31 March 2013

Alleluia!! Christ is Risen! Indeed he is Risen! Alleluia, Alleluia!

Christ is Risen, Alleluia, Alleluia!!! All good wishes for a wonderful Easter Season!!

For the next 50 days we have time to attend to what Jesus' death and resurrection changed. In light of these events we live in a different world than existed before them, and we ourselves, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ's death, are new creations as well. While all this makes beautiful poetry, and although as John Ciardi once reminded us poetry can save us in dark alleys, we do not base our lives on poetry alone. Objective reality was transformed with Jesus' passion and death; something astounding, universal, even cosmic in scope, happened in these events which had not only to do with our own salvation but with the recreation of all of reality. One of Paul's shorthand phrases for this transformation was "the death of death," something I hope to be able to look at a bit more as these 50 days unfold. We have already begun to see what happens in our Church as Christ's own life begins to shine forth more brightly in a myriad of small but significant ways. Not least is the figure of Francis who has many of us singing a heartfelt alleluia in gratitude to the Holy Spirit.

But, it is probably good to recall that the early Church struggled to make sense of the cross, and that faith in resurrection took some time to take hold. Surprisingly, no single theology of the cross is held as official, and variations --- many quite destructive --- exist throughout the Church. Even today a number of these affirm that in various ways God was reconciled to us rather than the other way around. Only in time did the Church come to terms with the scandalous death of Jesus and embrace him as risen, and so, as the Christ who reveals God's power in weakness. Only in time did she come to understand how different the world was for those who had been baptized into Jesus' death. The Church offers us a period of time to come to understand and embrace all of this as well; the time from Easter Sunday through Pentecost is, in part, geared to this.

But, today is a day of celebration, and a day to simply allow the shock and sadness of the cross to be completely relieved for the moment. Lent is over, the Triduum has reached a joyful climax, the season of Easter has begun and we once again sing alleluia at our liturgies. Though it will take time to fully understand and embrace all this means, through the Church's liturgies and the readings we have heard we do sense that we now live in a world where death has a different character and meaning than it did before Christ's resurrection and so does life. On this day darkness has given way to light, and senselessness to meaning -- even though we may not really be able to explain to ourselves or others exactly why or how. On this day we proclaim that Christ is risen! Sinful death could not hold him and it cannot hold us as a result. Alleluia! Alleluia!!

29 March 2013

We Wait in the Darkness

In trying to explain the Cross, Paul once said, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." During this last week, the Gospel readings focus us on the first part of Paul's statement.

In the Gospel for last Tuesday we heard John's version of the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the prediction of Peter's denials as well. For weeks before this we had been hearing stories of a growing darkness and threat centered on the person of Jesus. Pharisees and Scribes were irritated and angry with Jesus at the facile way he broke Sabbath rules or his easy communion with and forgiveness of sinners. That he spoke with an authority the people recognized as new and surpassing theirs was also problematical. Family and disciples failed to understand him, thought him crazy, urged him to go to Jerusalem to work wonders and become famous.

Even his miracles were disquieting, not only because they increased the negative reaction of the religious leadership and the fear of the Romans as the darkness and threat continued to grow alongside them, but because Jesus himself seems to give us the sense that they are insufficient  and lead to misunderstandings and distortions of who he is or what he is really about. "Be silent!" we often hear him say. "Tell no one about this!" he instructs in the face of the increasing threat to his life. Futile instructions, of course, and, as those healed proclaim the wonders of God's grace in their lives, the darkness and threat to Jesus grows; The night comes ever nearer and we know that if evil is to be defeated, it must occur on a deeper level than even thousands of such miracles.

In the last two weeks, the readings give us the sense that the last nine months of Jesus' life of ministry was punctuated by retreat to a variety of safe houses as the priestly aristocracy actively looked for ways to kill him. He attended festivals in secret and the threat of stoning recurred again and again. Yet, inexplicably "He slipped away" we are told or, "They were unable to find an opening." The darkness is held at bay, barely. It is held in check by the love of the people surrounding Jesus. Barely. And in the last safe house on the eve of Passover as darkness closes in on every side Jesus celebrated a final Eucharist with his friends and disciples. He washed their feet, reclined at table with them like free men did. And yet, profoundly troubled, Jesus spoke of his impending betrayal by Judas. None of the disciples, not even the beloved disciple understood what was happening. There is one last chance for Judas to change his mind as Jesus hands him a morsel of bread in friendship and love. God's covenant faithfulness is maintained.

But Satan enters Judas' heart and a friend of Jesus becomes his accuser --- the meaning of the term Satan here. And the darkness enters this last safe house of light and friendship, faith and fellowship. It was night, John says. It was night. Judas' heart is the opening needed for the threatening darkness to engulf this place and Jesus as well. The prediction of Peter's denials tells us this "night" will get darker and colder and more empty yet.  But in John's story, when everything is at its darkest and lowest, Jesus exclaims in a kind of victory cry: [[ Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him!]] Here as darkness envelopes everything, Jesus exults that authentically human being is revealed, made known and made real in space and time; here, in the midst of  the deepening "Night" God too is revealed and made fully known and real in space and time. It is either the cry of a messiah who will overcome evil right at its heart --- or it is the cry of a madman who cannot recognize or admit the victory of evil as it swallows him up. We do not really know which.

In the next three days we will see what the answer is. Today, the day we call "Good," the darkness intensifies. During the night Jesus was arrested and "tried" by the Sanhedrin with the help of false witnesses, desertion by his disciples, and Judas' betrayal. Today he will be brought before the Romans, tried, found innocent, flogged and then handed over anyway by a fearful self-absorbed leader to those who would kill him. There is betrayal, of consciences, of friendships, of discipleship on every side. The night continues to deepen and the threat could not be greater.  Jesus will be crucified and eventually cry out his experience of abandonment even by God. He will descend into the ultimate godlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness we call hell. The darkness will become almost total. We ourselves can see nothing else. That is where Good Friday and Holy Saturday leave us. Messiah or madman? Is Jesus simply another person crushed by the cold, emptiness, and darkness of evil --- good and wondrous though his own works were? We Christians wait in the darkness today and tomorrow. We fast and pray and try to hold onto hope that the one we called messiah, teacher, friend, beloved, and Lord, was not simply deluded --- or worse --- and that we Christians are not the greatest fools of all.

We have seen sin increase to immeasurable degrees; and though we do not see how it is possible we would like to think that Paul was right and that grace will abound all the more. And so, we wait. Bereft, but hopeful, we wait.

28 March 2013

Pope includes women for first time in Holy Thursday rite - World Updates | The Star Online

Pope includes women for first time in Holy Thursday rite - World Updates | The Star Online

Hardly a year goes by when I hear an uproar from people who object to the laity having their feet washed  during the Holy Thursday liturgy. "It's for priests only", they exclaim! It was the disciples' feet Jesus washed, the twelve, a very special group! APOSTLES!! The uproar becomes hysterical (pun intended) when a women is one of those being served in this way. (And, to add, as I was reminded at Mass this evening, there are even Bishops who have forbidden women to participate because the Latin rubrics for the rite reads viri, not homo --- so males, not merely human beings.) I can't even imagine what would happen in such discussions if, as was done today, a Muslim woman had her feet washed and kissed by the presider who then turned out to be the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church! SCANDAL! OUTRAGE!! BLASPHEMY!! Just as was charged when Jesus ministered so long ago.

Well, from now on that uproar will need to be quieter, more thoughtful, and respectful of what Francis has done and the precedent set here today. We are a pilgrim people, a church of servants who wash (and kiss!) each others feet and those of non-Christians because that is the example given by Jesus. The mandatum given by Jesus was to do this for one another. No restrictions in status were included in that command. Further, I again remind readers that we who are baptized in Christ are all SONS with all the rights and dignity derived from the Son of God. In Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Canon Law also affirms this basic equality and dignity. I am thanking God for the election of Francis as the Bishop of Rome and, with all the Bishops, a Vicar of Christ's Church.

Discerning Canon 603 Life as a Gift of God

[[Sister O'Neal, thank you for answering my questions on profession when one does not really want it.  The lay hermit I was speaking of said that while she didn't believe this was what [Jesus] was calling her to, she would turn in her paperwork and then if it really seemed to be wrong for her, "I can always decline the kind offer of canonical approval, can't I?" It sounds to me like this hermit doesn't understand what is being offered to her or why. Does this happen a lot? Are there hermits out there who feel this way about their vocation? I wonder if a person could really embrace a life of solitude if they did.]]

