I am happy to say that I had excellent experiences of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal when I was in college. I have seen it as a place where people learned to live their faith to the fullest, and I learned there to believe in the Holy Spirit as a real force in our lives. I learned a lot about Pentecost there.
I am sad to say, then, that in one respect, Charismatic prayer serves as a perfect example of what the Holy Spirit is not. I think there is something to the modern phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” meaning gibberish, as a way of discovering prayer that transcends our minds. But in the New Testament, speaking in tongues is the opposite: not gibberish nonsense, but sense. In defense of charismatics, I can only add that, ironically, Traditionalists make the same mistake, thinking that prayer is more legitimate if it’s in a language you don’t understand. So does a certain kind of “contemplative” spirituality that thinks that silence is truer prayer than the Liturgy or lectio divina.
“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled . . . there came from heaven a noise like a strong driving wind. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.” Thomas Aquinas points out that one of the main characteristics of tongues of flame is that they stretch upward. When the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Son, comes upon us, he becomes a power within us leaping upward toward heaven.
But in a
pun (that doesn’t exactly work in English), Acts then says they “began to speak
in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” Charismatics, Traditionalists, and
contemplatives are all correct in thinking that the Holy Spirit is tongues of
fire leaping upward, in a way that transcends human strength, toward heaven.
fail to see that what happens then is not gibberish but intelligence. The most confusing thing of all is that we
become intelligent: “they were confused because each one heard them speaking in
his own language” (or “tongue”). “We
hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
does not make the apostles dumb. He
makes them intelligible. And in so
doing, he binds together what man had separated.
second reading, we have a choice between 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 8, two of
Paul’s greatest passages on the Holy Spirit.
In both, we learn that the Spirit teaches us to speak: “No one can say,
‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
“A spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” Mumbo jumbo is mysterious. But the greater mysteries are to call God
Father and Jesus Lord. Nothing that
empties the mind can fill us with deeper awe than these words.
The Spirit brings order, too. In Romans 8, he “raised Christ from the dead” and “will give life to your mortal bodies also,” for “the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” It is not mindless chaos that the Spirit brings; rather, he undoes that chaos by teaching us to live as sons. So too in 1 Corinthians 12 the Spirit binds the many together in one body, the body of Christ. “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” The Spirit teaches us to speak, and to bring order.
two options for the Gospel, as well, one from John’s Last Supper discourse, the
other from Jesus’s appearance on Easter night (at the same supper table, in the
upper room). In the first, Jesus says
the “Advocate” (or “Paraclete” or “comforter” or “helper”: all the same word in
Greek) will lead us to “keep my commandments”: not to be unruly, but
ruled. So too we will “keep my
word.” “The word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me,” for the Father is an intelligent, wise
God, a God of words, who speaks his word in Jesus Christ. And their Spirit “will teach you everything”—that
is “remind you of all that I told you.”
The Spirit does not replace Scripture, but takes us deep into the words
And this is the way of “peace.” On Easter night he twice says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands his side, reveals to them who he is, not in a cloud of mystery, but in the deeper mystery that can be spoken in words, and infinitely transcends any cloud of mystery. And then he gives them the Spirit of peace: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” The balance creates an orderly ministry: not a lawless chaos where sin doesn’t matter, but an orderly ministry of forgiveness. And the conclusion of that forgiveness is not sin, but peace, union, intelligence, and order.
there any ways that you under-appreciate the wisdom of God?
I got the idea—have you heard this?—that from the time of the Ascension until
Pentecost, the Apostles were “hiding” in the Upper Room for fear of the
Jews. The point of Pentecost, then,
would be to overcome their fear.
Now, it’s true that in John’s Gospel, he does say that on Easter night, when Jesus first appeared to them in the Upper Room, “the doors were locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews.” But John’s not talking about Ascension and Pentecost, he’s talking about Jesus’s ability to get through locked doors (as well as another theme about how the people of Jerusalem—not “the Israelites,” but specifically “the Judeans”—were opposing Christ).
and Pentecost are uniquely themes of Luke-Acts.
John talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit, but not Pentecost—and in
John, when Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit on Easter evening, it’s to forgive
sins, not to be courageous.
Ascension, our first reading is the beginning of Acts (written by St. Luke),
the Ascension. And each year we read the
last verses of the Gospel for the year.
In Matthew, it’s the Great Commission, with no mention of the
Ascension. Mark’s version of the Great
Commission includes tongues, snakes, and poison, as well as the Ascension. And this year, the Year of Luke, we get the
Ascension story proper.
