Sunday, May 30, 2010

By The Authority of Christ

The Priest as Guide

I was beginning to despair of finding the time and occasion for a brief comment on the Holy Father’s address at the General Audience of 26 May 2010, continuing his series of reflections on the specific tasks of priests, which, according to tradition, are essentially three: to teach, to sanctify, to govern, this one devoted to the third task the priest has, that of governing or guiding that part of the Church entrusted to his care by proper authority. Truth to be told, my real interest is in mining the Pope’s audience talk for use in my own reflection on the question: Who in the Church has or should have “skills for governing” and where do they come from?
          My question is inspired by a whole series of quandaries, some even affecting me directly. Partly, I suppose, it is a desire to deal with the angry fists shaken (at least figuratively so) in the face of bishops in many different countries these days for having failed to confront priests especially for misusing their “power” or “authority” over minors. It is also somewhat piqued by the media attention to the Holy Father’s words about the style of governance of St. Bonaventure as Minister General of the Franciscans in a time of real crisis for that group. Many commentators took the Pope’s words as an expression of his own philosophy of governing:
“Thus we see that for St. Bonaventure governing was not merely action but above all was thinking and praying. At the root of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions are the result of reflection, of thought illumined by prayer. His intimate contact with Christ always accompanied his work as Minister General and therefore he composed a series of theological and mystical writings that express the soul of his government. They also manifest his intention of guiding the Order inwardly, that is, of governing not only by means of commands and structures, but by guiding and illuminating souls, orienting them to Christ.” (LEV – Vatican Web Site – General Audience of 10 March 2010)
Then there is the matter that here in the islands we face the question of where do you look for people to govern the Church, given the scarcity of homegrown priests with the right age and temperament for the office of bishop? From my reading these days I can blame also dear Sigrid Undset’s life of St. Catherine of Siena for getting my “wheels turning” as well, as she describes this very young woman, with no qualifications in human terms for governance, who directs the spiritual life of people from every walk in life, who dictates terms of peace to the worldly princes of her day and really lays down the law with her “sweet Christ on earth”, the Pope. The sole explanation for St. Catherine’s ability to do this is that she is taught by God, that she is in constant and intimate communion with her Bridegroom, the Christ, and that she knows and is directed by Him to express His mind, His will for the salvation of the world of her time.
Who in the Church has or should have “skills for governing” and where do they come from?        
          The Gospel for this Trinity Sunday (Year C) offers me no small amount of consolation in terms of configuring or positioning any kind of response to that question:
“But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine. Everything the Father has is mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine.” (John 16:13-15)
Remembering the Primacy discourse between Jesus and Peter, we can confidently say that governance in the Church belongs to those who love the Church as Christ did or to use Pope Benedict’s words from 26 May: “In fact, Christ feeds his flock through the pastors of the Church: It is he who guides it, protects it, corrects it, because he loves it profoundly.” [Translation by ZENIT]
          You might say that the “angry fists” to the extent that they are being shaken by faithful sons or daughters of the Church are more than understandable given the primacy which should belong to love. Let it be said that priestly ordination does not necessarily and enduringly confer that love which is at the heart of governance. It’s sort of like discussing the importance of the sacrament of matrimony for sealing the bond of love between man and woman, fully recognizing that the couple must cooperate with the grace bestowed. The same is true of the primacy of love in governing and guiding, of love’s triumph in the heart of the man ordained to the priesthood as a sine qua non for his being able to govern or guide. As the Holy Father said at the Wednesday Audience:
“If such a pastoral task is founded on the sacrament, nevertheless its efficacy is not independent of the personal existence of the presbyter. To be a pastor according to the heart of God (cf. Jeremiah 3:15) there must be a profound rootedness in living friendship with Christ, not only of the intelligence, but also of liberty and of the will, a clear awareness of the identity received in priestly ordination, an unconditional willingness to guide the entrusted flock where the Lord wishes and not in the direction that, apparently, seems more suitable and easy. That requires, first of all, the continuous and progressive willingness to let Christ himself govern the priestly existence of the presbyters. In fact, no one is really capable of feeding Christ's flock if he does not live a profound and real obedience to Christ and to the Church, and the docility itself of the people to their priests depends on the docility of priests to Christ; because of this, at the base of pastoral ministry is always the personal and constant encounter with the Lord, profound knowledge of him, conforming one's will to the will of Christ.” [Translation by ZENIT]
Who in the Church has or should have “skills for governing” and where do they come from?