You are right about the lack of understanding here. To begin with it is very unlikely anyone is "offering to profess" this person given the level of ambivalence and even potential disingenuousness she admits to. In short though, she does not feel called and nothing can be done in the absence of a sincere heart-felt sense of being called. As I have noted before admission to profession is not so much an offer or invitation the Bishop makes (especially not in order to "approve of someone") as it is the way he extends the rights, obligations, essential freedom, and call to the covenantal life of an ecclesial vocation to the person he is also convinced is called by God to this. When the Church admits to profession she mediates this divine call to the person in a formal, definitive, and solemn way and receives the person's definitive response in a way which establishes a sacred covenant marked by vows, structured legally (canonically and by Rule), and supported by all of the relationships the Church recognizes as essential to living such a covenant well and fruitfully. The language of "approval" hardly begins to convey this rich content and has only very limited utility in such a situation; I tend to avoid it while those stressing the supposed status (in the inaccurate sense of prestige) of canonical standing (standing in law) tend to use and misuse it exclusively.

IF a Bishop invited a person to "turn in her paperwork" he has more likely invited her to let him and others take a look at her Rule or Plan of Life, and perhaps, to participate in a serious and mutual discernment process. (No other paperwork is required at this point; in time Sacramental certificates, declarations of nullity if applicable, etc, indicating a person is free to be professed will be required when it seems the person is a suitable candidate --- though the declaration of nullity would be sought immediately because its lack is an impediment to profession and discernment hardly makes sense with such an impediment in place.) During this process, should she (or anyone in such a position) come to be convinced she is NOT called by God to this, she (or anyone in such a position) has a responsibility to notify the chancery and withdraw from the process. I would therefore be very surprised to learn that a situation like the one you referred to EVER really happens and more surprised to hear there is ANY diocesan hermit who feels this way about his/her vocation. (A hermit who decides she has made a mistake in accepting admission to perpetual profession will, after serious consultation, ask to be dispensed from her vows. If the vows are temporary she can (again after serious consultation) either seek a dispensation or decide to continue the discernment appropriate to such vows until they lapse and it is time to apply (petition) for perpetual profession.)

Your next to last question is the most important, and the most interesting one because it raises the prospect of living a life which is contrary to what one truly feels called to when that life is a rare way to achieve human wholeness and holiness anyway. It raises the question of integrity and what it really means to be called by God and to respond to that call with one's whole self. It raises questions about embittered "hermits" who are icons of isolation and misanthropy, but are nothing like hermits in real life --- at least nothing like the hermits who are truly citizens of the Kingdom of God living the incredibly joyful and fulfilling "silence of solitude." For now your questions underscore the kinds of things chanceries watch out for when people come seeking to be hermits under canon 603.

 I think the bottom line must be that the person recognizes canon 603 as a gift of God to the Church and is awed and excited by the sincere sense that she might just be one of the persons who are publicly called and commissioned to live this gift. She will have found that through the grace of God eremitical solitude brings her to a wholeness and holiness she could not achieve as well in other contexts. She will be in love with God but also deeply in love with those he also loves as he loves the hermit.

The silence of solitude she lives will be rich and filled with relationships: first with God, but through God with her parish, friends, other hermits around the world, and those in the diocese more generally. If she has a blog there will be friends from there as well though there may be very little contact. For some very few hermits there will be a call to reclusion; for one of these her love for others will be mediated only through her love for and relationship with God. Every genuine hermit is open to this possibility and to growing towards it. Again though, what one will note in such hermits and all canon 603 hermits is a sense of awe, responsibility, and great joy at being called to live publicly committed lives which continue the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the contemporary Church. It really is an awesome thing to be called to love and serve God and others in this way.

Post script: Sorry, I didn't answer your last question explicitly so let me come back to that. Would someone be able to embrace a life of [eremitical] solitude if they felt they were not really called to it by God [or felt this call deep within themselves]? I can't see how. One wonders how people live any life if they feel profoundly that God has not called them to it. I would imagine a sense of resignation and quiet desperation would accompany much of such a life. But with solitude where the heart of the vocation is communion with God, and where often or for much of the time the only relationship one experiences directly is that one has with God it would be very much more problematical to try and live such a life.

This would be complicated by the fact that God calls us to serve others with our lives and such a person would also be missing the way God is calling them in particular to serve others. The examples I have seen of those trying to live in such a way (and I have seen at least a couple)  turn God into a source of monstrous theology and make of their own lives one of unrelenting suffering and victimhood. These are dressed up in pious language of course, but the combination is pathological on every level and the result is extremely sad and destructive, to say the least.

24 March 2013

Jesus' Descent into Hell (Reprise)

The following piece was written for my parish bulletin for Palm Sunday 2012. It is, therefore, necessarily brief but I hope it captures the heart of the credal article re Jesus' descent into Hell.

During Holy week we recall and celebrate the central events of our faith which reveal just how deep and incontrovertible is God's love for us. It is the climax of a story of "self-emptying" on God's part begun in creation and completed in the events of the cross. In Christ, and especially through his openness and responsiveness (i.e., his obedience) to the One he calls Abba, God enters exhaustively into every aspect of our human existence and in no way spares himself the cost of such solidarity. Here God is revealed as an unremitting Love which pursues us without pause or limit. Even our sinfulness cannot diminish or ultimately confound this love. Nothing, the gospel proclaims, will keep God from embracing and bringing us “home” to Himself. As the Scriptures remind us, our God loves us with a love that is “stronger than death." It is a love from which, “Neither death nor life, nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, nor anything at all” can ultimately separate us!

It is only against this Scriptural background that we make sense of the article of the Apostles’ Creed known as Jesus’ “descent into hell”. Hell is, after all, not the creation of an offended God designed to punish us; it is a state of ultimate emptiness, inhumanity, loneliness, and lovelessness which is created, sustained, and exacerbated (made worse) by every choice we make to shut God out --- to live, and therefore to die, without Love itself. Hell is the fullest expression of the alienation which exists between human beings and God. As Benedict XVI writes, it is that “abyss of absolute loneliness” which “can no longer be penetrated by the word of another” and“into which love can no longer advance.” And yet, in Christ God himself will advance into this abyss and transform it with his presence. Through the sinful death of God’s Son, Love will become present even here.

To say that Christ died what the New Testament refers to as sinful, godless, “eternal”, or “second death” is to say that through his passion Jesus entered this abyss and bore the full weight of human isolation and Divine abandonment. In this abject loneliness and hopelessness --- a hell deeper than anyone has ever known before or will ever know again --- Christ, though completely powerless to act on his own, remains open and potentially responsive to God. This openness provides God with a way into this state or place from which he is otherwise excluded. In Christ godforsakenness becomes the good soil out of which the fullness of resurrection life springs. As a result, neither sin nor death will ever have the final word, or be a final silence! God will not and has not permitted it!

The credal article affirming Jesus’ descent into hell was born not from the church’s concern with the punishing wrath of God, but from her profound appreciation of the depth of God’s love for us and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. What seems at first to be an unreservedly dark affirmation, meant mainly to terrify and chasten with foreboding, is instead the church's most paradoxical statement of the gospel of God’s prodigal love. It is a stark symbol of what it costs God to destroy that which separates us from Love and bring us to abundant Life. It says that forgiveness is not about God changing his mind about us – much less having his anger appeased or his honor restored through his Son’s suffering and death. Instead, it is God’s steadfast refusal to let the alienation of sin stand eternally. In reconciling us to himself, God asserts his Lordship precisely in refusing to allow enmity and alienation to remain as lasting realities in our lives or world.

21 March 2013

On Recovering (or Renewing) an Excitement and Hope for Vatican II

Well, the day before yesterday was one of those days where amazing things happen ALL day long. First, there was the inauguration of a Pope who holds the poor and marginalized in his heart and gives them priority in his theology and pastoral focus --- the first inauguration since that of John Paul I where I felt true excitement and hopefulness for the papacy, the reform of the curia, and the eventual health of the Church; it was the first inauguration where I was moved by the simplicity (and beauty) of the liturgy, the vestments, etc, and so, was reminded of the Christ I know myself. It was an inauguration in which I heard the Gospel proclaimed in Greek --- which took me back to school days --- and where the Homily spoke of caring for creation and one another as good stewards of God's own love and life in what was a typically Franciscan way.

