Thursday, September 30, 2010

Knowledge of God

I came across the Pew Research Center's report, U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, released September 28, 2010. The researchers questioned 3,412 Americans age 18 and older about their knowledge of religion.

One of the surprising results of this report is that atheists and agnostics scored higher than Jews, Mormons, Protestants and Catholics.

The survey asked 32 questions. On average the atheist/agnostic group answered 20.9 correctly, while white Catholics scored 16.0. Other groups included Jews at 20.5, Mormons at 20.3, white mainline Protestants at 15.8, Hispanic Catholics at 11.5, and the "nothing in particular religion group" at 15.2.

Most Protestants did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation. About 43% of the Jews did not know that Maimonides, the highly venerated 12th century rabbi, was Jewish.

Of the Catholics surveyed 45% did not know that their Church believes that the bread and wine of the Eucharist do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ at Mass.

These results are rather discouraging, especially the report about Catholics and their understanding of the Eucharist.

The New Testament directs all believers, "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..." (cf.1 Peter 3:15).

The Pew research suggests that many Catholics are not prepared to do so.

Fifty years ago most U. S. Catholics could respond to questions about their religion with the concise answers they memorized from the Baltimore Catechism. Most grey-haired Catholics today can still tell you what a sacrament is: " outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."

The problem with question-and-answer catechisms was their simplicity. The answers were helpful but they left a lot unsaid. The Vatican's Catechism of the Catholic Church does not use the old method. Truth tends to require more nuance than the questions-and-answers would allow.

The Pew survey asked whether respondents read books about religion, or went online for such information. About 48% of those affiliated with a religion said that they seldom or never read books or consult websites about their own religion, and 70% said they seldom or never read about other religions.

If the results of this Pew survey are valid, then it is clear that Catholics need to catch up on their knowledge of the word of God.

Catholics need to be evangelized, that is, be presented the Gospel in such a way that they say, "Aha! Makes sense!"

Catholics need to be catechized, that is, presented the facts and insights that enable them to say, "I see it more clearly."

Catholics need some familiarity with theology, that is, to recognize that the truths of faith are often complex and require ongoing exploration, as when we say that God is one but triune.

Catholics need to participate in the liturgy, that is, to celebrate God's word and pray over its consequences for our lives.

Catholics need to be missionary, that is, to share their faith convictions with others; to evangelize.

Catholics need ministry, that is, to translate the Gospel into action, to be servants of the word.

Catholics need to hear, learn, study, celebrate, give witness, and become involved --ways in which we gain knowledge of our religion.

Baptism and Confirmation imply that a Christian is expected to hand on the Gospel to others. A Catholic must not simply consider himself Catholic; he has to be one.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

God's Mother

I think we do a disservice to Mary if we depict her as simple, meek, and mild.

Details about her are few, but the New Testament suggests that she was complex, forthright, even bold.

In Luke's portrait, Mary challenges the angel Gabriel with a rather bold question, "And how will this be since I am not in a sexual relationship?"

In John's portrayal, Mary shows the chutzpah of the stereo-typical Jewish mother. Even though Jesus seems reluctant to intervene on behalf of the bride and groom at Cana, Mary tells the catering staff, "Do whatever he tells you."

Later in his account, John recalls that Mary was there on Calvary, standing beneath the cross and accepting Jesus' instruction to be a mother to one of his disciples.

I think of Mary as a remarkably pious woman, probably a mystic, not afraid of mystery but equally inquisitive, "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety." In response to Jesus' cryptic reply, it is written that she did not understand but "kept his sayings in her heart."

The Magnificat alone defies picturing a shy, retiring, saccharine Mary. She identifies with the lowly, but gladly acknowledges that future generations will hail her as the blessed one. She proclaims God as the Almighty who acts with power against the arrogant ruling class. She celebrates God's history of raising up the poor and feeding the hungry. She trusts in the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Spiritual writer Kathleen Norris underscores the power of Mary's song. She wrote in Amazing Grace - A Vocabulary of Faith, "The Magnificat's message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation" (p. 117).

Mary's role and significance are further highlighted in these lines from a very widely read holy book:

And make mention of Mary in the Scripture, when she had withdrawn from her people to a chamber looking East. Then we sent unto her Our spirit and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man. He said: I am only a messenger of thy Lord, that I may bestow on thee a faultless son.

Then she said: How can I have a son when no mortal hath touched me, neither have I been unchaste?

He said: So it will be. Thy Lord saith: It is easy for Me. And it will be that We may make of him a revelation for mankind, and mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained.

And she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place.

This description is found in the Muslim holy book, The Koran, Surah xix, 16-22. The whole chapter is titled Mary. The religion of Islam honors her.

Theotokos, the God-bearer, is a strong, spiritually deep, courageous woman. Iconography too often diminishes her spirit and demeanor, painting instead a woman of sentimental sweetness and chemerical complexion. I refuse to believe that Mary had blond hair and blue eyes.

I prefer to picture her as a real woman, more beautiful in soul than in face -humble but durable, kind but challenging.

