Tuesday, October 28, 2014

19 Years

This particular day, brothers and sisters, is a serious warning to me to think very carefully about the burden I carry. Even if I have to think about the weight of it day and night, still this anniversary somehow or other thrusts it on my consciousness in such a way that I am absolutely unable to avoid reflecting on it. And the more the years increase, or rather decrease, and bring me nearer to my last day, which of course is undoubtedly going to come some time or other, the sharper my thoughts become, and ever more full of needles, about what sort of account I can give for you to the Lord our God.

Thus spoke Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) introducing his sermon on the occasion of his anniversary of ordination as bishop (Sermon 339, tr. Edmund Hill, p. 388). Augustine was, of course, a bishop. His responsibilities and burdens as bishop far exceeded my much more modest ones. Still, the sentiments he expressed speak similarly to me on this 19th anniversary of my own priestly ordination.

Looking back at my ordination on a windy autumn Saturday afternoon at Saint Peter's Church in Toronto, Canada, I am amazed at how full these years have been. It is beyond my capacity to try to enumerate all the people and events that have significantly filled these years. The best I can do is to try to remember them all in a global sort of way during my retreat this week with the bishop and priests of the Knoxville Diocese and especially at Mass on this my anniversary day. 

“By virtue of ordination,” Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote, “the priest becomes a conductor of God’s grace for the people.” 

What a joy and privilege that is! What a joy and privilege it has been for me these 19 years!

Monday, October 27, 2014

On Retreat

Every October the bishop and priests of the diocese go on retreat together. We all go to a wonderful place in North Carolina, which, while I wish it were a little closer, is otherwise an almost perfect place for this purpose. The diocese hires a retreat director, who gives conferences and does the other usual things that are associated with a priests' retreat. We pray Office and Mass together. The food is great, and there is a reasonable amount of relaxed time as well. And, of course, there is the company of one's fellow priests!

In my first assignment, the religious priests were not included in the diocesan priests' retreat. (Perhaps it was presumed our communities took care of all that already.) Here we are, and I am grateful for that. This will be my fifth diocesan retreat with the Knoxville presbyterate, and it is an event I find myself looking forward to more and more each year.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Neighbor

What a scene today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:34-40] presents! Jesus could well be a modern political candidate – or perhaps a delegate at the Synod of Bishops - being pestered by the media, as each group – Pharisees, Sadducees, scholars of the Law - poses some complex question, clearly trying to trap Jesus in his answer!

Like the earlier questions, this was intended to be tricky – tricky because the Law contains 613 commandments. How then to determine which commandment int he law is the greatest? Few, however, would have quarreled with Jesus’ answer, taken straight from the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6). For centuries, both before Jesus’ time and since, devout Jews have recited those words daily. The lawyer had only asked for one commandment – the greatest one – but Jesus also offered him another – also a familiar one, from the book of Leviticus [Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18]..

Nor was this some isolated injunction. Today’s 1st reading – from Exodus [22:20-26] – illustrates just how demanding the Old Testament is in regard to how to treat one’s neighbor – especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. Hence, the Jewish law’s emphasis on just treatment of foreigners and immigrants. Prejudice against foreigners is nothing new, nor was it confined to ancient Israel, of course. The Old Testament repeatedly reminds the people that they too had once been foreigners and were descended from immigrants – as is true of us here today.

So Jesus’ statement that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is like the commandment to love God was not some new invention. It is deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures, which suggest that, when one wrongs one’s neighbor, one also offends God, in which case God’s justice will make itself felt!

The two commandments are connected, Jesus tells the lawyer. Jesus is here setting out the essential basis for moral living – not something added on to the rest of one’s life, but its essential component. The Bible does not offer quick and easy answers to each and every ethical question that may arise. But what it does do is to describe a relationship between God and us as also among us on which we are challenged to build our individual and collective moral lives.

But who is my neighbor? In Luke’s Gospel [Luke 10:25-37], the lawyer - wanting, we are told, to justify himself - follows up by asking, And who is my neighbor? In this account, there is no follow-up question. Presumably, people took for granted the traditional understanding of neighbor as a fellow-member of the community, a fellow citizen of Israel, someone I am supposed to feel connected to. We can, of course, expand the circle, as Exodus did to include foreigners and immigrants. We can keep expanding the community wider and wider without limit to include ever more people, until we come to consider everyone in the world a neighbor. And, to some extent, that was what Jesus did with the lawyer’s second question in Luke. We are all familiar with his answer – the parable of the Good Samaritan – which certainly suggests a significant broadening in the notion of who my neighbor is.

