ONE BODY:Today we come to the climax of Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus feeds the five thousand through the multiplication of the loaves. The crowd is convinced Jesus is the Messiah and wants to make Him king, leading Him to retreat up the mountain alone. He sends His disciples across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum in a boat, and then appears to them, walking on the water. The crowd catches up to Jesus in Capernaum, and he begins to teach them.
After what Jesus says in today’s reading, however, many in the crowd, including many of his own disciples, will abandon him. His position becomes more precarious and John’s references to those who seek His life become more frequent. What is it that Jesus says that is so controversial?
Amen, Amen I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.
Scripture scholars have debated what it is about these words that are so upsetting. It is possible that many in the crowd believed Jesus to be calling for a form of ritual cannibalism. The anger and incredulity of the crowd may also be a response to Jesus’ equating Himself with God.
The spiritual writer Ron Rolheiser has suggested a slightly different approach to the text. In his book, The Holy Longing, he notes that, in the New Testament, there are two Greek words used for “flesh:” sarx and soma. The word sarx is used to refer to the negative aspects of bodily existence, such as sin and death, while soma refers to the positive aspects. In the above passage, Jesus uses the former word. He is saying that unless we eat his sarx we will have no life within us. We are not being asked to eat a glorified body, but flawed, corruptible flesh. Rolheiser offers an interpretation:
In essence, Jesus is saying: You cannot deal with a perfect, all-loving, all-forgiving, all-understanding God in heaven, if you cannot deal with a less-than-perfect, less-than-forgiving, and less-than-understanding community here on earth. You cannot pretend to be dealing with an invisible God if you refuse to deal with a visible family. Teaching this truth can ruin one’s popularity in a hurry. People then found it to be “intolerable language” and it meets with the same resistance today.
There is much anger in the Church today. Some of has to do with the current scandal, but that scandal has also revealed deeper issues. Some wonder if they can continue to be part of a community that seems so flawed. Others have no intention of leaving, but would very much like certain others to leave. But either response repudiates the message of today’s gospel. If we are to have life within us, we must learn to live together, in all our brokenness and corruption, because that is how we become the Body of Christ.
SURSUM CORDA READER SURVEY: I’ll be taking a couple of days off, so there won’t be any new posts on Saturday or Sunday. However, in the interim I’d like to ask my readers for some feedback on the site. Although this isn’t a commercial enterprise, you are, in some sense, my “customers.” I’d like to get a sense about what it is you like about the site, what you may dislike, and how it could better serve you. So think about the following issues and drop me a line by clicking on the e-mail link above.
Scripture Reflections: I think this is the one thing the site delivers that makes it a little unique and that no one else seems to be doing in quite this way. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on this feature, so I’m inclined to keep it. Right now, I’m just taking the daily gospel reading from the lectionary. But I could do different things, like taking one of the gospels and reflecting on part of it each day, gradually reading the whole thing. It might be interesting to do some of the Pauline letters that way as well.
Commentary/Opinion: The subtitle of the site is “Topical Musings from a Catholic Perspective,” so I’ve tried to put in some topical commentary. My more controversial pieces seem to have generated a lot of hits, so I’m inclined to keep doing this. On the other hand, lots of Bloggers—including Catholic Bloggers—are doing opinion pieces so I’m not sure if I’m adding a lot of value here.
Catholic Press Roundup: I think Relapsed Catholic and Holy Weblog more or less have the religious news beat covered. I can’t imagine having the time to be as thorough as they are. I’ve focused on the small number of periodicals that I try to stay on top of, but if folks aren’t getting anything out of it, I might just drop it.
Meditation: These are occasional pieces, like the one about my daughter yesterday or my jail experience last Sunday. It’s very hard to predict when these will come. One approach might be to do less commentary and more of these. Of course, sometimes the two run together!
Volume of Material: Is there too much to read on the site? From my stats, I get the impression that there are some folks who only check in once or twice a week. Given how much I’ve been posting recently, that may be a lot to read. I’m not sure my current level of posting is sustainable anyway. Let me know what you think.
Frequency of Posting: Right now I’m generally posting twice a day, once in the morning around 9:30am PDT and once in the early afternoon around 1:00pm PDT. Frankly, this would be the hardest aspect of the site to change because the posting schedule has to be compatible with my work schedule.
So think about it, and if you want to give me some feedback on any or all of the above issues, drop me a line by clicking the link on the upper right hand side of the page. Thanks!
Some theologians have argued that God must be “impassable,” i.e. incapable of suffering or undergoing emotional change. They believe that the idea that God can suffer as we do creates insoluble problems for the belief that God is a perfect, unchanging being. There are other theologians who disagree and I certainly don’t feel qualified to adjudicate the debate. But I won’t deny that the doctrine of impassability imputes a certain coldness to God that I find difficult to accept.
It is here, I think, that belief in an incarnate God provides some comfort. If I, as part of the Body of Christ, feel deep emotion in response to my daughter’s cries, then it seems that God must, in some way we can’t explain, feel that emotion as well. In fact, if we believe this, if we believe that through His incarnation, death, and resurrection Jesus comes to feel the sufferings of the entire world, then it may help us to fully grasp the depth of the Father’s love for us.
PASS IT ON: Like what you’ve been reading? Think others might like it as well? Tell a friend (or two, or three) about Sursum Corda.
CATHOLIC PRESS ROUNDUP: The new Tidings has been posted. Parents of young children will immediately understand what Fr. Ron Rolheiser is trying to say about our holy dissatisfaction. There is also a challenging piece from James Davidson that suggests that the federal poverty line significantly understates the extent of poverty in the United States. Richard McBrien and George Weigel have (not surprisingly) differing views about how the Church should approach the recent abuse scandals.
The National Catholic Register takes on seminaries, which they see as the real source of, and solution to, the clergy abuse crisis. The National Catholic Reporter takes on Israel and U.S. policy in the Middle East. The Reporter also has a description of a mass in Zambia that gives a sense of the vibrancy of the Church in many parts of Africa. Our Sunday Visitor suggests the scandal may be the last gasp of “clericalism.”
COME TO ME: In today’s Gospel, Jesus presents us with what might be termed the “paradox of faith.” In the beginning of the reading, He says “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him.” This would seem to imply that we cannot have faith in Jesus unless God wills it. Yet, both in this reading and the rest of Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, Jesus again and again exhorts the crowd to believe in Him. This would seem to suggest that faith can be an act of our will, an intellectual assent to religious truth. What are we to make of this?
Both of these statements about faith are true, but they exist in tension. Sometimes that tension explodes, as it did during the Protestant Reformation. Many Protestants believed that the Catholic Church had leaned too far to one side and was encouraging the belief that we could, through good works, come to merit our salvation. Some Protestants, however, probably leaned too far in the other direction, and came to believe that God willed some to be saved and others to be damned. The result was a tragic split among Christians that has yet to heal.
I know that in my own life, I often feel the tension between these two propositions. Like many people, I grew up believing that if you were good, you would go to heaven when you died. This seemed to put a premium on behaving well and I have generally tried to do that, although I have not always succeeded. But it seemed to me that I was making free choices, whether to do good or do evil.
It wasn’t until I left the active practice of my faith for a few years that I began to understand the other side of the coin. I began to feel a pull to return, a sense of being “drawn” in the sense that Jesus talks about in today’s reading. I resisted it, but it was like swimming against a powerful current and I finally gave in and let it take me where it wanted to go.
Was my decision an act of free will? An inevitable response to God’s call? It was probably both of these things. God does nothing without our consent, but like an obsessed suitor, He will use every trick in the book to get it and He does not take “no” for an answer. Thank God!
Of course, if supply is limited in the United States, we could always look elsewhere. To the Third World, perhaps, where millions of women would probably be willing to donate for far less than $2,000. Does that make you shudder? It is precisely the specter of a global market in women’s eggs that has led a number of feminist organizations—including the impeccably pro-choice Boston Women’s Health Collective, authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves—to oppose therapeutic cloning or, at the very least, to call for a moratorium until measures to protect the health of women donors can be put in place.
Wesley Smith, a former associate of Ralph Nader and an opponent of human cloning, has drawn out the implications of the egg shortage for the future of cloned-based therapies
The “egg dearth” is a mathematical certainty. This means if cloned embryonic stem cell therapy was ever successfully developed, it would have to be either severely rationed or available only to the very rich. But therapeutic cloning is being held out as a panacea for the many, not as a rare procedure available to the very few. That’s a false hope. The real promise of therapeutic cloning is this: millions of Third World women being paid to submit to operations for the benefit of rich Americans.
Still thinking about this issue? That’s okay. But if you come to a conclusion and want to let your Senators know how you feel, you can do so by clicking here.
