Saturday, December 31, 2011

Firm Purpose and Hope

Before 2011 gets away from me, I want to respond again to the request of my Canadian friend to write more on the Sacrament of Penance. I do so gladly and specifically I want to offer a few thoughts on that which is required of us if our confession is to be truly sincere or, should I say, honestly contrite. We cannot be forgiven of grave or mortal sin if we are not sorry, if we do not turn to the Lord and genuinely ask His forgiveness through the ministry of His Church. This sorrow has to come forth somehow in the dialogue which is so characteristic of auricular confession. We are to display to our Father Confessor, or rather, we as penitents, manifestly, should be seized by a "firm purpose of amendment". That would be our resolve to change our ways, to not commit that sin again.

The dynamics of the confessional (some people are very nervous in Confession; some may seem defensive, but more often their tone arises either from ignorance or from an embarrassed pride that does not want to accept the fact that they have once again fallen and done so grievously) make it hard for the priest to judge whether some people are sorry enough to want sincerely to change their ways. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the priest's office as judge (the image of a "physician of souls" can be helpful as long as Father himself does not deny or ignore his role as a judge in Christ's stead). This sacrament "works" if the penitent is sorry for his or her sins confessed. The only way to establish this as fact is if the "doctor and the judge" perceives sorrow (whether out of love or out of fear, it does not matter), but sorrow which is displayed in the penitent's readiness to turn away from sin.

The issue about firm purpose of amendment comes to the fore especially or precisely for penitents with a certain habit of sin. I can remember in catechism and in spiritual conferences in the seminary when we were young, Father would always advise that in the face of a habit of sin it was important not to despair, not to excuse ourselves, but in all humility to seek forgiveness promptly, again and again in the Sacrament of Penance, attentive always to our confessor's advice and counsel. Father wanted us to live in hope of growth in holiness, of growth in virtue, of breaking free from our miserable failing or failings. The legendary stories of the firm but effective help which St. Pio of Pietralcina (Padre Pio) gave to sinners in the confessional is worth remembering. I also remember hearing poor Bernard Haering criticize Padre Pio for harshness; Haering's own approach of excusing failings did not convince me even at age 22. In Christ, the victory over personal sin must also be possible, sin is not simply covered over, but genuinely forgiven, and our lives are transformed through the aid of the sacraments He entrusted to His Church.

Many adults suffer from a sense of desperation in the face of repeated and habitual failings; they can even sincerely doubt their own contrition, as they doubt their only handle upon or gauge of that true sorrow, namely, their firm purpose of amendment. The old advice to keep trying, to never give up, and to genuinely strive to be wise by avoiding the near occasions of sin, is still the best advice. Ultimately, it is the way we witness to the true nature of hope in our lives. Hope in God is ultimately trust in His promises. The victory is indeed His, if we but seek Him in all things.

An Irish priest friend of mine, who took the pledge as a young man at confirmation and has never touched alcohol all his long life, recounted how in his early years he went around with a team, including a reformed alcoholic, to give talks on the evils of drink. His respected colleague would occasionally fall off the wagon and invariably, even in the middle of the night, would come still not yet sober seeking confession from Father and the Lord's forgiveness. He was a determined man and if no one responded to the rectory door in the wee hours, he would go under Father's window and shout, usually waking the whole house before Father himself awoke and went down to console the man. Sorrow and fear of damnation were certainly present. Faith in the power of the Sacrament of Penance was evident as well. Father certainly admonished the man to come back for confession as soon as he was sober. No doubt on that occasion "the judge" could also be assured of a firm purpose of amendment from his penitent.

We honestly do our best; we live in hope of the Son of Man, like us in all things but sin, Who took on our humanity and offers us a share in His Divine Life. The sinner should find refuge in the Lord and the priest cannot be over eager to make the Sacrament of Penance available. Our immediate act of contrition when we fail is a sine qua non. Confession and Absolution is what distinguishes us from the quiet desperation of a world which has not yet know the Wonder Counselor, Father Forever, Prince of Peace, born for us and for us given.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mistaken For Christ

For some time now, but especially since St. Stephen's Feast and again today with the Holy Innocents, I have been resisting the urge to write something about our identity as Christians in the world and the role martyrdom may have to play in this our life. 

