Monday, May 26, 2014

Love Can or Cannot Wait?

Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite 
The Eucharist and The Liturgy of the Hours 
A Manual for Clergy and All Involved in Liturgical Ministries 
(2011-10-20).  Kindle Edition. 

Until I read Dr. Peter Kwasniewski's piece the other day, entitled Three Categories of Liturgical Problems, it had been some time since I felt an urgency to insist on pushing the agenda of a liturgical restoration over hopes of reforming the reformed liturgy. Very much at heart for me was the wise counsel of Benedict XVI, our Pope emeritus, in favor of promoting the mutual enrichment of the two forms of the Roman Rite. Hesitancy might be part of my make-up, but I remain thoroughly convinced that restoration must not repeat the errors of the 1970's which imposed reform with a vengeance, at times almost violently. Calendar reform, Latin and fixing a reset point for the restoration, perhaps prior to the Holy Week reform of Pius XII, were also issues for me. Let's just say, the Kwasniewski piece gave me a little nudge toward expressing a few thoughts.

Actually, this post is supposed to be a book review. I had Bishop Elliott's manual and one other book I wanted to read in the hopes of trying to understand why guaranteeing maximal decorum for the Novus Ordo (which seems to be the point of Elliott's book) does not and cannot answer a more fundamental question about the nature of liturgy and hence the gravity of the problem or the scandal involved in not going all-out to repair the breach, to reestablish continuity with our historical past as the sine qua non for the possibility of a living liturgy which can once again organically develop, as it always has across the centuries. The manual is a fine effort, but it only brings home more clearly to me that decorum in liturgy is not enough.

Bishop Elliott draws upon "best practices" (if you may call them that) from our liturgical past, but he cannot escape the accusation that what he attempts to shore up with sobriety is a novelty in our tradition, one which does not satisfy the demands of reverence nor focus on Christ the Priest. Don't get me wrong! Elliott's manual is the best antidote around to caprice, which has no place in liturgy, and would go a long way to repairing the "fallen hut" of Catholic worship, if his directives were always and everywhere applied. The manual cannot respond to the fundamental challenge which any adolescent can pose concerning NO liturgy: it remains a thing improvised, something, especially when there are lots of choices, which Father has made up and imposes of a Sunday morning. The NO would hardly sustain the apology of St. Justin Martyr that Sunday Eucharist is something without which we Christians cannot live.

Fair assessment or not, much of what was the liturgical movement in the 20th Century boils down to a search for intelligibility (we'll leave the penchant to offer choices aside). The vernacular, which has made its appearance not only in the Roman Rite but also quite generally among the Oriental Catholic Churches, is the most typical fruit of this drive and perhaps the greatest impediment to restoration. The vernacular, as a vehicle of intelligibility, ends up dividing us. I see it all the time here in Ukraine within the Roman Catholic Church, where on occasion I am invited to celebrate in one language, while the people practically respond in another. I have even seen it in a small chapel, where all used a common language, except for one person who was most adept at responding in his own mother tongue. I'm thinking of a heated discussion between a bishop and his priests, seeking permission to celebrate in one of countless patois of the Caribbean.

Here in Ukraine we have the challenge of a Church of the Roman Rite which has a full set of liturgical books in Polish, in Russian and in Hungarian, but not in Ukrainian. Church music is even more disparate. Simply stated, the EF despite the precision it demands of the priest offering the Mass would be much easier for the people and would concentrate efforts in the area of music. I will not sell short the efforts made in the US to render the NO something truly beautiful, but in many places, especially small communities, I think we are asking too much and falling far short of the sublime, in all its noble simplicity.

On the pages of The New Liturgical Movement today, Kwasniewski has also gifted us with words from Dr. Eric de Saventhem (1919-2005), first President of the International Federation Una Voce, spoken in 1970. Beauty and truth are irrepressible. The good will win out and genuine renewal through restoration and a resumption of truly organic growth will have its day and, please God, sooner. I really don't know why we need to wait for a generation change.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Fifty Years Closer to Putting 1054 behind Us!

I've seen this sad little notice a couple of times in the English language press, regarding the encounter in the Holy Land between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew:

"The chief foreign spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church has expressed some misgivings that Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will be meeting Pope Francis during the Pontiff’s visit to the Holy Land.

