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Posted by on Jun 19, 2022

We remember, We Celebrate, We Believe

We remember, We Celebrate, We Believe

The second Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On this day we remember Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper, when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He told them to take it and eat it. It was his body, given for them. They were to do the same in remembrance of him. He also took the cup of wine that would normally close the meal with a toast to God. He told his friends it was the cup of the new covenant in his blood. Again, “Do this … in remembrance of me.”

How, you ask, do we know this? It’s there in the Gospels, but they were mostly written later. Today, however, we hear one of the earliest voices telling of this event. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells us of Jesus’ words and actions on this last night of his life. (1 Cor 11:23-26) Paul doesn’t say he was an eyewitness. He wasn’t and never makes that claim. But he tells us that he is passing on to us what he had been told by the eyewitnesses. This is what Jesus did and said.

It’s important to understand what it means to remember in Jewish tradition. Remembering means to enter again into the reality of what happened. When we remember, we are present at the event. When we share in the bread and wine at Mass, we are present with the disciples in that upper room when Jesus spoke those words and shared that bread and wine. A traditional Jewish saying goes like this, “Our ancestors crossed the Red Sea and our feet are wet.” Jesus gave that bread and wine to his friends, and we receive his body and blood just as they did. We are now part of the New Covenant with God.

OK, so why the emphasis on eating and drinking a sacrificial victim? And how can bread and wine take the place of a real animal sacrifice?

Humans have a long history of offering something of value as a sacrifice to their deities. It may be to ask for a favorable outcome in daily activities. It may be to ask the deity to have mercy and take away something that is causing hardship to the community. It may be to give thanks for blessings received. There are many reasons for offering a sacrifice.

In pastoralist communities, especially before money began to be used commonly, a gift of a young animal as sacrifice was not uncommon. The animal might be killed and the entire body burned in sacrifice. Sometimes, choice parts of the animal were burned and the rest was shared and eaten by the priests or together with the community. Blood of the animal might be poured on the altar and burned as part of the sacrifice too.

For the Hebrew people, the blood of a lamb held a powerful meaning. It was the blood of the lambs sacrificed for the meal shared by the people on the first Passover that marked their doors and protected their children from the Angel of Death who moved through Egypt, killing the firstborn children of people and animals. This truly was blood that marked a covenant of protection between God and his people.

We see a different tradition of sacrifice in the first reading, from the book of Genesis (14:18-20). Abram, not yet known as Abraham, had entered the land promised to him by God, along with his brother, Lot, and their extended family. They had been there many years already, including a time in Egypt. Abram was living in the western part of the land and Lot had moved with his family to the eastern side.

There were many kings in the area and a great battle broke out among them. Lot was captured by those in the east. Abram gathered a large group of men from his side and set out to rescue Lot. His actions were successful. It was quite a battle and a major victory for Abram and his allies. The victorious kings gathered to celebrate with Abram and praise his success. One of the men who came was Melchizedek. He was known as king of Salem and was a priest. Melchizedek brought bread and wine to offer in sacrifice to God. He offered the sacrifice and blessed Abram, describing him as “blessed by God most High, the creator of heaven and earth.” As was customary, Abram gave a tenth of what he had in thanks to the priest.

Melchizedek is remembered in Jewish history and celebrated in Psalm 110. “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is also described as a priest forever, the new high priest who needed only to offer sacrifice once to redeem all the people – to restore harmony between the Most High and humanity.

We again see bread blessed, broken, and shared in today’s Gospel. St. Luke (9:11b-17) tells of the day a large crowd of people went out into the countryside to hear Jesus and bring their sick to be healed. At the end of the day, it was time to eat. Jesus’ disciples asked him to send the people to the local villages to get something to eat. But Jesus responded, “Give them some food yourselves.” This was not at all feasible to the minds of the disciples. There were around 5,000 men in the crowd! (That didn’t necessarily include any women and children.) They had among themselves only five loaves and two fish. Nowhere nearly enough to feed all of those people.

But Jesus was undeterred. “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” (Fifty people would be about like having a good family party.) He took the little bit of food he and the disciples had, offered a blessing, broke the loaves and fish, and gave them to the disciples to feed the crowd.

Who knows whether people laughed or stayed solemnly quiet at this bold action of faith. But food was in plenty for all. In fact, there was more than enough. After all had eaten their fill, the scraps were picked up and filled twelve baskets! Did people share what they had brought with them? Not at all unlikely. Does that make it less of a miracle? Not really. We humans don’t always share very freely.

One commentator on the Gospels, Stephen Wilbricht, CSC, in a series of explanations for Lectors and readers of the Gospels, has noted that this story is placed between the account of the time Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the good news and the first time that Peter professed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The preaching is followed by service (the feeding of the hungry). Out of that service, came the realization that the time of salvation was at hand. The Messiah had come at last.

The fact that there were twelve baskets of food left is also important. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve disciples. Twelve baskets of food. This is enough for all and represents all.

We remember. We celebrate. We believe.

Today we remember what Jesus has done for us. We celebrate and participate in it. We believe what we have heard. We also believe what we have seen and experienced. We have seen communities of peoples of all nations coming together as one family of God. We have seen resources shared. We see work for social justice. We hope for peace and security for all to return to our world.

This day we begin a three-year celebration of Renewal of our understanding and celebration of this mystery of Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood. We celebrate this gift in our Eucharist. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, as taught by the bishops in Lumen Gentium – the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – at Vatican II.

Marty Haugen wrote a song and Mass setting many years ago that sums it all up nicely. The refrain goes like this:

“We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate for you are here; and we believe that we will see you when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember, we celebrate, we believe.”

