Sunday, October 15, 2017

Year A Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 25:6-10a; Ps 23:1-6; Phil 4:12-14.19-20; Matt 22:1-14

If God promised us a banquet then why does it seem we so often experience famine? In light of today’s readings, we can discern two reasons for this. First, based on our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, it is rooted in the fact that this life is incomplete. The second reason arises from the refusal to accept, or perhaps even realize, this fact and so refuse what God so graciously gives us, which is nothing less than himself, nothing less than hope.

Writing to the Church in Philippi, St. Paul, who at that time was a prisoner, either in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea, told them he had “learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry” (Phil 4:12). Judging by this passage, the secret of living a life not tied to material wealth or ease of circumstances, is trusting God completely to supply “whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).

In this passage, Paul described what can only be verified in reality through experience, something that can’t be systematized, something to which many saints bore witness: in Christ, you can experience a famine as a feast. Traditionally, fasting, one of the core spiritual disciplines taught to us by the Lord himself, a discipline that has practically vanished among Christians in wealthy countries, was practiced to help Christians experience this for themselves.

Our reading from Philippians chapter four skips from verse 14 to verse 19. In verses 15-18 the Apostle lauded the Church in Philippi for coming to his aid during his imprisonment. While he thanked them for their help, he was primarily grateful for how their charity toward him accrued to their account and not to his. Remember, he was fine going without. Because he was the one who brought them the Gospel, he referred to their charity towards him and towards each other his as “full payment” (Phil 4:18). The aid they sent to Paul was brought to him by a man named Epaphroditus. In receiving what Epaphroditus brought, he received “a ‘fragrant aroma,’ an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).

I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb to state that what Paul found so pleasing about the aid the Church in Philippi sent him was that they sent it at great sacrifice to themselves. He was moved by their willingness to go without in order to help someone in need. Whenever we do this, it is a fragrant aroma, a sacrifice acceptable to God.

Turning to our Gospel, it is important whenever Jesus begins a parable with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like,” or, as in our reading today, “The kingdom of God may be likened to,” we need to pay close attention. We also need to attend to the context.

As with last week’s Gospel, the Parable of the Vineyard, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet is addressed to the elders and chief priests. We must also keep in mind that Matthew’s Gospel was written in and for a largely, but likely not exclusively, Jewish Christian community, what can rightly be referred to as a Christian synagogue.

Adoration of the Lamb: Ghent Altar Piece, by Jan Van Eyck, between 1425-1429

Like the Parable of the Vineyard, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet is an allegory. God the Father is the King. His son for whom the wedding feast is thrown is Jesus. His servants, once again, are the prophets.

The invited guests are the Israelites, God’s chosen people. The Church, which is comprised of people from everywhere, Jews and Gentiles alike, are those whom the servants are sent forth to round up when the invited guests were too busy to come to the banquet and so were vanquished by the king.

By no means is it pushing things too far to extend this parable from Israel to the Church, which St. Paul conceived of as the new and true Israel. The banquet is nothing other than the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Who is the bride? Christ’s Bride is the Church. Without a bride there can be no wedding. In the end, the Church, Christ’s Bride, to mix metaphors, is comprised not of those who were invited to the banquet, but those who come.

Every week Christ issues you an invitation to the banquet of the Eucharist. Our participation in Mass, at least to some extent, is a participation in the feast to come, but, living as we do between the already and the not-yet, it is not a full participation, but an anticipation.

What about the guy not wearing a wedding garment? Pope St. Gregory the Great, in a sermon on this passage, likened the wedding garment to the white garment we received when we were baptized. We are presented the garment with the exhortation to bring it unstained into the kingdom of heaven. Given our propensity to sin, how do we do keep our white garment unstained? The truth of the matter is, we can’t do it on our own. We need God’s help. The help God gives us we call grace. In fact, we can only perform the works of charity for which St. Paul commended the Philippians because of God’s grace. How do we receive the grace we need? We receive God’s grace through the sacraments. Hence, going to confession regularly and participating in Mass frequently are not just important, but necessary.

If you are too busy doing other things to accept God’s gracious invitation now, what makes you think that, unlike those in the parable, you will be ready when the Bridegroom returns? This prompts the question; how did Paul receive the strength from God he needed to live the often-difficult circumstances his apostolic ministry caused him to face?

Mass connects the already of God’s kingdom to the not-yet we live each day, especially those difficult circumstances that constitute our crosses. Participating in Mass allows us to face up to the incompleteness of this life and to experience the goodness God has in store for those who love him enough to accept his invitation, which goodness is described so beautifully in our reading from Isaiah and in Psalm 23, our responsorial today.

“Mass” comes from the Latin word missa as found in the words of the Latin dismissal, said at the end of the liturgy: Ite, missa est (“Go, the dismissal is made, or, more colloquially, “Go, you’re dismissed”). At the end of Mass, you are dismissed, sent forth, to make Christ, not only known, but present wherever you go and in whatever circumstances you find yourself.

We receive the strength we need from God to live our circumstances by gathering together for Eucharist, which means “to give thanks.” We are strengthened by our fellowship, our listening to God’s word, and receiving Christ together in Holy Communion. It is our participation in Mass that makes our sacrificial service outside of Mass a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice to God and allows us to be Christ’s co-workers in the redemption of the world. It is how we live the already in the not-yet. It gives us hope, especially when we are tempted to despair. Christ is our hope.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Save me from tomorrow"

Last night I found myself stranded somewhere between amusement and frustration - a place I find myself often these days (daze?). As a result of finding myself in this weird place, I posted on Facebook: "I think it is important to live one's life in such a way that one is spring-loaded to lose one's shit when there is any news with which one disagrees either from the realm of the sacred or secular.

"I am pretty sure such an existential stance flows directly from the writings of the desert fathers."

Every day the world keeps turning, history keeps happening. Understandably this generates a lot of fear for a lot of people. It occurred to me, yet again, that Jesus is either the Lord of the here and now or he is not Lord at all. At one point in St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus asked: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8)

Faith and hope go together. I find it useful to think about hope as the flower of faith and charity as their fruit. My point here is, without hope there is no faith. Faith overcomes fear by means of hope. Though he wrote it with reference to the fear generated by the death of the first generation of Christians in ancient Thessaloniki, whose passing caused the surviving Christians there to question whether the Lord was going to return, I think St. Paul words apply to our current predicament: we should "not grieve like the rest, who have no hope" (1 Thes 4:13).

Our Friday traditio is World Party's "Ship of Fools."

To wit: we're not saved from tomorrow, or today, or yesterday, but we're saved through each day.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

More on Luther and the Holy See

Whose work informs my views on Luther, his theses and Cardinal Cajetan? Well, that of many scholars both Protestant and Catholic. Most recently, Dr Seymour House, who teaches at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, introduced me to the work of Fr. Jared Wicks, SJ. Fr. Wicks's doctoral dissertation, directed by none other than one Joseph Ratzinger, was on Luther. Published back in the 1980s, it was revolutionary for Catholic Reformation scholarship. Here's the best thing I could find on Fr. Wicks to pass along on short notice: "An Interview with Jared Wicks, S.J., Catholic scholar of Luther."

As far as Martin Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan- they encountered each other from 12-18 October 1518 in Augsburg, Germany. Cajetan was sent on a mission: to get the troublesome Augustinian to recant what had been deemed heretical in his 95 Theses and his other public pronouncements, particularly his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, up until that time. This was not an academic disputatio, but an inquisition. Luther approached it as such, which is to say ready to fight.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to Luther, theological reasoning did not win the day, which was hardly surprising given the politics and the sorry state of the Church at the time. To state that Leo X's interpretation of Luther's teaching as set forth in 41 condemned theses in Exsurge Domine leave something to be desired is merely to re-state a widely held scholarly view. While Exsurge dealt with more of Luther's teachings than those found in his 95 theses, it is not controversial to assert that the bull did not do a good job in of capturing Luther's theological concerns and so did not adequately deal with them. This, in turn, calls into question at least some of the grounds on which he was condemned as a heretic.

