Sunday, October 15, 2017

Year A Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 25:6-10a; Ps 23:1-6; Phil 4:12-14.19-20; Matt 22:1-14

If God promised us a banquet then why does it seem we so often experience famine? In light of today’s readings, we can discern two reasons for this. First, based on our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, it is rooted in the fact that this life is incomplete. The second reason arises from the refusal to accept, or perhaps even realize, this fact and so refuse what God so graciously gives us, which is nothing less than himself, nothing less than hope.

Writing to the Church in Philippi, St. Paul, who at that time was a prisoner, either in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea, told them he had “learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry” (Phil 4:12). Judging by this passage, the secret of living a life not tied to material wealth or ease of circumstances, is trusting God completely to supply “whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).

In this passage, Paul described what can only be verified in reality through experience, something that can’t be systematized, something to which many saints bore witness: in Christ, you can experience a famine as a feast. Traditionally, fasting, one of the core spiritual disciplines taught to us by the Lord himself, a discipline that has practically vanished among Christians in wealthy countries, was practiced to help Christians experience this for themselves.

Our reading from Philippians chapter four skips from verse 14 to verse 19. In verses 15-18 the Apostle lauded the Church in Philippi for coming to his aid during his imprisonment. While he thanked them for their help, he was primarily grateful for how their charity toward him accrued to their account and not to his. Remember, he was fine going without. Because he was the one who brought them the Gospel, he referred to their charity towards him and towards each other his as “full payment” (Phil 4:18). The aid they sent to Paul was brought to him by a man named Epaphroditus. In receiving what Epaphroditus brought, he received “a ‘fragrant aroma,’ an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).

I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb to state that what Paul found so pleasing about the aid the Church in Philippi sent him was that they sent it at great sacrifice to themselves. He was moved by their willingness to go without in order to help someone in need. Whenever we do this, it is a fragrant aroma, a sacrifice acceptable to God.

Turning to our Gospel, it is important whenever Jesus begins a parable with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like,” or, as in our reading today, “The kingdom of God may be likened to,” we need to pay close attention. We also need to attend to the context.

As with last week’s Gospel, the Parable of the Vineyard, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet is addressed to the elders and chief priests. We must also keep in mind that Matthew’s Gospel was written in and for a largely, but likely not exclusively, Jewish Christian community, what can rightly be referred to as a Christian synagogue.

Adoration of the Lamb: Ghent Altar Piece, by Jan Van Eyck, between 1425-1429

Like the Parable of the Vineyard, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet is an allegory. God the Father is the King. His son for whom the wedding feast is thrown is Jesus. His servants, once again, are the prophets.

The invited guests are the Israelites, God’s chosen people. The Church, which is comprised of people from everywhere, Jews and Gentiles alike, are those whom the servants are sent forth to round up when the invited guests were too busy to come to the banquet and so were vanquished by the king.

By no means is it pushing things too far to extend this parable from Israel to the Church, which St. Paul conceived of as the new and true Israel. The banquet is nothing other than the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Who is the bride? Christ’s Bride is the Church. Without a bride there can be no wedding. In the end, the Church, Christ’s Bride, to mix metaphors, is comprised not of those who were invited to the banquet, but those who come.

Every week Christ issues you an invitation to the banquet of the Eucharist. Our participation in Mass, at least to some extent, is a participation in the feast to come, but, living as we do between the already and the not-yet, it is not a full participation, but an anticipation.

What about the guy not wearing a wedding garment? Pope St. Gregory the Great, in a sermon on this passage, likened the wedding garment to the white garment we received when we were baptized. We are presented the garment with the exhortation to bring it unstained into the kingdom of heaven. Given our propensity to sin, how do we do keep our white garment unstained? The truth of the matter is, we can’t do it on our own. We need God’s help. The help God gives us we call grace. In fact, we can only perform the works of charity for which St. Paul commended the Philippians because of God’s grace. How do we receive the grace we need? We receive God’s grace through the sacraments. Hence, going to confession regularly and participating in Mass frequently are not just important, but necessary.

If you are too busy doing other things to accept God’s gracious invitation now, what makes you think that, unlike those in the parable, you will be ready when the Bridegroom returns? This prompts the question; how did Paul receive the strength from God he needed to live the often-difficult circumstances his apostolic ministry caused him to face?

