29 October 2013

Let the Little Children Come Unto Me!!

 Earlier this evening I posted about the idea of persistence in prayer. I referred to the story of the importunate widow. Well the story making the rounds includes the persistent boy (and I mean persistent with a capital P) in the following pictures. He wandered up while the Pope was preparing to speak on the topic of "Family" and would NOT be moved off the stage.  Francis exchanged smiles with him, attempted to carry on despite him, and eventually, simply continued with his talk and welcoming of guests. The enacted parables continue --- and continue to inspire even as they amuse.

The "true resto-rationist"** Catholics are going on and on about how Francis (they tend to call him Frank, sometimes "His phoniness" or "Chaos Frank") is demeaning the papacy with every act and every word. I suggest (forecast) they will be livid over this "incident." The disciples, of course --- who had their own ideas of what was proper and what a Messiah should be --- tried to protect Jesus from encounters of just this kind. Instead Jesus said,  "Let the children (those without any standing) come unto me" and reminded us that it was to these that the Kingdom of God truly belonged. Well, Francis is the Vicar of Christ and the one we look to as a clear symbol of what it means to be Christian. Especially, our priorities have to be on the least, the last, and the lost --- and not on our own ideas of self-importance. Imagine being able to approach Jesus with such trust and familiarity! Imagine being able to do so with every Bishop or Cardinal!

Eventually, after allowing him to hang onto his leg for a while and accepting his "help" in dragging visitors up on the stage to meet Francis, the boy was lodged in the Chair of Peter while Francis gave his talk! (I will never be able to think or write about the Feast of the Chair of Peter in quite the same way again.) Of course I believe the Chair of Peter is significant in our world but I also believe it has become immeasurably MORE important because a little child (I personally wish it had been a little girl!) was parked there securely  in the presence of a Pope who 1) knows how significant everything he does really is yet does not take himself too seriously, and 2) who can help us make the Church a place in which the youngest  and least significant in our world is wholly at home and can be seated at the place of greatest honor. This is a papacy I can completely respect and a Pope I can love.

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** To clarify: when I refer to restorationists here it should be clear I am NOT referring to traditionalist Catholics in general. I doubt if any of those are referring to the Pope as "His Phoniness" or "Chaos Frank" and I sincerely hope they do not believe the Pope is demeaning the papacy because he (for instance) refuses to wear red shoes, dances (and loves) the tango,  eats food other than the Eucharist in public, dresses simply (as Jesus would have and urges his disciples to do as well) and generally eschews the trappings of a Baroque Monarchy. 

Restorationists desire the Church as such be restored to her Baroque glory (and I suppose, her Baroque decadence). This is not about liturgy alone but about theology, style, power, and a notion of holiness which is legalistic and associated with status  in a more Constantinian sense while it mistakes the Church for the Kingdom of God. Thus, there is "True Restoration Radio," "Novus Ordo Watch," or the blogs they support and list --- examples of what I am referring to here. They are very clear that they wish to restore the Church to a pre-conciliar state entirely.  I will be speaking more about this group of folks primarily because it seems to me they really "get" what happened at Vatican II and rejected it outright as heretical. Thus, while I reject their conclusions about the import of the Council, I find their reading of and response to it more honest than efforts to interpret the council in ways which are little more than politic attempts to emasculate it or draw its teeth. I am sorry if it seemed to anyone I was casting aspersions on traditionalist Catholics in general in the above piece. I was not.

On Persistence in Prayer

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I was reading the story of the "importunate widow" in Luke and I have to ask why we are told to persist in prayer? We can't change God's mind and I was taught we shouldn't bargain with him or try to change it. You recently wrote an article about that very thing and you said that the story of Abraham bargaining with God over finding righteous people present in the city was not really a matter of bargaining even though that's the way it's mostly interpreted. (cf. Moving From Fear to Love) The way you heard the story wasn't the way I was taught it either, but it agrees with what I was taught about bargaining with God. So, I guess my question  is why not just accept his will in the matter and move on? You know, it's the, "God always answers prayer, sometimes he says no!" kind of approach. God said no, accept it and move on. Don't stubbornly insist on your own way!!]]

Excellent and important questions. I have written about this before as well. Please see Hope, Shamelessly Persistent Trust. More recently, I am reminded of something Pope Francis said in his conversations with Rabbi Skorka in a section on prayer. Thus, in answering your questions I would like to take what Francis said a bit farther and perhaps also correct him a bit (I am not sure that I am actually doing the latter but I am sure I am doing the former.) What Francis said is this, [[  [In prayer] there are moments of profound silence, adoration, waiting to see what will happen. In prayer there coexists this reverent silence together with a sort of haggling, like when Abraham negotiated with God for the punished citizens of Sodom and Gomorra. Moses also bargains when he pleads for his people. He hopes to convince the Lord not to punish his people. This attitude of courage goes along with humility and adoration, which are essential for prayer.]] Rabbi Skorka responds by saying in part, [[The worst thing that can happen in our relationship with G_d is not that we fight with him, but that we become indifferent.]] I think this observation too figures into my response to your question.

In the article I wrote about the dialogue Abraham has with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorra I indicated that Abraham was the "Father of Faith" and that he personified the trust people of faith are supposed to have. I also noted that he personifies a journey the people of Israel themselves are called to make. It is a journey in which he and they come to know and trust the unfathomable depth of God's mercy. What I suggested was that it takes time to come to know God as one who acts according to a very different standard or notion of justice than the ones we ordinarily reason to ourselves. Over time Abraham and the People of Israel come more and more to know the God whose justice is his mercy, who sets things right in the world through his creative mercy and love, who is sovereign insofar as his mercy reigns, etc. Thus, story after story in the Old Testament recounts the faithlessness and sin of the People and the constant faithfulness, forgiveness, and mercy of God. What I want to call your attention to here is how, over time in continued encounters with God it is the people who change; they are brought to greater and greater faith but they are also brought to a sense of their own poverty, concupiscence, and recalcitrance when on their own.

I believe that we are charged with persistence in prayer not so we can change God's mind, but so that in that prayer and in our own encounters with God --- including his silence and refusal to give us what we think we want or believe is best for us --- we ourselves may be changed and our relationship with God grow and mature. Persistence in prayer allows us to meet the God of Jesus Christ with our needs and desires as well as with out attitudes of proprietariness, worthiness, competence, righteousness, selfishness, omniscience, etc, etc, and over time examine all of these in the face of a God who ONLY loves us and desires the very best for and from us. Most of our attitudes will change in such continued prayer; our perspective on any number of things will change: death, suffering, time, and so forth as God invites us to look beyond the immediate situation and find a greater hope and promise than we ourselves can even imagine. It is a bit like a person coming up  again and again against that which is unchanging and, over time, changing themselves.  In this case, however, they become more and more open to the actual answer for any prayer --- God's own presence and self --- and they come to know his faithfulness and presence no matter what else happens; their defining world becomes less merely that of time and space (though they will be made more capable of ministering within it) and more and more that of the Kingdom of God.

You see, in a real problem we especially don't want God as an added adversary or person we need to convince. We want him to journey with us and love and support us as only God can do, not be someone we are trying to convince and bargain with. Even so, in bargaining we will come, usually, to acceptance in ways we might not have otherwise. Bargaining is a part of grief, a piece of coming to terms with a reality which has us helpless and powerless and bargaining with God is an entirely legitimate way to come to terms with reality. But only if we are persistent in it AND, as you say in your question, not merely stubborn.

The difference here is at least twofold: first any haggling is really one-sided; it is not meant to change God but to come to know his will over time. Secondly, it is marked by a correlative openness to really hearing and accepting the will of God in whatever the situation is. In persistence we pour out our hearts to God and we do so again and again. In persistence we know that God is part of the answer but we do not know precisely what shape that will take; as we continue to pray we allow ourselves to become more and more determined to accept and even to aid God in that. Persistence is open to learning --- and to letting ourselves be shaped by the answer we will always receive. It is humble in its honesty, its openness, and in its naivete. Stubbornness, on the other hand, pretends to know what is best and how God should respond; it is closed to a deeper and higher wisdom, a more expansive vision of reality, or to the need to trust a God who is really mysterious in the best theological sense of that term.