An interesting detail of Luke is his insistence that they stayed in Jerusalem. In Matthew, the angel tells the women, “Tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goes before you into Galilee; there shall you see him,” and for the Great Commission it says, “the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” (Galilee is the far north, where Jesus and most of the disciples come from, whereas Jerusalem is the far south.) In Mark, too, he tells them to go to Galilee. In John he meets them twice in the Upper Room in Jerusalem (the second time a week later, for Doubting Thomas), but the whole last chapter is fishing on “The Sea of Tiberias,” one of the names for the main lake in Galilee.
emphasizes something different: The Road to Emmaus is about seven miles from
Jerusalem, and when they recognize him they return to Jerusalem; then as they
tell their story there he appears again in Jerusalem, and it is there that Luke
says he ate fish with them. In Luke, the
Ascension is at Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem, where the Mount of
know when the disciples were where, but I don’t think it takes a rocket
scientist to figure out that the four Gospels are just telling different parts
of the same story, and they can all be true.)
More important, in Luke Jesus commands them, in his last words: “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” because “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Again in Luke’s Acts, “he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father”; “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
disciples are not afraid. They are not
running away to Galilee, or locking themselves away. To the contrary, they are staying in the
middle of it all. The last words of Luke
are, “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in
the temple blessing God.” In Acts 1 they
go to the Upper Room not to hide, but to pray, and then to attend to business:
“one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection,” to
of thoughts on staying in Jerusalem.
Luke-Acts is very much like Paul in its theology. A central theme is that Christianity is not a
different religion, but the fulfillment of the religion of the Old
Testament. On the one hand, Luke and
Paul insist, it’s wrong to remain a Jew and to seek religious fulfillment in
the cultural limitations of the pre-Jesus religion. But on the other hand, it’s wrong to dismiss
Judaism, because it is Judaism that Christianity fulfills. Above all, it is the Law that Jesus finally
brings to its fulfillment, so that Christians offer the true sacrifice in the
true temple, and Christians are finally able to live to the fullest the Old
Testament’s love of God and neighbor, with all its social and natural-law
implications. The Church is the true
Israel, and so the Church begins in Jerusalem.
Christianity is not about heading for the hills. It is not about fear of men or building an
enclave. Jesus commands the
disciples—and he commands us—to go into the city, and then go forth from the
city of Jerusalem to the cities of the world.
Christianity is about missionary advance, not retreat.
Our second reading, from Ephesians, sums it up with overwhelming riches. The Spirit of Pentecost is “a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, resulting in knowledge of him”: Jesus and his Spirit complete the Old Testament revelation. We are “enlightened” to “the hope that belongs to his call,” “the riches of glory in his inheritance,” “the surpassing greatness of his power,” which is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.”
The Spirit of Christ sends us into Jerusalem: into the fullness of Revelation, and in mission to the cities of the world.
archdiocese (the densest in the country), we celebrate Ascension on Thursday, forty
days after Easter and a novena before Pentecost. But in most of the wide United States, to
make sure everyone can make it to Mass, they move it to Sunday: the Church is
still figuring out how holy days work in a non-Catholic society. Since moving Ascension displaces the seventh
and last Sunday in Easter, this sixth Sunday has the option of doing the
seventh Sunday’s readings. But I’ll just
comment on the ones scheduled for this day.
The first reading, from Acts 15, is important. It’s the first Council of the Church, the gathering at Jerusalem where “the apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church,” solve the first great pastoral-doctrinal problem: whether to make Gentile converts follow the Jewish law. This year it strikes me that, very much as in Paul’s letters, the central theme of Acts seems to be the complicated relationship between Christianity and Judaism: the prophets are the ones who tell us who Jesus is, and the Law tells us who we are supposed to be—but the Gospel takes us beyond the cultural limits of the Jewish covenant.
“There arose no little dissension and debate” about the following proposal: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” “Practice” is in Greek “ethos”; it is also translated “custom.” But “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities” (which mainly pertain to avoiding idol worship, as well as maintaining Old Law determinations about marriage).
This is an issue that doesn’t go away—that lives, in fact, even in perennial fights over things like when to celebrate the Ascension. There have always been those who want to reduce the Gospel to a human “custom,” to “practices.” A lot of “traditionalism” interprets Catholicism as a sort of Latin-language nationalism, a set of “practices,” a “culture.” Galatians and Colossians are about people in Paul’s time who wanted to reduce Christianity to Jewish cultural practices—but I am always amazed at how contemporary those letters are, how they sound like they’re speaking to people today who are more interested in “practices” than in Jesus Christ.
love the liturgy as much as anyone. But we’re
missing something if we reduce the Ascension to how many days we can count
between Easter and Pentecost. Something
much bigger is going on.