It might be presumptuous or an exaggeration on my part to say that what I want to do (reflecting on the example of St. Stephen but perhaps more on that of the Holy Innocents) is fundamental or basic and would have implications not only for the life of the individual but for the life of the Church in a society, that society being a world or the powers which be in that world which for the most part stand us over and against (threatened by the very thought of us, as Herod was troubled unto folly by the news of the star from the magi come to worship the Universal King). 

I capitulated and decided to write something when I read the little introduction to today's Mass in MAGNIFICAT speaking of the honor accorded to the babies around Bethlehem, they having been mistaken for the Anointed One of God and dying in His place! We don't belong, let us say, any more than the Lord Jesus, Who explained to Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world. Christ's glory is in His being lifted up upon the Cross. He and we, if we follow Him, are indeed outsiders. His glory, our glory is in being relegated to the cave and manger outside Bethlehem, to being crucified outside of the city of Jerusalem and deposited in a borrowed grave. Is this indeed so for us; is our relationship to this century really adversarial?

"Arise, O LORD, confront them, strike them down! 
Let your sword deliver my soul from the wicked! 
Let your hand, O LORD, deliver me from those 
whose portion in this present life is fleeting. 
May you give them their fill of your treasures; 
may their offspring rejoice in plenty, 
and leave their wealth to their children. 
As for me, in justice I shall behold your face; 
when I awake I shall be filled with the vision of your presence." (Psalm 17:13-15)

Is it only King David, is it only the priest who has the Lord as his portion? Are we not all, the baptized, strangers or sojourners on our way to a better place? There is nothing of apathetic resignation in the awareness that the victory belongs to Stephen, to the Innocents and not to some Forbes list of the world's movers and shakers. One needs to tremble slightly at TV or radio commentary about the Vatican as the capital of Christianity. "My kingdom is not of this world." Jesus said it to Pilate.

We needs be shocked by the hateful bombings this year in Nigeria of churches on Christmas, shocked but not surprised. The old expression was that error has no rights. Perhaps it would be better to recognize soberly the absolute intolerance of relativism as ideology, of ignorance and prejudice unleashed and unrestrained, no matter how one dresses or candy-coats it. Very simply, the truth is indeed one and must be striven for, but finds few defenders even in the halls of justice.

We need only recall the Holy Father's discourse at the University of Regensburg (12 September 2006) to help us contextualize a discourse far from new to our world:

"In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death..."

Jesus prophesied that those who follow Him will be drawn before kings and rulers and all matter of tribunal for the sake of His Name. For His sake, for the sake of reason and of truth, we cannot fail to defend the family, the down-trodden and the unborn. 

I'm going to stop short of a harangue and express the hope and prayer that as we cross the threshold of another calendar year, we might draw hope and courage for battle from the psalmist, rallying to the standard of the Infant King: "As for me, in justice I shall behold your face; when I awake I shall be filled with the vision of your presence."


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Post Secular?

In the relatively brief period I have been here in Ukraine and trying to understand what is going on around me, one of the columnists on the web site RISU (Religious Information Service of Ukraine) whom I enjoy reading is Andrew Sorokowski. I am eager to recommend his most recent article "Are we in a post-secular age?" (see Sorokowski).

The author often takes as his point of departure a statement made by a leader within the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church community, in this case the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Fr. Boris Gudziak, and elaborates or dwells on affirmations made by the same.