I wish I could show you a picture of a statue of Mary that adorns the wall of the chapel at St. Vincent's Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Standing tall, she rests her cheek in the palm of her hand, and looks down to the chairs where the seminarians and priests sit for prayer. The gesture and the look on her face are open to varying interpretations, but I think her expression, if verbalized and punctuated with a sigh, would say, "Oh my.....!"

Now that's how I think of God's Mother.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Uniformity vs. Unity

Starting in Advent of 2011 English-speaking Catholics will use a new translation for Mass, the Revised Roman Missal, Third Edition.

It is said that the new translation better reflects the Latin text. It is a "word-for-word translation" as opposed to the "dynamic equivalent translation" we have been using for nearly 40 years.

For example, the Latin expression "Et cum spiritu tuo," when rendered word-for-word, is "And with your spirit." We have been saying, "And also with you."

The translation we have been using since 1974 was thought to better reflect the way we speak English (hence, "dynamic equivalent"). The new translation will have "And with your spirit" (the "word-for-word" method of translating --though if we really translated word-for-word we would would be saying, "And with spirit your").

There have been rumblings among clergy and laity alike about having to make a change, about clumsy expressions and poor grammar in the new word-for-word rendering, about Vatican (Roman) control of a vernacular translation.

It is well-known that fear of Vatican control over local issues is a stumbling block in discussions about the reunion of Anglicans and others with Roman Catholics.

The former (now retired) Archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, addressed this issue in his book The Reform of the Papacy (Crossroad Publishing, 1999). He wrote:

One of the great ecumenical concerns today and an obstacle to Christian unity, is the fear that the Pope can arbitrarily intervene in the affairs of local or regional churches and that he does in fact do so. For instance, the repeated rejection by Rome of decisions made by the Episcopal Conference of the United States {that is, the US bishops conference} is interpreted by many Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants as an indication of "what it would be like" if they entered into full communion with Rome.

One of the major issues at the Second Vatican Council was the relationship between the authority of the pope and the authority of the bishops as succesors of the apostles. Many Catholics assume that the pope is the head of the corporation and the bishops simply take orders from the pope. That assumption is incorrect; the long-standing, biblically-based tradition of the Church indicates otherwise.

Bishops have authority by virtue of their ordination; they do not have to be given authority by the pope. This relationship between pope and bishops is complex. Chapter three of Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document about the Church, tries to explain the relationship; it is only partially successful.

In 1995 Pope John Paul II issued the letter Ut unum sint ("That they all may be one"), in which he acknowledged that "the Catholic Church's conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved...the visible sign and guarantor of unity, constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians" (cf. UUS, #88).

The pope explained that the Church cannot renounce papal primacy because it is essential to the Church's mission, but the way of exercising that primacy "is nonetheless open to a new situation" (#95).

This acknowledgement by Pope John Paul II excited many within and outside the Catholic Church. When this admission that the way the pope exercises his primacy could be modified was added to Vatican II's recognition of the bishops' local authority, it seemed as if the Vatican was going to promote the freedom of bishops' conferences to lead their people on the local level. This freedom was theirs by divine right but had been severely curtailed by papal interventions over the past few centuries.

However, the ongoing and constant insistence of the Vatican that the pope and his Curia are the final judge of local matters undermines the teachings of both Ut unum sint and Lumen Gentium.

So it must be asked, "Is not the Vatican's modifying critique of the new English translation proposed by the United States bishops another blow to restoration of Church unity?" Is the Vatican's exercise of primacy in this non-essential matter of a word-for-word translation worth the price?

It sends the message to our separated brothers and sisters that if they unite with Rome they too will lose autonomy in non-essential matters. Would Anglicans have to give up their tradition of married clergy? Would Greek Orthodox churches have to submit their rituals to Rome for approval?

There seems to be a debilitating conflict between the Vatican's need for uniformity and Jesus' prayer for unity.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mystery of Faith

I don't like not knowing. I don't like ambiguity. I don't like mystery. But if I'm going to be a Christian I have to make friends with all three.

St. Paul put it simply, "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Even though God has spoken to us in past times in partial and various ways through the prophets, and more recently and powerfully through his Son, (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2), we still do not know everything.

How could a puny human mind ever comprehend the height, breath, or depth of the wisdom of God? God's ways are unsearchable, his judgments inscrutable. "Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" ( Romans 11:34).

Jesus ' teaching was not without ambiguity. He says we must love everybody, even our enemies (cf. Matthew 5:44), and then he insists that only those who hate their parents, their siblings, even their very selves can be his disciples (cf. Luke 14:26). He was fond of couching his message in paradox: to be the leader, you must be the servant (cf Mt. 20:27).

And the mysteries of the kingdom have never been resolved. Jesus spoke about them in parables (cf. Lk 8:8-10) but even when he explained his stories, his disciples were still confused. "But they understood nothing of this; the word remained hidden from them, and they failed to comprehend what he said" (Lk 18:34).