While it is true God often does not answer our prayers with a "yes" in our precise terms, the problem with the "Sometimes God says no" answer is that it also presumes to know what God's answer is even as it does not allow us to continue importuning him. It short circuits the growth and maturation of the relationship that allows God to truly be God-with-us. It is an invitation to indifference and dismissal. The God who says no is not one we are usually open to walking with intimately on a daily basis or in difficult times. He is not one we can pour our hearts out to in all of our needs, weaknesses, distortions and darkness nor continue doing so until we ourselves eventually see the light or come to acceptance. Further, it continues to make of God someone who answers our prayers on our own level of understanding and expectation. It diminishes God and ourselves as well. My own experience is that God never says no. Whether we are at the beginning of a long bargaining process or months or years into it, God always "says," "Here I am. Let me give you myself in this situation; let me live it with you. Let me transform it with my compassionate presence. Let me deal with it and your own needs in ways you will one day realize are truly awesome. I promise, nothing whatsoever that you entrust to me will EVER be lost; all will be brought to life and completion in and with me!"

27 October 2013

Who Will Save Me from this Body of Death?

I received a question yesterday regarding someone (a Catholic) who felt he was such a terrible sinner that he could not be forgiven by God. He felt abandoned by God and by Mary. The person who sent me this email had suggested the person offer up his sufferings and this person replied that they were the result of his sin; he could not offer them to God. He is entirely correct in this --- at least if this offering was meant to make the situation better in some propitiatory way. Such an offering could only make things worse. The ONLY solution to such a situation, and indeed to any of our situations of sinfulness is the mercy of God freely given and humbly received as wholly undeserved. I had already been writing a reflection on the first reading from Friday (Paul's letter to the Romans) so I decided to combine the two here.  Bearing in mind Paul's anguished and jubilant cry from Friday: "Who can save me from this body of death? Praise be to Jesus Christ!" my own response was as follows:

 If there is anything the Scriptures tell us again and again it is that God does not abandon ANYONE. (Even his abandonment of Christ was unique and more complex than simple much less absolute abandonment. Still, it was an expression of the abandonment we each deserve but which God in Christ also redeems.) In Christ, and especially in Christ's passion, God embraced the complete scope of sin and death so that we might be redeemed from these; in Christ he journeyed to the depths of hell to rescue those who were there. Israel failed again and again, committed idolatry, apostasy, etc etc, and NEVER did God abandon her.

It is prideful to believe the sins we commit are too big for God to forgive or the state of sin from which these come is too great for God to reconcile and heal. The only thing more dangerous is to refuse that forgiveness when it is offered; THAT is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the sin against the power of the Spirit working in us that says, "Let me forgive you and change your life." Your correspondent has not committed that sin, nor does he need to. The Holy Spirit will continue to prompt him to repent and to allow God to heal him. Even at the moment of death he will be asked to make a decision for or against God. In part this is what death is, the moment when we make a final choice which ratifies or denies the choices of our life.
This person need not offer his sufferings but he does need to trust in Christ's, especially in his obedience in his suffering and the sufficiency of these things together. There, Paul tells us, is nothing he can do on his own but get farther and farther from God. That was the point of Friday's first reading from Romans. If you recall Paul calls out, "Who will save me from this body of death (meaning this whole self under the sway of sin). Law can't do it, good works cannot do it, offering up our own puny sufferings cannot do it (even those which are not the fruit of our own sin!). Only God in Christ can do it. While you say you pray that God might act on this person's behalf, there is no might about Jesus or God doing so or acting to free him from his sin.He has already done so in Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. The Church mediates that to us in innumerable ways. But this person must allow that to be true in his own life. Again, as the reading from Friday and today make clear, there is simply NOTHING we can do on our own. We are enslaved by sin Unless and Until we allow grace to work in us. Grace is unmerited always and everywhere. God offers us the grace of the victory already achieved by Christ time after time every day of our lives. We have to admit, with Paul, that the only answer to our enslavement is to accept that forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, etc on God's own terms, that is, without ANY sense that we have merited or earned it.

 The temptation to do something religious (including offering up our sufferings) to earn God's forgiveness is the most pernicious and dangerous temptation people face. I would argue it is far more dangerous than the temptation to sexual sins, etc precisely because we mistakenly believe it is unequivocally good at all times. Paul knew this well. He knew that the Law acted as temptation in peoples' lives and so, he came to see it as a school master --- not to teach us what was good, but to instruct us about our weakness and incapacity to do anything salvific -- or even anything good --- on our own. In fact, Paul actually says that God gave us the Law for this very purpose and even so that our own state of sin might be intensified in such a way as to make us ready to cry out for a redeemer. That redeemer has been given to us. His death, resurrection and ascension have accomplished that redemption. We simply have to receive him and the new life he offers us as Paul himself did --- with cries of both abject helplessness and gratitude. 

Paul teaches emphatically: [[You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.]] While we were entirely powerless, while we were godless sinners estranged from God, from our deepest selves, and from the whole of creation, while, that is, we were wholly incapable of acting in a way which would resolve the situation but instead made things ever worse, God acted out of an unfathomable love to reconcile us to our truest selves, to Godself, others and to creation.  This is the GOOD NEWS from which we live and which we proclaim --- nothing other and nothing less.

I hope this is helpful.

A note on translations. Some versions of last Friday's first lection read "Who will save me from this mortal body?" I prefer, "Who will save me from this body of death?" because it more clearly connotes a self enslaved by the powers of sin and death. "Mortal body" is too easy to hear as simply referring to a material body which is finite and will die. Body of death refers more powerfully to a self in whom death is actively at work, not only in ourselves but in the world around us, a body (self) which makes death present as a sort of awful and active "contagion". In Paul's theology human beings find themselves to be either a whole self under the sway (enslavement) of sin (for which Paul uses the terms, "flesh body", "flesh" or "body of death") or under the sway (enslavement) of grace (for which he uses the term "Spiritual body", etc.).

22 October 2013

Consecrated Virginity in the Face of a Conciliar Ecclesiology and Missiology

[[Hi Sister, could you respond to this excerpt from a blog I ran across? (It is called Sacramentality [Sacramentality] and is by Shana Smith.) I don't think you have done this even though the post was written 2 years ago. Thanks.]]

[[Though Sr. Laurel has definitely brought up some things for me to process, especially the phrase in the homily for the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity where the bishop says to the virgin (s) that they are "apostles in the Church and in the world, in the things of the spirit and the things of the world." I can see how this can be read as indicating a distinction between the Church or the the things of the spirit "the sacred" and the things of the world "the secular" and a consecrated virgins call to embrace both these dimensions of life, bringing them together. I need to grapple with this in relation to this gut feeling of mine that a consecrated virgin is called to be given over to prayer and work that directly and inherently forwards the Church's charitable and evangelical mission- in the world. 

For an example I can appreciate a difference between being the manager of a Sears store and being a missionary. It seems that a if a consecrated virgin were hypothetically a manager of Sears her evangelizing would have to be done along side her professional work and not directly through it whereas if she were to work as a missionary of sorts to the poor of her diocese that that work would intrinsically be forwarding the mission of the Church in a more direct way and therefore be more fitting to her vocation to a public form of consecrated life. It will take some time for me to work out how I see all these points relating and to test and hold fast to what I come to believe to be good and true.