This particular article's analysis of Ukrainian West and Ukrainian East religiosity in the face of past persecution and long-term, ongoing secularization in society goes far beyond the usual assessments one or at least I have been able to hear or read to date. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough or not reading the right people? In any case, I am grateful for this find and pass it on for your attention and comment.
I share the author's assessment that by far "indifference" would be characteristic of people almost everywhere here in the face of the God question; it is simply not an issue. Scripturally, this world is in a way B.C. sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. Christ, our Light, hasn't dawned on them as yet.

The so-called "seekers after meaning in life" have set the bar none too high for themselves. In any case they are looking for something easier than what the Gospel has to offer. Here's a quote from the article:

"For those who do search for meaning, notes Fr. Gudziak, there are few ready answers. At first this may seem untrue. After all, modern society offers a broad array of answers: all kinds of religions, philosophies, and life-styles purport to answer the question of the meaning of life. One can find web-sites, support groups, and T-shirts for just about any creed, or the absence of one. But if we are speaking of true answers, indeed there are few. Christianity does not provide an answer to every question; rather, it suggests answers to a few big questions, leaving us to figure out the rest. It tells us who we are and why we are here, but it does not tell us, for example, why God permits evil. Contrary to a popular perception, the Church does not do our thinking for us, but gives us enough understanding to attack the questions that remain unanswered. A university like UCU provides students with the intellectual tools of the Christian tradition that will enable them to find their own answers to the big questions."

Let me know your thoughts or better suggest a better reading list than the one I've got so far!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Church is Where You are to be Found

The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy
Alexander Schmemann
(St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York, 2003)

A colleague loaned me his copy of this book which must be labelled either "a standard work" or a "classic". Reading it you get an impression, not so much of timelessness but of freshness, such that you would hardly guess that the 2003 edition is the third reprint in English of a work first translated from the Russian and published in 1963. I have some very strong objections to Schmemann's approach to history, but I learned a lot from the book especially in terms of contextualizing the experience I had of Orthodoxy while stationed in Jerusalem in the years 1993-96.

Despite my strong temptation to go after the way Schmemann yokes the Byzantine Church to temporal power, I prefer to take his observations on monasticism, not so much in the Greek form but as he describes it in Russian Orthodoxy and especially in the 15th century as point of departure for a reflection on how even ordinary Christians manifest contrition and set their hearts on the heavenly Kingdom:

"Yet amid all this darkness and decay there was the pure air of the monastery, evidence of the possibility of repentance, renewal, and purification. The monastery is not the crown of the Christian world, but on the contrary, its inner judgment seat and accuser, the light shining in the darkness. This must be understood for a comprehension of the origins of the "Russian soul." In the midst of its degradation it stretches toward this limitless brightness; it contains the tragic discord between the vision of spiritual beauty and purity expressed in monasticism and the sense of the hopeless sinfulness of life. Those who see a wholeness in the Russian religious mind of these ages are deeply mistaken, for just then, in the centuries after the Tatar invasion, the dualism which would mark its future course began to enter into it." (p. 308)
Elsewhere and repeatedly in his book Schmemann maintains that Christianity was imposed on the people of the Rus and only ever absorbed or integrated by an elite. He seems convinced that for the masses, the ordinary folk, Byzantine ritual was a veneer covering the "soft paganism" of the Slavic lands. He points to the rudeness in the people resulting from centuries of slavery under the brutal Tatars. So far Schmemann, the expert on Orthodoxy writing his original in Russian, and as he is dead at the moment, as they say, it hardly pays to get too worked up about what he says about post-Muscovite Slavic Orthodoxy. It is sort of like a French Dominican of over a century ago who insisted that American Catholicism had nothing to offer to the Church at large because of the hypocrisy generally of American Catholics. You have three choices in the face of such a condemnation: 1) Object with vehemence; 2) Beat your breast: 3) Get on with life as the Dominican too in question is long dead.