Still we have to start somewhere. We naturally and inevitably think first and foremost of those we have more concrete connections with as our neighbors. Maybe that’s why we get more excited about 2 nurses in Texas who contracted Ebola (and are thankfully now well) than we do about already almost 10,000 cases (at least half of them fatal) in West Africa. Even worse, people often react to real or imagined threats to themselves and their near neighbors in ways which further erode the connections that create and sustain communities. As NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote one day last week: “People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid.”

Again, we all have to start somewhere. So, of course, it will always be the case that we naturally and inevitably think first and foremost of those we have more concrete connections with as our neighbors.  We all start with ourselves and gradually (and with some effort) learn to build bridges outward, starting with family, then moving on to others we share space with or have some common interest with, gradually growing to include all our fellow citizens and, hopefully, even beyond. That is why the commandment says to love your neighbor as yourself. Obviously, we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere starts with ourselves. But a fulfilling human life expands beyond oneself to include others – and then more and more others. The good – but challenging - news that is the Gospel of Jesus keeps expanding the community of neighbors more and more.

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 26, 2014.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Isaac Hecker: Priest

Today is the 165th anniversary of Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker's priestly ordination in London on the Redemptorist feast of the Most Holy Redeemer. He had become a Catholic five years before as a result of a prolonged period of spiritual seeking. For Hecker, however, the spiritual search was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was to find. Once the object was found, the search ceased. Hecker found fulfillment in the Catholic Church and never either regretted what he had found or desired to look farther, but rather desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Thus, all of his activity after his conversion was characterized above all by his enthusiastic embrace of the Church to which his personal spiritual search had so earnestly led him, and which would in time transform him into an active, enthusiastic missionary. 

Hecker’s immediate practical task as a new Catholic was to resolve his vocation within the Church. Already in 1843, more than a year before his reception into the Catholic Church, he had committed himself to a celibate vocation [Diary, May 17, 1843]. Then, in 1845, at the Redemptorist parish of The Most Holy Redeemer on New York’s East 3rd Street, Hecker met two other new Catholics, James McMaster and Clarence Walworth, both former Episcopalians, who were planning to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. (In 1732, St. Alphonsus Liguori [1696-1787] had founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer as a society of missionary priests to reach out to the poor urban and rural poor in and around Naples, Italy. One hundred years later in 1832, the first six Redemptorists had arrived to begin work in the United States. The future Saint John Neumann [1811-1860], a Bohemian-born priest of the Diocese of New York  had joined the Order in 1840 and would serve as Provincial Superior of the American Redemptorists from 1847 until his appointment as Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852.)

In July 1845, Hecker decided to join his new friends in becoming a Redemptorist. As the story goes, he took an overnight train to Baltimore, the Provincial headquarters of the Redemptorists in the U.S. He showed up at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded him that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted on the spot – with none of today's fancy psychological screening processes! He took the train back to New York, said goodbye to his family, and set sail for his new life in Europe. 

As a Redemptorist novice, Hecker felt confirmed in his religious vocation.  In 1846, he wrote to his family: “Now I can say with some degree of certainty that I have found all that I have ever sought. All my seeking is now ended.” 

The path to the priesthood was far from smooth for him, however. According to his own 1857 account: “My noviciate was one of sore trials, for the master of novices seemed not to understand me, and the manifestation of my interior to him was a source of the greatest pain. After about nine or ten months he appeared to recognize the hand of God in my direction in a special manner, conceived a great esteem, and placed an unusual confidence in me, and allowed me, without asking it, though greatly desired, daily communion.… Some fears, however, at not being able to pursue my studies in that state arose in my mind, but he bade me banish them, and my vows were made at the end of the year.” 

His academic difficulties - what he himself described late in life as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors - continued to pose a problem. Hecker, however, remained   convinced that he had a vocation. As he wrote in 1857, "my vocation was to labor for the conversion of my non-Catholic fellow countrymen. This work at first was, it seemed to me, to be accomplished by means of acquired science, but now it had been made plain that God would have it done principally by the aid of His grace; and if left to study at such moments when my mind was free, it would not take a long time for me to acquire sufficient knowledge to be ordained a priest."

To their eternal credit, his Redemptorist superiors likewise recognized the authenticity of his vocation. So, after his novitiate in Belgium and some time at the Redemptorist House of Studies in the Netherlands, he went to England to finish his formation at the Redemptorist house in Clapham; and, on October 23, 1849, he was duly ordained a priest.