Mass connects the already of God’s kingdom to the not-yet we live each day, especially those difficult circumstances that constitute our crosses. Participating in Mass allows us to face up to the incompleteness of this life and to experience the goodness God has in store for those who love him enough to accept his invitation, which goodness is described so beautifully in our reading from Isaiah and in Psalm 23, our responsorial today.

“Mass” comes from the Latin word missa as found in the words of the Latin dismissal, said at the end of the liturgy: Ite, missa est (“Go, the dismissal is made, or, more colloquially, “Go, you’re dismissed”). At the end of Mass, you are dismissed, sent forth, to make Christ, not only known, but present wherever you go and in whatever circumstances you find yourself.

We receive the strength we need from God to live our circumstances by gathering together for Eucharist, which means “to give thanks.” We are strengthened by our fellowship, our listening to God’s word, and receiving Christ together in Holy Communion. It is our participation in Mass that makes our sacrificial service outside of Mass a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice to God and allows us to be Christ’s co-workers in the redemption of the world. It is how we live the already in the not-yet. It gives us hope, especially when we are tempted to despair. Christ is our hope.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Save me from tomorrow"

Last night I found myself stranded somewhere between amusement and frustration - a place I find myself often these days (daze?). As a result of finding myself in this weird place, I posted on Facebook: "I think it is important to live one's life in such a way that one is spring-loaded to lose one's shit when there is any news with which one disagrees either from the realm of the sacred or secular.

"I am pretty sure such an existential stance flows directly from the writings of the desert fathers."



Every day the world keeps turning, history keeps happening. Understandably this generates a lot of fear for a lot of people. It occurred to me, yet again, that Jesus is either the Lord of the here and now or he is not Lord at all. At one point in St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus asked: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8)

Faith and hope go together. I find it useful to think about hope as the flower of faith and charity as their fruit. My point here is, without hope there is no faith. Faith overcomes fear by means of hope. Though he wrote it with reference to the fear generated by the death of the first generation of Christians in ancient Thessaloniki, whose passing caused the surviving Christians there to question whether the Lord was going to return, I think St. Paul words apply to our current predicament: we should "not grieve like the rest, who have no hope" (1 Thes 4:13).

Our Friday traditio is World Party's "Ship of Fools."



To wit: we're not saved from tomorrow, or today, or yesterday, but we're saved through each day.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

More on Luther and the Holy See

Whose work informs my views on Luther, his theses and Cardinal Cajetan? Well, that of many scholars both Protestant and Catholic. Most recently, Dr Seymour House, who teaches at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, introduced me to the work of Fr. Jared Wicks, SJ. Fr. Wicks's doctoral dissertation, directed by none other than one Joseph Ratzinger, was on Luther. Published back in the 1980s, it was revolutionary for Catholic Reformation scholarship. Here's the best thing I could find on Fr. Wicks to pass along on short notice: "An Interview with Jared Wicks, S.J., Catholic scholar of Luther."

As far as Martin Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan- they encountered each other from 12-18 October 1518 in Augsburg, Germany. Cajetan was sent on a mission: to get the troublesome Augustinian to recant what had been deemed heretical in his 95 Theses and his other public pronouncements, particularly his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, up until that time. This was not an academic disputatio, but an inquisition. Luther approached it as such, which is to say ready to fight.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to Luther, theological reasoning did not win the day, which was hardly surprising given the politics and the sorry state of the Church at the time. To state that Leo X's interpretation of Luther's teaching as set forth in 41 condemned theses in Exsurge Domine leave something to be desired is merely to re-state a widely held scholarly view. While Exsurge dealt with more of Luther's teachings than those found in his 95 theses, it is not controversial to assert that the bull did not do a good job in of capturing Luther's theological concerns and so did not adequately deal with them. This, in turn, calls into question at least some of the grounds on which he was condemned as a heretic.

Prior to his 95 Theses, Luther had published nothing. This was not usual for professors of the day. The printing press was still relatively new and the printing business would only find its economic footing as the result of Martin Luther's prolific efforts and his deep involvement in the layout and publication of his works. While printers made a lot of money off Luther's writings, as an author he did not.

