Friday, May 18, 2012

Blog Break

For the next two weeks I will have limited I Internet access, the blog will be back on a daily basis beginning Monday June 4, 2012.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

explanation or excuse

Paul turns to the people in the first reading, after preaching to them, and say, "I am free of responsibility."

In recent years a number of popular books have come out reporting more and more evidence about how much of our reactions and responses are hardwired into the human brain. For the last decades of the 20th century partly to overcome the prejudices that had so long be a part of our culture we tended to focus on research that suggested the basic equality of people, "You can be anything you set you mind to." We wanted to focus on models that suggested that we all have equal potential and it was all about how a child was raised.

More recently the pendulum has swung the other direction and books like Thinking Fast and Slow and Subliminal suggest that we are driven by forces within our brain of which we are often not consciously aware. A recent article in the New York Times dubbed them the "You Can't Help Yourself" books.

The Catholic faith charts what I believe to be the health middle ground. We start with the notion that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. "God looked at it and saw that it was very good." When then add a touch of original sin. You only have to be around any child and you see clearly the human tendency to turn in on the self (something we should outgrow).

We recognize and except the influences of biology, culture, and upbringing on each person. We understand how we are impacted for good and bad by the events of our life. At the end of the day however, we believe in two things that set us apart from the rest of the other creatures: free will and grace. Except for a small number of the profoundly mentally ill, we believe each of us has the freedom to chose, and by the choices we make we define who we are. If I steal I am a thief.

We also believe in the power of grace. Grace not only is there to bring forgiveness, but can actually transform us. Grace builds on nature. We are never too old to change. We are never too old to make the choice to turn toward. God.

St. Paul proclaimed the gospel to the people, but he was wise enough to know that in the end the choice was theirs.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Seeing the good

In the first reading today Paul gives us a model not just for evangelization, but for living.

The average person from Paul's culture would have looked at the Greeks and seen only pagans, pagans worshiping idols. Many raised in his strict Jewish tradition would have found it outrageous to even think of that as religion. There is only one God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Paul not always known as a man of tact stands up in the Areopagus and instead of a diatribe against idolatry, he begins acknowledging that they are a very religious people. He shows respect for what they believe. He starts by finding the points of agreement. His approach is: I see you have a statue to an unknown God, let me tell you who it is?

How different that is from is the the binary, win/lose, approach we so often take in our families, at work and in our public discourse. Without even thinking about it we treat life as a game in which we are all individual competitors.

Technology has made it worse, because now with cable and the Internet, I can choose to watch, listen to and read only the people who think like me. We see our society becoming more fragmented and polarized. We talk about each other and at each other, but not with each other.

We need the model of Paul now. We need to return to our Christian roots, to see the good in the other. Before we argue can we begin by acknowledging the points of agree, what we have in common. Can we go all the way back to chapter one of Genesis and remember that we are one human family.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It's a family thing

One of the great debates in Christianity is the one regarding infant baptism. The simple fact is that the bible neither speaks of it explicitly or prohibit it. What we do know for a fact is that, as recorded in today's first reading, when men were moved by the preaching of the Apostle, the entire family would be baptized into the Church. Nothing in the scriptures suggests a minimum age below which one was excluded.

Both the Jewish and gentile cultures of the day saw the family as a single unit. This would have often included slaves as well as children, literally everyone in the household.

From a historical perspective one need only look at our Jewish roots and see that the infants too are considered part of the covenant. While some Christians like to point to the bar mitzvah ritual for coming of age, they forget that at the time of Jesus the Bar Mitzvah did not yet exist. What did exists was the circumcision on the eighth day.

From the modern perspective of human development, we now understand that those early months and years can impact a person for the rest of their life. It is only logical that we would want that gift of the Holy Spirit poured into the child as soon as possible.

If we truly believe that baptism is more than symbolic, that grace has real power, why would we delay in giving that gift to the next generation?

Monday, May 14, 2012

The first of the successors, sort of

We refer to the Bishops as the successors of the Apostles, and in today's first reading we get a glimpse into how from the earliest days the successor were chosen.

After the suicide of Judas, the Acts of the Apostles recounts how a someone needed to be chosen. Two men were set forward as candidates. The Apostles prayed that Jesus himself might make the choice. And then the cast lots. That's right they used a form of divination technically called cleromancy.

The casting of lots after prayer had deep roots in the Old Testament. While Christianity and Judaism have traditionally condemned widespread use of any form of divination, there have been these notable exceptions. Just as the wise men following a star was not an endorsement of Astrology, this passage is not intended to promote casting lots to discover God's will in an individual's life.

Regardless of the methodology it is most important to note that what they were looking for was God's choice, not the Apostles' or the people's choice. I have heard those completely enamored of democracy say "vox populi, vox dei", the voice of the people is the voice of God. The source of the orginal saying no one knows. What we do have is Alcuin in the 8th century warning, "And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness."

Mathias is called an Apostle, and not just a successor because he was actually with Jesus. Over our 2000 year history the methods for selecting the successors have changed and even today vary within the Catholic Church, but the one constant remains the attempt to listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The original apostles were imperfect men, and we should not be shocked by the imperfection of their successors. To those who think democracy would fix all that is wrong with the Church, I invite you to look at Congress.

The Church has never claimed that any bishop or pope was perfect or that everything that comes from the mouth of the pope is infallible. That is a caricature of Church teaching. We do trust that despite individual imperfections and sins, the Holy Spirit will keep the Church on the right path.

Today as we recall Matthias let us pray for all of our bishops that they will remain men of constant prayer, seeking always the will of God.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The First Council

As we prepare this year to celebrate 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. It is good that the first reading today takes us back to the First Council of the Church.

Chapter 15 of Acts recalls how the church resolved the most controversial issue in the Church, whether to remain faithful to the Mosaic Law or whether it was possible that with Jesus some new had begun. This was nothing less than a fundamental change of identity, the reason why today we think of Christianity and Judaism as two distinct religions. The entire ability of Christianity to attract gentiles and spread throughout the world was made possible by this council.

The Church has continued to use this model to resolve issues of great moment up to and including the Second Vatican Council. Only twenty-one of these councils have been held in the more than 2000 year history of our church.

It we look back at what was decided at the First Council of Jerusalem we see that it continued to what in our modern language would be kosher meat. Today even the most fundamentalist Christians pay little attention to that bible verse. Why? Because church teaching develops.

Were there many who were outraged by Jerusalem I? Yes. Just as there are still some who are angry over Vatican II. For me, I continue to hold to the belief that these Councils have and will continue to be one of the great tools the Holy Spirit uses to teach us all things.

Today's reading ends with the reading of the letter, the council document, if you will. Perhaps this anniversary year is a great time to go back and read the documents of Vatican II. . For both extremes the documents are a disappointment. They are balanced in a way that shows the movement of the Spirit. They continue not to invent new things but to call us to a new and deeper understanding of very old things, the truths of our faith.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Promise of the Advocate

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name--
he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.

We are now more than half way though the Easter Season, moving toward Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

As we see above Jesus promises that the Spirit will do two things with respect to teaching:
1. Remind us of what Jesus told us
2. Teach us everything.

It is the second of these that is a tall order. Thankfully Jesus does not set a time limiting on the Holy Spirit. He does not promise that the Spirit will teach us everything within the first century or even two centuries.

Jesus is the full revelation of God and there is therefore no more to come after him. But our comprehension continues everyday to grow and this was the plan.

Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will teach everything and there are some very specific tools: Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium.

Of the first two the Catechism says quite eloquently:

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal." Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own "always, to the close of the age".

Notice here the distinction. We are not talking about those merely human traditions in the history of the church, some have been retained and some lost over the centuries. Here we are speaking of Sacred Tradition, Tradition whose origin is God.

Even today the Holy Spirit remains at work:

Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church:
- "through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts";it is in particular "theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth".
- "from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers] experience",The sacred Scriptures "grow with the one who reads them."
- "from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".

"It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls."

May we open our hearts and minds to the great teacher (magister), the Holy Spirit, in whatever way we are spoken to today.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Inside Out

If someone asked you, "Where is Jesus?", how would you answer?
Some would say in heaven.
Some would say in us.

The later would almost fit today's gospel, but is only half right.
In classic John style Jesus speaks of remaining in us but also commands us to remain in him. You may ask, "What's the difference?" Whether he is in us or we are in him we are still together. There is however a great deal of difference.

That he is in us is no longer our doing. From the moment we are baptized God dwells in us, and God will never abandon us. Even when we keep him tucked inside and no one sees him in our actions or hears him in our words, he remains in us.

Remaining in him is much more the challenge. First because it requires that we recede. If we are in him, then he is on the outside. He is what the world sees and hears. Our words and actions are those of Christ.

