Thoughtful Reflections on Religious Experience
Forgiveness Requires a Response by KathyPozos on Friday 19 April 2013 11:22 am PDT
Beach at the Sea of Galilee

Beach at the Sea of Galilee

Easter season is a time when we rejoice in Jesus’ Resurrection. We celebrate God’s great love in becoming human, living a totally human life, and being faithful in obedient love even through torture and a shameful death on the cross. We speak of salvation for all resulting from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Yet sometimes we also beat ourselves up for our sinfulness and responsibility for Jesus’ sacrifice and death. But beating ourselves up is not what Jesus wants for us. Jesus comes bearing forgiveness and that forgiveness requires a response. The evidence is clear in Scripture and we need to remind ourselves of it regularly.

Jesus’ disciples did not expect that he would be raised from the dead. In those first hours and days after the crucifixion, they must have been terribly upset with themselves. If only I had …   If only I hadn’t …  We should have …. We should never have allowed him to … What will I say to my family when I go home? I’ve been such a fool. I should have known it was all too good to be true. They all said I was chasing a dream. On and on their thoughts must have raged. When the first reports came in regarding the resurrection, from the women of all people, their response was natural. The women must be hysterical. Such a thing could not happen.

Nevertheless, throughout that first day of the week, the risen Jesus came to them. They did not recognize him at first. He looked like a gardener. He looked like a fellow traveler on the road and potential dinner companion. Once they recognized him, — when he came into the room despite locked doors it was pretty clear who  he was, — but the feared they were seeing a ghost. Always, however, Jesus reassured them. “Peace,” he said to those hiding behind locked doors.  “Do not be frightened,” he said to the women in the garden who first found the empty tomb. “What little sense you have! How slow you are to believe all that the prophets have announced!” he said to the travelers on the road to Emmaus. Then at supper with the travelers, he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and shared it and they knew it was the Lord. Immediately they walked back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

As the days passed, the disciples left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee as he had told them to do, through Mary Magdalene and the other women. They had been fishermen and so they went fishing. Anything to bring some sense of normality again! Yet early in the morning, after fishing without luck all night, a man in seen on the shore. The man calls out to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They do and the nets are filled. “The disciple Jesus loved” told Peter, “It is the Lord” and Peter threw on some clothes and jumped into the water to swim to the Lord. The others brought in the boat with its marvelous catch. Jesus may not have looked like the man with whom they had lived for the past three years, but this time they knew it was he. He cooked breakfast for them and then spoke directly to Peter, three times asking “Do you love me?” Each time Peter responded that he did and Jesus instructed him with slightly different words each time, “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.”

Each time Jesus appears, he reassures his friends and he reassures us as well. All is forgiven. All is OK. We need not dwell on the past. We must move ahead and tell others what we have seen and experienced. We are not to beat ourselves up about what we have done wrong or the times we’ve failed to do the right thing. We must recognize those times as having happened and accept forgiveness for them. Forgiveness is always offered to us. Then we must move forward rejoicing — carrying that peace, love, and forgiveness that comes from our Lord God into our world.  There’s plenty of bad news there already. Our job is to carry the Good News, spreading it far and wide through our actions and our words.

Alleluia! He is Risen!

 

Singing Leaves Time and Palm Sunday by KathyPozos on Sunday 24 March 2013 8:51 pm PDT

 

Palm Sunday Fronds

Palm Sunday– “Singing Leaves”

Faith is passed from generation to generation through simple gestures, songs, foods, and activities. As children live the activities of daily life in the cycles of the year, they notice more than we realize. Life, especially for the little ones, is heavily focused on the present moment, but they too become aware of the changing seasons in our church life and come to look forward to the next celebration.

I was reminded of this yesterday when a sweet four-year-old boy asked me if it were time for the “singing leaves” yet. It took me a moment to realize that he was referring to Palm Sunday. In our parish, as Catholics do in parishes around the world, we all gather in a courtyard outside the church on Palm Sunday. Each person has a palm frond and members of our parish youth group wave large palm branches, leading the congregation out of the church building to hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that Sunday morning so long ago. Then, singing “The King of Glory Comes,” we all process back into the church for the Passion Sunday liturgy. (Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday occur on the same day.) This little boy remembered waving the palms last year and the singing as we re-entered the church. He was quite excited when I responded that this was the Sunday for the singing leaves.

As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, or simply friends, we share our faith best through the examples of our lives. Do we pause to thank God and ask a blessing before we eat? Do we greet the morning with a prayer? Do we remember to give thanks for our day and ask God’s blessing on our families, friends, and activities before we go to sleep at night? Do we gather regularly as a community of faith to celebrate Eucharist? Is Reconciliation (sacramental or simply interpersonal) a part of our lives? Do we pause in times of joy and times of sorrow to call the Lord into our midst? Do we time our holy day activities to match the liturgical timetable, not jumping to celebrate major feasts before their time but rather savoring the periods of anticipation and preparation for the feasts as well? Do we do these things with the children in our lives?

