Thursday, March 31, 2011

Christ Died For All

The Roman Missal, Third Edition, is scheduled for implementation on Sunday, November 27, 2011, the First Sunday of Advent.

This missal is a new translation of the prayers we use at Mass. One of the changes is the response of the congregation to the presider's greeting. He says, "The Lord be with you." The congregation's new response will be "And with your spirit."

The theory behind the new translation is called "formal equivalency," or the Vatican's insistence that the English translation should more closely reflect the Latin words.

The translation we have been using, "And also with you," is described as a "dynamic equivalent," or how we would normally respond in English rather than a word for word rendering of the Latin expression "Et cum spiritu tuo."

Everyone who translates knows that a translator must also be an interpreter, that literal translations from one language into another can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication. In English we we can say that a person who has died "has bought the farm" or "kicked the bucket" or "passed away." Making literal translations from English into another language may well distort the meaning and halt the communication.

I don't know if this example is really valid, but I like it very much. According to the story, the biblical quotation in English was "The Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

When a translator rendered it literally in Russian, the meaning was considerably changed: "The booze is OK, but the meat is rotten."

In the new edition of the missal, the words used during the consecration of the wine at Mass will change from "It will be shed for you and for all" to "which will be poured out for you and for many."

Critics of the change ask whether people will begin to think that Christ's blood was shed for many but not for all. Since the way we pray affects the way we believe, the criticism has some validity.

On the other hand the New American Bible translations of the Last Supper accounts in Matthew 26-28 and Mark 14:24 speak of Jesus' blood being shed for many. In both instances the original Greek term is pollus, which is usually rendered "many."

Some Scripture scholars, however, note that the Greek word pollus is a translation of a Hebrew expression which really means "all." The New American Bible notation for Matthew 20:28 (where it says that Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many) explains, "Many does not mean that some are excluded, but is a Semitism designating the collectivity who will benefit from the service of the one, and is equivalent to 'all.'"

Other scholars think many refers to the community of believers, even though the Greek does not say "the many."

Scholars Albright and Mann accept both interpretations, clarifying the matter in these words: "Generally speaking it seems to be assumed that the community is in some sense a synonym for all, else how explain the Pauline assumption that the sacrificial death of Jesus was of potentially universal efficacy?"

No wonder the Italian novelist Umberto Eco famously said, "Translation is the art of failure."

If the way we pray is the way we believe, we will have to be careful not to interpret the many of the institutional narrative in a restrictive way. For clearly the New Testament and the Church's magisterium affirm the universality of Christ's redemption. He died for all.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I just returned from speaking at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress held in Anaheim.

My mission preaching partner, Jeanne Hunt, and I had two workshops: 1) on different types of parishes and strategies for successful ministry; and 2) on eight basic human needs and how the Catholic Church tries to meet them.

As anxious as I get about such speaking opportunities, I find the experience energizing, inspiring and informative.

Total attendance at the four-day congress is 35,000 Catholics (of which 10,000 are youth).

It is energizing to see this huge crowd of Catholics gather for talks, for liturgies, for informal discussions about Church and the Gospel, about religious education and faith formation.

The ethnic diversity of our Church is more obvious in southern California than in the midwest. I suspect Asaians and Hispanics outnumbered the rest of us by far but there was no racial or enthnic tension.

The only "negative" sound was the fundamentalist evangelical standing with his bull horn outside the convention center excoriating us for being Catholic and assuring us that we were destined for the fires of hell. (I personally found his diatribe comedic.)

Being able to gather with fellow believers for Mass as celebrated in the Hawaiian islands or with a Celtic flavor touches the soul and resurrects awareness that ours indeed is a worldwide Church.

The music is inspiring, whether born of Africa or Ireland or Mexico or the South Pacific. The dress of the Chileans and the art work of the Nicaraguans subtly but forcefully draw us out of ourselves and reflect Jesus' commission, "Go, make disciples of all nations..."

There were more than 225 talks and workshops (obviously more than anyone could attend), appealing to the interests and needs of Church ministers involved in education, catechesis, parish administration and a litany of other parish ministries.

Some are speakers little known (my category) and others are famous worldwide, such as Ronald Rolheiser, Barbara Fiand, Donald Senior, James Martin, Richard Rohr, Joyce Rupp, Kieran Sawyer, Michael Crosby, Richard Gaillardetz, John Allen.

