Friday, July 31, 2009

Homily for Sue

Many thanks - a lifetime of thanks, really - to Sherry and Keith Strohm, the other two teachers at Making Disciples, who let me leave early to preside and preach at Sue's funeral. The Church was full of her friends and colleagues (don't know what we would have done if school had been in session and the students were there in force...). Ten of her priest friends were there to concelebrate, as well as her mother, father, and brother from Massachusetts. I still am in denial that I won't see her again - at least in this life. She was a sister to me, even though we had what we liked to call an "interspecies relationship," since she was an OSU Beaver Believer and I was an Oregon Duck. The picture shows me wearing a gift from the Corvallis Catholic community after I preached a mission there last Lent: an OSU Beaver scarf.

I hope you don't mind if I include the homily I preached. She was a great friend and a tremendous servant to everyone. As Barb Anderson, a pastoral associate at St. Mary's, Corvallis, OR, preached at her wake, Sue's mantra was always, "What can I do to support you?" I can't count how many times I heard that from Sue - and it was always genuine.

The readings for her funeral were: Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Thes 4:13-18; John 11: 17-27

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines…
Isaiah, the prophet, the dreamer, foresees a generous God preparing a feast for all peoples, not just a chosen few. It’s quite an extravagant meal he describes, and for a people who often suffered from famine, it was the very essence of heaven. That feast on the mountain of Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, is foretasted today, in this eucharist, an extravagant feast set before us by the host who provides his own body as the main course. That feast was also foretasted by all of us who were blessed to experience Sue’s hospitality. I remember how delighted she was to learn that such a humble, often undervalued trait was actually a gift of the Holy Spirit, a way in which she participated in God’s hospitality.

And yet hospitality was at the very heart of Jesus’ culture, and Jesus himself. All we have to do is look to the meaning of word itself to see that. Hospitality comes from the latin, hospitalitem, or “friendliness to guests.” Well, that doesn’t sound very remarkable. Almost like “being nice.” Until, of course, you know that hospes, the Latin word at the root of hospitality, meant “enemy,” or, more commonly, “stranger.” That same meaning of stranger is also preserved in the Latin word hostis, or “host.”

So let’s revisit Isaiah’s vision of the final and eternal meal, for a moment.
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines

God is, indeed, the Lord of hosts, the Lord of strangers. The very first meal recorded in scripture – a snack of forbidden fruit – is accompanied by a promise “eat this, and you will be like gods, knowing everything.” For we all are estranged from God by our own strange dream of taking God’s place and becoming autonomous; by doing our will, rather than God’s. The result is described in Genesis 3: estrangement – alienation from God, from each other, even from nature. In this estrangement, death is the physical manifestation of a spiritual reality of life apart from God. The rest of the Hebrew scriptures recount God’s faithfulness to us and our continued unfaithfulness to God – what St. Paul recognized as our absolute inability to follow God’s will as described by the Jewish Law.

To remedy this intolerable situation, God did what ancient myths in various cultures dreamt of.

He came to us.

God sent His only Son, literally made him “welcome.” Like “hospitality,” the word “welcome” has interesting roots - the Old Engish wilcuma "welcome guest/stranger," literally, "one whose coming is in accord with another's will.”

Jesus was our guest – a stranger in our midst. Strange because he was like us in all things but sin – and thus full of life, not a trace of death within him. So he can truly say to Martha, “I am the resurrection" – the overcoming of death. He truly is the life who came that we might have life in abundance.

But this abundant life, expressed by Isaiah as a bountiful, never-ending meal, is found only through belief in him: “whoever believes in me, even if she dies, will live.” But this death-defeating belief is much more than mere assent to doctrines and dogmas, for “even the demons believe, and shudder.” Jesus says those who believe in him and live in him will never die. They will be so full of life that death will have no lasting power over them, and St. Paul assures us in our loss that those, like Sue, who have lived in Jesus will be among the first to rise on the last day. Why? Because she died as she lived: in Christ.

What I mean by that was, Sue showed us a particular side of Jesus. He manifested himself to us in a special way through the gift of hospitality that he gave her when she was joined to him in baptism. During his earthly ministry, he had “no place to lay his head,” yet he offered hospitality to those who were strangers to God. He welcomed sinners and ate with them; that is, he willed that sinners should come to him. That was, and is, the will of His Father. He dined with those he knew would abandon him in his darkest hour – even with one who would betray him. And he still does that today, in this eucharist, where he is found in that piece of bread-become-His-flesh we call the host – the stranger – who is in our midst.

In Sue and through Sue, Jesus continued to show us that hospitality. Not just around Simple Suppers at Newman, or at her own table loaded with fresh breads and homemade soups; Mexican casseroles and always a smackeral of something sweet.

No, Jesus revealed the radical nature of his hospitality in Sue’s dream of a Church in which all were welcomed to struggle together towards genuine discipleship. The Jesus she knew and loved welcomes the obvious saint and obvious sinner; progressives and traditionalists; men and women; "people of every race, language and way of life"; clergy and laity – yes, even Beavers and damn Ducks. So that’s what she did – or, better, what Jesus did through the gifts he gave her. Like St. Paul who rejoiced that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Sue gently, persistently worked to overcome all the ways we make each other strangers of one another. And in doing that, she worked to overcome ways we make ourselves strangers to Christ.

It is so fitting – God’s providence, really - that we celebrate Sue’s life on the feast of St. Martha, the woman who shared with Sue the gift of hospitality, and who had the privilege of offering it to her Lord. In Martha’s home, as well as in Sue’s, Jesus found a place where he was not a stranger, but a friend; he relaxed before a hearth filled with gentle human warmth; a place where not only the door was open, but the door of a heart was recklessly opened to receive him.

Let us pray that Sue is “welcomed” into heaven by Martha, the woman she so resembles, and by Jesus, whose people she so hospitably served. Let us pray that her coming there is "in accord with the will of" Jesus, who loves her and gave his life for her. Let us pray that we welcome Jesus into our life, that at it’s end he may not be a stranger to us. And finally let us sing of Sue and take up her dream, which is so beautifully expressed in the song, "All Are Welcome"

Let us build a house where love can dwell And all can safely live,
A place where saints and children tell How hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, Rock of faith and vault of grace;
Here the love of Christ shall end divisions; All are welcome, All are welcome, All are welcome in this place

Let us build a house where prophets speak, And words are strong and true,
Where all God's children dare to seek To dream God's reign anew.
Here the cross shall stand as witness And a symbol of God's grace;
Here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:All are welcome, All are welcome, All are welcome in this place

Let us build a house were all are named; their song and vision heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word
built of tears and cries and laughter; prayers of faith and songs of grace
Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter: all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.


[I concluded by singing a final verse a capella; a verse I modified for this occasion.]

God has built a house where love now dwells And all do joyfully live,
A place where saints with childlike hearts all know how to forgive.
Fulfilled hopes and dreams and visions; Sight, not faith; a vault of grace;
Where the love of Christ ended divisions;

Sue is welcome, Sue is welcome, Sue is welcome in that place.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sue Gifford

A dear friend of Fr. Mike's and a regular reader of and occasional commenter on this blog died suddenly on Friday.

Sue Gifford of Corvallis, Oregon. Sue had been the campus minister there for many years and was greatly loved. She had also been seriously and chronically ill for many years and was the embodiment of faith, hope, and grace under pressure for many. Please pray for Sue and her family and friends this Sunday.

And for all those attending Making Disciples this week.

Jesus: He Who Must Not Be Named?

Making Disciples, our 4 day seminar on evangelization, begins today here in Colorado Springs so blogging will be scarce until Friday. We have participants coming from the Detroit area, Atlanta area (a parish associate and all her leaders) , Corpus Christi, Canton, Ohio (a pastor and his leaders, 15 in total!) Tennessee, Colorado Springs, and Singapore. I spent most of yesterday cleaning and cooking (i'll be having guests) while praying, praising, and pondering.

One of the things I was pondering was our Catholic tendency not to "name the name". We use all kinds of euphemisms for Jesus ("Our Lord" is a classic. Reverent certainly, but also subtly distancing and for non-Christians, a but confusing. Just who do we mean?) but we seldom name his name unless the liturgy or the office requires that we do so. We talk incessantly about the Church. But not about the Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and Head of the Church. Not Jesus. Not by name. Not spontaneously without the liturgy to give us "cover". To do so, seems so naked, so unsophisticated, so pietistic, so what - Protestant??

I am not the only one who has noticed this aspect of American Catholic culture. A Catholic scholar friend of mine has mischievously coined a memorable phrase to describe it: Jesus is "He who must not be named".

It is light of this, that I was delighted to read the homily of the new Archbishop of Omaha over at Whispers. We have done quite of bit of work with the folks in Omaha lately and will be doing more in future. I would guess that Archbishop Lucas' words delighted them.

"You and I will never be able to put ourselves on the line in our time and place – to profess our faith in Jesus – to be witnesses as well as disciples – unless we are sure that He is alive – risen from the dead. We will never be convinced of that truth unless we have a personal encounter with Him, as Peter did. The Holy Spirit makes that personal encounter with the Lord possible right where we live, in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist. In our Catholic faith, we not only remember Jesus, we meet him. We are formed into His living Body by the Holy Spirit. If we are really witnesses to Christ, then we look for opportunities to bring others to Him. We will never convince anyone to put faith in the risen Jesus unless we can offer them a personal experience of Him. That becomes possible when we put ourselves on the line for Him – when it is clear to our neighbors that we will not turn away from Jesus, the living truth, no matter what.

None of us would be here today if we were not convinced that Jesus is calling us to be his witnesses. And we see that none of us have to do it alone. We are given to each other that we might strengthen each other in the midst of a culture that is often inhospitable to faith and witness. The devil tempts us to become discouraged, but we lift each other up with the hope given to the baptized.

Sherry's note: I simply love the first sentence below! (The emphasis is mine.)

Since Jesus is alive, no good thing is impossible for us. Will we who know that Jesus is risen allow ourselves to think that chaste marriages are impossible? It is not impossible to witness to the risen Christ in this way. Knowing that Jesus lives, can we give up on feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless? Will we ever let ourselves think that it is impossible to foster a culture of life, to revere our brothers and sisters in the womb, the sick, the dying? Has it become impossible to teach the beauties of our Catholic faith to our children, including poor children?

Is it impossible to think that gifted young people would put aside their own plans to follow Jesus in the priesthood and the consecrated life? Is it impossible to accept forgiveness, even for grievous sins, as Peter did, from the crucified and risen Christ?

It is difficult now to be witnesses to the risen Christ – as it has been in every age. We are weak and we fall short. However, let us not think for a moment that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead has somehow become a smaller event over the years. Let us not think that the Holy Spirit has gotten tired over so many generations and so many miles, that we might not have a full portion of the Spirit in Northeast Nebraska in 2009.

Amen and Amen.

Gotta finish getting ready. Lets go wild this week. Let's make a point of Name-dropping as we go through the days. Name the Name. Praise the Name. Glory in the Name. Pray in the Name.



Here's a wonderful article on speaking and honoring the Holy Name of Jesus from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia:

"At the Holy Name of Jesus we uncover our heads, and we bend our knees; it is at the head of all our undertakings, as the Emperor Justinian says in his law-book: "In the Name of Our Lord Jesus we begin all our consultations". The Name of Jesus invoked with confidence brings help in bodily needs, according to the promise of Christ: "In my name They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover". (Mark 16:17-18) In the Name of Jesus the Apostles gave strength to the lame (Acts 3:6; 9:34) and life to the dead (Acts 9:40).

