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 SchÅ‘nborn of Vienna, the prelate countered their appeal to disobedience with an appeal for unity. Austrian media reported that SchÅ‘nborn 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?