The Nuncio on the Bishops’ Responsibility

Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops begins its annual meeting.  This year the top item on its agenda is the horrific sexual abuse by clergy, especially the disgraced ex-Cardinal McCarrick.

The Holy Father began by stopping the bishops.  They have been in a hurry to pass reforms that will save their face in the media.  Pope Francis wants them, first, to slow down, to make sure that their reforms are good ones.  The bishops have a retreat scheduled in January, and there is an international meeting of bishops–an “Extraordinary Synod”–in February on this exact topic.  True reform of the Church requires doing things thoughtfully and prayerfully, not rushing to impress the media.

The politics of this age is very complicated.  In the United States at least, we are used to thinking of everything as conservatives vs. liberals.  So often those ways of thinking fail to appreciate the real dynamics of the Church.  There are, to be sure, many people thinking as conservatives and liberals–but to the extent that they think that way, or as anti-conservatives or anti-liberals, they always fail the deeper mission of the Church.   We need to think as Catholics, not according to secular categories.

This is a big part of why things are so messy with Pope Francis: because the American Church, at least, insists on seeing everything as conservative vs. liberal, and Pope Francis–the real Pope Francis, not the Pope Francis of the conservative and liberal media (including blogs: those are media too, and all the more inclined to use secular categories)–just doesn’t fit those labels.

One place that is very true is on the issue of “lay review boards.”  I’m not going to try to think through everything in a quick blog post.  But it needs to be said: the bishops are the ordained leaders of the Church.  In the late nineteenth century, the fabulous Pope Leo XIII (who himself is impossible to label as conservative or liberal) refused a movement called “Americanism.”  Americanism was precisely the idea that lay people should run the Church.  That Americanism is returning with a vengeance today.  Ironically, it is the Right that has turned, in secular as well as ecclesial politics, to strange sorts of anti-authoritarianism–always with new kinds of authoritarianism mixed in, in hopes of preserving their libertarianism.  Many Catholics of the Right are shouting “down with the bishops, down with the Pope” (unless he’s my preferred bishop or pope). But whether that comes from the Right or the Left, it isn’t Catholic.

Look, as a lay person working in the Church, I rage against clericalism more than most.  There are lots of false authoritarianisms in the Church that I think should be denounced.  But the Pope remains the Pope, the bishops remain the bishops.  Like it or not, Catholics, we don’t believe that Christ established an egalitarian government for his Church.

Anyway, all of this is too much introduction for the nuncio’s fabulous talk to the US bishops today.  It is well worth a read.  Watch for his denunciation of “delegation,” in phrases like, “we must show that we can solve problems rather than simply delegating them to others”; “The exercise of authority is a real service and governance should not be a privilege or a position, but a responsibility to be neither ignored nor totally delegated.”  Mixed with lots of things about how the bishops should “listen”–yes yes yes–and should be close to the people.  But no, the bishops cannot delegate away their authority, and make it lay people’s responsibility to take care of clerical abuse.  The bishops need to take responsibility, not delegate it away.

Here is the nuncio’s excellent address.

http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/upload/ga-2018-fall-nuncios-address-pierre.pdf

ps – I would be happy to discuss this issue further, in the comments or private messages.

How to Read the Bible

My principal goal with this web page is to encourage myself and others to encounter Jesus in the liturgy through the Scriptures.  Finding him in Scripture, especially in the Gospel, leads us from a vague awareness of God to a lively, specific awareness of who Christ is and how he wants to transform our lives.  The danger is that we hear the Gospel read at Mass and it might as well have been in a foreign language, because we aren’t paying attention.

I have found writing these pages to be a practice helpful for opening myself to the word of Christ.  I hope they help you too.

Today I want to talk about some other little methods I have found helpful.  These might be helpful for priests who will preach on the Sunday Gospel—and also helpful for those in the pews who want to get more out of the Sunday Gospel than they can get from their priest’s homilies.

***

Read the Sunday Gospel each day.  Make it part of your daily ritual.  My family tries (and often fails) to read the coming Sunday’s Gospel every day at the end of dinner.  You could also do it at breakfast or lunch, or before bed, or before you come from work in the evening—whenever.