Between the publication of his theses and his encounter with Cardinal Cajetan, Luther had only published his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace in March 1518. Between October 1518 and the promulgation of Exsurge Domine there was only the disputation in Leipzig at which Luther spoke.

I suppose an example is in order. So, below are the first two of Luther's 95 theses:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance

This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy

Luther preaching in Wittenberg

In Exurge Domine, Pope Leo X clearly had no problem with thesis 1. Keeping in mind Luther was first and foremost a Bible scholar, who knew Koine Greek and was highly proficient in Hebrew, his assertions in both theses likely seemed reasonable not only to him but some other Catholic theologians of the day as well. But at the very beginning of his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, Luther, a Biblical humanist who took his cue from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (a must read for anyone who wants to grasp Luther's Catholicism is Franz Posset's Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux), took the scholastics to task when he stated:
First, you should know that some new teachers, such as the Master of Sentences, St. Thomas [Aquinas], and their disciples, divide [the Sacrament of] Penance into three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. And, although this distinction and opinion of theirs is scarcely or not at all to be found based in Holy Scripture or in the ancient holy Christian teachers, nevertheless we will pass over this for now and speak using their categories
This is what likely led to this condemnation, the fifth one, found in Exsurge Domine:

That there are three parts to penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction, has no foundation in Sacred Scripture nor in the ancient sacred Christian doctors

In his work On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in October 1520, not only after the promulgation of Exsurge, but after the 60 days the bull gave him to recant, along with Baptism and Eucharist, Luther affirmed Penance as a sacrament. Now, Luther's view as to how the sacrament is efficacious in light of his Sermon certainly prompts questions. But to assert that penance conceived of as contrition, confession, and satisfaction is not scriptural or even all that traditional is not necessarily to deny these elements are consistent with revelation. In fact, Luther did not deny the first two at all. He unequivocally held that one should be sorry for one's sins and confess them. The issue, therefore, became that of satisfaction. Luther's problem with satisfaction arose from how indulgences were sold. Indulgences were marketed as doing away with the need for satisfaction. It is fair to say he also had a problem with how satisfaction was conceived of by the schoolmen: performing good works in order to be forgiven.

By focusing on the importance of contrition for sin, Luther held that being truly sorry for one's sins led one to do good works, that is, pray, fast, and give alms. Here is what Luther said in his Sermon:
No one can defend the position with any passage from Scripture that God’s righteousness desires or demands any punishment or satisfaction from sinners except for their heartfelt and true contrition or conversion alone—with the condition that from that moment on they bear the cross of Christ and practice the aforementioned works (but not as imposed by anyone)
For this Bible scholar, what else could Jesus's call to metanoia mean except to be sorry for one's sins and to converted, to have a change of mind and heart.be contrite and be converted? In essence, what Luther's attempted reform was about was the conversion of Christians, the interior movement of the Spirit as opposed to merely external observances.

It must be admitted that Luther's temperament after Augsburg and Leipzig was such that when challenged he was prone to take his positions to their extremes. One can see this in his disputation with Erasmus concerning Christian freedom.

One might also explore Luther's condemnation in Exsurge (condemnation 2) on the ground that he held infants, after Baptism, still suffered the effects of original sin in light of the Catholic Church's teaching on concupiscence, which also seeks to explain why Christians continue to sin after Baptism.

With that, apart from my remarks for my presentation in November on What the Catholic Church Learned from the Reformation, I have done my due diligence as a Catholic blogger to observe the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther's 95 Theses.

Luther's 95 theses: the Holy See's reaction

Toward the end of my last post on Luther (see "Luther and fraternal correction of the Pope") I wrote: "Let's be honest, if Leo X had been smart, he would've heeded Cardinal Cajetan's initial assessment of Luther's 95 theses: he found nothing heretical." This prompted someone to post in response a link to Pope Leo X's Exsurge Domine, a papal bull he promulgated on 15 June 1520. In logical terms, posting this as an argument is something of a petitio principii, more commonly known as begging the question. Begging the question refers to assuming the truth of the conclusion of one's argument.

