Sunday, December 18, 2011

Merry Christmass

It amuses me that many people wish others a Merry Christmas without any awareness of what that greeting means.

The Spanish-speaking peoples say, "Feliz Navidad," which means "Happy Nativity." The Italians say much the same thing in their "Buon Natale." The French duplicate it in "Joyeux Noel." All three refer to the birth of Christ.

The Germans wish you "Frőhliche Weihnachten," which is roughly rendered, "Happy Consecrated (i.e., Holy) Night."

I like the sound of the Hawaiian greeting, "Mele Kalikimaka," borrowed directly from the English "Merry Christmas," but pronounced quite differently because there is no "r" or "s" in Hawaiian.

And that brings us back to the greeting English-speaking people use. It comes from the old English word crīstesmæsse, which means "Christ's Mass."

The celebration of Jesus' birth used to be called "the Christ Mass," and from that expression came our "Merry Christmas."

It is true that we do not know the date or even  the year of Jesus' birth. We conclude from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

St. Francis of Assisi, however, helped the Middle Ages think more of Jesus' birth when he put together a Christmas creche, the forerunner of the crib sets we see every year in our churches, in our homes, and sometimes in public places.

I hear that Members of the House of Representatives have been told that they may not say "Merry Christmas" anymore in their official mail if they wish to use the franking privilege, that is, if they want to get their postage paid at tax payer's expense.

And every year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is controversy about whether retailers
will allow their clerks and cashiers to wish customers "Merry Christmas."

I suspect that in a few years there will be a push to give December 25 a new name.

We know that "Season's Greetings" is already a common euphemsism. Maybe the PCP (the Politically Correct Police) will being on enough pressure to designate December 25 as "Greetings Day" or "Peace On Earth Day" or "Winter's Holiday" (although that last one won't work in the southern hemisphere).

Well, whatever they try to foist off on us, it will still be for Christians the feast of the birth of Jesus Christ.

And even if the PCP are successful in coining a new name for it, many of us English-speaking Catholics will cling to our traditional "Merry Christmas!"

That greeting will make us smile because on that holy day we gather at Mass to celebrate the Incarnation --our faith conviction that God took on human nature and pitched his tent among us.

It will still be Jesus' birthday no matter what the PCP call it. And we will still celebrate a Merry Christ Mass.

And I happily wish you a Merry Christ Mass too!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Prevenient Grace

Prevenient grace?

At Mass on December 8, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Prayer over the Offerings used the term "prevenient grace" to describe God's intervention to keep Mary "untouched by any stain of sin."

Prior to our use of the new Roman English translation we prayed, "You kept her free from sin from the first moment of her life."

The expression "prevenient grace" does not fall trippingly off the tongue. The Council of Trent used the Latin "a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia" (rendered  "a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ" in the English translation I use of Trent, session 6, chapter 5.)

The theology behind Trent's "prevenient or predisposing grace" is the Catholic Church's conviction that "actual justification in adults takes its origin from a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ ...with no existing merits on their side" (ibid). Thus, those who had turned from God by sins are disposed by God's grace to turn back and become justified by freely assenting to that grace.

The term "prevenient grace" is probably more familiar among Calvinists and Methodists, who disagree with one another about the fine points of the concept. Calvinists hold that God's will alone brings salvation, rejecting the Wesleyan Methodist' belief that people must respond to the grace. Calvinists say that grace is either common or special,  and  special grace is given only to the elect and is irresistible. Wesleyans insist that prevenient grace can be accepted or rejected.

Further, Calvinists reject what they call "universal enablement," the idea that God offers salvation and justification to everybody.

The predominant use of the term "prevenient grace" in Protestant circles differs somewhat from the Catholic use of the term regarding Mary's Immaculate Conception.

The Catholic theology of the special prerogative given to Mary (to be "conceived without sin") does indeed imply a prevenient grace. This particular prevenient grace was given uniquely to Mary, given before and in anticipation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I never dreamed the new Roman English translation of Mass prayers would lead to such a maze of theologizing.

I hope to be better prepared next December 8th to enunciate that peculiar phrase, but I suspect I will still be wishing I could say, "You kept her free from sin from the first moment of her life." That seems to me easier to say and understand, and for me a lot  more joyful and prayerful.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there was a CEO who was painfully aware that his business was failing, but he was afraid to confront the reasons for the failure head-on.

Fear seemed to be prevalent throughout the company. The board was afraid of the CEO,  the CEO  was afraid of the board, and the management teams were afraid of both. Some individual site managers were afraid too; many were frustrated, disconsolate, or angry.

Customers were perplexed by the company's poor showing. It had a great product, the public need was as strong as ever, but consumption was down.

Recognizing that some top level response was needed, the CEO and the board issued a series of memos. The memos did not address the issues actually responsible for the decline. Instead they cited employees for failing to follow the policy handbook or they reiterated policies that had proved ineffective for decades.

One memo insisted that employees in their official business capacity should use a style of language which was awkward and in some cases simply odd.

Many managers, employees, and even some customers tried to understand and implement the company directives. Some responded half-heartedly. Some walked away.

The owner of the business showed remarkable restraint. He waited patiently for the fear to dissipate, for the board to review its mission, for the customers to return. He never gave up, but sometimes the customers and the site managers, the supervisors and the management team members wondered, "Where is he?  When will he step in and do something about the business he so deeply loves?"

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Witness To Jesus

Odd, isn't it, that perhaps the most talked-about and controversial witness to Jesus and the Christian faith in America today is a professional football player?

Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, is praised by some and ridiculed by others for falling down on one knee and assuming a posture of prayer on the football field.

When he played for the Florida Gators he sometimes wrote a Bible verse on the black strip under his eyes. It is said that in 2009, during and shortly after a televised college bowl championship game, when Tebow wore "John 3:16," Google counted 92 million hits on that exact New Testament verse.

In 2010 the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) issued a new rule prohibiting players from wearing messages on their eye black. Some say the rule was inspired by Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor's putting on his eye black the name "Mike Vick," his tribute to the pro quarterback who was charged with the felony of promoting dog fighting and the gambling associated with it. Vick pleaded guilty.

Others say the NCAA rule was in response to Tebow's evangelizing on the field. NCAA officials denied that assumption, but many dub the decision "the Tebow Rule." The NFL already had a similar rule in place so Tebow did not carry his custom into professional play.

In 2010 Tebow won plaudits and condemnation from fans for appearing in two television commercials during Super Bowl XLIV. The ads were sponsored by Focus on the Family, an organization on the Christian right founded by James Dobson. Tebow was telling his personal story in a pro-life context, and several pro-choice groups condemned the ad.

A November 24, 2011, article on the Huffington Post website confirmed that teammates and coaches believe Tebow is honest and sincere, that his commitment to Christ is as real off the field as on.

Tebow wrote in his autobiography Through My Eyes, "For as long as I can remember, this was instilled in me: to have fun, love Jesus and others, and tell them about Him."

As a Christian I am proud of Tebow's witness. As a priest I am a bit embarrassed --not by his witness but by my failure to be as committed an evangelist.

Granted his "pulpit" is much bigger than mine, but his commitment to Christ and giving witness to Him is bigger too.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Climate in Washington

I just returned from preaching a parish mission in Seattle.

I asked myself on the plane ride back, "What did you learn from this experience?"

The most surprising bit of information was about Seattle's weather. I had the idea that Washington state had cold and very snowy winters. The residents of Edmonds, Washington, just north of Seattle, corrected my misconception.

They told me that they have relatively mild winters (compared to Ohio), and that they seldom get more than two inches of snow at a time. (They were quick to add that weather was different on the east side of the state. There it snowed more and got lots colder.)

