Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Virgin Sings "Like A Virgin": What's So Strange About That?

Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Bernini
I've never commented on the phenomena that is Sr. Cristina Scuccia, the Ursuline sister who won the Italian version of the popular talent competition The Voice, because I felt a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I didn't think it was scandalous, just gimmicky. My first impression when I saw the viral video of her auditioning for the show's judges was that her getting through was the result of a sort of "man bites dog" situation. No one expects to see a young woman in full habit, crucifix and sensible shoes belting out an R & B number on national television. But there she was: the judges couldn't help but go for it, and so a curiosity was born. I figured that the good sister's 15 minutes would pass and she'd be back in the convent before long, mainly because her singing voice is unremarkable. Not bad by any stretch, and Sr. Cristina certainly has a lot of heart, but she doesn't possess the soaring and dramatic pipes of a Susan Boyle let's say, another viva in sheep's clothing who came out of nowhere to find fame on Britain's Got Talent a few years back. But here she is, the winner, and her singing career is on it's way.

For her first post Voice single she's chosen to cover Madonna's Like a Virgin. An odd choice: sure. A nun sings Like a Virgin? Sounds more like a Saturday Night Live skit. Scandalous? It's easy to think so.

Until you listen to it, and better yet watch the video.

In this off kilter song selection Sr. Cristina pulls off a bit of holy subversiveness. As Madonna indulges in hyper sexualizing the sacred (do you remember Like a Prayer?), Sr. Cristina has taken an ode to lust and turned it into a hymn to agape. In the original video Madonna struts, writhes and wiggles her way through the canals of Venice seducing the camera as she goes. It's a one note performance, in more ways than one (I forgot how much she sounded like Minnie Mouse in those early years). Here, Sr. Christina conquers the same canals, but with a gaze focused somewhere else, as she sings of making it through the wilderness to reach a love that is rejuvenating and eternal.  Rather than Venice serving as an amorous backdrop for the singer, it is itself a "character," whose natural beauty and architectural wonders help lift the mind to something higher, something spiritual, something pure. When she does look into the camera directly it's with a sly, Mona Lisa smile, that says, "Yeah, I went there." It also says, "Scoff if you will, but I know what love is, and it's so much more than most of us think."

Sr. Cristina's turns the tables on the Queen of Pop, and redeems an otherwise disposable dance number.

She also pulls off something very rare: she produces a cover that's actually better than the original.

Because of the slowed down arraignment, free of the original's overdone synthesizers and drums machines, we actually hear the lyrics. It turns out that they are rather tender and speak to the redeeming, renewing quality of love. The stanzas are wisely emphasized, with the chorus handled more subtly, so as to avoid what could have become an unintended parody. While the original stays pretty much on the same tempo and key, this new version lingers, swells, crashes and rises again, showing tones and colors Madonna never even thought of.  Sister may not have a powerful voice, but it is expressive, pointing to a different experience of love then we usually hear in your average pop song. This version can be taken on a romantic level for sure, but also on a far deeper plain of two people whose hearts are united in a spiritual, unconditional embrace.

We can even go further and see the union of the soul with God.

From the Song of Songs to John of the Cross romantic, even erotic, imagery has been employed to describe the the human soul united with God in contemplative prayer. This is brought our clearly in Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, where the saint is depicted, well, in ecstasy as the angel pierces her heart with  the arrows of God's love. St. John Paul II in his writings hinted that in the resurrection our whole being, body and soul, will be united with God in a nuptial embrace. Christopher West, the popularizer of the saint's Theology of the Body in the English language, has warned against over literalizing this concept, but the idea that the sexual union of man and woman is a foreshadowing, or imaging, of the heavenly reality to come is not so far fetched, and has it's roots in Christian mysticism.

Putting all the high minded theology aside, how do I explain Sr. Cristina's appeal? Beyond the novelty of it all, there is a beauty to innocence that only the most cynical can resist. It was the same with Susan Boyle: a practicing Catholic from a small town who always wanted to sing but never got the chance because the world cares more about the flesh than the spirit; appearances more than what lies beneath. When she did get the chance the public responded on a gut level and embraced beauty.

As for Sr. Cristina, who recently renewed her temporary vows, I pray for her. There are many temptations to pride and egoism in the entertainment industry that she's now entered. I hope she keeps her head about her, and uses this opening as an evangelizing tool, and when the bubble bursts, as it does eventually for everyone in that business, she has the humility to return to the "ordinary" life of her community. But until them, I'm hoping to see some more holy subversion out of her in near future.


