WHAT DID HE KNOW AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT? In today’s Gospel, the risen Jesus appears to two disciples who are walking to Emmaus, but they do not recognize him. They are distraught at what has happened, but Jesus chides them for their foolishness and explains how the scriptures foretold all of the events that have transpired. They still do not recognize Jesus until later, when they share a meal with Him and He gives the blessing over the bread and then disappears.
One of the things that strikes me about Jesus in today’s story is His composure. In his homily for today that is posted on Onealism, Fr. Shawn O’Neal suggests that there must have been something about the tone of Jesus’ voice that made the line “O how foolish you are!” seem like less of an insult than it might otherwise have been. I can imagine Jesus laughing as He says those words and a sparkle in His eyes as he explains the scriptures to the two disciples. He has passed through the paschal mystery and come out the other side. Everything is clear to Him now.
Well, wasn’t it always? Didn’t Jesus always have full knowledge of what was going to happen to Him? He was God, after all, right? These questions go to the heart of a theological debate that has been going on for centuries. Did Jesus have complete knowledge of what was going to happen to Him? Since Christians believe that Jesus was both True God and True Man, the answer is not self-evident.
Some have argued that since Jesus had a divine nature, He must have possessed all perfections that it was possible for Him to have, including omniscience. Others, however, have countered that the mind of the human Jesus must have been subject to the biological limits of any human mind, including limited knowledge. The Gospels provide ample evidence for both positions and the Church, while believing that Jesus was conscious of His special relationship with the Father, has wisely refrained from dogmatic pronouncements that would specify the extent of Jesus’ knowledge.
This debate is not merely an academic one with no consequences for our faith. Clearly, we cannot believe anything about Jesus that would undermine or diminish His divinity. But we must be equally careful not to undermine or diminish His humanity. The late Raymond Brown, S.S., one of the leading Catholic scripture scholars of the second half of the 20th century, argued persuasively that Jesus did, in fact, have limited knowledge of the future and that this limitation has important implications for what we believe about Him. In the conclusion to his Introduction to New Testament Christology, he writes:
If Jesus knowledge was limited…then one understands that God loved us to the point of self-subjection to our most agonizing infirmities…A Jesus for whom the detailed future had elements of mystery, dread, and hope as it has for us and yet, at the same time, a Jesus who would say “Not my will but yours”—this is a Jesus who could effectively teach us how to live, for this Jesus would have gone through life’s real trials. Then his saying, “No one can have greater love than this: to lay down his life for those he loves (Jn 15:13) would be truly persuasive, for we would know that he laid down his life with all the agony with which we lay ours down. We would know that for him the loss of life was, as it is for us, the loss of a great possession, a possession that is outranked only by love.
TROUBLED WATERS: Saturday’s Gospel reading from John comes right after the Friday Gospel story of the multiplication of the loaves and the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus has retreated to a mountain alone to escape the crowd which, amazed by his miracle, wished to crown him king. His disciples embark in a boat for Capernaum, across the Sea of Galilee. They are more or less in the middle of the sea, facing a strong wind, when Jesus appears to them, walking on the water. They are afraid, but Jesus says “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
Versions of this story appear in the Gospels of Matthew (14:22-27), Mark (6:45-52) and John (6:16-21). In each case, the story comes after the feeding of the five thousand. John preserves the relationship between the two stories, even though it breaks what appears to be a logical link between the feeding of the five thousand and the “bread of life” discourse that takes up the rest of Chapter 6. The order of events in John’s gospel often differs markedly from the other Gospels. Why is maintaining the relationship between these two stories so important to him? What is John trying to tell us about Jesus?
I noted yesterday that John’s Gospel is the only one that speaks of the crowd wanting to crown Jesus as king. It is conceivable, even likely that the disciples were affected by the crowd’s reaction. Like many Jews of their time, they, too, must have harbored hope for the messiah. They must have been confused as to the meaning of these events. They were, metaphorically, at sea in troubled waters.