I did a little research and found this puzzzling description: "Because the Cascade Mountains run parallel to the coast the entire length of the state, Washington is divided into two distinct climates. The western third has a temperate rain forest climate, while the eastern two-thirds of the state is warmer and drier."

Just a short walk into one of the parks in north west Washington confirmed that it was rain forest. The moss grows on all sides of the trees!

I hadn't expected Washingtonians (at least the people along Puget Sound) to be so concerned about snow, but as several said, "We gotta lot of hills around here, and it doesn't take much snow to make our streets treacherous and our roads impassable."

I'll remember that when the white stuff piles up on the Queen City. There will be a momentary experience of pride when I reflect that we Buckeyes can negotiate the icy conditions with more daring and success than our compatriots in the Evergreen State.

Though conversations about the weather were frequent and sometimes animated, and though I had to change my faulty perceptions about the climate, I did learn again (as so many times before and everywhere else), we Catholics are all trying to cope with similar situations, problems, and hopes no matter where we live.

It is common for us to ask, "Why? Why does God allow some people to suffer so much more than others?"

"Why does the Church (read 'Church leadership') so often fail us and focus on the institution rather than on the Kingdom?"

"Why are so many nominal Catholics choosing not to participate in Sunday Mass?"

"What can I do to grow in my spiritual life?"

Preaching a parish mission is an opportunity to probe some of the questions, acknowledge the human dimension, and offer encouragement and direction for our ongoing conversion.

The weather may differ in one part of the country from another. The people may be better educated in one setting than in another. The economy may be more secure in one region over another.

But in the basics, the people, whether they are Catholics in California, Florida, New York, Louisiana, or Toledo, Ohio, are very much alike.

Every parish I have visited has a dedicated core of members, taking on, whether as employees or volunteers, the mission of the Church in their locale. They welcome and share their faith with potential converts in the RCIA program. They teach religion to children and adults. They care for the daily needs of liturgy, building maintenance, fundraising, outreach to the poor.

They and many of their fellow parishioners are open to growing in their understanding of God and in their relationship with Jesus Christ.

If Washington's climate was one of the new things I learned during this recent parish mission experience, one of the old and consistent was that the People of God, no matter where they are, share a common heritage and hope.

More than a little rain falls in western Washington and the state deserves its "Evergreen" sobriquet.

But beyond the weather, the religious and spiritual climate seems to be as full of the mystery and searching and loving that must characterize the Kingdom of God.

They do not always have the answers, but I think it is safe to say that many are at least asking the right questions.

Their confidence in God allows them to say (at least on occasion), "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy But Disgruntled

I read two articles about priests recently and thought them at odds with each other. 

The first article was a review of Why Priests Are Happy by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti,  the  results of  the data collected from two surveys (the first done in 2004, the second in 2009) concerning the psychological and spiritual health of priests. 

The second article was titled "Push For Reform Grows in Austria," a report about the Austrian Priests' Initiative's "Appeal to Disobedience," pledging to challenge the Vatican's stand on such issues as ordination of married men, ordination of women, and giving communion to everyone who approaches the altar in good faith. 

Rossetti is a clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at the Catholic University of America. He concludes that priests as a whole are highly satisfied with their lives. 

Among Rossetti's findings are these statistics: 92.4% of priests are happy overall being priests; 88.8% have good morale; 76.6% have a good relationship with their bishop; 75.1% say celibacy has been a personal grace; 82.1% would choose to remain celibate if priests were allowed to marry. 

Two areas of concern, Rossetti said, are that priests have excessive workloads and that divisions over political and social issues may pose a threat to priests' sense of unity. 

The Austrian Priests' Initiative was founded in 2006 by Msgr. Helmut Schuller, former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna and a well-known media personality in Austria. He is currently a parish priest in a small town north of Vienna. 

About 400 priests acknowledge membership in the API, roughly one in ten active priests in Austria. They are calling for reform in several areas of the Church's teaching and practice. Questioned about their pledge to be disobedient, spokespeople for the group reply that there is a higher obedience to conscience and to God. 

API members (plus some 12,000 lay Catholics who support the initiative) think that Rome is backtracking on the reforms and direction set by the Second Vatican Council. When members met with Cardinal Christoph Schőnborn of Vienna, the prelate countered their appeal to disobedience with an appeal for unity. Austrian media reported that Schőnborn told the leaders that anyone who thinks Rome is on a wrong track must leave the Catholic Church. 

A spokesman for the Archdiocese told Catholic News Service, however, that the situation is not as dramatic as the Austrian media make it seem. 

My initial response to these two stories was confusion. How can priests be so happy (the Rossetti study was American) and yet so upset with the Vatican (the API is European). 

Does the Rosssetti study reflect the smoke-screen of the dysfunctional family which to all appearances is happy and well-adjusted, but behind closed doors is miserable and broken?  Are priests reluctant to tell the truth about their feelings and experiences lest they scandalize the laity? Would they answer what they thought they should say rather than what they personally hold? 

Are the priests of the Austrian initiative unhappy rebels, self-centered pastors, pathetic examples of vocations gone bad? Are they reneging on their ordination promise of obedience to the bishop? If they misinterpret the role of the hierarchy, or their personal obligation to obey their own consciences, is the same thing true about the priests expressing similar concerns in Ireland, Germany and the United States? 

While I initially thought the two articles (and the two groups of priests) to be completely at odds with each other, I'm not so sure they are really polar opposites. 

Could a man be perfectly happy being a priest, and still be upset with the direction he sees the Church is going? Could a cleric recognize that one answer to the priest shortage is allowing older married men to say Mass and still have good morale? Could a priest think celibacy is a grace for him and still support ordaining married men? 

As psychologists and spiritual writers frequently note, people need not operate solely in a binary system of either/or. Dualism can give way, especially as we get older, to a unitive system, a non-dualistic mind of both/and. 

Episcopal priest/teacher Cynthia Bourgeault, PhD, has been encouraging people to develop non-dual thinking as a way of understanding the teachings of Jesus. She sees that mindset in the beatitudes, e.g., "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God." Blessedness and poverty seem dualities incompatible with one another, but Jesus sees it differently.

She advises her students to let the heart be an organ of spiritual perception. "The heart," she explains, "can pick up subtle signals from all levels of reality, not just from what's happening in the rational...When the heart-awareness becomes fully formed within a person, he or she will be operating out of non-dual consciousness." 

If I understand Bourgeault correctly there need not be a great disconnect in a priest happy with his priesthood but upset with the way the Church is going. 

I believe that to be the case among my priest friends and acquaintances. Even if they grumble about the new translation in the Roman Missal and think the Vatican is backtracking on Vatican II, it doesn't mean they are unhappy being priests. In fact, it may mean they take both vocation and Church very seriously.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Favorite Bible Quotes

I suspect that everyone who reads the Bible has a favorite quote.

It is an extraordinary piece of literature, recording at least two millennial of speculation and insight. Though rising from the experience of a rather small nation, the biblical stories have a well-deserved reputation in the human search for wisdom.

I read somewhere that philosophers in second century BC Athens were inspired by the wisdom of the Septuagint when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek.

King Solomon, of course, developed a reputation for wisdom. Three biblical books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Wisdom) are said to have been composed under his patronage. 1 Kings 10 reports that the queen of Sheba, hearing of Solomon's reputation, came to visit him and posed many questions. And the Bible says, "King Solomon explained everything she asked about, and there remained nothing hidden from him that he could not explain to her" (v. 3).

The Book of Proverbs is inspiring. The wisdom is obvious. "A mild answer calms wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (15:1).  "Train a boy in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not swerve from it" (22:6). "Let another praise you --not your own mouth" (27:2).