I was taken back to school days too when, in the afternoon, I went  to a symposium at my old college on Vatican II featuring the Church historian Massimo Faggioli speaking about his book, The Battle for Meaning. Also in attendance were Bp John Cummins (Bp Emeritus of the Diocese of Oakland) and Bp Remi De Roo (Bp Emeritus, Victoria, BC and a Bishop who attended all four sessions of Vatican II). Now, some readers of this blog may recognize Bp Remi's name from pieces I have written on the history of Canon 603, especially for his intervention at the Second Vatican Council on the contribution of the eremitical life to the life of the Church. (cf the labels to the right and below for associated articles here) I had never met Bp De Roo, but I had read his intervention at the Council and he has been something of a hero of mine because of his support of the eremitical vocation.

So, I had emailed a Brother at the college and asked if there might be a chance to meet Bp De Roo to thank him for his place in establishing this vocation in the contemporary Church. That was arranged and I was able to hear the story from him directly, a story I have told here before and will summarize again: When religious were forced to leave their congregations and vows in order to follow a call to eremitical solitude Dom Jacques Winandy, a Benedictine monk and (eventually) another 11 or so of them ended up on Bp Remi's doorstep. He was named Bishop protector of a project allowing these hermits to live in a laura (individual dwellings, etc.) and try to live this vocation. It was the beginning of a resurgence of the eremitical vocation in the Latin Church. Later he gave (wrote) one of the interventions at Vatican II and, though none of the Council documents included eremitical life, the Revised Code of Canon Law (1983) recognized the vocation in canon 603 partly as a result of Bp Remi's efforts.

Bishop Remi De Roo
Mass and Dinner with the participants and Brothers of the College followed and I was able to catch up a little with people I had not seen since I had graduated or been in the MA program there, I also met Brothers who had not been there when I was in school as an undergraduate or MA student. I had not anticipated this but it was a real joy. One of my old classmates was among those presenting at the afternoon session and it was wonderful to be able to talk with her, to attend Mass with her and extend the sign of peace during the celebration. It was also wonderful to hear Bp De Roo proclaim the Gospel and give the homily. Bp Remi has been a champion of Vatican II throughout the years and is known for his clear position on the primacy of conscience as well as his support of the sacramental nature of marital intimacy. He recently (September) published Memoirs of a Vatican II Bishop which (despite having just now read only half of it) I recommend.

At the evening presentation Bp Remi, along with Bp John Cummins and Massimo Faggioli spoke of the greatest achievements of Vatican II as well as what was still to be done in their estimation. Bishop De Roo spoke first of his conclusion that what John XXIII had wanted to happen with Vatican II HAD happened, namely, a new Pentecost.  He developed the same ten points as signs of this achieved new Pentecost as he used to indicate what was still necessary, namely,  our need to develop a spirituality of Vatican II. The ten points marking both achievement and remaining need?  1) a view of revelation centered in the person of Jesus Christ, not in propositions, 2) reclaiming and reading the Scriptures as the basis of our spirituality, 3) the recognition that real sanctity is a question of relationships, first with God and then with all others, 4) reclaiming our Baptismal dignity, especially a sense of the priesthood of all believers. Here Bp Remi reminded us there is only one "class" in our Church, that of disciple of Christ.

He continued: 5) a redefinition of the nature of genuine morality in terms of responsible freedom rather than as a matter of embracing moral precepts. Here Bp De Roo stressed the uniqueness of the conciliar statements on conscience --- not in terms of content, for that was entirely traditional, but in terms of the Council affirming this teaching clearly in its own documents; 6) A morality measured in terms of co-responsibility for all. (Bp Remi reminded us of Vatican II's statement that the laity/laos (the whole People of God) has right and sometimes the obligation to speak to pastors regarding their needs), 7) the commitment to the Kingdom or Reign of God. The Church is here as a servant of this one single work, the building of the Kingdom. Thus, the Church is always to be about dying to self so that God's Kingdom might truly come; (this was also the topic of Bp Remi's homily, the single work of God).

8) the universal call to holiness is something all need to clearly embrace, 9) Bp Remi encouraged us to ask ourselves, "Have I heard the call to mysticism?" Here he spoke of developing a heart attuned to God in prayer and of the need for everyone to really develop this; 10) a clear recognition and embrace of the notion of what Vatican II called the "hierarchy of truths." We cannot treat every truth as though it is important as every other truth. We cannot treat every practice as though it is as critical as every other practice. That is not Church teaching.  When I ask myself how many of these points are central to life in my hermitage, parish, and/or diocese (or even how many of them turn up in much of my writing here and other places) I have to say I am very hopeful and gratified.

Both Massimo Faggioli's and John Cummin's presen-tations were excellent too and I hope to post more about those soon. They dealt with the same questions. What was especially encouraging was the ongoing work occurring re Vatican II, the continued commitment to its reception by the Church, and a clear statement that the Council had been kidnapped --- not at the Council itself as its sometimes said, but later by those who suggested ANY competent theologian ever bought into a theology or hermeneutic of rupture, or, for that matter that the Council documents were ONLY in complete continuity with the whole of Tradition. There was both continuity (of course!) and discontinuity; no competent theologian ever affirmed anything else, or could competently affirm anything else. Faggioli's phrase for the notion that this was not the case was "science fiction" --- and insulting science fiction as well.

There is still a great deal of work to do, of course, and damage has been done to the aims of the Council in the past decade and more, but Vatican II was the occasion of a new Pentecost and, as we can see from Francis' election --- where conservatism is not a problem so long as the Church acts as Christ and truly and effectively proclaims the Gospel with its life and structures, from the almost universal desire of the Cardinals for reform of the Curia (cf. comments by Walter Cardinal Kasper on this matter recently), and from the excitement at every level of the Church over Francis' WAY of doing business, as well as from comments by Massimo Faggioli, we can trust in the Spirit as well as that "the genie cannot be stuffed back in the bottle."

19 March 2013

What if a Bishop Retires? Will a Candidate Still be Professed?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, what would happen if a Bishop had approved a hermit for consecration according to canon 603 and then retired or became ill and was replaced by a new Bishop?]]

I can only say what the possibilities would be, and speak in likelihoods, but generally my own sense is that the profession and (with perpetual vows) consecration would go ahead with the new Bishop. If the person is already under temporary vows it is possible that a new Bishop would ask them to renew these at the appropriate time until he can get to know her and the vocation more specifically and admit her to perpetual profession and consecration. If there had yet been no temporary profession then it is likely the new Bishop would admit the person to these for a period of three to five years as the process of discernment continued.

You see, the discernment process for this vocation does not involve ONLY the Bishop nor is this only a personal decision of his, but instead it is one made on behalf of the Church. Long before a hermit candidate speaks to the Bishop (at least in my experience) she has met with Vocations personnel or the Vicar for Religious or for Consecrated Life. These meetings are periodic and give both persons a chance to really know one another. In my own process of discernment one Vicar met regularly with me in my own hermitage over a several year period. She also traveled to a hermitage in another part of the state to speak to the Prior about what was needed to live a healthy eremitical life because this was not something she was familiar with first hand. At another point in the process I met with co-Vicars and we took the steps needed so that they would be able to make a recommendation to the new Bishop. During that period (about a year or year and a half) I wrote another version of my Rule or Plan of Life which was submitted to canonists for approval, made sure all the paperwork necessary was nailed down, and waited to hear from them on any "loose ends", as well as on their decision. They recommended the Bishop profess me and asked me to make an appointment with him.

In that meeting the Bishop made clear his intention of meeting with me several more times, learning all he could about the eremitical vocation, reading anything I had written (articles, Rule, etc) --- he wanted to meet me BEFORE reading anything I had written --- and only then making a decision about professing me. About a year later he made his decision. My sense is this is all fairly typical. What I hope is clear is that the discernment process is fairly lengthy and careful, but also, that this is not simply the Bishop's decision --- though it is ultimately his of course. If a person has reached the stage where a Bishop has agreed to profess her and he becomes ill or retires, the Bishop replacing him would be likely to accept the seriousness and competence of his recommendations and those of his curia in admitting this person to vows. After all, the person's petition is a serious one and she has gone through a lengthy discernment process; it would hardly be just to simply dismiss her or her petition and the process or the work of one's curia.

