The View from Mount Nebo

Pope Benedict Mount Nebo

If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted. (Matthew 18:19)

If two of you agree. Sounds pretty easy. But if you think so, you’ve probably never attended a parish council meeting. And you’ve definitely never been married.

As we read at Holy Mass today, Moses stood on Mount Nebo and saw the entire Holy Land, from Dan to Beersheba, from Naphtali to Idumea. To be sure, the view from Mount Nebo is majestic, like the view from McAfee’s Knob, or Moore’s Knob in Hanging Rock State Park, NC. But no human eye could see the entire Holy Land from Mount Nebo. The Lord must have given Moses a share in His own divine vision, in order for the prophet to see the whole expanse of the land.

Then Moses died, and Joshua assumed his office. Now, two popes have stood at the same place on Mount Nebo and taken in the same view as Moses, at least the part that can be seen by the human eye.

At Holy Mass a week from Sunday we will hear the Lord speak about the Church’s authority to bind and loose (we hear about that at Holy Mass today, too). Our spiritual Mother, the family formed by God through the sacrifice of Christ, governed by Christ’s Vicar on earth: She possesses the holy concord, the agreement, the harmony of spirit which the Lord promised to reward. She teaches us how to pray and how to live.

We human beings rightly cherish our sacred personal independence. But this does come as good news: our Creator has not left us on our own to seek Him. He has not made us religious free agents.

Yes, we only truly find Him when we have the courage to enter into the depths of our consciences to find our true selves, the saints He made us to be. But our true selves never stand alone. We always belong to the family God forms from the flesh of His only-begotten Son.

Sacred Cosmopolitanism

Christ: the Light of the American Nation

[talk before Transfiguration Vespers]

Christ is the light of all nations. Hence this most sacred Synod…eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of His which brightens the countenance of the Church. This it will do by proclaiming the gospel to every creature…

By an utterly free and mysterious decree of His own wisdom and goodness, the eternal Father created the whole world. His plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life. He did not abandon men after they had fallen in Adam, but ceaselessly offered them helps to salvation, in anticipation of Christ the Redeemer, ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.’ All the elect, before time began, the Father ‘foreknew and predestined to become conformed to the image of His son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.’ He planned to assemble in the Holy Church all those who would believe in Christ…

The mystery of the Holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God’s kingdom…

When Jesus rose up again after suffering death on the cross for mankind, He manifested that he had been appointed Lord, Messiah, and Priest forever, and He poured out on His disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. The Church, consequently, equipped with the gifts of her founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God.

“This sacred Synod” eagerly desires to shed on all men that radiance of Christ which brightens the countenance of the Church–the radiance that shone on Mount Tabor, at the Transfiguration. What is “this sacred Synod?’ Correct! The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 1-5). In other words, the successors of the Apostles and teachers of the Church, gathered to declare to us solemnly the doctrine we need to keep in mind.

Vatican II stallsChrist the light of the Church, the light of all nations.

Now, Christ enlightening the nations involves fundamentally supernatural realities. As we just heard, the Holy Spirit operates, and He does the enlightening. His work transcends our human understanding. But we can also consider the business from the natural point-of-view. We can consider “Christian culture” on the purely practical, human level.

What does the Church do? First and foremost, the Church prays–she celebrates the Sacred Liturgy. And what does that involve? It involves supernatural things, to be sure, the operation of divine grace–but, like I said, let’s leave the supernatural aspect alone for the moment. From the natural point-of-view, the Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves a group of people reading and reflecting on the Word of God, in a disciplined manner, over a sustained period of time.

By “Word of God” here, we mean: the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Also, the Bible is a collection of books about people, all of them non-white, none of whom ever spoke English. God wrote the Bible. Also, non-whites who never spoke English wrote the Bible, to tell the story of a lot of non-whites who never spoke English.

These are just simple, straightforward historical facts. Of course, the fact that everything about the Bible involves non-whites who never spoke English takes nothing at all away from its holiness as the Divine Word. Abraham, Moses, King David, Elijah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lord Jesus–not a white person among them. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, St. Paul–not an English speaker among them. Tons of holiness, yes. But nothing “American”–if by ‘American’ we mean English-speaking.

Now, these foreigners–whose lives and writings we study in the Bible–we interact with them in church. The Sacred Liturgy of the Church involves our constant interaction with a lot of foreigners. Also, they themselves teach us, by their own example, this whole important lesson of interacting in an open, friendly manner with foreigners. During their lives on earth, the heroes of the Bible made it their business to interact with people they thought of as foreigners–Egyptians, Ethiopians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans. The Israelites we read about in the Bible opened themselves up to the world, for a reason. They believed that God deserved to be glorified in Jerusalem by all the nations, not just their own nation.

Here’s one little example of the cosmopolitanism of the Israelites. Perhaps we devoted Bible readers never thought twice about it. When King David fell into his great sin, he committed adultery with the wife of an elite member of his own army, named Uriah. Uriah the…Hittite. Hittite, as opposed to Israelite. In other words, this close neighbor of King David was not a Hebrew, but must have become part of King David’s people by accepting the religion.

king davidSo ancient Israel had a cosmopolitan culture. Jesus of Nazareth grew up, and then exercised his ministry as a rabbi, at a crossroads of civilizations. He received the Jewish culture from his parents and from the synagogue in Nazareth. And that culture involved associating with non-Jews. This association with non-Jews served a particular purpose, namely to further the glory of God. And, of course, this interaction with foreigners became especially urgent once Christ commissioned His apostles to preach the gospel to all nations, as the passage from Vatican II we read earlier reiterated.