Another interesting point to add which Sr. Laurel brought up, is in expressing her desire that "Ms. Cooper...address arguments rooted in Christology (for instance, the notion that Christ was paradigmatically secular in the life he lived even as he incarnated God exhaustively and thus witnessed to transcendence at every moment and mood of his life)." I think this is interesting, though what I would like to see is a treatment of how Christ's more secular work as a carpenter related to his following years of ministry and how this could possibly be significant to this discussion

Hi there! You are right. I never really responded to the blog entry from which you excerpted this. Time simply got away from me (as I recall, the original entry is more complicated than this excerpt and had some stuff about sacred vs profane art which I needed to spend greater time on); anyway time and discussions moved on.

I am honestly not sure what specifically you would like me to respond to in this excerpt that I have not already done indirectly in posts on the vocation to consecrated virginity but let me try to say something somewhat new by focusing on Miss Smith's concern with missiology. Recent events in the Church have underscored changes in the Church's approach to missiology which I have noted before, but it is on my mind not only because Shana mentions it but because a friend also spoke of it today during a conversation recalling what Francis is saying and doing regarding VII, the distinction between evangelizing and proselytizing, and so forth.

My own position on the contemporary vocation of Consecrated Virgin Living in the World is this: 1) the Church herself in her Rite of Consecration of CV's living in the World clearly and unambiguously refers to the vocation as both secular (done in the world and in or with the things of the world) and consecrated (given over to and in fact set apart by God for this secularity in a wholehearted and formal way). She calls CV's living in the world to be Apostles and thus too, to bring the Gospel into all of the nooks and crannies of our world as well as in the ways that nuns and priests cannot, and 2) this is PRECISELY the mission of the Church --- as, I think, we see Francis making so abundantly clear to us in every word and gesture. (Some who complain that he ought not be seen to eat and drink with others seem to ascribe to the notion that there is a separation between sacred and profane --- a position with which Francis apparently does not agree.) Further, it is a mission of the Church that has simply not been adequately undertaken and it is therefore important for consecrated persons living  unashamedly secular lives with the special grace of God to demonstrate how this is done.

What I am saying is that there is to be no artifical divide between Church and world, at least insofar as the Church is missioned to serve as leaven in the dough of the world.  Eventually the two are to be transformed into the Kingdom of God. When the dough has risen one cannot presume to cull out the yeast anymore than one can distinguish the bread and wine from the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Similarly the Incarnation destroyed the division between sacred and profane caused by sin but we have not worked hard enough to implicate this victory in our own world and lives. Too often we have strengthened it in the name of "protecting" the sacred from taint by the profane. This shows a profound misunderstanding of the power of holiness which transforms and sanctifies what it touches.

The paradox in all of this is that in being "set apart for God" the consecrated virgin is called to live out to this consecration in a way which is profoundly immersed in the world without being or becoming OF the world just as Jesus did in incarnating the Word exhaustively. Instead the world is itself to become consecrated and OF the Kingdom. She is called to transform the world with her presence --- as humble and apparently unremarkable or even relatively invisible as her presence there is. She is called to trust that her ministry produces profound changes and provides a profound witness precisely because and insofar she is both consecrated AND completely immersed.

You see, in my own vocation people do not always see a life of prayer as possible for them --- though of course it is. Instead they see I live the life of a religious and they still think that certain things they will never have or commit to are therefore necessary to live a life of true prayer and holiness, including vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which make my life something other than secular. While I value my vows and vocation more than I can say, and while I believe my vocation is incredibly important in today's world and church, I also understand that these elements of it represent a limitation on my ability to call people to the fullness of Christian secularity. Too often my standing as a religious is thought to suggest that whole-hearted commitment to Christ or the attainment of genuine holiness requires one BE a religious or otherwise separated from the world of ordinary reality (not, by the way, that anyone is accusing me of holiness of course!). On the other hand, the hiddenness of my vocation has sometimes left me tempted to undertake more visible and clearly-valuable ministries than one of  the silence of solitude. I must trust that God knows precisely what he is doing and precisely what  others need in calling me (or anyone else) to this vocation and because I HAVE trusted that I have come to understand the charism of this vocation in ways I never could have otherwise.

A New and Ancient Ecclesiology and Missiology to Which Consecrated Virgins are called to Witness

The Church, however is moving beyond this more exclusive notion of holiness and perfection. She sees and proclaims clearly now that holiness is the universal call of the WHOLE Church, the entire People of God, and that it is possible and necessary for those living secular lives. Further, she clearly says with canon 604 that one does not need to be a religious or quasi religious nor work for the institutional Church directly to fulfill a vocation to holiness. Secular vocations are not a kind of left-over calling for those without a "higher vocation" or direct employment in the church. They are, instead, a very high calling indeed, a calling to an exhaustive holiness --- so much so that some consecrated women are called to demonstrate and witness to this with their lives. The early Church knew this and the vocation of the consecrated virgin was profoundly counter cultural in the way it called the most marginalized to holiness in Christ. Gradually that sense was lost and, along with the ordained priesthood, Religious life became seen as the privileged way to holiness (a piece of this gradual usurpation included crowding out the vocation of secular consecrated virgins in the 12th Century or so; only CVs who were also solemnly vowed monastics remained).

The Church has recovered the universal call to holiness with Vatican II just as she is recovering the notion of catholicity as yeast within dough --- that is, just as she recovered and reclaimed the Greek rather than the Latin sense of catholicity. (cf Reforms Francis is Calling For) The canon 604 vocation is a piece of this reappropriation. Consecrated Virgins living in the world can actually call their lay brothers and sisters to accept their share in this new vision and mission in ways religious cannot do. In other words, it is a profoundly post-VII vocation which furthers the aims, ecclesiology, and missiology of the Council even while it reprises the earliest Church's experience. What it seems really important for CVs and candidates for this vocation to realize is the the Church's theology of secularity is a developing reality. It began with the recognition of the vocation of the laity and shifts in our sense of the meaning of missiology, but is actually developed and strengthened by the call to consecrated secularity with c 604. CV's living in the world represent an ecclesial vocation, not in the sense  that CV's are called to work directly for the Church as employees, nor even merely in the sense that their vocations are mutually discerned and mediated by the Church,  but also because they are persons whose very lives are the new icons of this Vatican II ecclesiology with its shifting sense of universality and a correlative missiology. They are icons of what it means to be yeast within the dough and evangelizing ecclesia pervasively and effectively present within the world.

One clarification, when I spoke of Jesus' life as profoundly secular (and wholly Divine too!), I was not speaking of his work as a carpenter as though some pieces of his life were secular and others were not or some were more secular than others. Neither am I doing so with CV's living in the world.  My point was simply that Jesus' most profound ministry was undertaken in a secular context (and apart from the specifically religious context of his day). He lived a life of complete union with God as he lived a wholly secular life, eating and drinking with sinners, overseeing the financial and other affairs of his band of disciples, moving from house to house, etc. Except that he routinely went apart to pray and was itinerant, his life was a secular one, that is, one lived in the world subject to all of its rules, etc. We simply cannot say he came down from the mountain occasionally. The opposite is true. We cannot call his carpentry more secular than his preaching and teaching either. Both were profoundly sacred aspects of his life sanctified by his union with the one he called Abba. Thus I am saying that these two dimensions of his life are so intimately intertwined in Jesus as to be wed in him. He is the one who makes all things holy with his presence. I believe CV's as icons of a similar espousal are called to this very thing. 

Another example who might be edifying to consecrated virgins living in the world is Saint Paul --- "the least of the Apostles" as he put it. Remember that he worked as a tent maker everywhere he went. Despite the fact that he was a mystic, an Apostle, a theologian and a founder of local Churches, Paul lived a secular life. He is very clear about this and in fact, it seems clear that he dislikes anyone who tries to divvy things up in artificial ways, whether by Enthusiasts, those expecting the parousia momentarily so that they neither worked nor contributed to the life of the community, or whomever! For Paul there was no conflict between being wholly consecrated to and by God and living an entirely secular existence where authentic mission was ALWAYS a central concern.