Let us remember today and in the days to come. Let us celebrate this great gift. And Lord, help us to believe always this great good news of God’s presence and loving entrance into our lives.

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Posted by on May 22, 2022

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …” (Acts 15:28)

Members of the early Christian community did not have everything figured out and standardized from the beginning. It’s important for us who look back from two thousand years later to remember this. These were a bunch of fishermen, farmers, tradesmen and women, and even some educated people like Paul. They had a message of amazing good news to share with the world. They had witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They had come to believe in him as their Lord, a title reserved for God. But they were not in agreement on many other things that popped up in the years after the resurrection.

The first reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter presents an example of one such disagreement that had to be resolved. The reading does not include the entire story of what happened, so here’s a quick summary.

Paul and Barnabas have just completed their first missionary journey in Asia Minor and returned to Antioch in Syria when this reading begins. Their message was mostly rejected by the Jews to whom they first presented it in these lands, but enthusiastically received by many non-Jews. These Gentiles had been welcomed into the Christian community by Paul and Barnabas, who returned to Antioch in Syria with reports of the wonders God was doing among the Gentiles.

Rather than welcome this news wholeheartedly, some members of the community wanted to put extra conditions on admission to membership – first the Gentiles must become Jews in order to be worthy of admission to the new community. Paul and Barnabas rejected this notion and went south to Jerusalem. (The text says they went up to Jerusalem, because that city was located in a mountainous region in the south.)

In Jerusalem, they consulted with the apostles and other elders of the community. The community was not in agreement on the subject. Some argued that only those who were Jewish could be saved, so converts must become Jews and live by Jewish laws. Others argued that becoming Jews was not necessary. Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. Peter spoke to the community about his experience as the one who baptized the first Gentiles, the family of Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea. When the Spirit of the Lord came upon Cornelius and his family before they were even baptized, Peter realized baptism could not be denied them based on being Gentiles. He reminded the community of this event and asked why anyone would think other Gentiles should be treated differently.

Finally, after much conversation, debate, and prayer, the community reached an agreement. Gentiles did not need to become Jews in order to be Christians. They needed to “abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” The community sent two of its members to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch in Syria with the good news for the new Gentile Christians. (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29)

In this early example, we see the importance of several things in the decision-making of the early Christian community. These include consultation with the leadership, conversation among the members regarding the difference of opinion, reliance on the Holy Spirit to provide insight and guidance in selecting the correct path, and willingness to change accustomed patterns of thinking and acting when situations change and new opportunities open. In presenting their decision, the leaders in Jerusalem made it clear that it was not just their opinion, but that it was the decision of the Holy Spirit that was leading to this major change in an ancient practice.

Jesus, in his final teaching to his apostles the night before he died, made clear that not all would be easy to understand (Jn 14:23-29). He knew that unexpected things would happen in their future. He promised the Father would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be their guide and remind them of his teachings. They were to follow Jesus’ teaching, his word. In doing this, they would be keeping the word of the Father. Jesus and the Father would come to live within those who keep his word. He promised to give them peace, a deeper peace than any the world can give.

The disciples held on to this promise. Even after Pentecost, as they were fired with faith and courage to go out and share the good news, they counted on the guidance of the Spirit when difficulties arose. During times of persecution and as the years passed and Jesus didn’t return in glory during their lifetimes, this remained a constant.

The reading from the Book of Revelation (21:10-14, 22-23), written long after the events of the other readings, offers a symbolic view of the Church, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God. This city gleams and is radiant with God’s splendor. Its features include twelve gates and twelve foundation stones. The gates, guarded by angels, are named for the twelve tribes of Israel – the chosen people of God who will come from all four directions to this new city. The foundation stones are named after the apostles, upon whose experience and faith the Christian community would stand. But there is no temple building within this new city. The Lord God is the temple himself, lighted by his glory. The Lamb is the lamp through which that light shines.

The presence of God in the Church, the new Jerusalem, the people of God, is the source of all that is to be and the foundation on which the life of the community is built.

We as a Church community have come through a time of great transition in our lifetimes and are seeing new pathways and new understandings of our relationships with each other and with God. It’s been a relatively short time since the Second Vatican Council and the development of the reforms and revised understandings of our relationship with God and the world that it brought. Conflicts among us remain. There is still much to do as we explore the ramifications of the insights of the Council, insights that surprised even those who participated. The Holy Spirit was at work, bringing/calling the Church once again into a newer and deeper presence in our world.

Will we be as brave as those first Christians were in hearing and accepting the guidance of the Spirit? Our world has seen major changes since the early days of the Church and the days of the Council. How have we changed. What have we learned? What areas need our attention and healing now?

We are currently in the process of the first Synod that has ever asked the opinions of lay people about the future of the Church – who we are, what we are called to be, how we are to live in our world. How will we respond as the Spirit speaks through ordinary women and men? Will we trust the Spirit? Are we open to change? Will we follow where the Spirit leads, believing the One who has loved and led us for so long will continue to be there for us too? Will we recognize and accept the peace of the Lord in our lives? The early Church community met, prayed, and discussed changes needed. The Church today continues the same tradition of Synodality. Where will the Spirit next lead us?

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …”

Come Holy Spirit!

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Posted by on Sep 26, 2021

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

What If the Lord Bestows His Spirit on All?

On this Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear of prophecy, healing, and inclusion. We also hear words of warning, some quite harsh.

Moses, in the Book of Numbers, has his hands full trying to lead the people and deal with their complaints and concerns (Nm 11:25-29). The burden of leadership has rested heavily on his shoulders, and he is tired of carrying it by himself. He complains to the Lord, who promises to spread the burden around a bit, and to provide more meat for the people (addressing their chief complaint). Moses is to select a group of elders who will help him govern the people. They are to gather at the meeting tent. All but two of those chosen are present at the tent when the Lord takes some of the spirit shared with Moses and bestows it on the chosen elders. These men begin to speak the Lord’s word when the spirit comes upon them – to prophesy. It is a strong confirmation of their new role in the community.