Our reading from Revelation 21 continues our review of the final vision. John sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” It is not the earthly Jerusalem—or the earthly Rome. (Ironically, it is Rome, and the papacy, which keeps reminding us that our religion is more Catholic than Roman, more about Christ than about culture. But the culture warriors keep opposing the popes.)
This is not a religion we build with human hands, and with human culture. It is God. The Temple is replaced: “I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.” It’s not about human customs and practices. It’s about letting our whole life be illuminated by the Lamb.
John’s Gospel is a bit loose about post-Resurrection chronology. He collapses Pentecost into Easter: Jesus gives the Holy Spirit on Easter night. In this account, Jesus appears the second time, to doubting Thomas, the week after Easter, and then the third and last time John reports is at the seaside, which concludes with Jesus twice referring to “until I come.” Before all that, when he told Mary Magdalene, “Do not touch me,” he said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father”—but it’s not clear when that happens.
other hand, before the Crucifixion, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already giving
his Pentecost discourse, about it being better “if I go” “to prepare a place
for you.” The whole paschal event seems
to be his Ascension. It’s not about
dates and numbers, it’s about the union of Father and Son.
about “whoever loves me” and “will keep my word,” because “the word you hear is
not mine but that of the Father who sent me.”
The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Paraclete, “will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.”
It’s a matter of loving him so much that we cling to his words.
If we do, “we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” The word for dwelling, whence the Latin “mansiones” (from re-main), could be translated dwell, or remain, or abide. It’s one of John’s favorite words: we abide in him, he abides in us, stay with me. That’s the key, later in the reading, to “My peace I give to you” and “Do not let your hearts be troubled”: “I will come back to you.”
Christianity is not a matter of practices. Don’t water it down. Don’t over humanize it. Christianity is about dwelling with the God who dwells with us, the God who ascends to heaven and descends to us, in the Incarnation and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. It is about God with us. It has less to do with counting how many days till the next custom than with loving his Word, loving his commands, loving the people for whom he died—and loving him enough just to dwell with him.
Are there ways you leave God out of
your Catholic practices?
My children and I sing from time to time in an Anglican church choir. It is an interesting experience, something like going to the Cloisters museum in New York City. On the one hand, this parish preserves Catholic artistic traditions, especially music, far better than anywhere Catholic that I have experienced. On the other hand, they do not share the Catholic faith, from submission to Peter to the unique necessity of Jesus Christ to various moral teachings. (Interesting: like a museum, it is natural that a place uniquely focused on traditional practices will preserve those practices better than a Catholic parish that is more interested in preaching the integrity of the Catholic faith.)
a fascinating example. We sang the
Gregorian introit (or entrance antiphon): “I have risen, and I am with you,
alleluia. You have laid your hand upon
me, alleluia. Too wonderful for me this knowledge, alleluia, alleluia.” Our choir director—I mean no disrespect when
I say he is an excellent musician who does not believe what the Catholic Church
teaches—made the very true observation that the traditional, Gregorian musical
setting of this text isn’t very happy.
me that Easter is a little scary. The
Glorious Mysteries are not just Joyful.
They’re disconcerting. They throw
us off our balance. Part of the reason
people don’t accept the teaching of the Catholic Church—and why they rejected
Jesus when he lived on this earth—is that the joy of Christian faith calls us
far out of our comfort zone. “You have
laid your hand upon me” is good news—and also kind of scary news. The Resurrection, far from eliminating death,
calls us to pass to life through death.
It is frightening.
thing struck me with last week’s readings, for the Fifth Sunday of Easter.
14, Paul and Barnabas are “proclaiming the good news.” But the good news is,
“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of
God.” They report what God has done for
them—but it involves an awful lot of travel.
“He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles,” which is great—but
also means Paul’s whole conception of life, and culture, and home is turned
upside down. Christianity is not about
reading from the second-to-last chapter of Revelation has the good news that
God “will dwell with them” and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” But he says, “I make all things new.” It is “a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had
passed away.” We are not left in our
cozy homes. Jesus pulls us out of our
place of comfort and takes us somewhere new.
We pass to the Resurrection, but only through the loss of what we
thought life meant.
Jerusalem [is] coming down out of heaven from God”—a new way of life, in which
we receive from God what we cannot attain by our own strength and would not
have planned. We are “prepared as a
bride adorned for her husband”: and like any wedding, joy must be mingled with
the fear and confusion of leaving our father and mother.
And so our
Gospel, from the beginning of Jesus’s long Last Supper discourse in John, talks
about glory. “Now is the Son of Man
glorified, and God is glorified in him.”