21 October 2013

Two movies about Sisters

The Robert Gardner Film

We have heard a lot about LCWR Sisters in the past year or more which suggest they have left the essence (or "essential elements") of religious life behind. Some suggest they don't pray, others that they bring nothing to their ministries that a good social worker couldn't bring, and so forth. The movie provided above gives a good sense of who these Sisters REALLY are, what they do and WHY! It is the story of women whose lives are given to Christ and who have journeyed beyond the first idealistic and relatively naive flushes of Religious life into the deserts and through the storms and crises which any seriously committed life of love of God involves; more, they are those who have come through this journey thus far with a faith and hope clearly tempered and illuminated by the certainty of Christ's abiding and merciful presence.

These are TYPICAL contemporary Women Religious, and especially they are typical of the members of LCWR congregations. I find them typically extraordinary and an undoubted gift to the Church and our world. In each case I think you will find a contemplative core energizing an amazing woman of God and an amazing ministry in Christ. In these women we see mature prayer lives, mature witness to the incarnate Lord, and the wisdom of experience. They have renewed their lives in accordance with Vatican II and in some ways represent a newer expression of religious life than many are used to.

  The Imagine Sisters Film

A second film, also out just recently is composed of a similar format and Sisters mainly (or perhaps all) of the CMSWR congregations. I offer it here because it contrasts with but also helps complete the picture of contemporary ministerial or apostolic religious life today. It is apparently a kind of recruitment film for young women and so, that may account for a sort of focus on youthful idealism as well as the camaraderie that is more typical of college sports teams and sororities than of the more tried friendships of religious community.

I admit that I am not impartial here. These Sisters tend to speak a "language" I have not spoken since initial formation --- and one I am personally no longer entirely comfortable with; that is especially true with the language of specialness which sometimes seems elitist, and the objective superiority of religious life which, I and others would argue, cannot be maintained in the face of Vatican II's universal call to holiness. (Here chosenness is not merely a matter of answering one's call as it is in the Gospel; instead it accompanies  a sense of privilege and bespeaks preference on God's part.) Evenso, while I think that these young Sisters need the wisdom and experience of the Sisters of the LCWR congregations to help them grow in their vocations it is also true that the LCWR congregations can be challenged by them and by the fresh idealism with which they approach the adventure of religious life. In other words, in these two films we have two expressions of religious life today; both are valid and they complement and challenge one another.

I hope you enjoy them. (P.S., be sure and click on the fullscreen buttons to the right of HD. The resolution is excellent that way.)

20 October 2013

What Reforms is Francis Calling For? A Beginning.

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I am not a scholar of Vatican II, but you seem to glow with enthusiasm over the potential for the Church in implementing more of its substance. I was wondering if you could say what else we might expect to evolve from the reforms begun? I would like to catch some of that glow for myself, though Pope Francis has already warmed my heart.]]

Many thanks for your question. It gives me a chance to reflect on precisely why I am so excited about the papacy of Francis and what kind of Church I do hope for precisely because of the reforms of Vatican II and the promise of their continued implementation in the future. We are used to thinking about Vatican II as a past event and already implemented. We celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Council this year and in many parishes there have been presentations on the council, on what was achieved and what was left to be achieved. For many attending those presentations what was clear was there was a tremendous excitement in the 60's and 70's, huge idealism and energy for a Church which could be the vehicle for the proclamation of the Gospel to a world truly yearning for it, a Church which really walked with people in their everyday situations and was more than a sacred oasis in the midst of chaotic profanity. However, what was also clear was the disappointment of the past 40 or so years as Vatican II's promise and challenge for reform was countered, eroded away, betrayed, or allowed to wither and die on the vines of  either a "hermeneutic of continuity," or a "hermeneutic of rupture."

General Comments on the Ecclesiology of Vatican II:

You see, this Church was the one which took the humanity of Jesus seriously as well as his divinity and learned its lessons from his own accompanying of people, his profound listening to and understanding of them, his teaching in stories which allowed them the privileged space to make a decision for or against him and the Kingdom he proclaimed but who, at the same time therefore continued to teach the unremitting mercy of God who would not relent from loving and calling them all of their lives.

This was the Church whose Lord was the One characterized by kenosis (self-emptying) and asthenia (weakness), the One who died for them while they were YET sinners; for that reason he is the one whose servants, therefore, were characterized by the same things. Note well that there was no denigration of God's greatness in any of this, and no diminishment of Jesus' Lordship. (Some today are complaining that Francis' penchant for dressing simply, wearing no cuff links or a pectoral cross of a base metal, as well as addressing Cardinals while standing on the same level or being seen eating or drinking anything other than the Eucharist "denigrates the papacy" so this is an issue.) Instead it gave us a God and Lord whose authority was shown as countercultural, powerful and creative as love and mercy are always powerful and creative, and compelling precisely because it raised everyone up in the truly humble recognition of their true dignity --- something authority and power in the Constantinian model never does.

This Church was Catholic in the more Greek sense of the term "katholicos" than the Latin sense of "universalis". What I mean by this is that this Church was catholic in the sense of leaven in bread dough; there is nothing left untouched by its presence, no bits of unleavened bread remaining while the majority of the loaf is leavened. The Latin sense of universalis had more the sense of a gigantic circle into which people were brought; the problem though was that no matter how large one drew or expanded that circle there were always persons that stood outside it, and perhaps, were left to stand outside it because, for whatever reason, they did not hear the Gospel from which it supposedly lived. I am convinced that when Francis spoke recently of the solemn nonsense of proselytizing and distinguished that from evangelizing, coupled with his insistence on a church which is not turned in on itself, he was encouraging us to see and be the church which was truly Catholic in the more Greek sense of the term. It is a Church which knows that with Christ the veil between sacred and profane was definitively rent in two and that there is no place from which the Word of God or its servants cannot and should not go. Christ, after all, descended into hell so that God might be implicated there and transform reality with that presence. The Church must act in no less a Christlike way in her own missionary character.

Finally, therefore, this Church is the Pilgrim People of God. Most fundamentally it is not that there is a Church to which people are then added. Most fundamentally the Church IS the called and assembled People. It has a structure, yes, forms of governance, ways of doing business (many of which may change), and so forth, but it IS the people who are continually called by Christ and for this reason it is always learning and teaching, alway moving forward, always in need of reform, always seeking to respond to and serve its Lord with greater fidelity and sensitivity, always finding ways to be that People from which the entire "sense of the Faith" comes. Another way of saying this is to note that the Church is NOT the Kingdom of God here on earth. The Church is a privileged means towards the Kingdom, a proleptic expression of the Reign of God, but it is NOT the Kingdom. Instead the Church lives from and for the Gospel of God and the Reign it announces. She serves that Gospel and awaits the day when God will truly be all in all --- when there will be a "new heaven and new earth". Again, she is a privileged servant in this but she does not confuse herself with God's reign, nor her servants with Christ himself.

Specific reforms we will see continued or initiated:

At this point I see a few central reforms coming with Pope Francis. The first is the primacy of the Gospel in the life of the Church and therefore in the life of every individual Christian. Vatican II's reception and the liturgical changes made recovered the primacy of the Word of God and there is no doubt that today's Catholics are more steeped in the Scriptures than ever before. But Scripture is a living thing requiring us to grapple with it daily. For many it is much easier to turn to doctrine and dogma as the measure of their lives and "Catholicity." What we see in Francis are clear examples of the Gospel acted out; we see what I wrote about earlier as "enacted parables" which have the power to draw in those who would hear the message being proclaimed. (Some, like the Pharisees in the Gospel a couple of Fridays ago, will see Francis doing good and claim it is by the power of  the devil; others will see evil being done. But those with eyes to see will hear the good news of the Kingdom of God in a way they have not been enabled to do before.) Those who live from the power of the Gospel know it is the power to embrace the whole world with God's love and to recognize the hitherto unknown God wherever he is.

