Thursday, May 27, 2010

E Pluribus Unum

Not all Catholics are Roman Catholics. Some are Ambrosian, some are Maronite, others are Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, Armenian, Chaldean or Greek Byzantine. They are all in communion with the pope (they accept his juridical primacy), but their liturgies, their traditions, and their codes of law differ in many ways from those of Rome.

These non-Roman Catholic rites are generally described as Eastern Catholic Churches. They are not to be confused with the Orthodox Churches (aka Eastern Orthodox) who separated from the Roman Church in the 11th century and continue to reject the primacy of the pope.

Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches were part of the schism between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Catholics in the 11th century, but later re-united with Rome.

While the Eastern Catholics, like the Roman Catholics, are full members of the Catholic Church, they differ in many ways from their Roman counterparts. They ordain married men to be priests. They employ different prayers, actions and vestments in celebrating the Lord's Supper. They preserve many of the customs of the East, such as veneration of icons, dance, eastern languages.

Bishops and priests of the Eastern rite celebrated their styles of liturgy during sessions of the Second Vatican Council in order to demonstrate and validate the variety of rites used in the Catholic Church. It is said that some Roman rite bishops were shocked when they attended an Ethiopian liturgy. When the Ethiopian rite bishop removed his mitre (the bishop's hat), he had the hosts (the bread to be consecrated) on his head --it was the Ethiopian way of bring the bread to the altar.

While most Eastern Catholics live in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, some can be found in Italy, especially the Milanese rite Catholics in Milan, or in Egypt, especially the Coptic rite Catholics.

There are Eastern Catholic parishes and dioceses in the United States as well. Most of these congregations came from the immigrations from Eastern Europe in the 19th century and from the Middle East in the 20th century. The Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics, for example, are organized in the diocese or eparchy headquartered in Parma, Ohio,

All Catholics, especially those of the Latin rite, were reminded by the bishops at Vatican II, that "The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and ordering of Christian life" (see the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, #1).

Further, the bishops confirmed that "these churches (both Eastern and Western) are of equal rank, so that none of them is superior to the others because of its rite" (#3).

Periodically we need to remind ourselves that the umbrella of the Catholic Church is a large one. There are, of course, essential elements (such as teachings, sacraments, authority) in the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church that must be protected and handed on. At the same time there is room for a variety of practices, customs, languages, and theologies in the one, true Church.

Sometimes we in the Roman Church ought to acknowledge "the great debt owed to the Eastern Churches by the Church Universal" (#5). Sometimes it is good for us to recall that Jesus came to save the whole world, the people of every nation. Sometimes it is helpful to remember that the Catholicism we enjoy in the west began in the east, that our culture, philosophy, and science are not the only way to embrace the Gospel.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Angels of the Battlefield

In mid-summer of 2009 the Daughters of Charity, a religious order of Sisters in Emmitsburg, Maryland, about 10 miles south of Gettysburg, celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of their community. Part of their observance was a Civil War encampment, recalling the time when in late June of 1863 thousands of Federal troops camped on or near their convent grounds.

In his reminiscences about the battle Brevet Major General Regis de Trobriand of the Army of the Potomac remembered his encounter with some of the Sisters on July 1. He suggested to the Sister in charge that they pray to St. Joseph "to keep the Rebels away from here; for, if they come before I get away, I do not know what will become of your beautiful convent."

The following morning , July 2, de Trobriand received orders to hurry his troops to Gettysburg. "There I learned that the day before (July 1) a long and bloody battle had been fought."

For three days, July 1-3, Union and Confederate forces fought the bloody battle that many historians call "the turning point of the war." The number of casualties challenges comprehension. Federals numbered 3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 missing; the Confederates numbered 3,903 killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing.

On the morning of July 5th, twelve of the Sisters, accompanied by a priest, took food, clothing, and medical supplies to the battlefield to care for the wounded. Sister Camilla O'Keefe remembered the hundreds of dying and wounded soldiers housed in temporary hospitals in army tents, public buildings, private farms, and even the borough's churches.

