Sunday, March 29, 2009

Joy and the Holy Spirit

I've been lingering over Acts 13:44-52 and Acts 14:1-7. Those passages are about evangelizing, but they are also about where our strength comes from.

Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch. Having been expelled from there, Paul and Barnabas "shook the the dust from their feet in defiance and went off to Iconium, but the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit" (Acts 13:51-52). How many of us, having been driven from a place, would describe ourselves as "filled with joy"? I was putting quarter-round molding in my son's room today and came up against a few minor obstacles (including busting my knuckle against a door trying to remove a nail), and I did not feel joy.

In fact, after leaving Antioch, Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium, and there they were "preaching fearlessly for the Lord" (Acts 14:3). Despite their experience in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were still "preaching fearlessly." As one who is rather timid, I greatly admire Paul's and Barnabas' ability to speak in the face of opposition. Again, after their experience in Iconium, Paul and Barnabas go to the towns of Lystra and Derbe, where "they preached the Good News" (Acts 14:7). Despite the rejection, despite the threats to their lives (in Iconium there was an effort to stone them), Paul and Barnabas went somewhere else to preach fearlessly for the Lord. Indeed, even with such apparently negative circumstances, what they preached continued to be "the Good News." From one perspective, we might be tempted to say, "What's so good about it, if this is the result?" It is at those times that we need to remind ourselves that "Good Friday" does not seem very good, either. And yet, what appears to be a defeat is in reality a victory over death.

How can we have joy in the face of opposition? How can we have hope in the face of defeat? We can't, unless the source of our strength is God. The Holy Spirit gave Paul and Barnabas the courage to do this critical but difficult mission. Because of their interior life of prayer, guided by the Holy Spirit, they could fearless preach the Good News of Christ who is the Father's Word made flesh.

As we near Holy Week and contemplate Christ's passion, let us remember that the Good News is good but not easy, that our joy comes from pouring out ourselves rather than focusing on ourselves, and that after the Crucifixion comes the Resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

France and the Avant-Garde of Post-Christianity

There were protesters outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris denouncing the Holy Father's recent comments that distributing condoms is not the way to fight AIDS in Africa.

The Reuters article on the protest is telling in a number of ways. The protesters threw condoms on those leaving mass.

The article says that the pope's comments "were criticised by French politicians from all parties." The comments from French politicians included:

Human Rights Minister Rama Yade said she was "dumbfounded" by the pope's comments. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called them "the opposite of tolerance and understanding".

There is no mention of intolerance on the part of protesters pelting church-goers with prophylactics.

During the weekend Act-Up/Paris protested outside Notre Dame Cathedral using signs with a picture of the pope calling him an "assassin." Apparently this was an example of "understanding."

Most disturbing of all was polling information from self-reported Catholics:

A CSA poll for Le Parisien said 57 percent had a bad opinion of Benedict compared to only 32 percent in September 2008. A separate IFOP poll for the Journal du Dimanche newspaper found 43 percent of French Catholics want him to leave.

The article reports that "France is traditionally a Catholic country, although less than 10 percent of the population attend Sunday mass." This was a bit confusing, because the article doesn't indicate the proportion of the country that is Catholic.

However, a Catholic News Service article from August 29, 2008 fleshes out those statistics:

Although officially more than 75 percent of the population in France is Catholic, participation in local parish life has declined steeply over the last 50 years. Studies have shown that probably no more than 12 percent of French Catholics attend weekly Mass, and a majority of Catholics go rarely or not at all.

So, only about 10%-12% of French Catholics go to weekly mass, and more than 50% of French Catholics rarely go to mass, if at all. Yet 43% of French Catholics said the pope should resign. I suspect that the percentage of French Catholics who attend weekly mass who feel that the pope should resign would be considerably lower than 43%.

France is a telling example of what happens when religion remains like a fossil where the flesh has decayed and the bones have petrified.

Friday, March 20, 2009

My Kingdom is Not of This World

Pope Benedict XVI is in Africa and speaking about AIDS/HIV. Hopefully to no one's surprise, he is reaffirming the Church's teaching on contraception, saying that condoms are not the answer to this health crisis. Also to no one's surprise, criticism of the pope's remarks are coming from certain quarters.