The second change stems from this. Without losing our identity as Catholic Christians we will embrace ecumenism more whole-heartedly because our God is bigger than the Church and his presence is found outside her as well. Hebrews speaks of knowing God prior to Christ in fragmentary and partial ways. We will be called to be a Church with the gift of God's definitive revelation in Christ, but without diminishing the truth of God's presence in other faiths or in other forms of Christianity. Ecumenism seems to me to be particularly important in a world where religion is routinely used to divide people. In our own faith we know well that not every difference is significant enough to divide us because we proclaim the same Christ, know the same God in prayer, read the same Scriptures and, with whatever limitations we have, hearken to the same Holy Spirit.

We codified this conclusion in the Joint Declaration on Justification, a document with far-reaching conclusions we should remember in determining what truly divides and what more fundamentally unites denominations. Vatican II taught this and we have a far piece to go before we begin to achieve what it had in mind. I think we will become a Church which more and more truly dialogues with others because that IS the way of evangelization. (Lecturing, apodictic pronouncements are the way of proselytization.) Only in this way will we also be the learning AND teaching Church the world needs us so very badly to truly be. What we cannot be is a Church with nothing to learn nor a Church with nothing to teach. Both of these have been tried and failed. The first corresponds in many ways to those teaching a hermeneutic of continuity (in the sense the SSPX understood this term, for instance), and the second by those embracing the hermeneutic of rupture.

Another change we will see is greater collegiality including deliberative synodality on the part of Bishops. Vatican II allowed for synods of Bishops with deliberative power, but this has never been implemented. Doing so, however will help in our efforts to come to unity with our Eastern brethren for whom a particular model of Petrine ministry is problematical just as it will help us all move from the monarchical model of the Church which gained ascendancy in the Middle ages and was strengthened during the Counter Reformation or Early modern period of Catholicism. From this will also flow a less centralized Church and therefore, one which is more sensitive and responsive to the needs and gifts of local Churches. It will be a Church where the papacy protects unity but does not impose uniformity in its place. This is tremendously challenging but it allows deeper unity and authentic diversity as expressions of unity. It counters papering over profound differences with an externally imposed "Catholic culture" and then being surprised when the fruit rots from within, the souffle deflates at the slightest perturbation, or the whole reality explodes from built up tensions hidden by uniform language, praxis, piety, etc. (You can see why it becomes so important that we truly become a People for whom the Word of God is our lifeblood and the source and measure of all we are and do. It will always be Christ who holds us together despite our differences, nothing less and nothing other.)

Beyond this we will see a Church in which the caste or class system is at least allowed to die away. By this I mean  first of all that vocations will not be seen as higher or lower than others. Vatican II leveled a death-blow to this way of perceiving vocations with its teaching on the universal call to holiness but we have not truly accepted its implications. Every person is called to an exhaustive holiness and for that reason, no vocation can be "superior" or "inferior" to another one. Each one will be seen to have different gifts, and need the accompanying and completing gifts of others if the Gospel is to be fully proclaimed in the life of the Church; each one will have different rights and obligations but again, this does NOT mean one is "superior" or "inferior" to another in the way I believe Aquinas' theology has been commonly misinterpreted to mean. My own commitments will witness to celibate love and its importance in the Kingdom, but others' commitments will witness to the place of sexual love in the life of the Church and (as does my own celibate witness) as an icon of the eschatological spousal union with God to which we are all called.

And similarly we will see, I think, a Church in which other forms of that caste system is destroyed. Increasingly we will see a Church which embodies the truth Paul articulated so long ago:  [[26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.]] At the very least that will mean women in positions of influence and authority and, after some experience of what women bring to such positions and the life of the Church as a whole, a new "theology of women" as Francis has called for. It will mean the laity as such are granted a full place in the life of the church. With marginalized groups of all sorts I think we will increasingly become a Church which sees first of all that they are clothed in Christ and that most fundamentally, there is NO distinction.

Listening to Francis:

There are more specific reforms no doubt; I have not come close to even mentioning the majority of them. What is necessary for all of us I think is to listen to Francis really carefully. When he first began his papacy he began with symbolic acts and folks wondered if substantive change would follow. What we are finding is that those symbolic acts BROUGHT substantive change with them, called for further change, and challenged us each to see the enacted parable for what it was --- a world shaking and breaking language event. Similarly Francis has spoken of really key changes in his two interviews and his homilies. Certain phrases are code words for profound changes in mind and heart which, like yeast in dough, eventually leave nothing untouched or unchanged. Evangelizing vs Proselytizing is one of these. "A Church which risks mistakes rather than being turned in on itself" is another. A Church with a preferential option for the poor and "a poor church" are others. But we must take the time to really penetrate these code words, these bits of leaven, and implement them in whatever ways we personally are called to do.

Sometimes when New Testament scholars think about the importance of certain pieces of the Scriptures they recognize that had a single story been the only one to have survived until today it would have been enough. If Luke's writings, for instance had been lost but his parable of the Prodigal Sons/Prodigal Father survived we would still have Luke's' entire version of the Gospel in nuce. The Lord's Prayer functions the same way, but for that to be the case we must do more than repeat it unthinkingly. With Francis we have been given a clear charter of the way he desires to lead the Church and the Gospel life he wishes us each to model for others. If he never gave another interview, wrote another encyclical, rode another bus with people he considers his very own, or gave that brilliant smile which screams the joy of a man who knows the mercy of God, we have already been given a clear vision of the courageous and catholic Church VII called for. Vatican II was a beginning. Now we must implement it in the ways Francis is clearly indicating to us. A poor church, a joyful church, a church which lives from and proclaims the mercy of God universally and without qualification --- a truly Catholic Church which will set the world on fire with God's love and make all things new --- that is the vision Vatican II had and which Francis has already made QUITE clear he shares completely.

19 October 2013

The Reforms of Vatican II Lie before Us, not Behind

Archbishop Marini: 'The Council is not behind us. It still precedes us'  (PA)
Archbishop Marini: 'The Council is not behind us. It still precedes us' (PA)
From the Catholic Herald

[[The reforms launched by the Second Vatican Council are not behind us but ahead of us, Archbishop Piero Marini has said.

Archbishop Marini, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, made the comments during an address at the annual national meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Archbishop Marini said he arrived in Rome in September 1965, only a few months before the close of the Council. Bishops and theologians began gathering in 1962 for the first of four three-month sessions to address more than a dozen aspects of Church life, ranging from inter-religious relations to greater lay participation in the liturgy, from social communication to relations between the Church and the modern world.

“Fifty years later, I feel a great nostalgia and a desire to understand more fully and to experience anew the spirit of the Council,” said Archbishop Marini.

Clergy, religious sisters and lay people in charge of Catholic worship in dioceses across the United States came together on October 7-12 to conduct routine business. But the larger purpose of this year’s meeting was to mark the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, one of the best-known documents of Vatican II.

The week-long conference allowed participants to explore the theological principles of the document and its place in the world today. Issued on December 4 1963, the document ordered an extensive revision of worship so that people would have a clearer sense of their own involvement in the Mass and other rites.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Archbishop Marini told the audience, was really “a matrix for other reforms” and possible changes yet to come. It is not enough, he said, to look at the written document as a manual for reforming the Church’s rites.

“It was an event that continues even today to mark ecclesial life,” the archbishop said. “It has marked our ecclesial life so much that very little of the Church today would be as it is had the council not met.”

Archbishop Marini, who was master of liturgical ceremonies under Blessed John Paul II, told the liturgists that Vatican II did not give the world static documents. In an ever-evolving culture, the Catholic liturgy is incomplete unless it renews communities of faith, he added.

“The Council is not behind us. It still precedes us,” Archbishop Marini said.

Two other archbishops attended the national meeting, co-sponsored by the federation and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship, reviewed the workings of the various committees, and Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver spoke on the sacraments of initiation as a source of life and hope.