Metropolitan Hilarion said that because Patriarch Bartholomew had not consulted with other Orthodox leaders before scheduling his meeting with the Pope, he would be acting on his own behalf, not as a representative of the world’s Orthodox faithful. Although the Patriarch of Constantinople is traditionally recognized as the “first among equals” in the Orthodox hierarchy, the Russian Orthodox argues that he exercises that primacy only when other Orthodox patriarchs explicitly authorize him to do so. In the absence of such a mandate, Metropolitan Hilarion said, Patriarch Bartholomew will be representing only his own particular church, the Patriarchate of Constantinople."

They are harsh words, which would wield the honorific title first among equals against the unity of the Church. 

I hope His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople won't be offended if I make the presumptuous statement that I bet he sees those words in an entirely different light than does Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church. I am betting that both Patriarch Bartholomew and I attribute a certain contingency to his title first among equals. I am betting that he sees that title as a mandate from the Lord Jesus Himself to seek unity. It is a charismatic title, which would lead to Christ, which would lead to the robust kind of unity and communion which Jesus willed for His Church and which we are all owing to Him.

The proverbial oxen yoke is not the best image for synodality in the Church. The asceticism involved in always pulling the "plow" together is indeed meritorious, but primacy does indeed lead the way by encouragement and the occasional prophetic challenge. Peter strengthens the brethren urged on and encouraged by his brother Andrew, the first called.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Time for an Internet Fast

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 
Nicholas Carr. Kindle Edition.

The tight bonds we form with our tools go both ways. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies. When the carpenter takes his hammer into his hand, he can use that hand to do only what a hammer can do. [Highlight Loc. 3414-15]

The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation. The toll can be particularly high with our intellectual technologies. The tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities—those for reason, perception, memory, emotion. [Highlight Loc. 3448-50]

Please, don't take Nicholas Carr for a troglodyte; he is anything but that. Although of an older generation, though younger than I am, he knows full immersion in the world of informatica or whatever. Despite an ongoing enthusiasm for some of the fruits of the information revolution, he has made what to me seem some almost heroic decisions concerning social networking and more. For a man of his age I would say he has found an optimal formula for using the Net and more.

For my last few trips I have actually taken my Kindle on the plane, something I had not done for an odd and unfounded lack of confidence in the battery supply of my second generation Kindle. Anyway I finished his book and read a lot more, with only one reprimand from a clueless stewardess about "turning the thing off".

Here in Ukraine, because of the nature of the beast, we spend a lot of time with Facebook and Twitter, trying to understand what is happening. In the case of a dear friend, I think it has contributed to severe weight loss (something I could only dream might happen to me). Anyway, what Carr has to recommend about the reasoned use of the various media is an admonition well taken.

I liked his book for the history of communication and reflection provided. Personally, I think that if he had first-hand knowledge of learning a foreign language like Ukrainian, he would probably have another tact on such matters. He speaks almost passionately of "deep reading" as if it were something consummate and of high culture. In reality, I think memory and familiarity play a much more important role than he thinks and that something like speed reading strategies is perfectly all right and no impediment whatsoever to profound reflection or analysis.

I'd recommend the book for one reason alone. You may not have weight loss problems because of your attachment to your Android, your Tablet and your Laptop, but it could be that the time you waste trying not to miss whatever might be bending your mind or as the Italians would say ruining your liver.

Reading and Writing about the Church

"In this wicked world, in these evil days, when the church measures her future loftiness by her present humility, and is exercised by goading fears, tormenting sorrows, disquieting labors, and dangerous temptations, when she soberly rejoices, rejoicing only in hope, there are many reprobate mingled with the good, and both are gathered together by the gospel as in a dragnet; and in this world, as in a sea, both swim enclosed without distinction in the net, until it is brought ashore, when the wicked must be separated from the good, that in the good, as in His temple, God may be all in all." [The City of God (Saint Augustine of Hippo) - Highlight Loc. 15081-85- Kindle Edition]