          Any priest could or should have those skills if he truly loves, if he is truly a priest after Jesus’ own Heart… Perseverance is part of the equation too. The old wisdom about not proclaiming anyone a saint until that person has both feet firmly planted in the grave applies to the triumph of love: each day has its skirmishes; some days there are set backs; rest from battling comes at the end of our days despite the fact that we live in the hope of going from strength to strength.
“This authority does not come from man himself, but has its origin in the sacred, in the sacrament; hence it subjects the person to the vocation, to the mystery of Christ; it makes of the individual a servant of Christ and only insofar as he is a servant of Christ can he govern, guide for Christ and with Christ. Because of this, whoever enters in the sacred order of the sacrament, the "hierarchy," is not an autocrat, but enters in a new bond of obedience to Christ: he is tied to him in communion with the other members of the sacred order, of the priesthood. And even the Pope -- point of reference for all the other pastors and for the communion of the Church -- cannot do what he wants; on the contrary, the Pope is custodian of the obedience to Christ, to his word taken up again in the "regula fidei," in the Creed of the Church, and must proceed in obedience to Christ and to his Church. Hence, hierarchy implies a triple bond: first of all, the one with Christ and the order given by the Lord to his Church; then the bond with the other pastors in the one communion of the Church; and, finally, the bond with the faithful entrusted to the individual, in the order of the Church….” [Translation by ZENIT]
I really hope that younger people are discovering obedience, coming to an appreciation of the essential importance of obedience in the love equation. Frequently, sad to say, I hear young people criticized for their willfulness. I have heard it said that “he comes to the seminary or she comes to the novitiate with his or her idea of how it is supposed to go”. One Father Provincial told me that he and his whole council were totally aghast when each and every one of them finally became convinced that the young man standing before them was demanding admission to perpetual vows on his own terms and not those laid down by St. Dominic and the Church.
          Was it Cardinal Suenens or Karl Rahner who said that the future of the Church lies in the hands of the mystics? The quote is indeed creepy if you do not understand that never from the time of St. Peter has the Church depended on a military academy or elite finishing school of the Ivy League sort to prepare its leadership. Some say that Jesus asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” because Peter had to take back or make reparation for his three denials. It might just as well be that Jesus wanted no misunderstandings concerning what He considered the sine qua non for tending the flock… “Simon, do you love me more than these?”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Never Parted from You


          In the brief introduction to the Mass for the Solemnity of Pentecost, offered by MAGNIFICAT, reference is made to the teaching of two of our fathers in faith and to my mind it is done so to great effect:
          The popular monthly prayer book paraphrases the Angelic Doctor: “Saint Thomas Aquinas says that the Holy Spirit interiorly perfects our spirit, communicating to it a new dynamism so that it refrains from evil for love.”
          “…It is quite natural for people who had been absorbed by the things of this world to become entirely other-worldly in outlook and for cowards to become people of great courage”. Saint Cyril of Alexandria
          Most of the programs which people turn to for help with an addiction of one kind or another work on the principle of sustaining our own weak will through entrustment to a higher authority or power and by cultivating structures of solidarity by leaning on others in an honest joint effort to stay clean or sober. Setting boundaries is a valid and thoroughly wise dimension of the whole strategy. These programs are good; in fact, they can be a great thing, a source of hope for the addict and of consolation for distraught family, friends and co-workers.
