Sunday, July 30, 2017

Year A Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5.7-12; Ps 119:57.72.76-77.127-130; Rom 8:28-30; Matt 13:44-46

We just heard, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). We might well ask ourselves, do I know this, either from my own life or from looking at the world? As is often the case, our world is enmeshed in violence, poverty, and strife of all kinds. A little closer to home, life is often hectic, stressed, and seemingly devoid of any meaning beyond the next thing we have to do. We might well ask, is God making these things work for my good? Such knowledge, however at odds with the facts as it may seem, constitutes wisdom because it informs me how I am to live my circumstances. Our question, then, might be: “How do I use my circumstances?”

Answers to such a wide-ranging and complex questions as these can only be tentative and provisional. Suffice it to say, even the wisest and most learned among us labor under the limitation of being human; try as we might, we cannot see the whole picture. Solomon recognized this limitation and sought a transcendent source of wisdom.

When told by God in a dream, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you,” Solomon asked for “an understanding heart,” for wisdom (1 Kgs 3:5.9). His humble request pleased God so much it was granted. So, the young king received from God “a heart so wise and understanding” that the inspired author proclaimed, with a bit of hyperbole, no doubt, there had been no one like him up until then and that nobody who would come after him would be equal to him (1 Kgs 3:12). Indeed, even today we revere King Solomon for his wisdom.

In the Jewish Scriptures wisdom is typically concerned with everyday life, not esoteric knowledge about otherworldly mysteries. Hence, wisdom concerns practical matters and guides people in living godly lives. Throughout the various books of the Old Testament wise people are not always the most intellectually gifted. Generally, when a person is depicted as wise, s/he is presented as in tune with God. The wise person and God have a strong, intimate relationship that translates into the wise person being very practical and possessed of what usually turns out to be quite simple, but by no means always well-received, knowledge.

The divine gift of wisdom, which the Church teaches is one of the seven gifts of the Spirit, is important for each of us in living out our Christian vocation, especially in the many ambiguous situations we in which we find ourselves. Presumably, each of us wants to live a good life, a life in tune with the divine life we received in baptism. To that end, we repent of those things that were unwise that pull us away from God, damage our relationships with others, and create disharmony in the eucharistic fellowship we share.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field..." (Matt 13:44)

All of the parables in today’s Gospel begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like . . .” (Matt 13:44-45.47.52). These analogies are in keeping with Jesus’ basic message that in him God’s kingdom has come near. As one of the great Church Fathers, Origen, stated it, Jesus is autobasileia, that is, God’s kingdom in person. God’s kingdom is present wherever and whenever God’s will is done. That seems simple enough, but we live in a technological age that demands exactness and precision. We are uneasy with paradox and ambiguity. If only Jesus had satisfied our need for exactness and given a precise definition of what the kingdom is and exactly where and when it occurs. I guess that's why we have systematic theologians.

Take today’s first parable as an example of the Lord’s indirectness. One might well respond to this story moralistically and say that the person who found the treasure in the field, reburied it and bought the field acted dishonestly. The treasure should have been reported to the owner of the field, not concealed until after the finder of the treasure could purchase the land, thus securing the treasure for himself. However, Jesus is not teaching here about honesty. It is not uncommon for his parables to feature characters who act in what we might see as slightly shady ways. Jesus sometimes used worldly stories to further open the eyes of those who could see, revealing to them the often-surprising ways God works in the world. Hence, the focus of this parable is on the realization of the value of the treasure - it is worth everything the finder owns and even more! The transaction in the second parable is more straightforward, but the point is much the same.

Two weeks ago, the discourse we are still reading (the third of 5 discourses in Matthew) began with Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching the crowds. In this discourse Jesus is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, but also as wisdom made flesh- divine, transcendent Wisdom engaging human limitation. The actions and words of Jesus are our practical, if often paradoxical, guidance for everyday life. Reading scripture daily, especially from the Gospels, is an indispensable way that we sit and learn at the feet of our Lord. Like the knowledge written about by St Paul in our reading from Romans, only those with ears to hear and eyes to see benefit from divine Wisdom. In other words, only those who are open to letting themselves be challenged and changed can see and hear. This excludes those who read and listen only to confirm what they think they already know- who hear only what they want to hear and only see what they want to see.

