Monday, September 14, 2020

Why we care about 787?

As the Church celebrates The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, once called Triumph of the Cross, it gives us an opportunity to look at a wider subject. What is the proper place of objects in Christian worship. 

From as far back as history can take us humans have held on to objects as a way of remaining connected to the past, particularly people who have past from this earthly life. The simple act of holding something that belonged to the person can reconnect us in a way that memory alone cannot. Portraiture as an art form developed and a next generation could connect to a person they had never met. 

It seems, therefore, not surprising that the early Christians held on their loved ones, the holy ones through keepsakes, relics.  The word relic means literally “to leave behind.” And with time came iconography - communicating with pictures, instead of words. 

To our modern sensibilities, the keeping of bones and other body parts mays seem strange.  It’s not what we would do, but it is how people in an earlier time held onto loved ones. 

In around 327, the Emperor Constantine ordered excavations around Jerusalem to ascertain the location of the place of the crucifixion of Jesus.  Church were then erected at Mt. Calvert and the Holy Sepulchre .   The recovered remains of the cross were divided. Part remained in Jerusalem and part was sent to Rome. 

As with all things, people have a tendency to go to far and so for a time all veneration of sacred relics and icons was outlawed. 

Then in 787 at the Second Council of Nicea, the Church defined clearly the distinction between “respect and veneration” and “true worship.”

Worship belongs only to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

The most we can give to any created things or persons is “respect and veneration.”

Today the. Church venerates the cross on which Jesus have his life for the salvation of the world. That simple, rough piece of wood was transformed by the blood of Jesus. That place was forever marked by his death. What Christian has visited the sites and not been moved ? 

There and in so many other holy places, we find ourselves speechless. That is the essence of respect and veneration. 

Today let each of us take a moment to look at a crucifix or a cross and mediate upon its meaning. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Future and Free Will

Today the Church celebrates the Passion of John the Baptist. Personally I like the new English title for the day because it parallels the way we speak of the death of Jesus, The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is appropriate because much of what is written about today focuses on the parallels and how John is the Precursor. 

In this instance precursor does not simply mean the one who comes before, nor does it mean that Jesus copied John. It means that God’s whose plan they both carried out already knew the outcome. The problem we Christians have always wrestled with is if God knows the future, does He make it happen or do we really have free will.

The Christian answer is that we absolutely have free will. We choose what we will do. We choose whether we will cooperate with God’s plan or go our own way.  That’s what makes our wrong choices sin. For something to be a sin we must freely choose to act contrary to God’s law.

Does God know what we are going to choose, yes.  He knows because he knows us, each one of us. He knows us perfectly. But his knowing what we will choose does not mean we do not do the choosing. 

This month marks my 20th year as a tribunal judge. Many of us have worked together for all or most of that 20 year.  Can they predict with almost perfect accuracy how I would respond to most questions? Absolutely.  We often know what each other is going to say. I suspect you have family or friends like that.  They know how we will react because they know us, not because they control us. Now expand that to the perfect knowledge of God.

For me,nowadays, it give me peace. I know that God already knows how and when this will end. He already knows what the “new normal” will look like in every country in the world. My job is to stay calm, and seek to do God’s Will today. God has already taken all of our craziness into account in His plan. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The hard parts

Before getting to the core of today’s first reading I do want to point out again a common Catholic error. I still hear Catholics saying “We don’t know the Bible.”  They imagine that their Protestant brothers and sisters have whole sections of the Bible memorized. Having lived on both sides of the street I can assure you that is no more a reality than the large Italian family. [In Italy these days there is perhaps one child per family].  Most Catholic have internalized more Bible verses than they realize. 

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Like almost all of mass it is a Bible verse, (2 Thessalonians 3:18), one every Catholic knows. 

Now to the hard part. 

St. Paul in this letter does give a clear and harsh instruction:

We instruct you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.

Some Christians take shunning very literally. Once a person is shunned, they are cut off from the community. 

For us, the most severe penalty we have, excommunication does not separate the person from the community. As the catechism says, it  “ impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts.” The excommunicated person is still Catholic. They are still a member of the Church. They are still a member of their parish. They still have, not only the right, but obligation to attend mass. They are still your brother or sister in Christ.  They cannot receive sacraments and cannot exercise certain other offices. 

In the Catholic Church, we follow the instruction of Mt. 18 and so the penalty is only imposed after every other method of bringing about conversion is tried. It cannot be imposed or declared by your local priest but only by the bishop as a last resort and the goal is always conversion, bringing back the lost sheep. 

This verse from St. Paul is a perfect example of why we must read each verse in the context of the whole Bible, in particular the gospels. Taken by itself, it would seem to encourage the individual Christian to judge the behavior of another and penalize the person they don’t think is living the Christian life. Taken in context we know that we as individuals have no such right. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Nathaniel or Not

While most of the tradition holds that Nathaniel and Bartholomew are the same person, there are some who doubt it. It does make sense. Bartholomew is after all what is called a “patronymic.” A patronymic is a device used in many cultures to identify the father. In Russia, a person’s second name is traditionally a patronymic (ex. Ivanovich, son of Ivan).  In Scandinavia the suffix son is used, the son of Peter is Peterson. In Iceland, the patronymic is used as the last name. And so it would be perfectly sensible if he we Nathaniel Bartholomew, the son of Tolomei.

He is throughout the scriptures the one who travels with Philip. He is the one in whom there is no duplicity (or guile).Most famously he is said to have died by being flayed, and in artwork is often depicted holding him own skin which has been peeled off and sometimes holding the knife. Perhaps the most famous depiction is in The Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. There he holds his skin in his left hand and the knife in his right.  The face on the skin is Michelangelo himself. St. Bartholomew is not suffering, but strong and vigorous. 