I like the blessing attributed to Aaron: "The Lord bless you and keep you! the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26).

When I have parents in front of me, I call their attention to Leviticus 20:9, "Anyone who curses his father or mother shall be put to death."

Perhaps the most romantic quote in Scripture is in Genesis 29:20. Jacob agreed to work for his uncle for seven years in exchange for Rachel's hand in marriage. And the Bible says, "So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, yet they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her."

Maybe the funniest line is Genesis 30:22. God has been very busy giving Jacob one son after another through wife Leah and two maidservants, but Rachel has produced none. It strikes me humorous that in the midst of all this baby-making, we read "Then God remembered Rachel."

Of course the New Testament provides memorable lines as well. Recall Jesus' reluctance to help the couple who ran out of wine at Cana. He tells Mary, "My hour has not yet come," but his mother is not discouraged. She tells the servants, "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5).

Paul's first letter to the Corinthians contains the most beautiful and accurate description of love ever written, "Love is patient, love is kind; It is not jealous, is not pompous; it is not inflated...It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails" (13:4-8).

One line, however, makes me smile, gives me comfort, and will please me immeasurably if I ever get to hear it addressed to me. It was Jesus' invitation to his disciples after a long and fruitless night of fishing. He said to them, "Come, have breakfast" (John 21:12).

I suspect everyone who reads the Bible has a favorite quote. What is yours?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Words, Words, Words

Just before Mass one morning I handed the server the key and said, "Put this in the tabernacle for me." She left the sacristy immediately to do so.

As I approached the altar for Mass I glanced at the tabernacle, but I could not see the key in the door. "Perhaps," I thought, "she laid it in front of the tabernacle."

When I went to the tabernacle to retrieve the ciborium, I saw no key --not in the lock, not in front of the tabernacle, not anywhere.

I tried pulling the small door open anyway, and it moved. Then I saw it --the server had done just as requested. She put the key in the tabernacle! She had unlocked the door, carefully laid the key inside, and closed the door. I remembered how I worded my request. I didn't say, "Put the key in the lock." I said, "Put the key in the tabernacle." She did as I had asked.

Language can be tricky. My friends from Pittsburgh still talk about gum bands and tubes, and say, "Yuns." I have to translate: rubber bands, tunnels, and y'all!

When we communicate with people of other languages and cultures, we have to be aware that our figures of speech may be misleading or incomprehensible to them. If I say, "He kicked the bucket" or "He bought the farm," most Americans understand these expressions as metaphors for death. In another language or culture our expression may be taken "literally" (word for word), and my affirmation of death is misunderstood.

Failure to understand language and culture can muddy our interpretation of Sacred Scripture. When scholars study the Jewishness of biblical expressions, they often discover new interpretations of the biblical accounts.

For example, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom (cf. Matthew 19:24). The New Testament uses the Greek word kamēlon, which undoubtedly means "camel." But, if we translate that expression back into Aramaic (the language Jesus was likely using when he made that statement), Jesus may have said  the Aramaic word gamla which can mean either camel or rope. "Camel" strengthens the incongruity, but "rope" makes more sense.

When Jesus advises the crowd that if the eye causes one to sin, he should tear it out (cf Mt. 5:29), he is using a figure of speech. It was not a command that we should maim ourselves, even though the great second century theologian Origen took the passage literally and mutilated himself. The imagery means take appropriate steps to avoid sin.

Again in the sermon on the mount, Jesus speaks of a good eye and a bad eye (cf Mt 6:22-23). It is possible that Jesus was using a first century Jewish idiom in which "good eye" (aiyin tovah in Hebrew) meant generous, and bad eye (aiyin ra'ah) meant stingy. That passage in Matthew takes on a different tone when read in the light of that imagery.

Our ability to communicate, to understand another's words, is one of the best gifts God has given humanity. Words are so powerful that the Bible uses that very term, logos, to describe the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).

The importance of words and communication are obvious in today's culture (text messaging is one minor example) and in our economy (I wonder how many satellites we can put up there). Yet for all our technology, for all our iPads, Bluetooths (or is it Blueteeth?), lap tops, etc., we have to ask whether we really are communicating.

Given how easy it is to mis-communicate, to misinterpret, to jump to conclusions, we are well advised to slow down and give thought to what we hear and say.

Happily for President John Kennedy, the people gathered in Berlin for his visit knew what he meant when he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," even though many knew that a Berliner was a type of donut.
Whether communicating with a server in the sacristy or trying to interpret a passage from sacred Scripture, I recognize the need to pay attention to the meaning of the words and the expressions in which they are used.

I like knowing that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." I like the proximity and the challenge.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rescinding Vatican II

Even as I look forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first session of the Second Vatican Council, I am concerned that over the past five decades we have seen the slow dissolution of the effects of the aggiornomento we welcomed so cheerfully.

On the Council's opening day (October 11, 1962) Pope John XXIII told the assembly gathered in St. Peter's in Rome that it was imperative that the Church "bring herself up to date where required" and that "nowadays the bride of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than of severity."

It seems to me that “being up to date” and “using the medicine of mercy” were such revolutionary ideas that some of the Church’s leadership feared the consequences of implementation. Within a few years of the Council’s conclusion the aggiornamento express was considerably slowed by Vatican warnings, fears, and control.

Rescissions and curbs have occurred in several areas, such as in the exercise of the authority of bishops' conferences, but perhaps the most obvious examples are in the area of sacred liturgy.
The first major focus of the Council was the Church's liturgy. At the close of the second session the Council definitively approved its first major document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, with 2147 votes in favor, 4 against, and 1 abstention.

Neither the Constitution on the Liturgy nor the Council Fathers spelled out the details of the proposed renewal of the liturgy, but this document provided the principles for its renewal by subsequent commissions and committees.

The bishops agreed on such matters as:
1) the rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity, within the people's powers of comprehension, not requiring much explanation (#34);

2) rigid uniformity should be avoided in matters that do not involve faith or the good of the whole community (#37);

3) territorial ecclesiastical authority, such as bishops' conferences, shall specify adaptations, especially regarding administration of the sacraments, the liturgical language, and sacred music (#39);

4) one of the prime guiding norms was to be the promotion of full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful (#14).

The work on renewal of the liturgy was quickly set in motion, and a major thrust of the renewal of the liturgy was inspired by decades of research into early Church liturgy. Looking back to the past, to how things used to be in the first centuries, gave permission and impetus to how the renewal could take shape.

In subtle ways, however, over the past twenty years, the changes prompted by the liturgical renewal have been revoked or undermined. For example, communion by intinction (the communicant could dip the sacred host into the precious blood) and the purification of sacred vessels by lay men and women are now verboten. And then, out of the blue, we were told we could no longer vocalize at Mass God's name (Yahweh). We can still say Jesus but we can’t say Yahweh!

Next Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree allowing the use of the old Tridentine Liturgy, the very rites the Council had revised. One of the Vatican Bureau has instriucted seminaries to offer an optional course for seminarians and priests who wish to use this extraordinary form, the Tridentine Mass

And now the Vatican has over-ridden the English translation of the Roman Missal formulated by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and insists on a more literal translation of the Latin which smacks of rigid uniformity and is clearly a severe challenge to the comprehension of the priest-presider as well as the people. This new Roman translation is to be used beginning November 27, 2011.

And most recently, on September 21, 2011, the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona, notified its Catholic faithful that communion from the cup would be restricted to special feasts and occasions. (Note that  on November 7, 2011, Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead rescinded this restriction and apologized for any "pastoral problems, hurt and confusion caused by mishandling the dialogue and communication about the norms.")

For many Catholics the Second Vatican Council is ancient history –it was held from 1962 to 1965. To me it seems like yesterday.

