Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ave Crux Spes Unica

A few days ago, I read an article about the evolution of America’s celebration of Halloween. In the article, which included statistics and stories spanning more than a century, I learned that in 1965 Americans spent $300 million on Halloween costumes, decorations, and candy. As you might imagine, that number has only increased—exponentially—in the past fifty years. But what surprised me (and, I admit, bothered me), is that of the billions spent on Halloween, Americans today are spending as much on pet costumes as we did on all Halloween items in 1965. Yes, that’s right: $300 million.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for celebrating holidays and I enjoy seeing a family pet dressed as a hot dog as much as the next person. But this bit of trivia says a lot about where we are placing our values as a culture. It also says much about what we view as necessity.
I’ve wondered what it would mean if, instead of buying Fluffy that clown outfit this year, the Smith family donated that money to a charity? It’s certainly no secret that churches, food banks, and all kinds of charitable organizations are struggling to keep outreach and assistance programs active. And the last several years have been especially difficult for nearly all non-profit organizations. When the economy tanked, people tightened their belts (and their purse strings) and gave less. Now however, people in general are in a better place fiscally, but the patterns of charitable giving that existed in the past seem to be just a memory.
As a culture, we do a great job self-medicating and distracting ourselves so that we don’t have to feel the full weight of the many hurtful and challenging things going on in the world around us. The threat of war on several fronts is looming larger and political and racial tensions are as high as they’ve been in many, many years. And sadly, religion has also become a weapon of choice in certain circles (and I’m speaking of events here at home). I think of Karl Marx’s famous description of religion as the “opiate of the people,” and I find myself wondering what Marx would think of our world today—a world in which we are as drugged as ever, only this time with the opiate of our own choosing.
And then, in the midst of all this, September 14th comes around and we are asked to reflect on the Cross of Jesus and on September 15th, the sorrows of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. What’s more, this great Feast isn’t just the “Feast of the Holy Cross,” it is the “Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Suddenly, on a day in the middle of September, our Faith tradition confronts us with the mysteries of life and death, of ugliness and beauty, of despair and hope, and of passion and resurrection. This Feast and what it celebrates stands in stark contrast to our tendency to try to avoid or escape.
In my prayers these past several days are the three Xaverian Missionary Sisters of Mary who were raped and murdered in Burundi last week. These women, Sister Olga, Sister Lucia, and Sister Bernadetta, had given their lives working to protect and support the mentally ill and children and women who were victims of domestic violence. Beyond this very disturbing tragedy, there is the ongoing suffering of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Obviously, these aren’t the only sad events taking place in our world, but I find myself thinking and praying about them in a particular way.
The First Reading of the Mass for this Feast is an unusual story from the Book of Numbers in which the complaining Israelites are bitten by serpents as they make their way unhappily through the desert. Complaining “against God and Moses,” the people begin to die from the serpent bites. When Moses prays for the people, God instructs him to cast a serpent in bronze and affix it to a pole so that, when the people who had been bitten looked at it, they would be healed. From the time of Jesus, this symbol has been understood as an image of Jesus, who was himself “lifted   up” on the Cross, becoming the source and sign of our salvation (cf. John 3:15).
"Moses and the Brazen Serpemt" by Augustus John
In a homily in April, Pope Francis shared this reflection:
Christianity is not a philosophical doctrine, it is not a programme of life that enables one to be well formed and to make peace. These are its consequences. Christianity is a person, a person lifted up on the Cross. A person who emptied himself to save us. He took on sin. And so just as in the desert sin was lifted up [represented by the serpent], here God-made-man was lifted up for us. And all of our sins were there… one cannot understand Christianity without understanding this profound humiliation of the Son of God, who humbled himself and made himself a servant unto death on the Cross. To serve…
The heart of God’s salvation is his Son who took upon himself our sins, our pride, our self-reliance, our vanity, our desire to be like God. A Christian who is not able to glory in Christ Crucified has not understood what it means to be Christian. Our wounds, those which sin leaves in us, are healed only through the Lord’s wounds, through the wounds of God made man who humbled himself, who empties himself. This is the mystery of the Cross. It is not only an ornament that we always put in churches, on the altar; it is not only a symbol that should distinguish us from others. The Cross is a mystery: the mystery of the Love of God who humbles himself, who empties himself.
Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire
in Ravenna, Italy
We have much in common with those wandering Israelites. Tired and frustrated from years of wandering in the desert and enduring real hardships, they wanted their lives to be different, despite the fact that God had promised them a new home and prosperity at the end of their journey. And, just like the Israelites, we are constantly being attacked by poisonous serpents, although many of those things that threaten our lives today are of our own making. But then, there is the Cross, a sign of hope and promise, reminding us that death and suffering have been transformed. And so we trust that the sufferings and deaths of those African missionaries and Iraqi Christians have meaning and that something beautiful can come out of the greatest tragedies.
But we are also being asked to look at our own priorities because we are a people of the Cross. We do this through prayer. We also do this by making sacrifices that help us to reorient our lives and rediscover what is truly necessary for our own health and the good of those who are entrusted to our care—our families and friends, the sick, the poor, and the homeless. Ask the difficult questions. Skip the new pet costume this year. Give to that charity you’ve been meaning to send a donation to. Turn off the TV and computer and read something life enriching. Place a crucifix in your home as a reminder of the gifts and responsibility you have received. Remember that the Cross is, in many ways, our great inheritance and it is something that we all share.
Ave Crux Spes Unica: Hail, O Cross, our only hope.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Birth of Mary