Children learn by observing and imitating. Only in later childhood and early adolescence do children begin to hunger for the meatier reasons for why we believe and do certain things. For a young child, “because that’s what we do now” can explain quite acceptably the timing of an activity. An older child will want to know that we do it “because that’s what Jesus told his friends to do before he died.” As adults, we too have opportunities to learn and grow more deeply in our faith and understanding of it — through both intellectual and spiritual practices. However, to reach our children, we do well to rely on activities, stories, songs, and celebrations.

As we move into this Holy Week and then on into Easter-tide, let’s remember to celebrate each in its own time. Holy Week is a good time to make and enjoy traditional Lenten dishes including Hot Cross Buns. It’s not time yet for Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies!

Mass on Holy Thursday can be a special time to celebrate caring for each other and the gifts of the Eucharist and the priesthood. Have a special meal, enjoy time together on this day, then join with your community to celebrate Eucharist and enter into the mystery of Jesus’ Passion — His great love for us.

Good Friday brings many opportunities to share faith with children. Little ones don’t need to know in great detail of the tortures inflicted on Jesus. They just need to know that Jesus loves them totally. So as we fast and reflect on the events of the day, let’s remember to be patient and peaceful. If the Solemn celebration for Good Friday is going to be too late or too “heavy” for the little children, then do something peaceful and loving at home with them. As they get older, take them with you to enter more deeply into the mystery.

Holy Saturday is a quiet day of preparation and anticipation. Coloring eggs, baking special breads or desserts, getting the house in order for the Easter celebration — all will become part of the faith tradition for our children. Happy memories or sad ones will remain with them based on the love they see through our bustle of activities and the times we stop for reflection or story-telling.

Easter Vigil brings the story of salvation history and its culmination in the Resurrection alive. Children from 3rd or 4th grade and older can appreciate this celebration, particularly if the passages from Scripture are proclaimed in an engaging fashion.

If we remember to celebrate each of these mysteries of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and  Resurrection during this week each year, our children will learn to treasure them as well. They may not always celebrate them as they move through adolescence and into adulthood. There may be times in their lives when they move away from the community and travel their own road to God, but the foundations will be there, always calling them to the Lord.

May this week, from the Singing Leaves to the Alleluias of Easter Vigil be a time of rich blessing for you and for your families and communities.

 

 

The Adoration of the Magic by Murillo

The Adoration of the Magic by Murillo

The readings for the Feast of the Epiphany and the week that follows ring out with joy at the coming of the Lord, not just to the Jewish people, but to all the world. “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” (Is 60:1) “… the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph 3:6) “… behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” (Mt 2:1-2) “All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” (Ps 72:11)

Yet amidst all of this joy and talk of kings and splendor, the reality of God’s kingdom quietly peeks out. Where has the child been born? Not in Jerusalem, the center of political and religious power. Those in Jerusalem — kings and priests alike — have not heard of the birth of a child to inherit the throne. The priests and teachers remember the prophecy of his birth: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Mt 2:6) Bethlehem, city of David, home of another child who grew up to replace an earthly king to whom he was not related, is once again to produce such a king! The news was not a source of joy to the rulers of the age; an attempt to thwart the prophecy was duly launched, leading to the massacre of all of the boys aged two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. (Mt 2:16) The birth of a child to be the new king brings terrible suffering to many innocent children and their families.

The king of the prophecy will be different: he will be a shepherd for God’s people, Israel. A shepherd takes a different approach to governing and to leadership. The shepherd will govern with justice, protecting the afflicted ones and bringing peace “til the moon be no more” to the land. (Ps 72:7) The kings of the nations will pay homage to this king and all nations will serve him because this king rescues the poor who cry out for help. He takes pity on everyday people and the poor, rescuing them from all who would oppress or take advantage of them. Such a king would indeed be welcomed and his glory would truly shine forth. This king, blessed by God, will bring glory to Jerusalem — the center of the Lord’s presence among His people.

This great feast of Epiphany, the shining forth of the Lord’s splendor from Israel into the world at large, reminds us of our call as the People of God: a call to care for each other so that the splendor of love in all its practical applications will be a witness everywhere to the presence of the Shepherd, leading us in bringing justice and peace to our world.

 

Las Posadas: Food, Fiesta and Community by RosePozos on Thursday 20 December 2012 12:44 am PDT

Singing echoes through the softly lit streets of the towns, cities, and neighborhoods of Mexico as residents prepare for Christmas, through the para-liturgical tradition of Las Posadas. Processions of townspeople, led by a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph, wind their way through the streets, going from home to home asking for “posada” (shelter). Finally, the procession is welcomed into a home, and the people pray together as the “fiesta” commences.

