Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ontological Change

There are a number of terms we use, many dating back to St. Thomas Aquinas, that can leave the average person feeling as if they need to take a dictionary to Church. They can also lead non-Catholics to ask the question, “Where’s that in the Bible?” The term “ontological change” is one such phrase. 

To understand the term, we have to start by acknowledging that there are some parts of faith that are simply beyond human language, because God cannot be reduced to any human formulation. We use “ontological change” to try and describe the change that happens to a person when they are ordained. The Catechism uses the phrase “indelible character.” Like baptism and confirmation, the sacrament of orders cannot be undone or temporary. A priest is still also a deacon. A Bishop is also still a deacon and a priest. When a man is ordained his relationship to the community is fundamentally and permanently reordered. 

Where is that in the Bible? It is in today’s gospel of the good shepherd. While Pope Francis says the shepherd should smell like sheep, he does not say the shepherd is one of the sheep. That would be a strange image, one of the sheep standing up on his hind legs and leading the flock. When one is ordained a priest or a bishop, one is called to teach, sanctify, and shepherd the people of God. It is worth noting that almost all Christians use the word “pastor” which comes from the Latin word for shepherd.  Those who are ordained are transformed from mere members of the flock to shepherds, hopefully good shepherds. 

Sometimes the shepherd walks behind the sheep, sometimes beside the sheep, sometimes in front of the sheep, and often he stands in the midst. But he should always remember to never get too far from the sheep in any direction. Of course the other problem is that  in our democratic culture one of the uncomfortable challenges we have to face is that the Pastor cannot think of himself as “just one of the people.” If a coach begins to think of himself as just one of the players or a teacher acts like he or she is buddies with the students, there are going to be problems. 

We are all equal in dignity, but our roles are different. Church is all about relationship: our relationship to God, our relationships with each other. The very existence of the concept of “ordination” is an acceptance of the belief that there is such a thing as a right “order” to those relationships. I will never say “Hola, Francisco” to the Pope or “Hiya, Barry” to the Bishop. It would be a dishonest representation of the relationship. While they are both very friendly people, they are not my friends. 

Yes this grates against our post-modern American culture, but so do many other truths taught by the Christian faith. Let us pray that God will continue to call good shepherds for His flock, and daily grant the existing shepherds the grace and wisdom to teach, sanctify, and lead the People of God. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Unity of the Church

Each Sunday we profess faith in ONE, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. But sadly, I wonder if we have not simply given up on the idea of real unity. On the global level we see the church divided into innumerable “denominations.” And even inside the Catholic Church we see those who should be leaders acting as if they are members of political parties.  On the local level, we see parishes internally divided along ethnic lines. As what had been minority language groups grow and become majorities, struggles for power consume communities, and it becomes at best two churches sharing one building. We hear the cry, “They have taken over our church.”

How far we have drifted from our roots. The Acts of the Apostles tells us:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.

As we read the Acts of the Apostles, we are reminded that the Church is never “my Church” or even “our Church.” The Church was established by Christ and is exclusively “His Church.”  The Church is His Body. You and I by baptism have the privilege of being members, but it remains His Body. There is, as St. Paul told the Ephesians, 

one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

In John 21 we are told that it was Peter who hauled the net ashore and the net was not torn. In two millennia we have torn it to shreds. But we can also mend it. 

It starts in the heart of the indivual believer. It starts in the local “community of the Christian Faithful” we call a parish. Each of us must make a through examination of our minds and hearts to root out any seeds of division.  Unity does not mean sameness. There will always be groups with different spiritualities, languages, and areas of focus in ministry. But unity must mean more than mutual toleration. There must be true respect and communication that is essential to community. 

Let us not only pray for global unity in the Church, but let us work for unity in our communities. 

Wouldn’t it be nice

Normally on March 25th, nine months before December 25th, we celebrate the Annunciation, the moment when the angel appeared to Mary to announce to her the good news that she was to be the mother of Jesus.  This year March 25th was Palm Sunday, followed by Holy Week and Easter Week. So here we are on April 9th celebrating the Annunciation. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if an angel just showed up one day and told us what we were supposed to do with our lives? Truth be told, it would probably scare us to death. We’d probably either dismiss it as a dream or run for an MRI to make sure we didn’t have a brain tumor. In addition, we should take note of just how little the angel told her.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.

She is given none of the details about what is going to happen to her, Joseph, or Jesus. Nor is she told what she is supposed to do. 

And yet, she says, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”  “be done”, passive voice. 

We don’t care much for the idea of being passive — even less the idea of having things done to us. We want to be active and in control. It’s what makes the concept of obedience so difficult. It’s what makes certain stains of  religion attractive, those voices that tell us that each of can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. 

Today as we celebrate the Annunciation, let each of us take some time to reflect on the place of obedience in our lives. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Faith across time

Each year the Church calls us during the 50 days of Easter to return to our roots, to read the amazing story of the Church’s beginning in the Acts of the Apostles. It is a reminder to us that Christianity is more than a philosophy, a guide for living. Christianity is a historical religion.  At its core are historical events: the birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate. If one does not believe that these events actually happened, one cannot say, “I am a Christian.”

But the historicity of Christianity does not stop there. To be a Christian requires also that we believe the promise that opens the Acts of the Apostles, the promise of the Holy Spirit who, as we are told in St. John’s gospel, “will teach you all things.”  

To be a Christian is to believe that Holy Spirit continued to move in history and  inspired each of the writers of books of the Bible. The Holy Spirit inspired the Church in the process as she discerned what writings would and would not be included in the Bible. The Bible did not simply one day magically appear. 

As Christians we believe that there will be “no new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” at his second coming.

 But we do not believe that with the completion of the Bible, God went silent and the Holy Spirit ceased to teach. 

When we say that Christianity is a historical religion we proclaim that the same Holy Spirit continues to assist the Church to “gradually grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.” Revelation is complete, but our understanding is unfolding.  For that reason when we read to Word of God it is essential that we all so listen in a special way to those known as the Church Fathers, the first generations after the Apostles. How did they understand the text?

Over these 50 days as we read the story of the early church it is a reminder to us that that same Holy Spirit that guided them continues to guide the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church today.