Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of my entrance into the Church, as I have mentioned before on this blog. Mark Shea & I were received in front of a small group of family and friends (Catholic and Protestant) and two convert friends of our were confirmed and then five minutes later, turned around and served as our sponsors.
I have sometimes referred to that December as the "Advent of the Three MIracles". One was the miracle of getting in - without finishing RCIA, on 10 days notice - and at Christmas time. Another was the miracle of Anna.. I've told the story many times at workshops since and told it in the recording of my conversion story.
The word going around the regional trauma center where I then worked, was that an 18 month old baby girl was in our burn unit, dying from third degree burns over 90% of her body. She had been immersed in scalding water from the neck on down. Since no one was clear how it had happened, Child Protective Services had been called in and her family was not allowed to have contact.
It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I knew that death was not God's will for this little girl - and I couldn't tell you why I knew. But Mark and I scattered around town spreading the word and soon hundreds of people were praying for her.
Because of my job, I was the only one who had access to her, so every day I would enter her room for a brief visit. I was intimidated by the nurse always at her side, so I didn't have the nerve to obviously pray for her, so I just rubbed her forehead for a couple seconds with my finger. It was as though I was the little finger of the wider Body of Christ who were praying for her. I was the witness.
On my last day on the job (I was a temp) and two days before I entered the Church, I went up to visit her and her bed was empty. My first thought was "She's dead". But I had to find out what had happened. So I found the nurse on call and asked what had happened. Her response?
"Oh, she's off her morphine and IV's and she's downstairs playing."
Wow, I thought. What do I say now? "That's great! When do her skin grafts begin? "
"Oh, she won't need any skin grafts." replied the nurse. "Not even on her legs?" I questioned - because her legs had been really bad.
"Not even on her legs." she responded firmly.
I thought frantically. Third degree burns, by definition, do not heal. The skin has been destroyed and must be replaced by grafts. No skin grafts meant that either she had been misdiagnosed originally or her skin had somehow regenerated. I thought I put my next question with considerable delicacy under the circumstances
"Isn't this a little unusual?"
"Oh yes, we're surprised, the nurse said. "Of course, we could have misdiagnosed her, but, boy, she looked charred when she came in".
I went downstairs to the department where I had been working and told my supervisor what they had told me upstairs. She was a lapsed Catholic who knew the story of this little girl and that we had been praying for her and that I was entering the Church that weekend.
She listened carefully and then said "I think we know that more than mere medicine has been at work here." Then she added wrying "Maybe we should just hire you and let you wander the halls."
She thought - and I hoped - that this was a sign that I had been given the charism of healing. I now know (after considerable discernment) that is not the case. I do believe that I was given the immense privilege of being a witness to what God will do when his people together, offer themselves and their charisms on the behalf of God's redeeming purposes for a specific person or situation. I got to witness the power of corporate intercession. And two days later, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, I become Catholic.
Today, Anna is 21 years old. I often think of her and pray for her. Where is she? Does she still suffer physically or psychologically from her ordeal? Who raised her? Does she know how God intervened in her life? What is his purpose for her life? I presume that I will never know the answer to those questions in this life - but it is enough that God knows.
You will understand why I felt a glowing sense of almost giddy joy and exultation that Christmas. Nothing comes closer to expressing how I felt on that Advent Sunday 20 years ago than the inspired scene from the 1951 Alastair Sims Christmas Carol when Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning. " I'm as light as a feather, I'm as happy as an angel, I'm as merry as a school boy, as giddy as a drunken man."
Relish again ">Alastair Sim's portrayal of what redemption experienced feels like. A tiny foretaste of the happiness for we have all been created.
The Dominican nuns, the first branch of the Dominican family founded by St. Dominic, celebrate their 800th anniversary this year. NPR interviewed Sr. Mary Dominic, OP, and she tells a bit about her vocation - her call from God that led her to enter the cloistered Dominican community of the Monastery of the Angels, overlooking Hollywood. There, 22 nuns pray for the world, especially for Hollywood. Listen to the interview here. She has a wonderful comment or two about the importance of prayer which we in the world need to hear in this busy, busy season.
My time to blog is limited these days: trying to respond to e-mails and phone calls, prepare for events in January, try to organize a birthday gathering for one of my sisters next month, cards and gifts, Christmas preparations, etc. is starting to overwhelm.
But in trying to respond to one e-mail this morning, I had occasion to review Fr. Cantalemessa's first homily of Advent, 2005 for Pope Benedict and the Roman Curia - (part 1 and part 2) It is very long so I can only quote snippets.
