Friday, May 30, 2014

New Insights in Scripture

I’m not a Scripture scholar, but I think we’re living at a time when traditional interpretations of biblical passages are being re-evaluated and on occasion a new exegesis emerges.

Take, for example, Jesus’ parable about the ten gold coins (Luke 19:11-27). A king gives his servants gold coins and advises them to invest them in his absence. Upon his return the king finds that one servant earned ten additional coins, a second servant earned five more, and a third simply returned the coin with no interest. We usually make heroes of the two servants who returned more than they had received, and criticize the third for being unproductive.

Recently, however, we have put the parable in an historical context, identified the king as Archelaus, the Roman-approved ruler who had executed some 3000 rebels and then went to Rome to ask Emperor Augustus to give him the title of king. The servants are his henchmen whom he left in charge and their “additional coins” represent the terrorism they imposed while Archelaus was away. The servant who had no additional coins was the hero –he refused to be as cruel as his master.

This exegesis makes it easier to understand the king’s decision to slay his enemies on his return.  Jesus was not suggesting that the king was God, but was insisting that establishment of the kingdom of God would not be accomplished without persecution. Franciscan Richard Rohr concludes that Jesus’ lesson is: “If you want to live the truth then you must be prepared to pay the price for it” (Simplicity, Crossroad Publishing, 2003, p. 167).

Or take a second look at the Our Father in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus has advised his followers, “Go to your room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret.” And recall that at Mass, the presider prefaces our recitation of the Lord’s prayer with “we dare to say.” Our daring and the secrecy Jesus suggested may reflect the subversive nature of that prayer.

Recently scholars have interpreted the “Father” not as parent but as patron. In Jesus’ day in conquered Palestine the Father-figure was the Roman emperor. The patronage system was part of the culture the Romans brought to the lands of conquest. In this cultural construct persons of means and influence (patrons) would do favors for clients (in exchange, of course, for loyalty and services). The emperor was the chief patron, and was known as pater patratus.

Social-science exegetes Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain that “the mutual obligations between patron and client were considered sacred and often became hereditary…The Roman emperor related to major public officials this way…A pervasive social network of patron-client relations thus arose in which connections meant everything” (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, 2003, pp. 388-89).

Christians who called upon God as “Father” were subtly challenging the emperor’s position and prestige. In his analysis of the Lord’s Prayer, Capuchin-Franciscan Michael Crosby concludes, “I have found it better, for cultural reasons as well as for my stance at prayer, to approach God not as parent called ‘Father’ but as patron upon whom we can always rely” (The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, 2002, p. 33).

This exegesis makes it easier to understand Matthew’s Jesus who says, “Your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (6:6) and “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven” (23:9). Jesus was challenging the political scene with this prayer --perhaps a good reason for his followers to pray “in secret.”

A third participant in the patronage system, was the broker, the go-between who brings patron and client together. Malina and Rohrbaugh cite the story in Matthew 8:13 in which Jesus acts as broker for the centurion whose servant was suffering dreadfully. The patron is God, the centurion is the client, the broker is Jesus.

Episcopalian priest, teacher and writer Cynthia Bourgeault notes in her book The Wisdom Jesus (Shambalah, 2008) that we have had several avenues opened for us to better understand Jesus, his teaching, and the biblical accounts. She points to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codes (“a veritable treasure trove of early Christian writings”), to the influence of “a relatively new field of scholarly study known as Syriac studies,” to the recovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, and to a return to the contemplative tradition which had been “an important stream of insight” in the early Church (pp. 16-18).

These developments in history, language, and prayer have influenced the way we interpret what we read in the Bible.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission in September of 1993 issued the document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” It acknowledged that biblical interpretation can be a problem, calling the historical-critical method “the indispensable method for the scientific study of the ancient texts,” but acknowledging that “no scientific method for the study of the Bible is fully adequate to comprehend the biblical texts in all their richness.”

Nevertheless, “Catholic exegesis freely makes use of scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts…Catholic exegesis actively contributes to the development of new methods and to the progress of research.”

Our study of the Bible is inexhaustible.  I think it engaging that we live at a time when history, archealogy, and other sciences give us new insights into these sacred writings. Even as we look out into space and discover a far greater cosmos, universe or multiverse than we ever imagined, we can likewise explore the Good Book and discern meaning and subtleties we never knew were there.

I’m not a Scripture scholar but I am energized when I read of new ways of interpreting the New Testament.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pope Francis' Style of Leadership

There is a pattern emerging in the way in which Pope Francis exercises the authority of the papacy.

His style is not to impose but to invite.

By word and example he brings the faithful back to the heart of the Gospel, that is, to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In his book Repair My House  (Orbis, 2012), Capuchin Franciscan Father Michael Crosby distinguishes three Gospels:  1) the gospel Jesus preached , 2) the gospel Paul preached, and 3) and the gospel the Church preaches.

Jesus’ Gospel focused on the Kingdom; Paul’s Gospel focused on Jesus; and the Church’s Gospel focuses on teaching authority.

Crosby believes that many, if not most, Catholics define themselves more by the third gospel. “They identify their faith with membership in an organization called Catholicism rather than their baptism into a living body that makes them disciples of Jesus Christ” (p. 79).

He recalled an occasion when he asked a classroom full of bored students, “How many of you are ‘disciples of Jesus Christ?’” No one raised a hand. After repeating the question and getting the same non-response, he asked, “How many of you are Catholics?” Almost all raised their hands.

There is validity in all three gospels, but focusing upon one to the detriment of the others undermines them all.

Pope Francis is bringing us back to an awareness, a consciousness, of the values of the Kingdom: mercy, forgiveness, simplicity, poverty, purity of heart, courage, love. This is Jesus' Gospel.

One of the tactics Pope Francis has chosen for Church renewal is collegiality. If the Church is to be reformed and renewed, it will not happen by a decree of the pope but by the collaboration and consensus of the people. He is responding to one of the signs of the times.

About three years after the final session of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens, one of Vatican II's major players, wrote a letter to Pope Paul VI lamenting that discussion of certain issues had been forbidden at the council and in a recent synod.

Suenens explained: “The Council has given the Church a new awareness of collegiality; everything that promotes such collegiality in turn promotes pontifical primacy, enhancing its role as the heart and head of collegiality in action” (Memoirs and Hopes by L-J Cardinal Suenens, Veritas, Publications, 1992, p. 190).

Continuing his appeal for collegiality, Suenens added, “The central fact, which we cannot ignore in today’s Church, is that adhesion to any decision is dependent, not on the uncontested legal authority of the one who makes the decision, but on the ‘credibility’ of the authority itself, which must show that all the ‘pre-conditions’ to the decision have been met and respected, and that the interested parties themselves –be they clergy or faithful—have been properly consulted, if the decision concerns their lives” (p. 191).

Pope Francis is a model of consultation, collaboration, and collegiality.

His forming the Group of Eight Cardinals who are offering advice on reforming the Curia and restructuring the Vatican Bank, his worldwide consultation with bishops and laity about their input for the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family, and his suggesting that he would be open to the ordination of married men if a conference of bishops has considered the matter and asked for dispensation from the Canon Law which prohibits such ordinations in the Roman rite –all these gestures reflect his collegial spirit and, I believe, the way in which he chooses to exercise his papal authority.

Father Jorge Bergoglio learned a valuable lesson in the 1970s and 80s when he was Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesuits in Argentina. Appointed to fix a number of problems among the Jesuits in Argentina, Bergoglio came down rather hard on his fellow religious, returning to pre-Vatican II values and lifestyles.
“Bergoglio’s stances became increasingly dogmatic,” as his biographer Paul Vallely put it in Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 57).

Vallely continued, “Certainly when Bergoglio finished his term as Rector his superiors in Rome did not know what to do with him. It was decided that it would be best if he was removed from Argentina for a period. Bergoglio was dispatched to Germany…” (p. 58).

In his August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, as published in America magazine, Pope Francis acknowledged his failure at consultation while he was a superior in the Society: “My style as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults…I made decisions abruptly and by myself…My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems…It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems…Over time I learned many things.”

Pope Francis’ return to Gospel values reflects the direction set by Vatican II for the renewal of religious life. The decree Perfectae Caritatis noted that up-to-date renewal “comprises both a constant return to the sources of Christian life in general and to the primitive inspiration of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time…It is to the church’s advantage that each institute has its own proper character and function. Therefore the spirit and aims of each founder should be faithfully acknowledged and maintained…” (2).

Pope Francis’ way of leadership and renewal will not be by heavy-handed legalism, condemnations or dogmatic pronouncements. 

Without denying the fundamental teaching of the Gospel, without undermining the magisterium of the Church, Pope Francis will apply what Pope John XXIII called for in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council, namely, making use of  “the medicine of mercy rather than of severity.”

Pope John ended his address with the expectation that the bishops would demonstrate in the Council’s proceedings “serenity of mind, brotherly concord, moderation in proposals, dignity in discussion and wisdom of deliberation.”

I think these observations give us a reasonable insight into how Pope Francis will exercise his position as the vicar of St. Peter.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


I have a hunch that when the same idea or even word comes to me uninvited three times or more, I may be experiencing a whisper from the Holy Spirit.

If that’s true, then I think I’m being asked to reflect upon, prayer over and put into action the “virtue” of mercy.

The threefold repetition came to me in the form of three books: John XXIII, The Medicine of Mercy by Massimo Faggioli (Liturgical Press, 2014), Mercy, The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper (Paulist, 2014), and The Church of Mercy by Pope Francis (Loyola Press, 2014).

In the old days theologians (Thomas Aquinas, for example) thought of mercy as sorrow in the face of  another person’s misery or as a relaxation of justice, and argued whether or not God could really be merciful since “there is no sorrow in God” and “God cannot remit what appertains to his justice.” Aquinas, of course, addressed both arguments, and concluded that mercy can indeed be attributed to God (I, 21, 3).

The Old Testament certainly attributed mercy to Yahweh (“His mercy endures forever”) but we still question how that Hebrew word hesed (used 240 times) should be understood  -- mercy? loving-kindness? compassion? faithfulness?

The connotation of faithfulness or loyalty seems present when Hosea quotes Yahweh’s challenge, “It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice.”

In 1962 in his opening address to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII seemed to have compassion in mind when he encouraged the Council Fathers to “make use of the medicine of mercy rather than severity.”

Later Pope John Paul II focused on mercy in his second encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia (1980), and in 2002 when he established the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.

In 2012 German Cardinal Walter Kasper addressed the contemporary failure to focus on mercy in systematic theology, and, with the publication of his book Barmherzigkeit, urged the younger generation of theologians to go beyond academic theology and give consideration in a more pastoral theology to a culture of mercy.

Pope Francis, elected in 2013, said that Kasper’s book “has done me so much good,” and his own reflections on the need for a culture of mercy are apparent in his homilies, interviews, books, and Evangelii Gaudium. His book The Church of Mercy is a collection taken from the speeches and papers of the first year of his papacy.

Faggioli says of St John XXIII, “Roncalli’s life was exceptional in the way he lived it –understanding the profound need to rediscover the mercy of God revealed through Jesus Christ for the church and for humankind” (p. 134).

Pope John’s opening speech to the Council “upset the current mentality of official Catholic culture, which was focused on the condemnation of ‘enemies’…The speech did not give Vatican II an agenda, but a perspective…(cf. Faggioli, p.126).

Kasper clarifies the idea of mercy when notes that “the Bible understands mercy as God’s own justice. Mercy is at the heart of the biblical message, not by undercutting justice, but by surpassing it” (p. 18).

Kasper’s analysis of and appeal for mercy does not undermine Church discipline or the requirements of the Gospel. He rejects any arbitrary interpretation of Church law which is contrary to the objective sense of the law, nor does mercy mean twisting the objective sense of the law “out of an erroneously understood goodheartedness” (cf. Kasper, pp. 174-80).

At the same time the Church’s judgment are not to be applied “like a guillotine,” but rather should leave open a loophole of mercy which makes possible a new beginning for a person of good will. The judge should take Jesus Christ, the merciful judge, as his or her example. “His or her benchmark must be the gentleness and kindness (epieikeia) of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 10:1)” (Kasper, p. 180).

The Pope Francis book, The Church of Mercy, is subtitled “A Vision For The Church.”  In his homily for the Mass when he accepted the chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis advised anyone in the crowd who was overcome by sin and guilt to go to the Lord and accept God’s offer of mercy and forgiveness.”His is a caress of love. For God, we are not numbers, we are important ; indeed we are the most important thing to him. Even if we are sinners, we are what is closest to his heart” (p. 5-6).

On September 10, 2013, Pope Francis spoke at the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome. His remarks reflected his personal experience of working with and for the poor. He said, “Charity that leaves the poor person as he or she is, is not sufficient. True mercy, the mercy  God gives to each of us and teaches us, demands justice; it demands that the poor find a way to be poor no longer” (p. 107).

Hesed, eleos, misericordia, barmherzigkeit  –mercy! I keep hearing that word. I suspect the Spirit is trying to tell me something.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Francis: Pope and Prophet

Franciscan friar Father Richard Rohr spoke to a filled auditorium at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal on May 1, 2014,  exploring the question, “Can a pope also be a prophet?” And his unambiguous answer was “Yes,” if Pope Francis is the pope and prophet in question.

Rohr describes a prophet as one who has the capacity for self-criticism. This prophetic gift, Rohr went on to say, prompts Pope Francis to analyze the journey of the Church today and offer a variety of course-corrections.

Two sources in which Catholics can find the self-criticism and course-correction are Pope Francis’ pre-conclave remarks to his fellow cardinals and his post-synodal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.

Prior to the beginning of the conclave, the cardinals were offered the opportunity to suggest to their fellow electors what they were looking for in a new pope.

In his remarks, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said “the Church must come out of herself and go to the peripheries.” He spoke of a “theological narcissism,” criticizing the Church for being “self-referent” and of keeping Jesus Christ for herself and not allowing Him to go out.

It may be that these observations were a particularly strong incentive for the electors to choose Bergoglio as the man to replace Pope Benedict XVI.

Rohr said he has asked church historians whether they can recall ever finding such prophetic sentiments in a pope, and the answer has been, “No.”

Since popes are priests, it is unusual to find this kind of self-criticism and exhortation for Church reform since clerics and hierarchs tend to promote the status quo and eschew change. They are, Rohr said, “always tribal thinkers.”

In The Joy of the Gospel  Rohr found further evidence of the pope/prophet’s call for critical change.

Pope Francis reminds Catholics that God wants people to live joyful lives, and that “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy” (3).

The Church, Pope Francis says, must go forth as an evangelizing community, and adds “Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (24).

“There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization,” Pope Francis said in paragraph 26. And in 43 urged a re-examination of Church customs, rules and precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for shaping and directing people’s lives.

He recalled the point made by St. Thomas Aquinas that “the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’” (43).

Rohr noted that Pope Francis appealed to the principle of subsidiarity (decisions should be made on the lowest possible level of governance), and listed threats to Gospel joy such as economic inequality and the warring among Christian denominations who fight fellow believers for power, prestige and economic security.

Offering more than criticism, Pope Francis went on to suggest four specific principles for building of people and society (222-237):

1) "Time is greater than space,” by which Pope Francis means we must not be in a hurry to get things done, but allow processes to develop; 

2) "Unity prevails over conflict,” which means it’s more important to build community than to win arguments;

3) "Realities are more important than ideas,” that is, it’s one thing to have an idea or proposition, and it’s something else (more important) to put the word into practice;

4) "The whole is greater than the part,” or “we need to pay attention to the global,” to broaden our horizons; we must pursue the common good.

All through his talk, Rohr peppered his quotations from Pope Francis with observations of his own, recalling, for example, Mother Teresa’s directive that we must “cut the string” on the good we do, and not do things for reward or recognition.

Other of Rohr’s insights worthy of reflection and discussion include:
1)      “Every expectation is a resentment waiting to happen.”
2)      Power is where evil hides; it usually does not look like evil; it charades as obedience or loyalty.
3)      God’s covenant is with the people; it is communal.
4)      Our failures bring us to God.
5)      The so-called “para-church” is developing, namely a number of congregations of various denominations working side by side, developing their gifts without criticizing or putting down the gifts of others.
6)      Church architecture can be a trap. Big cathedrals define a stage or era in the Church’s history, but they may in fact hold back the people who use them.
7)      If a pope undoes what Vatican II directs, it becomes clear to many that the Church in fact is a monarchy.

St. Francis of Assisi, Rohr said, was an anti-establishment person, confronting the mores of the Church and culture of his day. Pope Francis is doing something similar. Pope Francis is turning the world back to the Gospel, and it is significant that others beyond Catholics or even Christians are taking note.

A pope can be a prophet, and Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) is proof.