since God is in the manger as a baby, that this makes Christmas simply something for children.  How wrong they are!  The great scripture scholar, the late Raymond Brown, emphasized this point in his landmark study, “An Adult Christ at Christmas.”  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend you do so: consider it a belated Christmas gift to yourself!

mary-joseph-jesus_thumb21The world into which Jesus was born was every bit as violent, abusive, and full of destructive intent as our own.  And yet, consider what Christians have maintained from the beginning.  God’s saving plan was not brought about through noble families, through the Jewish high priestly caste, or through the structures of the Roman empire.  It wasn’t engaged in Greek or Roman philosophies or religions.  Instead we find a young Jewish girl from an ordinary family, her slightly older betrothed (there is nothing in scripture that suggests that Joseph was an older man, so we might assume that he was in his late teens, not that much older than Mary), shepherds (who were largely considered outcasts in Jewish society), foreign astrologers avoiding the puppet Jewish king, and on and on.  What’s more, the savior of the world sent by God doesn’t show up on a white charger at the head of mighty army, but as a baby.

God enters the scene in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.  How will this “save” anyone?

God saves by so uniting himself with us (Emmanuel) that he takes on all of our struggles, joys, pains, and hopes.  The ancient hymn, quoted by that former and infamous persecutor of Christians, Saul-who-became-Paul, captures it well (Philippians 2: 5-11):

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

What should all of this nice poetry mean to us?  Paul is explicit.  Writing from prison himself, he tells the Philippians: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  This self-emptying is called kenosis in Greek, and the path of the Christian, following Christ, is first to empty ourselves if we hope later to rise with him.  

THIS IS THE VERY HEART OF CHRISTIANITY AND WHAT IT MEANS TO CALL OURSELVES DISCIPLES OF JESUS THE CHRIST: TO EMPTY OURSELVES IN IMITATION OF CHRIST.  IF WE’RE NOT DOING THAT WE DARE NOT CALL OURSELVES “CHRISTIANS”!

Many people have written about this in a variety of contexts.  Here are just a few random examples.

Empty yourself: “Suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.”  John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, #93.

Empty yourself: “The gift to us of God’s ever faithful love must be answered by an authentic life of charity which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts.  We too must give our gift fully; that is, we must divest ourselves of ourselves in that same kenosis of love.” Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 107.

Empty yourself: “Kenosis moves beyond simply giving up power.  It is an active emptying, not simply the acceptance of powerlessness.” William Ditewig, The Exercise of Governance by Deacons: A Theological and Canonical Study.

Empty yourself:  “It is precisely in the kenosis of Christ (and nowhere else) that the inner majesty of God’s love appears, of God who ‘is love’ (1 John 4:8) and a ‘trinity.’  Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone.

Empty yourself: “Satan fears the Trojan horse of an open human heart.” Johann Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit.

034077_29And so we return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This well-known German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and concentration camp martyr embodies the wedding of of the meaning of Christmas with the real world in which we live.  He devoted his life to study, to writing, to opposing injustice — especially the Nazi regime in Germany, ultimately giving the ultimate witness to Christ.  Christians like Bonhoeffer, whose best-known work is called The Cost of Discipleship, are not dreamy, wide-eyed innocents who do not connect with the world.  In fact, their witness shows us just the opposite.  The true Christian is one who — following Christ — engages the world in all of its joys, hopes, pains and suffering.  It is with Bonhoeffer, then, that we enter into Christmas 2015, with his wonderful reflection:

Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?  Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.

Bonhoeffer Kenosis Meme

MAY WE ALL “GET” CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR!  HOW WILL WE EMPTY OURSELVES FOR OTHERS?

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

“O Oriens”: Light out of Darkness

From Vespers, 21 December, the Winter Solstice:

21 Dec O OriensO Morning Star,
splendor of eternal light and sun of justice:
Come, and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is no coincidence that today’s Antiphon occurs on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice.  The “darkest” and shortest day, with the least sunlight of the entire year.  On this day, then, the Church remembers that Christ, the Morning Star extolled in the great Exultet on the Vigil of Easter, brings light back into the world.  The Latin root of the word “oriens” is “East”, the direction from which the sun “rises.”  This explains the various English translations attempting to capture that sense: “morning sun”, “dayspring”, “morning star,” “dawn” and so on.  The point is simple and based on Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined” (Is 9:2).

