The readings of “Ordinary Time” (Tempus per annum, in Latin) focus a lot on the call to discipleship and the living of the Christian Faith. The readings for today’s Mass are no exception, as they present us with a number of disciplines for disciples. These disciplines free us to serve Christ and His Kingdom joyfully, energetically, and wholeheartedly. We can group these disciplines into three broad areas, such that discipleship is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring. Within these three categories are some other reflections as well. Let’s consider each area of discipline as reflected in the readings.

I.  Undefiant - The first reading today covers the ministry of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. In today’s reading we get only the end of the story. But as most of us know, Jonah was not merely reluctant in accepting his mission as a prophet, he was downright defiant. Recall his story:

  1. His Refusal - The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it … ” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (1:1-3). Thus, Jonah defiantly runs from God; he refuses the mission.
  2. His Running - Now Nineveh was 550 miles east of Israel. Tarshish was 2,500 miles west of Israel. Do you get the picture? Jonah was doing some serious running! Rather than go 550 miles to do God’s will, he was ready to travel 2,500 miles to get away from God’s will. It’s always a longer trip when you defy God. God wants to spare us the extra mileage!
  3. His Resistance – As Jonah runs away from God, great storms arise at sea. The storms of defiance rage, but Jonah sleeps. And the storms affect not only him, but those who sail with him as well. Yes, our moral decisions DO affect others around us, despite our individualistic notion that what we do is no one else’s business. And thus, for some of us, great storms can come into our lives. Has it ever occurred to you that some of the storms in our lives may be related to a situation in which God said, “This way,” but we defied him and said, “No, that way”? Maybe we need to wake up and say, “What does this storm mean?”
  4. His Return - Swallowed by the great fish, Jonah is brought back to the very place where he sailed away from God (Joppa). And, in effect, God says, “Let’s try this all over again.” So Jonah makes ready and goes to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s bidding. Yes, Jonah was smart this time.

So the point is that disciples (we) must learn to be undefiant. In effect, God wants to save us some mileage. Obedience to His will is always easier than disobedience.

Consider, too, how undefiant the Ninevites are as they hear and heed Jonah’s message. And notice how this lack of defiance saves them from destruction and a world of hurt.

It’s always easier to follow God. I did not say it’s easy, just that it’s easier. Someone may think sin is more pleasurable and easier in the moment. And, frankly, it may be. But sin unleashes a world of difficulties and complications in its wake. If you do not think this is so, just read a newspaper and consider how many of our difficulties are directly tied to our sinful attitudes and choices. Frankly, the vast majority of this world’s suffering is directly attributable to the rebellious sinfulness of humanity.

The first discipline of discipleship is undefiance. By this discipline, we are spared many difficulties and remain teachable and open to God’s wisdom.

II. Unfettered - To be unfettered means to be unchained, unshackled, and free to move about. The second reading today presents a vivid and sober portrait of what being unfettered and detached looks like:

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world, as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29ff).

Now this text does not mean that we have no recourse at all to these things and people, but rather that we live “as” not having them. In other words, we must seek the gift to realize that nothing in this passing world remains. Nothing here, not even marriage, is the sole reason for our existence or the sole source of meaning for us. God, and God alone, is the source of meaning and the lasting goal of our life. All else will pass.

For most of us, detachment form this world is THE battle, the central struggle we face. On account of our attachment to this world, we are strongly hindered from freely following Christ. A couple of passages come to mind:

  1. Mark 10:22ff Jesus, said [to the rich young man], “If you would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, (and you will have treasure in heaven) and then come and follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
  2. Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money … So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

But the world so easily has a thousand hooks in us. We are chained and fettered; our freedom to follow Christ is severely compromised.

The fact is, the battle to be free and unfettered is a process. God can give us this freedom, but it takes time and obedience from us. Little by little, God breaks the shackles of this world, and all its treasures come to seem as of little value. Slowly we come to what St. Paul came to say,

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8).

III. Untiring – Consider that among Jesus’ first followers were several fishermen. The text of the Gospel today says, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

But, we may ask, is there some meaning in the fact that fishermen were among His first and most prominent disciples? Perhaps so.

Consider that fishermen have some important qualities that are helpful for discipleship:

  1. Patient - Fishermen often need to wait for many hours, even days, for a catch. Disciples need great patience as do evangelizers.
  2. Professional – Fishermen need to spend time learning about the types and behaviors of fish, learning to observe the water and navigate, learning the right time of day and the right season to fish. They need to know the right bait, the proper use of the net. All of these traits are good for disciples and are especially helpful in evangelization, which is “job one” for the disciple. Through growing in practical knowledge, we come to know our faith and learn effective ways to be fishers of men.
  3. Purposeful - When fishermen are out fishing, they are entirely focused on their endeavor. That’s all they do; everything is centered on the main task. They are single-minded. Disciples surely need more of this attitude. The Book of James says, The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). St. Paul says, But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). Every disciple needs to be more single-minded.
  4. Pursuing - Note that they simply go to the fish. Too many Catholic parishes merely open the doors and hope that people will come to them; that is not evangelization. The key word for disciples and evangelizers is “Go.”
  5. Partnered - Fishermen work in teams. Thus Jesus sends disciples out, two by two.
  6. Persistent – If fishermen don’t make a catch today, they’re back out tomorrow. Disciples surely need to persist, both in their own journey and in making disciples of others.

Thus, in today’s readings are a number of disciplines of discipleship. The green vestments of Ordinary Time remind us of growth, both our own personal growth and that of the Church. Ultimately, a free heart is a joyful heart. It is a heart that is not easily tired, because it is not divided by serving two masters. It is a heart that ungrudgingly serves the Kingdom.

Here’s a song that speaks of the patient, purposeful, and persistent action on behalf of God’s kingdom. It is a song that can only come from a heart that is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring; from a heart that says, “I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom, I ain’t got time to die!”

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 9.31.08 PMFor most people, the word “virtual” has become a synonym for the Internet or the computer world, as in “occurring or existing primarily online.” But the word virtual has an original meaning that is actually quite descriptive of a modern problem.

Prior to its application to the computer world, the word virtual meant being something in effect, though not actually, or expressly being such. In other words, something virtual has aspects of the real thing, but is not the real thing. So, in the sentence, “He is a virtual goldmine of knowledge on the subject,” one would be silly to look for a physical goldmine or to think that he is either gold, or a mine, or both. There is no actual, no physical goldmine. His knowledge has aspects of a goldmine (value, worth, depth) but he is not an actual goldmine.

The adverb “virtually” means, for the most part, almost. In other words, it is close to the thing, but is not the thing or quality described. So in the sentence, “He was so exhausted, he was virtually dead,” he is not, of course, actually dead, but, rather, shares some of the qualities of the dead (unmoving, unconscious, lying down, etc.).

So virtual may mean “almost,” “like,” or “similar,” but NOT “is.” The virtual is not the full reality. It is lacking in existence and other important qualities of the actual reality.

And this is a very important truth to recall in today’s “virtual” world of the Internet. Many people are substituting too much of the virtual for the actual. They spend more time interacting with Facebook friends than physically interacting with actual friends and family members. Many people digest large quantities of virtual Internet life and only small amounts of real life. In an actual meeting with real people present, many have their heads in their phones and are only vaguely present in the real meeting (see photo above right).

I have noticed some tourists here in DC so buried in their phones (perhaps reading about a particular monument), that they spend little time looking at the monument itself. Some fiddle so much to get the perfect picture that they miss the actual moment. A picture is not real, it is virtual. It shares aspects of the real thing but is not that thing. We spend a LOT of time with our eyes focused on a virtual world while often neglecting the real world among us.

A strange migration has happened for many today wherein we interact more “virtually” than really. As a result, old-fashioned things like dating, marriage, meeting new people, and just getting together with friends have declined.