But why? How? The key is in “when”: “Now” is “When Judas
had left them,” to go betray Jesus. His
glory comes through the Cross. And we
realize that glory is a different thing from comfort; the glorious mysteries
are more unsettling than the joyful.
“If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself.” Glory is the work of God, and that’s disconcerting. Glory means God’s glory, and that is also disconcerting. Glory takes us from a merely human life to a share in the divine. Very disconcerting.
Jesus shifts his theme: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so also should love one
another.” St. Thérèse points out that
loving one another is not a new commandment; that was already the heart of the
Old Testament. And frankly, there are
lots of ways that we naturally love one another: love our friends, our family,
etc., at least when it’s convenient.
commandment is to love “as I have loved you.”
That kind of love is so new, so distinctive, that “This is how all will
know that you are my disciples.” (He says,
“If you have agape for one another”:
that new love.) Such a crazy change of
life that it will make you look different from the world.
good news. But it is a bit frightening.
What newness does the glory of Easter demand in your life?
I’m sorry my posting has been so behind. Tonight, at the last hour of Sunday, I finally post my reflections for last Sunday and this.
As I have noted in a couple posts (here and here), the last six months have overwhelmed me. On my first day back from sabbatical, we began a comedy of errors with our upstairs tenant’s plumbing that lasted about a month.
A month and a half later, the week before Palm Sunday, a crazed neighbor drove his Audi down our narrow one-way quiet residential city block fast enough that when he clipped the big truck parked across the street from us, the Audi rolled, and landed upside-down, with its rear end through the back door of our family minivan. No one was hurt–my upstairs neighbor and I got outside to see the driver miraculously climb out of his upside down window with only a bloody nose, and boy was I relieved, when I stooped to see if there was another bloody body in the car, to find it empty. But we began a less humorous comedy of errors with our cheapo car insurance company that only ended a couple days ago: seven weeks driving around with a black garbage bag tied to our back window, trying to get the door replaced.
And that’s not even to mention the real excitement of my semester, which I’m afraid I can’t share, and which resulted in nothing, but was a huge amount of upheaval in the meantime.
I hope all of these things somehow make me a better Christian, and might filter down to my writing. But I haven’t gotten to write as much as I’d like. Now it’s summer, the plumbing and the car are fixed, the big drama of our spring is over, and I hope I’ll be back to something more ordinary!
Sunday celebrated the Good Shepherd. The
first three Sundays of Easter remember the Resurrection, the fourth turns to
the Good Shepherd, and then as we move toward the Ascension and Pentecost, we
recall Christ’s promises to stay with his Church, in the Last Supper discourse
in John’s Gospel (13-17). Together these
Gospels summarize the Acts of the Apostles and the foundation of the Church.
our readings for Good Shepherd emphasize the strange way Jesus continues his
Incarnation through the Apostles.
first reading, from Acts, Paul and Barnabas proclaim, “the Lord has commanded
us, I have made you a light to the
Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.”
II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church begins with the same dynamic. “Christ is the Light of nations [Lumen Gentium]. Because this is so, this
Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by
proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all
men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.” Christ is the light. His Gospel is the light. But the Holy Spirit is present in the Church,
so that the light of Christ’s face is reflected on the face of the Church.
confusion between the prophet and the messiah—which one is “the light of the
nations”—is in the texts Paul and Barnabas are quoting, from Isaiah 42, 49, and
Fathers of the Church call this “the mystery of the moon.” The moon shines with a light not its own,
reflecting the light of the sun.
the Good Shepherd. Anyone else can be a
good shepherd only by reflecting his light.
reading, from Revelation, takes us deeper into the strange confusion between
Jesus and the Church. The Shepherd is
the Lamb (that’s a paradox). The
righteous are those who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb
(another paradox). “The Lamb who is in
the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of
He is the
shepherd because he is the lamb, who knows the suffering of his sheep and dies
for them. They are his people when their
purity is not to hide from suffering, but to immerse themselves in his blood.
And so we
come to our short Gospel, from John 10.
Shepherd discourse in chapter 10 is as strange as they come. In vv. 1-5, Jesus introduces the door, the
shepherd, the gatekeeper, and the sheep.
Which one is he? In vv. 7-10, he
is the door. In vv. 11-13, he is the
good shepherd, who lays down his life.
In vv. 14-16, he is the good shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose
sheep know him. In vv. 17-18, he again lays
down his life.
begins a new discourse, when “The Feast of Dedication took place at
Jerusalem. It was winter” (or more
literally, at “the renewal,” Hanukkah, the celebration of when they renewed religious
services in the Temple, after the Antiochene persecution, “in the rainy
season”). But he picks up the same theme
again: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep,” he says. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and
they follow me.” It is there that our
reading picks up.
can take them out of my hand,” he says.