Jesus walking on water is a theophany, a manifestation of divine power. In His actions, and in the language He uses—the phrase “It is I,” can also be translated “I am,” which is how God speaks of Himself in the Old Testament—He indicates His divinity. He makes clear to the troubled disciples that He is not an earthly king, but something far greater.
One of the traditional images of the Church is the “Barque of Peter,” a ship. Certainly the Barque of Peter is in troubled waters right now. In times like this, we need to place our trust in Jesus, confident that He will lead us to the shore.
SAME BAT TIME, SAME BAT CHANNEL: I will try to post a reflection on Sunday’s gospel tomorrow (although I actually already did one on this reading. Check 4/3 in the archives by clicking here). But that will probably be it for this weekend. Check back next week when I plan to offer some more arguments against cloning, raise some conceptual questions about ‘culture of death’ rhetoric, and perhaps even post a book review. See you then and until then DON’T TOUCH THAT BROWSER.
CATHOLIC PRESS ROUNDUP: The new issue of America magazine is out (and posted on their web site). There are a number of well-written, balanced articles about the current sexual abuse crisis. There is also this gem in a column by James Martin, S.J.:
Suddenly everyone is an expert on celibacy. Suddenly everyone is an expert on the priesthood. Suddenly everyone is an expert on gay priests. Or more accurately, suddenly everyone is happy to talk about the Catholic Church, no matter how little they know about Catholicism.
You must be a subscriber to the magazine to read America on-line and you can subscribe by clicking here.
This week’s Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has been posted to their site. As always, I recommend reading Father Ron Rolheiser’s spirituality column. This week Fr. Ron talks about the importance of being able to admire beauty without trying to possess it. There’s also a good reflection on this Sunday’s gospel by Bill Peatman.
The Tablet, from Great Britain, has an article entitled “What Chance a Black Pope,” which seems on point given the discussion here at Sursum Corda and elsewhere about Cardinal Arinze. But speculation about Arinze only takes up about a third of the article, which really focuses more on the general politics surrounding a choice of John Paul II’s successor. Get ready for more articles of this type.
[Cardinal Arinze] isn't saying that our culture of death causes the terrorist culture of death, but rather that they are both based on a "contempt for human life" (hence the word "correlation" is used; nowhere is the word "causation" used)…[What] he's saying is that if we are taught to respect human life, we won't kill innocents - and the same is true for Muslims, or anyone else. The final section [of the statement] clearly means that the Muslim culture of death derives from their own upbringing, just as ours derives from our own. Thus, our culture of death didn't cause the attacks; nor is there any linkage between the two apart from the fact that both are derived from the same source (disrespect for human life).
It may well be that this was all the Cardinal was trying to say. But if so, the point is almost banal. If the ‘culture of death’ is no more than “disrespect for human life” then the culture of death has been with us since the time of Cain and Abel and the phrase is little more than a shorthand description of the human condition.
When I have heard the Pope and others talk about a ‘culture of death,’ I get the impression that they are talking about a recent phenomenon, a fusion of cultural liberalism and technological progress that is found particularly in the industrialized West. This is why, I think, the Cardinal begins his statement by associating the ‘culture of death’ with “abortion, euthanasia, and genetic experiments on human life.”
Now I remember enough of my elementary statistics training to remember that correlation is not causation. But correlation measures the extent to which two variables ‘move together,’ even if we don’t understand exactly how one affects the other. So the implication of the Cardinal's words is that if the ‘culture of death’ worsens in some way, we should expect to see more events like those on 9-11, even if we don’t understand how they relate. I’m just not convinced this is true. I think that abortion, euthansasia, and genetic experiments on human life are rooted in a different set of cultural forces than Islamic terrorism. To use an analogy from medicine, both may be diseases, but each has a different etiology. They may also require different treatments.
