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Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

The Trinity and a Girl Named Alice

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

A homily preached June 19, 2011, Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, at the Church of the Good Shepherd

Do you remember that famous moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader said to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father”?

Talk about a shock. Now that’s a really bad surprise. Discovering your father is the most evil person in the universe is not going to be your best day ever. Imagine what Fathers Day was like for Luke after that. Awkward!

Now some have not had the best fathers, even some here in this church. And that complicates things today, not just because it’s Fathers Day, but because we as a global church are celebrating the Holy Trinity, and the idea of a Father is important in connecting to this mystery. (more…)

“You shall love the alien as yourself”

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

A parishioner wrote me a very kind and thoughtful letter that took issue with my remarks on immigration in a recent homily. Because I knew him to be an educated and professional person, I decided to respond with a rather comprehensive explanation of how our Catholic tradition views immigration. Because I feel that others may benefit from the letter I sent to this parishioner, I am posting it here, although it is a bit longer than the usual blog post: (more…)

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? 150 Years of Papal Insights

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Each pope has a different way of approaching things. So as an illustration, we can imagine how each of the popes over the past 150 years might have offered an answer to the question of why the chicken crossed the road.

Pius IX (1846-1878): “If anyone should assert that the chicken has a right to cross the road, in direct disobedience the the Decrees of the Supreme Roman Pontiff which specify the divinely ordained place and roles of chickens, let him be anathema. And by the way, We are never wrong.”

Leo XIII (1878-1903): “The right of the chicken to cross the road, especially because all chickens are empowered to organize collectively for the right of crossing the road, must not be infringed. Unless the chicken is Anglican.”

Pius X (1903-1914): “Among the propositions to be condemned is the subversive Modernist doctrine that a chicken, without full knowledge of what lies on the other side of the road, may freely cross such a road. And you will swear an oath to that effect.”

Benedict XV (1914-1922): “The chicken has a right to cross the road in peace. Please don’t bomb the chicken.”

Pius XI (1922-1939): “You cannot prevent a chicken from crossing the road simply because it is Jewish. Stop that! No, stop it right now!”

Pius XII (1939-1958): “Herr Ambassador, if I let the chicken cross the road, will you also put me in one of your concentration camps?”

John XXIII (1958-1963): “Oh, just let the chicken cross the damn road already.”

Paul VI (1963-1978): “On the one hand, the chicken feels a need to cross the road. On the other hand, one wonders if the chicken really must cross the road.”

John Paul I (1978-1978): “The chicken crossed the road because…”

John Paul II (1978-2005): “The chicken crosses the road as an eschatological prefigurement of the parousia, when Christ will be all in all.”

Benedict XVI (2005-present): “The Byzantine emperor Paleologus Constantinius Optimus Prime once engaged in a colloquy with a devout and scholarly cooper in which his imperial majesty observed that chickens often engage in the non-teleological practice of crossing the road for seemingly mystagogical purposes. The cooper was recorded to have opined that the learned emperor’s discourse was ‘as the corporeal remnants of an ox which effuses its bad humours upon the wayside.’”

A Thought for Independence Day

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

The idea of the separation of church and state, a uniquely American idea, was initially considered a dangerous heresy by the Vatican. At the time, the popes were also monarchs of a nation called the Papal States and wore a tiara, whose triple crowns represented the juridical roles of pastor, pope and secular ruler. And at the time it was considered a fact of life that Catholicism was the established state religion of some countries. So you can imagine that the rulers of the Papal States had little use for this odd idea coming out of the United States.

Nevertheless, some prophets such as the American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray dedicated their scholarship toward integrating the American ideals of separation of church and state and religious liberty into the Roman tradition. It was not an easy sell. As you can imagine, Murray was silenced and punished by the Vatican for his efforts.

But by the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Murray, along with other silenced theologians, found favor with many of the 3,000 bishops attending the Council, much to the horror of conservative Vatican bureaucrats. His articulation of religious liberty and the separation of church and state were adopted by the Council Fathers, and integrated into official Church teaching. Murray’s efforts perhaps reflect the highest and most significant contribution of the American Experiment to the development of universal Christian teaching.

So it is somewhat ironic that America’s chief contribution to Christian teaching is seen by some as an egregious affront to “patriotism.” I put patriotism in quotation marks not because it’s bad, far from it, but because it so often degenerates into nationalism. A recent article by Msgr. Thomas Welbers in The Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is sure to generate much heat because it points out that the flag should not be regularly displayed in the altar area, although it is entirely appropriate to place it prominently for special celebrations such as Independence Day. The area around the altar, you see, is reserved for sacred furnishings and symbols, and the flag is not a sacred symbol, despite the assertions of some that it is.

So when we come to participate in liturgy, we may walk past a flag outside the church building. That’s fine. We may enter the vestibule, or narthex, with the flag displayed there. That’s fine. We may stop at a side chapel where the flag is displayed to honor military who have died. That’s fine. But to place the flag alongside altar and ambo is to suggest that it is a focus of our Sunday worship, and that’s not fine. Rather, we authentically honor foundational principles of our nation when we carefully maintain the separation of church and state in our worship. That is our special American character, that is our contribution to the Church. Melding church and state is a step backwards, and an affront to the memory of Fr. Murray and the Fathers of the Council.

No doubt my words will offend some who will feel that I have lessened the honor due our country and our flag. I really don’t see it that way. I am proud of our nation. I consider the bad things we have done and the good things we have done and feel that on the whole we have done more good than bad. I believe the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable, world-changing documents.

I think of my 9x-great-grandfather Nathaniel Morton, who was the secretary of Plymouth Colony, and my 9x-great-grandfather Deacon John Dunham, a Separatist who emigrated to Plymouth Colony from Holland after fleeing England for reasons of religious liberty. John Hancock was a cousin of mine, as was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My Luján ancestors colonized New Mexico in the 1600s and my Alvarado ancestors helped to build up California from the time of the first colonial expeditions here. My great-great-grandfather Peter Stoltz, a German immigrant, served in the Civil War to help end slavery.

To me, these ancestors and all those who are less remembered are what Independence Day is all about. It’s not about having the flag in church. It’s about living the legacy of our ancestors and those ideals held up for us at great cost by people like Fr. Murray and Dr. King.

So let’s not blur the lines, like those who drape gigantic American flags in their churches (see how the flag dwarfs the cross in this YouTube video) or urge people to bizarre pastiche devotions like “The Patriotic Rosary” that replaces scripture with readings from George Washington, John Adams, Robert E. Lee and—inexplicably—some wingnut conspiracy theorist named Jedediah Morse, and substitutes patriotic songs for Marian hymns. Rather, in church let us prayerfully recall the sacrifices of those who came before us and ask for the grace to do the right thing as a nation. And when we leave the church, let’s have barbecues and wave the flag and have fireworks and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

And let’s imagine Fr. Murray at our side in each place, and imagine how he would celebrate with us.

And let’s ask God to bless America.

“After God, the priest is everything.” Seriously?

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

On Sunday, Fathers Day, Fr. Gerry was in a great spirits. It was, after all, his day. He has adopted children whom he raised as a priest with great love. He was bustling about the sacristy and asked me if there was a Deacons Day.

Smiling, I replied, “No, but there is a year for priests.” Fr. Gerry laughed.

Fr. Gerry is one of those priests who decline honors and sees himself as a servant. These are the sort of priests who are a bit embarrassed that Benedict XVI has proclaimed a “Year for Priests” that began on June 19.

We have been blessed with many wonderful priests in the history of the Church. In our book Ascend, we include profiles of some of them; Ignatius of Loyola, Miguel Pro, Bartolomé de las Casas, Mychal Judge, Thomas Merton, Matteo Ricci, John Henry Newman. And the witness of John Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, has stood the test of time to exemplify how a pastor can help to deepen the faith of his parishioners when they open their hearts to the free gift of grace offered by God, who brings all people to himself.

But in his letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, the Holy Father used some rather troubling quotations from John Vianney that seem to indicate Benedict’s approval of a certain clericalist outlook on the life of the Church.

Certainly I do not wish to find fault with John Vianney. His words were directed to a particular people in a particular place and time. I do not pretend to second-guess him. But when Benedict quotes these words favorably in a modern context they present a certain disconnect. These words seem to indicate a certain clericalist mindset that is troubling.

Among the quotations of John Vianney that Benedict cited with apparent approval are these:

“A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.” I think St. Lawrence would disagree. He said the poor and outcast are the treasures of the Church, not priests.

Benedict quoted John Vianney as saying of the priest: “God obeys him.” Really? Should not the priest obey God?

“After God, the priest is everything!” Wow. So how far after the priest is the Gospel ranked?

“It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth…” Got that? Everyone else is apparently unnecessary. I can almost hear John Henry Newman screaming in despair.

And here is perhaps the most insulting passage in the Holy Father’s letter: “Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshiping the beasts there …” Oh really? I wonder how this passage sounded to the descendants of the Christians of Nagasaki, who kept their faith for hundreds of years without priests when the missionaries were expelled from Japan. I think of Black Elk, the Lakota catechist, who ministered to his impoverished people when no priests could minister there.

Don’t get me wrong. We need priests. And we also need bishops, deacons and laity. When we elevate priests to some sort of divine arbiter between God and humanity, we set ourselves up for the kind of crises we experienced here in the United States with the clerical abuse crisis and we have heard about in Ireland, where priests and religious systematically tortured, raped and enslaved children.

So we have this year for priests. Let’s observe it. Let’s encourage those priests who follow in the way of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, and challenge those priests who consider themselves a divine caste above the People of God. It is the role of the laity to remind priests of these word of John Vianney quoted by Benedict in his letter as advice to his fellow priests: “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back.”

What we need is less triumphalistic, clericalist proclamations such as this letter by our Holy Father that focus on priestly dignity and privilege, and more everyday witness by priests like Fr. Gerry, who strive to live as servants of God’s people.

Many of our parishes have had decades of “years for priests.” When do parishioners get their year?