Secondly, unlike baptism that is once done and never repeated. Remaining in Christ requires constant vigilance on our part. What Christ will never abandon us, we can and do step out of him with some frequency.

Perhaps for the hour when we are in church we can manage to remain in him , but how long is it after mass before we step outside him, before we say or do something we know is not in keeping with the gospel.

Remaining in Christ is like listening. On the surface it sounds like sitting still, doing nothing, passive. In reality it is anything but passive. It requires us to constantly think, and choose. How many times each day does something happen which, if we allow it, could cause us to step outside of Christ. If we are passive we can be swept along in the current and find ourselves a very long way from him.

Athletes speak of being "in the zone." They train constantly so that no matter what happens they can stay in the zone. For us, the zone is Christ, how well do you train to remain in him?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Which way do we go?

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

While much has been written about truth and life, we don't hear much about the way. The reason I find that interesting is that before we were called Catholics, or Christians, the early followers were referred to as people of the way.

What made others first take note of them was the distinctive way they lived and in particular their care for the needy. Two thousand years later when non-Christians look at us, is there anything about our lifestyle that makes us distinctive and attractive. Sure we Christians are among the richest people in the world financially but do we still stand out as a people who live a different way, grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Some take a longer road

When we think of conversion stories we like the immediacy of the story of Saul on the road to Damascus. The flash of light.
Today we celebrate two saints who remind us that for most of us the road to understanding the gospel is not so simple.
James the Son of Alpheus, is mentioned only three times in the bible. He is often referred to as James, the Lesser to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee, known as James the greater.

Also today we celebrate Philip who twice is the gospels seems to frustrate Jesus, once at the feeding of the 5000 when he suggests that 200 days wages would not be enough and in the gospel for today when Jesus responds to him with, "Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?"

But really, which of us could dare to claim that we really know Jesus? The good news is that despite his lack of comprehension he is still a saint. Like Philip we struggle to fully understand the message of the gospel. Perhaps in this life we never fully understand it.

Maybe the struggle of Philip is one of the reasons why when I lived in Rome, I used to love to go out my back door and around the corner, and into the crypt that holds the relics of these two apostles. For me it was one of those rare places where I could kneel and pray and it was as if time stopped. There was a true sense of the holy.

We may call James lesser and remember Philip for his lack of understanding but it was precisely men such as these that were the pillars on which Jesus built his church.

There is hope for us all!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Supporting the chair

Sometimes art can speak more eloquently than words. If one enters St. Peter's Basilica, you are struck immediately by the great window of the Holy Spirit. Just below it, the enormous sculpture of the Chair of Peter.
While we focus much on the role of Peter we can forget what the sculpture reminds us of, Peter alone did not bring the Church to the world-wide community it is today.

Particularly in the early years there were great struggles within the Church as we grappled to understand the full implications of who Jesus was, his life,death, and resurrection.

In the famous sculpture there are four of the Fathers of the Church surrounding the Chair, two from the West and two from the East: St. Ambrose, St. Anthanasius (left); and St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine (right).

In the 21st century even our religion can become egocentric. It's me and God (as I define it), or me and Jesus, or me and my Bible, or my parish. We can become disconnected from our history, and those important people through whom the Holy Spirit shaped the Church, as like any living being it matured.

Today the Church celebrates St. Athanatius. Each time we recite those words in the creed, "consubstantial with the father" we should call to mind this saint who defended the truth of Jesus being of the same substance with the father. While we take this for granted, at his time it was truly a matter of great controversy.

We remember and give thanks for St. Athanatius.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thanks to the communists

Those of us over 50 we remember well when communism and the Soviet Union were the great fears of our day. Eastern Europe was all but lost, and our fear of the spread of communism around the world at sometimes pasted paranoid. Each year on May 1 the communists would hold great celebrations "to honor workers" and show of their military might.

It was against this backdrop that in 1955 Pope Pius XII added today's optional memorial to the calendar, St. Joseph the Worker, as a counterbalance to the communist celebrations.

While "The Red Menace" has all but faded into history, we as a church still need this day on our calendar to remind us of of what our church teaches about the role and the rights of workers. On this day in 1991, Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Centissimus Annus which marked a hundred years of Catholic social teaching aimed at protecting the dignity of workers.

Today there are still millions of people around the world working in squalid conditions, little more than slave labor. Even in the US the sweat shop is still a reality. We all love a bargain, but how often do we ask ourselves about the human cost.

On this one day, let us think about it.

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.