Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Shroud of Turin: Short Take

It is Advent. I am committed to resuming blogging on a regular basis. I hope to post something 2-4 per week, including a Friday traditio and a reflection on the Sunday readings. In an effort to follow through on this commitment, I am posting something I provided when requested to give a short-take on the Catholic Church and the Shroud of Turin. I didn't have a lot of time to go digging and so I went with what I knew off the top of my head and researched the statements of modern popes on the shroud, which demonstrated a more nuanced view of the shroud, beginning with Pope Benedict.


The origin of the Shroud of Turin is unknown. The cloth’s whereabouts prior to 1357 are unknown. But from 1357 onwards, the location of the shroud is well-attested. The Shroud has been in Turin since 1578. Initially, it belonged to the Royal Savoy family. It was only in 1983 that the family gave the shroud to the Catholic Church.

Far from avoiding or evading attempts to scientifically examine this unique artifact, since being gifted the Shroud of Turin by the Savoy family, the Catholic Church has sought to gain as much scientifically-derived information about the shroud as possible. In these undertakings, great effort has been made to maintain the shroud’s integrity.

In 1898 the first negative image was taken of the Shroud of Turin. This is the image from which most people would recognize it because the image it bears of the beaten and crucified man is more pronounced than just looking at the shroud itself. The shroud has been subjected to 2 carbon dating tests. The first test, conducted in 1988, indicated the shroud dated from approximately 1,000 years after the time of Jesus. The range given for the shroud’s age based on this initial test was sometime between 1260-1390. It bears noting that the shroud’s appearance in historical documents beginning 1357 falls with the range of time during which those who conducted the first test concluded it originated.

A second test, performed in 2008, suggested the initial test might be 1,000 years off. It is safe to say these efforts to date the shroud are inclusive. As a result, opinions as to whether it is the burial garment of Jesus or an ingeniously made relic from the Middle Ages remain divided. It is not a matter of faith for Catholics to believe the Shroud of Turin is the burial garment of Jesus. It is not something the Church holds de fide. The Holy See has never officially proclaimed (or denied) the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Popes since Julius II in 1506 have encouraged devotion to Christ and belief in his resurrection the shroud facilitates among the faithful. Some popes, including John Paul II, have referred to the shroud as a relic. Commenting on the shroud in 1980, John Paul II called it “a distinguished relic linked to the mystery of our redemption.” Pope Pius XII referred to it as “the holy thing perhaps like nothing else.” For an object to be a genuine relic, however, its origin must be sure.

More recently both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have referred to the Shroud of Turn as an “icon” rather than a relic. Addressing the public display of the Shroud of Turin during the first year of his pontificate, Pope Francis called it an “icon of a man scourged and crucified.” For a similar showing of the shroud in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI referred to it as an “icon written with the blood of a whipped man, crowned with thorns, crucified and pierced on his right side.”

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Year A Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Readings: Ezk 34:11-12.15-17; Ps 23:1-3.5-6; 1 Cor 15:20-26.28; Matt 25:31-46

Last week Fr. Rene began his homily by singing a hymn. Since today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrate the end of the world, I thought about singing REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” You’ll be relieved to know that I thought the better of it. I do think the refrain that runs through this song is relevant for Christians, who hopefully await the Lord’s return: “It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”

Believing that Christ will return is fundamental to Christian faith. In the Nicene Creed, we profess: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” In the Apostles Creed, we say: “He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from there He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” Belief in Jesus’s return as the judge is not optional because it was revealed to us by the Lord himself, as our Gospel today clearly shows.

Jesus Christ is King of the universe because he has vanquished all of God’s foes, including death. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth: Jesus will hand over the kingdom “to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24). No earthly kingdom or nation will endure beyond Christ’s return. This feast invites us to live sub specie aeternatatis – under the auspices of eternity, which simply means giving what matters priority in our lives.

Pope Pius XI instituted the Solemnity of Christ the King in 1925. He did so in response to growing secularism as the ancien régime overturned at the end of the First World War was replaced by a new political order. One result of secularism is the temptation to seek exclusively worldly ends using only worldly means, as the rise of fascism in Europe after the establishment of today’s observance amply demonstrated.

Observing the feast of Christ, the King does not call for us to disengage from society and culture, or to retreat from the world. On the contrary! What makes Christians the best citizens of any nation, as St. Justin Martyr noted in his First Apology way back in the second century, is our commitment to living God’s kingdom as a present reality, as if it were already fully established. Too often we live in the mistaken notion that the definitive establishment of God’s reign has little or nothing to do with us.