Just read it.  A danger is that we are so caught up in our own concerns that we can’t hear Christ speaking.  I imagine it would be especially tempting for priests preparing homilies to jump ahead to their own concerns.  I tell my seminarians the liturgical gesture I most dislike is when the priest reads the Gospel, then shuts the book before preaching: “Enough of what he says—now for what I say!”  Instead, we need to open the book, read it without any agenda, let it speak to us before we begin to speak.

It may be helpful to read it out loud, just to slow yourself down a little.

With repetition, you notice details you hadn’t noticed before, funny little things you’d skipped past.  The message also begins to sink in, the seriousness of Christ’s word to you.  When you get to Sunday Mass, your ears are ready.

***

Spend some time, maybe ten minutes, with a short passage, such as the Sunday Gospel.

Sandro Botticelli - The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) - Google Art Project.jpgIt’s good to read long passages too.  I recommend starting from page one, whether of the whole Bible or of the New Testament, and just reading it all, getting a sense of the whole.  Then do it again.  That’s very good.

But it’s good too to spend extended time with a short passage.  Even ten minutes is much more time than you usually spend with a paragraph.  Read it once.  Read it again.  Let a passage strike you, and sit with it a little, roll it over.  Then go back and read through again, and pull out another line.  Then move to another thing.

Don’t be systematic, just be determined to find out what it’s saying.

***

There’s a method of Scripture reading (that’s all “lectio divina” means: reading the Bible) where you pick one word and stick with it.  That’s fine—but from homilies I hear, I think it’s often misused.

This isn’t random word association.  You don’t hear there was a lake, and that reminds you of fishing with your grandpa, and that reminds you of playing cards with your grandmother, so you meditate on “lake” and then think about what time at “the lake” meant for you as a kid.  To do that is precisely not to listen to Scripture.  Imagine tuning out like that when a friend is talking.

Instead, you should be looking for words that encapsulate the meaning of the passage.  To do that, it’s helpful to return to the passage, to move from word to word.  Again, you don’t want to close the book,  and dive into what you think.  You want to find what Jesus is saying.  That means looking at the book, again and again.

***

Spas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgDig into the weird stuff.  If there’s a metaphor that seems strange, don’t gloss over it.  If there’s an idea that seems odd, or a funny word choice, think about that.  Jesus, and his holy writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, choose their words deliberately.  They’re not always speaking literally, but they chose those words for a reason.  Be surprised.

To that end, I also recommend Bible software.  I love “e-sword” on my computer, and the “i-sword” app on my phone.  The most basic setting allows you to click on an English word and find the Greek or Hebrew behind it.  My Greek is okay, my Hebrew is non-existent.  But the point isn’t that you’re an expert at those languages.  The point is that the dictionary entries for those words can help you dig into what’s being said.  Look at where the words come from, what images they are evoking.  Dig into the meaning of the words Jesus uses to speak to you.

***

Finally, learn to pray “Alleluia.”  In Hebrew it literally means “Praise the Lord,” but a great author says, the way we use it, it is more like we are cheering, “The Lord is here!”

Hear his voice.

What methods do you use to dig into Scripture?  Please comment and tell us!

 

Bishop Flores

An amazing essay, by one of the best bishops in the American Church, from what I can see.

An excerpt:

“Polarization in the Church happens when we lose sight of the luminous Center from which all Catholic life and teaching flows. We are often speaking at each other from points of reference that emanate from the Center but, like different points on different spokes on a wheel, we appear frustratingly distant from one another. The luminous Center is the person and then the teaching of Christ himself. Our conversations and even our arguments, especially as they address the Social Teaching of the Church, are helpful in the Church only if we are all looking at the Center when we speak. . . .

“Pope Francis speaks of the “throwaway culture”, as a description that encompasses all that undermines the human good today. We use and throwaway unborn children, immigrants, laborers, the disabled, the elderly, the terminally ill, and our own natural environment. This is the condition that marginalizes and creates the “invisibles”.  Returning, then, to the point about the Christological center, for us, the dramatic clarity about the mystery of human vulnerability, and the great dignity it entails, is provided by the image of Christ in the womb of Mary, and Christ discarded and hanging on the Cross. The unborn and the immigrant, the death-row inmate and the street person are present in that continuum. In Catholic Faith, our salvation depends on how we respond to the Christ in those places. In his visit to the United States, Pope Francis called for the replacement of a throwaway culture, and a culture of radical individuality, with a human culture that “protects and cares for”, a culture of “radical care”. This is so important. Whoever is vulnerable, and at risk,” is brother or sister to me.” In the end, this includes everybody.”