ANOTHER CATHOLIC BLOG: Others have noticed this one before, but I hadn’t had a chance to check it out. At Integrity, James Kovacs is doing a close reading of John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici. This is just the kind of thing that Blog technology is made for. Check it out.
MAILBAG: Some additional readers wrote in to say that they had expressed their support for their pastors and priests. Here’s one:
You mentioned only one person wrote to you regarding thanking priests. Here's another: you inspired me to write a note of thanks to a priest at my church who has helped me grow in faith. He is from Poland and is a kind, warm, intelligent, and devout man. These times must be very troubling for all the good priests who struggle to live up to their vows and give so much of themselves to the Church and to God. Thanks for your suggestion.
And while we’re on this topic, check out this eloquent testimony to the Catholic priesthood by Father William Leahey.
THAT ALL MIGHT BE SAVED: Today’s Gospel continues the ‘bread of life’ discourse from the sixth chapter of John. Jesus speaks of the Father’s love for all and His desire that none should be lost: “This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life and I shall raise him on the last day.”
There are times when putting those two sentences together can create some difficulty for us. While it is easy (I hope) for us to believe in the universal salvific will of God, we often question whether a loving God would deny salvation to those who lack explicit faith in Jesus Christ. In a diverse nation like the United States, most of us know “good people” of other traditions who are as committed to their faith as we are to ours. What are we to make of this?
The Catholic Church believes that all men and women are saved through Jesus Christ. But the Church also holds—and made this more explicit at the Second Vatican Council—that salvation is possible for those who do not have explicit faith in Him. Throughout the centuries, theologians have developed various theories of how this is done: “baptism of desire,” “anonymous Christianity,” and so on. For most of us in the pews, I’m not sure a detailed knowledge of these theories is really required. What most of us want to believe is that a loving God is actively working through the faith traditions of our friends and neighbors to effect their salvation. Of that we can be certain.
On Good Friday of this year, Brother Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., Preacher to the Papal Household, delivered an excellent homily on this very subject. It is worth reading in full (click here), but I will conclude with a brief excerpt to whet your appetite:
In creating, God is humble. He does not put his label on everything as we do. We do not see "Made by God" on his creatures. He leaves creatures to discover that for themselves. There is truth in what the poet, Hölderlin, says: "God creates the world like the ocean makes the continents: by withdrawing". How much time passed before men discovered to whom they owed their existence, who it was that created heavens and earth? How much longer must we wait before everyone will have discovered that? Does God cease for that to be the creator of all? Does his sun cease to shine both on those who know it and on those who don't?
The same applies to redemption. God is humble in creating, and he is humble in saving. Christ is more concerned that all people should be saved than that they should know who is their Saviour. The greatest wonder, at the moment when we pass from faith to vision, will not be to discover God's omnipotence, but to discover his humility.
The Stripping of the Altars was first published in 1992. In it, Duffy seeks to rewrite the history of the pre-reformation Church in England from a new perspective. Many histories of the period have a Protestant bias, and stress the decline of late medieval Catholicism into something approaching pagan superstition. In this view, English Catholicism’s elaborate liturgical life disguised an essential rot at its core. When the break with Rome came, the faithful quickly embraced the new Protestant theology and liturgy.
Duffy takes issue with almost every element of this traditional account. In the first half of the book, he seeks to demonstrate the popularity and vitality of Catholicism among the English in the period leading up to Henry VIII’s break with Rome. He is particularly effective in conveying what might be termed the public nature of the Catholic faith in this period. The Church shaped public space, both by the physical presence of churches and cathedrals, but also in the way its liturgical calendar—with its various feast days and solemnities—governed the rhythms of everyday life.
The second half of the book details how Henry VIII’s break with Rome led to the gradual destruction of this culture. Henry’s own views on liturgical and theological issues were fairly traditional, but in his quest to remove opponents of his divorce from ecclesiastical office, he empowered individuals whose views were far more radical.
Through an exhaustive analysis of wills, prayer books, and parish records, Duffy demonstrates how much resistance there was at the grassroots to the emerging Protestant order. Far from feeling “liberated,” Catholics (particularly in rural areas) bitterly resented the loss of their traditional religious practices. The speed at which many (but not all) of these practices were restored with the ascension of Queen Mary to the throne suggests that the English Reformation had not penetrated that deeply into public consciousness. But Mary’s failure to produce an heir led to the ascension of Elizabeth I, who consolidated the victory of Protestantism during her extended reign. As Duffy concludes:
By the end of the 1570s, whatever the instincts and nostalgia of their seniors, a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believed the Pope to be the Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world.
