When Bill de Blasio was elected Mayor of New York in 2013, he told reporters at a press conference that he was “spiritual but not religious”—thus giving a familiar theme nowadays heightened publicity. For many people, being spiritual has to do with inner feelings and conscience and a vague belief in God. There is no need of religion; in fact religion, with its creeds, codes of conduct, scriptures, sacraments, teaching authority, and clergy, gets in the way of a truly spiritual life. The sociologist Robert N. Bellah and some colleagues wrote a book 30 years ago that is still hailed as something of a classic. Entitled Habits of the Heart, the book examines the growing lack of commitment and the problem of individualism in American society, and the effects this is having on religion in the U.S. Bellah memorably identifies a woman called Sheila as a typical example of someone committed to spirituality without religion: “Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and who describes her faith as ‘Sheilaism.’ “I believe in God,” she says, but “I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheilaism typifies for Bellah a growing trend in in the U.S., and he entertains the scenario that eventually there may be over 220 (now 322) million spiritualities like Sheila’s in America—one per person! This would mean that formal religion would become as irrelevant in the U.S. as it is in secularized Europe. There are a number of serious problems with spiritualities detached from religion. First, there are no solid moral codes, except inner conscience. God is one’s own “little voice” (Sheila’s words). There is nothing that calls authoritatively for moral conversion. Second, the God of spirituality does not challenge, warn, demand, or judge. Self-judgment based on personal conscience has free rein, and the adherent has a very comfortable sense of what is right and wrong. Third, spirituality is intensely private and non-communal and is more of a vague, comforting, inner feeling. God is himself/herself/itself very private, too, and talks to the believer in a rather unfocused way. Fourth, spirituality is generally pantheistic, that is that God is found in nature and its beauties; in fact, God is often identified with nature. Thus spiritual but not religious people say they can find God on top of a mountain or while skiing, rather than in worship in a church building. Fifth, the inner God, because he/she/it never speaks, offers little no explanation or sense of orientation about the great mysteries of life, especially suffering and death. Death is mostly the annihilation of life—and something that one generally avoids thinking about. Sixth, there is little sense of social justice. Acting justly and charitably is not intrinsic to irreligious spirituality; it is a matter of personal choice. Seventh, religion is often replaced by psychotherapy—useful for some—but not adequate to bringing people to formal religious faith. I am not suggesting (nor is Bellah) that spirituality is a bad thing. Hardly! Spirituality is at the core of religious belief and practice. One of the valuable developments in post-Vatican II Catholicism is the renewed emphasis on active participation (=internalization of the mystery) and in the discovery of the wide range of traditional Christianity spiritualties—which are always attached to religion. The fundamental problem is that spirituality detached from tradition, doctrine, moral teaching, liturgical life, and clergy becomes eventually vapid, empty, and ultimately disappointing.
On November 16, 1965, near the end of the Second Vatican Council, 42 bishops attending the Council met together in the catacombs of St. Domatilla in Rome, celebrated Mass, and signed a covenant committing themselves to lives of simplicity, frugality, and humility. The document is known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.” Drawn up anonymously, so as to avoid the appearance of grandstanding on the part of the signatories, the Pact was circulated to all the bishops at the Council, and received about 500 co-signatories (where were the other 1,700 bishops?). It was presented eventually to Pope Paul VI, who received it gratefully. Here are the more notable “lifestyle” paragraphs of the document: 1. Regarding housing, food, and means of transportation and everything concerning these things, we will seek to live in accordance with the common average level of our people. 2. We renounce forever wealth and its appearance, especially in clothing (expensive materials and brilliant colors), and insignia of precious metals (such things should in effect be evangelical). 3. We refuse to be called in speech or writing by names or titles that signify grandeur and power (Your Eminence, Your Excellency, Monsignor . . .). We prefer to be called by the evangelical name of Father. 4. In our comportment and social relations, we will avoid everything that can appear to confer privileges, priorities (for example, banquets given or received, special places in religious services). 5. We will not possess either movable or immobile properties or bank accounts in our names. If it is necessary to possess some property we will place it under the name of our diocese or other social or charitable works. 6. Wherever it is possible we will place the financial and material administration of our diocese to a commission of competent laymen conscious of their apostolic vocation, given that we should be pastors and apostles rather than administrators. Item 5 was generally found to be too difficult to actualize fully; and item 6 has been effected, at least in part, in perhaps most dioceses of the world. Retired Bishop Luigi Bettazzi of Ivrea, Italy, now 92, and the last surviving member of the group of bishops who devised the Pact (the names of all signatories eventually became known), said the commitments were personal and individual, not the start of an organized movement. Bishop Bettazzi said he was “not as strong as Pope Francis” when it came to housing. (He was told by his vicar general that he had to live in the bishop’s residence, and he did so.) But he tried in most areas to follow the Pact successfully, adding that he did not wear the bishop’s ring that all bishops received from Pope Paul VI at the end of Vatican II because it was “ostentatious.” Bishop Erwin Krautler, ordinary of the impoverished diocese of Xingu in the Amazon basin, and legendary for his simple lifestyle for 35 years, credits the Pact of the Catacombs for the way he conducted his life and ministry. The approach of the 50th anniversary of the Pact has led to new interest in it, not least because of the way Pope Francis lives so frugally and simply. Bishop Belazzi commented, “God with his grace gave us a pope like Francis, who without having signed the Pact, already led this kind of life and had experience of a simple church, a poor church, a church very close to the poor.” The Pact of the Catacombs can today inspire clergy to adopt its spirit in ways that are feasible.