Linking wisdom to the knowledge “that all things work for good for those who love God,” it is safe to say of the lives of the saints and of our own lives that God is not so concerned about what happens to us as he is with how we respond. Indeed, do we have the wisdom to affirm with St Paul, who, later in this same chapter of Romans, wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered?’” “No!” Paul emphatically continues, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:35-37). Such is the value of knowing Jesus Christ that knowing him is worth all we have in order to become all God created, redeemed us, and is now sanctifying us to be; without Christ, all we have amounts to nothing. As the title of popular Christian book written a few years ago by a now disgraced Evangelical pastor put it: Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The war I must wage: destroying a piece of my own heart

The way I live, think, and write it would be a fool's errand for me to try to keep up with with all the political ups and downs of our present moment. Over time, I hope I am becoming less political. This is not a way of obliquely insisting that politics don't matter, they do, but not as much as I formerly thought. Because politics are provisional, seeking to be less political is my attempt at keeping politics in perspective. I am not a Republican, neither am I a Democrat. Given how these are understood in the United States, I can say that I am neither a liberal nor a conservative because, depending on the matter at hand, I am both a liberal and a conservative. Above all, I resist being in the thrall of any ideology.

I readily admit to finding the White House events from the Friday before last through yesterday to be both amusing and alarming. Maybe my interest is simply morbid curiosity, or is perhaps attributal to the ever-present sights and sounds of infotainment. In times like these there are a few working journalists whose writing helps me keep these provisional, even ephemeral, things in perspective. One such journalist is Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. His article "The Anthony Scaramucci Era Will Be Freakish, Embarrassing and All Too Short" did not let me down in this regard. While it should go without saying (in the age of internet basic logic seems to fly out the window and some people insist on making invalid inferences, the popular name for which is jumping to conclusions), I have some pretty fundamental disagreements with Taibbi even as I find much of his work on what ails our republic politically and economically very insightful. In other words, as with many writers, philosophers, theologians, and economists, I find his diagnosis largely accurate, but part ways with him when it comes to many, by no means all, prescriptions.

It is way too easy to just provide a list of things that are wrong and walk away in disgust. It seems to me that this is just what many Christians content themselves with doing. It isn't much more difficult to follow one's list of ills with a plea to turn back the clock, which amounts to trying to reverse the world like Superman. The idea is to somehow restore what is deemed as a better time in the Church and in the world. Neither does the answer lie in Christians abandoning the world. A priest named Jonathan Morris summed this up nicely on Facebook recently: "Engaging the world, in all its messiness, has always been the Gospel way. Isolating ourselves in a cocoon of likemindedness is the easy way out."

In his speech to open the Second Vatican Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia ("Mother Church Rejoices"), the eminent historian, Angelo Roncalli, more popularly known as Pope St John XXIII, directly addressed those who see nothing but evil and who prefer trying to live in the past:
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church
A Christian is not one who stands looking wistfully behind the plow, but is someone who not only looks ahead to the full realization of God's glory, which is yet to be fully revealed, and who actively seeks to usher in God's reign by living it as a present reality. A Christian, to paraphrase the liturgy, is one who waits in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. I think the two words in that statement that require emphasis are "joyful" and "waits" in that order. Either Jesus is Lord of the present moment (i.e., he is Lord right here and right now), or he is not Lord at all.

This brings me to the point I want to make. Being a Christian is not to participate in some fantasy role-playing game, killing time 'til the parousia. Being a Christian is to be one who engages reality as it is and not as s/he might want it to be and to do so according to all the factors that together make reality what it is and not something else.