I have also written about this before in response to a question which was put more negatively and in that response I noted that it was possible for a Bishop who did not believe in the vocation for some reason to refuse to profess anyone --- though one hoped it would not be a decision driven merely by personal bias. One would hope that someone already in temporary vows would continue and be professed perpetually even by such a Bishop once he got to know her and the vocation itself. Still, I do think it is unlikely that someone whose petition to be professed under canon 603 had been approved by the outgoing Bishop would not be at least temporarily professed by the new Bishop out of respect for his predecessor's decision.

17 March 2013

St Patrick's Day

All good wishes on this "high holy day" (well, High Irish Holy Day, anyway)! Of course, it does seem that everyone is Irish on this day, so I guess that makes it a universal high holy day! Our parish celebrated last night with a seriously delicious corned beef and cabbage dinner fixed by the Knights of Columbus. I came as the Knight's guest (they honor Religious in the parish), partly to pray for God's blessing on our dinner (especially remembering last Sunday's Gospel reading re the prodigal Son and the Father's love of a good feast/party!!) but also to enjoy the Irish step dancing, the REALLY bad jokes, the love of so many friends, and the excellent FOOD!

Phyllis McGinley captures some of the fun and seriousness of St Patrick. Enjoy.

St Patrick the Missioner, by Phyllis McGinley

Saint Patrick was a preacher
With honey in his throat.
They say he could charm away
A miser's dearest pence;
Could coax a feathered creature
To leave her nesting note
And fly from many a farm away
To hear his eloquence.

No Irishman was Patrick
According to the story.
The speech of Britain clung to him
(Or maybe it was Wales).
But, ah, for curving rhet'ric,
Angelic oratory,
What man could match a tongue to him
Among the clashing Gaels!

Let Patrick meet a Pagan
In Antrim or Wicklow,
He'd talk to him so reachingly,
So vehement would pray,
That Cul or Neall or Reagan
Would fling aside his bow
And beg the saint beseechingly
To christen him that day.

He won the Necromancers,
The Bards, the country herds.
Chief Aengus rose and went with him
To bear his staff and bowl.
For such were all his answers
To disputatious words,
Who'd parry argument with him
Would end a shriven soul.

The angry Druids muttered
A curse upon his prayers.
The sought a spell for shattering
The marvels he had done.
But Patrick merely uttered
A better spell than theirs
And sent the Druids scattering
Like mist before the sun.

They vanished like the haze on
The plume of the fountain.
But still their scaly votaries
Were venomous at hand.
So three nights and days on
Tara's stony mountain
He thundered till those coteries
Of serpents fled the land.

Grown old but little meeker
At length he took his rest,
And centuries have listened, dumb,
To tales of his renown.
For Ireland loves a speaker
So loves Saint Patrick best:
The only man in Christendom
Has talked the Irish down.

Francis attends Mass at local Church: Angelus Address

Full text of Angelus address:

Dear brothers and sisters, good morning! After our first meeting last Wednesday, today I again give my greetings to you all! And I am happy to do it on Sunday, the Lord's Day! This is beautiful and important for us Christians: to meet on Sunday, to greet one another, to talk as we are doing now, in the square. This square that, thanks to the media, takes on worldly dimensions.

In this Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Gospel presents us with the story of the adulterous woman whom Jesus saves from being condemned to death. It captures Jesus' attitude: we do not hear words of contempt, we do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love, of mercy, that invite us to conversion. 'Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more!' Well, brothers and sisters! God's face is that of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God's patience, the patience that He has with each of us? That is His mercy. He always has patience, is always patient with us, understanding us, awaiting us, never tiring of forgiving us if we know how to return to him with a contrite heart. 'Great is the Lord's mercy', says the Psalm.

In these days, I have been able to read a book by a cardinal—Cardinal Kasper, a talented theologian, a good theologian—on mercy. And it did me such good, that book, but don't think that I'm publicizing the books of my cardinals. That is not the case! But it did me such good, so much good... Cardinal Kasper said that hearing the word mercy changes everything. It is the best thing that we can hear: it changes the world. A bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand God's mercy well, this merciful Father who has such patience... Think of the prophet Isaiah who asserts that even if our sins were scarlet red, God's love would make them white as snow. That is beautiful, [this aspect of mercy].

I remember when, just after I was made bishop, in 1992, the Madonna of Fatima came to Buenos Aires and a large Mass for the sick was celebrated. I went to hear confessions at that Mass. Near the end of the Mass I got up because I had to administer a confirmation. An over 80-year-old woman came up to me, humbly, very humbly. I asked her: “Nonna,” [grandmother]—because that's how we address our elderly—“Nonna, you want to confess?” “Yes,” she told me. “But if you haven't sinned...” And she said to me: “We have all sinned...” “But perhaps the Lord will not forgive you...” “The Lord forgives everyone,” she told me, with certainly. “But how do you know that, ma'am?” “If the Lord didn't forgive everyone, the world would not exist.” I wanted to ask her: “Tell me, have you studied at the Gregorian [Pontifical University]?”, because that is the wisdom that the Holy Spirit gives: the inner wisdom of God's mercy. Let us not forget this word: God never tires of forgiving us, never! 'So, Father, what is the problem?' Well, the problem is that we get tired, we don't want to, we get tired of asking forgiveness. Let us never get tired. Let us never get tired. He is the loving Father who always forgives, who has that heart of mercy for all of us. And let us also learn to be merciful with everyone. Let us call upon the intercession of the Madonna who has held in her arms the Mercy of God made human.

16 March 2013

You do Not Know God; Naturally You do Not Know Me!

Today's Gospel gives me a lot to think about. In particular it makes me recall one of the most surprising (stunning!) moments of my theological education. It came during one of the first classes I ever had with Prof John Dwyer when he asked us generally, "Who is Jesus?" We gave a number of answers but the best one we thought was, "Jesus is the Son of God!" John followed up with another question, an extremely logical question: "And who, then, is God?" We were stunned to silence. John went on to explain, "You see, you thought that calling Jesus the Son of God was the best thing you could say about him, the most meaningful, the greatest content, etc; but really it says nothing at all about Jesus because apart from Jesus, we do not know God; Jesus is the One who reveals the real God to us. It is important to say that Jesus is God's Son, but first of all, we must recognize that he is the One who reveals God to us; he is the One who makes God real in space and time." Everything in the rest of the course had to do with Jesus and the One he makes known and real to us in space and time (the two main meanings of the term "reveal").

Everything about that moment when I realized that doing theology with Jesus at the center of things would turn everything I thought and believed and understood on their head came back to me as I was praying with today's Gospel. I could well imagine how the folks in Jerusalem would have felt about Jesus' confrontation with them when he says essentially, "It is not that you know God and simply can't make up your mind about me and whether I am from him or not; it is really that you do NOT know God!!" If I were looking for reasons Jesus was crucified, that would certainly be a very large nail in his Cross! But, let's look at the readings yesterday and see how they move us closer to Holy Week and the way the Cross saves as well.

Brothers, Leadership, Romans, Disciples --- No one really gets Jesus

It is Autumn and time for the Feast of Booths or Taber-nacles, one of three Feasts of Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  The booths are the place where Jews meet God and offer sacrifice. Jesus' brothers are encouraging him to come with them so that he can work more miracles and become famous and influential. "No one becomes famous if they do their work in secret!", they remind him. Of course, we all know that the REAL work will be done in secret --- in the secret darkness of the sin and death and hell Jesus takes on. But Jesus' brothers do not get what he is about yet. They may entertain the idea of his messiahship, but it is one marked by wonder working and, as appropriate to the Feast of Booths, to freeing Israel from the oppression of Rome. It is not marked by failure, ignominy, shame or a power made perfect in weakness. No, this Feast is not the One Jesus will "celebrate"; his comes later, in the Spring. He will go openly to Jerusalem for the Passover where the real sacrifice will be celebrated and the real victory over oppression will be won.