In positive terms, I think G.K. Chesterton summed it up nicely when he wrote: “it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” One almost-saint who stands in stark contrast to our age is an American of the twentieth century: the Capuchin friar, Solanus Casey. Bl. Solanus Casey, whose Mass of Beatification was celebrated in Detroit last weekend, spent most of his life as a Capuchin friar welcoming and caring for guests at the urban friaries where he served, first in New York and then in Detroit. He is a splendid example of living God’s reign as a present reality while “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Solanus Casey left us 5 ways of living in God’s love and 2 ways for living in the awareness that we are always in God’s presence. As to living in God’s love, this simple friar, writing from his experience and not as the result of academic study insisted 1) detachment from earthly affections, or singleness of purpose, what the title of a book by the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard urged: Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing - do not be half-hearted in your love for Jesus; 2) meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ – meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, walking the Stations of the Cross, or reading an account of Jesus’s Passion from one of the Gospels; 3) uniformity with the Divine Will, which means seeing God’s will and purpose at work in your life, in your failures, setbacks, and disappointments as well as in your triumphs, successes, and satisfactions; 4) mental prayer (i.e., meditation and contemplation)- praying the Rosary and/or the spiritual practice of lectio divina; 5) intercessory prayer for your own needs and those of others, heeding Jesus’s words “Ask and it shall be given you.”

The 2 ways Bl. Solanus Casey gave for always living in the awareness that you are in God’s presence are the importance of praying short prayers to God throughout the day, or, as he put it: “Raise your heart to Him by frequent aspirations” and to “Make a good intention at the beginning of each week.” Sunday Mass is a wonderful time to make a good intention for the coming week. My sisters and brothers, holiness does not happen incidentally. You can’t accidentally be a disciple of Jesus Christ. While holiness is only ever fully realized by the grace of God, attaining it requires your cooperation. Your pursuit of holiness cannot be a passive endeavor. God won’t make you holy against your will.

As his life of care and concern for others demonstrates, the practices set forth by Solanus Casey constitute a proven way of cooperating with what God is seeking to do in and through you to accomplish his purposes in and for the world. Of course, engaging in these practices, like our participation in this Mass, is not an end in itself but a means to the end of establishing God’s reign. We establish God’s reign by caring for those in need, by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, as well as visiting and assisting those who are sick and in prison. Grouped together, we call these the Corporal Works of Mercy. Our need to engage in these works has been a persistent theme of Francis’s pontificate. It's how we bring about the end of the world as we know it and feel fine in the process.

I urge each of you between this Sunday and next, which is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year of grace, to spend some time reflecting on how you can enthrone Christ as King in your heart. Being a subject of Christ the King is not a matter of being subjugated, as it is with those who exercise worldly power, but a matter of knowing you are loved and “in the hands of the one who writes straight with crooked lines” (Pope Benedict XVI).

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Religious freedom

In my presentation, What the Catholic Church Learned from the Reformation, I highlighted 5 lessons: "Baptism and the Priesthood of All Believers," "Scripture for Liturgy and Life," "Liturgy: Full, Active, Conscious Participation," "Religious Freedom," and "Indulgences: Pope Paul VI addresses Martin Luther." Today I am posting my brief section on religious freedom.

We’re so used to understanding religious freedom as a human right that the revolutionary nature of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignatatis humanae is often lost. But the Catholic Church’s recognition of the importance of freedom and the primacy of conscience when it comes to religious belief and practice, is very much a lesson learned as a result of the Reformation. It was a lesson perhaps best articulated by that reformer of the Reformation, John Wesley, about whom Dennis Shaw spoke last week. It is a lesson learned by both Catholics and Protestants as a result of the religious pluralism wrought by the Reformation in Europe.

Wesley’s best articulation of the principles underlying religious freedom were two notable sermons: “A Caution Against Bigotry” and “Catholic Spirit.” Fourteen years prior to his birth in 1703, the Toleration Act, which permitted Protestant communions other than the Church of England to freely gather and worship.1 What Wesley sought to demonstrate is that religious tolerance and the freedom to which it gives rise is part and parcel of being a Christian.

