Our first reading at Holy Mass today, from St. Peter’s first letter, ends with, “I send you greetings, as does Mark my son.” Salutat vos Marcus filius meus. These words adorn the sarcophagus of St. Mark, in the high altar of his basilica in Venice.
Inside the stone coffin: the mangled remains of the martyred bishop. St. Peter had sent Mark from Rome to Alexandria, Egypt–at the time, the second-most important city in the Empire. After eight fruitful years there, St. Mark was captured by enemies of the faith, while he was saying Mass. They dragged him through the streets for two days, and he died of his injuries on April 25, AD 68.
Someday I hope to visit my heavenly patron at his uniquely beautiful Venetian tomb. Apparently an angel had appeared to the saint once, when his travels had brought him to Venice. The angel said, “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.” Maybe the next time I go to Roselawn, I will receive the same message. (That’s the local cemetery here in Martinsville. 🙂 )
Anybody seen the new St. Paul movie? Is St. Mark in it? Maybe not, since St. Paul and St. Mark apparently disliked each other. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that they traveled together briefly, then suddenly separated. There’s a happy ending, though: It seems that they patched things up later. St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, asking that Timothy bring Mark with him to see Paul.
St. Mark and St. Paul had in common that they collaborated with the original Apostles, while they themselves had not lived with Jesus during His pilgrimage on earth. Nor had Paul or Mark seen Him during the forty days after Easter.
If we think about it, that makes their faith even more amazing. Faith in Christ unto a martyr’s death, having embraced Christianity by pure trust in the Church’s nascent Tradition.
In other words, Saints Mark and Paul entered into the Christian mystery like we have entered into it. The Nazarene about Whom we have heard—and thank you St. Mark! for writing down what St. Peter said about Him!—this Nazarene man is worth living and dying for. He is worth spending all our energies on. He is the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, the Incarnate Divine Love.
Holy Father had his name day yesterday (se llama Jorge). Mine comes tomorrow. So, to celebrate, I present my review of Ross Douthat’s new book…
Douthat sees a profound conflict in the Catholic Church. On one side, “conservatives,” who believe that the gospels give us the words of Christ the Lord, including, What God has joined together, let no man put asunder… Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. On the other side, “liberals,” who think that the Church must change with modern times in order to survive.
At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic conservatives and liberals struggled for… hmm…struggled for what, exactly? control?… The struggle continued for a decade under Pope Paul VI. Then the “conservative” post-Vatican-II popes, John Paul II and Benedict, reigned for over three decades, supposedly stabilizing everything by giving Vatican II a traditionalist interpretation. But the struggle never really abated; the liberal side did not exit holy Mother Church, as many expected. Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013 led to a surprising re-eruption of the year 1968.
Douthat marshals many illuminating details of Church history in order to lay out this narrative–details which I myself have lived through in my own little life. My fellow seventies’ child lays out so many accurate observations, and interprets them so well, in fact, that I could easily let myself follow him to his doleful conclusion.
Namely, that either 1) Catholicism as we know it is on the way out, or 2) the Church will trudge on, as a house deeply divided, until schism erupts, or 3) by some miracle, God will soon give us a Pope Pius XIII. Then we will give up on trying to win-over our contemporaries and simply retrench. Thoroughly retrench.
But I can’t follow Douthat the whole way to his conclusion, for all his mesmerizing eloquence. For one thing, Douthat falls into one of the traps dug by the EWTN commentators who endlessly fuss about Pope Francis’ supposed misdeeds.
Mark 10 and Matthew 19 recount a conversation between Christ and some contemporary Jews. Lord Jesus said that divorce became legal for the ancient People of God “because of your hardness of heart. In the beginning God made them male and female, and the two become one flesh in marriage.”
As Douthat rightly points out, “only a professional theologian” could miss the meaning here. Christians cannot divorce. But, by the same token, this conversation of Christ’s evidently does not stand on its own. The Lord refers to the original creation, to Adam and Eve, and to the act of marriage. The act of marriage–vows and consummation–lies at the center of the contemporary ecclesiastical controversy, not chapter 19 of St. Matthew’s gospel, or chapter ten of St. Mark’s.