The Washington Post quoted Rebecca Hodes of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa. She said that the way the pope could show that he was serious about preventing HIV infections would be to promote access to condoms and how to use them.

"Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans," said Hodes, head of policy, communication and research for the group.

Where to begin with what is wrong with this statement? Could it be the fallacious argument that not distributing condoms kills people? Could it be the relativistic notion that religious belief and values can be put on and taken off, like one's coat? Could it be the subtext that "boys will be boys" (and that "girls" will let them)?

To me, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this philosophy is the fundamental view of the human person. If people are treated as though they are animals without free will, then they will live up to those expectations. (Anyone who has ever been a teacher knows the truth of the self-fulfilling prophecy of expectations).

The Vatican published a brief response to the criticism of the pope's statements. Frankly, it strikes me as a bit flat, although it certainly highlights important points. But it does not inspire.

When we see that there is opposition to the teachings of the Church on so many fronts from our culture, we need to remember Jesus' words to Pontius Pilate:

"My kingdom does not belong to this world...." (John 18:36)

We need to remember St. Paul's words:

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

But we do not get to sit out the struggle and wait for a limousine ride to heaven. We especially need to remember Jesus' words to the Father:

"I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth." (John 17:14-19)

As we are reminded at the end of every mass, we have been sent into the world. So let us go and do what we have been sent to do.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem

Today is the feast day of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. St. Cyril became bishop of Jerusalem in 348, was forced into exile three times, but returned to Jerusalem in 378, where he continued as bishop until his death in 386.

St. Cyril was declared a doctor of the Church in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII.

About 350, St. Cyril wrote his Catechetical Lectures. Here are some passages dealing with the Eucharist:

Let us, then, with full confidence, partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. For in the figure of bread His Body is given to you, and in the figure of wine His Blood is given to you, so that by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, you might become united in body and blood with Him. For thus do we become Christ-bearers, His Body and Blood being distributed through our members. And thus it is that we become, according to blessed Peter, sharers of the divine nature (quoted in William A. Jurgens' Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 360-361).

We become "Christ-bearers." What an astonishing image. What an astonishing privilege. What an astonishing responsibility. In a sense, we share Mary's role as the "theotokos" or "God-bearer" (a title used for her by the Eastern Orthodox churches). We become living tabernacles, living monstrances. We bring Christ to others because we have Christ within us.

If you think that St. Cyril's use of the word "figure" means that the bread and wine merely symbolize Christ's body and blood, here is another passage from the Catechetical Lectures that makes it clear that St. Cyril firmly believes in the Real Presence:

For just as the bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the Body of Christ and the wine the Blood of Christ..." (Jurgens, p. 359).

We must continue St. Cyril's catechesis on the Eucharist in our own age, helping ourselves and others to better understand the nature and centrality of the Eucharist.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Food - Sunday Gospel Reading for the Third Week of Lent

The Gospel reading for today is one that I have grown to love this Lent. It is one of the passages that I had been praying over through lectio divina. It is the one about the Samaritan woman at the well. That story is so rich--it touches on inter-religious dialogue, sin and conversion, material vs. spiritual focus in daily life, the source of salvation, authentic worship, gender relations, and evangelization, just to mention a few.

However, I want to focus on food.

"Rabbi, eat something." But he told them: "I have food to eat of which you do not know." At this the disciples said to one another, "You do not suppose anyone has brought him something to eat?" [The disciples had previously gone to the nearest town to get food.] Jesus explained to them: "Doing the will of him who sent me and bringing his work to completion is my food." (John 4:31-34)

I have used Jesus' reply to help me when fasting becomes difficult. I often joke that my day is "connecting the dots" between meals (I am half Italian, after all). Whether we are fasting or simply focusing too much on our worldly cares that day, it is good for us to remember what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew:

"Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" (Matthew 6:25)

"Therefore do not be anxious, saying 'What shall we eat? or "What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well." (Matthew 6:31-33)

The disciples, like us, are focused on the material. They had a job to do--get food. Jesus says he has food they do not know about, so they stay at the material level and think someone gave Jesus food before they returned with the food (which probably made them feel irritated, thinking, "Well, why did we trudge all the way to town to get food then!"). This is very much what the Samaritan woman did in her conversation with Jesus, until at the end of their encounter she leaves the water bucket and forgets the material entirely, having been transformed by her encounter with Jesus.