While this is happening at the meeting tent, the two men who were late getting there also experience the coming of the spirit upon them. They also begin to prophesy, right there in the camp. A young man runs to Moses with the news. Joshua urges Moses to stop the men from prophesying, since they have not received this gift at the tent with the others. Moses declines to do so, asking Joshua if he is jealous for the sake of himself (Moses).

Moses declares a different vision than that of limitation of access to divine inspiration and exclusion of those not present when the Lord acts in a religious or other formal setting. He declares, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, the spirit of the Lord is the Lord’s very life breath! When the Lord shares his spirit with people, he is sharing of his own life. Moses wishes this sharing in the divine life and gifts could be experienced by all the people. Those who receive it speak out in praise the words of the Lord.

Jesus also dealt with misunderstanding of the breadth of God’s distribution of gifts (Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48). Someone else was successfully driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps wishing to protect Jesus’ reputation as a healer in the face of competition, John tried to stop the other from acting and then informed Jesus of the competition. Jesus surprised John by telling him not to try to stop the other person’s actions. He noted that it is impossible to perform mighty deeds in Jesus’ name and in the next breath speak ill of him. “For whoever is not against us is for us.”  And any who help those belonging to Christ, even with a small drink of water, will be rewarded.

So much for jealously restricting the gifts of healing and prophesy…

Now for the other side of the picture. A series of dire warnings concludes this section of the Gospel. The warnings are phrased dramatically and speak of drastic efforts to keep from causing others who believe in Jesus to sin. They were not meant to be taken literally, though in the course of history, some people have done just that. Jesus is not advocating physically injuring or maiming oneself or others, but rather emphasizing how important it is to be aware of what leads us to sin – what leads us to miss the target of loving behavior towards others and ourselves. He warns that it’s better to do without something deemed very important than to go to Gehenna, where the fire is unquenchable.

This reference to Gehenna is one that today is not at all understood in the context known by Jesus’ audience. We tend to think of Hell as the destination in the reference, but that’s not what Jesus was saying. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, there was a garbage dump. This dump was not like a modern landfill. It was a place where garbage was burned in open fires. The fires were kept burning day and night. The final line is a reference to the last few verses of the Book of Isaiah. Those verses too spoke of the garbage-burning fires outside the gates of the city. The prophet has just spoken of the coming victory of the Lord and the bringing together of good people from all over the earth to live in the city of the Lord. The bodies of the enemies, slain in a great battle, would be burned in the fires of the garbage dump.

These readings, and the reading from the letter of James (Jas 5:1-6), almost follow a parallel pattern. First Moses chides Joshua for trying to limit the Lord’s sharing of the spirit. Moses speaks of a broader sharing of the spirit among all the people. Then James cautions against making assumptions about the future or storing up riches for old age by taking advantage of the poor or treating workers unfairly. He reminds his listeners that the Lord hears the cries of those who are being harmed and will ultimately rule in their favor.  Finally, Jesus refuses to limit the power of healing to the small group of disciples who travel with him. He warns of the serious nature of sin and the importance of guarding against falling into temptation.

These readings are not just samples of the thinking of historical figures. They are intended to speak to us today. What do they say to us?

The first thing that comes to mind is the insight of the Council Fathers at the Second Vatican Council, when they declared that the Spirit has been at work in all cultures and times throughout the history of humankind. This was a major breakthrough. No longer do we say that only through faith in Jesus is salvation and everlasting life with God possible. We know that people of good will who have never received the gift of faith also share in life with God, both now and when they enter into eternity. The document, Nostra Aetate, (Declaration on The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), was promulgated on October 28, 1965. It is a short document, but its implications are profound for our world today and the religious strife which still plagues humanity.

The second point is perhaps more challenging. We absolutely must take seriously our own responsibility for our failures to live in self-giving love. And then we must do something about them.

What keeps me from a loving response? Is it the television show over which I get angry if I have to miss the final five minutes of the program? Is it the cell phone that keeps me distracted from family dinner conversation? Is it the sports event on television whose result upsets me so that I lash out angrily against my family? Is it taking on too many activities so that I can live up to an unrealistic picture of what a good parent does but then find I don’t have patience with a spouse or child who just needs a bit of attention and time from me? Is it social media? Do I really need to spend an hour or more each day catching up with my followers? What should I really be quietly doing for a friend today?

So many things can come between me and God. (The grammarian in me says it should be “God and me,” but the issue really is that God isn’t the one responsible here, so I will leave it with myself first here.) My challenge, and I think the challenge we all face, is to see what obstacles trip me up. Those are the ones I must address. They are the ones that need to be limited or dumped. Better they be dumped than that I end up in the dump – living apart from joyous presence of God.

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Posted by on Feb 26, 2015

A Good Homily Sheds Light

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Preaching_of_the_Gospel_Fr_Lee_AcervoOne of the biggest changes that Vatican II made in the liturgy was replacing the sermon with the homily. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably, but they are very different. The sermon in the Tridentine or Pre-Vatican II liturgy was a time for teaching and making announcements. It was a presentation of some element of faith that may have tied in with the theme of the Sunday.  The homily, on the other hand, is  a more conversational approach to this pivotal part of the Mass that bridges the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Our response to the scripture and the homily should fill us with praise and thanksgiving for what God is doing in our lives. This leads us to enter into the mystery of praise and thanksgiving that is the Eucharist.

