Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Wednesday, December 31, 2003
IN FORMATION: I don't know if I mentioned that Steve Mattson, a seminarian and early Catholic blogger (5/02) who took a year off from blogging has returned. His blog is entitled In Formation, and is worth checking out. Welcome back, Steve!

posted by Peter Nixon 7:03 PM
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APPLEBY: NCR has a profile of Notre Dame historian and Catholic commentator Scott Appleby, who has a new book out entitled Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World. In this article, Appleby offers some interesting thoughts on celibacy and the clerical sexual abuse scandal:

Here are Catholics priests trying to maintain a tradition that goes back at least to the 11th century and trying to valorize it and yet they did not have the training that would have allowed them to work through it. As a result, they didn’t always know the theology behind celibacy -- why in fact celibacy was integrally tied to priesthood. If you ask 10 priests, 8 of them will not give you a persuasive accounting of it.

The question is not that they are not disciplined or not believing, it’s that the church in training them in the seminary stunningly didn’t sit down with them or have a course in which they said let’s really talk frankly about eroticism or sexuality and the challenge of celibacy. Instead, for a lot of complex reasons, including Victorian attitudes toward sexuality that were mostly cultural -- attitudes that had little to do with religion -- these bishops and priests were often unprepared for the impact of the sexual revolution.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:44 PM
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TOP TEN LISTS: Christianity Today has a list of the top ten news stories of 2003 that the editors believe "have shaped, or will significantly shape, evangelical life, thought, or mission." Emily over at After Abortion has her own list of the Top Ten Abortion Stories of 2003.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:35 PM
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TWENTY-NINE: Caught in situations of civil conflict, surprised during robberies or specifically targeted for death because of their work, at least 29 Catholic Church workers were killed in mission territories in 2003, according to Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:28 PM
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HEALING IRAQ: The Iraqi blog Healing Iraq has the results of a new poll of Iraqis which is quite interesting. The demographics of the sample are skewed toward men (81%) and urban dwellers, but it is still interesting none the less. The blogger himself is a dentistry student named Zeyad and his thoughts are worth reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:26 PM
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Tuesday, December 30, 2003
REAL LIVE PREACHER: I've been meaning to add this guy to my blogroll for a while. He has the kind of writing that leaves you a little dazed afterwards and wondering "did anyone get the number of that preacher that hit me..?"

posted by Peter Nixon 3:08 PM
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CLEANUP ON AISLE FIVE: I'm a little late calling attention to U.S. Catholic's focus on ethical Christmas shopping. Kevin Clarke takes on Wal-Mart, noting that the company rakes in billions in profits while its workers are on the bottom of the wage scale. One thing he fails to mention is that despite its flag-waving image, Wal-Mart is a big importer of products from countries with notorious human rights records (e.g. China). Wal-Mart's effort to move into grocery retailing is also a factor in the strike/lockout that has idled more than 70,000 grocery workers in Southern California and other parts of the United States.

U.S. Catholic has a page of ethical shopping resources, many of which are worth looking at. The only thing I would say with regard to the clothing side of this is that until some of these shops get into providing basic casual business attire (e.g. kahki pants, button down shirts, etc.), they aren't going to make much of a dent in the problem. I'm not about to start wearing "Hellraiser" t-shirts to the office...

posted by Peter Nixon 10:56 AM
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THE NATIONAL CREED: David Brooks looks at the easygoing Judeo-Christianity which he calls "our national creed." Faith in the United States tends to be "optimistic and easygoing, experiential rather than intellectual." Ain't it the truth.

It reminds me of a quote from Stanley Hauerwas I saw over at The Scandal of Particularity. Hauerwas was talking about the mission of the Duke Divinity School with respect to its students:

Our task isn't to tear down their faith, but to form them with a determined sense of themselves and shaped by what it means to live the Christian faith...We're trying to teach people that Christianity is about the kingdom of God and living a life according to the Gospel, which is different from what they've heard about Christianity being this tingling mass of kindness.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:26 AM
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Monday, December 29, 2003
DON'T BLAME IT ON CONSTANTINE: Lynn at Noli Irritare Leones has a wonderful post about early Church history, the essence of which is "you can't blame everything you don't like about Christianity on Constantine." Worship of Jesus as God, the hierarchy, the sacraments and the main outlines of the Church's christology were all pretty much in place before the Big C.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:09 PM
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GUILT BY ASSOCIATION? Todd Flowerday at Catholic Sensibility takes on Archbishop Donoghue's decision to ban VOTF in Atlanta. He notes that that the usual argument is that VOTF is linked to "dissenters" like Call to Action, etc., even though the organization has avoided wading into the kind of doctrinal battles in which CTA is commonly engaged. Todd wonders where this logic of guilt by association takes us:

Granted, there is little precedent for a bishop to call out another bishop publicly on such matters of governance or personal scandal. But if VOTF-phobes in the episcopacy expect a repudiation of VOTF members who hold individual positions contrary to Church dogma or discipline, they are being naive at best, and sinfully hypocritical at worst.