Two Reflections on St. John Paul II from Catholic News Service and AOP

Friday, October 17, 2014

Synod of Bishops: Twelve Months to Take a Breath



The lead up to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops that is wrapping up in Rome was filled with predictions of fireworks and infighting. I normally don't give much credence to such talk, and while I agree with voices like Fr. Robert Barron that we shouldn't make too much out of this week's controversies, it's hard to deny that, for once, the predictions were right.

Clear divisions can be seen among the Synod fathers, and while I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge and all will workout along God's plan, it has been a disconcerting process.

Week one seemed to go smoothly enough. Sure there were a few eyebrows raised by an Australian couple who spoke to the bishops about welcoming gay children and their partners to Christmas dinner. But for the most part what ever tremors were going on seemed to be mild. It looked like all the talk of rupture and discord was overblown.

Then week two opened with a seismic jolt by way of the release of the Relatio post disceptationem (report after the debate), a mid term report meant to summarize the discussions so far. While the document is wide ranging, not particularly well written and most importantly, not an authoritative teaching tool, the three paragraphs concerning homosexuals in the Church caused a firestorm inside the synod hall and in the secular as well as Catholic press. It engendered strong reactions from conservative minded bishops like Cardinal Pell who implied that the most talked about debate, concerning the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried, is a stalking horse to get things like the recognition of gay unions on then table

The drama continued with the controversial interview with Cardinal Kasper that wasn't (but really was). In it the cardinal, who has been championing a change in Church discipline to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried, came off as dismissive of the bishops from Africa, more then implying that they shouldn't have much of a say in how the Church moves in this area since their cultural milieu is so different from that of the Western world. Realizing how negatively he came off, Cardinal Kasper tried to deny that the interview ever took place, which was silly since it was recorded and there were two other journalists present. John Allen has an interesting take on the whole thing, framing the controversy in light of Africa's coming of age within the Church.

If any of you have been following the controversy surrounding Cardinal Kasper, you'll notice that I haven't used the word "racist" to describe him, as some have. Partly it's because I don't believe that he is one, and also I think the racism, as well as homophobe cards are thrown around way too freely these days. It's like calling somebody a communist back in the 1950's; a cheep and easy way to cast aspersions on someone you can't actually beat in an honest debate. Cardinal Kasper, high IQ not withstanding, was speaking after days of grueling meetings, probably before supper, so he was more than a bit hungry, and communicating in a second or third (or maybe even fourth) language. I can attest that my ability to communicate in Spanish takes a big nosedive after a long day and on an empty stomach. The cardinal is an honorable man, and should be given the benefit of the doubt.

But his words do denote a general prejudice that some churchmen in the West have toward their counterparts in the developing world. Again, not racism in the sense that they think that people from the Southern Hemisphere are inherently inferior, but that they haven't caught up socially or intellectually yet. Give them time, the Europeans say, and our African and Asian brothers and sisters will see the light. But the African bishops are saying wait a minute; we understand and live the Church's social doctrine with zeal, as well as embrace Her moral doctrines. We've experienced persecution, and know what it is to have to grow and develop in a hostile culture. We take a back seat to no one: our parishes, religious houses and seminaries are filled to overflowing, while those of the West are withering. Maybe it's you that need to learn from us. Maybe it is those that the world considers weak who will teach the strong.    

Thankfully the Synod will end this weekend, and we will have time as a Church to pray and reflect before the ordinary synod in 12 months. 

Next time, something on Pope Paul VI, who will he beatified Sunday, the Spirit of Vatican II and how both relate to this soon to be concluded Synod.




Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Cardinal Dolan Reflects on the Church in Africa

Synod of Bishops Week 2: The Drama Continues

A great deal has been made of the Relatio post disceptationem released yesterday out of the Synod. I usually try to down play all the talk of how ground breaking things coming out of the Vatican are, because in reality they usually aren't. I'm going to avoid that here, because a reasonable person can read it, as I did, and come away believing that there isn't just a different tone being offered, but a new doctrinal and pastoral approach.  Paragraphs 40-52, dealing directly with homosexuality, have gotten the most attention. While affirming that gay marriages can't be considered sacramental, and homosexual acts present moral problems (51) the two paragraphs which sandwich this representation of the traditional understanding of homosexuality stress the need for the Church to be open and pastoral to gay Catholics, and cherish the gifts they have to offer. This, again, is nothing really new. It's the suggesting that there is something intrinsic to orientation that is to be cherished that is the departure point.

But to more progressive minded, who see this as the sign of a doctrinal sea change, I say curb your enthusiasm, and to more traditional minded folks who see this as a betrayal, I say hold your fire.