It gives consolation in spiritual trials. The Name of Jesus reminds the sinner of the prodigal son's father and of the Good Samaritan; it recalls to the just the suffering and death of the innocent Lamb of God.
It protects us against Satan and his wiles, for the Devil fears the Name of Jesus, who has conquered him on the Cross.

In the Name of Jesus we obtain every blessing and grace for time and eternity, for Christ has said: "If you ask the Father anything in my name he will give it you." (John 16:23) Therefore the Church concludes all her prayers by the words: "Through Our Lord Jesus Christ", etc.

So the word of St. Paul is fulfilled: "That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth" (Philippians 2:10).

A special lover of the Holy Name was St. Bernard, who speaks of it in most glowing terms in many of his sermons. But the greatest promoters of this devotion were St. Bernardine of Siena and St. John Capistran. They carried with them on their missions in the turbulent cities of Italy a copy of the monogram of the Holy Name, surrounded by rays, painted on a wooden tablet, wherewith they blessed the sick and wrought great miracles. At the close of their sermons they exhibited this emblem to the faithful and asked them to prostrate themselves, to adore the Redeemer of mankind. They recommended their hearers to have the monogram of Jesus placed over the gates of their cities and above the doors of their dwelling (cf. Seeberger, "Key to the Spiritual Treasures", 1897, 102).

Because the manner in which St. Bernardine preached this devotion was new, he was accused by his enemies, and brought before the tribunal of Pope Martin V. But St. John Capistran defended his master so successfully that the pope not only permitted the worship of the Holy Name, but also assisted at a procession in which the holy monogram was carried. The tablet used by St. Bernardine is venerated at Santa Maria in Ara Coeli at Rome.

The emblem or monogram representing the Holy Name of Jesus consists of the three letters: IHS. In the Middle Ages the Name of Jesus was written: IHESUS; the monogram contains the first and last letter of the Holy Name. It is first found on a gold coin of the eight century: DN IHS CHS REX REGNANTIUM (The Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings). Some erroneously say that the three letters are the initials of: "Jesus Hominum Salvator" (Jesus Saviour of Men). The Jesuits made this monogram the emblem of their Society, adding a cross over the H and three nails under it. Consequently a new explanation of the emblem was invented, pretending that the nails originally were a "V", and that the monogram stands for "In Hoc Signo Vinces" (In This Sign you shall Conquer), the words which, according to a legendary account, Constantine saw in the heavens under the Sign of the Cross before the battle at the Milvian bridge (312).

Urban IV and John XXII are said to have granted an indulgence of thirty days to those who would add the name of Jesus to the Hail Mary or would bend their knees, or at least bow their heads when hearing the Name of Jesus (Alanus, "Psal. Christi et Mariae", i, 13, and iv, 25, 33; Michael ab Insulis, "Quodlibet", v; Colvenerius, "De festo SS. Nominis", x). This statement may be true; yet it was only by the efforts of St. Bernardine that the custom of adding the Name of Jesus to the Ave Maria was spread in Italy, and from there to the Universal Church. But up to the sixteenth century it was still unknown in Belgium (Colven., op. Cit., x), whilst in Bavaria and Austria the faithful still affix to the Ave Maria the words: "Jesus Christus" (ventris tui, Jesus Christus).

Sixtus V (2 July, 1587) granted an indulgence of fifty days to the ejaculation: "Praise be to Jesus Christ!" with the answer: "For evermore", or "Amen". In the South of Germany the peasants salute each other with this pious formula.

Sixtus V and Benedict XIII granted an indulgence of fifty days to all as often as they pronounce the Name of Jesus reverently, and a plenary indulgence in the hour of death. These two indulgences were confirmed by Clement XIII, 5 Sept., 1759. As often as we invoke the Name of Jesus and Mary ("Jesu!", "Maria!") we may gain an indulgence of 300 days, by decree of Pius X, 10 Oct., 1904. It is also necessary, to gain the papal indulgence in the hour of death, to pronounce at least in mind the Name of Jesus."

What a great idea to affix the monogram for Jesus' name above your door! Would it be great if you knew that you were at the door of a Catholic home because the Name was above the door?

Let the Name dropping begin!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This Past Sunday

From Mark Noll's The New Shape of World Christianity

This past Sunday, it is possible that more Christian believers attended church in China than in all of so-called “Christian Europe. Yet in 1970 there were no legally functioning churches in all of China; only in 1971 did the communist regime allow for one Protestant and one Roman Catholic Church to hold public worship services, and this was mostly a concession to visiting Europeans and African students from Tanzania and Zambia.

This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined and the number of Anglicans in church in Nigeria was several times the number in those other African countries.

This past Sunday more Presbyterians were at church in Ghana than in Scotland, and more were in congregations of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa than in the United States.

This past Sunday there were more members of Brazil’s Pentecostal Assemblies of God at church than the combined total in the two largest U.S. Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ in the United States.

This past Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church pastored by Yongi Cho in Seoul, Korea, than attended all the churches in significant American denominations like the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church or the Presbyterian Church in America. Six to eight times as many people attended this one church as the total that worshiped in Canada’s ten largest churches combined.

This past Sunday Roman Catholics in the United States worshiped in more languages than at any previous time in American history.

This past Sunday the churches with the largest attendance in England and France had mostly black congregations. About half of the churchgoers in London were African or African-Caribbean. Today, the largest Christian congregation in Europe is in Kiev, and it is pastored by a Nigerian of Pentecostal background.

This past Sunday there were more Roman Catholics at worship in the Philippines than in any single country of Europe, including historically Catholic Italy, Spain or Poland.

This past week in Great Britain, at least fifteen thousand Christian foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing the locals. Most of these missionaries are from Africa and Asia.

And for several years the world’s largest chapter of the Jesuit order has been found in India, not in the United States, as it had been for much of the late twentieth century.

In a word, the Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last fifty years than in any comparable period in its history, with the exception of the very earliest years of church history. Some of this change comes from the general growth of world population, much also arises from remarkable rates of evangelization in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the islands of the South Pacific—but also from a nearly unprecedented relative decline of Christian adherence in Europe.

The result of population changes—in general for the world, specifically for the churches—is a series of mind-blowing realities: More than half of all Christian adherents in the whole history of the church have been alive in the last one hundred years. Close to half of Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now.

H/T Confluence and Cross Pollination

Friday, July 24, 2009


Begin your morning the right way with the exuberant music of this big, joyously Catholic, Irish-Cajun family: L'Angelus. (Lawn Jay Loose as they say in southern Lousiana.)

(What do you think? Do Irish-Cajuns have any choice or do they just have to be Catholic?)

Ignatius insight has portions of a interview with the family. In this video. Johnny, Stephen, Katie and Paige Rees are playing with their mom. The beginning shots show the whole family which now has 10 children, two of which are the foster children of a mother in dire straights after Katrina.

As musicians, they have been kicking around southern Louisiana for years. But now they are just starting to move into the mainstream.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Open Christianity in the Australian Public Square

News from down under:

First of all, Clara, our Australian team director, shares this fun story. The new Master Chef of Australia, Julie Goodwin, is a 38 year old mother of three who openly talks about her Catholic faith in a culture where that is much less common than it is in the States. Master Chef is a reality show and national competition for home cooks who want to become professionals and the winner gets $100,000.

"BEFORE the final verdict was read MasterChef Australia finalist Julie Goodwin was saying a little prayer with her family. The mother-of-three enjoyed time with her family and friends from her local Catholic Church on the NSW Central Coast yesterday.

"All of us have had our battles to fight in this competition and a lot of my philosophies are grounded in my faith," said Goodwin, who met her husband Mick through a St Vincent de Paul youth group 20 years ago.

"I've missed going to mass and seeing my friends and the people there, I've missed that a lot. I think the greatest thing about it was knowing that the community was supporting my family while I wasn't there. There have been lots of casseroles brought around and people coming to help clean the house. It's a real beautiful community thing

Clara also shares this news story about the open faith of Australia's new "first spouse", Therese Rein:

"Rein and Rudd's regular worship in the Anglican Church is a novelty for an electorate schooled in the tradition of keeping church and state on either side of the private and public divide. Rudd's 2006 essay Faith in Politics sought to free God from conservative clutches, and a new study has confirmed that politicians of all stripes are making more mention of religion than MPs in the past.

Faith and family define the contours of Rein's life. Raised by her mother, Elizabeth, to be the best she could be, this creed also helped lift John Rein, her wheelchair-bound father, to seek out milestones and dreams often denied to permanently and totally incapacitated people."

Far from being a traditional political spouse, Rein is the most successful female entrepreneur in Australian history. While Michelle Obama was touring Tuscany during the G 8 summits, Rein was

"in Australia, juggling business meetings with the portfolio of social campaigns she has agreed to champion: most notably the homeless, victims of child abuse, indigenous children, and the Paralympian movement that engaged her father as an athlete and volunteer coach.

"I've spoken with a number of people about this role (of Prime Minister's spouse) and what they all say is that you bring your passions, interests, and strengths, your family and who you are," she says. "Everyone will do this job differently

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mary Magdalene

Once upon a time . . .

I was walking (on the Sabbath) around the Sea of Galilee from Tiberius to Capernum. The Galilean mud caked my shoes and I had to repeatedly knock it off. Suddenly all the stories of foot-washing in the Gospels took on a whole new meaning. Galilean crabs apparently have a death wish since I found so many of them inland and was constantly tossing them back in to the sea.

About half way along, in the midst of these amusements, I found myself in the midst of a banana plantation. Suddenly I began to notice that the rocks littering the landscape no longer looked like mere rocks. They looked like ruins. Just as this dawned upon me, I saw a sign in three languages (English, Hebrew, Arabic) that read

"This is the site of Magda, the home of Mary Magdalene."

I stopped short in awe, trying to trace in the heavily farmed area a trace of my heroine's home.

Today is her feast day. She who is titled by the Orthodox "Equal to the Apostles". I have an icon of her bringing the new of Christ's resurrection to the Apostles on the wall above me as I write.

My favorite image of her is Giotto's portrait of her reaching toward Christ after his Resurrection. Noli Me Tangere. Her face is both radiant and utterly intent.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Existential Cost of Love

Two years ago, on the Institute's 10th anniversary, I wrote a very long post on the Existential Cost of Love. Since a large part of the post quoted Rolland and Heidi Baker (featured in the amazing video below) on the cost of answering God's call, I am going to reprint part (not all!) of my original post:

All vocations and all gifts, however wonderful and divinely empowered, demand sustained sacrifice and growing dependence upon God to bring to fruition. They always involve saying "no" to other good things. Many of us don't think long and hard enough about the cost of bringing any work of love to completion in a fallen world. To answer the life-long call for the sake of others that comes with a charism is both joyful beyond words and very demanding.

Perhaps it is because the Institute just celebrated her 10th anniversary but I've been meditating upon the experience of the past 17 years since I received my call. My conclusion would have to be Dickensian: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I can hardly put into words how astonishing, fulfilling, fruitful, and graced a journey it has been overall or how demanding, relentless, exhausting, and heart-breaking large parts of it have been. People are sometimes surprised that I don't answer with simple one word enthusiasm when asked how I'm doing. That's because "good" or "fine" doesn't begin to cover the waterfront.

In this, I don't imagine that I am different from most intentional disciples (and/or parents!) in mid-life, maxed out and overwhelmed by our commitments and vocation(s). (Most of us have more than one vocation or work of love to which we are called).

It is always infinitely more complicated and cross-grained to actually live a vocation than to dream about it or even say "yes" to it at the beginning. And how many of us begin to withdraw our "yes" in small or large ways when the inevitable, chronic struggles and pain associated with any significant work of love begins to rear its ugly head. How many of us feel that there is something wrong with us, with our discernment, with our situation, with our faith, when the price of love in a fallen world comes due? (Here I am not speaking of the sort of suffering which is not an intrinsic part of our vocation(s) and should move us to appropriate change.)

Rolland and Heidi Baker of Iris Ministries are intimately familiar with this reality. In my 11 part article on Independent Christianity that I blogged in May, I wrote briefly about their remarkable work.

In 1995, the Bakers, who both have PhD's in theology, moved to Mozambique – the poorest country on earth. They were offered a crumbling orphanage by the government but no other support. The Bakers took it and 10 years later they care for over 6,000 orphans. In their spare time, they have planted over 6,000 congregations among the poor in 10 African nations.

Rolland wrote movingly in July of their personal and spiritual poverty in the face of the staggering challenges of their call:

Our four years in Pemba have been tumultuous, intense, filled with demonic attacks, violence, threats, opposition from the government, discouragement, theft, loss, disappointments, failures, staff turnover, and the constant, unrelenting demands of extreme poverty and disease all around us. It almost always seemed that our capabilities and resources were no match for the challenges we faced every day, resulting in a level of chaos and stress that literally threatened our health and lives. Intense witchcraft and a lack of exposure to familiar standards of right and wrong made our work in this very remote part of the world seem all the more impossible. Heidi and I remember many times when we did not know how we could continue, often wondering if we really had good, lasting fruit that was worth the sacrifice.

We are often asked what the overcoming key to our ministry and growth is. We don't think in terms of keys or secrets, but in the simplest truths of the Gospel. We have learned by experience that there is no way forward when pressed to our extremities but to sacrifice ourselves at every turn for His sake, knowing nothing but Jesus and Him crucified. We must die to live. It is better to give than to receive, and better to love than to be loved. We cannot lose, because we have a perfect Savior who is able to finish what He began in us, if we do not give up and throw away our faith.

In years past we did not think we could identify with Paul like this, but now we understand more of what he meant: "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead" (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

A witness to a 2005 presentation by Heidi Baker in Toronto summed up her message this way:

She took the passage of the angel Gabriel's message to Mary and preached on the inherent difficulty of carrying God's call on your life to its completion. Using illustrations from her own life and ministry, she effectively made the point that God's calling is neither easy nor comfort-laden but is filled with great difficulty and the humanly impossible. Thus it is a burden which God asks you to carry, a seed which he places within you which you must then carry and nurture to its completion regardless of the cost to you, your relationships or your reputation. When the Holy Spirit overshadows you (or Mary or I), and places within you the seed of God's Word for your life, you can bet that the cost and inconvenience will be significant and that the path to its completion will require utter reliance upon Him.

Coming to the point of actually hearing the Holy Spirit's (specific) Word for your (specific) life is a very important journey in itself. But once that (specific) Word is received an entirely new journey begins. And that journey promises to be the most difficult and exhilarating of any you can possibly take in your lifetime. It is the journey toward utter reliance upon the power of God and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit's ministry to others through that dependence.

Many lay Catholics, in my experience, regard this sort of language and life experience as “non-Catholic” or “Protestant” or at best, only for saints. But aspiring to great things for God and others is for all the baptized and a great virtue in Catholic understanding. As I wrote in “The Disciplines of Hope” for the Siena Scribe in 2003:

Magnanimity is the aspiration of the spirit to great things. St. Thomas Aquinas called it the “jewel of all the virtues” because the magnanimous person has the courage to seek out what is great and become worthy of it. Magnanimity is rooted in assurance of the highest possibilities of our God-given human nature.

When I first encountered the idea that “aspiring to greatness” was a Christian virtue, I had difficulty taking it in. Aren’t Christians supposed to be humble and to avoid trying to be something special, to minimize and even belittle our abilities and achievements, to avoid ambition, and to prefer anonymity? Even the idea of having charisms distresses some Catholics. Believing that God might do something really important and supernatural through them somehow seems to lack humility. One 84-year-old Scot told me in his lilting brogue, “I couldn’t have charisms; it wouldn’t be humble!”

To allay such fears, we can recognize that humility is magnanimity’s necessary partner, the attitude before God that recognizes and fully accepts our creaturehood and the immeasurable distance between the Creator and his creation. But neither does humility stand alone: without magnanimity, we don’t see the whole of our dignity as human beings. Magnanimity and humility together enable us to keep our balance, to arrive at our proper worth before God, to persist in living our secular mission, and to persevere in seeking our eternal destiny despite apparent frustration and failure.

Magnanimity empowers us to aspire to whatever remarkable vocation God calls us to but the virtue of fortitude ensures that we finish the journey well. As Fr. John Hardon, SJ put it:

Fortitude is “the important commodity of enabling us to carry to successful conclusion the most difficult tasks that are undertaken in the service of God. There are two forms of courage implied in this gift of fortitude: the gift to undertake arduous tasks and the gift to endure long and trying difficulties for the divine glory.

At every Called & Gifted workshop, I quote Venerable John Henry Newman’s words:
“God has determined . . . that I should reach that which will be my greatest happiness. He looks on me individually, he calls me by my name. He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness and he means to give it to me.”

I believe every word as did Newman. But, outside the Garden, our journey to that greatest happiness, always requires the Holy Spirit’s gifts of magnanimity and fortitude, no matter how blessed or apparently awful the particular circumstances of our unique journey may seem to outsiders.

When I encounter adult Catholics who seem strangely unmarked by the existential cost of love and mission, I can’t help but wonder if they are in a state of arrested spiritual or personal development. Have they truly said “yes” to Christ? Have they truly said “yes” to the loves and calls that God has given them?

At the heart of every life long, God-given vocation is the same mystery of love, joy, and pain that Christ himself embraced:

‘For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.’

Hebrews 12:2

Quote of the Day

"I always wanted to live and believe the Sermon on the Mount, but usually got told that it did not mean all that I thought it meant, and that I needed to be practical. I would read the Scriptures longingly, trying to imagine how wonderful it would be not to worry about anything, safe and secure in the presence of Jesus all the time. Miracles would be normal. Love would be natural. We could always give and never lose. We could be lied to, cheated and stolen from, and yet always come out ahead. We would never have to take advantage of anyone, or have any motive but to bless other people. Rather than always making contingency plans in case Jesus didn't do anything, we could count on Him continually. We, our lives, and all that we preach and provide would not be for sale, but would be given freely. . . .There would always be enough!"

Rolland Baker, Always Enough

I am the Resurrection and the Life

I've thought about posting the following video for several weeks now but my nerve failed. I've showed it to a few very theologically savvy Catholics and they were all blown away. So I've changed my mind. I think It is enormously valuable for us to get some sense of the breadth of what God is doing in our generation.

So with that mysterious introduction, I'll just urge you to watch the video - which is part 7 of a very low budget ($20,000) documentary, The Finger of God, filmed around the world. This section begins in China but quickly moves to Africa where the section I'd like you to watch takes place.

I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

Do you believe this?"

Since part 7 ends abruptly, I've added part 8 so you can hear - and see - some of the rest of the story. Watch both if at all possible. It will be a 20 minutes you'll be thinking about for a long time.

Healing on the Street

Fascinating news from the UK via Good News - the online newsletter of the Catholic charismatic renewal there.

There is a new ecumenical initiative: " Healing on the Street". Here's how it goes:

Healing on the streets’ is an initiative that has come from a Vineyard Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland and has spread throughout the UK. Permission to be on the streets has to be sought from the local council and the police and then the methodology is quite simple. You meet for prayer and praise for one hour before going out, then you claim the ground through prayer on the street before you set up your banner and chairs and then hand out leaflets telling of our belief that Jesus healed 2000 years ago and that He still heals today.


For many people the Church has become institutionalised and so non-believers can pigeon hole Christians. ‘Healing on the streets’ allows us to challenge this perception and offer a personal touch of the love of Christ through our face-to-face contact, the laying on of hands and the building of relationships. People need to see and experience prayer. In St Albans city alone the statistics of those permanently ill, disabled or with a limiting long-term illness are staggering. Others have lost faith and are disillusioned with life, so being out on the streets meets them exactly where they are, without putting any pressure on them to attend a church. Many of us will continue in the week to pray for those we have met and we keep a record of conversations and prayers so that an intercessory team can continue to pray for the needs for those we have made contact with.


We have been amazed at the things we have seen. One remarkable incident was when a large group of teenagers started to congregate and we thought they were going to start some trouble or at least mock us. But they started coming forward for prayer in full view of their friends. A couple of lads asked the Lord to bless their footballing ambition, which was great, then one asked the Lord to take away his tendency for violence. This absolutely stunned us. Last week a lady came back to us and thanked us as she no longer has to have a cataract operation as the Lord had healed her. Then minutes later someone else came to tell us that following our prayer for her husband he was now much better. One man, who has come back week after week, wasn’t able to speak at all at first, and now he is beginning to say a few words. We have laid hands on people whose back and leg pain has lessened as we have prayed. They have been amazed.

As the months have passed I have prayed with many people and have been so humbled at the words God has given me to speak right into their hearts. I have found that He often leads me to those who have left the Catholic Church and I have been able to listen to the pain they have suffered or the frustrations they have had. Recently I prayed for a young man who felt he was not worthy of prayer as he had left the Catholic Church after his Confirmation. He had not been back for about 5 years. We talked for a short time and then he allowed me to lay my hand on his arm and pray for him.

Read the whole thing. Good news indeed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Re: Jesus

I stumbled upon a most interesting website yesterday:

It a site designed for the spiritually curious, open or seeking who are not churched or even from a Christian background. It is just chockful of great stuff: everything from an Easter FAQ ("Why did Jesus die?") to a simple liturgy of the hours for those who have never prayed before.

A timeline of Jesus' life, (find that famous story), lives of outstanding people whose lives were changed by encountering Christ (Mother Teresa, C. S. Lewis, Francis of Assisi, Wilber Wilberforce among others); how Jesus has inspired artists, depictions of Jesus in film and much more.

Very well done. Winsome, thoughtful, and curiosity-inducing, I'd say. Spiritual ecumenism of the best kind.

As the website puts it:

Rejesus has a single focus - it goes to the very heart of Christian life and faith - the person of Jesus Christ himself. Its aim is to reach people who have little previous knowledge of Jesus or the Christian faith and to encourage a step or two of faith. Every visitor has the opportunity to delve into engaging material and respond to it by giving their opinion, praying a prayer or asking a tough question. Friendships are created in the Community section and people are taking steps of faith.

Keep this website in mind for your friends and family who seem to be spiritually open or seeking. Could also be very useful for those in Inquiry or considering entering inquiry - especially from a non-Christian background.

The Right Stuff

If you go to the NASA website today, you'll be greeted with the iconic moment of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. Forty years ago today.

And if you go to this immensely cool site: We Choose the Moon, you can experience the whole event in real time!

My father was one of the men and women who made that possible. I grew up barefoot, a blue eyed baby Baptist on a Mississippi beach, because he was overseeing the invention of processes that made the space program possible. My dad later received a special issue coin containing a bit of Apollo 11 and inscribed with the words "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". My father was too shy to return purchases for a refund at the local hard ware store but he had the right stuff.

In light of Walter Cronkite's death yesterday, it is moving to witness his spontaneous joy in the old footage. Before Star Wars and its endless imitators made space travel seem blase, this was the real thing. A moment of wonder and triumph, not tragedy, that drew the world together.

A man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for . . .


I'm back. My retreat time was very illuminating and I'll share more in a bit.

Fr. Mike is a very busy man in Tucson this morning, what with a 5 am (his time) interview on Relevant Radio, three appointments back to back and being the only OP in the place at present. So we won't be hearing from him for a bit. It's monsoon season in Arizona, the humidity is high, and the living anything but easy!

I need to draft a letter and then you'll hear from me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Allen's Comment on Caritas in Veritate

John Allen has a good commentary, I think, on the Pope's recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. I'll quote it extensively, and just observe that he points out what has been painfully obvious to any Catholic caught in the crossfire of the so-called "culture war" raging in the American Church.
During the July 7 Vatican press conference to present Caritas in Veritate, it fell to Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi of Trieste, Italy, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to say whether the document contained anything new. In truth, there wasn't much. Most of its economic and political analysis recapitulated points already made many times in social encyclicals, beginning with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1891.

(The astonishment unleashed by Benedict's rejection of laissez faire capitalism, or his call for a "true world political authority," thus goes to show that Catholic social teaching may indeed be the church's "best-kept secret." Nobody familiar with it should have been surprised.)

Crepaldi did point to one original aspect of Caritas in Veritate: Benedict's insistence on holding anthropology and sociology together -- or, to put it differently, his insistence on treating the pro-life message of the Catholic church and its peace-and-justice concerns as a package deal. This is the first papal social encyclical to so thoroughly blend economic justice with the defense of human life from conception to natural death.

"These indications of Caritas in Veritate don't have value merely as exhortations," Crepaldi said. "They invite a new way of thinking, and a new praxis, that takes account of the systematic interconnections between the anthropological themes linked to life and human dignity, and the economic, social and cultural themes linked to development."
Of course, the idea that defending unborn life and defending the poor go together is not terribly revolutionary at the level of principle. It's been repeated so often in official Catholic literature that there are probably T-shirts someplace emblazoned with that mantra.

Statements of principle, however, often fail to account for the gap between what we say and what we do. In that sense, Caritas in Veritate amounts to a direct challenge to the sociology of American Catholicism. (my emphasis: MSF)

Both at the grass roots and among the chattering classes, the American church is often described as split between its pro-lifers and its peace-and-justice contingent. More accurately, it's divided between those who see Catholic teaching as a useful tool to support their partisan preferences, whatever they may be, and those for whom the faith comes first and secular politics second.

Put differently, the real "losers" from Caritas in Veritate are Catholics who operate as chaplains to political parties, cheerleaders for political candidates, and spin doctors for either the Bush or Obama administrations, cherry-picking among church teachings to support those positions. Needless to say, the American Catholic landscape is dotted with prominent examples of all the above.

... Under the lure of partisan politics, pro-life and peace-and-justice Catholics in America too often move in separate circles. They read their own journals and Web sites, go to their own meetings, and have their own heroes. Pro-lifers tend to be drawn into the Republican orbit, while peace-and-justice types are usually more comfortable with the Democrats. As a result, they travel down separate paths, having separate conversations and investing their time and treasure in distinct, and sometimes even opposing, efforts.

In turn, those patterns reflect deep currents in American sociology, which work against any effort to transcend divisions. Journalist Bill Bishop calls the accelerating tendency of Americans during the past 30 years to retreat into like-minded tribes, both physically and virtually, "the Big Sort," and says the results are obvious: "Balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices over ways of life."

(As a footnote, if I had the authority to decree a reading assignment for every Catholic in America, it would be Bishop's 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. His observations about broad trends in American society can be applied almost point-for-point to the internal life of the church.)

Thus the question implicitly posed by Benedict's encyclical: Can the church in this country develop a new way of "breathing with both lungs," bringing its pro-life and peace-and-justice energies into greater alignment? Or are we fated to continue the present pattern of "Big Sort Catholicism"? Can American Catholics evangelize the country's politics, or are we content to be evangelized by it? That, in any event, seems to be the gut-check posed by Caritas in Veritate.
Like many concerned Catholics, I have watched the rift grow in the Church before my eyes, and have experienced the "cherry-picking" Allen refers to in reactions to my preaching.

I'll never forget giving a very careful homily in Tempe, AZ at some point during the first three years of my priesthood. The scriptures lent themselves to a reflection on some themes in Catholic social teaching that I knew would challenge a basically economically privileged community. Much of the homily included extended quotes from various papal encyclicals and bishops' documents. I asked a student to read those passages at each Mass to help make it clear that those were not my words, but the words from our shepherds. I attempted to connect the quotes with brief explanations, applications, and with the recurring theme that this particular aspect of the Church's teaching touches our lives in an incredibly pervasive way. I also tried to make that point that any economic system could be corrupted by greed, fear, or any of the other wiles of Satan- including capitalism.

After Mass, a young woman came up to me, and said to me angrily, "Father, I thought Satan was the enemy, not capitalism." It actually took me a moment to realize she was serious, and by that time, she'd slipped through the crowd, and I couldn't find her. Of course, Satan is The Enemy, and he uses many, many means to sow discord in the Christian community and to make us retreat into self-interest. Both the Church's teaching on life issues and it's social justice teaching challenge us precisely on that front. Caritas in Veritate makes the connection very clear. Every economic decision is a moral decision. Conversely, moral decisions are often influenced by economic factors.

How many Christians do not confront immoral economic policies at their workplace for fear of losing their job? How many terminally ill or elderly people feel pressure to "end it all," so that they are able to leave some of their estate to their children? How many women take the lives of their unborn children because of fear of the economic ramifications of their pregnancy? To pray that abortion may be made illegal in this country is fine. But let's take a cue from the fiasco of Prohibition. It didn't work because people wanted to drink. Until we address the economic factors that are connected with the horrors of abortion (or even admit that there are such factors), we should not expect much success on the legal front.

One final anecdote to end this already too long post. Last summer, in preparation for the election, the parish of Blessed Sacrament in Seattle asked me to give a talk on prudential judgment and voting. I quoted extensively from various documents again, including the following passage from "Faithful citizenship" which also quotes John XXIII's "Pacem in Terris"
The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights—to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive. All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors—basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work—is universally binding on our consciences and may be faithful citizenship legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means. Catholics must seek the best ways to respond to these needs. (an example of the requirement for prudential judgment right there - MSF) As Blessed Pope John XXIII taught, “[Each of us] has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and, finally, the necessary social services” (Pacem in Terris, no. 11).
Afterwards, during a Q & A, a young woman (not the same one who'd spoken to me in Tempe) raised her hand and said, basically, "Father, I absolutely agree that the right to life is the fundamental right. But I don't agree that people have a right to housing, education, clothing and food. Those are desires, and thus not at all on the same level as the right to life."

I was taken aback, to say the least. I asked her to repeat her comment, because I wasn't sure I heard her correctly. I experienced at that moment the "great sorting" to which Bishop refers. I can't remember my response, other than realizing that I'd never, ever thought of food as something to which I might not have a right. Now, I don't have a right to an excess of food, but, as Pope John XXIII taught, I have a moral obligation to work for the development of other people in addition to protecting their right to live.

According to Catholic teaching, I not only have a right to life, I have a right to have my dignity recognized and upheld through adequate food, shelter, medical care, education, work, and basic social services. Caritas in Veritate is a beautiful document, and I agree with Allen; it is a direct challenge to us as Catholics who happen to be citizens of the U.S.

I suppose it's even more of a challenge to Americans who happen to be Catholic.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Leavin' on a Regional Jet Plane

Will be arriving in Tucson at 2:22 p.m. today, God willing. It's going to be cool in the Old Pueblo today; the high's projected to be only 102 degrees. Of course, it's also prime thunderstorm time, so it could be a case of Mr. Toad's wild ride coming in for a landing. I'll try to post a few thoughts while I'm in Tucson. I'm calling the maintenance guy to turn on the AC in my room (aka "the cube" because of its shape). Otherwise, it'll be in the high 90's inside when I get there...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Time's a ...

Sherry's on retreat, and I'm just now taking a break from watching "Extreme Logging" on the Discovery Channel. Before I go outside to work on my tan, I thought I'd post a quick musing.

Yesterday my wristwatch strap broke. It was inevitable. It's an inexpensive watch with a cheap (faux?) leather wristband that screamed planned obsolescence when I purchased it 18 months ago. It wasn't waterproof, so I took it off to shower. I took it off when I went to the gym. It didn't stand a chance.

So yesterday, I was tempted to go and replace it. I had had a watch with a sturdy velcro wristband that I liked, but that old Timex took a licking and didn't keep on ticking.

I got as far as getting in the car yesterday, thinking I'd stop at a sporting goods store to pick up a watch on my way to work, when I noticed the clock in the car. Then I thought, "where else are there clocks in my life?" Immediately I thought of my cell phone, and then the digital clocks on the microwave, the stove, and the DVD player in the living room of the house I stay in when I'm in Colorado Springs. There are several clocks in the gym, and another couple of clocks in the CSI office. There's a clock in the vestry in the parish church, as well as one in the sacristy. Even my trusty Mac has a clock in the right hand corner of the screen, and will even tell me with a soft chime that the hour has changed.

By this time, I decided I can live without a watch, and on my way to work I passed the bank - and the bank's sign that informed me of the time (and that my musing had made me late for work) and the temperature (a delightful, sun-drenched 78 degrees).

This morning I asked one of the parishioners what time it was as he entered the chapel, so I'd be sure to start on time. If my ancestors could get by without constant reminders of the time (and the constant evaluation of being late or not), surely I can. Especially when I am participating in a time-transcending event like the eucharist. Without a watch, I'm less tempted to check the time when I'm praying, and I'm going to try to pay more attention to the placement of the sun in the sky and the length of the shadows on the ground.

Which reminds me. It's time to tan some more.

Just don't tell Sherry.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On Retreat

I'm off on retreat in the mountains until Friday. I'm leaving the reins of blogging power in Fr. Mike's hands.

Anything could happen.

Death Cult: Santa Muerte

There's a really significant essay over at Catholic Exchange this morning about something that I seldom hear Catholics talk about. the cult of Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, in Mexico. Santa Muerte is definitely not the "Sister Death" that St. Francis wrote about. (For a chilling experience, do a Google image search for Santa Muerte and spend a few moments contemplating the results. One look and I knew that I would not be posting an image here on this blog!)

As author Carrie O'Connell writes:

"The cult figure of Santa Muerte has found a home among those who traffic narcotics through the country, with prayers offered to her for safe passage during drug runs and other illegal activities. They call upon Santa Muerte for help in deeds that they feel other saints would turn from, such as prayers of vengeance or sexual desires. As Catholics, and faithful participants in the communion of saints, this should be an insult to our sensibilities. To attach the title of “saint” to something that is so vividly in contrast to God’s teaching is an attack on the very nature of the Catholic faith. The Church, in particular the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City, has not minced words in decrying the worship of Santa Muerte as being in direct opposition to the teachings of the Church and proper worship — but this has not put an end to the craze.