Also speaking was author and Scripture scholar Sister Dianne Bergant, a Sister of St Agnes, who is a distinguished professor of Old Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

All speakers referred to Vatican II as only the beginning of reforms within Catholic liturgy and the Church as a whole. The traditions of the Church, Sister Dianne added, are kept alive through contemporary culture.

The best way the Church can share Jesus’s story, she said, is if it follows the lead of Pope Francis, who has opened his arms to the suffering, the outcast, the poor and the marginalised. For Jesus, there were no “outsiders”, she added, saying the church needs to rid itself of the notion that if someone doesn’t fit certain standards then they can’t be part of the faith community.. . .]]

14 October 2013

Hermits giving Property to Dioceses?

[[Dear Sister, I want to become a diocesan hermit and turn over my house to the diocese. I would still continue to live here and even pay rent but after I was finished with the house, they could use it for another hermit or small retreats, etc. I read where another online hermit did that or tried to do that. Unfortunately, my own diocese seems  reluctant to accept my offer. Why would they not want to take over property in this way? It would certainly make my own detachment from material goods more complete and would be good business for the diocese as well.]]

Thanks for your questions.Although I cannot say with any certainty why your own diocese decided as they did, I can point to some elements which may have or likely did come into play. The first thing is you are NOT a diocesan hermit and may never be one. For a diocese to accept such an arrangement and then, some time later, agree to admit you to profession, they would find they are open to charges that there was an element of quid pro quo here rather than simple and honest discernment. One cannot purchase admission to profession nor barter for it nor should one ever give the appearance of having done so. This could only hurt the church in both short and long term and it would certainly cast the credibility of your own vocation and possibly the solitary eremitical vocation into doubt. I am sure you do not want people in the diocese saying that you were professed because you gifted the diocese in this way; neither would you ever want to hear, "Well, that other candidate was every bit as qualified, but she did not have any property, so they refused to profess her." I am not approving gossip but such a gift prior to your being admitted to profession and living the life for some time can give unfortunate appearances which could be disedifying to all concerned.

The situation could become even more difficult if the diocese accepted the arrange-ment and then failed to admit you to profession. What happens if you decide to move to another diocese? The house belongs to the diocese you are leaving; it cannot be sold by you, used as a source of your own upkeep in the future, etc. Beyond this, how might you feel in such a situation? How might the diocese feel or what complications could this cause for them? And even further, how might you feel if, besides failing to admit you to profession, the diocese decided at some point they had to sell the property or use it for other purposes (for instance for the hermitage of a publicly professed diocesan hermit who needs a more suitable hermitage than what she has already)?

You see, I am afraid if another Bishop came in or something serious happened and the diocese needed to sell off assets to take care of the situation, you would find yourself needing to find a new place to live. It has certainly happened to convents of nuns and so forth. With the high level of parish closings today and dioceses often strapped for money selling off lesser assets is something which is simply required. Unless you turn the property over to your diocese with strings attached, contingency clauses, conditions which assure your right to live there permanently, there is no way you could really protect yourself in such a matter. Yet, were contingency clauses added I think you would need to give up any notion of becoming a diocesan hermit because you could no longer convincingly affirm for people that the gift of  your property was not an element in your admission to vows. Again, that would be harmful to the vocation generally, to you, and to the diocese and its people.

Secondly, while there is a clear tension involved in diocesan hermits who need to care for themselves financially and also live contemplative lives of poverty in the silence of solitude, it is important that the vocation not be seen to be a sinecure where a diocese provides a place to live, etc. The hermit (and this includes the hermit candidate) really does need to be independent of the diocese in certain ways. This is good for both parties and for the vocation more generally. Dioceses certainly don't want folks showing up on their doorsteps saying, "X is living in  a house that belongs to the diocese; I want to do the same and I want to do it as a diocesan hermit!!"

A diocese is going to be very cautious in doing anything which could contribute to such a situation. Discernment needs to be as open to the Holy Spirit as possible and people need to be able to believe this is the case. Should you ever be finally or perpetually professed as a diocesan hermit, you will be able to revisit the issue of giving your property to the diocese. Still, you should know that a diocese might not want to do this even several years after perpetual profession because a hermit needs to maintain her ability to support herself. Selling her property at some point in later life may be a primary way of ensuring she has the resources to continue her independence as she moves to low income housing, a care facility, or something similar.  A diocese is not going to want to be complicit in a situation where they are somehow coerced or leveraged into feeling morally obligated to support a hermit in later life. (What they choose to do freely is a very different matter.)

Finally, I would suggest you consider that your own concern with detachment from material things needs to be resolved in other ways just as all hermits or hermit candidates do. Sometimes  it is the way we keep our possessions which tests our detachment and helps it grow. Sometimes giving stuff away is less a sign of true detachment than it is a signal that we are attached to a particular vision of ourselves, to some stereotype, to a tendency to impulsivity rather than to actual generosity, etc.

You see, it is possible that the desire to give something like this to the diocese, especially before one is established as a diocesan hermit, is linked to the sense that this is a way of really "belonging to" the diocese in a special way, or perhaps a way of gaining their gratitude for one's life and presence there, or simply to convince oneself of how generous, detached, or committed to poverty one really is. (While I do not think this is true of you, I do know of one case where I personally believed it to be true and where I was fairly convinced there was at least subconscious "bartering" going on on the would-be hermit's part. In any case this person was not yet a diocesan hermit and his offer was entirely premature.) While none of this last situation likely applies to your own situation, these are some of the reasons a diocese is unlikely to accept such a gift by someone who is discerning a vocation as a diocesan hermit.

08 October 2013

Francis as Enacted Parable

Because of the conjunction of the Feast of St Francis and the first months of the thus-amazing papacy of his name-sake it is hard not reflect on the similarities and differences between them. At the same time I am impressed with the people who have asked me about the Pope, commented on his interviews, spoken of the changes in the Church, mentioned possibly returning to the Church, asked about the roles open to them as adults in the Church, expressed an excitement they have not felt for a long time, etc etc. What is doubly surprising to me are the number of these people who are not Catholic, who have felt entirely alienated from the Church for a variety of reasons, who rarely speak to me about religion per se or their stance regarding the Church. Then too there are the Catholics waiting to see if the Pope REALLY does anything besides "empty gestures" or "meaningless words." Because of all this and more I was thinking about Pope Francis as a parable, a living parable-in-act who is challenging the whole Church to be what the Church is commissioned by her Lord to be. With Francis' papacy we (and here I mean EVERYONE) have a new chance to enter into this huge and complicated story of the mercy of God and choose between the visions of reality we find there.

When Jesus told stories his hearers entered into them alone to meet Jesus and the God he proclaimed face to face. Sometimes they carried personal baggage into the story and, for whatever reason, left with it once again apparently untouched by the encounter except for a hardening of their hearts following an initial disorientation perhaps. Sometimes they brought similar baggage into this holy space and found that Jesus' touch healed them of their woundedness and lifted the burden they carried from their shoulders even as it offered them a yoke of a different sort altogether. They left with a renewed step and determination to journey on with this man. Some found the story they were living was one they regretted and discovered Jesus' offered them a place in a new one with a new future and the hope they thought they had lost forever. Some discovered that the cost of entering the "Kingdom" Jesus offered in his stories was simply too high, demanded too much in terms of worldly status and prestige, required too much in terms of self-honesty or humility, paid far too little in terms of power or temporal security, offered only the company of other sinners --- and other disciples of God's Christ. Some of these simply walked away but others saw the danger of these stories clearly and became implacable enemies of the man Jesus and his entire project.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Francis is another living or "enacted" parable. (He is not a Christ but a Christian; he is what we are each called to be.) He is busy telling the story of the mercy of God, of a Church which is open to sinners (in fact it is ONLY open to sinners!) and to modernity with all the messiness such an encounter will involve. He is telling his own story, that of a sinner set free by the mercy of God; it is, as he knows very well, the story of a Gospel with a preference for the poor and  a God whose love is unconditional and inescapable (though we may choose to live our lives rejecting and trying to flee from it). He tells this story with his own gestures and words; he tells it in ways which are inviting and convincing, expansive and inclusive, humble and extravagant, and which therefore open up the reality of God's Kingdom to all of those who have felt disenfranchised for any reason whatsoever. For those in positions of privilege Francis' parable-actions are not so welcome perhaps. Putting a ring on the finger of the younger son and a robe around his shoulders also meant an unwelcome change for the older son --- despite the Father's reminder that all he has is the elder Son's and he is with him always.