"The Catholic Church in Gettysburg," she wrote, "was filled with sick and wounded...The soldiers lay on the pew seats, under them and in every aisle. They were also in the sanctuary and the gallery, so close together that there was scarcely room to move about. Many of them lay in their own blood...but no word of complaint escaped from their lips."

Nearly 150 years later, the Sisters at Emmitsburg, commemorating their bicentennial, honored the service their predecessors contributed to the story of the Battle of Gettysburg.

A marker on the convent grounds records one chapter of the story: "By the end of June, 1863, an estimated 90,000 Union soldiers were located in or around these premises and some of their officers, situated in Mother Seton's White House, were planning battle strategies. It was feared that the battle would be fought here. Prayers were multiplied; orders for the Northern Army arrived. The men fell in line and took the dusty road north toward Gettysburg, where the bloody turning point of the war was fought."

Two years after the war ended, General de Trobriand recalled advising the Sisters to ask St. Joseph to keep the rebels away from Emmitsburg. He reminisced, "I have never returned to Emmittsburg (sic); but it would astonish me very little to hear that the two armies had gone on to Gettysburg to fight, on account of the miracles performed by St. Joseph, interceding in favor of these pious damsels."

On the convent grounds, however, the Sisters seem to attribute the averting of battle to the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph's spouse. A plaque reads, "The sisters promised that, should this danger be averted, a statue of Notre Dame Des Victoires (Our Lady of Victory) would be erected. This promise was fulfilled immediately after the Civil War, and for decades this symbol of their Protectress and her Divine Son has been honored in St. Joseph's Valley."

The Order of the Daughters of Charity was founded in 1809 by Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the first native-born American citizen to be canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Her "daughters" now serve across the country and in several foreign lands. A stained glass window in St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg commemorates the service provided by these angels of the battlefield to the wounded and dying in the wake of the battle.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Good Pope John

I look forward to the canonization of Pope John XXIII as a saint.

It almost happened, shortly after his death, when, during the Second Vatican Council, some of the bishops proposed that he be declared a saint by popular acclamation. Cardinal Leo Suenens suggested that the usual process would simply take too long and that the people already considered their beloved pope to be a saint.

The Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints objected that popular acclaim was no longer customary, that setting aside the meticulous investigation of the candidate's life and teaching was not appropriate, and that acclaiming John XXIII a saint would be insulting to the memory of his predecessor Pope Pius XII.

To defuse the controversy, Pope Paul VI, Pope John's successor, intervened and said that he would see to it that the process of canonization would begin simultaneously for both John XXIII and Pius XII.

In the year 2000 Pope John Paul II beatified Pope John, thus officially permitting Catholics to call upon him by name in prayer and affirming that a miracle ascribed to John's intervention had been investigated and approved.

In 1966, just three years after John's death, a religious Sister, a Daughter of Charity, lay dying from internal bleeding caused by a peptic ulcer of the stomach and further complicated by a fistula which broke through the wall of her abdomen allowing all that she tried to eat to be emitted. Sister Caterina Capitana said that while alone in her hospital room, she felt someone touch her stomach and heard a man's voice call her name. Looking up she saw Pope John XXIII standing next to her bed and heard him say, "Do not be afraid. You are now well." Sister said they talked for about ten minutes.

Her fever and other symptoms disappeared. Getting out of bed, Sister Caterina called for something to eat. Within two days she was back to her old job as a nurse. Her case was investigated and declared a miraculous cure. A second miracle is needed, one which occurs after the beatification process, in order to fulfill requirements for canonization. Several have been proposed.

Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for the purpose of updating the Church. His call for aggiornamento would be like "opening the window to let in a little fresh air." He said he wanted the Church to use the medicine of mercy rather than of severity in assessing the world and reaching out to it.