This Relatio is a midterm working document. It's a cross between meeting minutes and the summary of a brain storming session. In reading it there were things I liked, things I had questions about, and a lot that seemed muddled and half baked; which is the way a document of this type is going to look like at a synod's midway point. I've been to several our provincial chapters, triennial meetings of the Salesian leadership, that are not exactly like a synod, but share things in common; like the need to formulate a closing document. There's writing, debate, revision, more debate, more revision, on and on until the mind reels. We passionately debate substance, we debate the placement of semicolons. It can be a very tedious, as well as engaging affair.  I'm imagining a lot of this is happening in the Synod, though at this stage there's more debate about substantive issues as opposed to grammatical style. Keep in mind too that what has been made public is an unofficial translation, even though it was released through the Vatican Press Office. So drawing conclusions about what the final document will be is premature.

These midterm relatio's are usual. What is unusual is that the verbatim interventions made by the bishops in session have not been released. Selective quotes have been made public in the daily news briefings, but no names are attached to the words. So we have no idea who is saying what, or if the the content of the relatio reflects to the actual debates going on inside the hall. I almost wish that if they weren't going to release the interventions then they should have held off releasing anything until the closing document.

Ah, but if they did that then what would I have to write about?

One thing I do want to write about is the principle of graduality, something being floated by some of the bishops that impacts the issues of homosexual acts, cohabitation and civil marriage.

More on that next time.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Is This a Synod of Bishops or a Stealth Vatican III?

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this Extraordinary Synod is the most important gathering of the pastors of the Universal Church since Vatican II. I'm going out on a limb, because I'm no scholar, nor am I the son of a scholar, but it could be argued that in ages past the pope would have called an ecumenical council to address what is a crisis of meaning, both inside and outside the Church, of the family. The debate, both public and private, has centered on the doctrinal understanding of the sacrament of matrimony and it's pastoral application. But, as at least one bishop has pointed out, the real issue being addressed in these two weeks isn't simply marriage in isolation, but the impact of the present cultural and social conditions on the family, of which marriage is a key component. Since the family is the building block of both Church and society the shifting definition of marriage and family is forcing the Church to ask existential questions of meaning and relevance. When the Church has faced other such crisis of meaning in the past, whether over the nature of the person of Jesus Christ or the number and definition of the sacraments, an ecumenical council was called. By opening up the synod process to greater input by the bishops themselves, Francis has called a sort of stealth council.

This is not meant as a criticism, simply as an observation.

Ecumenical councils can be messy affairs. They can take years to prepare for, and this lag time can give various factions within the Church too much time to push their agendas, or even sabotage the council itself. Once convened you don't know when it's going to end or even if it's going to end. Tent proceeded in fits and starts for 18 years before finally competing its work. Vatican I was cut short because of the Franco-Prussian War with the intention of reconvening but never did. Here Francis identified an issue challenging the life of the Church at its deepest level, shrewdly took a mechanism already in place, summoned an extraordinary session, which is not unprecedented, and gave the bishops time, but not too much time, to formulate their positions and debate them. The bishops have two weeks this year and next to do their job, and that's that, so they can't dally. He's also given them freedom to speak and even shape the agenda, which was the case with Vatican II, but may not have always been the case with the synods that have followed. And like an ecumenical council, the results, whatever they end up being, will effect Catholics at the grassroots level around the world; definitely not something that can be said of your average synod. This will be accomplished with all the benefits of a council and few of the hassles.

One of the great benefits of this more open, councilor style synod, is that voices from all over the world are being heard. The issue of divorced and remarried Catholics may be a burning issue in Europe and North America, and has gotten much of the news coverage in the West leading up to the synod, but isn't necessarily the number one priority in other places. African bishops are concerned with prevalence of polygamy in some parts of the continent, something culturally accepted that is in conflict with the Catholic view of marriage. Bishops from some predominantly Muslim countries face laws that force Catholics who marry Muslims to convert to Islam. The impact of poverty on family life is something which effects people from all over the world. We also shouldn't underestimate the presence of so many lay people participating as observers, who are not simply listening, but speaking as well.

Unlike Vatican II the focus of the synod is far more concentrated, but, again if I can go out on a limb, the results will be no less important. I leave off with some videos from the Catholic News Service, Catholic News Agency and Canada's Salt+Light Network to allow us to hear from some of the synod fathers themselves.






Wednesday, October 8, 2014

UPDATE: WLS Cancels Roe and Roeper! - I Had Nothing to Do With It!

Roe Conn and Richard Roeper

Yesterday I wrote unfavorably about the Roe and Roeper show's coverage of the Synod of Bishops. I'm truly sad to say that WLS AM canceled the show today. But I want to go on record that I had nothing to do with it. I was a big fan of the show and am very disappointed to hear the news. I guess the ratings were low and the station decided to pull the plug. The decision was obviously made at the last second, because as of yesterday they were giving out tickets to a remote appearance scheduled for Halloween. When Roe's former partner Garry Meier was let go ten years ago it was a drawn our affair that memory tells me went on for over a week. With all due respect to Richard Roeper, the show was better when Roe was teamed up with Meier, but it was still an enjoyable listen. When I was back east the last six years I'd tune in by way of the internet every so often just to get a fix.