A Renewed focus on preaching

Over the last 30 years there has been a lot of emphasis on preaching. Most recently, Pope Francis has focused on the importance of the homily in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. The Pope has made it clear that good preaching is critically important to the life of the church. He writes, “the homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media, yet it does need to give life and meaning to the celebration. It is a distinctive genre, since it is preaching situated within the framework of a liturgical celebration” (n. 138).

The disciples on the way to Emmaus were talking or conversing. They were engaging in homilia, as was the Stranger who accompanied them. The homilist, who can be a priest, a deacon, or an authorized lay person, listens to the needs and concerns of the assembly and discerns God’s message for the assembly. This role is similar to that of the prophets and the Ultimate Prophet, Christ. Although we tend to think of a prophet as someone who foretells the future, prophecy is much more about proclaiming, announcing, and forth-telling. That is why we refer to the scripture passages  and the gospel as something that we proclaim.

The homilist may share something about his or her life if it is relevant to the message, but the homily is not about the homilist.  The homily must follow the conventions of good public speaking, but it is more than public speaking.  For the homily to shed light, the preacher cannot just re-tell the story in the gospel for that Mass.

Pope Francis notes that “the homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people, which leads up to sacramental Communion” (EG, n. 137). Given this context, the homily cannot be improvised or done extemporaneously. Preparing a homily takes many hours of prayerful reading of the text, reflection, study, drafting, and practicing.  Being a good preacher is something that comes out of a broader lifestyle of prayer, reflection, and reading the signs of the times. Good homilists are very familiar with the lives of the people in their congregations. They are aware of all of the cultural influences, the centrality of mass media, and economic and social conditions.

Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar of Rome, expressed the challenge of preaching a good homily well when he said, “We want our words to set people’s hearts on fire” and want the faithful “to be enlightened and encouraged to live a new life and never be forced to suffer through our homilies.”

Shed light and set hearts on fire — the two-fold challenge of good preaching!

Image of Fr. Lee Acevo preaching – public domain

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Posted by on Sep 5, 2014

A Church for the Poor – The Vision of Pope Francis

A Church for the Poor – The Vision of Pope Francis


What of kind of church does Pope Francis envision? Jorge Bergoglio, in his initial public statements and even in the choice of his Papal name, Francis, has made it clear that the church needs to be a servant of the poor and the herald of the gospel. These terms come from Cardinal Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and are based on the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965). While most of us tend to see the church as an institution and perhaps as a sacrament, Pope Francis is highlighting the notion of the church as a community, a school of disciples, which is the servant of the poor in its role as herald of the gospel.

This emphasis began before Vatican II but it became especially pronounced after the council in a movement called liberation theology. For St. John Paul II, this approach was more reminiscent of Marxism than the gospel, so he took certain steps to curtail it. Pope Benedict XVI, his successor, took a more measured view and focused on aspects of this theology that started from a pastoral and community viewpoint as opposed to a political one. At an important conference to promote this view in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI chose Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires to formulate this renewed expression of a church for the poor.

In a recent opinion column in the New York Times, Paul Vallely, Director of The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly publication based in London, outlines the history of Liberation theology and the Pope’s restoration and enhancement of it. The pope welcomed Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican earlier this year. Fr. Gutierrez began the movement with his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation. Pope Francis has also removed the block placed by St. John Paul II to the canonization process of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who because of his opposition to political repression was shot while saying Mass. An even more telling sign is the Pope’s treatment of Nicaragua’s former foreign minister, Fr. Miguel D’Escoto Brockman. Fr. D’Escoto had been suspended from the priesthood by St. John Paul II and Pope Francis has lifted the suspension.

A pope who lives in a guest house and stands in the cafeteria line with his own tray has taken hold of the attention and imagination of the Catholic and non-Catholic world alike by being a voice for the voiceless. Pope Francis is leading us to be a different kind of church, one that is closer to the gospel, less secure, less majestic, ready to serve the suffering Christ in the destitute of the world.

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Posted by on Nov 5, 2012

Conscience-Based Voting: A Challenge for Catholic Voters

As American Catholics go to the polls to vote for President in 2012, many are experiencing confusion regarding whether they can in good conscience vote for a candidate or party with a platform that allows Americans of whatever religion or no religion to choose abortion, contraception, sterilization and gay marriage. Don’t they as faithful Catholics have to vote for the candidate and party whose policies agree with the moral teaching of the Church and deny these choices to all Americans? By the same token, the Church has take a strong position in support of health care for all, cradle to grave social services, and the right to organize unions. Does this mean that Catholics cannot vote for either party? Does it mean that Catholics cannot hold public office?

A Clarification from the Holy Office

In 2004, Pope Benedict XVI, while still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the Church’s guardian of moral teaching as head of the Holy Office, offered guidance on this dilemma, underlining the principles involved for the Catholic voter. This guidance was issued in the context of whether and when Communion might be denied to Catholic politicians due to their actions in the arena of policy formulation and governing in a secular society.

“A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote.

“When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons,” he said. (emphasis added)

John Thavis, of Catholic News Service, in his report on Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement went on to explain:

“In other words, if a Catholic thinks a candidate’s positions on other issues outweigh the difference on abortion, a vote for that candidate would not be considered sinful.”

This position assumes that the individual Catholic’s conscience is in agreement with these Church sanctioned policies. A Catholic may decide that abortion is evil and wrong, that it is murder, but he or she may be reluctant to re-criminalize it for all Americans since it would lead to illegal and dangerous back street abortions. A Catholic might see such an anti-abortion law, refusal to pay for birth control, or rejection of gay civil marriage as a violation of the conscience of others that undermines basic freedoms in a secular republic. According to Catholic teaching, individual Catholics have the final responsibility for forming their conscience and making decisions. While Catholics are supposed to pay heed to the teaching and tradition of the Church, conscience is also the product of a prayerful reflection on all relevant domains of knowledge. To violate one’s conscience is a very serious sin.

