Monday, July 2, 2018

Understanding Pope Francis

Although Catholics in general like Pope Francis and support his papal style, many (bishops and priests included) do not understand him.

Francis’ words are often reduced to “sound byte” expressions (“Who am I to judge?” or “smell like the sheep” or  “confession is not a torture–chamber”), pleasant and refreshing to hear.

On another level, however, there is a depth to Francis’ theology, which challenges interpretation and application.  His message is read too quickly; readers must spend time with it to understand it.

Francis is calling the Church to on-going reform. He takes the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council and adds to it the theology and spirituality born of his experience in South America.

In a way, in Francis’ papacy, two mind-sets are in competition: European versus Latin American. They are not diametrically opposed but sometimes they differ. Those of us formed in the European model (North America included) may not recognize the revolution which Pope Francis has set before us.

He means it when he encourages “the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization” (EG 1). He is serious about “pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come” (EG 1).
Francis’ gives priority to a theology which is pastoral. He urges the Church to imitate a pattern from Jesus’ style of ministry: accept, heal, reform. 

He says we are to begin by embracing a person who is broken because of poverty, disability, rejection, abuse –sin! Next do something to alleviate the hurt, by bringing healing, comfort, assurance of acceptance --recognition of the dignity of every human being as an image of God. And then add the moral, ethical, spiritual dimensions necessary for a healthy, happy life.

Recall the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 81-11). First Jesus accepts her in spite of her sin (“Let the one without sin cast the first stone”), next he offers healing forgiveness (“Neither do I condemn you”), and then he issues his call for moral reform (“From now on do not sin any more”).

The tendency for many of us is to reverse the order; instead of accept-heal-reform, we respond with reform-heal-accept. The scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus’ disciples because he ate with sinners and tax collectors, and Jesus said to them, “Those who are well do not need the physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (cf Mk 2:17).

Did not Vatican II reaffirm that the grief and anguish of people, especially of the poor and afflicted, are also the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ?  The Council’s  Pastoral Constitution On The Church In The Modern World  (Gaudium et Spes) acknowledged that for Christians, “Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts” (#1).

The Council Fathers, in response to “the immensity of the hardships which still afflict a large section of humanity” suggested the creation of “some organization of the universal Church whose task it would be to arouse the Catholic community to promote the progress of areas which are in want and foster social justice between nations” (Gaudium et spes, #90).

Catholics around the world have established organizations to alleviate the hardships discussed at the Council and to promote social justice.

Pope Francis, however, is urging a response that goes beyond Church-established organizations. He insists that reaching out to the poor, abused, neglected –to anyone whose basic human rights are violated—is the responsibility not only of Church leaders and Church organizations but indeed of all the followers of Christ.

The pope’s conviction is based on Scripture (e.g., the corporal works of mercy derived from Mt 25), on the teaching of his predecessors (e.g., Pope John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical On Social Concern), on his personal experience as a pastor in the slums of Buenos Aires (e.g., he concluded that what the poor need is not charity but justice) and his participation in CELAM, the conferences held by the bishops of Latin America.

The studies, debates, compromises and conclusions of the Fifth General Conference in 2007 produced the so-called Aparecida Document, the result of the bishops’ reflecting on the journey of the Latin American churches in the midst of the lights and shadows of our times.

The bishops focused on the fundamental option for the poor, on the growing continent-wide expansion of fundamental Protestantism, on human rights violations, on migration, and on the positive and negative effects of globalization.

Scripture, Vatican II, personal experience, and the Aparecida Document are major influences in the thinking, theology, style and direction of Pope Francis. Complementing these sources of  his formation are the two hours a day he spends in prayer.

Pope Francis is leading Catholics toward a recognition of their responsibility to be more than a Church of rules and rituals. He is pushing devout Catholics to become active Catholics, applying the Church’s social doctrine in deeds as well as words.

He listed in his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (##221-37) four principles for building a society marked by peace, justice and fraternity: 1) time is greater than space; 2) unity prevails over conflict; 3) realities are more important than ideas; and 4) the whole is greater than the part.
What do these principles mean? How are we to apply them?

There is an old saying among some of the clergy that asks, “Who can know what a Jesuit is thinking?”

As challenging, unnerving, and profound as Francis’s words may be, we are on safe ground in concluding that he is thinking, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security…my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving, and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”

Those are the words of the pope (EG, #49)! That much we can understand –readily!

Monday, June 18, 2018

What did he/she say?

Sometimes I find myself saying the same thing my mother said decades ago (she died in 1973). I doubt she would really like my repeating some of her observations, but they do come quickly to mind in certain circumstances.

This realization got me to thinking about what others in the future may repeat because they heard me say it.

Mention Lord Acton’s name, and immediately we remember, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Refer to General William Tecumseh Sherman, and we hear the plaintive, “War is hell!”

Intimately wedded to Albert Einstein is “E=MC squared.”

Sam Goldwyn: "Any man who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined."

Abraham Lincoln is identified with “Four score and seven years ago…”

Joni Mitchell: “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.” 

John Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

 St. Julie Billiart; “How good the good God is!”

Yogi Berra: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

And my mom, when she could not suffer arrogance: “I’d like to buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.”

And me? If I could leave one idea, one observation, I’d like it to be this: “God does not like to do things for us; God much prefers to do things with us.”

It’s that realization that helps me make more sense of the Incarnation, of the need for prayer, of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

God could do it all –but a good Father teaches his children not only by word and example but also by participation.

The Father could give us a fish but prefers to teach us how.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Mary as Mother of the Church

In his address to the bishops at the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council (November 21, 1964), Pope Paul VI with a degree of formality proclaimed the most Blessed Mary to be Mother of the Church.

A month earlier, Cardinal Wyszynski, representing  the Bishops of Poland, asked that the pope and the Council renew the consecration of the human race to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and that she be given the title of Mater Ecclesiae or its equivalent.

This proposal was discussed by the Doctrinal Commission but for pastoral and ecumenical reasons was rejected on a 19 to 8 vote. A more acceptable title was suggested, namely Mater fidelium (Mother of the faithful).

In the process of revising chapter 8 of Vatican II’s constitution Lumen gentium (the chapter on Mary), the Doctrinal Commission suggested that the text of #53 should add as a compromise that “The catholic church, taught by the holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and devotion as a most beloved mother.”

The Commission explained its reluctance to use the proposed description, saying, “The phrase mater ecclesiae is sometimes found in ecclesiastical writers, but very rarely, and it cannot be said to be traditional. Moreover, it is generally accompanied by such titles as ‘daughter’ and ‘sister’ of the Church. It is therefore evident that it is being used in a comparative sense. From the ecumenical point of view, the title can certainly not be recommended, although it can be admitted theologically. The Commission therefore deemed it sufficient to express the idea in equivalent terms.”

It was said that Pope Paul responded to the news with, “I’m a little sorry –but patience!”

Six weeks later, in his closing address, Pope Paul spoke to the assembled bishops about the Council’s steps toward aggiornamento, especially pointing to the Constitution on the Church and the decree on ecumenism. Council historian Xavier Rynne said Paul looked “glum and tense” as he entered the hall –the third session of the Council had been tension-filled and disappointing to the majority.

 Rynne’s account then adds, “A final disappointment awaited the bishops and particularly the Protestant observer-delegates. Everyone knew that the Pope intended to confer the title ‘Mother of the Church’ on Mary, for he had announced that he would do so at an audience on Wednesday, and intimated earlier in the session that this was his intention.”

The Commission and the Council fathers had worked out and accepted (in Rynne’s words) a “carefully worded, balanced, ecumenically-inspired, collegially expressed” teaching that avoided using the term mater ecclesiae, but Pope Paul’s public use of the description seemed to many to be reversing a decision of the Council and a sacrificing of the interests of the majority to appease the minority. It was a challenge to ecumenism.

In subsequent years after the Council a votive Mass in honor of Blessed Mary Mother of the Church was inserted into the Roman Missal, use of the title was added to the Litany of Lorreto, and countries and dioceses which petitioned to have a Mother of the Church memorial Mass added to their particular calendars were permitted to do so.

