Sunday, October 31, 2010

Seeking the One Seeking Me

Zacchaeus, in Greek, Ζακχαῖος = Zakchaios, from the Hebrew meaning pure, was, Luke tells us (19:1-10), a superintendent of customs, a chief tax-gatherer = publicanus, at Jericho. Tax collectors were hated by many of their fellow Jews, both because of dishonesty in their profession and because they were seen as collaborators with the Roman Empire. Since Jericho was the center for a lucrative production and export of balsam, Zacchaeus' position would have made him both important and rich, which Luke also mentions.

A very popular children's song gives the main outline of Luke's story:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree,

For the Lord he wanted to see
And as the Savior passed that way

He looked up in that tree

And He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down!

For I’m going to your house today,
For I’m going to your house to stay”

Notice that Luke's account begins by purposefully telling us the "Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it..." Jesus' ultimate destination, as Luke emphasizes all through the Gospel, is Jerusalem where, as we know, he will die at the hands of the Roman occupiers, egged on by Jewish religious leaders.

Luke describes Zacchaeus as "short in stature", short enough, apparently, that, along with his well-known professional position and wealth, it was a problem. In addition to that, for Zacchaeus to try to mingle in the crowd, even if it was up front where he could see, was fraught with danger. Predictably, you can guess that he would have had some enemies...on several counts. It wasn't unusual in his time for assassinations to be furtively carried out by sticking a knife into someone in the midst of a crowd. There were, in fact, people known as Sicarii, from the Latin word sicarius = dagger-man, or assassin, Jewish nationalists whose intent was to use a concealed dagger or sica to eliminate Romans from Judea in this way.

Luke says that Zacchaeus "ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree", which, by the way, bears no resemblance to the American sycamore. It was, instead, a variety of fig tree, similar to a mulberry tree. "Trying to see Jesus", Zacchaeus hovers there, camouflaged by the leaves. When Jesus reaches the spot, he stops and looks up into the branches, addressing Zacchaeus by name. Imagine what that must've felt like to a man accustomed to the usual scorn and derision, or worse, by his fellow-citizens. "Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." Before Zacchaeus can think of anything to say, the onlooking crowd is utterly shocked! "What?!... he's gone to be the guest of a sinner!!", they grumble. Luke uses the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word used in Exodus when the people obstinately complain; grumble; murmur against God and Moses.

By contrast to the crowd, Zacchaeus "hurried down and was happy to welcome [Jesus]".  Zacchaeus then announces: “Look, Lord! half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” There's an ongoing discussion as to whether this represents Zacchaeus' intent, or whether he may have already done it. Whichever is the case, this resonates with the Hebrew Scriptures, in Exodus 22:1-15, which spells out the restitution which was required when one was responsible for the loss of another's property. Restitution ranges from straight replacement for negligence, increasing up to two, four or five times replacement for various thefts. Exodus 22:1 says, "When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters or sells it, the thief shall pay...four sheep for a sheep...The thief shall make restitution..." King David also applied this rule in 2 Samuel 12:6 when he said, "And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."  Zacchaeus chooses a generous recompense. He places himself on the guilty side of the spectrum outlined in Exodus, and intends to begin anew in maximum obedience to God.

Seen by Jesus, personally named by Jesus, accepted unconditionally for who he is by Jesus, Zacchaeus himself is transformed by the touch of divine grace. "Today salvation has come to this house", says Jesus, "because he too is a son of Abraham..." The one who was despised and ostracized. The one who was lost. The one whom Jesus came to seek out. The one has been recognized, acknowledged, found by divine mercy.

In the Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, the Gospel account of Zacchaeus is read on the last Sunday preceding the liturgical preparation for Great Lent, and thus is known as "Zacchaeus Sunday." It was chosen to open the Lenten season in order to highlight two things: God's calling us to humility, represented in Jesus' call to Zacchaeus to come down from the tree; and God's calling us to repentance, exemplified by Zacchaeus' actions.

Many see the story of Zacchaeus as illustrating Jesus' words: "Blessed are the pure of heart, For they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). Zacchaeus whose name means pure, climbed up a tree, similar to the cross, and was symbolically crucified with Christ, enabling him to see God in Jesus.

An old hymn, in the following verses, gives you and me much to reflect on and pray about this week:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew / 
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. / 
It was not I that found, O Savior true; / 
no, I was found of thee.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bishop James Hannington & His Companions

Martyrs of Uganda

When Christian missionaries, Anglican and Catholic, arrived in Buganda, it was a turning point in the religious life of the people, as well as in the political structure of the kingdom and surrounding area. All aspects of the people's lives were transformed, and, as all forms of change, brought along dislocation and discomfort. In 1884, just a few years after the arrival of the missionaries, the kingdom new ruler was Mwanga II, a youth whose ruling style was far different from that of his late father, Mutesa, particularly as it related to foreigners.

Mutesa's handled conflicting forces which impacted his court with great wisdom. The Muslim Arabs, the French or Bafaransa, as they were locally called, Catholics, and the English, or Bangereza, Protestants operated not without constraint, but with some minimal success during his reign. Mutesa allowed his people of all ranks to join any creed of their choice. The Arabs, having seen the Christian missionaries' efforts to convert the locals, also diligently started teaching Islam. As expected, a competitive struggle ensued among the preachers of the new creeds, each attempting to wield more influence and recognition among Mutesa's most influential royal court officials.  Mutesa himself never committed to any particular creed. The Muslims denounced him for his refusal to be circumcised, and he couldn't be baptized as a Christian because he refused to give up polygamy.

Christianity was received with great enthusiasm by the converts, but it required heavy demands from them: denouncing all native religious behavior and practices as heathen and satanic. One's commitment to Christianity was also a commitment to set aside the old lifestyle, adopt new alliances, adjust to new moral and religious standards, adherence, and allegiance. New Christian believers, called abasomi = readers, were thus seen as "rebels", people who had transferred their loyalty to new religious systems while abandoning old tribal traditions.

As a young prince, Mwanga had shown some respect for the missionaries, but once he became king his attitude changed. Instead of supporting missionary efforts, Mwanga now became an intolerant and vicious persecutor of Christians and of all foreigners. He was alarmed, with good cause, that the powers and authority his predecessors had enjoyed were dwindling, and that they were virtually disintegrating under the influence of the missionaries and their converts. He could no longer count on their allegiance at all costs.  The ultimate humiliation for Mwanga was the "insolence" he received from the pages when they,  the least subservient of servants,  resisted his homosexual advances. The old Bagandan tradition viewed the king as the center of power and authority. He was free to dispense with anyone's life as he felt, hence the old saying "The queen ant feeds on her subjects". Although homosexuality is abhorred among the Baganda, it was unheard of for mere pages to reject the any of the king's wishes. Mwanga, therefore, was determined to rid his kingdom of the "new" teaching and its followers.

Within a year of Mwanga's becoming king, he ordered the execution of the first three Christian martyrs, who were killed at Busega Natete on January 31, 1885. In October of 1885 Anglican Bishop James Hannington, recently dispatched to head Eastern Equatorial Africa, headquartered in Buganda, was murdered at Busoga on his way to Buganda, upon Mwanga's orders. Hannington's crime was to attempt to come to Buganda through Busoga, a shorter route than that employed by earlier visitors who took the route from south of Lake Victoria. Buganda's kings regarded Busoga as a backdoor to Buganda and thought that any one coming through the backdoor must certainly have evil intentions towards the kingdom.

Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, a senior advisor to the king and a Catholic convert, condemned Mwanga for ordering Hannington's death without even giving Hannington a chance to defend himself, as was customary. Mwanga was so annoyed that Mukasa would question his actions that he had him arrested and killed. On November 15, 1885, Mukasa became the first Catholic martyr, beheaded at Nakivubo. Between December, 1885 and May, 1886 many more converts were wantonly murdered. Mwanga engineered a showdown in May by ordering converts to choose between their new faith and complete obedience to his orders. Those who were unwilling would be subject to death. Courageously, the new converts chose their faith. The execution of twenty six Christians at Namugongo on June 3, 1886, was the climax of the campaign against the converts. The last person killed in the crusade was Jean-Marie Muzeeyi, beheaded at Mengo on January 27, 1887. The list of forty five known Catholic and Protestant martyrs which follows includes only those who could be formally accounted for. Many more murders went unreported and were not recorded.

1 Kakumba, Makko      Buganda Ffumbe       Anglican       Jan 31, 1885   Busega   Dismembered and Burned
2 Rugarama, Yusuf       Ankole                        Anglican       Jan 31, 1885  Busega   Dismembered and Burned
3 Sserwanga, Nuwa      Buganda Ngeye          Anglican       Jan 31, 1885  Busega   Dismembered and Burned
4 Balikuddembe, Yosefu Mukasa  Buganda Kayozi  Catholic  Nov 15, 1885   Nakivubo   Beheaded and Burned
5 Mukasa, Musa           Buganda Ffumbe        Anglican        May 25, 1886   Munyonyo   Speared
6 Kaggwa, Anderea     Bunyoro                      Catholic         May 26, 1886   Munyonyo   Beheaded
7 Ngondwe, Ponsiano  Buganda Nnyonyi Nnyange  Catholic  May 26, 1886  Ttakajjunge  Beheaded and Dismembered
8 Ssebuggwawo, Denis  Buganda Musu         Catholic         May 26, 1886   Munyonyo   Beheaded
9 Bazzekuketta, Antanansio  Buganda Nkima  Catholic       May 27, 1886   Nakivubo    Dismembered
10 Gonza, Gonzaga  Busoga Mpologoma      Catholic          May 27, 1886   Lubowa      Beheaded
11 Mbwa, Eriya          Buganda Ndiga           Anglican         May 27, 1886   Mengo        Castrated
12 Muddu-aguma                                           Anglican         May 27, 1886   Mengo        Castrated
13 Mulumba, Matiya Busoga Lugave            Catholic          May 27, 1886   Old Kampala Dismembered
14 Muwanga, Daudi   Buganda Ngonge        Anglican                                   Namanve    Castrated
15 Kayizzi, Kibuuka  Buganda Mmamba      Anglican         May 31, 1886   Mityana      Castrated
16 Mawaggali, Nowa Buganda Ngabi           Catholic          May 31, 1886   Mityana      Speared, Ravaged by wild dogs
17 Mayanja, Kitoogo Buganda Ffumbe        Anglican         May 31, 1886    Mityana      Castrated
18 Muwanga              Buganda Nvuma        Anglican          May 31, 1886    Mityana      Castrated
19 Lwanga, Karoli     Buganda Ngabi          Catholic           June 3, 1886      Namugongo   Burned
20 Baanabakintu, Lukka  Buganda Mmamba  Catholic       June 3, 1886      Namugongo   Burned
21 Buuzabalyawo, Yakobo  Buganda Ngeye  Catholic        June 3, 1886      Namugongo   Burned
22 Gyaviira  Buganda Mmamba                  Catholic           June 3, 1886      Namugongo   Burned
23 Kibuuka, Ambrosio  Buganda Lugave   Catholic           June 3, 1886      Namugongo   Burned
24 Kiriggwajjo, Anatoli  Bunyoro               Catholic           June 3, 1886     Namugongo    Burned
25 Kiriwawanvu, Mukasa  Buganda Ndiga  Catholic          June 3, 1886     Namugongo    Burned
26 Kiwanuka, Achileo  Buganda Lugave    Catholic           June 3, 1886     Namugongo    Burned
27 Kizito  Buganda Mmamba                      Catholic           June 3, 1886     Namugongo    Burned
28 Ludigo, Mukasa  Adolofu Toro              Catholic           June 3, 1886     Namugongo    Burned
29 Mugagga  Buganda Ngo                         Catholic           June 3, 1886     Namugongo    Burned
30 Sserunkuuma, Bruno  Buganda Ndiga   Catholic           June 3, 1886      Namugongo    Burned
31 Tuzinde, Mbaga  Buganda Mmamba     Catholic           June 3, 1886      Namugongo    Burned
32 Kadoko, Alexanda  Buganda Ndiga      Anglican          June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
33 Kifamunnyanja  Buganda                      Anglican          June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
34 Kiwanuka, Giyaza  Buganda Mpeewo  Anglican          June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
35 Kizza, Frederick  Buganda Ngabi         Anglican          June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
36 Kwabafu  Buganda Mmamba               Anglican          June 3, 1886      Namugongo      Burned
37 Lwakisiga, Mukasa  Buganda Ngabi    Anglican          June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
38 Lwanga  Buganda                                 Anglican          June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
39 Mubi-azaalwa  Buganda Mbwa           Anglican           June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
40 Munyagabyangu, Robert  Buganda Mmamba  Anglican  June 3, 1886  Namugongo     Burned
41 Muwanga, Njigija  Buganda                Anglican           June 3, 1886      Namugongo     Burned
42 Nakabandwa, Danieri  Buganda Mmamba  Anglican   June 3, 1886     Namugongo      Burned
43 Walukagga, Nuwa  Buganda Kasimba  Anglican          June 3, 1886    Namugongo      Burned
44 Wasswa       Buganda Mmamba           Anglican           June 3, 1886    Namugongo       Burned
45 Muzeeyi, Jean-Marie  Buganda Mbogo  Catholic         Jan 27, 1887    Mengo               Beheaded

Because of Mwanga's crusade to curb Christian influence and to regain the traditional and customary powers and authorities over his subjects, the situation became extremely chaotic. In the north Kabarega, king of Bunyoro Kitara, a traditional arch enemy of Buganda was fighting off the pending invasion from the Khedive of Egypt, yet keeping his eye on Buganda.  Further south the Germans were purportedly annexing territories in what is now Tanzania. Mwanga felt caught and threatened. Along with his suspicion of the missionaries, Buganda also was experiencing internal strife. The Muslims were plotting to overthrow Mwanga and replace him. Political upheavals combined with religious instability to drain the country's moral stamina. It seemed that everyone was fighting against everyone else. In the midst of the civil strife, Mwanga was briefly deposed, though he regained the throne later.

 Catholic Basilica of the Martyrs of Uganda, Namungongo

Rather than deter the growth of Christianity, the martyrdom of these early believers, as happened so often in the past, seems to have been the seed of faith. Christianity, in its variety of expressions, is now the dominant faith in Buganda and Uganda as a whole. The 22 known Catholic martyrs were declared "Blessed" by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, and canonized as saints of the universal Church by Pope Paul VI on October 18, 1964, during the 2nd Vatican Council. This was a first for modern Africa and a source of great pride throughout the continent.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October 28 - SS. Simon and Jude, Apostles

O God, we thank you for the glorious company of the apostles, 
and especially on this day for Simon and Jude; and
we pray that, as they were faithful and zealous in their mission, 
so we may with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy 
of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns 
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Christ: The C-Major of This Life

I once read the
comment of an unnamed poet who described Christ as “the C-major of this life”. C-major, as I understand it, is often thought of as the simplest key, owing to its lack of either sharps or flats. Beginning piano students' very first pieces are usually very simple ones in this key, and the first lesson at the piano is usually to learn to find middle C or C-major, since it’s the reference point from which everything else proceeds. On the other hand, as a side note, the immortal Frédéric Chopin regarded this scale as the most difficult one to play with complete evenness, so he tended to give it last to his students. He regarded B-major as the easiest scale to play on the piano, because the position of the black and white notes best fitted the natural positions of the fingers, so he often had students start with this scale.