But the whole makes a wonderful meditation for the last week of Advent and seems especially appropriate in light of the recent CDF Note on evangelization. His theme: "How Are They to Believe In Him of Whom They Have Never Heard?"
Cantalemessa starts with a great question:
A certain theological current maintains that Christ did not come for the salvation of Jews (for whom it would be enough to remain faithful to the Old Covenant), but only for the Gentiles. Another current maintains that he is not necessary either for the salvation of the Gentiles, the latter having, thanks to their religion, a direct relationship with the eternal logos, without needing to go through the incarnate word and his paschal mystery. We must ask, for whom is Christ still necessary?
And a bracing observation:
In what, in fact, do those in Europe and other places believe who define themselves "believers?" In the majority of cases, they believe in a supreme being, a creator; they believe in "the beyond."
But this is a deist faith, not yet a Christian faith. Taking into account Karl Barth's well-known distinction, the latter is religion, not yet faith. . . . In practice, Jesus Christ is absent in this type of religiosity. . . .
Suffice it to glance at the New Testament to understand how far away we are, in this case, from the original meaning of the word "faith" in the New Testament. For Paul, the faith that justifies sinners and bestows the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:2), in other words, salvific faith, is faith in Jesus Christ, in his paschal mystery of death and resurrection. Also for John, the faith that "overcomes the world" is faith in Jesus Christ. He writes: "Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:4-5).
To re-evangelize the post-Christian world it is indispensable, I believe, to know the path followed by the Apostles to evangelize the pre-Christian world! The two situations have much in common. And this is what I would now like to bring to light: How was the first evangelization carried out? What way did faith in Christ follow to conquer the world?
This tradition presents two aspects, or two components: a component called "preaching," or announcement (kerygma) which proclaims what God has wrought in Jesus of Nazareth, and a component called "teaching" (didache) which presents ethical norms for correct conduct on the part of believers. . . faith as such flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, or the announcement. "How are they to believe -- writes the Apostle speaking of faith in Christ -- in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" Literally, "without some one who proclaims the kerygma" (choris keryssontos). And he concludes: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:17), where by "preaching" the same thing is understood, that is, the "gospel" or kerygma.
This more concrete nucleus is the exclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" pronounced and accepted in the wonder of a "statu nascenti" faith, namely, in the very act of being born. The mystery of this word is such that it cannot be pronounced "except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). It alone can bring one to salvation who believes in his resurrection: "because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).
"Like the wake of a ship," Charles Péguy would say, "it enlarges until it disappears and is lost, but it begins with a point that is the point of the ship itself," so -- I add -- the preaching of the Church goes enlarging itself, until it is an immense doctrinal edifice, but it begins with a point and that point is the kerygma: "Jesus is the Lord!"
Therefore that which in Jesus' preaching was the exclamation "the Kingdom of God has come!" in the preaching of the apostles is the exclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" And yet there is no opposition, but perfect continuity between the Jesus that preaches and the Christ preached, because to say: "Jesus is the Lord!" is as if to say that in Jesus, crucified and risen, the kingdom and sovereignty of God over the world has at last been realized.
We must understand each other well so as not to fall into an unreal reconstruction of the apostolic preaching. After Pentecost, the apostles did not go around the world repeating always and only: "Jesus is the Lord!" What they did when they found themselves announcing the faith for the first time in a specific environment was, rather, to go directly to the heart of the Gospel, proclaiming two events: Jesus died -- Jesus rose, and the motive for these two events: he died "for our sins," he rose "for our justification" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:4; Romans 4:25). Dramatizing the issue, in the Acts of the Apostles Peter does no more than repeat to those who listened to him: "You killed Jesus of Nazareth; God has resurrected him, making him Lord and Christ."
The proclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" is nothing other therefore than the conclusion -- now implicit, now explicit -- of this brief history, recounted in an always living and new way, though substantially identical, and is at the same time that in which this history is summarized and becomes operative for the one who hears it. "Christ Jesus ... emptied himself ... and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him ... that at the name of Jesus ... every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:6-11).
We have seen that, in the beginning, the kerygma was distinguished from the teaching (didache) as well as from the catechesis. The last things tend to form the faith, or to preserve its purity, while the kerygma tends to awaken it. It has, so to speak, an explosive or germinating character; it is more like the seed that gives origin to the tree than to the ripe fruit that is at the top of the tree and that, in Christianity, is constituted rather by charity. The kerygma is not obtained at all by concentration, or by summary, as if it was the core of the tradition; but it is apart, or better, at the beginning of everything. From it all the rest is developed, including the four Gospels.