Even though the cult of Santa Muerte is primarily contained in Mexico, it has implications for the worldwide Church. This cult of superstition darkens the image of the Church in Mexico and across the globe. Because so many of the followers of Santa Muerte have intermingled their dark beliefs with that of the culture of the Roman Catholic Church, it poses a threat to the integrity of the church as viewed from outside. It gives ammunition to anti-Catholic biases that often misconstrue traditions as superstitions and veneration of saints as idol worship. The Catholic veneer that has been thinly painted over it is precisely what makes this pagan tradition so dangerous. Many followers are tricked into assuming it holds a legitimate place in their worship, because it so closely mimics the visual representations of the Catholic Church."

For a very different source, consider this report by the US Department of Defense: The Death Cult of the Drug Lords Mexico’s Patron Saint of Crime, Criminals, and the Dispossessed

I can confirm Carrie O'Connell's observations. The evangelical missionary strategists that I studied under had already spent 20 years in Central and Latin America and were acutely aware of the Latin tendency toward what they called "Christo-paganism" of which Santa Muerte is such a dramatic example. It was profoundly shocking to them and made it very, very easy to dismiss a Church that seemed to tolerate it.

And it was the experience of such Christo-paganism that informed and fueled the deep anti-Catholicism that infests significant parts of Independent Christianity. Many of the global leaders of early Independent Christianity were seasoned Latin American hands or heavily influenced by those who were. When I would tell them that Catholicism does not believe, teach, or approve such things, they would always say "You don't understand. North American Catholicism is a very different animal from Latin Catholicism."

Of course that is true. And often it is very good news for US Catholics because we need the prophetic witness of the great values that Latin Catholics bring us: a strong sense of family solidarity, hospitality, community, warmth, and often - a stronger awareness of the poor. But just as parts of our culture needs judging and transformation by the power of Christ, so do critical part of every human culture on the planet.

As I wrote on Amy's blog three years ago in a discussion of religious syncretism three years ago:

"Serious sycretism had been wide-spread in Latin American Catholicism for centuries before Protestants arrived. Latin American Catholicism has always, especially at the popular level, incorporated tons of stuff from various indigenous cultures, and various occult practices. As one Puerto Rican woman, who was struggling with the consequences of heavy family involvement in the occult, put it to me : "We're 100% Catholic and 99% spiritist."

The resulting Christ-paganism has always deeply shocked Protestants in Latin America and merges in their mind with Marian devotion, etc. It is ahistorical to regard this as a recent, post-Vatican II, post-Protestant onslaught development.

But here's the deal: The only alternative to running the risk of syncretism is not evangelize at all. It has been a constant theme of discussion and tension throughout the entire history of Christian missions. Where does Christ call us to judge the culture and change our ways and where does the faith affirm our culture and bring it to fruition? What is non-negotiable and what is not?

Every culture in history has to be judged and transformed by the Gospel and every culture has resisted and responded in different ways. Every culture in history - whether Irish, German, Tamil, Igbo, or Guarani, that has deeply encountered the Gospel, has gone through an intense and continuous struggle to meld the faith and deeply entrenched cultural practices.

Those of us who are the heirs of 10 - 20 centuries of such struggle by our European forefather and mothers take many of the results for granted. It is part of the warp and woof of our being.

And yet despite many centuries of Christianity and many great saints and apostles, Europe still spawned movements like Nazism and Stalinism that were virolently anti-Christian and destroyed the lives and happiness of so many millions. You should read Deitrich von Hildebrand's description of his astonishment at seeing the cream of highly cultured and deeply Catholic Munich support Hitler. Heads of great religious orders and theologians buying in. Centuries of Christian history and decades of theological formation did not protect them. It is always difficult and none of us is immune.

We find it shocking to witness first and second generations of converts in profoundly alien cultures wrestling with issues that seem obvious and settled to us - and they, of course, are similarly scandalized by the ways in which we "historic Christian peoples" betray and distort parts of the Gospel that seem glaringly obvious to them.

Of course, there are deep problems with syncretism in Africa. Are there seriously heretical movements present? Sure. They are no different from us or from the early Church in this respect.

The struggles in Nigeria and Nepal will be different from ours - and the resulting Catholicism will inevitably look different but it will not invalidate their faith and what God has done in their midst any more than the long history of superstition and corruption and the wide differences in European Christanity and practice invalidates our faith."

I'm delighted that Catholic Exchange published O'Connell's article. Because this sort of thing is much more than merely the cultural expression of a particular nation.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ judges all of us as individuals and all our cultures and calls us all to repentence and transformation. None of us will ever get to the end of it in this life.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reflections on the 15th Sunday's readings

I remember dad’s book by Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Amos could have used a copy – though he probably would have thrown it away in disgust.
Prophets aren’t about telling people what they want to hear.
In fact, Amos’ prophecies against the ten northern tribes are pretty harsh.
He likens the women of Samaria to cows “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’" and warns "The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. Through breaches in the wall you shall leave…”
Foretelling the horrific destruction of their cities by Assyria.

Now Amaziah did take a page or two from Dale Carnegie’s book.
He’s what you might call a “state prophet.” Or what the OT calls a false prophet.
Amaziah, and the whole group of prophets associated with the royal house of Jeroboam, thought of religion in “civil” terms.
It existed to promote loyalty to the status quo—the royal house and patriotism.
Bethel was the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom, a sort of national cathedral.

Amaziah thought of his own role as that of a court chaplain, whose job was to prophesy “smooth things.”

In return, they were financially supported by the king. A nice arrangement for all involved.
Amos, however, was not a card-carrying member of the prophetic guild; he was an outsider whom God had called to denounce the government for its injustices and inhuman policies.

Amaziah tells Amos to go back to the two southern tribes and prophesy there.

So I'm wondering: who are the “state prophets” today?

One option might be the economic experts who did not foresee that artificially inflated housing prices and speculation on housing wouldn’t at some point collapse. Who proposed that the market would gradually and infallibly “correct itself.” We’ve learned the hard way that they were wrong.
Just last week, however, a world leader observed that
"the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way."

Another potential group who might qualify as "state prophets" are those pundits on our televisions and radios who speak as though America as a nation can do no wrong – that everything we do and are - is good. Of course, you can critique the political party in power if it’s not your own, but any critique of America as a nation is treasonous language.
For the last 20-25 years to a nationalism that, while clothed in religious language, often, that ratifies, rather than challenges, national goals.

When I listen to Bill O’Reilly, I hear lots of critique of newly proposed taxes, bailouts to try to correct the economic crisis as “wealth redistribution” and “socialism.” And yet, that same world leader seems to presume that wealth redistribution is a good and necessary thing. He wrote last week,
"Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country's international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development

Who wrote that? Some new Karl Marx? Barack Obama? No, Pope Benedict XVI, in his new letter Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth, 32) He also observed, "Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift." CinV, 37

In other words, economics cannot be governed simply by secular theories. Economics has a moral character to it that has to be informed by our understanding of God as a generous giver and every individual person as His son or daughter.

I’m not just bashing conservatives.
We cannot expect to do God’s will when positions based on Christian morality are automatically excluded from public discourse.
In his letter the pope clearly defends marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and makes a case that not only does this make moral sense, it makes economic sense.
Nor can we address the underlying selfishness that has generated our economic crisis and continue to ignore the lack of respect for life that so many liberals espouse.
“If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help.” CinV, 28

Furthermore, the Holy Father emphasizes the importance of a key Catholic concept known as subsidiarity, which basically is the idea that decisions in a society ought to be delegated to the smallest competent authority. He is not espousing an ever larger government edifice that stifles individual human initiative.

The Holy Father seems to be speaking right to Americans when he addresses the problems of people thinking only of their rights, and not their duties. He wrote, "A link has often been noted between claims to a “right to excess”, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world … The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate." CinV, 43

What Pope Amos – I mean Pope Benedict – is saying is we cannot live any aspect of our life, especially our economic life, without considering the effect our decisions have on the welfare of others, especially those who are poor and weak.
We must consider the common good at all times, which the pope reminds us “is the good of “all of us”, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. …To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity”

The problem with our political parties is that they do not work for the common good – politicians get themselves elected by appealing to our greed, our desire for autonomy, our fears of strangers, our sense of entitlement.
They appeal to our baser instincts, which will always lead to conflict, not cooperation; so we shouldn’t be surprised that our government seems locked in constant bickering.
So as much as we might criticize our government and politicians, we must admit that they are a reflection of us.
In a democracy, our politicians today often function like Amaziah of old – telling us what we want to hear, confirming what we already think and believe.

Pope Benedict is an Amos for today. I suppose his message will be ridiculed widely as economically naïve, or utopian, or simply unworkable. Others, including Catholics, will find reasons to ignore the parts of the message with which they disagree.
George Weigel, an influential Catholic writer, suggests in his analysis of the document that the Holy Father has produced a hybrid document of his own original thinking and stale ideas from the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace which was stung by defeat when in 1987 Pope John Paul II rejected the outline the commission submitted for the social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Weigel writes, "Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker. The net result is, with respect, an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus." So he suggests that, “Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes,” (that is, those parts of the encyclical which Weigel recognizes coming from forgiving-but-not-forgetting Commission) “in order to maintain the peace within his curial household. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will concentrate their attention, in reading Caritas in Veritate, on those parts of the encyclical that are clearly Benedictine…”

and what, Mr. Weigel, ignore the rest? Part of the beauty of the Catholic faith, and the beauty of the Pope's encyclical, is the fact that no matter what our political leanings, we are always challenged by the call to repentance and conversion.

Jesus sent his disciples out to drive out demons, heal people and preach repentance.
The Holy Father is doing just that.
He is authoritatively naming the demons of individualism, selfishness, and callousness to the needs of others that we have enshrined in some of our economic policies.
He is pointing out our addiction to material goods and power, and the healing process will be painful.
And he is preaching repentance of a very pointed kind.
We may feel good about ourselves because we are not fornicating, committing adultery, stealing, killing or lying, but we who live in relative affluence can easily worship golden calves - or greenbacks.
And to be reminded I have to repent of that, and truly change the way I live is a bitter pill.
For the Pope to suggest, among other things, that we must share our hard-earned resources with those who were not blessed to have been born in the most economically advantaged country in the world may well lead us to ask him to leave "our house."

Benedict XVI is asking us to recognize that we must imitate the immensely generous Jesus Christ “in whom we have redemption by his blood,
the forgiveness of transgressions,
in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.”
Perhaps like Amaziah we’ll say, “Off with you, visionary. Stay in Rome and do not bother us and our way of life.”

And the Pope could honestly respond, “I am a shepherd, and a pruner of trees.” And our rejection of his words may be the blade that separates us from Christ, to whom we have been grafted by God in our baptism.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Fattest Woman in Ireland

I have written about my dear friend Patricia Mees Armstrong, a gifted poet, writer, teacher and a dear friend. Pat died in November from breast cancer, and I had the privilege of presiding at her funeral. I wanted you to know that her husband, Rich, who has been diagnosed with dementia, is carrying on her legacy.

While Pat was fighting cancer, she continued to write. She had a wonderful charism for writing, and the creative act of writing helped keep her mind off the terrible pain she often was in. In fact, she often refused pain medication because it "made her mind fuzzy," and made it impossible for her to write.

A literary agent in New York came across a short story Pat had written called, "The Fattest Woman in Ireland," and begged her to expand it into a novel.

The Fattest Woman in Ireland tells the story of an Irish family and their relationships, their role in their community and their struggles-through the eyes of Siobhan, the only daughter. It is Siobhan's story: of her obesity and its creation, of her life and dreams. This story has been called "subversive and strangely fascinating," as Siobhan is a multitude of contradictions. She has the exterior of a tough Irish lass with her brother's rough language, but the softness of her beloved grandmother who raises her.