Without the previous verses, it is less clear that he has just said that
some of the Jews of Jerusalem, God’s chosen people, have taken themselves out
of his hand, though we got that message in Acts: “It was necessary that the
word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn
yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” The message is not that everyone is fine.
the message is that we are fine, if we are in Jesus’s hands. It’s not that we don’t need a Shepherd, but
that we have one.
short reading quickly takes a new turn.
From his sheep knowing his voice, he segues to them never perishing, and
then to the Father: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
pointing forward to chapter seventeen, where Jesus will say to the Father, “All
mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them,” and he prays, “that
they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they
also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
the Father are one. Jesus and the Church
are one. Jesus preaches through the
Church, when the Church clings to Jesus.
The Church is united to the Father, when the Church is united to
Jesus. And the Church can have good
shepherds only when they cling to the Good Shepherd. It all depends on union with Jesus.
Do you find yourself searching for security
apart from Jesus?
Another group is out calling Pope Francis a heretic. That group’s
claims are truly outrageous, but they fit into a pattern of nervousness about Pope Francis’s orthodoxy. But we shouldn’t be nervous.
First, because that’s Protestant. For me, a central part of becoming Catholic was deciding that, when my opinions clash with the Magisterium, I assume I’m wrong. I believe in Christ’s promises to Peter.
are lots of factually incorrect assertions about Francis. I know the temptation we all have—including
theologians—to skim a document and claim we’ve read it closely. But I teach Francis’s main documents, and every
time I see a new controversy, I check his words carefully. He isn’t saying the things people are afraid
Third, what I find when I read him is that he’s saying really important things. It’s not just that I tolerate him because he’s the Pope. I think he’s a great, much-needed Pope. It’s too bad people aren’t reading him.
a lot of parallels between Francis and Vatican II—and the problems in how
people (don’t) read both. St. John Paul
II spent his great papacy uncovering Vatican II, showing that the actual
teaching of the Council was way richer than the politicized stuff a lot of
people say about it. JPII said, read the
documents, and what you will find is the riches of the Catholic faith.
XVI was a great teacher, too, on how to read Vatican II. One of his most important teachings was his
lecture on the “hermeneutic of rupture.”
Hermeneutics is a fancy way to say that often what we get out of someone’s
teaching says more about us than about the teaching. We tend to hear what we want to hear, or what
we expect to hear. If you approach Pope
Francis, or Vatican II, with the assumption that they’re saying something wrong,
you’re going to tend to hear something wrong even where it isn’t being spoken. People even did that to JPII.
That’s what Benedict XVI meant by “hermeneutic of rupture.” Without even having read Vatican II, a lot of people assumed it was a break with the
traditional Catholic faith. But people don’t get that idea from Vatican II, they bring that idea with them, and it can keep us from reading what the Council actually says. Ironically, that’s true of both liberals and conservatives: liberals are delighted to think that Vatican II is a break from the past, conservatives are horrified—and neither of them are reading what Vatican II actually says, they’re just bringing their assumptions.
is true with Pope Francis. If you read
what he says, there’s no rupture. There
is, as Benedict XVI says of Vatican II, reform, an effort at rediscovery and
living things better—Benedict says the proper “hermeneutic” for Vatican II is
not just “continuity,” but “reform in continuity.” Reform is significant, and difficult, but it
is not rupture. But we can be so eager
to find rupture that we never read what Francis actually says.
So why do we
bring that assumption of rupture to Francis?
A reforming Pope—it was true of JPII, also—can be challenging, and there
are legitimately difficult ideas that Francis talks about. I need to find time to talk about those
But for now, I just want to suggest some alternative explanations, to suggest why we might be imposing a “hermeneutic of rupture” on a good Pope. I want to emphasize at the beginning that the following suggestions are very different from one another.
1. Separation anxiety. St. John Paul II spent several years dying. We knew we would have to move on. When he died, there was a funeral, a huge
mourning experience. But when Benedict XVI resigned, he just walked away, quickly—we only had a month—and we didn’t get to mourn. Instead, we have the weird situation of the previous pope still sitting there, walking-distance from the new pope. Popes are different—Benedict XVI was very different from John Paul II, despite their friendship—and it’s hard to adjust to a new one. We’re emotionally invested in Popes: that’s why they announce a new one with “Gaudium magnum, great joy,” and why we have a mourning period before the conclave. We should have an emotional attachment to Pope Benedict—but we shouldn’t let it prevent us from reading what Pope Francis says.
24/7 media. We see a lot more than we
used to see, and spend a lot more time dissecting it. Take Cardinal Kasper’s infamous contributions
to the Synods on marriage. Cardinals
have always had a lot of opinions, but we didn’t use to hear them quite so
much; part of the problem with Vatican II was that people weren’t used to so
much press coverage—and now we have the internet. The sausage was always made, but not we watch
it over and over again on the internet.
On the personal level, even popes make mistakes—but the internet, like
People magazine, makes us focus on that personal level more than on the level
of actual papal teaching, which is much better.
In between the personal level and the doctrinal is the way of expressing
things. In any dialogue or writing
process (this is my second draft of this post!) the first version won’t be the
best. But where we used to only hear the
final statement, the official papal document, now we’ve spent so much time
discussing the first, clumsier statement that we have trouble setting it aside
to read the official version. A perfect
example is Kasper’s initial statement on communion for the divorced and
remarried: it was riddled with theological problems. What Francis finally said in Amoris Laetitia is NOT what Kasper
said—but by the time the real document came out, we were all so exhausted and
invested in the Kasper argument that we didn’t have the energy for a clear
discussion of what the Pope really said.
3. The new
media. As recently as when John Paul II
died, media was handled by massive centralized companies, including the big
Catholic newspapers and EWTN. Those
centralized companies had their own dangers: they tended to promote
centralization, from the New York Times’s big government to EWTN’s big papacy
or the Wall Street Journal’s big business.
But in the blogosphere, there’s something almost Darwinian about the
most negative, outlandish sources rising to the top: why click on responsible
reporting when you can click on something exciting, true or untrue. (Trump, of course, is a genius at
manipulating this system, getting media exposure by being outlandish.) And just as big media is inherently
centralizing, the new media is inherently anti-authoritarian. Again, this has more to do with media than
with Francis: no matter who is Pope, outlandish and anti-authoritarian things
on the internet are going to get a lot of clicks. Readers need to be savvy. So do writers: it’s awfully tempting to be
flattered by the traffic, and think that if people are clicking on us, we must
be saying something important. Pray for
your new-media authors.
4. Us vs.
them. As to the substance of what he
says, Francis is harder on people inside the Church than on people
outside. We are a tribal race, and we
live in tribalist times: we all prefer to hear that we are right and everyone
else is wrong. When Pope Benedict said
“dictatorship of relativism,” it felt great to us who oppose relativism. (Though if you read what he actually said,
it’s not as tribalist as people think.)
Francis is kind to non-Catholics and hard on Catholics—and he has been
more successful than JPII and Benedict XVI at making us hear that
criticism. But if you read the prophets,
or the saints, or the Gospels, you realize that God’s word is always harder on
“us” than it is on “them.” The prophets
who said, “we are fine and everyone else is bad” were false prophets, whom the
true prophets condemn. Whereas Jesus
constantly warns us against being Pharisees.
Francis is in the best prophetic tradition—but none of us like to hear
the message that we need to be better Catholics than we are.
5. Poverty. Opposition to Pope Francis did not begin when he started talking about marriage. It was strong from day one, when all we knew was that as a cardinal, he rode the bus and cooked his own dinner, and that as Pope he said, “How I long for a Church that is poor and for the poor!” The
Church’s teaching on money is hard for us to accept. When Francis was elected, I had only just come around to those ideas. When Benedict XVI wrote his encyclical on economics, I was one of the many people who rejected it—until I had to teach it, and discovered that Church teaching on economics is (a) presented by the Magisterium as magisterial, not optional, (b) about moral obligations: not macroeconomics, and not an endorsement of one secular political party or economic system over another, but the moral responsibility of each of us to care more about other people than about money, and (c) not trying to replace personal prudence, or microeconomics: the Church doesn’t tell a businessman exactly what wage to pay his employees, any more than it tells a father what to feed his children or how exactly to teach them—though it does assert, contrary to the secular world, that a businessman has a moral responsibility to his employees and customers, just as a father has a responsibility for his children. Unfortunately, our hostility to misrepresentations of Church teaching on economics often makes us close our ears to the real teaching of the popes. Pope Francis has been more successful than Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and other recent popes at making sure we know that he is talking about economics, but because we still don’t know what the Church teaches about economics, he makes people nervous. (The same could be said about mercy, or clericalism.) So ironically, because Francis is boldly proclaiming traditional, orthodox Church teaching on an issue that makes American Catholics nervous, too many of us fear him, instead of welcoming his magisterial voice.
