Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, December 12, 2003
LA VIRGEN: NOT JUST FOR CATHOLICS? Interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times about how Protestants seeking to reach out to Latinos are increasingly incorporating the Virgin of Guadalupe into their worship.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:11 AM
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LIFE: With John Allen's column, there is generally too much quality material to digest, and that is the case this week as well. But given my interest in medicine and bioethics, the following tidbit caught my eye:

If ever one needed evidence that the Catholic church still has some political weight to throw around, it came Dec. 10 with a vote of the Italian parliament on artificial reproduction. In what the Italians call a trasversale result, meaning one that crossed party lines, Catholic parliamentarians of both left and right approved Europe’s most restrictive law. It prohibits “heterogeneous” reproduction, meaning that only stable heterosexual couples will be able to use artificial insemination, relying solely on their own genetic materials. Only three embryos can be created at a time, and they must all be implanted in the woman. No embryo can be frozen or otherwise preserved or destroyed. Research or experimentation on embryos for any purpose other than the health of that embryo is prohibited.
In Europe, one finds often support across the political spectrum for legislation to regulate the use of reproductive technologies and genetic engineering. Interesting.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:01 AM
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Thursday, December 11, 2003
PLEASE PRAY: My godfather Ken is seriously ill with colon cancer and entering what are likely to be his final days. His son arrives today, and the family is hopeful that they will be able to spend one last Christmas together. The hospice people have apparently been wonderful.

Although Ken is my godfather, he does not practice his faith and is more-or-less an atheist who believes that we return to dust and do not rise from it. He has had to work through a lot of anger about his illness without the consolation of faith.

So I am determined to pray for him. I'm going to grab onto him and not let him go, and if the Lord sees fit to pull me into heaven someday, he's going to have to pull Ken in with me. If you have any theological quibbles with that position, keep them to yourself; I'm not interested in hearing them right now.

There's an entire generation out there that walked away from God because of the narrow and pinched way that God was presented to them. Let's pray we don't make the same mistakes with our children.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:50 PM
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LIFE OR DEATH: The Atlantic Monthly has a great interview with Scott Turow on the subject of the death penalty. Turow is a lawyer, a former federal prosecutor, a novelist, and has recently written a new non-fiction work on the death penalty.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:53 PM
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THE WAY OF THE CELIBATE: The on-line Catholic journal Godspy reprints a chapter from Paula Huston's book The Holy Way entitled, "Purity - The Way of the Celibate" Huston recounts how reading Saint Augustine's Confessions helped her come to terms with her own romantic and sexual history:

What could heal this hidden sexual turmoil that caused me to hurt and condemn others? How might I stop viewing sexuality as a power game? How might I become simple and loving toward every single human being, regardless of gender or erotic sub-currents?

Augustine discovered through years of frustrating failure that we cannot run the show when it comes to our sexual natures. Doing battle with ourselves, putting our trust in personal strength or willpower, is ultimately a lost cause. Worse, we can fall into unconscious self-hatred, as I did, when we attempt to rule or dominate some God-given aspect of our natures. "Peace, then," Augustine says, "will be perfect in us when, our nature clinging inseparably to its Creator, nothing of ourselves fights against us."

I thought about my friends at the hermitage, all of who have taken a lifelong vow of celibacy, and I wondered how they had calmed and redirected the tremendous force of eros, for (with varying degrees of success) they have. This is one of the most striking differences between life on the mountain and life "in the world."
I very much liked the chapter, but it raised a question in me that also occured to me after reading Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk. Both women are oblates of Benedictine monasteries, and both speak positively about the value of celibacy. Both also use celibacy as a means of reflecting on their own sexual and romantic histories.

There is much that is positive in this, but I can't help but notice that the husbands of both women seem to vanish in the process. You have to read the chapter carefully to realize that Huston is still married. I have to wonder what the reaction would be if a married man had written about wrestling with his own sexual fire while making only passing reference to his wife. Something to think about.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:34 PM
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FLU HITS HARD: Federal officials announced Thursday that the flu has hit hard in 24 states, nearly twice as many as last week, and said more than 100,000 doses of the flu vaccine would be rushed across the country to combat vaccine shortages. Anecdotal reports suggest that this influenza season has been worse for children. In some parts of the country, entire schools have shut down because so many children are sick.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:44 PM
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SACRA DOCTRINA: There has been an interesting discussion (isn’t there always) over at Amy Welborn’s blog about Catholic doctrine. The question has been raised as to whether we can really say that there is a communion of faith if Catholics hold such disparate views about what they believe. A number of polls have been cited, and the usual well-worn anecdotes of liturgical abuse and quasi-heretical homilies have been offered.