There were concerts (e.g., the "Festival of Cultures"), art exhibits, live radio broadcasts, prayer sessions, the dance for young adults, and an exhibition hall full of vendors selling books, religious articles, vestments, and services. David Haas, Tom Kendzia, Liam Lawton, Michael Sparough spoke, played, sang, and moved our souls.

The public witness was obvious. Catholics could be found all over the area --in shops, restuarants, motels, and probably in Disneyland (though I didn't go across the street to check).

The private witness was equally strong --love of the Gospel, hunger for religious education, opennes to faith formation, eagerness to fulfill the variety of ministries a parish implies--and assuredly inspiring.

I think it would be safe to call LAREC the "mother of all Catholic religious education conventions." It is a shot in the arm for all who participate, an energizing, inspiring and informative opportunity to all who love the Church.

I was anxious about speaking there, but the experience easily turned anxiety into joy. I can't wait 'til next year.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Lenten Penance

As a child I observed the Lenten season by giving up candy or soft drinks or sugar in my coffee.

I began drinking coffee when I was eight years old. I always added sugar and milk. One Lent, when I was 10 or 11, I decided I would give up adding sugar and milk. I thought it a substantial penance. That first cup sans sugar was hard to swallow.

When finally Easter arrived I returned the sugar and milk to my first cup and discovered I no longer liked coffee with sugar and milk. From that point on I took it black and liked it that way. (Though I thought about adding sugar and milk as my Lenten penance the following year, I gave up something else instead.)

Every year the Liturgy of the Word for Ash Wednesday proposes almsgiving, prayer and fasting as appropriate Lenten penances. However, the Gospel for Friday after Ash Wednesday makes it clear that Jesus did not impose fasting on his disciples. It seems that even John the Baptist couldn't cope with such an omission: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus' response suggests that he wasn't opposed to fasting, but he did want to keep it in its proper place.

The traditional three practices (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) are good, but the reading from Isaiah for that Friday insists that there are practrices far more important in God's mind than these.

Speaking for Yahweh, the prophet explains, "This, rather, is the fasting I want: releasing those unjustly bound, sharing your bread with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless and the oppressed."

There is, therefore, the danger that our Lenten practices can become ends in themselves. We can become rather proud of our asceticism. We can begin to think we're good Christians, devout Catholics, because we persevere in giving up something for 40 days.

Every genuine Lenten sacrifice is meant to sensitize us to the bigger picture. God doesn't really care about my avoiding candy or eating fish on Friday if these acts do not lead me to greater love or charity or care of those in need.

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council the Church simplified the laws of fasting during Lent and abstinence of Fridays. This loosening of the obligation of prescribed penances did not mean penance was unimportant.

The simplification of the mandated penances was to urge the individual Catholic to become more self-disciplined, to put asceticism in its proper context, to re-direct our Lenten observance from self-serving obedience of a law to outgoing-service of our brothers and sisters.

Most of us have to admit that abstinence from meat on Friday is hardly penitential when we choose instead the Admiral's Platter at Red Lobster.

Pope John Paul II said repeatedly that Catholics were not to be overly scrupulous about observing Lent's fasting and abstinence laws. Substantial observance was sufficient fulfillment of the mandate.

The Church's attitude about Lenten Friday abstinence from meat is obvious this year. Friday, March 25, 2011, is the Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. The significance of this celebration absolves us of the obligation to abstain from meat on that Friday.

It is a challenge to most people's faith to think that God would send anyone to hell for eating meat on Friday.

Hell is reserved for those who are hateful, indifferent to the needy, abusive of others, lustful, greedy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Fasting, almsgiving and prayer must lead us to love, generosity, compassion, respect, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I have a hunch God laughed that Easter morning when I once again put sugar and milk into my coffee cup and immediately discovered I didn't like the taste. He must have thought, "Young Norman thought he was doing me a favor by giving up his sugar and milk. Instead he did himself a favor. He finally found out how coffee is supposed to taste! If only he would figure out what penances are really all about! Bless his heart!"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Finding God

Spiritual writer Anthony de Mello insisted that there was such a thing as "One Minute Wisdom."

He meant that insights and "aha moments" occur to us in an instant.