Unless God, in Jesus the Christ, is the C-major (or B-major, for you Chopin enthusiasts!) of our life, our point of reference, everything else will be in disharmony and dissonance. Luke’s Gospel today (Luke 18:9-14) has much about which to teach us in this regard.

At the top of the pages of your Bible for Luke’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican, I think there ought to be a warning: “The Preacher General has determined that this parable can be dangerous to your religious self-esteem!” A parable is a brief, succinct story, in prose or verse, “thrown alongside”, as the Greek implies, a real-life situation so as to elicit a decision from the hearer. In this case, Luke says that “Jesus...told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” Now, engaged as all of us in the U.S. are at this election time, and, I might add, given the status of the Anglican Communion today, particularly in regard to the Episcopal Church, I hope you won’t find it too shocking or puzzling that human beings might engage in such behavior! We’re all more than familiar with the self-righteousness that credits oneself, rather than God, for one’s religious status before God. None of us are strangers to the age-old sin of idolatry, of trying to install ourselves in God’s place.

Jesus’ parable begins with two men who go to pray in the temple: a Pharisee [from perushim = the ones set apart], who belonged to a group which at various times was a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought; and a publican [from publicanus/publicani = public contractors, including tax collectors for the Romans.

The Pharisee stood and prayed in a prominent position. He addresses the Almighty with gratitude that he’s avoided becoming like so many others in his society: “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”, whom he apparently noticed in the back of the temple. He reviews for God his religious practices: voluntarily fasting twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, this in addition to the only prescribed fast, on Yom Kippur each year. He’s also paid tithes on all his income, a signal act of voluntary self-denial.

The “kicker” of the story is that everything this Pharisee claims for himself is good, and by-the-book! Though they were lay people, the Pharisees took upon themselves the law of priestly purity in order to become holy, as God expected Israel to become. So, one could argue that the Pharisee had reason to pride himself on being faithful and devoted, on being “right” with God.

The kind of prayer offered by the Pharisee wasn’t unusual, if you look at the 1st century Talmud, i.e., the teaching, the instruction of Judaism, contained in the collection of rabbinic discussions on all sorts of legal and religious issues. The Pharisee was aware that he owed everything to God. Notice that his prayer is a thanksgiving, not a petition. But notice also that his reference point isn’t God at all, but himself.

In Jesus’ culture, the customs taxes of a district were farmed out to the highest bidder for a fixed annual sum. Tax collectors, publicani, or publicans, often made handsome profits, since the fixed sum they were to pay to the State was lower than the actual revenues they often collected. People of the Near East despised tax collectors, not only because of the abuses of dishonesty, but mainly because these publicans were collaborators with the hated Romans, and thus worked against their own people’s welfare.

The publican in Luke’s story stands “far off”. He won’t even lift his eyes, but rather beats his breast in an expression of deepest contrition. As a publican, he was in a rather hopeless, almost despairing, situation. If he were to follow sincere repentance to its logical consequences, he would 1) abandon his profession; 2) make restitution of any fraudulent gains; and even add on an additional 15-20%, though it would’ve been well nigh impossible for this man to remember all those with whom he’d dealt in past years.

We sense that the publican’s plea for mercy, though not entirely confident, is certainly honest: it comes from deep within his soul. Though we have no way of knowing how it came to be, it’s apparent that God had become this man’s reference point, and a new beginning is already taking shape in him.

Luke concludes the story by commenting that “...this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” He went home as one to whom God’s gracious favor was generously extended. Luke conveys the very exclusive way in which the publican was now “right” with God, whereas the Pharisee was not. That undoubtedly shocked Jesus’ hearers. The Pharisee couldn’t be faulted, at least technically. Surely Jesus’ judgment on him is unduly harsh and unfair, they might have said! And what had the publican done, really, but simply say “I’m sorry”? Is God’s righteousness and mercy that cheap?

God’s judgment and mercy are but two sides of the same coin. In the parable, judgment is given for the sake of mercy. Judgment serves the purposes of God’s favor and seeks to welcome into God’s mercy all who can accept God’s favor by casting aside any pretentiousness to their own goodness. I become healed of my separation from God, which is ultimately what sin is, when I acknowledge God as the reference point of my life and confess the self-absorption which puts distance between God and me.

Also, acknowledging and confessing my sin isn’t, in itself, the “good work” which makes me acceptable to God. My confession of sin acknowledges that there isn’t anything which I, of myself, can do to become acceptable. It’s Jesus, crucified and risen, who has already bridged the gap between God and me. All that stands between us and God who saves is our resistance, our unwillingness, to accept that bridging, done despite us, and without the help of our own virtue.

If I’m honest with myself, I’m far too ready to identify with the publican and with his humility. Blessing, rightly, goes to the “good guy”, right? And can there be any question that you and I are that?! After all, we spend a lot of time in this church, or in a church, don’t we?! If we’re brutally honest, might not our secret prayer be, “I thank you, God, that I’m not like that proud Pharisee”?

In the moment that we think such thoughts, we become aware that we’ve be “had”: Jesus’ parable has done its work, because we’re forced to look into the mirror of our own self-righteousness and to see what we’d rather not see. “I thank you, God, that I’m not like that Pharisee.” You and I can fill in for the word “Pharisee” whatever applies in our life:
- that person who’s different from me: philosophically, politically, physically, racially, gender orientationally, etc.;
- that person who’s more successful than I, or smarter, or more talented, or more popular, or who has more Facebook friends than I;
- that person who doesn’t measure up to my spiritual, doctrinal or moral standards;
- that person whose viewpoints and convictions just don’t jibe with mine.

There’s a poem which I was given on a card many years ago, which, I think, is good medicine for the unhealthy Pharisee lurking in each of us:
There’s so much that’s good in the worst of us;
So much that’s bad in the best of us.
It doesn’t behoove any of us
To talk about the rest of us.

With Christ as the C-major of our lives, you and I can honestly pray with the Psalmist (Ps 65) today:
You are to be praised, O God…
To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come,
Because of their transgressions.
Our sins are stronger than we are,
But you will blot them out…
Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation…

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October 21 - Feast of the Apostle of the Precious Blood of Jesus

Altar & Reliquary,
General House C.PP.S., Rome
of St. Gaspar del Bufalo (1786-1837)
Founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood
The inscription in Latin are Gaspar's words:
"May my right hand fall into oblivion if I should ever forget you,
O Society of the Precious Blood."

Excerpt from the 1st Circular Letter of St. Gaspar (1826) to the Priests, Brothers, and Seminarians of the Society of the Precious Blood:

"Twelve years have now elapsed since our institute, as envisioned from the beginning, has experienced growth in the Church of Jesus Christ. You can readily see how well it is suited to the renewal of proper conduct and the spirit of the apostles in the secular clergy of our time. In this letter of encouragement I do not intend to consider particulars. I wish only to arouse in both you and myself, my dearly beloved brothers, that true spirit of the Lord. It cannot be denied that up to now, because of the the pressing matters dealing with our new foundations, we have been called upon to take care of a variety of things, that is to say, various objectives pertinent to the sacred ministry which we exercise. But, like a painting that is first sketched, then actualized and finally perfected and ennobled, so also has it been with our Society which presently is enjoying the good fortune of being protected and ennobled for the greater glory of God whom alone we serve...
To my mind, our missionaries represent so many mystic stones fashioned for the work to be done, reminiscent of the words of St. Paul: 'You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone'. These stones must be polished by the stroke of the mystic chisel to effect that perfection which is required of us...This should be achieved in the course of this retreat which ought to remain memorable for all of us in order that we might erect that mystical building leading to eternal blessings.