Poverty, us vs. them, the new media, the 24/7 media, and separation anxiety: some of the opposition to Francis is rooted in rejection of previous papal teaching, but I think much of the opposition is from people who just haven’t thought through their emotional attachment to the last pope. We should pray for all of them, and recognize our own tendencies to thoughtlessness and self-righteousness.
I love the
Pope because he’s the Pope. I love Pope
Francis. And I’m sad that all these
issues are keeping people from hearing the important things he has to say to
Sunday of Easter rounds out the Resurrection stories: Easter Vigil is from the
Year of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, Easter morning is John (or optional Luke), and
the Second Sunday is the appearance to Doubting Thomas, which John tells us
occurs a week after. The Fourth Sunday
will be Good Shepherd, and the rest of Easter is from the farewell discourse in
This year our story is Peter and the guys out fishing. Peter puts his clothes on and jumps in the water when he hears Jesus call. It’s one of my family’s favorite slapstick moments in the Gospels—Peter’s enthusiasm is infectious—and I have been thinking about the humor of John’s Gospel, which returns again and again to the confusions of fleshy people trying to think about Jesus’s words.
But I did
a little research about fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and what strikes me even
more than the humor is Peter’s vocation.
Peter is a
fisherman. Jesus sends them home to
Galilee, and Peter says, “I am going fishing”—all night. It’s who he is.
He has no
luck that night. But Jesus’s ability to
give them fish points to how much providence there is in fishing. I don’t think it suggests that Peter was a
translation says, “He tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad.” That’s polite. It’s more like, “he pulled on a pull-over,
and tied a belt around it”—casual fishing clothes, I think—“because he was
Now, it’s fair enough to conjecture that “naked” just meant “under-dressed.” Okay. But it sounds like the way this kind of fishing worked, you’d throw a net in the water with weights on one side and floats on the other, and then use your boat to pull it around in a circle, so you have a kind of cylinder. Then someone has to dive down and pull the bottom of the net closed: my favorite Bible dictionary describes seeing fishermen do this in late nineteenth century Galilee, so it’s not impossible, and it might just be the traditional way to do it. It would explain why Peter was naked—swim trunks are a new thing—and why he thinks nothing of jumping back in. Peter was a serious swimmer.
hear that Peter swam to land, while the others rowed. Yes, Peter’s swimming is enthusiastic. But it’s also athletic. It says they were a hundred yards from shore,
which was short for their little boat.
But for a swimmer, that’s two lengths of an Olympic-size pool, or four
lengths in a normal pool—fully clothed, just after grabbing that net from the
bottom. That’s athletic.
rushes over and single handedly drags ashore a net full of one hundred
fifty-three large fish—these were probably Mango Tilapias, about eighteen
inches long and three and a half pounds each, so five hundred thirty-five
pounds of fish, plus soaking wet netting: no wonder the guys couldn’t get that
net into the boat. Peter is really
athletic. Perhaps he has the miraculous
strength of the Resurrected One, but he is really athletic.
eat fish and bread over a seaside fire, as if to drive home Peter’s natural
environment. Peter was a fisherman, the
kind who fished with big nets.
Lectionary, always brilliant, pairs that story with the next one, “Do you love
me?” People are right to focus on the
love part—and perhaps that love is the perfect explanation for Peter’s swimming
But I’m interested in the fisherman. It’s fascinating that in such a fisherman context, Jesus changes the subject, mixes the metaphor. He
doesn’t tell Peter to be a fisherman. He says, “Feed my lambs.” (The threefold repetition brings out three parts of shepherding: food for the baby lambs, watch over the big sheep, and feed the big sheep.) Peter is not a shepherd, he’s a fisherman. I imagine shepherds and fishermen didn’t understand each other.
the punchline: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where
you wanted.” In fact, we have just seen
Peter’s athletic youthfulness, his dressing himself and freedom with his
clothes—naked, wet clothes, he does whatever he wants—and his going where he
wants: fishing, not shepherding.
Jesus calls him, “Simon, Son of John,” pointing to his origin—and tearing him
us this was Jesus’s third appearance to the apostles. He had appeared to Mary Magdalene (not the
apostles) and said, “Do not touch me.” He
appeard to the Apostles the first time in the Upper Room, and showed them his
hands. He appeard to Thomas and the
Apostles the second time and let Thomas touch his hands. And now he is helping them fish and eating
with them. He gets fleshier and
more real he is, the more the power of the Resurrection tears Peter from his
comfortable home place and drags him out, to pastoral concern for others
instead of fishing with the guys whenever he wants—“I am going fishing!”—and to
his own crucifixion.