When it comes to those so-called "hot-button" social issues that challenge our humanity on a fundamental level, about which many Christians in the U.S. are rightly concerned, issues such as sexuality, marriage, parenting, life and death, we need to grasp the reality so we can engage as salt and light. Let me take two issues: marriage and abortion. In the United States these matters are now constitutional matters. In other words, they cannot be changed by the collective acts of Congress and the president, let alone by state legislatures and governors. The longer the decisions that made them constitutional issues endure, the more they become settled law and the less likely it is the Supreme Court will overrule them no matter who is appointed to the court. Like it or not, this is the reality we must face full on. Is it possible to amend our constitution? Sure. It's fine to advocate for such amendments. However, there is nowhere near the consensus to make such changes to our fundamental law. In fact, when it comes to consensus-building, the momentum currently goes against such efforts. This, too, is part of the reality we must engage.

Politics cannot save us, but I am convinced politics can damn us. For Christians how we engage our society and culture matter as much, if not more, than those matters that prompt us to engage. It seems to me that when we quote Jesus from Matthew's Gospel (10:16) to the effect that, as sheep sent among wolves, we are to be "shrewd as serpents and simple as doves," we usually, if implicitly, elevate shrewdness over simplicity, or gentleness. The effect of acting according to this implicit understanding is that it usually leads to something like becoming wolves in sheep's clothing: saying all the right "Christian" things while acting contrary to the Gospel.

"God Carrying Us," by Soichi Watanabe, based on Isaiah 46:4


I am tempted to pose the question here, "Given our acknowledgement of reality, do we surrender?" The problem I have with posing that question is it assumes that the Church's and, hence, the individual Christian's, relationship to the world and to other people is one of incessant combat. In other words, it assumes life is a war and the Church is an army. If we take that stance, we are forced to decide if someone is an ally or an enemy. If an enemy, then someone not only to be resisted, but to be vanquished, routed, beaten. In my view, this is no way to follow Christ. I say that being well-aware that martial imagery for the Church is not foreign to the Christian tradition. It is foreign, it seems to me, to the New Testament. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, gave us to two complementary images for the Church on earth, which, during the Counter-Reformation era, an era ended by the Second Vatican Council, was called the Church Militant: "the People of God" and "the pilgrim Church."

As a Christian the only battle I really need to fight is the one within myself. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in his book The Gulag Archipelago:
the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
In what is still the road map for evangelization in the modern world, Evangelii Nuntiandi, promulgated by Bl Pope Paul VI more than 40 years ago, he observed:
for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word.[1 Pet 3:1] It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity (par 41)
I think anything less what Pope Paul called for will prove futile. Besides, isn't it so much easier to reduce faith by conforming it to a secular political ideology and then engaging in political activism than to give humble, joyful witness to goodness, truth, and beauty for love of God and neighbor, by how I live day-to-day?

Practicing the fundamental spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, the latter of which primarily consists of selfless service to others, along with our participation in the sacramental life of the Church, are the means God gives us both to fight our interior battle and to engage the world in love as it is and not as we wish it was.
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith (1 John 5:3-4)
Again, I had the best of intentions with regard to posting a traditio yesterday, but I did not do so. This only serves to prove, as I so often do, that intentions in and of themselves get you nowhere. So, our late traditio for this week is two Camaldolese monks who belong to the Hermitage of the Immaculate Heart in Big Sur, California- Fr. Cyprian and Brother James- with a simple and lovely rendition of one of my favorite hymns, Tantum Ergo:

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wheat, tares, yeast and the greatness of God

Readings: Wis 12:13.16-19; Ps 86:5-6.9-10.15-16; Rom 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-43

In going over the readings for this Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I was immediately struck by the first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom. Why? Because while the sacred author acknowledges God's greatness and might, he sees it revealed in God's leniency, clemency, and, yes, kindness. God is great because God is merciful, or, taking a cue from the title of Pope Francis' book, God is mercy. God is what God does. With God there can be no separation between act and being. In human, if perhaps Heideggerian, terms we call there being no separation or contradiction between act and being authenticity.