So, I'll miss the show, and wish Roe and Roeper all the luck moving ahead.

A Further Reflection on Ezekiel Emanuel's End of Life Plan

In explaining his reasons for not wanting live past 75 years old, Ezekiel Emanuel references his own father. He describes how the senior Emanuel suffered a heart attack ten years ago, at the age of 77, had bypass surgery, but survived the experience. He lives on with his wife to this day. Though not incapacitated by any means, the once "hyper-active" MD and professor of medicine has slowed down considerably. He's had to give up his medical practice and teaching duties, though he's still sharp enough to gives his kids a hard time when they call on the phone. Ezekiel the Younger sees this wonders what kind of quality of life his father has, though he admits that Ezekiel the Elder says that he is happy.

There is no doubt that the father wishes he could do the things he once did. Happiness is never unalloyed. Even saints like Therese of Lisieux suffered a great crisis of faith in the months before her death. I don't believe that Ezekiel wants his father gone. But I do believe that he is projecting his own fears upon the old man. He can quote all the stats he wants, his high minded theory that it's better to burnout than it is to rust is born of a visceral reaction many of us feel when we encounter a person debilitated by age and infirmity: I don't want that to be me. We think of our life now and the independence we enjoy and can't imagine it any other way. To not be able to drive, or hike, or go out to dinner or what ever hobby or leisure activity we enjoy now is unimaginable. Maybe we're workaholics who find our meaning in our particular profession. When our identity is intimately connected with work and that work is taken away we can feel lost. But rather than fear, why not learn from the grace his father is carrying into his twilight time?

A feeling of fear can also hit us when we encounter people with developmental problems. Some ask if it's better if they were never born. As a society, we just don't ask it we've acted on it as well. While there is controversy over the percentages, anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of pre born babies prescreened as having down syndrome are aborted. Many will say that this is only to spare the child an unhappy life. Yet recent studies indicate that most people with down syndrome say that they are happy with their lives. Who are "regular" to judge them? Are we looking to put the child out of his or her misery, or are we looking to avoid the sacrifices inevitable with welcoming such a child into our families? Or are we embarrassed at not having a "normal" child? Are we letting our lives be ruled by fear, and why are we taking this fear out on these innocents?

This fear of growing old and not being able to do what we once did is not limited to secular minded people. A great issue facing aging priests and religious, particularly those religious in active apostolic communities, is that they don't age well. Salesians are notorious for this. We've been trained to work hard. The ideal is the "die with your boots on" in the service of the Lord. This was once possible when people routinely died in their 60's, still in the midst of the apostolate. But now we are living well into our eighties and even 90's. There is a frustration many feel in not being able to handle the classroom any more, or not having the strength to handle administrative or even pastoral duties anymore. As the years of "retirement" proceed (for Salesians retirement is a dirt word) it becomes crucial to develop an interior life of prayer and union with God. Those that don't end up experiencing a real crisis of meaning and even faith.

There is no magic potion that will make growing old easy. Even faith will not necessarily free us from all anxiety. But faith helps us see that we are greater than our productivity and usefulness. It helps to show us that fear is useless, especially when we project it onto others

WLS Talk Radio Tackles the Synod, or How Long Must I Endure All of You?

I usually have Chicago's Mighty 89 - WLS AM on the radio during the day, when I'm not playing music. They have the big national hosts, but also some local talkers that keep me in touch with the Chicago scene. In the afternoon Roe Conn and Richard Roeper  are on the air, with a show that has gone through several incarnations over the years. Conn has had a change of co-host at least once, and now he's teamed with the Sun-Times film critic. They do cover heavy news, speaking with serious guests when necessary, but it's played for laughs most of the time. I like the show; not overly political and irreverently funny without going into shock territory.  At 3 O'Clock Ron Magers, the local ABC TV anchor comes on to give a preview of the 6 O'Clock report. What did he talk about today? The Synod of Bishops, of course.

But Mr. Magers and his hosts had no idea what a synod was, which was made clear by their inability to articulately describe what the bishops were doing in Rome. In fact Magers called it a conclave, which made me groan. Then he proceeded to talk about a married couple from Australia who spoke to the synod, talking about the need to be welcoming to gay and divorced Catholics, and how ground breaking this was. Not only that, but they actually said that sex was important to married life, and intrinsic to it's sacramentality. What a revolution, they proclaimed. The three spoke kindly of the Church for it's longevity, and Roe Conn, using imprecise language, hit upon the fact that the Catholic Church has lasted this long because it's stayed true to it's beliefs. But of course, something would have to change now.