I remain surprised at folks who say Francis has not yet done anything substantive. In fact he has changed the horizon of all of our hopes and expectations for the institutional church; he has reminded us all that we are the ones responsible for proclaiming the Gospel with our lives. He has offered us a living parable we can engage at any time just as we engage the Word of God in the Scriptures. He has begun to signal to people that the Church can be a home, that they too can come back from their travels to "far places" and be welcomed back as men and women of genuine authority, Sons and Daughters whose place is at the head of the table not mere servants groveling for the crumbs fallen from the feasts of their "betters". He has done more to evangelize the world around us in six and a half months of ministry than many have done as "soldiers of Christ" with their raging judgments and militant attempts to condemn and proselytize the contemporary world. As a result people are talking about their faith, their hopes, their excitement and their past disappointments and yearnings as well --- and they are doing so in ways I have not heard in more than 4 decades.

Francis is not perfect (thank God!). He is not Christ. But he is Christlike and he is that in a convincing way. He is creating a sacred space much as Jesus' own parables did and people can enter into that space whenever they desire to and at any one of many entrances. Dogma and doctrine, as fascinating as they may be to systematic theologians and as truly indispensable as they are in the life of faith, do not function this way. For those denying substantive change is actually occurring look at what happened because Jesus told homely stories about weeds and wheat, prodigal sons and fathers,  lost and found coins, wedding feasts, and turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile. Look what happened because he ate with sinners, overturned tables in the Temple, called tax collectors to let him share a table with them. He was not crucified because he was doing nothing substantive but because he was overturning reality in an unimaginable way! He was crucified because he inflamed people's imaginations and unleashed long-suppressed hopes and vision. So too with Francis who has unleashed an energy I associate with the Holy Spirit. That Spirit recreated Francis and we must allow him to do the same to us so that we in turn can become Christ's Body and Blood broken and poured out for the world.

07 October 2013

Hermits and Recluses

Dear Sister Laurel, what is the difference between a hermit and a recluse? I read the following regarding two recent professions and it seems to conflict with what you have written. Is the Bishop wrong? [[In his homily, Bishop Taylor said it is important to understand that a hermit is not the same thing as a “recluse." “You can’t just be married ‘in general;’ in marriage you are always bound to a particular person. Well, in the religious life, that’s the difference between being a hermit and being a recluse. Both separate themselves from the world to a degree, but only the hermit is bound by vows to the person of Jesus.” (See Bishop Taylor’s complete homily on page 15. ]]

Bishop Taylor's usage can be mistaken and misleading but I suspect we are in profound agreement nonetheless. I think what he is trying to speak of is the difference between a person who lives alone and may be reclusive for selfish or otherwise inadequate reasons --- inadequate that is, for a hermit, especially for a diocesan hermit --- and one who lives solitude because of love of God and others.  (I am guessing here because I have not seen the whole homily and actually could not access it.) Hermits, as I have said many times here, are not simply people who live alone, nor are they folks who are failures at living with others, are misanthropic, narcissistic, individualistic, etc. They are separated from others to the extent the silence of solitude demands they be because they love God and all that is precious to God; this is their primary relationship and witness. They allow it to be the foundation of their lives as well as the gift they live for others. Their relationship with the whole of creation is conditioned by their solitary relationship with God. It allows them to exercise a prophetic presence in the world which desperately needs lives of silence, solitude (a form of communion and relatedness) and loving commitment which are not simply rooted in roles or productivity but instead in BEING. (Together these represent what canon 603 refers to as "the silence of solitude")

David Menkhoff and Judith Weaver
Where the Bishop seems to have gotten the language wrong (and I say "seems" because, 1) newspapers don't always get things right in what they report, and 2) context makes meaning clear!), is to neglect the fact that recluses are also a legitimate form of eremitical life. As I have said here, every hermit must be open to the possibility that God is summoning or will summon them to greater and greater degrees of reclusion at some point in their eremitical lives. In the history of eremitical life two congregations have been given permission to allow recluses, the Camaldolese and the Carthusian. Even so, every diocesan hermit might find they are called to reclusion --- though providing for daily needs might be more difficult than for those living in community. It would take some organization and the cooperation of the hermit's diocese and parish to really allow for full time reclusion.

In my own writing I tend to reserve the word recluse for this form of eremitical life while I use misanthrope (or narcissists, etc) for the person who is reclusive for those less worthy reasons than a hermit's life both requires and nurtures. (I do tend to use the term "reclusive" in an almost universally negative sense however; for hermits I would speak of their tendency to solitude --- not entirely satisfactory I guess --- or to anachoresis (withdrawal for valid reasons.)) There is an overlap here in the meaning of the term recluse which makes it easy to misunderstand without sufficient context. I am sure Bishop Taylor's context makes his usage clearer than this one snippet does.

I would also disagree with the statement about vows in some ways though again we may be in essential or deeper agreement than those disagreements indicate. What I believe Bishop Taylor was getting at in this statement is that canonical eremitical life in the Church is a publicly committed form of consecrated life, and one of love centered on the person of Jesus Christ. It should also be clear that he sees it in terms of espousal or marriage. If I am correct that this was what he was saying, then I think he is profoundly correct. A publicly vowed life centered on Christ, and in fact publicly espoused to Christ, is vastly different from a reclusive life undertaken in woundedness, selfishness, and/or the absence of any real commitment. The first is the life of the silence OF solitude, the other is the life of the inner "noise" and unease of isolation.

Meanwhile, my sincerest congratulations to the two new diocesan hermits who were recently perpetually professed: Brother David Menkhoff and Sister Judith Weaver. Both were professed at the same liturgy in the hands of Bishop Anthony B Taylor on Sept 10th, 2013 in the Morris Hall Chapel, Little Rock, Arkansas. Both have lived as hermits for a significant period of time before making this commitment. Menkhoff has done so under private vows for at least 10 years, and Weaver first as a Benedictine nun (4 years or more) and later as diocesan (about 8 years). They have "begun" a great adventure --- "begun" because perpetual profession does indeed change everything even while a great deal remains exteriorly the same! I am excited for them and for their diocese and parish.

06 October 2013

Followup Question on Dissent from Vatican II

[[Dear Sister Laurel, [in light of your earlier response on "how we get on with it" I wondered:] 
How do you feel about consci-entious dissent from Church teaching? If you affirm that right, do you affirm it also for say members of the SSPX who dissent in conscience from the teachings of Vatican 2? It's just a question that popped up in mind whilst reading your excellent response to my question. Thanks. ]]

Hi there,
A few introductory comments first. The Bishops of Germany and later those in the US noted at least two kinds of dissent, one legitimate and one not. To be legitimate these Bishops said that three conditions needed to apply: 1)  one must have striven to give positive value to the teaching and to personally make it one's own; 2) one must ask seriously whether one has the theological expertise to dissent responsibly from ecclesiastical authority; and 3) one must examine one's conscience for possible conceit, arrogance, selfishness, and other negative motives. With regard to noninfallible teaching (which means it is reformable and might actually be in error --- though the chance is not strong) the US Bishops laid down the same essential conditions but expanded the third one to include the condition that this dissent did not give scandal and the second one to specify that such dissent was not to impugn the authority of the church.