Rather than content myself with a logical refutation, I think it is important to note that in Exsurge Domine, Leo indeed condemned 41 of Luther's 95 theses. Leo did not excommunicate Luther with the promulgation of this bull, however. He gave the Augustinian friar and professor six days to recant. What I find to be somewhere between amusing and annoying is that the response was given as if I had no knowledge of Exsurge Domine. I suppose I should not have assumed all my readers would know that some of Luther's theses were condemned by the Holy See. Given that many Catholics think all 95 theses were condemned, rather than the 43% that were, it is clear I should not have made that assumption.

Cardinal Cajetan examines Martin Luther and his writings in Augsburg, Germany (1518), by Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels (1830-1904)


Maybe a more precise way of stating the matter would've been to write: "Let's be honest, if Leo X had been smart, he would've heeded Cardinal Cajetan's initial assessment of Luther's 95 theses: he did not find anything in the theses to be necessarily heretical. Certain questions arose and certain theses needed to be clarified in order to understand what Luther meant."

So, in helping to connect the dots: asking these questions and seeking clarification as to some of Luther's theses would've lent themselves nicely to an academic disputatio, which is what Luther sought in the first place. This should also help clarify what I meant by writing "the Holy See totally tubed its response to Luther..." Responses are thoughtful. Reactions are not.

Between the end of 1517 and the middles of 1520 there was also some political water under the bridge that influenced the Holy See's reaction.

Are you bearing fruit for God's kingdom?

Readings: Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80:9.12-16.19-20; Phil 4:6-9; Matt 21:33-43

As the Lectionary does during Ordinary Time, the Gospel reading is harmonized with the Old Testament reading. In fact, one can be quite certain that the inspired author of St. Matthew's Gospel had Isaiah's "Song of the Vineyard," as Isaiah 5:1-7 is known, very much in mind, while composing the pericope that serves as today's Gospel reading. I think it is also helpful to keep in mind that Matthew's Gospel was written in and for a largely, but likely not exclusively, Jewish Christian community. Without exaggerating, one can say Matthew's community was a Christian synagogue. Of course, Jesus himself is Jewish and spent the entirety of his life in Israel interacting primarily, but not exclusively, with his fellow Israelites. In one of his most dramatic interactions with a non-Jewish person, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22).

It is important to grasp a little background in order to understand the full impact of Jesus's words, which, in context, are addressed to "the chief priests and elders of the people." The Parable of the Tenants is quite easy to understand. God is the landowner. The nation of Israel is the tenants. The servants are the prophets, whose vocation was to call Israel back to fidelity with the covenant. The son, of course, is Jesus, Son of God. The takeaway is that God will take away his kingdom from the Israelites and give it to people who will produce fruit for God.

Sadly, this Parable lends itself to a smug Christian reading. The people to whom God will give his kingdom is the Church, of course, which is nothing but Israel extended. But we need to reflect a bit on the nature of the Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the last century, wrote a treatise on the Church: Casta Meretrix, which translates into English as "The chaste whore." As I noted yesterday in my post on Luther, the Church in the sixteenth century was quite whorish. It was at other times, too, as in the twelfth century, the era of that other great Church reformer, St. Francis of Assisi, who set about rebuilding Christ's Church.



In the end, the true Church consists only of the saints. The saints are those men and women who produce fruit for God's kingdom. In the end, the Church will consist of only the saints, the wheat, the fruitful. At the end of time the chaff, the fruitless, those who say "Lord, Lord" and do nothing, will be sifted and separated.

Being fruitful for God's kingdom is a constant theme throughout St. Matthew's Gospel, whether it is applied to Israel, the Church, or individual disciples. While we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, we are saved for good works, for bearing fruit for God's kingdom. Those who bear such fruit constitute the Church. This is why Leon Bloy was correct when he averred: "There is only one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint."

What is the fruit we are to produce for God's kingdom? I think the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy serve as great guides. It seems clear to me that Jesus prioritized the Corporal Works over the Spiritual ones. What are the Corporal Works of Mercy? Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting those in prison. By doing these things for the least, we do them for the greatest: Jesus Christ, who "did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt 20:28).

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Luther and fraternal correction of the Pope

The trouble with the meme below, which I've seen plastered all over FB this past week, is that in posting his 95 theses Luther was not issuing a fraternal correction to Pope Leo X. At least with regard to his personal conduct, Leo certainly could've used a correction from an austere monk, which Martin Luther was in 1517. To wit, what Luther did is not analogous to what the "fraternal correctors" of Pope Francis are doing. Luther's initial aim was much more modest. Analogy fail.



