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Thoughts on vocations V: one story

April 12, 2015

In my local paper this morning I found an interesting profile of a local seminarian which I wanted to share.  This complements my earlier posts on vocations, which can be found here, here, here and here.  Michael Bovino is 25 and in his first year of seminary studies at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary.  He is a candidate for the Diocese of Norwich, CT.  If he is ordained, he will be the 19th vocation from his parish in its 150 year history.  (Referring back to my original post , this works out to about one every eight years.)   He attended a public high school (Stonington) and then a public university (UConn).  If he was an altar server it is not mentioned in his profile and did not play an obvious role in his vocation.

His vocation discernment came in two parts:  first in a deepening of his faith, and then in a call (or possible call, as he is not completely sure that he has a vocation): Read more…

When We Crucify Our Lord

April 3, 2015

Two years ago the community choir I sing with in Toronto put on a concert devoted entirely to music by African-American and African-Canadian choral composers. We performed a lot of great music in that concert, much of it drawing on the tradition of African-American spirituals. For me, the most powerful piece was “Crucifixion” by Adolphus Hailstork. The refrain is powerful: “They crucified my Lord / And he never said a mumbling word…They pierced him in the side / They nailed him to a tree / And he never said a mumbling word.”

However, as soon as we began rehearsing the piece, murmurs of discomfort could be heard throughout the choir. A newcomer to Univox, I soon learned that a good percentage of our choristers are Jewish, and some of them felt uncomfortable with these words. At some point in their lives, most of them had encountered the inane accusation that “the Jews killed Jesus,” a charge that has been used to justify anti-Semitism for centuries. I learned that for some Jews, Christian Holy Week and Easter are a source of regular discomfort and dread. A serious conversation ensued about the damages wrought by our human propensity to speak in the rhetoric of “us” and “them.” After some deliberation, our director opted to alter the words of the song; the phrase “they crucified my Lord,” was rewritten as “was crucified my Lord.”

I applaud our director for making this decision. However, on this Good Friday two years later, I am thinking that from a Christian perspective, there might be an even better revision to this phrase. “We crucified our Lord” would be much more apt. There is a reason why, when we hear the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, the congregation takes on the role of the crowd. Ultimately, we are the crowd. We are the high priests and the Pharisees; we are Pontius Pilate; we are the confused, erratic public who, just a few days after welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, passively take in the spectacle of his crucifixion.

If I view history from a Christian perspective, I believe that we were crucifying Jesus for millennia before that fateful Friday afternoon, ever since we first learned to fashion weapons and turn against one another in malice and violence. Unfortunately, we have continued to crucify him for two millennia since he willingly offered his life for us. In the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Middle Passage and the Holocaust and the Dirty War – we continue to crucify our Lord, again and again. Every day, Christ’s Passion is played out in our ongoing exploitation of those weaker than us – whether other human beings, the animals whom we feel justified in harming for our own convenience, and also the non-sentient living things exploited as mere resources for our ongoing project of “development” which effectively entails destruction of the natural world. But as we look at all of this cruelty and destruction, I fear there is no “they” we can point our fingers at – whether government, big business, terrorists or anyone else. Sadly, we are all implicated in the evils plaguing our world.

However, we know that there is another side to the Good Friday story. Listening to the Passion, we hear of those who stood passively as Jesus was crucified; we cannot forget the disciples, who ran away in fear. But, there was also Simon who helped him carry his cross; there were the women of Jerusalem who wept for him; there was Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his own tomb of Jesus’ burial. We are presented with the apostle John, who stood by Jesus to the end, and of course the Blessed Mother Mary, who bravely endured one of the worst experiences any parent ever has to face – the death of a child. Then, there were all of those people who remembered the promise that Jesus had made – to rebuild the temple in three days. Though filled with fear, those closest to Jesus surely did not forget those words. They looked to the future with faith, knowing that while evil is real, goodness ultimately triumphs.