To be sure, God judges justly. Whenever God condemns he does so justly. But God's greatness, it seems to me, lies in his reluctance and even refusal to condemn. God's mercy, his kindness, is expected of God's people, those who believe in God, revere God, and seek to follow his Son: "And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just [i.e., righteous] must be kind" (Wis 12:19). Being truly just, or righteous, requires a person to be kind. Not long ago I read that Jesus was only ever harsh with those who were harsh with others. While I have not undertaken a quantitative analysis of the Lord's interactions as set forth in the canonical Gospels, but this strikes me as true. It seems to be in accord with what Jesus taught as conveyed in St Matthew's Gospel:
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? (Matt 7:1-3)
If Christ, who has no motes or beams, is clement and lenient and if Christ is himself the kindness and mercy of God, then how much more should we who have motes and beams be clement and lenient, kind and forgiving?

I was also struck by the sacred author of Wisdom's insistence that God shows his "might when the perfection of [his] power is disbelieved" (Wis 12:17). Jesus crucified is the ultimate showing of God's might and Christ's resurrection is the perfection of divine power because these are the means by which God exercises clemency and leniency, kindness and forgiveness. These can be summed up in one word: glory. As the apostle wrote to the Church in ancient Corinth:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:22-25)
I think this why, as St Paul wrote in our second reading, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). We do not know how to pray as we ought because too often we do not pray to God, but to our own reduction, to who we think and would like God to be. Blessed be God for coming to our aid and interceding for us with "inexpressible groanings," which, I think, represent true prayer. Note that the apostles says of the one "who searches hearts"- he "knows what is the intention of the Spirit" in order to intercede for us in accord with God's will, not our own. This is the path to authenticity, to wholeness, to holiness.



Rather than trying to impose ourselves on God through prayer, we need allow ourselves to be formed by the Spirit through prayer. Stated more simply, we must learn to pray as we ought because doing so is crucial to living this way. What way? In the manner of Christian disciples, those odd people who live as if God's reign were already completely established, doing things like forgiving, loving, serving, and praying for our enemies, returning good for evil, caring for the widow, the orphan, the abandoned elderly person, the addict, etc. All those things that are easy to say but hard to bring ourselves to do. In other words, we are to be just and kind, like God. This is how we reflect the glory of God, how we demonstrate that the Church has, indeed, been infused with and continues to be animated by the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

Our Gospel reading today is a nice corollary to the pericope I shared about not judging others harshly so as to condemn them. Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares bids us not to worry about who is "really" a Christian and who might not be. This judgment is reserved to God alone. In the meantime, we act in good faith towards others trusting in their good faith. This may sound trite, but I daily see, especially on social media, Christians questioning the faith of other Christians as if faith could be reduced to a well-studied orthodoxy, or even worse, perfect praxis that is properly called moralism, which brings us back to the motes and beams issue.

Instead of wasting time pronouncing divine judgment on others, we are to be the good kind of yeast, as opposed to the yeast/leaven of the Pharisees (see Matt 16:5-12). Jesus' likening of the kingdom of heaven to the effect a very small amount of yeast has within a comparatively large batch of dough serves as something like the antidote to our all-too-human tendency to attempt to sort the wheat from the tares (I am always to be found among the wheat, of course). There is an obvious parallel here with how we go about evangelization, catechesis, and living out Christian koinonia in our late modern milieu. Jesus uses the mustard seed, too, to demonstrate that God's kingdom begins very small and then grows by the faith of those who make the word incarnate in their lives.

Together wheat and yeast make bread. In light of the recent instruction from the Holy See's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which reaffirmed what constitutes proper matter for the confection of the Eucharist in the Roman Rite (i.e., bread that is "unleavened, purely of wheat, and recently made so that there is no danger of decomposition made of only wheat and water" and wine that "must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances" par 3a and 3b), it does not strike me as too audacious, or very original, to point out that we are to be the yeast in just the sense Jesus tells us we are to be in today's Gospel.