Well I am certainly not going to quarrel with the position that doctrine should play an important role in the life of the Church. Faith is not merely a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart. It is an attitude of fundamental openness and trust in something, and the Church believes that it is able to say what that something is. Not because we have discovered it through our own efforts, but because it has been revealed to us.

One sometimes hears the suggestion that Jesus did not care about such things and that he just wanted us to love one another. Even if one accepts such a poorly supported proposition as true, it still raises the question of how are we to know how to love one another? The evangelical counsels are hardly a self-evident ethical system, and one might even see them as destructive of the social order, as many of Christianity’s pagan critics argued. Unless Jesus is who the Church professes him to be, it is hard to see a rational justification for following him.

So by all means, let us speak a word or two in defense of doctrine. But to suggest that the lack of orthodox belief among large numbers of Catholics somehow invalidates our communion is problematic from both a historical and theological perspective.

First of all, it seems likely that very large numbers of Catholics throughout the centuries have held unorthodox views, often without realizing it. One might say that the Church held Europe, but in the same way the United States held large portions of Vietnam: what was held during the day was often lost at night. Pagan and Christian religious practices co-existed for centuries (and still do in many rural areas in the Third World) and it seems likely that many Catholics in the medieval period held views about Mary, the Saints, and Jesus himself that were at odds with official Church teaching.

The Church has historically held that what makes you a Catholic is the sacrament of baptism. The baptized person is indelibly marked. Such a person may not be a very good Catholic (are any of us?) and she may persist in error to such an extent that the Church formally denies her the sacraments (excommunication), but her baptism is not thereby overturned.

My own suspicion is that contemporary Catholics in the United States have an understanding of their faith that compares reasonably well with Catholics throughout the centuries. It is easy to look back on the relatively high degree of internal cohesion exhibited by the U.S. Church in the early to mid-20th century and assume that this was the historical norm for the Church generally. I don’t think an honest assessment of the historical record can sustain such a position.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:12 AM
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Wednesday, December 10, 2003
MORATORIUM: The Moratorium Campaign is asking supporters to contact Pennsylvania Governor Governor Ed Rendell to urge him to declare a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania. After spending over two decades on death row while innocent, death row prisoner Nicholas Yarris was exonerated on Tuesday, December 9, 2003. The Commonwealth has now exonerated twice as many death row prisoners (6) as it has executed (3) since the reinstatement of the death penalty.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:37 PM
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IS IT OVER? I don't do a lot of political commentary on this site, but I did live in Washington, DC for ten years, so I know how the game is played. I would have to say that with the Gore endorsement in his pocket, the Democratic nomination is Howard Dean's to lose. It's a win-win for Al Gore. If Dean wins, he'll be grateful to Gore. And if Dean loses, Gore has built a relationship with Dean's grassroots base that would help him in a future run for the White House. Nicely played, Al...

posted by Peter Nixon 3:52 PM
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AS IT IS ACTUALLY LIVED: In his Commonweal column from the December 5th issue, Orthodox priest John Garvey remembers Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchial Church in Great Britain, who died August 4, 2003. Garvey writes about a meeting he once had with Anthony:

We got business out of the way early in the conversation, and the rest of the afternoon shaded into dusk as we talked. Bloom was not in any way a proselytizer, and when I spoke of my interest in Orthodoxy he said that if that is where God wanted me to be, it would become clear to me, but in God's time and not my own. He counseled patience, and said "Never join a community that does not pray." He spoke of his own way of receiving converts. Anyone interested in joining the Orthodox community would be assigned to a family in the parish, and would spend the liturgical year worshipping with them. It was important, he believed, to make sure that people encountered Orthodoxy as it is actually lived, at home and in the parish church, rather than to have an idea of Orthodoxy. The people to whom the potential convert was assigned must have been Orthodox for at least five years. Asked why, he said, "I want them to have lost their convert's enthusiasm."
This seems to bear on some of the discussions occuring around St. Blog's this week. Comments anyone?

posted by Peter Nixon 9:06 AM
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Tuesday, December 09, 2003
DO YOU LIKE YOUR PARISH? Some very weighty matters are getting thrashed out over at Amy Welborn's blog and I will be commenting myself presently. But here is a simpler question for you: do you like your parish? If so, why? If not, why not? If not, have you ever tried to do something to improve the things you don't like? If so, what happened? Sit down, have a coffee and tell Uncle Pete all about it....

posted by Peter Nixon 4:21 PM
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Monday, December 08, 2003
IN THE HEART OF THE NATION'S CAPITAL: Eve Tushnet reports that the crisis pregnancy center she works for (the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center) is in dire need of funds. Click here to find out how you can contribute.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:18 PM
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Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Homily
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Gn 3:9-15, 20
Ps 98:1, 2-3ab, 3cd-4
Eph 1:3-6, 11-12
Lk 1:26-38

What does the Immaculate Conception have to do with any of us? Our Church has celebrated this event long before it was pronounced in 1854 to be dogmatic – a fundamental belief of Christian faith. But what does the manner of the conception of Mary have to do with any of us? In the big scheme of faith, does it really matter what state Mary was in when her life began at conception? What does her sinless state have to do with our lives? After all, we live in a state of sin during much of our lifetime and when we’re not in sin, we’re tempted to live in that state. We have been drawn to the baptismal font as a result of the original sin of humanity. We are called to ask for and to receive forgiveness for the times when we go against God. Therefore, what does the sinless beginning of someone who lived long before us have to do with the struggles we endure during this complicated age?