John Wesley

In his “Catholic Spirit” sermon, Wesley noted that religious toleration and freedom are often confused with religious indifferentism. He asserted that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he noted that religious toleration and freedom indeed gives rise to many different religious viewpoints and acknowledges that this can be very confusing. Such confusion, he asserted, is a curse, not a blessing. Therefore, a person who has the catholic spirit “does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend the two into one.”2 In other words, such an environment requires what Pope Francis has dubbed a culture of encounter.

In Dignitatis humanae, the Catholic Church asserted that each person is “bound to seek the truth,” especially as it pertains to God, “to embrace the truth they have come to know, and to hold fast to it.” 3 The Council also declared “that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” 4 According to the decree, religious freedom means being “immune from coercion” by any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” 5

The Council further declared “that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” 6The Council stated unambiguously that “the right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.” 7

Pope St. John Paul II went so far as to assert that next to the right to life, the most fundamental right a human being possesses is that of religious freedom.

1 Jake Raabe, “What John Wesley Would Say to Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein,” Christianity Today, November 8, 2017.
2 Ibid.
3 Second Vatican Council, Dignatatis humanae [Declaration on Religious Freedom], Vatican website, December 7, 1965, sec. 1, accessed November 8, 2017,
4 Dignatatis humanae, sec. 2
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Exercising diakonia: being a servant

Readings: Mal 1:14b-2b.8-10; Ps 131:1-3; 1 Thess 2:7b-9.13; Matt 23:1-12

Our readings for this Sunday culminate with the last two statements made by the Lord in today's Gospel: "The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:11-12). These words could easily serve as a compelling homily on these readings. As a deacon, I like to think I am attuned to passages like this that exalt the importance of serving others.

In the original Greek, the final word of the eleventh verse of the twenty-third chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, a word translated as "servant," is diakonos. It would not be any exaggeration at all, but a very literal translation of that verse to be translated in this way: "The greatest among you must be your deacon." Christ is the model Deacon. If a deacon, by the grace received through the Sacrament of Orders, acts in the person of Christ, it is not in persona Christi captis, a way in which only bishops and priests act, but in persona Christi Servi- in the person of Christ the Servant. Jesus was the greatest among those whom he addressed in today's reading. Hence, He is their Servant, their Deacon.

Diakonia, the name for the service rendered by deacons, is something every Christian is called to do. If we share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ by virtue of Baptism, then we also share in the one diaconate of Jesus Christ. We are God's priestly people because we are God's deaconly people. As James Keating noted in his book The Heart of the Diaconate: "There can be no sacrifice (priesthood) without service (diaconate)." While this is rather abbreviated, I think it goes back to the insistence of Old Testament prophets that sacrifice is unacceptable to God without selfless service to others, particularly and specifically helping those in need.

As regards the Eucharist as sacrifice, Christ gives himself to us so that we can give ourselves to him by selflessly serving others. At the end of the day, the only convincing proof that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ are the lives of those eat and drink it. Moreover, service before sacrifice was modeled perfectly by our Lord himself.

Our second reading is from St. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. Dating from around AD 50, it is most likely the earliest New Testament book. In this passage, the Apostle provides a concrete example of what the Lord taught. What Paul highlighted to the Christians in ancient Thessaloniki is that while he was among them, in addition to preaching, teaching, and exercising pastoral care, he worked and earned his living by his own hands so as not take from them. not to be a burden to them. The earliest Christian communities consisted largely of the urban poor. Elsewhere Paul asserts his right to be supported by the Christian community (1 Cor 9:4-15). He usually, or maybe even always, forfeited this right and worked as a "tent maker," the nearest contemporary equivalent to which would be a canvas and awning business. In this way, as well as others, Paul engaged in diakonia. Hence, the Apostle imitated his Master by being their deacon, their servant.

A diakonos is distinct from a doulos. As mentioned, a diakonos is a deacon, which denotes a type of servant, whereas a doulos is a slave. Paul calls himself a slave only in reference to Christ. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians he wrote that he was their slave, but only for Jesus's sake (2 Cor 4:5). Paul thought of himself as the slave of Christ, a slavery he chose in freedom and to which he continued to adhere out of the same freedom. It was as Christ's slave that he became the servant to those Christians in the communities he founded.

Diakonia is the selfless service rendered to others, particularly those in need, in the name of Christ. Providing such service is how we make Jesus present, how we proclaim his Gospel, how we glorify him by our lives.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A deacon on a layman about deacons

This morning, a friend of mine, who is also a Roman Catholic deacon, brought to my attention something Karl Keating, founder of Catholic Answers, posted on Facebook about deacons:

I just read a piece by a deacon who claims that nobody--nobody at all--is confused by Pope Francis.