Another problem with the virtual world is that it is, most often, self-defined. We select our favorite sites and bookmark them. We set up Facebook filters, RSS feeds, Twitter feeds, iPod playlists, and the like. In effect, we create our own little virtual world. Meanwhile the real world, with all its diversity and less desirable things, is increasingly neglected. Our world becomes smaller and our personal formation more stilted.

Even more so, our ability to listen and be a “captive audience” has declined. We increasingly demand that everything should appeal to us quickly. Otherwise we should be able to click on a new bookmark, change the channel, or skip to the next song in the shuffle. But the real world is not quite so accommodating. Patiently listening and working with what “is” seems more odious as we start to prefer the virtual to the real.

Well, let the following video make the point. Enjoy a humorous look at how virtual notions do not work in the real world.

486930_10151372162455379_244721433_nThere’s a common “moral” standard that many like to employ today, especially regarding sexual matters, that goes something like this: “Two consenting adults can do what they please, as long as no one gets hurt.” But of course the sinners who talk like this seem to think that they get to determine if anyone gets hurt. Generally their notions of “no one” are very egocentric. But even there they are often quite wrong.

Today, I marched with many who tried to give a voice to the at least 50 million who didn’t just get hurt by the behavior of certain “consenting adults”—they got killed.

Consider the fact that 85% of abortions are performed on single women. That means that fornication (premarital sex) is the single largest contributing cause to abortion. Many of these couples went into their dalliances insisting that nobody would get hurt. But the babies they aborted would beg to differ. They got hurt and then they got killed.

The claim that no one is getting hurt is a lie.

Add to this a few others who fill out the number of those hurt by sexual immortality:

  1. Those who grow up in single parent homes - Thank God they survived at all—most don’t. But because their “parents” had sex but didn’t even have the commitment or maturity to say “Now that there’s another life involved we’d better grow up, be less focused on our own happiness, and think of someone else.” Some others made a bad choice for one night or for a brief time and to get married would have made little sense. But still, the result is that a child is raised (usually) without his or her father. Thankfully those babies were not killed, but still they are hurt because they deserved a complete home with a mother and father there to love them.
  2. Our Culture, our nation, and the Church – None of these three sectors will be strong if the traditional family is not strong. Fornicators, adulterers, and homosexual offenders all weaken the family, and the family is the basic foundation of everything. If the traditional family is not strong, “Sayonara.” It is very hard to find a culture or a nation that can survive the loss of family structure and loyalty, or the loss of sexual self-control. The “nobody gets hurt” people think they can go on taking the prerogatives of marriage (e.g., sexual intimacy and parenthood) and not “harm” the culture. They are wrong, and both history and common sense, as well as current statistics, show that we are all harmed, exceedingly, by the “as long as nobody gets hurt” crowd. The number of abortions has skyrocketed as has the number of teenage pregnancies and single mothers, while the number of marriages has plummeted. This is not healthy for any culture or for any child who has to be raised in such a “culture.”
  3. The “nobody gets hurt” people themselves - After enough of their antics, they often have sexually transmitted diseases, “unwanted” pregnancies, broken hearts, and quite frequently end up feeling used and discarded. They go in saying no one is getting hurt. They come out hurt, bitter, diseased, pregnant, post-abortive (most tragically of all), alone, and usually unfulfilled. And did I mention alone? Alone, very alone in terms of support, but bearing many burdens.

So, at the end of the day, those who say “no one gets hurt” cannot truthfully say that, nor can they give any assurance that no one is getting hurt or will be hurt. How can they possibly know that no one will get hurt? Experience and common sense (which isn’t so common today) say otherwise.

Today, I marched for at least 50 million who got hurt by being killed. Add to that the shattered lives of many of their mothers who felt “driven” to abort because they were either pressured or alone. Any counselor or Catholic Priest will tell you that post-abortion trauma is real. And, sadly, it is deep and does not go away easily. Abortion is an act of violence perpetrated not only on the baby but also on the body  of the woman. Few who come away from this act can honestly describe it as anything other than violent and traumatic.

Lots of people are getting hurt! Enough of this “Consenting adults can do what they please as long as no one gets hurt” lie. There is no such thing.

And lest we who believe forget, let us add to this the fact that Jesus got hurt for what we have done. Every sin ever committed added to his pain and suffering on Calvary.

There is a lot of hurt, and anyone who says otherwise is deceived and the truth is not in him.

In yesterday’s post, there was a critique of a flawed moral perspective that sets up a false dichotomy between mercy  and moral teaching, and between love and the law. As noted yesterday, well-ordered love and mercy must be rooted in truth. The greatest mercy is to keep people out of Hell and to save them from all the suffering that comes from sin.

Jesus exhibits this in His person, for He who is love insists on moral uprightness, faith, and acceptance of His truth without compromise. No one loves us more than Jesus does and yet no one warned of Hell and judgment more than Jesus did. Love and law are linked; God, who loves us, says, “This far, but no farther.” He does this not because He is mean or wants to take away our fun. He does this because He loves us and does not want sin to destroy us and Satan to drag us to Hell.

Yet many today think that calling sin what it is, is unkind, unmerciful, unloving, mean-spirited, and so forth. Never mind that mercy cannot exist unless sin and wrongdoing exist. To deny these is to deny the need for mercy.

In today’s post, following up on yesterday’s, we do well to ponder that being loving is not the same as being kind. In other words, love should not be reduced to mere kindness. But we live in a reductionist culture that has tended to reduce love to kindness. As we shall see, the results are often quite problematic. To reflect on this problem, I want to use some insights from an article by Peter Kreeft, written some years ago.

Kindness is a very good thing and has an important place in our relationships. Kindness is evidenced by goodness and charitable behavior, by pleasantness, tenderness and concern for others. According to Aristotle, kindness is an emotion manifesting itself in the desire to help someone in need without expecting anything in return.

Peter Kreeft defines kindness as “sympathy, with the desire to relieve another’s suffering” [Envoy Magazine, Vol 9.3, p. 20].

However, as Kreeft himself notes, it is a very great mistake to equate kindness with love. Kindness is an aspect of love, but it is necessarily distinct from love. For it sometimes happens that love, which wills what is best for the other, may deem it best not to remove all suffering. For example, a father may impose punishment on his child out of love.

Kindness generally seeks to alleviate suffering and negativity. But love understands that suffering often has a salvific role. My parents disciplined me out of love. Had they been merely kind to me, I would likely have been spoiled, undisciplined, and ill-prepared for life.

Paradoxically, the more we love, the more we see mere kindness diminish. Consider how kind we can be to strangers. We may sometimes give money to strangers with few questions asked. But if our children ask for money we may want to know why. And then even if we give it to them, we may lecture them about being more responsible with their money. The interaction may be less kind, but it may be more loving, for it seeks to end the problem rather than merely relieve the symptom.

The good eclipses the best. And herein lies the danger in reducing love to kindness. In simply seeking to alleviate the suffering of the moment or to give people what they want, many deeper issues go unresolved and can even worsen.

Welfare has created a slavish dependence for many in our culture. And it is not just the poor in our cities. There is corporate welfare and many other subsidies and entitlements that too many feel they can’t do without.

Rather than addressing the root causes of poverty, dependence, or poor economic conditions and bad business models, kindness interrupts love’s deeper role and treats only the suffering of the moment. In this sense, the merely good (kindness) replaces the truly best (love). True love gives what is best, not merely what is immediately desired. Kindess too often looks merely to relieve whereas true love looks to heal, something that often involves some painful choices.

Further, many false expectations are centered on the exaltation of kindness over love. In our culture, this is manifested in the fact that suffering of any kind is seen as obnoxious, and even the reason for legal action. It has also led to our demands for comfort getting out of control. Demand for euthanasia flows from this sort of thinking as well.

A final and very terrible effect often flows from mistaking mere kindness for love: it disposes many towards atheism. Here I will simply quote Peter Kreeft directly, because he says it so well:

It is painfully obvious that God is not mere kindness, for He does not remove all suffering, though He has the power to do so. Indeed, this very fact — that the God who is omnipotent and can, at any instant, miraculously erase all suffering from the world, deliberately chooses not to do so — is the commonest argument that unbelievers use against him. The number one argument for atheism stems from the confusion between love and kindness [Peter Kreeft, Envoy Magazine, Vol 9.3, p. 20].