As we commemmorate Christ’s Passion year after year, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is an ongoing, continuously unfolding story. I’ve often struggled to imagine the agony that Jesus experienced while praying in the garden of Gethsemane. He knew what he was being called to do – to assume the weight of human sinfulness, to sacrifice his life for our salvation. Could he have imagined the ongoing depth of that sinfulness? Could he possibly have envisioned the machine gun and the atomic bomb, the abortion clinic and the factory farm? Did he know what terrible things we would do to the world, sometimes in his very name?

In spite of everything, we Christians profess the Resurrection, the ultimate triumph of mercy and love over cruelty and callousness. We know that we are sinners; we know that, time and again, we will crucify our Lord. But, as people of faith and hope, we know that we are more than spectators of violence; we are more than a fickle crowd. We refuse to believe that there is no escape from this cycle of destruction, for we hold a view of salvation history that envisions Christ’s triumphal return, that fateful moment when peace, justice and love will truly prevail. As we look forward to Easter, may we do all we can to be Simon and Mary rather than the high priests or Pontius Pilate; may we never turn from the endless mercy of Jesus who, every good Friday, reminds us in the most dramatic way of his great love.

Companions on the Journey: Eid, Pray, Love

April 2, 2015

Over the past month and a half, Christians all over the world have been on a pilgrimage. Lent is a time of prayer and contemplation, fasting and charity, a time of striving to grow in our faith and closeness to Christ. I only just now learned that as we’ve been on this journey, we’ve been accompanied by some of our Muslim brothers and sisters. It’s amazing to know that we are not alone:

 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32094307

As we accompany Christ through his Last Supper, his horrendous night in Gethsemane and his Passion, may we remember that this journey is shared by many throughout the world.

I wish you all a blessed Triduum.

Pope Francis and the Traditionalists

April 1, 2015

During his two years as pope,  Francis has had a rocky relationship with Catholic traditionalists, both those in full communion with Rome and those who have broken away, such as the Society of St. Pius X.   The traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli continues to bemoan his dismissive attitude towards the Latin mass, and the glimmers of rapproachment with the SSPX during the pontificate of Benedict XVI have faded.  However, today Pope Francis has, with one of his now famous off-hand remarks, created a potentially new situation.

During his homily at his daily mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis departed from his written notes on today’s readings.  While commenting on the first reading, Isaiah 50:4-9, Pope Francis paused and then remarked,

To set your face like flint is a difficult act, but something you must do when your conscience binds you and directs your actions.  Bishop Williamson and newly ordained Bishop Faure have done exactly this.  They have not shielded themselves from buffets and spitting, or even from the excommunication that falls upon them for their schismatic act.  I extend my congratulations to Bishop Faure on his consecration, and I look forward to meeting with him in a spirit of brotherhood and reconciliation.

As is often the case when Pope Francis speaks spontaneously, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi appeared uncertain at first when asked by journalists to clarify what the pope meant.  However, his office later released the following statement from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State:

The decree of latae sententiae excommunication against Bishop Williamson and Fr. Faure remains in effect and the comments by Pope Francis today in his daily reflection were not intended to abrogate this penalty, which they both automatically occurred on 19 March, 2015, for Fr. Faure’s illicit ordination as a bishop.  His Holy Father’s remarks were solely intended to illustrate the nature of Christian discipleship during this holy season as we remember the trials and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ.   Moreover, while this penalty is necessary to preserve Church discipline, Pope Francis does not want to let it become an insurmountable barrier to good relations with Bishop Williamson or with the Society of St. Pius X. 

Though cautious, many traditionalist Catholics are hopeful that this marks a new beginning in their relationship with Pope Francis.  Fr. Z, despite his opposition to the ordination, spoke approvingly of Pope Francis and called for prayers for Bishop Williamson.  (In reading his blog, you need to go through several paragraphs of Fr. Z’s acerbic red ink commentary to find out how he feels.)  Furthermore, conservative Vaticanista Sandro Magister, who has previously faulted Pope Francis for his treatment of traditionalists, is said to be reporting rumors that after the mass, when a prelate from the Congregation for Bishops pressed the pope to say more, the Pope shrugged and said,

Regarding Bishop Williamson and Bishop Faure, who am I to judge?