 

“Caught by their heads”

File:Favorite Fish and Fishing 05.jpgIt is sometimes said in the Catholic world, “Men, like fish, are caught by their heads.”  Just as you have to hook a fish in its mouth, so too, to bring someone into the Catholic faith, you have to hook their intellects.

I’ve most often heard this line in connection with apologetics.  You get someone to be a Catholic by winning a war of apologetics.

But let us consider, this Easter, that apologetics is both too intellectual and not intellectual enough for the depths of catching men by their heads.

***

First, consider how profound our intellectual connection to the faith is.  In fact, faith is an intellectual virtue.

You can’t love God without having some sense of who and what God is.  That doesn’t mean you have to exhaust the meaning of God.  It’s impossible to have exhaustive knowledge of God, and it is love that brings us to know God better.  It might be true that you can’t love what you don’t know—but you also can’t get to know what you don’t love, because love is what brings us to ponder who God is.

Searching the Scriptures

That is all the more true of Jesus.  We have to discover Jesus, have to have some knowledge of him, in order to fall in love with him—and then we only get to know him by loving him enough to gaze at him.  Love and knowledge are a circle.

So too with hope.  We cannot hope in Jesus unless we have some idea of how Jesus can help us.  Until we have some knowledge of the promises of Jesus, there can be no hoping in him—and living in that hope leads us deeper into knowledge of the promises.

Faith, says a standard line, allows us to hope, and then, as we discover Jesus as our hope, as we know how much he helps us, we fall in love with him.  And then that hope and love lead us back into deeper knowledge, deeper faith.

And yet faith, trustful hearing of the teachings of our faith, is somehow the foundation of our life in Christ.  And that means too that our knowledge of Christ is fundamental.  It doesn’t end in our “heads,” but somehow it begins there.  We build upside down, with the foundations in our heads.

***

Now, on the one hand, that means apologetics often doesn’t take our “heads” seriously enough.  Sometimes it seems like, as with fish, we hope to “hook” people by their heads—then remove the hook and go on as if our knowledge of Christ was irrelevant once we’ve crossed the line into the boat of the Church.

I discovered this personally in my Bible reading.  There was a period, especially around the time I entered the Church (twenty years ago this Easter!) that I found myself reading the Bible only for apologetics.  The Bible was no longer speaking to me, it was only a source of one-liners that I could use to “hook” Protestants.

But the Bible is so much deeper than that.  The Bible is our endless source of knowledge of Christ.  For many Catholics, step one of discovering the Bible is to forget about apologetics, forget about what it says to “other people,” and start discovering what the Bible says to you.

Faith isn’t something we use just to get people into the Church, and then we throw it away.  Faith is the foundation of our whole life in Christ.  From the pages of the Bible—and, yes, the Catechism, the great spiritual writers and theologians, the Magisterium—we nourish our faith, which leads us to hope in Christ and love him deeper, which leads us to seek his face again.

Like fish, men are caught with their heads.  But unlike fish, we never remove the hook, we must always be drawn deeper in.

***

That’s the way that apologetics isn’t intellectual enough.  But in another sense, apologetics is too intellectual.

That’s where this Easter is a good time to rediscover the Catholic life of the mind.  When we read the Passion on Good Friday and Palm Sunday, when we read about the Last Supper and then about Easter, we were reading, we were learning, we were using our minds.  But we weren’t getting “arguments.”

Be Fishers of Men!

A standard way to phrase this is that it isn’t about “head knowledge.”  I think that phrase misses the mark.  It sounds like we should stop reading, stop listening to the readings, and somehow go some “heart” place, as if our heads weren’t connected to our hearts.  Rather, say that the deepest knowledge isn’t about argument, it’s about meditation and contemplation.

In the amazing readings of this last week, we discovered Jesus.  We need to delve deeper and deeper into these readings.  Deeper than apologetics, deeper than one-liners and proof texts, beyond any knowledge that we will leave behind once we’ve crossed the line into the Church.

Rather, we should seek the knowledge that leads to hope and love, and in hoping and loving be drawn back to know ever deeper.  We should contemplate the face of Christ, on the page of Scripture.  That’s how Catholics use their heads.

