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Justice John Paul Stevens announced in April his upcoming retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting waves of speculation on whether the departure of the Court's only Protestant—six remaining justices are Catholic and two are Jewish—will matter. Elena Kagan, who has been nominated by President Obama to the open seat, identifies with Conservative Judaism, and has garnered at least some bipartisan support. Christianity Today posted an interesting series of comments on the issue of a Protestant-free Supreme Court. The responses given by a variety of what I presume are Catholic and Protestant (or possibly unchurched) members of academia speak, perhaps unconsciously, to the state of religion in public discourse.
For the most part the respondents thought, as far as I could tell, that it would not make any difference whether there were Protestants on the land's highest court or not, although Dr. Noll indicates that it matters that this could be the situation by the end of the month. He doesn't elaborate why he thinks it matters, although it could simply be a lack of diversity. Here are a few of their comments.
"Does it matter for this particular appointee? I would say no. The question for this appointee, like all appointees, should be, 'Is the person nominated, qualified?' If the person is Catholic, Jewish, nominally Protestant, actually Protestant, or Muslim is relevant, but the key matter is to have a responsible jurist. [But] does it matter that the situation has come to this point? Yes, it does."
Mark Noll, professor of history, University of Notre Dame
"Who we are affects how we view things. In a small group like the Supreme Court, all of a person's identity features will affect how that small group of people makes decisions. But it's not clear if religion will be a principal motivating force in someone's time on the Court. Data from the lower court level suggests identity as a member of the religious right can affect decision-making on a fairly narrow subset of issues—capital punishment, gender discrimination, and obscenity. But the Supreme Court is small, and ideology and judicial philosophy play a very big role in guiding decision-making."
Stacey Hunter Hecht, professor of political science, Bethel University
"It's far less significant or important that there be a Protestant on the Court or a Catholic or something else, just by the identity of their ecclesiastical connections. I also think it's not very important there be someone on the court who is old, young, black, white, bald or not. It comes down to judicial philosophy, and at that point the question will be how well-formed and how critically thoughtful will a justice be in dealing with the responsibility they have."
James Skillen, senior fellow, Center for Public Justice
"The category of Protestant is so large that it's really not a meaningful barometer of judicial philosophy, just as the word Catholic is so large that it's not a barometer. Judicial philosophy is what's most significant. It's much more helpful to know whether a candidate for the Supreme Court believes the Constitution should be interpreted as it was written, or whether new meaning can be ascribed to the existing Constitution."
Tom Minnery, senior vice president, CitizenLink (formerly Focus on the Family Action)
What I find disturbing is that essentially what's being said is 'the faith of the judge is less important than his or her judicial principles'. But what forms those principles, if not faith? Politics? Legal theory? Philosophy? Personality? It's significant that, for example, 'judicial philosophy' seems to trump faith for Mr. Minnery, who is associated with the conservative Christian website CitizenLink. It seems our American society - even Christians within it - presumes that faith has no real impact in the way people - including judges - attend to their secular professions. In other words, we've internalized the so-called 'separation of Church and state' to such a degree that faith truly has no real role in the day-to-day lives of Americans. This is quite different from the perspective of the Catholic Church. For example, Pope Paul VI, wrote
"While recognizing the autonomy of the reality of politics, Christians who are invited to take up political activity should try to make their choices consistent with the gospel and, in the framework of a legitimate plurality, to give both personal and collective witness to the seriousness of their faith by effective and disinterested service of men."
Pope Paul VI, A Call to Action, 46
Recently, Pope Benedict wrote about the responsibility of the baptized in working to promote the common good and the correct ordering of society:
The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation “in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally thecommon good.” The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility.
Deus Caritas Est, 29
If even Christians think it's normal that faith should not play any significant role in the decisions of a justice on the Supreme Court, is this a good thing? The presumption seems to be that the basis for justice in the U.S. is the Constitution, but the Constitution itself was born out of the aspirations of men of faith, and the Supreme Court justices are constantly being asked to interpret that document. It would seem to me that the faith of a justice should be a part of that interpretation.
I would welcome comments, particularly from people with a deeper understanding of our jurisprudence system.
Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on the blue Penstemons in my yard. I noted it because of the lovely blue little "panels" almost like stain glass, on the butterfly's tail. Which apparently means it was a female.
Wikipedia says this buttefly only extends to "extreme eastern Colorado" and is the state butterfly of Georgia. Living 130 miles from the Kansas border at the foot of Pike's Peak doesn't qualify as "extreme eastern". So I just wanted to note this in case there were butterfly trackers out there.
According to this very cool website, Butterflys and Moths of North America, it has been spotted in my county before. You can look up your own county at this site and see the list of butterflys and moths that have been seen there - and find out if you are the first!
Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, who founded the Institute with me on this date in 1997 and is now President of the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, has his own blog. It is called "Re-Visioning Society".
It is Michealian to the core. Those of us who enjoyed Fr. Michael as our pastor in Seattle, used to refer to "Michaelian" ideas, language, gestures, and sense of time (infinitely flexible!. Fr. Michael is incapable of thinking in sound bites. Those of you who are familiar with St. Thomas Aquinas will recognize a certain formality of cadence and progression of thought along with a sparkling wit. Here's a taste of his first post:
" . . . ad hominem posturing substitutes for real political conversation. Very occasionally, it can be memorably clever --recall Winston Churchill's characterization of Clement Attlee as "a sheep in sheep's clothing." More often, it is mind-numbingly banal (I refer the reader to the Chronicle article).
I would like, therefore, to make a modest proposal: that we insist upon civil conversation concerning what our public figures actually say, and refuse judgment based upon hearsay, or, what amounts to the same thing, partisan politics."
Go over and join in. Fr. Michael enjoys a energetic, even combative, conversion - as long as it is thoughtful. Those who prefer to substitute sound bites and culture war cliches for real questions and real thought, will not find Fr. Michael to their taste.
The Gospel for today's Mass is Matthew 8:28-34. It tells the story of Jesus' journey into the Gentile territory of the Gadarenes in which he encounters a couple of people possessed by demons who have terrorized the area. The crux of the story includes this:
The demons pleaded with him,
“If you drive us out, send us into the herd of swine.”
And he said to them, “Go then!”
They came out and entered the swine,
and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea
where they drowned.
This story reveals the ultimate intentions of the Evil One towards creation. The swine, under the influence of the demons, destroy themselves; not one is spared. The Evil One opposes everything that is of God, and when we are tempted to sin, while the temptation itself might seem good to us, ultimately it contains the seeds of our unhappiness and destruction.
But what I want to reflect upon with you for a moment is the inclusiveness and anonymity that are a part of Satan's hatred. We see this reflected in today's memorial of the first Christian martyrs of Rome. In 64 AD, a fire erupted in Rome, crowded with a population of about 1 million. It raged for days, destroying nearly half of the city. Although Nero was not in Rome at the time, rumors abounded that he was responsible, since the destruction opened up property for re-development. The ancient historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio claimed Nero was the arsonist so he could build a palatial complex. In his annals, Tacitus mentions that Christians confessed to the crime, but it is not known whether these confessions were induced by torture.
Nero shifted the blame on the small Christian community, which had secret rites, welcomed slaves and women, and whose members did not participate in the public worship of the Roman gods. Hence, they were stigmatized as "haters of humanity." They became scapegoats, and known Christians were rounded up, tortured to reveal the names of other Christians, and thousands were put to death in the Coliseum, crucified, or set afire to provide illumination after nightfall. Sts. Peter and Paul lost their lives during this purge.
This is part of Satan's M.O. God knows each of us as individuals. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows his sheep and "calls each one by name." John 10:3. Satan, on the other hand, tempts us to see only groups and to label whole groups. This leads, in practically every generation, to the wholesale persecution or slaughter of groups of people. It's the very nature of discrimination to be blind to the individual's distinctive characteristics and to simply focus on one aspect of their being, whether it is ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, color of the skin, political persuasion or even occupation. The demonic temptation is then to see every member of the group through the same dark lens. (Just for fun I googled "Liberals are pigs" and got 1,330 hits. "Conservatives are pigs" generated 45 hits.) We can do this out of intellectual laziness. But it is the tactic used by every despotic individual or regime to rid itself of perceived enemies and undesirables or to promote some ideology.
Last week at our assembly Fr. Ken Gumbert, OP, an assistant professor of film at Providence College, gave me a copy of a documentary titled, "Red Terror on the Amber Coast", he produced with the help of Fr. David O'Rourke, OP, also of our Province. In 1939, a secret agreement was forged between Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler of Germany called the Molotov/Ribbentroff Pact. They agreed that the two countries should divvy up a majority of Eastern Europe for the goal of expansion of their individual empires. During the years that followed, Lithuanian people were deported from their homeland, shot on the spot, or forced into labor camps in Siberia where they died of exposure or malnutrition. Many of them were separated from their families by occupying Soviet armies, more than 350,000 were imprisoned or killed in the process of collectivization.
In the film one deportee to Siberia asks her guard, "Why are you killing us?" His response is chilling. "We don't want your deaths. We want your suffering." Part of the effect of discrimination is the suffering caused simply knowing that you are no longer seen as an individual; that your behavior will be viewed with a particular bias in mind; that any wrongdoing by a member of your group will be attributed to you, and that evil done to you will be interpreted as a good thing. Jesus promises as much to his followers (Mt. 24:9). He knew well the tactics used by the Evil One. We need to recognize them, too, and to avoid them.
St. Augustine once said, "God loves each of us as if there were only one of us." He sees us in our uniqueness, imperfections and all. If we are to become more like him, we must have the desire to see each other uniquely, too.
This past weekend I was working on the internet in the lounge of the Newman Center at the University of Arizona, where I am in residence. I was just getting ready to leave for an appointment when an 84 year-old parishioner whom I hadn't seen for several years because of my travels came over and said hello. I asked how his wife was, and he replied, "She died."
I felt terrible, but then discovered that she had died while the Dominicans were away at our assembly. The next day we made arrangements to get together Monday morning. I drove out to his house on the north side of Tucson. I heard his confession, and we talked for several hours. During the course of the conversation he confided to me that he was disappointed that in the two years prior to his wife's death due to Alzheimer's, none of the priests had contacted him, nor had any of the parishioners apparently missed them, even though they always sat in the same place at the same Mass. One former parishioner, a former sister and a nurse, had helped him care for his wife, often coming in to spell him or to give her some care that he was not able to do himself.
I was saddened by his story. He held no anger towards his community, only sadness. "How does something like that happen?" he asked. "Do we care so little for one another, or are we so privately engaged at Mass that it doesn't occur to us to know who we sit next to week after week?" I felt guilty because I hadn't noticed his absence, either, although my travels over the last two years may have meant that I didn't preside at the Mass they normally attended. Nor had it occurred to me to ask any of the parish staff how Bob and Nell (not their real names) were doing.
Sherry has written on this topic before, I know, but it is very troubling. The Newman Center is not a large community, by Catholic standards, and the Mass Bob and Nell attended is the smallest of the four to six offered on a weekend; perhaps 150 people attend. It's not like they were faces in a huge crowd.
Bob's struggle to care for his wife meant that he was often housebound. He has macular degeneration and cannot drive. The last two years were spiritually beneficial, as his prayer life improved. But he had to do it essentially alone. He commented that he was realizing how hard it is for him to express his faith, or to speak of his relationship with God to others, but that it was becoming easier. He said, "I'm not afraid of dying. I know God loves me, and He has supported me wonderfully through Nell's fading and death. I have to overcome my reticence of speaking about Him to others."
Bob is a wonderful man, and Nell, his wife, was a beautiful, holy woman. Their faithfulness to the practice of their faith, and to each other, were exemplary. How sad that they remained anonymous, and, essentially invisible, to what is generally described as a very friendly, welcoming Catholic community.
How have we arrived at this state of affairs, in which we our actions indicate we'd join with Cain in asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
I'm back home. My time in Omaha was very fruitful and I have something fun to share with you from that trip. In a bit.
The last couple days have been taken up with getting back in the swing, grocery shopping (why is there never anything to eat when I come home?), planting trees (three Red Wing Maples, a Bali Cherry, and a Sunburst Honey Locust), getting ready to sand and stain the new deck, answering e-mails, etc.
Time to get back in the swing of blogging. Here's my first item, from Fides :
Fr. Pius Perumana, pro-Vicar Apostolic of Nepal, notes that while the 8,000 member Catholic community of Nepal grows by 500 baptisms every year (which I would regard as vigorous for so small a community), conversions to Protestantism run about 100,000 a year and the Protestant community numbers about 2 million.
I wrote about this amazing emergence of Christianity in Nepal in the extensive Introduction to Independent Christianity that I posted three years ago.
“It is sometimes said that Catholics have a “big battalion” mentality. Is being a small but growing minority evidence of a failed mission? This would seem to imply that “success” involves the rapid conversion of the majority and the establishment of some kind of “Christendom”. In contrast, Independent Christians expect to be a minority and have no use for Christendom. They accept “outsider” status as the normal situation in which Christians live in this world and in which evangelization and mission occurs. For them, minority status is not evidence of mission failure. What matters is, “Are people becoming intentional disciples of Jesus Christ?”
The conversion of 1% of the population of a hitherto completely non-Christian people would be regarded by Independents as a giant breakthrough. But viewed through the lens of the “Christendom norm,” it could be used to “prove” the futility of missionary activity.
Nepal is an excellent case in point. Until 1951, Nepal was completely closed off to all missionary work. In 1960, there was only a handful of known Nepali Christians. The big breakthrough occurred in the early 60’s when two lay evangelists from India crossed the Himalayas to share the Gospel.
By 1970, there were about 7,450 Nepali Christians in an illegal underground movement led by teenagers who were tortured and imprisoned for their faith. In the early 80’s, I remember hearing an evangelical woman missionary just back from Nepal describing the marks of torture still visible on the hands of the young leaders. By the turn of the millennium, there were almost 600,000 Christians in Nepal, most associated with indigenous, New Apostolic movements.
Nepali Christianity is growing so fast that Barrett estimates that the Christian population topped 768,000 by mid-2005 and now makes up 2.8% of the total population. 582,000 or 76% of Nepal’s Christians are Independents. There are only 6,626 known Catholics in the country.
“At least 40 to 60 percent of the Nepali church became Christians as a direct result of a miracle," says Sandy Anderson of the Sowers Ministry. "Most times the people do not know what we are talking about when we preach the gospel. That's why it is very important to demonstrate the gospel. We preach. Then God heals the sick when we pray. The gospel is not only preached but demonstrated in Nepal." (The Church at the Top of the World, April 3, 2000, Christianity Today).
So what’s the verdict? Are the Christians of Nepal a failed and beleaguered minority, or a success story that sounds remarkably like the first century church? How different the evangelical imperative looks if we stop assuming that creating another Christendom—the ultimate big battalion—is the measure of validity.”
Five years ago, David Barrett, the evangelical guru of global Christianity, estimated that Nepali Christians were about 770,000. Today, the Catholic Pro-Vicar Apostolic is estimating that Protestants in Nepal number 2,000,000. If true, that would mean that Protestant Christianity grew 260% in just 5 years – far faster than the 100,000 a year rate that Fr. Perumana quoted.
It is most unusual in my experience for Catholics to come to a higher estimate in such matters than evangelicals but here it is. If Fr. Perumana's figure is accurate, Christians would make up nearly 7% of the Nepali population. I think it is safe to say that Fr. Perumana's numbers would be greeted with some skepticism even among evangelical missions enthusiasts. In any case, everyone who has studied the Nepali situation agrees that the situation is one of dramatic Christian growth and has been for decades.
And Fr. Perumana is sensing a unique opportunity for Catholics.
The reason for these new fields and opportunities, the pro-Vicar explains, is that “ while Nepal was a kingdom with Hinduism as the state religion, most Nepalese citizens were Hindus in name. Today people enjoy more freedom to choose between the different beliefs Christianity, Islam, Traditional religions”.
“The doors are open to mission, the Nepalese are ready to encounter and accept Christ. We must preach openly, we must invite people to prayer meetings. A Centre of Prayer which we recently opened in Godawari is sparking interest among the local people: this is what the people need, to be stimulated, encouraged. It only takes a spark and the powerful Word of God heals, works miracles, converts hearts ” the priest told Fides.
Fr. Pius continues : “Recently a Maoist asked to know about Jesus Christ. Not long afterwards the man fell ill and had to go to hospital for treatment. Members of Catholic community visited him regularly, comforting him and praying with him until he recovered. At the end of that period of trial and suffering, the man asked to prepare for baptism and is now taking a course of catechesis”.
I am in Oakland, CA, at St. Albert's Priory, the house of studies for the Western Province. We're holding our Provincial assembly, which occurs every four years six months prior to our Provincial chapter. There are 149 of us here, almost the whole Province, with the exception of friars who are either too ill to attend, or have commitments that they cannot be released from.
One of the friars not here is Fr. Bede Wilks, OP, a member of the Tucson community. Please keep him in your prayers. The day after I returned to Tucson he was released from hospitalization, and the next day spiked a fever of nearly 105 degrees. He's been extremely confused. He knows his name, but that's about it. He recognizes me and other members of the community, but does not know our names, or know that he is a Dominican or a priest. He has a blood infection that is being treated with a 4-6 week regime of antibiotics. He may or may not recover his memory. His confusion could be due to the infection, or could be a serious progression in his ongoing dementia.
At the assemly we're talking about issues in our ministries: parishes, campus ministries, academia, preaching band, specialized ministries (the Institute falls in this category), media, and the retired. We also have discussed issues that might be taken up by the chapter. Today, Fr. Roman Paur, OSB, gave us a three-hour presentation that is part of our accreditation with Praesidium.
As part of our assembly, I put together a display about the work of the Institute, and the need for priests to recognize, celebrate, affirm, help discern, coordinate and put to good use the charisms of the laity. I also produced a DVD with a powerpoint display about the Institute, and two videos. One describes the Making Disciples workshops that we'll be doing in Los Angeles later this year and next year, as well as a short video that I'm submitting to the Order as part of a Gospel in Action media project. Here it is for your enjoyment. My thanks to Ellen Piper for helping with this video!
Off to Omaha to do a couple of days for lay leaders there. The research involved was considerable but very intriguing: just how do lay leaders participate in the pastoral office and the complex and the apparently developing issue of jurisdiction. It was quite a feat to pull out 5 integrated hours of material from the scads of things I've done before - history, theology, ecclesiology, the current world and local pastoral practice scene.
But in the end, it came together, I think. Of course, the test of the cooking is always in the eating . . . We'll see what the real critics think. Back Wednesday evening.
This true story, which happened in the spring of 2009, comes via Girl-On-A-Journey blog.
It is the story of an incredible disciple she met in Damascus, a former Muslim, who has suffered heroically for his faith in Christ despite the fact that he had not yet been baptized. These are not stories that we hear often – especially in the Catholic world - where most people don’t know about the whole Muslim background believer movement.
But it is a story that we need to hear. This man is a true confessor of the faith, someone who has suffered persecution and torture for Christ but did not die. His story sounds so much like the stories we revere from the early Church but he is a member of our generation, living among us. And there are many more like him, both men and women. We need to pray for them and let ourselves be challenged by them. Warning: this story is intense. ("Granam" is a false name used to protect this man's identity.)
“The man, Granam, officially renounced his Muslim faith that day (evidently). He has been living as a Christian, former Muslim (or MBB - Muslim background believer), so the official renouncing and giving his life to Christ is a huge deal.
You see, Granam was living as a Christian, but had not been baptized. According to Sharia law (the Islamic faith), when a Muslim is baptized, he/she can never return to the Islamic faith and the consequences are death. Granam just arrived from Baghdad apparently days ago with his family.
In Baghdad, he was going to an Assyrian church. Some Islamic extremists (terrorists) stormed the church, shot the priest, and his wife fled with the priest’s children and their own children. Granam was captured and tortured unbelievably. No, actually words may not even convey how horrible the torture Granam endured.
You see, Granam was a hairdresser in Baghdad, That was how he earned a living. So, the terrorists cut off his fingers with scissors so he couldn’t earn a living anymore - but he still is adamant on wearing his wedding band (which is placed on just a mere nub of what used to be his finger). They cut open his leg and pulled his ligaments and tissue apart, so he walks with a crutch and a brace on his leg. They took a tool drill (close to what you would drill into a wall with, he said) and drilled a whole into the side of his head through his temple, on the right side. Then they took the drill and drilled into his chest. The terrorists told him that if he wants to live like Jesus Christ, they will treat him like Jesus Christ by putting holes into his body.
One of our teammates, told him we would pray for him, and Granam’s response is one I will never forget for the rest of my life: "You do not have to pray for me, pray for everyone. Christ did not pray for himself, and I want to be like Christ. Please pray for the world, because that is what Christ did.
Snip. GirlOAJ summed it up:
This man, Granam, lived out this character. He wanted….no, he craved, to bless those who persecuted him. He wanted to pray for the world, and those who almost sent him to his death simply because he loved Jesus Christ. I ask you this tough question, when people hurt us, spit on us, insult us, mock us, challenge us because of our faith, do we pray for them? Do we seek to love them as Christ calls us to?
Granam’s life, his faith, his unabashed thirst to live like Christ has changed and impacted my life forever. Sitting at the feet of this man while he shared his story, felt much like sitting at the feet of Christ himself. A week after our team left, Granam was baptized into the faith.”
Thank you, Girl-on-a-Journey, for your faithfulness in sharing Granam's story with us.
Any readers know a story of a contemporary confessor? Or have met one yourself? Please share it with us.
Last week I gave a retreat to twenty Religious Missionaries of St. Dominic. They were founded by the Spanish Province of the Holy Rosary - a province dedicated to missionary work, especially in Asia. Nowadays, the vast majority of them are Filipinas - some 2,400 of them, at least! The twenty I met work in the diocese of Corpus Christi, TX, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I was honored to be invited to preach at the 50th anniversary of profession of two of the sisters, Sr. Maria Soledad and Sr. Helen. Both of them are close to 70, but you'd never know from their appearance, attitude or energy! It was a blessing to spend time with these dedicated missionaries.
Here's the homily:
Fifty years is a long time.
Just for perspective, when Sr. Helen and Sr. Soledad made their religious profession a few months apart, I was in diapers, I had no teeth, and my biggest accomplishment was drooling. It won’t be long before those characteristics describe me again. Sisters, what were you thinking fifty years ago when you professed vows of obedience and chastity and poverty?
I imagine over the last fifty years once in a while you might have asked yourself that very question! Throughout the history of the Dominican Order, there have been men and women who have joined over the objections of well-intentioned parents, siblings and friends. Sometimes entering religious life has seemed like the waste of a life, or the equivalent of running off and joining the circus – sought as an escape from the realities of life. Obedience could be thought of as an escape from personal responsibility and decision-making. Poverty – at least as it’s sometimes lived - could be a step up for someone from a poor family, and not having to worry about personal finances and healthcare isn’t a bad deal. And given that marriages are not always happy, and that children and spouse are a lot of work, celibate chastity could be an expression of selfishness. In a complex, chaotic world, the routines of religious life: prayer, work, study, and community could seem to offer a safe, simple, predictable life.
But Sr. Soledad and Sr. Helen, what were you seeking fifty years ago? And what have you found? I hope you entered the Religious Missionaries of St. Dominic seeking adventure. Perhaps you thought of going to China, or, later, to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, or Korea. Or perhaps you dreamed of following in the footsteps of St. Dominic – not just on pilgrimage in Europe, but in the age-old, but ever-new mission of preaching the Good News of Jesus to those who would never imagine a God filled with such love for us. But, perhaps now, after fifty years, you understand that the greatest adventure of religious life is the adventure of every Christian life. It is the adventure of a pilgrimage of the soul – and this is the most difficult, exhausting, yet exhilarating adventure any of us can embark upon.
The vows you professed fifty years ago are meant to expand you, stretch you, like taffy is pulled again and again, and becomes easier to pull with each tug. And not only easier to pull, but thinner and thinner, until it seems as though there’s almost nothing left. Of course, the vows aren’t ends in themselves: to be poor for poverty’s sake makes as much sense as being chaste or obedient for the hell of it. Why then, did you make these vows, which seem so contrary to human happiness?
St. Paul’s life gives us a great explanation. While still a zealous Pharisee, he had a startling, unexpected encounter with the risen and ascended Jesus that threw his entire reality into a new perspective. He left everything he knew to pursue Jesus, and eventually grew so close to Him that he could exclaim, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me!” Here is the spiritual source of the vow of poverty – St. Paul’s claim, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It was because he knew Christ, that everything else became unnecessary. There was no great loss in giving up his trust in following the law, or the stability of a home, the love of a spouse, or even the high regard of other people. No, he says, “For Christ’s sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Such is the nature of a soul being stretched, that has tasted something so good that what used to delight is seen as utterly unappetizing. So, too, we choose the vowed life in the first place because we’ve somehow glimpsed there’s something more to life. The vows direct us to Someone, and their keeping becomes easier the closer we are to Him. St. Paul lived a vow of poverty without the vow. He had no desire for possessions, because he experienced himself already as the possession of another.
And that is precisely what our vow of chastity is about. St. Paul in another place tells us that we “have been purchased, and at a price.” Sr. Helen and Sr. Soledad, your life as celibate women is utter foolishness to most of the world. Fifty years ago, how many young girls daydreamed about a lover who would give himself completely to them, who would want no one else but them? You discovered Him, in the crucified Christ, who suffered and died to redeem you; who, like a swashbuckling hero, freed you from slavery to sin and won you for himself. You can say to this lover, “set me like a seal on your heart,” for his love is sterner than death, who loved you to his death. Deep waters will not quench his love for you, and, in fact, the waters of your baptism sealed you in that love, and He gave you His Spirit to enkindle devotion for Him in your heart. Your chastity is foolishness – horrible suffering – if you have not been ravished by Love himself. And if you have experienced His love, then you will act all the more foolishly for his sake, and suffer until you are completely in his possession.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus assures all who are his disciples of his love. He asks us to “remain” in his love, just as he “remains” in His Father’s love. But this “remaining” can sound passive, like remaining in traffic on a clogged LA freeway. The Son “remains” in the Father’s love as he eternally returns to his Father all that he has received from him; nothing held back for himself, everything gratefully received is joyfully returned. That is why “remaining” in Jesus’ love is linked to obedience – and why your vow of obedience can be a powerful witness to the world. Everything you have and are, you have received from God through Christ. Therefore, remain in his love, as Jesus remains in his Father’s love, by giving yourself to him completely, gratefully; daring to hold nothing back - now, that’s an adventure!
Jesus calls us his friends, because he has told us and shown us with his life, all that we need to know about the Father. The Father forgives us, his prodigal children; heals us – even if 90% of the time we don’t offer him thanks; has counted every hair on our heads [which in my case isn’t terribly impressive]; exorcises are demons – and all of these are manifestations of his love. All of these are reasons for us to live in joy, no matter what our circumstances. Your vow of obedience simply makes explicit what every disciple is to live. Jesus asks each of us to remain in His love by giving ourselves over completely to him and making His will our own. You have become a sign of this abandonment of will through your vow of obedience to the Gospel and to your superiors for fifty years. It is seldom easy, but is another way in which we invite ourselves to be stretched, “thinned,” so that Jesus can be seen more clearly through our human flesh. And just as Jesus’ greatest act of love for His Father and us led to his deepest agony on the cross, so, too, your obedience, particularly when it was most painful, most meaningless, has been accepted by the Father as part of the world’s ongoing redemption.
The most grand accomplishments in human terms are seldom the most spiritually fruitful. The saints of the Church include folks who were essentially invisible during their lifetime. Who would’ve suspected anything great from young, tuberculine-filled nun from a Carmel in Lisieux, or a mixed-race barber named Martin de Porres? Perhaps, after fifty years in the Dominicans, there’s a temptation to look back, to ask, “what have I done? What have I accomplished?” But Jesus warns us against examining the furrow that we’ve plowed, precisely because we might mistakenly think the work is our own; that the fruit was produced by us.
So keep looking ahead – the adventure’s not over, by any means. You’re both in great health, thanks be to God, and there are great deeds yet to be done, if you ask the Father in Jesus’ name – i.e., if you rely completely on Jesus, and strive to make his will your own. What souls will benefit from your ministry; from the reparation you make through your prayer, through the slights you endure, the disappointments you calmly face? In the years ahead, as your bodies falter, and your minds gradually fail, whose hearts might be opened to grace through your acceptance of these indignities, when that is all that is left to you? Yes, there is undoubtedly more stretching ahead for each of you. But becoming thinner allows the light of Jesus to pass through so much more powerfully. So renew your vows again; promise obedience, poverty, chastity until you undertake the final adventure. Show us how to live; and teach us how to die to ourselves so Jesus’ joy can live in us, until death makes our joy complete.
There is an article today in US Catholic about You Can Go Home Again that makes a very important point. Outreaches like Catholics Come Home and Landings are aimed at older adults who once had a strong sense of being Catholic and have drifted. I once spent quite a bit of time analyzing the images of the Catholic Come Home commercials and they were clearly aimed at the middle aged and older.
But constructing one's own identity is now a rite of passage for most western Anglo young adults. They don't inherit an identity, they expect to choose or create a life and personal identity out of the millions of possibilities based upon what they feel"fits" them.
The irony is that most young Traditional Catholics are essentially becoming Traditionalist in exactly the same manner as the majority of young adults raised without a faith are choosing a faith, and evangelicals like me become Catholic, and the much larger number of young Catholics are becoming "nones". As converts, voluntarily, out of personal choice. As an exercise in discernment, discovery, self-definition, and self-determination.
Because that's what you have to do in a world that offers an endless number of options in ideas, relationships, work, and lifestyle and where you seem to have access to almost everything instantly - at least virtually.
Which is why the Pew Study found that the majority of adults in American have left the faith of their childhood at some point. Only about 9% return. The rest have spun off into something else. Here's how US Catholic put it put it:
Many of the traditional methods of reaching out to inactive Catholics use language such as "come home" and "welcome back." But these approaches will not be as successful when trying to reach out to younger generations of Catholics, according to Paulist Father Frank DeSiano, president of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association (PNCEA).
"There is a new paradigm of inactive Catholics. The old paradigm was the angry, marginalized, anti-church, very sensitive person, but they grew up with a strong Catholic identity," DeSiano explains. "People under 40 grew up with the idea that you can construct your own identity; it is not something that is handed down."
Young adults of this generation are more likely to experiment with their lives, try different types of spirituality, and question everything before they settle down with a family, career, and spiritual community. They might not even see the church as home, DeSiano says.
Returning to a bone deep religious identity is a very different journey that discovering something new or cobbling something together yourself. Which is why the "they'll come back when . . . "scenario isn't accurate anymore.
Cause most young adults who were raised Catholic don't experience choosing to practice the faith as "coming back" to something inherited from their parents at all. They experience it as a pioneer or convert does, discovering a new and amazing land for the first time.
We'd be smarter to call these younger seekers "discovering" Catholics rather than "returning" Catholics. Because it is a difference that makes all the difference in how they approach the faith and what they ask of us.
Philip Jenkins begins his book: The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, with these words: “Religions die.” It seems that one could write a similar book right now about Catholicism in New England.
In the 19th century, Protestants began to call New England the “burnt over district”. That was because after a series of intense religious revivals in the 18th and early 19th century, New Englanders had became famously resistant to religious enthusiasm. It was right about that time that the vast Irish immigration to America, especially to New England, began to transform the region into a Catholic bastion. But no longer. There were a number of alarming stories that came out last year about how New England had nosed out the Pacific Northwest as the least religious part of the US.
Nevertheless, I was startled to come cross a blog post this morning about a dramatic decrease in the number of self-identified Catholics in Vermont.
"Recent numbers are showing that the Church has lost roughly twenty percent of its membership in Vermont over the past 5 years. Before Pope Benedict took over the papacy, Vermont had 149,000 Catholics, but five years later, they are reporting that they have 118,000. The Catholic Church in Vermont is also facing major problems with a severe drop in the number of priests. In 1975, there were 274 priests, but in 2005, there were only 81. It is expected that, by 2015, there will be only 55 priests in Vermont."
The blogger, who had a personal agenda, came to an easy conclusion – the cause of these losses were the Church’s sexual teachings. But the numbers were so specific that I went nosing about the internet, looking for confirmation and their source. I didn’t find it but I did find other sources that confirmed the same basic trend.
. . .in northeastern states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, the "no religion" group has surged even more dramatically, shooting up 300 percent in the last 20 years and now accounting for a quarter or more of the population. . .
The Trinity College report, called the American Religious Identification Survey, finds that 60 percent of the nonreligious are men. They tend to be young, accounting for one in every three American adults under age 35. According to Trinity College Professor Barry Kosmin, a large chunk have baby boomer parents who came of age in the 1960s and wound up rejecting religion.
And Kosmin says that many of the 750,000 additional American adults who each year identify as having "no religion" are reacting to what he calls the "triumphalism and judgementalism of the Christian right."
A full quarter of those identifying as "no religion" in the Trinity College report are former Catholics, many of whom were turned off by the church sex abuse scandals of the past decade.
"Despite the population growth, New England has lost 1 million Catholics" in the last decade, says Kosmin. "The trend in the Catholic Church has been obscured by the large number of people from Latin America who've filled the pews as the Irish Americans left them."
Hey, but cheer up. The good news is that we are not alone.
“Other religious traditions feeding the "no religion" boom are Judaism and Asian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. While people who leave mainline Protestant churches often find new spiritual homes in evangelical or nondenominational megachurches, the Trinity survey shows that former Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus are much more likely to abandon religion altogether. Nearly half of "no religion" Americans come from Irish, Jewish, or Asian backgrounds.
Is this the death knell of Irish American cradle Catholicism? Or is this too gloomy a conclusion? Can these trends be reversed? What do you think?
I stumbled across a wonderful BBC video on You Tube this evening that I just have to share. It is called Vivaldi's Women.
Antonio Vivaldi was actually Fr. Antonio (the "Red Priest" because he had red hair) who spent most of his life serving as music director of an extraordinary Venitian institution: the Pieta. A orphanage for the abandoned girl babies born as a result of Venice's famously debauched lifestyle. Four babies were dropped off at the Pieta on any given day and there they were raised and many were trained to be musicians.
The all women choir and orchestra of the Pieta reached an extraordinary level of skill and became an international sensation. The rich would crowd the Pieta's church to hear these women make angelic music while carefully hidden behind a screened balcony. Vivaldi wrote much of his music for these women, many of whom were affected by their mother's syphilis.
A women's choir and orchestra from Britain traveled to Venice to make the wonderful women musicians of the Pieta live again and the BBC was along for the ride. For centuries, music scholars were certain that the tenor and bass parts of these works were sung by men but the Brits demonstrate that it was entirely possible to perform the entire works as Vivaldi wrote them - for women alone.
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