Sursum Corda
"an insightful Catholic Blog that eschews extremism in any direction."
--Commonweal Magazine
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Saturday, May 17, 2003
THIS IS MY BODY: Please pray for my goddaughter Brenna, who received her First Communion today.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:58 PM
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Friday, May 16, 2003
JOHN ALLEN: NCR's John Allen really needs to get a blog, as reading his entire weekly column in one sitting has become increasingly daunting. This week he has a follow-up on his interview with the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, debate within Israel's tiny Catholic community (some of whom speak Hebrew), reflections on the 25th anniversary of the election of John Paul II to the pontificate, and evangelizing Catholic youth in Italy.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:58 PM
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WHY DID THE HEAVENS NOT DARKEN? Actual, unedited conversation between me and my five-year old son Joseph this evening:

Joseph: If I have a nightmare tonight I'm going to ask God to turn me into an owl so I can chase it away.

Me: That's a great idea. You know, God is always watching out for you Joseph.

Joseph: He is?

Me: Sure.

Joseph (after a pause): Daddy, does God watch out for the zebras?

Me: Absolutely!

Joseph: So why does God let the lions eat the zebras then?

Me: Well, uh, that's a very good question Joseph....

So much for "God is Bigger than the Bogeyman."

posted by Peter Nixon 7:50 PM
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Thursday, May 15, 2003
HE IS RISEN! Camassia has been struggling with the historicity of the resurrection. She’s batted this back and forth a few times with Telford Work, so I don’t know what value my comments will add, but since she asked for help, I’ll give it a go.

I’m not sure the historical evidence for the resurrection is strong enough to convince someone who takes the view that something is false unless proven true by a preponderance of evidence. We are dealing with testimony that is almost 2,000 years old. You can always create plausible alternatives, particularly if you begin from the position that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible, and therefore can’t happen.

But those of us who do believe it aren’t completely naked before the bar of reason. We can ask how was it that a dispirited ban of messianists who scattered in fear after the execution of their leader suddenly returned to lives of public witness, even if it meant persecution and death? We can ask why first century Jewish polemic argued that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, therefore implying that there was an empty tomb that had to be explained. We can ask whether it is plausible that the disciples would proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, and even be willing to die for this belief, unless they were really convinced it was true?

Something momentous clearly happened. I suppose we can argue about what that something was. Was it a mystical experience? A collective hallucination brought on by religious hysteria? We have the testimony of the Gospels and of Saint Paul that the disciples encountered something that they knew to be the Jesus who they had known. The only compelling reason I find for discounting that testimony is an a priori belief that such a thing could not happen.

But are these the reasons that I believe in the resurrection? No. They are merely reasons why such a belief does not seem unreasonable to me. My belief in the resurrection is inextricably bound up with my belief in the community that proclaims it. I see the power of the resurrection projected over 2,000 years, like the original cosmic explosion that continues to power the growth of the universe even today. I see that the community that believes this truth is able to explain the riddle of our existence, is able to survive and thrive for two millennia, is able again and again, in different times and different cultures, to raise up people who push the limits of what it means to be human. I see a truth proven, not with arguments, but with lives that have become luminous because they have been lived according to that truth.

But couldn’t it still be false? Could the resurrection be no more than a comforting story that allows those who believe it to do extraordinary things, but that has no intrinsic truth in and of itself. But we might ask the same question about concepts like the “dignity and worth of the human person,” a concept that undergirds almost everything we believe about the right ordering of the relationships between human beings. How do we know that what we believe about ourselves is true, particularly after a century where so many political movements and tyrannical regimes seemed to be dedicated to the contrary proposition? I think that in the end, we believe in the dignity and worth of the human person because we have seen the great good that comes from acting as if that belief were true, and the great evil that results from acting as if that belief were false.

Truths are not merely propositions about reality. They are also maps that guide us to a destination and if we arrive at that destination, it is not unreasonable to place our trust in the map.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:41 AM
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Monday, May 12, 2003
GENERATION GAP: Some readers have written to suggest that I may have overreacted to Fr. Richard McBrien’s column the other day (scroll below; archives not working today). I’m willing to concede that the post was more of a shot from the hip than is usually the case with me. But while I stand by what I said, perhaps I should try to do a better job explaining where I was coming from.

Those who have been reading the site for awhile aren’t going to be surprised to learn that I lean a little more toward the Commonweal and America side of the spectrum than I do toward Crisis or the National Catholic Register. So why do I sometimes (certainly not always) feel a greater sense of kinship with “conservative” Catholics under the age of 40 than I do with “liberal” Catholics of Fr. McBrien’s generation?

At least part of the answer is that the two generations experienced a radically different Church. When I talk to older Catholics in my parish, I am struck by how omnipresent and overpowering the Church felt to them growing up. I’ve spoken to men who feared they were going to hell if they experienced an erection and were hit by a truck before making it to confession! Fear--rather than love--is what kept many going to mass and receiving the sacraments. For this generation, the overpowering need was to put some distance between themselves and the institution, if only to avoid being swallowed whole by it.