Now, as of 2018, according to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Divine Cult and Discipline of the Sacraments, “Pope Francis has decreed that the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, should be inscribed in the Roman Calendar on the Monday after Pentecost and be now celebrated every year.”

Fourth century theologian St. Augustine in his Sanctae Virginitate came close to describing Mary as mother of the Church when he wrote that she is “clearly the mother of His members” (6). In the 19th century Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Adjutricem populi  wrote that Mary is invoked “as Mother of the Church and the teacher and Queen of the Apostles.” Twentieth century theologian Hugo Rahner is credited with the discovery that the term Mater ecclesiae was applied to Mary by St. Ambrose in the 4th Century, and Rahner’s Mariology is said to have had a strong influence on Pope Paul VI.

Whether the insistence on this title and the addition of this obligatory memorial will have negative consequences on the Church’s ecumenical dialogue remain to be seen, but it is not likely that most Catholics will have adverse reaction to honoring Mary with this special title and celebration. It is a small step from calling Mary "our Blessed Mother" to calling her "Mother of the Church."

It is well-known that Pope Francis has a profound devotion to Mary. In his book on Pope Francis, Pray For Me, Robert Moynihan notes that there are an estimated two thousand titles for the Virgin Mary.  Pope Francis’special attachment to Mary as "Untier of Knots," one of the least known titles, is “rapidly growing in importance.” Perhaps the papal insistence on honoring Mary as Mother of the Church is a preliminary step toward establishment of a memorial Mass honoring Mary as Untier of Knots.

We can hope (and pray) that the Mother of the Church will help set her Son’s followers free to live, to love, and to be the Church her Son intended.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mass Killings, Mental Illness, Spiritual Nourishment

We are quick to suppose that perpetrators of mass shootings are “mentally ill.”  It is our go-to explanation for senseless murders such as the Columbine High School massacre (Jefferson County, Co., April 20, 1999), the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival shooting  (Las Vegas, October 1, 2017), the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attack (Parkland, Florida, February 14, 2018).

When I look for a definition of “mental illness” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition), I find in DSM-IV that “although this manual provides a classification of mental disorders, it must be admitted that no definition adequately specifies precise boundaries for the concept of ‘mental disorder’…The concept of mental disorder, like many other concepts in medicine and science, lacks a consistent operational definition that covers all situations.”

Further, “Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual...”

And further still, DSM-IV acknowledges that “in most situations, the clinical diagnosis of a DSM-IV mental disorder is not sufficient to establish the existence for legal purposes of a “mental disorder,” “mental disability,” “mental disease,” or “mental defect.”

Categorizing the behavior of mass shooters as “mentally ill” may assuage our inability to explain their deviant behavior, but in truth there may be other elements, either ignored or forgotten,  which must be considered before we can arrive at an accurate conclusion.

A diagnosis of mental illness or a mental disorder in the perpetrators of horrific crime does not necessarily preclude their ability to think or plan.

After each killing spree, we hear public officials, desperate to respond sympathetically to the tragedy and suffering, call for more money for more mental health care. Without denigrating that response or denying the need, I want simply to suggest that another response should be a call for better spiritual care as well.
There is a spiritual side to every human being, and like the physical it too needs to be nourished.

Art is one way we feed our souls. Art, whether painting, music, literature, has the ability to sensitize us to the good we should do and the evil we should avoid. Education is meant to give us knowledge not only for the head but also for the heart. Conscious awareness of nature, whether walking in the woods or gazing at the stars, can tap what President Abraham Lincoln once termed “the better angels of our nature.” 

This notion speaks to the point made more than a century ago by English art critic John Ruskin, that we should thank God for the glory of his works, that we should be reminded of  "the duty of delight."

Recall the famous quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, when the prince (a Christ figure) says that "the world will be saved by beauty." It is necessary to stop and smell the roses.  A population that fails to sensitize its spirit in the light of goodness, beauty, and love is a population in darkness, and that darkness first harbors alienation, secondly shrieks in pain, and then strikes out in rebellion, hard-heartedness, and destruction.

You may remember the story of the boy who admitted to his grandfather that he felt there was a war going on inside him, as he struggled with temptation and rebellion. Grandfather explained that there are two wolves within us, a good one and a bad one, and throughout our lives they will fight with each another. “But,” the boy asked, “which one will win?” Grandfather smiled and replied, “The one you feed, my son, the one you feed.”

For many of us, religion is a primary source of nourishment, helping us discern what is right and good. Whether the teacher is Buddha, Ghandi or Jesus, the instruction and example of their lives arouse sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

People who kill innocent people may well have mental disorders, but I have to think that one of the antidotes to such disorders is spiritual nourishment. Exposing the troubled person to beauty, to compassion, to acceptance is surely a healing balm for those suffering from hardened hearts.

Home, school and church are avenues for awakening sensitivity and discernment in troubled souls. Perhaps each institution needs to re-think its role and meet the need.

When I checked the DSM-IV for reference to “spirituality,” the manual simply listed “Religious or Spiritual Problem,” and explained this is the category for focusing clinical attention to a religious or spiritual problem, such as distressing experiences involving loss of faith, conversion to a new faith, or questioning spiritual values.

DSM-IV gives only diagnoses. What we need is preventative medicine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ash Wednesday on Valentine's Day

It’s a challenging juxtaposition when Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same date. This hasn’t happened since 1945. The celebration of romance and love, with hearts and candy, conflicts with the fasting and abstinence of the penitential season of Lent.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in such a coincidence.

In his The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky describes genuine love as “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” He was acknowledging that romance is one thing; love, another.

Love in the fullest sense is a choice for the good of another. 

St. Paul described it centuries ago: “Love is patient…kind…not jealous…not pompous…not inflated…not rude…seeks not its own interests…not quick-tempered…broods not over injury…does not rejoice over wrong-doing but rejoices with the truth…bears all things…believes all things…hopes all things…endures all things” (1 Cor 13). Love can be harsh and dreadful.

And yet love is supposed to be the hallmark of a Christian’s life. The First Letter of John draws the bold conclusion that “God is love,” and that “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar!”

Jesus gave us the example of the fullest, most sincere kind of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). And what he did through his passion and death, he expected of his followers: “This command I give you: love one another” (Jn 15:17).

The romantic love celebrated on St Valentine’s Day is good, but love in the fullest sense is much more. Feelings come and go, but choices can endure: “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.”

The development of such death-defying love is a life-long process. It takes discipline, perseverance, compassion, forgiveness, selflessness  –it requires within the human mind and heart the injection of divine love. It is possible to love fully only when human love is empowered by the divine.

That’s where Lent comes in. Lent is the season for the spiritual exercises which strengthen and refine the ability to love. Prayer, fasting and alms-giving (the traditional penances of the season) are empty ritual if they do not lead the practitioner to greater love.

Maybe that’s why, on rare occasions, the beginning of Lent falls on February 14. Perhaps there’s a lesson in such a coincidence.

It would be like our God (the God of surprises) to put Lent right in the middle of  Valentine’s Day!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Vatican II - a Work in Progress

For many Catholics the Second Vatican Council is ancient history. 

They may acknowledge that it was important, momentous, decisive.  And even if they were not alive when the Council  met (1962-65) and did not personally experience the changes and challenges it brought about, they can agree that it was a critical moment in the life of the Church. But it happened a long time ago, and it may appear to them to be dated and irrelevant for the Church of today.

The truth is: though it ended in 1965, the work of the Council is still underway. Vatican II is not over; in many ways it has just begun.

Vatican II set the direction for the Church as she ended the 20th and entered the 21st century. The 16 documents developed by the bishops and approved by the pope provide goals and strategies for implementation. 

More than 50 years later Pope Francis urges the people of God to follow that direction.

Dozens of subsequent documents, such as instructions on proper implementation, have been issued by the pope and Vatican offices over the years to insure correct understanding of the Council’s pronouncements and to encourage their appropriate application to a variety of pastoral situations and circumstances not necessarily addressed by the Council documents themselves.

The Church can be compared to an ocean liner; it cannot change course on a dime. It takes time, and returning it to its proper course and destination is still underway.

One example of the changes to be implemented is respect for “competent territorial ecclesiastical authority.” Among the decisions articulated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium, approved on December 4, 1963) is recognition that regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs to various kinds of bishops’ conferences, legitimately established, with competence in given territories (22.2).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, therefore, has a right to regulate, with approval of the Apostolic See (the pope), certain aspects of the celebration of the sacraments. Translation from Latin for use in the liturgy is one of those aspects which must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority (36.4).

The recognition of this local input flows from the Council’s acknowledgement that the Church does not want to impose rigid uniformity, but rather respects and fosters the qualities and talents of various races and nations (37).

With this in mind the Council agreed that competent territorial ecclesiastical authorities may specify adaptations for administering the sacraments, for processions, liturgical language, sacred music and the arts (39).

In 2001, Liturgiam authenticam, a directive from a Vatican office, insisted that translations from the Latin  “in so far as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet."

In effect the translation now used for the prayers at Mass so follows the word order and structure of the Latin phrasing that the English version is often awkward and sometimes a challenge to understand.

The “poster-child” of such challenging prayers is the collect for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: “Almighty ever-living God, whom, taught by the Holy Spirit, we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection within our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters that we may merit to enter into the inheritance which you have promised. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

In pre-Vatican II days priests often before Mass translated the Latin into English so they could understand what they were saying. Today many priests before Mass translate the “English” into English.

In September, 2017, a directive from Vatican II-minded Pope Francis affirmed for bishops conferences that it is their responsibility faithfully to prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

It remains to be seen whether the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and other English-speaking Episcopal conferences will re-visit the translation of the Roman Missal we are currently using. Such a re-assessment and the development of a truly vernacular translation would be an example of the spirit and letter of Vatican II  —a worthy project for 2018 (as the current copies of the Roman missal are showing wear and need repair).

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Motive Behind the Las Vegas Shooting?

We may never know why Stephen Paddock fired on the concert crowd outside the Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel that horrific night, October 1, 2017, leaving  58 dead and  547 injured.  Authorities have searched for his motive in his politics, religious beliefs, marital failure, loss of money, medical history, and drug use but can find no satisfactory link or answer. 

   In a way we could deal more successfully with this appalling slaughter and further the healing process if we knew why he did it. The cloud of unknowing hangs over the victims, the city, the nation at large.

   I do not pretend to know his motive, but I wonder if Paddock simply fell into the dark hole of despair. Perhaps, despite his money and seemingly care-free lifestyle, he came face to face with a meaningless existence, finding nothing of value in his own life and feeling jealousy and anger that others had something that he did not.

   If, in his mind, life had treated him badly, he would get revenge by bringing misery and death into the lives of those around him.

   Psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp during World War II convinced him that “the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle” of  Freudian psychoanalysis or “in contrast to the will to power stressed by Adlerian psychology.”

   He recalled the decision of a fellow prisoner who had made “a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful.”

   Frankl concluded that “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners.”

   Perhaps despairing Paddock became killer Paddock because he decided, “I’m not OK –You’re not OK” either. Without meaning in his life Paddock gave into a meaningless massacre.

   Something was missing in Paddock’s life and the emptiness became unbearable. He gave in to misery rather than continue his search for meaning.

   For Christians, Jesus’ revelation “I am the way and the truth and the life” ( cf Jn 14:6) is an invitation to find meaning not in material possessions, nor in power, nor in sexual perversion, nor in escape from reality by drugs, nor in self-inflicted harm, but rather in a person, in Jesus himself, Son of Man, Son of God.

   Anyone without a sense of meaning in his life soon feels he is worthless. The Judaeo-Christian tradition counters such a conclusion with the assurance that human beings are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), that humans are “crowned with glory and honor” (Ps 8:6), that God so loved the world (human beings included) that He gave his only Son (Jn 3:16), that “what you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me” (Mt 25:40).

   The search for meaning, for motivation, leads many of us to Christ.

   We may never know Paddock’s motive, but we can be sure that protecting the sacredness of human life, of proposing the truth of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, and promoting the dignity of and respect for others can be an antidote to the malaise of despair and the disease of revenge.