It is the most significant event in Church history in my lifetime. It released a spirit and put into writing a pattern for how the Church should fulfill its mission in the 21st century. Church law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church confirm that "the college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council" (Canon 337; CCC 884).
To ignore it, to try to reverse it, is in my humble opinion counter-productive and a stifling of the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Join the revolution. Support Vatican II. Read the documents and celebrate its 50th anniversary!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The New Roman Missal

I just received a copy of the third edition of The Roman Missal, the book of Mass prayers we formerly called The Sacramentary.

The new translation, in my humble opinion, is going to be more difficult for priests to proclaim and pray than the former one.

When I compare the new with the old I see the difference.

The old translation of the opening prayer for the First Sunday of Advent was:

All-powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The new translation of the opening prayer for the First Sunday of Advent is:

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The priest-presider must not only pray the prayer he must proclaim it, or say it aloud.

The presider will have to make a special effort to clarify that the personal pronoun "they" refers back to "your faithful" (the antecedent is at the start of the prayer) and not to "righteous deeds" which is closer to the pronoun.

I do not think the congregation will have much difficulty with the "peoples' responses" to the prayers.
Within a few weeks "And with your spirit" will come as easily to mind as "And also with you." The burden is going to be on the priests.

Those who have been praying the Mass prayers for 40 years are likely to stumble when the familiar "Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer..." becomes "Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you..."

Even more troublesome will be the change from "Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven."

The new version, "Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins," changes the wording but also unnecessarily raises the theological problem of what "for many" means.

The wording changes from "for all" to "for many," but we have to clarify that the meaning is the same, that "for many" means "for all."

Most of the preparatory programs and presentations have assured us that implementation of the new translation provides us with an excellent opportunity for reflecting on the Mass and renewing our commitment to this central act of worship.

The United States Catholic Bishops website explains that "the entire Church in the United States has been blessed with this opportunity to deepen its understanding of the Sacred Liturgy, and to appreciate its meaning and importance in our lives." The revised translation is touted as "New words: a deeper meaning but the same Mass."

The saving grace of implementing the new Roman Missal will surely be the revised emphasis on the liturgy and its significance for the Catholic faithful. The problem that will linger after the initial enthusiasm is the translation itself.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Errors & Holy Indifference

There is a virtue in the spiritual life called "holy indifference."

It is the ability to allow things to unfold without getting flustered by disappointments or unexpected happenings. One of the areas where I need "holy indifference" is in the internet.

I have tried to change notices on this blog but the web browser refuses to let me in. I feel fortunate that I have been able to type this post.

The message I keep getting is as clear as mud to me: Error: possible problem with your *.gwt.xml module file. The compile time user.agent value (ie9) does not match the runtime user.agent value (ie8). Expect more errors.

If by some chance I do not have new posts or cannot update the mass schedule for awhile, know that I am still trying to figure out why the ie9 does not match the ie8.

In our ever-expanding universe, with its countless problems, my inability to connect and update is minor, very minor. But it does give me reason to practice "holy indifference."

It is hard for most of us to say, "Your will be done" and mean it. It is my impression that Jesus had to work himself up to it during his agony in the garden. I shouldn't be surprised if I find it difficult too.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Info For Catholic Voters

An article in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR, 9/16/11) provided polling data to show that U. S. Catholics pay little attention to their Bishops' statements on how Church teaching ought to influence political issues.

The U. S. Bishops update every four years a document they call "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."

The 2007 version included sections on why the Church speaks on public policy and on the policy positions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The NCR article noted a new poll which indicates that only 16 per cent of U. S. Catholics are aware of the bishops' document, and just 3 percent say they have read it.

For some reason U. S. Catholics pay little attention to what their bishops are teaching regarding politics and social issues. The same poll shows that only 4 per cent of adult U. S. Catholics think the bishops' statement was or would be a major influence in how they would vote.

The wall of separation between Church and State is a major concern to many Americans. Some think that this wall is a guarantee of freedom of religion, while others think it a guarantee of freedom from.

The term "wall of separation" is found in President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut who were concerned that the new president's policies might infringe on freedom of religion. Jefferson wrote to assure them that there was a wall of separation between the two, and he would respect that wall.

In the present political climate Jefferson's analogy has been used by courts across the land to enforce complete and total separation of religious sentiment from the secular and civic world around us.

It may come as a surprise to some, however, that at the beginning, our nation and our national leaders embraced the notion that religion was an essential support for the new government. They did not propose one religious tradition over another, but they did recognize the value, indeed necessity, of having a God-fearing citizenry if the democratic/republican form of government was to endure.

In his farewell address to Congress on September 17, 1796, outgoing President George Washington was clear, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."

Washington went on to descibe religion and morality as the great pillars of human happiness, the firmest props of the duties of citizens. "The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them," he said, noting further that "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

From the beginning of the great experiment we call the United States, there was the recognition, indeed expectation, that religion would inform public opinion and form the laws of our republic. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was a guarantee of freedom of religion not freedom from.

Religion has a role to play in the formation of the citizenry, and the U. S. Catholic Bishops have an obligation to teach the principles, precepts and policies that characterize the Catholic faith.

Further, Catholics have an obligation to study those teachings and form their consciences in the light of the demands of their faith.

What is not demanded, however, what is not good for the country or the Church, is thoughtless application of the bishops' teachings to the politics of the country.

The U. S. Bishops' statement is deliberately titled "Forming Consciences."

The demand for forming one's conscience is essential. The bishops teach, for example, that "care for the earth is a duty of our faith." This statement requires thoughtful consideration and leads to decisions about how best to implement the conclusion. Individual persons, however, may not always agree on its implementation.

The bishops provide the principle; the populace must determine its application. Some will fight against use of fossil fuels; others will conclude that there is no such thing as man-made global warming.

I don't know why few Catholics look to the bishops' statement for direction. Are Catholics fearful that they would be crossing the wall of separation? Are the bishops confusing moral principles and practical application of them? Do Catholics think the bishops' opinions irrelevant? Are Catholics simply unaware of the bishops' statement? Do Catholics think they already know what is right and wrong? Is the statement too lengthy? too academic? too predictable? too ivory-tower?

In November the U. S. Bishops will meet and find on their agenda a discussion about whether their document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" needs revision in anticipation of the elections coming in 2012.

What will they decide? Since about one out of four U. S. voters is Catholic, their statement could have significant influence --if they can get Catholics to read it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Unity Or Disunity Among Priests?

I think it an odd phenomenon but a most interesting one.

It used to be that liberal ideas were promoted by the younger clergy, and the older priests held fast to the conservative.

Today it seems that just the opposite is true.

An association of US Catholic priests is being formed to offer fraternal support to brother priests and to give a united voice to priests who share common concerns.

A recently formed group of 400 priests in Austria, the Austrian Priests' Initiative, has pledged itself to reforms in priestly ministry and Catholic practice which are likely to put them at odds with their bishops and the Vatican.

The Association of US Priests (AUSCP), on the other hand, says that protest and disagreement are not on their agenda.

The chairman of AUSCP, Father David Cooper of Milwaukee, says the association will focus over the next four years on celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, and is planning a major convocation on the sacred liturgy.

There already exists the National Federation of Priests' Councils in the United States, and its president, Father Richard Vega, says he supports the objectives proposed by AUSCP and doubts any competition between the two groups.

An association of Catholic priests in Ireland has strongly criticized the New Roman Missal translation and endorses having married priests. A similar organization has been formed in Australia.

Prior to the AUSCP organization meeting in Mundelein in August, about 250 priests responded to a questionnaire about forming such an association. The most popular objective identified by the priests was implementation of the vision and teachings of Vatican II.