Formally, Luther addressed his theses to the local bishop. The local bishop was one Albert of Brandenburg. It was Albert who authorized the sale of indulgences in his dioceses. Dioceses plural, you may ask? Yes. Albert was simultaneously bishop of Magdeburg and archbishop of Mainz. He purchased both these offices, which left him in debt. The chief salesman of indulgences in and around Wittenburg, the Dominican John Tetzel, was in Albert's employ. Albert kept half the proceeds of the sale of indulgences. The other half went to Rome.

What Luther sought by posting his theses was an academic disputatio, which were very common in the universities of the day. He wanted to focus on the sale, dispensing and efficacy of indulgences as well as papal authority (Did it extend beyond the grave? Nope, is the short answer). At this point and for quite a number of years afterward, he did not reject indulgences.

Let's be honest, if Leo X had been smart, he would've heeded Cardinal Cajetan's initial assessment of Luther's 95 theses: he found nothing heretical. There is a lot of gross ignorance among Catholics about how f#$*ed up the Church was at the time of the Reformation. The fact that the Holy See totally tubed its response to Luther is a story Catholics need to learn.

You can keep your Young Pope, I'll take Papa Bergoglio.

Friday, October 6, 2017

"Workin' on a mystery..."

What a week! I do not mean that in an exuberant way. What happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night still weighs heavily on my heart (to use what many would dismiss as a silly Christian expression). I am sure the massacre (what else can you call the shooting of more than 500 people?) weighs heavier still on those who were wounded, on the survivors, and those who lost loved ones in that indescribably terrible attack. One of the things that gives me hope when catastrophe strikes, whether it is a natural disaster or an unnatural act of terror, is how selflessly many people respond. Reading and hearing about how remarkably many people responded in Vegas when the shooting started made me think that we should not wait until we're in the middle of a catastrophe to start helping those in need.

In the wake of the most recent and faraway the worst mass shooting in the United States, it is bad enough to assert that we are powerless in the face of the epidemic of firearms violence. But it is unconscionable to insist there is nothing we should do to further regulate and restrict the sale, purchase, and possession of firearms and certain deadly accessories. My full response to what happened in Las Vegas is on The Boy Monk blog: "Mercy Provokes Us."

It seems more important than ever to remind everyone that October is the month of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I invite all who read this to commit praying 31 rosaries this month. A "Rosary" consists or praying one complete set (five) of any of the four sets of Mysteries (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, Glorious). So, if you haven't started, please begin today. Tomorrow we celebrate the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Iraqi Catholics (Chaldean Rite) praying the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary

From my perspective, our opening event for the six-part ecumenical series in observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation went well. It took place this past Wednesday at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sandy, Utah. It just so happens that our opening event was on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I mention my brother deacon Francis because he was a great Church reformer in his own right, one who had many of the same concerns the sixteenth century reformers had. I posted my opening remarks: "On the Reformation."

Here's something I did not include in my remarks, but kinda wished I had:
If Dean Wormer of Faber College had been dean of the College of Cardinals in the late-15th, early-16th century, he could've told newly elected popes what he told the members of Delta Tau Chi:

"Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life." The course of what we call Western Civilization might've been much different
Finally, Tom Petty passed away this week at the way-too-young age of 66. Writing for the The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich had the best tribute to Petty: "An Appreciation of Tom Petty."
... I’m fairly certain Petty knew how it felt to be us. He wrote with deep restraint and concision, which is why his songs always feel airborne, but what kills me are his articulations of ordinary, 3 P.M.-on-a-weekday business. Petty understood how to address the liminal, not-quite-discernible feelings that a person might experience in her lifetime (that’s in addition to all the big, collapsing ones—your loves and losses and yearnings)
When I was in college when a friend of mine and I took a road trip to Southern Utah. This was long before satellite radio and so for a good portion of the trip we had no radio reception. We only had a few cassette tapes with us. One of those was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Full Moon Fever. On our drive home, we listened to this album several times. I still know the words to all the songs from Full Moon Fever. My two favorite songs from the album are "Free Fallin," which was our Friday traditio way back on 27 November 2009, and "Runnin' Down a Dream," which is our Friday tradito for today:

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

On the Reformation

Below is my presentation for the first of six evenings we are discussing the Reformation. I gave this as a member of a collaborative panel that included, in addition to myself, clergy members from the Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Methodist communions. The subject the panel addressed was "Socio-Economic Conditions Provoking Religious Reformation." The nature of these discussions is not academic, but popular, pastoral, and ecumenical.