Where is the power of the
Resurrection drawing you?
time of waiting, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, a thought on
Jesus the teacher, from Palm Sunday.
struck by an odd connection in Palm Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 50. On the one hand, it is about suffering: “I
gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.” But it is also about proclamation: “The Lord
God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the
weary a word that will rouse them.” Somehow
he teaches through suffering: the training of his tongue is in the plucking of
to Psalm 22, as well. It’s a long Psalm,
and though it has much of “My God, my God, why have you abondened me?”—“All who
see me scoff at me,” “Many dogs surround me,” “They divide my garments amount
them”—it also talks about preaching. The
Liturgy gave us the final verses: “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in
the midst of the assembly I will praise him.”
One point is that the one who asks the question about being abandoned
does not in fact thing he is abanonded—he prophesies his own triumph. But another point is that the one who suffers
triumphs through preaching.
hymn from Philippians hit a similar theme.
The Liturgy often takes the verses out of context, so that it only tells
us about “Christ Jesus,” who “though he was in the form of God did not regard
equality with God something to be grasped.”
But Philippians introduces the hymn, “Have this mind among yourselves,
which is yours in Christ Jesus . . . .”
His emptying himself and taking the form of a slave is his
preaching. It preaches to us both the
mind we should have, and also his glory: “Because of this, God greatly exalted
him and bestowed on him the name.”
preaches by emptying himself.
I was struck,
when we read Luke’s account of the Passion, by all the questions. Way back when he was twelve, we “found him in
the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them
questions,” and then heard him ask his mother, “Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” “And they did not understand the saying . . .
. And his mother treasured up all these
things in her heart.”
the way the rabbis taught, by asking questions.
I know as a teacher (though I wish I was better) that it’s easy to talk
and talk while your students sit glassy-eyed and wait for you to finish. What’s hard is getting them to think about
what you say. Often the best way to do
that is with questions they have to treasure in their hearts.
Luke’s account of the Passion is his trial by the Sanhedrin. “If you are the Christ, tell us,” they say,
like students who just want Teacher to give the answers without making them think. Jesus says, “If I tell you, you will not
believe,” and adds, oddly, “and if I question, you will not respond.” There is something here about teaching, in
the style of the rabbis. You won’t
believe what I tell you—but also, if I just tell you the answers, I will rob
you of the opportunity to make an act of faith.
Jesus’s silence, his inaction, calls forth our active participation, our
act of faith.
himself only “the Son of Man,” but provokes them to ask, “Are you then the Son
of God?” He replies, “You say that I am.” They respond, “We have heard it from his own
mouth”—but how odd, that it doesn’t come from his mouth, it comes from
theirs. By his silence, he makes them
the same thing to Pilate. Pilate asks
the question that matters to him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus responds, “You say so.”
want to do it for us. He wants to draw
us to an act of faith. That is how he
teaches through the silence of the Cross.
In fact, the
whole long reading, 113 verses, is a series of questions. “I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine
until the kingdom of God comes,” he says.
And then after supper, he takes the cup, and says, “This cup is the new
covenant in my blood”—and we are left to question what just happened.
of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table”—“And they began to
debate among themselves who among them would do such a deed.” Good question.
who is greatest, and he asks, “Who is greater: the one seated at table or the
one who serves?” Good question.
“I am prepared to go to prison and to die with you”—and Jesus lets the
statement hang pregnantly: are you?
sent you forth without a money bag or a sack of sandals, were you in need of
you may not undergo the test.” “Father,
if you are willing, take this cup.” Statements
that raise questions.
betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” “Have
you come out as against a robber?”
Pilate to ask, “What evil has this man done?”
women weep, as if they see what’s happening, he turns it around: “If these
things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
When he is
on the cross, they say, “He saved others, let him save himself”—and we ask,
yeah, why doesn’t he?
story ends with two other people answering the questions. “We have been condemned justly,” says the Good
Thief. “This man was innocent beyond
doubt,” says the Centurion.
Cross Jesus empties himself, and questions us with his silence. The good teacher leads us not by giving us
all the answers, but by leaving us to ponder, and to make an act of faith.
How could you give Jesus more space
to ask you questions?
I was just coming to write my Sunday post (a day late), and find news of Notre Dame.
I am devastated.
It was my favorite church, from three trips to Paris. It was exquisite, the central, perfect monument of such a rich age.
I can only think of Lamentations. In the old office of Tenebrae, “Shadows,” sung during Holy Week, we invoke the desolation of Jerusalem at the Babylon exile. Quomodo sedet sola civitas: as the city sits alone.
The devastation of Jerusalem, the devastation of the Cross. It’s so easy to skip to the next step, to shrug and say, yes, but in three days he will rebuild this Temple. But in his valley of tears, so many Temples will never be rebuilt.