He tells the story of a student who asked the Master, "But surely one minute is too brief?" And the Master replied, "It is fifty-nine seconds too long!"

The disciple was puzzled, and the Master explained, "How much time does it take to catch sight of the moon? Opening one's eyes may take a lifetime, but seeing is done in a flash."

Later another disciple asked, "Where can I find God?"

The Master answered, "He's right in front of you!"

"Then why do I not see him?"

"Why does the drunkard fail to see his home? You must find out what makes you drunk. To see God you must be sober!"

And yet another pleaded, "Help us to find God."

"No one can help you there."

"Why not?"

"For the same reason that no one can help the fish to find the ocean."

Poet Mary Oliver probes the mystery too, in her poem "Summer Day."

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean --
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Finding God should be easy, but it's not, even with the help of the Baltimore Catechism. I remember well the question and answer:
Q. Where is God?
A. God is everywhere.

It was a reassuring answer, but I was puzzled. Teacher said God was indeed everywhere, but apparently not so much in Buddhism, Hinduism, or even in the Protestant churches.

Our supposed Catholic monopoly on God was unsustainable.

The Bishops at Vatican II clarified it a bit when they said that the sole Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, but many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside its visible confines.

Where there is truth, there is God. I believe that the fullness of the Gospel is found in the Catholic tradition, but I have to acknowledge that God can be found elsewhere too. It would be unconscionable to think a little Buddhist child could not go to heaven.

St. Thomas Aquinas advised us not to be prejudiced by the sources of our information. When something is good, he said, we should commit it fast to memory.

We need not fear the truth wherever we find it. We should not be surprised if God pops up in the unlikeliest places.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Walking In Their Sandals

I just returned from preaching a parish mission at the Mission Basilica at San Juan Capistrano.

A 16-ton, 40-feet high, gold-leafed reredos or Grand Retablo was recently installed behind the altar, a Spanish design carrying the images of St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Junipero Serra, St. Joseph, Blessed Kateri Takakwitha, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, plus representations of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

The preaching of the parish mission was devoted to the lives and charisms of the retablo's saints.

The statue of St. Francis recalls the Franciscan missionaries who founded many misions from Baja California up through Alta California, including San Diego, San Gabriel, San Carlos in the Carmel valley, Los Angeles, and, of course, San Francisco.

Blessed Junipero Serra was the Franciscan friar who founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, honoring an Italian Franciscan saint, Giovanni de Capistrano.

St. Joseph had to be on the retablo because of the long-standing celebration of the return of the swallows on March 19, Joseph's feast day.

Although she lived on the opposite end of the continent, Blessed Kateri was chosen as a representative of the Native Americans who embraced the Christian Gospel and lived it to the fullest.

And the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was "a must" too --a cultural as well as religious icon of the people of Mexico.

Being in San Juan Capistrano gave me the opportunity to spend hours walking through the mission grounds, praying in the old Serra chapel, and reflecting on the sacrifices and courage of the missionaries who came to the New World to spread the Gospel.

In his first letter from Alta California Serra wrote, "Let those who come here as missionaries not imagine that they are coming for any other purpose but to endure hardships for the love of God and for the salvation of souls."

Sometimes the missionaries and the Spanish soldiers who accompanied them were abusive to the Indian populations they thought to civilize and evangelize. Many an indigenous population in mission lands around the world would say, "When the missionaries came we had the land and they had the Bibles; now we have the Bibles and they have the land."

History suggests, however, that Father Serra went out of his way to treat the Indians with respect, compassion and forgiveness. He often pleaded with the military authorities for clemency when the Indians rebelled or stole or even killed.

The rather primitive conditions in which the missionaries lived, their reliance on supply caravans that were often delayed, the struggle to communicate the Gospel in languages unknown to them --these hardships and many others were the price these men had to pay in response to Christ's commission, "Go into the whole world and make disciples..."

At least for a little while I hope to be a little less sensitive to the inconveniences I encounter in trying to be a preacher of parish missions. Compared to what the friars faced in 1776 at San Juan Capistrano, my troubles are petty and short-lived.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see things through the eyes of these California missionaries. Walking in the shoes (or sandals) of someone else helps us gain new perspective. When I hear on March 19 that swallows have returned to Capistrano, I will think more of the missionaries than of the birds.