Kindness is a very good attribute and it surely has its place. But we must carefully distinguish it from love. Exalting kindness over love amounts to a denial of the wisdom of the Cross. Kindness focuses on comfort and alleviating suffering, and this is a very good thing. But love is a greater thing, for it focuses on healing and it wills what is best, not merely what is desired. But, sadly, many prefer relief to healing.

Kindness is an important and necessary virtue, but it is not an absolute one and it must be governed by love and right reason.

In the divorce/remarriage debate and in many other issues such as same-sex unions, euthanasia, and so forth, we must insist on what is right, and do so in love. But, sadly, some will never see what we do as loving, for many have reduced love to kindness, and kindness to mere affirmation. Sometimes the most loving, the most merciful answer is “no” to those who demand that we affirm what is wrong. Sometimes the most loving, the most merciful thing to do is to point to the Cross, for by it we are saved, and apart from it we are more miserable and lost.

Do not allow others to “shame” you by calling you unmerciful or unloving. Tell them, “I love you too much to lie to you.” And do not allow others to simplify Jesus, either, by reducing Him to merely being kind. There is a place for kindness, but love must sometimes overrule it. And Jesus is love. He, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, surely loves us too much to lie to us.

This video tells a beautiful story of how kindness is tied to sacrificial love and seeks to bring healing (even at great cost) rather than mere relief.

cana whwknfwkIt is sadly evident that the Church is currently divided into two camps over the question of divorce and remarriage, this in the aftermath (confusion) of the recent synod in Rome and in the rampup to the synod this coming October. Please pray a lot!

If you read the blog here often, you know that I am strongly opposed to any notions that would seek to set aside what I regard as the ipsissima verba Jesu (the very words of Jesus) in this matter, words that are, to my mind, not at all unclear or in any way ambiguous. His teaching in Matt 19, Matt 5, Mark 10, and other places is that those who leave valid marriages (“what God has joined”) and enter another union are in a state of ongoing adultery. These are Jesus’ words, not mine.  We must often deal, with pastoral solicitude, with many who are in this situation (sometimes before they met Christ), and we must hold them as close to the Church and Christ as possible. But cancelling Jesus’ teaching (a teaching that was objected to on the very day that He said it) is not an option.

Sadly, there are many of great influence who are advancing theories and interpretations suggesting that Jesus’ very clear and oft-repeated teaching is in fact not clear and can give way to newer interpretations that they claim are more merciful. Among these are some bishops and theologians of considerable influence. Let us consider an example.

In the latest issue of the theology quarterly “Urbaniana University Journal,” Fr. Guido Innocenzo Gargano says that Jesus’ words about marriage must be understood by what God says through Hosea: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Fr. Gargano is professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Urbaniana University. As such, he is a highly influential biblical scholar and patrologist. He is also a Camaldolese monk, and former prior of the Roman monastery of San Gregorio al Celio.

So we are not dealing with an obscure article by an obscure author. And I, though out of my league as a lowly Monsignor and pastor, have unfortunately found myself opposing the views of some bishops and scholars who outrank me. Yet, emboldened by the Pope’s invitation to a vigorous discussion (an invitation about which I have reservations), I would like to present brief excerpts from Fr. Gargano’s article. It is a lengthy article and more of it can be viewed at Sandro Magister’s site. You have to be able to read Italian to read the whole thing, though.

In responding, I make it clear that I disagree with Father Gargano. I do so publicly because I consider this debate a very serious matter. Frankly, I think it is going to be necessary to develop a mechanism through which ordinary priests like me can weigh in together with our strong belief that the Church’s teaching and discipline in this matter must be upheld unchanged. Perhaps, before the synod, a statement can be developed (à la the Manhattan Declaration) that priests and bishops can officially “sign.” In the meantime, it’s just little ol’ me and a few others up against some pretty influential people on “the other side.”

As usual when I comment, I present the article by Fr. Gargano is in bold black ink and my comments in plain red text. These are excerpts; the fuller article is available here: Chiesa Espresso – Fr. Gargano Speaks

Fr. Guido Innocenzo Gargano writes,

What interpretation should be given to the expression of Jesus in Mt 5:17: “I have come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them”? How should we understand the reference to hardness of heart in Mt 19:8ab: “For the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to repudiate your wives”? What force should accompany the observation of Jesus in Mt 19:8c: “In the beginning it was not so”?

In order to attempt a step forward in the reflection on this series of questions, let us recall first of all […] what Jesus himself said in Mt 5:19: Therefore, he who transgresses even one of the least of these precepts and teaches others to do so will be considered least in the kingdom of heaven. But he who observes and teaches these commandments will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.

The first observation that asserts itself in this regard is that in Mt 5:19 Jesus is not talking about “exclusion” from the kingdom of heaven, but only about the situation of “least” or “great” in the kingdom of heaven.

I guess St. John Chrysostom never got the memo that Jesus wasn’t excluding. Chrysostom writes, But when you hear the “least in the Kingdom of Heaven,” you are to think nothing but hell and punishment. … Think of the one who calls a brother a fool. That one transgresses only one commandment, maybe even the slightest one, and falls into Hell. … Jesus means that the one who transgresses only the one of the commands will on the final day be the least, that is, cast out, and last, and will fall into Hell (Gospel of Matthew, Homily 16.4).

Cyril and Jerome have similar views. 

I will concede that St. John Chrysostom is not the last or only word on this, but Fr. Gargano is stepping away from both the tradition and the rather plain meaning of this text. Jesus is not trying to find room in the Kingdom for those who would do the least. The whole thrust of the Sermon on the Mount is that we exceed the bare minimum of the written law, not fall into minimalism and mediocrity.

No commentary I have ever read considered being “least” in the Kingdom as a good or even acceptable goal. At a bare minimum, the least in the Kingdom will likely have a lot of purgatory. But the more common opinion is that Jesus uses the word “least” as a play on words: those who break the least commandment will be least in the Kingdom. But the traditional teaching is that the least are the Hell-bound (if they do not repent), as stated by Chrysostom above.

The observation has its importance because Jesus says immediately afterward and with a certain solemnity, in Mt 5:20, “I say to you in fact: if your justice does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven,” in this latter case explicitly excluding from the kingdom of heaven those who simply stop at the justice pursued by the Pharisees and are unable to go on to the point of discovering mercy and acting accordingly.

No, not at all. Jesus is plainly affirming the law and surely not opposing it to mercy as Fr. Gargano says. Rather, Jesus is saying that on account of grace we must do more than what the old law said or permitted. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not replace it; he is calling us to “fill it full” in terms of its most solemn principles.

If Jesus is opposing a matter of law at all in this matter, it is on account of the minimalism of some of the Scribes and Pharisees He sees them and others as setting aside or minimizing God’s vision for marriage because they have hard hearts. In no way is Jesus simply reacting to legalism. He is affirming God’s plan for marriage without exceptions—legal, social, or cultural.

Here, too, St. John Chrysostom says, Jesus does not find fault with the old Law but makes it more strict. Had the Old Law been evil Jesus would not have accentuated it. Instead he would have discarded it.

Chrysostom goes on to say regarding marriage and the following of God’s plan: After the coming of Christ we are favored with a greater strength and … are bound to strive for greater things (Gospel of Matthew Homily 16.4).

So, according to Chrysostom,  Jesus is not watering down; he is building up and insisting on greater adherence to the true nature of marriage. 

[…] Now, however, we must also ask ourselves which precepts Jesus is talking about and understand if this is a matter only of the observance of the written/oral Torah under the aspect of the fence of what are called the “mitzvòt”; or if the teacher of Nazareth also intends to include certain precepts understood instead as concessions, like that of making use of the permission to repudiate one’s wife, on the condition that the act of repudiation be written down as prescribed by the text of Dt 24:1.