G.K. Chesteron explained how true love always makes a lifetime vow, in “In Defense of Rash Vows,” published in The Defendant.
It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.
The Holy Bible doesn’t prescribe the text of marriage vows, because it doesn’t have to. What the Lord said about divorce in the conversation recorded in Mt 19 and Mk 10 gets proved at practically every wedding. A lifetime commitment, sex, and forming a family with all its attendant duties and privileges–at a wedding, these are not distinct realities. They are one reality: marriage.
And, in this case, the sacramental grace does not come through the ministry of an ordained priest. A man and woman do this; a man and a woman minister the sacrament of marriage to each other. They make their life together an image of God’s love for mankind, an image of Jesus the Bridegroom’s faithful love for His Church, by taking vows and having sex.
What Jesus said in Mark 10 bears witness to, and confirms, the underlying reality of what marriage is. But marriage itself, which a man and a woman do (as God’s ministers): that’s the thing that lies at the heart of the controversy that occupies good Mr. Douthat.
I would say that both sides of the controversy miss what to me is this all-important distinction: the difference between a. ecclesiastical authority imposing itself or refraining from doing so, and b.the vows taken by lay people who marry. In other words, both sides want to put the pope and the clergy in a role which we do not in fact possess. That leads to unfocused and unhelpful rhetoric.
As I have tried to explain here before: According to the rhetoric, the controversy has to do with people being “barred from Holy Communion” vs. “admitted to Holy Communion.” But priests, deacons, and extraordinary ministers do not bar people from Holy Communion. It simply doesn’t happen. I’ve never denied Holy Communion to any adult who approached the altar looking like he or she knew what she was doing, and wasn’t chewing gum. Everyone in the church is always “admitted” to Holy Communion. The decision lies with the individual: Should I approach the altar to receive, or not?
So the whole controversy gets out of focus from the outset, when people start talking about denying/admitting to Holy Communion. The real disputed point is this: What should a parish priest (or anyone else, for that matter) say to someone who asks for guidance about whether or not to go to Holy Communion? This is something that actually does happen on a regular basis.
I, for one, almost always respond to such requests for guidance with some questions of my own, to gather facts and try to clarify the matter. Like:
Well, did you make marriage vows to someone else? Including a vow of sexual fidelity until death? Is that person still alive?
So, let’s concede that we have a genuine controversy regarding what priests outght to say to people. Douthat plumbs the depths of this controversy with both penetrating insight and stunning blindness.
I. Douthat’s Insights
The Pope and his ”Twitter apologists” won’t answer questions. Not just the semi-famous “dubia.” But simple, honest questions that Catholics can and should expect their priests to help them answer, by providing authoritative criteria for judgment.
Let’s take two examples. The first comes from Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence.” (I have not seen the movie, nor could I ever manage to get through the joyless novel. But Douthat helpfully outlines the plot.)
The main character faces a crushing choice. The local Japanese shogun will stop at nothing to stamp out Christianity. He tortures fellow Christians in front of the hero. “All you have to do is put your foot on this image of Christ, and deny Him. That way, you can save the lives of your friends.”
The hero’s priest mentor also tries to convince him to step on the image of Jesus. “These people’s Buddhism has the same ethical teaching as our Christianity. This is a dispute over supernatural things that the Japanese will never understand. Your stepping on the image won’t cost anyone anything.”
Fr. James Martin, SJ, the leading American Pope-Francis apologist, wrote about this. Douthat recounts what the Jesuit had to say. According to Father Martin, “Silence’s” hero faced “an almost impossible choice,” a discernment “in a complicated situation where there are no clear answers.”
Exhibit A of Jesuit sophistry. Who can fault Douthat for pinning it to the mat? Father Martin’s refusal to confront the moral facts: colossally obtuse. The “moral dilemma” here is actually not hard. How about this:
“Sir,” the hero says to the shogun, “I am not torturing and killing anyone. You are. Stop it. You send them to heaven by martyring them, but you do irreparable harm to yourself. For your own sake, stop this cruel nonsense.”