My initial response was frustration at how ill prepared Ron Magers, and really all three of them were, to speak about the synod, or Church matters in general. It's clear that they don't now the difference between liturgy, doctrine and canon law, or what Pope Emeritus Benedict's baptismal name is, or the job he held before becoming pope. They would never talk about state politics without knowing who the governor or speaker of the house are, or a little about their job history that might impact on what's going on now. But they'll dive into matters of the Catholic Church with ignorant abandon. These are three intelligent men, who have a pretty good grasp on what's going on in the world, but knew bupkis about the Catholic Church; and not being Catholics isn't an excuse. If they're going to bring it up, be ready to talk about it.

After I thought about it, taking into account their good will, I was happy that they at least they thought that the synod was important enough to comment on. I can't blame them for being unaware of John Paul II's theology of the body, or his other writings on human sexuality. He shocked people in the early 60's when he wrote that husbands need to be attentive to their wives' sexual satisfaction lest sex becomes a selfish act and wives view it as a chore. Or the long standing belief of many theologians (including a non theologian like myself) that the Sacrament of Matrimony isn't really contracted until it's consummated on the wedding night. I can't blame them for thinking priests and bishops are all a bunch of kill joy prudes, because some of us do come off that way, even ones who really aren't.

In fairness that the bishops are being addressed by married couples in synod is something new, and important. And Ron Magers is right, this open and frank dialogue is exactly what the Pope wants. Some bishops are out of sorts about the topics being covered, and some of the deliberations being conducted, as the trio suggested. But Francis doesn't care.

So I'll put up with the errors and malapropisms. At least they're talking about the Synod of Bishops in the MSM. But guys, I doubt that you'll read this, but if you're going to start throwing terms like "liturgy" or "canon law" around, know what they are. And Pope Emeritus Benedict's baptismal name is Josef Ratzinger. You'd do your homework if you were going to discuss ISIS or Pat Quinn's election chances. Give the same consideration to religious topics. I don't want to discourage you, though, and you know that I'll be listening tomorrow afternoon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why I Hope to Die When I'm Meant to Die

Dr. Ezekiel "Zeke" Emanuel 


University of Pennsylvania bio-ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel has caused a bit of a stir with an article in the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly stating that he hopes to die at 75 years of age. I'd never heard of Dr. Emanuel before, but should have since he was right in the middle of formulating the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obama Care. Oh, yeah, and his brother also happens to be Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago.

"Zeke," as his friends call him, is clear that he doesn't believe in euthanasia, and won't do things to purposely shorten his life, but once 75 hits he won't do anything to prolong it either. No colonoscopies, no stress tests, no doctor's visits of any kind after 75 years old.

Why?

Because the data shows that overall quality of life peaks at 40 and takes a slow decline until it falls off the table at roughly 75. Dr. Emanuel is not just talking about a person's physical health, but creativity and productivity as well. Artists, composers, scientists and philosophers tend to make the most important contributions to their respective fields by forty, and their last significant one before they reach 60. Nobel Prize winners are usually recognized for some breakthrough that they made in their late 40's. As a person progresses through their 80's one's cognitive, creative and physical abilities deteriorate to the point of making the quality of life increasingly poor. He argues that the breakthroughs made in increasing life expectancy are not so much extending life as prolonging the process of dying. Are their exceptions to this rule? Sure; and he reserves the right to change his mind in the future. But for now, at 75 most people are still living a high enough quality of life that it makes it a good time to pass on before things really start going down hill.

There are aspects of Dr. Emanuel's article I agree with. We in the United States today have an almost pathological obsession with extending physical life. We believe that, with technology, we will find a way to live for ever. We really do believe that 70 is the new 50, which he says is just delusional when we face the facts. I would add that our approach to medical research is a reflection of this delusion. We just don't want to collect money to find a cure for cancer-we want to "defeat" it, as if it were a foreign enemy. Quite often those blessed to have survived a deadly disease like cancer will say that they "beat it," as if it was done purely by a force of will. I'm sure they aren't thinking this way, but it's as if to say that the guy who doesn't "beat it" somehow didn't do all he could, or gave in to an "enemy." We believe that with science and medicine, and a strong resolve, we can beat mortality itself.

But both Dr. Emanuel's position that our years are better limited and those who want to extend life indefinitely are coming from the same point of view: that this is the only life worth living and there is nothing to look forward to after we die. So on the one hand it's better to live while we're still active and productive, calling it a life once we've come to the end of our prime, and on the other we need to find a way to prolong those meaningful years as long as possible, even if in the end we're whistling past the grave yard.