Las Posadas is a Mexican Catholic Advent tradition that marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Taking place from the 16th-24th of December every year, Las Posadas is a nine day community celebration in preparation for the birthday of Christ; a novena that is a mix of religious devotion and relaxation. Ultimately, Las Posadas is about accepting Christ, the Bread of Life, into one’s home and heart. It functions as an extension of the Eucharist, catalyzed by the fiesta culture. Food, both physical and spiritual, is an important element of the fiesta, because it is nearly impossible to have a Christian festival without food.

Las Posadas is a fiesta; a religious fiesta in the sense that it provides sacred time and space to show a sacred event.  The fiestas of Las Posadas reenact Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, a journey that is considered sacred because it directly led to the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Also, the fiestas gather the community in a ritual that parallels the structure of a Mass, emphasizing two more sacred elements of Las Posadas: the community and the Eucharist.

Evangelization in a New World

Las Posadas began in 1578 in Mexico in the village of San Agustín Acolman. Augustinian missionaries received permission from Pope Sixtus V to celebrate special Masses in order to make Christianity more attractive and  to evangelize the Aztecs. Because of the syncretism that occurred when the missionaries introduced Catholicism to indigenous Americans, Las Posadas resembles the Aztec celebration of the birth of the sun and war god, Huitzilopochitli. The missionaries wanted a way to teach the gospel and extend the Eucharist to a large, illiterate population and needed a way that the Aztecs would accept, so they took advantage of the timing of the birth of Huitzilopochitli to introduce the birthday of their own important, sacred figure, Jesus Christ. In las misas del Aguinaldo (special Masses for the Advent season), they included nativity scenes and lights, sang villancicos (Christmas carols), and broke a piñata. The celebration of Las Posadas grew from these original Masses. Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, as told in Luke 2:1-7, is featured in Las Posadas, a celebration that includes elements similar to those of the celebration for Huitzilopochitli. (All night and during the day after Huitzilopochitli’s birthday, people customarily had parties in many houses throughout the town, at which guests delighted in foods and statues of their gods made from blue corn dough.)

Days of Prayer and Celebration

Las Posadas begins on the evening of December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. These nine days dedicated to prayer are called a “Novena.” Originally, a novena referred to the nine days of prayer before the Feast of Pentecost, but in Las Posadas it also represents the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. Each night, a young woman and a young man – usually teenagers – dress as Mary and Joseph and go to three different, predetermined houses, asking for posada (shelter). They are accompanied by a candle-lit procession that includes musicians, children dressed as angels and shepherds, and anyone else who would like to join. At the first two houses, the procession of peregrinos (pilgrims) is turned away by groups of people inside the houses, who play the part of the innkeepers who denied Mary and Joseph shelter. The interactions between the peregrinos and the “innkeepers” happen in the form of call-and-response songs. Through several verses, the peregrinos ask for shelter and are denied entry by the innkeepers. The last verse is sung only when the procession is welcomed into the last house.

At the last house, the peregrinos are welcomed and the whole community gathers for prayers and a party. Once all the peregrinos have entered, everyone prays the Act of Contrition, asking for forgiveness for their sins. Often, they will also pray the rosary, and/or hold a short prayer service. This part of the fiesta mirrors the Liturgy of the Word (the first part of a Mass). Soon the prayerful ritual gives way to food, games, and dancing. Nevertheless, ritual that promotes spiritual communion is still present in the fiestas, and parallels the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the second part of a Mass) — sharing a meal and celebrating the forgiveness of sin in the Eucharist. The fiestas grow in excitement with each passing night, but at each are ritual elements, including food and drink, candles, Nativity scenes, and piñatas filled with fruits, nuts, and candies.

Piñatas, Sin and Forgiveness

Traditional piñatas are shaped like stars and have seven points, each point representing a cardinal sin. People swing at the piñata with their eyes covered by blindfolds to signify their true faith in God and His mercy. Thus, when they break the piñata and are showered with sweet candies, the people act out the experience of conquering sin and receiving forgiveness and blessing from God. This is also a dramatization of how everyone’s sins are forgiven during the Eucharist, when Catholics remember how Christ died so that the sins of the world would be forgiven and confess their own sin through the Confiteor. Although perhaps not broken every night, the piñata nevertheless demonstrates the way food is used to teach religion, extend the message of the Eucharist into the home, and catalyze the fiesta spirit.

Sharing Food and Creating Communitas

The fiesta spirit continues through each of the nine days, never seeming to lag. On Christmas Eve, the final stop for the peregrinos is the church, where they celebrate La Misa de Gallo, a Midnight Mass, in which they share in the Body and Blood of Christ – a shorter but still powerful religious fiesta in which a sacred meal is re-enacted. After the Mass, the longest fiesta of Las Posadas commences. Along with a piñata and the small dessert items served at the fiestas on each of the previous nights, people prepare and share their favorite foods at the reception after Mass. Typical foods include tamales, pozole (pork soup), sopa de albóndigas (meat-ball soup), pollo con mole (chicken in mole sauce), bacalao (codfish stew), natillas (a type of thick custard), and buñelos (deep-fried pancakes sprinkled with sugar). Champurado (spiced hot chocolate), atole (a corn based drink), and ponche (punch) are also served. Although these are some of the more traditional foods consumed during the Advent and Christmas seasons, there are no foods that are specifically reserved for Las Posadas. Therefore, it does not matter what food is served, since the sharing of food itself symbolizes and strengthens the community.

Las Posadas makes the Gospel come alive in a cultural experience of spiritual communion in which the people welcome Christ into their homes and lives. This spiritual communion results from the transformation of Jesus’ body, “…the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51), in the Eucharist into spiritual food. The ritual of Las Posadas reflects the mystery of the Eucharist because the people of the community act as living bread through their acts of hospitality and generosity in caring for others. Additionally, the fact that Las Posadas is a religious fiesta, and thus directly tied to Catholic Hispanic fiesta culture, draws the community together and builds the spirit of communitas. Communitas is a deep spirit of community – a spiritual communion where all the members are united in the same consciousness, usually through a ritual. Las Posadas is a way in which Mexican Catholics realize communitas through the Eucharist and fiesta. Thus, the fiesta catalyzes, yet also results from, the ritual of Las Posadas and is thoroughly intertwined with food, both spiritual and physical; physical food is the visceral symbol that gathers the community and provides the base for rituals, in which it is transformed into spiritual food. Therefore, it nourishes the body and the spirit.

Although there are traditions around the world in many different religions that fulfill the same functions, Las Posadas is one of the best examples of the way Mexican Catholics have taken the Eucharist and made it part of their cultural experience through the fiesta. Today, the fiesta spirit is spreading beyond Mexicans and Latinos. In some cases non-Latinos are attracted to the religious and spiritual aspects of Las Posadas. For others, Latinos and non-Latinos, a more secularized version of Las Posadas, in which the prayerful aspects are downplayed or ignored and the focus is on family and community, is more comfortable and attractive. Nevertheless, although those who celebrate a secular version of Las Posadas think that they are leaving Catholicism behind, they cannot escape the fact that even in any secular form, Las Posadas is still a religious fiesta celebrating and strengthening the spiritual connection between community members. Despite dropping all of the prayers, they are living the communitas of the Eucharist in their celebration, since even the secularized ritual parallels the structure of a Mass. Thus, without realizing it, many people are attracted to the religious and spiritual aspect of Las Posadas. What they experience is a community dimension of the Eucharist as seen in the transformation of profane (non-sacred) food into sacred nourishment for the spirit and community. Through that shared experience of celebrating a religious fiesta, people of all cultures strengthen their bond with their communities, uniting community, religion, and food.

Dorothy Day, Servant of God and Follower of Christ the King by KathyPozos on Friday 30 November 2012 10:23 pm PDT

 

Dorothy Day, 1934

Dorothy Day, cofounder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement, died 32 years ago, on November 29, 1980. Like many other activists who have struggled for social justice and worked among the poorest, most forgotten members of society, she is more respected by mainstream Americans, religious leaders, and commentators now than she was during all but the last decade of her life. In life she had the annoying habit of pointing out the discrepancies between our Gospel calling to serve the Lord in those around us, especially in the poor and most vulnerable, and our national focus on the value of making money and enjoying a middle class or higher lifestyle. She opposed war and participated in demonstrations against all wars, including World War II. She supported Cesar Chavez and the labor union movement. She was not unwilling to go to jail and did so on multiple occasions. She lived and died in a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in New York, providing services including food, clothing, shelter, and a cup of good coffee to the poor and homeless. With other activists, she also participated in non-violent direct actions aimed at changing the social structures that lead to poverty and homelessness.

Movies have been made and books written about this woman whose work led to the establishment of the Catholic Worker. Church leaders today speak of her with respect and support her cause for sainthood. Men and women around the world join together in soup kitchens, hospitality houses, and communal farms to carry on the work she began.

This year, Dorothy Day’s feast falls outside of Advent. Last Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King. The convergence of  our celebration of a King who was crucified, died, and rose from the dead with our celebration of the life of a woman whose life was focused on serving that King in the poorest of the poor is one that does not happen often. Yet it seems fitting that this connection should be noticed. Serving the poor and disenfranchised is hard, dirty, smelly, frustrating work. Most people who live on the street are not there by choice, yet some prefer to remain on the streets rather than deal with the requirements of the various shelters or programs in their communities. Some have mental illnesses that are untreated. Some battle post-traumatic stress. Some have lost their homes as a result of loss of employment or long-term illnesses. Families and single people live on the streets. Children and old men and women live on the streets. It’s cold, lonely and dangerous there and all too often, the rest of us pass by without noticing them or if we do see them, we somehow assume it’s their own fault and feel no compulsion to try to help.

Those who enter pastoral ministry, social workers, and others who regularly deal with the homeless and disabled quickly learn that it is not glamorous or easy to provide support and care for this population, particularly with scant resources and personnel. Yet as Dorothy noted, “The mystery of the poor is that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do to Him.” This doesn’t mean she was never frustrated or angry with God. Anyone who regularly deals with impossibly difficult individuals, bureaucracies, social structures, and disdainful or fundamentally unaware fellow church members or citizens will experience times of total anger and frustration. Faithfulness to the call to serve Jesus in this way requires continuing anyway — telling God what a mess it all is, maybe telling God how angry one is feeling, complaining about how hard it is to keep going or to deal with the physical realities of life on the street or in poor neighborhoods, and then going out and continuing the work. This is the connection with Christ the King: faithful following of the call to service of the poor and vulnerable and to change those social institutions that keep so many people trapped in poverty.

Dorothy Day is on her way to officially recognized sainthood. Nevertheless, we would all do well to remember her thoughts about what might result in such an eventuality, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Photograph from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection

“The right to religious freedom has its foundation, not in the church or society or the state, but in the very dignity of the human person.”  John Courtney Murray, SJ

Recently some Catholic leaders have been objecting to certain American civil laws and regulations which they see as conflicting with Catholic teaching as a violation of religious freedom rather than as issues of conscience. Conflicts between religious teaching and civil law in the United States have historically been called issues of conscience. For example, Americans who were opposed to war in principle could opt for alternative service as conscientious objectors. Religious freedom was defined as the protection of individuals to worship as they chose. Confusing conscientious objection to state policies with the notion of religious freedom undermines the Church’s obligation to be a sign of contradiction as a witness to the Gospel. It also undermines the value of religious freedom by implying that civil law must incorporate religious teaching and impose it on all. A review of Dignitatis Humanae shows that the Church’s formal teaching authority does not support this misconception of religious freedom.

The dignity of the human person is upheld to the extent that individual conscience, development of new understandings of what it is to be a human being, protection of fundamental rights, and freedom to explore new possibilities are recognized and encouraged for all members of the society. Churches have an important role to play in influencing the conversation, but theirs is not the final word and coercion is not an option. As the Council Fathers noted in Dignitatis Humanae:

In the end, when He completed on the cross the work of redemption whereby He achieved salvation and true freedom for men, He brought His revelation to completion. For He bore witness to the truth, but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims. (DH #11)

Freedom of religion comes from the dignity of the human person, not from the church or the state. It is not an issue of how many religious tenants of any given faith get written into civil law.  It is a question of the right of people of faith to worship freely and participate in social discourse and in this way move towards a more just society. Freedom of Religion is a right that belongs to every human being, springs from human dignity, and provides the space in which each person is freed to develop his or her conscience and then live justly in accord with its dictates.

Controversies Among Catholics

The relationship between church and state in regard to religious freedom has been the subject of much discussion in the United States in recent months, including what the appropriate role of the Church can be in the process of selection of the next Congress and presidential administration. We have seen bishops speaking out on such diverse issues as federal regulations regarding health care services that must be offered by employer-sponsored health plans, who is eligible to marry whom, how much of the social safety net in a just society can be dismantled to reduce the deficit, and whether wealthier individuals should pay more to maintain the safety net. We have seen “Nuns on the Bus” speaking against budgetary proposals, Cardinals and Bishops threatening excommunication of politicians who vote on issues based on their own conscience and/or on communications received from their constituents. There have been countless interviews and discussions on news media, social media, and comedy shows. Slogans are tossed around and reference made to the 1st Amendment to the Constitution – “Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion,” for just one example. Recently, some bishops have even suggested that Catholics who do not agree with them should abstain from receiving Communion, despite Church teachings regarding the primacy of individual conscience.

The Pre-eminence of Conciliar Documents

All of these voices bring aspects of the challenges faced by a modern, multi-cultural, industrialized society to a level of visibility that was not always seen in the past. Nevertheless, these many voices do not speak for The Church in its most formal, authoritative, teaching role. Only the bishops of the world, from both the Eastern and Western Catholic churches, gathered in Council and representing the people of their dioceses, speak for The Church. Documents of the Councils are the most authoritative teachings of The Church, second only to the books of the Bible. Other teachings are important, including encyclicals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and pastoral teachings of national Bishops Councils, but they do not supersede works of the Councils. Pastoral letters of individual bishops, writings of theologians, and works from other members of the Church, are the teachings of individuals. At their best, they are rooted in Church teaching and tradition. At their worst, they are simply the opinions of their authors and may be in error, however well-intentioned.

John Courtney Murray, SJ and the First Amendment

John Courtney Murray, SJ, (1904-1967) an American Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, wrote a series of essays regarding the way in which pluralism and religious liberty could be compatible with Catholicism, not just in the United States but throughout the world. The ideas he was proposing were contrary to hundreds of years of tradition – a tradition in which the Church played the role of both civil government and religious institution. This dual role of the Church – governing in both civil and religious realms – began during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and continued well into the 18th century.  Murray, reflecting on the changes seen since the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States separated Church and State, suggested that this separation actually freed the Church to follow its religious mission and teachings regarding human dignity and freedom. For his ground-breaking efforts as a theologian, he was silenced by the Vatican for many years. However, by the time of Vatican II, as adviser to Cardinal Spellman, he drafted the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. This declaration, finalized and approved by the bishops of the Church in Council, was promulgated on December 7, 1965, the last great work of Vatican II. The Council that began its work with the reform of the liturgy ended its work with a new understanding of the source of religious freedom: human dignity itself.

Murray’s insights shed light on the role of religion in addressing questions of public policy today. If freedom of religion indeed comes not from the Church, or society, or the state and is in fact based in human dignity, then certain principles become evident.

    1. The decisions of the state regarding how its members will live with and treat each other are just that — decisions of the state. They are civil issues. When a state decides that members may not kill each other, it is a civil issue. Another state might decide that certain activities (such as infidelity or murder) might justify murder as punishment, including state sponsored murder (capital punishment). That is also a civil issue.
    2. Decisions of religious communities and organizations regarding how their members will live and treat each other are also just that — decisions of religious communities. They are the domain of religious authorities.
    3. Religious leaders and members of religious communities may offer their insights and make decisions in their lives as members of a civil society based on their religious beliefs and values, but those religious beliefs do not govern that society to the extent that they are in conflict with the agreed upon values, standards, and laws of the larger community.
    4. When civil laws provide protections for citizens that are not provided by religious laws, the civil ones generally prevail in a society such as the United States, where separation of church and state are the law. An example of this is seen in the current case in which a group of Amish men and women have been charged and found guilty in civil courts for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of other members of their faith whom they judged to be less faithful to the beliefs and practices of their faith. Their actions have been seen as assault and they were tried for “hate crimes,” in part because the assault was committed in the name of their religion against members of a religion.
    5. Situations in which civil laws prevail are generally limited to issues of protection of life and health, safety of children, and protection of all members of the society from abuse or assault at the hands of others. On most other issues, the separation of church and state allows religious communities to establish their own rules and to follow them.
    6. Some protections of individuals by civil society take precedence over religious practices; others do not. However, the morality of civil law or religious practice must be evaluated according to Church teaching by its effect on the freedom, dignity, and well-being of the human person. The following are some examples of these situations:
      • Communion under both species (bread and wine) is allowed for children, though children may not be served alcohol under most other circumstances.
      • Sexual or other abuse of children is never permitted and must be reported to civil authorities when there is reason to suspect that it may have occurred.
      • Churches may refuse to bless a proposed marital relationship that civil authorities allow. For example, previously validly married individuals whose prior marriage has not been annulled may not re-marry in the Catholic Church. Civil societies do not care whether the Church has annulled a prior marriage or not as long as a civil divorce has been granted to end the prior marriage. A marriage license will be granted if and only if the couple meets the requirements for marriage in that legal  jurisdiction. The question of homosexual marriage would fit under this same principle — issuance of a marriage license would allow civil marriage. Churches would not be required to grant their blessing to the union.
      • Civil society, in the United States, allows only one spouse at a time. This is sometimes called “serial monogamy.” Polygamy is not allowed, whether polygyny (more than one wife) or polyandry (more than one husband). Some religions allow polygamy, but the practice is forbidden by civil law. The practice of polygyny was one of the things that got Mormons in trouble in the early years of their church in the 19th century, for example.
      • So called “honor” killings are not allowed in Western societies, even though this type of murder is required by religious and cultural beliefs in many countries of the world. In some societies, murder of the victim is the norm in situations such as infidelity of a wife or the rape of a wife, daughter, or other female relative. Generally the woman is punished by death at the hands of her husband, father, brother, or other male relative.
      • The refusal of vaccinations or blood transfusions may be allowed, unless such refusal endangers the life of a child.

 

Reflections from Anthropology

Perhaps the most important insight to be drawn is the one from social cultural anthropology. There are many ways of handling things such as interpersonal relationships, relationships between and among families, the structure of the family, child-rearing, inheritance, property rights, sexual activity, dietary rules, purity codes, and one’s relationship with the transnatural (which we refer to as God or, more broadly, the supernatural). Human beings have been very creative through the centuries in their development of ways to get along with each other and the ways they deal with differences within their communities.

Does this mean that any legally allowable behavior is morally good? Clearly, that is not the case. The “honor” killings noted above, for example, are not behaviors that are morally acceptable even if they are legal in many countries because violence is inflicted on another human being when they are practiced. However, above and beyond such obvious examples, we need to note that exploitation of workers, denial of access to basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, and education, destruction of the environment in pursuit of private profits, and other such activities that have been and/or are still legal are not morally acceptable either. In such cases, religious leaders of all faiths have a role in identifying the immorality of legal activities and working, through their teaching ministry, advocacy, and service to those harmed by such activities, to bring the members of the society to the point of recognizing the injustice and moving to correct it. Within the Church, “womb to tomb” is the phrase used to describe the commitment to support human life in all of its stages as a gift from God.

In a secular society such as the United States, in which church and state are separated by the Constitution, the church may speak and lobby and explain its reasoning on issues. In fact, the Catholic Church should do so. However, the churches do not make the final decisions or the laws that will govern all members of the society. Civil authorities, in turn, do not interfere lightly in the internal affairs of churches. Nevertheless, where the civil rights or the health and well-being of members of the society are threatened or unduly restricted by religious teachings or rules, civil rules take precedence for the protection of “the common good.” This is also in accord with Dignitatis Humane, which states, “…the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare” and later continues, “Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may … join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.” (DH #3,#4)

Working Together for the Common Good – Grounded in Human Dignity

As a matter of tradition and law in the United States, religious and civil governments are strictly separated. As a matter of Canon Law (Catholic Church law), ordained clerics — deacons, priests, bishops — are prohibited from taking an active role in politics and/or telling people how to vote. The same human dignity that is the basis of religious liberty also challenges  individuals to wrestle with issues of public policy and, taking into account the teachings of the Church, form their own consciences, make decisions based on the conclusions they reach, and vote according to their convictions.

In multi-cultural societies, where many divergent sets of religious beliefs are held by their members, all are protected by the legal separation of civil and religious realms. No single set of beliefs and religious laws is imposed on anyone. Together they must work to develop a set of rules and regulations for the common good that protect all. Religious leaders have a role in the process: teaching and helping identify principles that need to be considered. However, no religious group may force its beliefs and practices on the rest of society. Freedom of religion comes from the dignity of the human person. The separation of church and state – the structural form put in place to support freedom of religion – provides for the right of people of faith to worship freely and participate in social discourse and so to move towards a more just society. This freedom springs from human dignity, belongs to all, and opens the possibility for each person to develop his or her conscience in freedom. From that freedom, each one is called to live in a manner that builds up a more just society, promoting the well-being and full potential of each of its members – the common good.

Opening and Being Opened by KathyPozos on Tuesday 11 September 2012 10:29 pm PDT

On this anniversary of the tragedy known as 9/11, it’s all too tempting to circle the wagons, draw in our hearts and hands, refuse to risk reaching out to the stranger among us, set up barriers of Us vs Them, and otherwise behave in closed, angry, hostile ways. But that is not the way of Christ.

This past Sunday, September 9, Fr.Ron Shirley’s homily was on the reading from Mark’s Gospel 7:31-37: the healing of the deaf mute. His insights on opening and being opened by Christ are worth pondering.

Be Opened 9-9-2012

The Gospel of Mark is the oldest Gospel we have. There are many special things about it. One of the most special things is that it contains several original words of Jesus. Words in Jesus own language – Aramaic – that he must have spoken himself.

We have one of these words today, a very powerful word: Ephatha, which means “Be Opened.” Say it with me: EPHATHA!
Being opened is the opposite of being shut, of being clenched.

Do me a favor, will you. Clench your hands. Clench your hands as hard as you can and make fists. Keep it like that for just a few minutes, until I tell you.

A clenched fist gives a person a sense of power. We clench our fists when we get really mad, really frustrated, really full of hate.

A clenched fist is an ugly thing.

But not nearly as ugly as a clenched face. We clench our faces when we criticize too harshly, when we judge harshly, when we look down on someone or put out an arrogant attitude.

A clenched face is an ugly thing … but not nearly as ugly as a clenched heart. Our hearts get clenched when we are full of hatred and vengeance. Other things that can clench the heart are greed, envy, jealousy, or rage when we don’t get our own way.

(Keep your fist clenched a little bit longer)

Sometimes whole families can be clenched, whole parishes, whole communities.

And to the clenched community, the clenched family, the clenched heart, the clenched face, the clenched hand, the clenched ears, the clenched tongue, Jesus comes and says EPHATHA! BE OPENED!

I hope those of you who have clenched your hands are getting really tired. You should be. Now I’ll ask you to slowly, slowly unclench your hands: EPHATHA! BE OPENED!

Isn’t that better?

One day you will be completely unclenched. On the day when we rise to glory, it will be wonderful. We will be holding on to God completely and fully … because we won’t be holding anything else.

In the meantime, we Christians try to let go, little by little, of pains and wounds and regrets and resentment and anger. And Jesus is here helping us.

I close with this:

Jesus came to me. He saw that my mind was clenched. I can’t stand them. Those groups. Those people. That person. EPHATHA, he said BE OPENED! But I replied, Lord they hurt me. They threaten me. They violate me.

“I know, he said. Like the people who were cruel to me on Good Friday. My mind wanted to clench shut. The thought of them was like a crown of thorns tightening around my temples. But I opened myself up and God raised me, making me the Savior.”

Jesus came. He saw my hands were clenched. I’m not going to help another person. I’m not going to help the church anymore. I’m not going to reach out to my neighbor again. No one appreciates it.

“I know, Jesus said. Like the people who didn’t appreciate me. Sometimes when I opened my hands it felt like they were hammering nails through it. But I opened myself, and God raised me, making me the Savior of the world.”

Jesus came. He saw that my heart was clenched. So full of anger, so bitter, so jealous. Ephatha, he said. Be opened! I’m so tired of loving people. Often they don’t love me back. And when I opened my heart it feels sometimes like a great spear pierces me to my very soul.

“I know, said Jesus. Believe me, I understand. But when the spear pierced my heart, I opened myself to it, to the world, to the father … and God has raised me up.”

Ephatha! Be Opened! God will raise you up also!

Close your eyes; clench your fists – what else in your life is clenched?

EPHATHA! I am going to help you, says Jesus!

Fr. Ron Shirley, September 9, 2012

Quote of the Day – St. John Vianney by KathyPozos on Saturday 4 August 2012 1:54 pm PDT

St. John Vianney

August 4 is the feast of St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests. John Vianney was born to a peasant family in Lyons, France. He wanted to be a priest, but his education was limited and he was not a very good student, despite his great desire to learn enough to be ordained. Finally his bishop took a chance on him and agreed to ordain him. John was assigned to a remote town far away from any place of note. He was not a great homilist. His knowledge of theology was limited. But he was a good listener and a compassionate man whose advice and counsel was welcomed by those who came to him for confession. Before long, he was spending up to eighteen hours a day, sitting in a confessional, hearing the confessions of people who traveled from all over France to receive forgiveness through his ministry.

St. John Vianney also loved the Eucharist. Among his many insights was this one on God’s love for us.

“The soul hungers for God, and nothing but God can satiate it. Therefore He came to dwell on earth and assumed a Body in order that this Body might become the Food of our souls.”

 Image of St. John Vianney is in the public domain.

Words of Wisdom from Peter Maurin by KathyPozos on Tuesday 15 May 2012 11:13 pm PDT

 

Peter Maurin

Peter Maurin, with Dorothy Day, was a cofounder of the Catholic Worker — the newspaper and movement begun in 1932 to advance the social message of the Gospel for our times. Maurin believed that disconnecting social values from their basis in the Gospels causes the majority of the problems of contemporary society. He believed in the power of individuals to make a difference by living according to a new set of values — ones based on the radical social message of the Gospel.

Though Maurin died in 1949, these words of his offer hope for those who work to create a more just society today.

“The future will be different if we make the present different.”

Image from the Marquette University Archives.

The Church: LA Religious Education Congress by SusanTMahan on Sunday 25 March 2012 9:27 pm PDT

Hello from Los Angeles!

The Religious Education Congress has been excellent — energizing and enlightening.  There has been a decided focus on some basic topics and themes that have been unpopular with most Catholic progressives — things like sin and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  It’s all been integrated in a very interesting way.  I believe it may be in reaction to the accusations of the Catholic Right that everyone else in the Church has fallen off the deep end into perdition.  It is also probably in response to the reality of the need for evangelization regarding the need for God in the first place.

Religion is very un-PC at the moment.  “Sin” as a topic is a “no-no.”  Taking responsibility for hurtful acts is very difficult for most people.  The connection between sin and evangelization is that one cannot be a credible witness to the need for faith if one is living a chaotic or destructive life.  Many of the speakers pointed to the need for good decisions, being able to hear God’s voice in the midst of all the competing voices in our culture — security, money, appearances, status etc. –  and having a spiritual director or a personal spiritual coach in the person to whom one goes for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Matthew Kelly noted, “Holiness is attractive.”  We have so many Catholics outside the Church who have been hurt by someone in the Church that we have to look at how committed we are to our own faith — does it really matter?  We are attracted to a Mother Teresa.  She was only one person — a small one at that.  So, Kelly rightly asked — “What’s with the rest of us?”

It’s a good question — one that we would all do well to take as our focus during these final days of Lent and as we go into Easter.

 

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