May 13, 2012
Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17
Happy Mother’s Day. As I’m sure y’all know, Mother’s Day is not an official holiday on the liturgical calendar. Hence, the Scripture readings don’t exactly reflect the occasion; there are no direct references to the dignity of Christian motherhood. There is, however, a theme that I consider indirectly related to Christian motherhood: baptism. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles presents baptism as the culmination of the Holy Spirit’s among in Cornelius and his household. Since Christians have always considered baptism a birth to new life, and the Church the womb where that new life gestates, they have always also considered the Church a true mother.
But what does the Church’s motherhood have to do with the flesh-and-blood motherhood that we celebrate today? I think, actually, quite a lot. Experience suggests that esteem for the Church’s supernatural motherhood is closely tied to esteem for natural motherhood. Even the historical origin of Mother’s Day in certain countries suggests this. Read the rest of this entry »
May 5, 2012
Acts 9:26-31; Ps 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8
There’s a verse in today’s second reading that hints at the depth of healing that Christ makes possible: “[I]n whatever our hearts condemn … God is greater than our hearts and knows everything” (1 Jn 3:19b-20a). Sometimes we get so used to cadences of biblical language, that it’s easy to overlook the depth of the mystery being expressed.
The first remarkable feature of this verse is surely this: it speaks of the heart as the origin of a certain kind of condemnation. What could this mean? Nowadays we use the heart to refer strictly to our emotions—and usually to out positive emotions. We often oppose the “heart” to the “head,” and we describe compassionate and generous people as having “big hearts.” In Scripture, though, the word is broader and deeper: it is the source of bad emotions as well as good; it is the seat of our cravings, the organ of our private thoughts, the storehouse of our memories.
The condemnation of the heart, understood biblically, can consequently refer to “accusations” that originate from a place deeper than our own thinking and willing. Read the rest of this entry »
April 29, 2012
Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18
We’ve perhaps become so familiar with the tender image of the Good Shepherd carrying a lost lamb on his shoulders, that we might easily overlook the urgency of its message. The Shepherd and the sheep, if you recall, are not the only actors in the fable. Christ also mentions the presence of the wolf. And though he doesn’t describe the wolf in any detail, its background presence points to an unsettling truth: humanity has an enemy whom he cannot match in strength and cunning; we stand before the power of evil as a sheep stands before a wolf. Apart from the Shepherd and His flock, our prospects are not good.
As Christ presents it, in other words, the world is not a safe place. It is the theater of a “high-stakes” drama. If we take Christ at his word, then He and His Church are not simply optional extras for those who need the “crutch” of religion. They are our hope of salvation. Peter makes this teaching the center of his preaching, insisting, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” He also describes Christ as a “cornerstone,” implying the existence of a building—i.e., the “Church”—in which Christians seek refuge from the wolf.
Important questions arise. How exactly does the wolf go about seeking to destroy us? And how exactly does the Shepherd go about defending us? Read the rest of this entry »
April 22, 2012
Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; Ps 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9; 1 Jn 2:1-5a; Lk 24:35-48
It’s funny how the presence of certain people can shift our perspective on our fears and our problems. I once heard a story about a meeting between the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Kolvenbach, and Pope John Paul II. According to the story (which at least has the ring of truth), John Paul was by this point already quite diminished by Parkinson’s Disease. Fr. Kolvenbach, then more than 80 years old, had come to ask for permission to step down as General. John Paul declined his resignation and Fr. Kolvenbach accepted his decision tranquilly. When he returned to Jesuit headquarters, his fellow Jesuits inquired about the meeting, and Fr. Kolvenbach observed rather matter-of-factly, “It’s very difficult for me to stand before this Pope and argue that I am too old and too frail to do my job.” In light of John Paul’s own heroic perseverance, in other words, even substantial concerns and frailties came to seem rather manageable by comparison.