I don't know what Dr. Zeke's beliefs about an afterlife are, and most people still believe in God, even if they aren't terribly religious. But we, as a culture, live like atheists. I would say that most of us take going to heaven for granted, but if we really believed that I'm not sure we would be so afraid to face the reality of death on one hand, or want euthanasia on the other (California and Great Britain are the latest places considering legalizing "mercy" killing). Life is about activity and productivity, with a touch of creativity if we're lucky. If we are disabled, sick, or in anyway less then physically or cognitively up to snuff, then life must not be worth living. The solution is simple; do all we can avoid such a fate through diet, exercises, and medication, end our lives when these don't work anymore or at least don't impede the inevitable, as Emanuel advocates.

But Catholics need to live a different way. We believe that life has a purpose beyond the goals we set for ourselves. We were sent here for a purpose, and are called to spend our time on earth figuring out what that is and doing it. Sometimes, probably most of the time, we don't know what that is until we die and are shown the path we walked and the lives we touched. It's not for us to say when it's done, but for God to make that decision.

We walk a tight rope in a way. We should take advantage of medical science and care for our health, fostering the gift we've been given. All the same, we need to know that we may have 40 years or we may have 100, but our earthly life will end all the cholesterol medicine and power walks aren't going to change that.

Attaching the meaning of our lives to our physical, or even mental, activity level is limiting the things God can do through us. It says that a disabled or developmentally challenged person doesn't have the value of a "normal" person. He can't be as happy or satisfied as a "whole" man. We forget that those the world considers the least are here to teach the strong the value of love and compassion. Those who are old, no longer active are to pass on wisdom to the young. We believe that there is more to reality to what we can see and touch, and prayer is the bridge between the visible and invisible.  Those who can't do any longer still contribute in an incalculable way when they dedicate their time to prayer.

When I was a young seminarian there was a convent of contemplative nuns in the Hunts Point section of The Bronx whose whole mission was to pray for the men in formation for the Archdiocese of New York. Each sister had three or four seminarians that they prayed for. Once a year we went down and visited. My nun was Sr. Mary Thomas. Sr. Mary Thomas suffered from Alzheimer's. I'd go over to her and say hello, but she had no idea who I was. But she prayed for the name she had on an index card, and that name was mine. I'm here, at least in part, because of her prayers. She died many years ago. I believe that she is still praying for me, only now she knows who I am.

If we understand that life is so much bigger than our activity, productivity and creativity, we would have a different attitude toward death. Of course no one wants to suffer decline, or see a loved one suffer. I'm not saying that growing old is going to be easy if you just believe in Jesus. What I am saying is that faith in Christ leads us to trust in something greater than ourselves, and possibilities greater than our fears. Life only loses it's meaning if we only believe in ourselves, our activity and our plans, because those things pass. But when we let go, and allow God to set the agenda, we will see that the grave is not to be hoped for, but it's not to be feared either.

So, I'm not going to put a time limit on this thing called life on earth. If I die tomorrow, or if I'm around for another thirty of forty years, so be it. As long as I'm living like I'm meant to live and die when I'm meant to die.

Fatima, Our Lady of the Rosary from H2ONews

Our Lady of the Rosary From AOP (2008)

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops and a Very Public Fight



The extraordinary synod in Rome concerned with challenges facing family life in relation to evangelization has begun. Briefly, the bishops meet every three years to discuss some topic of importance for the life of the Church. The agenda is set by the pope and the curia. The bishops make recommendations to the Holy Father, who then deliberates over the suggestions and acts accordingly. These synods are usually followed within a year or so with an apostolic exhortation summarizing the synod's conclusions and laying out practical actions to be taken. Last year's Evangelii Gaudium was Pope Francis' exhortation in response to the 2012 synod on the New Evangelization. This year's, only the third extraordinary synod to be called since they were instituted in 1965, is meant to be a lead in to next years regularly scheduled gathering, also on the family.

These triennial meeting usually come and go without much attention being paid to them by the outside world. In truth, they really don't get much notice inside the Church either, at least not until the exhortation is written. But both the Catholic and secular press have been talking about it for almost a year. The reason for the unusual buzz is a very public dispute that has broken out among the cardinals over the issue of whether divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment, or are living with a partner out of wedlock should be admitted to the sacraments. The current discipline, based on Jesus' teaching from Matthew chapter 19, is no.

Some prelates, lead by Cardinal Walter Kasper, argue that mercy must be the guiding principle in how the Church relates to sinners, and so, under certain circumstances, the divorced and remarried should be permitted to receive Holy Communion. Penance would need to be done, and of course the new union wouldn't be considered a sacramental marriage, but to deny these people Communion is to go against the mercy and compassion of Christ.