No, actually we don’t need to do this nor should we. We ought rather listen to what Jesus is clearly saying and not engage in speculative theories about what sort of Jewish precepts He had in mind or what their sources were or weren’t. None of our speculations change what Jesus clearly says: we are not to divorce and remarry, and those who do so (where a valid marriage is concerned) commit adultery.

Jesus seems to rule out the idea that in the case of divorce one may speak of entrance into the kingdom, with the explicit reference to the text of Gen 2:24 that refers to the Law inscribed in the stars: “Let man not divide what God has joined” (Mt 19:6). But when those who are speaking with him ask, “Why, then, did Moses order the act of repudiation and to repudiate her” (Mt 19:7), Jesus, seeking the fundamental motivation of that first principle, realizes that in fact the Mosaic prescription manifested a leniency that is characteristic of God.

Why does Father say “seems”? Jesus is quite clear to describe that divorce from a valid marriage (what God has joined) followed by entering a second union is adultery. There’s no “seems” about His teaching; it is quite clear.

And as for the Mosaic practice manifesting leniency, fine. But Jesus says no more of that sort of leniency in the era of grace. As Chrysostom says above, we are bound on account of grace to strive for greater things. Having hardened hearts is not an option or excuse for divorce in the order of grace.

Finally, saying that Jesus “realizes” something seems ignoble to this reader. It suggests that Jesus is somehow struggling to find the best answer or is “thinking on His feet.” I see no evidence that Jesus, based on a dialogue with these ancient Jews, suddenly “realizes” that Moses somehow had it right after all.  Rather, Jesus is acknowledging that God, for a time, was lenient in this matter, but that time has now passed.

The result: on the one hand the observation that “for the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to repudiate your wives” (Mt 19:8); on the other the absence of any decision to eliminate this Mosaic prescription, in keeping with what he solemnly declared in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not believe that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). Two attitudes that rule out the possibility of reading our pericope from a solely juridical or, even worse, compulsory perspective, as it tends to be considered in the Western Christian tradition and in that of Catholicism in particular.

But, of course, Fr. is absolutizing Jesus’ statement about not abolishing the law. Clearly Jesus did set aside some interpretive precepts (especially related to the Sabbath) and other things like Kosher laws (Mk 7:19). Father Gargano surely knows better than to absolutize like this.

Fr. also describes his opponents as reading the passage from a “solely juridical” point of view and describes our view as impossible. I expect better than this from a reputable scholar.

I am a pastor and consider the indissolubility of marriage to be an eminently pastoral and merciful framework. The person who wants to divorce and remarry is not the only one deserving of mercy, so are the discarded spouse and the children who have to grow up in a world of broken families.

The preservation of marriage and the sanctity of Holy Communion ARE pastoral and merciful teachings from Jesus and the Apostles, not just juridical “uptightness.”

In this case, in fact, we would be looking at an interpretation of the text that would dispense completely with the global context of the life and teachings of Jesus as they appear in the New Testament and from the cultural and religious context in which the teacher of Nazareth acted and taught, as emerges from the language analogous to that which is used by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, including the stereotyped phrase “but I say to you” (Mt 19:9)It also cannot be denied that it is precisely leniency, and therefore the primacy of mercy, that characterized the teaching of Jesus and distinguished it from that of all, or almost all, the teachers among his contemporaries.

Now this is a common hermeneutic of many who have wished to set aside rather clear biblical teaching about homosexuality. And now it would seem that many want to apply this to divorce and remarriage as well.

Put colloquially, the interpretation is, Jesus was merciful and lenient so we should largely downplay any passages in which he seems angry or demanding. This was not like the “Jesus I know.”

Of course such a hermeneutic must discard hundreds of verses in which Jesus demands that we take up our cross, verses that say we are not worthy to be His disciples unless we renounce all our possessions, that say we must prefer nothing and no one to Him, etc. Such a view must ignore Jesus’ consistent warnings about judgment and Hell, His reminders that we will be accountable for our neglect of the poor, our impure acts and thoughts, our calling a brother “Raqa,” and even our idle words.

While many today oppose clear moral teaching from the love and mercy of God, they set up a false dichotomy to do so. God does not command us except in love, neither does He warn us except in love. In the Church, too, well-ordered love and mercy must be rooted in truth. The greatest mercy is to keep people out of Hell and to save them from all the suffering that precedes and comes from sin. Further, there must be a balance between concern for individual needs and the common good. Every false dichotomy in these matters must be avoided. Love without truth is not love at all, neither is it mercy. Seeking to cancel clear moral mandates from Jesus by an a appeal to a “God is love” principle or a “Mercy uber alles” standard is a false dichotomy. It is not love; it is not mercy; it is not authentic to the true Jesus of Scripture, who holds all these in balance and does not pick one and throw away the other.

Please remember to pray diligently for the Church in this hour. If any age is ill-equipped to teach on marriage, family, and sexuality, it is ours. The Church cannot afford to take cues from a confused and darkened culture. Jesus must always be our light, He and none other, speaking through Scripture and Tradition. Pray!

Our Lady of Cana, pray for us!

personal-prayerEvery now and then someone will come past my door and request parish services of some sort. Maybe it’s to plan a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral; maybe it’s for money! And then I look at him or her and say, “Who are you?” (since I don’t recognize the person). “Oh, well Father, you don’t know me but my grandmother goes here; this is our family Church.” “Oh, I see, but where do you go to Church?” I usually ask.  The response is usually something like, “Well, you know how it is Father, I don’t get to Church too often … but my mother goes here.”

Well, I’ve got news for you: your Mama’s faith isn’t going to save you. You gotta have your own faith. You have to know Jesus for yourself. There are some things you just can’t borrow. Once, you depended on your mother and ultimately the Church to announce the True Faith to you. But at some point you have to be able to claim the True Faith as your own. Your mother can’t go to Church for you and she can’t believe for you.

On another occasion, a man came up to me in the parking lot of the local food store and began to talk to me as if we were old friends. Perhaps he saw the puzzled look on my face as I awkwardly wondered if I had ever met him. He was mildly offended and said, “Gosh, don’t you know who I am?” “No,” I admitted with some embarrassment. He went on to explain that his family had been one the “pillar” families who had helped build the Church and that I really ought to know who he was. “Do you come to Mass often?” I asked. “No, but I was there at the last funeral, the one for my grandmother, whom YOU buried. Perhaps you know who I am now!” I said, “No. I certainly knew your grandmother, but I can’t say I know you.” “That really hurts Father, ’cause if it hadn’t a been for my family the Church wouldn’t be there.”

Eventually I got the man to admit that he hadn’t been going to Sunday Mass for over 20 years, from the time he graduated from the parish school, and that his only real attendance was for funerals and a few weddings. “Consider this a dress rehearsal,” I said, humorously but with ironic seriousness. “You may be angry and disappointed that I don’t know you, but it will be a lot worse to hear Jesus say ‘I don’t know you.'”

Indeed, one of the judgment scenarios has Jesus declare that he does not “know” some who seek entrance to heaven:

  • Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23)
  • Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers! (Lk 13:23-27)
  • Later the other virgins also came, saying, Lord, lord, open up for us.” But he answered, Truly I say to you, I do not know you.”  Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Mat 25:12-13).

We may wonder how the Lord cannot “know” someone. Is he not omniscient?

Here it helps to understand that the “knowing” as understood in Scripture does not have the modern Western notion of simple intellectual knowing. To “know,” in biblical terms, more richly describes knowing through personal experience. Hence it implies an intimacy, a personal experience of another person, thing, or event. Sometimes the Scriptures use “knowing” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse (Gen 4:17,25; lk 1:34 etc).

Hence the Lord, who does not force us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, is indicating in verses like these that some people seeking entry to Heaven (probably more for its pleasures than for its supreme purpose as a marital union with God) have refused His invitation to intimacy. He does not “know” them because they never wanted to be known by Him in any intimate way. They may have known OF Him, and even spoken and taught of Him. But they did not want HIM. They may have used him for their purposes, but Him they did not want. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; He does not barge in and force Himself on anyone.   