These days I find myself drawn in by discussions here around me about the nature of Christ's Church and its role in society. The above quote from St. Augustine came to me truly as welcome. By sheer reason of its social dominance here in Ukraine, the Orthodox Church is at the center of most of these discussions. In the last week, I've had two opportunities to talk on this topic of the nature of Christ's Church and its role in society; as perhaps nowhere else in the world I'm called here to point out typical Orthodox pitfalls in the discussion and trace a clearly Catholic line. Perhaps elsewhere in the world it might be necessary to counterbalance popular Catholic emphases, but not here. Practical Orthodox ecclesiology is extremely incarnational and too often reductionist: binding itself too closely to the temporal rule of the moment and taking on the role of the "emperor's handmaid" as its raison d'etre. My first counter to this tendency has been to emphasize the singular truth contained in the primary teaching about the Church's nature as the Bride of Christ. Add my little find of the above quote and we have even more balance and depth.

Good theology or no, the question cannot be avoided. Is or how is Christ's Church a "player" on this battlefield of Ukraine, in what seems to be a struggle for the future of not only the Ukrainian people but in fact at least for Europe's proximate destiny as a union, if not for that of our world in general today, as a positively functioning set of relationships among states? Lots of people ask that question and have a multitude of answers to proffer as well. What hampers really responding to the question is that many deny or ignore the ultimate terms of this struggle. They leave the ultimate out of the picture; the Kingship of Christ is not on their radar; they cannot perceive their own dignity as the basis for a summons at the end of time before the Throne of that Great and Terrible Judge. I am not fear-mongering but elaborating a bit on Christian humility in the light of the Annunciation.  Mary became the Mother of God, declaring Herself the Handmaid of the Lord. If the Church would fulfill her mission, then she must bring Christ to our world by serving Him as Mary served God in Her Son. It is the premise, the point of departure which counts.

The project, which is Church now and until Judgment Day, requires of us that we focus first and foremost on the Church we know in its institutional manifestation as it goes about serving its primary cell, which is not any temporal power but the domestic Church, the family. One of the overriding theories, still however ignorant of or denying the Kingship of Christ, would have us believe in one fashion or another that our world is indeed controlled by the movers and shakers. With St. Augustine and the Church in every age, we declare that is not how it is. The story of our salvation in Christ teaches us rather, that at the center of our world, as the image of the human person in all his or her dignity is not the captain of industry, is not the philosopher king or queen, is not the oligarch, but rather the defenseless child, served and protected by Mom and Dad, the holy family not spelled out with capital letters, but written small and attributed to your family and to mine. It is the husband and wife united in their commitment to each other and to the life which springs from the fruit of their union in the person of that child. The child, children are the tangible witness to the dignity of their union and its only possible reason for being. The commitment to marriage and family today is a heroic one. It is here that what we mean by Church rises or falls.

As almost comically abstruse as it may sound, I am not calling for the institutional Church to abandon the public square but rather in every way to make clear the ultimate terms of our discourse, by committing itself untiringly to proclaiming the primacy of God in our world and the centrality of marriage and family to His plan. If the institutional Church better served the domestic Church, the family, by recovering its role of guarantor of the indissolubility of marriage, by winning over more for that radical respect for human life from conception to natural death, by giving true content to the notion of what we mean by our God-given dignity, we might better be able to give aggressors pause to think of what judgment awaits them if their only light is that ephemeral one of passing glory, fame and fortune.

In case you are wondering, let me say it plainly! I hold nothing of the kind of lobbying which is going on presently in the Church, which in view of whatever is supposed to come out of the synod of bishops next October, would undermine the unity and indissolubility of marriage, which would question the possibility at all of consummating that sacrament. I find my justification for being hard-nosed in my little passage above from St. Augustine. "In this wicked world, in these evil days, when the church measures her future loftiness by her present humility, and is exercised by goading fears, tormenting sorrows, disquieting labors, and dangerous temptations, when she soberly rejoices, rejoicing only in hope..." That is Church, that is domestic Church, that is family, which deserves all our solicitude.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Soli Deo

Sunday, 4 May 2014,

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Parish,

Third Week of Easter, Kharkiv

Acts 2:14,22-33
Domine, notas mihi facies vias vitae
1 Peter 1:17-21
Domine Iesu, aperi nobis Scripturas; fac cor nostrum ardens dum loqueris nobis.
Lk 24:13-35