However, such an approach is not and cannot be a blueprint for my life as a whole, for that reality which is really me, for all that I am in truth. What is at stake when it comes to the fullness of life are those bookends on experience that are none such, as life does not come to an end when we rest from our labors, when we return to dust; what is involved here is what happens when life changes, when we go to meet the Lord in the heavens. Our eternal salvation and what we are seeking beyond the grave is something we must approach in a totally different way and without analogy to any program with props solely in the here and now. Granted, we might profitably use the principles of the AA Charter (or of any step program to sobriety or wholeness) to free ourselves from some sinful habit, but such an honest option does not nor does it pretend to go any further than that. Reforming or recovering is not yet being forgiven by God; it is not really reparation; on my own I can’t erase the temporal punishment which I may have incurred due to my sins; I cannot gain the total victory over sin by myself, let alone claim as mine the victory over everlasting death which Christ won for me upon the Cross. Our end and Jesus’ prayer for us goes far beyond personal achievement:
“If you love me you will keep my commandments. I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you for ever. If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” (Gospel for Pentecost in Year C – John 14)
          Being God-less-ly moral and upright, seeking the True, the Good and the Beautiful with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength by myself or with the help of friends may be admirable, but to refuse God’s help by failing to live with Him and in His time (A.D. Anno Domini) is not heroically or stoically, stubbornly or dully to take the road less traveled; it is hopeless and hopelessly out of touch with what put the wise men from the East on their quest for the One born under that exceptional star. Jesus wrote history not only to edify people forever after but to change things forever thereafter baptizing us not like John in his quest for renunciation of sin, but in waters made holy by the One Who was baptized.
          “Though your body may be dead it is because of sin, but if Christ is in you then your spirit is life itself because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you.” (2nd Reading for Pentecost Sunday, Year C, Romans 8)
          The Holy Spirit and His Coming at Pentecost, God’s action in our lives, is what changes and saves us from Adam’s sin and our personal sins. Getting to Heaven is not dependent on something comparable to my finding the right fitness trainer and training strategy, which at best might give me (after only 90 days) that look which merits quick video documentation because, like holding your breath under water, at some point this game too will be over.
Personally, I never knew (other than in Germany) the Pentecost Monday holiday and so was overjoyed this morning in green to hear at Mass on the Monday of the 8th Week in Ordinary Time (Year 2) these words of encouragement:
          “This is a cause of great joy for you, even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of trials; so that, when Jesus Christ is revealed, your faith will have been tested and proved like gold – only it is more precious than gold, which is corruptible even though it bears testing  by fire – and then you will have praise and glory and honour.” (1 Peter 1)
Malachi urged walking humbly with our God. All the great ascetic saints knew that our part in the salvation equation is small. For that reason I love both of the presently used private communion prayers of the priest very much. To conclude, I thought I’d quote the new translation which we are to familiarize ourselves with in preparation for making a good beginning in just over a year.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through your death gave life to the world; free me by this your most holy Body and Blood from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Christ’s Eternal Glory

The Ascension of the Lord
Responsorial Ps. “God goes up with shouts of joy;
the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.”
          One of those little shorthand caricatures of history with which I was brought up was a description of the Arian heresy as a negligent sort of refusal on the part of the rank and file to believe in the divinity of Christ. As this thumbnail description goes, Arianism swept through the world of its time mostly by distraction and because misguided temporal rulers found the followers of Arius to be better political allies and an Arian “church” easier to manage than the genuine Catholic variety. This caricature is in keeping with a saying passed on, which I would not know where to begin to footnote, that runs: “The Church woke up one day and found itself Arian.” I’ve heard the same applied to the Lutheranism of the Scandinavian countries, namely that it was imposed by opportunistic political leaders and accepted without a fight. The people of the far north of Europe just woke up one morning different or “out of communion with Rome”. The rest followed from there.
I am neither going to unpack nor challenge the caricature. It seems too simplistic to be true. In a lot of ways, however, this thumbnail description fits your average contemporary “Machiavelli’s” predilection to seek as political allies progressive or nominal Catholics as opposed to traditional or practicing/serious Catholics, who from an informed conscience confess their sins regularly, who tithe, who fulfill the two great commands of love of God and love of neighbor, and who assist at Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
Granted, such a shorthand description is a punch in the stomach also for people who straddle the fence, ever on the look-out for bouncy liturgy and lively music, not fasting before Mass and frequently wandering into church with gum in their mouths so as not to risk being sniffed by whomever and found guilty of bad breath. I would imagine that Sr. What’s-her-name of that Catholic Hospital Association in the U.S., who endorsed ObamaCare (shorthand expression) for a fist full of dollars and betrayed the Catholic moral witness so cautiously presented by the U.S. hierarchy, would be miffed at me as well if I called her a modern day Arian. Indulge my oversimplification just as you do it continually for anything anyone else may say who seems to have the “prince’s favor” and the upper hand in society today!
