Monday, April 13, 2015

Pope Francis to send out "Missionaries of Mercy"

What are the Missionaries of Mercy of Pope Francis?

In his letter for the Jubilee year of Mercy, the Pope says:

During Lent of this Holy Year, I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer. They will be, above all, living signs of the Father’s readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon. (no. 18).

This made me realize I had only a vague idea about sins reserved to the Holy See. (I was never into reading canon law.)  But I did a little research and this is what I found out.

1. The Pope must be referring to the penalties attached to certain sins. Formerly, absolution of certain sins was reserved to the Holy See. But the new Code of Canon Law (1983) changed that. Now, only the penalties must be removed by the Holy See. The guilt of the sin itself can be absolved by priests in confession.

2. Most sins don’t incur any ecclesiastical penalty. To make this more confusing, there are different types of penalties. Most of the penalties can be remitted more easily, but canon law mentions five sins that incur penalties reserved to the Holy See.  They include desecration of the Holy Eucharist, a physical attack on the pope, breaking the seal of confession, to name a few. (See here for full details.) The list does not include abortion. Although it is a serious sin that incurs automatic excommunication, it is not one of the sins reserved to the Holy See. (Also, to incur the excommunication, the person committing the sin has to know about it beforehand. It's likely that most Catholic women who get abortions do not know this. Since abortion is such a big problem today, by having this penalty in canon law the Church is trying to help people understand what a serious matter this is. But the Church also provides that it can be absolved in an ordinary confession, when the priest has received faculties from his bishop for this. Efforts like Project Rachel try to help women to receive God's forgiveness and mercy in a very loving way. When that sin is repented and confessed, the penalty is also lifted.)

3. It puzzled me that the Pope would even bother mentioning these sins reserved to the Holy See, since it is a matter of only a very few, very rare sins. Probably only about .00001 percent of the world's Catholic population would ever be guilty of them. But I suppose that the main point of the missionaries of mercy is not about remitting these rare penalties, though they will be able to do that. Pope Francis probably intends these missionaries to be like preachers who will stir people up to repentance. As things develop, I would expect there would be some clarification and more information about their role.

I think this Year of Mercy will be a great thing. Yesterday on the Feast of Divine Mercy, I received a beautiful sense of God's love and mercy for us all. May it be so.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mary's Joyful Yes

At the Annunciation, Mary’s “yes” to God was a joyful one. Sometimes it's hard to say yes to God, when it means doing something difficult or distasteful that might involve suffering. For those times, we have the example of the "yes" that Jesus said in Gethsemane. In the agony in the garden, Jesus knew he was entering into a cosmic struggle with Evil. He prayed to the Father to be spared that trial, but with the proviso "not your will but mine be done." It was the Father's will that Jesus go into that struggle, and he did.

But Mary's yes is a joyful one. God was offering her a great gift, and she accepted wholeheartedly. This isn't just a pious thought, but is borne out by the Gospel text itself. The word Luke uses to describe Mary's acceptance is "genoito"--let it be done. It's a form of the verb that's used only rarely in the New Testament--the optative mood. In Greek this verb form expresses a joyful willingness, even an eagerness to do something. It expresses a desire and a strong wish. So Mary said "yes" with all the desire of her heart. May we too have the same openness to accept God's greatest gift--our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Change your habits, change your life

This advice comes from Wayne, a prisoner. I heard it at Mass recently from a priest who is a prison chaplain. 

It’s good advice for Lent. Sometimes we can get bogged down because we take on too much. I’ve done that a lot and you’d think by now I would have learned that lesson. Maybe this Lent will be different! I now realize a few things:

1. I can only change one habit at a time.

2. The new habit has to be ridiculously easy or I won’t keep it up.

3. I need a reminder so I don’t forget to do the new habit.

My new habit is to stop spending time on email first thing in the morning, and to start working right away on my most important project. My reminder is attached to something I always do without fail: walk into my office in the morning.

The ridiculously easy thing I will do is to simply open up the computer file for that project. That’s it. It’s how I trick myself, though, because once I have the file open I’ll start working on it. Just to open the file takes no effort at all. Working on the project does take effort, and sometimes I read email instead because I’m dreading the complications of the project. Yes, the email eventually has to be read, but it can wait until later, after I’ve worked on the project a while and can use a break from it.

Our life is made up of little things. But their accumulated effect has a huge impact. One French fry isn’t going to clog your arteries. But eating an unhealthy diet day after day could eventually lead to a heart attack or a stroke. It’s the same for Lent. Little changes done day after day can get us to where we want to be for Easter, with the grace of God.

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."