Prior to his 95 Theses, Luther had published nothing. This was not usual for professors of the day. The printing press was still relatively new and the printing business would only find its economic footing as the result of Martin Luther's prolific efforts and his deep involvement in the layout and publication of his works. While printers made a lot of money off Luther's writings, as an author he did not.

Between the publication of his theses and his encounter with Cardinal Cajetan, Luther had only published his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace in March 1518. Between October 1518 and the promulgation of Exsurge Domine there was only the disputation in Leipzig at which Luther spoke.

I suppose an example is in order. So, below are the first two of Luther's 95 theses:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance

This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy

Luther preaching in Wittenberg

In Exurge Domine, Pope Leo X clearly had no problem with thesis 1. Keeping in mind Luther was first and foremost a Bible scholar, who knew Koine Greek and was highly proficient in Hebrew, his assertions in both theses likely seemed reasonable not only to him but some other Catholic theologians of the day as well. But at the very beginning of his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, Luther, a Biblical humanist who took his cue from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (a must read for anyone who wants to grasp Luther's Catholicism is Franz Posset's Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux), took the scholastics to task when he stated:
First, you should know that some new teachers, such as the Master of Sentences, St. Thomas [Aquinas], and their disciples, divide [the Sacrament of] Penance into three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. And, although this distinction and opinion of theirs is scarcely or not at all to be found based in Holy Scripture or in the ancient holy Christian teachers, nevertheless we will pass over this for now and speak using their categories
This is what likely led to this condemnation, the fifth one, found in Exsurge Domine:

That there are three parts to penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction, has no foundation in Sacred Scripture nor in the ancient sacred Christian doctors

In his work On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in October 1520, not only after the promulgation of Exsurge, but after the 60 days the bull gave him to recant, along with Baptism and Eucharist, Luther affirmed Penance as a sacrament. Now, Luther's view as to how the sacrament is efficacious in light of his Sermon certainly prompts questions. But to assert that penance conceived of as contrition, confession, and satisfaction is not scriptural or even all that traditional is not necessarily to deny these elements are consistent with revelation. In fact, Luther did not deny the first two at all. He unequivocally held that one should be sorry for one's sins and confess them. The issue, therefore, became that of satisfaction. Luther's problem with satisfaction arose from how indulgences were sold. Indulgences were marketed as doing away with the need for satisfaction. It is fair to say he also had a problem with how satisfaction was conceived of by the schoolmen: performing good works in order to be forgiven.

By focusing on the importance of contrition for sin, Luther held that being truly sorry for one's sins led one to do good works, that is, pray, fast, and give alms. Here is what Luther said in his Sermon:
No one can defend the position with any passage from Scripture that God’s righteousness desires or demands any punishment or satisfaction from sinners except for their heartfelt and true contrition or conversion alone—with the condition that from that moment on they bear the cross of Christ and practice the aforementioned works (but not as imposed by anyone)
For this Bible scholar, what else could Jesus's call to metanoia mean except to be sorry for one's sins and to converted, to have a change of mind and contrite and be converted? In essence, what Luther's attempted reform was about was the conversion of Christians, the interior movement of the Spirit as opposed to merely external observances.

It must be admitted that Luther's temperament after Augsburg and Leipzig was such that when challenged he was prone to take his positions to their extremes. One can see this in his disputation with Erasmus concerning Christian freedom.

One might also explore Luther's condemnation in Exsurge (condemnation 2) on the ground that he held infants, after Baptism, still suffered the effects of original sin in light of the Catholic Church's teaching on concupiscence, which also seeks to explain why Christians continue to sin after Baptism.

With that, apart from my remarks for my presentation in November on What the Catholic Church Learned from the Reformation, I have done my due diligence as a Catholic blogger to observe the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther's 95 Theses.

Luther's 95 theses: the Holy See's reaction

Toward the end of my last post on Luther (see "Luther and fraternal correction of the Pope") I wrote: "Let's be honest, if Leo X had been smart, he would've heeded Cardinal Cajetan's initial assessment of Luther's 95 theses: he found nothing heretical." This prompted someone to post in response a link to Pope Leo X's Exsurge Domine, a papal bull he promulgated on 15 June 1520. In logical terms, posting this as an argument is something of a petitio principii, more commonly known as begging the question. Begging the question refers to assuming the truth of the conclusion of one's argument.

Rather than content myself with a logical refutation, I think it is important to note that in Exsurge Domine, Leo indeed condemned 41 of Luther's 95 theses. Leo did not excommunicate Luther with the promulgation of this bull, however. He gave the Augustinian friar and professor six days to recant. What I find to be somewhere between amusing and annoying is that the response was given as if I had no knowledge of Exsurge Domine. I suppose I should not have assumed all my readers would know that some of Luther's theses were condemned by the Holy See. Given that many Catholics think all 95 theses were condemned, rather than the 43% that were, it is clear I should not have made that assumption.

Cardinal Cajetan examines Martin Luther and his writings in Augsburg, Germany (1518), by Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels (1830-1904)

Maybe a more precise way of stating the matter would've been to write: "Let's be honest, if Leo X had been smart, he would've heeded Cardinal Cajetan's initial assessment of Luther's 95 theses: he did not find anything in the theses to be necessarily heretical. Certain questions arose and certain theses needed to be clarified in order to understand what Luther meant."

So, in helping to connect the dots: asking these questions and seeking clarification as to some of Luther's theses would've lent themselves nicely to an academic disputatio, which is what Luther sought in the first place. This should also help clarify what I meant by writing "the Holy See totally tubed its response to Luther..." Responses are thoughtful. Reactions are not.

Between the end of 1517 and the middles of 1520 there was also some political water under the bridge that influenced the Holy See's reaction.

Are you bearing fruit for God's kingdom?

Readings: Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80:9.12-16.19-20; Phil 4:6-9; Matt 21:33-43

As the Lectionary does during Ordinary Time, the Gospel reading is harmonized with the Old Testament reading. In fact, one can be quite certain that the inspired author of St. Matthew's Gospel had Isaiah's "Song of the Vineyard," as Isaiah 5:1-7 is known, very much in mind, while composing the pericope that serves as today's Gospel reading. I think it is also helpful to keep in mind that Matthew's Gospel was written in and for a largely, but likely not exclusively, Jewish Christian community. Without exaggerating, one can say Matthew's community was a Christian synagogue. Of course, Jesus himself is Jewish and spent the entirety of his life in Israel interacting primarily, but not exclusively, with his fellow Israelites. In one of his most dramatic interactions with a non-Jewish person, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22).

It is important to grasp a little background in order to understand the full impact of Jesus's words, which, in context, are addressed to "the chief priests and elders of the people." The Parable of the Tenants is quite easy to understand. God is the landowner. The nation of Israel is the tenants. The servants are the prophets, whose vocation was to call Israel back to fidelity with the covenant. The son, of course, is Jesus, Son of God. The takeaway is that God will take away his kingdom from the Israelites and give it to people who will produce fruit for God.

Sadly, this Parable lends itself to a smug Christian reading. The people to whom God will give his kingdom is the Church, of course, which is nothing but Israel extended. But we need to reflect a bit on the nature of the Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the last century, wrote a treatise on the Church: Casta Meretrix, which translates into English as "The chaste whore." As I noted yesterday in my post on Luther, the Church in the sixteenth century was quite whorish. It was at other times, too, as in the twelfth century, the era of that other great Church reformer, St. Francis of Assisi, who set about rebuilding Christ's Church.