Now another writer would have disagreed with my first correspondent. He believes that the Cardinal did, in fact, want to make the point that the 9-11 attacks were in some way related to the United States embrace of a ‘culture of death.’ I think his eloquent remarks are worth quoting at length:
Our nation is rightly perceived by much of the under-developed world as an utilitarian colossus void of respect for traditional customs or cultures. We are the major exporters of pornography and help promote abortion as a form of "family assistance". Do I blame America? Yes, with all respect to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, we have let our nation wander from it's original, albeit flawed birthright. Our social sins have lead to mass carnage such as the Civil War in the past. Why not again?
In "Seven Story Mountain" Thomas Merton writes that upon hearing word of the death of his brother, he was coming face to face with the world he helped create. A world rife with sin and World War II was its awful fruit.
I think the Cardinal considers the whole West, especially the nominally Christian ones guilty of diminishing God's gift of life. You may or may not agree with his understanding of Divine Providence, but to call his conclusion "morally atrocious" is over-wrought and unfair. He seems to be speaking compassionately, if bluntly.
I would never say, nor do I believe, that the United States has never erred in its policies, either foreign or domestic. We clearly do export a number of unsavory products—weapons, pornography, McDonalds—to the Third World. The reason we do this is that large numbers of people in the Third World are quite eager to buy these products. That they do so clearly upsets some of their countrymen and co-religionists. I think we should let these two groups work this out, as their quarrel is with each other not with us.
I would also never deny that the United States is heavily implicated in humanity’s general condition of sin, nor that we may, from time to time, experience the consequences of that condition. If some kind of civil disturbance were to break out in the United States related to the issue of abortion or euthanasia, I could see the connection. But as I said above, I think the roots of the two phenomena the Cardinal is trying to link are separate, and linking them serves no purpose other than a rhetorical one.
As to the sins of the West, they are certainly great. But it might be wise for the Cardinal to be humble in this regard. Yes, we have abortion here, but abortion is not exactly unknown in Africa. I have not noticed large numbers of people in the West slaughtering each other with machetes anytime recently. You may call that racist if you like, but it points up that actions that diminish God’s gift of life can be found in every nation and every culture.
Thanks again to all who wrote, and I hope that I fairly represented those whose letters I excerpted. I suspect that this will not be the last discussion we have on this topic. I hope you are enjoying this as much as I am. Those wishing to contact me may do so by clicking the link in the upper right hand corner of the page.
JUST WARS AND HOLY WARS: Today's reading from the Gospel of John is the famous story of the feeding of the five thousand. This story appears in all four gospels (and there is a second version of it in Matthew, where Jesus feeds 4,000 men in a similar fashion). The story echoes one from the second Book of Kings (2 Kgs 4:42-44) in the Old Testament, where the prophet Elisha feeds a hundred men to fulfill what the Lord has told him: "They shall eat and there shall be some left over."
One of the interesting things about the version of this story in John's Gospel is the last line, which appears in no other gospel: "Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off and make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.” At the time of Jesus' preaching, messianic hope in Israel was strong. Many Jews believed that the messiah would be a military figure in the tradition of King David, who would unite the Jewish people, expel the Romans, and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. When the crowd saw the miracle that Jesus performed, some of them clearly assumed that this was a sign that the messiah had finally arrived.
We, too, have a tendency to want to carry Jesus off and make him king. Throughout history, humans have often sought the blessing of God for decidedly secular ends. Perhaps even more dangerous, as we know from recent history, are those times when men have believed themselves to be the personal instrument of God’s providence. Certainly we must bear witness to what we believe and there are times—and this may be such a time—when love of neighbor demands recourse to extraordinary means to defend life and preserve justice. But in the words of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, we must guard ourselves against “enlisting the sanctity of the ineffable Name in the temporal war which [we] are fighting.”
Maritain wrote these words in December of 1939, after Hitler had invaded Poland. All knew that France would be next (the invasion would come only five months later) and it was understood that she might fail. The temptation to “carry Jesus off and make him king,” to declare France’s struggle a “Holy War,” must have been strong. Maritain resisted it and we would do well to reread his words today:
It is a question of a just war. Fighting for justice—suffering and dying so that bestial barbarism may not rule over the earth—they know (at least those who have the light of faith know) that they may count upon the help of God. They do not say: our cause is divine, our cause is the cause of God, we are the soldiers of God. They say: our cause is human, it is the cause of the human community desired by God in the natural order and which is called our fatherland, and which, hating war, has been forced to resort to war against an iniquitous aggressor; and because our cause is just, God will have pity on us.