I was taken aback recently when a sixth-grader from our parish school told me as he left the church with his classmates after a school Mass that he thought the Mass that day was “fun.” I tried to interpret this in benign terms, thinking that the young man’s liturgical vocabulary was still underdeveloped. Yet, I still wince at the thought that Mass is “fun.” Because we live in a society notable for its entertainment and consumer culture, we are easily inclined to see everything in entertainment and consumer terms. It is striking how often the word “entertainment” appears in our language. And we consciously speak of ourselves as entertainment consumers, and we see the process by which entertainment is created as an “industry.” The person with a consumer/entertainment mentality treats the world like a giant supermarket or place of entertainment. In such a climate, people, created things, the gifts and talents of others, relationship, sexuality—all are considered objects of consumption. When we come to worship, it is easy to bring an entertainment mentality with us. With our cultural outlook, we can think that we go to worship to be served and entertained. (This is especially true in the area of liturgical music.) Such an expectation brings quick disappointment. People who go to Mass with such an expectation will get very little out of the liturgy and are apt to find it dull and boring. Needless to say, the liturgy should never be dull and boring; it has its festive and emotionally satisfying dimensions. The ritual, music, and preaching should be conducted with grace, and be spiritually uplifting and humanly attractive. But if the model of the supermarket or entertainment industry is not appropriate to the liturgy, what model would one put in its place? In my view, one of the most valuable and authentic ways of viewing the liturgy is as work, good, solid work. Indeed this is exactly what the word “liturgy” means: the work of the people. Liturgy is the Opus Dei,the work which God enacts for our salvation. Now, if the liturgy is work, this means that it is often challenging and demanding. Like many things in life, liturgy demands a great deal from us, and we know in faith that what it demands will rebound to our benefit. It is no accident that the liturgy is called a “school of prayer.” In the English church, the scripture readings were traditionally called “lessons.” The word of God is read as judgment and challenge. In Christian history, it was commonplace to speak of certain kinds of activities and prayers as “spiritual exercises.” (St. Ignatius wrote his famous Spiritual Exercises between 1522 and 1524, and they are as popular today as ever.) The spiritual exercise is a very helpful way of understanding the liturgy and what it requires of us. We know from experience how important discipline is in every aspect of life. Going to school is a discipline that not everyone enjoys. Being able to do a job well requires the discipline that comes from education and the development of skills. We know how athletes go to exhaustive lengths to prepare themselves for the Olympics and similar contests. In recent decades, people have become very conscious of the importance of diet and exercise. Almost nobody enjoys a diet. Many people enjoy exercise, but others (like me) do not. But, we know that they are good for us in the long run and we will enjoy their benefits. Worship demands sacrifice, dedication, and costly commitment. But liturgy is not fun!
The month of November opens with the celebration of one of the richest feasts of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of All Saints. On this day, the Church celebrates the festival of God’s holy city and the redeemed citizenry of heaven. The feast of All Saints celebrates all those who lived in the model of Christ and inspired their fellow men and women in a remarkable way. The saints made a great difference in the world, and even now they continue to inspire us to do great things. The saints are not simply nice decorations in the world of Christian spirituality. A struggling humanity needs their example and inspiration desperately. Gerald Vann, a 20th century English spiritual writer, puts this well when he writes: “For the church is, and has always been, a net that has caught all sorts of fish. She is, and has always been, a strange combination of the drab and the magnificent, the squalid and the heroic, the shabby and the beautiful. Her garden has produced both weeds and flowers. The saints are the flowers, and we must admit that without them the sanctity of the Church would not be very much in evidence. It is through them that Christ’s light shines to the nations, and it is in them that Christians see what holiness really means. It is no wonder then that the Church takes pride in those noble examples of Christian living, and boldly proclaims their greatness to the world.” The saintly men and women do not exist in a world beyond or disconnected from ours, but are part of the very fabric of our existence. The modern person likes to think that he or she is self-made. But the fact is, we are what we are because of those who have gone before us. We are brought to birth by others. We are formed by the spiritual inheritance of other generations. We live our lives happily only in community and our lives are profitable only when directed to the up—building of the human community. We are saved and brought to final fulfillment not by anything we ourselves are able to do—but by the God of mercy and redemption, and through the assistance of countless others in the spiritual community of God’s people. The saints exist for us and with us. We venerate them not as distant historical figures but as brothers and sisters with whom we are joined in a living communion. The great French writer Paul Claudel pointed out that the treasures of all the saints are at our disposal. “All the saints and the angels belong to us. We can use the intelligence of St. Thomas, the right arm of St. Michael, the hearts of Joan of Arc and Catherine of Siena, and all the hidden resources which have only to be touched to be set in action. . . The heroism of the missionary, the inspiration of the Doctors of the Church, the generosity of the martyrs, the genius of the artists, the burning prayer of the Poor Clares and Carmelites—it is as if all that were ourselves; it is ourselves.” Like all great feasts of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of All Saints is a celebration of the Church living in history now. The stories of the saints are our stories, and our own little stories are ennobled and exalted by becoming part of the great Christian story. In this truth we should find great hope and encouragement.
Perhaps the most appalling aspect of televangelism is what is called “the prosperity gospel,” that is the conviction that God rewards faithful Christians with money and a prosperous mode of life when they support a ministry financially. Sums of money that often stretch the finances of the faithful to breaking point are implicitly encouraged by television pastors. By donating “seed” money to the ministry, the congregant is promised a bountiful harvest. This kind of preaching and fundraising is associated with television evangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Bishop Eddie Long, and Creflo Dollar (that’s his real name!). One or other of the many “prosperity” televangelists may be seen on television virtually every night. The underlying theology of prosperity preaching is based on passages like Deuteronomy 18:8, which states: “Remember, then, it is the Lord, your God, who gives you the power to acquire wealth.” (Taken out of the context of the whole Bible, this quotation seems to legitimize the televangelist message.) The fact that prosperity does not materialize for many givers does not seem to trouble them. On the other hand, whatever small financial good appears in their lives is interpreted as God’s gift. The most scandalous aspect of this mode of evangelism is that the preachers themselves are the recipients of large amounts of money, principally through enormous salaries. Many commentators complain about the lavish lifestyles of preachers that are funded by “seed” money given by the less prosperous. Creflo Dollar recently purchased a $64 million private jet—and his congregation approved of the move as an indication that Dollar was being blessed by God. The principle of divine blessing is used to justify the multi-million dollar salaries and benefits (including luxurious homes, lavish vacation properties, and private jets.) But they are beyond criticism by adherents, because to criticize them is to questions God’s manifold blessings. There is also the notion, derived from the Swiss reformer John Calvin (and assumed generally into Protestantism), that material and financial prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing of the righteous. By the same logic, those who are poor and struggle with poverty must be sinners and lack God’s blessing. I am fairly certain that today there is no incidence of Catholic clergy or organizations directly preaching the prosperity gospel. But a practice not dissimilar to this was present in the scandal that led in part to the Protestant Reformation. Catholic preachers of that era did not promise financial prosperity (or live lavish lifestyles), but they did declare that souls could be delivered from purgatory through financial contributions to the Church. While the sale of indulgences to support Roman expenditures was expunged from Catholicism after the Council of Trent, there is a danger that parish and diocesan stewardship programs can be tainted with the prosperity gospel and its theology. I myself have heard people give testimony at Mass intimating that their stewardship contributions have brought a substantial improvement in their personal finances. Collections at Mass and fundraising programs in parishes and dioceses need to avoid assuming the elements of the prosperity gospel. The notion that God gives back financial or material gain in response to donations made to the Church is a travesty of the Gospel of Christ, who was himself poor, and lived frugally on what was offered to him. There is a warning in all this for clergy, who are tempted to acquire homes, cars, and styles of life that go against the virtue of poverty incumbent on all Christians.
No figure has been more hated by the Irish people than Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the fanatical and puritanical Lord Protector of England, who in 1649 led a most vicious genocidal assault on Ireland. His campaign was intended to wipe out the Catholic religion and consolidate English rule in Ireland. In particular, Cromwell’s assault was focused on the subjugation of the Catholic Norman-Irish aristocracy which had come to Ireland in the 12th century and after. The most drastic aspect of the Cromwellian expedition was a concerted confiscation and destruction of food supplies, leading to the death from starvation of about 20% of the Irish population. Part of the Cromwellian campaign was to move the whole Catholic population to the western province of Connaught in order to make way in the three other provinces for new English settlers. Those who refused to go west were subject to death. Thus the war cry ascribed to Cromwell, “To death or to Connaught.” From this came the Irish curse—used in some places even today—“The curse of Cromwell be upon you.” Cromwell’s hatred of Catholicism led systematically to the destruction of Catholic properties and churches. An account of the Cromwellian assault on Catholic faith and culture is most poignantly set out in a book titled, The Diocese of Meath Ancient and Modern, by Rev. A. Gogan, and published in 1860. Cogan writes: “Yes, we were robbed of all this world [of Catholic tradition]. The Catholic charities of our forefathers were torn from us and confiscated. Our churches were levelled, our altars overturned, and our sanctuaries profaned. Our priests were hunted to the caverns of the wilderness, and the same price was fixed upon them as upon the head of a wolf. After having robbed us, they reproached us with our poverty; after having burned our books, levelled our schools, and murdered and banished our teachers, they belied our history and taunted us with our ignorance.” Cogan continues: “All these ancient [churches and monasteries] have been swept away. The hand of the spoiler has torn up these sanctuaries of the faith and charity of our fathers. Their halls are no longer filled; the door of hospitality is no longer open to the poor man, the traveler, or the wayfarer. Silence, the silence of the grave, reigns around those holy places, where the cheerful laugh of youth, the pious chant of the months, the sacred song and the holy sacrifice, amidst incense and ceremony, once resounded. All that the powers of this world could effect has been done. The monastery, the gorgeous temple, the abbey church have disappeared. The abbey lands have been seized, the patrimony of the poor was confiscated.” The historic relationship between Ireland and England is massively complex, and it takes careful study to figure out the various alliances that were made, reconfigured, and reversed over the centuries. Fairness to the English requires the student to recognize the strong opposition to Cromwell that arose in the English parliament. After Cromwell’s death, he was dug up, decapitated, and displayed publicly in London. Centuries later, Winston Churchill, probably England’s greatest prime minister, did not hesitate to condemn Cromwell in the British parliament in the most unambiguous terms. The state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 was the first time a British monarch had set foot in Ireland since Irish independence nearly a century ago. The Queen acknowledged the “the sad and regrettable mistakes” in the British relationship to Ireland. Her visit was a moment of extraordinary healing.
A good friend talked me into adopting a stray cat on Christmas Day 2011. I named him PatCat after my friend Patrick, and enjoyed his company immensely for over three years. PatCat was killed by a car on Palm Sunday of this year and I buried him behind our church. I still miss him, but have no inclination to replace him. It wouldn’t seem right. This occurrence opened again for me a question many people ask after their pets die: Are there animals in heaven? Although the Church has never pronounced on the matter, I believe there are. The 1989 Book of Blessings (BB), the Church’s official source for the blessing of persons, places, and things contains an Order for the Blessing of Animals. The introduction to this Blessing offers a statement of how animals have participated in God’s work of salvation. It reads as follows: “The animals of God’s creation inhabit the skies, the earth, and the sea. They share in the fortunes of human existence and have a part in human life. God, who confers his gifts on all living things, has often used the service of animals or made them symbolic reminders of the gifts of salvation” (no. 949). The BB continues: “Animals were saved from the flood and afterwards made a part of the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:9-10). The paschal lamb brings to mind the passover sacrifice and the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt (Exodus 12:13-14); a giant fish saved Jonah (Jonah 2:1-11); ravens brought bread to Elijah (1 Kings 17:6); animals were included in the repentance enjoined on humans (Jonah 3:7). And animals share in Christ’s redemption of all God’s creation” (ibid.). It not a big leap from this to say that animals are not irrelevant to the life of heaven, indeed that cats—and other animals—belong in heaven. Is there a more direct biblical basis for this belief? I think do. It is found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah in which the Prophet describes the life of the world to come: “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child shall lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea” (11:6-9). St. Paul sets forth an expansive theology of creation in his Letter to the Romans. He asserts that all created things—among which I number animals—will be in heaven. For Paul, all creation—not just the human part of it—will be raised up in the coming of the Kingdom. Paul writes: “For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now” (8:19-22). This column may be taken as a tribute to PatCat. If you feel like sending sympathy cards, don’t forget to include cash.
People are often surprised to learn that the Vatican runs an Astronomical Observatory in Arizona in association with the Mount Graham International Observatory. Questions arise in many minds as to what the Vatican is doing meddling in astronomy. Is the Observatory’s task to bend science to the convictions of religion? Is the Observatory simply a hobby for Jesuits with too much time on their hands? In fact, the Vatican Observatory symbolizes the truth that science and religion are properly partners, not antagonists, and should work together in seeking to unveil the mysteries of the universe. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, one of the principals at the Arizona Observatory states: “Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism.” By the same token, science needs religion to answers questions like: Why is there something and not nothing? Where did the order of the universe and the laws of nature come from? How is it that creation had a beginning in time? The Vatican Observatory reminds us of the mostly-forgotten truth that the Catholic Church was, from the early Middle Ages, a leader in the development of science. The Church founded the first universities, like Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. What people are most surprised about is that many of the great scientists of the past were priests and members of religious communities. Polish cleric Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was the first person to place the sun at the center of the solar system, with the earth revolving around it, rather than the sun revolving around the earth. This discovery upset the accepted theories of religion and science. Ignatio Danti (1536-1586), Bishop of Altari, was renowned for his wide-ranging interests in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, civil engineering, hydraulics, and cartography. The French Jesuit Jean-Felix Picard (1620-1682) was the first person to provide an accurate measure of the size of the earth. The Augustinian Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) is acclaimed as the father of modern genetics, and his work continues to be an important starting point for genetic science today. The Belgian priest Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) was the first to propose the “Big Bang” theory—which revolutionized standard views of how the universe was created. The “Big Bang” theory continues today to be the accepted view of the origin of the universe. So where did the antagonism between science and religion originate, so that people like Galileo were condemned by the Church? Not from a supposed religious hostility toward science, but from misunderstandings and ecclesiastical politics. In fact, popes over the centuries have been far more positive about science than is often thought. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI devoted considerable attention to the relationship between religion and reason, insisting that they are two complementary tracks toward an understanding of the world. In 1988, Pope John Paul II issued a landmark encyclical titled “Faith and Reason” (Fides et Ratio) in which he argued for the complementarity of religious faith and scientific reasoning. In recent times, the “New Atheists” (principally Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) have been enormously successful in convincing people at a popular level that science and religion stand in radical opposition, and that religion is fundamentally nonsense, even dangerous and destructive, and has nothing to offer science. The truth is that the development of science stands at the heart of the Church’s mission. Catholic universities and colleges have science programs not only to qualify young people for jobs, but to advance the cause of science through rigorous study and research.
Writing a regular column like “Viewpoint” requires me to collect oodles of news and feature items from a variety of sources. Here are five to which I cannot devote whole columns, but which deserve mention nevertheless. Most enlightened liturgical policy by a U.S. archbishop: Nine U.S. dioceses have over the years moved the sacrament of Confirmation for youth back to the age of reason (around seven)--just before First Communion. Recently, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver established that, in his Archdiocese, youth will celebrate Confirmation and First Communion together, in the third grade. Since this was the practice in the Church for 1900 years, the policy needs no justification. The practice for most of the 20th century of having Confirmation well after First Communion is an anomaly—like postponing the engagement until well after the wedding. Most unambiguous assessment of the recently translated Roman Missal: To the question, “What do you think of our new 2011 missal translation? What are its strengths and weaknesses?” Archbishop John Quinn, former ordinary of San Francisco, replied, “It is not English as we use it. It’s too complicated. It’s very difficult to speak. People can’t understand what is being said. . . . I don’t know that it has any strengths.” (Hey, he said it, I didn’t!) Most courageous stance by an American bishop: Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R. I., took up an issue that most clergy (including myself) are too chicken to address: sloppy, over-casual, sporty dress at Mass. Bishop Tobin wrote critically in his diocesan newspaper of people “spreading [themselves] out in the pew, wearing wrinkled, very-short shorts and garish, unbuttoned shirts; mature women with skimpy clothes that reveal too much, slogging up the aisle accompanied by the flap-flap-flap of their flop-flops; hyperactive gum-chewing kids with messy hair and dirty hands, checking their iPhones and annoying everyone within earshot or eyesight.” Says the Bishop, “C’mon—even in the summer a church is a church, not a beach or a pool deck.” Most under-reported recent ecumenical gestures: In June, Pope Francis apologized to the Waldensians for persecution by the Catholic Church. The Waldensians derive their name from Peter Waldo, a rich merchant from 12th-century Lyons, who, as a young man experienced a radical conversion, very similar to that of Francis of Assisi. Waldo began preaching and teaching about the virtues of poverty and simplicity. In a few years, he acquired followers who called themselves “the poor of Lyons.” Waldo and his followers were condemned for heresy and for operating without much reference to the official Church. Pope Francis suggested that Catholics and Waldensians should cooperate in the future, especially in works of charity. Likewise, in July, the Pope sent Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, archbishop emeritus of Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, as his special envoy to the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the death of John Hus, burned at the stake for heresy by Catholic authorities on July 6, 1415. Silliest thing I have ever heard: An Italian perfume manufacturer has created a “distinctive, refreshing aftershave” called “Francis” after—guess who?—Pope Francis. (They also have aftershaves named after Pope Pius IX and Pope Benedict XVI). I wonder what an aftershave inspired by Pope Francis would smell like. Sheep? After all Pope Francis has said on a number of occasions that clergy should smell like their sheep. And I really wonder if Pope Francis uses aftershave at all. (Perhaps the makers of these perfumes should be burned at the stake for sheer nonsense!)
A recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by Thomas C. Fox, entitled “Vincentian visits imprisoned priests,” drew my attention to the plight of priests in prison, especially those convicted of the sexual abuse of minors. The article took the form of an interview with Fr. Paul Sauerbier, a Vincentian priest, who has established the Prodigal Father Foundation—so-called because of the lavish generosity of the father toward the repentant son in the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son. Fr. Sauerbier’s ministry is to reach out to priests imprisoned for the sexual abuse of minors—whom Sauerbier calls “the modern-day lepers in our society.” When priests are convicted for the abuse of minors, he says, “Most people in the church and society back away in horror. When he ends up in prison, he is usually abandoned by his church, his family and his friends.” “No one,” Fr. Sauerbier says, “is more outcast than an outcast priest.” Fr. Sauerbier states: “Most of the guys I visited haven’t been visited in years. Sometimes I am the first visitor they have ever had. I find many of the men suffering from extreme isolation. . . . I spend a lot of time with [priests] who have had almost no human contact. I’ve found these priests depleted, often with having had no one to share their pain or shame.” When word gets out in jail that they are child abusers, Fr. Sauerbier says, they get singled out for abuse by fellow inmates, and if they are known to be priest child abusers, they are subject to even greater violence, psychological and even physical. I am not for a moment suggesting that priests jailed for sexual abuse deserve more pastoral attention that do lay people in a similar situation. But the point Fr. Sauerbier makes is that jailed priests have far less support from the Church and family, and are much more isolated. What can the ordinary Catholic do for such priests in jail? They can include them (even if they don’t know their names) in their prayers. They can write letters and send Mass cards, if their names are known. They can support financially organizations like the Prodigal Father Foundation (address available on the internet). The money goes to provide basic necessities like a bar of soap, a razor, underwear, personal toilet paper, and the like. What can a parish do? On occasion it could mention priests jailed for abuse in the General Intercessions. This may be shocking to some parishioners, but, if properly explained, I believe people will support the gesture. What can a diocese do? Perhaps provide a list of all jailed abusive priests within the boundaries of the diocese to a priest (possibly a retired one), who can, like Fr. Sauerbier, make contact with them. (Fr. Sauerbier says that generally incarcerated priests only get a visit from someone in the diocese when a chancery official goes to tell them that they have been laicized. What a great gesture it would be if the local bishop were to visit a jailed priest!) What are the theological bases for the outreach I am suggesting? It is the Gospel stories of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the healing of lepers. Jesus (following Isaiah) saw his ministry as bringing freedom to captives. Freedom in the situation I am describing here obviously does not mean physical freedom, but spiritual and psychological freedom. This ministry is one that Catholics could undertake during the upcoming Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis.
The religious formation of Catholic children and young people before Vatican II generally followed a deductive method, one that understands education as an organized process of imparting clear, well-defined concepts and principles. The tool of this system was the Catechism: a relatively short compendium of Catholic teaching in question-and-answer form. The Catechism was comprehensive, precise, and concise. All answers were given in one sentence. Memorization was the mode by which the contents were mastered. Following the Second Vatican Council, a new approach took over in the religious education of children and young people. The method was an inductive one, which sought not so much to impart clear doctrinal information, as the Catechism did, but to draw out the student’s own religious experience and shape it in the light of Jesus’ life and teaching. In recent decades, many have criticized the post-Vatican II experience-centered catechetical methods. Some texts seem to be short on content. They fail to impart a thorough and comprehensive grasp of Catholic belief, and, by spurning memorization of concise formulations, they leave children with inadequate verbal mastery of the fundamental concepts of faith. This is a judgment with which I generally concur, and is constantly reinforced by my experience with Catholic school children and those who attend weekly religious education classes. I often hear it said that Catholic children today “know nothing” of the faith, and are unable to explain or account for it. The Catechism with which pre-Vatican children and young people in the U.S. was the Baltimore Catechism, promulgated by the U.S. bishops at the Third Council of Baltimore and published in final form in 1885. This Catechism was notably comprehensive, clear, and precise. As a result of the perceived inadequacies of post-Vatican II catechesis, some parents and religious educators have returned to the Baltimore Catechism similar publications. (In 2010, Tan Publishers reprinted the Baltimore Catechism, which, I am told, is becoming increasingly popular in some quarters.) While I would not recommend the use of the Baltimore Catechism in its 1885 explanation of the faith--chiefly because Vatican II has intervened--I suggest the time has come to revisit the genius of the Catechism system of education—as the core, but not the whole, of an adequate curriculum. The best of the newer catechetical systems would be used alongside the Catechism. A new Catechism for the young would have to be grounded in the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated as the model for all newer Catechisms. It would be evident that there exists, as Pope Benedict XVI has often stated, a fundamental unity between pre-Vatican and post-Vatican expressions of faith, not least in publications for the formation of adults, youth, and children. There exists already a text adapting the Catechism of the Catholic Church for youth. This is the YOUCAT (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church), edited by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, with a foreword by Pope Benedict XVI, and published in 2011. The YOUCAT could become the theological basis of a new, updated Baltimore Catechism, wedding the format of the Catechism and the contents of the YOUCAT. Why do I propose the Baltimore Catechism as the model for the way forward? Because it was the normative Catechism in the U.S. for nearly a hundred years, is still well known by many, and symbolizes a particular kind of catechetical method. Highlighting the Baltimore Catechism makes clear what I am fundamentally proposing: a complete overhaul of contemporary catechetical theory and practice. The need is urgent if we are not to produce another generation of illiterate Catholics.
Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who had not been to Confession for ten years because the last time she went the priest bawled her out. I assured her that the vast majority of priests do not act like that, and I advised her to muster enough courage to go to the sacrament again. I told the woman of my own experience with a priest in Confession in a major Roman basilica. The priest was quite contentious, and we quickly began to argue (He started it!). I told the priest thanks but no thanks and I left half way through the Confession. (I have thought many times since then that had I been a “fallen-away” Catholic who, while in Rome, was inspired to go to Confession for the first time in years, and had a bad experience with a confessor, I would possibly never darken the door of a church again.) While there are few bad eggs among confessors (from what I hear, some Roman basilicas have more than a few), I think most priests try hard to be kind and generous in celebrating the sacrament. It is certainly the mind of the church that confessors act lovingly in the model of Jesus when they hear confessions. I mailed the lady with whom I was taking the following description of the good confessor from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “When he celebrates the sacrament of Penance, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgment is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God’s merciful love for the sinner” (no.1465). The Catechism states elsewhere: “The confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant. The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and charity of Christ. He should have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen; he must love the truth, be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and lead the penitent with patience towardhealing and full maturity. He must pray and do penance for his penitent entrusting him to the Lord’s mercy” (no.1466). I know a confessor (not in my diocese) who gives himself the same penance as he gives every penitent, and carries it through as an act of solidarity withpenitents. Every week, he gives all the penitents the same penance, and he tells each one that he is taking on the same penance himself. I asked him how the penitents react; he said they are always moved and most appreciative. That is a powerful and positive approach to the role of the priest in Confession. Not every priest can go to heroic lengths to express solidarity with penitents, but a priest could take on some penance at the end of Confession period. Pope Francis, who recently announced a Year of Mercy, has constantly spoken about the need for priests to be ministers of mercy committed to seeking out and bringing back the lost sheep, and demonstrating compassionate solidarity with people. Priests are called to go out to the margins, where people with all kinds of spiritual maladies are struggling to find direction, bind their wounds, and lead them back to the experience of a merciful God.
In both New Age spirituality and Christian fundamentalism, belief in angels is very high. However, in contemporary mainstream Christianity (including Catholicism), belief in angels has fallen on hard times. Many Christians no longer believe in angels and find the idea of such creatures no more than a lovely myth. Angels seem to be out of place in a rational, scientific world. But, as John Macquarrie, the distinguished Anglican theologian, has pointed out, it is strange that modern people would close their minds to the possibility of angels. In a world of space exploration, we are learning more and more about the inconceivable vastness of space and the infinite proliferation of worlds beyond our own. At the scientific level, we are more and more open to the possibility of life on other planets. Surely, modern people, then, should be open to the notion that God has created other orders of beings beyond those who live on earth. In Macquarrie’s words, “The panorama of creation must be far more breathtaking than we can guess in our corner of the cosmos, for there must be many higher orders of beings whose service is joined with ours under God.” The doctrine of angels tell us that human beings live in a universe created by God that is infinitely more wondrous than we know. In the Church’s liturgy, the Christian belief in angels finds its fullest expression. Early Christian commentators remind us that the Church’s liturgy is embraced by an invisible assembly of angels. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “The whole sanctuary and the space before the altar is filled with heavenly powers come to honor Him who is present on the altar.” Believers, he says, have been judged worthy “to join the powers of heaven in singing the praises of Him who is Lord of all.” Chrysostom continues: “The angels are present here. The angels and martyrs meet today. If you wish to see the angels and martyrs, open the eyes of faith and look upon this sight. For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more so the Church!” The Catholic funeral liturgy provides two beautiful antiphons referring to the angels. The first reads: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.” The second proclaims: “May choirs of angels welcome you and lead you to the bosom of Abraham; and where Lazarus is poor no longer, may you find eternal rest.” The angels are invoked not only in the funeral liturgy, but in many other rites of the Church, particularly the Eucharist, in which the worshipping assembly is called to join its voice with the angels in singing the Holy, Holy (Thus, singing the Holy, Holy should be the norm; it makes less sense, even at weekday Masses, to recite the Holy, Holy). The Church’s teaching on angels tells us that all creation is called into existence in a communion of life and mutual service. The angels exist not as hostile and dangerous creatures. The unknown world is not full of evil and horrible creatures of which we should be fearful. Angels are called into being to love God and humanity. Because angels dwell in it, the invisible and mysterious universe is lovingly disposed toward us. Finally a complaint: If the angels are present at the liturgy, why in modern church buildings have they been expelled from iconography and statuary? Out of sight, out of mind!
The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience correlate with the fundamental human issues of money, sex, and power, and may be seen as the Christian “response” to these issues. While professed religious undertake a life vowed to the evangelical counsels, all Christians are called to follow these counsels.Let us take poverty first. We are inclined to think that poverty is possible only for religious who live in community. The truth is that poverty is incumbent upon all of us. How is that possible? Because all who follow Christ are called to live simply and frugally. That, of course, is easier said than done.Living simply and frugally means that we always consider the needs of others when making economic decisions. We should not live luxuriously and indulge ourselves in lavish ways, but make sure that we keep the needs of our fellow men and women—whether in our own family or in the larger world—in mind when we plan the use of our income and property.The call to poverty does not mean giving away everything. We would not be able to survive if we did. But it does mean that we avoid piling up money and goods, and that we get into the habit of giving generously, realizing that the goods of the world belong to all humankind. We are called to be good stewards of what we own, living simply, as the saying goes, so that others may simply live.Sexuality, the second issue, is one of the most complex aspects of human existence. Indeed, when considered in its totality, human life is immensely complicated by the matter of sex. There are few who do not struggle with sexuality, and the practice of virtue in this area is no easy feat. The fact that we live in an increasingly sexualized culture makes chastity all the more difficult.The virtue of chastity is incumbent upon every person, no matter his or her way of life. Clergy, laity, and religious, married or single, are called to let the Gospel of Christ and the wisdom of Christian tradition inform the area of sexuality.Chastity means sexual discipline, training one’s sexuality to have a Christian character, ensuring that one’s sexuality never slides in the direction of what is degrading, self-centered, and dehumanizing of others.The matter of obedience, the third issue, is associated almost exclusively with monastics, religious, and clergy. However, the Christian virtue of obedience means at heart a constant and fundamental willingness to consider and serve the common good. The life issue with which obedience deals is power. The human being is endowed with enormous power for good and evil; he or she is often tempted to seek to control life and to organize it according to particular likes and dislikes. Living out the counsel of obedience means that we listen to others--which is what obedience means literally--and refuse to make the self the center of the universe. The obedient outlook means openness to the wisdom of others, having a constant attitude of self-examination, being ready to serve our brothers and sisters, and letting the greater good impel us.In the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monks are called to be obedient not only to the abbot—but to each other. The idea is that living in community means always listening to the other, and being available to be of service to the other. That’s an ideal we can all strive for.
The Preface of each Mass begins with the exchanges: “The Lord be with you,” “And with your spirit”; “Lift up your hearts,” "We lift them up to the Lord.” The words, “We lift them up to the Lord," are central to what we celebrate on the Solemnity of Ascension.On the first Ascension day, Christ was lifted up from the earth. In remembering and celebrating this event, the Church on earth today joins Christ even now in being raised to heaven. Ascension day is not something that happened only to Christ long ago, but is a reality that occurs in the community of Christians in a permanent and ongoing manner.The whole movement of this lifting up, this great Ascension, will be complete only when all of humanity, all of history, all of creation have been drawn into the realm of God's eternal Kingdom. Ascension day proclaims the hope and glory held out to all who are in Christ. We who are baptized have gone into the waters of death, and in the living out of our baptism we already experience Ascension.In all the sacraments, Christ reaches out to humanity and draws it to himself. In the great sacrament of the Eucharist, heaven descends to earth, so that earth might ascend to heaven. This worshipping assembly, we might well say, is itself a great act of Ascension.We find in the Ascension a pressing spiritual invitation to change our lives in practical and concrete ways. All the good and noble things we do involve a lifting up: acting in charity, reaching out in friendship, bringing the good news to the needy, acting out of our best motivations, making the best choices, putting our best foot forward.In one of his sermons for Ascension day, Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke very expressively on this matter. Newman spoke of people whose hearts and minds are not lifted up to the Lord. These are people, he says, who are too concerned by worldly success or with the wisdom of the world. Instead of being lifted up they are being pulled down, debased, and degraded. Newman speaks of the ways in which we fail to lift up our hearts: When we are overly anxious, or bitter about something, cold and barren in our thinking, hollow in our souls, blind to the future.The challenge of Ascension day is presented well by Newman. These are his words: "Start now with this holy season and rise with Christ. See, He offers you his hand; He is rising; rise with Him. Mount up from the grave of the old Adam; from groveling cares, and jealousies, and fretfulness, and worldly aims; from [impulsions] of habit; from the tumult of passion, from . . . a cold, worldly, calculating spirit, from frivolity, from self conceit and [self righteousness]." All of us—the whole Church and the whole world—have much to be raised from, and much to ascend to. The process of rising up and ascending to Christ will never be finished until the final Ascension day at the end of history.As the permanent Ascension of the Church and of Christian believers continues, we are called to keep our sights high, not to let ourselves be dragged down, not to settle for being less than God calls us to be. We are called constantly to make our own the words of the Eucharistic preface, “We lift them up to the Lord.”Let us take these words to heart as we celebrate one of the great moments of the Easter season: the Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension.