Let’s pause and give “cosmopolitanism” a definition and then distinguish two kinds of cosmopolitanism. “Cosmopolitan,” if we judge by the magazine of that name, can mean a lot of objectionable things. But, for the sake of what I’m trying to say here, can we agree that cosmopolitanism simply means a state of peace among people speaking different languages in the same territory? When peoples speaking different languages share life together in one place, seeking friendship and interchange, instead of hostilities, a “cosmopolis” exists.

Now the two kinds. What we can call “secular cosmpolitanism” reigns supreme in international institutions and in the world of globalized commerce. The shallow, materialistic “culture” of secular cosmpolitanism regards the revelation of Jesus Christ as a matter of indifference. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. The Bible and the Sacred Liturgy don’t demand submission and obedience; they are merely interesting artifacts of human history.

On the other hand, let’s go ahead and call the gregarious openness of the Israelites and the Apostles “sacred cosmopolitanism.” The very truthfulness of the Bible, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the inevitability of Judgment Day–adherence to the truth of these realities demands that Christians cultivate the virtue of cosmopolitanism, precisely to serve the cause of God’s glory. The urgency of evangelization requires that we engage in friendly relations with our neighbors, no matter who they are or what language they speak, in order to build up the kingdom of Christ.

Our culture, therefore–the Christian culture of all the people who spend time every week studying the Bible–it involves sacred cosmopolitanism. By coming to understand ourselves through reading the Bible, we understand ourselves as citizens of the one, big world, the world that extends way beyond the boundaries of Martinsville, or Virginia, or the USA.

We encounter all of this, in fact, just in the first two words of the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father.” A Christian knows, having interacted in a cosmopolitan manner with the cosmopolitan saints of the Bible, that the us of the Our Father includes all the citizens of…planet earth. To any Christian, the idea that the ‘our’ of Our Father means any group smaller than everybody–that the ‘our’ means just good golfers, or people with I.Q.’s over 110, or just Hopi Indians, or just Dallas-Cowboys fans, or even just Christians–such an idea would be patently absurd. Yes, there are distinct identities in this world, distinct “cultures,” Jews and Greeks, different races and language groups. But there’s only one God, and He loves everyone with His fatherly love. That’s the Gospel. So we must practice a cosmopolitan way of life to extend that Gospel. Just like our heroes, the non-American, non-white, non-English-speaking cosmopolites we read about in the Bible.

So far, so good? Now we come to “the controversy.”

When I was in the seminary at Catholic University, I had a theology professor named Peter Casarella, who has since moved to Notre Dame. Also when I was in the seminary, I religiously read a monthly magazine called First Things, which was edited at that time by Father R.J. Neuhaus, who has since died. First Things is now edited by… Rusty Reno.

Anyway, Dr. Casarella and Mr. Reno met at Notre Dame recently to debate immigration. What does the Church teach about it? In the debate, Dr. Casarella reviewed the episodes and teachings in the Scriptures which demonstrate our responsibility to welcome the alien. Then he reviewed the teachings of the popes and bishops, which have emphasized the right that people have to migrate and the responsibility that host nations have to protect the human dignity of immigrants.

Reno then responded to Dr. Casarella with some captivating arguments. Reno conceded the basic concepts of a Christian’s duty to help those in need. But he accused the magisterium of the Church of a fundamental incoherence on the subject of immigration. He leveled an accusation that I myself had to take to heart. It’s what moved me to want to give this little talk. Let me quote exactly what Reno said:

The Church rightly sees its own mission as borderless. The Church is a supernatural society that transcends ethnic and national boundaries. However, precisely because of our Church’s universal mission, bishops and other Christian leaders often misjudge the finite and natural reality of a political community, which is not universal. So the Church is Israel, not the United States of America. And so the Sermon on the Mount applies to the Christian community and not to a political community–at least not, certainly, directly. And a functioning society requires social unity. This is especially true for democratic nations, which depend upon a high degree of civic friendship to undergird the sometimes-bitter give-and-take of political struggles for power… Newly arrived immigrants usually form their own communities, which is entirely understandable. But this does not reinforce social solidarity.

First let’s pause and contemplate the abstract concepts here for a moment. The Church of Christ and our nation are not the same thing. Religion and politics are not the same thing. Obvious truths. Reno stands with St. Paul on this one–the St. Paul who had to contend with the “Judaizers.” The Judaizers of the early Church could only understand religion as a national pursuit, the work of the chosen nation. Maybe we could go so far as to say that the sacred Israelite cosmopolitanism which the Judaizers had inherited could not overcome their particular ethnic insistence on the outward sign of circumcision of the penis. Yes, ok, the Church must admit foreigners, in obedience to the command of Christ. But no uncircumcised foreigners! But St. Paul taught us that the distinctive mark of the nation of Israel did not have to apply to the entire Church of Christ. It was Abraham’s faith, not his circumcised penis, that pleased God. Good news, to this day, for adult men who embrace Christianity.

So Reno makes a critical point. Christianity is not identical with national identity; it neither prescribes nor subsumes national cultures. By celebrating the Sacred Liturgy, English-speaking Americans interact in a cosmopolitan manner with the non-Americans of the Bible, just like every people that celebrates the liturgy interacts with them. But we English-speaking Americans continue to have our English-speaking identity, just like every other people that has embraced the Gospel and the life of the Church continues to have a distinct identity–a homeland, a language, a way of life.