          The Third Sunday of Easter finds us once again thoroughly caught up in God, as we contemplate the appearance of Jesus, risen from the dead, to two of His disciples along the road from Jerusalem to a small village named Emmaus.
They had walked a goodly distance with Jesus and they had a very animated, heart to heart conversation with Him about the truth of the Gospel and all that had happened concerning Jesus. Even so they didn’t recognize Him until they sat at table and He said the blessing and broke the bread. Then He disappeared from their sight and they went running back to the group of disciples in Jerusalem to share their experience. They were met with the excited news that the Risen One had appeared to Simon Peter as well.
          Easter is clearly and simply about life and power; it is about our redemption “not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.” Easter finds us where we are supposed to be in life: face to face with Jesus, conversing and debating with Him. Easter is an annual feast; we celebrate it every year around this time. I guess we need that reminder, time and again, that the good news of the victory of Jesus, True God and True Man, over sin and death is all that really matters in our world.
          I have to say it out loud and speak it clearly: NOTHING ELSE MATTERS. I guess I say it and maybe don’t really grasp what I am saying; I’m kind of like those two disciples who hadn’t missed a moment in all that had gone on in Jerusalem. Despite their being right on top of the situation, there were there for the Last Supper, for Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, for that mockery of justice which handed Him over for torture and death upon the Cross, for His burial and for the first announcement of the empty tomb. With all of that, not only did they miss the point in terms of the fulfilment of all that had been foretold in the Scriptures, but they could not even recognize Jesus Himself right in front of them, there conversing and discussing with them, that is, not until He blessed and broke bread with them.
          With all the worries and trials people face these days, especially here in Ukraine, I guess it is hard to get us to sit down and recognize Jesus as the one and only one who matters in our lives. Even so, that is what we need to do and for a great many reasons. Nothing else but Jesus and His Resurrection really matters. Without Him, well, I’m trapped in the here and now, in the sad logic of trying to get ahead only so that I can die, the sad logic condemned by the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament as vanity. Nothing else but Jesus and His Resurrection really matters. If I believe that, it has moral consequences for how I must lead my life, yes, most surely. More importantly, however, it means I know where real and lasting joy is to be found. It could very well mean that all those around me are living only for this moment and they are attempting to pull me every which way, not for my sake, but for theirs.
          I know better. You, as a baptized Christian, know better. Nothing else but Jesus and His Resurrection really matters. I cannot help but think of another passage from the Acts of the Apostles and of the two disciples confronted with a beggar at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple: he expected money and in the Name of Jesus they cured him. Totally free and freeing, theirs was a message too good to be true.

          Day in and day out, we have our duties which correspond to our state in life. Our life and its importance before God go way beyond the every day however. Nothing but Jesus and His Resurrection really matters. Rejoice in the Risen Lord this Sunday, keep Him in your heart all week long, be on fire with Him, His love and His power!

The Grace bestowed; Strengthening through Confirmation

Saturday, 3 May 2014,

Celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation,

with Readings for Sunday of the Third Week of Easter,


Acts 2:14,22-33
Domine, notas mihi facies vias vitae
1 Peter 1:17-21
Domine Iesu, aperi nobis Scripturas; fac cor nostrum ardens dum loqueris nobis.
Lk 24:13-35

