Written by Michael Fones
Friday, 17 July 2009 20:41
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.
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.
(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.
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.
Written by Michael Fones
Wednesday, 15 July 2009 08:56
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...
Written by Michael Fones
Tuesday, 14 July 2009 11:08
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.
Written by Sherry
Monday, 13 July 2009 08:10
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.
Written by Sherry
Monday, 13 July 2009 06:51
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.
Written by Michael Fones
Sunday, 12 July 2009 20:24
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.
Written by Michael Fones
Saturday, 11 July 2009 10:48
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.
Written by Sherry
Saturday, 11 July 2009 09:22
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)
Written by Michael Fones
Thursday, 09 July 2009 10:52
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!
Written by Sherry
Thursday, 09 July 2009 08:10
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.”
Written by Sherry
Thursday, 09 July 2009 08:02
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!
Written by Michael Fones
Wednesday, 08 July 2009 09:29
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!
Written by Sherry
Tuesday, 07 July 2009 09:05
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.
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:
Written by Michael Fones
Sunday, 05 July 2009 18:32
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.
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