And what of the Catholic politician who personally rejects abortion but refuses to vote to re-criminalize the practice? Does voting in a manner contrary to Church positions on these contentious issues automatically result in excommunication or other Church sanction? Are politicians required to vote in opposition to the positions of their constituents when those positions are not supported by Church teaching?

In Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum to Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC, he recommended a series of steps that might be followed by bishops in dealing with Catholic politicians. These include a process of pastoral guidance and correction. Denial of Communion, while certainly an option, was not presented as an essential step in the process, though it is included as an option in the case of “obstinate persistence” on the part of the politician. Comparison was made to Church rules allowing denial of Communion to divorced persons who remarry without receiving an annulment of their prior marriage and obstinately persist in receiving Communion. Nevertheless, some canon law experts have suggested that the situation of the politician may be much more complex than that of the divorced and remarried Catholic, so an automatic judgment that a case of “objective situation of sin” exists cannot be as easily made. The final decision of the American bishops on this question noted that a “prudential judgment” would be required in dealing with each case due to the complexity of the question.

Why a “prudential judgment” rather than an absolute, automatic condemnation? Because politicians are also required to form their own conscience and act in accordance with its dictates. The politician who personally opposes abortion, yet finds the risks to social order entailed by the re-opening of an entire field of criminal activity that exploits frightened girls and women too great to endorse re-criminalization of abortion, may in good conscience find that he or she must vote against such measures. Such an individual might be granted the same exemption as that received by the above-mentioned voter due to the “proportionate reasons” behind his or her decision.

Election 2012

The campaign of 2012 has seen a number of  ordained clerics, including bishops, stepping dangerously near, if not across the border between their role as teachers of the faith and their personal role as voting members of American society. This is unfortunate. It can confuse, frighten, and anger the faithful in a manner contrary to the teachings of our faith and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, including Dignitatis Humanae, which notes that coercion is never to be used as a means of bringing people to faith or influencing their decisions. Comments suggesting that the faithful who having struggled with the issues and come to a decision in good conscience that does not agree with that of their local bishop should abstain from receiving Communion are a form of coercion.

Canon Law experts take the position that the burden of deciding whether one can receive the sacraments is fundamentally a personal decision. If one is guilty of serious sin, then clearly one should not receive the sacrament. Yet who decides the state of my soul?

Both major parties have offered tickets in which the Vice Presidential candidate is a practicing Catholic. Yet the positions of the two candidates are not in agreement on significant issues of public policy, including reproductive rights, civil marriage rules, protection of the most vulnerable among us, the rights of workers, our place as a nation among others in the world, and protection of our common world’s environment. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has criticized the policies of the Democratic party on reproductive and homosexual issues. The Bishops have also criticized the economic and social justice policies of the Republican Party, as embodied in the proposed national budget developed by Vice Presidential candidate, Representative Paul Ryan, and endorsed by his Presidential running mate, Governor Mitt Romney.

Some argue that a hierarchy of “goods” exists that demands selection of leaders based on the relative position of the “good” in that hierarchy. Others argue that “single issue” choices fail to take into account a multitude of other considerations that play a much larger role in achieving the “common good” towards which we are to work.

Perhaps a case should also be made for pastoral guidance and correction for those politicians who fail to support the other pro-life issues we face – those, for instance, who would cut funding for programs such as WIC that provide nutrition support for pregnant and nursing mothers and their children. The right to life does not begin with conception and end with birth. As Cardinal Bernardin noted, life is a seamless garment: from womb to tomb. How we best support life through all of its stages is not always clear. That’s why we need to have Catholic politicians who are not afraid to face the complexity of these issues, struggle with the messiness of life, and, taking into account the teachings of their faith and their own experience of God’s love, make decisions to support or oppose measures that support life for their constituents and their fellow citizens – both those who share their faith and those who do not. Threats to refuse them the Bread of Life because their efforts to support life are not narrow enough threaten the freedom of all Catholics to enter the conversation, work to bring justice for all, and influence the development of the laws by which we govern ourselves. That would truly be a great tragedy – to close our ears to the whispers of the Holy Spirit in the signs of our times.

The Role of Ordained Clerics — To Teach and Clarify Church Teachings

The 1983 Code of Canon Law (Catholic Church Law) prohibits ordained clerics (deacons, priests, bishops, including cardinals) from publicly indicating in any way their personal preference in candidates. They are also forbidden to tell members of the faithful how to vote. They are, however, allowed to provide guidance regarding Church teachings and moral issues at stake.

In the light of this responsibility, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement first published in 2007, has laid out a series of guidelines for American Catholics: The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. A summary of the document has been made available for distribution in parishes across the country. The document speaks of our duty to form our consciences carefully, to search for what is truly good in each situation and choose the best means to achieve it. Seven areas of Catholic teaching are included for consideration in the choice of elected officials.

  1. The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person
  2. The Call to Family, Community and Participation
  3. The Rights and Responsibilities of Humans
  4. The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
  6. Solidarity with Other Humans
  7. Caring for God’s Creation

The bishops call us to focus on moral principles, including the defense of life, the needs of the weak, and the pursuit of the common good. These are all issues which must be considered in the formation of conscience. They are all issues we must consider as we go to the polls to choose the men and women who will represent us in dealing with the challenges we face as a nation and as members of a world-wide community of human beings.

As we cast our ballots, let us remember to pray for the men and women who have stepped forward to accept the challenge of leadership. May they be guided by the Holy Spirit speaking in the depths of their heart to be compassionate and wise in their decisions and efforts to support life: from conception, through all its stages, to natural death.