On this point an evolution was interrupted due to the general situation of the Church. In the measure that one moves to a regime of Christianity, in which everything around one is Christian, or considers itself as such, one is less aware of the importance of the initial choice by which one becomes a Christian, so much so that baptism is normally administered to children, who do not have the capacity to make it their own choice. What is most accentuated of faith is not so much the initial moment, the miracle of coming to faith, but rather the fullness and orthodoxy of the contents of faith itself.
3. Rediscover the Kerygma
This situation greatly affects evangelization today. The Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the Catholic Church is par excellence), run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage if underneath the immense patrimony of doctrine, laws and institutions, they do not find that primordial nucleus capable of awakening faith by itself.
To present oneself to the man of today, often lacking any knowledge of Christ, with the whole range of this doctrine is like putting one of those heavy brocade capes all of a sudden on the back of a child. We are more prepared by our past to be "shepherds" than to be "fishers" of men; that is, better prepared to nourish people that come to the Church then to bring new people to the Church, or to catch again those who have fallen away and live outside of her. . .
In many people, everything continues to turn, from the beginning to the end, around the first conversion, the so-called new birth, whereas for us, Catholics, this is only the beginning of Christian life. After that must come catechesis and spiritual progress, which implies self-denial, the night of faith, the cross, until the resurrection. The Catholic Church has a very rich spirituality, innumerable saints, the magisterium and, above all, the sacraments.
It is necessary, therefore, to propose the fundamental announcement clearly and sparely at least once among us, not only to the catechumens, but to all, given that the majority of today's believers have not gone through the catechumenate. The grace that some of the new ecclesial movements constitute at present for the Church consists precisely in this. They are the place where adult persons at last have the occasion to hear the kerygma, renew their own baptism, consciously choose Christ as their own personal Lord and Savior and commit themselves actively in the life of their Church.
. To Choose Jesus as Lord
We began with the question: "What place does Christ have in present-day society?" But we cannot end without asking ourselves the most important question in a context such as this: "What place does Christ occupy in my life?" Let's call to mind Jesus' dialogue with the apostles in Caesarea Philippi: "Who do men say the Son of man is? ... But who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:13-15). The most important thing for Jesus does not seem to be what the people think of him, but what his closest disciples think of him.
I referred earlier to the objective reason that explains the importance of the proclamation of Christ as Lord in the New Testament: It makes present and operative in the one who pronounces it the salvific events that it recalls. But there is also a subjective and existential reason. To say "Jesus is the Lord!" means, in fact, to make a decision. It is as though saying: Jesus Christ is "my" Lord; I recognize his full right over me, I hand the reins of my life over to him; I do not want to live any more "for myself," but "for him who died and rose for me" (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15).
To proclaim Jesus as one's Lord means to subject to him all the region of our being, to make the Gospel penetrate everything we do. It means, to recall a phrase of the venerated John Paul II, "to open, more than that, to open wide the doors to Christ."
For whom do we work and why do we do so? For ourselves or for Christ, for our glory or for Christ's? It is the best way this Advent to prepare a welcoming crib for Christ who comes at Christmas.
Drove from Boulder to Colorado Springs along the foothills (avoiding I-25) yesterday. Gorgeous day, lots of snow, sunshine, and the mountains beautifully visible even from Denver (which does not always happen).
Fr. Raniero Cantelamessa's Second Advent homily (given before Pope Benedict and the Roman Curia yesterday) is encouraging and bracing on many levels.
Fr. Cantalemessa talked about Jesus as distinguished from John the Baptist as "the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean to say that Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit? The expression serves not only to distinguish Jesus' baptism from John's baptism; it serves to distinguish the entire person and work of Christ from that of the precursor. In other words, in all of his work Jesus is the the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. Baptism has a metaphorical meaning here; it means to inundate, to completely cover, as water does to bodies that are immersed in it.
Jesus "baptizes in the Holy Spirit" in the sense that he receives and gives the Spirit "without measure" (cf. John 3:34), he "pours out" his Spirit (Acts 2:33) on all of redeemed humanity. The expression refers more to the event of Pentecost than to the sacrament of baptism. "John baptized with water but before many days you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit" (Act 1:5), Jesus tells the disciples, obviously referring to Spirit's descent at Pentecost that would happen in a few days.