          Permit me to address a word specifically to those of you who will be receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation in just a few minutes. Naturally, my words are not limited to the confirmands. I hope what I have to say will be a word of benefit to all those here present.
          Your Confirmation today as young adults is an exceptional thing in the history of the Church. According to ancient tradition, as preserved yet today within the Byzantine Rite and not only, Confirmation came together with Baptism and the reception of one’s first Holy Communion. What we today call the Sacraments of Initiation into the Christian Life all once came as one together in the same celebration, whether you were an adult approaching the Church for the first time by way of a catechumenate which culminated in Easter Baptism or as a baby. The Roman Catholic Church eventually spread out these three Sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist over the early school years, including also the Sacrament of Penance for the forgiveness of sins. The idea was one of teaching children and gradually introducing them to the life of the sacraments.
          Do not let anyone lead you astray, however, the teaching of the Church united, the teaching of the Church everywhere and in all times has been to place the accent on the efficacy, on the power of these sacraments in and of themselves: by water and the word we are born to new life, by the laying on of hands the Holy Spirit comes upon us to strengthen us, Jesus Himself feeds us in the Eucharist with His own Body and Blood. Of us it is required that we be well disposed according to our age and condition of life.
          Because this reception of the sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church was so oriented as to teach us about the nature of our life in Christ, back when I was a child, everyone expected the bishop to give a kind of test or oral examination at Confirmation. I can remember we were sort of nervous and perhaps our teachers and parish priest were even more nervous that we would answer the bishop’s questions correctly. The worthy reception of the sacraments was most important and knowledge through study was what helped us to be well disposed. I made my first Confession and first Holy Communion before my seventh birthday and my Confirmation before I was ten. In recent years the tendency to place the reception of these sacraments early in primary school has changed for much the same reason, wanting to optimize the occasion for receiving each sacrament. In the recent past, they have generally pushed these sacraments further apart from each other and, in the case of Confirmation, until later in school, with the argument that more time and maturity is needed for a better preparation.
          For some time, they talked about Confirmation as the sacrament of Christian maturity and placed the emphasis on the confirmand’s personal commitment in the sacrament. Fortunately, we are shifting back to the more fundamental notion of Confirmation as a strengthening of the gifts given in Baptism through a new gift of the Holy Spirit. Confirmation is not the moment of truth or some kind of coming of age ceremony; it is a gift of grace.
          What would I wish for you people and for all gathered here today for this celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation? Certainly, I pray that you will be strengthened in your faith by the grace of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There are things I want you to know and to hold dear in your lives: things about Who Jesus is, about what He taught, about how He suffered, died and was buried, rising again in glory so that we might share in His victory over sin now, and over death, being granted life with Him for all eternity.
The strengthening intended in the Sacrament of Confirmation is twofold: you are to be strengthened in your fight against sin and the Devil; you are to be strengthened in the great virtues of faith, hope and love, which lead us close to God. I hope that strengthening takes place in your lives through this sacrament and I hope it brings you the joy which comes from being strong in God’s presence.
As Roman Catholics we are very sober about all of this and wisely remain somewhat skeptical about whether feelings and emotion have anything to do with receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a great reminder that even though there were all kinds of signs and wonders attached to the first Pentecost, strong wind, tongues of fire, various languages, St. Peter’s teaching about Christ’s victory was central to that great event, as anyone can see from reading.
          Like the disciples in today’s Gospel from St. Luke, their hearts burning as He explained the Scriptures to them along the way, I pray that your eyes too will be opened and you will recognize Him in the breaking of the bread.
          Let today be that reminder which confirms you in the knowledge that you have been loved by God, He has ransomed you from death by the precious Blood of His Son, Who from the Right Hand of the Father sent forth the life-giving Spirit.  

Localizing Justice and finding true Peace

Saturday, 3 May 2014

[“Joseph was a righteous man…” (Mt 1, 19)]