So let’s get into this question: Who are we, we Americans? For myself, I’m proud to be an American, and I love our national history. If we start at the beginning of it, I have to admit that, had I lived in the 1770’s, I would have sided with the Tories. I would have been a Loyalist who did not want to break with England.

The colonial governor of Massachusetts then, Thomas Hutchinson, addressed the general assembly of the colony in 1773. He responded to the objections that many colonists had to being ruled by the British parliament. Hutchinson pointed-out that the colonists had means of redress for their grievances other than taking up arms. The movement in favor of independence, Hutchinson said, “must be considered more as an objection against a state of government rather than against any particular form.” I could not have disagreed with that.

But my affinity for the Tories, had I lived in the 1770’s, would have proceeded from more than just politics and economics. What really would have moved me was the idea of losing William Shakespeare as a countryman. If I had faced the choice the colonists faced in the 1770’s, I would have thought that I owed my allegiance to mother England for having given me my mother tongue.

Mark TwainBut that was a long time ago. None of us have had to face the choice that Virginians and the other colonists had to face in the 1770’s. We have almost two-and-a-half centuries of American history behind us now.

Speaking for myself, as a 21st-century American, I take great pride in having Mark Twain for a compatriot. If there’s an answer to the question, Who are we, we Americans? it must involve Huckleberry Finn. Huck, of course, became best friends with a black man. Huck had been taught that God stood behind the laws of slavery, so he feared hell for flouting them. But, in the end, Huck decided he would prefer to go to hell, rather than turn Jim in, as an escaped slave.

So, when we think about things like Mark Twain and the original thirteen colonies and their eminent statesmen, we recognize that Reno has a very-important point about national identity. But: Reno’s abstract distinction between the universal Church and the particular nation runs onto rocky ground as soon as we apply it to our specific case as Americans.

We American Christians know that we cannot completely isolate our “religious identity” from our “political identity.” We know that we owe our fundamental allegiance to God. We strive to serve Him in everything. Meanwhile, we owe it to the Lord to accept the secular and short-term reality of politics for what it is. We know from our experience in the first half of the 20th century that few things make more mischief in this world than the “sacralization” of politics, the idea that the nation has a religious identity, a divine destiny. We fought in World War II against the sacralization of the German, and the Japanese, national identities. The fascists made national identity a religion. Americans, on the other hand, recognize that politics are inherently mundane, inherently un-sacred.

So Rusty Reno accused Church leaders of wrongly applying the laws that govern the Church to the nation, in such a way that we potentially do harm to the great good of our national identity. I myself stand accused by this insightful and penetrating charge. I have insisted that we ought to welcome immigrants with minimal restrictions, and offer an easy path to citizenship for undocumented residents, on the grounds that we have a duty to do so, as Christians. But Reno corners me: Okay, Father. We have our duties as Christians. But don’t we also have duties as Americans? Don’t we have a patriotic duty to control our borders and insist on the rule of law?

Okay. Let’s apply Reno’s objections to our specific situation, to the identity of this particular nation, the USA. We understand politics as the mundane business it is, and we reject the idea that some kind of supposed divine mandate can indicate the pursuit of particular policies, without any reasonable argument. We have to deal with our political questions according to humble common sense and the basic principles of justice, as in: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Frederick DouglassThe Vatican has a semi-official intellectual magazine called “Catholic Civilization.” It recently included an article attacking the strain of American thinking that sees our nation as having a unique role in history, a “mission from God” to extend our way of life–by military force, if necessary.

So we have to go back 170 years, to the origins of this sacralization of the American body politic. We have to analyze the idea of Manifest Destiny. During the Polk administration, the idea that we have a “Manifest Destiny” to rule from sea to sea led to a sequence of events that, if we want to have clear consciences as Americans, we must humbly confront.

During the early 1830’s, Texas faced a illegal-immigration problem. These illegal immigrants spoke English and had snow-white skin. At the time, Tejas belonged to the newly independent United States…of Mexico.

During the 1840’s, Texans asserted their independence as a sovereign nation. Mexico did not recognize this assertion. Then Texas asked to join the USA. One question remained in dispute through all of this: where did Texas end and the Mexican state of Coahuila begin? At the Nueces River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico at Corpus Christ? Or at the Rio Grande?

US President James Polk proceeded to exploit this relatively small territorial discrepancy as a pretext for a continental war. In his essay “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau called Polk’s war with Mexico, “the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool, abusing and perverting it.”

American hero Frederick Douglass wrote of President Polk’s war:

Fire and sword are now the choice of our young republic [the USA]. The loss of thousands of the sons and daughters of Mexico have rather given edge than dullness to our appetite for fiery conflict and plunder…But, humble as we are, and unavailing as our voice may be, we wish to warn our fellow countrymen that they may follow the course which they have marked out for themselves; no barrier may be sufficient to obstruct them; they may accomplish all their desire; Mexico may fall before them; she may be conquered and subdued; her rights and powers usurped…but as sure as there is a God of justice, we shall not go unpunished.

The US Congress never considered whether a just reason existed for a war with Mexico. Abraham Lincoln entered the House of Representatives while the war was underway. He then said in a speech on the floor:

I carefully examined [President Polk’s] messages to ascertain what he himself had said and proved on the point of the justice of the war. The result of this examination was to make the impression that, taking for true all that the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him… [I suspect] he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong; that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying out to heaven against him; that he ordered General [Zachary] Taylor into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, purposely to bring on a war.

My point here is this: Rusty Reno accuses Church leaders, like my humble self, of confusing religion with politics when we insist on liberality when it comes to immigration and undocumented Mexicans resident in the USA. It’s more Christian, he suggests, to leave the universal ideals of the Church at the door, when it comes to building up a country’s identity. But: when we soberly consider the history of our own beloved USA, we find that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, we wound up with the entire southwest portion of our country solely because of a catastrophic confusion of religion with politics, which produced a grave injustice that cries to heaven. Confusion of religion with politics, not on the part of church leaders, but on the part of President James Polk. President Polk insisted on war, not because the circumstances justified it, but because of the widespread quasi-religious belief that the USA had a divine mandate to rule from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

We could spend a few more hours studying the political realities of our North-American continent in the middle of the nineteenth century. No one can pretend that the Mexican government of the time ruled its territories well, any more so than it rules its territories well now. Back then, the Mexican government did nothing to protect its people from the Comanches. Now it does nothing to protect its people from organized crime. We could also consider how the doctrine of Manifest Destiny served the cause of expanding the slave-holding territory of the USA. The Mexican government, for all its faults, had already outlawed slavery, a quarter-century before the USA did.

We could also consider the admirable cosmoplitanism of the Mexican nation. As we know, a million Irish people left home between 1845 and 1852, because of the Great Famine in Ireland. This emigration brought the shamrock to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, all of which became one-quarter Irish by 1850. But the famous St. Patrick Brigade of the Mexican-American War fought on the Mexican side. As one of the San Patricios, John Kelly, put it in a letter back home, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth, especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”

But, since we don’t have hours to spend here, let’s just consider these two maps:

Mexcio in 1845

undocumented immigrant pop by state

Rusty Reno made another interesting point in the debate on immigration, a point which Dr. Casarella conceded. National identity preserves Christian heritage in a way that the secular cosmopolitanism of the contemporary international commercial system does not. We have touched on this when we distinguished sacred vs. secular cosmopolitanism. Reno argued that we Christians need to fight to preserve national identity in order to thwart the corrosion of culture that globalized commerce inevitably causes.

Again, in theory, this is an excellent point, one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, once again, we run onto rocky ground when we apply this to the USA. If it is the case that our identity as Americans involves the preservation of Christian culture, we have to confront these two maps with Christian humility and honesty. According to the testimony of the 19th-century Americans we most admire, the white, English-speaking USA unjustly and unlawfully took the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah from the Spanish-speaking United Mexican States. About half of the undocumented immigrants in the USA right now live in that territory. And one-quarter of the entire population of the USA lives in that unlawfully acquired territory.

Who are we, we Americans? When we know the history of our land, we know that Spanish-speaking people share that history. Spanish-speaking people have a just claim to this land. In answer to the charge that undocumented immigrants from Mexico have “broken the law” by coming here, they have every right to respond that the USA broke the law to take control of California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the first place.

Church leaders like myself hold that the Christian solution to the problem of undocumented residents of our country is to grant citizenship to all those not guily of any felonies. And it seems to me like any honest American, taking pride in our true American identity, would come, in the name of true patriotism, to the same conclusion.

I actually have some more to say about the ways in which our identity as Christian Americans overlaps with the national heritage of Mexico, but I will have to save that for another occasion.

What Will Endure?

If what was to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious. (II Corinthians 3:11) What does endure? What will endure even beyond the “passing away of heaven and earth?” (Matthew 5:18)

chaliceThe answer resounds right in front of our noses. “The chalice of My Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.” We do not go too far when we say: Our religion is the Mass.

Not that we do no other acts of religion. We pray at other times and in other places. And we try to act justly and kindly all the time and everywhere we go, out of duty to God. But none of our prayers or religious acts outside of Mass make any sense at all without the Mass.

We do not go too far when we say: Our religion is Jesus Christ. Jesus, the incarnate Word of the eternal Father, makes Himself our sacrifice and our food in the Holy Mass.

Yes, we sacrifice other things; we strive to sacrifice our whole lives to God. But no sacrifice we can make pleases the Father unless we unite it with Christ’s sacrifice. And, in truth, we need make no sacrifice other than the sacrifice of Jesus—since, in offering Himself, He offered everything good and worthy in us. After all, He made us according to the infinite Wisdom He possesses in His unfathomable mind.

Sometimes non-Catholics try to confuse this issue of the absolute centrality of the Holy Mass and the sacred priesthood in the Catholic Church. They note that the New Testament contains relatively few references to the Mass, or the priesthood, or the Real Presence.

But this criticism actually misses the obvious context of the New Testament itself. What is the New Testament? Is it a collection of moral instructions? If so, it is not a coherent one. Is the New Testament an account of first-century Mediterranean-basin history? If so, it is a terrible, practically unreadable one.

The New Testament makes perfect sense, however, as a collection of documents written by churchmen—men who maintained intimate communion with Christ through the Holy Eucharist. Documents, in other words, written by priests of the new and eternal covenant, for the benefit of their people, namely the people who participated regularly in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

The living, breathing reality of the Church—priests and people celebrating Jesus’ Mass together: that is the gloriously glorious thing that will not pass away. Even on the other side of the final and all-encompassing purification of heaven and earth, we will gather together around the altar to offer Jesus and receive Jesus.

The American Inner-Contradiction

Say-no-to-circumcision

I will not leave you orphans. I will ask the Father, and He will send the Spirit of truth. (John 14:18)

When God created the human race, He did it with fatherly love.  Adam and Eve had no human parents. But they were absolutely not orphans.  God provided for them in every way.

We let Satan, in his malice and dishonesty, turn us into orphans. He led us away from God our Father. But the Lord had a plan to rescue us, to save the human race from the existential orphanage. And for most people, that plan involves baptism in our infancy and learning about Jesus in our earliest youth. We avoid the existential orphanage by getting born into a Christian family.

That said, I think we’ve all heard of parents who say, “We’re not going to raise our child in any particular religion. We’ll let our children decide about their religion when they grow up.”

Let’s acknowledge that, from a certain point of view, this makes sense.  Each year activists demonstrate on May 7, Worldwide Genital Autonomy Day–the anniversary of the German supreme court decision making infant circumcision illegal. When the court issued that decision a few years ago, Jews and Muslims argued that it interfered with the free exercise of their religion. So the German legislature passed a law overturning the court decision.

baptism-holy-card1But the free-exercise of religion argument actually begs the question.  Isn’t free exercise an individual right?  But a baby is his or her own individual, with at least some fundamental rights that do not depend on his or her parents’ decisions. Especially the right to life, of course.

And isn’t the freedom of the individual our great American ideal?  Who decides who I am?  I do!  Who decides what I believe and how I live?  I do!  Who decides how I will pursue happiness?  I do!

But hold it. If we’re honest, don’t we have to admit that there is a great deal more to the story of who I am than just what I myself have decided? When I was sixteen years old, I wanted to sleep until noon on Sunday.  But my mom did not leave me orphaned.  She called me in plenty of time for church.  If I didn’t get out of bed right away, she poured ice-water down my back.

So, fellow Americans, grateful as we are for our precious heritage of respect for individual rights, let’s have the courage to face some aspects of our lives that don’t involve options and free choice. After all, ironically enough: None of us can claim an individual right to our American heritage of respect for individual rights. We have only received that heritage as members of something bigger than ourselves, as a part of a national tradition that we did not invent or choose, but which we received as a birthright.

Hence: the inner contradiction of the American mind. On the one hand, we think:  The worst thing is when someone tries to take away your freedom.  Nothing is worse than being forced to obey something you don’t agree with! But on the other hand, we know that isn’t really true.  Losing one’s precious independence is not the worst thing.  The worst thing is: being left an orphan. Being left with no heritage, no identity at all.

Our heavenly Father has not left us orphans.  The pilgrimage of Jesus has revealed that the Father loves us with the same love with which He loves His only begotten Son. And of course our heavenly Father wants us to be free; He protects our individual rights like no one else does.  But the freedom of the child of God is not the freedom of a fatherless orphan. We don’t attain freedom by obeying nobody. We attain freedom by obeying God, instead of obeying anyone or anything less than God.  In other words, to be independent of Satan the father of lies, we must embrace fully our total dependence on the Almighty Father.

circumcison knifeThere’s no option; there’s no choice about God being God. If I try to put myself in God’s place, I, in fact, obey and serve Satan. Since that is precisely Satan’s sin.

The crusaders against religious circumcision of infants, and the parents who treat religion as something optional, something for adults to choose or not to choose: they imagine a totally autonomous, self-determining child.  Theoretically, the child should get to decide everything.  But in fact such a child is left with no birthright, no heritage, no identity.

The children of God, on the other hand, accept with pride and gratitude the million and a half things that we didn’t decide and can’t decide. We know we don’t have “freedom” to determine who our parents are, or where we come from, what language we learn as our native tongue. Much less do we ourselves decide whether or not we will ultimately die and go to meet the infallible divine Judge, Jesus Christ.

We struggle to obey our heavenly Father’s law and His Church’s teachings; we humbly confess and ask pardon when we don’t.  And each of us acknowledges that even my own distinct individuality is not properly “mine.” God has given it to me, as something to use to give Him glory, alongside my brothers and sisters in the divine household.

Resurrection of Jesus: Knowledge and Faith

El Greco Christ in PrayerTwo quick points on today’s readings at Holy Mass

1.  How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? We do not take it on blind faith. The key question is: How do we explain what the Apostles did in the ensuing months and years? First, two certain facts.

i. Christ certainly died.

Nonetheless, shortly thereafter, the Apostles themselves stared down death with supernatural courage; they testified in Jerusalem, and all over the world; they acted with utter conviction that the Lord Jesus had risen, had ascended into heaven, and had poured out the Holy Spirit upon His nascent Church. So, fact ii.:The Apostles certainly did all these heroic apostolic feats.

How do we explain it? Mass self-destructive, semi-suicidal psychosis among Galileans on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the spring of 33AD? No. The simplest, most straightforward, and creditable explanation is: Jesus rose from the dead.

But that brings us to point 2. We do have a kind of “blind” faith in: the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus declared that He is the One from heaven, to Whom the Father has handed over everything. Our eternal life depends not just on our reasoned conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. Our eternal life rests on our faith that He Who rose from the dead is the God-man, the eternal Son, the One Who has united His divine life with our mortal human nature by His Incarnation.

We cannot conceive of the triunity of Almighty God. But we can believe in it with a practical faith; we can obey Jesus, the Son Whom the Father consecrated and sent. When we submit ourselves completely to Christ, regarding Him as the Absolute Truth of life, in every respect, then the Trinity becomes not just something we cannot fully understand. It becomes the reality in which we actually live.

Human Means of Divine Communication

St Mark stained glass StA
St. Mark stained-glass window in the St. Andrew’s sanctuary, Roanoke

Today we keep the feast of my heavenly patron, who died 1,949 years ago today.