The expression "baptize with the Spirit" therefore defines the essential work of the Messiah, which already in the prophets of the Old Testament appears as oriented toward the regeneration of humanity through a great and universal outpouring of the Spirit of God (cf. Joel 3:1ff.). Applying all of this to the life and time of the Church, we must conclude that the risen Jesus baptizes in the Spirit not only in the sacrament of baptism, but, in a different way, also in other moments: in the Eucharist, in listening to the Word and, in general, through all the channels of grace.
If we want, and have enough faith, this very chapel in which we stand can be the cenacle into which the Risen Lord enters, [despite] closed doors, breathes on our faces and says almost begging us: "Receive the Holy Spirit."
St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "There is an invisible mission of the Spirit every time there is a progress in virtue or an augmentation of grace...; when someone moves to a new activity or a new state of grace." The Church's liturgy itself inculcates this. All of its prayers and its hymns to the Holy Spirit begin with the cry, "Come!": "Come, O Creator Spirit!" "Come, Holy Spirit!" And those who pray this way have already at sometime received the Spirit. This means that the Spirit is something that we have received and that we must receive again and again.
And he spent a good deal of time talking explicitly about the charismatic renewal and its impact on the Church over the past 40 years. Pretty obviously, the charismatic renewal is recognized as fully legitimate by Pope Benedict since Cantalemessa's homily is getting its usual high level of media distribution. Cantalemessa makes the point that the classic experience of the "charismatic renewal" is not universal or normative as such but the renewal of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives, however it occurs, is universal and normative. We "are all called to not remain outside this 'current of grace".
3. Baptism in the Spirit
In this context, we must say something about the so-called baptism in the Spirit that for a century has become an experience lived by millions of believers in almost all of the Christian denominations. This is a rite made up of gestures of great simplicity, accompanied by dispositions of repentance and faith in the promise of Christ: "The Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him."
It is a renewal and an activation, not only of baptism and confirmation, but of all the events of grace of one's state in life: priestly ordination, religious profession, marriage. Besides making a good confession, those who are involved prepare by participating in catechism meetings in which they are put again in living and joyful contact with the principal truths and realities of the faith: the love of God, sin, salvation, new life, transformation in Christ, charisms, the fruits of the Spirit. Everything is characterized by a profound fraternal communion.
Sometimes, however, everything happens spontaneously, outside of all formal contexts and it is like being "surprised" by the Holy Spirit. A man gave this testimony: "I was on a plane and I was reading the last chapter of a book on the Holy Spirit. At a certain point it was as if the Holy Spirit came out of the pages of the book and entered into my body. Tears streamed from my eyes. I began to pray. I was overcome by a power quite beyond me."
The most common effect of this grace is that the Holy Spirit passes from being a more or less abstract object of faith, to being a fact of experience. Karl Rahner wrote: "We cannot deny that here below man can have experiences of grace that give him a feeling of liberation, open totally new horizons to him, make a deep impression on him, transform him, shaping, even over a long period of time, his deepest Christian attitude. Nothing prohibits us from calling such experiences baptism in the Spirit."
Precisely through that which is called "baptism in the Spirit," there is an experience of the anointing of the Holy Spirit in prayer, of his power in pastoral ministry, of his consolation in trials, of his guidance in decisions. Before his manifestation in charisms it is thus that he is experienced: as Spirit who interiorly transforms us, gives us a taste of the praise of God, opens our mind to the understanding of the Scriptures, teaches us to proclaim Jesus "Lord" and gives us the courage to assume new and difficult tasks in the service of God and neighbor. This year is the 40th anniversary of the retreat that gave birth, in 1967, to the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church, which is estimated to have touched no fewer than 80 million Catholics in a few decades. This is how one of the people who was present at that first retreat describes the effects of baptism in the Spirit on himself and on the group:
"Our faith has come alive, our believing has become a kind of knowing. Suddenly, the world of the supernatural has become more real than the natural. In brief, Jesus Christ is a real person to us, a real person who is Our Lord and who is active in our lives. [...] Prayer and the sacraments have become truly our daily bread instead of practices which we recognize as 'good for us.' A love of Scripture, a love of the Church I never thought possible, a transformation of our relationships with others, a need and a power of witness beyond all expectation, have all become part of our lives. The initial experience of the baptism in the Spirit was not at all emotional, but life has become suffused with calm, confidence, joy and peace. ... We sang the 'Veni Creator Spiritus' before each conference and meant it. We were not disappointed. We have also been showered with charismata. This also puts us in an ecumenical atmosphere at its best."