THERAPEUTIC FOR WHOM? In a couple of weeks, the Senate is likely to vote on legislation to ban the cloning of human beings. While there is overwhelming support in the Senate for a ban on “reproductive” cloning,”—cloning aimed at producing other human beings—the Senate is divided on whether to ban so-called “therapeutic cloning,” i.e., cloning for research purposes. In this type of cloning, the cloned embryo is allowed to grow for several days so that its stem cells can be harvested. At this stage, stem cells are what is known as “totipotent,” meaning that with the right stimulus they can grow into almost any type of cell in the body. Some researchers believe that they will be one day be able to grow replacement tissues, or even organs, for individuals with serious illnesses. One advantage of using cloned cells for such treatments is that, in theory, they are less likely to be rejected by the body’s immune system.
I know that many of my readers are pro-life and those that are won’t have any problem with what I’m about to say. You might as well go get a cup of coffee or something. But if you aren’t, or if you just find yourself really conflicted on this issue, I’d like you to pull up a chair for a couple of minutes and hear me out. I want to make a pitch to you that cloning human embryos for research is wrong and that we should ban it. But I promise to be calm and collected. There won’t be any yelling.
I work in the health care field and I’m familiar with the burden of chronic illness. There is no question that people with some of the illnesses for which stem cell-based therapies are touted—Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, renal disease, spinal cord injuries—suffer terribly. These diseases are extremely burdensome to both the patients and their families. We ought to do everything we can to find treatments that work. I have reasons for being skeptical that treatments derived from cloned embryos are clinically feasible, but I certainly understand why patients and their families want every avenue explored.
But there are moral limits on what we can do to preserve or extend life. Take the organ shortage, for example. There are thousands of people around the United States on waiting lists for transplant organs to replace their own diseased organs. Many of these people will die waiting for a compatible organ. But we could solve the organ shortage tomorrow. We could pass a law that required people to donate their organs upon death. Or if that proved politically impossible, we could limit it to a smaller group, say death row inmates. A lot of these guys are reasonably healthy. Why shouldn’t they be forced to do something that could save someone else’s life?
Does the idea make you shudder? I hope so. It makes me shudder. Why? Because it seems to violate one of the bedrock principles of both religious and secular ethics: human beings are an end in themselves and can never be exploited as a means to another end. To treat a human being as a bag of spare parts for someone else is deeply wrong.
So most of us would agree, I think, that there are moral lines that should not be crossed, even if the goal is to save someone else’s life or improve their health. Good goal, bad means. With me so far?
The question becomes, then, whether cloning human beings for research purposes crosses the line. Is a 10-day old human embryo a “person?” You can get into a philosophical debate about that one until very late in the evening, and I’m not sure it helps clarify the issue.
But I do know this. Whether it can be considered an individual human person or not, the early embryo is indisputably human. Every one of us started out this way. Does the fact that this form of life is a human form of life imply that we have certain obligations toward it that we don’t have toward other forms of life? Can we do anything we want with it?
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once posed a thought experiment. If embryonic tissue was found to be a delicacy, could you eat it?
Did that make you shudder? It shook me right down to my toes. We shouldn’t walk away from that shudder. It’s trying to tell us something.
“What is man that You are mindful of him?” the Psalmist asks. What is it about human life that makes it deserving of respect? Is it the ability to reason? If so, infants and the demented fail the test. The potential to reason? The embryo has such potential and will develop it if it lives long enough. Biological independence? So much for newborns and the ventilator dependent.
After exhausting the available arguments, what we are left with is the idea that human life is deserving of respect because it is human. That is a sufficient reason. I don’t think you even have to be religious to embrace this principle. It seems like such a fragile reason, and it is, but almost everything we believe about ourselves depends on it. It is why killing provokes such revulsion in us. It is why we believe conscience must be respected. It is why we condemn slavery, and torture, and discrimination.