Then the hero adds, “Now, you think that I am going to step on the image of the one hope for heaven that we have, and deny Him? Deny the God-man, for Whose Holy Name countless of my smarter and more subtle-minded ancestors in the faith have gone to their deaths singing? If you think there’s any chance I will do that, forget it. May He have mercy on us all.”
Yes, it would require supernatural strength. (The sacrament of Confirmation promises precisely such grace.) But, at the same time, it would be the only moral option available. A difficult act, heroic martyrdom–but not a difficult decision, as far as right and wrong go. Apostasy is a sin that no situation can ever justify.
Now to the second example of a question which the “new paradigm” of pastoring doesn’t answer. This doesn’t spring directly from Douthat’s pages, like the “Silence” example. But it is the question upon which the entire controversy turns. Douthat regrettably never quite manages to lay it squarely on the table, but everything that he writes circles around it. It is the question which Pope Francis and his allies so studiously refuse to answer.
When should a person have sex?
Again, not a difficult question, when it comes to figuring out right and wrong. (It may be difficult to act in accord with the right answer, but that doesn’t change the answer.)
When should a person have sex? When you’re trying to have a baby with your spouse.
Like I said, not a hard one. To borrow Douthat’s trenchant insight, and apply it here: It would take a professional theologian to get that one wrong. Sex is for making babies: Human Anatomy 101.
But let me address the reasonable, well-founded objection you, dear reader, might make. Father, can’t I have sex–even when I’m not trying to have a child with my spouse–just for the sake of love?
To answer that one, I think we have to say this:
If marriage means something like finding a “soul-mate”–that is, a companion with whom I will truly share my entire life; with whom I will become the person God made me to be; without whom, when everything is said and done, I will never understand myself as a person, since my self will become part of a marriage and a family– In other words, if marriage is what God originally gave Adam and Eve, and which a man and a woman establish by taking vows at the altar and making love in private, to start a family– If that is what we’re talking about here, and it is: Then no one can doubt that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No one gets two chances at it. It is a beautiful mystery of God, having to do with getting people to heaven.
So: people involved in such a holy communion with each other–they don’t exactly have the freedom to make their own rules, but: who could say they should refrain from love-making simply because they know that conception at this moment likely will not occur? Not me. Couples having sex for the sake of love during infertile periods is no sin.
Nor would I tell a widower and a widow beyond child-bearing age not to marry. Though I would say: Pray in solitude awhile first, calling to mind that death and judgment draw nigh.
Anyway: Douthat hits the nail on the head when he calls the bluff of the “discernment’ rhetoric on the controversy’s liberal side. Their presumption is: Man must have sex. But that presumption is false. To have sex is a choice. Every individual soul must wisely make that choice–with a partner likewise making a wise, informed choice–or not. And we must make such choices according to sound criteria of judgment. Where do we start, in formulating criteria for such a judgment? The Nicene Creed. Life on earth is short; Christ gives us heaven; the Church guides us with the truth; etc.
All this is Christianity 101. Priests who won’t help their people make wise choices about having sex? Those priests suck. They suck as priests, at least. Douthat skewers that nonsense with aplomb. But…
II. Douthat’s Blind Spots
To Change the Church misses some extremely important facts of recent history. Douthat sees everything through the lens of political tribalism, so he does not understand the enduring significance of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate. Douthat calls JPII a “conservative.” He’s not alone in calling the saint that, of course. But calling Pope St. John Paul II “conservative” is like calling Michelangelo “talented.”
Seeing everything through the lens of politics, Douthat looks only for “the center” which can hold a political group together. St. John Paul II, on the other hand, lived and died for the Truth–which is what holds the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church together.
Douthat imagines that the “damage” done by Pope Francis has already undone the work of Pope St. John Paul II. The least convincing part of To Change the Church involves Douthat trying to explain why so few people seem to recognize this deep structural damage. It’s all happening silently because Christianity has lost its political and cultural power, Douthat argues. Therefore, only a few ardent Twitter users really know how big a problem we Catholics have on our hands.