Getting on with the question for me in terms of Schmemann means posing another question or taking another perspective in terms of the why and wherefore of the Church in time and then ultimately. Ultimately, the Church should be our window on how things ought to be, how they will be in the fullness of time when Christ comes again in glory:
"And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day - and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations." (Revelations 21:22-26)

 Here on earth we perforce see as through a glass darkly. The Church even at its most sublime while celebrating the Sacred Liturgy can be no more than foretaste and promise of the Kingdom which is to come. Hans Urs von Balthasar writing about the liturgy ("Liturgy and Awe", vol. II of his Explorations in Theology, Ignatius Press) attributes greater clarity to the worship of the Western Church in its classic liturgy than is preserved in the East. In another article published in the same volume ("Seeing, Hearing and Reading Within the Church), von Balthasar seems to take exception to Schmemann for blaming the Russian dualism on the Tatar yoke and points to a specific deficiency of the Byzantine liturgical tradition:

"Thus while it is true that the Eastern liturgy, where it genuinely unfolds itself, is a liturgy of seeing, in which the believer is permitted to see, through mirror and likeness, the supraheavenly mysteries of the new age in a great symbolic-representative sequence of scenes as it were solidifies into the "wall of images", the iconostasis - solidified like the ceremonial of the Byzantine court - and that this now divides the church interior into two, one space for the profane, uninitiated people who must be content with the "colorful reflection of the splendor" and one space for the mystic-initiated priest who always has the iconostasis at his back and already stands on the far side of all likenesses." (p. 485)

Von Balthasar is no less sparing in his criticism of Western liturgy, but my point would be that the basic question is another. How do we get to the Kingdom? How do we live the Christian life? The Byzantine world is filled with stories of saints and would-be saintly people who at the end of their lives took the monastic habit. The great example for me is St. Methodius' brother St. Cyrill, who took the habit at Rome when he realized he was dying. I think Schmemann has a great and beautiful description of Russian monasticism when he says of it: "The monastery is not the crown of the Christian world, but on the contrary, its inner judgment seat and accuser, the light shining in the darkness."

Taking the habit is not so much going over to a religious elite, not so much choosing the better path, as it is symbol of commitment with firm purpose to amend our lives. It is that step really which the Church asks of us all, regardless of our state in life, beyond the tears of our penance. It is our "yes" to the exhortation of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery "Go and sin no more."

As taboo as it is to speak about such things in the Church today, I cannot but think of the number of people in the West who in days gone by, on the advice of their confessors, took the hair-shirt or the discipline. Ultimately, the sense of the brown scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel in which we were enrolled at First Communion is the same, namely as token, sign, sacramental witness of our resolve never to be separated from Christ and His Blessed Mother again.

It is not the judgment but the love, the light, the luminous witness, which draws us, and is so eloquently illustrated in the tender dialogue between the Virgin of Tepeyac and St. Juan Diego.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, Pray for Us!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The End of History?

The other day after a talk and discussion with a class of university students, a young lady came up and asked me if I was familiar with a lecture by Francis Fukuyama, later published as an article entitled: "The End of History?" She asked me what my opinion was on the thesis that the end of participatory and/or representative democracy would signal the end of history. I told her I did not know the article, but that for my way of thinking as there was history before democracy so there could be history after democracy. ["Sherman's Lagoon" today reminded me of this brief exchange.]

Yesterday, I started watching a lecture by Peter Kreeft on how to win the culture war [on Youtube] which he introduces by stating his thesis, that the Catholic Church is the only thing which stands in the way of the total collapse of Western Civilization... whew! It sort of reminds me of the courageous little Dutch boy who saved his town by plugging the hole in the dike with his finger.

If that were not enough, I also took in the 2nd part of Fr. Robert Barron's marvelous commentary on the figure of King David in which he draws a corollary between David's failures as a father and the failures (in fathering or governing) of the Catholic hierarchy today [Word on Fire]. Well taken, but I think the word is: ouch!