Thus, we must personally and individually accept the Lord’s invitation to enter our lives and transform our hearts. We cannot simply say, “My family built the Church,” or “I went to Catholic School,” or “My mother goes there.”

Remember the story of the wise and foolish virgins? (Matt 25:1-13)  They were waiting for the groom (in those days you waited for the groom, nowadays we wait for the bride) to show up for a wedding. Five were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps, while five were foolish and did not not. But the groom delayed his coming and so the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” The wise ones then told the foolish that they could not do this because there was not enough oil for all ten of them.

You see, there are some things you just can’t borrow and some things you just can’t lend. You can’t lend your readiness to meet God to someone else. You can’t borrow someone else’s intimacy with God.

You know what happened in the story. The foolish bridesmaids went off to buy more oil and missed the groom’s arrival and then were not able to enter the wedding feast. In those days, when a wedding feast began, the doors were locked and no one else could enter. When they finally arrived, the groom said that he did not know them. 

The bottom line is that you have to know Jesus for yourself. You can’t borrow your mother’s intimacy, relationship, or readiness. You have to have your own. No one can go to Church for you.  You can’t borrow someone else’s holiness.

There is an Old Gospel hymn that says, “Yes I know Jesus for myself.” It’s not enough to quote the pastor; it’s not enough to say what your mother said. You have to know Him yourself. Do you know Him? I didn’t say, “Do you know about Him.” This is more than intellectual knowing; this is the deep, biblical, experiential knowing. Do you know the Lord Jesus? Have you experienced that He has ministered to you in the Sacraments? Have you heard His voice resounding from the pulpit and in others you meet? Do you know Him? Don’t be satisfied that your mother or grandmother knew Him. You are called to know Him for your very self.

Here are a couple of renditions of the old Gospel classic I mentioned. The first is from the St. James Mass Choir. But then, lo and behold, the second version is sung by a choir from a Polish Girls’ School! See the original and then enjoy a very different version, as the song leaps the Atlantic Ocean and lands in Eastern Europe. What a wonderful world! Despite crossing oceans and cultures, the message remains the same: Yes, I know Jesus for myself.

King lightIt is difficult to describe the decade of the 1960s as anything but a near complete disaster for this country, Western culture, and the world. Like a tsunami that sweeps in and out in successive waves destroying and reworking the whole landscape and setting loose subsequent disasters, the 1960s was a disastrous series of revolutions whose destructive aftermath is now breeding disease, broken families, addiction, sexual confusion, and social chaos. The sexual revolution, the revolution against authority and tradition, the promotion of contraceptive drugs and practices, the further unleashing of pornography, the drug revolution and widespread use of mind-altering drugs (think Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, etc.), increasing and public support for abortion (leading to 1973 Roe v. Wade), radical feminism, and no-fault divorce have spewed their toxic fumes and waste everywhere. It was a decade of assassinations, war, controversy, social chaos, and decay. Urban centers rotted in the aftermath of riots and the rush to the suburbs.

In the Church, too, the venomous culture extended its stingers. A council that began in hope gave way in its aftermath to a hermeneutic of discontinuity, even rupture and iconoclasm. Bitter divisions and debates were set loose in the Church in 1968 over contraception and many other matters. There was an exodus of priests and religious and an emptying of the seminaries and novitiates. It is hard to imagine a worse period culturally than the 1960s.

Perhaps the solitary boast of that tainted decade was the Civil Rights Movement.

On this weekend and Monday holiday when we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I often write of him with admiration. And usually I get pushback. Often it is from those with whom I have 98% agreement on other issues. I suspect this is because it is hard to separate Dr. King and his legacy from the politics then, but especially now. Others, too, express concerns that Dr. King had personal shortcomings. More on this in a moment.

But first let’s recall the context of the time in which he lived. Many of us look back with a certain fondness on the 1950s and, even though we acknowledge its imperfections and can recognize the seeds of trouble, can still admire its orderliness and the fact that families were still intact and things seemed more decent somehow. And in many ways they were. But to Blacks, to African-Americans, the 1950s and before were troubled years indeed.

I have served in the Black community for most of my 25 years as a priest and I have heard the stories, stories told not usually with bitterness, but surely with pain. Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation across the South and infecting even many Northern cities, had begun around 1900 and were still in rather full force much of the way through the 1950s. Many who are older can say they remember seeing the “Whites only” and “Colored waiting room” signs. Imagine the dismay when the man you looked up to and called your father was called “Boy” and your mother, whom you thought of in the most affectionate way, had to go “uptown” to U Street or Harlem to the Negro hospital to give birth to your baby brother because she was somehow too low-class to give birth in the neighborhood hospital.

None of this is that long ago. Most of my older parishioners remember the local theater they could not attend, the local school that was not for them, the water fountain that said, in effect, “not for you.” Many of us “White folks” regarded the recent troubles in Ferguson and elsewhere with skepticism. “Oh come on, get over it. All that stuff was a long time ago … No one is targeting you.” But even if there is a sensitivity that is too tender, you don’t just turn off years of experience. Trauma has a way of echoing down through the years. It is very hard for us to walk in African-American shoes, and though we may wish healing went quicker, it usually does not.

Looking back to the 1950s and before, there has to be for all of us a certain shock as we consider what things were like. How could we have been so foolish, so obtuse, so just plain mean? What on earth were we thinking? “Whites only? … Colored drinking fountain? … Are you insane?” But it wasn’t that long ago. I can only pray that we will experience the same shock in years to come when we look back and consider that we actually killed babies in the womb by the tens of millions. “How could we have been so cruel, so lost, so confused and selfish as a culture that we permitted this, speaking of it as a ‘right,’ and even pressuring mothers to abort?”

In was in the midst of the insanity of segregation, racism, exclusion, incompressible fear, and hatred that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders like him stepped forward. And any of us who would like to criticize him should remember the context of those years and consider that the Civil Rights Movement was the solitary boast of the tainted 1960s. While almost every other movement of that era indulged either selfishness or some sort of disorder and rejection of biblical teaching, the Civil Rights Movement emerged from a profound sense of biblical justice and an insistence that God was not to be mocked nor His justice ignored. Dr. King and many others (though not all, such as violent radicals) drew deeply from the font of Scripture and  held our hypocrisy before us in the best of the tradition of biblical prophets.

Now I was not born yesterday and I can hear the gears turning in some (not all) of your minds. I have fielded many comments over the years, whenever I write of Dr. King with admiration. Permit me to address a few of the objections here.

1. What about the reports that Dr. King was a womanizer and that soon, when FBI files are released, this will all come to light? Well, there are a lot of rumors, but for now they are hearsay and we ought not pass on hearsay. But let us even assume for a moment that some of the rumors prove to be true. God has often used sinful and imperfect men to proclaim His Word and lead His people. Noah was a drinker; Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom; Abraham pimped his wife out and slept with his slave girl; Jacob was a schemer and usurper; Moses was a murderer; Jephte killed his own daughter; David was an adulterer and a murderer; Solomon had a thousand wives … need I go on? None of this is to approve of wrongdoing but simply to note that if God waited for perfect prophets and leaders, we wouldn’t have any. In honoring Dr. King, we need not say that he was a perfect man. We honor what was best in him and what he did to call us out of our hypocrisy.

2. There are reports that he was a Communist. Again, these are rumors, hearsay. Be careful. Here, too, recall that Jeremiah, Stephen, and Jesus were all accused of being unpatriotic because they prophesied doom to the nation if there was not repentance. If Dr. King was in fact a communist, he was a lousy communist, since he gave strength to our country by uniting us and helping to end our pointless and foolish divisions. A nation that is divided cannot stand. But if we can find greater unity, then our nation is strengthened. This was not the goal of the communists, and certain not the goal of the Russians.

3. You say he was a prophet but in so doing you misuse the term, which applies only to biblical prophets. Well, terms can be used in a strict sense and in a wider sense. In the strict sense, the term prophet refers only to those who are listed in the Bible. In that very strict sense, the “Office of Prophet” died with John the Baptist. But the last time I checked, all the baptized receive the office of prophet as well. And of course the word “prophet” is being used here in a wider sense, but a true one nonetheless. You, dear reader, and I are supposed to be prophets even though we are living long after John the Baptist. I have been able to verify that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was baptized. As such, he attains to the office of prophet by that fact. He also well imitated the biblical prophets, who knew how to draw from God’s word and denounce sin and injustice.

4. He is not Catholic and therefore we should not treat him like a saint or mention him in our Masses. He is not a canonized saint and no one should pretend that he is. Yet his legacy is still to be honored and the necessary change he effected is to be reverenced.

5. This is all just a bunch of “political correctness” (PC) and you, Fr. Pope, are naïve. I don’t come to your blog to hear PC. Well OK, I don’t like PC either. But there is more here than that, for the reasons I’ve stated above. But even if you are right (and I don’t say that you are), even a broken clock is right twice a day. Recently, the PC crowd expressed outrage at the murders of Islamic terrorists in France. They were right, even if they are usually an irritating crowd.

6. This whole racism thing has become an industry and honoring King just fuels it. OK, but don’t blame King for things that happened after he died. I don’t know what King would think of the likes of Al Sharpton, et. al. But neither do you. And don’t tell me that Dr. King wasn’t fighting an obnoxious thing at that time, as detailed above. He found a good fight and got into it at great personal cost. Honoring him doesn’t mean we affirm everything the movement later became or is now.

7. Most Black wounds today are self-inflicted. When will Black leaders address the holocaust of abortion and Black-on-Black violence? This Dr. King holiday is a charade in the face of all that. Yes, it sounds like we need another Dr. King today. It is not clear where King would stand on abortion today. Perhaps if he had lived, things would be different. Who knows? His niece thinks he would be pro-life. But we cannot hold a man responsible for errors that came after he died. Certainly King did stand foursquare against any violence and may well have spoken forcefully against Black-on-Black violence as he did in his day, denouncing all movements that used violent means.

Ok, enough. But please, when it comes to these sorts of things, we must all be willing to make distinctions and give honor where it is due. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought against real and obnoxious realities in his day, and fought against them knowing full well he might get killed for it. And he was. He left this nation in a better condition than he found it in terms of race relations.

Yes, the 1960s was an awful decade. But there was one real light that shone in that period and that was the Civil Rights Movement. We have Dr. King, among others (including Catholic religious and clergy), to thank for that. May Dr. King rest in peace and may we honor his legacy by continuing to stand up against all injustice, especially the injustice that refuses to accord others their rights before God to life with equal dignity.

God’s truth will win. How long will it take? Not long. Fellow cultural warriors take heart; God will win.

The first reading today speaks to us of the call of Samuel. In examining it, we can see what it is that makes a great prophet. Put more theologically, we can see the ways in which God’s graces form a great prophet. Samuel was surely one of the most significant prophets of the Old Testament and lived at a critical time, as Israel  shifted from the time of the judges to the time of the monarchy. Ultimately, it was he who would see Israel through the difficult time of Saul’s reign and prepare and anoint them for David’s kingship to follow.

What then are some of the ways that God prepares Samuel and every prophet (this means you) for his mission? Consider these five.

1. The CLOSENESS of a great Prophet - In the first reading, we find the young Samuel sleeping in the temple of the Lord. In those days, the temple was not yet in Jerusalem nor was it a permanent building; it was a tent structure in Hebron. Samuel, as one in training for temple duties, is sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant, which carried the presence of God. Thus we see that a great prophet begins and remains so by staying close to the Lord.

We who would also be prophets must do the same if we wish to be great prophets to our family members and friends. How will a priest preach with authority and power if he does not stay close to the Lord? How will parents give prophetic witness to their children if the Lord is a distant God to them?

How do we draw close to the Lord? Daily prayer, daily and devout reading of Scripture, frequent confession, weekly reception of Holy Communion, and a spirit of wonder and awe. Ask for these virtues. Stay close to the Lord. Great prophets stay close to the Lord.

2. The CONSTERNATION of a great Prophet - The first reading depicts Samuel as struggling with some confusion as to what and whom he is hearing. God is calling, but Samuel doesn’t get it. He struggles to figure out what is happening to him. A look at the call of most of the great prophets reveals that most of them struggled with their call. Moses felt old, inarticulate, and inadequate. Jeremiah felt too young, Isaiah too sinful. Amos would have been content to remain a dresser of sycamores. Most prophets felt overwhelmed and experienced consternation.

Samuel, as we see, eventually figures out who is calling him and begins his journey. He had to listen for a while to to do it, however.

How about you? Many of us, too, would want to run away if God made it clear He had something for us to do. In a way, that is a proper response, for pride is a bad trait in a prophet. To experience a bit of trouble, consternation, and anxiety helps to keep us humble and leaning on the Lord.

What is the Lord asking of you? Perhaps, like Samuel, you struggle to understand at first. But stay close to God. Things will eventually become clear.

The great prophets struggled. But that is the point; they struggled with God for an answer and for a vision.

3. The CONNECTEDNESS of a great Prophet – Notice that Samuel does not discern alone. He seeks counsel from a wiser man to help him. Though Eli is not a perfect teacher, God does make use of him to help Samuel.

So, too, for us, who ought to seek good, strong, spiritual friends and clergy to help us discern. Scripture says, Seek counsel from every wise man (Tobit 4:18). It is a bad idea to try to discern alone. We should cultivate relationships with wise and spiritual men and women in our journey.

Great prophets are connected to spiritual leaders and teachers. Prophets read and consulted other prophets. God does not just call us to a vertical, private relationship with Him. He also directs us to a horizontal relationship with others. Seek wise counsel; great prophets do.

4. The CORE  of a great Prophet - Samuel is advised by Eli to say to God, Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. A great prophet listens to God. And God does not always say easy things. He often challenges in what He says and in what He wants to send them. But great prophets listen; they listen very carefully to God. They do not try to bury His Word or forget what He says. They take seriously what they hear and do not compromise God’s Word.

And what of us? It is too easy to avoid listening to God or to compromise on what we have heard. But great prophets listen carefully to God by reading and studying His Word, by looking at how He speaks in creation and in the events of their day, by studying the teachings of the Church, and by carefully, prayerfully listening to the still, small voice within.

Do you want to be a great prophet? Listen.

5. The CAPABILITY of a great Prophet - We see in Samuel’s life how be became gradually transformed into a great prophet, one who never compromised God’s Word. The text says, Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect. Because Samuel was close to the Lord, faced his consternation, was connected to the wise, and had the core virtue of listening, he became a great prophet. The actual Hebrew text, translated more literally, says that not a word of his fell to the ground.

Being a great prophet is a work of God. But we, who would and should be great prophets ourselves, ought to pay attention to the way God works to make great prophets. Learn from Samuel; study all the prophets and you will see what God can do.

And while most of us wish our words had greater effect, it is less clear that we are willing to undertake the process to get there. Ask for the gift. Ask for the gift to stay close to God, to struggle and accept some of the consternation that comes with being a prophet. Seek to be connected to wise counsel; learn the core value of listening. And thus will God bring about in us a conversion such that none of our words will ever fall to the ground.

This song says, “The Lord gave the Word. Great was the company of the preachers.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 8.31.58 PMSome years ago, a priest friend urged me to return to a priest support group that all priests are encouraged to find and join. But as so often happens with everyone, priests get busy and we start missing the meetings. The leader of the group urged me to return. When I responded that I wasn’t sure I needed the group just then because I was supported in other ways, he said, “OK, then don’t return because you need it, but because we need you there.”

It’s not a bad way to think of things. Egocentrically, we tend to ponder what is best for us and forget that others may need us. We need to think of others, too.