John was gentle yet strong, diplomatic but determined, intent on preserving the truths of faith but open to changing the language in which these truths were conveyed. He wanted a more friendly Church. "Pope John loved people more than power," was theologian Yves Congar's assessment.

Pope John XXIII was very much loved by Catholics and admired by others. Although there are Catholics who oppose his canonization on the grounds that he diluted the faith and trashed the Church, most of those who know who he was and what he did find no basis for that assessment. Pope John XXIII, responding to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, convoked what Church historian John W. O'Malley calls "the largest committee in the history of the world, some 2300 bishops" to promote the life of the Church.

What he managed to accomplish in the five years of his papacy staggers the imagination; who he was and how he inspired others, even to this very day, deserves honor and imitation. I look forward to the canonization of "good Pope John."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Letter vs. spirit of Vatican II?

After I completed an evening's talk and prayer session, a young man wanted to discuss his role in the Church. He was, he said, encouraged by what I said, and was eager to play a more active role in spreading the Gospel. I told him that his desire was exactly what Vatican II had in mind when it affirmed the role of the laity as participation in the saving mission of the Church. I said Vatican II insisted that all Catholics are commissioned to the apostolate by Jesus himself (cf. Lumen Gentium, #33), and that was certainly the spirit of the Council.

He winced a bit and expressed concern over Catholics who talk about the "spirit of the Council" rather than the letter of its documents. He wanted to be cautious about laymen who in his assessment overstep their bounds and justify their thinking and actions by appealing to some vague spirit of Vatican II. He then quoted a Catholic priest who said on TV, "If you ever find the spirit of the Council, kill it!"

I was shocked by that advice. I replied, "Ah, but Paul says, 'The letter brings death, the spirit gives life'" (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6). I did admit to him that there are people who carry the Council and its spirit to an extreme, but at the same time I cannot imagine that the extraordinary gathering of Bishops we call Vatican II had no lingering spirit to guide us.

Pope Benedict XVI has on occasion warned against interpreting the changes of the Council as advocating a complete rupture with the past, as discontinuity. The pope prefers to think of Vatican II as proposing reform not repudiation. He has righly expressed consern that some people ignore the letter of the documents and focus solely on what they perceive to be the "spirit of the Council."

The Church, of course, cannot simply reject the foundational dogmas of its magisterium, but it does (and sometimes must) reverse some teachings and practices advocated in the past.

For example, Pope Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors, said it was wrong to hold that "every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, led by the light of reason, he may have thought true." A hundred years later the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Liberty declared that the human person has a right to religious freedom (#2). That is a change.

Vatican II, in effect, reversed the teaching of Pope Pius IX. In no place did it change defined dogma. Pope Benedict's concern about a radical discontinuity is more than valid when we consider defined dogma. If anyone uses the notion of "the spirit of Vatican II" to overturn defined dogma, he misunderstands theology and Vatican II.

It is my conviction that we need to re-read the Council documents, to find out what they really say, and move forward in the spirit those documents convey. I have to admit that the documents often reveal the compromises in theology and wording that opposing groups of Council fathers (the bishops) demanded in order to pass the various constitutions and decrees. Nevertheless, the give-and-take wording of the documents and the instances of ambiguity do not invalidate the sense of direction the Council intended to take.

There can be no doubt that the Council emphasized the role of the laity and urged their participation "in the saving work of the Church" (cf. LG, #33). Careful to maintain the distinction between laity and hierarchy, insistent on the divine role of the ordained, the Council nonetheless confirmed the cooperation that laity and pastors must foster in order for the Church to fulfill its mission in the world (cf. LG, ##37-38).

I know there is a difference between spirit and Spirit, but since I believe the Holy Spirit was present at the Council, I also believe that there is a lingering sense of direction (a spirit) from that Holy Spirit which helps us to interpret the letter of the documents and encourages our fulfilling the mission as well. I very much oppose killing the spirit of Vatican II. If you find it, listen to it, test it against the Council's teaching, and then, if it is valid, let it be your inspiration and guide!