All of this and much more draws forth additional reflection for me and on my part on the question: "Where is or what is the locus of the Church?" I am asking not only about its place in my life but about its place or role in and for the life of the world. I still find no better way of dealing with this question than did Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his beautiful little novel "Callista: A Tale of the Third Century". In most modern and credible fashion he illustrates the miracle of how the blood of martyrs can be the seed of Christians. He paints a picture of a Church lost, a civilization really collapsed, which is renewed by a martyrdom which was willed perhaps only by God Himself.

The quintessential witness of the Church, its locus par excellence, is that of standing with Mary, John and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross of Christ. That witness in martyrdom doesn't necessarily attract volunteers and so I think it important to reflect on the importance of watching and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane as that which prepares us for Calvary and lest we fall into temptation. Besides coming to a knowledge of Christ and of our faith in Him through study, identifying with Him through that personal exchange with Him which is our watchful/attentive prayer, certainly goes in that direction and beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if we do fall asleep, we pray that Jesus will come and wake us, as He did Peter, James and John in Gethsemane.

Today, as far as the greater role of the Church for the sake of civilization I was struck by the dynamics of Chapter 10 of St. John's Gospel. The setting for the part of the chapter I have in mind is winter, with Jesus walking up and down in Solomon's Portico of the Temple. The exchange or engagement between Jesus and those who surround Him, the one I maintain could save society, is very much under way. In a sense, this is all that really matters in life, especially in the life of the Church for the sake of the salvation of the world: that we engage the other, that the discourse be honest and open, that the possibility of knowing what Christ offers through His Church be provided such that those who are destined for salvation might come to be saved.

Peter Kreeft says that the only thing which stands in the way of the total collapse of Western Civilization is the Catholic Church... OK... he's a philosopher and a big name. I guess I'd say it differently. The life of the world depends upon my coming to know Christ, upon my study, my prayer, my watching with Him, as the old hymn goes... "in His temptation and His fast".

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Back in the Fold

In Ukraine I find myself far from that part of the world, and from the parish and the excitement of the first experiences with the new English translation of the Roman Missal. I have to content myself long-distance with comments in the blogosphere and candid reactions from friends at home and elsewhere in the English speaking world. Among the tidbits which have come my way, I was a bit taken off guard by a comment from an Italian priest friend who said very simply that the new English reminds him of the Italian Missal in the sense that both demand attention and application if a priest is going to pray them properly for the people. My spontaneous thought was: Looks like we're back in the fold with the greater Church around the world. Despite glitches, it is obviously a smaller but significant blessing that this old Simeon has lived long enough to see. Deo gratias!

My prayers continue for all who strive in the area of sacred music. Long term and not discounting initial hurdles and objections to abandoning much of a parish's repertoire of songs in an attempt to set forth the genuine tradition of the Western Church (read: Latin Church), I am convinced that in the area of music, sacred music, the English-speaking world is called to provide the leadership in the work of recovering plain chant and more, both in Latin and in the vernacular. I'm exposed to music in a lot of different languages and most of it involves translations of the English speaking world's hymnody or popular church music. The Western Church's vernacular music repertoire in the average community everywhere in the world is really quite limited. If you taught people or even a scola just a couple basic chant melodies and turned them loose on the propers for Mass, you'd end up with exponentially more variety (if that's what you want) than comes forth from those few hymns everybody knows and that just with verses 1 and 2, which are as far as we go. As I say, all involved in church music and pastors who have responsibility for encouraging restoration and development according to the mind of the Church are definitely in my daily prayers.

On the issue of worship ad Orientem, I'd ask your continued prayers for my carpenter who has begun preparing the new altar for my chapel. I can't wait. The other day I finally met with the priest who designed the chapel and we have agreed on the modifications which need to be made. I may have strong-armed him a bit, but the sisters were there to console him after our meeting and to assure him that the additions and changes were really going to make Father's work even more beautiful. Don't ask me to go into liturgical art consulting!