Pope Francis spends considerable time in Evangelii Gaudium speaking of the dangers facing “pastoral workers”: those clergy and laity who together attempt to serve the needs of others.  Among those challenges, he writes that “the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: ‘the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small mindedness.'” He is quoting then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from a speech given at a gathering the Presidents of the Latin American Episcopal Commissions for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996.  Pope Francis continues:

O Radiant DawnDisillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precisous of the devil’s potions.”  Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.  For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization. . . . One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses” (#83, 85).

Although these words are focused on pastoral workers, they certainly apply to all people.  In today’s world, it is easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged.  As the pope reminds us, though, as followers of Christ and proclaimers of the Gospel, we are “called to radiate light” and only in our relationship with Christ and the relationships which flow from that primal relationship, can we truly carry that light into the world.  Pope St. John Paul II told deacons and wives in an audience in 2000 that, when they were discouraged they should “throw yourselves into the arms of Christ, and he will refresh you.”  In these final days of Advent, no better advice can be given!

ADVENT REFLECTION

Are we ourselves discouraged and overwhelmed at this time of year?  As Christ the Morning Star enters the world, may we too be illumined and strengthened to bear that light to others.  No sourpusses allowed!  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . .”: Are we, disciples of Christ and heralds of the Gospel, perpetuating the darkness, or sharing the Light?

AdventCandlesBokeh

“O Radix Jesse”: Foundations

O Radix Jesse:  O Root of Jesse, who stands as a sign for the people, and before whom rulers are silent while the nations pray: come to save us and do not delay!

19 Dec O Radix JesseThe “O Antiphon” for 19 December begins “O Radix Jesse.”  While some translations use the word, “flower” for the Latin “radix,” I prefer the more literal “root” because it signals clearly the Mystery being invoked in this prayer.  The point of this ancient antiphon is to identify the coming Messiah as the very root and foundation of creation and covenant.  Our connection to Christ and to the world is not a superficial grafting onto a minor branch of the family tree, but to the very root itself.  We are grounded, connected and vitally linked to Christ.

9215a16915766b401885d0c1e9eed53bAs ministers of the Church’s charity, justice and mercy, we deacons (this is, after all, a blog focused on the diaconate!) must lead in our concern for those who find themselves cut off from society and church and perhaps even cut off from that very Root of Jesse.  Pope Francis, in Evangelium Gaudium condemns anything which contributes to such isolation of human beings.  Even concerning economies, for example, he condemns any “economy of exclusion and inequality. How can it be that it is not a news item when as elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock mart loses two points?  This is a case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrwon away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality” (#53).  We are to be a people of INCLUSION AND EQUALITY, not exclusion and inequality.

Inclusivity and encounter continue to be themes of the papacy of Pope Francis.  In his homily opening the Holy Door for the Extraordinary Year of Mercy on 8 December, he reminded us that he selected the date deliberately to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.  Read this remarkable conclusion to his homily:

569e5bc0785f40d589c170c2268bc2de

Today, 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.  It was the resumption of a journey of encountering people where they live: in their cities and homes, in their workplaces.  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.

good-sam-biddleThe pope’s message is quite clear and, when considered as part of our Advent reflection on “O Root of Jesse”, particularly on point.  As Christians we thrive when we are grafted to the Messiah, the source of life.  Our mission of mercy is to serve to graft others to the Messiah as well.  Our faith is not merely expressed in a text — no matter how vital those texts are in themselves — but in the concrete encounter of one person with another.  The pope even dares to use an expression often mocked by certain Catholics, the “spirit which emerged from Vatican II” and equates that spirit with the spirit that drove the Samaritan, the Samaritan who is our model for the mercy of God.

ADVENT REFLECTION

In my own life and ministry, do I keep the fundamental truth of the “Root of Jesse” in mind?  Do I seek to find ways to include all persons equally in the life of the church?  What structures and attitudes exist which are exclusionary and unequal and need to be changed?  Do I live in “the spirit of the Samaritan?”