We all see with clarity that these are precisely the things that the Church needs today to proclaim the Gospel to a world that has become wayward to the faith and the supernatural. We do not say that everyone is called to experience the grace of a new Pentecost in this way. However, we are all called not to remain outside this "current of grace" that flowed through the post-Conciliar Church. John XXIII spoke, in his time, of "a new Pentecost"; Paul VI went beyond this and spoke of "a perennial Pentecost," a continual Pentecost. It is worthwhile to listen again to the words he pronounced during a general audience:
"On several occasions we have asked about the greatest needs of the Church. [...] What do we feel is the first and last need of this blessed and beloved Church of ours? We must say it, almost trembling and praying, because as you know well, this is the Church's mystery and life: the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He it is who animates and sanctifies the Church. He is her divine breath, the wind in her sails, the principle of her unity, the inner source of her light and strength. He is her support and consoler, her source of charisms and songs, her peace and her joy, her pledge and prelude to blessed and eternal life. The Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook. [...] The Church needs to rediscover the eagerness, the taste and the certainty of the truth that is hers."
And I found this last note especially moving:
"Jesus' testimony," we read in the Book of Revelation, "is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelations 19:10), the spirit of prophecy is required to bear witness to Christ. Is this spirit of prophecy in the Church? Is it cultivated? Or do we believe, implicitly, that we can do without it, depending more on human expedients?
In 1992 there was a retreat for priests in Monterrey, Mexico, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the first evangelization of Latin America. There were 1,700 priests and about 70 bishops present. During the homily of the concluding Mass I spoke about the urgent need that the Church has for prophecy. After Communion there was prayer for a new Pentecost in small groups scattered throughout the great basilica. I remained in the presbytery. At a certain moment a young priest came up to me in silence, knelt down in front of me and with a look I will never forget said to me: "Bendígame, Padre, quiero ser profeta de Dios!" -- "Bless me, Father, I want to be a prophet for God!" A chill went down my spine because I saw that he was plainly moved by grace.
We can with humility make that priest's desire our own: "I want to be a prophet for God." Little, unknown to anyone, it does not matter, but one who, as Paul VI said, has fire in his heart, words on his lips, and prophecy in his outlook.
Good stuff. Makes want to pray right now for openness to and an increase of the Holy Spirit's work in my life!
This Thursday, December 20, will mark the 20th anniversary of my reception into the Church. As some of you already know, Mark Shea and I were received into the Church in 1987 on 10 days notice. We had missed an appointment with a sweet old Redemptorist pastor who was afraid that two souls had slipped through his fingers when it really was our mistake. O happy fault! Mark and I leapt at the opportunity so our memories of entering are those of Advent and Christmas, not Easter.
Eight years ago during Advent, I told (and we taped) the story of my conversion before a small group at Blessed Sacrament in Seattle. I listened to the cd again (The Making of a Bi-Cultural Christian) today as a way of meditating upon the ways God has led me to this point. Since several of the major spiritual turning points in my life have occurred during Advent, I thought I’d share some of the Christmasy bits.
On my memories of my first Christmas after my conversion as an undergrad:
“That Christmas, I was like Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. I was delirious. I remember going around from Salvation Army kettle to Salvation Army kettle, stuffing $20 bills in every one of them.
And on Christmas Eve – don’t ask me how I got this idea in my head – I went out at midnight, certain that all the bells in the city would ring. Nothing. Silence. Dead silence.
And I thought “Sherry, have you ever, in your life, heard the bells ring on Christmas Eve at midnight?” The answer was “No!”. Why did I expect it now? But they should be ringing! It was like Dylan Thomas’s famous poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Thomas writes “the bells the children hear are inside them.” I was projecting my own inner “bells” on the universe.
Enjoy this picture of Swansea's beautiful bay (Dylan Thomas's birth place) where I once lived and about which "A Child's Christmas" was written.
Another crystal clear, snowy morning as I sit before my MAC, looking out the back window. A few minutes ago, I was startled by the sudden appearance of a red fox against the snow. He had caught some small prey - bird, squirrel, rabbit - which he held in his mouth as he cantered across the length of the backyard and then hopped the fence into the park.
There had been mysterious footprints along the now covered path along the fence. Now we know to whom they probably belong.
This just in from my friend, Pat, who is on particularly intimate terms with cancer. The quote is from Teihard de Chardin.
When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is You (provided my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
You are the irrestible and vivfying force, O Lord; and because yours is the energy, because of the two of us, You are infinitely the stronger, it is on You that falls the part of consuming me in the union that should weld us together. Vouchsafe therefore, something more precious still than the grace for which all the faithful pray. It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to communicate while dying.