First reading at Holy Mass comes from the first letter of… St. Peter. He wrote the letter to… “The chosen sojourners of the diaspora” in Asia Minor (now Turkey.) He wrote to them from… “Babylon.” Literally, Babylon? No. In the New Testament, “Babylon” = Rome.

At the end of his letter, St. Peter sent the greetings of his “son”… Mark!

St. Peter, father; St. Mark, son. Not by conjugal generation, but by spiritual relationship. St. Peter accompanied the Lord Jesus through His saving pilgrimage on earth. St. Mark accompanied St. Peter during his time in Rome.

st-peters-sunriseAlso at Mass today, we read the end of St. Mark’s gospel. Lord Jesus entrusted His mission to His Apostles, and He ascended into heaven. A transition took place: Christ passed-over to a realm that we cannot now see. But His work on earth continues apace, through the ministry of those who believe in Him.

Some years later, another transition occurred: the Apostles who had seen and heard Jesus came to the end of their earthly lives. Someone needed to write down their accounts of Christ’s words and deeds. St. Mark wrote down St. Peter’s memories.

We love the New Testament, and the entire Bible. Not because it’s some kind of “magic book.” Reading the Bible gives us communion with God through the perfectly normal means of human communication.

The incarnate divine Son walked the earth, did things, taught stuff, accomplished His mission. People who loved Him saw and heard it. And people who loved those eye-witnesses took the trouble to write it all down for us.

Not magic. But wonderfully real; wonderfully human, and wonderfully divine, all at the same time.

Praise you, Lord, for communicating with us in this way! And thank you, dear St. Mark, for doing your part. May we have the grace to do our part, too.

No Legions of Angels, But Some Vultures

Last Days of Jesus PBS

Do you think I cannot call upon my Father, and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must come to pass this way? (Matthew 26:53)

We thank God for bringing the Christian people together in church to commemorate all the details of Lord Jesus’ Passion. We praise the Lord for giving us the time and the opportunity to take part in the solemnities of Holy Week, the anniversary of the salvation of the world. And let’s thank each of our guardian angels, too, and all the glorious choirs of angels above, for making our sacred liturgy, here on earth, possible and fruitful.

Now, maybe you found yourself bored one evening this past week, and you did some channel flipping, and wound up watching “The Last Days of Jesus,” on PBS.

We know that weird vultures circle at this time of year, trying to convince us churchgoers that “intelligent people” don’t believe in things like Jesus rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. On PBS, a ‘Bible scholar,’ trying to give us ‘the historical Jesus,’ explained the Passion as a failure. He said, “Jesus expected for God to vindicate him with his legions of angels, and it didn’t happen.”

Now, I like Bible scholars perfectly well. But you have to start by knowing what the Bible says. And we read from St. Matthew’s gospel that Jesus explicitly did not expect legions of angels to save Him from death. Instead, He willingly accepted His Passion, in order to fulfill the Scriptures. What He expected was: to die in agony as the innocent Lamb, offered in sacrifice for all His sinful brother- and sister-human beings.

What the vultures don’t get is: this has nothing to do with naïve vs. critical. We Christians are not some tribe of knuckleheads who don’t know how to read. Faith in the divinity of Christ is the one thing that makes the Scriptures make rational sense. The books make perfect sense to us, because we believe in Him, in Christ, true man and true God. We believe that God died a human death, and rose again. Believing all this doesn’t make us naïve; it makes us consistent; it actually makes us much more reasonable than anyone who proposes to accept one part of the gospels, but not another.

More importantly: our faith in Christ’s divinity hopefully also makes us apostles of God’s love. God, the God we serve, is: Christ crucified, the true God of love.

 

Williams College 25th, Garfield’s Assassin, Men-Only Priesthood

Timothy Keller
not believing in women’s ordination just cost this man $10 grand

“The Lord always employs the best material to do His work.” –Charles Guiteau, explaining why God had chosen him to assassinate President James Garfield*

Garfield had begun his journey from Washington to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to attend his 25th class reunion. Guiteau shot Garfield as he entered the train station. As I myself intend to travel to Williamstown for my 25th Williams-College reunion this summer, I take this to heart.

But, as I reflect on my youthful vocational discernment, so long ago, I know that God does not, in fact, necessarily employ the best. After all, St. Paul told us priests that we carry the treasure in earthen vessels.

Yesterday the Washington Post made one of our seminarians briefly famous. Last week, the question of what kind of candidates the Church may lawfully ordain erupted into a controversy at Princeton Seminary. The next Roman Synod will treat the subject of “vocational discernment.”

Destiny of the Republic Candice Millard James Garfield
a riveting book

Seems like it’s time to re-read Inter Insigniores

Our Holy Mother, the Catholic Church, finds Herself in an interesting position when it comes to  the doctrine of Holy Orders. On the one hand, She has way-more people than any other Christian communion; any ecumenism without the Catholics looks like a farce. On the other hand, She blithely continues on Her merry way, ordaining only men to priesthood, year in and year out, springtime after springtime–thereby leaving Herself in the reprobate backwater of unreformed patriarchies.

How can we understand this?

Pope Paul VI and his Anglican counterpart, Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, exchanged letters on the subject of women’s ordination. A few years later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained the Pope’s assertion that the Church has no authority to ordain the ladies. (That explanation begins with the Latin words Inter Insigniores.)

Pope John Paul II also exchanged illuminating letters with his Archbishop-of-Canterbury counterpart, Robert Runcie, on the same subject.

The sacred priesthood of the New Covenant is a sacrament. Not an elected office of temporal government. Yes, to preside at Mass also means governing the people in the exercise of religion. But the authority vested in the priest cannot involve any material benefits for himself. He teaches and leads the people in order to help them get to heaven–and hopefully arrive there himself as well.

We can only understand the priesthood in the Church, therefore, as a sacrament of God. Specifically the sacrament of Christ the Head of the Body, offering Himself in sacrifice, making Himself present in all times and places through the Holy Mass.

If we think of the priesthood in any other way, we certainly won’t understand it at all, much less grasp why God never calls women to it. If we think of the priesthood like Charles Guiteau thought of his ‘vocation’ to kill President Garfield–that is, that God certainly chose the best to serve as His instrument–then we will never come close to understanding anything about the priestly vocation.

Cardinal Walter Kasper
Walter Cardinal Kasper

Okay, yes: the powers-that-be in the Church must screen applicants somewhat. Seminaries prefer men with certain minimal aptitudes. Like being able to read. And having some rudimentary social skills.

But the most-important pre-requisite for ordination and success as a priest is a “professional skill” that no Fortune-500 company would ever seek. A priest really needs only three items on his resume: 1. Can read. 2. Not a total a-hole. 3. Believes. The pre-eminent “skill” of the priest is: Faith. Believing what the Catholic Church believes. A Bumbler Who Believes–that is how I, for one, understand my exalted pastoral office.

So we must understand the priesthood as a sacrament, not as a distinction of any kind of excellence, as measured by the criteria of the world. The priest is not “better.” The priest sacramentally represents Christ, in a distinct way.

Inter Insigniores humbly but unapologetically reasons like this: Jesus chose only men to occupy the priestly office. He chose twelve men.

Now, did He choose only men because He acted solely in accord with the conventions of His age and society? Would He have chosen some lady Apostles, if He had done His work in a freer, more feminist time and place?

Well, since He did many free and feminist things, it would seem that the answer to that question is No. And, for over 1900 years, the Church throughout the world, operating in all the various cultures, has never ordained women as priests.

Therefore, it’s impossible.

But! we say: Don’t we know better now that men and women are equal?! Better than they knew in the year AD 33, or 1033, or even 1976?

Walter Cardinal Kasper addressed the Anglican House of Bishops in 2006, begging them, for the sake of ecumenism, not to vote in favor of ordaining women as bishops. The Cardinal asked his audience to remember that, just as we now think we know better than our forefathers about many things, generations yet to come will someday look back, and consider how we think, and chuckle.

Christ’s Body certainly comprises male and female. By taking on human nature, the Word made flesh redeemed the whole human race, not just His fellow men. We all stand on equal footing before the Father, as the beloved sons and daughters of His household. We must not fall into the trap of over-stating our case on the Leave-It-to-Beaver conservative side. I certainly don’t believe in women priests, but I would be super-stoked if one of the young ladies in this year’s St. Andrew’s or St. Gerard’s confirmation class grew up to become President of the United States.

The crucial thing we must grasp, the crucial distinction that makes Inter Insigniores and the “backwardness” of our Church make sense is: At Mass, the priest represents Christ the Bridegroom of the Church. Everything distinctive about the priestly ministry stems from this fundamental fact. The Church has no authority to put a woman in the place of Jesus the Bridegroom, as He embraces His Bride, and gives Her His Body, for the salvation of the world.

———

* Quoted in a book you will love reading, Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard

 

Epiphany to the Skeptics

Moses encountered God at the burning bush, and the Lord revealed His own name. The tetragrammaton. A word which pious Jews will not pronounce. Obscure ancient Hebrew, with a practically indecipherable meaning. God’s ancient name…how do we put it in Latin? Ipsum esse per se subsistens. In English? He Who Is. Of old, God declared His name: “I am Who am.”

Moses burning bushNow, if anyone else said something like this, we might wonder about his or her social skills. “Hi. Nice to meet you, I’m Father Mark. And you are?” “I am Who am!” “Okay…”

But God rightly taught Moses a very important truth by saying this incomprehensible name. We cannot comprehend God. We cannot claim to know the ‘god-ness’ of God. He is He Who is. Which makes exactly as much–and as little—sense to us as it should.

Who are we to demand more information from the One Who made us out of nothing? After all, if He were not Who He is, we wouldn’t be who we are. We wouldn’t exist, if God did not freely give us existence. There wouldn’t be any air, much less trees, and the earth, and milkshakes and snow and stuff. God is Who He is, namely He Who is. And comprehensible things, like chickens and hamburgers, can and do exist because God the incomprehensible gives life and being to everything that exists and lives.

The obscurity and incomprehensibility of the name God gave to Moses confirms the wisdom of the religious skeptic, the agnostic. The one who doubts human assertions about God. The one who doubts pagan charlatans, soothsayers, snake-oil salesmen, and all the other irrational frauds who spout endless nonsense, claiming to have a divine mandate to do so. Teaching us to make deals with the Almighty, or even play little tricks on Him. So that I can get rich or healed or find a new boyfriend or girlfriend—all through my astute negotiations with the Lord.

To all the mega-church prattle about getting rich quick through faith healings and emotional exuberance, the religious skeptic or agnostic responds: Why should anyone believe any of that? Why should anyone believe a single thing Pastor Paula White says? How can anyone claim to know so much penny-ante trivia about the great and majestic God? Like that if you give somebody a high-five at the right moment during a praise song, you’ll then certainly become the president of your own company? Please! says the skeptic. Give the unknown God a little more respect than to think He can be manipulated to conform to our own selfish dreams!