Even the researchers who wish to engage in cloning for research seem to accept that there is something different and special about the human embryo. When appearing before Congress or speaking to the press, they profess their “profound respect” for it, leading medical ethicist Daniel Callahan to quip: “I have always felt a nagging uneasiness at trying to rationalize killing something for which I claim to have profound respect.”
If we truly believe that human beings must always be treated as ends rather than means, then we cannot engage in research of this type. Creating human life solely for research purposes is morally wrong. The human body is not a product to be mass-produced and stripped for parts.
All I ask is that you think about it. And after you’ve thought about it, if you want to let your Senators know how you feel, click here.
I MUST DECREASE: In today’s gospel reading from the third chapter of John, it is unclear who is speaking these words. They come after a discussion between John the Baptist and his disciples. John’s disciples come to him to tell him that Jesus has been baptizing just as John has been doing. They complain that “everyone is going to him.” But John realizes that his time is past. The one whose coming he has foretold is now here: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
The words of today’s gospel come immediate after this, and scripture scholars have disagreed about whether it is John the Baptist who is continuing to speak. But they certainly seem to fit with his earlier statements. They draw a contrast between the man who is “of the earth” (presumably John) and the “one who comes from heaven,” obviously Jesus. “The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to Him.”
John’s conduct offers us a lesson in humility. Before Jesus embarked on his public ministry, John was the figure that the crowds came to see. Some wondered whether John, himself, was the Messiah. Given the strength of messianic sentiment among the people, it must have taken extraordinary strength of will for John not to delude himself into thinking that perhaps he was the Messiah after all.
It is interesting that John, while believing Jesus to be the Messiah, did not seek to become part of his inner circle. That, too, must have taken strength of will. As Jesus’ crowds increased and John’s decreased, it would have been understandable for him to want to recapture a little of his former popularity by staying close to Jesus. But he doesn’t. He continued doing the work he had been called to do—until, of course, Herod had him killed.
Humility can often be a difficult virtue, particularly for men. The world of business—in which most of us work—demands that we promote ourselves, take credit for our work, make ourselves ‘indispensable.’ As talented younger employees begin to move up behind us, it is easy to feel threatened. Sometimes we may go so far as to undermine those we see as competitors, even if our behavior is ultimately harmful to the organization as a whole.
John offers us a different way. He shows us a man who understands the importance of his role, but also that he is not the central actor on this stage. What he does he does with tremendous energy and commitment, but he knows when to withdraw and let others play their assigned parts. He offers us a model of spiritual and emotional maturity that all of us—men and women—would do well to emulate.
ARINZE REDUX: Lots of Blog commentary on the Arinze statement. Kathy Shaidle's post at Relapsed Catholic is both shorter and funnier than mine (both, I think, are virtues). Our Blog chaplain Father Shawn O'Neal has some measured and balanced criticism of Arinze in Onealism. On In Between Naps, Amy Wellborn believes the Cardinal's statement was misunderstood and that he was not implying causation and this is the position of Minute Particulars as well. Amy has a more extended summary of Blog commentary on this issue that is worth reading.
NEW FEATURES: Slowly and painfully, I am learning how to program in HTML. I have added a new feature on the right hand column (under the Blogger logo) called "Toolbox" that has links to the New American Bible, a Bible search engine, a searchable on-line version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and a link to a Liturgy of the Hours web site known as Universalis.
With regard to the Bible search engine, please note that you will not be able to search the NAB (the official Catholic translation), but that you can search the RSV and the NIV, both of which are good translations. Also note that Universalis will allow you to download the psalms and some of the readings from the Liturgy of the Hours onto your PalmPilot or other handheld device through an arrangement with AvantGo. I used this for a year before I bought a paper version of the Hours, and it was great.