Surprisingly, neither John Allen at Crux nor the National Catholic Reporter have commented on this story.  I am particularly hopeful that John Allen, with his extensive personal contacts at the Vatican, will be able to confirm or deny this rumor.

Personally, I have found Pope Francis’ previous comments and actions involving various traditionalists, such as the appointment of Cardinal Burke to oversee the Knights of Malta, to be a useful corrective.  Therefore, I am not sure what to make of these latest reports.  I know that we have many traditionalists of various kinds among our loyal readership, so as we start the month of April and reach the midpoint of Holy Week, Spy Wednesday, I hope that they will share their understanding of these latest comments and their hopes for the future.

On hearing the passion three times

March 30, 2015

This past weekend I had the opportunity to hear the Passion read three different times.  My pastor was in a car accident a couple weeks ago and is laid up for Holy Week.  (Please remember him, Fr. Metzler, in your prayers.)  Since I served as his master of ceremonies for the last Triduum, he asked me to expand my duties and serve at each of the Palm Sunday liturgies as well.  (Pretty easy, since except for the opening rite it is pretty much a standard mass.  But it helps me, the deacons and the altar servers get in sync.  It is kind of like opening in Peoria before taking it to Broadway.)

Because of this, I heard the passion read on Saturday night and twice on Sunday.  I was not sure what to expect, but I sort of assumed that I would sit quietly and half hear it the second two times.  But instead, I was quite surprised when each time I listened to it, something new and different lept out at me.   None of my thoughts were deep or profound:  I share them to illustrate the richness of the text, and to ask you to share what particularly struck you this Sunday as you listened to the passion.

Read more…

Book Review: The Cross as our Banner and Our Joy

March 28, 2015

Open Mind, Faithful Heart
By Pope Francis
Translated by Joseph V. Owens, SJ
Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013

There’s a hymn that is popular in Latin America. It’s called “Viva Cristo Rey” (Long Live Christ the King). The first time I heard it while living and working in Nicaragua eight years ago, I was taken aback by its martial lyrics:

Un grito de guerra se escucha en la faz de la tierra y en todo lugar.
Los prestos guerreros empuñan su espada y se alistan para pelear.
Para eso han sido entrenados. Defenderán la Verdad.
Y no les será arrebatado ¡el fuego que en su sangre está!

(A war cry rings out all over the face of the earth.
The eager warriors grip their swords, ready to fight.
For this they have been trained. They will fight for the truth.
And no one will rob them of the fire that burns in their blood!)

As an aspiring peace activist, I am often concerned about the warlike sentiment that permeates our language. When hearing of the fight against cancer to the war on drugs, I worry about our tendencies to use metaphors related to violence and bloodshed.

And yet, I cannot deny that this aggressive fighting spirit is an integral part of our human nature and is not necessarily negative in all cases. It is arguably the source of the determination and resilience we need to survive and thrive in this world. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Oscar Romero may have been peacemakers, but they were also fighters: they strove with tireless drive and focus to create a more just world. As Catholic Christians, we are called to be just as steadfast, to be warriors in living our faith. This call to battle is the central spirit of Pope Francis’ wonderful book of meditations, Open Mind, Faithful Heart, where he urges his audience to be strong when faced with pessimism or despair:

A most serious temptation, one that impedes our contact with the Lord, is defeatism. When the enemy comes up against a faith that is by definition militant, he takes on the semblance of an angel of light and begins to sow seeds of pessimism. To engage effectively in any struggle, one must be fully confident of victory. Those who begin a struggle without robust confidence have already lost half the battle. Christian victory always involves a cross, but a cross that is the banner of victory […] Those faces of the humble folk with their simple piety are always faces of triumph, but they are also almost always accompanied by the cross. In contrast, the faces of the arrogant are always the faces of defeat (26).