This is not a book for the light reader. As noted above, it is lengthy and there are numerous excerpts from prayer books, wills and other documents that are written in period English (with period spelling). But the book rewards a diligent reader and, if you are feeling particularly motivated, you might want to read it back-to-back with Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography of Thomas More, which was reviewed by Andrew Sullivan in 1998. Your spelling may never recover.
REQUIESCAT IN PACE: I would be amiss if I did not pause to mark the passing of Father Francis Murphy, who died last Thursday at the age of 87. Under the pseudonym Xavier Rynne, Murphy published a series of articles in the New Yorker that gave Catholics (and others) an insider’s view of what was going on during Vatican II. His articles were eventually collected into a series of books, one for each session of the Council. His Redemptorist Brothers eulogized him as follows: “Keenly appreciating Pope John XXIII's declared intention in calling the Council, `to open a window' and `let in fresh air,' Father Murphy not only reported on the Church's view of the modern world, but in doing so, let the modern world see the workings of the Church." May you be half an hour in heaven before the devil knows you’re dead, Francis.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT: In today’s Gospel reading, we continue to work our way through the ‘bread of life’ discourse from the sixth chapter of John. The crowd demands a sign from Jesus, a sign like the manna, the miraculous bread that fed the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert (See Exodus 16). Jesus says “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and who believes in me will never thirst.”
One of the properties of manna was that it could not be hoarded. Every Israelite was allotted the same share, and if they tried to retain any portion of it overnight, it would become rotten and infested with worms. The only exception to this was the day before the Sabbath, where each Israelite was able to gather two portions so that they would not have to work on the Sabbath.
Having to gather and eat manna every day brought the Israelites face-to-face with their radical dependence on God. The purpose of manna was spiritual as well as material. The process of gathering and consuming it was meant to form the Israelites into the people God was calling them to be.
The Eucharist is manna for the Christian people. It is meant to be food for our journey in the desert, something that both sustains us in this life and forms us into a people fit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
DEBATING THE BIOTECH UTOPIA: There is a good by Eric Cohen in this week’s Weekly Standard on biotechnology. The following paragraph particularly struck me:
The answer to this question--Why not design our offspring "for their benefit"?--has to do with the kind of people we would have to become to perform such experiments in the first place, and the kind of world that such a genetic disposition seems to lead to. Indeed, the willingness to make the next generation something "better"--to test one's hypotheses on one's offspring--is also a willingness to gamble with their well-being. The supposedly beneficent reasons for genetically improving future generations and the moral disregard it would require are in direct conflict.
The rest of the article is worth reading as well. Click here to do so.
ILLINOIS CAPITAL PUNISHMENT COMMISSION REPORTS: The Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment issued its final report yesterday. The Commission was established by Governor George Ryan after he declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois in January 2000. The Commission’s report makes more than 80 recommendations for change in the capital punishment system in Illinois. The recommendations include the creation of a statewide panel to review prosecutors' request for the death penalty; banning death sentences on the mentally retarded; significantly reducing the number of death eligibility factors; videotaping interrogations of homicide suspects; and controlling the use of testimony by jail house informants. For a press release on the report, click here. For a complete copy of the report (Adobe Acrobat Reader required) click here.
Interestingly, you’ve also made this site the second one that is called up when you do a Google or Yahoo search for Sursum Corda (okay that's cheating; it's the same search engine). However, I’ve noticed that I don’t show up when people search for a “Catholic Blog” or “Catholic Weblog” so I Catholic Blog will be taking Catholic Weblog some steps Catholic Blog to remedy Catholic Weblog this problem Catholic Blog. I hope Catholic Weblog that this is not Catholic Blog too distracting Catholic Weblog.
I want to ask you a favor. I’d like the audience for this site to grow. In fact, since I believe that setting measurable performance targets is a spur to improvement, I have set myself a goal of doubling the site’s traffic over the next three months. But since I have no advertising budget, I am going to need your help to do it. I’d like to ask all my regular readers to share the site with at least two other people over the next couple of weeks. More would be great, but I’m only asking for two. I figure if one of the two people starts coming back regularly, I will have achieved the goal.
But this isn’t a complete one way street. Later on this week, I’m going to pose some questions to you folks about what you like and dislike about the site. I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say. Watch for it!