The presence of the Risen Christ seems to have had a similar effect on his first disciples—only more so. Read the rest of this entry »
April 8, 2012
Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; 1 Cor 5:6b-8; Jn 20:1-9
There’s an experience that the liturgy so often links to Easter that we almost take the connection for granted. Our Psalm antiphon declares, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” The second reading from 1 Corinthians reads, “Our Paschal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast …” The Gospel Acclamation echoes the theme, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed; let us then feast with joy in the Lord.” The experience so often connected to Easter, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is nothing other than festivity, rejoicing together. The connection, of course, isn’t accidental. Christians have always understood the Resurrection not just as a feast, but as the feast, as the source all genuine festivity in this world. In the 4th Century, St. Athanasius observed that those without a share in the Resurrection “forever … remain without a feast” (Paschal Letters, VI).
Why is this? I think the claim is easier to understand if we distinguish genuine “festivity” and simply “partying.” Why is the atmosphere surrounding great festivals—Christmas, Thanksgiving, a wedding—distinct from the atmosphere surrounding night clubs, frat parties, or even greeting-card holidays like “Secretary’s Day”? One of the great Catholic philosophers of the 20th Century ventured this answer: to keep a genuine festival is
to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole (Pieper, In Tune with the World 30). Read the rest of this entry »
April 5, 2012
There is a famous episode (often cited by the Holy Father) illustrating the devotion to the Eucharist in the early Church. In the year 304, a group of Christians from the town of Abitinia in North Africa gathered on Sunday, in defiance of orders from Emperor Diocletian, for the celebration of Mass. They were “caught” and promptly hauled into court. When asked why they disobeyed, one of the worshippers, Emeritus, gave this simple and profound answer: “Sine Dominico non possumus” (“Without the Lord’s thing, we cannot …”). Emeritus and 48 others eventually died martyrs’ deaths because they simply could not live without the “Lord’s thing,” that is, without the Eucharist.
A question naturally emerges: How did the Abitene martyrs come to regard the Eucharist as something they could not live without? How did it become for them, not just an external duty, but an inner necessity? The answer, briefly stated, is that they came to view the Eucharist much as the liturgy presents it to us tonight. They came to see the Eucharist as 1) freedom to worship, and 2) as power to serve. Read the rest of this entry »
March 25, 2012
Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33
At first glance, it seems that Jesus is using the politician’s campaign-season playbook. Philip and Andrew (two apostles with Greek names) bring Jesus a simple request from some Greek proselytes (honorary Jews): “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Rather than answer the question straightforwardly, however, Jesus opts to stick close to his talking points. He goes on to speak of the seed that must die if it is to bear much fruit, the need to surrender one’s life in this world, the cost of discipleship, his spiritual distress, his trust in the Father, and the manner in which he was about to die. By this point, Philip and Andrew are probably looking at their watches, thinking, “He could have just said no…”
But of course, Jesus is answering the question. He is simply answering it a deeper level than either the Greeks or his disciples understand at that moment. Read the rest of this entry »
March 18, 2012
I’d like to speak this Laetare Sunday about sloth, one of the seven capital sins. Sloth fits the occasion for two reasons: 1) it’s suggested by today’s readings, and 2) it may be the sin where there is the widest gap between the popular understanding (laziness or lack of ambition) and the Church’s understanding (spiritual sadness).
1) The theme in the readings that sloth touches on is the sin of the “lost sabbaths.” According to 2 Chronicles, God permitted Israel’s exile in order “to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: ‘Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,/ during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest/ while seventy years are fulfilled.’” God had commanded Israel to keep not only a Sabbath day, but a Sabbath year. Every seventh year, the land was supposed to “rest” in the Lord, to lay fallow and uncultivated (Lev 25:2). Apparently, Israel had been working their land during the Sabbath years, and God was not pleased that they were not resting. Israel, according to the popular understand, was not being “slothful” enough. Strange.