In the end, the true Church consists only of the saints. The saints are those men and women who produce fruit for God's kingdom. In the end, the Church will consist of only the saints, the wheat, the fruitful. At the end of time the chaff, the fruitless, those who say "Lord, Lord" and do nothing, will be sifted and separated.

Being fruitful for God's kingdom is a constant theme throughout St. Matthew's Gospel, whether it is applied to Israel, the Church, or individual disciples. While we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, we are saved for good works, for bearing fruit for God's kingdom. Those who bear such fruit constitute the Church. This is why Leon Bloy was correct when he averred: "There is only one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint."

What is the fruit we are to produce for God's kingdom? I think the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy serve as great guides. It seems clear to me that Jesus prioritized the Corporal Works over the Spiritual ones. What are the Corporal Works of Mercy? Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison. By doing these things for the least, we do them for the greatest: Jesus Christ, who "did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt 20:28).

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Luther and fraternal correction of the Pope

The trouble with the meme below, which I've seen plastered all over FB this past week, is that in posting his 95 theses Luther was not issuing a fraternal correction to Pope Leo X. At least with regard to his personal conduct, Leo certainly could've used a correction from an austere monk, which Martin Luther was in 1517. To wit, what Luther did is not analogous to what the "fraternal correctors" of Pope Francis are doing. Luther's initial aim was much more modest. Analogy fail.

Formally, Luther addressed his theses to the local bishop. The local bishop was one Albert of Brandenburg. It was Albert who authorized the sale of indulgences in his dioceses. Dioceses plural, you may ask? Yes. Albert was simultaneously bishop of Magdeburg and archbishop of Mainz. He purchased both these offices, which left him in debt. The chief salesman of indulgences in and around Wittenburg, the Dominican John Tetzel, was in Albert's employ. Albert kept half the proceeds of the sale of indulgences. The other half went to Rome.

What Luther sought by posting his theses was an academic disputatio, which were very common in the universities of the day. He wanted to focus on the sale, dispensing and efficacy of indulgences as well as papal authority (Did it extend beyond the grave? Nope, is the short answer). At this point and for quite a number of years afterward, he did not reject indulgences.

Let's be honest, if Leo X had been smart, he would've heeded Cardinal Cajetan's initial assessment of Luther's 95 theses: he found nothing heretical. There is a lot of gross ignorance among Catholics about how f#$*ed up the Church was at the time of the Reformation. The fact that the Holy See totally tubed its response to Luther is a story Catholics need to learn.

You can keep your Young Pope, I'll take Papa Bergoglio.

Friday, October 6, 2017

"Workin' on a mystery..."

What a week! I do not mean that in an exuberant way. What happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night still weighs heavily on my heart (to use what many would dismiss as a silly Christian expression). I am sure the massacre (what else can you call the shooting of more than 500 people?) weighs heavier still on those who were wounded, on the survivors, and those who lost loved ones in that indescribably terrible attack. One of the things that gives me hope when catastrophe strikes, whether it is a natural disaster or an unnatural act of terror, is how selflessly many people respond. Reading and hearing about how remarkably many people responded in Vegas when the shooting started made me think that we should not wait until we're in the middle of a catastrophe to start helping those in need.

In the wake of the most recent and faraway the worst mass shooting in the United States, it is bad enough to assert that we are powerless in the face of the epidemic of firearms violence. But it is unconscionable to insist there is nothing we should do to further regulate and restrict the sale, purchase, and possession of firearms and certain deadly accessories. My full response to what happened in Las Vegas is on The Boy Monk blog: "Mercy Provokes Us."

It seems more important than ever to remind everyone that October is the month of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I invite all who read this to commit praying 31 rosaries this month. A "Rosary" consists or praying one complete set (five) of any of the four sets of Mysteries (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, Glorious). So, if you haven't started, please begin today. Tomorrow we celebrate the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Iraqi Catholics (Chaldean Rite) praying the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary

From my perspective, our opening event for the six-part ecumenical series in observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation went well. It took place this past Wednesday at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sandy, Utah. It just so happens that our opening event was on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I mention my brother deacon Francis because he was a great Church reformer in his own right, one who had many of the same concerns the sixteenth century reformers had. I posted my opening remarks: "On the Reformation."

Here's something I did not include in my remarks, but kinda wished I had:
If Dean Wormer of Faber College had been dean of the College of Cardinals in the late-15th, early-16th century, he could've told newly elected popes what he told the members of Delta Tau Chi:

"Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life." The course of what we call Western Civilization might've been much different
Finally, Tom Petty passed away this week at the way-too-young age of 66. Writing for the The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich had the best tribute to Petty: "An Appreciation of Tom Petty."
... I’m fairly certain Petty knew how it felt to be us. He wrote with deep restraint and concision, which is why his songs always feel airborne, but what kills me are his articulations of ordinary, 3 P.M.-on-a-weekday business. Petty understood how to address the liminal, not-quite-discernible feelings that a person might experience in her lifetime (that’s in addition to all the big, collapsing ones—your loves and losses and yearnings)
When I was in college when a friend of mine and I took a road trip to Southern Utah. This was long before satellite radio and so for a good portion of the trip we had no radio reception. We only had a few cassette tapes with us. One of those was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Full Moon Fever. On our drive home, we listened to this album several times. I still know the words to all the songs from Full Moon Fever. My two favorite songs from the album are "Free Fallin," which was our Friday traditio way back on 27 November 2009, and "Runnin' Down a Dream," which is our Friday tradito for today:

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

On the Reformation

Below is my presentation for the first of six evenings we are discussing the Reformation. I gave this as a member of a collaborative panel that included, in addition to myself, clergy members from the Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Methodist communions. The subject the panel addressed was "Socio-Economic Conditions Provoking Religious Reformation." The nature of these discussions is not academic, but popular, pastoral, and ecumenical.


While it was by no means the only event that led to the split of the Western Church in the sixteenth century, the sale of indulgences can, I think, be identified as the efficient cause of the Reformation. Given that Luther was not excommunicated until 1521 along with his protection by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, who never converted to the Protestant cause, we can infer that there were other social, economic and political reasons that led to the schisms within the Western Church. It can be credibly argued that Luther’s reaction to the sale of indulgences in Wittenberg was the spark that ignited the accumulating socio-economic tinder.

In the years leading up to 1517, reform of the Church had been a matter of debate and discussion throughout Europe. Given that Europe at this time was a “Christendom,” the corruption of the Church must be considered as one of the main socio-economic factors underlying the Reformation. This assertion does not mean the Reformation was primarily, let alone exclusively, the result of theological disputes. Two of the most prominent exponents of Church reform in the first quarter of the sixteenth century were Erasmus of Rotterdam, who famously engaged in public debate with Luther, and Thomas More of England. More is best known, however, for dying as a Catholic martyr under Henry VIII. Prior to the English Reformation, More was a public critic of the Church and a proponent of major ecclesiastical reforms.

Upon his selection as pope in 1503, Julius II swore an oath to convoke a reforming Church council. In 1512, he called the Fifth Lateran Council. He died in 1513. The Council continued under his successor, Leo X. Leo was a member of the powerful de ‘Medici family of Florence. It was Pope Leo X who said about becoming Pontiff: “Let us enjoy the papacy which God has chosen to give us.” In other words, he bore none of the hallmarks of a pope willing to make the needed reforms. The council concluded in 1517. Leo X died in 1521, but not before excommunicating Luther.

Pope Leo X

The Church Leo inherited from his predecessor made it so that he needed to constantly raise revenue. In addition to finishing the new St. Peter’s Basilica, there were wars with France, which required men for papal armies. Like his predecessor, who patronized Michelangelo among other well-known artists, Leo was a lavish patron of the arts. In addition to wars with France, there was the Turkish threat to Christian Europe. Pope Leo was created a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church at age 13. He lived the Renaissance high life. It is worth noting that his papal inauguration cost 100,000 ducats, which is estimated to be about one-seventh of the Holy See’s treasury at the time. His extravagant lifestyle, in addition to the wars and the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, put a lot of pressure on Rome’s finances. At one point, Leo had to borrow money from bankers, who charged him an estimated 40% interest. Selling church offices was one way he raised money. In 1517 alone, Leo X created 30 new cardinals, all of whom paid princely sums to be Princes of the Church. This is believed to have netted around $500,000 ducats.

Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg, who simultaneously held the see of Magdeburg and the metropolitan see of Mainz, and to whom Luther addressed his 95 theses, acquired both episcopal offices by paying handsomely for them, leaving him in debt. It was Albert who authorized the selling of indulgences in Wittenberg and environs. Half of the funds obtained by selling indulgences were sent to Rome and Albert kept half for himself. John Tetzel was in the employ of Albert.

Some of the decrees of the Fifth Lateran Council that have bearing on the socio-economic conditions underlying the Reformation were the sanctioning of something called the monti di pietà, which were highly controversial ecclesiastical payday lender establishments that provided loans to the needy; dealing with the relatively new invention, the printing press (the internet of its day, despite the printing business’s shaky start), which was making books widely available, requiring the local bishop to grant permission before a new book was printed (beginning of the current system of issuing nihil obstats and the office of censor liborum); confirmed the Concordat of Bologna- an agreement between the Holy See and the Kingdom of France, by which the French king agreed to the abrogation of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, issued in 1438, which, among other things, called for a General Council with an authority greater than the pope’s (the rise of Gallicanism- a specifically French form of conciliarism, which persisted until Vatican I in 1870); the Concordat of Bologna allowed the Holy See to collect all the income that the Church made in France, it also permitted the King of France to tithe the clergy; called for a Crusade against the Turks, to be funded by three years of increased taxes and would have required troops from the independent kingdoms and from the principalities that constituted the Holy Roman Empire.

Despite the council, the papacy’s power continued to diminish as France, Spain and England asserted themselves as kingdoms, or, in more modern parlance, nascent nation-states, seeking increased independence from the Church. The internal politics of the Holy Empire also tended to undermine papal authority and made levies on these entities a cause of political resentment. Luther’s protest against the sale of indulgences consolidated these resentments. Last but certainly not least among the socio-economic factors contributing to the Reformation was the chaos and uncertainty that resulted from outbreaks of the Black Death.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Fairness, justice and God's mercy

Readings: Ezk 18:25-28; Ps 25:4-9; Phil 2:1-11; Matt 21:28-32

Fairness and justice, are they the synonymous, or is there a distinction to be made between these two concepts?

One way of answering this question is to say that fairness sees to it that everyone receives the same. We have six children. Three of them are boys aged 12, 8, and 6. When it comes to dividing up a cake, a pizza, dishing up ice cream or distributing freshly baked cookies, at least one of my boys will complain that one or both of his brothers received more. In an effort to nip such complaints in the bud, I usually do the dishing or dividing right in front of them, deliberately giving myself the smallest slice, the least-filled dish, or the smallest cookie, sometimes even going without, to my disappointment. Once in a while, this tactic works, but most of the time there is a complaint. My fallback position is, "Be grateful for what you have, not envious of what you don't have." Okay, I am done with the hagiography of my own parenting prowess.

Justice, on the other hand, has to do, at least at first glance, with receiving what you deserve. What I deserve likely differs from what somebody else deserves. For example, I could give the biggest piece of pizza, more ice cream or the largest cookie to the boy who, at least in my estimation, had been best behaved that day, who has finished chores, homework, and had a good attitude. But I am pretty sure this would be a massive failure in the minds of my sons as well as not a great way to parent. It is not a great way to parent because it makes my relationship with my children one of exchange, a situation in which love and approval are earned, which has a huge impact someone's self-worth.

Justice must be tempered by mercy. God will forgive anyone who repents at any hour, even in the final hour. Who knows, maybe Hugh Hefner, who had a very strict Christian upbringing, repented this past week as he passed from this world to the next? The person who truly repents will receive God's mercy, even Hugh Hefner. This is what Jesus meant when he told the elders and chief priests "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you." Why? Because upon encountering the Good News, understanding their lack of righteousness, they repented. This is why something very much like this part of the prayer of the great deacon, St Ephrem the Syrian, should never be far from heart and lips of anyone who considers herself a Christian: "Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages."

What about justice? I think Pope Benedict XVI addressed this well in his second encyclical letter, Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope:
Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened (par 44)
Human justice frequently misses the mark precisely because it is very often not tempered by mercy, or, to use Pope Benedict's word, "grace." Quite often, human-administered justice turns into vengeance, into revenge, it disintegrates into the lex talonis, demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. In the end, only God is just. Just, or righteous, people in the Bible, like St. Joseph, are considered to be just because they are merciful.

St. Paul's so-called "kenotic hymn," which is found in the longer version of today's second reading, is harmonious with both our Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel and today's Gospel by St. Matthew. Being in the form of God, Jesus did not come to receive the largest portion. On the contrary, he came to receive the least portion or, really, no portion at all. He came to give, not to take. What he came to give is nothing less than himself. Self-giving, self-donation is God's very nature. Greatness in the Kingdom of God is the reverse of worldly greatness. Jesus submitted himself to injustice for the sake of mercy out of love. The name of God is mercy because "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16).

In addition to the harmony found in all three readings for today, the message from God's word is congruent with the Little Way of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose liturgical memorial falls on 1 October.

Over and above being fair and just, God is merciful, gracious, even gratuitous. Let the words of our Psalm response be our prayer: "Remember your mercies, O Lord."

Saturday, September 30, 2017

St. Thérèse on love and unbelief

Tomorrow is the liturgical memorial of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Since tomorrow is a Sunday, her feast day will not be formally observed. This is just fine. Our weekly celebration of the Lord's resurrection ought to take precedence over saints' feasts. After all, were it not for Christ's resurrection, there would be no saints. By honoring the Little Flower today, I do not want to short-change St. Jerome, whose liturgical memorial is today.

Jerome is perhaps best known for translating the books that together constitute what we now call the Bible from their original languages into Latin. While certainly given to ascesis and the pursuit of holiness, Jerome was also known for his temper and irascibility. Perhaps anticipating the future world of social media, he once averred: "It is idle to play the lyre for an ass."

We don't use this term much anymore, but historically saints have a cultus, a cult. In this context, "cult" refers to a substantial group of people who venerate a person they consider to be holy. Other than being a martyr, how someone traditionally became a saint was by being venerated by people from their local church after their death. These days, at least in the Catholic Church, sainthood is pursued via a bureaucratic and juridical process that smacks of what the German sociologist Max Weber called "the routinization of charisma." A great example is Oscar Romero, who has only achieved the canonical status of "blessed," the step just before being raised to the altar as a saint. Despite this, there is no doubt in the minds of millions of Salvadorans and other people worldwide, myself included, that he is a saint. Another example of this is Venerable Matt Talbot, who has worked many miracles of recovery among people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction. Along with Romero and Matt Talbot, there are other saints of (relatively) modern vintage who can rightly be said to have cults. St. Thérèse is certainly one of them. Another modern saint with a cult is Padre Pio, St. Pio of Pietrelcina. Of course, Mother Teresa, St. Teresa Kolkata, also has a cult.

To give you some idea of the widespread devotion to the Little Flower and that her intercession works in just the way she hoped it would at the time of her passing, I will be self-referential enough to point you an article I wrote seven years ago for the English language version of Il Sussidiario: "St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Little Flower and Édith Piaf, Little Sparrow." In his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton described his encounter with the little one from Lisieux (in for a penny, in for a pound- my initial contribution on the collaborative blog The Boy Monk this week was "Thomas Merton and Me").