CATHOLIC BLOGWATCH: Blog Chaplain Father Shawn O’Neal advises us to lighten up on the litmus tests for Catholic orthodoxy. Michael Dubruiel tells some very sad stories about his seminary days. Amy Welborn suggests that we pray for the intercession of the great reformer saints in advance of the Pope’s meetings with the American cardinals this Saturday. An excellent suggestion. Kathy Shaidle at Relapsed Catholic is posting more links than I can possibly keep up with. Eve Tushnet says very nice things about Sursum Corda (Thanks Eve!) in her summary of Blog activity that is more comprehensive than mine. Minute Particulars digs up the full Flannery O’Connor quote about the Eucharist. Veritas does not believe that the Church Universal can be said to be in crisis. Fool’s Folly prefers the term “orthodox” to “conservative.”
THE BREAD OF LIFE: Today’s Gospel is from the sixth chapter of John and continues the story from where we left off on Saturday. Jesus begins the sixth chapter by feeding the five thousand through the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. He then sends his disciples across the Sea of Galilee in a boat to Capernaum, and appears to them in the middle of that sea, walking on the water. In today’s reading, the crowd has followed Jesus to Capernaum and He begins to teach them. The rest of the sixth chapter is taken up by this teaching, often referred to as the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse because John’s purpose in including it is clearly to explain the meaning of the Eucharist.
Jesus’ first words in this reading are “Amen, amen I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” I found this to be a particularly compact way of describing my own experience in coming to understand the Eucharist.
When I was growing up in my suburban New Jersey parish in the 1970s, I received the basic explanation of the Eucharist that one receives when preparing for first communion. As I grew older, I became more conversant with the Aristotelian language that surrounds the Eucharist, “transubstantiation,” “substance,” “accidents,” and so on. I believed in the Real Presence the way a man believes something told to him by someone he trusts and that he has no independent means of confirming. I believed it in my head, but I don’t think I believed it in my heart.
This changed, and it changed in a rather unusual way. Several years ago, I was reading the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. It is the story of a Mexican priest on the run during an anti-clerical purge in one of the southern states of Mexico. He is not a particularly good priest and he knows it. He is an alcoholic and has a mistress. But he refuses to abandon his ministry—even though he knows the authorities will shoot him if they capture him. It is not pride that drives him on— for he has little of that left— or any desire for martyrdom. He feels himself to be unworthy of such an end. But the one thing they cannot take from him, the one thing that keeps him going, is “the power he still had of turning the wafer into the flesh and blood of God.” He knows that there are people who still desire this—who need it—and he cannot abandon them. I even remember the line of the book that was my epiphany:
Now that he no longer despaired, it didn’t mean, of course, that he wasn’t damned—it was simply that after a time the mystery became too great, a damned man putting God into the mouths of men: an odd sort of servant, that, for the devil.
I wish I could tell you what it was about these words that opened my heart. It seems odd that a work of fiction could lead me to embrace such a truth. I cannot explain it. I only know that my heart was opened and that for the first time I could say with conviction that I believed what the Church teaches about the Eucharist to be true. I have believed it ever since and there have been times in my struggles with the Church that I love that I thought it was the only thing that I believed.
For several years now we have been hearing that Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence any more. I’ve been hearing Corpus Christi homilies on this topic since I was a teenager, and they all quote the same survey of Catholics that was done two decades ago. A couple of years back, I heard such a homily given by a priest who at one point cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted “Real Presence!” to the crowd three times in an attempt to drive home his point. It seemed a move motivated by desperation rather than confidence. A similar desperation, albeit well-intentioned, seems to underlie the efforts to restore some of the traditional Eucharistic devotions.
What does any of this have to do with today’s reading? Jesus’ words at the beginning of the discourse suggest that if we are looking for “evidence” of the Real Presence, it might be wise to focus on what the Eucharist accomplishes in us rather than on the mechanics of how it works. What is the impact on those “who ate the loaves and were filled?” What is it that allowed Greene’s “whisky priest” to continue on until martyrdom, despite nothing in his makeup or personality that suggested he was capable of such a feat? What is about the Church that has allowed it to sustain itself for 2,000 years despite wars, revolutions, poor leadership, schisms, doctrinal disputes, and scandals that would have destroyed any other institution? Is it an accident that an institution that has risen from its own ashes so many times places the Eucharist at the center of its communal life?
What this suggests is that our catechesis about the Eucharist will be most effective when believers, fed by the Body and Blood of our Lord, bear witness to the power of God inside us by the way we live our lives. If we fail in that task, little else that we say is likely to be convincing.