But a reasonable appraisal of the current state of the Church would recognize: The influence of Pope St. John Paul II endures. Pope Francis himself cites JPII’s Catechism not infrequently. The Novus Ordo of the Holy Mass, which grew to “adulthood,” so to speak, under JPII–it gets prayed by validly ordained priests and their people all over the world, with sincere devotion and spiritual profit for countless souls, continually. In other words the Church continues to live Her life, largely unaware of the current “controversy”–and not the worse off, for not knowing about it.
Ok, yes: JPII had a way of not answering questions, too, when he didn’t want to. He did not answer the question of whether Latin-rite priests might be able to marry. He made it more of a question than it was before, in fact, by authorizing the ordination of quite a few married men–men who entered the Catholic Church in the middle of a career as Protestant clergymen. I remember serving Cardinal Hickey at the ordination of a married Methodist-minister-convert while I was a seminarian in the late 1990’s. I wondered to myself, Why don’t any of our spiritual fathers talk to us celibate seminarians about how to deal with this–watching a married man get ordained in front of our eyes? No one ever had that talk with us.
I still cannot forgive Pope Benedict for abdicating. But 2013 did not leave us in a re-booted 1968. In 1978, Karol Wojtyla inherited a papacy struggling to find its center of gravity again. That giant of a man proceeded to spend all his energies finding it. He gave the clergy and the whole Church their center of gravity back. Namely Jesus Christ. That center holds and will hold.
Douthat opines that Vatican II did not resolve the central modernism-vs.-tradition question of “religious freedom.” Again, let’s take a supposedly “difficult” moral case to try and get to the heart of the matter.
In 1858 papal gendarmes took Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents. The boy was Catholic, having been baptized by the maid when he was in danger of death. The Mortaras had hired this maid in violation of Papal-State law, which forbad Jews to hire Catholic household servants. The law stood on the books not out of bigotry toward Jews, but precisely to avoid such situations.
At that time, Pope Pius IX ruled not only the Church, but also a large part of Italy. So he had not only Cardinals and monsignori at his command, but also police officers with weapons. When the Pope learned that young Edgardo Mortara was Catholic, he insisted that the boy’s parents offer their child a Catholic education. When the parents refused, the Pope sent the police.
Now, Edgardo grew up happy and became a priest. He loved Pope Pius and insisted that the man was a saint.
But: be all that as it may, the question is, Should the Pope have sent armed men to take the boy away from his parents?
Moderns howl, “of course not!” On the other hand, conservatives say, “Well, it’s complicated. He was baptized, after all, and we have a supernatural understanding of the effects of baptism.”
In fact, however, it is not complicated. Yes, we of course have a supernatural understanding of the effects of Holy Baptism. Edgardo was a Catholic, with a right to a Catholic education. All true. But do we Catholics with a supernatural understanding of things claim that the Pope has a right to employ armed men to remove a child from his parents? We most assuredly do not.
Pio Nono had gendarmes not as the Vicar of the Prince of Peace, but as the head of the Papal States. The pope wrongly held such a temporal office. Religous freedom does not mean that Catholicism isn’t always true, for everyone. It is. What religious freedom means is: The Church of Jesus Christ does not employ force to win souls for Christ. Because force cannot win souls for Him. Or, to put it better: No force can win a soul for Christ, other than the all-conquering power of His Truth.
Pius IX rightly insisted that Edgardo had a right to a Christian education. But the pope wrongly sent armed men to vindicate Edgardo’s Christian right. That doesn’t seem like a difficult distinction to make.
The rhetoric of “modern vs. traditional” clouds minds. It doesn’t really help anyone resolve his or her moral problems. We Christians hold fast to the Sacred Tradition, and we deal with the times we live in, as they are. I wouldn’t call our times “modern.” I would call them pagan. The useless modern vs. traditional-Catholic distinction is a trap into which Pope Francis’ liberal advocates, his conservative enemies, and Ross Douthat all fall.
Pope John Paul II refused to fall into that trap. He lived his twentieth-century life ready to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but always as a loyal son of Pope St. Pius X. Pius X settled the Modernism controversy well over a century ago, with the encyclical Pascendi. (I summarized the encyclical here.)