How do you study the face of Christ?

 

New and Old

In our politicized times, Catholics throw around the words “liberal” and “conservative” too loosely.  We end up confusing things that are quite different.  This happens especially with Pope Francis: to say he is “liberal” is to say both too much and nothing at all.

Perhaps the same thing is more clear in the case of St. John Paul II.  Was he liberal?  Conservative?  The categories don’t fit, whether we’re talking about secular politics or Church policy.  Liberal and conservative just aren’t helpful words.  The same is an important point about Benedict.

Liberal and conservative say something, more or less, about our relation to things new and old.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to prefer one thing or the other, but says, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52).  We should be both liberal and conservative—at the service of the kingdom.

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At the heart of questions about new things and old in our time is the Second Vatican Council.

I was just perusing John Paul II’s introduction to the “new” Code of Canon Law.  He explains that when St. John XXIII called Vatican II, he said that the Code of Canon Law would have to be revised as well, to reflect the thinking of the Council.  Canon Law is inside baseball, but perhaps nothing John XXIII said so fundamentally expresses the opening he gave for the Council to bring forth things old and new: the whole law, all our procedures, would be adjusted.

John Paul II refers in this context to the phrase from Matthew’s gospel about “what is new and what is old”: “the Second Vatican Council has drawn both new and old from the treasury of tradition,” he says, and enumerates what he thinks is “new” in Vatican II (my paragraphing and boldface):

 

“Among the elements which characterize the true and genuine image of the Church we should emphasize especially the following:

 

-the doctrine in which the Church is presented as the people of God (cf. dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, chapter 2)

-and hierarchical authority as service (cf. ibid., chapter 3);

 

-the doctrine in which the Church is seen as a communion

-and which therefore determines the relations which are to exist between the particular churches and the universal Church, and between collegiality and the primacy [of the pope];

 

-likewise the doctrine according to which all the members of the people of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold priestly, prophetic and kingly office of Christ,

-to which doctrine is also linked that which concerns the duties and rights of the faithful and particularly of the laity;

 

-and finally, the Church’s commitment to ecumenism.”

 

In all these things he refers to “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity.”

***

That’s a hefty list of ideas, and I’m not going to try to spell them all out here; if you are so inclined, you can meditate on them yourself, or ask me questions.  But I offer them on two levels:

On the most general level, they are just modern examples, enumerated by John Paul II, of the Church’s “fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity”—or even “liberalism and conservatism in the service of the kingdom,” or “fidelity beyond liberalism and conservatism.”  The Church is not liberal or conservative, she is the Church of Jesus Christ, and these are examples of what that means.

On a more particular level, they offer John Paul II’s insight into the principles of reform in our time.  Might I suggest that, if you look behind all the idiotic stuff in the press—including, I’m sorry to say, a lot of idiocy in the Catholic press—this is a pretty good list of the real “newness” Pope Francis is working out in the Church.

It’s not about abandoning the Church’s teaching on marriage or communion or whatever, whatever the New York Times may tell you.  It’s about those elements of “newness in fidelity and fidelity in newness” that St. John Paul II identifies with Vatican II.

“As Yourself”

A lawyer asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:35-39).

We all know the line, but what does it mean?

The two commandments are not parallel.  We are not told to love our neighbor with all our heart, and we are not told to love God as our self.

Here is another place where pressing more closely into the words of the Gospel takes us deeper than our vague summaries.

***

When St. Thomas Aquinas talks about charity, he gives us an interesting thing to think about.  When you drink a glass of wine—Thomas was Italian, but you can change the example to pizza or ribs or whatever works best for you—there are two very different kinds of love going on.

You love the wine and you love yourself.  But you love yourself in the sense that you want yourself to have a nice thing.  You love the wine in the sense that it’s the good thing that you want yourself to have.  Both are love, and they are connected, but they are very different.

There are different kinds of friendship.  There may be friends that you love like you love pizza.  You don’t care what’s good for them, you just like how they make you feel.  (And, a subdivision of this, there are friends whom you don’t even enjoy in themselves, you just love them because they give you pizza.  Aristotle calls these two friendships “friendship of pleasure” and “friendship of utility—but the point isn’t what Aristotle says, the point is that these are real things.)