The commercial below makes that point. It features a dog, and though I wish it had featured a person, I guess the dog is a good symbol for loyalty and need. Responsible drinking is important, not only for us, but for others who depend on us to be sober and to be alive the next day! Consider the message well, not only on the subject of safe driving, but also in other areas. Our lives matter to others, and even if we won’t take care of ourselves for our own sake, maybe we will for the sake of others.

There are a lot of “solos” sung by our Protestant brethren: Sola Fide (saved by faith alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the rule of faith), and sola gratia (grace alone). (See the Protestant logo to the right.) Generally, one ought to be suspicious and careful of claims that things work “alone.” It is our usual experience that many things work together in harmony, that things are interrelated. Very seldom is anyone or anything “alone.”

The problem of the “solos” emerges (it seems to me) in our minds, where it is possible to separate things out. But the fact is, just because we can separate something out in our mind does not mean that we can separate it out in reality.

Consider, for a moment, a candle flame. In my mind, I can separate the heat of the flame from its light. But in reality, I could never take a knife and put the heat over on one side and the light on the other. In reality, the heat and light are inseparable, so together as to be one.

I would like to argue respectfully that it is the same with things like faith and works, grace and transformation, Scripture and the Church. We can separate all these things out in our mind, but in reality they are one. Attempts to separate them from what they belong to, lead to grave distortions and to the thing in question no longer being what it is claimed to be. Rather, it becomes an abstraction that exists only on a blackboard or in the mind of a (geeky) theologian.

Let’s look at the three main “solos” of Protestant theology. I am aware that there are non-Catholic readers of this blog, so please understand that my objections are made with respect. I am also aware that in a short blog I may oversimplify, and thus I welcome additions, clarifications, etc. in the comments.

Solo 1: Faith alone (sola fide). For 400 years, Catholics and Protestants have debated the question of faith and works. In this matter, we must each avoid a caricature of the other’s positions. Catholics do not and never have taught that we were saved by works. For heaven’s sake we baptize infants! We fought off the Pelagians. But neither do Protestants mean by “faith” a purely intellectual acceptance of the existence of God, as many Catholics think they do.

But what concerns us here is the detachment of faith from works that the phrase “Faith alone” implies. So let me ask, what is faith without works? Can you point to it? Is it visible? Introduce me to someone who has real faith but no works. I don’t think one can be found. About the only example I can think of is a baptized infant! But, oops, that’s a Catholic thing, since most Baptists and Evangelicals who sing the solos reject infant baptism.

Hence it seems that faith alone is something of an abstraction. Faith is something that we can separate from works only in our minds, but not in reality. If faith is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, it seems we cannot remain unchanged by entering into that relationship with him. This change affects our behavior, our works. Even in the case of infants, it is possible to argue that they are changed and do have “works,” it’s just that we cannot easily observe them.

Scripture affirms that faith is never alone, that such a concept is an abstractionFaith without works is dead (James 2:26). Faith without works is not really faith at all since faith does not exist by itself, but is always present with and causes works through love. Galatians 5:6 says, For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love. Hence faith works not alone, but through love. Further, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:2, if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

Hence faith alone is the null set. True faith is never alone; it bears the fruit of love and the works of holiness. Faith ignites love and works through it. Beware of the solo  “faith alone” and ask where faith, all by itself, can be found.

Solo 2: Grace alone (sola gratia). As for grace alone, this too is a puzzle, since grace by its very nature changes us. Again, show me grace apart from works. Grace without works is an abstraction. Grace cannot be found apart from its effects. In our mind it may exist as an idea, but in reality grace is never alone.

Grace builds on nature and transforms it. It engages the person who responds to its urges and gifts. If grace is real, it will have its effects and cannot be found alone or apart from works. It cannot be found apart from a real flesh-and-blood human who is manifesting its effects.

Solo 3: Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) - Finally, beware those who say, “sola Scriptura”! This is the claim that Scripture alone is the measure of faith and the sole authority for the Christian, that there is no need for a Church and no authority in the Church, that there is only authority in the Scripture. There are several problems with this.

First, Scripture as we know it (with the full New Testament) was not fully assembled and agreed upon until the 4th century. And it was Catholic bishops, in union with the Pope, who made the decision as to which books belonged in the Bible. The early Christians could not possibly have lived by sola scriptura since the Scriptures were not even fully written in the earliest years. And though collected and largely completed in written form by 100 AD, the set of books and letters that actually made up the New Testament was only agreed upon by the 4th Century.

Second, until recently most people could not read. Given this, it seems kind of strange that God would make, as the sole rule of faith, a book that people had to read on their own. Even today, large numbers of people in the world cannot read well. Hence Scripture was not a read text per se, but rather one that most people heard and experienced in and with the Church through her preaching, liturgy, art, architecture, stained glass, passion plays, and so forth.

Third, and most important, if all you have is a book, then that book needs to be interpreted accurately. Without a valid and recognized interpreter, the book can serve to divide more than to unite. Is this not the experience of Protestantism, which now has tens of thousands of denominations all claiming to read the same Bible but interpreting it in rather different manners?

The problem is, if no one is Pope then everyone is Pope!  Protestant “soloists” claim that anyone, alone with a Bible and the Holy Spirit, can authentically interpret Scripture. Well then, why does the Holy Spirit tell some people that baptism is necessary for salvation and others that it is not necessary? Why does the Holy Spirit tell some that the Eucharist really is Christ’s body and blood and others that it is only a symbol? Why does the Holy Spirit say to some Protestants “Once saved, always saved” and to others, “No”?

So it seems clear that Scripture is not meant to be alone. Scripture itself says this in 2 Peter 3:16: our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, Our Brother Paul speaking of these things [the Last things] as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. Hence Scripture itself warns that it is quite possible to misinterpret Scripture.

Well then, where is the truth to be found? The Scriptures once again answer this: you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15).

Hence, Scriptures are not to be read alone. They are a document of the Lord through the Church and must be read in the context of the Church and with the Church’s authoritative interpretation and Tradition. As this passage says, The CHURCH is the pillar and foundation of truth. The Bible is a Church book and is not meant to be read apart from the Church that received the authority to publish it from God Himself.  Scripture is the most authoritative and precious document of the Church, but it emanates from the Church’s Tradition and must be understood in the light of it. Further, faith is not alone but works through love. And grace is not alone but builds on nature.

Thus the problems of “singing solo” seem to boil down to the fact that if we separate what God has joined, we end up with an abstraction, something that exists only in the mind (but in reality cannot be found alone).

Here is a brief video in which Fr. Robert Barron ponders the Protestant point of view that every baptized Christian has the right to authoritatively interpret the Word of God.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 2.31.56 AMThere is a great reverence for science in our culture. On the one hand, rightly so. Science has made enormous strides that have changed life as we know it. Profound discoveries have eradicated diseases, improved health, increased the world’s food supply, led to a computer revolution, drawn us higher into outer space and deeper into inner space, revealed hidden mysteries of nature, and produced technologies unimaginable to even our recent ancestors.

On the other hand, the reverence of science has tipped perhaps too far in the direction of a religious substitute. Indeed it is arguable that the robes of the priest, once admired and revered, have now been replaced in our culture’s esteem by the lab coat. Many regard the findings of science with an almost blind faith that many (often unfairly) attribute to religious believers. “Scientists say … ” has become a kind of mantra wherein all dissent must stop and a slight bow of the head might also be appropriate. The matter is settled since “scientists say … ” And while religious believers base their faith on some connection to unchanging Divine utterances, “believers” in science too often couch their belief on the utterances of mere human beings, learned to be sure, but fallible and subject to changing their theories (rightly) when new evidence comes in. Hence the sort of religious reverence that many today give to scientists is problematic, both for them and for science.