Drawing heavily on Thomas Nevin's book The Last Years of Saint Thérèse: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897, which is a must-read for anyone devoted to the Little Flower, Tomáš Halík, in his own book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us, noted that Mother Agnes (Thérèse's sister, Pauline), who held the final conversations with Thérèse just before her death and who edited (really censored) the Little Flower's works and words, (mis)construed Thérèse's mental state (in much the same way St Teresa of Kolkata's was misdiagnosed by one of her spiritual directors). The misconstrual was the result of trying to stuff her saintly sister's experience into the pre-existing categories of Carmelite spirituality. We may owe a debt of gratitude to Mother Agnes. Without her censorship of her sister's spoken words and editing of some of what she wrote, there's a fairly good chance Thérèse would not have canonized, at least when she was. As a result of her efforts, Halík contends, Pauline Martin "failed to grasp what was truly original, new, and unique about Thérèse of Lisieux. something that, understandably, is absent in the case of both the 'great Theresa' of Avila and John of the Cross" (28). Pointing to Thérèse's principle: "to accept even the strangest thoughts" for the love of God.

For Thérèse, the strangest of these thoughts was that there were not only atheists but conscientious ones. Previously she considered atheists to be thinking, speaking, and acting in bad faith, people who "contradicted their own convictions." This should sound familiar because it is the starting point of many Christians today, especially those who fancy themselves as something called an "apologist." Jesus himself revealed to her that there really were people who lived conscientiously without faith. He showed her atheism was not just an illusion, or, worse yet, always a "sinful self-delusion," which then caused the "atheist" to deceive others. What confirmed this for her was her own experience of unbelief, of atheism, as she lay dying. As a result of this, she came to see "unbelievers as her brothers," as her companions, that is, those with whom she "sits at the same table and eats the same bread" (29). It is here where Halík is worth quoting at length:
Unlike them, she is aware of the bitterness of this bread, because, unlike them, she has known the joy of God's closeness (even though the memory of it now only deepens her pain), whereas people indifferent to God are generally quite unaware of the burden and tragedy of their situation. In fact, it is only thanks to her previous experience of faith that she is able to experience in depth the real drama of abandonment by God, as well as discover and experience the hidden face of atheism, which many accept with such casual matter-of-factness (29)
St. Thérèse, pray for us in our unbelief- that we may break bread with you and so many unexpected others at the table of the kingdom.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Playboy, Morrissey, and the Archangels

It's Friday, the last one this September. As is the world's wont, the beat goes on. In other words, the world keeps spinning on its axis and events continue to unfold. It would be too easy to take the death of Hugh Hefner as my starting point for this post, especially given that President Trump appeared on the cover of Playboy's March 1990 issue. It was no youthful gaffe. He was 43 at the time and has expressed pride in being chosen to be on the cover. For some, I guess character counts until it doesn't.

Me? I think Hefner was an exploiter of women and someone whose contribution to society was largely negative. In all honesty, I think he was pretty creepy. In writing this I am not judging him in the manner that, as a Christian, I am forbidden from judging anyone. I hope God has mercy on him. Well, so much for not taking "Hef's" death as my starting point. I am not much of a prude, as readers of this blog can tell you. Depending how in-depth an analysis you are looking for, mileage may vary, as Damon Linker's article demonstrates.

Since it's been awhile, I found it difficult to decide what song I should feature as our Friday traditio. The J. Geils Band's "Angel is a Centerfold" is way too predictable. Morrissey's "The Last of the Famous International Playboys" was also a possibility and kind of in the ballpark theme-wise. Trouble is, the traditio is not thematic in that way. I posted Morrissey's song on Facebook. An important aside: I am going to see to Morrissey a week after my birthday: 18 November.

Today is the Feast of the Archangels: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The Holy Father delivered a beautiful homily for today's feast. In his homily, he urged us to pray to the archangels. To Michael who helps us in the battles of the war we all must wage . To Gabriel (who is our youngest son's baptismal patron) so that we never forget the Gospel, of whom he was the herald when he announced to the Blessed Virgin that she was going to bear God's Son. To Raphael, who, Pope Francis said, "walks with us" to protect us from "the seduction of taking the wrong step."

Therefore, our traditio for this wonderful feast is by Ralph Vaughn Williams, a text set to a very familiar tune. It was sung as part of the sacred liturgy at St Michael Church in Stillwater, Minnesota several years ago.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Updates, thoughts, things, and trajectory

When maintaining a blog you never lack for material. Events of the past two weeks have been mind-boggling. It would be utterly impossible to keep up with hurricanes, earthquakes, threats of war, a badly divided country that seems to grow more fractious each day with no healing in sight. Rather than blog, I've been posting longer than usual status updates on Facebook. In truth, I'd rather blog. Why? Because I can thoughtfully write out what I have to say and put it out there, so to speak. People can take it for what it it's worth. I can consider thoughtful responses rather than reactionary diatribes.

As I attempt to wade back into posting regularly here, it's important to mention that I am involved in another on-line endeavor. It is a collaborative blog initiated by Mike O'Brien, who is an attorney in Salt Lake City. It is called The Boy Monk, which is a reference to Mike's upbringing. In addition to Mike and I, the other regular contributors are Ms. Jean Welch Hill, also an attorney, who serves the Diocese of Salt Lake City (my local church) as Government Liaison and Director of the Diocesan Peace and Justice Commission, Dr. Gary Topping, a great historian and long-time friend and dedicated reader of this blog for pretty much its entire existence, Jim Larson, a scientist and science teacher, and Nick Blaylock, a dancer, artist and teacher. All of us are here in Utah, which is one of the things I think makes this effort quite special, if I may use a word that is typically employed ironically or sarcastically.

Mike launched the blog on the second anniversary of Pope Francis's speech to a Joint Session of the United States Congress, an historical first. In his kick-off post, "The Pope’s 2015 Speech to Congress: Essential Aspects of American Catholicism," Mike gave some background and insight as to why this speech is, or should be, of significance to Catholics in the United States.

Pope Francis addressing a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, 25 September 2015

In his speech to Congress, the Holy Father highlighted four citizens of the U.S. who helped shape the "fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people." People who, to cite the Pontiff again, "offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality" and whose memories we should honor in order to be inspired, especially in the midst of conflicts like the ones we are currently experiencing. Of the four people Francis spoke about two were Catholics. Interestingly, both Catholics converted as young adults: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. The other two, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were Protestants.

Dr. Topping's post today is on Abraham Lincoln's stance on slavery vis-à-vis the U.S. Civil War: "A Catholic Looks at Abraham Lincoln." It is a provocative piece. My initial contribution will be on Thomas Merton, whose life and writings have been very formative for me and many other Catholics in the United States and beyond. It will be interesting to read the other contributions.

Thinking about Dr. King and the civil rights movement, it bears noting that yesterday, in addition to being the second anniversary of Pope Francis's speech to Congress, it was the sixtieth anniversary of the day Little Rock Central High School was racially integrated. On that day federal troops from the 101st Airborne Division escorted 9 black teenagers to school. Those nine teens are known to history as "the Little Rock 9." Yesterday was also my oldest daughter's twenty-first birthday.

Well, I think that does it for now, except to call attention to this article on Ammon Hennacy that appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on 23 September: "Fifty years ago, a Catholic anarchist tried to help solve homelessness in Salt Lake City. Here’s what happened." Let's just say it's another article in which the Catholic Church, my local church, does not come out too well, something on which the author does not dwell. To complement Harmon's piece I also offer Dorothy Day's 1970 column in The Catholic Worker in remembrance of Hennacy, written a month or so after his death: "Ammon Hennacy: ‘Non-Church’ Christian."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Year A Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 27:30-28:7; Ps 103:1-4.9-12; Rom 14:7-9; Matt 18:21-35

Our readings for this Sunday have a single theme: forgiveness. The takeaway from these readings can be accurately summarized in the following manner: we need to be forgiven, we need to forgive, and being forgiven depends on forgiving. Of course, we are reminded of this every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Our first reading from the Book of Sirach makes it clear: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” (Sir 28:2). You show your gratitude for God’s forgiveness by forgiving others. It is by forgiving others that you participate in Christ’s mission of setting the world to rights. One of the most powerful ways we can transform the world is by forgiving, being peacemakers instead of vengeance seekers. Forgiveness, which is an act of love for both God and neighbor, is what breaks the cycle of sin and violence. Forgiveness is the antidote to the poison of the lex talonis, which bids us seek an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.