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Posted by on Oct 9, 2012

Human Dignity: The Basis for the Right to Religious Freedom

“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.

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Posted by on Apr 26, 2011

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Violence and Atonement: A Necessary Link?

Fireweed by Joseph N. Hall

The relationship between violence and atonement is closely woven in scripture and theology but it seems inimical to me. As a life long Catholic, anthropologist, and amateur theologian, I grew up with the notion of the Mass as the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary. Things changed after Vatican II to a focus on the Paschal mystery. Despite all of the language we have about the Father requiring satisfaction, it does seem contrary to Jesus’ own teaching about the fact that human fathers, “evil as you are,” would not give your son a stone when he asks for bread. (Matt 7:11)

Clearly, there is patriarchal and tribal language in the concept of satisfaction. This is still prevalent, as seen in a recent gang rape case in Pakistan. A young woman was brutally gang raped by men of another sub-tribe because her 13 year old brother had apparently flirted with a young girl of the other group. To settle the conflict and avoid greater reprisals, the elders of the young woman’s group offered her as a settlement.

This is not only revolting to our current sensibilities, but it challenges the notion of sacrifice in the tribal sense. My own existentialist take on redemption has to do with authenticity. God took upon Himself our human condition and brought mercy, healing, and peace. For this he was publicly tortured to death.

My own post-modern sense is that the Father is not so much offended by our sin as appalled by it, as an act of vandalism or destruction of works of great beauty conceived in boundless love. The freedom that is required for the reciprocation of love can also be used to reject it. I personally cannot conceive of an infinite God who is somehow diminished or “offended.” To continue to anthropomorphize the Father as a post-modern, post-Freudian human father leads us to a Father, Son, and Spirit caught up in the continuing ongoing creation of bonum diffusivum sibi – good diffusive of itself. The Incarnation and Christ event are the result of an unlimited and unconditional love.

Clearly, this post-modern language flies in the face of Old Testament pastoral society and the cult of Temple sacrifice in the New Testament. Early Christians had to find a way to explain the Christ event in their own cultural and historical context. However, there is no denying that a post-modern Father is less monstrous to the secular humanist ethics and sensibilities that derive from the Christian tradition of the West.

As terrible as the death of Jesus was, it was completely overshadowed by the fact that no evil can come between us and the Love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39)

The great peril of a tribal metaphor is not its irrelevance nor its systemic violence, but rather the chasm it creates between God and us that continues to be the original and fundamental blasphemy alienating us from God and ourselves. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer at the Mass of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday begins in astonishment “Father, you love us still and sent us the Christ.” Yes, what amazement there is, that in spite of our rejection, God never stopped loving us.

The demand for violence attributed to the Father elevates evil to the level of the divine. The unrelenting intrusion of the divine in the human train wreck, of necessity, requires God to confront violence; which he does with non-violence – even to death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

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Posted by on Aug 15, 2008

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Marian Theology: The Feast of the Assumption – August 15

The Assumption by Murillo

The Assumption by Murillo

August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, dates to the 6th and 7th centuries. The official proclamation of the Assumption by Pope Pius XII in Munificentisimus Deus as an article of faith for Catholics occurred recently, on November 1, 1950. Objections to this teaching cite the absence of support for it in Scripture and in the Fathers of the Church. These same arguments are also made against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which states that Mary received the benefit of the redemption in advance from the moment of her conception. However, since the theological significance of Mary is intertwined with that of Christ, as mother and son, much of what we say about Mary (Mariology) derives from what we say about the identity and meaning of Christ (Christology).

For most Catholics, Orthodox, Coptics, and Anglicans, images and veneration of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, are part of the very fabric of their faith. This emotional and doctrinal emphasis on Miriam of Nazareth gives many in the Anabaptist and Calvinist traditions emotional and doctrinal heartburn. Some evangelicals are strident in their belief that Marian devotion – at best – detracts from the key act of salvation, which they formulate as “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”

The notion of salvation in the apostolic churches is centered on the church community. Christ’s death and resurrection has saved all and we enter into this paschal mystery embodied in the church. Our salvation is entering the faith community, the Body of Christ. From the earliest days, the Fathers of the Church identified Mary as the model of the Church. The following excerpt, taken from Wikipedia’s article on Roman Catholic Mariology, summarizes the position and importance of the Blessed Mother. Please note that the words in parentheses are my own.

Pope Benedict XVI addresses the issue, why Mariology is related to ecclesiology (the theology of the Church). On first sight, he argues, it may seem accidental, that the (Second Vatican) Council moved Mariology into ecclesiology. This relation helps to understand what “Church” really is. The theologian Hugo Rahner showed that Mariology was originally ecclesiology. The Church is like Mary.[96]

The Church is virgin and mother, she is immaculate and carries the burdens of history. She suffers and she is assumed into heaven. Slowly she learns, that Mary is her mirror, that she is a person in Mary. Mary on the other hand is not an isolated individual, who rests in herself. She is carrying the mystery of the Church.[97]

Pope Benedict XVI lamented that this unity of Church and Mary was overshadowed in later centuries, which overburdened Mary with privileges and removed her into a far away distance. Both Mariology and ecclesiology suffered under this. A Marian view of the Church and an ecclesiological view of Mary in salvation history lead directly to Christ. It brings to light what is meant by holiness and by God being human.[98]

It is interesting to note that Pope Benedict XVI laments the removal of Mary “overburdened … with privileges.” This is also the image of Mary lamented by the reformation. However, the close identification of Mary with the Church, in the sense that “Mary is carrying the mystery of the Church,” represents a notion of church that many of the reformers rejected. Consequently, they rejected the image and role of Mary, and with it, the redemptive grace and power of the feminine.

