Friday, December 19, 2014

Zechariah's Doubt

Today’s Gospel is the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. When the priest read it this morning at Mass, this phrase jumped out at me: “your prayer has been heard.” This is a key phrase to understanding Zechariah’s doubt.

Imagine if you had been praying for something for years and years, and suddenly you see an angel standing before you telling you that finally, after all this time, God is going to grant your prayer. Wouldn’t you be overwhelmed with joy and happiness, and maybe even jump up and down? I would!

But not Zechariah. For some reason not told to us, he wouldn’t believe it and raised objections. We don’t know what was in his heart, but because he was punished, something in his heart must have gone awry. Was God just being vindictive here? No, because the punishment had a purpose. It was to teach him something. What?

This gospel passage plays off the ideas of speaking and listening in a quite interesting way. First, Zechariah’s prayer was heard, so he had already spoken to God about what was in his heart. But then Zechariah couldn’t hear God’s response. So Gabriel—who obviously is a pretty tough angel—says “I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place.”

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the punishments of people always match their sin. So it is for Zechariah. Because he wouldn’t listen, he will get to know what it’s like to have people not listen to him because now he can’t speak. Perhaps God wanted to teach Zechariah—and us—that prayer is a relationship. It’s not about us making demands of God to be fulfilled in exactly the way we want. That would turn God into some kind of big vending machine in the sky.

In prayer, instead, we bring our needs to God and make our requests. But then we need to hold that request before the Lord, and talk to him about it. We can even use our imagination to picture what the response to our request might be and hold that picture before God, but in a way that allows him to change it.

We hear no more from Zechariah until John was born. But we do hear in this gospel from Elizabeth, who praised God, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”And what of John himself? Luke later describes him, quoting Isaiah, as "the voice of one crying in the desert..." The son of a speechless father became a mighty voice to prepare the way of the Lord. Such are the ways of God.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Novena Day 2

This is a sung version of the novena from Sr Anne Joan's blog.

Here's an interesting tidbit about the O antiphons. If you take the first letter of each antiphon in Latin and put them in reverse order, you get ERO CRAS. In Latin, it means "tomorrow I will be." (ero = I will be; cras = tomorrow, from which we get the word procrastinate)

E Emmanuel
R Rex (king)
O Orient (radiant dawn)

C Key of David (clavis)
R Root of Jesse (radix)
A Lord (adonai)
S Wisdom (sapientia)

Come, Lord, do not delay!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A quick guide to the Vatican report on American nuns

A few years ago my community hosted two sisters doing the apostolic visitation, and I spoke to one of them privately.  They were very kind and it was an enjoyable visit. Now we have the report which has finally come out, and here is what I noticed about it:

1. It uses positive language and the authors seem to want to go out of their way to praise the sisters, probably because of all the negative publicity that had been generated earlier.

2. Under the heading “empirical findings” it notes what everybody knows, that religious life in the United States is in deep trouble. The numbers have plummeted from around 175,000 in the mid-60s to less than 50,000 sisters today, with a median age in the mid-to-late 70s. The report, however, does not try to analyze the reasons for the decline.

3. Rather than telling communities what to do, the report focuses on certain areas and asks religious communities to evaluate their own lives and practices in these areas. I think that is really all it could do, since such great variety exists among all the congregations. And that approach also respects the sisters themselves as the persons they are, called by God to an important vocation in the Church.

4. Reading between the lines, however, one can see that there is concern about certain areas in particular. The one that I most noticed comes in the section “Called to a Life Centered on Christ.” The report states:
The Church is continually challenged to a fresh understanding and experience of this mystical encounter. However, caution is to be taken not to displace Christ from the center of creation and of our faith. Truly, the Word of God is the one through whom the cosmos is created and sustained in being since "all things have been created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things have their being (cf. Col. 1:16f).
This Dicastery calls upon all religious institutes to carefully review their spiritual practices and ministry to assure that these are in harmony with Catholic teaching about God, creation, the Incarnation and the Redemption.
Those are some very basic teachings—God, Jesus Christ, Redemption—the very cornerstones of the Catholic faith. The very fact that there is concern about those areas indicates all is not well. This is reflected in certain types of practices among some religious sisters (ie. certain New Age, earth-centered spiritualities that seem to have little connection with actual Catholic teachings).

5. About vocations, the report also notes that while candidates today often have more education and professional backgrounds than previously, they have “less prior theological and spiritual formation.” This is certainly true. And that, I think, points to the real problem with religious life today. It is not an isolated problem but one that reflects problems of the wider Church: lack of a basic Catholic understanding, the falling away from Catholic prayer practices, falling participation in the Mass, the breakup of Catholic family life. And that is something that concerns all of us. If we want more sisters, if we want a more vibrant and powerfully effective witness in the consecrated life, all Catholics need to take their faith more seriously, practice it, live it, and pass it on to others.

Finally, just to note, this report is not about the LCWR. This report is from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and has to do with the way religious communities actually live their lives. The investigation of the LCWR is being done by the CDF and that report is still awaited. It will certainly say more about doctrinal issues.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

St Nicholas, St Thomas, and divine Mercy

St Thomas seems to have been devoted to St Nicholas, who was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages. The Dominican Church of St Dominic in Naples has a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. Thomas would offer his morning Mass in that chapel and pray there for long hours.

It was in that chapel on the feast of St Nicholas in 1273 that Thomas had a mysterious mystical experience that changed his life. Something happened while he was offering Mass, as if he was caught up in an ecstatic state. Afterward he was profoundly changed. Up to then Thomas had spent many, many hours writing. But after that day, this great Doctor of the Church put down his pen and stopped writing.