Allow me, my dearly beloved, to repeat both for you and myself that 'the time has come: you must wake up now.' These words are applied by the saints not only to sinners in need of conversion, but to all the redeemed children of God who are thereby fervently stimulated to strive for extraordinary holiness. The time has come: while preaching to others, we must not become worse than they. The time has come: we must protect ourselves from the snares of the one who is the enemy of all and who attacks the ministers of Christ's Gospel and holy religion with special energy. The time has come: we must arm ourselves with courage, generosity and invincible zeal so that we all may be one with Jesus Christ. The time has come: we must grow in virtue, continue to exercise deep humility before God, and acquire compassion in behalf of our fellow human beings. All this must be based upon the spirit of prayer. The time is at hand when we are to develop that interior virtue which counterbalances the influence of our exterior occupations. We must realize our grave responsibilities to God because of our very special and sublime vocation...

Let us then meditate on the motives that prompted us to devote ourselves to this great Society. Let us also examine the dispositions with which we have carried out our duties up to now. Have we perhaps been discouraged by trials and tribulations, instead of meditating on the words of the Apostle: 'In all our joy is overflowing.' Or were we negligent in our duties and in the observance of the Rule given to us? After all, we must remember that the Rule is only a summary, shall we say, of what we preach to others of our calling and whose practice we demand of them. They are principles, however, that we ourselves may fail to practice because of certain well-known excuses which are, in reality, under the appearances of good, only diabolical delusions, calculated to disturb and offset the attainment of virtue in its beginnings and from its very foundations. Clinging to one's own opinions and rejecting the advice of others, one can be led to believe that he is in our Society for a purpose other than the one that is understood to be properly its own. But, such is the miserable condition of humans, so that the saying of the saints is only too true: we are all patients in the vast hospital of the world. Infirmities are cured, however, by the oil of meekness, tenderness, docility, by overcoming self-love through a victorious obedience to our superiors, by supporting each other in mutual, charitable love, by patiently correcting each other; and finally, by steadfastly bearing with one another.

Not the walls that surround us nor the men with whom we live, but rather the victory over our own self, even in spiritual things -- that mystic childhood to which Christ calls us -- the desire for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, these alone will make us more perfect. They form, as it were, the framework of the holiness which is lacking in us and which we must absolutely seek to attain as the consequence of this retreat...Truly, our Society will progress the more happily in proportion to our becoming men of the spirit. Despite the sufferings and hardships, which are always present, the enemy shall never triumph. 'For it is when I am weak that I am strong'...

Through the goodness of our most loving Father, we shall indeed see in ourselves continuous miracles of grace. He has loved and still loves us dearly. He tenderly shows us his Sacred Heart as a sweet asylum for souls thirsting for Jesus Christ. Could it be possible that we custodians and dispensers of the heavenly treasures be deprived of the riches which adorned the daughters of Sion? Indeed, neither the place where we live nor the insignia we wear form the essentials of holiness. On the contrary, a holy life, desire for perfection, thirst for the love of God, confidence in him, willingness to bear cheerfully all sacrifices for his sake, these are the qualities that make us saints...

Let us, therefore, pray for one another and put all our trials in the wounds of the crucified Jesus. There we shall find a healing remedy -- consolation, encouragement and salvation. Let us sincerely love our Society 'with the holy kiss' so that 'we too might live a new life.'"

To the Brothers:

"...Praise and bless God who fills 'your years with prosperity.' He has given you a proof of his concern for your welfare, especially this year in the holy retreat which we need for our spiritual renewal. I would like you to make three resolutions during these special days. The first refers to God, the second to yourselves, and the third to the Society in which you live.

In regard to God, thank him for having freed you from the many dangers of the world...As you make your way in virtue, the daily bread with which you are to nourish and strengthen your souls in profound humility is that vivid awareness of the presence of God and that realization of having to give an account for the gifts that God bestows upon you.

As for yourselves, remember that living in a Community house requires especially the resolution of laying aside the old Adam. I mean that you should subdue your passions and imitate Jesus Christ. Therefore, overcome your anger by patience, selfishness by charity, and negligence by justice. You are no longer your own, but you belong to Jesus Crucified. Your holiness of life and your good example should therefore be a continuous Mission to the people...

Finally, since you are accustomed to attribute to the Society itself the defects that are the faults of individuals, I urge you to look upon our Society as a spiritual field where virtue is to be cultivated...Be careful not to cause the least discord. Be lovers of silence; shun criticism and ridicule which are injurious to both charity and perfection. Let all things be stepping stones to heaven. Deny your own will and accept the bitter things for sweet and the sweet for bitter, and you will be saints...

Did you think, perhaps, that Community life would be free from crosses? You deceive yourselves. Did you perhaps enter the Society from human motives and not divine -- to escape reproaches at home, to rid yourselves of the yoke of paternal authority, to evade labor in the fields, to suffer no deprivation in your life, and the like? If you love the Society, my dear Brothers, change your minds. Look into yourselves and if you admire virtue as it exists in others, then you too should practice it incessantly. Let the Society and every one of its members be dear to you. Put aside all hatred, aversion, prejudice and pride. In their place put charity, docility, humility, prudence and a sincere desire for the success of the Community where you are in service. In short, let the Society be your way to heaven..."

To the Seminarians:

"During the retreat, let the students keep before their minds the purpose of the Society. The assaults of the devil are directed especially against the young. All must know, therefore, that his attacks are to be strenuously resisted. May the Father make them spiritually keen and wary. May he point out to them the way of salvation."

Closing admonitions:

"Let whoever conducts the spiritual exercises first practice what he preaches, lest he be told: 'Physician, heal yourself''...Let those who give orders learn how to serve. They should rule their confreres by exhortation rather than by command. In example, prayer and charity, let them excel all others, joyfully and promptly administering to the needs of all. Always show prudence, polite manners and a well-ordered courtesy toward each other. Our hearts must be free from all things foreign to our calling and occupation. Love to talk to God. Be an apostle while working in the Missions and a contemplative at home, but be this in accordance with the Rule. Finally be angelic in all your actions." 
(Translation by the late Rev. Raymond Cera, C.PP.S.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Persistence In Being Remade

If Hollywood did a movie on the life of Jacob, the opening song might appropriately be Your Cheatin’ Heart, sung by the great Hank Williams! In Hebrew Jacob means heel grabber/catcher, supplanter. The Genesis writer (32:3-8; 22-30) depicts him as the consummate cheat, a sort of biblical con man. Son of Isaac and Rebekah, and brother of Esau, Jacob was the father of Dinah and of 12 sons whose names are those of the tribes of Israel. Jacob, who lived between the 20th and 16th centuries B.C., embodies and represents not only the nation of Israel, but, on the darker side, a trickster, and on the positive side, the settler-farmer, reverent worshipper of God, man of gallantry, successful emigré and herder, penitent brother, and benevolent father.

It’s pretty bad when your own mother warns you, as Rebekah did Jacob, that “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.” The twins, Esau and Jacob, from the beginning, had, according to Genesis, “struggled together within” Rebekah’s womb, and God even confirms it by saying: “...the two peoples born of you shall be divided...the elder shall serve the younger.” Esau, all red and hairy, emerged first, with Jacob firmly gripping his heel. When they were grown, Esau, the hunter, coming in from the field one day tired and famished, bargains with Jacob for “some of that red stuff”, as the NRSV puts it: lentil stew and bread. Jacob drives a hard bargain, the price being Esau’s birthright as firstborn. Esau poo-poos the birthright’s value to him, in the moment, because he’s “about to die” of starvation. Had he only known!

Later, when Isaac was old and going blind, the favored boy, Jacob, with Rebekah’s deliberate connivance, posing as Esau, flat-out lies and tricks his blind father, Isaac, and boldly steals Isaac’s blessing, while utilizing the ole “savory food” trick once again. By the time Esau and Isaac become aware of how Jacob had cheated them, it was too late.