I also hope to add a list of Catholic Blogs and perhaps some other links soon. Another project is to change the color on the hyperlinks from its current sickly green to something a little more appetizing. However, I must say that I do like the "plainness" of the current design so I won't be making a lot of changes to it.
The right to life is threatened precisely by today's highly advanced technology... creating a culture of death, in which abortion, euthanasia and genetic experiments on human life itself have already obtained or are on the way to obtaining legal recognition.
How can we not make a correlation between this culture of death -- in which the most innocent, defenseless and critically ill human lives are threatened with death -- and terrorist attacks such as those of September 11, in which thousands of innocent people were slaughtered?
I cannot agree with the Cardinal’s linkage of the issues. It seems to veer perilously close to the beliefs of individuals like Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell, who held that the events of September 11th were God’s judgment on the sins of the United States of America.
Why is the United States of America being held uniquely responsible for a global ‘culture of death?’ Is abortion legal in the United States? Certainly, but it is legal in most of Western Europe and the abortion rate in a number of ‘Catholic’ countries in South America (where abortion remains illegal) is higher than it is here. Outside of Oregon, euthanasia is not legal in the United States, as it is in some countries of Western Europe. The United States has established significant limits on embryonic stem cell research and will (hopefully) move to restrict cloning as well. Why is it that the Vatican considers terrorist attacks against the United States (and not, say, terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians) to be uniquely linked in some way to the ‘culture of death?’
Politically- and religiously-inspired mass murder has been a feature of human society since the dawn of time. The murderers of September 11th were not doing something new; they were doing something very old. They did not brutally murder several thousand people because their moral senses had been degraded by cultural liberalism. They did it because they were evil men with evil aims, of which there have been no shortage in human history. Had Roe v. Wade never been decided, had Oregon never passed its referendum, those men would still have committed their terrible crimes. To believe otherwise, to believe that this act of mass murder is somehow an oblique judgement on America's sins, is morally atrocious. It is a sentiment unworthy of a prince of the Church.
Why is this belief so important? To believe that Jesus is the “Son of God,” that He, in fact, is God is to believe something very extraordinary. Throughout history there have been people who believed in a God, a Creator, a Great Spirit. But Christianity is the only religion that believes that God became incarnate in human flesh.
In his book, The Holy Longing , spiritual writer Ron Rolheiser tells a story about a four year old girl who awoke one night, frightened by ‘monsters’ in her room. Her mother calmed her down, took her back to her own room, and tried to reassure her with these words: ‘You needn’t be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.” The child replied: “I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!”
Christians do not pray to an impersonal “diety.” We pray to a God who has skin. Not just had skin, but has skin--the present tense is important. The body of the risen Jesus of Nazareth may have ascended 40 days after Easter, but the Body of Christ remains incarnate in the flesh of the community that believes in Him. We become, as Saint Teresa of Avila put it, God’s hands, feet, voice, and heart in this world. Perhaps even more importantly, every encounter with another human being becomes an opportunity to encounter the Living God.
What we believe matters because we tend to become what we believe. If we believe that God is merely a vague transcendent being who is largely indifferent to how we live, then we, too, will ultimately become indifferent to how we live. But if we believe in a God who is incarnate, a God who dwells within us, then everything we do, even the smallest thing, becomes infinitely important. The smallest kindness becomes the Hand of God, reaching out to heal a broken world.
CATHOLIC PRESS ROUNDUP: This week’s National Catholic Reporter has a compelling cover story on the increasingly desperate plight of Guatemalan migrants entering Mexico. A priest who works near the border says “I call these migrants the suicidas de hambre,” people driven by hunger to commit suicide. “They come to throw themselves here, preferring to die outside their country rather than face the shame of dying defeated and broken on their land at home.” The National Catholic Register highlights the key points of the revised Roman Missal, the Church's official liturigcal book for the celebration of Mass. The Latin edition was released on March 22 and it must now translated into venacular languages by the national bishop's conferences. The changes do not seem to be particularly radical. That is how it should be.
