Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spirituality and Holiness

I've been asked more than once during my 40 years of priesthood, "What kind of priest are you anyway?" The questioner was not inquiring whether I was a diocesan priest or a member of a religious order. No, worded that way, and with a tone of displeasure, the question was posed by someone who was angry with me, in full disagreement or disgust about something I had said or done.

My answer to that indictment has always been the same: "Not a very good one!"

When I consider what priests are supposed to be, that response is not false humility but Gospel truth.

Priests are to be men of prayer, well-versed in Scripture, theology and liturgy, intent upon acquiring perfection and holiness, willing to carry out the suggestions of the pope and the bishop, solicitous for the People of God, conscious of weaknesses and marked by humility, perfect and perpetual in the continence of celibacy, conformed to Christ's poverty, supportive of their brother priests, amiable, sincere, just, courteous, constant in mind, and eager to procure the glory of God. (This list is based on the expectations in Vatican II's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests.)

Let me hasten to say that I do not expect, want, or hope for a response from anyone along the lines of "Oh, father, you're a good priest. You do all those things."

No, I list the expectations and acknowledge my failure to live up to them not to find pity, to offer excuses, or to receive a consoling word, but rather to set the stage for a brief reflection on the spiritual life of those who want to follow Jesus Christ.

When I first took seriously Jesus' words, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," I lost heart. I'll never be perfect. But when I learned that the Greek word in Matthew 5:48 translated into English as "perfect" was teleios, then I found a glimmer of hope. For teleios can mean complete, mature, adult. I cannot be perfect in the way God is, but I can work toward becoming a mature human being.

Note that Luke offered a variation on Matthew's theme; he quotes Jesus as saying, "Be oiktirmones, that is, compassionate, as your Father is compassionate." In modern terms Jesus' advice might be rendered, "Have a heart like the heart of your Father!"

Spirituality has become a hot-ticket item in our day. Many in the millennial generation (born since the mid 1980s) claim that they are spiritual just not religious.

People of religion often equate spirituality with holiness. Many of us shy away from thinking that we are holy, and yet we do want to nurture the spiritual aspects of our lives.

Without re-tracing the tortuous route which brings me to my conclusion, let me propose that people are holy simply because they are made in God's image, and the degree of their holiness increases as they honor the God in whose image they are made.

Spirituality is the road, bridge, journey or plan of action by which one acknowledges and honors the Creator and becomes more intimate with the Divine One.

I have concluded that it's OK to be on the way, to be in process. One is spiritual and holy to the degree that he or she is moving forward.

The goals and characteristics of a good priest are not dissimilar to the goals and characteristics of a good person in general. If asked, "What kind of person are you anyway?" we can reply, "Not a very good one!" with the knowledge and assurance that our God loves us anyway.

Perfection eludes us, but working on maturity and trying to have a heart are do-able. Our failures need not cause us depression or despair. As long as we are making the effort, moving forward, we are spiritual, holy people.

Jesus provided the encouragement and direction. He knew it would not be easy: "Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you" (Mt 11:28). Holiness then is not defined by moral behavior but by relationship with God, and that is the path of spirituality.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Correcting Errors

On December 8, 1864, Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical letter titled Quanta Cura ("With Great Care"). He directed the Church's hierarchy to oppose what he called a "great perversity of depraved opinions." Calling on his "apostolic authority," the pope condemned certain "evil opinions and doctrines" and commanded Catholics to eschew them as well.

Accompanying the publication of Quanta Cura was a listing of 80 condemned propositions in a document now known as Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors. Public reaction to the Syllabus, even among Catholics, was largely negative, sometimes hostile.

The problem was: The list included not only opinions which were in essence opposed to Catholic dogma, but also ideas which were not necessarily contrary to dogma.

For example, the Syllabus condemned the proposition that belief in Christ is irrational and that divine revelation is harmful to the perfection of the human race. There was little opposition to condemning that idea.

On the other hand, the Syllabus condemned the proposal that "every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true." There was much opposition to this condemnation of freedom of conscience.

Whoever put the list together committed himself a great error. The compiler took statements out of context, statements of errors previously condemned in Church and papal documents. For example, taken out of context, the idea that the pope should not come to terms with modern civilization is nonsensical, and yet that is what Error #80 seemed to say. The problem here is that the pope was using the term "civilization" in a very restricted, almost sarcastic way, to refer to new movements which undermined the Church.

At the same time, however, not all "errors" were misunderstandings. Some of the ideas condemned in the Syllabus were later recanted, or re-interpreted.

For example, the Syllabus denied that there are myths in the Bible (#7). As noted above, the pope considered freedom of religion to be untenable (#15). The list condemned the suggestion that the papacy had contributed to the division of the Church into Eastern and Western (#38). And the Syllabus insisted that it was an error to hold that "The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church" (#55). Today we do not think of these ideas as errors.

Today the Church lends support to the idea of the separation of Church and State (see Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty), even though the Syllabus condemned it.

Today Catholics are urged to engage in ecumenical dialogue (see Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism) even though in 1928 Pope Pius XI condemned the ecumenical movement (see Pius XI's Mortalium animos).

Today Catholics do not believe that Jews are rejected by God and accursed as Christ-killers (see Vatican II's Nostra aetate) even though in the 18th century Pope Pius VI forced Jews in the Papal States to live in ghettos and required them to wear badges identifying them as Jews.

The point is: The Church or, more correctly, its members, must expect to grow in understanding and to refine its practices. Of course there are dogmas that will never change; we will never in the future deny Jesus' divinity or Christ's resurrection. But not every papal opinion is dogma. Further there are times when our sitz-im-leben changes, and we must change how we think about it.

The New Testament gives Jesus' assurance that he will send the Spirit of truth to "guide you to all truth...he will declare to you the things to come" (John 16:13). Scholar Raymond Brown's exegesis of that passage is most helpful: "The declaration of the things to come consists in interpreting in relation to each coming generation the contemporary significance of what Jesus has said and done."

We have then a Spirit that helps us to grow in our understanding and to make course corrections when we go astray. With that assurance, we need not fear change or development. The Spirit of God moves us toward the truth.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Big Bang

I think it amusing and encouraging that a Belgian Catholic priest, Father George Lemaitre (1894-1966), is known as "the Father of the Big Bang." Inspired by Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, Lemaitre proposed that if taken to its logical conclusion Einstein's theory demonstrated that ours is an ever-expanding universe.

Einstein, following the common opinion of his day, believed the universe was a closed system, that it was static. Lemaitre questioned the number (the so-called cosmological constant) which Einstein put into his theory to make it work. When Lemaitre proposed his theory to the master in 1927, Einstein reportedly replied, "Your calculations are correct, but your physics is abominable."

(To be fair, Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician, using math rather than physics, had come to the same conclusion about five years before Lemaitre did, but died without ever following up with observational data. Lemaitre may be said to have re-discovered the theory of an expanding universe.)

Lemaitre's observational data was supplied in 1929 by the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, whose telescopic search of the galaxies verified that they indeed seemed to be receding from one another. Einstein finally agreed.

An unlikely "prophet" of the big bang theory was American poet and short-story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49). In an essay he entitled Eureka (1848), Poe surveys the universe and develops his theory that the start of the universe came from "a certain exertion of the diffusive power (presumed to be the Divine Volition.)" This was 80 years before Lemaitre talked with Einstein.

The Big Bang implies that the universe had a beginning. The biblical story of Yahweh's creating the heavens and the earth had some scientific basis. The continuing expansion of the universe from that initial big bang showed that in a sense creation was still happening. There is a dynamic in the world as we know it, and evolution is an obvious possibility.

Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas concluded in the 13th century that "that the world began is an article of cannot be proved demonstratively" (Summa, I, 46, 2). It seems most appropriate to me that a diocesan priest who studied Aquinas should be the one to offer a demonstration.

I am but a neophyte when it comes to following some of Aquinas' arguments. I could not explain Einstein's theory for love or money. I have only the vaguest sense of Lemaitre's discovery.

But I am thoroughly engaged by the idea that someone of Lemaitre's background in religion and Church ministry should propose this far-reaching discovery about the universe. Coming from a faith perspective I should expect the universe to be ever expanding. God has shown a super abundance of love, a prodigality of forgiveness, the sheer wastefulness of grace. The multiplicity of stars alone reflects the extravangance of his generosity. Lemaitre discovered through his study of science that the universe is still expanding. Perhaps he could have come to that same conclusion by reflecting on faith alone. Scientists would have balked at a conclusion based on religion, but the rest of us would have said, "Yes, of course the universe is dynamic! God is like that!"

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Teresa the Amiable

I became interested in Teresa Gonzalez-Quevedo when I read somewhere that she had developed a spiritual regimen which she called "A Code of Amiability." Except for the invocation in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary ("Mother most amiable"), I can't recall when last I heard that adjective nor if ever I have described anyone by it.

I'm not sure whether Thomas Aquinas ever included amiability on his list of virtues.

My Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines amiable as "having or showing pleasant, good-natured personal qualities." It further clarifies the idea with "friendly, sociable...agreeable...lovable."

The Gonzalez-Quevedo description of amiability imposes obligations:
1. To smile until a kindly smile forms readily on one's lips.
2. To repress a sign of impatience at the very start.
3. To add a word of benevolence when giving orders.
4. To reply positively when asked to do a favor.
5. To lend a helping hand to the unfortunate.
6. To please those toward whom one feels repugnance.
7. To study and satisfy the tastes of those with whom one lives.
8. To respect everyone.
9. To avoid complaining.
10. To correct, if one must, with kindness.

How great it would be to have a friend or acquaintance who lived that Code of Amiability. That person would be a saint!

As it turns out, Maria Teresa Josefina Justina Gonzalez-Quevedo is on the road to canonization. On June 9, 1983, Pope John Paul II declared this young Spanish girl from Madrid to be "Venerable."
She was born on April 12, 1930, into a well-to-do family. Her father was a well-known doctor. Like St. Therese the Little Flower, Teresa Gonzalez-Quevedo entered the Carmelite order at an early age and developed for herself a spirituality of "little things," doing her best to please God in the ordinary experiences and duties of every day life.

Teresa died in the convent on April 8, 1950, four days before her 20th birthday. On her deathbed, she raised her hands heavenward and whispered, "How beautiful it is..."
Those who knew her recalled her eagerness to visit the sick and her willingness to help her fellow novices and Sisters in the convent in any way she could. She was, they said, a model of amiability.

As her photos suggest, Teresa was a beautiful young woman, with blond hair, almond shaped eyes, and an engaging smile. Family and friends thought she carried herself with an air of elegance, but it was her inner beauty (her kindness, patience, willingness to help) that won the greatest admiration.

On one occasion, in a moment of adolescent religious fervor, young Teresa prayed to the Blessed Virgin, "Oh, Mother, grant me the grace of a religious vocation!" Later, recalling her prayer, she told a friend, "I was terribly frightened, thinking, 'And what if Our Lady really grants me this grace'?"

And the grace was given. And, despite family objections, young Teresa accepted it amiably.