Reflecting back later on his difficult experience as a student, he likened himself to the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney (1786-1859), famous for how hard he had found his studies for the priesthood. Both Saint John Vianney and Isaac Hecker went on to become exemplary priests - in spite of not quite measuring up to standard seminary standards. His commitment to the Church as the institutional expression of the Holy Spirit's presence and providential action sustained him in his priestly ministry - even through the suffering inflicted upon him by his religious superiors.

First as a Redemptorist and then as a Paulist, Hecker devoted himself energetically to living out the priestly vocation to which he had been called, until illness drastically limited his activities in his final years. His closest companion in those years, Paulist Father Walter Elliott, wrote that Hecker "knew that this was really a higher form of prayer than any he had yet enjoyed, that it steadily purified his understanding by compelling ceaselessly repeated acts of faith in God’s love, purified his will by constant resignation of every joy except God alone – God received by any mode in which it might please the Divine Majesty to reveal Himself.”


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Voted (Early)

I have already previously (in October 2012) written expressing my ambivalence about the contemporary practice of "Early Voting." (See http://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2012/10/voting-early.html). And I have really little to add to what I said there. Yet once again (and for essentially the same practical reason) I find myself taking advantage of the concession of Early Voting. And so, while as an individual I can certainly appreciate the convenience of Early Voting, I cannot resist wondering about its long-term social cost.

Among other things, the act of voting is a symbolic civic ritual, which signifies the voter's participation as a citizen in the society's civic life. Hence, the value of its being public and communal. Growing up, I watched my parents go to the polls on crisp autumn days – first, to register (back then when one had to register every time one planned to vote) and, later, to vote. Members of the “Greatest Generation,” my parents always set a good example faithfully voting in every election. Of course, voting is about expressing one's personal political preferences, but to me voting has always also been about participating in the process, bonding with one's fellow-citizens, and communally legitimizing the winner's mandate to govern – all very important things, that we neglect to our peril!

Nonetheless, I have, on occasion, voted by absentee ballot, when for some reason I was going to be away on Election Day. Likewise, in recent years, I have resorted to the newer and much more convenient practice of Early Voting for essentially the same reason - since I have a community meeting to attend in Washington during election week and therefore cannot vote in person on Election Day. For that reason, I appreciate the opportunity for Early Voting. But I am also conscious of and concerned about the correspondingly diminished significance of the Election Day experience itself. And I can't help but think that the resulting convenience-store approach to voting is in its own way problematic for democratic citizenship. It is like so many other things - self-service gas stations, ATMs, etc. - that our individualistic society fosters, but which may inevitably have a deleterious effect on our society's increasingly fragile  communal bonds.

And so I repeat the question I posed two years ago about Early Voting. Can the symbolic resonance of participating in the electoral process survive being reduced to what seems like yet another convenience-store transaction? As with anything else that has - or once had - a communitarian context and significance, when we align the civic ritual of voting with individual timetables rather than a common calendar, do we, in the long run, run the risk of losing even more of what little we have left of a once much more vibrant civic culture?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Saint from the Great War: Blessed Kaiser Karl I

Today the Church calendar commemorates Blessed Kaiser Karl I (1887-1922), who reigned as Emperor Charles I of Austria and King Charles IV of Hungary from 1916 to 1918. (The photo at left shows him at his Hungarian coronation on December 30, 1916). As the last Hapsburg emperor, he saw the catastrophic end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a consequence of World War I and with it the end of his dynasty's historic role in Central Europe. 

He was beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II whose father had served in Karl's army, and his feast was assigned to today's anniversary of his 1911 wedding to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma (1892-1989), Austria's last Empress.

Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of "The Great War" - a war triggered by a Serbian terrorist assassination of Karl's uncle - it seems only fitting to recall today not only Karl's personal sanctity but his unsuccessful efforts to end the impasse of a war which need never have happened and needed even less to continue so long. Deeply devout from childhood, his sanctity supported and reinforced by his similarly devout wife, Zita, he also exhibited a strong religious sense of the source of his duty as a political sovereign and what his duty was. And, as befits a statesman, his policies were based on an acute understanding of the political factors and social forces that had been unleashed by the war and would determine the fate of the post-war world - leading inevitably, as we now see so clearly, to yet another and even worse world war and to decades of Communist control of Eastern Europe (During that Second World War, Winston Churchill would write: "One of the greatest mistakes made after the last war was the destruction by ignorant hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire." 

His heroic effort to achieve a negotiated peace in 1917 failed abysmally, as did his two efforts to regain his Hungarian throne in 1921. The last of those defeats led to his forced exile by the Allied Powers to Madeira, where he died in 1922. Yet, as he wrote to Pope Benedict XV in 1919, "In all my troubles, I have never lost my faith, I have never despaired." His death left Zita - at 29, a widow and mother of 9 underage archdukes and archduchesses - to carry on his legacy and hand it on to their son, Crown Prince Otto (1912-2011), who admirably adapted his family's mission to continue to play a productive role in Central European society in the post-war world.

When, as an undergraduate studying German in the summer of 1970, I first visited Vienna's Kapuzinergruft (the Capuchin crypt where most of the Hapsburgs lie buried), there were still daily fresh flowers at the tomb of Karl's predecessor, Kaiser Franz Josef I. Since then, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto have been entombed there with all the traditional Hapsburg burial rites. But Blessed Kaiser Karl remains buried alone - still in in exile - in Madeira, a lonely symbol still of the tragic turn the 20th century took 100 years ago, the catastrophic consequences of which the world remains still very much imprisoned in.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blessed Paul VI

Pope Paul VI has now been beatified. Until now, his portrait still hung in the kitchen of the Parish Office - leftover, no doubt, from his years as Pope. Now that he is entitled to liturgical veneration, I shall look for a place for his picture in the church itself, where his successor (and now Saint) John Paul II already has a spot. The twentieth century produced 8 popes - Saint Pius X (1903-1914, canonized 1954), Benedict XV (1914-1922), Pius XI (1922-1939), Venerable Servant of God Pius XII (1939-1958), Saint John XXIII (1958-1963, canonized 2014), newly Blessed Paul VI (1963-1978), John Paul I (1978), and Saint John Paul II (1978-2005, canonized 2014. That is 3 canonized Saints, 1 Blessed, and 1 Venerable - quite a saintly century!

In his homily at the Mass of Beatification, which also served as the Mass for the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis made reference to today's Gospel and then quoted first from Paul's 1963 Coronation homily and then from his 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. Francis described Paul VI as one who truly "rendered to God what is God's" by devoting his whole life to the "sacred, solemn and grave task of continuing in history and extending on earth the mission of Christ," loving the Church and leading her so that she might be "a loving mother of the whole human family and at the same time the minister of its salvation."

Unlike any of the popes who succeeded him, Paul VI seemed to have been prepared for the papacy by the various stages of his career path. Whatever went on inside, outside the conclave Cardinal Montini was by far the odds-on favorite. I remember listening to the announcement on the radio that Friday morning, June 21, 1963, and thinking how different that conclave was from the previous one in 1958. This time the winner was predicted by almost everyone, and almost everyone was right!

For all his preparation, however, Paul's pontificate was far from smooth. First, he had the Council to guide and conclude. But then the implementation of the Council proved problematic on so many levels, and he was torn in so many directions - as was the Church in that exciting but difficult time that was the late 60s and the ensuing 70s. Paul allowed the liturgical reform to go way, way farther than the Constitution on the Liturgy had ever envisioned, with incomparable consequences we are still sorting out today. The story that he himself wept when faced with the consequences of certain of the liturgical changes he had authorized may or may not be accurate, but it does ring true, reflecting how conflicted he seemed to be about so many of the controversial actions he took. Politically too, his greater openness to Communist governments in Eastern Europe may have conceded too much and has been criticized accordingly - especially in light of his successor Saint John Paul II's different (and ultimately successful) approach of not conceding the permanence of Communism. On the other side, Paul's most 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae was not really received by certain significant constituencies in the Church, with divisive and polarizing consequences that likewise continue to haunt the Church today.

All that having been said, he was also - as I wrote yesterday - the Pope of Evangelii Nuntiandi, the great 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization in the Modern World. It has taken time, to be sure, but the Church's turn to evangelization as its core identity and essential mission was probably the most positive internal Church development in the aftermath of the Council, and it owes so much to Paul's personal evangelizing zeal and commitment.

Nor can anyone ignore Paul's personal and courageous commitment to building bridges of real understanding and relationship with the world beyond the Church - and in a special way with non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions. His history-making trips outside of Italy - starting with his pilgrimage to Israel in 1964 and his amazing address to the UN in 1965 - represented a new style of engagement with the world beyond the Tiber, which we now take for granted, but which was not so long ago unexpected and novel. 

Pau's combined emphases on bridge-building and evangelization were how he fulfilled the mandate he identified for the Church in his first encyclical, quoted again today by Pope Francis - "a loving mother of the whole human family and at the same time the minister of its salvation."

Pray for us, Blessed Paul VI,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

World Mission Sunday

Pope Pius XI first instituted Mission Sunday for the whole Church in 1927 in order to help emphasize the Church's universality and to promote our common responsibility for evangelizing the entire world. It seems especially appropriate, therefore, that the Beatification of Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) has been scheduled this year for Mission Sunday. Blessed Paul VI reigned as pope from 1963 until his death in 1978. He oversaw the successful completion of the Second Vatican Council and began the implementation of its constitutions and decrees. It was during that turbulent time that he established the Synod of Bishops. (This year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family in the Context of Evangelization will conclude with today's Beatification Mass.)

After the 1974 Synod of Bishops on the topic of “Evangelization in the Modern World,” Pope Paul issued an Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), devoted to the task of proclaiming the Gospel to the people of our time. The Synod had declared "that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church." In amplifying that theme in Evangelii Nuntiandi Pope Paul taught that “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (Evangelii Nuntiandi,14). Following Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II called in 1983 for a “new” evangelization – “new in its ardor, its methods, and its expressions.”

Evangelii Nuntiandi marked an important moment in the development of the modern Church’s self-understanding in relation to the world. Thus, for example, the great 20th-century American Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles came to view the papal emphasis on evangelization as “one of the most surprising and important developments in the Catholic Church since Vatican II.” Near the end of his long life, Dulles identified two contemporary mission priorities for the Church in the United States: “to catechize Catholics in their Faith and to motivate them to evangelize others. (On this, see Patrick W. Carey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, 1918-2008, Paulist Press, 2010, pp. 448-450.) It is safe to say that those two priorities remain as urgent - and as unfilfilled.

“The Catholic faith alone,” Paulist founder Isaac Hecker wrote to Orestes Brownson in 1851, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.” For the rest of his life, Hecker would repeatedly emphasize the reciprocal relationship between the Church’s mission within and to the Catholic community and her mission outward to the larger American society. “We cannot even preserve the faith among Catholics in any better way than by advancing it among our non-Catholic brethren” Hecker wrote in The Catholic World in 1886. “Indeed,” he continued, “simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it. It is a state of chronic disease for men to live together and not endeavor to communicate their respective good fortune. A Catholic without a mission to his non-Catholic fellow-citizens in these times, and when only a small portion of the human race has the true religion, is only half a Catholic.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Heated Debate Outside the Synod Hall

Wouldn't it be great to be able to eavesdrop on the debate that has been going on inside the Synod? Apparently, they are now meeting in their circuli minores (small groups). Personally, I've never particularly liked small groups and have often had the experience of overhearing the next group and thinking their discussion more interesting that whatever group I happened to be stuck in! I wonder how the Synod fathers are experiencing their small groups!

Outside the Synod, the debate (if such it may be called) has been predictably heated - maybe actually a bit over-heated. And, as so often happens when opposing sides don't actually debate each other directly, what seems to be happening is that instead of actually talking to each other, each side tends to talk past the other and speak instead to its already defined constituencies (very much the same sort of problem we experience in our polarized secular politics).

Of course, there have also been many wise and perceptive analyses - on both sides of the debate. 

For years now, I have thought about how different people find themselves in different degrees of relationship with the Church because of particular circumstances in their lives (circumstances that certainly include, but are not limited to, such presently high profile issues as contraception, civil marriage, remarriage, and sexual orientation). So I find myself naturally very interested in how the Synod also seems to be thinking along similar lines - referring to "the law of gradualness" and relating it to what Vatican II taught about "elements of sanctification and truth ... found outside of the Church's visible structure," but which "as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity" (Relatio, 17, quoting Lumen Gentium, 8). Over at Crux, I think John Allen's column on "Lifestyle Ecumenism" presents a particularly helpful analysis of this possible direction. (See

On the other side as well, there have been some significant observations and critiques that are well worth considering. Over at First Things, for example, R.R. Reno - referring to Relatio 46 on "avoiding any language or behavior that might make them [referring here to the divorced who have remarried] feel discriminated against" - warns that this may make "our feelings the criterion of the Church's pastoral ministry." (See http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/10/catholicism-sex-and-marriage). 

This, of course, is not a new worry. In recent decades, we have all experienced how sentimental, emotional, "feeling" language has often taken over and pushed aside more traditional and substantive language about good and bad and right and wrong. And one doesn't have to be a traditional Christian to notice or worry about this. I think back to Philip Rieff's classic Freudian critique of similar tendencies in modern culture (The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 1966). 