He had not finished his crowning achievement, the Summa Theologiae. His secretary Friar Reginald begged him to keep on writing. But Thomas simply replied, "Reginald, I cannot. All I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen." Three months later, on March 7, 1274, St Thomas died.

A few years earlier, when Thomas was still in Paris, he had preached a beautiful homily on St Nicholas, in which he emphasizes mercy. As a pastor, the works of the saint especially focused on mercy. The stories that have been passed on about him show this, as for example the time that Nicholas secretly provided the dowries for three young women. Some quotes:

"The principal work of the Lord is mercy, as the Psalmist says, 'His tender mercies are over all his works' (Ps 144:9). The Lord's servant is one who exercises mercy toward the poor."

"We use oil to heal a wound, through which we understand healing grace... And since blessed Nicholas was anointed with the oil of healing grace, because he had full soundness of spiritual health and was equipped to anoint others, we are told that wine and oil were poured--that is, the wine of stern correction and the oil of mercy and comfort."

"We use oil to soften, and this signifies mercy and kindness of heart, both of which blessed Nicholas possessed, since he was utterly filled with mercy and devotion.. . . Just as oil spreads over things, mercy spreads over every good work. Unless you have mercy, your labors are nothing."

Monday, December 01, 2014

Mary and Advent

I did a guest post on Sr Theresa Aletheia's blog:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Today’s feast, commonly associated with the scapular, can help us reflect on the Biblical theme concerning garments of salvation. The German word for scapular, “Gnadenkleid,” literally means “grace-garment.” Many references to garments and clothes are scattered throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). In their original state of innocence, they had no need for clothes. They were naked but not ashamed—this is what Pope John Paul called “original nakedness.”
But after their sin, our first parents lost their innocence and needed to be clothed. God’s tender action of making clothes for them can perhaps be seen as symbolizing the garments of grace that God would bestow through Jesus Christ.

Pure and clean garments came to symbolize grace and salvation, as the prophet Isaiah sang:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)

This imagery blends the spousal theme with that of garments of salvation. This text is used in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Garments signify the gifts of grace that God adorns us with inwardly.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, picks up the theme of white garments to express the holiness of the saints, of those who have been through great trials and held fast to their faith: “Yet you still have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels” (Rev 3:4–5).
Among the several “blessings” in the book of Revelation, we find this one: “Blessed are those who wash their robes [in the blood of the Lamb] so that they will have the right to the tree of life” (22:14).

Perhaps today the scapular devotion is not as popular as it once was. But Catholicism, as a sacramental religion, uses such material symbols as signs of the deeper underlying inner reality of grace. The scapular is not meant to be something superstitious, like a talisman or a good luck charm. Wearing it expresses in a silent yet eloquent way our love for Mary and our confidence in her intercession and help.


The following prayer, called Flower of Carmel, is attributed to St. Simon Stock:

O Beautiful Flower of Carmel, most fruitful vine, splendor of heaven, holy and singular, who brought forth the Son of God, still ever remaining a pure virgin, assist us in our necessity! O Star of the Sea, help and protect us! Show us that you are our Mother! Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Holiness in consecrated life: what role do the vows play?

I've been working on a project related to Vita Consecrata in view of the upcoming year for consecrated life. It's been a while since I had read this document, and re-reading it has been very enriching. It's an incredibly beautiful document.
It also got me thinking about the discussion that went on a few months ago in relation to the article by Br Justin Hannegan on the religious life. I had offered some critical observations on it. John Paul's document has helped me see some things more clearly.

One thing I disagree with in Br Justin's article was that he seemed to present the vows in a way that made them merely a means to holiness. Presenting them as the most difficult way to live, he said they are the best means to holiness. This led him to the odd conclusion that everyone should desire to be in the religious life!

In this approach, the vows are only a means to some generic kind of holiness. But John Paul presents the vows quite differently. In no. 18 of Vita Consecrata, he has a remarkable statement that made a big light bulb go off in my head. I think it's the theological core of the document and of our whole understanding of religious life. The pope said that Jesus' "way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine, for it was embraced by him, God and man, as the expression of his relationship as the Only-Begotten Son with the Father and with the Holy Spirit."

Wow, that's theological dynamite, because it puts us squarely in front of the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus lived in chastity, poverty, and obedience precisely as the Son, in his filial relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. So the vows are not just some means to a generic holiness, but to a particular configuration with Christ precisely as he is chaste, poor, and obedient. And that puts us in relation to the Trinity in a unique way. In other words, the vows are not just a means but the essence of the holiness that those in consecrated life are called to because they make us configured to Christ--not just in general, but precisely in that way.

In the next paragraph of the document, John Paul goes on to speak of Mary as the model because of her total gift of self. Love is involved in that. We live chaste, poor, and obedient because of a total gift of self inspired by love, following Mary's example.

There's a lot to think about here, and I need to deepen it. Doing so would also help to understand better why the consecrated life is a different vocation from the lay life and  from the ordained ministry. John Paul says that consecrated life is essential to the Church, integral to its very nature. It is not just lay life lived at some more intense degree. It is something different. I think understanding this better would help to avoid the vexed arguments about what sort of life is "better." That's not really the point. They are different and reflect different facets of the whole mystery of Christ. All are called to holiness, as Vatican II stressed, but in their own unique way. Lay life is marked by the secular nature of that vocation, "ensuring that the Gospel message is proclaimed in the temporal sphere" (no. 32), and the ordained have their particular ministry. The unique contribution of the consecrated life is that it is a particular way of "showing forth the Church's holiness" because it "mirrors Christ's own way of life" as he was chaste, poor, and obedient (no. 32).

The vows are indispensable for doing that. So to see them merely as a means to some generic kind of holiness is very inadequate. That's the main point I wish to make.