Too often folks do not take the care needed in their dissent and for that reason, while the position they hold may be held in good conscience, they actually will act imprudently and possibly in ways which are disedifying or even scandalous. Both German and American Bishops agreed that dissent can be responsible but that this does not excuse one from also conscientiously teaching the authentic teaching of the church if one is in such a ministry or office.

Beyond these two kinds of dissent these Bishops also looked at whether such dissent was public or not. They realized that sometimes one's legitimate dissent must actually be made public, that that is indeed the responsible thing to do in limited cases. My answer to your question really has to do with this public vs private distinction (though SSPX involves reformable vs irreformable teaching as well as public vs private). The rest is for background because I do not hold the position that says NO dissent is ever licit or that ALL dissent is irresponsible so the Bishops' thinking on this is important. So is Vatican II's teaching in regard to the hierarchy of truths. Since Vatican II enunciated a category of teaching which was noninfallible calling for "obsequium animi religiosum" and which itself includes a range of meanings all centered on the sincere attempt to accept the teaching, Vatican II clearly foresaw that there COULD be responsible dissent. However, the corollary is also clear here: if one dissents one must continue to try to think with the Church in this matter, and will continue to form and inform one's conscience appropriately. One may continue to dissent but in this too she will try to serve the Church and the Truth.

Your questions:

In any case,  in a situation where one honestly dissents and has made a conscience judgment on the matter, the Church's own teaching on the primacy of conscience teaches the person has the right and indeed the obligation to act in accord with this conscience judgment. (Nothing the Bishops put forward as conditions changes this in any way whatsoever except to sharpen the situation perhaps.) At the same time a person must bear the consequences of her decision and the actions that flow from it. If the dissent is private then there is very little risk of consequences being damaging (unless prudentially the person SHOULD have made the dissent public as the responsible thing to do), nor of the Church taking action in some way. However if the dissent is public then while the person is still obligated to act in good conscience, the risks of scandal and other damages are very much greater and for that reason the consequences too may have much greater or far-reaching import.

The members of SSPX can and may well be dissenting from the teaching of Vatican II in good faith. If so, they are obligated to follow their consciences. To do otherwise is SINFUL, always and everywhere. (It is always better to err in a conscience judgment and act in good faith than to simply act in bad faith and contradict one's conscience judgments.) The problem comes not from that original decision but from the multitude of weighings and examinations of conscience that have (or should have) come after this. Have they met the conditions the Bishops in Germany and the US laid out? Have they acted in ways which respect the teaching authority of the Church (namely an ecumenical council verified and validated now by six Popes) or which do not impugn that authority? I think the answers to these and many others are unclear and differ from person to person. I also think that as time goes on it is easier to fail in one's duties to the truth by failing to reassess matters (including one's own motives, openness, humility, etc).

Still, the simple answer to your question is the members of SSPX have the same obligation we all have to form, inform, discern, make a conscience judgment, and act on that judgment. In doing so they are acting in conformity with Church teaching.The corollary in cases of dissent also holds for them: they are required to continue to form and inform their consciences in such an undeniably serious matter, to discern what the values and disvalues are they must preference as time goes on, and then they must make a new judgment and act on that conscience judgment. They must continue to strive to think with the Church and thus give at least "obsequium animi religiosum" in these matters even if they cannot give an assent of faith (assuming faith is the level of assent ultimately called for), for instance. They will also need to accept the consequences of their conscience judgments --- whatever those are --- up to and including excommunication.

I hope this helps.

Homily of Pope Francis for the Feast of St Francis

4 OCTOBER 2013

I give you thanks, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to babes” (Mt 11:25).

Peace and all good to each and every one of you! With this Franciscan greeting I thank you for being here, in this Square so full of history and faith, to pray together.

Today, I too have come, like countless other pilgrims, to give thanks to the Father for all that he wished to reveal to one of the “little ones” mentioned in today’s Gospel: Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant of Assisi. His encounter with Jesus led him to strip himself of an easy and carefree life in order to espouse “Lady Poverty” and to live as a true son of our heavenly Father. This decision of Saint Francis was a radical way of imitating Christ: he clothed himself anew, putting on Christ, who, though he was rich, became poor in order to make us rich by his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). In all of Francis’ life, love for the poor and the imitation of Christ in his poverty were inseparably united, like the two sides of a coin.

What does Saint Francis’s witness tell us today? What does he have to say to us, not merely with words – that is easy enough – but by his life?

1. His first and most essential witness is this: that being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.

Where did Francis’s journey to Christ begin? It began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus. With letting Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself. Francis experienced this in a special way in the Church of San Damiano, as he prayed before the cross which I too will have an opportunity to venerate. On that cross, Jesus is depicted not as dead, but alive! Blood is flowing from his wounded hands, feet and side, but that blood speaks of life. Jesus’ eyes are not closed but open, wide open: he looks at us in a way that touches our hearts. The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; paradoxically, it speaks to us about a death which is life, a death which gives life, for it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become “a new creation”. Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners. That is why Saint Francis could say with Saint Paul: “Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).

We turn to you, Francis, and we ask you: Teach us to remain before the cross, to let the crucified Christ gaze upon us, to let ourselves be forgiven, and recreated by his love.

2. In today’s Gospel we heard these words: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Mt 11:28-29).

This is the second witness that Francis gives us: that everyone who follows Christ receives true peace, the peace that Christ alone can give, a peace which the world cannot give. Many people, when they think of Saint Francis, think of peace; very few people however go deeper. What is the peace which Francis received, experienced and lived, and which he passes on to us? It is the peace of Christ, which is born of the greatest love of all, the love of the cross. It is the peace which the Risen Jesus gave to his disciples when he stood in their midst and said: “Peace be with you!”, and in saying this, he showed them his wounded hands and his pierced side (cf. Jn 20:19-20).

Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. Hardly! That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos… That is not Franciscan either; it is a notion some people have invented! The peace of Saint Francis is the peace of Christ, and it is found by those who “take up” their “yoke”, namely, Christ’s commandment: Love one another as I have loved you (cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12). This yoke cannot be borne with arrogance, presumption or pride, but only with meekness and humbleness of heart.

We turn to you, Francis, and we ask you: Teach us to be “instruments of peace”, of that peace which has its source in God, the peace which Jesus has brought us.

3. “Praised may you be, Most High, All-powerful God, good Lord… by all your creatures (FF, 1820). This is the beginning of Saint Francis’s Canticle. Love for all creation, for its harmony. Saint Francis of Assisi bears witness to the need to respect all that God has created, and that men and women are called to safeguard and protect, but above all he bears witness to respect and love for every human being. God created the world to be a place where harmony and peace can flourish. Harmony and peace! Francis was a man of harmony and peace. From this City of Peace, I repeat with all the strength and the meekness of love: Let us respect creation, let us not be instruments of destruction! Let us respect each human being. May there be an end to armed conflicts which cover the earth with blood; may the clash of arms be silenced; and everywhere may hatred yield to love, injury to pardon, and discord to unity. Let us listen to the cry of all those who are weeping, who are suffering and who are dying because of violence, terrorism or war, in the Holy Land, so dear to Saint Francis, in Syria, throughout the Middle East and everywhere in the world.

We turn to you, Francis, and we ask you: Obtain for us God’s gift of harmony and peace in this our world!

Finally, I cannot forget the fact that today Italy celebrates Saint Francis as her patron saint. The traditional offering of oil for the votive lamp, which this year is given by the Region of Umbria, is an expression of this. Let us pray for Italy, that everyone will always work for the common good, and look more to what unites us, rather than what divides us.

I make my own the prayer of Saint Francis for Assisi, for Italy and for the world: “I pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ, Father of mercies: Do not look upon our ingratitude, but always keep in mind the surpassing goodness which you have shown to this City. Grant that it may always be the home of men and women who know you in truth and who glorify your most holy and glorious name, now and for all ages. Amen.” (The Mirror of Perfection, 124: FF, 1824).