While many will deny they have such religious adherence or reverence, try questioning (not even outright disputing) a pet theory like Darwinian evolution or global warming and observe the religious fervor of their anger and their shock that you have the nerve to question “settled science” (read “dogma”). Rival thoughts must be scoured from the public schools and from newscasts with as much zeal as the Inquisition ever had (at least the inquisition involved an extensive questioning of dissenters)! Threats of legal action and ridicule, exclusion and defunding, boycotts and loss of professorships, follow the mere questioning of whether the scientific data really support such dogmatic conclusions.

I love science and have great respect for the scientific method, which is why the reactionary tactics of the last paragraph are so objectionable to me. True science should crave peer review and the challenges that help harden the data or refine the theories. New information is always coming in; there is no “settled science.” There are few if any permanent dogmas (other than to respect the data and method),  and a consensus achieved in this decade may melt away in the next (see photo top right – click to enlarge). Vive la différence!

Further, 100% of scientists are human beings. And it pertains to a certain percentage of any collection of human beings to be corrupt and to betray the very institutions they serve and the principles they uphold. The vast majority of scientists respect their discipline and the scientific method, but there are some who “fudge” the data and some who outright lie. Most of us remember the scandal (Climategate) related to the skewing of data at the East Anglia Climate Research Unit. It was a huge blow to the science on this issue whatever your view of anthropogenic global warming.

Consider too another blow about the time of climategate, this time to anthropology, wherein significant and celebrated claims that the “missing link” between primates and man was being filled in, were found to be a hoax. Consider some excerpts from a column in The Guardian in which the debacle was described. These are excerpts; the full article is here: History of modern man unravels as German scholar is exposed as fraud.  My comments are in red text.

It appeared to be one of archaeology’s most sensational finds. The skull fragment discovered in a peat bog near Hamburg was more than 36,000 years old – and was the vital missing link between modern humans and Neanderthals.  This, at least, is what Professor Reiner Protsch von Zieten – a distinguished, cigar-smoking German anthropologist – told his scientific colleagues, to global acclaim, after being invited to date the extremely rare skull. However, the professor’s 30-year-old academic career has now ended in disgrace after the revelation that he systematically falsified the dates on this and numerous other “stone age” relics.  Yesterday his university in Frankfurt announced the professor had been forced to retire because of numerous “falsehoods and manipulations.” According to experts, his deceptions may mean an entire tranche of the history of man’s development will have to be rewritten. Notice, “entire tranche…rewritten.” 

“Anthropology is going to have to completely revise its picture of modern man between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago,” said Thomas Terberger, the archaeologist who discovered the hoax. “Prof. Protsch’s work appeared to prove that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals had co-existed, and perhaps even had children together. This now appears to be rubbish.” Again, notice, “completely revise … ” Parents, call your school board …

… a crucial Hamburg skull fragment, which was believed to have come from the world’s oldest German, a Neanderthal known as Hahnhöfersand Man, was actually a mere 7,500 years old, according to Oxford University’s radiocarbon dating unit. The unit established that other skulls had been wrongly dated too.  Another of the professor’s sensational finds, “Binshof-Speyer” woman, lived in 1,300 BC and not 21,300 years ago, as he had claimed, while “Paderborn-Sande man” (dated at 27,400 BC) only died a couple of hundred years ago, in 1750.

“It’s deeply embarrassing. Of course the university feels very bad about this,” Professor Ulrich Brandt, who led the investigation into Prof. Protsch’s activities, said yesterday. Prof. Protsch … had simply made things up … At the same time, German police began investigating the professor for fraud, following allegations that he had tried to sell the university’s 278 chimpanzee skulls for $70,000 to a US dealer.

The article goes on to describe three other frauds perpetrated this past century in the area of archeology.

OK, now let’s be fair (in a way that many critics of the Church are not). What this scientist has done is a betrayal of science. But the scientific method is not thereby repudiated. On the contrary, it is needed all the more! There are likely a lot of human layers to the hoax here (lack of proper peer review, too much human respect, ideological credence, and a lot of money in the mix). But again, the scientific method remains valuable and necessary. Had it been followed more carefully, this might not have happened. But scientists are men and woman, sinners, and mere mortals. In our fallen condition such things do happen.

And this is all I ask as a mere observer, a scientific amateur: that we remember that science is not a substitute for God or religious dogma. Science is useful and helpful, but it is not infallible; it is not settled; it is not perfect or pure. Scientists, like any group of humans, are affected by every human glory and every human vice. Yes, even among the “white lab coats” there are crooks, liars, the greedy, those enamored of fame, and ideologues obsessed with forcing a particular conclusion no matter what the data really say. But those who do such things betray science and undermine the work of many good scientists who work hard and follow the data and the method.

Many who criticize the Church are not so fair, insisting that the fact that a few priests and religious have betrayed the Church indicates that the Church and the Faith are bad. But despite bad priests and unfaithful members, the Church and the Faith are not thereby repudiated. They are needed all the more! Had the Faith been followed more carefully, the evils might not have happened.

The few who stray, whether in science or faith, are countersigns to what the reality should be. The Church, faith, and science should be accorded due respect, even when some leaders from their number betray their very principles. It is popular to point to the failings of the Church, but less popular (in fact downright unpopular) to point to the failings of science. But yes, dear reader, even some scientists stray, and “objective” science is not without sinners in its ranks too, no matter what the “white lab coats” might lead you to think.

Rebuke all betrayals, but respect what is good and true.

Here’s a humorous commercial about learning from the experience of others. It’s a kind of hat-tip to tradition and the scientific method all at once!

antonyIn the secular world, a “mystery” is something which baffles or eludes understanding, something which lies undisclosed. And the usual attitude of the world toward mystery is to solve it, to get to the bottom of it, or to uncover it. Mysteries must be overcome! The riddle or “whodunit” must be solved!

In the Christian and especially the Catholic world, “mystery” is something a bit different. Here, mystery refers to the fact that there are hidden dimensions in things, people, and situations that extend beyond their merely visible and physical dimensions.

One of the best definitions I have read of “mystery” is by the theologian and philosopher John Le Croix. Fr. Francis Martin introduced it to me some years ago in one of his recorded conferences. Le Croix says,

Mystery is that which opens temporality and gives it depth. It introduces a vertical dimension and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.

Fr. Martin’s classic example of this to his students is the following:

Suppose you and I are at a party, and Smith comes in the door and goes straight away to Jones and warmly shakes his hand with both his hands. And I say, “Wow, look at that.” And you say, puzzled: “What’s the big deal, they shook hands … so what?” And then I tell you, “Smith and Jones have been enemies for thirty years.

And thus there is a hidden and richer meaning than merely what meets the eye. This is mystery: something hidden, something that is accessible to those who know, who are initiated into the mystery and have come to grasp some dimension of it; it is the deeper reality of things.

In terms of faith, there is also a higher meaning that mystery brings. And thus Le Croix added above, It [mystery] introduces a vertical dimension, and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.

Hence we come to appreciate something of God in all he does and has made. Creation is not just dumbly there. It has a deeper meaning and reality. It reveals its creator and the glory of Him who made it. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).

Indeed, there is a sacramentality to all creation. Nothing is simply and dumbly itself; it points beyond and above, to Him who made it. The physical is but a manifestation of something and Someone higher.

In the reductionist world in which we live, such thinking is increasingly lost. And thus we poke and prod in order to solve the mysteries before us. And when have largely discovered something’s physical properties, we think we have exhausted its meaning; we have not. In a disenchanted age, we need to rediscover the glory of enchantment, of mystery. There is more than meets the eye. Things are deeper, richer, and higher than we can ever fully imagine.

Scripture, which is a prophetic interpretation of reality, starts us on our great journey by initiating us into many of the mysteries of God and His creation. But even Scripture does not exhaust the mystery of all things; it merely sets us on the journey ever deeper, ever higher. Mysteries unfold; they are not crudely solved.

For the Christian, then, mystery is not something to be solved or overcome so much as to be appreciated and reverenced. To every person we know and everything we encounter goes up the cry, O magnum et admirabile mysterium (O great and wondrous mystery)! Now you’re becoming a mystic.

Here is Fr. Francis Martin speaking briefly on mystery: