THE WOUNDS OF CHRIST: The phrase “doubting Thomas” has its roots in today’s story from the Gospel of John. Thomas is not in the room when Jesus appears to the other apostles after his resurrection. When he returns, they tell him the Lord has been raised, but he does not believe. Thomas declares “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week passes, and Jesus appears again. This time, Thomas is present. He touches the wounds in Jesus’ hand and side and believes, exclaiming “My Lord and My God.”
We tend to use the phrase “doubting Thomas” to describe someone who is skeptical to the point of (our) frustration, someone who is never satisfied no matter what evidence is presented. But this seems a particularly bad description of Thomas. Consider what he had recently gone through. Like the other apostles, he left everything to follow a man who promised an entirely new way of life. He saw that man tortured, humiliated, and executed, crushing all of his hopes for that life. He is being asked to believe the impossible and to open himself up, once again, to the pain of loss. Is it so strange that he doubts?
Thomas is actually a lot like most of us. We, too, have received the story of the resurrection from others, usually our parents, sometimes from other family members or friends. But for many—perhaps most—of us, there comes a time when that isn’t enough anymore. We know that unless we find a way to touch the risen Christ, to feel his wounds, we cannot continue to believe.
There’s something about the power of touch. Once a month I lead a Sunday morning prayer service for the inmates of one of our county jails. Since attendance isn’t mandatory, it’s usually a pretty small group. One of the things that I try to do is touch each one of the men at least once while I am there—a handshake, a hug, a clap on the shoulder, whatever seems appropriate. Jail is, by design, an isolating experience so one of the goals of my ministry there is to break down that sense of isolation.
On the surface, one might think that I was evangelizing them. But in truth, they are evangelizing me. They are the anawim, the Biblical poor, utterly dependent on others for everything they have. In touching them, I touch the wounds of Christ and my doubts begin to melt away.
THE RISEN BODY: In today's gospel from Mark, we find earlier versions of some of the resurrection stories that are fleshed out in more detail in Matthew, Luke and John. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, who goes and tells the eleven that Jesus has been raised. But they do not believe. Similarly, Jesus appears to two disciples walking in the country and they, too, run to tell the others. But still they do not believe. Jesus then appears to the eleven at table, and rebukes them for their "unbelief and hardness of heart."
A few months ago I was at a parish retreat with a group of men. Some of the men were sharing their stories with the rest of us. Some of the stories were about terrible things that these men had done to themselves and others, stories of adultery, substance abuse, even attempted suicide. Others were stories of illness, some debilitating, some life threatening. Still others were stories of loss, loss of wives, of children, of other family members.
These men had lived the paschal mystery. Each in their own way, they had been on the cross and descended into hell. But the one common element to their stories is that they had been raised up from that hell by the power of God. They could stand before us and with complete conviction say that Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior.
As Catholics we believe that we are the Body of Christ, not merely in a symbolic sense, but in a real, physical sense. To touch each other is to touch Christ. As we suffer, so does Christ suffer and as we are raised, so is He raised. The men who told their stories were not merely witnesses to the resurrection, but the “real presence” of the risen Christ for the rest of us. I can tell you that many a hard heart was broken open that day.
The article makes a number of good points. While the ordained leadership of the church is obviously 100 percent male, women tend to dominate at the parish level, filling most of the staff positions and coordinating much of the volunteer activity. Women are more likely to attend church than men, a trend that is found in almost all Christian denominations.
During the 1990s, when the Promise Keepers movement was at its height, a large number of Catholic men were participating, a fact that took a lot of bishops by surprise. Since that time, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has tried to do more to support Catholic men’s organizations, including the founding of the National Resource Center for Catholic Men.
Although I liked the article, I had a couple of quibbles about it. The first is that it leans just a bit too much toward the therapeutic side of the men’s spirituality movement. There’s no question that men have to do “inner work” and become more aware of the inner forces that drive them. But I also think that Christian men need to connect our inner psychological drama to the larger Christian narrative of sin, paschal suffering and redemption. Psychological wholeness, while important to the spiritual life, is not its ultimate aim.
My second quibble is that the article makes no mention of movements like Cursillo, which have brought a lot of men into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church. Cursillo is Spanish for “short course” and the movement started in Spain as a renewal movement among laypeople.
The Cursillo experience begins with a weekend retreat that is primarily led by laypeople who have already made a Cursillo. There is usually a retreat for men first, and then a women’s retreat one or two weeks later. The presenters offer a "refresher course" in the basics of the Catholic faith and offer a framework for Christian spirituality—piety, study, action. They also share personal experiences and this sharing can be very powerful. The Cursillo experience continues beyond the three-day retreat through reunions and small group activities.
Many men, myself included, who have gone through Cursillo or a Cursillo-style retreat report having a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit that has changed their lives irrevocably. The majority of men who are active in my parish community have made a retreat of this kind.
The Cursillo model has spread to other churches—the Methodists call their version Walk to Emmaus—and also to prisons, where it is known as Kairos. If you have the opportunity to make a retreat of this type, my advice to you is to grab it with both hands!
REMINDER: THANK YOUR PASTOR THIS SUNDAY: A few days ago I asked folks to walk up to your pastor (or whoever presided) after mass this Sunday and thank him for his service to your parish and to the Church. It’s time to give back, folks. I want to get some e-mails from y’all on Monday morning telling me how it went, okay?
FR. RON ROCKS: Father Ron Rolheiser’s new column on the resurrection has been posted on the Tidings web site. Don’t miss it.
In today’s gospel, Peter needs some time to think. He left everything that was familiar to him in order to follow Jesus. He suffered through the trauma of Jesus’ passion and the psychic agony of his own personal denial of the man he called “Lord.” He had hidden in fear of his own life. Now, incredibly, he has seen Jesus again, raised from the dead.
So what does he do? “I am going fishing,” he says. He seeks refuge in the familiar. It had been some time since Simon Peter, the son and grandson of fishermen, had put his callused hands to a net. But we can be confident that he had no difficulty, his muscles awakening to the task and moving almost independently of his will. He was back to what he was, to what he knew. Almost as if the last three years had never happened. Almost.
But once again there is Jesus, on the side of the lake, waiting for him. Once again he puts down the net and once again it is filled. He has come full circle and in Jesus his old life and new life have come together.
Sometimes, I think that heaven won’t seem strange to us at all. It will seem familiar, like a place we lived long ago but had forgotten. We will be back to what we were, to what we knew. As T.S. Eliot once put it:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
ALL ABOUT EVE: Eve Tushnet used the word “fantastic” to describe Sursum Corda. Well, okay, she was referring to just a couple of posts and that was after she accused me of being naïve about male sexuality. I will resist the urge to mount the barricades in defense of my gender. Also, we have another Catholic Blogger: Veritas. Must be something in the water...
DO YOU WANT CHIPS WITH THAT FISH? In today’s gospel, Jesus appears to His disciples in Jerusalem who are, understandably, surprised to see Him. Jesus does a number of things to convince them that He is not a ghost or a spirit. He shows them the wounds in His hands and His feet and eats a fish in front of them. Clearly, Luke is trying to stress the bodily character of Jesus’ resurrection.
God’s promise of eternal life, revealed by Christ, is not that we will spend eternity as disembodied spirits. It is that we will be raised up in our full, embodied humanity. This is sometimes misunderstood. I once encountered a Catholic web site that purported to defend the orthodox faith against various forms of contemporary heresy. But there, on the opening page, was the statement that “the body is the prison of the soul.”
Well I don’t generally set myself up as a judge of another man’s orthodoxy, but I wanted to point out to this zealous soul that his statement had been condemned by the Church almost two millennia ago. It was the position of the Gnostics, a competitor sect to Christianity in its early years. The Gnostics believed that the human soul was created good, but that it had been imprisoned in flesh by the devil and that upon death the soul would ascend to heaven and be reunited with its creator. For this reason, Gnostics condemned procreation because it led to the ‘imprisonment’ of more souls.
Given their theology, Gnostics tended to be drawn in one of two directions. Some tended to extreme self-mortification to punish the ‘evil’ flesh. Others sought every kind of bodily pleasure, believing that such behavior had no long-term consequences for their souls. It has been suggested that some of Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians to avoid the sins of the flesh were a response to active Gnostic proselytizing in the Corinthian Christian community.
The Christian church took the position that the body was not evil, that it had been created good by God and that it was destined for glory in the resurrection. There is no easy distinction to be made between the “body” and the “soul.” So how we treat our bodies, and the bodies of others, does matter. One sometimes hears young people (and even people not so young) who are skeptical that God could really care so much about who they sleep with or what they take into their bodies. But these things do matter to God because they matter to us and because they may have long-term consequences that transcend the pleasure of the moment. Like Christ in today’s gospel, we are destined to be raised in the body, and to carry the “wounds” of that body into the next life.
MAILBAG: Yesterday’s post on gay priests (no doubt aided by Andrew Sullivan’s link to this site) has resulted in a flood of e-mail. I will try to respond to everyone eventually, but I thought that some letters made interesting points that should be shared. One reader, himself a priest, suggested that I may be wrong in my skepticism that tighter Church discipline will make much of a dent in the sexual abuse problem. He writes (this is an excerpt):
None of the cognoscenti and politically correct, however, want to touch with a ten foot pole the notion that sexually active gay priests are responsible for most of the cases involving the abuse of minors. To even suggest it is to risk being immediately characterized as conservative, far right, or, homophobic...perhaps even all three.
I am a priest and I know a lot of priests who identify as gay. While I can't tell you that they are all unfaithful to their promise to live as chaste celibates, I can tell you that a goodly number of them live a double life. I have also lived that double life, but haven't for the last seven years.
During the 70's we thought that with everything being questioned that this justified sexual acting out of all kinds. The late 70's ushered in the era of reaction. By the 80's, the Pope's emphasis on orthodoxy and orthopraxy sent most gays deep into the closet. The 90's were more of the same. I believe this is why all these cases which have been sprung up are so old. People have been being more careful. Some gay priests turned to prostitutes (including younger ones) which enabled them to be involved in "consensual" sex.
I think this letter makes some good points and I don’t dispute the author’s first claim. The vast majority of sexual abuse cases that we know about involve homosexual acts and were committed by priests with a homosexual orientation. But that is very different from saying that gay priests, because of their orientation, are significantly more likely to become abusers. I’m not aware of any evidence that this is true and that is the argument I was trying to counter.
As a married Catholic layman, I am understandably saddened when priests—gay or straight— fail to live up to their vows. I am equally saddened when those of us vowed to the married life fail to live up to our vows, which also happens with depressing frequency. Both are examples of human weakness and, to be honest, neither problem keeps me up late at night.
Sexual attraction to adolescents and children is another matter entirely. As a parent, I have a heightened level of concern about this. I think this is much more than an issue of "sexual acting out." While the more conservative atmosphere of the 1980s and 1990s may have indeed driven people with this orientation underground, everything I’ve read tells me that they are still at high-risk for becoming abusers. While I don’t have a problem with gay men serving as priests, I do believe that individuals—whether straight or gay—who are sexually attracted to children and adolescents should not be ordained. If their condition comes to light after they are ordained, they should be removed from active ministry. I respect the vow of celibacy, I honor it, but I will not depend on it to protect my children or anyone else’s.
THANKS ANDREW: Andrew Sullivan, the Patron Saint of Blogging, said nice things about Sursum Corda on his own site, causing my hit meter to go off the charts and my e-mail account to flood with messages I have yet to read. Thanks Andrew (I think)! The site has now had 1,480 visitors, although some of that is (hopefully) repeat visits. I'm still so new to this I haven't figured out how to read my counter to estimate unique visits. Thanks to all of you for your support. Be sure to tell your friends.
THE WALK TO EMMAUS: Today’s gospel reading from Luke is the famous story of the walk to Emmaus. Two of Jesus’ disciples are walking to Emmaus, a village near Jersusalem, and speaking about the events that have just occurred. Jesus joins them on the road, but like Mary Magdalene in yesterday’s gospel, they do not recognize Him. But their hearts begin to burn within them as he explains the scriptures to them. Jesus joins them for dinner and when He offers the blessing at the evening meal, their eyes are opened and they recognize Him, at which point he vanishes.
These men are disciples of Jesus, they know Him better than most, and yet they do not recognize Him as he walks along the road with them. It is only after He is gone that they are able to look back and ‘put the pieces together.’ They realize that there were signs—like the burning in their hearts—that should have tipped them off that something extraordinary was going on.
Sometimes it is difficult to see the hand of God in our everyday lives. We feel His absence, rather than His presence, as we struggle with the joys and pains of human existence. But often, when we look back on a difficult period in our lives, we can see a pattern, a set of choices and events that seemed random at the time but that in retrospect seem to have been directed toward a higher purpose. Sometimes we can even remember the signs, the “burning in our hearts,” that should have told us that something was happening.
This is one of the reasons we need to take time to pray and discern where God is present in our lives. It is good to be able to look back and understand that God was walking with us on our journey. But it is better still to take joy in His presence every step of the way.
The major problem I have with this argument is that it doesn’t make sense mathematically. The percentage of priests who are abusers is actually pretty small, somewhere between one and five percent. But, depending on who you talk to, between one-quarter and two-thirds of priests have a homosexual orientation. What this suggests to me is that the overwhelming majority of gay Catholic priests (like the overwhelming majority of straight priests) do not end up sexually abusing children or adolescents. Driving gay priests out of the rectories would deprive the Church of a large number of talented priests. I think it also emphatically fails the WWJD test.
I’m also worried that a blanket policy of denying gay men admission to seminaries would make it harder for seminaries to identify individuals at risk of becoming abusers. There’s no foolproof method for doing this, but it seems intuitively obvious that getting applicants to open up more about their sexuality and relationship history is an important part of it.
IS THE ‘CULTURE OF DISSENT’ THE PROBLEM? Michael Novak attacks the issue from a slightly different angle. The core of his argument seems to be that a ‘culture of dissent’ has somehow prepared the ground for this scandal by undermining the authority of the Church, particularly in sexual matters.
I generally try to be polite on this site, but I think this argument is nonsense. I have never, ever, ever read anything in a “liberal” Catholic publication that has suggested that sexual acts between priests and children or adolescents are anything but evil. In fact, the publication that has been most dogged in its pursuit of this story over the years is the liberal National Catholic Reporter.
Does Novak seriously believe that there were no cases of clerical sexual abuse prior to the “sexual revolution?” Priests who sexually abuse children and adolescents are not sexual revolutionaries. They are mentally ill. It is a fantasy to think that if the captain of the Barque of Peter runs a tighter ship that these individuals will find it easier to control their impulses. They will not. They don’t need to be exhorted to orthodoxy, they need to be removed. Now.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY: In today’s Gospel, Mary of Magdala is weeping at the empty tomb of Jesus. She sees a man she thinks is the gardener and asks him if he knows where they have taken Jesus’ body. Jesus reveals himself to her simply by calling her name: “Mary.” She immediately recognizes him and clings to him so tightly that he must gently restrain her.
All four gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and another Mary are returning from the empty tomb and meet Jesus on the road. Mark’s gospel says explicitly that Jesus “appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” In Luke, Mary is the leader of a group of women who hear from an angel that Jesus has been raised. And in today’s Gospel, from John, she is alone when Jesus appears to her.
Largely due to the writings of Gregory the Great, the Western Church historically identified Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinner who washes Jesus feet (Lk 7:36) and the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This gave rise to the legend that she was a prostitute who, forgiven by Jesus, followed Him to the very end. She has been a popular subject in Western art (click here for an example by Titian).
Recently, feminist scholars have suggested that Mary has been unfairly maligned and that the evidence that she was a prostitute is extremely weak. They counter that Mary was the “Apostle to the Apostles” and played an important role in the early Church. While the debate continues, the traditional story of Mary Magdalene will probably continue to inspire people as an example of the transformative power of Jesus’ love.
For myself, I do find it interesting that while Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles, the first people to see and preach the risen Christ were women. Something to think about.
Be sure to check back later today and, as always, if you want to drop me a line, click on the link to your right.
WORTH READING: Michael Dubruiel (Catholic author and husband of Catholic Blogger Amy Wellborn) has some interesting comments on the culture of seminaries that are worth reading. Dubriel is, among other things, a former seminarian and his analysis complicates the easy explanations of the sexual abuse crisis that have been offered up by the Left (celibacy is the problem) and the Right (gay priests are the problem). His comments are in his March 28th post and are made in the context of a book review. Check it out.
THE EMPTY TOMB: Today’s Gospel ends with a story about how the chief priests and the elders, finding the tomb empty, bribed the guards to say that they had fallen asleep and that the disciples had stolen the body. At the time Matthew was writing his gospel, this story was apparently widely believed in the Jewish community. The fact that the tomb was empty was not in dispute. It was something that had to be explained. But it seems difficult to imagine how the disciples could have had the subsequent courage to persist in their faith, even unto martyrdom, if they knew that such a foundational piece of the early Christian kerygma was based on a lie.
HE IS RISEN: The Gospel writers take great pains to illustrate that Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection. The tomb is empty. His body bears the scars of his crucifixion. He eats with his disciples. Clearly, Jesus’ risen body is not bound by time and space, but it is still a human body. Why is this so very important? Henri Nouwen offers the following:
One reason is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the basis for the Christian attitude toward the human body. If the body is only a prison room from which we must be freed, then care for the hungry, the sick, the dying, prisoners, and refugees can no longer be seen as care for the body that is called to share in the glory of God.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the most profound basis for the sacredness of all human flesh and the most compelling argument for reverencing all forms of life. For Jean Vanier at L’Arche, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the most precious of Christian truths. I can see why. Daily physical contact with severely handicapped people has put him in touch with the mystery of the human body. Their often very distorted bodies are not simply temporary dwelling places of an eternal spirit, but the sacred ground of the resurrected life. Washing, dressing, feeding and supporting handicapped people is a holy vocation when we know that their bodies, like ours, are destined to share in the resurrection of Jesus.
This quote is taken from Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, edited by Robert Durback. I highly recommend it. You can purchase it by clicking here.
THE PASCHAL MYSTERY: The Jesuit magazine America has an up-close account of Pope John Paul’s health written by Rev. Williard F. Jabusch, a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago who concelebrated a mass with the Pope in December. Jabusch does not pull his punches, noting that “any pastor whose illness had progressed this far would get a visit from his bishop. He would be thanked for his years of priestly service and told kindly but firmly that he was now “emeritus” and retired.” But Jabusch goes on to wonder whether, even in decline, this Pope might still add something to his considerable legacy:
Could it be that in the coming years he will be an example of patience and fortitude for millions of the world’s senior citizens as he faces the inevitable pains, limitations and humiliations of his final years? The Catholic Church has had popes of great genius, extraordinary holiness and genuine charm. Some have been brilliant teachers and administrators. A few have courageously faced enemies, from Attila to Napoleon. Now it may be time for a pope who slowly and laboriously closes the book of his life as the whole world watches.
Articles from America are only available on the web to those who subscribe to the print edition. I do. If you want to sign up as well, you should click here.
A WORLDWIDE PROBLEM: A popular bishop in Ireland has resigned because he believes (correctly, I think) that he failed to protect Catholics in his diocese from a sexually abusive priest. Now that bishops in Ireland and Poland have resigned—two of the most Catholic countries on the planet--can we perhaps hear a little less from those who believe that clerical sexual abuse is a problem confined to the decadent West?