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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?

Christ the King: Against the Odds

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

Did you know that today’s feast is one of the newest ones in our liturgical calendar?

The Feast of Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Since then, this celebration has also been adopted by the Anglican Communion and many Protestant traditions as well. Today is the last Sunday of the year. Next Sunday we begin a new Church year with the First Sunday of Advent.

Advent, of course, is not the Christmas season, as we so often hear it called by secular society. The Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and goes through Epiphany. But one benefit of this wrong-headed view of “the Christmas season” is that we get to her performances of Händel’s “Messiah.” While often associated with Christmas, Händel’s wonderful “Hallelujah Chorus” is well-suited to our celebration today:

Hallelujah,
for the Lord omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world
is become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Christ.
And he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of kings and Lord of lords
forever and ever. Hallelujah!

King of kings and Lord of lords.

There’s a story told that once while serving as ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin was invited to play a game of chess. He sat down and immediately removed the two king pieces from the board, saying, “In America we have no need of kings.”

Maybe we are at a bit of a disadvantage in the United States to talk about kings. But if you think about it, in many respects kings, with their wide-ranging power, share some things in common with presidents. If you think back on what you learned about various kings in history class, certain things come to mind.

They tended to accumulate wealth for themselves, their family and friends at the expense of others. They thought it noble and honorable to send young people to their death in wars. They sought to increase their power through conquest of other lands. They had little regard for the ordinary citizens or the poor. They imprisoned people without trials and had people tortured. Of course there were many good kings and queens as well, some of them we honor as saints.

Certainly one could make a case that leaders of democracies are not so different from kings in these things.

And it was precisely because of the wanton disregard for life, peace and justice among national leaders that Pius XI initiated the Feast of Christ the King. Pius wanted to emphasize that not even the highest secular leaders can exempt themselves from the laws of God.

So when we talk of Jesus being King of kings and Lord of lords, it doesn’t mean Jesus is the most royal of all royals. It means the kingship of Jesus is fundamentally different from earthly kingship. His reign is diametrically opposed to the usual way nation-states are run. And this stark difference is laid out for us in all its drama in today’s Gospel reading. The highest and deepest way for us to picture Jesus as a true king is to picture him on the cross.

To the world, this seems like the most unlikely image of a king, because it appears to be an image of failure. Kings and presidents, after all, are supposed to be winners.

They are war leaders, conquerors, builders of magnificent palaces, hosts of elaborate state dinners. They talk tough, beat their opposition. They get things done.

In the musical “Evita,” one song refers to politics as “the art of the possible.” Couldn’t Jesus have been more political?

A campaign consultant would have advised him to tone things down and not anger so many people. “You won’t achieve anything if they wind up killing you,” a consultant would have said. You’ll be a loser. Better to build support and gradually implement your program. If you say too much, the odds of winning go down.

Can you imagine Jesus running for president? What would his commercials look like? What would his campaign promises be?

Our presidential election is a year away, and I don’t know about you, but I’m already sick of all the people running.

Vast amounts of time and resources are spent trying to figure out what these folks actually believe, or what they would do if elected. And it’s frustrating because candidates want to be vague, hedging their bets so as to appeal to as many people as possible, keeping their options open.

Jesus didn’t hedge his bets. He knew what he was saying was dangerous, but he said it anyway. The Gospels tell us Jesus predicted that he would be killed, but do you think he needed divine foreknowledge to make that prediction? Common sense would tell him that if he kept on doing and saying what he was doing and saying, there would be a heavy price to pay. And Jesus wasn’t stupid.

This is the common sense that tells us when to shut up. You know the feeling.

“If I speak up about this corrupt business practice, I could be fired.”

“If I tell my friends I go to Mass, they might think I’m weird.”

“If I stand up for the person at work who’s being discriminated against, I may not get that promotion.”

We play the odds in the art of the possible.

Besides, we’re told, the odds are against the Gospel. You don’t really believe that’s a way to solve problems, do you? If you do, you must be an idiot. That’s not the way the world works. Listening to the teachings of Jesus is fine for an hour on Sunday, but that’s no way to run a business. Or a country. Might makes right!

And here is Jesus on the cross, with a sign above him: “King of the Jews.” Pilate put it there to mock him and to serve up a warning against any others who might be a threat to the established order, the way things are done.

Truth be told, the odds are against establishing a just society. How much can we really do as individuals? We see what happens to those who rock the boat. Why not just go with the flow?

But here’s when we think of Jesus on that cross, and why that makes him a true king. He tells us to go against the odds, to practice the art of the impossible.

The odds are against you and I being able to put an end to war, but do what you can anyway.

The odds are against you and I ending the AIDS crisis, but do what you can anyway.

The odds are against you and I ending discrimination, but do what you can anyway.

Because playing the odds and living by the art of the possible robs us of something: hope. I guess that’s what turns me off on elections. The constant platitudes and evasions give me no hope, even as they try to sell me hope. You can’t sell hope, you can only give it away.

There is Jesus on the cross, giving hope. He gives hope to the good thief. He gives us hope for a better world. He gives us hope for a fuller life. He gives us hope for eternal joy.

Jesus knew what the Book of Proverbs says:

“Without a vision the people perish.”

If we give up the art of the possible and try to live the teachings of Jesus in our own lives, and believe they hold the key to solving the problems of the world, will we wind up scorned and abused like Jesus?

Probably. The odds are against us.

But we’ll have something business-as-usual can’t give: hope.

Oh, the powerful will still try to sell you false hope. But there’s Jesus on the cross again, offering real hope. “Play against the odds,” he whispers.

No wonder he’s King of kings and Lord of lords.

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Models of the Church

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

I think it’s in fourth grade that virtually every California student gets an assignment to construct a model of one of the California missions. These church models often display a wide range of skill — and interest — among the children. 

But when one speaks of Cardinal Avery Dulles’ famous Models of the Church, one is referring to his classic book of the same title describing different ways of envisioning and experiencing the Body of Christ, the Church. The impact of this book is enormous; probably everyone preparing for ordination as a priest or deacon reads it — or at least is assigned to read it.

Dulles outlines five models, or views, of the Church: Mystical Communion, Sacrament to the World, Herald of the Gospel, Servant and Institution. While any healthy concept of the Church includes aspects of each of these models, one model generally predominates in any given individual, depending on a variety of factors such as education, life experience, parental attitudes, etc.

The value in evaluating our own predominate view of the Church is in understanding why we hold that view, and what is of value in other views. To that end, I recently discovered an online quiz (by way of Deacon Greg Kandra) that helps the respondent understand what their predominate model of the Church is. For example, here are my results:

Models of the Church Survey Results

Go ahead and try it for yourself. Now you may ask, what do these models mean? Good question. To get that, you’ll have to read the book.  

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Along the Via Dolorosa

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

The hem of my alb is dirty.

When I packed it for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land, it was freshly laundered. Clean and white and pressed. But when you wear a long white liturgical garment walking along a Palestinian marketplace, it gets dirty. And that’s a lesson we learned along the Way of the Cross this past Friday in Jerusalem.

For the past three years, I have been a religious leader on an annual interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and one of the elements of the trip cited each year as a highlight by Christians as well as Muslims and Jews is always walking the Way of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. The pilgrims find this service incredibly moving, as do I, no matter how many times I do it.

This year we tried something new by visiting the Lithostrotos before beginning the service. This is the Stone Pavement, or Gabbatha, where Pilate sentenced Jesus to death. We learned about the game the Roman soldiers played as they mocked those condemned, which the Gospels recall as “casting lots.” We talked about crucifixion, and stood on that very pavement, marked with the crude etchings the Romans used in their game. Then we began the service.

In planning the day, our tour guide had suggested that we begin very early in the morning, to avoid the noise and crowds along the Via Dolorosa, which is located along a vibrant and crowded marketplace. He said this would avoid distractions. But I was adamantly against such a pristine service. On the day he carried his cross to Calvary, Jesus was led through just such a marketplace, in the midst of people who were probably accustomed to seeing condemned criminals humiliated in this way. Most of them just carried on business as usual, ignoring him, and I wanted the pilgrims to be in that same environment. Our prayer would take place in the midst of life, and life in the midst of our prayer. Let the merchants shout and hawk their good as we passed; this is what it was really like on that fateful day.

Way of the Cross

Mural in the chapel of the Third Station along the Via Dolorosa

And so our group of 39 pilgrims wove our way through the crowds and noise as we visited each of the stations leading us inexorably to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of our greatest sorrow and our greatest joy, a place of defeat and of victory.

Our meditations at each station focused on how each of us can be more aware of those around us who are walking their own Sorrowful Path, their own Via Dolorosa, and our responsibility toward them. Remembering the suffering of Jesus becomes mere melodrama unless we can somehow draw lessons from them for our own lives, lessons we must remember even in the business of everyday life. Those narrow, winding streets crowded with shops and shoppers are exactly the setting for how we each carry out the Christian duties we became heirs to at baptism. So that Palestinian marketplace was a place of grace, even if we did have to shout a bit to make our words heard over the din of commerce.

Come Sunday, I’ll wear my alb with its dirty hem as a reminder of what I experienced in Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa. Later, of course, I’ll get it cleaned, but for now the dust of the marketplace is a sort of relic of the Passion, a reminder of how I must seek out the suffering we take for granted and pass by every day.

If you’re interested, the service we used was Stations of the Cross: I Am There, by Norman Haskell (St. Anthony Messenger Press), which I heartily recommend.

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