Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The malady of contemporary life

Ah! First Sunday of Advent and this morning was not much different from yesterday morning. Same people, same headlines, same wars, same crimes, same habits, same lies, same movies, same prices, same, same, same. It does not feel very different and that is probably consolation. If it felt different, it wouldn't be human life on this scarred and blessed earth.

My favorite annual reading is a 28-page booklet I've had for many years by Johannes Metz titled "The Advent of God" in which Metz argues that "the malady of contemporary man is his  deliberate effort to forget the coming of God into human history." Each year when I re-read this tome the truth of it seems to me more and more palpable. Our attention in Advent is one of preparation for the coming of Christ but we are more attentive to the bargains we can obtain that we will throw away in the new year. It would also appear that shopping these first days is not the kind of family ritual that brings us together but the implementation of some kind of economic war game that requires law enforcement to intervene when someone else grabs first the item I want. We human beings are flawed characters in the book of life.

My Christmas shopping memories are a very young age with my mother and two siblings going to see Santa Claus at a downtown department store, the bell of the Salvation Army Santa outside the store, the endless stream of dimes on the sidewalk placed there for the March of Dimes appeal for polio research, a bus ride home, some snowfall as we walked two blocks to our door and knowing we would be warm and happy once inside. That is nostalgia. Tyranny has replaced the memory.

The current season takes on many colors - Thursday was once Thanksgiving Day, now it is Brown Thursday; Friday is Black Friday; Saturday is Small Business Saturday (is that a neutral color?) and Monday is Cyber Monday (that probably is multi-colored like fireworks). None of it revolves around people anymore. It is all about economics. 

For many Americans today, God is a thing of the past. The Christian believes that God entered human history and it is up to us to make "a continuing effort to keep ourselves open to the coming of God." We do not know when the Lord will return, Metz writes. This gives us a "lowliness and poverty" that are intrinsic to "any genuine faith in God's first Advent." But Americans can't stand to be poor and wouldn't admit their impoverishment because of the absence of God in their lives anymore than an alcoholic can admit to being unable to not drink.

Advent is a season of preparation. The preparation is not for recognizing our wealth. It is for admitting our poverty. Our lives are quite definitely and absolutely meaningless without God.




Saturday, November 23, 2013

What's in a gesture?

A priest recently remarked to me that he is waiting for Pope Francis to make his mark. For this priest, Pope Francis has not yet defined his papacy. He has not yet grabbed onto the Pope Francis band wagon and he is not a critic of Francis but he believes Francis has yet to make any significant sign that makes his papacy stand out. Perhaps today's release of the pope's apostolic exhortation will begin to make him more of a believer.

Maybe. I read a claim that the crowds in St. Peter's Square during the almost eight-month pontificate of Francis have already exceeded the entire pontificate of Pope Benedict. At the same time the Pew Research people have surveyed U.S. Catholics and found that Francis' pontificate has not made a difference in terms of Mass attendance in the U.S. I'm not sure what that means other than that Francis can draw a crowd and that perhaps U.S. leadership in the Church is on life support.

Has Francis from the beginning identified his papacy with the gestures he makes? Like Therese of Lisieux and her Little Way, do Francis' embrace of babies, a tumored man, and others not identify a markedly different papacy as if to say we didn't get it quite right. We are concerned like Martha with many things and yet Mary has chosen the better part. Jesus spent his time healing people of their illnesses. The political world around him did not change much. In fact, it got worse. Is Francis here to prevent WW3? Or is he the great preacher of love your neighbor to each one of us individually? Maybe he really is the reincarnation of his namesake.

Some have noted that Pope Francis certainly seems to have been effective in keeping the situation in Syria from boiling over. He asks for prayer and a week later there are negotiations going on. Tensions have decreased. Is the situation in Syria solved? Not at all. But faith is not measured in nuclear explosions or comets streaking through the sky. Faith is a step by step process of giving oneself over to one greater than oneself.

What Francis has done so far is to ask us to rethink our way of business. What we've been about has had diminishing returns. Can Francis take us off life support and offer us real food once again?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Out with the old

Among the things I have learned in my lifetime - as we grow older, change and make decisions for ourselves, it does no good to linger. Move on! I have experienced life in enough institutions - schools, sabbatical programs, parishes, etc. - to know that there is a time for each of them and a time to leave them. Leave behind the old life. Put on the new. Don't try to take the old life with you.

Some seminarians make a disagreeable choice when choosing to leave seminary formation by not really leaving at all. Some discern well, pray and talk things over with their formators, pack up, leave, and then return to the seminary to visit old friends regularly or meet them in neutral locations to share good food and drink. Retaining and developing healthy friendships is always a great experience. What is not so great is clinging to such friendships when there is so much life to experience beyond the seminary. I have seen too many individuals from high school and college and other programs hang on to old haunts and older relationships as if nothing has changed.

I cannot believe this is healthy. We all grow at our own pace, we are not one size fits all, but when the former friends in one lifestyle keep reappearing as if that lifestyle were continuing for him or her there is a problem. A former seminarian, for example, whose relationships continue to be other seminarians without any new ones developing risks an arrested development. Oh, yes, it is important to maintain good relationships with good friends, but the nature of the relationships have changed and too many people act as if they are still in the former place rather than the new one. Cut the cord, as a wise man said.

Discernment is not a simple process and some try to circumvent it with quick decisions. There are those who know they need to make a change and do and slowly but surely their whole base of friends gradually change so that there are now acquaintances in the past and new friends are now the closer relationship. But some make the change and continue to cling to old relationships as if life has just made a slight turn rather than a full detour. Such relationships gradually feel strained among those left behind while the one moving on often clings to former ways of life.

There is nothing so sad, for example, as a former seminarian defensive about the seminary, the diocese, the religious order, the Church, etc., yet who has not fought the current battles and lacks the knowledge of what is current and who continues to think in an environmental awareness that ended years ago. Such people can often do damage to the continuity of such religious life or even Church life. For those who continue within the structure there is often a misunderstanding and ignorance of the truth that one is separate from other worlds. The call of Christ in Church life as a cleric or religious is all-encompassing and requires total commitment.

Forty-five years ago when I was ordained priests tried to prove to the Church that we were just like everybody else. But the truth is that we are not. We really are called to give up father and mother and brother and sister. God wants no mediators between Himself and His disciples. For the person called to be a priest among disciples, there can be no accompanists other than the Lord Himself.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Do things just stay the same after reform?

As a young child educated in Catholic schools, I remember being impressed in my study of Catholicism with the importance of the Council of Trent in solidifying and unifying our Catholic faith in the face of challenges made by the Protestant Reformation. As a young Catholic growing up in the 1950s the Reformation was the great enemy of our faith. There was nothing good about it. It upended and destroyed the Catholic faith that I understood made me the Catholic that I was. We always regarded the neighborhood kids who attended P.S. 82, the public school two blocks from my Catholic school, as less than human. They were, after all, Protestants.

That view has been altered since I finished reading Fr. John O'Malley S.J.'s book on the Council titled Trent: What Happened at the Council. Primarily I was left underwhelmed by the results of the Council's work. Given the corruption that existed in the Church of the 16th century, that the Council had any effect at all is most remarkable. Reform was not encouraged so much by churchmen themselves so much as by the political powers of laymen in the form of kings and emperors and their representatives who realized Europe was being torn apart by religious controversy. What was needed was not so much churchmen making changes but churchmen living the ideals they claimed for themselves.

By the time it closed after 18 years the Council had not really accomplished all that much. What really made its decrees work were the efforts of individuals - Charles Borromeo is specifically an example - who understood the necessity of reform and who began implementing reform in their own home dioceses. Just residing in your own diocese was a huge change for bishops who, to that time, often either lived elsewhere or who headed several dioceses at once.

Among the myths about the Church that I grew up with was the distinction between the authority of Scripture (important to the Protestant Reformers) and the authority of Tradition (important to Catholics). Yet, as O'Malley explains, Trent never spoke of Tradition but only of traditions. The Council did not decree a global category of transmission but only of specific traditions, e.g. doctrinal traditions, pastoral traditions, liturgical traditions, etc. The Council decreed there were two ways in which God's message is communicated - Scripture and traditions - but it did not determine the relationship of those two media.

The Council had begun with an eye toward reconciliation with the Lutheran Reformers and it might have happened but because of internal squabbling within the Roman Church and because the backs of Protestant Reformers were by then in fixed positions, any attempts failed. So we have today what we have. What most impressed me is that men like Charles Borromeo among others carried out real reform in their dioceses and so began real reform that continues well into the present day. Trent did not solve all the problems that existed in the Church of its time. But it did set in motion the possibility of reform and also real discipline by recognizing the dangerous path the Church was traveling by not striving toward internal holiness.