Thursday, March 29, 2007

This week we will hear two different accounts of the passion narrative during Holy Week, the one from the lectionary cycle (this year Luke) on Palm Sunday and the one from the Gospel of John on Good Friday. These readings and the veneration of the cross on Good Friday call to mind for us the meaning of the crucifixion in our salvation. I have often reflected on what we mean when we say that we are saved through Christ's death on the cross, that in this act is the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of humankind. After Pope John Paul II died, I read Crossing the Threshold of Hope, responses John Paul II wrote to interview questions he had been given. One of the passages profoundly impacted the way I thought about the cross and salvation. In the context of a discussion about suffering, Pope John Paul II says:

In a certain sense one could say that confronted with our human freedom, God decided to make himself "impotent." And one could say that God is paying for the great gift bestowed upon a being He created "in his image, after his likeness" (cf. Gn 1:26). Before this gift, He remains consistent, and places Himself before the judgment of man, before an illegitimate tribunal which asks Him provocative questions: "Then you are a king?" (cf. Jn 18:37); "Is it true that all which happens in the world, in the history of Israel, in the history of all nations, depends on you?"

We know Christ's response to this question before Pilate's tribunal: "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (Jn 18:37). But then: "What is truth?" (Jn 18:38), and here ended the judicial proceeding, that tragic proceeding in which man accused God before the tribunal of his own history, and in which the sentence handed down did not conform to the truth. Pilate says: "I find no guilt in him" (Jn 18:38), and a second later he orders: "Take him yourselves and crucify him!" (Jn 19:6). In this way he washes his hands of the issue and returns the responsibility to the violent crowd.

Therefore, the condemnation of God by man is not based on truth, but on arrogance, on an underhanded conspiracy. Isn't this the truth about the history of humanity, the truth about our century? In our time the same condemnation has been repeated in many courts of totalitarian regimes (p. 65, italics in original).

Reflecting on this passage, I thought, everytime we fail to see what is sacred and give reverence and respect to what is sacred, we are guilty of the very sinfulness that led the people of Jesus' time to crucify him. Everytime in our own lives we fail to recognize God in our midst, we crucify Christ. We crucify Christ in our blindness or apathy toward the suffering of the innocent. The cross is not about God substituting punishment of Jesus for punishment of us; it is our false judgment of God - a judgment not based on truth, but on our arrogance and underhanded conspiracy, our attempts to protect the status quo, to maintain our power and control -- in a word, what we call original sin. Pilate asks, "What is truth?" In the passion narrative, Pilate does not recognize truth when it is right in front of him. Peter denies the truth. Judas betrays the truth.

God's reaction to our sinfulness is not wrathful punishment, but rather is to embrace it in a willing acceptance of the cross and to redeem it through an outpouring of love for us. God brings resurrection out of our crucifixions of God. In that is the forgiveness of our sins - that God looks at us, sees us for who we truly are (sees the truth) and all that we have done and failed to do, and loves us unconditionally. God enters into solidarity with us, into union with us, and draws us into the divine embrace of the Trinity. Through our baptism we are always, already forgiven all that we do, because by the Spirit we are united to Christ on the cross and our sinfullness is redeemed and transfigured in the resurrection. In our baptisms, we are plunged into the death and resurrection of Christ. At reconciliation we experience and celebrate that unconditional love and forgiveness that calls us to be and reminds us that we always can be more. At Eucharist we renew and rejoice in our unity with God and one another through receiving and being the Body of Christ; and in accepting the cup, we accept God's mercy and forgivenenss, renewing the covenant, surrendering to God, and joining our "Amen" to God to the Amen of Christ on the cross. As we renew our baptismal vows this Easter, may all of our sinfulness be transformed and transfigured by the love God has poured out for us on the cross.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

It always seems odd to me to use the word "anniversary" to refer to a sorrowful event. I am so used to hearing the word to refer to the celebration of marriages or ordinations or birthdays, events that are joyful. This week marks two sorrowful anniversaries of which we should be mindful. The first would be hard to miss with all of the discussion in the media of the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on March 19th. The second is the 27th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24th. Both should remind us to continually pray for peace.