          To help me prepare my talk for today, Father sent me four of the Pope’s messages, from January 1st of four different years. They are from the world day of prayer for peace and touch upon the importance of establishing justice in our world, as the only true and lasting basis for peace. These four messages came from three great Popes: Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I hope Father gave them to all of you to read as well.
          The first of these four messages from Pope Paul VI, who inaugurated during his pontificate the observance on January 1 as the World Day of Prayer for Peace, bears the title of our pilgrimage today: “IF YOU WANT PEACE, WORK FOR JUSTICE” - 1 JANUARY 1972. In case you tried, the English is hard to read, because translations of papal documents into English were fairly novel back then and not well thought out: too much Latinism and too close to the Italian mode of expression. It is also difficult, because it is directed to a world audience and not just to Catholics.
          The second, entitled “FROM THE JUSTICE OF EACH COMES PEACE FOR ALL” – 1 January 1998, is from Pope St. John Paul II. It is addressed specifically to people around the world in government. Much of what I have to say today takes inspiration from this one.
          The third, also from St. John Paul II, for 1 January 2002, entitled “NO PEACE WITHOUT JUSTICE NO JUSTICE WITHOUT FORGIVENESS”, addresses the issue of how to face terrorism. It applies one of the Pope’s priority messages, seeking and granting forgiveness, to the 9/11 tragedy and the menace of terrorism. Sadly, our world here, Ukraine and surrounding countries, has not understood that true justice requires that we move first to forgive our enemies.  Let me quote the Pope’s words from N. 10 of this message: “My ministry at the service of the Gospel obliges me, and at the same time gives me the strength, to insist upon the necessity of forgiveness. I do so again today in the hope of stirring serious and mature thinking on this theme, with a view to a far-reaching resurgence of the human spirit in individual hearts and in relations between the peoples of the world.” 
     Fourthly, Pope Benedict XVI, on 1 January 2012, wrote his message entitled “EDUCATING YOUNG PEOPLE IN JUSTICE AND PEACE”… Shall we?
I asked myself when I sat down to prepare this talk, just what is my duty here today? Should I do a summary kind of analysis of these four messages for you and then send you off to discuss? Should I try to string them together into some kind of super synthesis or message of my own? What would for my part be the better gift which I could give to you this morning? Well, I have set a very modest goal for myself. In the light of Papal teaching, I wish to try to deepen your understanding and mine of some of the terms we have just used, taking their definition for granted, almost without thinking: justice, peace, and truth, for starters. Concretely, all three terms represent values and goals which these days people of good will here in Ukraine are striving desperately to attain. People here want to live in peace; they want the truth to win out over lies and falsehood; they want to live in peace with their neighbours; they want justice to prevail in all aspects of society.
          Let it be said first off: Ukraine is not the only country in the world today which does not know peace, where injustices abound.  It is not the only place in the world which has not known peace practically since forever. It is just that Ukraine is the cradle of a big part of Slavic Christianity, that of the Kyivan Rus. We ask, just as people here in Ukraine ask themselves again and again: why? Why despite over a 1000 years of Christianity, of living in God’s time, Anno Domini, in the Year of Our Lord 2014, do we here not know peace? The answer is elementary both for Ukraine and for the rest of the world: because of sin, because the Truth which comes to us from God is not respected or held sacred, because there is no justice. That semblance of order in society, which some people call peace time, is frequently imposed or intended to be imposed by a violence which does not respect the true nature of the human person. How can there be peace with things as they are in our world?
          I suppose there are many ways to define justice, but fundamentally justice is a matter of giving the other his or her due, that which in truth is rightfully, truthfully his or hers by God’s own design. Justice is about as real as you can get; justice is truth in action, truth applied. Much about our sinful world is unjust simply because we are deprived of the truth which comes to us from God, either through falsehood or through imperfection, or through a kind of ignorance such that “we cannot see the forest for the trees”. In order to win the victory over our sinfulness, our imperfections, nothing is more important than coming to live in the light of truth and being just toward others or righteous in ourselves. This cannot be achieved except by being obedient to the will of God, the Author of Truth, by obedience to Him, the only One Who is Just. We are to be profoundly obedient to God and to His every command in all humility, for One only, the God-Man Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We follow Him Who is the Light of the World.
          Little else really needs to be said, but saying that truth and grasping it fully, or at least as best we possibly can, is not all that easy or self-evident. It is sort of like St. John Paul II speaking about the necessity of forgiveness given to others and received; we neither understand nor accept the concept. The same is true about obedience to God our Creator and Redeemer; we don’t take this teaching to heart, even though it is the only reasonable option. We live in a dark world, which in the extreme kills other human beings and sometimes even whole peoples not only out of hatred, but for selfishness, out of greed, simply for its own ugly convenience: crime, organized or not, white collar or blue collar; state violence through abortion and euthanasia, seducing people into choosing the death of another human being for personal convenience. I could go on and on with my litany of bad things which happen or of cases where help was not given to others, who by God’s design could expect such of us: poor Lazarus as recounted by Jesus Himself in the Gospel, covered with sores and dying of hunger on the rich man’s doorstep. Pity, charity, mercy, yes, but fundamentally also matters of justice, of giving to others that which is their due!
          I can remember being taught as a child in school, but perhaps not really comprehending, that true peace is much more than a mere absence of war. So many fairy tales, so many fantasies or legends recount how the world’s good order was destroyed through a seemingly insignificant transgression; truth is that there is nothing insignificant about that kind of sin. I guess I enjoy fairly tales as much as the next person, but really the truth is a much cleaner and elementary affair. The establishment of justice here in our midst goes forward by something less than a daring and romantic quest: namely, by turning away from sin and being faithful to the Gospel.
Over the course of the last months in Ukraine, before the killings of last February, I can remember reading English translations of the separate accounts of two people, of a man and a woman both residents of the city of Kyiv, both with regular jobs and a family, trying to explain the importance of Maidan in their lives. In both cases, they felt better and happier there than at work or even in their own homes and in their own beds. Why? Because the world within the barricades was orderly and respectful; people cared for each other. With violence, suffering and even death around them, they found peace in giving to others and receiving from others their due; they were affirmed in their personal worth and affirmed others, despite the hardships and tragic limits of that situation we still today call Maidan. It is no wonder to me, why some people yet today cannot break away and return home from Maidan; maybe they never felt so appreciated in all their lives as they were there.
          Despite my 63+ years, I am not old enough to have experienced the general poverty of the years between the two World Wars, what in the United States is referred to as the Great Depression. My part of the Midwest became for years, because of drought, what was called The Dust Bowl, a major ecological disaster, which left people without enough food and no money. These hardships caused many people to flee for their lives westward with what little they could carry, in hopes of finding elsewhere the means for them and their families to survive.
My father’s family did not move west; they stayed on in South Dakota, in one of the State’s poorest counties, despite all the hardship. We had a big old trunk at home, filled with all kinds of unsorted, black and white photographs, as well as some old family picture albums. There are pictures of my father as a little boy, on an old farm, which I never saw, because my grandfather lost it, not being able to pay the mortgage, because he couldn’t raise either crops or livestock, only enough to feed his family. Nonetheless, those pictures include some of a young man on the farm, referred to as the hired hand. As poor as my grandparents were in those terribly hard times, they could still take in this young man, who had no one, and in exchange for a little work, give him food, shelter and even a little pocket money.
I knew an old Salesian Father from Belgium, who remembered how after the war at home, when his father had still not returned as a soldier from the fighting on the eastern front and his mother did not rightly know whether he would indeed come back alive, she would seat at the kitchen table with her children at meal time any poor man, any stranger who happened by on his way back from the fighting, hoping no doubt that others elsewhere would be so kind to her own dear husband and the father of her children, please God, making his way home to them on foot.
          You can call such Christian charity and not be far from wrong, but I think our world would know genuine peace if we were to describe such rather as justice, as giving our neighbour his due. The rich man ended up in fiery torment precisely because he did not see it as his duty to care for poor Lazarus at his gate. There was nothing righteous in God’s eyes about that rich man, as he was unjust toward the poor man he couldn’t help but see, whom he nearly had to step over, coming and going from home.
          We are told here in Ukraine that we cannot trust either politician or the media; they string along all kinds of lies, denying the truth out of ignorance or wilfully bent upon getting the upper hand, somehow getting ahead, most often than not at the detriment of others. Some, who would call themselves well-meaning people of principle, seek to vilify others in their quest for a life without bribery and subservience; such violence, contrary to peace, is unjust because it is not rooted in the truth from God about the dignity of even our enemy, about our having to be like God, sending His rain upon the just and the unjust alike. In the last months, I have met lots of people here with that kind of high purpose, with those kinds of ideals. Sadly, outside Ukraine, we encounter embarrassed silence among some Westerners, who cannot believe that there is a people which actually seeks such basic things as rule by law, equality before the law, in a word, justice, a people seeking that which is their due and extending that due to others, even enemies, living in the light of truth, no more but also no less.
          Every once in a while at one of the diplomatic receptions, which ambassadors give for their country’s national day or for some other appropriate occasion, there is a university professor in Kyiv who comes up to me and insists that some group in his native Ukraine, usually having to do with either Church or Government, is doing everything wrong and needs help to secure the country’s future, help that only I can source out, or so it seems. I watch him make the rounds of the hall and presume that I am not the only one he is trying to convince to get on board and help solve the country’s problems. He always wants highly qualified, highly respected people from outside to come in and solve Ukraine’s problems. He seems convinced that if you get enough experts together, by the sheer quality and quantity of their intellect, you can solve any problem.