“God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.”
On the great feast of the Ascension of the Lord I think it is crucial to realize that when in the Response to the Psalm we sing “God goes up…” we are referring to Jesus. One of the constant worries of a dear, old priest friend of mine is that today in the Catholic Church they just may be many in number who miss that connection. He fears that those who discount the divinity of Christ may not be few or marginal in terms of the role they play in the “official” church. The refrain from today’s Mass “God goes up…” for them stands alone and does not connect back as it should to what we just read in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles about Ascension Day. It is a terrible thought but one I cannot really take away from him or lay to rest. There is too much out there to convince me too that lots of folks, priests included, do not get it (to use the colloquial phrase). They cannot distinguish between the glow of health, a face flushed after jogging, and the Glory shining forth on the Face of the Risen Christ, God made visible.“God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.”
Year C treats us to Hebrews 9:24-28. 10:19-23 as an optional second reading for the Ascension. What happened when Jesus was taken from the sight of the disciples by a cloud is explained there in terms of temple worship.
“It is not as though Christ had entered a man-made sanctuary which was only modeled on the real one; but it was heaven itself, so that he could appear in the actual presence of God on our behalf.”
On this Feast today, if you will, we celebrate the fact that the offering is complete. We wait only for our high priest to return, and when he appears a second time, it will not be to deal with sin but to reward with salvation those who are waiting for him.”
Today is really all about the “once and for all” of Jesus, how, as the passage from St. Luke’s Gospel describes the scene on the outskirts of Bethany, “… as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.” Salvation is accomplished; we need but wait for the return of the high priest.
I’ve started reading again the “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales. One of the counsels which he gives early in that book is to move quickly beyond renouncing sin to renouncing any affection we might have for sin as well. History explains in part Francis’ great success in bringing people back to Catholic faith by describing what a friendly and good man he was. They say similar of St. Norbert and his success as an evangelizer. Neither of these men could be classed dour or sour, in fact, Norbert is described as fun-loving. Nonetheless, I doubt if they would have gotten a kick out of the old country western refrain: “Temptation, get away from me… but not too far!” Patient confessors rightly encourage us to start again after each fall, but I wonder if they might not help us more by further asking us to face squarely the possibility that we might indeed have a genuine affection in our heart for that sin which pains us so each time we fall. Nowadays, you’ll hear tell of various types of addictions which are probably more aptly described in the words of St. Francis de Sales as an affection, a disordered affection, a real inclination toward evil as much as a denying what is true, good and beautiful, really. St. Francis de Sales, pray for us!
With our high priest interceding for us on the other side of the veil, the Ascension’s message has to be one of unbounded optimism in our struggle to conquer sin. “God goes up…” Our profession of faith in Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, is the cornerstone. We can draw hope from St. Paul’s encouraging words to his son in the faith, Timothy:
“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you. Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” (1 Tm 1:5b-7)
We need to rekindle or stir into a flame that which is so appropriately symbolized by our Baptismal candle and sad to say for many children just as carefully wrapped and packed away in a chest of drawers as the pretty candle itself was after the return home from church. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God: the words roll off our tongues but their profound meaning has to be renewed within a goodly number of Catholics. The faith must be rekindled. If you know your catechism, a resolution will help and so will a good confession. Not only must the sins be washed away but the cords which bind our hearts must also be broken. Let no one blush at the old recommendation to make use of confession for devotional purposes. I doubt if the word “devotional” there can be traced back to the school of St. Francis de Sales, but if it can’t it surely could find a worthy and worthwhile explanation in its providing an efficacious means for breaking the bonds which tie us or draw us to anything or anyone other than our great high priest who has passed through the veil and stands ministering before the throne of God on our behalf.
Let me repeat my refrain:
Come Thou, Holy Spirit, Come!
          And from Thy Celestial Home
          Shed a Ray of Light Divine…
Bend the Stubborn Heart and Will
Melt the Frozen, Warm the Chill
Guide the Steps that Go Astray…

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Priest as Sanctifier

Holy God, Holy Mighty One,
Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy…
The Holy Father’s address at the General Audience of 5 May 2010, continuing his series of reflections on the specific tasks of priests, which, according to tradition, are essentially three: to teach, to sanctify, to govern, was devoted to the second task the priest has, that of sanctifying, above all through the sacraments and the worship of the Church.