At least since the 60s, it has been recognized that religion has been in danger of being reduced to therapy. Reno's concern that "if we make feelings the criterion, then the truth about discrimination (and much more) is subjective" is a legitimate one. Especially in this therapeutic era, the challenge of 2 Timothy 4:1-5 remains as relevant as ever.

On the other hand, all cura animarum is in a certain sense a species of therapy - albeit, hopefully, one rooted in the truth revealed by God and in human nature. The challenge - and this is why "the law of gradualness" is so relevant - is somehow to accept and accompany people as and where they actually are at present while simultaneously proposing the truth that God has revealed about himself and human nature. This applies actually to all people, all of whom are imperfect and fall short of beatitudinal perfection, not just those in particularly problematic, sexually-related situations. In any case, a minimum first step in the direction of accompanying people on the way is to choose carefully the language one uses, so as to invite people to come along rather than self-righteously to drive them further away! 

On the other hand again, I think Reno does voice a very legitimate concern when he wonders whether we no longer "know how to speak about the Church's moral teachings about sex and marriage in ways that we are confident will help people conform themselves to the moral truth. In this confusion, we drift toward therapeutic ways of talking and call for 'dialogue'." 

I fear Reno is certainly on to something here, but it also applies a lot more widely than just to sex and marriage. After all, how comfortable (already a dangerous word!) are we with Jesus' strong strictures against wealth? How forthrightly do we propose Jesus' teachings about wealth and the Church's social teaching rooted in the universal destination of the goods of the earth? Or are we also afraid of offending - in this case, offending business people and the well-off? It is a perennial problem, not just a uniquely modern one, nor one only involving sex and marriage.

What exacerbates this problem in our contemporary ("postmodern") cultural situation is, of course, the decline of authentic religious belief (and hence of the moral language associated with it, which was until recently a common moral language). A corollary of that has been the collapse of a classical conception of human nature and the resulting loss of any common language about human nature. The Synod's Instrumentum Laboris (n. 21) explicitly touched on this when it noted that "the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible."

Some sort of natural law reasoning, some common conception and shared language about human nature seems essential if the church is to speak to the wider world about moral matters and say something comprehensible in a pluralistic society. What happens in a postmodern world in which there are (as many of Alan Wolfe's respondents believe) "so many ways of being human." (Cf. Alan Wolfe, Moral Freedom: the Search for Virtue in a World of Choice, Norton, 2001, p. 83). Are we then left, sadly, with therapeutic-sounding language as the only approximation we still have to a common moral language?

It seems to me that a cura animarum rooted in accompanying people according to "the law of gradualness" is inevitably part of any effective response to such a situation. But we cannot assume or expect that it will satisfy everyone - at either extreme of the debate.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Synod: Week Two

The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops is now into its second week. Now the Synod Fathers are supposed to break into small groups - no one seems exempt from that contemporary convention - to discuss the themes that surfaced int he first week. The working document (Relatio) for this is supposed to serve as a sort of summary of where the discussion seems to have been leading thus far. That Relatio was released earlier today by the General Relator, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo. It reads awkwardly in places - perhaps the fault of the unofficial translation, perhaps a reflection of the hasty composition of the original. That said, it is an especially noteworthy document.

Not surprisingly, some voices on one side have already begun to go ballistic about it. On the other side, Huffington Post, for example, has characterized it as an "earthquake." Reading it through the lens of our contemporary culture war within the Church (especially here in North America), Mark Silk at RNS sees an ongoing debate between "those who follow Pope Francis in seeing the Church as a field hospital caring for wounded souls" and those "who want the Church to serve as a firewall against the moral corruption of the age." Such language - and its insistence on an either/or mentality - seems to me to be a bit extreme, especially given that we are still talking about not a final product but a document for discussion. Still, it does seem to be the case that this document does try to go beyond the dead-end of our (especially North American) culture war in favor of an alternative vocabulary that definitely does pose some promising possibilities for further conversation.

The document begins by "listening," i.e., looking at the actual contemporary context of family life. It warns against an "individualism that distorts family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the prevalence of an idea of the subject formed according to his or her own wishes, which are assumed as absolute." It also addresses the impact of our contemporary culture of feeling, in which "a greater need is encountered among individuals to take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments, seeking a relational quality in emotional life." It asks "how an this attention to the care for oneself be cultivated and maintained, alongside this desire for family?"