Isn't it a sufficient refutation to note that many people claim to be confused by things the pope has said or written? Even intelligent people? Even high clerics?

Or are all these people nobodies?

. . . . .

There are notable exceptions, but, on the whole, over the years I have been disappointed with homilies given by, and essays or posts written by, deacons.

I've been disappointed with plenty of things said or written by bishops, priests, and laymen, but the proportion has been notably worse with deacons. I'm not sure why that should be, but that's how it's been.

This isn't a new observation for me. It's been nagging me for well over twenty years, and it applies even to many deacons who are well degreed.

I suppose I first noticed it when, after a parish seminar I gave, a deacon came up to me and proudly noted that he never read religious books published before 1965, the year that Vatican II ended. (I wasn't quick-witted enough at the moment to ask him whether he ever read the Bible.) After that, I began to pay more attention to what deacons said and wrote.

It seems that in many cases men have been ordained beyond their ability to speak or write cogently--or even adequately. I appreciate what deacons do in parishes, but I remain largely disappointed in deacons who go public. I wish it were otherwise, but that's how it is for me.

[Watch for it. I will get complaints from fine deacons who don't contribute to this impression of mine. They will be unnecessarily defensive, imagining they have to defend the entire brotherhood. They don't. I'm not referring to them but to what seems to me to be the generality of deacons.]
If I am not mistaken, Keating's post is a response to something Deacon Bill Ditewig, Ph.D. (he holds a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of America) posted on his blog, Deacons Today. However, I cannot be sure exactly to whom Keating is responding because his post is in that passive-aggressive mode so commonly employed on social media.

Ditewig's post, in turn, is a response to an open letter theologian Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM, Cap, wrote to Pope Francis. In his letter, Weinandy has five complaints. His basic point to the Holy Father is that he (the Pope) is confusing people. You can read it for yourself here. You can also read a very good response to Fr. Weinandy's open letter by the theologian who preceded him as executive director of the USCCB's Secretariat for Christian Doctrine, Msgr. John Strynkowski, here. Weinandy served as executive director of the secretariate from 2005-2013. It bears noting, I think, that Deacon Ditewig served as executive director of the USCCB's Secretariat for the Diaconate from 2002-2007.

Fr. Weinandy's tenure as executive director was quite tumultuous and marked by public disputes with some of the U.S.'s more prominent theologians, like Sr. Elizabeth Johnson. Since the conclusion of his directorship, Fr. Weinandy has served as a consultant to the U.S. bishops doctrine committee. In the wake of his letter he resigned.

As noted, Keating's post is thoroughly passive-aggressive. In his view, with "notable exceptions" (no doubt few) deacons are, theologically-speaking, below par. Despite Karl Keating's views, it is important to point out that, as clerics, deacons are ordained to represent the Church publicly. This does not mean our public words are in any way magisterial. In this way, deacons are like priests. We don't even speak on behalf of our bishop unless expressly deputed to do so. There is a tab at the top of this entitled "Integrity Notes." It is my disclaimer.

Along with "some notable exceptions," Keating acknowledges that some deacons "do not contribute to [his negative] impression" of not being capable of speaking or writing cogently or correctly. Some of these, he surmises, might take umbrage at his assertions regarding deacons and become defensive. He assures his readers that he is not out to offend the notable exceptions or those who do not contribute to his negative impression. He is merely trying to criticize most permanent deacons, at least most of those he has heard speak and preach and/or whose writing he's read over the past 20 years.

What I find lacking cogency is Keating's purely anecdotal argument that many, perhaps most, permanent deacons are in over their heads when the issue he sought to dispute was his assertion that Ditewig argued nobody at all is confused by anything that Pope Francis has spoken or written. If that is the case, if people, even notable people, like bishops, are confused by some of the Pontiff's public utterances and written proclamations, then wouldn't a few notable examples serve to make his case?

Ditewig's point, it seems to me, was not really that nobody claims to be confused by Pope Francis. There are certainly those who claim confusion. What Ditewig points to is the elephant in the room: those who claim the Pope is spreading confusion are those who simply disagree with him, those who dissent from his properly exercised papal magisterium. It has become a common tactic of the Holy Father's detractors to claim he is confusing people. Ditewig challenges their assertion by claiming people, on the whole, really aren't confused.