Pope Benedict said to those gathered in St. Peter’s Square, “… to sanctify a person means to put him in contact with God, with … light, truth, pure love. It is obvious that this contact transforms the person. … Without a minimum contact with God, man cannot live. Truth, goodness, love are fundamental conditions of his being.” [Translation by ZENIT]
The Holy Father points out that contemporary emphasis on the priest’s role as a preacher of the word has perhaps been at the expense of the priest’s role as sanctifier in and through the sacraments.  More specifically the Pope says: “It is necessary to reflect if in some cases this undervaluing of the faithful exercise of the munus sanctificandi did not represent, perhaps, a weakening of the faith itself in the salvific efficacy of the sacraments and, in short, in the present action of Christ and of his Spirit, through the Church, in the world.” The key word to understanding Pope Benedict’s message (at least for my purposes here) is undervaluing: it would be hard to resist the argument that the casual, the conversational, the flighty and whatever might be thoughtlessly borrowed from the everyday not only tends to but does indeed undervalue the exercise of the sanctifying task of the priest and, yes, it weakens the faith of the priest, first of all, but also of God’s People. We are not far from describing here what is meant in the Gospel admonition condemning those who “scandalize God’s little ones”.
At the heart of the task of sanctifying the Holy Father places the celebration of two sacraments in particular: the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist, which he exhorts priests to celebrate and live with intensity. Thereby the priest can show forth the infinite mercy and tenderness of God. Pope Benedict renews once again his invitation to priests to aspire to moral perfection and thereby provide an example of faith and witness of sanctity for the building up of the People of God.
While such words always present a challenge to me as a priest, I find no small encouragement in these words as well. They strengthen my conviction concerning the urgency of a recovery of a sense of the sacred in worship. You might rightly accuse me of being less “down to earth” than the Holy Father, especially as regards the Sacrament of Penance, where he is basically pleading concretely/pragmatically for the availability of the priest in the confessional and the restoration of the confessional as the rightful place for the celebration of this great sacrament of God’s forgiveness. His message even includes an invitation for the priest to simply spend time in there (there being the “box”).
Indeed, the Holy Father makes the confessional a true place of encounter with the mercy of God by fixing its proper ambience, rightfully situated in church and in the sight of Our Lord in the Tabernacle. Penance in the confessional channels or forms the experience of this sacrament, really transporting the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation beyond the limits of a mere human exchange in everyday surroundings, whether they be as simple and unadorned as your back step or as grandiose as a seaside at sunset or a mountaintop confession to a best friend. We people who confess regularly in a church setting know what a difference it makes to be able to come out into the silence of the church and place ourselves in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. We’re moving beyond the barebones affirmation of the efficacy of the sacrament which, all things being equal, anywhere and everywhere forgives sins. We intend to make a statement about ambience and obedience to Church law as a sure antidote to the kind of undervaluing which can take place … “weakening … the faith itself in the salvific efficacy of the sacraments and, in short, in the present action of Christ and of his Spirit, through the Church, in the world.”
 Much the same commentary can be made on the Holy Father’s repeated invitations to celebrate and live with intensity the Eucharist. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass rightly celebrated bends or binds my focus in such a way that our habitual cry becomes that of the psalm refrain “…not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to Your Name give the glory”. A careless celebration of the Eucharist certainly has its hidden effect through grace but when the source and summit of Christian existence is properly brought to completion, it offers that much more not only as a plus but as a duty yoked to the priest’s and the Church’s task in the Name of the Lord “… to sanctify a person … to put him in contact with God, with … light, truth, pure love.”
Pope Benedict rightly calls priests to a profound change of heart. His invitation to priests to aspire to moral perfection and thereby provide an example of faith and witness of sanctity for the building up of the People of God is not breath wasted. The Holy Father wields the two-edged sword of God’s Word here and lovingly calls us all to account. He speaks in faith, confident that God’s Word will not return to Him without achieving that for which He sent it out.
