Saturday, June 30, 2012

A little History

Yesterday, we celebrated the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. New Archbishops from around the world received their pallia (sing. Pallium) the sign of an archbishop.

Today, we celebrated the First Martyrs of Rome, which marks the persecution of Christians by Nero (64-67 AD).

One of the major revisions to the Church's calendar after Vatican II was to thoroughly review the historicity of the saints names that had accumulated after almost two millennia. Those for whom no historical evidence could be found were removed. In some cases where specific names could not be verified days like today's were created.

We know that the persecution happened and many Christians were killed for nothing more than simply being Christian. Their names have been lost to us. But isn't that a general truth? Most of the holiest men and women in history have been born, lived, and died without ever becoming famous.

Even as I write this I know that there are men and women in obscure places who will be killed simply because of their faith and no one but their families and friends will take note.

Today as we remember those first Christian martyrs who died almost 1950 years ago, we pray for all those who will be martyrs still, especially those whose names will never be part of the history.

NB. The word martyr comes from Greek and means literally witness. In Christianity a martyr is one who is killed by someone else because of their faith.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Balance from the beginning

St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles

St. Peter, holding the key to heaven (the gold key)

These two statues stand out front of St. Peter's Basilica. They remind us not only of the two men but of the constant challenge in our Christian faith. St. Peter, the first of those entrusted with protecting the deposit of faith. St. Paul who pushed the boundaries and challenged the disciples and apostles to a broader vision of Church.

In every generation their are those who would drag the church to the extremes, and we depend on the Holy Spirit to help us hold fast to the essential truths of he faith and at the same time be constantly open to seeing deeper understanding. The truth Christ taught does not changes, but our understanding and the issues to which we have to apply it with time do change.

Through the intercession of these two great saints, may each of us find that same balanced place in our life.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

St. iranaenus

We can often look judgmentally on Islam and those who would interpret the Quran in ways that would lead to violence, ways that most of the adherents of the Islamic faith would say are misinterpretations of the text. But what should be done?

While beating up on the Pope and the bishops is popular both inside and outside the Church, we need them. Today we celebrate St. Iranaenus who defended the role of the bishops to, guided by the Holy Spirit, protect the proper interpretation of scriptures.

If the Christian faith were reduced to individuals with Bibles, any charismatic personality could cherry pick verses from the Old and New Testament to justify anything and gather a following. Have the bishops for 2000 years gotten every issue right all the time? No, nor has the Catholic Church ever claimed that. On the core issue, we do hold that through the bishops the Holy Spirit works to keep the Church on the right track as we deal with new realities that the world of the Bible could never have imagined.

Even the great movements of the reformation never imagined a church without structure or authority. They saw the danger of an individual with a Bible, our human capacity to find what we want to see.

The heresy against which Iranaeus fought, Gnosticim, did not die off in the second century. The gnostic idea of having a kind of secret knowledge apart from the scriptures and what was handed down by the Church, seems to resurface in every age. We can dismissively refer to these groups as "cults" but the reality is that many lives have been ruined and even lost, because some poor soul searching for God was drawn into them. We have to look no further than the ongoing saga of Warren Jeffs, right here in the U.S.

Our bishops are imperfect human beings, and any of them including the Pope will readily admit that. As we remember St. Iranaenus today let us pray for our bishops.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Religious Liberty

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
These sixteen words have been the guarantor of the freedom of all religious men and women in our country. As a Virginian I must reach back to their predecessor, the 1779 Virginia statute on religious freedom
"[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
Today people of many faiths including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are feeling pressures that would limit their ability to live their faith in their daily lives.
From today until the 4th of July we are entering a time of prayer. The U.S. bishops have called for a Fortnight for Freedom. For those not familiar with the term fortnight is a term for a two-week period. We are called to pray not just about one particular law but any attempts to limit non-violent exercise of religion, or to coerce persons to act contrary to their faith. Click the link above for more information.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Same truth, different expression

When you read the first reading today, it seems unfair. After the repentance of the king God says, "I will not bring the evil in his time. I will bring the evil upon his house during the reign of his son."

On the surface it seems to be unfair. Why would God punish a child for the actions of his son. The short answer is, he wouldn't. While the Old Testament tends to state everything in a simple language that reads to us like direct divine intervention, what is really being described here is consequences.

Our actions are never single acts in perfect isolation. Because we live in relationship to others all of our actions have ripple effects. Some we see; some we don't see. Some we intend, some not.

When a pregnant woman does drugs, is it God punishing the child when it is born with problems? In our modern language we would recognize that it is the consequence of her action, not divine punishment.

Today's reading reminds us of a stark, painful truth. There are times when we can feel true contrition, and be truly forgiven by God, but as the expression goes, you can't unring the bell. There are times when we have to live with the effects of the choices we made.

Today's first reading is a reminder of why it is so important that we think before we act. Can we foresee every effect? No. But it is a safe bet that when we chose sin, there is going to be a negative ripple.

Once more we come back to fundamental moral theology. What distinguishes a human act is intellect and will, the ability to think and chose.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Not just Jezebel

The name Jezebel became so famous that an older generation of Americans remember when some woman might be referred to as a Jezebel. What we forget is that if we go back and read the story of today's first reading, we find first of all that the reading has nothing to do with infidelity; it is about power.

There have always been power-hungry women, just as there have always been power-hungry men. We call the men ambitious and the women we call....

In all cases, from Jezebel's plot and murder of one man to Hilter's murder of millions, they all need one thing, collaborators. Sometimes it is active collaboration, sometimes it is the passive collaboration of silence. Without their collaborators they would be nothing.

What makes collaboration in sin so insidious is that it often looks so innocuous or even good. In the first reading today it could be described as patriotism, loyalty to the king. Often it is carried out by nice people, the ones who go along to get along. They don't want to be troublemakers.

And when the evil is finally exposed for what it is the collaborators are often the first to run from their own responsibility and history remembers only Jezebel, as if it were all her fault.

What they all forget is that a sin of omission is still a sin, and no human authority can make something that is a sin not a sin. We are reminded once again of of the famous quote often attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

This is as true in small everyday things as it is in global things.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Imitating the widow

There is in each of that tendency toward selfishness that always seeks justification or even just rationalization. All you have to do is listen to the world economic crisis discussion, and scratch the surface of many people's solutions and you we see, self- interest.

This is what makes the widow of Zarephath so remarkable. She is literally about to starve to death with her child and yet she is able to overcome her own survival instinct and the maternal instinct in order to assist a man who is fundamentally a stranger.

Because we know how it turns out, we have a tendency to under value the depth of her sacrifice. We dismiss it as something in "Bible World" and forget what real life was like back then. It becomes just another bible story rather than a model for our moral choices.

As we all talk about what needs to be done to fix the economy, where do we fit the example of the widow?

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Of all the traditional values our modern culture has abandoned the concept of fidelity seems to remain. When talking to couples preparing for marriage some still see it as the one unpardonable sin. As a tribunal judge and pastor is it not unusual when you someone is asked why they divorced their spouse to hear them say, "They cheated on me." They are shocked to discover that the single fact of infidelity is not in itself grounds for an annulment. So strong is our feeling about this issue, when we are the aggrieved party.

Then we read in today's first reading with regard to Jesus, "If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself."

First of all do we even think of sin as infidelity. Week after week we go to church, we make the profession of faith, we say "Amen." to the words "The Body of Christ." And we go out the door and sin often because we have either told ourselves that something is not a sin, or we cannot seem to muster the self control to stop ourselves.

Perhaps this reading offers us a new point of view. If we think of our personal relationship to Jesus, and sin as an act of infidelity, perhaps we can approach it with a new seriousness. We would think more before we act.

This image can seem harsh and can make us feel guilty, but that is not always a bad thing. When I am guilty, I should feel guilty. That means your systems are functioning normally.

The great good news is that this simple passage reminds us that even when we are unfaithful Jesus remains faithful to us. Jesus does not divorce us, as it were, for our infidelity. Even when the church says we should not receive communion until we set ourselves right(excommunicated), we remain members of the Church. That is why in our theology no validly conferred sacrament can be undone. That is why we have the sacrament of Penance. We are part of Jesus by virtue of our baptism and he cannot deny himself.

Our cultural instinct to abhor infidelity is correct. Our narrow understanding of what constitutes infidelity is perhaps what we need to adjust. Today let us attempt to avoid being unfaithful to our relationship to Christ, to loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself. But if we are, let us also know that Jesus remains faithful and forgiveness is always available.

Timothy the man

For the rest of this week we read from the second of Paul's letters to Timothy. I refer to them without the title saint not out of disrespect but out of recognition that words work on multiple levels of meaning. When we call someone Saint we honor their holiness, but at the same time we can without meaning to transform them from human beings like ourselves to the perfect marble statues we see in museums and churches. We can make them too attractive in a superficial way.

In fact, we can do the same thing with Christianity as a whole. When we constantly talk of love we can without meaning to change Christianity into something that is very attractive, but in the way pastry is attractive.

When we read the bible we need to see human beings like ourselves who lived in a world harsher than most of us will ever encounter. Paul opens this letter to Timothy not by telling him "God loves you and wants you to find and do what will makes you happy." Paul opens by telling him to "bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God."

Holiness not happiness should be the daily, immediate goal. The good news is that if we aim at holiness we will get happiness in the long run. If we aim at happiness we may, in the long run, end up with the great nothing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The shaping of Europe

We can easily think of the map as having always been as we see it today. For convenience we group countries and cultures that are in reality quite distinct one from the other. Ask someone who speaks one of the more than 2000 languages of Africa about "African culture" and they will laugh because there is no one African culture. Even today we watch Europe struggle as it tries to maintain some sense of unity. Unity as we have seen in the readings around Pentecost was the great prayer of Jesus for his Church, and yet we continue to pull apart.

Today is the memorial of St. Boniface. Born in what is today England, it was his missionary work in the late 7th and early 8th century that gave shape to what we think of as Europe. In some ways the fact that we think of Europe at all is influenced by his work in unifying the church of the time.

His work was so extraordinary that he tomb in Fulda, Germany became a place of pilgrimage.

We all know St. Patrick the patron of the Irish American immigrants. Today we remember Boniface the patron for German and our German-American immigrants.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Spiritual supplements

We all know that as Christians we are supposed to love. But how do we really get there. In the first reading today Peter gives us a list of supplements, so popular today among the health conscious. His list is not vitamins but steps that trace a path from faith to love.

In his model you start with something simple: Faith in Jesus.
If you're reading this, you probably already have step that one. Then he tells us to
2. Supplement the faith with virtue. In order to have virtue you have to know what they are and so he tells us to
3. Supplement virtue with knowledge. We must constantly deepen our knowledge of the faith.
Then it gets a bit harder because we have to move the knowledge to action.
4. Supplement knowledge with self-control. Imagine doing and saying only those things we choose to do and say. This is easy enough to do when all is going well but what happens to our self-control when things go wrong? He then tells us
5. Supplement self-control with endurance. We love to celebrate this virtue in athletes but do we really want it for ourselves? The next step is to my mind the uniquely Christian key
6. Supplement endurance with devotion. Christian endurance is not gritting your teeth and getting through the pain. Endurance comes from falling into deep devotion to Jesus and drawing strength from him, the crucified Christ.
When we lose ourselves in Christ then we can take the next step and
7. Supplement devotion with mutual affection. We're not expected to suddenly one day be able to love every body. We start with baby steps, just some basic mutual affection.
Lastly he tells us:
8. Supplement mutual affection with love.

Mutual affection

A simple but not always easy path to walk.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

It's not just about God

When we speak about the Trinity we are not simply talking about our Christian understanding of the nature of God, but about the nature of humanity as well.

One aspect of our having been created in the image and likeness of God is that we are each unique individuals, and even after death we do not lose out distinctive identity. At the same time we are called to live in unity, "that they may be one as you and I are one" was the prayer of the Son to the Father.

The great difference between us and God is that while the Holy Trinity exists in constant perfect harmony, an interpenetration, that St. Gregory of Nanzianzus called perichoresis, in our human lives we experience it as constant tension.

We want to love and be loved and yet we are selfish. We know that we should work together but continue to divide ourselves by nation, language, race. The balance required is a difficult one.

Communism tried to erase the individual in favor of the unity. Our modern American individualism can undermine the essential unity, in a misguided notion of independence. Where do we find the balance? In God. By keeping our eyes constantly fixed on the Holy Trinity and striving to model every aspect of our lives on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.