Thursday, January 31, 2008

I was so inspired yesterday listening to a talk by Elizabeth Johnson (very well known contemporary theologian) on "Friends of God and Prophets: Toward an Inclusive Community" (click here to read the talk yourself!) that I wanted to share a couple of the points she made. (By the way, she also has a book titled Friends of God and Prophets.)

The first point that really struck me was the idea that the Church has been gifted with both office and charism. Office is what ensures right order within the Church, offering stability through the three-fold ministry of leading, teaching, and sanctifying, a participation in Christ's own ministry as priest, prophet, and king. While we talk about office in reference to those holding positions in the institutional Church, do not forget that each of us were also anointed priest, prophet, and king at our baptisms, marking our own vocation and participation in Christ's ministry. In terms of charism, Johnson explains that
the role of charism, freely given in unpredictable ways by the Spirit, is to break through routine, apathy, and even corruption with a renewed sense of the gospel for different times and places. This impulse has historically led to the rise of religious orders, new forms of spirituality, and movements for reform, among other events. To use Hildegard of Bingen's image, these help to keep the sap flowing strong and green in the branches, refreshing the institutional church grown gray with bureaucracy, meanness, or fear.
Johnson reminds us that both of these, office and charism, are gifts in the Church, but that they also exist in a certain tension with each other. I would like to suggest that this dynamic plays out not only on a global level in the Church, but also on a local level in our own parishes. Certain individuals in the parish are gifted with the ability to bring a sense of stability and continuity to the parish. Certainly the parish staff is typically focused more on the leading, teaching, and sanctyifying ministries within the parish in the day to day life of the parish. There is also a need and a place, however, for charism in the parish. Hopefully the staff is open to this gift as well as the gift of office, but ultimately I believe this gift must come from the community itself. We need individuals in the parish who are open to the Spirit and renew us in our sense of mission and inspire us as a community to breathe new life into our ministries. We need individuals who, in Johnson's words, break us out of our apathy and call us to read the gospel in a new way. Each of us has that potential, if we are open to the calling of the spirit.

The second point Johnson makes in her talk is her definition of what it means to be a friend of God and a prophet--in short, a saint! She reminds us that we are all saints (literally holy ones) and that the word was initially used in Christianity to describe the living community, not those who have died. She also reminds us that to be a saint is not a matter of being a good and moral person, but is simply a statment of the fact that we participate in God's holiness. She emphasizes this fact, stating
let me underscore a key point: this holiness is not primarily an ethical matter, being holy as being innocent of sin or morally perfect or engaged in pious practices or something earned by one's own merits. Rather, it is a consecration of the very being of this people due to God's free initiative. They participate in God's own holiness, a deep identity that flows out into responsibility to bear witness in the world, in accord with the loving kindness and faithfulness of God that now marks their own being.
The fact that we ARE holy hopefully leads us to be better people, to be a friend of God and a prophet through the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling within each of us. Johnson explains that
to be a friend means to be freely joined in a mutual relationship marked by deep affection, joy, trust, and support in adversity; knowing and letting oneself be known in an intimacy that flows into common activities; as in Abraham, "friend of God"(Jas 2:23); as in Jesus' pledge, "No longer do I call you servants, but ... friends" (Jn 15:15).
What an incredible image of our relationship with God! She goes on to add that
to be a prophet means to be called to comfort and to criticize in God's name because, being a friend, your heart loves what God loves, namely this world, and you want it to flourish. When harm comes to what you love, prophets speak truth to power about injustice, thus creating possibilities of resistance and resurrection.
The line that actually caught my attention and my imagination was the idea that being a prophet means being called to comfort. I am very familiar with the idea of being a prophetic voice in the sense of speaking for those who have no voice or being called to challenge the systems of oppression in the world in which we live. I have never given any thought to the idea that to be a prophet is also to be called to comfort. Yet isn't one of the most famous lines (thanks to Handel) in Isaiah, "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God" (Is. 40:1)? Certainly there is a tradition of the prophets railing against all that is wrong in the world and in their communities, but there is an equally strong tradition of the prophets offering the people reassurance of God's love, mercy, and faithfulness and reassurance that the community would survive and ultimately prevail against adversity. How do we fulfil our prophetic role in the world in terms of being a voice of hope?

The headlines on the webpage of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel once again delve into the issues of sexual abuse and lawsuits in the archdiocese. Immediately below that story is a story on the rather grim financial future of the archdiocese. We are in a time in our Church and our world where we need prophets who will criticize, but who will also comfort. We need the gift of charism, calling us to "break through routine, apathy, and even corruption with a renewed sense of the gospel" so that we can "help to keep the sap flowing strong and green in the branches, refreshing the institutional church grown gray with bureaucracy, meanness, or fear." More than ever it seems we are being called to be the community of saints right now, our hearts loving what God loves, fulfilling our vocation as friends of God and prophets.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I met with one of our prayer groups recently because questions had arisen in their group about heaven, purgatory, and hell. Since this topic has come up many times in various conversations I have had with people, I decided it might be a good topic to address here!

One of the things that I love about being Catholic is our understanding of the communion of saints. In the very simplest terms, the communion of saints is our understanding that we are in relationship with all of those who have gone before us and all of those who will come after us. We believe that in death life is not ended, it is only changed. Likewise our relationships with those who have died do not end, they change. All of God's people are saints, those living and those dead. A canonized saint is simply someone the Catholic Church has definitively proclaimed to be with God in heaven. It is very important to note that the Church has never definitively proclaimed anyone to be in hell.

One of the immediate difficulties in talking about what happens after death (besides the obvious fact that we have not yet died) is that our existence after death is no longer one of time and space. Due to the fact that our existence here is in time and space, it is absolutely impossible for us to think without thinking in terms of time and space. Hence the end of my last paragraph talked about being "in heaven" or "in hell" as if they were places to which we go. They are not places so much as states of existence. Heaven implies an existence in union with God and hell implies a lack of union with God.

So much of what we say about heaven and hell is speculative. Some say hell is the absence of God. I have a hard time accepting that because I believe God is always present to us and loving us no matter what. I do believe that hell might be our own inability to recognize and accept God's presence and love. I have also speculated that if there is some need in death to recognize the ways in which we have hurt people (see the section on purgatory below), there are people for whom that process might last an eternity because the painful impact of their actions goes on for generations. Hitler comes to mind, as the Holocaust still causes us a great deal of pain to this day, and I believe that it always will. Of course with that speculation, I have fallen into the trap of conceiving of hell in terms of time. Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of my favorite theologians on this subject. In his book, Dare We Hope That All Men Are Saved?, he suggests that perhaps no one will ultimately end up in hell because of God's universal salvific will. If God wills the salvation of all people (1 Tim. 2:3-4), can God's will really be ultimately frustrated? Nonetheless von Balthasar accepts hell as a reality, but he very wisely cautions that it is a reality each of us must hold up before ourselves as we judge our own way of living and being in the world. It is not a reality for us to hold up before others, placing ourselves in the position of God to judge the possibility of another's eternal damnation (another trap I fell into with my speculation about Hitler!).

Many people ask me if we still believe in purgatory (a funny question, since I cannot actually tell you what you believe!). Yes, the Church does still teach the concept of purgatory. We do not (and technically the official teaching of the Church never did) teach the concept of limbo. Babies who die are with God. What kind of God would we believe in, if we did not credit God with having at least as much compassion and mercy as we ourselves have? God's compassion and mercy far outweighs our own abilities in that regard! Purgatory is part of our doctrine. It is not, however, a time and space concept as we so often have heard it talked about, as if we get 10 years in purgatory (which for some reason seems to be some sort of mini-hell with flames and torments in many people's imaginations), but might get out in 7 with good behavior and a lot of prayers from those still living. Purgatory simply refers to the process of purgation, the purifying that occurs in death that allows us to stand face to face with our God. The process that "burns away" all that still holds us back from complete and total union with God. In that regard, it still makes a lot of sense to pray for those in purgatory in that we are praying for those who are going through that process. In a conversation with our youth minister not to long ago, she told me that for her the concept of purgatory involved letting go of the things that were still holding us back from God, the attachments, desires, and addictions that we choose over God in our day to day lives. The continuity between the life we live now and the concept of purgatory is that we can do much of that "letting go" in this life, but that which we are unable to let go of in this life still must be released in order for us to be in union with God after death.

The theologian Karl Rahner talks about standing before God and having the love of God burn through us like fire (cf. TI 1:311-312). The analogy I always like to give is to think of a time when you did something you knew was very wrong and your parents found out, but instead of yelling at you or punishing you, they just reacted by loving you. The self-realization of both your own short-coming and the love that forgives that short-coming is very humbling and purifying, and it can burn like fire. I think that purgatory involves a coming to terms with and accepting God's absolutely unconditional love for us. The purification process is a recognizing and accepting who we were in our lives, with all of the failings and short-comings that life involved and all of the ways in which we hurt others, and then accepting that God sees all of that about us and still loves us beyond our wildest imaginings. To me the concept of purgatory is not a frightening concept, but a concept that embodies God's love and mercy.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

There is a buzz in the air about the new exhibit coming to the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Body Worlds Exhibit. I was initially surprised to hear the question asked on NPR of whether the museum expected there to be protesters, as apparently there have been when the exhibit has been in other places. It never occurred to me that such an exhibit would be controversial. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has put out a reflection paper that lays out some of the issues and concerns that have arisen, such as are the bodies being treated with respect, was proper consent given for the use of the bodies, etc. (Note that the Archdiocesan statement is not "pro" or "con" attending the exhibit; it seems to be meant in a more reflective manner.)