Homosexuality, Church teaching, and the pastoral conundrum

There are a number of recent books about the Catholic Church and homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and transgenderism, what is frequently denoted as LBGT. I think it is a mistake to lump trangenderism in with homosexuality. Earlier this year Commonweal magazine featured an insightful piece: "The Church & Transgender Identity Some Cautions, Some Possibilities," which is well worth the time of anyone who is interested in this complex issue.

Yesterday, in the Catholic Herald, I read a review of two recent books on homosexuality, Fr. James Martin's Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity and Daniel C. Mattson's Why I Don't Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexuality. These were reviewed together by Msgr Keith Barltrop in a piece entitled "These two books on gay Catholics are a missed opportunity." It is good that he paired these books because each presents a very different Catholic view on homosexuality that highlight well the tensions in the Church right now. As the late liturgical scholar Mark Searle noted, "Tension creates energy."

Image from Catholic Herald article

Msgr Barltrop's review is very thoughtful. His qualification to write on these matters is his years spent ministering in London to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender Catholics. As someone who has been privileged to serve some of my LGB sisters and brothers, street cred matters. Coming at the issue exclusively by way of various media "takes" is worse than useless. Ideology has no place in pastoral ministry.

One insight I found very useful in Barltrop's reviews arises from the very objective teaching of the Church on the matter of homosexuality, something Fr Martin quite glaringly omits from his book:
if we believe there is truth in the Church's teaching, however imperfectly it may be currently expressed, then surely one way forward is to offer LGBT people, if they will not accept this teaching on its own authority, some tools to make an authentic discernment of their personal experiences of sex and erotic attraction Among such tools a sound moral theology and a spiritual discipline are paramount
Msgr Barltrop goes on to point out that Catholic pastoral ministers have great resources at our disposal: the work of St Igantius of Loyola on spiritual discernment, MacIntyre-inspired virtue ethics, as well as the work of Dominican moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, perhaps most accessible to pastoral ministers in his book Morality: The Catholic View. In his work, Fr Pinckaers focuses on what it means to seek true happiness. But these only work, Msgr Barltrop notes, "if a person puts a developing relationship with Jesus at the very center of his or her life and judges every moral decision by the way it deepens or threatens that relationship."

One of the things that verifies this approach is that it is not exclusive to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians. It is simply sound pastoral practice.

"Back on the Chaingang"- being dogged in the dog daze

I had every intention of posting a Friday traditio yesterday. I guess this will have to count as a belated one. As I stated the matter on Facebook earlier this week: "Currently being dogged by the black dog in the dog daze, prayers appreciated." I don't mind saying that late summer and late winter are the two worst times of year for me in this regard.



One afternoon while driving home from work I heard The Pretenders's song "Back on the Chain Gang" on the radio. It resonated a bit. As a result, it is our traditio this week. I like this live version featuring the steel geetar:



A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Year A Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 55:10-11; Ps 65:10-14; Rom 8:18-23; Matt 13:1-23

In theological terms, a mystery is not something unknown and about which we can know little or nothing. Rather, in the realm of faith, a mystery is something we know because God has revealed it. This is important because of the question Jesus was asked by his disciples after telling the “large crowds” the Parable of the Sower: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” The Lord did not reply by saying, “I teach them in parables in order that they will better understand my message.” No! He says the opposite. He teaches them in parables so that his meaning is harder to for them to grasp.

Despite our understandable tendency to oversimplify Jesus’ parables, it would be foolish to assert his parables always served to make his teaching less clear. In context, the Parable of the Sower in Matthew’s Gospel has to do with Jesus distancing himself more and more from those Jews who refused to see that he is the one who fulfills the purpose for which they were chosen. It is safe to assume that the author of Matthew conceived of the large crowds as exclusively Jewish. In other words, these are the people who should’ve looked and seen; who should have heard and understood, but they did not. Only the small band of disciples, who were themselves Jews (Matthew is a Jewish Gospel written for a mostly Jewish Christian community), heard and understood, looked and saw. Contrary to the paintings we often see, which depict Jesus with a golden halo or surrounded by an aura of light, it was not intuitively obvious to the casual observer during his public ministry that he was the Son of God in the flesh.