Take a poll. Ask Catholics who is more tainted with guilt by association: VOTF with CTA or generic Joe Bishop with McCormack, Law, Daily, Grahmann, O'Brien, etc.? Then if you want to talk scandal and confusion and banishment, tell a bishop to look in the mirror.
An excellent point, I think. In my view, banning VOTF serves no legitimate end and makes more trouble for the bishops than it is worth. I would note, though, that local chapters of VOTF are not always as circumspect as the national organization in sticking to the organization's limited agenda, which I think is a strategic mistake (see this discussion over at Amy's blog). There really is a need for an organization that can identify some best practices for lay involvement in leadership structures at the diocesean and parish level that are compatible with canon law and suggest where changes to that law (those that raise no doctrinal issues) might be warranted.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:00 PM
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EARTHQUAKE: Catholic Relief Services is responding to the devastating earthquake in the city of Bam in Iran.

The scale of casualties is almost too large to take in. Dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima killed about 45,000 in the first day, which gives you some sense of the scale. Imagine ever single person you know was suddenly gone. Even that doesn't really give you a sense of it.

I was reading yesterday that more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in earthquakes in Iran over the last half-century. An earthquake here in California last week was of similar magnitude to the one in Iran, but killed only two people. It's hard not to see the deaths in Bam as preventable. Let's pray for the dead, but also pray that those who have the power to do so work to make future earthquakes in this country less deadly.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:07 PM
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THE SANTA THING: I’ve seen some commentary over the past few weeks that suggests that some Catholics are “opting out” of the whole Santa Claus thing. Some argue that the focus on Santa distracts from the focus on Jesus. Others are concerned that once children learn that Santa isn’t real, they might wonder what other harmless lies their parents are telling them.

I share some of these concerns, but I’m not convinced that they justify banishing the old man in the red suit. Santa is, after all, something of a tradition and one would think that Catholics, at least, would be a little more cautious about trying to simply banish something that has evolved organically over hundreds of years. Doing so seems more Puritan—or even Leninist—than Catholic. The truth is that cultures shaped by Catholicism have always made a “big deal” about Christmas, from the elaborate crèches one still finds in many parts of Europe to the tradition of the posada in Latin America.

Nor am I convinced that children finding out the “truth” about Santa is a serious threat to their faith. At some point my children are going to learn about the questionable historicity of certain elements of the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew. Will learning that the two accounts disagree about whether the angel appeared to Mary or Joseph shake their faith? Will learning that the scriptures never depict the shepherds and the magi under the same roof shatter them? Should I keep the crèche under wraps next year?

I actually think that believing in Santa is good practice for living a life of faith. One begins with naïve, uncritical belief: Santa is a flesh and blood person who lives at the North Pole and who flies around the world on Christmas Eve giving presents to five billion people. Eventually, though, such a belief becomes untenable. We then face a choice. We can walk away in anger at having been deceived about what “really happens” at Christmas. Or, we can recognize that the Santa myth embodies deeper truths about ourselves, about God, and about the meaning of Christmas that are best expressed through the stories and rituals associated with that myth.

Believing in Santa Claus, like believing in God, is an act of the imagination. It cultivates our faculties of wonder, awe, and trust. Anyone who believes that these faculties are somehow ancillary to the transmission of faith is dangerously naïve. My children believe in any number of things that do not exist--dragons, superheroes, talking animals, invisible friends. Their world is gloriously full of the supernatural, and I relish watching them live in it. For I know from personal experience that the mind that has stretched itself in imagination will never be able to accept that the visible, measurable, quantifiable world is all that “really exists.”

In the end, I find myself drawn back to the closing words of Francis P. Church’s well-known editorial
“Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” published in the New York Sun in 1897:

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:35 AM
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THE CEOS: No, not Chief Executive Officers. We're talking about the "Christmas and Easter only" Catholics. Fr. Jim Tucker has some very good thoughts on this subject.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:28 AM
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CHURCH SWAPPING: Interesting piece in the New York Times about people who have moved from the Catholic Church to the Episcopal Church, and vice-versa. Although this kind of back-and-forth movement has a long history, there has been a recent spike attributable to the ECUSA's decision to confirm Bishop Gene Robinson.

There are some sociologists of religion who believe that the ability to engage in this kind of "church swapping" is one of the reasons that religious practice in the United States--where we certainly have lots of options!--remains stronger than in countries that have an established church or where one denomination is predominant.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:26 AM
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Sunday, December 28, 2003
THE FINISH LINE IS IN SIGHT: I enjoy Christmas, but at times it feels like I'm running the Bay to Breakers. Here is the schedule for the last few days (all numbers include children):

December 24: 3pm mass, with kids in the pagent (Joseph: shepherd; Megan: angel) and me as an usher; dinner at home with Gina's parents at 5pm; wrapping presents and watching "It's a wonderful life," until 11pm.

December 25: The usual Christmas morning routine, except I've lost my voice. Kids seem to be enjoying their Rescue Heroes. Travel to Gina's parents' house for Christmas dinner with "immediate family" (16 people) around 2pm. Return home around 10pm.

December 26: Drive to San Francisco for 11am business meeting with a colleague. Return home and depart for Napa at 2pm for dinner with friends of Gina's parents who have recently returned to California. (18 people). Return home around 10pm.

December 27: Take kids to park for two hours of much needed running around time. Cook food for Christmas party for our Small Christian Community. Babysitter arrives to watch kids. Leave at 6pm for party (12 people). Return by 9:30pm.

December 28: The real marathon. 9am mass, followed by immediate travel to home of Gina's aunt for the "extended family" (Irish side--19 people) Christmas party, after which we travel to the home of Gina's uncle for another "extended family" Christmas party (Italian side--lost count at 30 people).

December 29: Now completely exhausted and about 100 pounds heavier, I go back to work for some well-deserved rest...

Oh wait, it's not over. My parents are arriving this coming Friday....

posted by Peter Nixon 9:03 PM
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Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
Feast of the Holy Family

1 Sm 1:20-22, 24-28
Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10
1 Jn 3:1-2, 21-24
Lk 2:41-52

"…and all who heard him were astounded because they were accustomed to children his age talking back to their elders or using foul language…and they certainly were not accustomed to seeing a child of that age being openly interested in religious matters…"
(Pardon me - Biblical humor.)

We learn much about Jesus, among other things, when we read the Gospels. Yet we learn these things for the most part without knowing a specific timeline of the life of Jesus. According to Scripture, we do not know how old Jesus was in earthly years when he began his public ministry. We do not know how old Jesus was when he was crucified. In fact, the only specific age-related events presented within the Gospels include the birth of Jesus, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple - which would mark his eighth day of life, and the occurrences presented within today’s Gospel reading. There must be some reason why the specific age of Jesus is mentioned.

If you have either family or friends who are Jewish, then you know the highly possible reason why his age was mentioned. If Jesus was 12 when these events occurred, then he was on the cusp of his 13th birthday, his bar mitzvah, the day when he would have been recognized as a responsible Jewish man. He would not have had a bar mitzvah party as we know of them now because such parties are only a more recent cultural addition. But even then, he would have known that upon turning 13 he would have been expected to accept adult religious responsibilities. These responsibilities included traveling to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover.

Numerous believers stir up a false impression in their minds that Jesus was a hick carpenter from a hick town. Perhaps this attitude carries over from Nathaniel who is quoted within the Gospel of John as saying: "What good can come from Nazareth?" We have reason to believe that the young Jesus received from his parents what they had received from their parents -- a very mature education about God and the practices of the Jewish faith. Jesus was called “Rabbi”. Good rabbis are good teachers who learned well from good teachers. To paraphrase the former President Lyndon Johnson, Jesus might not have been educated from an elite Jerusalem academy, but he showed that his West Texas State Teachers' College-style education received from his parents and neighbors served him well – even in the Big Town.

I ask of our children here to study well and ask tough questions about God and about our Church to your parents, your elders, and to me. We will be astounded by your understanding. Your good seeking will inspire us to feed your hunger well. Your responsible behavior and desire to learn will inspire us to help you as you prepare to become recognized as adult witnesses of the Church through the Sacrament of Confirmation, which will occur for most of you when you arrive at that age of bar mitzvah. I hope that other teachers will be as inspired as I will be if young people show a desire to learn, to live, and to love what it means to be a child of God.

I hope that your parents assist you in this effort. I hope that people praise God when they see and hear how the families of our two churches seek being in the Father’s house most of all. I hope we can show the world that the faithful people here seek to grow in wisdom and in holiness – and may their understanding astound the teachers in the Big Town.

I pray that through the intercession of the Holy Family, all people who come to this church seek to imitate the Holy Family. They sought to learn much, teach well, and reflect upon the plan of the Lord. Truly responsible adult believers seek both greater understanding and the courage to act according to what they know and believe.

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.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:09 PM
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