But eventually Jesus gets his message through our rather thick heads: we should derive our spiritual nourishment from helping to bring about the kingdom of God. If we do God's will and and strive to bring his work to completion, we will help further the kingdom of God on earth, and that will be our food. But we need to remember that this meal comes with a drink, and that drink is in a cup that we do not want but nevertheless need to accept:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup...." (Matthew 20:20-23)

Then in the Garden of Gethsemane, after Jesus leaves Peter and the same sons of Zebedee (James and John), he prays to the Father:

"My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Matthew 26:39)

Sobering thoughts for this Lent. But we know that faithfulness leads through death to resurrection. And we have food and drink available to us each day to remind us of our hope: the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI's Call for Authentic Eucharistic Adoration

Pope Benedict was promoting Eucharistic adoration today:

VATICAN CITY, 13 MAR 2009 (VIS) - At midday today, the Holy Father received participants in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who have been meeting to consider the question of Eucharistic adoration.

The Pope expressed the hope that collegial reflection upon this theme "may help to clarify, within the limits of the dicastery's remit, the liturgical and pastoral means by which the Church of our time can promote faith in the real presence of the Lord in the Blessed Eucharist, and to ensure that the celebration of Mass fully incorporates the aspect of adoration".

"The doctrine of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, and of the real presence, are a truth of faith, already evident in Holy Scripture and later confirmed by the Fathers of the Church", said Benedict XVI.

After then explaining that, "in the Eucharist, adoration must become union: union with the living Lord and with His mystical Body", the Pope recalled words he had pronounced at World Youth Day 2005 in the German city of Cologne: "God no longer simply stands before us as the One who is totally Other. He is within us, and we are in Him. His dynamic enters into us and then seeks to spread outwards to others until it fills the world, so that His love can truly become the dominant measure of the world.

"On that occasion", he added, "I also reminded young people that in the Eucharist we experience the fundamental transformation of violence into love, of death into life. This brings other changes in its wake".

The Pope highlighted the importance of a renewal of Eucharistic adoration. This, he said, "will only be possible through a greater awareness of the mystery in complete faithfulness to Sacred Tradition, and by enhancing liturgical life within our communities". In this context, he also expressed his appreciation at the fact that the plenary had examined the question of "the formation of all the People of God in the faith, with particular concern for seminarians, favouring their development in a spirit of authentic Eucharistic adoration".

"Recalling three penitential practices particularly dear to biblical and Christian tradition (prayer, almsgiving and fasting)", he concluded, "let us encourage one another to rediscover and practice fasting with renewed fervour, not only as a form of asceticism but also as a preparation for the Eucharist and as a spiritual weapon to fight against any disordered attachment to ourselves".

The Incarnation made God more accessible to human beings, and the Eucharist makes God more accessible still. I especially like the Pope's comment that "in the Eucharist we experience the fundamental transformation of violence into love, of death into life. This brings other changes in its wake." If we want to end abortion, if we want to transform that violence into love, that death into life, then let us all spend more time before Jesus in the Eucharist. And by doing so, such adoration will bring other things in its wake.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More on Mortification

I have been reading a wonderful book, Holiness for Housewives and Other Working Women by Dom Hubert van Zeller. A Benedictine who died in 1984 (b. 1905), van Zeller originally published the book in 1951. The book has staying power, and while written for women primarily, it is very rewarding reading for men as well.

While our problem these days is usually not on the end of the spectrum that involves too much mortification, van Zeller reminds us of the spiritual dangers of confusing the means with the end:

There is a particular subtlety about mortification: often it may be necessary for us to mortify the desire for mortification, and so remain (objectively and outwardly) immortified. For example, it is better to obey your spiritual director when he tells you not to fast than to fast against his advice. It is better to have a fire in your room and thank God for it than to deny yourself the warm fire and praise yourself for it. Mortification, like prayer, is one means of expressing love of God. But if God indicates, either by the duties of your state or by the commands of another or by the condition of your health, that He can be more perfectly loved by a service that is less explicit than that given in penance and prayer, then submission is to be preferred to the acts of positive praise. After all, love is the end of our endeavor. Penance is only one of the signs. A love that is exacted from the soul by a suffering imposed by God is better than a love that is expressed by a mortification chosen by the soul (p. 54).