There are other people you love not just because of what they can do for you, but for their own sake.  To lay down your life for your friends, or even to share your pizza with them, is a sign that you care not just about what you can get from them, but what is good for them.  (Aristotle calls this “noble friendship”—we could just call it “real” friendship.)

Friendship is funny, because often there’s a mix.  My best friends are pleasant to me.  We should enjoy them.  But we should also go beyond enjoying them, to wanting what’s good for them.  Sometimes you give them a slice of your pizza: less pizza for you to enjoy, but you enjoy that they are enjoying it.  You could say they are like “another self,” in that just as you want pizza for yourself, you also want them to enjoy good things.

***

When Jesus says, “your neighbor as yourself,” we often think he means, boy, I really like myself, and I should like my neighbor that much.  “As yourself” would be a measure of quantity.

But “as yourself” is a different kind of loving.  (In Greek as in English, it doesn’t say “as much as.”)  It doesn’t mean love him more, it means love him in a different way.  Love him, not as pizza—not even as really really good pizza—but love him in the sense that you want what is good for him.

Just as you are always working to get what you think will make you happy, long also to make your neighbor happy.

***

Now we have a connection to the first commandment.  When I love God with all my heart, I am loving him as my supreme good, way better than pizza.  He is what I want for myself.

But when I love my neighbor as myself, I want him to have that same good.  What I think is good for me, I also think is good for him.  In fact, wanting my neighbor to have this greatest of goods is a way of underlining that God is the highest good.

It even defines what kind of good God is: God is the kind of good, unlike pizza, that I will have more of if I share.  In wanting that good for my neighbor, I discover the kind of good that God is.

Loving my neighbor as myself opens up for me what it means to love God with all my heart.

***

The stigmata–and seraphic love–of St. Francis

But St. Thomas says another, startling thing when he talks about charity.  He says that, although Christian hope desires God as good for me, Christian love of God is like real friendship.  God is not just the pizza I want to consume (though he is that, too)—God is another self, another one of the people for whom I desire the good.  I want to make him happy, I want his happiness.  That is a crazy claim.

In the Old Testament, which Jesus is here discussing—“On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”—the highest good is to love God for my own sake.  But Jesus calls us not servants but friends.

St. Thérèse notices the difference between the Old Testament teaching “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is quite fine, and Jesus’s new commandment, “love as I have loved you,” an interesting reversal of “love as you love yourself.”

Somehow in loving our neighbor “as ourselves,” we discover a new level of love, a love that is not just about seeking my good, but seeing The Good, delighting in God not just because he makes me happy (though he does) but for sheer love.  Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit!

Whom would you love differently if you were loving them the way you love yourself?

 

How to Pray the Angelus

A few years ago, a couple friends of mine raised the question of what’s going on in the Angelus.  It seems to be scattered: various lines from the Gospel, mixed up with Hail Mary’s.  We know it’s supposed to be a good thing, but how do we understand it, so that we can pray it well?  Good question!

The Hail Mary offers one way to answer that concern.  The Hail Mary itself at first appears a bit scattered.  The second half is a petition: Pray for us.  But the first half is not a petition, it just addresses Mary.  And each of these parts has multiple parts: the first half is the Angel’s words to Mary (Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you), three clauses which themselves make at least three main points; and then Elizabeth’s words (Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb), two clauses with two points, plus a third point in the parallels between them.

The petition half of the Hail Mary is complicated, too: before we get to the two prayers (now, and at the hour of our death), we have two titles (Holy Mary, Mother of God).  The trick is to see how all this fits together. . . .

***

The three parts of the Angelus give us three ways to discover the Hail Mary.

“The Angel declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  The first phrase of the Hail Mary is the Angel’s first declaration to Mary.  The words of the Angelus help us to focus on the drama of those words—and then to see how they inform Elizabeth’s words: Mary is blessed because the Angel declared unto her and, by the Holy Spirit, she conceived the blessed fruit of her womb.

We have our first glimpse of how Mary is holy, and the beginnings of her being Mother of God.  And so we ask her to pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.

Great Marian saints like Louis de Montfort and John Paul II recommend that we add words to the Hail Mary to help us dive in.  We could make the connection here vivid by saying, “Hail Mary, who heard the angel’s word: full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”

***

File:Людовик Мария Гриньон де Монфор.jpg“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”  Now we turn around, from the Angel’s words to Mary, to Mary’s words to the angel.  And we have an even deeper insight into who she is, because we see how she acts.