THANKS! The Catholic Blog Minute Particulars said something nice about Sursum Corda the other day: “I like this new blog, Sursum Corda, by Peter Nixon very much. It strikes me as compassionate yet firm.” Sort of describes my approach to parenting, too. Of course, just because that’s my approach doesn’t mean I always succeed and that will probably be true of this enterprise as well.
BORN AGAIN: Today’s gospel from John is part of a larger dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. In the verses immediately before today’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to be “born from above” and “born of water and the spirit.”
As is usually the case in John’s gospel, the listener misunderstands Jesus; Nicodemus thinks he means that a man must be physically reborn. Jesus goes on to explain that “the wind (the Greek word is pneuma, which also means ‘spirit’) blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit is not visible, but it can be perceived in the way it transforms the individuals who have received it. To be “born from above” is to have experienced this transformation.
Protestant Christians in the evangelical tradition have made rebirth in the Spirit a central aspect of their piety. In some denominations, such as the Baptists, there is no tradition of infant baptism. Becoming a Christian is an adult decision. The moment of that decision, when the believer accepts Jesus Christ as his personal savior, is a powerful experience of the Spirit and becomes a major point of reference in the believer’s life of faith.
While the Church was correct to reject the arguments against infant baptism, there is wisdom in the Baptist position that should not be lightly discarded. Increasingly, Catholic parents are having a difficult time passing their faith down to their children. It is common these days for young adults to abandon the practice of their faith after they leave home, many never to return. The major high points of a Catholic upbringing—the sacraments of baptism, first communion, and confirmation—are too far removed in time to serve as spiritual anchors.
Some inactive Catholics who return were “lucky” enough not to have been confirmed as children. Going through the confirmation experience as an adult is often a profoundly moving experience. But we lack a way to solemnize the return of a Catholic who has already received the rites of initiation. One approach might be to move confirmation from early adolescence to early adulthood and make the focus of the rite a candidate’s personal act of faith. Whatever the means, we must find a way to help young adult and returning Catholics to be “born again” in the Spirit.
DIVINE MERCY: Following yesterday’s post about Saint Mary Faustina, I received a letter from a reader who thought that the Sunday after Easter may be a particularly appropriate choice for Divine Mercy Sunday:
The reading about Thomas, who had to see before he could believe, but then was inspired to utter the overwhelming words, "My Lord and my God!" brings to us the condescension of Jesus to our weakness and doubts. He didn't mind giving Thomas a private showing. That's mercy that we can count on. Yet He goes on to point out that those who believe without seeing are more blessed, even more blessed than Thomas(or Bernadette, or Mary Faustina). Wow! That's pretty encouraging for us in these days when miracles and the tangible presence of Jesus are more rare. We can be blessed anyway! I think all this has a lot to do with the message of the Divine Mercy devotion.
Keep those cards and letters coming. Well, metaphorically anyway. Click on the link to the right to send me mail.
HOME ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE?: This is a link to a fascinating article in last month's First Things about some recent developments in astronomy and their suggestion that life on earth may well be unique. One does not have to be an apostle of Intelligent Design theory to believe that human beings, to exist as we do now, had to win the the equivalent of the California lottery at least a thousand times in a row. Check it out.
All this is well and good, but I suspect that some of our regular readers are not regular viewers of Eternal Word Television Network and may, in fact, have no idea who Saint Mary Faustina Kowalska is. We do like to be of service to our readers, so we have sent our crack team of Sursum Corda researchers into cyberspace to obtain the relevant information so that you don’t have to. Without further ado, then, here is a brief synopsis of the life of Saint Mary Faustina.
Helena Kowalska was born in Glogowiec, Poland, in 1905. From a very early age, she discerned a vocation to religious life and entered a convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw at the age of 20. She took the name Sister Mary Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament. Sister Mary was blessed with a number of mystical visions and experiences.