The Relatio then moves forward to consider family issues  with "a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ." Applying the ecumenical hermeneutic of Lumen Gentium, 8, it tries to approach problematic cases like cohabitation, civil marriage, and divorce and remarriage with some of the sensibility Vatican II employed regarding non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions. In what may be one of its more important sentences, it says "the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and an imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings."

Parenthetically, it seems to me that Catholic life as actually experienced in families in which one or members may be in some kind of problematic or irregular sexual situation has for some time been moving in this direction, as has much actual pastoral practice. To present an ideal, but also to be able to recognize "the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal" is not such a novel notion in ordinary life, although it is novel to see it expressed in this fashion in a Synod document.

The Relatio  goes on to speak about evangelization as "not merely about presenting a set of regulations but about putting forward values, responding to the need of those who find themselves today even in the most secularized countries." It speaks of "a conversion of all pastoral practices" and the need "for an evangelization that denounces clearly the cultural, social, and economic factors, for example, the excessive room given to market logic, that prevents an authentic family life, leading to discrimination, poverty, exclusion, and violence."

The Relatio does not offer solutions to particular problems like Communion for the divorced and remarried that have so monopolized media attention, It seems evident there is as yet no clear consensus on how best to address that question. What the document does do is try to define parameters and principles to direct discussion of such specific questions.

Particularly moving is the tone adopted in regard to the seemingly forever neuralgic issue of homosexuality, "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community; are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities" Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?"

Obviously these are profoundly challenging issues for the Church, which will rightly elicit a diversity of responses and will require intensely spiritual discernment. The Synod certainly has its work cut out for it!

Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day - still, thankfully, a federal holiday, even if, in the contemporary fashion, it is observed on a Monday now instead of on its proper day. (Since the actual anniversary of Columbus' first landing in the New World falls on a Sunday this year, the legal holiday would be transferred to today anyway.)

Growing up, we used to look forward to Columbus Day as the first of the autumn school holidays. Just a month after the start of school on the Monday after Labor Day came Columbus Day on October 12. That was followed by All Saints on November 1, Election Day the following Tuesday, Veterans Day on November 11, Thanksgiving Day and the day after, and finally Immaculate Conception on December 8. The fall semester was filled with nice holidays, all nicely spaced and spread out among the days of the week - simple pleasures now largely lost, that have virtually disappeared from contemporary school calendars!

But, anyway, back to Columbus. To us in school, he was, of course, a Catholic hero (adding a bit of balance to a U.S, history that glorified its primarily Protestant founders and presidents). More personally, he remains the great Italian hero of American history. Of course, Columbus sailed in the service of the Spanish Crown. To this day, his descendants are Spaniards and hold Spanish titles of nobility derived from him. And so his anniversary is appropriately commemorated in the Hispanic world as el Dia de la Hispanidad. New York's 5th Avenue has for years featured two parades - the Hispanic one on Sunday, the Italian heritage one on the Monday holiday (the latter preceded in recent years by a Columbus Day Mass in Italian at St. Patrick's Cathedral, which I used to enjoy concelebrating at). 

In more secular circles, Columbus Day has largely fallen out of fashion - along with so much of history and the understanding and appreciation of history that are so essential for a civilization to survive. That's a bigger problem than any slights to Italian ethnic pride, but it is not unrelated to the sadly diminishing understanding of religion's key role in the formation of ours and other American nations. And, of  course, like the evangelization of Europe in the first millennium, the initial evangelization of North and South America that began 500+ years ago with Columbus' voyages is the inescapable background for the "New Evangelization," that our society's new circumstances are calling for.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Heaven's Royal Wedding

First of all, as a grandson of Italian immigrants, let me begin by wishing everyone here a happy Columbus Day! If you forgot about Columbus Day - which is easy enough to do these days - you'll remember soon enough tomorrow when you don't get any mail! Columbus Day is not just for italians, of course. Columbus sailed in service of the Spanish Crown, and so his descendants are now Spanish nobility. Columbus initiated the great encounter between Old and New Worlds, which initiated the evangelization of the American continent and which created Latin American culture. So, today is also El Dia de la Hispanidad! In my hometown, we celebrate both – with a Latino parade on Sunday and an Italian parade on Monday. So everyone is happy!

Now, as you all probably already know, the Synod of Bishops is meeting in Rome right now on the timely topic of “The Pastoral Challenges for the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” The evangelization of America famously began on this day in 1492. Evangelization has new and special challenges today, but it is as old – and forever new - as the Church itself. Indeed, 40 years ago, another Synod called evangelization the essential mission of the Church. 

And, speaking of evangelization, Jesus in today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:1-14] gives us yet another parable about evangelization and ilife int he Church and their ultimate goal, the kingdom of heaven - which, Jesus tells us, may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. In a world where resources were scarce and food supplies limited, what better image for the kingdom of heaven than the abundance suggested by a royal wedding!

As with so many of the kingdom of heaven parables, which we have been hearing these recent weeks, we are apparently intended to hear this story as a kind of allegory. The king, of course, represents God; the king’s son is Jesus; the king’s servants, sent to summon the invited guests, are the Old Testament prophets; and the servants sent out again to invite to the feast whomever they find are the apostles - and their successors in the Church. Likewise, the invited guests who refused to come represent those who resisted or opposed Jesus, while all those gathered from all over the place, both bad and good alike, would be all those others – including, by the time Matthew’s Gospel was being written down, many Gentiles, and which presumably also includes us, – who have responded positively to Jesus and, over time, to his Church. And, finally, the king’s coming into the hall to meet the guests represents the judgment.

Clearly, the parable illustrates God’s great desire that as many as possible be included in the abundant life he has planned in his kingdom. That said, we are left wondering about any number of things. Why, we wonder right away, did those originally invited guests refuse to come to the feast?

In what we rather pretentiously refer to as “the real world,” it is hard to imagine anyone ever refusing a royal invitation for any reason.  On the contrary, people go to great lengths to get themselves invited to all sorts of high profile events - State Dinners at the White House, for example, - and they are normally more than willing to rearrange their schedules as needed. In the parable, however, some ignored the invitation and went away, while others (even more oddly) aggressively rejected the invitation. Of course, this was not just any royal wedding, but an invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven itself. Throughout history, there have always been people who have aggressively resisted God’s kingdom. (That’s why we’ve had so many martyrs in the Church’s history – more, incidentally, in the past hundred years than in any previous century!) Even so, I would suspect that many more people probably fall into the less aggressive category of those that just ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. Their behavior is really very easy to understand. It really is very easy to become completely preoccupied with the ordinary activities and demands and business of life, with one’s own daily affairs – whether one is constantly climbing up some social or economic ladder or whether one is just getting by and making do. If this parable illustrates God’s great desire to have us all in his kingdom, it also illustrates just how easily the ordinary day-to-day stuff of life can, if we let it, mix up our priorities and get in the way of what God has in mind for us.

Now, obviously, as members of the Church, we who are here today will immediately identify ourselves with the second group – those gathered in from all over the place, both bad and good alike. It would be difficult to argue that those in this second group started out any better or were any more meritorious than those who turned down the initial invitation. But they did at least recognize the value of the invitation and were willing to give God a try. And, for those who actually follow through, that readiness to respond really makes a difference - makes all the difference in the world! Surely, it has to be quite consoling for us to hear that God’s kingdom is not some kind of private club, that there’s plenty of room for all sorts of people, from all sorts of places, of all ways of life - even for the likes of us! 

Unlike a classic fairy tale, however, Jesus’ parable lacks that classic “happy ending.” Back in our “real world,” even a last-minute addition to the guest list for a White House State Dinner would presumably know enough to dress for the occasion - although increasingly I am amazed at how many people seem to have completely forgotten (or maybe never learned) how to dress appropriately for any event anytime. (But that's another discussion!) In any case, when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.

Now that’s what happens, some skeptics might say, when you just open the door and let anyone and everyone in. The story says both bad and good alike came in on that second round. So certainly the king can’t say he wasn’t warned! But, just because the door has now been opened to all sorts of people, it does not follow that the king has therefore completely abandoned all his expectations about how his guests are supposed to behave once inside. Being inclusive doesn’t mean anything goes. Responding to the invitation represented an initial choice to be part of God's kingdom. But, as we all know, people don’t all always follow through on their commitments. Sadly, even of those that do in fact show up, not all will follow up!

When challenged by the king, the casually dressed guest was reduced to silence. In other words, he had no excuse. Now,if there is one thing that we human beings are really good at, it is finding and making excuses for ourselves! But, in God’s kingdom, on Judgment Day the time for excuses will be over.

As already noted, the kingdom of heaven is not a private club. It extends a wide-open invitation to all - as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer, to every people, tongue, and nation.  As the parable illustrates, that really does include everyone. It includes both bad and good alike. Accepting that invitation, however, brings with it the challenge of full and meaningful membership in God’s kingdom. God's kingdom - from the initial invitation to the final judgment - is intended to be taken in all its awesome seriousness.  Otherwise, we too risk finding ourselves with no excuse, reduced to silence forever.

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 12, 2014.