And of course Jesus' brothers aren't alone in their doubt about Jesus. The Jerusalem leaders are out to kill Jesus --- though they are very clear about the threat he poses to the Temple system with his preferential option for the poor and marginalized, his freely given forgiveness and notions of repentance which bypass the Temple sacrificial system. They don't know who he is but they do understand him better than Jesus' disciples! The disciples who are in Jerusalem waiting for more powerful works also don't ever quite get it nor do the the pilgrims to Jerusalem --- some of whom think he is a good man, some of whom think he is deluding the people, and some of whom  just don't know. All of these folks are in the City to celebrate the God they know as Creator and Law Giver and the One who brought them out of Egypt. Imagine how they must have felt when Jesus says, [[You know who I am and where I am from; but the One who sent me is true and you do NOT know him!]] In other words, [[It is not that you know God and merely cannot decide if I am from him; rather, you do NOT know God and so, naturally you do not associate me with him.]] Like some of us in that theology class, I would guess they were stunned, and angered too. I am sure they knew why the Jewish leadership (and especially the priestly aristocracy) wanted to put Jesus to death!

A Key to How the Cross Saves:

The most difficult piece of Christian Theology is the question of how the cross works. I wrote a few days ago about Christ entering into the godless depths of human existence and, through his openness and responsiveness, his dependence upon God to bring life out of death and meaning out of senselessness, he was able to implicate God into not only the unanticipated places, but the unacceptable ones as well. A related piece needed to clarify how the Cross saves is pointed to by Jesus' assertion that no one questioning or persecuting him knows God.

Jesus reveals God to us. Not only does he show us who God is but he makes God present in space and time, and we learn that he is the One Paul extols in Romans 8. The One Jesus allows to be exhaustively present is the God who allows neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depths, nor anything else in all creation to separate us from his love. [[No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.]] Through obedience unto death, and more, to (shameful, godless) death on a cross, Jesus opens every moment and mood of creation to the one he calls Abba, and nothing will ever be the same again.

But Jesus' death and resurrection reveals (makes known and real in history) one more thing that has been missing from the fallen creation: viz, authentic humanity. The portraits of inauthentic humanity abound during Holy Week and especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The arrogant, frightened, self-assertive, cowardly, betrayers and abandoners, liars, torturers, thieves, self-absorbed and merely duty-bound are ever-present. But Jesus is truly human and shows us the depths of what this means. He loves God with his whole heart and mind and soul and depends on him even when he feels abandoned. He loves himself, and acts with integrity, even when he is terrified, shamed beyond belief, tortured beyond all physical limits and is incapable of any action whatever as death leads to his descent into hell. In spite of everything he remains open and responsive to God in trust that even though he does not see how, God will bring his Reign out of even the depths of sinful death and hell. He gives his entire life for others and shows them his own love for them in the process.

We call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, for apart from him we truly do not know God. Oh, we can reason to a Creator God, and we can do the same with a Lawgiver God. We can reason to One who is the ground of being and meaning and truth and beauty and mystery and one who hates sin and will judge us for that; but we cannot reason to a God who loves us as unreservedly as is revealed on the cross. We cannot reason to a God who allows absolutely nothing to stand between us and his love. Neither can we reason to an authentic humanity. That is something that can only be revealed and which we need to be initiated into as we are in Baptism. Thus, the cross saves by 1) making God present in even the godless places of our lives and destroying those by transforming them with his presence; 2) by making truly human existence possible for the first time in Christ and initiating us into it through our baptism into his death; 3) by reconciling the entire creation to himself in a preparation for the day when God will be all in all. In each of these ways God changes not only reality per se, but our hearts and the way we see reality as well. In each of these ways God establishes his sovereignty, his Reign over creation.

14 March 2013

Should Hermits be Professed at a Parish Mass?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I have heard that professions of diocesan hermits need not take place during Mass and that those insisting on making their profession during Mass are opting for something which canon law does not require; I also heard it is something which goes against the hiddenness and simplicity of the hermit vocation. Is that correct? The person who said this asserted that the Catechism and Canon law say that there needs to be no big service and there can even be just a sign of commitment. A public celebration is not necessary or even appropriate. The idea of having lots of people attending seems to be something some hermits need for ego, or as a sign of being "approved of" etc. You made vows at a public Mass. Why did you choose that option?]]

It has been a while since I heard these arguments about ego and canonical "approval". I am disappointed they are being made once again. I have tried to be tactful in responding to the attitude and errors involved, not always successfully; I admit that that is a bit taxing sometimes. Still, there is an essential tension between the public character of this vocation and the call to essential hiddenness or stricter separation of the diocesan hermit. Exploring this tension is something I enjoy and believe is important even apart from statements like those you have asked about; for that reason let me approach your questions from that perspective.

While it is true that initiation into religious life (what is called reception into the community for instance) is not allowed to take place during Mass, and while first, simple, or temporary vows which will be liturgically a relatively simple matter may or may not take place during Mass, perpetual or solemn vows are a different matter and the Church says clearly that it is appropriate that these occur within the context of a public Mass where attendance can be high (par 43 Rite of Religious Profession for Women, "It is fitting that the rite of profession by which a religious binds herself to God forever should take place on a Sunday or a solemnity of the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or of a saint distinguished in the living of the religious life."  and again, no 45, "Notice of the day and hour should be given to the faithful in good time so they may attend in greater numbers." )

Other prescriptions delineated in this Rite involve the use of the cathedral or parish church, making the profession at the chair and in the sanctuary, use of fitting solemnity but also eschewing lavishness unbecoming religious poverty, sufficient bread and wine for all, what is necessary for the giving of insigniae, etc. Could a hermit choose to do something else? I suspect they could; whether it would be theologically and liturgically appropriate is something the hermit and her Bishop would need to determine. Certainly the hermit could choose a Mass with a more intimate setting, especially for temporary profession, but again, it is the Church herself that specifies the appropriateness of wide attendance and publicity in her own Rite of Religious Profession.

 You see, none of this has to do with ego or the hermit's desire for public recognition; it has to do with the Church's esteem for this vocation and the appropriateness of a liturgical celebration for life commitments like this. (Thus we do the same with Baptisms, marriages, consecrations, and ordinations --- whenever public commitments are made which establish the person in a new public identity or state in the Church .) As for the claims that the CCC and Code of Canon Law say a hermit need not have a service and may use only a sign of commitment, I don't know anywhere that either book says anything about this with regard to canon 603 hermits. Canon Law (cc 654-658, the section spelling out the law re profession of religious says nothing about this; C 603 itself is merely clear that the hermit may make vows or other sacred bonds. It says nothing about the context in which these are to be made. The CCC does not address either issue of course. In other words, these claims seem to me to be specious and simply plucked out of the ether.

It is true that in dealing with private vows the Church tends to expect these to take place outside Mass so people do not confuse them with public vows or vows made and received in the name of the Church. Perhaps the person you are quoting was speaking of private vows rather than public ones and something other than either the CCC or Canon Law per se. Alternately perhaps s/he got the references wrong. The issue of sources aside, it remains possible s/he was speaking of temporary canonical vows or professions, but perpetual or solemn vows and actual consecration are a different matter and there is no way one makes a solemn commitment like this without a liturgical celebration (Mass).

Your question about my own profession taking place at a Sunday Mass seems to be tied to the notion that it was done out of ego. Let me correct that idea. First , I did not choose to have a Mass; my diocese naturally set up a date and time when the Bishop would preside at my profession and the appropriateness of this occurring at a Mass was understood by everyone. This is not simply custom but at heart a reflection of our sacramental theology and theology of church. So my pastor and I worked with the diocese and used the official texts for the Rites of Religious Profession;  I also worked with a canonist and Vicar for Religious to assure all was done in a way which was legitimate and appropriate.

Details which were worked out in advance included the texts of the vows or vow formula (I used a vow formula I had used before but with some slight changes for the occasion), the insigniae (ring, cowl) and other things (candle, vows to be signed during Mass), readings, and all the persons who would be participating in the liturgy apart from the assembly (servers, lectors, cantors, delegate, concelebrants, etc). The diocese provided a worksheet for all of these things and, immediately prior to the Mass, provided several  legal documents which needed to be signed apart from the vow formula itself. (That is signed on the altar --- in this case by the bishop, myself, my delegate and the pastor of the parish.) In other words, this was a diocesan matter undertaken on behalf of the universal Church, not something I desired out of ego; it was undertaken because the Church clearly saw it as completely appropriate and significant.

But let me be equally clear: there is no doubt I would always choose to make perpetual profession during a Mass. Theologically and liturgically this would have been completely fitting for the solemnity and significance of the event. It should be clear that life commitments of this sort which also mediate God's consecration and the commissioning of the Church are appropriately done during Mass where the effective (real-making) symbolism of self-gift, consecration, and commissioning are clearest and paradigmatic. This is also important since the person making the commitment is assuming public/legal rights and obligations which affect the entire Church, and which most intimately affect her local Church --- both diocesan and parish communities. While the hermit may live a life of essential hiddenness, the act of perpetual profession is both a public and an ecclesial one. It is an act of love celebrating the God who calls us to life in union with him, espousal to Christ, and communion with one another. It marks and implicitly celebrates all the forms of love that have brought the person to this moment: Divine, familial, community, friends, et. al. It is only appropriate that all of these people should be able to participate in such a celebration of love and grace --- and of course that it be done at Mass where Christ is uniquely present, proclaimed, and received.

Further, the Rite of Profession marks a commissioning to make this love even more fruitful in the future and says we do this together. No authentic hermit is ever truly alone and that is certainly true of a diocesan hermit. Not only does she live with and from God, but she lives at the heart of the Church and is publicly commissioned (at the very liturgy we are discussing in fact) to do so in an essential hiddenness. Such life is always nourished by the Church (especially in Word and Sacrament) even as this same life nourishes the Church as a whole. Finally, I should note that if it is appropriate for strictly cloistered nuns to celebrate their own solemn professions in the sanctuary of a church open to visitors (and in the mind and position of the Church it certainly is!), then it is appropriate for the diocesan hermit to do similarly because in either case we are celebrating the Holy Spirit's gift to the Church, a gift which is part of her call to prayer and holiness, a gift which is meant to inspire and nourish her in this goal.

13 March 2013

HABEMUS PAPEM! Franciscum; We Have a Pope! Francis

As far as initial impressions go I am impressed with the language and manner of our new Pope. He calls himself the Bishop of Rome. He speaks of himself as one of a community of Brothers and Sisters. He does not speak of the Diocese of Rome, but the community of Rome and he jokes about his brother Cardinals going to the ends of the earth to find such a Bishop! Francis refers to Benedict as the Bishop Emeritus -- because he is speaking in Rome; but clearly he has a sense of local Churches and their dignity. He asks first for the prayers of all of those present before mediating God's blessing to them --- and bowed profoundly towards all of us in requesting that blessing. His pectoral cross is made of wood, not gold encrusted with jewels. He wore only a white simple cassock and used the stole only while acting to give the blessing --- not as though everything he is and does is done "in persona christi" (as priest) but rather that it is done in Christ as is so with the rest of the Baptized. The media writes that the new Pope:  [[is known to live simply—before calling Vatican City his home, he lived in an apartment in Buenos Aires instead of the archbishop’s palace. He cooked his own meals, and instead of taking a private car to work, he took the public bus.]] And, after his introduction from the loggia, he apparently took the shuttle with the rest of  his "brother Cardinals" back to the house where they had all been staying and dismissed the papal limousine --- consistent with his former habits and values!

We know that names are very important and the choice of Francis is no small matter. St Francis of Assisi was known as called by God to reform the Church; he was humble, a lover of Christ, a man who empowered others and collaborated with St Clare and her Sisters. He walked with the poor and marginalized, preached without license to do so, and was famous for saying we had to preach the Gospel and use words if necessary! Because the Cross of Christ was truly at the center of his life he was a man of incredible joy and one who today is beloved by all Christians --- indeed by all mankind. And our new Pope is Francis I!! There is no doubt that Pope Francis is signaling there is to be something new afoot in the Church, something specifically "Franciscan" for instance. I am personally reminded of John XXIII's comments at the beginning of the Vatican II Council that we are not to be prophets of doom but of openness to a new era. As he wrote:

 [[In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church's rightful liberty were concerned.

 We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand. Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men's efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfillment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church's good. ]]

St Francis of Assisi was a man who truly saw the hand of God in things and helped usher in a new era in Church history, in the history of religious life, and in a revival of the Gospel's own option for the poor and marginalized. Francis I is known for having said after Benedict's conclave that he would have, dreaded living among the Curia, the introverted bureaucracy that holds the core of the Catholic Church in its grip. [[In the Curia I would die,]] he said in 2005. [[My life is in Buenos Aires. Without the people of my diocese, without their problems, I feel something lacking every day.”]] JP II called for the reform of the papacy and curia. Vatican II before him desired it but Paul VI had it taken off the table for papal (and curial) attention specifically. No reform has ever come and the impression sometimes given is that the curia is controlled by prophets of doom who are inheritors of the approach John XXIII condemned.

Thus, Francis I is certainly in my prayers and so is the Church. I am feeling a cautious excitement I have not felt in a very long time. I think it is the flowering of hope --- hope that perhaps the Holy Spirit has done what I feared human projects, agendas and sinfulness had made impossible --- or at least only very remotely possible! If our new Pope can be and do even a fraction of what St Francis was and did (and what Christ's Church so desperately needs today), the Cardinals will have elected a prophet and true pastor who helps remake the Church and world in light of the Gospel of the Crucified Christ. All of the little signs are there, signs of a new Spring after the cold and deadness of an extended Winter. Benedict was not able to break the hold of this long winter. May the Lord bring these small signs to full flower in Francis' pontificate! Like so many of the stories in Scripture, and like a Lent which leads to a true Easter, we have waited for a very long time.

As many of us sang at our perpetual professions: [[Uphold [us] Lord, according to your promise and [we] shall live, and do not bring to nothing all [our] hope!]] (Ps 119:116)

Followup Questions, Theology of the Cross

[[Dear Sister, thank you for your post on the cross. When I was growing up we heard the idea that  our salvation was bought with every stroke of the whip and every stroke of the hammer. We also heard that our sins were like adding strokes to those. It is confusing to think that Jesus' suffering per se does not save us but that it is his obedience that does. Can you help me understand this? . . .]]

Thanks for the chance to clarify what I have already written. When we think of the extremity of what Jesus suffered, not just physically, but in terms of failure (because his project did look to end in failure) and shame as well, I think we begin to see more clearly how difficult obedience (openness and responsiveness to God) really was for him --- and also how critical. The temptation to close ourselves off from suffering, to shut down physically, mentally, emotionally, psychically, etc is never stronger than when we are in pain. This will usually include the kind of shockiness we experience when we are betrayed or treated with incredible insensitivity and cruelty. It can include all the mental gymnastics or defense mechanisms we "naturally" fall into regarding blame, justification, defensiveness, refusal to stay in the present moment, etc.

The problem here is that when we start to shut down, or when we act in ways which seem to allow us (ourselves) to regain some control, we shut down to other things as well and we will not be WHOLLY dependent on God to bring what he can both within and out of the situation. (We may open to God afterward and ordinarily this seems to be the reasonable thing to do, but we do not usually remain open to God during such situations. In other words, we may pray AFTER the situation is over, and we may call out to God to take us out of the situation, but we tend not to pray the situation itself.) Obedience in the NT sense is very difficult for us because we really are sinners, we really are estranged from God. Jesus, who was not estranged from God, prayed the whole situation and what he found was human betrayal, desertion, and divine abandonment! Even then he remained faithful and trusted in God. Even then he remained open to whatever God would do with him and with this situation.

Because of his openness every bit of Jesus' suffering was unmitigated --- including his experience of God's absence. We see this symbolized in his refusal of the gall-laced-wine; we see it in his refusal to speak in front of Pilate (no defenses, no explanations, no mitigation), we see it in his experience in Gethsemane and his cry of abandonment on the cross (surely the very worst thing Jesus himself experienced!). And yet, this unreserved openness to suffering was the measure of his openness to God's will as well.

Still, unless God enters into the situation it speaks mainly of sin's victory over God's anointed one. If Jesus had merely remained good and dead, his suffering would have been for nothing. More, it would have proven the God he believed in so exhaustively does NOT have the power to definitively overcome sin and godless death and human cruelty, ambition, etc, etc will have the last word. The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed would have been a fraud --- or perhaps Jesus' delusion. As Paul says so tellingly, [[If Jesus is not risen from the dead we (Christians) are the greatest fools of all.]] So, while I am not saying that his suffering was unimportant (it was critical in deepening and extending his obedience to God) it was not his suffering per se that was salvific.

11 March 2013

Questions on the Theology of the Cross

As we approach Holy Week and the Triduum I am beginning to get some questions about the theology of the cross, etc. Here is an email I received from a long-time friend.