Other areas of interest included encouraging the laity to become fully involved in the life of the Church and promotion of the rights of all believers.

What catches my eye, especially in regard to AUSCP, is the age of the members. The median age is 71.

It is my impression that some of younger clergy are less than enthusiastic about AUSCP and about the various manifestations of priests associations in other parts of the world.

The Association of U. S. Catholic Priests is soliciting support and membership across the country, encouraging new members to propose their expectations for AUSCP and indicate how they might contribute to achieving these expectations.

Is there a divide between younger and older priests? If so, what will be the consequences for the Church and especially for parish congregations? We have reason to fear a house divided.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The New Translation Is Coming

I've heard and read a lot of discussions about the translation of the new Roman missal.

The primary criticism is that the effort to be "faithful to the Latin text" has led to complex sentence structures and a stilted form of English.

Gabe Huck, the former director of Liturgical Training Publications (LTP), the publishing house owned by the Archdiocese of Chicago (Cardinal Francis George fired Huck ten years ago) recently wrote an article complaining about the translation.

Huck offered an example, a prayer we will use in Advent: Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.

I have to agree that this translation sounds like the work of a computer translator. Not being fluent in Spanish, I often resort to the computer to translate letters from my foster child in Nicaragua. I can usually get the gist of what she is saying but the English translation is awkward and unconventional.

Priests and laity alike are divided in their opinions about the implementation of the new missal and its translation this coming Advent.

Some are eager, saying they look forward to a translation that at last reflects the Latin, the language of the Roman Church. Others think the new prayers will be far more difficult to phrase, enunciate, and understand. Some priests are certain they will stumble over the wording and the congregation will be unable to hear the words as prayer --even if both presider and laity have rehearsed the texts before hand.

Many dioceses have presented a variety of educational programs to prepare clergy and laity alike. Many presenters spin the new missal as an opportunity to review what we do at Mass and renew our active participation.

When D-Day arrives on November 27 it will interesting to see how the new missal is implemented and received.

It is likely that the congregational responses will become second-nature within a few weeks. Changing from "And also with you" to "And also with your spirit" won't be a major challenge for the people in the pew.

But the presider at the chair and the altar will have a far greater challenge. He will have to review each day's Mass propers, assess how to phrase and enunciate the prayers, and try to execute the recitation in a prayerful manner despite the complicated and often poor English sentence constructions.

Huck remembered Monsignor Ronald Knox's observation in Englishing the Bible: "You can have a literal translation or you can have a literary translation; you cannot have both."

The trial for Catholics will be which kind of translation best supports and promotes a praying community.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Renewing Patriotism

I just returned from the holy land --not Israel, but Gettysburg, PA.

Nearly a century and a half ago General Robert E. Lee brought his Confederate army north from Virginia into Pennsylvania with the hope of engaging the Federals in a decisive victory and bringing the war to an end.

His effort there can rightly be called "the high water mark of the Confederacy" and his loss there can rightly be called "the turning point of the war."

Last week a different Lee invaded Pennsylvania. The remnants of the tropical storm caused flooding along creeks and rivers in several east coast states. People had to evacuate, property was destroyed, a few lost their lives.

By comparison the misery caused by Lee the invader was worse than the misery caused by Lee the storm. By comparison the misery suffered by the flood victims was worse than the misery suffered by us fool-hardy, drenched-to-the-skin visitors to the battlefield --but either scenario gives a whole new meaning to "Lee's Miserables" (apology to Victor Hugo).

Even in the rain I enjoyed the opportunity (as General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain put it) to join generations of reverent men and women who will come "to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for ponder and dream."

Each visit (I have been there maybe 20 times) renews respect for the sacrifices made by the men and women of both sides. Each visit re-inspires patriotism, a love of country based not on some naive assumption that we are perfect but upon the realism that despite our nation's faults we share a land, a constitution and a heritage unparalleled in human history.

And this blessing requires work and sacrifice and occasional battles to preserve.

The attacks on our country on 9/11/01 at least momentarily woke the sleeping giant, and most citizens rallied and responded with demonstrations of sympathy for the victims, of respect for the police, firefighters and military, of our dependence on divine providence.

On a visit to Gettysburg, General Chamberlain recalled his experience of the battle and his perception of the field. He said, "In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls."

On his visit to Gettysburg President Abraham Lincoln denied that we could dedicate, consecrate or hallow this ground. Rather, said Lincoln, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract."

And immediately Lincoln made an appeal to patriotic fervor, "It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly advanced."

I suppose it is in the light of the observations of Chamberlain and Lincoln that I think of the battlefield at Gettysburg as "the holy land."

But neither do I discount my personal experiences on that field. I have not seen ghosts. I have no relatives who fought there. But Chamberlain is right, something abides, spirits linger.

And if one is quiet long enough what he predicted for visitors proves true: "The shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls."

He continued, "This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of Christ, --to give life's best for such high sake that it shall be found again unto life eternal."

Patriotism is listed among Christian virtues. Pro Deo et patria --for God and country. It's why we go to Church, and why I go to Gettysburg.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Patience Of God

Of all the qualities we see in God, patience is the one I find most amazing.

I have heard of artists, musicians and intellectuals who are unusually talented and creative, but woefully lacking in self-control and forbearance.

A concert pianist rages because the piano bench is too low. A diva on the stage goes into a tantrum about her co-star's poor performance. A professional lecturer fumes over the audio feedback.

Those intent upon perfection inevitably find flaws, faults, and failure in the settings and personnel with whom they work. And sometimes the demanding perfectionists lose their tempers; they rant, rail and rave at the offending party and even the innocent around them.

God, on the other hand, shows remarkable patience. The Perfect One tolerates the imperfect. The Sinless One endures sinners. The Creative One bears with the clumsy.

If anthropologists are right, that homo sapiens has been around for some 200,000 years, then those of us who believe that "thinking man" is the deliberate creation by God have much to explain.

If human beings are made in God's image, if God has a plan for humanity, if the Creator is really concerned about and involved with creation, how are we to interpret human history before Christ, or before Abraham, or before the first signs of religion, law, and morality appear?

If the universe began 13 billion years ago with a "big bang" (a clashing of cymbals) by the Great Orchestrator, we have to conclude that God was in no hurry to create human beings.

Not only are we late-comers to the universe, but Jesus comes on stage very, very long after the curtain first rises, long after human beings made their appearance.

One of the traditions recorded in Genesis wrestled with these mysteries. More than 3000 years ago some of our ancestors told the story of God's creating human beings, of placing them in an ideal setting, of man's rebellion, of the consequences of sin, and, perhaps most importantly, of the conviction that human beings would be able to over come the evil they had unleashed against themselves.

"The Lord God formed the man out of the dust...the Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden...and God asked, 'Have you eaten from the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?'...and God said to the serpent, 'I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; and they will strike at your head while you strike at their heel.'"

The Genesis tradition provides insight. Human history is a strange mixture of divine and human action, a patchwork of rebellion and second-chance.

And through the whole patch-work story runs the thread of unbelievable patience on the part of God.

The Gospel accounts suggest that Jesus had his moments of frustration: "Will you also go away?...have I been with you so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?...Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand..."

But in the final moments Jesus could still muster divine patience, "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do."

God's patience, the divine ability to wait, is amazing.

And recognition of that divine attribute has a soothing effect on us. If God can be patient with us, perhaps we should be patient with others and ourselves as well.

Jesus' initial invitation to his disciples is "Come, follow me." That proposal implies movement. Accepting Jesus as Lord is simply the first step. We're going somewhere.

Our Christian lives are an evolution, a process of ongoing development.

God waits patiently for the seed to fall to the earth and die so that it can sprout and bring new life. And God waits patiently for us to do the same.

God is wondrously patient!