He is revered for having taken the gospel to modern-day Armenia and India. Beyond this little is known of his life. 

Today the Church prays that we may cling to Christ with the same sincerity of heart as St. Bartholomew who was privileged to be one of the 12..

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Being His Church

I can hardly believe that it has been 20 years since I moved back from Rome. While there I never ceased to be filled with awe every time I walked into St. Peter’s Basílica —the beauty and the detail, the history, the thought of how many millions of people have prayed in that place over the centuries.  And as you look up into the dome, inscribed in Latin in one direction, Greek in the other are the words of today’s gospel:

 you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

Twenty years later I look around at the Church, and I would be a fool not to be concerned. Entire generations have abandoned the faith. In many of our parishes in the U.S., if it weren’t for the Hispanic immigrants, there would be no children at all.

Some have gone to other churches. Many have simply abandoned church all together. To call them atheists it to presume too much. An atheist has thought about the question and decided there is no God. Many today don’t even give religion that much thought. 

In side the Church, we are seeing the same tribalism that has infected the political sphere. The right and the left declare incessantly that the other isn’t really Catholic. 

As for leaders, many of our bishops are so focused on the abuse scandal and money concerns, they have forgotten that their primary role it to teach, to evangelize. Instead of leading, they are proud of the fact that they are following the “best practices” of the business world. They have become, not shepherds, but  CEO’s. 

On the local level, what pastor doesn’t feel over-stretched...And then there’s COVID.

Where is the hope? Where is the light?

It is found in a single word in today’s Gospel — my.        

...Upon this rock I will build MY church...

The Church is not ours; It is His. The Church is His possession, totally. The Church is His body. It cannot be destroyed. It cannot pass away. It is eternal.  So, it cannot be destroyed.  As St. Paul tells us in vs. 36, Jesus is the origin the path, and the goal of it all.

It can however become practically invisible.  We, each of us, much choose to make it visible.  We make it visible when we show Christ to the world. We make it visible when we show our unity. We make the Church visible when we demonstrate our ability to be different from the world around us, when we build up rather than tear down, when we discuss rather than argue, when we love rather than label.

All one has to do is look at the plethora of websites, movies and programs dedicated to the subject and realize there is a hunger for the spiritual. Every human in the depths of their being knows there is something more than the physical world. We must feed to real human hunger, and then we will be the shining city on the hill, His Church.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Completing the Picture

Today the Church celebrates the queenship of Mary and we are offered a chance to reflect on why we need Marian devotion now.  

From the beginning the scriptures tell us that God created humanity in His image, male and female. Without the female the male is incomplete. Humanity  is composed of feminine and masculine and we need both aspects. 

Yes, it is true that if we look solely at the New Testament in terms of numbers of verses, we see an almost exclusive focus on God the Father and Jesus the only begotten Son.  But we Catholics have never looked at our faith this way. We have always looked at scripture as a unity of Old and New Testament. And beyond the Bible new have looked at how the faith has been lived and understood. 

There we find that from the earliest record Christians understood the unique place of Mary. Yes, it is true that when God became incarnate he chose a male body. But it is also true that while he could have simply appeared full grown he did not. God chose to become incarnate inside a female, to be nurtured by a female. 

While the number of verses dedicated to Mary are few, from the earliest day the Church has recognized her unique role, not only for Jesus but for us. 

Men and women would do well to turn to our mother in prayer, and to imitate her way of being, her form of discipleship. In every corner of our world today, we Christians need to let her “Mary, Queen of Peace” to reign in our hearts. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Tangible Unity

Today the Church celebrates St. Pius X. Let us in the Diocese of Richmond pray for our brothers and sisters in Norfolk celebrating their parish feast day. 

In 1909 Pope Pius X established what remains the premier Catholic institution for the study of Sacred Scripture, the Pontifical Biblical Institute, known as the Biblicum.  Those who graduate can proudly use the initials SSL or SSD after their name. It means that they have spent years of their lives immersed in the world of the Bible, the languages and the cultures.

But every memorial of a saint who was a pope always brings up the most basic question, do we still need a pope? I would argue that we need him more than ever. 

It was the great petition of Jesus before he went to die 

that they may be one, just as you Father are in me, and I in that the world may believe (Jn 17:21)

Unity among humans has always been an elusive thing. For as much as we are social, we easily fracture. The stain of original sin pulls each of us toward the self. 

Jesus knows that if the Church he  establishes is able to remain one, it will only be by the grace of God, the working of the Holy Spirit. It will also be a compelling sign of God’s power at work in the world. 

But for it to be a compelling, convincing sign, it must be real unity. It cannot be simply mutual toleration, agree to disagree. It must be a oneness of mind and heart. The Church must be a visible reflection of the unity of the Trinity. 

We human beings are, not merely spiritual, but physical creatures.  We need things we can perceive with our senses. 

Inside and outside the Church there are those how would pull us apart, as a Church, as a nation, as a human family. They seek to pull us apart for their own advantage. 

We need a pope. And God has given us Pope Francis at this moment in the history of the Church for a reason.  He as each of his predecessors is called to be the visible sign and instrument of the unity to which we are called. 

We must turn our back on every voice that seeks to divide, even if that voice be a priest, a bishop or a cardinal. Today, we pray for Pope Francis, and we know that Pope Pius X intercedes for him and for the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church, founded on the rock that is Peter.