 

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

The Pope Puzzle: Keeping the Big Picture in Mind: UPDATE

24B5572900000578-0-image-a-78_1421328465237Pope Francis is on the move.  On the eve of his impending Apostolic Journey to these shores, he created some historic mainstream media history with his virtual audience last Friday on ABC’s 20/20.  See the video here, and selected commentary here and here.  He has extended universal faculties to all priests, not only to forgive the sin and guilt of abortion but to lift the associated sanction for it as it exists under current canon law.  Now, earlier today, comes the announcement that tomorrow two documents will be released conveying canonical changes affecting the marriage tribunal processes involving declarations of nullity.  UPDATE: Here is a link to the Latin text [a Vatican translation in English is not yet available] for the Latin Church; and here is a link to the Latin text for the Eastern Catholic Churches.   With the Ordinary Synod on the Family just around the corner in October, this is an interesting bit of timing, to say the least.  Finally, the apostolic journey itself contains so many diverse elements that it is easy to focus on one or two to the exclusion of the others!  In short, the Pope has tossed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table and, as with all puzzles, it is helpful to keep the original “big picture” in mind as we try to fit the pieces together.1000piecePuzzle_03-1024x679

The Big Picture: Evangelization

Proclaiming Christ to the contemporary world: that has been the mission of the Church since that windswept morning on the Mount of Olives when Christ ascended to the Father.  As has been said, “It is not that the Church has a mission, but that the mission has a Church”!

Pope Francis is — like St. John XXIII — a man with a sharp sense of history and continuity.  Everything he has done since his election has demonstrated this, as I hope this essay will in part illustrate.  What he is doing now is logical, historical, and consistent with the work of his predecessors.  Consider some initial examples.

ROMA 7 Dicembre 1962 - CONCILIO VATICANO II. Papa Giovanni XXIII parla in occasione della chiusura della prima sessione del Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II. ANSA ARCHIVIO / 28342-1

St. John XXIII ushered in a renewed focus on evangelization when he announced the Second Vatican Council in January, 1959.  By the time the Council convened in October, 1962, evangelization had become the cornerstone of the project: how could the Church be a more effective witness of Christ in the contemporary world, especially following the violence, devastation and death inflicted on humanity during the first half of the Twentieth Century?  Blessed Paul VI, John’s successor, convened a Synod on Evangelization in 1974 and declared a Holy Year in 1975 to focus on as a way to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the closing of the Council, referring to the Council itself as “the great Catechism of our time.”  In his landmark apostolic exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul wrote:

There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.

Pope-Paul-VI-imageFor this reason the duty of confirming the brethren – a duty which with the office of being the Successor of Peter . . .  seems to us all the more noble and necessary when it is a matter of encouraging our brethren in their mission as evangelizers, in order that, in this time of uncertainty and confusion, they may accomplish this task with ever increasing love, zeal and joy.

Referring back to the Council, he wrote:

We wish to do so on this tenth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the objectives of which are definitively summed up in this single one: to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the twentieth century.

Pope Paul mentioned that this theme was not a new one, and that even prior to the Synod on Evangelization, he had told the Cardinals:

“The conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man. . . .” in a way that is as understandable and persuasive as possible.

The pope then gave three “burning questions” with the 1974 Synod had dealt with:

In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience?

To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century?

What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effect?

Basically, these inquiries make explicit the fundamental question that the Church is asking herself today and which may be expressed in the following terms: after the Council and thanks to the Council, which was a time given her by God, at this turning-point of history, does the Church or does she not find herself better equipped to proclaim the Gospel and to put it into people’s hearts with conviction, freedom of spirit and effectiveness?

Now consider the challenges posed by Pope Francis in his own first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in which he picks up these same themes and asks his to evaluate our own existing ecclesial structures and to change them, even eliminating those which are no longer effective in conveying the joy of the Gospel.  It is not insignificant that a preponderance of his references in that part of the document are drawn from St. John XXIII and Paul VI.

The bottom line here is simple, direct and graphic: the proclamation of Christ to the world is our mission, and we do that with joy, courage, hope and mercy.  In fact, mercy is not simply one of several attributes associated with evangelization, it is the heart of evangelization itself: God loves us and showers us all constantly with mercy, and there are no exceptions and no one is excluded from God’s mercy.  We who claim to be disciples can do no less in imitation of Christ.

With evangelization as the foundation, let’s turn to recent events, especially the upcoming Apostolic Journey.

The Apostolic Journey #1: It’s not all about the USA

The first thing to consider is how the Pope views his trip.  Is he coming to United States?  Of course, but that’s not where it begins.  The official title of his sojourn is, according to the Vatican website: “APOSTOLIC JOURNEY OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS TO CUBA, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND VISIT TO THE UNITED NATIONS ORGANIZATION HEADQUARTERS on the occasion of his participation at the Eighth World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.”

Cuba? Cuba??  I can hear some eyes rolling: Aren’t there direct flights from Rome to Washington or New York?  Is this all part of President Obama’s new relationship with Havana?  Is the Pope taking sides in such political issues?  Is the Pope a Democrat??? [I know that we must be careful here; I hope readers realize that I’m trying to be somewhat humorous in those questions!]  Rather we must again look at history.

jfk-nikitaIt’s 1962.  Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the US and Cuba entered a new level of tension when the Soviet Union began installing nuclear-capable missiles on the island.  The week after the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, the crisis exploded, and we were all on the brink of disaster.  Behind the scenes, both President Kennedy and Premier Krushchev approached Pope John XXIII for whatever assistance he could offer in mediation.  Working both publicly and behind the scenes, John did just that.  In fact, you can listen to one of his public efforts from Vatican Radio here.  Once the crisis had passed, due in no small measure to the pope, he decided that he had to write what many now consider his most significant encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).  This was a direct result of the missile crisis.  Since that time, popes have worked to continue to ease the tension between our two countries.  3hw5z9i

The fact that Pope Francis is beginning his apostolic journey with a visit to Cuba is most significant.  I am convinced that we will hear more about Pope John XXIII and his efforts from Pope Francis and the longstanding desire of the papacy that peaceful solutions be found.  When he arrives in the United States, It think it is a safe bet that he will “report” on his visit to Cuba, especially perhaps, in his speech later at the United Nations.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: Evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #2: It’s not all about the big ticket events

Take a good look at the agenda for the apostolic journey here.  Notice the times throughout that Pope Francis will be visiting with young people, with the poor, with immigrants, with prisoners and the ill.  I hope that the media will not simply keep their cameras focused on the huge papal Masses and the public addresses to the Congress and the United Nations — as critical as those will be.  At the heart of the pope’s visit, however, will be those far more intimate and direct contacts he will have with people most in need of God’s healing and merciful touch.  Much as we saw in the recent 20/20 “virtual papal audience” this is where the pope feels most at home, and where he feels he — and we — need to be!

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #3: The Canonization of Junipero Serra

Living and working right now in California, in fact, in the Diocese in which Father Serra is buried, it has been fascinating to watch the reactions to this canonization.  I was born and raised in central Illinois, and all we learned were the basics: that Spanish Franciscans led by Fra Junipero Serra had established a series of missions along the California coast during the Spanish Colonial period in the late 18th Century.  That was pretty much it, or at least as much as I remember.  Now, of course, we have become much more attuned to the complexities of this matter, with many native peoples objecting vigorously against what they characterize as an oppressive and murderous regime.  Father Serra himself is sometimes even cited as a culprit or even as a “devil” in this regard.

Old-Mission-San-Fernando-Rey-de-Espana-father-Junipero-Serra-16Other Native peoples, however, support the canonization.  In particular, there have been very fruitful conversations between church authorities and the leaders of the Peoples who are descendants of the groups who were actually involved in the situations described.  They are actively involved in promoting and in planning for the canonization itself.  A number of respected scholars of the period, the peoples, and the archaeology, continue to examine the evidence in a comprehensive and nuanced way.  For me at least, it has been this this renewed sense of dialogue and scientific and historical research that has made the event of the canonization of Junipero Serra fruitful.  Several of these scholars even admit that when they began their work on the missions that they were negative toward the mission system but, after their analysis, actually come to hold the opposite view: that, in fact, the missions served a positive role in the history of the region and its peoples.