In preaching on Christ’s commandment to forgive, I am aware that perhaps there is someone listening who has suffered egregiously at the hands of someone else. For people who have suffered horrific wrongs at the hands of others, forgiving is not only a challenge but a huge provocation. Forgiving someone who has gravely harmed and/or deeply wounded you can seem like betraying yourself. When this is the case, forgiveness often becomes both a choice and a process. It becomes a process because it is a choice that you have make over and over until, by the grace of God, you can forgive the one at whose hands you have suffered.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian, who, along with her father and sister, was arrested by the Nazis in Holland for rescuing Dutch Jews during the Nazi occupation of her country. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Like so many people, Betsie died a horrible death in the camp. Corrie witnessed the slow, painful death of her sister. After the war, Corrie set up rehabilitation centers in Holland for those returning from the camps. She also traveled around Europe sharing her experiences and speaking about the boundlessness of God’s forgiveness.

One night, after a presentation she gave in Munich in 1947, just a few years after the war, she noticed a man making his way through the crowd towards her. It took her only a few seconds to recognize him as one of the SS guards from Ravensbrück. Upon recognizing him, she had a flashback to the horrors she and Betsie had experienced in the camp. Upon reaching her, the man extended his hand and said: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea.” She realized that he did not recognize her. He went on to note that she mentioned Ravensbrück in her talk and admitted to being a guard there. He then added, “But since that time…I have become a Christian. I know God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips too.” He extended his hand again and asked, “will you forgive me?”

Corrie Ten Boom

Corrie paused, wrestling with what she described as “the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.” In that suspended moment, she realized she had to forgive this man. Why? “The message that God forgives,” she noted when sharing this encounter sometime later, “has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us” (Zahnd, UNconditional 31-34). She then cited the words of Jesus from the sixth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, which comes immediately after the Lord’s Prayer: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matt 6:14-15). Without a doubt, there is nothing our Lord asks of us that is more difficult than to forgive those who wrong us. But if we can't find healing in forgiving those who have injured us, as the Lord plainly teaches, the Gospel just might be a fraud.

What about justice? As St Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans: “’Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head’” (Rom 12:19-20). In his encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI insisted that God’s mercy “does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value” (par 44). My friends, Christ will see to justice because Jesus is Lord of the living and the dead.

Despite our Lord’s provocative teaching on the necessity of forgiving others, I often hear Christians invoke karma. Rather than forgive, we sometimes want the person who wronged us to suffer like they’ve made us suffer. But, as the inspired author of Sirach noted: “The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail” (Sir 28:1).

In today’s Gospel, the Lord ups the ante. Peter asks how many times he is to forgive someone who sins against him. He asked if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient. Jesus replied that he must forgive “seventy-seven times.” This does not mean forgiving 77 times and the 78th time you can hold a grudge and exact revenge. In addition to seven It means forgiving without limit. Why seven and seventy-seven? This hearkens back to Genesis, when Lamech, the father of Noah, boasted of killing two men. He then referred to Cain, murderer of his brother, Abel, and lamented: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:23-24). In this parable, Jesus demonstrated that God’s mercy is much greater than our sins.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant makes clear how utterly necessary it is for you to forgive others if you expect God to forgive you. Referring to the servant who was forgiven a great a debt, but who refused to forgive a small one, Jesus states he was handed “over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt,” before warning his disciples, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart” The parable is an allegory. The master is God. As sinners, we are the servant forgiven a large debt. In order to avoid becoming the servant who must repay the large debt, you must be willing to forgive others. What the Lord tells us is clear: if you would receive Divine Mercy, you must imitate it. Since there is no question about our on-going need for God’s forgiveness, the question we need to ask ourselves today is, “Who do I need to forgive?”

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Homily outtakes

When preparing to preach on a Gospel as on-point as the one for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year A, about how fundamental being willing to forgive others is to being a Christian, it is common for me to compose a longer homily than I can in good conscience deliver. This means there are leftovers, as it were. Sometimes these leftovers, or outtakes, are not worth handing on. When that is the case, I simply delete them. For whatever reason, I felt the section below was worth posting.
Karma, of course, is a word taken from Eastern religions (i.e., Hinduism and Buddhism). It refers to someone receiving what s/he deserves. I don’t know about you, but, as a Christian, by the mercy of God, I do not hope that now, or in the end, I get what I deserve. This ought to prompt me to ask myself, How can I justly want mercy for myself, a sinner, while desiring that somebody else gets what I think s/he deserves? While your karma may run over my dogma, I will take grace over karma any day, which is why it is important to make frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance and to receive the Eucharist at least every Sunday and on Holy Days, as our Mother, the Church, prescribes.

As Christians, we certainly believe sin has natural consequences. While confessing our sins, receiving absolution for them, and doing our prescribed penance remits the eternal consequence of our sins (i.e., separation from God), it does not spare us the natural consequences of our sinful actions, which contribute to fragmentation of the world and violate the Church’s communion.

You might well ask, “Is there a spiritual remedy for the natural consequences of our sins?” To answer that question simply, Yes, the remedy is indulgences. While it is an important topic for perhaps another time, it is important to point out that seeking indulgences is not some outdated practice of the Church in former times. Seeking indulgences is still an important spiritual practice, even if an often misunderstood and neglected one. To explain in an oversimplified manner, by seeking indulgences, which amount to performing certain good works, we set about counteracting the bad effects of our sins, thus cooperating with God in setting the world to rights instead of contributing to our alienation from God, each other, and nature
Here is one more:
During the long period of Ordinary Time, which extends from the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to the Sunday before the Feast of Christ of King, we read the Gospel for any given year (this year it is St Matthew’s) in a semi-continuous way. I point this out because there is a tension between this week’s Gospel about our need to forgive without pre-set limits and last week’s Gospel about fraternal correction. It becomes obvious that there is a balance to be struck. Striking such balances is what we call prudence. In both cases, however, we are to seek the good of the offender, trying to bring about her/his repentance and conversion.
Program Note No later than 1 October, I am planning to return to blogging on a regular basis. I have a few posts ready-to-go. I hope to put those up this week. Call it my eleventh year sabbatical.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Labor Day, a belated reflection

Every year I used to write up a fairly lengthy piece on Labor Day. At least in my view, Labor Day remains an an important holiday. Like all such observances these days, the significance of Labor Day grows more obscure all the time. To truly understand the importance of Labor Day one needs to grasp that there is no irony whatsoever in it being a day off for laborers.

The way I see it, this country needs a revitalized labor movement. On the whole, such a revitalization will require workers to either establish new unions or seize back control of existing ones.

Last week, while traveling, I watched Django Unchained, which, like Inglorious Bastards, is a Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy flick. I must admit that I find this genre distasteful because, far from appealing to the better angels of our human nature, it tends to summon up our demons. But, as it so happens, I found Django Unchained, like most Tarantino films, to be well-made, entertaining, and even somewhat compelling, if sickeningly violent. Jaime Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio turned in outstanding performances in the film, as did Samuel L. Jackson, but then one expects that from such a great actor. As a director, Tarantino seems to get the best out of actors.

In ruminating on Labor Day last night, I couldn't help but think of the dining room scene where the cruel slave owner, Calvin Candie, played by DiCaprio, calls Dr. Schultz's bluff to purchase Broomhilda, one of his slaves who is Django's wife. Django, who is black, is Dr Schultz's partner. As part of his dramatic power play, Candie has the skull of a deceased slave, "Old Ben," brought to him. Telling the story of Old Ben's life, Candie remarked:
I spent my whole life here right here in Candyland [the name of his plantation], surrounded by black faces. And seeing them every day, day in day out, I only had one question. Why don't they kill us? Now right out there on that porch three times a week for fifty years, old Ben here would shave my daddy with a straight razor. Now if I was old Ben, I would have cut my daddy's goddamn throat, and it wouldn't have taken me no fifty years to do it neither
Let me be clear, I DO NOT favor violent revolution and I am not advocating it. It is a very good thing that major advancements in civil rights for black citizens of the United States were brought about in a non-violent manner. While I am neither a historian nor a sociologist, far from Calvin Candie's racist assertions, based on the pseudo-science of phrenology, that black people are inherently subservient, I think a significant part of their willingness to suffer a lot over a long period of time, which they rightly viewed as analogous to the Israelites' Egyptian bondage, is attributable in no small part their being much better Christians than their self-styled and often brutal masters. I hold to my assertion even as I recognize that those who were enslaved were forcibly and involuntarily "Christianized" by slave-holders. The Lord ushers in the reign of God in the most unexpected ways, n'est ce pas? Of course, other factors came into play as well.

Even in this age of rapidly increasing automation, human labor remains vital to our economy. We are long way from that not being the case. My point? Laborers, whether white, grey, or blue collar, constitute the majority of citizens of the United States of America. Therefore, by preponderance of numbers much needed change can be effected by collectively employing legitimate and non-violent means. Let's not forget that prior to the heroic efforts of the champions of civil rights for black Americans, foremost among whom was Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, leaders of the Labor Movement in the 1920s and 1930s brought about change in a similar way, which meant suffering violence, even lethal violence, at the hands of those in the service of interests vested in what was then the status quo. What were the results? Child labor laws, 40 hour work week, weekends, paid holidays, sick leave, etc.

Friday, September 1, 2017

"Do you believe in rock n' roll?" - a uniquely American eschaton

After three very light months of blogging, I though I'd begin September with a post. Since it is Friday, it is appropriate to post a traditio. What to hand-on is always the question. Yesterday evening, on the flight home from a business trip the airline provided me with free earbuds. After reading for most of the trip, I decided to find some music in the airplane's computerized entertainment system. I have to say, it was nice to look out the window of the plane and listen to music.

Of all the songs I listened to in the hour-and-a-half I was most struck by the song that was perhaps the oldest: Don McLean's "American Pie." While the song refers specifically to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. Of course that plane crash was symbolic.

For many years McLean resisted attempts to "explain" his song, insisting "that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence." In 2015, in the auction notes for the original manuscript of the song, McLean wrote: "Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. ... It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense."

While decoded references, like Elvis as the king and Bob Dylan as the jester (a designation he apparently didn't like very much), the song in one sense is tied to an era, to "a generation lost in space." It is a great song, however, because it transcends the era. It is a song with a theology, one influenced by a certain strand of the death-of-God theology that became so prevalent in the late 1960s. McLean sings about faith, the silencing of Church bells, the Trinity heading for presumably the West Coast.

If the music ever really dies, we're in deep trouble. My suggestion? Find some time this weekend to sit and listen to some tunes.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Year A Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 56:1.6-7; Ps 67:2-3.5-6.8; Rom 11:13-15.29-32; Matt 15:21-28

There is a remarkable convergence between the troubling events of this past week and our readings for this twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Our first reading comes from the part of the Book of the prophet Isaiah known as trito, or third Isaiah. This section consists of the final eleven chapters of the book, which were written after the Israelites returned from their captivity in Babylon. As incredible as it might sound, we are the fulfillment of the prophecy this oracle contains. We are the foreigners who have entered into covenant with the LORD. In fact, through our participation in this Eucharist this covenant into which God brought us when we were baptized is renewed.

Throughout the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, there were two main strands of thinking concerning their chosenness. The first strand, which is lampooned in the Book of Jonah, held that Israelites, as children of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were chosen to exclusion of all other people. Predictably, such a view inevitably led those who held it to think of themselves as superior to those who do not belong to Israel (i.e., the Gentiles). There is another, healthier, strand that reaches back to the covenant that God entered into with Abraham, when God promised our father in faith that his descendants would be more numerous than grains of sand on a seashore (Gen 22:17).

God told Abraham that because of his obedience, which bid him to take his household and journey to the land God had set apart for him, that through his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 22:18). Of course, the blessing was God’s only Begotten Son becoming human and reconciling the world to the Father by his life, passion, death, and resurrection. It is Jesus who allows us to become Abraham’s children through faith. This is why St Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, insisted:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28)
Immediately following this magnificent explanation about what it means to be a Christian, the Apostle wrote: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). Being a child of Abraham is a matter of faith, not of blood, let alone soil.

The Woman of Canaan, by Michael Angelo Immenraet, 17th century. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

With regard to the correlation between current events and today’s readings, Paul stated that one of the purposes of his ministry to the Gentiles was to make his fellow Jews “jealous” because of the Gentiles’ acceptance of salvation. God gave salvation to the world through Israel, not merely for them, but for them and everyone else. This is why we can say with confidence: The Church, God's people, “exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi par 14). Right now, our world and our country are badly in need of the Good News of God's mercy given us in Christ.

The mission of the Church, the mission of all the baptized, is to spread the Gospel to everyone, no exceptions. By bringing Christ to people, we play our role in God’s mission of making the whole of humanity a single family. It was Paul’s hope that by witnessing the conversion of the Gentiles, his fellow Jews would respond to their vocation as God’s chosen people and realize the end for which God chose them. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman whom he encountered at Jacob’s well: “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). As St Peter is recorded preaching in Acts: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34b-35).

Today’s Gospel is one of those passages that marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the oracle from Isaiah in our first reading. We hear of an instance through which God begins expanding his covenant to include everyone through Christ. Despite being a Gentile, the Canaanite woman greeted Jesus with the messianic greeting, which one would think only a Jew who recognized him as Messiah might use: “Son of David” (Matt 15:22). She also hailed him as “Lord,” which goes beyond Messiah. But before greeting him thus, she first pleaded with him to have mercy on her by casting demons out of her afflicted daughter (Matt 15:22).

It is because of the woman’s faith expressed in her greetings that Jesus could use this encounter as we might call “a teaching moment.” What Jesus sought to teach is that God extends divine mercy to everyone, to Jew and Gentile alike. As seems to have often been the case with people they perceived as pesky, perhaps particularly a Gentile woman, Jesus’s disciples demanded that he send her away. Rather than doing so, Jesus stated that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). Upon hearing him say this, replying from her helplessness, she simply pleaded, “Lord, help me” (Matt 15:24). Their dialogue proceeded in this manner until the woman said she would be content with scraps from God's table. Her begging moved Jesus. He then commended her for her steadfast faith, which resulted in her daughter being healed.

I think that the inspired author of Matthew’s Gospel handed on the dialogue in the manner he did to demonstrate to Jewish Christians the same thing Paul wrote about accomplishing through his ministry to the Gentiles. It is important to note that the Gospel of Matthew was written for a largely Jewish Christian community. While it was likely a mixed group of Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles that made up the community from the beginning, the balance was shifting with Gentile Christians growing larger in proportion to Jewish Christians. There is a parallel between this situation and that in our own diocese.