Having read the statement, I can understand why some people have concerns, but I also think it gives those of us not in medical fields an incredible opportunity to reflect on the wonder of the way we have been created. Our bodies are truly phenomenal, and learning more about them should only make us reflect more deeply upon and be more in awe of the God who created us. One of the stated intentions of the exhibit is to make people realize how important their bodies are and how important it is to treat them well. This theme fits in well with our understanding that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and part of the Body of Christ. Our bodies are holy and sacramental, and as such, we should be extraordinarily aware of them.

There was a time in Christianity when the body was somewhat denigrated and separated from the spiritual life. Today there has been a turn away from a dualistic worldview that separates the material and the spiritual toward a new understanding that we are embodied spirits. We experience what it means to be spiritual in and through these bodies that are our means of expressing who we are in the world and in relationship to one another. That is what it means for a body to be sacramental; your body is a sacrament of yourself, the tangible presence of you. We have been given an incredible gift in being embodied that is too often simply taken for granted. Having only read about the exhibit, I am already more aware of the complexity and beauty of every movement I make, being able to breathe or to eat, feeling my heart beat, the way our senses work together to allow us to experience the world around us, etc. Regardless of whether one attends the exhibit or not, it should be a powerful reminder to us to be very thankful for the fact that we are embodied.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I want to draw your attention to one of the links I have put on this blog, and that is The Vicar's Corner. The Vicar's Corner is a blog where my friend Matt posts his homilies each week. Some of you may remember Matt from when he and Fr. Ed came and did a parish mission for us here. I would strongly encourage you all to click on that link and enjoy some of Matt's homilies.

I was profoundly struck by a passage in Matt's Christmas homily:
Love closes distances. It breaks down barriers and separations because the lover seeks the beloved and strives to make contact in any way possible. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. Our creating God, our divine lover is so intent on getting our attention, so focused on winning us over that he is willing to take on our humanity. Matthew T. Allman, C.Ss.R., The Vicar's Corner
Enough said - read the homily!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Merry Christmas and Happy Epiphany! This Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of the revelation of God to the world in and through Jesus Christ. The Greek word epiphaneia literally means "to show forth." Sunday we celebrate God showing or manifesting Godself in and to the world. As the Body of Christ, we are called to continue to show forth God's presence in our world.

I have been reflecting a lot on what image of what it means to be Catholic Christians we project to the world, and I admit, I am a bit disturbed by what I see. The image I often see is too often one of harsh judgment and vitriolic outrage. Sometimes it is compounded by ignorance and a total lack of compassion for others who might think differently from us or come from circumstances with which we have never had to struggle. Too often I see people who seem to be very angry rather than loving and hospitable. Suddenly there is a mentality of "defending our faith" in the "culture wars" that is militant and seems to breed hostility, bitterness, and resentment. It seems to me that we live in a very angry culture. If you ever saw the movie Crash, it did an excellent job of portraying the way in which people seem to be so angry today, and it takes so little for that anger to brim over into the world. I fall into the trap myself where I find myself suddenly boiling mad about the littlest thing, until I stop and ask myself, exactly what am I so angry about? As Christians we should ideally be a counter witness to this anger and hostility. As St. Paul tells us,
Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. Rom. 12:21

Whatever happened to witnessing to the love of Christ? Whatever happened to the focus on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless? Why is Christmas suddenly about whether or not a Nativity is set up in the town square instead of being about those of us who are Christian incarnating the love of God for ALL people? Whatever happened to the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind, not just those who think like us and believe like us? The Epiphany is not the celebration of God's revelation to believers; the Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of God's love to all of humanity. If only we could put as much energy into loving our neighbors (and remember in the story of the Good Samaritan, the neighbor is defined precisely as those we don't agree with) as we do into the so-called fight to defend Christianity, maybe we wouldn't have to work so hard at defense. Maybe we would engender an openness in people to the force in our lives that enables us to be loving and good and open to all people. I was listening to a song by Steve Camp this morning, and I think his refrain sums it up perfectly,
Don't tell them Jesus loves them till your ready to love them too;
Till your heart breaks from the sorrow and the pain they're going through.
With a life full of compassion, may we do what we must do;
Don't tell them Jesus loves them till your read to love them too.