In our first reading from Isaiah, taken from a section of the book designated Deutero, or Second Isaiah, written during the Babylonian exile, we heard that God’s word accomplishes what God wants to achieve by speaking it. While this may sound like a trite bit of wisdom to us, such an assertion would’ve seemed dubious to many of the Jews to whom it was originally proclaimed. Why? Because they were exiles in Babylon, displaced from the land God promised them. No doubt to many of these exiles God’s purposes seemed to be frustrated, if not thwarted, by Israel’s conquest. In addition to taking much of the population of Judah into exile, the Babylonians also destroyed the first Temple, an event from which ancient Judaism never recovered.

Of course, what God set out to accomplish is accomplished in and through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. As with Israel’s exiles and his Son’s Incarnation, God’s purposes are accomplished in mysterious ways. By “mysterious,” I mean counter-intuitive and usually contrary to our preconceptions. God does not use the means of worldly power to accomplish his purposes. It is often the case that we hear and don’t understand, look and don’t see because we don’t hear and see what we expect or want. We are disheartened when God does not carry out our plans. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but God, as we the cliché has it, writes straight with crooked lines.

Our wanting to dictate to God both ends and means is not only true with regard to how God works in the world, but is especially true when it comes to how God works in our own lives. What today’s readings ask us to do is to examine our own hearts with respect to God’s word and ask ourselves, what kind of soil am I?



Looking at the four kinds of soil onto which the seed is sown, I want to focus on the second and third kinds because I believe these are most relevant to us. Too often we are content with an infantile faith. This is a faith that holds God is pleased with me when things in life are going my way. Conversely, this kind of immature faith also holds that when the going in life gets tough it is the result of God being displeased with me. Sooner or later someone who believes this will either mature in faith, which means realizing that God’s disposition towards her never changes, or, as is the case in the Parable of the Sower, lose faith altogether. We can be confident, to quote St Paul, “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). How can you know you are called according to God’s purpose? This is the call you received when you were baptized. God is faithful because God is love.

We can also become too wrapped up in things that can never satisfy us, spending all of time and energy trying to get ahead, taking one more vacation, purchasing one more luxury, etc. Living like this often creates heavy burdens, like debt, fatigue, the gradual disappointment of the law of diminishing returns, which refers to the point at which the level of satisfaction you derive from something is less than the amount of money, time, and energy you invest in it. This often leads to those afflictions so common to late modern life in Western societies: stress, anxiety, depression, even existential despair, which is life-threatening. Too often we refuse the invitation Jesus issued in last week’s Gospel, to find our rest in him. As with tribulations and persecutions, being overly concerned about or wrapped up in maintaining one’s own material well-being can cause someone who has heard and responded to “the word of the kingdom’ to fall away.

What leads to strong, well-rooted, well-nourished faith, or, stated differently, happiness and fulfillment? I think our second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans goes some distance towards answering this question. It is by experiencing life’s trials and tribulations, which the apostle likens to a woman experiencing labor pains. Experience is how we verify that what we believe is true. What Paul is pointing to in this passage is our rebirth in baptism. Baptism is our passage from the already to the not yet of God’s kingdom because it restores us to the state of original grace, which is characterized by communion. Therefore, Christians are people who strive to live the not yet of God’s reign, which will be fully established when Christ returns.

