Saturday, June 21, 2008

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am with you always, until the age.” This is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Christ is always present to us, so what does it mean to say, where two or three are gathered in his name, he is in our midst? Why do we gather? Why do we come together on Sunday? Why do we gather in prayer groups? Why can it not just be about God and me? What does it mean to be Church?

Of course, Christ is always present to us, no matter what. We gather together because we believe in the sacramental presence of God, the presence of God made tangible and manifest through the created world. That presence is felt in the bread and wine that becomes the body and blood. That presence is felt in the oil that anoints or the words of the priest that assure us of forgiveness. That presence is felt in the vows of love that are exchanged between a man and a woman making a lifetime commitment to one another. And that presence is felt when two or three gather in his name.

Our relationship with God is like a relationship with another human being. Like any good marriage, there is a need to just spend time alone with God, to come to know God in a very intimate, personal way. But also like marriage, this relationship with God is not meant to turn you in on yourself, but should foster in you a desire and willingness to go out to others, to be more loving and active in the world. The love that you experience in that personal, intimate relationship, is meant to make you more compassionate, more aware of the needs of others. It is a love that is not selfish and self-absorbed, but one into which you bring others, it is a love of hospitality. And just as in a marriage there are times you struggle in your relationship, there are also times we struggle in our relationship with God. At those moments we need the support of friends who will encourage us and give us hope. We need those who will help us believe when we seem to have lost the ability to believe. We need the assurance that we are not alone, no matter what happens.

We gather together in his name because doing so holds an incredible power. In the actual passage from Matthew, the same Gospel in which Jesus assures us he is with us always, Jesus tells us:
Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Mt. 18:19-20)
Maintaining belief, maintaining trust in God is not always easy. We gather together to support each other, to strengthen our belief, to share our joys and out sorrows, and to pray for and with one another. In doing so, Christ is in our midst. Sometimes we are the ones who need that tangible, sacramental presence of God that we experience in the love and concern of another. Sometimes that other person says exactly the words that we need to hear at that moment, and we know that God is present. But we can also not ever forget that sometimes we are gathered with others in prayer or at Church, because we are being called to be that sacramental presence of God to another, because someone else needs to hear something we will say or just needs someone to listen. Sometimes being with others is not about what we get, but what we will give, and the blessing of this is that in those graced moments, we too feel and know that God is present, that Christ is Emmanuel, God with us.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I attended the annual meeting of CTSA (Catholic Theological Society of America) this past weekend, and I wanted to share a bit about one of the talks with you! Julie Hanlon Rubio, a professor at St. Louis University, gave a talk on "A Familial Vocation beyond the Home." In her talk Dr. Rubio reminded us that in Familiaris Consortio Pope John Paul II speaks of the family as being given a commission to serve society and to be a communion of love. Families are meant to build communion and solidarity, a place in which we form deeper relationships with others both within our family, but also outside of our family. Dr. Rubio challenged our parishes to really form families, to be more than just a place of spiritual comfort and friendliness. She said that parishes should help families live out their familial vocation outside of the home, to challenge a lot of the tendencies in our culture about the pace of our lives and how we resist that frantic pace in order to build communion within our families so that we can then enter into service to the greater community. She noted that the practice of service is crucial to a Christian life, and that in parishes families are too often either "excused" from service or directed to service in their own homogeneous communities of parish and school. Only when we include families in the call to service, she warned, can Catholic social teaching penetrate the Church.

Dr. Rubio was drawing on John Paul II's apsostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. I want to share some of the passages in this text that highlight the point Dr. Rubio was making in her presentation. On the topic of service, John Paul II states:
The social role of the family certainly cannot stop short at procreation and education, even if this constitutes its primary and irreplaceable form of expression. Families therefore, either singly or in association, can and should devote themselves to manifold social service activities, especially in favor of the poor, or at any rate for the benefit of all people and situations that cannot be reached by the public authorities' welfare organization (44).
He goes on to state that:
The social role that belongs to every family pertains by a new and original right to the Christian family, which is based on the sacrament of marriage. By taking up the human reality of the love between husband and wife in all its implications, the sacrament gives to Christian couples and parents a power and a commitment to live their vocation as lay people and therefore to "seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God."(113) The social and political role is included in the kingly mission of service in which Christian couples share by virtue of the sacrament of marriage, and they receive both a command which they cannot ignore and a grace which sustains and stimulates them. The Christian family is thus called upon to offer everyone a witness of generous and disinterested dedication to social matters, through a "preferential option" for the poor and disadvantaged. Therefore, advancing in its following of the Lord by special love for all the poor, it must have special concern for the hungry, the poor, the old, the sick, drug victims and those who have no family (47).
And so I ask, with Dr. Julie Hanlon Rubio, how can we as Church help our families achieve their familial vocations beyond the home?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

I was involved with a Cursillo retreat this past weekend and it reminded of me of three (well, more than three, but only three I am going to talk about here) very important pieces of my spiritual life. The first is the power of prayer. My own personal prayer is the cornerstone of my life. It is what centers me on a daily basis, both my formal morning prayer and the numerous informal ways that I interact with God throughout the day. My favorite line from the movie Shadowlands is Anthony Hopkins, playing C.S. Lewis, stating to his friend, "I don't pray because it changes God; I pray because it changes me. I pray because the need flows out of me constantly." I believe that prayer changes us and changes our relationships with one another. Those of you who know me well know that I am quite fascinated by quantum physics. I think that we will discover more and more about how truly interconnected we are through science, how truly interconnected we were created to be. I sometimes forget about this interconnectedness, about how much I also need the prayer of others, how much I am strengthened by knowing that others are praying for me and that I am not alone. The power of prayer is not simply my own prayer, but it is the prayer of those who pray with me and for me, which brings me to my second point.

I remembered this weekend (not that I had really forgotten, but had reinforced) the power of community. I have said many times that to be human is to be in relationship. There is an incredible amount of power in a group of people coming together in love and support and celebration. This piece of being human is why we worship as a community. My relationship with God is not just personal, it is also communal (or ecclesial in theological speak!). Part of the reason our relationship with God is also communal is that we are embodied. We experience the world in and through time and space. We also experience God in and through time and space, which means that our relationships with one another can mediate our experience of God. I can't even begin to describe how much I felt God present this past weekend in and through this group of women gathered on retreat. There is great power in community.

My third point is clearly the most obvious. I "remembered" the power of God. Again, not just the power of God in my own life, but hearing the stories of how God is present and acting in the lives of others (another reason why community is so important). My own faith is deepened and strengthened by that witness. I also believe that God was strongly acting in bringing this particular group of women together at this particular point in all of our lives. I find God works in that way quite often. We always say that in RCIA (the process of becoming Catholic) as well, that on any given year the group that is formed is the group that is meant to be together. In theology, this is what we call God working through secondary causes. I used to love to explain this to the teenage Confirmands at the parish, that God works in their lives through other events and people, so that yes, God can even work through their parents forcing them to attend Confirmation classes! Every woman on this retreat had different people and events that led her to be there. Some had planned to go on an earlier retreat, but life had interfered. Others were hesitant to go on this retreat but something pushed them. The result was what it was meant to be. Of course, I don't want to eliminate the role of freedom either. Maybe there were others we will never know about that were meant to be there as well, but were not open to the working of God in their lives at this moment. The great thing about the power of God is that a missed opportunity is rarely definitive; God simply works in our lives to offer us new opportunities. Wherever you are today and whatever you are doing, I hope you experience the power of prayer, community, and God in your life.