Anyone who views Pope Francis as calling for a watered-down or unrigorous version of Catholicism should read this book. Staunchly resolute, Francis declares that “Our preaching will be authentic only if it derives from our being with Christ on the cross” (59) and “With the cross it is impossible to negotiate, impossible to dialogue: the cross is either embraced or rejected […] If we embrace the cross, then by that very decision we lose our life; we leave it in the hands of God, in the time of God, and it will be given back to us in a different form” (73). This is a tough message, but ultimately one that is central to the Gospel itself. And this, for me, is the greatest strength of Francis’ writing: his fluidity and astuteness when speaking of – and meditating on – the Bible.

Drawing on the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, Open Mind, Faithful Heart consists of forty-eight brief meditations divided into four sections: “Encountering Jesus,” which speaks of a personal relationship with Christ; “Manifestations of Light,” which responds to the idea of salvation history; “The Letters to the Seven Churches,” meditations on the seven churches in the Book of Revelation; and “Human Prayer,” which responds to the prayers of such central Biblical figures as Abraham, David, Job, Judith, Simeon and others. Although these reflections were originally written in different contexts and in different stages of Pope Francis’ career as a priest and pastoral leader, they fit together seamlessly into a coherent whole. Though primarily directed toward priests, they are relevant to all Christians seeking to grow in our relationship with Jesus as well as non-Christians seeking to gain a sense of what our faith is about.

It is impossible for me to give you a clear, concise summary of the points that Francis makes in this volume, for the book’s structure renders any such summary impossible. This is not a treatise on theology, but rather a book of devotional meditations on the challenge of the Christian life. Indeed, Francis expresses a certain wariness of intellectualism. “God did not create human intellect so that we could set ourselves up as the judges of all things,” he says. “Our intellect is not the light of the world; it is simply a flash for illuminating our faith” (28). Similarly, he urges us not to be afraid to say “I don’t know:” “Leading God’s faithful people sometimes requires us to forgo the urgency of answers and to remember that silence is often the best response of the wise”(85).

As I have stated, the greatest strength of this book in my view is its Scriptural focus. Drawing on both the Old and New Testaments, Francis makes the Bible come alive in a way that even the best homilists struggle to achieve. In a chapter entitled “The Vision of the Wedding Feast,” for example, Francis examines the wedding – a motif that recurs throughout both testaments of the Bible – as a metaphor for God’s ongoing, unfolding relationship with his people: “Before Christ there is the time of waiting, the betrothal; the earthly presence of the Messiah represents the time of the wedding; then there is the time of separation, or widowhood; and finally there is the time of moving toward the consummation, the expectation of the final, eschatalogical wedding” (146). Francis views the wedding with its various stages as a most apt metaphor for salvation history, an ongoing cosmic drama in which we are all called to take part.

Similarly fascinating is the meditation on the Book of Revelation, which Francis argues is not a story of the end of the world, but rather a book of consolation. Citing the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Francis states that divine consolation does not take the form of counsel, but images and symbols that must be interpreted. For Francis, it is imperative that all of us draw joy and meaning from the symbols in Revelation; however, he sees this process as particularly important for priests engaged in pastoral work:

As we behold this Lord and allow his message to emerge for us out of that tension between images and words, let us ask ourselves about the joy we feel in ministry, about our zeal, our sadness, our worries. As symbol, the figure of the Lord makes us holy; as word, he draws close and humanizes us. Let us ask about the ways we sanctify ourselves. With what attitude do we pardon sins? How do we draw close to people in their everyday lives? Does a special love inspire all our gestures? The Lord does away with all the old ritual mechanisms and makes sacred only love, revealed as a quiet word and a gesture of solidarity in the command, “Fear not.” All sadness in ministry, all fatigue, all drying up of the fountains of fervor result from losing contact with this living Lord (172).

From here, Francis goes on to unlock the symbolism of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation. The Church of Smyrna has become fatigued and bitter; Ephesus has lost the zeal of its first love; Laodicea has become “lite” and lukewarm. Francis traces God’s call to each of these churches to return to its original strength and devotion, and in doing so he extends this call to the global church of today’s world.

One drawback of Francis’ book, in my view, is its tendency to speak in abstractions. While there is much meditation on joy, hope, grace, sin, fear, prayer and salvation, there are few examples of the ways that these phenomena actually take form in our lives. But perhaps this perceived weakness is actually a strength. It is clear that Francis originally intended these meditations to be shared with fellow priests, and when he does bring in concrete examples, they usually relate to pastoral care. By speaking more abstractly, Francis has written a series of reflections that a much wider audience can relate to – not only the Catholic laity, but also non-Catholic Christians looking for a fresh meditation on Scripture or perhaps even non-Christians who are curious to learn about our faith from the perspective of its most prominent earthly leader.

Ultimately, Francis reminds us again and again of what Christianity is all about: accompanying Jesus right up to the cross. The Christian life is not easy, he tells us. “Following Jesus means deciding to walk in his footsteps, and that guarantees the cross. Such a path is far removed from the concessions made by those whose divided hearts dream of peaceful harmony between the Lord of glory and the spirit of the world!” (65). But, ultimately, the rewards of this path are endless – not only as we wait in expectation of Christ’s return at the end of time, but as we encounter the deep joy that stems from humbly yet resolutely following this path every day of our lives.

Was Eve a virgin before the Fall?

March 26, 2015

As part of my reading Advent in Lent, I am now working my way through the readings for Christmastide.  As the readings for Lent intensify, it is interesting to pair them with the readings for Christmas:  Jesus truly was born to die, and to rise again.

But as part of this, I stumbled upon an interesting quote from Saint John Chrysostom.  As part of a reflection on the Feast of the Holy Family, I read,

Why was Christ born of a virgin, and her virginity preserved inviolate?! Because of old the devil had deceived the virgin Eve, Gabriel brought the Good News to the Virgin Mary. Having fallen into the trap, Eve spoke the word that led to death. Having received the Good News, Mary gave birth to the incarnate Word who has brought us eternal life. (Chrysostom, Homily for Christmas)

I must admit that I did a bit of a double-take when I saw the reference to “the virgin Eve.”   I did a quick bit of searching, and discovered that in fact this expression was common among the Fathers, with usage at least as far back as St. Justin Martyr. (CatholicCulture.org has a nice list of quotations.)  And in fact it gets a mention in the Catechism, which quotes St. Irenaeus:

The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.  (CCC 494)

It is clear reading all of these passages that they are part of a mariological argument:  Mary is the new Eve, and they want to extend the parallel as far as possible.  This leads to a post facto reading of the Old Testament:  Mary was (explicitly) a virgin, and so, therefore, Eve must have been one as well.   There is, of course, not a stitch of evidence for or against Eve being a virgin in Genesis, unless one wants to read Gen 2:25, “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” as being a Hebraic euphemism for sexual activity.  This seems a stretch, though as I have noted before, the Hebrew OT does have a number of very earthy passages.  I got this reading from a random website I stumbled upon which was a discussion board for Reform tradition Christians.  Read down a bit for their acerbic comments on “Romanism” and “Popish” ideas.

So how important is this reading?  What would be lost or undermined by assuming Adam and Eve had a prelapasarian sex life?  I think Augustine (or was it Thomas Aquinas) gave this some thought:  didn’t he argue that before the fall, Adam only got an erection at will as he was not subject to concupiscence?   Moreover, all of these readings take Genesis quite literally, so I wonder how this reading would fare given a more symbolic interpretation to deal with human evolution?  Also, to what extent was this reading affected by the (in my view at times obsessive) importance that the Church fathers attached to virginity?

I have no answers, and I am sure that I will think of more questions, but I thought I would toss this out just to see what people thought.

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