Esau is anything now but a “happy camper”! Rebekah warns Jacob, and Jacob hightails it to his Uncle Laban’s in Haran. Coincidentally, Laban has two daughters, Rachel (meaning, ewe), who was a “knockout”, and the other, Leah (meaning cow) who was, well…”weak-eyed”...not so attractive. Long story short: Jacob satisfies Laban’s demand to labor seven years, wooing and winning Rachel. Then Laban pulls a switcheroo on their wedding night, and surprise, surprise!: the veil comes off, and there’s Leah! Laban justifies this by reminding Jacob that local custom provides for giving the firstborn daughter first, and only then the other. He strong-arms Jacob into finishing the week of festivity, then gives Rachel as Jacob’s wife...with one little catch: Jacob has to work another seven years for her!

Jacob agrees, and sets to work hard on breeding flocks of goats and calves, using ingenious, but somewhat shady, procedures, setting his stronger animals apart from Laban’s weaker ones. Soon, as the Genesis writer says, “the man grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys.” It didn’t take long for Laban’s sons to figure out what was going on, and they were angry. Jacob, after deceiving Laban, suddenly disappears, taking his flocks, property, and possessions, and even Laban’s household gods, which Rachel stole and hid, and leaves, without even a “Goodbye”. Laban pursues him, but God appears to Laban in a dream and tells him to take it easy on Jacob, which he does, even though Rachel lies and deceives her own father, by sitting on his household idols, as he looks for them. Eventually, he and Jacob strike a mutual covenant, draw up firm boundaries, and go their separate ways.

Jacob sends messengers to “test” the waters by alerting Esau that he’s coming home, and, out of guilt, promises Esau a substantial gift from his flocks. The messengers return with news that Esau is personally coming to meet Jacob...with 400 men...not exactly your typical welcoming home party! Jacob now becomes fearful and desperate, and arranges to protect his wives, children, and possessions, taking them across the ford of the Jabbok river.

Genesis then starkly reports what happened next. Jacob “was left” at the river: alone, worried, fearful. People in his time believed a river ford to be a dangerous place, often guarded by evil spirits, or sprites, who sought to hinder passage across their territory. Scripture simply says: “A man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.

Genesis doesn’t give any details, but whatever happened, Jacob proved to be such a strong opponent that, as the passage says, “the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob.” As daylight approached, marking the time when the river sprite had to be gone, somewhat like vampires (!), the man asks to be released. But Jacob isn’t about to let go without some reward for this night’s troubles. “I won’t let you go until you bless me,” says Jacob. The man asks, “What is your name?” “Jacob = heel grabber, supplanter, cheat,” Jacob replies. The man then says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and humans, and have prevailed.” The name Israel = he strives with El/God. But in the midst of all this, as if to leave Jacob with a permanent reminder, Genesis says that the man “struck him on the hip socket”, so that ever after Jacob walked with a limp.

This experience must’ve sent chills up Jacob’s spine, for he now realized that his opponent had been Godself, with whom he’d wrestled for his own future. Jacob had been remade into a new person, into Israel, but it had come at the cost of anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and fierce struggle, and even physical battle scars. Jacob, sitting alone again at the river ford, in the quiet of the fresh dawn, realized that he’d done more than make passage over a river. He’d come to a new identity by struggling with the Mighty God, whom to see was to die, in common belief of that time. Yet he didn’t die; he’d even been blessed, reassured about his future. Yet he walks away, limping: the price of encountering the God who is Lord of life and can be known only by faith. It reminds us of St. Paul who had was given a thorn in his flesh, lest he be too overconfident of God’s blessings. Once again strength is made perfect in weakness, and Jacob the Cheat doesn’t limp off bragging. His faith and persistence allowed him to not let go of God, but, in the end, God had the last word.

God’s blessings come to you and me, not because of, but despite what we deserve. And as with Jacob, our struggle with God is often concealed in situations which we think we’ve recognized. Only later do we realize that God is the one with whom we’re really struggling. God doesn’t usually show Godself to us in some dramatic, apparent, and unambiguous way, but rather in circumstances which we seemingly can explain in other terms. Without persistence, such as Jacob’s, we might abandon the struggle for faith because it doesn’t appear to be faith as we’ve envisioned it. God demands that we work to be remade, even when it appears that our faith is getting us nowhere, or that obstacles in our way keep multiplying. In our struggles it’s always the Mighty God who is with us, unbeknownst, and by our persisting in faith, who brings us, sometimes even kicking and screaming, into new life and a new future.

One key section of Jacob’s story is often overlooked, and has to do with what came after his dramatic experience at Peniel. The morning after, Jacob looks up and sees Esau and his 400 men approaching. Jacob literally gets out in front of the situation by walking ahead, carefully bowing seven times. Surprisingly, “Esau ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, and...kissed him, and they wept.” Esau is amazed at Jacob’s family and entourage. Jacob tries to make Esau accept his generous gift of many animals, but Esau assures him that he, too, has already been blessed with enough. Jacob, very movingly, insists: “if I find favor with you...accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God -- since you have received me with such favor.” The Genesis writer simply says: “...and he [Esau] took it.

Not only has Jacob been remade by his persistent struggle of faith with God, remade sufficiently that he can now see God’s face in Esau’s, but Esau, too, has been given the gift of forgiving his brother, thus fulfilling the secondary blessing which Isaac had given to Esau after Jacob had stolen the original birthright. At that time Esau, weeping, had begged at least some kind of blessing from his father, and Isaac had responded: “...when you break loose, you shall break his [Jacob’s] yoke from your neck.
In forgiving Jacob, Esau, has broken through and finds release from all his animosity and anger. He and his brother, through God’s blessing, are now reconciled with one another. Our striving with God in faith, too, brings blessings, not only to us, but to others in our lives, often beyond our wildest imaginings.

What happens to an individual, like Jacob, can also happen to a congregation. Congregations, too, strive with God, seek to be renewed and remade. For a congregation the struggle can be as mundane a thing as figuring out how to raise the money to pay the monthly bills, or to fittingly repay staff for the work assigned to them. Or it can be as profound as struggling to mend the divisions and differences which often mar parish life; or discerning what the congregation’s mission is to the local community, the Diocese, and the Church; or pursuing a vision which can enable children and younger parish members have what’s needed to grow and mature in God’s love; or, finally, finding the wherewithal to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the physically or mentally ill, aid the handicapped, be present for those who are alone or written off by others.

Whether our remaking by God, as individuals or as a parish, has taken place, is still in progress, or is yet to come, Jesus in today’s Gospel (Luke 18:1-8) reminds us of the “need to pray always and not to lose heart”. He uses a story, a parable, to compare the justice of God against the justice of a perfunctory judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people”. The judge summarily dismissed those who came before him, until he came up against this relentlessly pushy and persistent widow, who wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. The judge blatantly admits that his only reason for finally giving her what was due is because, as he says, “this widow keeps bothering me”, and so “that she may not wear me out by continually coming”. Jesus contrasts this with the Loving God’s justice which is “quick”, immediate, for anyone who cries out to God day or night. The passage ends with Jesus posing a curious, almost melancholy, question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith?” It’s almost as if Jesus is saying: “The ball is now in your court. What are you going to do about it?

Do you believe what was celebrated in your Baptism: that you’re truly part of the body of Christ, the communion of saints, and that the Holy Spirit continuously empowers you and me to live “in Christ”? Can you accept St. Paul’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 4:16ff.: “So we do not lose heart...For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden...He who prepared us for God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee...for we walk by faith, not by sight...For the love of Christ urges us on...So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...So we are ambassadors for Christ…

Recently a dear lady gave me a framed wall hanging which is most applicable to the Scriptures’ message today. It says:
The will of God
Will never lead you,
Where the Grace of God
Cannot keep you.

Do we have faith enough to believe it?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Papal Decree Establishing New Evangelization Council (from ZENIT.ORG)

"Ubicumque et Semper"

VATICAN CITY, ROME, OCT. 12, 2010 ( - Here is an unofficial translation of "Ubicumque et Semper" ("Everywhere and Always"), which Benedict XVI has issued "motu proprio."

The Sept. 21 document announces the creation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. It was presented today by the Vatican.

* * *

Apostolic Letter in the form of motu proprio

Ubicumque et Semper

of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI

With which is instituted the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization

The Church has the duty to proclaim always and everywhere the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He, the first and supreme evangelizer, on the day of his Ascension to the Father sent the Apostles: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Faithful to this mandate the Church, people that God acquired to proclaim his wonderful deeds (cf. 1 Peter 2:9), since the day of Pentecost, in which it received as gift the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:14), has never tired of making known to the whole world the beauty of the Gospel, proclaiming Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the same "yesterday, today and for ever" (Acts 13:8), who with his Death and Resurrection brought about salvation, bringing to fulfillment the ancient promise. Hence, the evangelizing mission, continuation of the work desired by the Lord Jesus, is for the Church necessary and irreplaceable, expression of her very nature.

This mission has taken on in history ever new forms and modalities according to the times, the situations and the historical moments. In our time, one of its singular features has been to be confronted with the phenomenon of estrangement from the faith, which has manifested itself progressively in societies and cultures that for centuries seemed permeated by the Gospel. The social transformations we have witnessed in the last decades have complex causes, which sink their roots far in time and that have modified profoundly the perception of our world. Think of the gigantic progress of science and technology, of the expansion of the possibilities of life and the areas of individual liberty, of the profound changes in the economic field, of the process of ethnic and cultural mixes caused by massive migratory phenomena, of the growing interdependence among peoples. All this has not happened without consequences also for the religious dimension of man's life. And if on one hand humanity has known the undeniable benefits of these transformations and the Church has received further stimulation to give reason for the hope that is in her (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), verified on the other hand is a worrying loss of the sense of the sacred, even calling into question those foundations that seem indisputable, such as faith in a creator and provident God, the revelation of Jesus Christ only Savior, and the common understanding of the fundamental experiences of man, such as birth, death, living in a family, and reference to a natural moral law.

Although all this has been greeted by some as a liberation, perceived very quickly is the interior desert that is born where man, wishing to be the only architect of his nature and of his destiny, finds himself deprived of what constitutes the foundation of all things.

Already the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council assumed among its central topics the question of the relationship between the Church and this contemporary world. Following the trail of conciliar teaching, my Predecessors reflected further on the need to find adequate ways to enable our contemporaries to continue to hear the living and eternal Word of the Lord.

With a vision of the future, the Servant of God Paul VI observed that the commitment of evangelization, "as a result of the frequent situations of dechristianization in our day, [...] also proves equally necessary for innumerable people who have been baptized but who live quite outside Christian life, for simple people who have a certain faith but an imperfect knowledge of the foundations of that faith, for intellectuals who feel the need to know Jesus Christ in a light different from the instruction they received as children, and for many others" (Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Nuntiandi," No. 52). And with his thought directed to those estranged from the faith, he added that the evangelizing action of the Church "must constantly seek the proper means and language for presenting, or representing, to them God's revelation and faith in Jesus Christ" (ibid., No. 56).

The Venerable Servant of God John Paul II made this difficult task one of the cardinal points of his vast magisterium, synthesizing in the concept "new evangelization" -- which he systematically analyzed in numerous interventions -- the task that awaits the Church today, in particular in the areas of ancient Christianization. A task that, although it refers directly to its way of relating to the exterior, presupposes, however first of all a constant interior renewal, a continuous passing, so to speak, from evangelized to evangelizing. Suffice it to recall what was affirmed in the postsynodal exhortation "Christifideles Laici": "Whole countries and nations where religion and the Christian life were formerly flourishing and capable of fostering a viable and working community of faith, are now put to a hard test, and in some cases, are even undergoing a radical transformation, as a result of a constant spreading of an indifference to religion, of secularism and atheism. This particularly concerns countries and nations of the so-called First World, in which economic well-being and consumerism, even if coexistent with a tragic situation of poverty and misery, inspires and sustains a life lived 'as if God did not exist'. This indifference to religion and the practice of religion devoid of true meaning in the face of life's very serious problems, are not less worrying and upsetting when compared with declared atheism. Sometimes the Christian faith as well, while maintaining some of the externals of its tradition and rituals, tends to be separated from those moments of human existence which have the most significance, such as, birth, suffering and death. [...]

"On the other hand, in other regions or nations many vital traditions of piety and popular forms of Christian religion are still conserved; but today this moral and spiritual patrimony runs the risk of being dispersed under the impact of a multiplicity of processes, including secularization and the spread of sects. Only a re-evangelization can assure the growth of a clear and deep faith, and serve to make these traditions a force for authentic freedom.

"Without doubt a mending of the Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world. But for this to come about what is needed is to first remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself present in these countries and nations" (No. 34).

Assuming, therefore, the concern of my venerable Predecessors, I consider it opportune to offer adequate answers so that the whole Church, allowing herself to be regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit, present herself to the contemporary world with a missionary thrust capable of promoting a new evangelization. The latter makes reference above all to the Churches of ancient foundation, which however, live very different realities, to which different needs correspond, which await different impulses of evangelization: in some territories, in fact, despite the advance of the phenomenon of secularization, Christian practice still manifests a healthy vitality and a profound rooting in the soul of entire populations; noted in other regions, instead, is a distancing of the whole society from the faith, with a weaker ecclesial fabric, though not deprived of elements of liveliness that the Spirit does not fail to arouse; we also know, unfortunately, of areas that seem completely de-Christianized, in which the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem to be particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message.

The diversity of situations calls for careful discernment: to speak of "new evangelization" does not mean, in fact, to have to elaborate a single equal formula for all the circumstances. And yet, it is not difficult to realize what all the Churches need that live in traditionally Christian territories, which is a renewed missionary drive, expression of a new generous openness to the gift of grace. In fact, we cannot forget that the first task is to be docile to the gratuitous work of the Spirit of the Risen One, which supports all those who are bearers of the Gospel, and which opens the hearts of those who listen. Necessary above all to proclaim profoundly the Word of the Gospel is a profound experience of God.

As I stated in my first encyclical "Deus Caritas Est": "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (No. 1). In a similar way, at the root of all evangelization there is not a human plan of expansion, but the desire to share the inestimable gift that God has willed to give us, making us sharers in his own life.

Therefore, in the light of these reflections, after having examined everything carefully and having asked for the judgment of expert persons, I establish and decree what follows:

Art. 1.

Paragraph 1. The Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization is established as a Dicastery of the Roman Curia, in the sense of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus.

Paragraph 2. The Council pursues its own end both by stimulating reflection on topics of the new evangelization, as well as singling out and promoting the adequate ways and instruments to accomplish it.

Art. 2.

The Council's action, which is carried out in collaboration with the other Dicasteries and Organisms of the Roman Curia, in respect of their relative competencies, is at the service of the particular Churches, especially in those territories of Christian tradition where greater evidence is manifested of the phenomenon of secularization.

Art. 3.

Pointed out among the specific tasks of the Council are:

1st. to reflect on the theological and pastoral meaning of the new evangelization;

2nd. to promote and foster, in close collaboration with the Episcopal Conferences concerned, which can have an ad hoc organism, the study, diffusion and realization of the papal Magisterium related to topics connected with the new evangelization;

3rd. to make known initiatives linked to the new evangelization already under way in the various particular Churches and to promote their new realization, involving actively also the resources present in the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, as well as the aggregations of faithful and in the new communities;

4th. to study and foster the use of modern forms of communication, as instruments for the new evangelization;

5th. to promote the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as essential and complete formulation of the content of the faith for the men of our time.

Art. 4.

Paragraph 1. The Council is headed by an Archbishop President, helped by his Secretary, by an Under-Secretary and by an appropriate number of Officials, according to the norms established by the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus and by the General Regulation of the Roman Curia.

Paragraph 2. The Council will have its own Members and can have its own Consultors.

All that has been deliberated with the present Motu proprio, I order that it have full and stable value, despite anything to the contrary, even if it is worthy of particular mention, and I establish that it be promulgated through publication in the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano and that it come into force on the day of promulgation.

Given at Castel Gandolfo, the 21st day of September of 2010, Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, sixth year of my Pontificate.


[Translation by ZENIT]
I reproduced this unofficial English translation because this document, whose proclamation had been announced ahead of time in Roman Catholic circles, and was reported in the secular press, was, amazingly, issued only in Latin and Italian!...Which speaks volumes right there!

Because it's a Papal document, it's understandably couched in dry "Churchese". One wonders how any average person, Catholic or otherwise, would be drawn to read it. My own feeling, as I perused the document, was that it's terribly out of touch with the reality of a world outside the Vatican walls.

For example, how many people do you know who could, or would, even venture to guess what a "Dicastery" is?! (Art. 1) Art. 2 says that the "Council's action" will be placed "at the service" of particular Churches "in respect to their relative competencies". One wonders how that would play out in actuality; to me, the tone suggests a "Father knows best" attitude. Art. 3 has some interesting suggestions, for example, "to study and foster the use of modern forms of communication, as instruments for the new evangelization..." I can't find the exact quotation, but one comment which I read was from one of the Cardinals who is to serve on the Council. He expressed enthusiastically how anxious he was "to get a computer on my desk", or something to that effect. A statement like that from a professional Vatican employee is, pardon me, no less than mind-blowing! Why wouldn't every department of the most powerful religious entity in the world not be fairly buzzing with the latest, never mind basic, technology in its day-to-day work?!

The other disturbing statement in Art. 3 is this: "to promote the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as essential and complete formulation of the content of the faith for the men of our time..." With all due respect to the Catechism, which is a well-done and marvelous compendium of "the content of the [Catholic] faith", it's already approaching 20 years since its first appearance under John Paul II. The English version is 13 years old. In a world developing and with the volume of knowledge expanding at breathtaking speed, how can any one book be the "essential and complete formulation of the content of faith"? As an aside, it was painful to see the next, very non-inclusive, reference to "the men of our time..." Yeah, I know it's a general term: but in the context of today's world, it betrays and perpetuates, in my humble opinion, a blatant Roman clerical fixation on only one half of the human race!

That being said, there are unquestionably timely and important observations in Ubicumque et Semper: the "necessary and irreplaceable" mission of the Christian community (not just Roman Catholics) to faithfully and continually proclaim "the beauty of the Gospel", the Good News of God in Christ; the challenge of the community of Christian believers to grapple with "the phenomenon of estrangement from the faith" in sectors of society which had previously been "permeated by the Gospel", or had, at least, seemed to be; "the loss of the sense of the sacred" and of "the common understanding of the fundamental experiences of man"; and, finally, the "task that, although it refers directly to its way of relating to the exterior, presupposes...a constant interior renewal, a continuous passing...from evangelized to evangelizing."

Benedict XVI speaks of "the whole Church, allowing herself to be regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit" and "present[ing] herself to the contemporary world with a missionary thrust capable of promoting a new evangelization". The ideal which he expresses is quite noble, but I also suspect many folks might become edgy with such language, recalling all the past examples of rank colonialism, aided and abetted by the Church, and its myriad of problems. Benedict continues: "The diversity of situations calls for careful discernment: to speak of "new evangelization" does not have to elaborate a single equal formula for all the fact, we cannot forget that the first task is to be docile to the gratuitous work of the Spirit of the Risen One, which supports all those who are bearers of the Gospel, and which opens the hearts of those who listen. Necessary above all to proclaim profoundly the Word of the Gospel is a profound experience of God."

Since the Pope seems to envision the new Council's work being directed primarily at Europe, we'll simply have to see how it begins to unfold, and if the American Catholic Church will eventually feel any impact. We can only pray that there will, in some way, be some lasting benefit from the work for all of God's people.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

St. Gilbert of Sempringham (1083-1189)

Though St. Gilbert of Sempringham is honored officially on February 4, the Order of Julian of Norwich celebrates his feast tomorrow, October 13, the date of the translation of his relics. Gilbert of Sempringham isn't exactly a "household" name among the faithful in this country, but for the folks in Lincolnshire, it's a different story!

The Order of Julian celebrates Gilbert's feast for very good reason: he's honored as the second patron of the Order because he founded the Gilbertine Order, the first religious order founded in England, as well as the first one with both monks and nuns. When Fr. John Julian, OJN visited Norwich, England in 1982, prior to founding the Order of Julian, he also visited Sempringham. He says that on the plane home, when he made the decision to found the Order of Julian, it was that visit to Sempringham which gave him the impetus to make OJN a "mixed" order of monks and nuns.

Aside from that, Gilbert was a remarkable man, on first-name basis with the great Cistercian, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III. He also gave shelter to Thomas à Becket as he was fleeing from King Henry II. After his death, Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, had this to say: "[Gilbert's] abstinence was wonderful, his chastity conspicuous, his prayers watchful and devout, his care for his flock eager and discreet. Meditation filled up his leisure hours, action and contemplation alternating with each other like the angels ascending and descending Jacob's ladder. An idle word rarely escaped his lips."

St. Gilbert was the first person to go through the then-new papal process of being recognized officially as a saint of the Church. Thirteen years after his death, King John, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of London, Norwich, Bangor and Ely, the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, three abbots and many other people petitioned the Pope that Gilbert be canonized. Pope Innocent III concurred, and canonized Gilbert a saint on January 11, 1202.  The intercession of St. Gilbert seems to have resulted in many healing miracles, and he is a great favorite for pilgrimages by the faithful to honor him.

O Eternal Savior, make us conscious of our need for your strength,
that we who venerate the renowned merits of Blessed Gilbert,
Saint and Confessor, may be your grace, and assisted by his prayers,
be delivered from all diseases of our souls, who lives and reigns,
with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thérèse: The Little Saint of Hope

St. Thérèse Martin of Lisieux (1873-1897) did nothing spectacular in her life. She was only 24 years old when she died, and had spent a mere nine years in the Carmelite Monastery of Lisieux. Yet she was declared a saint of Church, the universal patron of the missions, and a Doctor of the Church!

As Fr. Conrad de Meester, OCD observes: "All she wanted was to live a hidden life with God, who was her Life...It was almost as if she had been saintly from the cradle, or only needed the benefit of the sun's rays to warm the seeds of holiness in her soul.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Like many other privileged souls, Thérèse had to grow and mature with much suffering and in total poverty. The brilliant intuitions of her faith are meaninful only when they are seen against the background of her personal life, with all its ups and downs and all its crises. Eventually she developed the capacity to represent everything in profoundly simple terms. This simplicity was the fruit of her ardent love, and of her imaginative, creative, but sorely tried attempt to reconcile the ultimately harmonize the total, unlimited response of God's lowly creature with God's inifinite love...

Thérèse is the saint of hope. She shows us with what liberating force God can take possession of us and work through us. For he operated through her, starting from her immediate surroundings, and helped her to become a revolutionary of love..." (Empty Hands: The Message of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, pp. ix-xi)

On the last afternoon of her life, Thérèse remarked: " I do not regret having surrendered myself to love. Oh, no! I do not regret it, on the contrary!" Fr. de Meester concludes his wonderful book, Empty Hands: The Message of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: "Thérèse's last breath came with her last words: 'My God, I love you.' This was the supreme moment...Now love had taken full possession of her being. This was love as deep as the ocean and more radiant than the sun. This was life and joy immeasurable: unending life with Mary and with all the saints in Heaven; eternal life with God who is all in all. Hope had finally done its work." (p. 142)

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Transitus of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

From the earliest days of the Franciscan Order, the followers of St. Francis have gathered on the anniversary of his death to celebrate his transitus, that is, Francis' passage from earthly life into everlasting life. We celebrate the light which Francis was to his world, as well as the spirit of Francis in our midst today. Inspired by Francis, we might consider how we can be light for our world.

The following readings and scripture, describe the last days and hours of St. Francis.

Readings from Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure:

St. Francis spent the last few days before his death in praising the Lord and teaching his companions, whom he loved so much, to praise Christ with him. He himself, in as far as he was able, broke out with the Psalm: "I cry to the Lord with my voice; to the Lord I make loud supplication." He likewise invited all creatures to praise God and, with the words he had composed earlier, he exhorted them to love God. Even death itself, considered by all to be so terrible and hateful, was exhorted to give praise, while he himself, going joyfully to meet it, invited it to make its abode with him. "Welcome," he said, "my sister death." (Celano, Second Life.)

When the hour of his death approached, Francis asked that all of the brothers living with him be called to his death bed and softening his departure with consoling words, he encouraged them with fatherly affection to love God. He spoke of patience and poverty and of being faithful to the Holy Roman Church, giving precedence to the Holy Gospels before all else. He then stretched his hands over the brothers in the form of a cross, a symbol that he loved so much, and gave his blessings to all followers, both present and absent, in the power and in the name of the Crucified. Then he added: "Remain, my sons, in the fear of the Lord and be with him always. And as temptations and trials beset you, blessed are those who persevere to the end in the life they have chosen. I am on my way to God and I commend you all to His favor." With this sweet admonition, this dearly beloved of God, asked that the book of the Gospels be brought to him and that the passage in the Gospel of St. John, which begins "before the Feast of the Passover" be read. (Bonaventure, Major Life.)

A Reading from John 13:1-17

"Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, 'Lord, do you wash my feet?' Jesus answered him, 'What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.' Peter said to him, 'You shall never wash my feet.' Jesus answered him, 'If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.' Simon Peter said to him, 'Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!' Jesus said to him, 'He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not all of you.' For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, 'You are not all clean.'

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, 'Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you as example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.'"

Finally, when all God's mysteries had been accomplished in Francis, his holy soul was freed from his body and assumed into the abyss of God's glory, and Francis fell asleep in God. (Bonaventure, Major Life.)

O God, on this day you granted the reward of blessed eternity to our blessed Father Francis; 
mercifully grant that we who celebrate with tender devotion the memory of his death 
may have the joy of sharing in his blessed regard. 
Through Jesus Christ Your Son Our Lord, who lives and reigns with You 
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Adapted from the Liturgy for the Transitus by Ouida L. Tomlinson, SFO)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Increase Our Faith"

This morning I returned to St. John's Episcopal Church, Lakeport, CA, to celebrate the Eucharist, the first time since I retired in mid-2007. I volunteered to fill in for my friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, who was diagnosed with cancer several months ago, and who began chemotherapy this past week. This will explain the rather personal nature of the homily I gave and which I'm sharing with you below.
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It’s wonderful to be at the altar here again today with all of you, celebrating the Eucharist and honoring St. Francis. Having said that, I also rather wish I didn’t have to be here, only because Fr. Leo Joseph’s illness and the chemotherapy on Thursday prevents him from being here today with you. He sounded good when I spoke with him yesterday evening. In fact, the effects of the treatment have been surprisingly mild so far, and Fr. Leo feels he might be able to return on Monday. So let us give thanks to God for that, and continue to pray that his next treatment, on October 21, goes as well.

Today’s Scriptures, as so often happens, amazingly offer just what you and I need to hear and think about at this time. The question which seems literally to jump out at us today is: what do the words “believe”, “trust”, “have faith” really mean to you and me? They’re words quite familiar in “church language”, but what meaning do they have, really, in your and my actual lives?

We do “believing” every day. If it’s foggy when we rise, we believe, or at least hope, that eventually the sun will burn off the fog and make it sunny. When we get ready to cross a street, after the light has turned red for oncoming traffic, and we see the “Walk” sign, we trust the we’ll be able to get across okay: why? Because we trust in the fairness and in the good judgment of the drivers. When God, through the word of Scripture, tells you and me that we’re to love God and one another, we have faith that what God tells us is true. why? Because God gave us as proof the model of Jesus, who did that in his life. The writer of 2 Timothy (1:1-14) today expresses it this way: “...grace was given to us in Christ Jesus…[and] has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…

Our sisters and brothers in the Church many centuries ago used a different phrase for the word “believe”: viz., “to set one’s heart upon”. The way you and I believe/trust/have faith is by setting our hearts on Jesus the Christ whom we know will do what he says, because he’s reliable; we can count on him. Another New Testament writer, the author of Hebrews desribes it this way: to set one’s heart on Jesus means being sure of what you hope for, and being sure even when you can’t see because Jesus, God’s Word, says it’s so and has shown us that it is so. Our conviction is that Jesus will never mislead us.

The first reading from Habbakuk (1:1-4; 2:1-4) several times shows how unshakeable the prophet was in setting his heart on the God of Israel, knowing that, after crying out for help, sooner or later God would listen. He’s determined that, for his part, he’s to stand at his watchpost, as on a rampart, and keep attuned to what God will convey to him and to how God will guide him. Then he’ll make God’s vision as clear as he can to the other people of God, putting it, so to speak, on a sign big enough that even a runner racing by could see it and read it. And God’s vision, as the Collect intimates, is far more ambitious than anything we could ever think up: “ are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve…” Habbakuk stands on his statement: “...there is still a vision for the appointed will surely come…

The second reading from 2 Timothy refers to Timothy’s “sincere faith”, acknowledging the important influence of his grandmother and mother embodying that setting of the heart upon God. The writer, probably not Paul, refers to the gift of a “holy calling” to be a follower of Jesus, and emphasizes that that gift is given to us by God in the power and person of Christ Jesus, and that to set our hearts on Jesus will surely lead us to “life and immortality...”. The writer further attests that his own preaching, apostleship, and teaching is done in the power of his setting his heart on Christ: “...I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him…

Finally, the apostles in Luke’s Gospel passage (17:5-10) voice what you and I must surely be crying out in our own hearts today, faced as we are with Fr. Leo’s illness: “Increase our faith!” Jesus suggests that we don’t have to shoulder the whole burden ourselves, as we sometimes foolishly and mistakenly try to do. He says that it doesn’t take much: just faith about the size of a small mustard seed, and he will take care of all the rest. Our responsibility is simply to do what we’ve been asked to do, as God leads us: no more, no less. And we find a clue for precisely what that is in Psalm 37 (37:1-10): notice that it says not once, but three times: “Do not fret.” “Trust in the Lord, and do good…”, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”, “Commit your way to the Lord, trust him, and he will act.”, “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him…”, “Refrain from anger…

There’s a legend, passed down by the Cherokee, about an Indian youth’s initiation to become a grown-up:

A father takes his young son into the forest. He blindfolds him and leaves him alone, sitting on a stump for the whole night. The boy is not allowed to remove the blindfold until he feels the rays of the morning sun shine through it. He may not cry out for help to anyone. If he survives the night, he’ll be considered a grown-up. And he must then keep this experience secret from the other boys, because each of them, too, must come into manhood on his own.

Naturally, the boy is terrified. All sorts of things are running through his mind. He can hear all kinds of noises, perhaps of wild animals, or maybe even of humans who could do him harm. The wind blows through the grass all around him., but he sits with determination, never removing the blindfold to peek. It’s the only way he can become a man!

Finally, after a long night he gradually feels the glorious warmth of the sun emerge and begin beating down on his face. He removes the blindfold...and he discovers his father sitting there on a stump across from him. His father had been at watch the entire night, protecting his son from any possible harm.

We are never alone, just as at this particular time you and I and our dear Fr. Leo are not alone. Even when we can’t see it or feel it, God is present, watching, protecting. We need only set our hearts upon God, trust the One Who loves us, have faith in the God who gives us “those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior…