Thursday, August 21, 2008

Saints, Holiness, and Charisms

Pope Benedict's catechesis yesterday focused upon the saints in the life of the Church and as models of holiness in daily life. He also spoke clearly of the charisms and the quoted Hans urs von Balthasar as saying that the lives of the saints are "the most important commentary of the Gospel." Pretty cool stuff!

Dear brothers and sisters, day after day the Church offers us the possibility to walk in company of the saints. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that the saints constitute the most important commentary of the Gospel, their actualization in the day-to-day routine and, therefore, they represent for us a real path of access to Jesus. The writer Jean Guitton described them as "the colors of the spectrum in relation with the light," because with their own hues and accents each one of them reflects the light of God's holiness. How important and advantageous, therefore, is the determination to cultivate the knowledge and devotion of the saints, together with the daily meditation of the word of God and filial love for the Virgin!


The period of vacation is certainly a useful time to review the biography and writings of some men or women saints in particular, but each day of the year offers us the opportunity to become familiar with our heavenly patrons. Their human and spiritual experience shows that holiness is not a luxury, it is not the privilege of a few, an impossible goal for a normal man. In reality, it is the common destiny of all men called to be children of God, the universal vocation of all those who are baptized. Holiness is offered to all.

Naturally, not all the saints are the same. They are, in fact, as I have said, the spectrum of divine light. And one who possesses extraordinary charisms is not necessarily a great saint. The name of many of them is known only by God, because on earth they seemed to have lived a very normal life. And it is precisely these "normal" saints that God usually wants. Their example testifies that, only when one is in contact with the Lord, is one full of peace and joy and in this way it is possible to spread everywhere serenity, hope and optimism. Considering precisely the variety of their charisms, Bernanos, great French writer who was always fascinated by the idea of the saints -- he quotes many of them in his novels -- points out that every saint's life is like "a new flowering of spring." May this also happen to us! Let us allow ourselves to be attracted by the supernatural fascination of holiness! May Mary, Queen of all Saints, Mother and refuge of sinners obtain this grace for us!

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pope's Mission Intention

The Pope's mission intention for August is particularly beautiful: 

"That the answer of the entire people of God to the common vocation to sanctity and mission may be promoted and fostered, with careful discernment of the charisms and a constant commitment to spiritual and cultural formation"

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas


I don't have time to write much about St. Thomas, the great Dominican scholar, saint, and doctor of the Church. Others will do a much better job today than I could. He is a phenomenal example of a Catholic with the charism of knowledge, which empowered him to diligently study scripture, philosophy, theology, and natural science. He once gave thanks to God that he never read a page he did not understand! His far-reaching thought searched out priniciples and was able to synthesize the thoughts of the ancient Greeks, Muslim and Jewish scholars, and the Fathers of the Church, and rejoice in the truths that they had discovered. And then he generously shared what he had discovered in his teaching and writing.

He is a model for Catholics today, especially in that "universal" approach to the search for truth. He was not afraid to study the thought of non-Christians and was confident that God would reveal truths to those that earnestly sought them, whether they were Christian or not. Too often today I run across Catholics who have a "ghetto mentality." They are unwilling to admit that anything useful can be learned from non-Catholics. That certainly was not Thomas's understanding. Not surprisingly, some Catholics in his own day, including a few bishops, condemned him for searching for truth amid the works of Plato, Aristotle, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Moses Maimonedes. I suggest that Aquinas was able to discern the truth in aspects of their writings because of his own intense life of prayer in addition to his brilliance.

The following is taken from a short biography of St. Thomas found on the EWTN website. It underscores Thomas's own focus on Jesus as the source and summit of his life and study.
One night, in the chapel of the Dominican priory in Naples where St.
Thomas was then living, the sacristan concealed himself to watch the
saint at prayer. He saw him lifted into the air, and heard Christ speaking
to him from the crucifix on the chapel wall:

"Thomas, you have written well of me. What reward will you have?"

"Lord, nothing but yourself."

His request was soon answered. On December 6, 1273, St. Thomas
Aquinas was saying Mass for the feast of St. Nicholas in the chapel where
the crucifix had spoken to him. Some profound experience - spiritual,
mental, and physical suddenly overwhelmed him. He showed few
external signs of the change at first; but he declared to his long- time
secretary that he could write no more. "All that I have written," he said,
"seems like straw to me."

This quote is a reminder to all of us who are concerned with good catechesis in the Church. While such catechesis is important, it stands on the foundation of the relationship with Christ, in Whom we live, and move and have our being. And just as reading about someone may give us an idea of who that person is, meeting them, getting to know them, and loving them is such a deeper experience of them that all we could write about them will inevitably seem - and be - inadequate.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Difference of a Life

I have been very blessed to learn how to do gifts interviews with individuals who have gone through a live or audio version of the Called & Gifted workshop. Over the course of an hour, these people tell stories that illustrate how God may have been at work through them on behalf of others, sometimes in extraordinary ways. What is remarkable is often the individual him- or herself doesn't even think their examples are unusual! This makes sense, because if charisms are involved, they enjoy the particular way in which the charism allows them to help individuals or groups, they get good feedback, and see results beyond what they might normally expect. God is working through them supernaturally, but it will feel natural to them.

A few weeks ago I was in St. Paul, MN, and I had a wonderful interview with a middle-aged divorcee I'll call Angela. She is a social worker, and we talked about two charisms in particular: Mercy and Hospitality. Mercy empowers a Christian to be a channel of God's love through providing practical deeds to help alleviate the suffering of another, while Hospitality enables a Christian to welcome the stranger and offer them food, shelter and friendship.

After attending Catholic schools through graduate school, Angela went through a conversion in 1993, after which she realized that God was present in those who were suffering. "How could I have missed that fact all those years before?" she asked. Conversion really is like regaining sight, and often we don't even realize we were blind!

Since 1993, Angela has opened her home to over 50 foster children, many of whom were infants. One child stood out in her mind. She had been asked to take a nearly one-year old baby home for a month while a foster home was found for her. When she picked up the child, Hannah, she was shocked to find that the baby weighed less than ten pounds! She had been horribly abused, and her twin sister had died from similar abuse. Already she had been in thirteen foster care placements. The child, Hannah, was a crack baby and had some problems with her legs. Angela was told that Hannah would probably be mentally retarded and have trouble walking all her life.

Hannah was not an easy child. She screamed nearly all night long, bit Angela, and wouldn't eat well. After saying "Momma" to Angela when they first met, Hannah refused to speak again. At night, from her bedroom off the kitchen, Angela could hear her other children speculating as to, "what's wrong with mom?"

A month went by, and it was time to take Hannah to her new foster home, but Angela was told there was no placement, so the child would have to be institutionalized. After sadly putting her in the car, Angela began to drive. By the time she reached the end of the block, Angela was sobbing. She couldn't abandon this little girl, because she knew if Hannah were institutionalized, she would soon join her twin in death. So she took Hannah home. After consulting with experts who offered no hope for comforting the screaming little girl, Angela decided to "start over" with Hannah. She began to treat her as though she were an infant; carrying her constantly and not letting her crawl, feeding her by hand, constantly telling the baby how much she loved her. It seemed to make a difference, but Angela knew something more was needed.

She went to the local cathedral and spoke to a priest she knew. Would he pray with her over the child? He agreed, and they prayed before a statue of the Blessed Mother and poured out their hearts on behalf of Hannah.

By the age of four, Hannah was talking, and today she is a healthy, active sixth grader in Catholic school. She is doing great academically, and no one would suspect her history. She still calls Angela "momma."

You see, Angela adopted Hannah.

This is an example of the difference that one life can make. This is the difference our charisms, or gratuitous spiritual gifts, make. Hannah's alive and thriving because of the love of God she received through Angela – through the charisms that God gave Angela for this healing purpose. Who knows what Hannah will do in her life, what contributions to society she'll make, or who she will love. She, and we, will owe it all to God, who continues to enter the world and change it for the better through ordinary people like Angela,

and you,

and me.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Priestly Pastoral Formation: Theology Lite?

Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P., the co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute and current President of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, once told me that pastoral formation in Catholic seminaries is often looked upon as "theology lite." I think I know what he means, and I think he's correct. Prior to my working for the Institute, my understanding of pastoral theology was shaped by my experience of my formation in it. When I went through seminary, pastoral theology consisted of courses like, Confessional Ministry, Liturgical Celebration, and Pastoral Counseling. These were the 'how-to' classes; how to preside at Mass, how to baptize an infant, how to hear confessions, how to listen well and apply moral theological principles to particular situations.

These are all necessary, good skills that a priest should have. But a lot was missing, particularly surrounding the issue of pastoral governance, which, as Pope John Paul II said in his 2004 ad limina address to the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, "is directed both to gathering the flock in the visible unity of a single profession of faith lived in the sacramental communion of the Church and to guiding that flock, in the diversity of its gifts and callings, towards a common goal: the proclamation of the Gospel to the ends of the earth."

In preparation for the one-day workshop Sherry and I gave at St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, CA, I reviewed the 2005 Program for Priestly Formation which I've linked in the title. The document calls for the personal, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation of the men in our seminaries in this country. Here are the attitudes and competencies that are the goals outlined for pastoral formation:

a. A missionary spirit, zeal for evangelization, and ecumenical commitment

b. A spirit of pastoral charity, a quest for justice, and an openness to serve all people

c. A special love for and commitment to the sick and suffering, the poor and outcasts, prisoners, immigrants, and refugees

d. Demonstration of appropriate pastoral and administrative skills and competencies for ministry

e. Ability to exercise pastoral leadership

f. Ability to carry out pastoral work collaboratively with others and an appreciation for the different charisms and vocations within the Church

g. The ability to work in a multicultural setting with people of different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds

h. A commitment to the proclamation, celebration, and service of the Gospel of life

i. Energy and zeal for pastoral ministry

Of course, I have to ask myself how well those goals have been met in me, not only as a result of my initial formation, but also as a consequence of my ongoing prayer and post-ordination formation!