2) Something stranger still: the great Christian tradition classifies sloth as a sin against the Sabbath command (ST II-II 36.3). Here it becomes clear how far the Christian understanding of sloth is from the popular notion of laziness. Read the rest of this entry »
March 11, 2012
Gustave Dore's Rendering of "the Wrathful" in Dante's Inferno
Ex 20:1-17; Ex 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25
I’d like to use today’s Scripture passages as a basis for reflecting the classic problem of Christians and anger. In a sense, the problem emerges from the readings themselves. “Thou not kill,” the fifth of the commandments we hear in the first reading, later gets expanded by Christ: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22). Christ appears to condemn anger.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Jesus acting as he does in today’s Gospel—making a whip of cords, spilling coins, overturning tables, running off moneychangers—without an emotional energy approaching anger. The Gospel offers the word “zeal”: “His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.” So what’s the difference between the sinful anger (“wrath”) that Christ condemns and the righteous anger (“zeal”) that Christ displays? Read the rest of this entry »
March 3, 2012
Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Rom 8:31b-34; Mk 9:2-10
As Catholics, we all know that we oppose something called “secularism.” We want to keep Christ in Christmas. We want the Church to be strong, to have freedom to worship and to shape culture and policy. But thinking of secularism exclusively in terms of its legal and economic aspects has a downside: it encourages us to lay the blame on “them”—on godless lawyers, lobbyists, and CEOs. It gave me pause, then, when I ran across definition of secularism, proposed by a prominent Catholic philosopher, that invited me to look at myself. According to his definition, the heart of secularism is the denial of the “transformation perspective” (A Secular Age, 431).
And by “transformation perspective” he meant simply the belief—common to most religions—that we are transformed through sacrifice, that a “higher life” and new desires are possible for us through religious practices: through the discipline of passions, meditation, the study of holy books, etc. From the secular perspective, on the other hand, desires and behavior are never really be transformed. And since we can’t expect people to live frustrated, the best we can hope to do is damage control. Hence the secular solution to the dangers of sex becomes not chastity but condoms, the secular solution to the problem of overeating becomes not moderation but Splenda, the secular solution to political corruption becomes not integrity but a system of checks and balances. The “transformation perspective,” on the other hand, rates virtue above technique.
To this “transformation perspective” reflected generally in religious traditions, Christianity adds a new element: Read the rest of this entry »
February 19, 2012
Hotel Dieu in Paris, ca. 1500
Is 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25; Ps 41:2-3, 4-5, 13-14; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Mk 2:1-12
In light of recent events, I thought I’d use the story of the paralytic, which the liturgy invites us to contemplate today, to explain the Gospel roots of the Church’s opposition to the HHS Mandate—especially in the realm of health care. Speaking generally, one could say that all of Christ’s healing miracles serve as the “charter” for the Church’s involvement in health care. Jesus showed concern for both soul and body. And so the Church has tried to follow His example.
This being said, there are a couple features particular to Christ’s cure of the paralytic that help us to understand the Church’s distinctive vision of Health Care, and thus her opposition to the mandate.
1) The first feature is the indirect way in which faith plays a part in the healing. Read the rest of this entry »
February 12, 2012
Lv 13:1-2, 44-46; Ps 32:1-2, 5, 11; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
“If you wish, you can make me clean …”
This 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time also marks The World Day of the Sick. And whether by chance or by design, today’s Gospel passage perfectly suits the occasion. In the episode of the miraculous cure of the leper, we receive both 1) a model for approaching Jesus when sick or in material need, and 2) a beautiful portrait of Jesus’ compassionate response. All of which naturally leads us 3) to seek in Jesus the response to our “unanswered” prayers.
1) With respect to approaching God in prayer, the leper models for us a delicate balance between boldness and surrender. The leper is bold in making known his real needs and in professing Christ’s power—“You can make me clean.” At the same time, the conditional statement that precedes the request hints at an even deeper surrender to God’s will—“If you wish …” The leper respects the fact that Jesus is not simply vending machine for miracles: He is a person in his own right, his own mysterious will, designs and plans. “If you wish …”
Scripture everywhere recommends both boldness and deeper surrender in prayer. Read the rest of this entry »
February 11, 2012
P. Karl Josef Becker, SJ
I thought I might draw our reader’s attention to the abrupt re-reversal of Fr. Becker’s fortunes. According to the most recent statements, Fr. Becker will be created cardinal in the consistory of Feb. 18 after all. If Fr. Becker was truly prevented from attending the consistory per motivi saluti, then it seems he has been cured miraculously. Deus providebit.
Here is a translation of the German-language announcement on Vatican Radio:
Fr. Karl Joseph Becker is pleased to able to participate in the Consistory on February 18. So spoke the longstanding Professor of Theology on Vatican Radio. A week ago it was announced by the Vatican that reasons of health (Gesundheitsgründe) impeded Becker’s participation, and that the conferral of the cardinalate would therefore take place at another moment and private. The cited reasons (Gründe) no longer exist, according to Fr. Becker. He has always rejoiced in the recognition and confidence of the Pope, which has found expression in this nomination. He has now received the message specifying his participation at the consistory of February 18.
February 5, 2012
In addition to being the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, today is also the World Day for Consecrated Life, a day dedicated to pondering the optional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The fact that the Church dedicates a Sunday to these three “evangelical counsels” suggests that they have some significance for the whole Church—not just for priests and monks and nuns. 1) Why does the Church celebrate this “alternative lifestyle”? 2) What is its significance for the whole Church? Happily, today’s scripture readings provide us with rich material for reflection.
1) So why does the Church promote the lifestyle of poverty, chastity, and obedience? The most basic answer is one of fact. Read the rest of this entry »
February 4, 2012
Since I posted a theological introduction to cardinal-designate Fr. Karl Josef Becker some weeks back, Fr. Becker has ceased to be cardinal-designate, at least for the time being. A letter saying as much was read two days ago at the community of the Gregorian University in Rome, at which time no reason was given. Subsequently, official Vatican media outlets announced that, “for reasons of health, [Fr. Becker] will not be created cardinal during the public ceremony of February 18, but privately at another time” (per motivi di salute, non verrà creato cardinale nel corso della cerimonia pubblica del 18 febbraio, ma in forma privata in altro momento). Since some who presently live with Fr. Becker have failed to detect any notable frailty or sudden deterioration in his health, the announcement has given rise to perplexity. The mention of a conferral “privately at another time” leaves open the possibility that Fr. Becker will receive the red hat eventually, but the phrase may also serve as a euphemism for an indefinite deferral.
This blogger, for his part, will refrain from speculation on this reversal of Fr. Becker’s fortunes.
January 8, 2012
Isa 60:1-6; Ps Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6, Mt 2:1-12
The Great Solemnity of the Epiphany has so long been associated with the image of “Three Kings” that it’s easy to forget that Matthew nowhere mentions either the number of visitors or their kingly rank. The number three seems to have been inferred from the three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh (the Orthodox Church actually has a tradition of 12 visitors). Likewise, the kingly image seem to arise from the Gospel’s ancient pairing with today’s responsorial psalm: “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute” (72:10).
Matthew does, however, call the visitors “magi” (μάγοι), which could mean anything from “wiseman” and “sorcerer” to “astrologer” and “astronomer” (these categories were not exactly distinct in the ancient world, since it was only the rise of Christianity that the difference between religion, science, and magic became clear). Translating the magi into contemporary categories, we might think of them as scientists and philosophers, as the men most respected for wisdom and learning in their age.
Understood in this light, the readings for the Epiphany make an incredibly bold—seemingly arrogant—claim for Christ and His Church. When he portrays the magi adoring Christ, St. Matthew symbolically portrays all human wisdom finding fulfillment in Him, the “desired of all nations.” Read the rest of this entry »
January 6, 2012
Whenever the consistory rolls around, I’m always curious to see which scholarly octogenarians receive the red hat honoris causa. Seeing a Jesuit among the cardinal-designates is always significant, inasmuch as it suggests the sort of theological service the Holy Father hopes for from the Society of Jesus. This year’s consistory singled out for honorable mention Fr. Karl J. Becker, S.J., emeritus professor of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. Since he is unlikely to be a household name even among the churchgoers, I thought I would give a brief theological introduction.
On the matter of theological style, I found the following thumbnail sketch, culled from the editors of his Spanish-language Festschrift, Sentire cum Ecclesia: Homenaje al P. Josef K. Becker, S.J. According to a reviewer of this volume,
The editors … highlight in the introduction three characteristics of Becker’s theological project, to wit: the importance that history has in his theological expositions (which gives them seriousness and rigor); the fact that he is not a theologian inclined to let himself get carried away by the latest currents of fashion (which leads him to a deep and serene reflection on the themes that that he treats); and his estimation of the Catholic faith as the point of departure for the theological task. Nevertheless—and the editors underscore this as well—Fr. Becker has not created a school and his students situate themselves within different theological climates, orientations and styles.
One can see the justice of this description in Fr. Becker’s work. Read the rest of this entry »
January 2, 2012
The New York Times recently published one author’s rather positive experience of a five-day silent retreat at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA: “In Pennsylvania, a Quick Shot of Peace, On a Budget”. I naturally perk up at any sympathetic encounter with Catholicism that makes the Times, especially if it involves a work of the Society of Jesus. Since such pieces are almost invariably written from the perspective of the slightly bemused “seeker,” moreover, they at least suggest what kind of “first impression” we make.
What seems to have struck Susan Thomas (the article’s author) is actually what she would have been hard-pressed to find in the spas or Ashrams or organic farms that also received honorable mention in the “budget spirituality” section: encouragement to discover the living God. As is the case with most distressed people who have sufficient sophistication to write for the Times, unremitting introspection and pop psychology seem to be the very air that Susan breathes. She found, however, a perceptibly different approach recommended at the Jesuit Center. At the first meeting with the nun who directed her, says the author,
I told her about my stress-related illnesses, which had hospitalized me twice earlier that year; about my sparkly-minded children; about watching my Lear-like father die in front of me; about my divorce, subsequent remarriage and unexpected conception of my son; about my dip into poverty; my husband’s unemployment; my darkest fears; of aloneness.
Bracing herself for psychological platitudes, the author is surprised by her director’s reply: Read the rest of this entry »
January 1, 2012
Nm 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21
For the folks at Gesù in Miami …
Jan. 1, the octave day of Christmas, is a bit of a liturgical casserole. Presently we call it the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. At different points in history, however, New Year’s Day has also marked the feasts of the Circumcision of Christ and of the Holy Name of Jesus. We still see all three ingredients in the Gospel, for example, which features Mary’s role as mother, Christ’s circumcision, and the giving of the name Jesus. Surprisingly, however, it’s the theme of the Holy Name that ties together all our readings. In the reading from the Book of Numbers, for instance, God teaches the priests to call upon His name, saying, “So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Nm 6:27). In the reading from Galatians we hear that the Holy Spirit empowers us to call God by the name “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). Seeing that our Church is dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus, I’d like to dwell on this theme for a bit.
We’re probably so used to calling God by name that we hardly give it a second thought. But many religions traditions would find the practice strange. I’m thinking especially of two groups. Read the rest of this entry »
December 25, 2011
Isa 52:7-10; Hb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18
There’s a story told about St. Anthony of Desert, the “Father of Monasticism,” that seems appropriate for Christmas Day. As the story goes, St. Anthony’s reputation for holiness grew to the point that he began to receive letters from famous people asking for spiritual counsel. Even Emperor Constantine and the royal family wrote to him. St. Anthony, however,
made nothing very much of the letters, nor did he rejoice at the messages. But he was the same as he had been before the Emperors wrote to him. But when they brought him the letters he called the monks and said, ‘Do not be astonished if an emperor writes to us, for he is a man; but rather wonder that God wrote the Law for men and has spoken to us through His own Son’ (Life of Anthony, s. 81).
St. Anthony’s nonchalance toward the imperial letters is a bit shocking–all the more shocking, of course, when we think about our own spontaneous reactions toward celebrity. If a major-league player so much as autographs a baseball for us, we encase it in glass and make it a conversation piece; if we receive a letter from the president, we frame it and display it above the mantle (at least if it’s a president we voted for); if we wind up in the waiting room with a Hollywood actress, we post a picture of FB and we relate every word she spoke—often to our friends’ annoyance.
St. Anthony, as we now know, didn’t go in for this sort of thing. But what interests me most is that St. Anthony doesn’t attribute his remarkable indifference to any contempt for Emperors or celebrities as such. No. As he explains it, he remains unimpressed because he has discovered something far more awe-inspiring: the fact “that God has spoken to us through His own Son.”
This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the staggering fact of Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »