Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Reflection for Reformation Sunday

Several weeks ago, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Master in Los Angeles asked if I would preach at his church's Reformation Sunday service, offering a Catholic perspective on Reformation. Below is the text of the reflection I prepared for that community's celebration which included variations on texts from the Roman Missal (e.g. the Collect for the Mass of Christian Unity, the Renewal of Baptismal Promises) as well as chant settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei chanted in Latin.
Sixty-one years after Martin Luther nailed his famed “Ninethy-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral on the Feast of Saint Wolfgang, the city’s patron, and the eve of All Saints’ Day, a man named Mark Roy was born in Sigmaringen, Germany. As a young man, Mark Roy earned degrees in philosophy, civil law, and canon (or Church) law. Mark Roy felt called to dedicate his life to the service of the Gospel and eventually began serving as a sort of itinerant preacher for the canton of Grisons. With only a Bible, prayer book, and cross, he traveled through the countryside teaching and preaching in the hopes of bringing his listeners closer to Christ and to one another. 

On the 24th of April, 1622, while he was preaching a sermon on Ephesians 4:5, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism,” someone fired a musket at him… Since he was known to have been a gifted and engaging preacher, I don’t imagine it was because he was talking too long or that he had a bad style. Someone wanted to murder him because of what he was saying. As you might imagine, the people of the town he was visiting invited him to stay with them and seek a safe-haven. Mary Roy refused and continued on his way.  

Later, that same day, he was intercepted by a group of soldiers who were part of the sect of those whom Mark Roy had angered by his preaching. After they demanded he renounce his faith and accept their views, they attacked him with swords. Another person had died in the name of Jesus. 
So, what was it about Mark Roy that made him so offensive to the people of Grisons? Why was he considered dangerous? The simple answer is that he was Catholic. Mark Roy was a Franciscan friar, known by his religious name—Father Fidelis. He had been especially entrusted with a mission to reach out to the people of that part of Switzerland who had become followers of the teachings of Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther. 

Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen
Saint Fidelis’ death is just one example of countless acts of violence that occurred in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and there was too much violence, too much destruction, too much death because of misguided zeal and religious fanaticism—most of which was little more than thinly veiled political maneuvering. As with many realities of human life, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were a mix of good and bad ideas, visions, and values being put into action by real people, on both sides, who were shaped by cultural and political views that sometimes had little to do with the Gospel. When we look at everything that has happened within Christian history over the past 500 years, we realize that Paul’s words to the Romans are as true now as they were then: "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). 

As I reflected on Pastor Itto’s invitation to worship with all you here this morning, I realized something: I have never celebrated Reformation Day before. Why would I have? This is not a day that is celebrated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. In my life and seminary formation, the Reformation was never something that was celebrated—it was actually something that was lamented.

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that good came from the Reformation: broken and outdated systems were dismantled, programs for educating the clergy and teaching the Faith were strengthened, scandal and abuse within the Church were addressed head-on, the basic elements of the Faith were examined more closely, and the Church began to get back to basics. But, ultimately, the hoped for-reforms of religious leaders like Luther led to schism, to division within the Church. 

But, here I am, a Roman Catholic, with you on “Reformation Sunday.” What can I say? What could I add to your celebration today?
To be honest, I’ve struggled with that question for several weeks. I know that, in a sense, this isn’t just a holiday (like Independence Day or Columbus Day) that celebrates one historical event. Reformation Day is a day to remember that the work of the Church isn’t finished. We are being continually called to renewal and to conversion as individual Christians and as local church communities. But, is this just a call for Protestants? Isn’t that call also extended to Roman Catholics, Eastern-Rite Christians, and the Orthodox? After all, Jesus only established one Body, the Church. However different our ways of engaging the truths of Faith might be, we are, each of us, still a member of the one Body of Christ. 

So, what if today, rather than celebrating Reformation Day, we celebrated a day of prayer for healing and unity within the Church? What could it mean if, instead of celebrating the reality of division, we reached across denominational lines and actively engaged Christians of other perspectives and views, who pray differently than we do? What if we listened to how others interpret the Word of God and didn’t shy away from those whom we perceive as too conservative or too liberal? In my experience, churches try very hard to be people of hospitality for those who are outside of the Church, but we can be anything but hospitable and welcoming to one another. 

I know that this open spirit is part of the reason Pastor Itto invited me to be with you today and I’m genuinely grateful for the chance to be here, to pray for and with you. With all that in mind, I want to echo the words of a recent statement made by Catholic and Lutheran leaders: “What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change.” How do we do that? What does that even mean? 

Obviously, we can’t undo the past. We can’t unwrite histories of scandal, violence, animosity, and abuse. We can, however, begin to look at our histories and present realities through the eyes of faith. While all the good and bad words and deeds of past generations have brought us to this moment, here and now, the past does not have to define who we are and how we move forward. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Every saint has a past and ever sinner has a future.” I think this applies to churches, as well. 

This time of year, in other parts of the country, it isn’t unusual to see flocks of Canada geese flying south for their winter’s migration. I imagine most of us here have seen tell-tale V-formation of these birds as they fly along.  

This image inspired a young composer, Adam Guettel, to write: “We sail above the weather / We search the ocean floor. We rival our creation, still yearning for more. But can we fly together—a migratory V? How wonderful if that’s what God could see.” How wonderful, indeed. 

Recently, I learned something about this “Migratory V.” Flying behind the formation is a single goose who glides from left to right, almost if she can’t quite decide where she wants to be. Well, this goose actually watches the others who are flying in formation to see if one of them is having a difficult time keeping pace with the others. If one of her companions begins to lag behind or fall away, this goose-in-the-rear makes her way to the tired goose and flies below them, adjusting air currents to help her companions lift their wings and fly. That part I knew… what I didn’t know was that once this happens, the other geese notice and begin to take turns helping their tired or weak companion moving forward with the rest of the group. 

Now, if you’ve ever been around geese, especially Canada geese, you know they’re dirty, mean, surprisingly territorial, and not very bright… a lot like us, at times. But, they certainly have something to teach us about what we can do if we pay attention to one another and support one another.  

How wonderful if that is what God could see here in the Church of the Master, in the ELCA, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and in local churches and religious groups throughout the world. How wonderful if God saw Catholics and Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, Methodists and Orthodox Christians, the UCC and Baptists, and all the rest of us Christians actively supporting one another, so that we could all move forward together, as one Body—for indeed, that is what we are. The world needs us to stand together to combat injustice and to proclaim the truth of God’s love. There is so much pain and need in the world—we have to be bigger than our theological disputes and historical prejudices. 

In a few moments, in place of the Creed, Pastor Itto and I will lead you in renewing the promises of baptism. These words are based on the Apostle’s Creed and form is taken from the Roman Missal, the official liturgical book of the Roman Catholic Church. As you renew your own commitment to follow Christ, I encourage you to be mindful of those generations of women, men, and children, throughout the world, who have professed this same faith. Because, as Saint Fidelis reminded us in his last sermon, given on the day he died, “There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.”


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fulfill Your Ministry: A Reflection on World Mission Sunday

During this Year of Faith, the theme of the New Evangelization has largely dominated conversations within the Church. I have been especially struck by how often the themes of mission and evangelization are misunderstood or ignored by many groups And, this isn’t necessarily a Catholic phenomenon; many Protestant communions shy away from the work of “evangelism” because of fear that they will be perceived as proselytizing or as having an out-of-check zeal.

Beyond the fact that today (October 20) is World Mission Sunday, Pope Francis spoke about the apostolic nature of the Church in his most recent General Audience this past Wednesday. When  you also consider that these days the liturgical calendar has placed before us several saints who were missionaries and catechists (including Saint Luke the Evangelist, Blesseds Daudi Okelo and JildoIrwa, Saint Isaac Jogues and the other North American Martyrs, Blessed JohnPaul II, Saint John Capistrano, and Saint Anthony Mary Claret), how could we not dedicate some time to reflecting on our call to be missionaries and teachers of the faith?

When we profess the Creed, we express our belief in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The unity and universality of a faith that is based on God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus are fundamental aspects of the Christian Faith, summarizing the first three “marks” of the Church. When we reflect on the apostolic nature of the Church, we most often think in terms of history, of the Church as founded on the teaching and traditions handed on by the Apostles and Fathers of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 857). But, how often do we understand our call to be an “apostolic” people as meaning that, like Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles, we, too, are “sent out.” In its decree Apostolicam Actuositatem (On the Apostolate of the Laity), the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “The Christian vocation by its nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, ‘the whole body… in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development’ (Ephesians 4:16).” Where does this leave us?

It means we have been empowered to help guide and engage our faith communities and to engage our pastors. But, with this privilege comes responsibility—each of us has a specific part to play in the life of the Church and the spread of the Gospel. It’s easy to ignore our individual responsibilities and let the “ministry professionals” do the work of mission and evangelization. For some of us, it might be a fear of saying the wrong thing or even feeling like we don’t know the faith well enough to publicly profess what we believe and who we are as a people of faith. But, we also have to admit, that this takes work and time, two things that can make passivity very appealing.

Another reason that so many of us don’t step forward is because we only want to engage the Church and Christian doctrine and tradition on our own terms. Rather than allowing ourselves to be formed by an active and mutual relationship with the broader Church (both the magisterium and our fellow believers), we opt for what Saint Paul warns of in the Second Letter to Timothy: “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth.” What is the antidote to this? “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching… be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry” (4:3-4; 2, 5). In all of this, we can look to the saints (including those named above) for inspiration. If we only choose what is comfortable, we’ll never really be the apostles that we are called to be or living out the covenant made in our baptism and sealed in the sacrament of confirmation. We also show a marked disrespect for the experiences of those countless Christians around the world who continue to suffer heroically simply because of their faithful witness to Christ and what has been handed down to them by the Church.
Saint Paul depicted in a 9th century illumination
ascribed to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland

In his Message for Mission Sunday, Pope Francis wrote, “Faith is God’s precious gift… Faith, however, needs to be accepted, it needs our personal response, the courage to entrust ourselves to God, to live God’s love and be grateful for infinite mercy… It is a gift that one cannot keep to oneself, but it is to be shared. If we want to keep it only to ourselves, we will become isolated, sterile and sick Christians. The proclamation of the Gospel is part of being disciples of Christ and it is a constant commitment that animates the whole life of the Church.”

There is so much to celebrate about our Faith, most especially its power to transform us and our world. But, all of this demands an openness on our parts and a willingness to be changed by a God who is not made in our image, but who has created us in and for love: “What made you establish humanity in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love of her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good” (Saint Catherine of Siena, Dialogues 4, 13).

A Prayer for World Mission Sunday +
O God, you have willed that your Church be the sacrament
of salvation for all the nations,
so that Christ’s saving work may continue to the end of the ages;
stir up, we pray, the hearts of the faithful
and grant that they may feel a more urgent call
to work for the salvation of every creature,
so that from all the peoples of the earth
one family and one people of your own
may arise and increase.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(taken from the “Mass for the Evangelization of Peoples”
in The Roman Missal)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dynamic Gratitude

The Gospel of Luke includes a transitional text (8:1-3) that we might be tempted to dismiss because of its simplicity. Saint Luke presents Jesus, the itinerant preacher, travelling from village to village, “proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.” Traveling with Jesus are the Twelve and a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, among others. 

That the evangelist includes the names of these women is not an insignificant detail. Along with Mary (the wife of Cleopas), Salome (the mother of James and John), and Martha of Bethany, these women are celebrated as the “Myrrhbearers,” a name that honors the part they played as witnesses of the Lord’s Resurrection. Tradition holds that these were the women who prepared the body of Jesus for burial and who were among the first to announce the Good News on that Easter morning. 

Myrrh, an essential element in preparing a body for burial, is a costly resin. The generosity of these women, whose valuable gift was a sign of their love for the crucified Lord, was also an expression of the gratitude they felt for the One who given them so much. Saint Luke simply relates that they had been “cured of evil spirits and infirmities,” but whatever it was that Jesus did for them, their relationship with him left an indelible mark and changed their lives forever. These women weren’t just benefactors of Jesus’ ministry—they became missionaries in their own right. 

We see the same spirit of gratitude at work in the story of the Ten Lepers (Luke17:11-19). Although all the lepers were cured of their illness, only one returned to say thank you. Although we often focus on the physical healing in the story, the lepers, like the Myrrhbearers, were given something even more precious—they were offered a new identity, a fullness of life that can only come through a relationship with Jesus. What they might have been before did not matter. Jesus had made them new creatures, whole and holy reflections of the God in whose image they were made: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).   

Cardinal Basil Hume said that “To say ‘thank you’ is very human and very lovely.” We have so much for which we can and should be thankful, most especially for the gift of wholeness and holiness that is made available to us through our engagement of God’s Word, through the sacraments, and the living Tradition of the Church. But we should also recall that true gratitude, the kind shown by the Myrrhbearers and the leper, is dynamic and is best expressed in acts of love and kindness. Because we have been so richly blessed, who are called to a blessing for others.


A prayer for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
May your grace, O Lord, we pray,
At all times go before us and follow after
And make us always determined
To carry out good works.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from the Roman Missal)


Monday, October 7, 2013

Our Lady of the Rosary: Engaging God's Word

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God."—Colossians 3:16

Although this admonition from Saint Paul is not among the readings that may be used for Masses in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as I reflected on today’s Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary, they seemed to reflect Mary’s engagement of God’s Word, both as the Mother of Christ and as a woman of faith.

Recently, Pope Francis reminded us that Mary faced life’s journey with “great realism, humanity, and practicality.” While the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary most often invites reflection on Mary’s contemplative spirit (which Blessed John Paul II highlighted in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, in which he introduced the new “LuminousMysteries”), this title of Mary reminds us that she was a woman of active faith, a faith which took her infinitely beyond the boundaries of the small town of Nazareth into the central event of human history—the life, death, and resurrection of the One who was her Son.

Often called “the poor man’s Bible,” the rosary has a rich history that has been explored in any number of books. What we don’t often consider is that this devotion developed over the course of several generations, and the prayer took the form we now recognize only at the end of the sixteenth century. Although we cannot precisely trace the evolution of the rosary itself, the liturgical celebration that is now observed on October 7, formerly called the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary, was introduced in the city of Rome by the Dominican pope Saint Pius V in 1571 as the “Feast of Our Lady of Victory,” to commemorate the Battle of Lepanto. On October 7, 1571, the combined naval forces of a coalition Catholic countries in southern Europe (the “Catholic League”) defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire off the coast of Greece. This battle ended a 33-year long monopoly of the Mediterranean by the aggressive and strongly anti-Christian Turks. A lay organization known as the Confraternity of the Rosary had made it their special task to pray for the victory of the Christian forces. To honor their devotion and the gift of Mary’s intercession, Pope Saint Pius V established the Feast of Our Lady of Victory.

In 1573, to give a more clear focus to the commemoration, Pope Gregory XIII changed the name to the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary. Finally, in 1960, the name of the feast was changed to “Our Lady of the Rosary,” and the celebration as we have it today calls for us to “meditate on the mysteries of Christ, following the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary who was in a special manner associated with the incarnation, passion and glorious resurrection of the Son of God” (from the “historical note” for October 7 in The Divine Office). The history of this memorial, which is among the most colorful of any liturgical celebration in the Church’s cycle of seasons and feasts, demonstrates how the Church both engages the world and how doctrine and devotion can develop over time. In this case, the focus of this celebration has shifted from being a triumphalistic celebration to a very intentional reflection on Mary’s dynamic faith and the mysteries of redemption embodied in the rosary.
Mary’s faith enabled her to take an active role in the working of Providence. Saint Augustine has reminded us that this is Mary’s glory: “Yes, of course, holy Mary did the will of the Father. And therefore it means more for Mary to have been a disciple of Christ than to have been the mother of Christ. It means more for her, an altogether greater blessing, to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been Christ’s mother… She kept truth safe in her mind even better than she kept flesh safe in her womb. Christ is truth, Christ is flesh; Christ as truth was in Mary’s mind, Christ as flesh in Mary’s womb” (from Sermon 72).

Mary stands before us as an icon of discipleship and a model of the Church at prayer. Even as she reflected on all that happened to her, keeping “all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), she did not stand idly by as a passive observer of all that was going on around her. No, she manifested a faith that constantly took her outside of herself and her own comfort or preference. From the fiat of the Annunciation, to her hasty visit to Elizabeth, to her intercession at the Wedding of Cana, and to being strong enough to stand beneath the cross of her dying Son, she listened to God, reflected, and acted.

How often in our own lives, or in the life of our Church, do we take the role of a mere observer? Do we risk putting into action what we know to be true, taking the risk of listening attentively to what is being asked of us, no matter how unwelcome or inconvenient the call may be? Do we reach out in haste to one who needs us, without counting the cost? And do we engage the world in the spirit of the Gospel, speaking for those who have no voice and who are deprived of what is rightfully theirs?

The Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary is so much more than just an “idea feast” or remnant of a “safer,” more pious past. This celebration and title of Our Lady remind us that faith must be dynamic, taking us out of ourselves and the comfort and safety of the lives we have created onto a path of grateful, loyal, and self-giving discipleship.

A Prayer of Pope Francis +
Mary, woman of listening, open our ears; grant us to know how to listen to the word of your Son Jesus among the thousands of words of this world; grant that we may listen to the reality in which we live, to every person we encounter, especially those who are poor, in need, in hardship.

Mary, woman of decision, illuminate our mind and our heart, so that we may obey, unhesitating, the word of your Son Jesus; give us the courage to decide, not to let ourselves be dragged along, letting others direct our life.

Mary, woman of action, obtain that our hands and feet move “with haste” toward others, to bring them the charity and love of your Son Jesus, to bring the light of the Gospel to the world, as you did. Amen.

(offered during a rosary service celebrated on May 31, 2013)