Beyond that, however, I think it is interesting to note that governance is not specifically mentioned in this context, although it is alluded to in points d.,e., f., and g. But f. is the only point in the entire document in which charisms are mentioned, and even then, it could refer to the gratuitous gifts given to the baptized or the charisms associated with religious orders. This lack of a focus on governance, and the role of charisms within it, is unfortunate for several reasons:

1) Pastoral governance, unless it is taught well (including information on discernment of charisms), will degenerate to administration, and few men feel called to priesthood so that they can be involved in parish budgets, capital campaigns, work contracts and personnel issues. Perhaps even fewer are competent administrators.

2) The discernment of their own charisms is important for seminarians who are considering the priesthood. In addition, if they are able to discern their own charisms, they will be better able to help the laity discern theirs. Without understanding their charisms, priests may not recognize the need for gifts among other staff to complement their own. Or, they may be threatened by the different gifts others have.

3) Each act of governance is concerned with community and mission. We build community for mutual support of personal mission as well as for the support of the parish's mission, and the active pursuit of the parish's mission will undoubtedly help build community. Unless pastors understand the fullness of the meaning of governance, their focus may become community without reference to mission, and few will have an idea of how to discern the call given by God to the community as a whole.

4) The only reference to governance apart from the governance of the seminary itself links governance, priestly spirituality, conversion and mission!
"For priests, the specific arena in which their spiritual life unfolds is their exercise of ministry in fulfillment of their mission. The life of priests in the Spirit means their continuous transformation and conversion of heart centered on the integration or linking of their identity as configured to Christ, Head and Shepherd (Pastores dabo vobis, nos. 21-23), with their ministry of word, sacrament, and pastoral governance or leadership (Pastores dabo vobis, nos. 24-26)." Program for Priestly Formation, 23.

If a priest does not properly understand governance, his spirituality will be stunted, his conversion incomplete, his identity threatened by competent lay people (especially those involved in lay ecclesial ministry). Moreover, his mission to sanctify, teach and govern the laity so that they can take Christ to the world will be unfulfilled or misunderstood.

These are just some initial thoughts, and not complete by any means. Paragraph 23 from the PPF might be worth a blog post in and of itself!

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Institution And Sacrament

On an earlier post, discussion turned to the institutional and charismatic dimensions of the Church and how there isn't a dichotomy between the two. I made mention of an insightful comment by then-Cardinal Ratzinger that I had found on the subject and thought I would follow up on it with a post.

As a member of a lay ecclesial movement, I am often asked how it affects my involvement with my local parish and whether I see these two aspects of the Church's life as opposed to each other. (I do not, for the record.) In response to a comment on Integrity, I started a series (still incomplete) called "Parishes vs. Movements?". In looking at the question of why movements at all, I stumbled across the following quote of Cardinal Ratzinger:
The duality of institution and event, or institution and charism, immediately suggests itself as a fundamental model for resolving the question. But if we try to analyze the two terms more closely in order to arrive at valid rules for defining their relationship, something unexpected happens. The concept of "institution" comes to pieces in our hands when we try to give it a precise theological definition. After all, what are the fundamental institutional factors in the Church, the permanent organization that gives the Church its distinctive shape? The answer is, of course, sacramental office in its different degrees: bishop, priest, deacon. The sacrament that, significantly, bears the name ordo is, in the end, the sole permanent and binding structure that forms so to say the fixed organizational pattern of the Church and makes the Church an "institution." But it was not until this century that it became customary, for reasons of ecumenical expediency, to designate the sacrament of ordo simply as "office" [Amt]. This usage places ordo entirely in the light of institution and the institutional. But this "office" is a "sacrament," and this fact signals a break with the ordinary sociological understanding of institutions. That this structural element of the Church, which is the only permanent one, is a sacrament, means that it must be perpetually recreated by God. It is not at the Church's disposal, it is not simply there, and the Church cannot set it up on its own initiative. It comes into being only secondarily through a call on the part of the Church. It is created primarily by God's call to this man, which is to say, only charismatically-pneumatologically. By the same token, the only attitude in which it can be accepted and lived is one unceasingly shaped by the newness of the vocation, by the unmanipulable freedom of the pneuma. The reason -- ultimately, the only reason -- why there can be a priest shortage is this. The Church cannot simply appoint "officials" by itself, but must await the call from God. This is why it has been held from the beginning that this office cannot be made by the institution, but has to be impetrated from God.
I found this a striking explanation of how the charismatic and institutional dimensions of the Church are intertwined.

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