Happy Faults, Good Thieves, and Divine Mercy

April 27, 2011

This weekend’s beatification of Pope John Paul II means that the spotlight will shine even brighter on Divine Mercy Sunday this year.  While a few liturgical purists criticized the late pontiff for injecting such “Polish piety” into the liturgical calendar so close to Easter, it seems to me that divine mercy is at the heart of the Easter message.

If this intuition isn’t obvious, perhaps it’s because we’re in the habit of selling mercy short.  And if we fail to grasp how beautiful, how shocking, how dazzling mercy is, perhaps this is because we’re inclined to confuse it with a legal acquittal or a God who shrugs his shoulders and says “Whatever” to our sins.  Mercy, it seems to me, is much, much more than that.

We often say we’re sorry, usually without much thought, and in reply we usually hear, “That’s OK,” “Don’t worry about it,” “No problem.”  Rarely, if we knock over someone’s coffee cup or show up late for a meeting do we hear in reply, “I forgive you.”

Perhaps it’s best that such weighty words are not expended on social trivialities, but we shouldn’t so disassociate forgiveness from apologies that we begin to think that when confronted with our sins God just mutters “No problem” and gets on with running divine errands.

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Now, not after life: An Easter Homily

April 24, 2011

Delivered at St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Mass. at the 8am and 12 noon masses.

Now, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Now we say, Alleluia. Now, the tomb is empty and death is defeated. Now wake, O sleepers and arise. Now is the appointed time. Now we begin our eternal lives.

When we hear eternal life, we often think of Heaven. But heaven doesn’t really do it for me. That’s right. The afterlife as we often speak of it—angels and clouds and the like—does not entirely satisfy me. May I be so bold as to say that “eternity with God” is just a little too vague for me—eternity is a long time. I get bored easily. The beatific vision?—too hazy, not clear enough, remote.

What waits for us on the other side? Who will we meet? What will fill the days of our eternal reward? Assuming we all get there, what will we do once we get there? The typical Christian believes that heaven is our eternal reward, and even the average non-Christian would say heaven is one of the most fundamental of Christian doctrines. How many movies, books, TV shows, etc have wondered about the afterlife. How satisfied are you with the answers? How appealing is eternity to you? It’s a heck of a long time. Are you ready for a really, really long—Vacation? Break? Rest? Even vacations get long after a few days. Read the rest of this entry »

A Secular Age Part IV.a – Charles Taylor vs. Steve Bruce

April 21, 2011

In Part IV of A Secular Age Taylor goes about describing different narratives of secularization.  I think it might be helpful for us to split these narratives into two different discussions.  In this first discussion I’d like to set Taylor up against an opponent/interlocutor – the Scottish sociologist of secularization, Steve Bruce.

Bruce, rightly famous for such books as God is Dead: Secularization in the West and Religion in the Modern World, would, I believe, be happily labeled as a proponent of the idea that the modern western world is becoming increasing a-religious.  His basic argument is that the modern world, composed as it is of religious & cultural diversity, privatization, egalitarianism, relativism and rationalism, is uniquely suited to funneling people out of religion and religious commitments.  Indeed, it’s not atheism that he predicts for the future, but a mounting indifference to religion within the secularized West.

Two quotes might serve us well as examples.  Bruce concludes his God is Dead by saying: “We may want to explain the secularity of some elite groups (such as professional scientists) by the impact of science and rationalism, but to understand the mass of the population it is not self-conscious irreligion that is important.  It is indifference.  [And] the primary cause of indifference is the lack of religious socialization” (240).  Here we see his charge of mounting indifference explained by the thought that people must be socialized into the particular beliefs of particular religions in order for those beliefs to be maintained.  The argument then runs that, because of diversity, relativism and egalitarianism, it’s very difficult for religious socialization to happen.

Noting the difficulty of such socialization in a diffuse, pluralized environment leads to our next Bruce quote.  He says: “What is at issue is the future of [diffuse] Read the rest of this entry »

Pontius Pilate, Postmodern American

April 18, 2011

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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Homily for Palm Sunday, Year A

April 17, 2011


In view of the long Passion Narrative, I tried to keep this one short for the college crowd at St. Paul’s.  On the one hand, complaint about the brevity of homilies is rare.  On the other hand, as you can see below, it’s hard to include stories or examples in a shorter homily.  Grade: B.

I often find myself a little confused as to what to feel on Palm Sunday.

On the one hand, we sound a joyful note, playing the “crowd,” welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem with waving palms and enthusiastic acclamations–‘Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.’

Playing the same “crowd” in the Passion Narrative, on the other hand, we find cause for sorrow.  We find ourselves rejecting the only one who loved us to the end:  We jeer—“Hail, King of the Jews”; we mock—“He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him”; we menace—“Let him be crucified.”  We ponder what part we here today—and, indeed, all Christians throughout the ages—have played in that sorry scene.

But the confusion of a joyful sorrow may not be all bad. Read the rest of this entry »


April 11, 2011

For those in the New York area, it’s one week until “Confession Monday,” April 18, 2011.  Confession Monday is a pastoral initiative of the Archdiocese of New York and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Center in which priests will hear confessions in all parishes from 3 – 9 pm.

As part of the initiative, the participating dioceses have sponsored a contest for kids in Catholic schools to make one minute videos promoting the event.  The videos are delightful, so if you need a little added motivation to have your soul cleansed before Easter, take it from these young New Yorkers:



Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 3, “The Nova Effect”

April 7, 2011

How you doin'?

Ahh April.  Springtime in America.  Flowers, showers, and baseball.  And, for yours truly, along with the start of the baseball season comes my annual ritual of having my hopes for a Milwaukee Brewers championship dashed like a peppershaker.  Of course the Crew started 2011 a forgettable 0 and 4.  The only thing that can cure my Brewer’s-blues?  You know what it is – more Chuck Taylor.  Let’s get to it.

In our look at Part 1 of A Secular Age we spent time identifying the reform of the self that happened through the reformations (plural) of the 16th and 17th centuries and lead to the creation of a buffered rather than porous self.  Our look at Part 2 was mainly an examination of the form of religion that fit with a reformed, buffered, self; we saw that Deism was that form of religion.  Now, while we looked at the kind of God that emerges out of Deism and saw that such a God made it easier to see how secular humanism arose as a living option, we hadn’t quite connected Deism as a religious form to the rise of an exclusive secular humanism that has no need of referencing God.  Let’s do that very (read: unfairly) quickly.

Taylor argues at the end of Part 2 that Deism, a religion without need of revelation (remember Kant’s “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone” here), does not have a place for a personal God with whom we relate devotionally.   He closes Part 2 by saying: “the move to Deism involves more than just a change of belief; more even than a shift in what was taken to be rational argument… it really reflects a major shift in our background understanding of the human epistemic predicament… disintricating the issue of religious truth from participation in a certain community practice of religious life” (294).  What this means is that Deism opens the ground for secular humanism because it makes religion into something that promotes the stability of the modern political and social order.  We can see that such religion, when no longer needed to support societal stability, may, like the skin of a snake, be sloughed off.

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What do I offer?

April 6, 2011

I suggested at the beginning of Lent that this season is a good time to get back to basics, and for Catholics it doesn’t get more basic than the celebration of the Eucharist.  It’s well known that the Second Vatican Council called for the “full and active participation” of all the faithful in the Eucharist, but interpretations of what this phrase means have differed so widely that the Council’s vision hasn’t born the fruit we might have hoped for.  On the most basic measure of full and active participation—Mass attendance—we’re actually far worse off today than we were when the Council began.

For me this Lent has coincided with work on a master’s thesis about sacrifice and the Mass (some of the ideas for which I test drove here on Whoseoever Desires), and my research has raised a question so basic we usually forget to ask it:  what exactly do we do at Mass?

Answering that question depends on how we think about the Mass, what models we use to describe it.  An incorrect model for thinking of the Mass is that of a show or play.  Unfortunately, a lot of people fall into this kind of thinking.  I’ll sometimes hear complaints that Mass is boring, which doesn’t make sense because Mass isn’t supposed to be entertainment.  Even those who should know better sometimes fall into the trap of turning Mass into a kind of high school musical.  I once attended an Easter Vigil in which the man delivering the third reading dressed up as Moses—complete with beard, robes, and staff.  It almost made me root for Pharaoh.

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A Story of Inclusion: Sickness, Sin, and the Man Born Blind

April 4, 2011

This homily was preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent at St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

When St. Ignatius Loyola was coming up with the laws and rules for the Society of Jesus, he included some strange things. When he was writing about who to accept into the Jesuits he wrote in the Constitutions of the Jesuits, that no one should be admitted to the Jesuits who had, “in regard to the exterior, a lack of bodily integrity, illnesses and weaknesses or notable ugliness.” That’s right, there was a beauty requirement to become a Jesuit. No one could be notably ugly, or otherwise deformed. Ignatius goes on to explain why.

It is to be noticed that persons who have notable disfigurements or defects such as humpbacks and other deformities, whether they be natural or accidental, such as those from wounds and the like, are not suitable for this Society. For these defects are hindrances for the priesthood and do not help toward the edification of the neighbors…

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Follow a Jesuit to Ordination

April 4, 2011

The Jesuit Conference is highlighting the path of a Jesuit who will be ordained this summer with a variety of media experiences, including YouTube. Click this link to follow Radmar Jao, S.J. on his path to ordination this summer.