Icon of Mary, "Seeker of the Lost"
"Mary experienced uncertainty and insecurity when she said yes to the angel. She knew what oppression was when she didn't find a hospitable place to give birth to Jesus. She knew the sufferings of the mothers whose their children being thrown in the air and pierced by bayonets; she lived as a refugee in a strange land with a strange language and strange customs; she knew what it means to have a child who does not follow the regular ways of life but creates turmoil wherever he goes; she felt the loneliness of the widow and the agony of seeing her only son being executed. Indeed, Mary is the woman who stands next to all the poor, oppressed, and lonely women of our time. And when she continues to speak to people it is the simple and the poor to whom she appears: Juan Diego, the simple old Mexican Indian of Guadalupe; Bernadette, the poor sickly girl in Lourdes; Lucia, Jacinta, and Francesco [sic], the unspectacular children of Fatima.

Every word in Scripture about Mary points to her intimate connection with all who are forgotten, rejected, and pushed aside. She joyfully proclaims: "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rick he has sent away empty" (Luke 1:52-53). These words today have taken on so much power and strength that... they are considered subversive and can lead to torture and death. Mary is the mother of the living, the new Eve, the woman who lives deeply in heart... She gives hope, inspires the fight for freedom, and challenges us to live with an unconditional trust in God's love.
--Henri Nouwen in ¡Gracias!

A prayer for the Feast of the Birth of Mary +
Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
     through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
grant that we, who have seen your glory
     revealed in our human nature
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image
and be conformed to the pattern of your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
-from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Peter, Pius, and What We Leave Behind

I generally have two books going at any given time—one for spiritual enrichment and the other for entertainment. I’m currently reading Jesus: The Son of Man by Kahlil Gibran and Love In the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve also been making my way through an audio version of Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen: A Novel.

A few days ago, I was listening to The Snow Queen as I went for a walk and I was struck by this passage:

There’s something about the courting of disaster, in shopping terms, that fascinates Barrett [one of the book’s main characters], that holds his attention, helps render him satisfied with his current stature. It’s the technically extinct but somehow still plausible hint of calamity implied by the impulse purchase—the impoverished dowager or disinherited young earl who says, “I’m going to walk the earth in this perfectly faded Freddy Mercury t-shirt (two-fifty), I’m going to party tonight in this vintage McQueen minidress (eight hundred), because the moment matters more than the future. The present—today, tonight; the sensation of walking into a room, and creating a real if fleeting hush—is what I care about, it’s all right with me if I leave nothing behind.”

At this risk of sounding unnecessarily harsh, I have to say that the reason this passage stayed with me is because I think it captures the prevailing attitude of our culture in general, including those of us who profess to be committed to our faith. 

Convenience. Expedience. Comfort. Security. Passivity. Independence. Rapacity. These are dark, hard words. And yet, we can also see how, in many ways, they are the guiding values of the culture in which we live. Each of these values is focused on “me” and what is best for my life. They give us permission to ignore what is going on around us (as long as “I” am not effected) and effectively prevent any outside voice from disrupting or forming the life that I lead. These same words can become the guiding values of communities, as well. 

And this tendency to live only for the self and for the present moment reveals how hard it is to live for the future. But the demands of the Gospel force us to see the world and our selves through different eyes. Being a disciple automatically places us within a community because faith cannot be lived out in a sort of private experience that is only focused on seeking out and gaining what is best for me and mine. 

In the Gospel for this Sunday, we hear the Peter’s great profession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But we also hear Jesus’ reply to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” For Catholics, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel forms the foundation for belief in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter. And whether you accept the Catholic understanding of this pericope or adopt the Protestant perspective (that the emphasis should be placed on Peter’s confession rather than Peter himself), this is a pivotal moment in the lives of Peter, the other Apostles, and all Jesus’ followers. 

But even after this wonderful exchange, Peter “the Rock” continues to get things wrong. His personality continues to get in the way and, at the time we would expect him to stand by his friend and Master, he denies Jesus three times (cf. Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-60; and John18:15-18, 25-27). However, as Sr. Kathleen Howard, O.S.B., observes, “It is not Peter’s character or virtuous achievements that make him a rock. It is his faith in Jesus that makes him stable and strong enough to be a foundation stone for the church… Peter’s faith is more than intellectual knowledge; it is a trusting relationship with Jesus. When he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Peter is speaking out of deep loving communion with him. He knows Christ as friend knows friend, as husband or wife knows a spouse. Knowing in this deep, loving way with heart as well as head makes Peter willing to place all his trust in Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son” (from Give Us This Day¸ August 24, 2014). 