In my view, it is the cacophony of Francis detractors, each of whom presumes, even if implicitly, to speak with authority superior to the Pope and bishops, who confuse the faithful. This makes me all the more thankful that the genuine sheep are able to hear and recognize the voice of their Shepherd.

As a deacon likely not fit, at least in Keating's view, to hold forth in public, I also think that what the Church needs is evangelists, not more self-styled "apologists." An evangelist is a witness, not a didactic Cathsplainer (Catholic version of mansplaining). As Bl. Pope Paul VI put it in Evangelii nuntiandi:
Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? (par 21)
Should Catholics be well catechized and able to intelligently discuss our faith when appropriate? Yes. Who would argue otherwise? This brings us to a question that is a different topic entirely: What is catechesis? I will state that catechesis which leads to the kind of witness Christians are called to give is mystagogical.

"You do it this way"

Hey, a Friday traditio! Actually, last month I only missed Friday, last Friday. I did miss posting something specific for All Saints and All Souls. I'd rather actively observe those sacred days than write about them. It is difficult for me to believe that it is November, the month of my birth. Like last year, for my birthday this year I am going to a Morrissey concert. Instead of seeing him live at the Hollywood Bowl on my birthday (that would be a dream come true), I am seeing him a week later here in Salt Lake City. I have excellent seats in Kingsbury Hall on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Utah.


The pace of life right now prevents me from devoting any serious time to listening to music. As a result, it's catch as catch can. Recently I heard a song from the post-punk band Killing Joke: "Eighties." It is off their 1985 album Nighttime, an excellent record. "Eighties" was the last song on side two of the LP.

The unique thing about this song is that Nirvana borrowed from it for their song "Come As You Are," which was their magnificent 1991 album Nevermind. I did not this discover this myself. It something I learned this week. Nothing too serious, just a song, as it should be sometimes, probably most of the time.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Our Annual Festival of All Hallows and All Souls*

Halloween was brought into being by the ancient Celts who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. The celebration precedes their conversion to Christianity. For the ancient ones, 1 November marked the beginning of a new year and the coming of winter.

Showing the requisite Celtic spirit, the night before the new year, the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain, who, in their mythology, was lord of the dead. They believed that during this festival the souls of the dead—including ghosts, goblins, and witches—returned to mingle with the living. To scare away the ghosts, goblins, and witches, they would don masks and light bonfires and, in true Celtic form, drink fermented grain and distilled grain bevies (i.e., beer and whiskey).

When the Romans conquered the Celts, they added their own touches to Samhain. These customs included making centerpieces out of apples and nuts for Pomona, the Roman goddess of the orchards, bobbing for apples and drinking (hard) cider. So, where, you might ask, does the Christian aspect of the holiday begin?

In AD 835, likely as the result of the widespread nature of what began as a Celtic custom, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration for all martyrs (later all saints) from 13 May to 1 November. For most Eastern Christians, All Saints is still observed in the late Spring or early Summer (the Sunday following Pentecost). Eventually, the night before All Saints became known as All Hallows Eve. In time the name was shortened to Halloween.

The custom of setting apart a day to intercede for our faithful departed dates to the eleventh century. It was begun at the Benedictine monastery of Cluny, France. In particular, it was the fifth abbot of the abbey, St. Odilo of Cluny, who started All Souls Day. Given the influence of Cluny, this custom spread to other Benedictine communities associated with Cluny. Before long commemorating the faithful departed on 2 November was practiced in several dioceses in France before spreading throughout the Western Church. It was quite late coming to Rome, where it was accepted in the fourteenth century.

All Souls Day brings to an end our annual three-day festival of the communio sanctorum, which was centuries in the making. This festival is just the beginning of the month during which we remember our beloved dead. Our month of remembrance ends with the observance of the feast of Christ the King. On this feast, the Church celebrates the end of time, when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead.

That's it for October. I am glad I started blogging again in earnest.

* This post first appeared yesterday on The Boy Monk blog.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Year A Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ex 22:20-26; Ps 2-4.47.51; 1 Thess 1:5c-10; Matt 22:34-40

What is morality? Simply stated, morality is doing what is good and avoiding what is evil. In today’s Gospel, Jesus defines morality: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). These ways of defining morality prompt two questions. The first question is, “What is good and what is evil?”

It’s evident that we are often capable of discerning what is are good and what is evil, but good and evil are not clear to us in every instance, far from it. Our first reading from Exodus gives us three examples of things that are good, which means they are not only are things we ought to do but, as Christians, things we must do.

The first of these is how we are to treat aliens among us, be they immigrants or refugees. Many Catholics, despite the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Church’s magisterium, be it the Pope, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or our own bishop, see this as a matter of prudential judgment, by which they take it to be optional.

I have heard people who should know better insisting that welcoming immigrants and refugees is not biblical. Jesus recapitulated in his own life the history of Israel so that he could do for Israel what the chosen people were not willing or able to for themselves. Hence, along with Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, he was a refugee in Egypt, fleeing Herod’s terror. As the Church, we are God’s Pilgrim People, making our pilgrimage through time to the new Jerusalem.

In this context, it is important to note that the word “Hebrew” means foreigner. If Israel is made up of Hebrews and the Church is the new and true Israel, then we, like Israel of old, are aliens, a people on the way. It would difficult to find something more biblical than welcoming immigrants and refugees.

In addition to political refugees, our country now has many economic refugees. Economic refugees are people who come to our country, like most of our ancestors did, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Whether it refers to the Italians, the Irish, or to people from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, in the United States there has always been a discernible strain of anti-Catholicism in the rhetoric and action of so-called nativists.

Secondly, our first reading points out the importance of caring for widows and orphans. This is the biblical language for caring for those in need. Doing this is imperative for Christians. It is false to say there was no social safety net in ancient Israel. The social safety net was to be society itself. Israelite society was supposed to be the kingdom of God, but it was often deformed into something else entirely. This is why time and again Israel was rebuked by God through the prophets for not doing this. If Scripture is a reliable guide, perhaps more than anything, the refusal to care for those in need kindles God’s wrath.

In God’s eyes, the greatness of a nation is not its wealth or military might. From the divine perspective, a nation’s greatness lies in how it cares for the young, the elderly, the ill, the disadvantaged, and the immigrant. Our reading from Exodus tells us what it is that gets in the way of caring for those in need: greed. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Greed is when you put your excess before the needs of others.

Original sin was humanity’s desire to displace God in order to determine for ourselves what is good and evil. Even when we concede that in determining for ourselves what is good and evil we will not necessarily always choose evil, odds are sooner rather than later we will get it wrong. Nonetheless, God permits us the freedom to attempt to dethrone him and enthrone ourselves. God does not launch lightning bolts from the sky when we choose evil, either knowingly or in the mistaken belief that it is good. Why? Because God loves us and so he would not cause us to live under such an imminent threat, which would practically force us to be good out of fear, not love.

Christ showed us that the only criterion by which to make moral judgments is love. God is love (1 John 4:8.16). It is because God is love that Christ became incarnate. Holiness consists in nothing other than loving perfectly, like Christ.

The second question that arises from Jesus’s definition of morality is- Who is my neighbor? In St. Luke’s parallel account of today’s Gospel, when Jesus was asked the same question immediately after defining morality as love, his response was to teach the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). The take-away from that parable is- my neighbor is not my fellow Israelite (or Catholic), not the person most like me; my neighbor is the person in need, the one I can help.

We are beggars. Acknowledging our poverty is what brings us to this table. Coming together makes us companions. “Companion” literally means “bread fellow.” Companions are those who share bread. After sharing the bread from this table, we are sent forth to share it with those who are hungry.

Morality cannot be reduced to mere “personal morality.” Adherents of such a morality hold, either explicitly or implicitly, that it is possible to achieve holiness without reference to or regard for their neighbor. This is an anti-Christian morality. Our Gospel today is a further fleshing out of something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, namely the Golden Rule, which bids us “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12). What connects these two teachings in Matthew's Gospel is how Jesus ends them. He ends them by saying to observe these is to obey the law and the prophets. The chapter of 1 John in which we twice read “God is love,” ends with these words:
If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:20-21)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The narrow path of wisdom and wonder

I read a post this morning in which the author, who I gather is something of a post-Christian Christian, writes about taking an apophatic approach to God as if nobody in the past 2,000+ years has ever conceived of such an approach. What does "apophatic" mean? Simply stated, an apophatic spirituality, as it were, is one that seeks God by way of negation. Some of our standard ways of talking about God are apophatic. For instance, when we say, "God is infinite," we're saying something negative about God. The prefix in is a negative one, meaning something like "without finitude." To say that "God is infinite" is to say that God is not bound by space. We say this now with knowing the universe, or space is expanding.

What I appreciate about post-Christian Christians, however, is their rejection of pious platitudes and smug certainties that comprise much popular Christian discourse, especially on social media. But many post-Christian Christians tend towards another kind of smugness, which I can only describe as "I've got it figured out by not having it figured out." Understood as something like, "The more I learn, the less I know," I have no problem with it. I certainly find this approach more attractive than its opposite. Very often implied in this kind of assertion is the belief that nothing can be figured out. In other words, such an approach can be too skeptical. I use "too skeptical" because I think we need to develop and maintain a healthy skepticism.

What the skepticism often exhibited by adherents to the school of "I've got it figured out by not having it figured out" has in common with the smug certainty of having it all figured out, is that its adherents labor under a confining set of preconceptions. In short, it is foolish to insist that there is no discoverable wisdom and perhaps even more foolish to think yourself possessed of it, especially in toto. To think you have it all greased is a sure sign you've reduced the Mystery to your own measure.

Loch and awe? Loch Awe in Scotland

The human existential condition is one of tension. This is why Christian orthodoxy primarily consists of maintaining the tension between two seemingly disparate things. At a fundamental level, the best example of this is one and three, as in one God in three divine persons; each person distinct from the other and yet together are one God, not three. The next most fundamental example would be one in two, as in one person in two natures, one human and one divine.

Something that appears to be self-contradictory but is understandable in a way that is not is called a paradox. Because it has to do with the Mystery of God-made-man-for-us, Christianity is inescapably a religion of paradox. It seems to me the central paradox of Christianity, existentially-speaking, is dying in order to live forever. Dying in order to live requires a rather heavy dose of apophaticism.

It is critically important to never lose one's capacity for wonder. Wonder is maintained by not smugly giving into skepticism on one hand and not settling for smug certainty on the other. Put in very bad poetic terms: the path of wonder that leads to wisdom winds between the Scylla of skepticism and the Charybdis of smug certainty.

Since I was too busy to post a Friday traditio yesterday, I am posting "The Eternal" by Joy Division:

Stood by the gate at the foot of the garden,
Watching them pass like clouds in the sky,
Try to cry out in the heat of the moment,
Possessed by a fury that burns from inside

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Make an Appoinment with God*

Below are four basic points about prayer.

Being a Christian means being a person who prays.

In his book The Art of Praying, Romano Guardini, whose cause for sainthood will formally begin in Munich this December, averred that prayer is as important for the spiritual life of a Christian as breathing is for the biological life of every human being. If you can’t breathe, you die.

Prayer includes both speaking and listening.

I strongly believe it is as important to talk to God at least as much as you talk about God. If it’s important to talk to God at least as much as you talk about God, then it is as important to listen to God at least as much as you talk to God.

Prayer takes time.

Sure, we can and should pray “on-the-fly,” but we need to set aside time each day to spend with God. In a very short book, Appointment with God, published thirty years ago, Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. urged all Christians to make a daily appointment with God. Making time each day for God is what it means to practice prayer as a discipline.

I run across far too many people who insist that it isn’t possible to have a personal relationship with God. Relationships cannot even begin, let alone grow, if those involved don’t spend time together.

Prayer is important.

People who believe it isn’t possible to have a personal relationship with God tend to make God an intellectual problem, a mental construct, or an indifferent, benevolent, perhaps even malevolent force in the universe, depending on how things are going today. All of these are attempts, even if some are highly complex and sophisticated ones, to reduce God to human measure.

In baptism, God called you by name. God also called you by name when your baptismal identity was confirmed. Grace refers to God – Father, Son, and Spirit – sharing divine life with you. God is love (1 John 4:8.16). In short, God knows you and wants to be known by you.

In Christ, the Word became flesh. After his Ascension, specifically on the first Christian Pentecost, the Lord sent his Spirit in order to remain present not just among us, but in us and by taking up his dwelling in us to make himself present to others through us.

The English word “spirit,” as in “the Holy Spirit,” is a translation of the Greek word pneuma. Pneuma means breath. Prayer is the breath of Christian life. This is why each and very Christian needs to become a pray-er.

*This post originally appeared on The Boy Monk blog. It is expanded to include links to the books and reference to Guardini's cause for sainthood.