The Catholic Church was adamantly opposed to the invasion of Iraq four years ago. We cannot, however, turn back the hands of time and undo what has been done. In his statement "Towards a Responsible Transition in Iraq," written over a year ago for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wenski stated:
Our nation cannot afford a shrill and shallow debate that distorts reality and reduces the options to “cut and run” versus “stay the course.” Instead we need a forthright discussion that begins with an honest assessment of the situation in Iraq and acknowledges both the mistakes that have been made and the signs of hope that have appeared. Most importantly, an honest assessment of our moral responsibilities toward Iraq should commit our nation to a policy of responsible transition.
In January of this year, in the statement "Evaluating Plans for a Responsible Transition in Iraq," Bishop Skyland wrote:

Each course of action, including current policies, ought to be evaluated in light of our nation’s moral responsibility to help Iraqis to live with security and dignity in the aftermath of U.S. military action. Our nation’s military forces should remain in Iraq only as long as their presence actually contributes to a responsible transition. Our nation should seek effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal. The Holy See and our bishops’ Conference expressed grave moral concerns about military intervention in Iraq and the unpredictable and uncontrollable negative consequences of invasion and occupation. In light of current realities, the Holy See and our Conference support broader regional and international engagement to increase security, stability and reconstruction in Iraq. . . . At this critical juncture as our nation seeks a new way forward in Iraq, our leaders have a moral obligation to examine where things genuinely stand in pursuing justice and peace in Iraq, to assess what is actually achievable there, and to evaluate the moral and human consequences of alternative courses of action and whether they truly contribute to a responsible transition. At this difficult moment, let us pray for our nation, for the people of Iraq and for all those who bear the responsibility and burden of these difficult choices. We ask God for courage, humility and wisdom as we seek a path to a responsible transition in Iraq.

There is no easy solution to the problem of Iraq. For more information on the bishops concerns and suggestions, see the "Questions and Answers on the War in Iraq," they published in February.

The second sorrowful anniversary is the assassination of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador. When Romero was selected to be Archbishop, nobody thought his impact would be very great. He was labeled a "conservative" and was predicted to be a person who would maintain the status quo. The two previous years he had spent as bishop of a poor rural district in El Salvador had made an impact on him, however, as he encountered the desperate poverty of his people and the unjust wages and working conditions that were a part of their daily lives (see James Brockman's article in Spirituality Today). Archbishop Romero was further affected by the assassination of a Jesuit priest weeks after he became Archbishop. Over the next three years five more priests and numerous catechists and church leaders were assassinated. Romero went to the Pope John Paul II with seven dossiers documenting the violence that was being perpetrated on his people, he went to Pres. Carter to ask the US to stop funding the El Salvadoran military that was behind the slaughter of his people, but in the end, he was not able to get anyone to listen and even his fellow El Salvadoran bishops turned their backs on him.

Romero was undeterred. He encouraged his people by preaching the Word of God each week, his homilies being broadcast across the nation by the archdiocesan radio station. His homilies would last more than an hour, and he
began to incorporate a report and commentary on the past week's events into his homily on the scripture readings of the mass. "We can not segregate God's word from the historical reality in which it is proclaimed," he said. "That would not be God's word . . . .It is God's word because it enlightens, contrasts with, repudiates, or praises what is going on today in this society." The people themselves, he told them, must learn from his example to apply God's word to their own lives, just as he was trying to apply it to the life of the nation and of their church. (Brockman)

He preached that if they kill all of the priests, each of the people must become God's microphone, must become a prophet. He said, "I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people." Days before he was killed, he said,

You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.

He challenged the army to stop the repression, to stop killing their fellow citizens, stating, "No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God." The next day he was killed. On March 24th, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in the heart while celebrating the mass. In his final homily, moments before he was killed, Archbishop Romero challenged all of us, saying:

One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.

To read more of Archbishop Romero's words, see the collection of his homilies, The Violence of Love.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I have a hard time believing that I feel the need to once again address this topic, and I can't even tell you the sense of hopelessness I feel settle in my soul with that thought. If I, with my comfortable home, safe life, food, water, etc., feel such hopelessness, how must the people of Darfur feel, living with death, rape, torture, and starvation on a daily basis? How is it that after more than four years of saying this cannot continue, the genocide goes on? Despite the Darfur Peace Agreement brokered in May of 2006, the United Nations reports that "violence has increased since late 2005 and has continued unabated into 2007." Estimates of deaths from the conflict itself and from lack of food, water, and health care among the refugees is estimated between 200,000 and 400,000. Over 2.5 million people have been displaced. Villages have been bombed and burned. Wells and livestock are deliberately destroyed. In the words of the United States Bishops, "this new wave of violence points to a collective failure on the part of the international community to stem what can only be described as a catastrophe." The people in the refugee camps cannot survive without water and firewood, and so they must leave the supposedly safe refugee camps to collect these essentials. If the men go for water and firewood, they risk being castrated and killed; if the the women and children to, they risk being gang raped and abducted. The choices these families have to make are not choices any human being should ever have to face. At the same time, because of the increased violence, humanitarian workers are increasingly less able to get supplies to those who need them most, both because of the extreme danger involved, and because they are frequently being denied access to the country by the Sudanese government. The UN report concluded:

The situation is characterized by gross and systematic violations of human rights and grave breaches of international humanitarian law. War crimes and crimes against humanity continue across the region. . . . While important steps have been taken by the international community, including the African Union and the United Nations, these have been largely resisted and obstructed, and have proven inadequate and ineffective. . . . The Mission further concludes that the Government of the Sudan has manifestly failed to protect the population of Darfur from large-scale international crimes, and has itself orchestrated and participated in these crimes. As such, the solemn obligation of the international community to exercise its responsibility to protect has become evident and urgent.

I am sure that many of you, like me, have worried and prayed over the situation in Darfur. Maybe you have contacted Congress and the President to express your concerns or signed a petition. I know that there is extreme frustration with the feeling of futility this situation engenders. The US has pledged financial support, and President Bush did appoint a special envoy, Ambassador Andrew Natsios, to work on the situation with Sudan. Part of the problem is that the Africa Union troops on the ground do not have a mandate to protect civilians, but only a mandate to monitor the ceasefire. They have neither the numbers (7,000 troops) nor the equipment to do either. Many of the soldiers go months without being paid, they are demoralised, and the African countries involved are starting to talk about pulling their troops out. The Sudanese government is resisting efforts to deploy a combined UN - AU force of 20,000 troops.

The USCCB is calling for the following:

1. Ask the U.S. to pressure both the government and the rebels to respect a ceasefire and to intensify the search for a just and durable peace, while urging both Sudan and Chad to refrain from supporting each other’s rebel movements.
2. Urge the U.S. to use its voice in the UN Security Council to continue and strengthen the mandate of the African Union in Darfur to monitor the ceasefire, protect innocent civilians and assist international humanitarian relief organizations, while urging NATO to provide AMIS with all possible logistical support, until its transition to a more robust, well funded force with a strong mandate.
3. Encourage the U.S. Administration to hold the signatories to the peace agreement accountable and to honor its promise to provide substantial financial and political support to the government of national unity to undertake the reconstruction of the country and its civil society.
4. Urge the UN Security Council to continue its support for the peacekeeping mission that is working with all parties to the national-unity government to implement the peace accord. The United States should provide adequate funding and logistical support so that peace and security might be achieved.

To see how our senators and representatives have voted on various Darfur legislative methods, go to the Darfur Scorecard website. I encourage all of you to continue urging those in Congress and our administration to keep the issue of Darfur as a top priority for our country and for all humankind. I am glad that the Catholic Church has been proactive, not only in lobbying for the international community to step in and do something about Darfur, but also in directly helping those most in need through Catholic Relief Services. CRS provides an easy way for us to contact our government with our concerns as well as a way to support the direct aid that is being given to those living in the midst of this nightmare. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also is part of the executive committee of Save Darfur, a coalition of many different organizations all working together to help the people of Darfur. The one small light in the darkness of this situation for me was reading the list of member organizations in this coalition. The list contains various Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and Unitarian organizations, as well as different charitable, ethnic, regional, etc., groups who have put aside any and all differences to recognize that our common humanity is greater than any of the differences between us, and to say with one voice that what has happened and continues to happen in Darfur is an affront to that humanity.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Lent is a time when Catholics traditionally do an examination of conscience. This spiritual exercise comes in many forms and formats, but basically it is taking a look at oneself and evaluating to what extent I am being the person I want to be, the person I am called to be. Many examinations of conscience focus on the ten commandments. The Ten Commandments can be broken down into the two great commandments of Jesus, to love God and to love your neighbor. The first three commandments have to do with loving God: “You shall have no other God before Me,” “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain,” and “You shall keep holy the Sabbath.”

The rest of the commandments are ways in which we love our neighbors. They call us us to affirm life (“You shall not kill”), honor families (“You shall honor your mother and father), and honor the covenant of marriage (“You shall not commit adultery” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”). We hear a lot about the importance of family values today. Ideally the family is the place for one’s primary relationships and the place one receives love and support. The concept of ‘family’ includes a lot of diversity, for example single parent families, intergenerational families, or families that include a diversity of race or religion. To be a family is to be held together by commitment and love. As such we use the term ‘family’ as an analogy for communities that mirror that commitment and love as in ‘our parish family’. Our faith upholds the ideal that families are sacred. As some of you may have heard me say many times, the family is the first and foremost place a child learns about faith. The Church has a role in supporting families and marriages and upholding both as ideals. We also recognize that life is often not ideal, and our family relationships sometimes fall short of what we hoped and dreamed they would be. Thus the Church also has a role in helping people grieve when they experience loss or brokenness in their families through death, divorce, or the other hardships we encounter in life. Please know that those of us who work in parishes consider it part of our ministry to support you and your children during those difficult times, and hope you feel free to seek us out in that capacity.

Other commandments deal with possessions. They entreat us to respect the property of others (“You shall not steal”) and avoid coveting what is not ours (“You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods”). Most of us are probably not going to hold up a bank at any time in the near future, but these commandments do encourage us to look more closely at ways in which we might be less honest about possessions than we should be. Such an examination of conscience might include examining one’s investments to see if the companies in which one invests operate out of sound ethics, including such matters as how they treat their workers. It might mean examining how often we give in to the materialist expectations of our culture – how aware are we of what we need versus what we want? It is also not always goods or possessions that we covet, sometimes it can be someone else’s position or power or even his/her happiness. These commandments encourage us to examine our lives to see if we have made any false idols in our lives, i.e., that which we seek with the ardor with which we should seek God.

The final commandment left entreats us to be honest (“You shall not bear false witness”) and appreciate the dignity of the human person (an obviously recurring theme among our doctrines that is included in all of these commandments). Honesty has to do with our basic integrity and authenticity as human beings. It includes a prohibition against lying, but it also includes a prescription to have a congruity between the person you are on the inside and the person you present to the world, between your beliefs and your actions. The theological foundation for this commandment is the belief that our God “is truth and wills the truth (CCC 2464).” Part of our dignity as human beings is to be the image and likeness of our God who is truth. To be that image and likeness demands that we are always striving toward a deeper integrity and authenticity as a human being.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This phrase is one of the options given to be said when we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is not used as often anymore. More frequently one of the other options, such as, "Repent, and believe the Good News!" is used. I used to be rather disturbed by the "dust to dust" phrase; it seemed so morbid. Now I rather like it and wish it was used more often. Thinking about it this past Ash Wednesday, I realized it is not meant to be morbid, so much as to make us reflect on the fact that this life and the things of this life are not ultimate. That does not mean that they are bad, it just means we need to keep things in perspective. All that we encounter in this life is finite and impermanent. We are beings that are created for the infinite, that are created for God. We are enjoined to enjoy this life and to make the most of the time we are given, but also to recognize that nothing in this life can ultimately fulfill us. I have frequently quoted Augustine and will do so again,
"You created us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Augustine's quote should be our guiding image through Lent.

Lent, for me, is a time of retreat. We hear the call from God on Ash Wednesday in the words from Joel 2:12, "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart." I always look forward to Lent as a time of spiritual renewal in my life. It is a time for me to reflect on the fact that I too often try to find fulfillment in the things of this world instead of in surrendering to God. In my head I know that it is only in surrendering to God that I find that peace and freedom I so desperately need, but being that I tend to be a control freak, I just forget to let go! That reminds me of a family story we always tell when teaching someone to water ski. When I was young, we were teaching a friend to water ski, and it did not even occur to us to tell her that if she fell, she should let go of the rope. She did fall, held on and was dragged underwater for several feet before she finally let go. We were all in the boat yelling for her to let go, but she was underwater and could not hear us. Sometimes our spiritual lives are like that. We have fallen and are being dragged underwater so that we cannot even breathe, and all we need to do to recover is let go. Sometimes we hang on until the force of being sucked under finally forces us to let go.

In addition to re-learning the need to surrender to God in Lent, to look for that ultimate fulfillment of our lives in God, Lent is a reminder of how short this life can be. That is another reason I like the phrase, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I tend to take my life, with all of the people and experiences that entails, for granted. I have frequently told others that we should live our lives more as if each day were the last, appreciating the giftedness of each moment. Doing so puts life in perspective so that we mend broken relationships in a timely matter, and we remember to appreciate the people in our lives and tell them how much they mean to us. Of course, it is much easier to tell others to do this than to do it myself! Lent is a time to ask myself, what would I do if today were my last day on earth? What would I say to the people I love? Who would I make a point to talk to? Do the people who are important to me and who have impacted my life know how they have affected me?

I hope that you will find this Lent a time of spiritual renewal, a time to come to a new appreciation of God and the gift of life. The traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will hopefully help all of us be mindful of what is ultimate in life, what we have been given, and how we appreciate what we have been given. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."