Despite his faults, we do see Peter begin to fulfill his mission in the Acts of the Apostles. The same can be said of all the Apostles. They shepherded the Early Church through persecutions, internal divisions, scandals, growing pains, and theological exploration, leaving us a legacy of faith that in enshrined in both the New Testament and in the most ancient traditions of the Church. In their ministry, Peter and the Apostles were mindful that their work and witness had consequences, not only for those first generations of Christians, but for those who would come later. We are given a hint of this in the Letter to the Ephesians: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred to the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:19-22). The building up of the Body of Christ continues and we are a part of that process. Peter’s future is our present. We are the beneficiaries of this great legacy. And this legacy places demands upon us, because our present and our future will shape those who come after us.

As I reflected on this reading and the idea of what we “leave behind,” I thought of the ministry of Pope Francis, but also of another pope, Pius X, whose liturgical memorial was celebrated on August 21. This year marks the centenary of the death of this important but controversial pope  who was canonized 1954. 

In his Lives of the Saints, Father Richard McBrien observes that Pius X was “the pope best known, unfortunately, for the war he waged against Modernism, an ill-defined grab bag of liberal but not necessarily unorthodox opinions, in the course of which campaign he set back Catholic theological, biblical, and historical scholarship at least fifty years.” But Pius X is also the pope who encouraged frequent reception of the Eucharist (in an age when many only received Communion once a year, if that often) and determined that First Communion could be celebrated at the “age of discretion” (around age seven). 

Giuseppe Sarto was born to an impoverished family (his father was a postal worker) in the region of Treviso, Italy. Following his ordination in 1858, he served in country parishes before being appointed diocesan chancellor and a seminary spiritual director. In 1884, he was consecrated as bishop of Mantua, a poor and tired diocese that he reformed and renewed. Then, only nine years later he was appointed Patriarch of Venice and named a cardinal. He was revered by his people for his simplicity and humility, but he was also known for his strong opinions. All of these were characteristics that he took with him to Rome when he was elected to succeed Pope Leo XIII in 1903, taking the name Pius the Tenth. 
Pope Pius’ papal motto was Instaurare Omnia in Christo (“To Restore All Things in Christ”) and he made it clear that he intended to be a pastoral—rather than political—pope. Despite his wishes, however, he became immediately involved in international tensions and even broke off diplomatic ties with France. The majority of his efforts were focused on the internal life of the Church. Pius used all of the resources at his disposal to rout out the error of Modernism, which he condemned as the “synthesis of all heresies” in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis. Three years later he imposed the “Oath Against Modernism” on all clerics. These actions led to the dismissal of seminary professors and Catholic academics and led to a sort of reactionary theological war within the Church. Pius saw himself as the steward of the Church’s treasury of teachings and traditions and understood that the pope was responsible for maintaining the fabric of the Church in the face of an increasingly secular and fast-moving culture. 

And yet, he also reorganized the Roman Curia, called for a new, definitive edition of the Code of Canon Law (the first official collection in Church history), established the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and encouraged the laity to collaborate with their bishops. Finally, he initiated a system of liturgical reforms that paved the way for the great “Liturgical Movement” and the continued reforms of Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council. 

In 1913, Pope Pius X suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered. He died on August 20, 1914, less than two months after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War, which he desperately tried to prevent. It is said that he died of a broken heart. In his last will and testament, he wrote, “I was born poor, and I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.” In keeping with his wishes, he was buried in a simple, unadorned tomb beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Like Saint Peter, Pius X understood that something precious had been entrusted to his care and he spent his life working to shore up and beautify the building of the Church. While some of his tactics can be seen as harsh and reveal a limited perspective, he lived for the future, conscious that those who would come after him would benefit or suffer because of the decisions he made.

As Pope Francis, another successor of St. Peter, observed this morning, “what happened in a unique way in Saint Peter, also takes place in every Christian who develops a sincere faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. Today’s Gospel challenges each of us: ‘How is your faith?’… For his part, Peter is the rock, as the visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but every baptized person is called to offer to Jesus his or her own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build His Church, today, in every part of the world” (Angelus for August 24, 2014).

Part of our offering of faith, part of living this faith is being mindful that our acts or omissions have an impact on those who come after us. Living for our own present isn’t an option. Just as we have been the beneficiaries of the prayer and work of both great saints (like Saint Peter and Saint Pius) and generations of nameless, holy Christians, we have been entrusted with a responsibility to live for the future. How this reality takes shape in our lives reveals itself in our prayer and discernment and especially in how we actively engage our faith communities and the world around us. The essential point of all of this is that we have to begin to be mindful of the times and ways that we settle for the values canonized by society, as we offer our homage to the myriad of gods our culture has enshrined. We are called to do and be more. Living for the future is hard, as is living for others. But it is only in engaging in this hard work that we will find our salvation.