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Posted by on Jan 18, 2008

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Christian Unity: A Week of Prayer – Chair of Unity Octave


One hundred years ago, a group of Episcopalians – the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement – led by Fr. Paul Thomas Wattson and Sr. Mary Lurana White in Garrison, New York at Graymoors, started the observance of a week of prayer for Christian unity. The whole story is fascinating and encouraging since it traces the emergence of ecumenism in the 20th century. Fr. Wattson and the Franciscan Order of Atonement, which he co-founded, entered the Catholic Church in 1909 but continued to promote Christian Unity.

During the 1920s and 30s there was a growing movement for Christians to observe a week of prayer for Christian unity. During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), interfaith dialogue and prayer received a new emphasis with the 1964 issue of the Decree on Ecumenism, which called prayer the core of the ecumenical effort and encouraged Catholics to observe a week of prayer. In 1966, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity began working on a common set of prayers for the Octave. Since 1968, The Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute has facilitated and published the international texts for use in the United States. In 1991, a Sunday was incorporated into the week of prayer. Each year’s theme is developed by an ecumenical group whose members are appointed by the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical (Catholic) Council on Ecumenism. The 2008 theme is “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5-17).

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Posted by on Dec 5, 2007

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Polarization in the Church – The Kingdom Rent Assunder?


“A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mt 12:25) Many of the sayings of Jesus are hard to understand or accept. This one seems only obvious.

It is often said that the lack of Christian unity is a major hazard or stumbling block – scandolos or “scandal” in Greek – for those trying to enter the Kingdom or the Reign of God. The good news is that various groups have begun to treat each other as Christians and not as minions of the anti-Christ. The bad news is that major denominations are split over the existence of the brontosaurus in the sanctuary.

Some people say the beast is an elephant because people experience it differently – like the blind men in the fable. For some it is a rope, for others tree stumps, for a few it feels like a snake. The “elephant” school says that issues like same sex marriage, women’s issues, and diversity are actually the result of a single problem – the need to update Christian ethics and not to take the Bible literally. Christian behavioral norms, according to this school, should be influenced by more enlightened cultural norms and follow the primary mandate of compassionate love.

Others say that the beast is the “Beast” of the Book of Revelation and these challenges to traditional Christian behavioral norms are the beginning of the test of the faithful. According to the “Armageddon” school, the Beast will consume the compromisers like so much buttered popcorn. Those who have not “compromised” will be caught up in the rapture and spared the thousand year reign of the anti-Christ.

Between these two extremes there is a complete spectrum of different intellectual and emotional responses to these issues. Many people are inclined to think that all of this started in the 1960s, when the world got turned upside down. For many Catholics, the secular cultural upheaval of the 1960s was nothing compared to the tsunami of the Second Vatican Council. A few think that Pope Paul VI, in ratifying the declaration on religious liberty and changes to the liturgy, committed apostasy and left the Chair of Peter vacant – Sede Vacante. According to the sedevacantists, the bishops appointed by Paul VI and the popes elected by those bishops have no legitimate authority.

At the other end of the Catholic spectrum, there are those who see Vatican II as limiting and redefining the centrality of rule from Rome. Local churches, governed by lay people, with lay presiders at the Eucharist, are seen as an authentic restoration of the Church. In response, Restorationists – including many young people – think that all these problems will go away if we return to the Golden Age of the Catholic Mass in Latin, with everyone praying their rosaries while the sacred mysteries are performed.

The beast in question is actually a “brontosaurus”(or Apatosaurus), because it is a much older and more intractable species than the elephant. It is not the Beast of the Book of Revelation because it is all too confused and political – and it doesn’t have the gaping maw. The “brontosaurus” is the challenge of living the Christian life and being church in a rapidly changing and unstable world. This challenge actually dates back to the Enlightenment in the 1700’s. However, the major denominations could contain it until the industrial revolution. The urbanization of rural agrarian populations, the revolution in transportation and communication, as well as the emergence of history and the social sciences as academic fields of study, raised major questions that divided church thinkers – the theologians and philosophers. One of the most unsettling discoveries was that Christian philosophy and theology – like all human endeavors – have changed over the centuries.

The Catholic church responded by not only condemning the modern world, but also by rehabilitating the logical approach of Aquinas and Aristotle (See Arraj Chapter 2) as a means of presenting and logically defending the faith against any thought or political action that challenged it. Instead of the medieval spirit of inquiry, students got summaries of pre-digested questions and answers. Not all thinkers went along with this, but they were marginalized or condemned. This gave the appearance of well-being, but like a person with emphysema, the overuse of steroids provides comfort while it destroys the bones. On the positive side, Pope Leo XIII and other Christian leaders, led a social gospel movement to protect the interests of industrial workers. This movement continues today, with the “preferential option for the poor.”

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, the Curia had prepared draft agendas and documents for the bishops. No one foresaw that the octogenerian pope, who had been elected as a caretaker, would encourage the bishops to take matters into their own hands in his opening address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.

Having chafed under the control of the Curia, the bishops set their own course. Theologians and philosophers who had been silenced or put to the side were chosen to fill the intellectual vacuum. One of the young superstars was Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The major problem was that this new school of thinking had never been tested in the open forum of discussion and debate. Conservatives did what they could to stem the tide, but the winds of Aggiornamento (updating) filled the sails of the bishops, the clergy, and more importantly, the people in the pews who now became the “laity.”

In the United States today there are approximately 3,300 men in seminary programs studying for the priesthood. There are also 33,000 men and women in graduate ministry and theological programs who are not studying for the priesthood. The vast majority of them share the same classrooms with the students for the priesthood. However, the newly ordained priests tend be in their 30’s and 50’s and are already formed as people. Many of them are more conservative and many bring with them an entrenched clericalism from their Philippine and Vietnamese cultures.