As I say, the goal is the recovery of the sacred in every parish church. Some ask how such a recovery is possible, such a cleansing of the temple, casting out all the folly which around the world holds so much church space hostage. Personally, I think of every Adoration Chapel as a bridgehead and the necessary assurance to any fainthearted priest that he has allies for recapturing the body of the church and holding it secure for silence, for recollection, for genuine worship in spirit and in truth. The body of witness for what is possible, what has already been achieved in the parish next door, if you will, is truly impressive and challenges every priest to review his choices and, if need be, change his way of celebrating such that those who come in search of the living God might truly find Him.
Munus sanctificandi, ZENIT translates munus with task; duty, Father, isn’t far off either. In any case, it is all about what you were created for by the Church’s prayer and the laying on of hands: for to sanctify is to put yourself and others “in contact with God, with … light, truth, pure love.” Rabble-rousing and cheer-leading are not part of the job description.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Sublime is Attainable

Today’s Family Feud

            “We hear that some of our members have disturbed you with their demands and have unsettled your minds. They acted without any authority from us, and so we have decided unanimously to elect delegates and to send them to you with Barnabas and Paul, men we highly respect who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…” (Acts 15 – first reading of the Sixth Sunday of Easter)
          “In the spirit, the angel took me to the top of an enormous high mountain and showed me Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down from God out of heaven. It had all the radiant glory of God…” (Apocalypse 21:10ff.)
          Sigrid Undset, in her book “Catherine of Siena”, provides insight into the climate of violence which held Siena and many other mediaeval cities and towns in Italy in its grip at the time of St. Catherine. She explains how not even monasteries and cloisters were exempt from the bloody family feuds so characteristic of a period of transition where one social order had given way and no other had yet replaced it. No one is spared and we are indeed creatures of our times. I was reminded of the unfounded criticism leveled by a very Catholic journalist friend of mine, who insists that Church leadership must be above the shortcomings of its own day, must by definition be visionary/prophetic. This type of criticism, mixed no doubt with chauvinism or naïveté, berates the Church for not having been the first in every way e.g. to condemn slavery and long before the 1800’s, when economics finally granted space and reason to the righteous. In our day, this same sort of chauvinism shrieks out its sense of betrayal over bishops especially, who behaved like men of their time (1950-95) instead of as enlightened rulers of the 21st Century in dealing with the whole pallet of abusive behavior directed against minors (in the church, school and family settings), behavior which had always been considered wrong, yes criminal, but is only now beginning to be faced resolutely and openly.
          My object in this essay is not to address the problem of the abuse of minors nor to defend short-sighted leaders but rather to ask what could possibly be meant by the now and not yet of referring to the Church as Christ’s Bride. The problematic character for some folks today of the words used by the Council of Jerusalem to formulate its decision regarding the requirements of Mosaic Law to be imposed on new Christians of Gentile origin:  “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…” must be faced by all within the Church, whether they feel betrayed by those in leadership or not. This is not a new problem, but I fear that the reticence on the part of many when it comes to confessing Christ present and acting in His Church and the failure to embrace the doctrine that the one Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church may be as all-pervasive today as the violence of St. Catherine’s day and with even more tragic consequences for the younger generations in search of the Face of God.
          I was surprised to discover that my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary does not even contain the world “triumphalism”. Wikipedia without quoting sources, however, does: Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others. Triumphalism is not an articulated doctrine  but rather a term that is used to characterize certain attitudes or belief systems by parties such as political commentators and historians.” Very simply, triumphalism is something you might be accused of by others who claim to know better. One man’s healthy pride or simply his humble adherence to the truth as it comes to him from God is another man’s pretence. Pilate asked Jesus, without expecting an answer, “What is truth?” and that is where much of society stands today, questioning while expecting no answer. What is odd and even frightening about this refusal on the part of some people who make themselves outsiders to truth and for many bishops, priests, religious and laity “committed” to the Church as they see it is that while labeling the claim to possess the truth that comes from God as triumphalism, they indulge in a sort of protagonism which leads them to nothing short of despair in the face of problems or issues beyond ordinary human capabilities. They are more apt to believe the “Iron Man Saga” than that “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…”
          While I am more than ready along with Sigrid Undset to accept the credentials of a radical like St. Catherine of Siena, immersed as she was in the ocean of God’s love, I guess I have to face the reality as Catherine did of a Church where one monk might blacken another’s eye or knock out his front teeth for love of a brother on the outside whose fabric store had been vandalized by the confrere’s relatives seeking a larger share of the market. Even a child prodigy of holiness like Catherine was born into a family which has no other saints of the canonized variety to show for itself besides herself, Italy’s patroness and Siena’s pride.
          Speaking recently on the topic of vocations promotion to our conference of bishops, I laid the problem of too few vocations at the door of a crisis of faith within the community of the Church. Besides good preaching and catechesis, I made a plea at this historic juncture in time for creating a better ambience within the Church. I recommended especially at this juncture in time to do so by profiting from the publication of the New English Translation of the Roman Missal as a way to address squarely the issue of liturgical abuse. I implored the bishops to strive for a dignified cathedral liturgy and to seek to convince all of their priests to renounce caprice and adhere to the rubrics. We have at this point in time a “second chance”, if you will, to catch the runaway train and recover the possibility of worship in spirit and in truth. If each and every church and chapel were truly a place of encounter with the Lord, if the hectic and the willfulness were cast out of our Sunday celebrations, perhaps more children would perceive that it is indeed the God Who is near us Who calls. Success is as close as a little change of heart on the part of priests, liturgists and those who call themselves church musicians: that they might turn again and begin to receive instruction from legitimate authority as it is and must be given in matters of Divine Worship, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…”
          For my friends who may be wondering: at over nine months into celebrating Mass daily ad Orientem I assure you I am even more convinced that this minor change when possible (without a building drive or major financial outlay), along with a newfound attentiveness to the official directives of the competent authority ordering divine worship would free most priests of that ugly temptation to protagonism. Why would I ever want to stand over and against my people in something as important as the renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross? The Lord God and the Lamb are the temple and the light of the holy city. What is my “light” or my leadership by comparison?
One day soon, I am going to try and express my thoughts on the liturgical training I received in the seminary where we were urged as “presiders” to seek eye contact, apart from technique in homiletics or public speaking… My reflection is not yet ripe, but the question is posed: “What does eye contact have to do with worship of the living God?” It is not that simple, but the question must be posed and dealt with.
          The call to obedience or conformity with existing liturgical law in the Church, the plea for decorum in worship and the stripping away of a whole series of unfounded accretions, which like all attempts at improvisation are condemned to remain in the backwaters of bad taste and superficiality, may have an aesthetic dimension, but I think the real motivation is rooted in the words of the Gospel:
          “Those who do not love me do not keep my words… I have said these things to you while still with you; but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.” (John 14)
Let me repeat my refrain:
Come Thou, Holy Spirit, Come!
          And from Thy Celestial Home
          Shed a Ray of Light Divine…
Bend the Stubborn Heart and Will
Melt the Frozen, Warm the Chill
Guide the Steps that Go Astray…

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In the Power of the Holy Spirit

His Glory is our Ransom from Death
My more avid readers may remember some time back when I recommended to you a book I had found on Kindle by the soon to be beatified Servant of God John Henry Cardinal Newman entitled: Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert. Well, I’ve found another jewel in Newman’s crown to recommend to you entitled: Callista: a Tale of the Third Century.
          This one is set in North Africa and tells the remarkable story of a young woman martyred for the faith at Sicca during the Decian persecution. The Cardinal is really a wordsmith and enriches the narrative with some beautiful descriptions of the North African countryside. It’s a very grownup book in the sense that it describes in great detail a number of characters in their search for faith. Callista, a young woman in her late teens, is indeed noble in her bearing as a pagan and more so in her search for faith; Agellius could as well be a young man of our day and time, noble in his own way, but awkward enough for any young man to be able to identify with him; the salvation of Agellius’ brother Juba for good deeds done despite his folly is in sharp contrast to Callista’s poor brother Aristo who rejects completely his sister’s choice of everlasting life over passing pleasures. The book is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking. It is a challenge to men and women of good will to grow in the faith of their baptism.