It has been compared to "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," and of course if you are Irish or have some ancestry that is Irish you will find the book very funny on many levels

Meg, the literary agent, was certain she could find a publisher who would put it in print. So, while she fought her cancer, Pat also typed away at her novel. She sent it to Meg, who for the next several years - at no cost - sent it to publisher after publisher. They all loved it. One called Pat, "a fresh new voice in American literature." But they all rejected the book after writing glowing letters to Meg about what a wonderful work of fiction she'd sent them. Some rejected the Fattest Woman because it was written in first person using the brogue and slang of a lower class Irish girl. Others, because Patricia Armstrong was an unknown name, and marketing would be difficult.

So Pat, at the urging of her husband, Rich, made a CD of the book, with her reading it. I have a copy, and it's wonderful! The story is hilarious, heartbreaking, outrageous, and all told in Siobhan's salty language and Pat's Irish-accented voice.

Rich, who is now 80 years old, has been relentless in self-publishing his beloved wife's book. It flows from his devotion to Pat, his enthusiasm for her gift, and a desire to help researchers conquer the scourge that takes wonderfully gifted, loving and beloved women from this earth too soon.

The book has just come out in print by the Bookmasters, Inc. The website to order the book and hear an excerpt and see information about it can be clicked here. I have to mention that I went to the website this morning, and I can't find any buttons to click to hear an excerpt or two. It would have been great to hear Pat's voice this morning. (I sent the webmaster an e-mail...)

Pat has a friend in Eugene, Oregon who will be taking the online orders and shipping them out promptly. You can use PayPal or send in a personal check. It is all explained on the website. The cost is $28 postage paid. ($23 for the book. Rich chose that price because he and Pat were married on the 23rd of April in 1955 - and $5 for shipping and handling).

After the initial printing costs are paid off, 75% of the proceeds of all sales will go to Dr. Kent Hunter, who is researching a genetic way to eradicate breast cancer.

You can also indicate when you order if you want any note cards, up to a dozen or more, to send to others who might not have Internet access to see about the book as well.

If you're looking for a good summer read, filled with insights into Irish culture (Pat and Rich lived in Ireland for a bit, and Pat was fiercely attached to her Irish heritage) pick up a copy of The Fattest Woman in Ireland, and have some good belly laughs with Pat, and help end breast cancer, to boot.

Intriguing Questions from a Chance Meeting (part 3)

Here is my airplane companion's final question, and my response. Many thanks to Sherry, since much of this research is hers.
In your opinion how do we elevate communion back to the highest form of worship and make it a personal and meaningful act of worship
? I think the answer to this great question goes to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. One of the struggles in Christianity goes back a long, long way, and I see it as a lack of faith. The U.S. Catholic Catechism describes faith in this way: "Faith is first of all a personal adherence to God. At the same time, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed." Faith means more than just agreeing with doctrine or concepts, because since God's ways are not our ways, I won't be able to agree with all that has been revealed unless I know and trust and love the Revealer! The early Church was filled with people with this kind of deep faith. It is this kind of faith that could enable one to lay down his or her life literally for their friend and Savior, Jesus Christ. Why were people drawn to a faith that could lead to their torture and death? And what has changed?

Recent historians have pointed to the growth of the early Church (in the first three centuries) in spite of sometimes vicious persecution to several factors:

• The moral exclusivity of Christians, who demanded deep commitment and conversion (unheard of in ancient world - normally you just added gods to your pantheon),

•Definite and absolute character of Christian belief in an age of uncertainty,

•Power of Jesus as Lord over blind and often tragic personal “fate,”

•Social dimensions of Christianity, which made it attractive to women, the poor, and the oppressed,

•Activity of God through contemporary Christians to heal and deliver those under demonic influence.

And, of course, I'd add the power of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of not only the apostles and those upon whom they laid their hands, but ordinary Christian disciples, who had experienced God's saving power for themselves.

During this time, spiritual gifts (what St. Paul called "charisms") were recognized as being given to all the baptized at baptism, and the power of God worked through those gifts to make preaching more effective, to give supernatural (not always miraculous) results to acts of mercy, encouragement, leadership, teaching - as well as empowering wisdom, knowledge, discernment of spirits, etc. This activity on the part of ordinary Christians, including women and slaves, had a powerful effect of convincing pagans and Jews of the truth in the words the Christians said about Jesus.

But in 313 AD, Christianity became legal and in 337 the emperor became Christian, and the Church was swamped with converts over the next century. The Church grew 500% in that century, with the numbers swelling from about 5 million to 25 million! Many of these were nominal Christians who saw the writing on the wall. If you were going to advance in society, you'd better be a Christian.

Because spiritual gifts manifest much more when our faith in Jesus is personal, the gifts were no longer as evident. There's a very poignant passage in one of the writings of St. John Chrysostom, a bishop in the late 4th century states that in the earliest church, Christian initiation included a prayer for the coming of the Spirit with the laying on of the hand, and finally, the manifestation of the charisms, including the prophetic charisms of prophecy, tongues, wisdom, healing, raising the dead. These were regularly manifested at initiation in apostolic times. Because of this regular occurrence, Chrysostom knows that the prophetic charisms of the apostolic age must have been expected. For him they were divine gifts, not human talents upgraded and embellished. The church of his day, he says, is like a woman who wants to display her jewels, but when she opens the coffer it is empty. (This is from an excellent book, "Christian initiation and baptism in the Holy Spirit: the First Eight Centuries" by Killian McDonnell and George T. Mantague)

Several things happened when Christianity became the state religion, more or less:
•The lay office (i.e., the role of the laity in the secular world given to them by Christ at baptism, along with the authority, power and jurisdiction to stand in the place of Jesus) disappeared from view altogether because the Church was understood to include all of society.

•The hierarchical office (i.e., the pope, bishops, priests and deacons), which directed the Church, became overwhelmingly prominent.

•True discipleship was widely held to be ascetic and monastic. After martyrdom was not likely to happen, folks who took faith seriously and wanted to be disciples tended to "flee the world" and thus the earliest monastic communities were formed.

•The lay office was perceived as heavily compromised by life in the world. That is, if you really wanted to be holy, living in the world just wasn't going to cut it!

•All mission/evangelism belonged to the hierarchy and/or to religious (monks, friars, nuns, sisters - i.e., people who have joined a community and taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that are meant to bind them to one another and to Christ in a common mission of service and/or prayer on behalf of the world)

•Charisms were seen as signs of extraordinary sanctity given only to saints.

You can begin to see what happened. Genuine discipleship - the giving of one's life over to Jesus as Lord was no longer the norm. In fact, after Constantine, following Christ was no longer literally a matter of life and death.

In spite of this, there would still be people who would be touched by the power of the Gospel and nourished by the sacramental life of the church, but they were not looked upon, necessarily, as "normal Christianity." This is a profoundly simplified version of a very complex set of events. Of course, the overrunning of Europe by barbarian invaders and the ensuing Dark Ages didn't help matters.

All of this is to say that the real crux of the problem of communion becoming rote is two-fold and inter-related: 1) a lack of personal conversion and discipleship to Jesus and 2) a failure to see the connection between worship and the living of one's faith in society in which everything we do becomes a "spiritual sacrifice acceptable to the Father." Part of the Catholic understanding of communion is that not only is the one sacrifice of Calvary sacramentally re-presented, but that all those involved in the act of worship are to offer with Jesus their own lives: their work, their family life, their community involvement - even their leisure. Then, strengthened by receiving him, (St. Augustine said, "Become what you have received!") we are sent by him to be his presence in the world in a more powerful way.

You see the problem, I'm sure. If I'm not a disciple, if I'm not aware that I have been redeemed by his blood, if I am not grateful that salvation is made possible because of him - and not because of my good works (which themselves are only possible because I acted in response to God's grace), if I have not realized that a living faith is one which permeates my thoughts and actions...then it is very easy for the act of communion to become rote. I don't think ritual itself is the problem - lack of discipleship is!

We can change worship every week if we want and make it very entertaining, or have great music, clouds of incense and sumptuous vestments (or no incense and no vestments) or beautiful churches, or simple house churches, or simply meet by the river; but if we aren't preaching Christ crucified and calling each person to conversion, and praying like mad that it happen (because the Evil One will surely oppose any step towards God), worship will almost certainly become rote.

If we do not treat discipleship as normative and do not support those who do become disciples; if we do not help them deepen their relationship by drawing on the wisdom of the saints who've gone before us, well, discipleship will continue to be treated as unusual (at least in some Catholic circles). If we don't remember that the church exists to evangelize (Pope Paul VI reminded Catholics of this in his letter, Evangelization in the Modern World) and that the laity are pre-eminently suited to evangelize because they live in society; if we don't help Christians discern their spiritual gifts and the call from God that those gifts indicate, and don't support them in the task of changing society from inside corporations, the entertainment industry, health care, etc., then we will have failed to take the risen Christ seriously when he commissioned all of us to "go and make disciples of all nations." (Mt 28:19)

Finally, Steve - and this is not a part of your question - I think we have to admit that the ecumenical movement is seriously crippled by a lack of discipleship. You see, in spite of our misunderstandings (which are more significant and detrimental than our differences, I believe), when I see the power of the Holy Spirit working through a disciples of Jesus who are part of another denomination, how can I deny the genuineness of their faith? Unless, of course, I want to be like the Pharisees who said of Jesus, "He casts out demons by the prince of demons." (Mt 9:34)

Well, this is probably much more than you bargained for, but your questions generated a lot of energy in me, and got me thinking and praying. Thank you!

(published by Sherry W for Fr. Mike who wrote the post)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Intriguing Questions from a Chance Meeting (part 2 of 3)

Yesterday I mentioned a conversation I had on an airplane with a Christian fellow. He e-mailed me several questions a few days back. Here's the second question, and my (lengthy) response.
Have you seen the church minimize the act by making it rote or mundane, therefore causing the body to make it more of a ritual than a very sincere act of worship?

First of all, however, I'd like to make an observation. Your question about ritual and worship seems to presume that all ritual is rote or mundane. Actually, ritual can be - should be - an important part of human life. Rituals are actions that serve as symbols – they help us express our beliefs, values and deepest concerns (e.g. the Olympic games express the natural human desire to be ‘faster, higher, stronger’, as well as our desire for peace. In the Olympics we are for a time united in games we share, the athlete's commitment to a goal, and respect for other cultures.) Christmas dinner is often a loose ritual: gathering of generations, remembering the past, celebrating our love, enjoying our bounty.
By the way, I should say a few words about symbols: they are powerful conveyors of meaning and thus are suited to describing experiences of faith. Jesus used symbols when he said "the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed..." or compared the kingdom to a wedding feast. A good symbol has a variety of meanings and possible interpretations. There's a richness to them that goes beyond a sign, which points to one and only one thing. Symbols, like a cross, or an altar, or even a kiss, take a difficult concept and expresses it in more understandable realities. Thus symbols are used to help us recognize the sacred. It is a contemporary bias that says something is ‘just’ a symbol. Why then are we showing the flag everywhere? Why was it such a powerful moment in September, 2001 to raise the flag over ground zero? Symbols can be quite powerful!

Now, back to ritual... Some actions are practical – walking to school – these would be routines. Other similar actions are rituals – walking in the street in a parade, a protest march, a procession: these actions symbolize an important reality: community pride, solemnity of occasion, right to free speech, solidarity with another group. Eating is a practical action, and can be a routine. Saying grace before meals can be a ritual that reminds us of the gift of food and the beauty of sharing it. But grace before meals can become another routine if it’s rushed and hurried through without thinking of the significance of the prayer. So, too, a kiss between husband and wife before one or the other or both leave the home in the morning can be a wonderful ritual symbolizing their mutual devotion, or it can become a routine. We humans have a real struggle staying rooted in the present moment - especially in our hyperactive, ADHD-inducing culture.

I hope you begin to see rituals are important in life - essential, really

1) they are movements and gestures with meaning (shaking hands, applause, bowing)

2) they are repeated because the event is significant (an annual visit to a grave)

3) they are symbolic celebrations that break the routine of life (the Olympics)

4) rites connect us to important events (the first shovelful of dirt at a groundbreaking)

5) they often are accompanied by significant words (the words of a toast)

6) they link us to the past (4th of July parades and fireworks)

7) They are communal actions (graduation. Imagine celebrating Thanksgiving in China where no one else has heard of it!)

8) They require people’s wholehearted participation (There's a ritual I love on Saturday afternoons in Eugene, OR - attending an Oregon Duck football game. When you hear the crowd roar, and can't hear yourself think, you've experienced wholehearted participation! Have you attended a Japanese tea ceremony? It's a celebration of the beauty of life’s daily routine)

So I think the problem with regular communion isn't that it can become a ritual. It is a ritual! The problem is in the participants of the ritual! The problem is our lack of consciousness, our lack of focus and attention to the present moment. Prayer, meditation, and especially contemplation are meant to help us be grounded in the present, which is the only moment in which we can respond to God's initiative in our lives.

The quick answer is, no, I don't believe the church has made communion (and by this I mean the celebration of the Mass in which Catholics receive communion) mundane by repeating it each Sunday, or even daily. The problem, I believe, is addressed in my answer to your third question. But for that, you'll have to come back tomorrow!

Hispanic Americans and Religious Assimilation

There are some new findings regarding the faith of Hispanic Americans from Barna Research. Basically, they have found that Hispanics are quickly assimilating the faith practices of the larger American culture.

What characterizes our dominant religious culture at the end of the first decade of the 21st century?

As we have noted here before, religious identity in the US is extremely fluid. It has become the cultural norm for young adults to re-evaluate the faith tradition in which they were raised and to deliberately choose a faith of their own.

The Pew US Religious Landscape Survey of 2008 and Faith in Flux (2009) both reveal that the majority of US adults have gone through at least one religious change as an adult. (This includes both those who are left the "faith" - or lack of faith - of their childhood altogether and those who left and later returned.)

And Catholics, as a whole, have lost the largest numbers. 7 in 10 adults who were raised Catholic are no longer practicing Catholics.

Of the approximately 75 million American adults who were raised as Catholics: (Note: this is a different and larger number than those adults who currently consider themselves to be Catholic)

30% are still "practicing" (Practicing is here defined as "attending Mass at least once a month". Slightly over 15% will attend Mass on any given weekend.)

38% still claim a Catholic identity but seldom or never attend Mass

32% no longer regard themselves as Catholics. (Of this group, 15% are now Protestant, 14% are now "unafffiliated", and 3% now below to a non-Protestant religious community.)

And now back to the Barna findings on Hispanic Americans. There's good news and there's bad news.

Barna compared the faith of Hispanics today to their faith profile of 15 years ago. That assessment shows that Hispanics have been rapidly moving toward adopting the mainstream beliefs and practices of all Americans. The study discovered 11 faith dimensions on which there has been substantial change during the past 15 years. Those areas of change include:

Alignment with the Catholic church (down by 25 percentage points)

Being a born again Christian (up by 17 percentage points)

Having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today (up by 15 percentage points)

Church attendance (up 10 percentage points in an average week)

Claiming that their religious faith is very important in their life (up by 10 percentage points)

Claiming to have a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others (up 10 percentage points)

Believing that a good person can earn their way into Heaven (down 9 percentage points)

Believing that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who stills rules the world today (up 8 percentage points)

Believing that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches (up six percentage points)

Attending a church of 500 or more people (down by 6 percentage points)

Reading the Bible during a typical week (up by 5 percentage points)

As Catholics, we would regard 7 of these changes as positive. We want people to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and to attend church more regularly. We want their religious faith to be more important and for them to be more willing to talk about it. We don't believe that we "earn our way" into heaven and we do want more people to believe that God is all powerful, all knowing and the creator and ruler of the world. We want Americans to read the the Bible more.

The catch is that these positive changes come with a sharp drop in affiliation with the Catholic Church.

George Barna sums up their findings:

"First, Hispanics are becoming a more mainstream population in various ways – politically, economically, relationally, culturally – and this data reveals that they are assimilating in their faith perspectives and practices, as well. The influence of a dominant culture and its traditions has a powerful affect on people’s lives. While Hispanics have indisputably influenced American culture, these figures remind us that such transformation is a two-way street.

“Second,” Barna continued, “the study points out how significant faith is in the lives of Hispanics. Not only do most of them assert that importance, but the fact that so much is changing in their faith perspectives and practices underscores how much energy they devote to their spirituality.

“Third, you cannot help but notice the changing relationship between Hispanics and the Catholic church,” noted Barna. “While many Hispanic immigrants come to the United States with ties to Catholicism, the research shows that many of them eventually connect with a Protestant church. Even more significant is the departure of many second and third generation Hispanics from their Catholic tradition.”


Live . . . From a Patio High in the Rocky Mountains

You know it is summer when

You set up your laptop, prepare for and do that 6:50 am radio interview out on the garden patio.

What a blessing!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Intriguing Questions from a Chance Meeting (part 1 of 3)

Some months ago I got into an extended conversation with a fellow Christian of the Protestant (probably Evangelical) persuasion on an airplane. Last week he sent me a few questions which I thought I'd share with you. Here's a part of his e-mail:
I have been thinking about you and wanted to connect with you...I hope all is well with you and your ministry and that God is doing great things in the church.

I have a question for you concerning communion. I have been doing much reading lately with regards to the early church. It is apparent that the early church and also many key people in church history (C.S. Lewis) have described communion as possibly the highest form or act of worship before Christ. In the protestant faith I believe that we have really dumbed down the beauty and the special nature of communion and there has been a group of us that have been discussing this topic in detail. Coming from your Catholic background I would really love to have your perspective on this topic.

1. Does the Catholic Church view communion has the highest form of worship? If so why is it viewed that way?
2. Have you seen the church minimize the act by making it rote or mundane, therefore causing the body to make it more of a ritual than a very sincere act of worship?
3. In your opinion how do we elevate communion back to the highest form of worship and make it a personal and meaningful act of worship?

Here's my response:

My friend, your questions are great - really, really exciting. It's the sort of things genuine disciples want to discuss! I'll do my best to answer briefly - there are whole libraries written about the Eucharist and eucharistic spirituality.

Does the Catholic Church view communion has the highest form of worship? If so why is it viewed that way?

First of all, I should clarify something. When you use the word "communion," I'm presuming you mean an addition to your normal worship service in which the congregation shares in bread that is broken.

Catholics receive communion at each Sunday service, called Mass. It's an integral part of worship, and yes, Catholics see communion as the highest form of worship in this life. But we would not separate the act of receiving communion from the whole act of worship that is the Mass. It is, among other things, an anticipation of the wedding feast of the lamb - heaven. One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist (another name for the Mass), "the source and summit of the Christian life." It is the source in that Catholics believe it is the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our redemption sacramentally re-presented in time. In other words, in each Mass, the perfect sacrifice of Christ breaks through time and space and is truly, albeit sacramentally, present.

It is not a new sacrifice, since the perfect self-offering of Jesus on the cross on our behalf means there is no need for further sacrifices. Catholics also believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus, and that he is truly present - body, soul, humanity and divinity - in what seems like bread and wine. In other words, at each Eucharistic liturgy, a miracle happens! This is truly awesome, and yet, incredibly humbling that the Lord should once again put himself into our hands, and come to us in the form of simple food.

Of course, this teaching is hard. Jesus spoke quite powerfully about being true food and drink in the bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John (6:26-68). Catholics take Jesus quite literally here, as did many of Jesus' contemporaries, evidently. And the evangelist uses pretty graphic verbs to describe the act of eating Jesus' body - Greek words normally used to describe an animal's eating.

I think a summary of the Catholic understanding of the eucharist would be helpful to you and your group, so here's a link to a section of the Catholic catechism. It will also provide many scripture references which I'm sure you'll want to see.

I'll share my Christian friend's second question - and my response - tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Caritas in Veritate & the Economy of Communion

Pope Benedict's long awaited Encyclical is out: Caritas in Veritate.

One of the interesting initiatives he mentions is the Focolare movement's "Economy of Communion". I blogged on that over a year ago but thought it would be most appropriate to re-visit the topic now:

"I had done some research recently on the economic movement that has arised from Focolare called the "Economy of Communion" and found it intriguing. It was started by Chiara Lubich in response to the poverty she witnessed in Brazilian shantytowns.

Here's the idea:

Business owners (on 5 continents) who participate in the project, freely choose to share their business profits according to three purposes of equal importance.

Help people in need - creating new jobs and intervening to meet their immediate needs beginning with those who share in the spirit that animates the Economy of Communion;

Spread the "Culture of Giving" and of loving - indispensable and necessary values for an Economy of Communion;

Grow the business - which has to remain efficient while remaining open to giving.

The goal:

To link efficiency and solidarity;
Rely on the strength of the culture of giving to change economic behavior.
Generate income which is pooled with other EOC businesses and given to the poor - presumably through other Foccolare entities around the country.

So far: 735 businesses have taken part - many were started as part of the movement - the majority in Europe although 245 are in North and South America.

The idea seems to be a variant on the US non-profit system (in that the goal is not generating income for stock holders) but these businesses exist to generate jobs, economic opportunity, and resources for the employees, the needy, and the community.

One American example:

In 1991 JoAnn and Tom Rowley from Arizona and Joan Duggan from Chicago arrived at Mariapolis Luminosa in Hyde Park, New York. They quickly realized that they shared both a love for the field of education and the desire to commit everything to become part of the fascinating EoC project.

At the time, the local economy was depressed as the largest businesses in the area were cutting their staff and closing facilities. But these 3 educators decided to pool their talents and interests to start a very special educational support center, "Finish Line".

Joan had strong executive experience in a highly successful computer leasing business as well as teaching experience at the university level. Tom had been a teacher for 20 years and wanted to continue teaching while JoAnn had administrative experience in schools. Their objective was to meet the educational needs of students that the public schools cannot meet adequately due to budget cuts, reduction of personnel, and increasingly large classes.

"Finish Line" opened May 1, 1992. Despite the economic downturn in the area, in a few years "Finish Line" was already in the black. It schedules more than 4000 educational hours a year and provides steady employment for 13 other teachers. Finish Line has also given $20,000 to Economy of Communion projects.

It is all quite inspiring - a practical attempt to seek out and work for the human person and the common good through business.

And a useful note from a reader: I can put you in contact with Tom and Jo Ann Rowley if you like. Here is the website where they have a listing of practical experiences as well as theses and dissertations done on the project:

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Reflection on the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Do you know the definition of the word, “expert”?
It’s a stranger who comes from more than 50 miles away.

Perhaps Jesus might have taken a cue from his cousin, John, and lived in the desert in seclusion for a decade or so before hitting the prophecy trail. No one could claim they knew where John was coming from. No one would. Would you say you understood a fellow who eats bugs and wears stinking animal skins?
Jesus, however, was a known quantity. The good, decent citizens of Nazareth know his family and know his occupation. That was enough for them to say, “we know you; we know how you’re supposed to act, and teaching with such profound wisdom and performing miracles is not who you are.”

The task of the prophet is generally thankless. Ezekiel has this great job description given to him by God: “I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.” Really would make you look forward to getting up in the morning.

Now in the history of Israel there was always the issue of discerning between the real prophets and the false prophets. In general, if a prophet was telling you something that you wanted to hear, they were the ones to avoid like the plague. They tended to draw an appreciative audience and a place in the king’s court. If a prophet was promising a plague upon your house and country if you didn’t radically change your ways, that was the fellow you wanted to listen to.
They were the ones who said things like Ezekiel, “Thus says the Lord God: Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land.” Ez 7:5-7 Their listeners had an effective way of silencing these unwanted messengers.

It was called “death.”

Later generations would erect memorials to them when their messages of doom came to pass.

It’s a lonely business, being a prophet. Yet all of us who are baptized are supposed to be prophets. We are to be a prophetic people. Pope John Paul II reminded us of this in his apostolic exhortation, The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People.
Through their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ, "who proclaimed the kingdom of his Father by the testimony of his life and by the power of his word"(24), the lay faithful are given the ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil.
Denouncing evil. Not evil in Iran, not the evil of the Taliban, not any far-off evildoer, but the evil in our midst – beginning in our own lives. The hoped for response is called “repentance.” And if you want to denounce the government’s hocking of our future, you’d better be sure you’ve paid off your credit card debt, your mortgage and your car. Nothing weakens a prophetic stance like hypocrisy.

The pope went on to write,
United to Christ, the "great prophet" (Lk 7:16), and in the Spirit made "witnesses" of the Risen Christ, the lay faithful are called to allow the newness and the power of the gospel to shine out everyday in their family and social life, as well as to express patiently and courageously in the contradictions of the present age their hope of future glory even "through the framework of their secular life".
In other words, part of our prophetic message is a way of life that is molded by the Gospel, and thus a living contradiction of the values of our society that points to the life of heaven for which every person is made.
But on this weekend in which we celebrate our freedom, I would propose that we are not nearly as free as we think we are. Would you call your co-worker on the fact that he’s living with his girlfriend without benefit of marriage? What would you say to your boss who proposed a business plan that would take unjust advantage of the economically desperate? In this land of freedom, how freely do you share your faith in Jesus and his Church with others – even members of your family?

And how many times have I held back on how I really think the Gospel is challenging us because I worried about collections going down, or people not liking me.

But I’ll not hold back now.

This nation is great because many generous, hard-working, self-sacrificing individuals – even whole generations - formed communities willing to work together for the common good. But if we continue on the road we are taking –
The road of everyone for themselves;
The road of getting mine now regardless of the effect it has on others – especially the poor;
The road of consumption to fill the void made when God has been banished from my life;
The road of killing as a solution to problems – whether the life taken is an unborn child’s, a criminal’s, or an anonymous enemy in a foreign land;
The road of sex and violence as forms of entertainment…

Then “Thus says the Lord God: Disaster after disaster!” We will definitely reap what we sow.
And don’t blame governments past or present. They are a reflection of us. We elect those who promise what we want to hear, by and large. I promise you, prophets are not elected to public office in a democracy.

You and I are meant to be a priestly people, a royal people, a prophetic people: sharing in Jesus’ priesthood, kingship, and prophetic ministry. Prophets are best when they are far away and long ago. Abraham Lincoln, whom we memorialize in a stately, imposing statue in our capitol was reviled in his day by many. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who now has his own national holiday, was assassinated. St. Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophy and theology are enormously important in the Catholic intellectual tradition, was condemned by many bishops of his day because he dared to draw upon pagan and Muslim wisdom.

Not only can we reject the familiar neighbor as a prophet, we can reject the one with whom we are most familiar: ourselves. When we find people driving headlong towards a washed out bridge, do we say, “I am too young, too unprepared, too old, too sinful, too busy, too nice to try to stop them”? That, in effect, is what we are doing when we do not take on the “responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil.”

If you are to live up to your prophetic calling as a disciple of Jesus, an apostle of hope, then you must not reject the role of prophet Jesus shares with you. Although we might downplay our own heroic and prophetic possibilities by claiming we’re unsuitable in oh-so-many ways, honestly, I think we’re just afraid.

And well we should be, since we know the fate of the prophets throughout time. Perhaps this is why the author of the first letter of John tells us, “perfect love casts out fear.” If I care about someone enough, and have genuine anxiety about their eternal fate, that love will overcome the fear I might have of rejection or persecution.

But like St. Paul, we may have some “thorn in the flesh” that we think must be removed before the Lord can use us – some weakness that would make it impossible for him to work through us. But the fact is, if we were strong, we would think we were the agents of change, rather than God.

So next time you wish someone would do something to help people escape the cycle of poverty; the next time you cry over a news article about a soldier returning from Iraq with one leg; the next time you think, “why doesn’t someone do something about teen pregnancy?” consider it an invitation from the Holy Spirit, who just might be saying to you, “you’re someone.”
Now you don’t have to come up with a plan to change the world. All you have to do is pray for courage and guidance and then take the first obvious step. Maybe it’s checking to see what agencies already exist to help the poor, disabled veterans, or pregnant teens.

Go there and get involved.

Keep praying and asking for guidance, and take the next obvious step when you think you see it. And don’t worry too much about taking a wrong step – if you keep holding God’s hand, you can be sure he will make good come even from missteps.

Brothers and sisters, together, we are “someones” who are a potential powerhouse in God’s hands. If, like St. Paul, we learn to be “content with our weakness, for the sake of Christ,” and if we ask Jesus to increase and perfect our love, we may find our voice – and the courage to speak the truth in gentle, humble, genuine love.
St. Paul concluded that “when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.” I believe he spoke from experience – the experience of being used again and again, as an instrument of God – as a prophetic voice that even death has not silenced.
We all are weak – but let us dare not let a lack of faith make us underestimate what the strength of God can do with, and through, our weakness.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Worth Reading

No matter what you might think of the National Catholic Reporter, you have to admit that John Allen, who reports often on events in Rome, is a real gem: thorough, insightful, respectful of the Church's hierarchy and magisterium. He is good at helping Americans understand the Roman perspective on things - including the Catholic Church in America and the American experience. In an article you can read here, Allen attempts to connect some of the clues (and leaks of the text) that indicate the content of the Holy Father's encyclical.

Allen offers a "key to reading" of "Caritas in Veritate," which will be released on Tuesday, July 7. In a word, Allen suggests a key to reading the encyclical is "synthesis."
Though the pope may not spell it out quite this way, much of Caritas in Veritate could well shape up as an attempt to synthesize three of the most persistent -- and, Benedict would doubtless say, artificial -- dichotomies in recent Catholic experience:
Personal conversion versus social reform;
Pro-life versus peace and justice commitments;
Horizontal versus vertical spirituality.
All three points can be understood as partial versions of one "grand dichotomy," that between truth and love.
I look forward to studying it myself, and with a couple of weeks in one place, I should have the opportunity to do so.

Hidden at the bottom of the article is some news about a new book on the Galileo trial, one of the tragic examples of Church members being challenged to "think outside the box" and failing. What is beautiful to see, however, is how the Church is willing to let the truth be told (although one wishes it could happen a bit sooner at times...although I'm sure there are reasons - good and bad - for it taking this long). Bishop Sergio Pagano was the featured speaker at the press conference.
He was on hand to present a new edition of Vatican Documents of the Trial of Galileo Galilei (1611-1741), the 1984 volume which Pagano edited at the request of the late Pope John Paul II. Pagano said the new edition is the "most complete" and "most careful" collection of material from Galileo's case, including 20 new documents discovered after 1984. (The new material, however, is not exactly a blockbuster; several of the texts are versions of a Vatican edict refusing to grant permission to read Galileo's books. (For the record, Pagano said the requests came from Dominicans.)
The line that it was Dominicans in the past (Allen doesn't mention when the request came) who asked to read Galileo's books was interesting, and made me proud of my Dominican heritage. Dominicans, like St. Thomas Aquinas, are at their best when they're willing to search for the truth in places that others dismiss out of hand. So St. Thomas read pagan philosophers and the works of Muslim and Jewish scholars and incorporated the truth he found in their writings with Catholic theology and philosophy in his great Summa Theologica.

Here's Allen's description of the book on Galileo:
The volume has a 208-page introduction by Pagano which steps through the events between 1611 (when Cardinal Robert Bellarmine first asked Jesuit scientists to look into Galileo's scientific theories) and 1633 (when Galileo was imprisoned for two weeks in an apartment in the headquarters of the Inquisition, today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while being interrogated. He was eventually sentenced to prison, but allowed to live under house arrest.)
Pagano stressed that his introduction is a work of history, not apologetics, because "the best defense of the church is always the truth." He went on to say that he's not fond of "empty and useless" attempts to paper over the Galileo case. He pointed to a recent book in Germany, which asserted that Galileo was not targeted by the church for his scientific views but rather as a heretic (because he had allegedly denied the omnipotence of God).
Pagano called that claim a "pure fantasy," for which "there's not a shred of evidence" in the documentary record.
Commenting on Galileo himself, Pagano said that the scientist saw himself as a "good and faithful Catholic." Pagano pointed out, for example, that while he was under house arrest, the Netherlands wanted to present him with a fairly valuable gift. Because Holland was a Protestant nation, however, Galileo refused to see the ambassador or to take the gift -- a decision, Pagano said, that was well-received in Rome.
Introducing Pagano, Benedettini had called the Galileo case a "painful chapter for the church." Later on I asked Pagano if he agreed, and if so, what we ought to learn from it.
"Not only was it painful for the church as a whole," Pagano replied, but also "for the people of the church." For example, Pagano said that while some Jesuits at the Roman College had it out for Galileo, probably because of jealousy, other Jesuits were "certainly on his side, but they remained silent" -- out of fear, Pagano said, of the Holy Office.
In terms of what we ought to learn, Pagano said the basic point is to be "very careful" about drawing conclusions about science on the basis of scripture and tradition, without first being sure those points of reference have been correctly understood and interpreted.
That, Pagano suggested, is a point with contemporary relevance.
"When I look at some of what's being said today about stem cells, for example, or about genetics, I sometimes have the impression that it's burdened with the same preconceptions that happened with Galileo."
An out of hand rejection by some Catholics of insights that the study of geology, geophysics, astronomy and other related scientific fields have given into the earth's history is something that tries my patience. Having studied earth science as an undergraduate and graduate student, I am aware of the limitations of the scientific method, and so I don't have patience for scientists who make claims about God's existence based on science. Nor do I find it wise to attempt to use science to "prove" various theological statements, since scientific theories come and go (or at least are heavily modified over time). By the way, I should note that we all have trouble "thinking outside our boxes." The history of science is littered with scientists who would reject new theories that contradicted the hypotheses upon which they had based their own life's work. It's a human trait, I suppose. It's also one of the traits that makes genuine spiritual conversion so difficult!

Science, in a nutshell, helps us come to grips with what is (and that changes as we get new data). Faith, on the other hand, helps us understand why it is. In other words, what God has revealed to us enables us to find meaning in what is - as well as how we are to act in the face of what is. This is especially true when we consider that what God fundamentally reveals to us in the scriptures is his passionate - and patient - love for us, His creatures.