The men and women of that generation are very glad the Church has changed, and they are largely supportive of the reforms that were put into place after Vatican II. Most are happy the mass is in English and that the priest no longer faces away from them. Whatever the theological merits of worshipping “ad orientem,” there is no question that many of those who grew up with it experienced the mass as something the priest did at which they were, at best, spectators.

But even among this generation, I detect a certain wistfulness. “At least you knew where you stood,” is something that a lot of them say in one form or another. Many have seen one or more children leave the Church, something that causes them a lot of pain. While not wishing to be passive spectators at the mass, they wonder whether a sense of the sacred has been lost.

I think it’s safe to say that my generation (I’m 36) has had a very different experience of Church. Rather than growing up in urban Catholic enclaves, many of us grew up in the suburbs, with large numbers of non-Catholic friends. Rather than being an omnipresent force that provided a “cradle to grave” network of social institutions, the Church was merely one influence on our lives, and often not the most important one. We grew up singing “On Eagles Wings” rather than “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” holding hands during the Our Father, and learning that “God doesn’t make junk.”

We no longer feared hell, of course, and in fact we no longer feared much of anything. We knew that God loved us no matter what we did, which suggested to many of us that it didn’t really matter whether you went to mass, prayed, or tried to do the right thing. In some ways, this is probably healthier than the idea that a hamburger on Friday was a one-way ticket to eternal damnation. But whether it is healthy in and of itself is another question entirely.

For our generation, the decision for faith was just that: a decision. It was something that had to be justified, both to ourselves and to our peers. Whether it was an adult deepening of a childhood faith, a reversion to a faith thought lost, or a conversion from unbelief or another tradition, the question had to be answered: why? why bother? why does this matter? We had to make a choice to bind ourselves to a particular truth, a particular community, a particular tradition. And once committed, we want to drink deep from that tradition, to savor its richness, to protect it and preserve it. We want to recover some parts of that tradition that have been lost, not because we want to return to the past, but because we have discovered something beautiful in grandmother’s attic, something that deserves to see the light of day once more.

There is among many of us a sense of the fragility of the Church as a community of discipleship and how little power that community seems to have to shape and mold the lives of believers today. We go our own way, whether the issue be contraception, abortion, the death penalty, war, concern for the poor and those on the margins of social life, or even contributing something to the weekly collection plate. We hear much talk about conscience, but less about the hard work (and real risks) of forming one’s conscience. I have heard graduates of RCIA programs tell me that “in the old days the Church told you what to do and now we read the Bible and decide for ourselves,” a statement that must be considered, at best, a radical abridgement of our tradition.

Perhaps this explains why many younger Catholics, even those who might otherwise be sympathetic to the agenda of organizations like VOTF, are not clamoring to volunteer. I think they (we?) have a sense that institutional reform cannot be divorced from the broader imperatives of preaching the Gospel and forming communities that can sustain a strong sense of Christian discipleship in a culture increasingly hostile to such a mission. Reform cannot be a one-way proposition where the “the laity” simply demand that “the clergy” share more power. We cannot demand more of “the Church” unless we are willing to demand more of ourselves. As a strategy for evangelization, institutional reform fades before the luminosity of a Christian life deeply and authentically lived.

So perhaps what I was trying to say to Fr. McBrien and others who share his views is not to assume that it is only ignorance or ingratitude that keeps younger Catholics from joining the ranks of VOTF and organizations like it. Perhaps it is merely that 2003 is not 1963, and reform of the Church, while not unnecessary, is not the only battle worth fighting.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:05 PM
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KITSCH, CULTURE AND THE LAUGHING MADONNA: Others have linked, but just in case you missed it, click here to read Tina Beattie's essay of this title in Priests and People. Here's an excerpt:

When I first considered converting to Catholicism seventeen years ago, my Presbyterian sensibilities made me alert to any evidence of Mariolatry. I was living in Zimbabwe at the time, and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the evangelicalism of the church to which I belonged, when every question or struggle seemed to be met by a rather glib quotation from Scripture, or, even more disturbingly, by an assurance that the person I was speaking to was praying for me and had received some special message or sign on my behalf. Why, I sometimes wondered, couldn’t Christ just speak to me direct, the way he seemed to do to everybody else? Paradoxically, this is not unlike the challenge that many non-Catholic Christians pose to Catholics: why pray through Mary and the saints, why not just go straight to Christ?

The answer is that we are part of a communion of faith, in which the dead no less than the living are our friends in Christ, and we can pray with them and ask them to pray for us. This is especially true of those whom we recognise as saints, who in their earthly lives manifested particular qualities, virtues and spiritual insights that make us aware of the transforming presence of God. And if any human being’s life was transformed, graced and sanctified in Christ, that human being is surely Mary of Nazareth, Mother of God.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:44 PM
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EL TORERO: It means "the bullfighter" signs welcoming "El Torero"--a high compliment in Spain--could be found during Pope John Paul II's recent visit to Spain. David Willey reports for the Tablet.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:33 PM
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