St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the existence of God can be proved. His first argument was based on the need for a prime mover. Then the need for an uncaused cause. And then the need for some intelligent being to direct natural things to their end.

Others have argued that "evil in the world" suggests there is no God, for if God is loving then God should prevent evil, especially the evils of natural disasters. Since God does not prevent such evils, either he is powerless to do so or he is not all that loving.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal concluded that one cannot prove that God exists nor prove that he does not exist. Unable to offer proof one way or the other, Pascal proposed what has become known as Pascal's Wager. He reasons, in effect, that although we cannot prove or disprove God's existence, one has better odds in believing in God since one loses nothing if there is no God but gains eternal life if there is.

Christians come at this issue from an altogether different angle. They generally believe in God's existence because the world and its complexity require an intelligent creator, but they add further that faith is a gift from God, freely offered to those willing to accept it.

Christians not only believe in God, they also believe that God made the world, loves it dearly, and sent his divine Son to help us cope with the mess we have made of it.

This Son of God we call Jesus, and Christians accept him as their Savior and their Lord. They accept his message as Gospel truth and they make an effort, with varying degrees of success, to overcome evil and live according to the divine plan.

There remains for many of us, however, in spite of our faith, a degree of uneasiness. Faith by its very nature implies risk. It means trusting in something, or in this case, Someone.

The uneasiness that leads me to feel uncomfortable about not knowing, about ambiguity, and about mystery is normal and natural, but it does not have to rob me of peace of mind.

Saints and mystics have long offered the assurance that the uneasiness of faith can be reduced by deepening one's personal relationship with God. Faith, then, is supported not by reasoned proofs for God's existence nor by quotes from Jesus' Gospel, but rather rests on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Prayer can be a a religious exercise of words and actions and song, or it can be an avenue of intimacy with the Divine One.

If or when I finally come to trust Jesus implicitly, I will not need the surety of answers nor will I mind the ambiguity or mystery which faith implies.

I have come to believe that the best answer anyone can give to those who question why I believe in God or why I am a Christian is simply, "Because I've met him. I know him. We're friends."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hidden Treasures

Two Northern Kentucky school teachers, Mac Cooley and Jerry Gels, have researched and organized two superb Cincinnati walking tours: "Queen City Underground: Breweries, Bosses, and Burials" and the newest "Civil War Cincinnati: Heroes, Halls, and Holy Places."

The highlight of the Queen City Underground Tour is the cavernous beer cellar under the old Kaufman Brewery in the Guildhaus Building on Vine Street near Liberty. Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood once had 130 breweries, bars, and beer halls, and remnants of those glory days are part of the tour and open to tour participants.

Nearby in St. Francis Seraph Church is a crypt where human remains were re-interred in the mid-nineteenth century and tombstones were used to pave the floor.

The Civil War Cincinnati Tour pauses at Washington Park to recall the military recruiting and drills common there in the early 1860s. Across the street is Memorial Hall, with a 600-seat auditorium, built by The Grand Army of the Republic and Hamilton County to honor the military service of local citizens.

Also on the tour is the now-closed Emery Theater built in 1911 to house the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra's new director was 27-year-old Leopold Stokowski. Tourists can see for themselves why the Emery is believed to be the first concert hall in America with no obstructed view of the stage.

A couple blocks away is Old St. Mary's Catholic Church, whose bell-tower, it is said, served as a watch tower during the Civil War against an invasion by Confederates across the Ohio River.

Many if not most citizens are unaware of Cincinnati's history and treasures. Once known as "The Paris of the United States," often dubbed "Porkopolis," nicknamed "The Gateway to the South and the West," the Queen City is being refurbished and its hidden treasures are coming to light once again.

Few who drive downtown's Central Parkway realize that this thoroughfare used to be the site of the Miami-Erie Canal, nor do they know that remnants of a failed and long-defunct subway system still remain below the surface.

It's fair to say that wherever people settle, they leave behind remnants of their culture which in time become cherished relics.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is surely such a site. The German influence is obvious in Over-The -Rhine. Other ethnic and cultural details can be uncovered all over the city.

It makes me wonder what future generations will discover about us. Will they wonder about our accomplishments the way we marvel at the ovens and lager-beer caves under Vine Street? Will they be impressed with the beauty of our decorations the way we stand in awe of the ornamentation in Memorial Hall on Elm Street?

Sometimes, when I assess the art, music, drama, literature and architecture of our day, I draw the conclusion that we are in a New Dark Age.

What shall we leave behind?

Put that question in the context of the Gospel, and we look not to things that perish but to things that last.

Cincinnati has many hidden treasures, and they are revealed only when I go look for them. Perhaps the same is true of life in general. Maybe I need to look around and see the good that people do and realize it shall live after them. Maybe I need to go look for the treasures around me. Maybe I need to become a tourist.

We and everything we manufacture will one day turn to dust. Only one thing lasts, and that is love. And so I question, "Where is my treasure?" And, "Will it last?"

(Further information about Cincinnati tours at Further information about lasting treasure at Matthew 6:19-21.)