[[Dear Laurel, I feel sort of negative about the crucifix and communion. Here are the reasons: I know the church teaches that Christ died for our sins, but the crucifix also represents a very violent and bloody act. What kind of example is that to set in front of our already troubled youth? I know the church teaches that communion is the body and blood of Christ, but the idea of drinking human blood and eating human flesh seems very savage and cannibalistic to me. Again this seems like sick thinking to me. What can you say about this? Now that I have had my say, how are you and what is going on in your life? Love and Peace,]]

Hi there!
Regarding your questions: It is important to remember that in the events of the cross the violence and evil done were human acts (or, more accurately, literally inhuman acts unworthy of God or humankind). They tell us what happens when the sacred (and truly human) is put into our sinful hands. Part of the redemption God achieves on the cross is the redemption of our horrific treatment of one another and of God himself. Part of it is the redemption of our inhumanity and the making possible of authentic humanity in Christ.

Secondly, it is important to remember that Jesus' physical and psychological suffering per se was not salvific. What was salvific was that in the midst of this terrible suffering, injustice, shame, failure of mission, and betrayal, he remained open to God (the One he called Abba) and to whatever God would bring out of it. The word we use for this openness and responsiveness is "obedience". It does NOT mean that God willed Jesus' torture by venal, cruel, ambitious, and frightened human beings. What God DID will, however, was to enter into all of the moments and moods of human life including sinfulness and death so that he could redeem and transform them with his presence. Jesus allows God to do that by remaining open to him even in such extremity. (He does not shut down, nor does he try to assume control, for instance.)

Neither is Jesus' death by itself salvific. Again, even in death and beyond natural death in what the NT calls "godless" or "eternal death" Jesus remained open to what God would bring out of this. Because he did, God was able to enter into these godless realms and for that reason they no longer are signs of God's absence. Instead, because of Christ obedience unto "death, even death on a cross" as Paul puts it, even in sin and death we will meet God face to face and God will bring life not only out of the unexpected place but the unacceptable place --- the place where human reason says God should never be found.

God never changes his mind about us. He loves us --- actively, passionately, without reserve. (He IS love-in-act; this creative, dynamic, unceasing love is God's very nature!) What God changes through the events of the cross is reality itself. Unless once we are face to face with God we actually choose eternity without God there is no longer sinful or godless death. Even should we choose this I think it will mean we choose an eternity facing  a Love we have been offered without reserve, but which we have definitively refused. (It is hard for me to think of a worse situation than to be locked inside one's own hatefulness while faced with a Love which frees and gives eternal life.)  What we have to teach our youth is exactly what Paul says in Romans 8: neither life nor death nor powers nor principalities, nor heights nor depths, etc etc will EVER separate us from the love of God. God has made sure that he is present in even the unacceptable place (in this case, the realms which are properly called godless); he has assured the truth of what Paul asserts in Romans 8 and it is Jesus' openness and responsiveness to God in the face of human evil of unimaginable lengths and depths that spurred Paul's profession of faith.

One other note: The NT speaks of divine wrath. This does not mean anger in the sense we know it ourselves. It means something akin to a tough love that allows the consequences of our choices to catch up to us. God respects our choices even if he does not respect WHAT we choose. He allows the consequences of our choices to catch up with us. However, at the same time, if we choose sin and death (knowing we cannot fully conceive what we are choosing in this way), he makes sure we will find him even there. 

The Church has never asserted a single interpretation of the cross nor a normative theology of the Cross. Unfortunately what we hear too often is Anselm's interpretation. Anselm's world was a feudal one where notions of shame and honor were driving forces. Thus he saw God as infinitely offended by human sin and wrote that an infinite price had to be paid for God's honor to be regained. Further, that price had to be paid by a human being since human beings had caused the infinite offense while only someone divine COULD do so. The biggest problem though was that he saw God as needing to be reconciled. This is exactly the opposite of what Paul says in 2 Cor 5:19: [[God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.]] In other words, it is the world which needs to be reconciled to God; in Christ God brings everything home to itself and to himself. He sets all things right. This is the nature of divine justice. He asserts his rights or sovereignty over a broken creation by letting nothing stand between us and his creative love (himself). It is not God's honor that needs to be appeased but a broken and estranged world that needs to be healed and made one with God (the ground of existence and meaning). That is what happens through Jesus' crucifixion, death, and resurrection. In Christ God takes the worst human beings can do and brings divine wholeness and life out of it.

2) Regarding Communion: The Church does not and has never taught that Jesus is PHYSICALLY present in the Eucharist. In order to speak about the Real presence she uses the terms real, true, and substantial. She does so to avoid crude physicalisms like those we sometime hear associated with private visions, etc --- things like munching on toenails and the like. Further, the Church teaches that the Eucharistic presence is the presence of the Risen Christ not Jesus of Nazareth per se, and so, this involves a resurrected body/self which, though really present and consistent with the historical Jesus, is not subject to the conditions of space and time. In the NT the Gospel writers speak of the Risen Xt as walking though walls or being in two places at once (Road to Emmaus and Galilee, for instance) or of eating fish in order to be able to convey all of these things. The Risen presence is real, true, and substantial but NOT physical in the sense cannibalism (or munching on toenails) requires. It is a transcendent presence, a mysterious presence, not a strictly historical one. 

I hope this helps.

"The Music We Are" by Rumi

In thanksgiving for the gift of a new friend who leaves tomorrow morning for the upper Midwest.  Bob gave me a collection of poems by Rumi as part of his leave-taking. I have written here a number of times about the songs we are, and especially about the song that is the hermit, so that this poem seemed  a perfect way to mark my own appreciation of the past few weeks --- and the nearing of Easter! Deo Gratias!!!

Did you hear that Winter is over?
The basil and carnation cannot control their laughter.

The nightingale back from his wandering,
has been made singing master over all the birds.
The trees reach out their congratulations.

The soul goes dancing through the king's doorway.
Anemones blush because they have seen the rose naked.

Spring, the only fair judge, walks in the courtroom,
and several December thieves steal away.

Last year's miracles will soon be forgotten. 
New creatures whirl in from non-existence,
galaxies scattered around their feet.

Have you met them?
Do you hear the bud of Jesus crooning in the cradle?

A single narcissus flower has been appointed
Inspector of Kingdoms. A feast is set.
Listen. The wind is pouring wine.

Love used to hide inside images. No more,
the orchard hangs out its lanterns.

The dead come stumbling by in shrouds.
Nothing can stay bound or be imprisoned.

You say, End this poem here, and wait for what is next.
I will. Poems are rough notations for the music we are.

From Rumi, The Big Red Book, Coleman Barks 

10 March 2013

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Parable of the Merciful Father (reprise)

Commentators tend to name today's Gospel parable after the Merciful Father, because he is central to all the scenes (even when the younger Son is in a far off place, the Father waits silently, implicitly, in the wings). We should notice it is his foolish generosity that predominates, so in this sense, he too is prodigal. Perhaps then we should call this the parable of the Prodigal Father. The younger son squanders his inheritance, but the Father is also (in common terms and in terms of Jewish Law) foolish in giving him the inheritance, the "substance" (literally, the ousias) of his own life and that of Israel. His younger Son treats him as dead (a sin against the Commandment to honor Father and Mother) and still this Father looks for every chance to receive him back.

When the younger son comes to his senses, rehearses his terms for coming home ("I will confess and be received back not as a Son, but as a servant,"), his Father, watching for his return, eagerly runs to meet him in spite of the offense represented in such an act, forestalls his confession, brings his Son into the center of the village (the only way to bring him home really when homes were organized at the center of larger circles) thus rendering everything unclean according to the law; he clothes him in the garb of Sonship and authority, kills the fatted calf and throws a welcome home party --- all heedless of the requirements of the law, matters of ritual impurity or repentance, etc. Meanwhile, the dutiful older son keeps the letter of the law of sonship but transgresses its essence or "spirit" and also treats his Father with dishonor. He is grudging, resentful, angry, blind, and petty in failing to recognize what is right before him all the time. He too is prodigal, allowing his authentic Sonship to die day by day as he assumes a more superficial role instead. And yet, the Father reassures him that what is the Father's is the Son's and what is the Son's is the Father's (which makes the Father literally an "ignorant man" in terms of the Law, an "am-haretz"). Contrary to the wisdom of the law, he continues to invite him into the celebration, a celebration of new life and meaning. He continues to treat him as a Son.