          Apart from the rich food for thought provided by these character descriptions and Newman’s assessment of pagan society (at its best and at its worst), I think that what held my attention more than anything was the notion that the Decian persecution was not provoked by the Church’s vitality but by the Empire’s own debility and its search for a scapegoat. Decius’ edict pursued a Church for the most part already prostrate and on the verge of extinction under the weight of its own decadence after fifty years of tolerance by civil authorities. Agellius, baptized at his own request as a six year old, experienced Eucharist for the first time in his life as a young adult in the refuge in the hills above Sicca. He had memories of an elderly bishop, but had basically grown up without the sacraments or the community of faith, saying his night prayers at home and trying to live according to Gospel precepts. His brother Juba had remained a rebellious catechumen, scorning his stepmother’s paganism but unwilling to move forward for all of his young life.
          In his novel, Callista: a Tale of the Third Century, Newman has crafted a hymn to hope and the power of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit. That Callista should come to faith and baptism through the good example of a slave girl, from casual conversations with Agellius, and after a hasty exchange about everlasting life with St. Cyprian, who entrusted a scroll of Luke’s Gospel to her which she then read in prison, would be cause for wonderment for anyone who does not have the faith. For convinced and practicing Catholics it provides a beautiful illustration of what Jesus meant by His promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.
          By accident this week I ran across a YouTube channel entitled: RealCatholicTV. Despite my skepticism over the name, I took the time for one and then to watch several videos in a series the man calls “The Vortex”. I found him as clear-headed as I am, even if perhaps a bit more youthfully pugnacious and only slightly grating as he rejoices in the proximate demise of my generation. Oh well! Having Newman and the “Real Catholic” side by side provoked a thought about the reform and renewal of the Church in my own day and time (or what’s left of it before my demise, sir!) that kept me searching to the end of Newman’s novel. I found my connection close to the end of the book, from which I’d like to quote this paragraph:
“This wonderful deliverance was but the beginning of the miracles which followed the martyrdom of St. Callista. It may be said to have been the resurrection of the Church at Sicca. In not many months Decius was killed, and the persecution ceased there. Castus was appointed bishop, and numbers began to pour into the fold. The lapsed asked for peace, or at least such blessings as they could have. Heathens sought to be received. When asked for their reason, they could only say that Callista’s history and death had affected them with constraining force, and that they could not help following her steps. Increasing in boldness, as well as numbers, the Christians cowed both magistrates and mob. The spirit of the populace had been already broken; and the continual change of masters, and measures with them, in the imperial government, inflicted a chronic timidity on the magistracy. A handsome church was soon built, to which Callista’s body was brought, and which remained till the time of the Diocletian persecution.” (Callista: a Tale of the Third Century, by John Henry Cardinal Newman, Kindle edition - Highlight Loc. 5102-9)
Many sophisticates out there would probably scorn the prosperity and rapid increase which seemed to have come the Church’s way in the Easter period of the Acts of the Apostles and again in the Fourth Century when Constantine made peace. They would most likely say that the roots were never that deep because in another couple centuries the barbarians invading North Africa would so weaken the Church that it was easy pickings for Islam, disappearing almost without a trace under the sands of time. Wherein lies the victory amidst the ruins of North African Catholicism? What is so special about the succeeding waves of apostles who have re-conquered Europe or parts thereof for the faith? Is it just in that ability to bounce back when one least expects? What is supernatural of a survival marked by flight from one continent to another?
One news commentator claimed this week that the media frenzy over the whole abuse scandal within the Catholic Church will be the ultimate “bullet-to-the-head” of European Catholicism, that Europe’s “cultural” Catholics will finally cut their nominal ties once and for all and that the Catholic Church’s gravitational center will shift once and for all to south of the Equator… Personally, I don’t believe it. There are still lots of Cyprians, Agelliuses and Callistas around in the northern hemisphere. God is still the Lord of history and His Will, laid out with a garden east of Eden and then renewed and brought to perfection in the fullness of time upon the Tree of the Cross, is still that we, and not just a few, would walk with Him in Light for all time.
          Just as St. Cyprian helps Agellius through penance back to the fullness of Catholic faith, so may we find today bishops and priests to help us mend the ruptures and purge our sins on the way back to fullness of life with Christ, our Savior and our Lord!
Let’s succumb to the temptation and start a little early, shall we?
          Come Thou, Holy Spirit, Come!
          And from Thy Celestial Home
          Shed a Ray of Light Divine…
Bend the Stubborn Heart and Will
Melt the Frozen, Warm the Chill
Guide the Steps that Go Astray…