JPII left us a Church very much alive and well, and equipped to march into the future with confidence. We will all die before the resources he left us run out. Pope Francis and his friends may decline to answer questions about sexual morality, and God will judge them. But we can still find the answers we need easily enough. They are all there, in beautiful black and white, in JPII’s Catechism.
Jesus suffered and died. They laid Him in the tomb. A night and a day passed, then the sun set again. At some time during that subsequent night, before full dawn, He rose from the dead.
Many human eyes saw the Lord in the flesh after He rose. He appeared to many witnesses, as we have seen in our readings these past three Sundays. The testimony of these witnesses can leave us in no doubt about the simple fact: the resurrection of Christ did occur. They could not have sat and ate with Him, if he had not risen in the flesh.
But the testimonies all refer to events after the fact. No one actually saw Him rise—that is, no mortal human being saw it. No human being was in the tomb with Him as He rose. Christ’s act of rising from the dead lies shrouded in the mystery of that holiest of nights.
As a man, Jesus passed over from human life as we know it, burdened by a fundamental separation from God, to human life as God intended it, perfectly united with Himself. The true Passover: Christ passing over from a mortal life in the body to an immortal life in the body.
The disciples who saw Christ after the resurrection saw the evidence that the Passover had occurred in His flesh. But they did not see the Passover itself. It is not something that mortal eyes can see. It is a mystery of faith.
In the same way, our own eventual bodily resurrection from the dead lies shrouded in the deepest clouds of divine mystery. Yes, on the one hand, it is a fact. We can’t really doubt that Christ rose in the body. So we can’t doubt that we, too, will rise. Christ rose from the dead, in the body: fact. All the dead will rise, in the body: fact.
But what our life will be like then: Mystery. We don’t know. It belongs to “the age to come.” Jesus, the Head of the mystical Body, Who passed over to immortal life 1,985 years ago—He will return to the earth with His divinity not hidden, but fully manifest. The Age to come.
The cynical world will say to us Christians: How can you possibly believe in such ethereal mysteries? Do you not know that the body is a chemical machine? It decays after death, unto dust.
To which we reply: It is precisely with reference to the facts of death and dusty graves that we speak. Would you cynics have us believe that the life of man as we know it—which, yes, does involve chemicals and the weight of mortality, but which also involves love and beauty and the longing for heaven—do you expect us to dismiss all the spiritual nobility in human life as some kind of chemical fluke?
After all, what real alternative do we have to faith in Christ’s bodily resurrection, and our own? Should we hope for real happiness from something else? Like facebook surfing, or good wine, or getting a lapel pin after 25 years of service on the job? Or can we hope for some purely spiritual eternity, with no body? What kind of heaven would that be for us, anyway?
No: We flesh-and-bone mortals have one solid hope, the hope that Christ has given us. The bonds of love we form by His grace during this pilgrim life will in fact last forever in His divine kingdom, when all the dead rise.
We Christians who believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection and hope for our own, even though we can hardly understand it—we are no credulous fops living in a myth. To the contrary: We confront the reality of our inevitable death as it is, and we deal with it in the most reasonable way possible. By humbly trusting that the Word spoken by Almighty God is true.
We Christians never said that Christ’s bodily resurrection is something that we mortals can altogether understand. But nonetheless it is an intimate reality, which we touch by faith whenever we come to the holy altar of Christ’s Body and Blood. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
The ‘how’ of our bodily resurrection exceeds our imagination and understanding…Yet our participation in the Eucharist gives us a foretaste.
The mystery of immortal bodily life is close, familiar–a friend. Christ, already having passed over to immortal life in the body, does not dwell on some unreachable alien planet. He lives with us right here. He is always with us. He unites us with Himself when we receive Holy Communion.
Jesus, Who reigns on high, Who pours out His Spirit through the life of His Church. Jesus, Who offered Himself on the cross for us, Who conquered death for us, and Who nourishes us with His own flesh and lifeblood from His altar. Jesus, Who teaches us how to live, by the doctrine and example He gives us in the gospels. Jesus, Who reveals that God is infinite, undying love, honest and true.