The theme of Law versus Gospel comes up strongly in this and other readings this week, though at first we may fail to recognize this. Paul recognizes the Law is a gift of God but without the power to move us to act as Sons and Daughters of God in the way Gospel does. When coupled with human sinfulness it can --- whether blatantly or insidiously --- be terribly destructive. How often as Christians do we act in ways which are allowed (or apparently commanded) by law but which are not really appropriate to Daughters and Sons of an infinitely merciful Father who is always waiting for our return, always looking for us to make the slightest responsive gesture in recognition of his presence, to "come to our senses", so that he can run to us and enfold us in the sumptuous garb of Daughterhood or Sonship? How often is our daily practice of our faith dutiful, and grudging but little more? How often do we act competitively or in resentment over others whose vocation is different than our own, whose place in the church (or the world of business, commerce, and society, for that matter) seems to witness to greater love from God? How often do we quietly despair over the seeming lack of worth of our lives in comparison to that of others? Whether we recognize it or not these attitudes are those of people motivated by law, not gospel. They are the attitudes of measurement and judgment, not of incommensurate love and generosity.

At the beginning of Lent we heard the fundamental choice of and in all choices put before us, "Choose life not death." Today that choice is sharpened and the subtle forms of death we often choose are set in relief: will we be Daughters and Sons of an infinitely and foolishly Merciful Father --- those who truly see and accept a love that is beyond our wildest imaginings and love others similarly, or, will we be prodigals in the pejorative sense, servants of duty, those who only accept the limited love we believe we have coming to us and who approach others competitively, suspiciously and without generosity? Will we be those whose notions of justice constrain God and our ability to choose the life he sets before us, or will we be those who are forgiven to the awesome degree and extent God is willing and capable of forgiving? Will we allow ourselves to be welcomed into a new life --- a life of celebration and joy, but also a life of greater generosity, responsibility, and God-given identity, or will we simply make do with the original prodigality of either the life of the younger or elder son? After all, both live dissipated lives in this parable: one flagrantly so, and one in quiet resentment, slavish dutifulness, and unfulfillment.

The choice before those living the latter kind of Christian life is no less significant, no less one of conversion than the choice set before the younger son. His return may be more dramatic, but that of the elder son demands as great a conversion. He must move from a quiet, embittered, exile where he cynically identifies himself as a slave rather than a free man or (even less) a Son. His own vision of his life and worth, his true identity, are little different than those of the younger son who returns home rehearsing terms of servility rather than sonship. The parable of the merciful Father puts before us two visions of life, and two main versions of prodigality; it thus captures the two basic meanings of prodigal: wasteful and/or lavish. There is the prodigality of the sons who allow the substance of their lives and identities to either be cast carelessly or slip silently away in mere dutifulness, the prodigality of those who lose their truest selves even as they grasp at wealth, adventure, duty, role, or other forms of security and "fulfillment". And there is the prodigality of the Father who loves and spends himself generously without limit or condition. In other words, there is death and there is life, law and gospel. Both stand before us ready to be embraced. Which form of prodigality will we choose? For indeed, the banquet hall is ready for us and the Father stands waiting at this very moment, ring, robe, and sandals in hand.

08 March 2013

Followup Question: Resistant to Canon 603 in one's Heart of Hearts

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I am shocked that anyone who feels the way the person does in the post about Bishops requesting they become a canon 603 hermit would even consider such a thing. But aren't there stories about superiors asking people to do things like this despite their not wanting to? True, they don't happen so much anymore but I know I have heard some. What would happen if the person became convinced that God was calling her to this because her Bishop asked her to accept profession?]] (cf, Sickened by being Called)

Hi there yourself! Of course it is very unlikely today that a Bishop would do as you describe. Most dioceses have at least a handful of people who really desire to be professed in this way and a Bishop would be far more likely to discern a true vocation from among these before he would turn to someone who speaks about the vocation itself in such negative terms or who truly feels sickened by the thought of being professed in this way and personally having such a vocation. To be frank, were a Bishop to act in this way it would be a slap in the face of those who deeply desire such profession and have presented themselves in good faith for discernment with the diocese only to be deemed unsuited for an extended discernment process or for admission to profession itself.

It would be insulting to those dioceses who have professed candidates in good faith or to diocesan hermits who both love their vocation and are committed to canon 603 as a legitimate and significant instance of the development of such. Further, it would not be the healthiest thing for the person being professed and could well lead to a failed vocation, compromised conscience judgments, and thus too, to actual sin. Finally, it would set a terribly destructive precedent regarding how discernment takes place, how we gauge the presence of a vocation, how the Holy Spirit works in these matters, how we conceive of authentic obedience or the theology of grace, and a number of other issues including the question of the validity and edifying quality of such a "commitment" or the vows used to embrace it. So let's be clear that on any number of grounds, spiritual, theological, pastoral, and canonical, Bishops and their curia would generally find such an arrangement completely inappropriate and even offensive.

A Change of Mind and Heart?

But your question shifts things a bit. What if the person truly became convinced she should do this because of the Bishop's desire to profess her?  In such a case SOME of the problems would drop away or at least be diminished. For instance, we would not need to be as concerned about the validity of the vows, of creating a disedifying situation for the diocese, nor so much about potentially creating or colluding in a situation where the individual could be compromising or violating her own conscience judgments. But to really be sure of the truth of her conviction, other things would also have to change. The individual would need to accept whole-heartedly that the vocation was the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church; she would need to esteem it and its developing nature. She would need to reject the idea that any variations present generally indicate an abuse of the canon and come to clarity that variability from diocese to diocese may well indicate the result of the Church's response to the Holy Spirit.

She would need a correlative change of heart as well. She would really need to be convinced that this was the way God was calling her personally to achieve human wholeness and holiness. She could not only not be "sickened" by the vocation but would probably need to evidence some personal enthusiasm for and imagination regarding its place in and possibilities for fruitfully addressing the contemporary church and world. In other words she would need to appreciate the gift or charismatic nature of the vocation both personally and generally. Flowing from this she would likely need to demonstrate a sense of responsibility, gratitude,  joy, and freedom at being called to this. Finally, she would absolutely need to give every evidence that she believed all of this in her heart of hearts and was truly desirous of committing her whole self  for the rest of her life to God in this way and to the vocation itself as an inspired way of serving the Church and the world. In other words, she would need to give evidence that petitioning for admittance to profession as a diocesan hermit was an act of profound discernment and obedience, not simply a matter of doing what someone else thought was a good idea --- even if that person is the Bishop of the diocese.

Discernment and Obedience in the Past and Now

Yes, there are many stories about people taking on tasks because others desired it. There are numerous stories about superiors desiring something and  "subjects" accepting this as the will of God. More, we have had people accepting roles as Priors, Abbots, Abbesses, Bishoprics and even the papacy for reasons they thought constituted signs of the will of God while also admitting grave reservations about the truth or prudence of such a thing. Just recently in light of Benedict XVI's resignation we remembered the story of Celestine V, a hermit who was convinced to become Pope but who resigned his office within just a few months for the good of the Church. Despite doubts, Celestine had accepted the will of the non-conclave electors putting an end to a two year process of election. Good came from Celestine's election AND his resignation, but it seems that the deeper doubts and desires proved to be the truer pointers to or signs of the will of God in Celestine's life --- at least in the long term! Too often in the history of the Church obedience was defined in terms of doing what one was told and discernment was simply treated as synonymous with "hearing what the superior desired."

Today we recognize that discernment is a complex or at least demanding process of hearkening (listening and responding) to the presence and will of God; in ecclesial vocations (Religious life, ordination, consecrated virginity, diocesan eremitical life) it is truly a mutual process where the Bishop and his staff listen carefully to the candidate, to those who know the candidate well including psychologists, physicians, pastors, directors, to their own minds and hearts, to God and his Church (tradition and history) while the candidate listens carefully to God, to her own mind and heart, to the Church (especially on the tradition and history of her proposed vocation), and to those she is working with at the chancery. Obedience too is not a simple matter of merely "doing what one is told". Because it is a serious form of  hearkening to the voice of God one needs to truly honor all the ways that voice comes to us. In a profession of vows there must be a sense that every person actively involved in coming to this has listened attentively and is responding to the voice of God in this situation. Otherwise the result will not be edifying (it will not build up the Church in love --- much less the Kingdom!) and may even become a scandal.