The opposing view, taken up publicly by Cardinal Raymond Burke, is that since the words of Christ in Scripture are very clear, that those who divorce and remarry are in an adulterous relationship, the present discipline can't be changed without doing harm to the Church's understanding of the indissolubility of marriage. To allow divorced and remarried people to receive communion without first obtaining a declaration of nullity would put the Church's discipline in conflict with her doctrine.

I think in the midst of this controversy, which has been sadly played out in the press, what is lost is what I believe to be the real news about the synod; that while the Pope set the topic, he's leaving the agenda to the bishops. These synods are usually rubber stamp affairs, but we really don't know how this is going to end. A criticism throughout the St. John Paul II-Benedict XVI years was that the bishops themselves had very little input into the synods. Well, they can't make that complaint this time. It was even announced that there would be a document, to be approved by the bishops, ready for the end of this year's session. What this will look like only the Holy Spirit knows; a definite change of protocol from synods past.

I think what's also gotten lost is that the synod will be covering many topics concerning the Church's ability to evangelize the family today. The pastoral care of the divorced and remarried are one among many topics, such as how the gay rights movement has changed societal views on the family and marriage. How does the Church respond to the needs of single parents? What have been the effects on the family of the widespread availability of artificial birth control and abortion? What economic pressures face families? How has the increased secularization of the culture impacted the handing on of the faith from one generation to the next? Parents are up against a lot today, and they need to know that the shepherds of the Church are supporting them in their vocations as Christian mothers and fathers.

As for the main controversy, I don't anticipate huge changes, at least not as big as Cardinal Kasper would like. The Holy Father has already tipped his hand a bit by setting up a commission ahead of the synod to look into annulment reform. While I appreciate Cardinal Kasper's position, I can't get around Matthew 19. Cardinal Burke's been uncompromising in his position, to he point of even opposing a discussion of annulment reform, which does seem extreme. The Anchoress has a good take on the "fight" between the the churchmen. She's critical of both, but especially of the lopsided coverage in some sections of the Catholic press sympathetic to Cardinal Kasper.

I do agree with Cardinal Burke that there's been so much anticipation built up about the Church's discipline changing that a possible negative backlash could occur if it doesn't come to pass. Many thought Pope Paul VI was going to change the Church's teaching on artificial contraception. When Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the traditional prohibition you could argue that his papacy was paralyzed after 1968 because the negative response, especially from the clergy, was so great.

Let us pray for the synod fathers as they meet. They will be joined by an unprecedented number of lay observers, including married couples from around the world, to discern God's will. I'll have more to write over the next two weeks, I'm sure.

Role of the Family from AOP

Friday, October 3, 2014

Islam and the Nature of Reformation

Islamic terrorism has been with us, in one form or another, since at least the 1970's with the rise of the PLO. At that time, and for most of the decades that followed, the fact that these terrorists were Muslim was secondary to their political objectives: the destruction of the State of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Religion played a role, but they weren't blowing up buildings or hijacking planes over doctrine. They believed that the former Palestinian Mandate was unjustly divided by the UN, resulting in the transfer of land from the Arab natives to the the Jewish settlers. Whether we agree with this assessment or not, it's not hard to see that while religion colored the struggle, this was not a fight over doctrine but land. 

In addition, the PLO was one among many terrorist organizations, some with a religious identification, like the IRA, but also others of a purely ideological bent that were active at the time. There were Basque separatists in Spain and the FALN that fought for Puerto Rican independence from the United States. The Weather Underground and Symbiosis Liberation Army in the U.S grew out of the more radical elements of the 1960's counter culture. Even as late as the '90's there was the conservative militia movement here that spawned the homegrown terrorists responsible for the Oklahoma City Bombing. Thus Islamic terrorists were one among many political groups using fear to advance an agenda. In fact they usually weren't even identified by their religious affiliation but as Arabs, an ethnic qualifier. So again, while the stereo type of the Arab terrorist existed, you also had the Irish and Marxist bomb throwers to go along with him. 


With the first World Trade Center Bombing in 1993 there was an escalation in Islamic groups using terror as a weapon. These groups still wanted to see the destruction of Israel, but newer bodies like al Qaeda had broader, more purely "religious" goals in mind; the establishment of fundamentalist Islamic governments in the Middle East and the destruction of Western Society. It wasn't until the attacks of September 11, 2001 that the West really took the threat seriously. There was a sense in the last few years, with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the war in Afghanistan winding down, that the threat was averted, or at least pacified to an extent.  Now we have the rise of the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL or IS, depending on who you read), a group that has it's origins in al Qaeda, but makes that bunch look like meeting of Quakers. With each escalation in Islamist terrorism many in the West increasingly identify Islam with terror, in spite of calls from Western leaders to reject such simplistic stereotypes. 

Whether one equates Islam with terror, or sees groups like IS as perversions of Islam, a refrain that I've heard repeated over the last 13 years is that Islam needs to experience a sort of Reformation, much like Christianity did in the 16th century. The argument goes that the fundamentalist reading of the Koran, which is used to justify terrorism, is still the most prevalent, so Islamic scholars and religious leaders need to go back, re-read their sacred text in light of Enlightenment understanding, bringing their faith "up to date." The problem with this line of thinking is that it sees the job of reform to be one of updating and making modern, when that is the farthest thing from the truth. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli didn't see themselves as updating Christianity. Catholicism was seen as the Medieval perversion of the pure practice of the primitive church. They weren't trying to update, they were trying to get back to what they understood to be the roots of true Christianity. The Reformers didn't perceive the problem facing the Western Church to be that it had stuck too close to a narrow, "fundamentalist" reading of the religion, but had strayed too far from from Christianity's origins. What was needed was a going back to the Bible with a greater fidelity to the Word, unadulterated by philosophical speculation, which, in their view, was precisely where the Catholic Church went wrong to begin with. 

Catholicism isn't a "Religion of the Book," in so far as it doesn't see the Bible as the sole authority. Revelation has two components: Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Both are intertwined but distinct. While defining Tradition can be elusive, we can say that it represents the ongoing interpretation of Scripture through time, guided by the Holy Spirit and expressed through the writings of the Church Fathers, in the Church's liturgical prayer, and in the creeds and doctrines handed down from the time of the Apostles to today. Another way of looking at Tradition is to say that it represents what was passed on by word of mouth from the Apostles, where as Scripture is what was written down. This 2,000 year old store house is guarded, for lack of a better term, by the Magisterial teaching authority of the pope in union with the bishops, the successors of the Apostles. While they protect this deposit of faith, guided by the Spirit, they, and the Church in general understands that just because something was done in the first or second century doesn't mean that it has to stay that way. Catholic doctrine doesn't change, but our understanding deepens, and how it is lived out develops over time. The faith, as St. Augustine might say, is ever ancient, ever new, leading us back to the truth while at the same time teaching us how to live as disciples in this present moment of history. 

Even though Protestants reject the idea of a Sacred Tradition that shares an equal position with Scripture, some, more recent adherers to the Reformed tradition acknowledge that they do approach the faith in ways colored by the particular communities they have been brought up in, not simply by a pure reading of Scripture. While Presbyterians, Anglicans and Lutherans may share basic core beliefs, each too has a different take on things based on their denomination's spiritual heritage. 

Within the Catholic faith, because of this idea of Tradition, which includes things like ecumenical councils, synods of bishops, national episcopal conferences and other such ecclesiastical gatherings, the Church has a built in mechanism for reform.  And I believe many Reformed communities have similar mechanisms, whether they like to think of it in those terms or not. These mechanisms for reform work best, and are true to the real meaning of reform when they are not simply used to "update" but seek to be true to the teachings Christ; understanding his words and actions and discerning how to better imitate Him in the here and now.

I end here for now, only asking if such a mechanism of reform exists in Islam? It's not a rhetorical question, because I really don't know. It strikes me that al Qaeda and IS sees themselves as the real reformers of a religion that has strayed from the revealed word of God. They are a "People of the Book" in a true sense. It's the military dictatorship of Egypt, the monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the secular state of Turkey that are in need of reform so that they will be faithful again to the Koran. As far as I know Islam possesses no equivalent of Sacred Tradition, explicitly or implicitly, that can help be a reference point for reform as the West understands it. I don't doubt that there are Muslims horrified by the beheading, who don't to want to see a caliphate established, and do see terrorism as going against the basic tenets of their faith. But how do they go about the job of reform, especially since they do not have a clear religious hierarchy universally recognized as authoritative, or a tradition of reform in the Western sense to begin with?

There is a debate about how accurate it is to say that 10th or 11th century Islamic scholars "saved" the writings of Aristotle, but there does seem to be agreement that Muslim commentaries on the Greek philosopher were influential on European thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas. Maybe this philosophical tradition can be a starting point of some possible reform of Islam. But the Western idea of reform is only going to happen if there is a tradition (there's that word again) of reading the Koran in anything other than a literal way. 

At a later date I hope to explore the idea that the fundamentalist reading of the Bible is actually the more modern way of interpreting the Good Book, and that true reform involves exploring how how it was originally read in the Church, taking various senses of meaning into account. Then asking again if such a process is familiar to Islam.