Jesus is the Son of God. That’s what we stand on. That’s what the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church proclaims by every aspect of Her life. Our Lord was born in Bethlehem twenty centuries ago, the only child of the sinless Virgin Mary. He came from heaven to fulfill His mission, which involved turning the tide of history by living His uniquely holy life. Before He ascended into heaven in the flesh, He gave us a mission: to proclaim Him–which of course requires studying Him, following Him, and receiving from Him the gift of true fruitfulness.
He is the vine on which we live; we are the branches of the vine. He is the Head of the Body; we are the members. Our peace lies in one place: His Heart. We find blessedness by doing His will.
“Spirituality,” Church politics, morality, “the Modern World,” psychological health, relationships, “fitting in”—it’s all an unmanageable mess for us sinners, except: We can solve it all, by fulfilling the mission that Almighty God has given us. To proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus, Who is alive, Who is real, Who has a Church that belongs to Him. Jesus, Who demands our total submission to Himself–to the point where we forget that there could ever be such a thing as life without Him. Jesus, Who gently and kindly wills heaven for everyone.
Why do we eat? We get hungry, and we eat to stave-off starvation. Plus, hopefully we find the experience pleasant. Also, we can commune with our fellowman very fruitfully over a meal together. The common meal makes the family.
Now, what if bodily death meant The End? The End of all this eating?
We nourish our bodies daily, but to what purpose—if bodily death means a total Sayonara? After all, our bodily death comes inevitably—no matter how well, and how sociably, we eat. Why stave off starvation then? If death means The End, then the whole business of staving off starvation for a few short, seventy or eighty years seems like a pathetic, desperate exercise in futility.
And if bodily death spells Todo Finito, then why try to eat well? Why cook well? Why try to make eating pleasant? I guess you could answer: Because tomorrow we will die, so let’s enjoy today with good savors on our tongues! But that seems empty and pathetic, too. The sweetness of a good meal loses its appeal when we think of ourselves as mere random conglomerations of chemicals.
And if bodily death ends everything, then why eat together? Why build a family or friendships? None of it will last; our loves will die with our bodies. If bodily death means Tutto Chiuso.
My point is: The idea that bodily death ends everything—that idea is foreign to our experience of eating. The entire human enterprise of the table: it presumes that eternity somehow lies within our grasp. Somehow; we can’t conceive exactly how. But we know that human communion over dinner touches eternity somehow.
In other words, we feed on material food, yes—because we are material boys and girls. But we feed also on love, and on hope for friendship lasting forever. Hope and love make human meals human, as opposed to animal trough sessions.
Jesus Christ came from heaven to restore and fulfill human life. Yes, He brought something altogether new to the world. But His newness is not foreign to our human ways. His newness brings about the perfection of our present stumbles and flawed attempts at the greatness that fundamentally does belong to us.
We need to feed on the resurrected, immortal Body of Christ in order to eat anything else in peace. When we eat His Body with a clear conscience, what nourishment do we receive? How about the assurance of the hope that love lasts forever? How about: Eternal Life?
When we have that kind of confident hope, every plate of tamales, every lasagna, every bowl of pho we share means the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The holy angels have no bodies. They “feed on” truth, on God, by gazing upon Him with their purely spiritual minds.
We human beings, on the other hand, feed on truth and bread, since we have souls and bodies. We need both truth and bread to survive and thrive. Without this nourishment, we perish.
God feeds on nothing other than Himself; He possesses infinite life. He is obviously immortal—He’s eternal, the eternal source of all life–spiritual life and material life.
We understand from Holy Scripture that God formed mankind from the dust of the earth for the sake of giving us immortal life. Originally He made us to feed on the truth, and on the material largess of the earth–without ever experiencing the disintegration of the flesh.
But we disobeyed His law and fell away from the eternal source of life, leaving us to face the struggle to survive and the dissolution of our bodies back into dust.
God, infinitely merciful, became a man Himself, to unite our flesh with His life-giving power. He underwent our bodily death in His flesh. Then He conquered that death, rising again to a life no longer limited in any way by struggle or impending death.
But that’s not all: His work of uniting His death-conquering life with our flesh included the institution of the Mass and the Church. By instituting the Mass He instituted the Church, and vice-versa. The Mass is the life of the Church.
And the Mass is the way, perfectly suited to our human nature, by which we can feed on God. We cannot feed on Him like the angels do, since we do not see Him with spiritual eyes like they do. We need a bodily way to feed on the Body, Blood, soul, and divinity of the Christ. That way is: the Holy Mass.
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life. (John 6:27)
We kept the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council a few years ago, between 2012 and 2015. But maybe some of Pope Francis’ more-recent teachings lead us back to the Second Vatican Council again.*
Here’s one question: Was Vatican II overly optimistic in focusing on what Protestants and Catholics have in common?
One side would say: Yes, Vatican II was wrong there. It was a betrayal of sacred Catholic Tradition and the Council of Trent to affirm that Protestants and Catholics share the same faith in Christ.
–But isn’t that’s going too far? There’s only one Jesus. And we all personally know Protestants who truly and sincerely believe in Him. So Vatican II was not altogether wrong to emphasize what we have in common.
On the other hand, the other extreme would say: No, Vatican II had no misplaced optimism whatsoever. Christian re-unification is right around the corner, if only we could get over ourselves!
–But that’s going too far, too. No reasonable observer can deny that, in spite of a lot of common enterprises, and a lot of good intentions, the last fifty years have not seen a whole lot of real ecumenical headway. Quite the contrary.
During the third week of Easter we read from John 6 at Holy Mass. Seems to me like we Catholics could lay down this marker, and live at peace with it:
We believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And we believe that He makes Himself present on the altar at Mass to be our food unto eternal life.
It seems to us that these two aspects of the faith—namely the Resurrection and the Real Presence—are really one aspect. It makes absolutely no sense to separate them. And why would anyone want to?
*I have been reading Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church. Douthat illuminates things enormously, I think, by outlining the two alternative understandings of the past 55 years of Catholic history, “liberal” and “conservative.” But there’s more to the story, I think. And I want to try to bring it to light, as the opportunity allows.
In our first reading at Sunday Mass, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear part of one of St. Peter’s early sermons. He explained to the people of Jerusalem the true meaning of what they had done. When they clamored in a cruel frenzy for Jesus of Nazareth’s death, they fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah–namely that He would suffer and die. Then Christ triumphed over death. So now the sinners who wrongly condemned him have the chance to repent of the evil they did. And make a fresh start. [Spanish]
In the Sunday reading from St. Luke’s gospel, we hear the Lord Jesus ordering this mission of reconciliation. Begin here in Jerusalem, where they crucified Me. Then go to the whole world, and declare: “God will forgive your sins. Repent. Choose life. Start fresh.”
God’s mercy extends beyond any limits we can imagine. He went, in the flesh, to the city full of fickle, self-centered numbskulls. He gently offered Himself there as a lamb led to slaughter. A perfectly innocent man, Who had never spoken an untrue word or done an unloving act–the perfectly innocent man offered Himself quietly. He submitted to death at the hands of desperately ignorant, cruel, maladjusted buffoons. Precisely because He loved them. He wanted only for them to have the chance to see the evil of their ways, and repent, beg mercy, and start fresh.
I have managed to get a few years under my belt now hearing confessions. And it seems to me that a fresh start is the key idea, the decisive aspect of the business. Three brief points on this.
1. No one can give him- or herself a fresh start, all by him- or herself. The fresh start has to come from God, because God alone possesses the resources to give me a fresh start, anytime and every time. I need to give myself a break, of course, and start over with myself. But without some heavenly help to do that, I can’t manage it. After all, I don’t have the skills to fix everything that I have broken.
God, on the other hand, never has a day when He’s too tired, or sick of it all, or discouraged. The passing of time, and my repeated falls and weaknesses, do not deplete the Lord’s storehouse of newness. He has an infinite number of new beginnings available to deploy at any time, and He can easily fix things that to me look irreparably broken.
2. We gain access to this divine fountainhead of youthful re-invigoration by wanting to change. The men who yelled, “Crucify Him!” and the soldiers and officials who closed their eyes to Christ’s innocence: at some point they realized, through the working of their consciences, that they had participated in something truly wrong, terribly wrong. They didn’t want to live in such a dark place anymore. They didn’t want to be the men who callously crucified the Christ. So they welcomed the preaching of St. Peter, with weeping, and with hope for a better day. They knew they had done wrong, and they did not want to do wrong again.
3. I think all of this helps us to resolve a perennial Easter-season mystery. Why did the Lord Jesus appear only to a chosen group after He rose from the dead, and then vanish into heaven–without appearing openly to everyone? He could have made his victory crystal-clear and indisputable, removing all doubt. Why didn’t He?
Well, why did He become man in the first place? To astound people, as if to compete with George Lucas or Pixar Studios for the most wow-able visual moments? To prove how awesome He is–to make everyone believe? Did He come to cultivate His popularity, or get elected president, or improve His standing in opinion polls? Did He come seeking money, or comfort, or a Maserati, or a beachfront condo?
Hardly. Christ came to reconcile sinners with the Father. To reconcile foolish, malicious, selfish, lazy, weak, nasty, moody, grouchy, unrealistic, proud, deluded, egomaniacal, obtuse, snarky, judgmental, petty, gossiping, klutzy moral nincompoops. To reconcile us wiith our good, unendingly patient Creator. The only-begotten Son of God came; He died; He rose: for the forgiveness of sins. For a new beginning.
God needed nothing. He became man to give us a fresh start. That fresh start is right there, in our grasp. All it takes is: a searching, painfully honest encounter with the unvarnished truth–the truth that we and the Jerusalemites who killed Christ are in the same boat.
Right there, on our knees, weeping over the horrid things we have done–there we find Jesus, risen from the dead. And He says: Forget it. We’re starting fresh.
Parrhesia. Childlike boldness in praying to our heavenly Father. And fearless boldness in bearing witness to Christ before men.
Christian boldness springs from our conviction that God has spoken His Word of love in Christ. And we—obtuse and klutzy as we are—serve that Almighty Word.
Gamaliel the Wise counseled the Sanhedrin during the first Easter season: Leave these ‘apostles’ alone. If they act out of real obedience to God, then nothing will stop them anyway. If not, then their misplaced fervor will die out on its own.
So the Sanhedrin had the Apostles flogged and released, instead of jailing them pending execution. And St. Peter and Co. rejoiced—for having the opportunity to share in the sufferings of the crucified Word of God.
Pope has used the word parrhesia over and over again in his teachings. And he has dedicated an entire section to the word parrhesia in his new exhortation to holiness. Let me quote the Holy Father:
Holiness is also parrhesía: it is boldness, an impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark in this world. To allow us to do this, Jesus himself comes and tells us once more, serenely yet firmly: “Do not be afraid.” …Parrhesía describes the freedom of a life open to God and to others…
Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite…
Parrhesía is a seal of the Spirit; it testifies to the authenticity of our preaching. It is a joyful assurance that leads us to glory in the Gospel we proclaim. It is an unshakeable trust in the faithful Witness who gives us the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar… He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! (Gaudete et Exsultate 129-135)
Then the pope quotes himself, from the speech he gave as a Cardinal, right before the conclave elected him pope.
We know that Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts. We read that in Scripture. But maybe He wants to go out “to escape from our stale self-centeredness.”
Some people find the pope controversial. A lot of people don’t. Regardless of whether we find him controversial or not, we have to hear what he is saying here. We have to let the Vicar of Christ remind us about this fundamental aspect of Christianity: Every human being searches for the meaning of life. And we cannot live in the truth ourselves if we do not take the risks necessary to form relationships with other human beings searching for the meaning of life like we are.
Especially the ones we do not want to form relationships with, because they do not presume the same things that we do. Relating to them is hard. It requires the very hard work of sincere communication. Which we can’t do without working hard at understanding ourselves. Which will ultimately lead us to the point where we have to acknowledge: we are fundamentally just as weak and clueless as any confused child.
Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of…that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace…A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths…unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. (Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate 25, 76)
Christian joy is usually accompanied by a sense of humor…Ill humor is no sign of holiness. “Remove vexation from your mind” (Ecclesiastes 11:10). We receive so much from the Lord “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17), that sadness can be a sign of ingratitude. (Gaud et Exul., 126)