An effective way to test the soil of your soul is by meditating on the central paradox of being a Christian, of what it means to be someone who hears and understands, who looks and sees. In St Matthew’s Gospel, this is found a few chapters on from today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus tells us:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Making an important point in an unconvincing way

I am back after a month away from posting regularly. Sometimes it is important to let my mind lie a bit fallow. Perhaps I invest too much of myself when I post. By the end of May, while rewarding, blogging was starting to feel like hard work. Since it is something I do because I find value in doing, it is important that I enjoy it and want to do it. One thing about being an independent blogger, whenever you take an extended break you almost have to start all over in terms drawing readers. Another thing about being an independent blogger, I don't financially profit from my efforts and so building readership is not paramount. Nonetheless, I certainly hope some people find what I humbly offer worth reading.

Cutting to the chase, this week an Italian Jesuit publication, La Civiltà Cattolica, published an opinion piece that has stirred up a lot of controversy in the United States: "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism" (at the time of this writing the magazine's website is inaccessible). La Civiltà Cattolica is unique among Catholic periodicals in that the contents of each issue are vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State. This relationship means the magazine enjoys something of a quasi-official status. This relationship is nothing new, it has been published this way for a long time. The article in question was co-authored by Fr Antonio Spadaro, S.J., who serves as editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Presbyterian minister Rev Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentinian who is editor of the Argentinian edition of the Vatican's newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Predictably, the article has come under fire from some of those who feel they were subjects of the article's rather pointed critique. I don't want to wade too deeply into matters that are beyond my competency, but having read two critiques of the La Civiltà Cattolica piece ("On that strange, disturbing, and anti-American "Civiltà Cattolica" article" and "Antonio Spadaro has discovered a brand of Protestantism he doesn’t like", the latter of which is not adequate to the task it undertakes) along with numerous social media criticisms, I think the central thesis of Spadoro's and Figueroa's piece was lost.

Before coming to the thesis of the article, I want to explain why I think it was lost. How one arrives at a conclusion matters. The more precise the argument the more convincing the conclusion. What was offered in the article as the explanation of the brand of U.S. politics at which the authors took aim maintained a cruising altitude of 50,000'. In other words, it was too general and not nearly nuanced enough in its consideration of the relationship between Christianity and politics in the United States over roughly the last century. In my view and that of some more expert that me, Spadoro and Figueroa did not provide a credible exposition of the historical dynamics that have led to so many Catholics adopting what they see as an un-, perhaps even anti-, Catholic the political stance. Hence, their "take" is subject both to criticism and correction.

However deficient Spadoro's and Figueroa's historical explanation might be, when it comes to describing the current state-of-affairs, specifically how many Catholics came not only to vote for but enthusiastically support Donald Trump and his political agenda, which offends against Catholic social teaching on many matters (this is the case with both major political parties in the U.S., which is why I belong to neither), I think they do so quite accurately. I don't think their oversimplified history negates their main point, which is to set forth something that is at the heart of the Franciscan papacy, which is truly post-secular:

Pope Francis, a post-secular Pontiff
The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the 'final clash.' Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need
It seems to me that many Catholics in the U.S. today try to draw parallels between the Church's current situation and that of the Church's first 3+ centuries. For sure, there are parallels to be drawn, but the situations, on close examination, are quite different. For one thing, the early Church did not have the burden of centuries of Christendom to bear. The Christian message is often crushed by this weight.

One thing I think everyone agrees on is that Christianity no longer enjoys the cultural and political hegemony it once enjoyed in Western nations. Such influence wanes more all the time and shows no signs of waxing. Nonetheless (and this may be disappointing to some), I don't believe we're in imminent danger of full-out persecution in the West. People are simply more indifferent towards and suspicious of religion in general and Christianity in particular. If we're honest we must acknowledge that, along with the bad reasons, there are a some good ones. This indifference and suspicion will cause us some problems; it already has.

Right in tune with Pope Francis, in fact preceding him, is the work of the Czech priest, psychologist, philosopher Tomáš Halík, who insists the Church needs to go through the purification of secularization. In other words, we must grow accustomed to what Havel called the power of the powerless. In my view, for Christians today this is the power of joyful witness to God's mercy given in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Stayed tuned to Καθολικός διάκονος; tomorrow my homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.