This solemn belief we keep and celebrate comes as a result of grace. All the good we have, all the good we are, and all the good we experience comes from grace. Mary was conceived as she was through a powerful manifestation of the grace of God. As we have heard in the Gospel reading, Mary agreed to give birth to the most miraculous manifestation of the grace of God, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Both her conception and the conception of Jesus occurred as they did because God the Father and God the Son wanted it to be that way from the beginning. We believe that these events and states have happened as they have happened so that we can always remember how God loves His people. It is not enough to recall that Mary is the Immaculate Conception; we are called to remember that God conceived her as an example of His grace. We do not know how He did it, but we believe that He did it because He loves us. The proof of this love came forth when Mary gave birth to Jesus. She allowed grace to work within her for the benefit of herself and all people.

Also, we should never forget that Immaculate Mary could have chosen at any moment of her human life to forsake her immaculate state. She had the same human will that we have. She faced temptation. Yet she sought God’s grace more than she sought fleeting wants. Eve sought knowledge; Mary sought wisdom. The latter of the two will always provide greater joy and comfort.

None of our lives began in the way Mary’s life began. No future life will begin in the way Mary’s life began. Yet we share a common calling and a common destiny with her with her; we are called to live in the fullness of grace. In whatever way God wants us to be full of His grace, I hope we remain in grace. Although we might not be full of grace from the beginning of our lives as Mary was, we have the opportunity to be full of grace now. In the mysterious way God has planned things, we have the opportunity to live a life free from sin. In the mysterious way God has planned things, we have the opportunity to tell God and His angels that we have chosen to accept whatever God wants us to be or to do. We can do this as a result of the grace that leads to believe that in God all things are possible.

What does the Immaculate Conception have to do with us? Gabriel said it: “Nothing will be impossible for God.” I hope that we always remain open to the endless possibilities that God invites us to embrace and enjoy.

Fr. Shawn O'Neal is Pastoral Administrator of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC. The two parishes share a web site which you can access by clicking here.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:09 PM
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PASTOR EVELINE: Amy Welborn's link to a Commonweal article about a Dutch parish administered by a woman has prompted a postfest of extreme proportions (111 and still counting). But it is worth reading in its entirety, especially the excellent posts by regular Sursum Corda reader Neil Dhingra. I hope that Neil is getting some well-deserved rest at this point....

posted by Peter Nixon 1:14 PM
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MARY IMMACULATE: Last year I wrote a reflection on the Immaculate Conception. I don't have time today to do anything new, so I'm recycling it:

I’ve always sort of struggled with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Reading descriptions of its development is sort of like reading a very complicated legal brief. Lots of talk about the “imputed merits of Christ,” the theology of Duns Scotus, and all that. Most of the time, I enjoy that sort of thing. But not today.

Today I’m thinking about mothers. One of the reasons that Mary is so important is that, in some sense, she is the guarantor of the humanity of Jesus. Jesus had a mother, just like all of us. Much of what Jesus became as a human being, he became because of his mother.

If you met me and got to know me for a while, and then met my mother, you would immediately see some of the traits that she passed down to me. I suspect that those who got to know Jesus, and then met Mary, had the same experience. Maybe it was her smile, maybe certain turns of phrase. Maybe Jesus inherited his fiery passion, his fearlessness from her. She must have been a formidable woman!

One of the ongoing temptations in Christianity has been to deny, sometimes without even meaning to, the humanity of Christ. A lot of us are still carrying around a mental image of a fleshy “costume” animated by an all-knowing, all-seeing deity. The idea that Jesus could have been shaped in some fundamental way by his human environment sometimes seems threatening. But that is precisely why the Incarnation is so stunning.

It doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to me that if God was going to become incarnate in human flesh, that he would do a little advance planning. And perhaps one of the things He might be most concerned about is the woman who would bear Him, who would shape Him and guide him to adulthood, a poor peasant girl from the Judean countryside. How would she ever have the strength to bear the burden that would be laid upon her?

The answer? He gave it to her.