In 1979, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a Pastoral Letter on Racism: Brothers and Sisters To Us. In it they stated clearly: “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”

In light of today’s readings, it seems fitting to observe that if we ourselves, the Church, or our nation are to be healed of the sin of racism, each of us needs to reflect on what in us needs to be healed in this regard. We may not think of ourselves as racist, being prejudiced, or intolerant but is that entirely the case? Intolerance and bias can hide in our attitudes and manifest in our actions. Each one of us needs to search our heart and find those places where we might harbor hostility, concealed discrimination and prejudice. Then we need to repent and change, endeavoring to do better in our relations with those who are different from us. If we are to be agents of the Gospel, that is, evangelists, and convert others we must first be converted.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"And if the mountain should crumble"

Ah, blogging! I haven't quit altogether. My life presently is very busy. Despite being constantly busy, I can't seem to get the things done I need to get done. Poor time management? To some extent, yes. Not living my priorities? Again, no doubt to a point. So many things competing for my attention that I don't give anything the focused attention I need to? Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner. While I enjoy blogging, these days it is way down my list of priorities,

Recently I wrote down my priorities in an effort to better manage my time. I came up with 6 priorities, which I won't bother sharing with you. Like budgeting money, these plans only work if you discipline yourself to carry them out. Right now that is my struggle. I am not complaining. It's precisely the struggle in which I need to be engaged.

During my morning devotion yesterday, I was thinking about Dostoevsky's observation that "beauty will save the world." It's one of those phrases one cannot avoid these days, which is my polite way of suggesting that it's overused. I then began wondering that if I were to align the transcendentals (truth, beauty, goodness) with the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) to which virtue would beauty correspond? After giving it a few moments thought it became clear to me that beauty aligns with hope.

It is something of a theological/pastoral hobby horse for me to insist that hope is the most neglected of the three theological virtues. Fasting is the most neglected of the three fundamental spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, alms-giving). I also align fasting with hope. While it may be a bit of a stretch, it seems that beauty is often the most neglected of the three transcendentals. With so many self-styled Catholic apologists running around, it seems goodness, usually expressed as a rigid moralism, is the starting and ending point. This moralism arises from truth understood in a very restricted and static manner. It usually results in what I can only describe as a kind Catholic hyper-Calvinism; rule-bound, hide-bound.

It is precisely here that beauty comes to the rescue. Beauty becomes hope. In the eighth chapter of Romans, which for me is St Paul at his peak, the Apostle wrote: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?" (Rom 8:24) Indeed, beauty points beyond itself. Something - a view of nature, music, a painting, a poem, a story, a film, a dance, etc. - is beautiful because it is transcendent. When we recognize something as beautiful, we experience correspondence. Another way to say this is that beauty strikes an inner chord. While not completely subjective, beauty that is beauty has an indispensably subjective element. Perhaps another way to describe correspondence is encountering something that resonates with my experience. It is important not to exclude our interior life from our experience.

Yes, I am avoiding the whole subject of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend and its aftermath. Suffice it to say, racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism are utterly abhorrent. When these hateful and dangerous attitudes congeal and morph into a poisonous ideology that begins to be manifested publicly we must oppose those who espouse them. As Christians, how we oppose dehumanizing ideologies matters. If we claim to follow Christ, we must pray for our enemies and do good to them. In other words, our opposition must be rooted in love, not only for those who are being denigrated, but for those who espouse dangerous and hateful ideologies that denigrate. Love, not hate, is the basis of the only sustainable revolution. Come to think of it, love is beautiful. I don't need to abstract about this.

The response of Heather Heyer's father to her death, which was the result of the young woman being hit and killed by the car of an obviously very confused, hate-filled, and outraged young man, who drove it into a crowd of counter-protestors, very concretely and beautifully demonstrates what I am trying to express. What was Ms Heyer's father's response to the senseless death of his daughter?
And my thoughts with all of this stuff is that people need to stop hating and they need to forgive each other. I include myself in that forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think about what the Lord said on the cross. Lord, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing
Any action that does not flow from prayer, from a real discernment is bound to fail. Many predict that the United States is headed for a period of increasing violence and confrontation. Therefore, we need to keep in mind that ideology is toxic. Moreover, let's not forget that Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Peace is not merely the absence of violence - though no violence is a necessary condition for peace - it is the realization of justice. Justice does not lack mercy because justice is the result of love, not vengeance.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Concerns about North Korea's nuclear capabilities

While U.S.'s bellicosity over the past few decades has often deeply troubled as well as puzzled me strategically (it seems we have gotten into the habit of instigating more chaos than we quell, resulting in too many civilians being killed, harmed, and displaced- ONE is too many, ideally), I do not believe we should stand idly by while the DPRK acquires nuclear weapons and a robust and increasingly accurate means of delivering them.

I like very much this statement by Defense Secretary (Gen) James Mattis. It is clear, concise, and reasonable. Above all, it expresses a desire for peace. Let's de-nuclearize, if I may use that clunky term, the Korean Peninsula and then start helping North Korea become a responsible state by taking care of its people.
While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth. The DPRK regime's actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates
As Secretary Tillerson noted recently and publicly, speaking to North Korean leadership, which has even taken to isolating itself from China: "We are not your enemies."

For those who want to dismiss Gen Mattis and most of the military top-brass as run-of-the-mill neo-cons, you're wrong. Neither are they part of some "deep state" conspiracy. I've heard some people suggest this about Gen Mattis with regard to Iran. It might be useful to know that GCC states identify Iran as their greatest threat and have for decades. It would not be a good thing for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons either, but that is another issue for another day.

The U.S. military is under civilian control. The JCS provides the best military advice they can to the president and the rest of the National Command Authority. However, the president is free to heed or disregard.

U.S. Secretary of Defense, (Gen.) James Mattis

Someone asked smugly, "So, is North Korea the new thing we're supposed to be scared of?" I wouldn't say scared at this point. But let's see, North Korea's development of nukes has gone on apace with significant progress over several decades. Every administration during that time has had moments of tension with North Korea and attempted to dissuade and/or deter them from so doing without success, but not despite trying and probably not without delaying them. As anyone who follows the news knows, North Korea is currently working on a nuclear-capable ICBM and making progress, as their recent robust testing regime demonstrates. This would give them the capability of "nuking" the United States, which they have (unsurprisingly) identified as a target. Please correct me if I am wrong, but didn't we freak out when Cuba requested the Soviet Union put nukes on that island in 1962? So much so we were willing to risk war? Thank God it didn't result in such a horror.

For anyone who thinks resuming the Korean War is in any way akin to Afghanistan or other recent Middle Eastern (mis-) adventures, you're badly mistaken. Simply using their existing conventional weapons capability, the North Koreans launching a first strike would decimate Seoul very quickly. What is very alarming about Kim Jong-Un is that he has isolated himself far more than his father or grandfather ever did, even from China. I am not sure the hard-press we're putting on right now is the best idea because it is escalating an always-volatile situation, but that's not my call. I would like Russia and China to chime in too, more than just voting to impose further sanctions, which they did today. While it may be a bit early to be scared, this is certainly news and something we should be interested in and concerned about.

In any case, if you believe in God, please pray for a peaceful resolution to this tense state-of-affairs, which means North Korea stopping its missile-testing and sitting down at the negotiating table, not just with the U.S., but perhaps a new round of Five Party talks (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, U.S.). Whether you voted for, like or loathe, President Trump, pray for him on this (and other matters), as well as those who advise him, and those who carry out diplomacy. I think it is worth praying that no more countries acquire nuclear weapons and that countries that currently possess such weapons will work together to reduce them with an eye towards eliminating them altogether. At the end of the day, a peacefully realized nuclear weapon-free Korean Peninsula is a worthy goal.

Unlike at least one Christian leader, I don't believe God has given President Trump sanction to take out Kim Jong-Un, or start a war, especially one involving nuclear weapons, which would be the height of insanity. I do believe in praying for our leaders as they face the challenges of leadership, praying for a lasting peace, the end of nuclear proliferation, as well as the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.