Hail Mary, full of grace, who received the word—that’s how the Lord is with thee, that’s why you are blessed among women, and the Blessed One is the fruit of your womb.  Pray for me to be open to his word like you were, now and at the hour of my death!

***

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Always Mary points beyond herself to Jesus—De Montfort says, “When we say Mary, she says Jesus.”  The Hail Mary itself reminds us that everything about Mary is relative to Jesus: she receives his grace, he is with her, he makes her blessed, he is the blessed fruit of her womb, he makes her holy, he makes her his mother, and she prays to him.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Incarnate word is with thee.  That’s why Elizabeth calls you blessed, because of the blessed fruit of your womb.  You who are so close, so holy, because God is in your womb, making you his mother: pray for us.

***

You can expand the Hail Mary in your own words, as I have here.  You can find a simple little formula for each of these Hail Mary’s: Hail Mary, hearing the declaration; Hail Mary, handmaid; the Incarnate Lord is with thee.  Or you can just pray the Hail Mary, but using each of the three declarations of the Angelus to help you dig deeper into its words.

The point is: the Angelus is an opportunity to pray the Hail Mary better, to delve into its riches.

***

One more thought: more and more, it seems to me the richest word of the Hail Mary is the most obscure word, Hail.  It doesn’t mean “Salute.”  It is a greeting.  It’s a rough attempt to translate the Greek word in the New Testament, which means “Rejoice,” the deepest most personal version of “Good day!”

When we pray the Hail Mary, we should pause now and then on this word, and just enjoy Mary’s joy.  The Angelus gives us three angles on that joy.

How do you pray the Angelus?

On Reading

St. Jerome

I started writing this web page, and especially the meditations on the Sunday readings, in part as a kind of solidarity with my seminarian students.  I am helping teach them to be priests, and one of the central things they will do – and one of the central things my teaching will help them do – is to preach.

I tell my students my least favorite liturgical gesture – even though I know it is often only symbolic – is when the priest begins his preaching by closing the Lectionary.  “Enough Bible, now here’s what I have to say!”  At least symbolically, I’d like them to preach with their finger on the Lectionary, always leading themselves back into the Sacred Page.

I began writing these reflections to see if it’s as easy as I make it out to be.  A new priest recently told me that one of the hardest parts of his priesthood is having to come up with homilies for daily Mass.  What’s he going to talk about?  I thought, let me see what it’s like to try to say something about Scripture, and to talk about grace while I do it.

I’ve found it a wonderful experience.  Scripture is endless, the depths unfathomable.  If priests don’t have enough to say, it’s because they are plumbing the depths of their own shallow minds, not because the Bible has gotten boring.

***

The first few years of this web site I tried to focus on grace, and ended up talking a lot about the readings from my beloved St. Paul (or the other Epistles).  These are men who grow taller the closer we come to them.  They are wonderful.

About a year ago I set myself a new goal, to try to focus on the Sunday Gospels.  I had a spiritual intimation, from reading great authors, that the Gospel readings were great.  But I wondered if now I’d set myself too hard a task.  The real meat, I thought, is often in the Epistle.  The Gospels give us lovely images, but beyond picturesque stories, is there enough to preach on?

Searching the Scriptures

I’m happy to say that the Gospels surpass my wildest dreams.  The more I press, the richer they get.  I set myself a word count, trying to keep these posts short and readable – but there is so much more to say than ever I could write.

A sidenote: I’ve been doing some work on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  I don’t think people sufficiently appreciate that the whole book, some 600 pages, never goes beyond a commentary on seven verses in Matthew 19.  (He does use other parts of Scripture to help him explicate those seven verses – he doesn’t use philosophy.)  Or how that focus on Matthew focuses John Paul’s gaze on Christ the Redeemer and the Gospel of grace.  For historical reasons, and because of the deficiency of their own discovery of Scripture, Jesus, and grace, people confuse this Scriptural commentary with an older, philosophical work that is radically different and deficient.  But JPII’s real witness is his radical devotion to commentary on the Gospels.

***

Perhaps you will be scandalized to learn that I don’t put much prayer into this web site.  I do try to have a rich life of prayer, liturgy, and sacraments, and I do try to use the liturgy of the day on which I’m commenting to help me enter in.  But what I am proposing here is, you might say, a less prayer-centered approach to preaching.

Instead what I use is great Bible software.  (I love e-sword, which you can download on your computer, and as mySword on your phone – maybe it’s iSword on Apple?  It gives me easy access to various translations and original languages, greatly supplementing my shaky Greek and non-existent Hebrew.)  Yup, when it comes to preaching, I would recommend more time with the computer and less time in prayer.

I know that sounds scandalous – but let me explain.

Augustine says something like, “I speak to God through prayer, God speaks to me through Scripture.”  God has spoken to us in Scripture.  In the liturgy, we say, “the word of the Lord,” but I don’t think most Catholics believe that.  Instead, people think there’s some other way around, as if in silence God will speak to you a word that he hasn’t said in Scripture.  That he will enlighten you if only you stop reading the Bible.  It’s almost funny to see how modern Catholics try to come up with versions of Lectio Divina where they can spend less time reading the Bible.

I think that’s incorrect.  I think it’s contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, to the example of the saints, and to my own experience.  Silence is golden, to be sure – but what we need is sufficient silence to listen to his Word, spoken on the page of Scripture.  What we need is to get serious about reading the Gospel, digging into the Gospel, seeing how profoundly supernatural is the Gospel’s ability to enlighten our darkness and speak into our emptiness.

The only thing I really want this web page to promote is your own love of Scripture.

How can you better listen to God’s Word?

Forty Days of the Mercy of Jesus

A thought for Lent, from the liturgy.

I am generally a great defender of the liturgical reforms after Vatican II: because I think liturgy depends on our relationship to authority (it is inherently anti-liturgical to criticize the liturgy that the pope and the bishops give us), because I think the changes are for the most part really good (mostly simplification to focus on essentials and increase of Scripture), and because I think claims about the difference between the liturgies manifest that people don’t know what they’re talking about (the two forms aren’t as different as people claim, beyond the fact that there are some non-essential prayers at the beginning, and then people stop paying attention).  So there.  (Want to debate?  I have a comment box . . . .)

I am not defending practice – both rites are done badly most of the time – but the new books I like.

That said, there are little details that bug me.  One of them was the Kyrie.  Before Vatican II it was sung in Greek (I think using some Greek is good and beautiful), three times each instead of two (I like the poetry of that), and without any interpolations, or “tropes.”  It’s the tropes I want to talk about.

There are a few options for how to do the Kyrie now, but most of them include adding lines like, “You are Son of God and Son of Mary, Lord, have mercy.”

***

I don’t like additions.  To the contrary, one of the central principles of Vatican II’s constitution that defined the liturgical reform was:

“The rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 34).

Later they apply it to the Mass in particular:

“For this purpose the rites are to be simplified, due care being taken to preserve their substance; elements which, with the passage of time, came to be duplicated, or were added with but little advantage, are now to be discarded” (ibid., 50).

Why, in the midst of this simplification to the essentials, are we cluttering up the Kyrie?  And why, especially, are we adding lines that are not directly related to the prayer at hand?  We are crying out to the divine mercy.  I love to say Jesus is Son of Mary – I love the rosary! – but that’s not the point here.  Keep it simple.

***

But there’s one more part of my annoyance, and here we get to the crux.  The medievals too often added to the Kyrie, often long poems.  One of the main points of those poems was to develop a Trinitarian interpretation of the Kyrie.  The first “Lord have mercy” goes with the Father.  “Christ have mercy” goes with the Son.  The last “Lord have mercy” is the Holy Spirit.

But the Vatican II Mass speaks of Jesus at every turn: Son of God and Son of Mary, Lord have mercy.  We’re not talking about Jesus now – I thought.  We’re talking about the Father.  What are you doing!

But then I did some research.  It turns out that the Kyrie arises from an old procession where it was all about Jesus.  In fact, the Greek Kyrie is connected to that most ancient of Greek Christian prayers, the Jesus Prayer, where one repeats, over and over again, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Which is both Christ have mercy and Lord have mercy.  Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison is just another way of digging into the repetition: Jesus, mercy!  Jesus, mercy!  Jesus, mercy!

It turns out, as so often happens, the Magisterium is smarter than I am, and my stubbornness, my assumption that they were screwing things up, is actually yet another call to focus.

Of course mercy is a Trinitarian theme.  But we begin the Mass by looking toward Jesus, the Divine Mercy incarnate.  Keep it simple.  The tropes say things like “Son of God and Son of Mary” precisely to put flesh on the words, “Lord have mercy.”  It’s not a vague phrase in another language.  It’s not even a high Trinitarian formula.  It’s the Jesus Prayer: Jesus – mercy; Jesus – mercy; Jesus – mercy.  It’s only through Jesus that we have access to mercy and to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

This Lent, I wish you forty days of Jesus and mercy.

Fourth Sunday: No Empty Words

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry.

A Prophet (Jeremiah)

The first two readings teach us about prophets.  In the first, from Deuteronomy, Moses tells us God gives us a prophet, and God says he “will put my words into his mouth” so that we can hear God’s word before we are ready to face him.  The Psalm confirms that the prophet lets us “hear his voice.”

Our Epistle takes us now to the end of 1 Corinthians 7, where we hear the value of virginity.  For us, the rationale is more important than the conclusion.  The two most important words are “anxious” and “distraction.”  The Greek for anxious really is just “worry”: it’s not that we shouldn’t worry, Paul says, it’s that we should know what to worry about: pleasing God.  And distraction is “getting dragged around.”

In the context of our other readings, the point is: God speaks to us to tell us what we should be worried about, so we don’t get dragged around by every little thing.

***

In our Gospel, Jesus speaks his third word, according to Mark.  He introduced himself with the shout, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near. Repent, and believe the gospel.”  Then he said to the first apostles, “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

This week what he says is surprising: “Quiet!  Come out of him!”

It surprises us that after such a bold basic message, and after calling his apostles not only to follow, but to be fishers, he tells the demon not only “come out of him,” but “quiet!”  Quiet because he’s saying, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Doesn’t he want that shouted from the rooftops?

***

The question in this Gospel is about “authority.”

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is saying, in the synagogue in Capernaum.  He says only that Jesus “taught.”  But he does tell us that “the people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

The word scribe, in Greek as in English, is connected to the word “Scripture.”  They are “the Scripture Christ Giving His Blessing.jpgguys,” or Scripture scholars.  “Pharisee” means separatist; Sadducee might mean “righteous” or might refer to the name of their founder; the “priests” have a function, and social status, in Jerusalem.  But the “scribes” have no message, they are just guys who quote Scripture.

Jesus quotes Scripture – if he’s in a synagogue, that’s what they’re talking about.  But he does it with authority.  The distinction is parallel to what is sometimes said about lectio divina.  The difference between lectio and other ways of reading Scripture is that it actually has force in our life – authority over us.  The scribes are like cartoon characters, with words floating in bubbles outside their heads but no real significance.  (I’m stealing that image from Parker Palmer’s work on teaching.)  Jesus speaks and it matters.

***

And that is why Jesus silences the demon who says, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  We can say those words . . . we can say “Lord, Lord” . . . we can profess the true nature of Christ, as Peter did before denying him at the Cross . . . we can exclaim over our own orthodoxy . . . we can quote Scripture, like a scholar or a trivia buff, or even like an apologist . . . and not accept his authority over us.

But Jesus has come not so we can make empty statements, but so that we can know his authority.

F.Mazzola-Cristo benedicente.jpgThe whole structure of Mark’s Gospel – Peter’s Gospel – is to say, sure, as Matthew tells us, perhaps people along the way called Jesus Lord.  But until the Cross, we cannot really know what it means.  Until we embrace his total authority, it is meaningless to say, “Lord, Lord.”  Even demons can say, “I know who you are,” as Peter did that fateful day.

So Jesus’s first words are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God draws near.  Repent, and believe the gospel.”  He points first not to himself, but to God’s authority over us.

And second, “Come after Me and I will make you salties of men”: if I am to be your Lord, you must be serious about your neighbor.

And now, “Come out of him!”  The demon asks, “What have you to do with us?”  It is a deeper question than “who do people say that I am?”  Deeper because it includes that question, takes us deeper into it.  Who do you say that I am?  What do you think I have to do with you?

Jesus’s answer is to demonstrate his authority, even over unclean spirits.

What part of your life calls into doubt your profession that Jesus is Lord?