Oh, I’m sure this is very poor theology and someone far more learned than I could poke numerous holes in it. But in some sense, I think this is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is all about: a son’s love for His mother.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:26 AM
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Sunday, December 07, 2003
GOD WILL BRING THEM BACK: I had an interesting experience out at the jail today. We usually begin the service about 9:30, and about that time we had eight or nine guys, which isn't a bad turnout for this jail. So we decided to get started.

I was offering a reflection on the readings today, and I decided to focus my reflection on the first reading, the one from the prophet Baruch. Baruch was trying to console the Israelites who were being led away into exile. He tells them that "God will bring them back." If you read a little further on beyond the reading, he urges them not to forget who they are while they are in exile. I thought this was a good metaphor for the experience of incarceration, where prisoners face a challenge not to conform themselves to the values of the institution. The challenge--similar to the challenge that all Christians face--is to be in the jail, but not of the jail.

Well, I get about halfway through my reflection, and I'm just making a point about God's promise to "bring us back" when suddenly the side door to the chapel opens, and in walks a group of about 10 men. Then about 10 seconds later, the door opens again and in walk another 10 or so. It was like the ingathering of the tribes! The end result was we had 34 inmates, the largest crowd I have every personally witnessed at our service.

From talking to a couple of the guys, it seemed like some of the guys ended up in a situation where they essentially had a choice between some kind of lockdown or chapel. So they decided to come to chapel. The way I figure it, if the Lord wants you back in Jerusalem, he'll find a way to do it, even if means filling valleys, leveling mountains, or springing you out of lockdown a few minutes early!

posted by Peter Nixon 8:13 PM
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Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
Second Sunday of Advent

Bar 5:1-9
Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Phil 1:4-6, 8-11
Lk 3:1-6

What we have heard today can be explained in very simple terms. God wants us to share in His glory. God wants everyone to be saved. God wants all people to want to come to Heaven. God wants all people to share His joy now and forever. However, salvation requires necessary steps. Also, salvation is not automatic.

I wish that salvation could be automatic for all people. I wish that all people could be swept into Heaven. I wish that God would place some type of lid on the hole that leads to Hell so that no person whom He has created can go there. But if salvation came in such a manner, we would not value it as much as we do. Heaven would not be a goal; Heaven would be an expectation. There would be no incentive to change our lives. There would be no reason to examine our lives to see whether we need to repent over anything. We must choose to be with God.

Salvation comes only when we accept the calling that God has given to each of us. Catholics do not believe that salvation occurs one time during our lives. We are thankful for moments when the grace of God manifests itself in ways that make these moments unforgettable, but we do not believe that we are saved once. We do not believe we are always saved after we first accept God’s call. To put this in traditional terms, we receive sanctifying grace when we are baptized. We receive this grace throughout our lives. We receive it in one of two ways, either in habitual grace, that is, the permanent disposition to live and act in unity with God, or in actual graces, the moments of divine intervention that appear above and beyond the normal grace that flows.

I hope that our readings today act as actual grace for all of us. All disciples, even the ones most deserving of being recognized as saints, run the risk of operating on cruise control. The command at the end of the Gospel reading serves as a warning sign for all of us. When we see warning signs, we act according to them. We know that Advent is a time for preparing the way of the Lord, but actual grace helps us to place greater immediacy on preparation. This is not the time to rest. This is the time to examine how we need to be better disciples. Also, this is the time when we need to see how we have failed in being good disciples. If we have failed, then I hope that the grace that led us to this recognition leads us to repentance, confession, and forgiveness. Anyone who believes in automatic salvation lives in a world of fantasy that is guaranteed to turn into an eternal nightmare.

The last line of the Gospel states how all flesh will see the salvation of God. We are not called merely to see salvation; we are called to be saved. The rich man who gave no food to Lazarus saw salvation at work. He saw the glory of Heaven. But he saw it from a distance. He saw it as a spectator. He saw it as a spectator because he chose to live his life as if he was spiritually on cruise control. When he ran out of gas, he cried, but by the time he cried, he had passed all the gas stations to the point where he could not return to one of them.

Perhaps you have seen churches post a message, “God allows for U-turns.” These signs present a true message. Make the U-turn now not because I have told you to do so, but because what we believe to be actual grace at work is telling you to make the turn. At this moment, the devil is going to attempt to block you from making that turn, but do not pay attention to the devil. Things are not as OK as they may seem. I am not saying that anyone here is worthless in the eyes of God, but this is not the time to be proud of our own accomplishments. This is the time to seek to be glorified in God.

Saint John Chrysostom preached about Hell being strewn with the skulls of priests. Hell could very well be strewn with the skulls of anyone who lived their life as if on cruise control. Hell is very real, but just because it is real, it does not mean God wants us to go there. God is calling us through these readings to examine the path we are on now and choose anew the path we want to take.

Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator of Saint Joseph's Parish in Bryson City, NC.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:47 PM
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