__________________________________________________________________

While it was by no means the only event that led to the split of the Western Church in the sixteenth century, the sale of indulgences can, I think, be identified as the efficient cause of the Reformation. Given that Luther was not excommunicated until 1521 along with his protection by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, who never converted to the Protestant cause, we can infer that there were other social, economic and political reasons that led to the schisms within the Western Church. It can be credibly argued that Luther’s reaction to the sale of indulgences in Wittenberg was the spark that ignited the accumulating socio-economic tinder.

In the years leading up to 1517, reform of the Church had been a matter of debate and discussion throughout Europe. Given that Europe at this time was a “Christendom,” the corruption of the Church must be considered as one of the main socio-economic factors underlying the Reformation. This assertion does not mean the Reformation was primarily, let alone exclusively, the result of theological disputes. Two of the most prominent exponents of Church reform in the first quarter of the sixteenth century were Erasmus of Rotterdam, who famously engaged in public debate with Luther, and Thomas More of England. More is best known, however, for dying as a Catholic martyr under Henry VIII. Prior to the English Reformation, More was a public critic of the Church and a proponent of major ecclesiastical reforms.

Upon his selection as pope in 1503, Julius II swore an oath to convoke a reforming Church council. In 1512, he called the Fifth Lateran Council. He died in 1513. The Council continued under his successor, Leo X. Leo was a member of the powerful de ‘Medici family of Florence. It was Pope Leo X who said about becoming Pontiff: “Let us enjoy the papacy which God has chosen to give us.” In other words, he bore none of the hallmarks of a pope willing to make the needed reforms. The council concluded in 1517. Leo X died in 1521, but not before excommunicating Luther.

Pope Leo X

The Church Leo inherited from his predecessor made it so that he needed to constantly raise revenue. In addition to finishing the new St. Peter’s Basilica, there were wars with France, which required men for papal armies. Like his predecessor, who patronized Michelangelo among other well-known artists, Leo was a lavish patron of the arts. In addition to wars with France, there was the Turkish threat to Christian Europe. Pope Leo was created a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church at age 13. He lived the Renaissance high life. It is worth noting that his papal inauguration cost 100,000 ducats, which is estimated to be about one-seventh of the Holy See’s treasury at the time. His extravagant lifestyle, in addition to the wars and the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, put a lot of pressure on Rome’s finances. At one point, Leo had to borrow money from bankers, who charged him an estimated 40% interest. Selling church offices was one way he raised money. In 1517 alone, Leo X created 30 new cardinals, all of whom paid princely sums to be Princes of the Church. This is believed to have netted around $500,000 ducats.

Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg, who simultaneously held the see of Magdeburg and the metropolitan see of Mainz, and to whom Luther addressed his 95 theses, acquired both episcopal offices by paying handsomely for them, leaving him in debt. It was Albert who authorized the selling of indulgences in Wittenberg and environs. Half of the funds obtained by selling indulgences were sent to Rome and Albert kept half for himself. John Tetzel was in the employ of Albert.

Some of the decrees of the Fifth Lateran Council that have bearing on the socio-economic conditions underlying the Reformation were the sanctioning of something called the monti di pietà, which were highly controversial ecclesiastical payday lender establishments that provided loans to the needy; dealing with the relatively new invention, the printing press (the internet of its day, despite the printing business’s shaky start), which was making books widely available, requiring the local bishop to grant permission before a new book was printed (beginning of the current system of issuing nihil obstats and the office of censor liborum); confirmed the Concordat of Bologna- an agreement between the Holy See and the Kingdom of France, by which the French king agreed to the abrogation of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, issued in 1438, which, among other things, called for a General Council with an authority greater than the pope’s (the rise of Gallicanism- a specifically French form of conciliarism, which persisted until Vatican I in 1870); the Concordat of Bologna allowed the Holy See to collect all the income that the Church made in France, it also permitted the King of France to tithe the clergy; called for a Crusade against the Turks, to be funded by three years of increased taxes and would have required troops from the independent kingdoms and from the principalities that constituted the Holy Roman Empire.

Despite the council, the papacy’s power continued to diminish as France, Spain and England asserted themselves as kingdoms, or, in more modern parlance, nascent nation-states, seeking increased independence from the Church. The internal politics of the Holy Empire also tended to undermine papal authority and made levies on these entities a cause of political resentment. Luther’s protest against the sale of indulgences consolidated these resentments. Last but certainly not least among the socio-economic factors contributing to the Reformation was the chaos and uncertainty that resulted from outbreaks of the Black Death.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Fairness, justice and God's mercy

Readings: Ezk 18:25-28; Ps 25:4-9; Phil 2:1-11; Matt 21:28-32

Fairness and justice, are they the synonymous, or is there a distinction to be made between these two concepts?

One way of answering this question is to say that fairness sees to it that everyone receives the same. We have six children. Three of them are boys aged 12, 8, and 6. When it comes to dividing up a cake, a pizza, dishing up ice cream or distributing freshly baked cookies, at least one of my boys will complain that one or both of his brothers received more. In an effort to nip such complaints in the bud, I usually do the dishing or dividing right in front of them, deliberately giving myself the smallest slice, the least-filled dish, or the smallest cookie, sometimes even going without, to my disappointment. Once in a while, this tactic works, but most of the time there is a complaint. My fallback position is, "Be grateful for what you have, not envious of what you don't have." Okay, I am done with the hagiography of my own parenting prowess.

Justice, on the other hand, has to do, at least at first glance, with receiving what you deserve. What I deserve likely differs from what somebody else deserves. For example, I could give the biggest piece of pizza, more ice cream or the largest cookie to the boy who, at least in my estimation, had been best behaved that day, who has finished chores, homework, and had a good attitude. But I am pretty sure this would be a massive failure in the minds of my sons as well as not a great way to parent. It is not a great way to parent because it makes my relationship with my children one of exchange, a situation in which love and approval are earned, which has a huge impact someone's self-worth.

Justice must be tempered by mercy. God will forgive anyone who repents at any hour, even in the final hour. Who knows, maybe Hugh Hefner, who had a very strict Christian upbringing, repented this past week as he passed from this world to the next? The person who truly repents will receive God's mercy, even Hugh Hefner. This is what Jesus meant when he told the elders and chief priests "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you." Why? Because upon encountering the Good News, understanding their lack of righteousness, they repented. This is why something very much like this part of the prayer of the great deacon, St Ephrem the Syrian, should never be far from heart and lips of anyone who considers herself a Christian: "Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages."



What about justice? I think Pope Benedict XVI addressed this well in his second encyclical letter, Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope:
Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened (par 44)
Human justice frequently misses the mark precisely because it is very often not tempered by mercy, or, to use Pope Benedict's word, "grace." Quite often, human-administered justice turns into vengeance, into revenge, it disintegrates into the lex talonis, demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. In the end, only God is just. Just, or righteous, people in the Bible, like St. Joseph, are considered to be just because they are merciful.

St. Paul's so-called "kenotic hymn," which is found in the longer version of today's second reading, is harmonious with both our Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel and today's Gospel by St. Matthew. Being in the form of God, Jesus did not come to receive the largest portion. On the contrary, he came to receive the least portion or, really, no portion at all. He came to give, not to take. What he came to give is nothing less than himself. Self-giving, self-donation is God's very nature. Greatness in the Kingdom of God is the reverse of worldly greatness. Jesus submitted himself to injustice for the sake of mercy out of love. The name of God is mercy because "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16).

In addition to the harmony found in all three readings for today, the message from God's word is congruent with the Little Way of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose liturgical memorial falls on 1 October.

Over and above being fair and just, God is merciful, gracious, even gratuitous. Let the words of our Psalm response be our prayer: "Remember your mercies, O Lord."

Saturday, September 30, 2017

St. Thérèse on love and unbelief

Tomorrow is the liturgical memorial of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. Since tomorrow is a Sunday, her feast day will not be formally observed. This is just fine. Our weekly celebration of the Lord's resurrection ought to take precedence over saints' feasts. After all, were it not for Christ's resurrection, there would be no saints. By honoring the Little Flower today, I do not want to short-change St. Jerome, whose liturgical memorial is today.

Jerome is perhaps best known for translating the books that together constitute what we now call the Bible from their original languages into Latin. While certainly given to ascesis and the pursuit of holiness, Jerome was also known for his temper and irascibility. Perhaps anticipating the future world of social media, he once averred: "It is idle to play the lyre for an ass."

We don't use this term much anymore, but historically saints have a cultus, a cult. In this context, "cult" refers to a substantial group of people who venerate a person they consider to be holy. Other than being a martyr, how someone traditionally became a saint was by being venerated by people from their local church after their death. These days, at least in the Catholic Church, sainthood is pursued via a bureaucratic and juridical process that smacks of what the German sociologist Max Weber called "the routinization of charisma." A great example is Oscar Romero, who has only achieved the canonical status of "blessed," the step just before being raised to the altar as a saint. Despite this, there is no doubt in the minds of millions of Salvadorans and other people worldwide, myself included, that he is a saint. Another example of this is Venerable Matt Talbot, who has worked many miracles of recovery among people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction. Along with Romero and Matt Talbot, there are other saints of (relatively) modern vintage who can rightly be said to have cults. St. Thérèse is certainly one of them. Another modern saint with a cult is Padre Pio, St. Pio of Pietrelcina. Of course, Mother Teresa, St. Teresa Kolkata, also has a cult.

To give you some idea of the widespread devotion to the Little Flower and that her intercession works in just the way she hoped it would at the time of her passing, I will be self-referential enough to point you an article I wrote seven years ago for the English language version of Il Sussidiario: "St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Little Flower and Édith Piaf, Little Sparrow." In his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton described his encounter with the little one from Lisieux (in for a penny, in for a pound- my initial contribution on the collaborative blog The Boy Monk this week was "Thomas Merton and Me").



Drawing heavily on Thomas Nevin's book The Last Years of Saint Thérèse: Doubt and Darkness, 1895-1897, which is a must-read for anyone devoted to the Little Flower, Tomáš Halík, in his own book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us, noted that Mother Agnes (Thérèse's sister, Pauline), who held the final conversations with Thérèse just before her death and who edited (really censored) the Little Flower's works and words, (mis)construed Thérèse's mental state (in much the same way St Teresa of Kolkata's was misdiagnosed by one of her spiritual directors). The misconstrual was the result of trying to stuff her saintly sister's experience into the pre-existing categories of Carmelite spirituality. We may owe a debt of gratitude to Mother Agnes. Without her censorship of her sister's spoken words and editing of some of what she wrote, there's a fairly good chance Thérèse would not have canonized, at least when she was. As a result of her efforts, Halík contends, Pauline Martin "failed to grasp what was truly original, new, and unique about Thérèse of Lisieux. something that, understandably, is absent in the case of both the 'great Theresa' of Avila and John of the Cross" (28). Pointing to Thérèse's principle: "to accept even the strangest thoughts" for the love of God.

For Thérèse, the strangest of these thoughts was that there were not only atheists but conscientious ones. Previously she considered atheists to be thinking, speaking, and acting in bad faith, people who "contradicted their own convictions." This should sound familiar because it is the starting point of many Christians today, especially those who fancy themselves as something called an "apologist." Jesus himself revealed to her that there really were people who lived conscientiously without faith. He showed her atheism was not just an illusion, or, worse yet, always a "sinful self-delusion," which then caused the "atheist" to deceive others. What confirmed this for her was her own experience of unbelief, of atheism, as she lay dying. As a result of this, she came to see "unbelievers as her brothers," as her companions, that is, those with whom she "sits at the same table and eats the same bread" (29). It is here where Halík is worth quoting at length:
Unlike them, she is aware of the bitterness of this bread, because, unlike them, she has known the joy of God's closeness (even though the memory of it now only deepens her pain), whereas people indifferent to God are generally quite unaware of the burden and tragedy of their situation. In fact, it is only thanks to her previous experience of faith that she is able to experience in depth the real drama of abandonment by God, as well as discover and experience the hidden face of atheism, which many accept with such casual matter-of-factness (29)
St. Thérèse, pray for us in our unbelief- that we may break bread with you and so many unexpected others at the table of the kingdom.