Sister Mary records in her Diary that Jesus Himself appeared to her and asked her to be the apostle or “secretary” of His Divine Mercy. As the Lord is reported to have said to her, “I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart." Her mission was to spread the word about the Divine Mercy and she established new forms of devotion to the Divine Mercy and initiated the apostolic movement with that name. She died of tuberculosis in 1938 at the age of 33. She was canonized in 2000, the first (depending on how you calculate the millennium) saint of the new millennium. At the direction of Pope John Paul II, the second Sunday of Easter is now celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday.
There are a lot of interesting things about Sister Mary. She was practically illiterate, so her diary was written phonetically. The Diary was formally banned for twenty years while the Church investigated its orthodoxy. Finally concluding that there was nothing in her writings contrary to the faith, the ban was lifted shortly before John Paul II became Pope. He has actively championed the cause of her canonization. While the aggressive advocacy of a Polish saint by a Polish pope may raise some eyebrows, my view is that the Italians controlled the papacy for centuries and loaded up the calendar with Italian saints. A little more diversity in the canon is not such a bad thing.
Does one have to believe in the revelations of Saint Mary Faustina or practice devotions to the Divine Mercy to be Catholic? No. Revelations of this kind are considered “private revelations”, which only bind the conscience of the recipient. Devotions to the Divine Mercy may be spiritually helpful for individuals who struggle to believe that God truly loves them and wants to forgive them.
Personally, my taste in saints has always run toward bold men of action like St. Francis and St. Ignatius, but the Catholic canon of saints is large enough to encompass a very wide range of spiritual tastes. This seems appropriate for an institution that bills itself the Universal Church. If you want to know a little more about Saint Mary Faustina, click here. If you want to know a lot more (and I do mean a lot), click here.
THE CHURCH IN IRELAND: Sad piece from Sunday's New York Times about the decline of Catholicism in Ireland. The article looks mostly at internal causes, but there is a cross-cultural trend that is overlooked: the decline of "established" churches, i.e. those that have a politically privileged position in a particular country. Whether it is Catholicism in Ireland, Anglicanism in England, or Orthodoxy in Russia the mixing of church and state turns out to be quite bad for the church. Catholicism in England is, in some ways, doing better than Catholicism in Ireland.
In keeping with the theme of the feast, the gospel for today is the famous passage from Luke where the angel Gabriel visits Mary and informs her that she is to give birth to the “Son of the Most High.” Mary asks how this can be, since she is a virgin. Gabriel responds that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” indicating that her pregnancy will come about through the power of God. Mary’s response is one of the most well known verses in the Scriptures: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
Mary is one of the most fascinating figures in the Christian tradition, particularly within Catholicism where she is accorded particular reverence. Children naturally gravitate to her. After mass, my four-year old son makes it a point to walk through the garden behind our church to say hello to the various statues and images of Mary, of which there are several. Once, he saw a woman at the store dressed in a Muslim head scarf and cried out “Mary!” She was not in the least offended; Muslims revere Mary as well.
Some Catholics, particularly those who lived through the tumultuous changes of the 1960s and 70s, confess to having some difficulties with Mary. They feel that the image of Mary as “perfectly submissive” has been used to reinforce cultural barriers to women’s equality. There is certainly some truth to this.
But Mary does not fit easily into anyone’s ideological box. The Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary from the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:46-55), speaks of the Lord having “thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich he has sent away empty.” During the 1980s in Guatemala, the Magnificat was considered so subversive that public recitation of the prayer was banned.
Mary was neither a social revolutionary nor a spokesperson for traditional family values. She was certainly not passive. As her Magnificat makes clear, she was a deeply religious young woman who, like many Jews of her generation, hoped and believed that the fulfillment of the messianic promise to Israel was imminent. She would certainly have done whatever the Lord had asked her to do. But never in her wildest dreams, would she have imagined that the Lord would choose a peasant girl from the hills of Galilee to be the mother of the Messiah himself.
If Mary is to be the model of our faith, then our faith involves more than “perfect submission,” although it cannot be denied that it involves that as well. Like Mary, we need to hunger and thirst for the coming of the Kingdom and we need to be radically open to wherever the Lord is leading us, even—perhaps especially—if it leads to the foot of the cross.