In this regard, the experience of these months of celebrating across the altar have confirmed my belief that we are dealing with a fad and not any kind of liturgical development. Both ways of preparing the gifts and praying the Eucharistic Prayer are possible in the Church today, but the great tradition and, I am thoroughly and profoundly convinced, the better way is ad Orientem

Not from my own experience (which I explained back in Island Envoy), but from listening and observing, I can see however that the change to ad Orientem where that is possible without a huge financial outlay is really a terribly high hurdle to clear. What was done overnight and in haste two generations ago (moving in a table or quickly fabricating something of TV or movie set quality) looms terribly large and immovable for most priests today when it comes to reversing a trend. What can I say? The Extraordinary Form of the liturgy today teaches eloquently and should have its impact on the Ordinary Form. Beyond the Missal and decorous music, a key component is studying and accurately celebrating the Mass according to the rubrics but doing so if and whenever possible ad Orientem

No doubt the difference from 2 generations back in time is that Father back then could act capriciously and few dared call him to account. I can only hope and pray that for our day and time genuine leadership among priests and bishops in this regard will find the way.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Embassy closings in Rome?

John Allen of NCR (inspired by the Irish decision) reports that it seems "Vatican diplomacy" or the presence of resident ambassadors to the Holy See in Rome may be on the way out  [see: Last Embassy ] at least as far as Western powers are concerned and I quote:

"Among the traditional Western powers, however, the mood is somewhat different.
In recent years, Western ambassadors have quietly complained that it has become more difficult to engage the Vatican on international issues, and that Vatican diplomacy appears to be passing through a period of retrenchment.
Vatican diplomats today, they say, are highly focused on issues of religious freedom and anti-Christian persecution, but sometimes less interested in other matters. Some diplomats point to perceptions that the Vatican was not keenly engaged on Libya in the same way it had been on earlier conflicts in the Balkans or Iraq under John Paul, as an example.
Moreover, these diplomats say, the sexual abuse crisis has created a political environment in which critics of funding missions to the Vatican can wield powerful new ammunition.
“Because of the crisis, people in my government who have always questioned why we have an embassy here are much bolder,” a senior Western diplomat told NCR in mid-November. “To be honest, I’m not sure how much longer we can hold out.”

In other words, someone among Allen's sources would have Ireland as a trend setter. That may be, but the three points offered above for closing embassies are pretexts for starting the closings with the Holy See and no more. Secular diplomacy has been changing or in flux for decades. A goodly number of ambassadors find themselves functioning not even as goodwill emissaries for their countries but as commercial attaches, working hard to bring the balance of trade into line or into their home country's favor. I can remember a German colleague working hard to recruit honorary consuls; he explained to me that they represented essentially what his government wanted: a trade representative, someone with the financial means to carry his own expenses, who has the pull needed to look after German citizens in difficulty with the law. Some countries go with experts as ambassadors. Upon my arrival in the Caribbean, many of my colleagues had backgrounds in law enforcement and surveillance of drugs and arms trafficking. Two non-Europeans of the sixteen ambassadors who presented their credentials with me here in Kyiv are nuclear experts, here to learn from Ukraine's long term experience on managing a nuclear accident (read: Chernobyl). There is hardly a European anywhere who does not complain about budget restrictions: no receptions or dinners for some, seeking sponsors for cheese and wine for another, and a friend who had to fill out a requisition form in triplicate in order to get a new mop bucket for his kitchen.

The economic crisis moved the Council of Europe to curtail the summit diplomacy of ministerial meetings which are otherwise so much the trend: G8, G20, is there still a non-alligned group? I'd love to call someone's bluff and find out just where this pullback on international issues by the Holy See has taken place. No, what has changed is not traditional Vatican diplomacy but rather the priorities and values of others. Could that mean closings? Yes, in the sense of a goodbye to the way things have been done with the sending and receiving of permanent emissaries now for a good five hundred years. One can only hope that the powers that be do not withdraw entirely from the sort of engagement which through direct personal contact has quite often fostered mutual understanding and promoted the cause of peace in the world.