"Love is the end of our endeavor." Beautifully put. Mortification is one of many means for achieving that end. Given that one of the most significant sources of evil in our world is that we have confused the means and the ends, van Zeller is giving us an important reminder.

I had an opportunity to put van Zeller's advice into practice this week. In my life, I have not taken sufficient advantage of the great gift that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since my return to the Church about ten years ago, I have generally gone to confession in recent years twice each year--during Advent and Lent. One of my Lenten resolutions this year was to get in the habit of going to confession monthly. A friend of mine goes weekly, and I have been thinking that perhaps I should aspire to that goal. This past Monday I planned to go to confession; my last confession had been two weeks prior to that. I was driving to my parish, saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet in preparation for confession, when I discerned that it would be more efficacious for my spiritual development at that point if I went home instead to spend some additional time with my family. Since I generally do not get home before 7:00 PM during the week (and that is when I leave on time, which I often do not do), I do not get to eat dinner with my family. But Monday, when I arrived home at 7:00 PM, my wife and kids were just sitting down to dinner, so I was able to eat dinner with them and spend more time with them that night. What a blessing for all of us that night was.

God was keeping me mindful of "the duties of my state" and that "love is the end of our endeavor."

Monday, March 9, 2009

This Is My Body, Given Up for You

We don't hear a great deal about "mortification of the flesh" these days. Certainly there have been abuses of that practice in the past. I won't be resorting to flagellation in my Lenten bag of tricks. However, one of the practices I started last year and am doing again this year is ending my shower with cold water as long as I can stand it (which isn't very long). This year, I meditate on Christ's words, "This is my body, given up for you." I try to make Christ's words my own as I offer up my body and its minor suffering to him. This is unquestionably the Lenten practice I like the least--which probably means that it is the most spiritually productive for me. Further illustration of its efficacy came while I was thinking about someone at work who I do not get along with. As I was reciting Christ's words, it suddenly became clear to me that he died for this person, too. I thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. and his poem, "O Deus Ego Amo Te" ("O God I Love Thee"):

Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedest nails and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?

Why do these things? Why engage in such mortifications? Because, as Fr. Richard John Neuahaus says in his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon:

Forgiveness costs--it must cost--or else the trespass does not matter. Is such an intuition primitive? Yes, primitive as in primordial, as in that which constitutes our moral being in the world (p. 24).

Thanks to The Son Rise Morning Show on EWTN radio network (and originating here in Cincinnati) for talking about some applicable remarks by the agnostic sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark. In an interview with Mike Aquilina, Stark tells us that true religion costs us something:

Mike Aquilina: You say that Christianity succeeded in part because of its high moral standards. Today, however, many churches are lowering the bar to make religion more popular. How would you analyze their efforts?

Rodney Stark: They’re death wishes. People value religion on the basis of cost, and they don’t value the cheapest ones the most. Religions that ask nothing get nothing. You’ve got a choice: you can be a church or a country club. If you’re going to be a church, you’d better offer religion on Sunday. If you’re not, you’d better build a golf course, because you’re not going to get away with being a country club with no golf course.

As Fr. Larry Richards points out in his CD, "The Mass Explained," the mass cost Jesus his life; it should cost us our lives. Lent is about giving our lives to Christ, who gave his life for us.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Natural Family Planning Videos

Thanks to Love Undefiled for highlighting 7 short videos that talk about Natural Family Planning (NFP) vs. contraception by playing off the Mac/PC TV ads. The videos are instructive and entertaining. They were created by seminarians at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska.

NFP vs. contraception I

NFP vs. contraception II

NFP vs. contraception III

NFP vs. contraception IV

NFP vs. contraception V

NFP vs. contraception VI

NFP vs. contraception VII

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Stephen Crane and Lent

Stephen Crane, best known for his novel, The Red Badge of Courage, also wrote poetry. His poem, "I Walked in a Desert," has some implications for our Lenten journey:

I walked in a desert.
And I cried,
"Ah, God, take me from this place!"
A voice said, "It is no desert."
I cried, "Well, But --
The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon."
A voice said, "It is no desert."

We should not wish ourselves out of our time of trial, our passage through the desert. If we see this time with the eyes of God, we have a different perspective. We see that suffering can open up other horizons for us. And anywhere we are, there God is, and we are not alone, not deserted.