Villalpando MagiWhen God said, My name is Yahweh, He meant: Don’t claim to know what you don’t know about Me. If you think I make sense to your small-time mind, you’re on the wrong track.

God makes perfect sense to the holy angels. But we human beings don’t have the intellectual wattage to grasp just how much God makes sense. God makes so much sense that He makes the things that make sense to us seem like they don’t make any sense at all. Remember: Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, those who mourn, the meek, and the persecuted.

Now, if God had stopped speaking to mankind after He told Moses His ineffable name, then every intellectually honest person would have to be an agnostic. We would have to regard religion skeptically. We would hesitate to accept anyone’s claims about the unknowable God. We would distrust all the pagan priests and fortune tellers and tea-leaf readers of this world.

But the unknowable God did not stop teaching us about Himself after answering Moses’ question about His name. To the contrary, that episode at the burning bush was just the beginning.

The ancient Israelites who followed Moses held fast to their faith in the unknowable, transcendent God. And they did what honest agnostics must do: They waited for a moment when the Unknown might make Himself more known. No honest agnostic can deny to God the prerogative to reveal Himself if He so chooses, when He chooses, in the way He chooses.

So the Israelites waited, eschewing the pagan nonsense of their worldly neighbors. And then God did what no one expected. He Personally became a human being. He Who is is a man, born of a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, of Nazareth in Galilee, whom the magi visited in Bethlehem. The Unknown made Himself known by becoming Jesus.

Yahweh Hebrew
The ancient Tetragrammaton

Consistent agnosticism requires a lot of intellectual discipline. But believing in the Incarnation requires much, much more. We believe in the God-man. If it hadn’t happened, we’d be agnostics and skeptics. But it did happen. God revealed His own divine light, a light brighter than ten million gazillion suns. And that light shines on the face of Jesus. That light shines through Jesus’ eyes.

God has eyes and hands and feet. God has what we have—all of it, except sin. God could have continued to dwell in mysterious obscurity, remaining the ineffable “He Who is” forever. But He chose to become a child, a boy, a carpenter, a rabbi, an innocent man wrongly condemned, a victim of cruel crucifixion, a dead man, and a man who rose from the dead.

The unknowable God reveals Himself. So the agnostic discovers true knowledge of God. The skeptic discovers something to believe in.

We don’t believe in empty promises. We believe in Jesus, and His promises. God became the son of a pauper couple, Who took up His bitter cross, because His kingdom is not of this world. Nothing could be more intellectually demanding than believing in this incarnate God. Which, to any true skeptic, makes it all the more certain that it’s absolutely true.

Pilgrims

Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see. (Luke 10:24)

A state of mutual incomprehension exists between Catholic and non-Catholic, which I would like to try to clear up.

For instance, regarding baptism. Apparently, many non-Catholic Christians see baptism with water as unnecessary, a purely external ritual. We, or course, revere Holy Baptism as the essential instrument God uses to make us His children in Christ.

baptism-holy-card1The non-Catholic school of thought revolves around the idea that the salvation of my soul ultimately turns on my act of faith in Christ my Savior, my Redeemer. Hence the question, “Are you saved?” And the answer, “Yes! Because I confessed Christ as my Savior, Redeemer and Lord!”

We Catholics recognize, of course, that Holy Baptism entails faith. Baptism is the original sacrament of faith. When infants get baptized, someone must profess the faith and promise to teach the faith to the child as he or she grows up.

But I think the central point of mutual incomprehension is this: We Catholics assume that God exists, and operates, and accomplishes great wonders, beyond the scope of what our minds contain.

We do not understand religion as something fundamentally inside my own mind. Instead, we think of ‘faith’ as: a mind reaching out towards the infinitude of God.

I can say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Redeemer,” and, of course, I do. And it pleases God when I believe that and profess it. But my saying something about what I have in my own mind, at this or that moment in my life, doesn’t definitively settle anything. The matter of my salvation won’t get settled until I draw my last breath. And God alone controls when that will be.

The non-Catholic emphasis on what I think equaling religion has a mirror image: the secularist school of thought which holds that it is absurd for us Christians to claim that Christ alone brings salvation to mankind. “How arrogant and provincial to limit God to your own religion!”

Now, it would indeed be absurd for us to think that Christ alone brings salvation, if the salvation brought by Christ depended completely on what this or that individual thinks or says at this or that moment.

But that definition of religion is foreign to us Catholics, and that makes the supposedly absurd and provincial aspect of Christianity disappear. God becoming man, and the Blessed Virgin giving birth to Him in Bethlehem, is the central fact. Not what any individual human being says or does about it. The almighty power of the one, true God accomplished this fact, the Incarnation. The total effect of this fact–namely the salvation of the world—extends way, way, way beyond what my mind can grasp.

What we can grasp is: We walk through life as pilgrims. I think that this idea of us human beings as pilgrims is the key, if we want to try and clear up the mutual incomprehension between Catholic and non-Catholic.

We human pilgrims have a relationship with the unknowable God, based on what He has revealed to the human race by becoming a man in Israel 2,000 years ago. This God Himself knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and set us on our pilgrimage. And our journey leads towards Him.

That’s what we Catholics understand “religion” to mean, I think: Living as holy pilgrims, heading towards the divine mystery revealed by the star of Bethlehem.