But the bigger issue, perhaps, the “big picture,” needs to be remembered.  To declare someone a saint has never meant that the church considers that person to be perfect in every way.  Pope Francis understands that.  He has been highlighting people who have left their own homeland, left their previous “comfort zones”, and preached Christ.  Last January,the pope canonized Father Joseph Vaz, an Indian-born priest who came to Sri Lanka during the 17th century, at a time when Dutch colonists conducted a brutal persecution of Catholics. It was on the papal plane flight leaving Sri Lanka that embarked reporters asked the pope about the canonization.  He replied that he was seeking to hold out examples of courageous evangelization, and for that reason, he hoped to canonize Junipero Serra during his visit to the United States.  The ultimate message, then, is not to portray Junipera Serra as a perfect, sinless man.  The pope hopes that the known positive aspects of his life and ministry will inspire today’s Christians to leave our own comfort zones to offer Christ to the modern world.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #4: The Speech to Congress

This will be a particularly fascinating and historic event!  Reports out of Washington suggest that some legislators are concerned that the pope’s address will result in unseemly behavior, as members of one political party rise to applaud certain items in the address while the other party remains seated.  It has been suggested the no one rise during the speech itself and then applaud only at the end of it.  In any case, we may be assured of one simple fact.  The pope will challenge each and every member of Congress, as well as all of us who will be following along.  He is neither Republican or Democrat, and he will undoubtedly be an equal opportunity prophet: preaching against abortion and for immigration reform; criticizing any economic systems (including capitalism) which harm the human person and challenging the lawmakers to find ways to help the poor and those caught in despair.  When considering the normal camera angles used for similar events (such as the President’s annual State of the Union address), it will be most interesting to see the pope at the podium, flanked by Vice President Biden on the left and Speaker Boehner on the right.  Both men, as Catholics, might well offer interesting visual responses to the challenges to the topics sure to be raised by the pope.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #5: The Speech to the UN General Assembly

Here we have another interesting papal precedent.  It was fifty years ago, almost to the day, that Pope Paul VI addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations.  During that famous speech, which would have great influence on the Second Vatican Council, which was at the same time completing its own work on the section of Gaudium et Spes dealing with war and peace, Pope Paul passionately reminded the Assembly:

These are the words you are looking for us to say and the words we cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again!

Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your Institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!

And in a classic comment, he proclaimed, “If you want to be brothers, let the arms fall from your hands. A person cannot love with offensive weapons in his hands.”

It seems very safe to predict that Pope Francis will make direct references to Pope Paul’s address, and that he will build upon it.  His message will be, like Pope Paul’s, about the responsibilities that nations have to their people and indeed all people.

Proclaiming Christ in the world today: evangelization.

The Apostolic Journey #6: The World Meeting of Families

Finally we come to the event which initiated the pope’s visit to the United States in the first place. Naturally we will see and hear the pope offering inspiration and encouragement to the assembled families.  While he may not get into specifics, it would seem natural that he might aver to the upcoming Synod on the Family.  He will certainly speak of the multiple stressors on the family today and challenge all in attendance to strengthen the family and offering his own personal and prayerful support.  The family will also be presented as the domestic Church, echoing Vatican II, reflecting in itself the loving nature of God and God’s own relationship with God’s creation.

Proclaiming Christ to the modern world: evangelization.

And so, as we head into this remarkable journey with Pope Francis, may we all keep the completed puzzle in mind: It is all about how WE, today, carry the merciful Christ into the world today.  Our Holy Father is giving us a stunning demonstration of how that looks on a global scale: EVANGELIZATION!

Love-puzzle

Prayers for all in Charleston

Word is just in that the suspect in the terrible shooting in Charleston has been arrested.

My first reaction upon hearing this terrible news was to remember back to those terrible days during the Civil Rights movement, with the assassinations, bombings and lynchings that were part of the daily experience of so many of our sisters and brothers.  It felt like nothing had changed over the last fifty years.

May we all please keep everyone involved in this most recent tragedy in our prayers and thoughts.  And, may we also find the courage to take steps to confront and eliminate the causes that lead to such hatred and violence.