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Little Learning...

"A little learning is a dangerous thing..." So said poet Alexander Pope.

This truth comes home to me whenever I try to delve into the subtleties, connotations, and even mistranslations of passages in the Bible.

My "little learning" is in the biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

To cut to the chase, I am trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he cried out from the cross, "Eli, eli, lema sabachthani" (as Matthew 27:46 records it).

The Matthean text immediately translates this Aramaic expression into Greek, which we recognize as Psalm 22:2, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

I have often found consolation in this expression of anguish --in the Book of Psalms it is the lament of a soul who feels abandoned by God. It borders on despair. In fearful loneliness, someone's broken heart cries, "Why?"

To think that even Jesus had this struggle I can better accept my own moments of confusion and doubt. For a moment even Jesus experienced the agony of being left alone by a hiding God.

On occasion I have referred to this verse as comfort to the grieving or the overwhelmed. This is the dark night of the soul!

More recently, however, I have come to question my using Jesus as a model of near-despair.

My questioning began when I read George Lamsa's research on idioms in the Bible. Lamsa (1892-1975) was an Assyrian author (born in what is now Turkey) whose native language was Aramaic, the language we are pretty sure Jesus spoke.

Lamsa noted that in the Greek version of Matthew's Gospel (Lamsa grew up reading the Aramaic) the evangelist gave the original Aramaic and then he or a later editor translated the Aramaic expression into Greek.

The evangelist and Lamsa note that those standing beneath the cross misunderstood, thinking that Jesus was calling on the prophet Elijah.

Our Greek version of Matthew's Gospel clarified Jesus' Aramaic words by identifying them as Psalm 22:2. Lamsa, however, concluded differently.

He argued that if Jesus were quoting the psalm he would likely have said it in Hebrew. And if he were translating the Hebrew into Aramaic he would have used the word "nashatani" not "shabacktani."

Lamsa explains that "nashatani" means "forsaken me," but "shabacktani" means "kept me."

Thus, in Lamsa's understanding of the Aramaic, Jesus was saying, "My God, my God, for this I was kept," meaning, "this was my destiny --for this I was born."

The academic world with its Aramaic grammar and etymology offers little support for Lamsa's interpretation.

In Lamsa's defense, however, I would be so bold as to suggest that maybe the earliest Christians saw in Psalm 22 a prefiguring of the sufferings of Jesus: "all who see me mock water my life drains wasted are my hands and my feet that I can count all my bones...they divide my garments among them, for my clothing they cast lots."

Maybe these descriptions were applied to Jesus because they thought he was quoting Psalm 22 or maybe these descriptions so fit what happened to Jesus that they put Psalm 22:2 into his mouth.

Lamsa reasoned, "The disciples and women who were from Galilee never for a moment could have thought that Jesus said God had forsaken Him. How could He say that when He had told His disciples that the whole world would forsake Him, even they, but that the Father would be with Him."

All my questioning and research does nothing to the final verdict --Jesus suffered and died for our salvation!

On the other hand, I would like to know what really happened on that Friday on Golgotha, outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Perhaps the evidence has been taped and archived and part of eternity can be spent in reviewing the footage and seeing and hearing what actually happened nearly 2000 years ago.

Once again "a little learning" has forced me back to the books and left me with still more questions than answers.

Pope was right about the dangers and intoxication of "a little learning," but I'm not so sure that drinking largely really would bring sobriety.

Said the poet: "A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Recapture The Vision

Thomas Meton is probably the best known monk in America, but he was not beyond criticizing monasticism.

Franciscans follow the example of St Francis, but many of them will readily admit that their father Francis would be highly critical of the way they live.

Christians claim to follow Christ, but sometimes, in some cases, even Jesus would have a hard time seeing a reflection of his Gospel in what they say and do.

Merton said in his Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander that certain conceptions of monasticism "seem to me to be simply a fancy-dress adaptation of what we are claiming we have renounced."

Who can embrace Lady Poverty as Francis did? And wash the sores of lepers? And settle for the hermit's tunic, cord and sandals? And respond to life's troubles with "Peace and good!" as Francis did?

How can we take Jesus seriously when he instructs his followers to turn the other cheek, sell what we have and give the profits to the poor, and take no money or change of clothes when we are out on a missionary journey?

Some pundits explain that the example of the earliest monks, mendicants and missionaries was simply that --an example. It was not, these critics say, something to be slavishly imitated, but rather their example was an ideal to be pursued, a guide for direction --but always, always in moderation!

Those pundits may be right. But if monasticism and the dream of Francis and the Gospel of Jesus are to be effective today (in this 21st century), it means we have to keep coming back to them, keep re-visiting the ideal, keep judging our modus operandi in the light of these models.

One of the major efforts and benefits of the gathering of bishops at the Second Vatican Council was the insistence on looking back to the origins of the Church and the teachings of Christ.

There were some "new things" to merge from that Council, but in large measure the "changes," especially in liturgy and ecclesiology, were prompted by returning to the past. The overall mentality of the Council Fathers was not liberal but conservative. It was a conservative mindset that wanted to reclaim the ancient ways; it was a liberal mindset that wanted things to stay as they had developed during the Middle Ages.

Although the Vatican's interview (some call it inquisition) of the religious Sisters over the past few years was not always well-received, one postive result came from the encouragement that the Sisters should return to the charism of the founders of their orders.

The Sisters and Daughters of Charity reflected anew on the life and example of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. The Poor Clares revisted the model set by St. Clare. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament reviewed the ministry and spirituality of Mother Katharine Drexel.

Going back to the past is at the heart of recollection, reflection and retreat.

Going back to the past does not denigrate progress or undermine adapatation to current needs and circumstances. But going back to the past reminds us about where we came from and why we undertook the journey in the first place.

Look at the way the Church (the hierarchy) operates today. Look at the in-fighting between so-called theological traditionalists and progressives, between liturgical conservatives and liberals, between laity and clergy. Look at the personal and private ways you and I live our Christian commitment.

And then ask, "Is this what Jesus had in mind?"

Most of us will assess that the world is too much with us, that ego is in control, that the Gospel has been diluted to serve our own weaknesses and sense of well-being.

Periodically we must stop, go back, and re-assess. A return to our origins helps us re-capture the vision, and only in its light can we truly move forward.

It is still another paradox of the spiritual life: to advance you must go back.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Too Busy To Pray

I've gotten busy again --too busy to pray.

There are Masses in various parishes, talks to various groups, preparations for future parish missions, and of course household chores.

I can find time to "say my prayers" but setting aside time to pray has not been a priority.

There's more to praying than saying prayers. I've come to the conclusion that Catholics say too many prayers and do too little praying.

At least fifty-percent of praying ought to be silence. It's emptying the mind of words and being silent.

Prayer without words is more difficult than reading the divine office (the liturgy of the hours) or saying the rosary.

Prayer without words requires (or at least seeks) full focus on God. It includes a willingness to just be in God's presence, to enjoy God's company, to experience rather than talk about the "otherness" and the "closeness" of God.

When I'm too busy to pray I'm too busy!

It's time to prioritize, to begin spiritual exercise anew, to be rather than do.

Nearly all those who write about prayer insist on silence -quieting the mind so the heart can hear --being silent so God can get a word in edgewise. The more I talk the less I learn.

The daily prayer of the Jew (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4) begins with the word "Listen."

Moses got the people's attention with the simple command, "Be silent, O Israel, and listen!" (cf. Dt. 27:9).

In the midst of Jesus' transfiguration a voice from the cloud was heard to say, "This is my chosen Son; listen to him" (cf. Luke 9:35).

And here I am, doing it again. I sit here multiplying words, filling a blogpost because I think it is expected of me --when in fact I should be listening.

"Shh," my soul says to me. "Be quiet --at least for little while. Hush."

Friday, August 5, 2011

Don't Forget To Remember

One of the antidotes to the poisons of depression, discouragement, and despair is remembering.

During the exodus and the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness Moses encouraged the people to recall all that Yahweh had done for them.

The Israelites and the foreign elements among them grew despondent. They complained about the tasteless food, about the scarcity of water, about their seemingly endless, aimless sojourn toward the promised land.

In response, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people of all the good things Yahweh had done for them: "Did anything so great ever happen before?" (4:32).

God spoke to them and they heard the divine voice! God freed them from slavery in Egypt by means of extraordinary signs and wonders! God manifest his presence in the form of fire! And further, God gave them the law so that they and their children may prosper!

Given the many years and difficult climate these refugees had to face, it is not surprising that they should on occasion lose heart and murmur against Moses' leadership.

And such a reaction (complaining, murmuring, and discouragement) is not foreign to us.

Most of us, at one time or another, become restless and even resentful when things do not go our way, when we feel God has abandoned us, when the effort seems beyond our endurance.

Such feelings and the behaviors that accompany them can poison our relationship with God, pervert our rapport with others, and pollute how we rate ourselves.

The Bible's response to this kind of discontent is to recall, reflect, remember.

We are advised to call to mind all the gifts we have enjoyed. God has given us life, has revealed his plan to us, has invited us to cooperate in the salvation process.

Countless souls on earth today have never heard of Jesus, have no notion that the Creator is a loving God, have no sense of being called to share in God's good work.

The blessings of our religion are enormous.

Further, most of us have more than our fair share of earthly goods as well. We have food, water, shelter, medical care, family, friends, etc., etc.

Upon reflection we can think of occasions when we were helpless, and God stepped in to help us. When we felt life was meaningless, and God restored the joy of our youth. When we were guilty and ashamed, and God showed us mercy, forgiveness, and compassion.

It is obvious that remembering is a good thing, that it is strongly recommended by God, when we recall what Jesus said and did on the night before he died. He gave us the memorial of his sacrifice, his body and blood to sustain us.

Mass is a time for praising God, for offering sacrifice, for sharing in the heavenly food, for hearing God's message --it is a time for remembering.

If Moses were preaching today, he would put it bluntly, "Don't forget to remember."

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
Yes, I remember your wonders of old.
And I meditate on your works,
Your exploits I ponder.

O God, your way is holy.
What great god is there like our God?
You are the God who works wonders.
Among the people you have made known your power.

With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the sons of Jacob and Joseph.
You led your people like a flock...
(Ps 77).

Mass is a time for remembering --and our personal recollection of the deeds of the Lord is powerful medicine for any tired soul!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Exegesis, Eisegesis, Sensus Plenior

Scripture scholars make a careful distinction between exegesis and eisegesis.

Exegesis is the practice of drawing out the meaning of a Bible passage, unlocking what the author intended to say. Eisegesis is the practice of reading something into the passage which the author did not intend.

A person who does exegesis is an exegete. A person who does eisegesis is an eisegete or "a poor exegete."

Exegesis of the Book of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a suggests that the author intended to say that God existed before all else, that God is creator of the universe, that the sun and other created things which some people worship as gods are in fact created by God.

Eisegesis of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a says that God made the world in six twenty-four hour periods and that the theory of evolution is clearly wrong in the light of the Bible's creation story.

In this case the eisegete's misinterpretation of the author's meaning stems largely from his imposing science upon a faith book.

The author of the biblical story of creation was not a scientist nor did he intend to write a science book. The exegete respects the book for what it is: an expression of a faith conviction that God made the world and everything in it.

In preparing a homily for Mass one day I asked myself if I were guilty of eisegesis when I interpreted the Gospel's parables about the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price as examples of God's great love for us.

Matthew 13: 44-46 tells the stories: The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.

For decades I have interpreted those parables as encouragement for us to be willing to give up all and everything for the sake of the kingdom. God's will is so important that we should be willing to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship (apologies to President John Kennedy) to be faithful to our God.

But it occurred to me on this occasion that perhaps the parables were really about the price, burden and hardship that God has been willing to muster up to save us. God has certainly gone to extremes to assure us that we are precious in his sight. If Jesus is a good shepherd, can he not also be a merchant in search of a fine pearl?

I was a bit uncomfortable with my interpretation. Was I practicing eisegesis?

I thought so until I read the first reading for that day's Mass, the story of Moses' hiding his face behind a veil because it shone so brightly after his face-to-face encounter with God.

I was sure that the author of Exodus 34:29-35 intended to say that God's glory was radiating from Moses' face, and that Moses had to cover his face with a veil because the radiance of his skin frightened the people.

The author clearly intended to express the transcendence of God and to emphasize how honored Moses was to see God's face.

That, I thought, was the proper exegesis --until I read St. Paul's interpretation in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18. There he says that Moses' veil was a symbol of the Jews' failure to recognize Jesus! "To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts."

That interpretation seems to me more like eisegesis than exegesis. I sincerely doubt that the author of Exodus intended the conclusion Paul drew.

Aha! May I then conclude that Paul is guilty of poor exegesis --that he is an eisegete?

No, I am not permitted that criticism, for Scripture scholars come to his rescue, explaining that some passages have a meaning that the original author did not recognize. As the experts put it, there can be an interpretation fuller than the literal. They call this kind of interpretation "sensus plenior" --the fuller sense.

And there you have it.

If I see more in a passage than the author intended, it is eisegesis. If Paul does it, it's sensus plenior.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Overcoming Self-rejection

Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen suggested that the biggest obstacle in our spiritual lives was self-rejection.

"Success, popularity and power," he wrote, "can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of a much larger temptation to self-rejection."

Most of us have had our share of negative criticism, rejection, and perhaps even abandonment. These experiences are like voices in our minds, echoing the message that we are pitiful, worthless or unlovable.

Franciscan friar Emmet Murphy remembers a time when his life was a mess, when he felt abandoned by God, that no one loved him. In the midst of that depression he received a letter from his Aunt Anna --three pages of family news about who was in college, who was expecting, who was fighting with whom.

At the end of the letter his aunt wrote a PS. It said, "Remember --you are loved!"

Those words, he recalled, jumped off the page. As he studied those words he heard God say to him, "Wake up, Emmet! Believe! Accept the gift! Embrace yourself."

It's hard to say what prompted Aunt Anna's postscript, but it had a profound effect. In the light of that PS, Emmet escaped his depression and set himself on the road to recovery.

Jesus' parable of the lost sheep can have the same effect on anyone who chooses to hear it and accept its message.

"What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of these goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hill and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray!" (Cf. Matthew 18:12-13).

Jesus did not teach catechism questions and answers. His favorite mode of teaching was the parable. He told stories which invited his audience to enter into the scenario and discover a truth for themselves.

Jesus preferred to have his hearers reach inside themselves and come to a "aha moment" of discovery. If "Amen" had not become our customary way of expressing faith, I think we could just as easily have chosen "Eureka!"

In his book Abba's Child, Brennan Manning offers several quotations which are pertinent and encouraging for anyone who doubts his own self-worth, especially vis-a-vis God.

He recalls Thomas Merton's advice, "Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you..."
Fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich said, "Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us."

And returning to Nouwen, we read, "Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us 'Beloved.' Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence."

God's love for us is real and enduring. He is the hound from heaven who dogs our steps. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost one.

Emmet found the consolation and the courage to accept himself when he read and reflected on his aunt's postscript.

It is most helpful for us when we read and reflect on Jesus' PS: "It is the will of your heavenly Father that not one of these little ones be lost" (cf. Mt. 18:14).

Read his message and respond "Amen" (or "Eureka!")

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Church In Stress

There were several significant meetings in June relating to the mission and ministry of the Catholic Church.

In June the United States Catholic Bishops met in Seattle to discuss a number of issues, including physician-assisted suicide, sex abuse by clergy, defense of marriage, and the establishment of an office to welcome Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church.

Also in June a new organization called American Catholic Council gathered in Detroit to discuss reform of the Church. Some 2000 Catholics (mostly over 65 years of age, well-educated, and white) endorsed a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities affirming primacy of conscience and the right for every Catholic to share in responsibility for the mission and ministry of the Church.

The Catholic Theological Society of America met in San Jose, California, to consider the conclusion of the US Bishops' Committee on Doctrine that Sister Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God failed to provide authentic Catholic teaching. A committee of theologians had protested that the bishops had misrepresented Johnson's work. Bishop Patrick McGrath of San Jose delivered the opening address to the 325 theologians. His remarks were well-received, and bridged the gap between the two sides.

In New Rochelle, NY, over 250 religion professors gathered to listen to and discuss presentations at the College Theology Society's annual meeting. What made the meeting especially noteworthy was that all present were lay men and women. President Bradford Hinze made the point that 30 years ago almost all theologians were priests, but the age for lay involvement is clearly evident in their membership. Discussions covered such topics as violence in society, the violence of abortion, and violence against gays.

An association of Austrian clergy (priests and deacons) met in Vienna, Austria, and signed a declaration pledging to stop having multiple Masses on Sunday, resisting the push to force priests to pastor multiple parishes, and promoting ordination of married men and women to the priesthood.

Although some Catholics are appalled by such gatherings I think such conversations may well be a sign of health and wholeness in the Church.

If the theology is correct that the Church was born from the wounded side of Christ, it is perhaps understandable that some tension and conflict should be present throughout its history.

All the faithful have a responsibility for the mission and ministry of the Church. Vatican II, Canon Law (##215-216), and the Church Fathers confirm that.

I wish the Church were at peace, that we didn't choose up sides (liberals versus conservatives), that clergy welcoming the involvement of the laity was a common characteristic of parish life.

It isn't so, and probably won't be in my lifetime.

But there is one abiding factor in the life, history and future of the Church that must not, indeed cannot be overlooked. It is the power and presence of the Spirit.

When you look at the history of the Church and see all that its members have done to weaken it, you have to believe that the Church remains in God's safe-keeping.

If the Borgia popes didn't destroy the Church, how can we fear its demise?

Our task is to work for peace, compassion, and formation in the values of the Gospel. The Church ought to reflect that mission.

But when it doesn't, or when it seems to boil with controversial hopes and dreams, you have to believe that God is still in charge.

This is another example of the mystery of faith --out of death comes life!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Poverty - Literal or Literary?

I still stumble when I come to that passage in the New Testament where Jesus sends the apostles out to proclaim the kingdom and heal the sick.

He says to them, "Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic" (Luke 9:3).

Later, in Luke 10, he sends out 72 disciples as advance men, and gives them similar instructions.

I've been out on several journeys as a kind of missionary, preaching parish missions or retreats in California, Florida, New York, Louisiana --and I have never set out without flight reservations, a suitcase, money, credit cards, and more than one change of clothes.

Right from the start, I'm doing it wrong. My report card must have a check-mark next to "Does not follow directions."

Most Bible commentators explain (soften?) Jesus' directions as an indication of "the absolute detachment required of the disciple."

Once again I'm caught up in the tension between literal and literary. Is it necessary to take Jesus' words literally, or should I see them as an exaggeration for the sake of a lesson?

Obviously the pope doesn't take them literally when he goes on a trip. I doubt the Dalai Lama even in his simplicity travels without some provisions. And though Jesus had "nowhere to lay his head," his band of followers had a member who carried "the common purse."

What then am I to think of this instruction?

At this stage of my life I conclude that I must be willing to rely on God (not just for the material needs I have as a parish mission speaker, but also for the content of what I am to say when I preach.)

I do not mean that I do not have to prepare homilies or sermons or ferverinos. I cannot for all my reliance on God be passive or robotic. The human contribution is a necessary element in the mission process.

But I do mean that often God has me say things I never intended to say. God gives preachers a sense of direction and frequently points out the content. I have to allow God to have the final word.

There may be others who took Jesus' words literally, but I think Francis of Assisi must lead the pack.

That man, Il Poverello, remains an intriguing enigma centuries after his life and death.

In his loneliness he made friends with Lady Poverty, and he was willing to give up everything for her sake.

Forty years ago Franciscan priest Murray Bodo wrote a biography of St. Francis, and during the time of its writing discovered insights and answers to his depression and loss of enthusiasm for the spiritual life.

This year St. Anthony Messenger Press has re-issued Francis: The Journey and the Dream in a 40th anniversary edition.

It's not a book to be read cover to cover in one sitting (though one could do so). It is a story to be thought through and absorbed in a slow and patient process.

When I put Jesus' words ("take nothing for the journey") in the context of Francis' life, I conclude that it is not a literal interpretation that Jesus wants (though Francis lived it that way). It is rather a literary device to underscore that poverty is necessary for anyone who would be Jesus' follower.

I am not rich, but I am richly blessed. I have far more "things" than I need, and for them I am grateful. The lesson for me and for anyone who responds to Jesus' call is the caution that we let nothing stand in the way of contributing to the building of the Kingdom.

The best-known message Francis heard from Jesus was "Go now and repair my church which, as you see, is falling down."

I'm willing to bet that message is as valid today as it was centuries ago. Jesus is now asking us to repair his Church, and one of the first steps in its rehabilitation will have something to do with "sell what you have and give it to the poor" and "then come follow me."

Reform, renewal, restoration of the Church will require that Lady Poverty be welcomed into the Vatican, into dioceses and parishes, into our individual lives.

We do not have to mirror Francis; he was the example. Rather it will be well if we take to heart his and Jesus' message: "Take nothing for the journey..." and be willing to lay aside whatever gets in the way of building that Kingdom.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


Re-gifting, that is, giving to someone else a gift one has been given, is considered by many to be "politically incorrect."

It is said to be an insult to both the original giver and to the second-hand recipient.

It is said to be a breach of etiquette, even if one thinks of it as a form of re-cycling.

What brought this to mind was that line in Matthew's Gospel, "Without cost you have been given, without cost you are to give" (10:8). We used to translate it, "Freely you have received, freely give."

And some have interpreted it, "What you received as a gift, give as a gift."

Jesus, then, thinks it's perfectly OK to re-gift. In fact, he recommends it.

A popular saying suggests that "grief shared is divided in half; happiness shared is doubled."

Does one lose any of God's blessings by sharing them?

Jesus described such a gesture as "laying up treasure in heaven." The economy of the Kingdom differs from the economy of the world.

When Jesus took pity on the crowds, he healed them, protected them, fed them. And he more than implied that what he did we are to do as well. He told the apostles,"You feed them!"

He wants people to serve other people by giving to others what they themselves have received.

I remember stopping at a yard sale, and as I browsed the family's junque I heard one woman say to her sister who was holding the sale, "Hey, Cynthia! This is the purse I gave you!"

It wasn't exactly re-gifting, but it came close.

Re-gifting in terms of the world's goods requires delicacy, diplomacy, and discretion (some say, deception) lest we offend the original giver or the new recipient.

Re-gifting in terms of the gifts of the Kingdom requires generosity, gentleness and grace (some say, goodness)in order to benefit both the giver and the recipient. In this case, we need not fear offending the original Giver.

God is delighted when we re-gift the gifts he has given, and thereby make the Kingdom grow.