Recently, I received a letter from a woman in Portland, Oregon, with the question, “What do you think of lectionary-based catechesis for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults [RCIA]? I became a Catholic three years ago and I was amazed at how little I was taught using this approach. Surely there is a better way of preparing adults to become Catholics? What would you recommend that I might read to help deepen my knowledge of the faith?”My answer to the woman’s letter was more or less along the following lines, and I believe it may be relevant to people thinking about or reflecting back on their conversion process. (I hope it may also provoke RCIA catechists to think further about their ministry):Lectionary-based catechesis is a method of teaching the faith to children and adults that uses the Sunday Mass scripture readings as the basis for catechetical sessions. It is popular in all types of catechesis nowadays, and is widely promoted by catechetical organizations and publishers.The strength of lectionary-based catechesis is chiefly that it keeps Christian formation closely connected to the liturgy and helps Catholics and Catholics-to-be to know the scriptures and to use them in all aspects of their lives.In the RCIA, the reflective sessions which take place after the dismissal of catechumens at Sunday Mass are primarily lectionary based. The catechumens are sent forth after the homily “to reflect more deeply upon the word of God.” In these sessions, unofficially called “breaking open the word,” future Catholics are led to apply the scriptures they have just heard to their lives, and to make a personal connection between the homily (itself properly scripture based) and their own growth in the faith.However, lectionary-based catechesis is only one element in the whole process of Catholic education and formation. It has to be complemented by a more comprehensive and systematic presentation of the faith. Sunday morning lectionary-based sessions are not enough to expose catechumens to the necessary breadth and depth of faith. In many parishes, this fuller approach is achieved by having a second session during the week in which the doctrinal, sacramental, and moral components of faith are explored systematically.For this, some text other than the lectionary is necessary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) should be introduced to catechumens and its resources drawn out in formation sessions. A more user-friendly text for the beginner is the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA), published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006. This book is cross-referenced to the CCC, and catechumens are constantly referred to other works of theology and the spiritual life.The use of the CCC or the USCCA—or any kind of catechism—is discouraged by many catechists and well-known speakers on the RCIA. They fear the return of a Baltimore Catechism approach to catechesis. While lip service is paid to the doctrinal and moral dimensions of faith in the newer catechesis, the emphasis is more often on personal reflection and the sharing of stories. Not surprisingly, new Catholics like yourself often complain that they did not learn a great deal in their catechumenal formation.New Catholics should see the RCIA as the beginning of life-long formation. They can continue their education by participating in more substantive adult sessions in their parish, by working their way systematically through either of the catechisms I have mentioned, or joining a well-run and solidly-focused scripture study group. I would also recommend Fr. Robert Barron’s outstanding video series, Catholicism.
Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners), the widely syndicated columnist, has written a number of books on proper social behavior. One of them is entitled, Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children.What Mrs. Martin is writing about in this elegantly over-the-top book is what we call today family values. Here is my personal (but partial) list of family values:*Children are raised with a strong sense of responsibility to and for parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and the necessity of making sacrifices for them in times of need.*Parents teach children about their forebears, and pass on stories of the achievements--and failures--of previous generations. Deceased relatives are spoken about often, and children are taught that they will meet them in heaven. *Teaching good manners and social skills is a parental priority. Children learn how to deal with the many different degrees of social relationships, and how to live successfully and gracefully in the adult world.*Children are taught how to take care of the household, and to view domestic work as dignified. They learn basic skills on how to cook, set a table, lead grace before meals, avoid eating as if they were members of the pork family, and carry on an intelligent conversation. They are taught how to clean the house and tidy the yard.*Values of tolerance, respect, and the ability to make charitable judgments are inculcated, as well as the ability to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and lifestyles. Respect and tolerance need not mean approval.*A strong para-liturgical life is promoted in the home. This is the basis not only for a strong domestic spirituality, but for the family’s participation in the parish. Children learn how lead prayers. Every family should own a copy of the Church’s Shorter Book of Blessings.*Children--with their parents--practice a strong civic and neighborly life. They watch out for elderly neighbors, help those who are ill, shop for those who are homebound, and visit the lonely and those in retirement homes.*Catholic teaching about abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and so forth, is spoken about with some regularity. Parents call their home a “pro-life” home. A pro-life picture or poster is prominently displayed.*From their earliest years, children are formed with a strong sense of social justice and the necessity of helping those who are hungry, homeless, and marginalized. *Parents recognize that they are the primary religious educators of their children. They are, likewise, vigilant about what their offspring are taught in school, Catholic or not.*Children learn how to address correctly their elders, neighbors, and people they are meeting for the first time, avoiding the ubiquitous “Hi!” They learn the repertoire of greetings appropriate to different situations.*The sexual education of children is monitored by parents, who are always vigilant about the kind of sexual morality that appears in movies and on television. Parents are forthright in teaching good sex education. *Children are taught how to stay in the living room when guests are visiting. They are trained to show interest in visitors, how to converse with them, and to help with whatever is being served to guests.*And last but not least, parents have very, I repeat very, strong rules about children’s use of the device likely to bring down Western civilization--the Smartphone!(Now, don’t write in and tell me that I, as a celibate priest, could know absolutely nothing about rearing children. I am the oldest of six--and was the third parent in our family!)
The Catholic liturgical tradition regards the Sign of Peace at Mass as a disciplined and restrained public gesture, and not an affectionate gesture of intimacy and friendship. In fact, the peace sign is designed for people who, for the most part, do not even know each other’s names.This derives from the fact that the liturgical assembly is not (and is not meant to be) a gathering of friends and intimates. In my view, it is a mistake to view those gathered in worship as friends and “friends who haven’t yet met.”While the liturgical assembly includes spouses, family members and friends, for the most part it does not. It is generally a mixed gathering of neighbors, fellow citizens, and persons who are (and will remain) strangers to each other.Indeed, the Eucharistic gathering is more like a town meeting than a community of intimates. It is a public rather than an intimate grouping.Saying this goes against the strong emphasis on small group intimacy and interpersonal relationships popular in liturgical spirituality today? Many pastors and people appear to have absorbed from the culture at large a bias toward intimacy and against publicness. Indeed, our culture sets such store on privacy and intimacy that the small group is regarded today as the only humanly authentic social grouping. This explains why many parishes have over the years been busy attempting to turn liturgical assemblies into intimate gatherings of family and friends, and why they think anything less is intolerable and inauthentic.By contrast, I believe that the Church needs to redeem publicness and challenge assumptions about intimacy that have their origin more in modern group therapy theory than in the Gospel.Accordingly, I would hold that the Sign of Peace should not be regarded primarily as an intimate gesture, but as a public sign expressing fellow citizenship in Christ. It should retain its traditional role as a sign shared between people of goodwill, whether they know each other or not. The peace sign is not designed to turn people into friends, but to express the graciousness of all kinds and degrees of relationships in the public world.What about the practice of spouses, relatives, and friends--people who know each other well--kissing and hugging each other during the Sign of Peace? The practice is probably here to stay, and pastors would be foolish to lose much sleep over it.Yet, it should be kept in mind that when we gather for the Eucharist we come together as sons and daughters of God who are all equally related by baptism. For the moment, the stranger and the marginal person are as close to us as spouse and children.Certainly, the Eucharist does not abrogate spousal and familial relationships, but it does set before us an order of things beyond all human degrees of relationship.This is why the Sign of Peace is not meaningless when shared between strangers and only meaningful when exchanged between intimates. Indeed, the peace sign is never more meaningful then when shared between strangers, or those separated by human barriers of various kinds. The Sign of Peace declares: “We may be strangers at the human level, but not in God’s scheme of things.”The Sign of Peace before Communion is an eschatological sign, by which I mean a sign of the way things will be in the Kingdom of God, in which the present world of division, racism, hostility, and suspicion will have passed away.
When we celebrate the origin of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, we cast our minds back to the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before he died. However, the sacrament of the Eucharist is related not only to the Last Supper, but to every Mass celebrated through the centuries.The Eucharist is imprinted with the life of the Church from its beginning and is the “memory bank” of God’s people.The great Anglican Benedictine Gregory Dix, at the end of his monumental book, The Shape of the Liturgy, describes the historical career of the Eucharist as beautifully as any writer ever has.Dix writes: “Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of a parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a school boy sitting for an examination, or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover.”The Eucharist, Dix says, has been celebrated in thankfulness “because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren women; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonization of S. Joan of Arc.”The holy sacrament, writes Dix, has been celebrated “in every conceivable human circumstance,” and “for every conceivable human need,” in every century, every country, every continent. The Eucharist has been woven into the history of the Christian people over the centuries, and in turn, it carries that history within itself.Accordingly, when we approach the Eucharist, we are at one with all who have celebrated this blessed sacrament across the ages.Fr. Dix’s litany could be expanded in inexhaustible directions. There are the barely-remembered Masses celebrated for the first time in the newly discovered regions of the world. Every diocese of the New World has (or wishes to have) such an event in its annals.Millions of Americans still remember the funeral Mass of John F. Kennedy. The final Mass of Archbishop Oscar Romero continues to inspire and unify a whole region of the Church.We can all add our personal lists: The Mass on the day of our marriage or ordination; the funeral Mass for a parent, spouse, child, or friend; the Mass at the close of a great pilgrimage which marked a personal turning point; a Mass attended in great pain during a severe personal crisis.The tragic and glorious history of the Christian people lives on in the Eucharist, which will reach its completion only at the heavenly banquet. This rite is the greatest which history can ever know, and is yet, in Fr. Dix’s words, “a thing of absolutely simplicity.”
The United States was founded as a covenant society – a society held together by a covenant with God and between citizens. This notion was uppermost in the minds of the Founding Fathers. Social institutions were to be inspired and directed by the concept of covenant.Recent social commentators have lamented the break-down of this conception of society and the general social malaise it has wrought.One of the most problematic trends that kills the notion of covenant is the industrialization and commercialization of social institutions. By this I mean that everything is viewed in commercial terms and evaluated by its worth in the market place.If we pay attention to the growing use of the word “industry,” we will see how all-pervasive this trend is. We speak today of the health care industry, the funeral industry, the arts industry, the farming industry, the music industry, the entertainment industry. The list is endless.The problematic results of commercialization and industrialization have become evident in the reorganization of the legal and medical professions according to industrial models.Parishes today increasingly employ “business managers” – a troublesome capitulation to industrial culture. The church is not a business; the word “treasurer” would be better. A national liturgical music organization sponsored a panel some years ago on the “liturgical music industry.” (I’m not making this up!)In the parish in which I serve, there are twenty-seven nursing and retirement homes. All of them are run for profit. The well run are expensive and available only to a minority. In the rest, every attempt is made to cut corners. The results are scandalous conditions of overcrowding and general neglect.What all this underlines is a growing view of human society as a market place, where everything becomes a commodity to be bought or sold, and every service and talent turned into a profit-making venture. To question this trend is not to suggest that we should try to return to the simpler world where the country doctor and the storekeeper were not overly concerned about money, and where the economic exchange system was more familial and neighborly.It is to suggest that the demise of the covenant community concept of society is the demise of civilized living. Life becomes a rat race, and business is conducted without mercy.In a covenant society, workers and professionals see their careers primarily in vocational terms. Society is viewed as an extended family. Goods and commodities are traded and sold, and realistic business does go on, but always in a manner that makes economics answerable to the concerns of social justice and charity.One of the main challenges for the contemporary church, not least in regard to its hospitals and health care systems, is that of witnessing effectively to the possibility of living together as a covenanted people, a community of care, trust, and solidarity. Safeguarding the covenant community view of human coexistence is one of the fundamental issues that has constantly engaged the American bishops. Pope Francis’ magnificent stances against the greedy commercial society have given this concern an enormous boost. For him, as for Pope John Paul II, the dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all economic life must be measured.The commercialization and industrialization of society represents a very beguiling trend. It has much that is attractive about it, but it is finally idolatrous. Its ultimate achievement can only be to reduce the quality of life that it so deceivingly espouses.