The growth of the Anglican Communion, the Catholic Church, and other denominations in Africa and Asia – the global south – has already created substantial tensions due to the immense cultural and economic differences which support more traditional behavioral codes and religious perspectives.

So the brontosaurus is alive and well – or at least it will be until we deal with these tensions so that others once again can come to know us as Jesus’ disciples by our love (Jn 13:34-35).

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Posted by on Nov 1, 2007

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Saint of the Day – All Saints


The feast of All Saints was originally celebrated as the feast of All Martyrs on May 13, beginning around 610, when it was established by Pope Boniface IV. The date coincided with an ancient three day Roman festival, Lemures, which ended on May 13. Lemures was a time when Romans attempted to appease the dead. The date was also celebrated as the dedication of the Pantheon in Rome to St. Mary and All the Martyrs. A feast commemorating All Martyrs was held as early as 270, but there is no record of the actual date. There is evidence that All Martyrs was observed in Antioch on the first Sunday after Pentecost in the 300’s. This tradition still continues in the Orthodox and Eastern Churches as All Saints Sunday. The feast of All Saints was proclaimed on November 1 when Pope Gregory III (731-741) dedicated a chapel within St. Peter’s for the relics of the apostles and all saints. The Irish church celebrated All Saints on April 20 throughout the early Middle Ages.

Devotion to the saints became a highly contentious issue during the Reformation. Reformers alleged – with some very good evidence – that the saints were being worshiped, as opposed to being venerated. The general criticism was that attention was not being focused primarily on Christ. The focus on relics, indulgences, and special novenas appeared to make these exemplars of the faith into demigods.

500 years later, and 40 years after the Second Vatican Council, our approach to the saints is more communal. The Mystical Body of Christ, as emphasized by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi (On the Mystical Body of Christ -1943), led to a broader understanding of the holiness and vocation we all share in the Communion of Saints. In keeping with the renewed emphasis on St. Paul’s vision of the church as the Mystical Body, the contemporary church has renewed the ancient Pauline tradition of referring to all Christians as “the saints” or those made holy in Christ. Some sermons today even extend the feast day greetings to everyone in the congregation.

Experiencing the Communion of Saints as more than an intellectual concept is difficult. Something of the reality can be experienced in the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The largest church in the United States, Our Lady of the Angels has an enormous openness and can be somewhat overwhelming, until you start to walk down the aisle. The walls are covered with huge tapestries designed by John Nava and manufactured in Belgium. All of a sudden you are part of large community of saints who really look like people. The faces are not stylized in the traditional poses of rapture. The faces are all the more startling because in many cases they are the actual likeness of the saint. Paintings of the 136 saints and blesseds were first made from photographs. The paintings were then graphed and digitized and sent by e-mail to the looms for weaving. Nava’s art is described as neo-classical post-modernist, indicating a vision of the post-modern world returning to classical forms in a completely original way. This style might be a very apt inspiration for all of us post-modern saints.

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Posted by on Oct 11, 2007

A Good Homily Sheds Light

Saint of the Day – Blessed Pope John XXIII

October 11 is the feast day of Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1965). The son of Italian share croppers who worked in the fields with his brothers and served as a stretcher bearer in World War I, he became a Church diplomat, Cardinal Archbishop of Venice, and Pope. This might seem like enough for more than one lifetime. Yet Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli would launch an institutional and cultural revolution unprecedented in Church history. By convening the Second Vatican Council (1961 -1965) and calling for “aggiornamento,” a renewal and updating of the Catholic Church, Angelo Roncalli opened the door to the Post Modern Church. Although he did not live to convene the second session of the Council, it is hard to appreciate the depth of the change Pope John XXIII and his successor Pope Paul VI brought about.

It is not enough to say that the Mass changed from Latin to the everyday languages of the faithful, because the change in the liturgy only symbolized a much deeper change of mentality. Christ is present among His people in their signs and symbols, in their language. “The Church” referred not only to the leadership of the Pope and bishops, but to its body – the faithful. We now use the term “faith community” somewhat lightly, without realizing the complete change of thinking the term represents.

Pope John Paul II, who declared Pope John XXIII Blessed, represented a completely different mentality. The difference is aptly summarized by Tom Fox in the National Catholic Reporter.

“How seemingly different is the mood among the hierarchy in Rome today. If images speak, then in place of the smiling John XXIII, we see a pained John Paul II, his face grimaced, his tired body leaning on his crosier, carrying the world’s burdens on his shoulders. Pope John gave us Pacem in Terris, a map to worldwide human understanding. Pope John Paul II gives us an analysis of the “culture of death,” an acknowledgment of global human failure.

This is not to say John did not understand the cross or John Paul the resurrection. It is to say their views of how grace operates in the world are radically different. John saw the church as an instrument of cooperative acts. John Paul sees the church as a fortress tested by evil. John saw the world, the playground of God’s love, as primary. John Paul sees the church, instrument of salvation, as primary. Operating out of John’s vision, the church not only can but also must adapt. It changes because the world changes. Operating out of John Paul’s vision, the church must strengthen itself by purification. It must not adapt because to do so is to blur the sign of contradiction.”…

“The late NCR Vatican Affairs Writer Peter Hebblethewaite once said the deeper underlying problem with John Paul’s black and white assessment is not that the world is so black but it makes the church so white. So unrepentive. So resisting of change. The perfect instrument of God requires no change. Further, it must not change.”

Tom Fox – Analysis – Second Special Synod for Europe, October 1999.

Blessed Pope John XXIII, pray for us.

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