          One of the overriding intellectual theories, still however ignorant of or denying the Kingship of Christ, would have us believe in one fashion or another that our world is indeed controlled by the movers and shakers. Here in Ukraine we call them oligarchs; some say they are rich because they are high achievers. My professor friend seems to think that somewhere outside of Ukraine, maybe within the hallowed halls of the Vatican there exists a professional and moral elite, we will call it a holy oligarchy, which could step in anywhere, like UN peacekeepers and just sort things out. He refuses to believe in the might of popular movements like Maidan. Ultimately, I guess my professor friend refuses to believe that people on their own, Catholic, Christian or not, that people of good will can promote the victory of justice through establishing the primacy of truth and thereby opening the gates to allow the Prince of Peace to come into this earthly city, meek and humble as He is, riding on a donkey….
          In all of this, ultimately neither you nor I can escape coming home to the manger in Bethlehem or to the workshop and cave-home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Nazareth. As recently as 1955, Pope Pius XII gave the Church the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, celebrated on May 1, in contradistinction to the communist, soviet or socialist content/propaganda ascribed to that day. The feast of St. Joseph the Worker teaches about the dignity of labour; it puts a very simple lifestyle in the midst of the work of creation and salvation. At the centre of our world, as the image of the human person in all his or her dignity is not the captain of industry, is not the philosopher king or queen, is not the oligarch, but rather the defenceless child, served and protected by Mom and Dad, the holy family not spelled out with capital letters, but written small and attributed to your family and to mine. It is the husband and wife united in their commitment to each other and to the life which springs from their union in the person of that child; the child, children are the tangible witness to the dignity of their union and its only possible reason for being. What makes the commitment to marriage and family today heroic and seemingly unreachable or unattainable is that we deny the righteousness of Joseph the Worker; we give to no one his or her due; we do not understand justice and so cannot come to know and enjoy true peace.
          People have almost a morbid fascination with oligarchy. Years ago on television in the United States there was a weekly half hour program, hosted by a man with a sort of phony British accent, called “Homes of the Rich and Famous”. In recent years, MTV did something similar with sports and music stars called “My Crib”. In either case, one could see all the money somebody had decided to lavish upon himself, building an outrageously expensive mansion. We were never shown poor Lazarus at the gate of any such home, but we could always wonder what happened with the scraps which fell from that rich man’s table. I guess we could scold the disadvantaged and desperately or not poor for envying the rich and powerful, but there is more to establishing peace on earth, a just and lasting peace, than convincing the poor of the demands of righteousness.
          I count among my friends a distinguished author and lecturer, George Weigel. He is the English language biographer of St. John Paul II. There are lots of things we do not agree upon. At the beginning of the 20th Century G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were among the proponents of an economic theory called Distributivism, essentially declaring that smaller is better. Belloc wrote a book called The Servile State, which pointed out that both Socialism and Capitalism lead to the enslavement of a good part of the population, only Distributivism, putting the means of production in the hands of the people who labour, can avoid this pitfall and assure the dignity of the human person. In our day, Distributivism is enjoying a sort of revival, and my friend George is totally against such as utter folly and utopianism. I disagree somewhat and usually counter with a call to a return to subsistence farming: living off the land and content with the bare minimum needed for a dignified life, as my grandparents did, raising happy children like my parents.
          If I were Pope and had to write a message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, which discussed what Justice has to do with true and lasting peace, I surely doubt if I would have more or better to say than the three great men whose messages provided background for this reflection today.
My mother was the youngest of eight children; her parents were subsistence farmers, who had to make lots of sacrifices for the sake of their children. Two of her fondest memories as a small child were going fishing with her father in summer time on Thursdays at the Klondike millpond and catching bullheads for their Friday meal and the year her only dolly disappeared without a trace just before Christmas, only to reappear on the great feast with a pretty new dress and a bonnet her mother had sewn from scraps of leftover material.
           I don’t rightly know if I achieved my purpose of giving color and 3D to abstract terms like justice, truth and peace. Starting with their scepticism about the truth, which must perforce come to us from God, lots of people either despair or void justice and peace of their content. A wicked sort of emotional display then is all which remains; it just plain shouts the other down. Such comes from being a low-life, rich and famous or not. These people obviously give little thought to the date awaiting them before the throne of God’s justice, where we truly hope for His mercy, convinced as we must be that we have not ever truly and sufficiently obeyed Him and given our neighbour his or her due. Jesus told Pilate the reason He came into the world was to give witness to the Truth; we are His servants and can do no less, for justice’s sake and for the sake of the truth which comes to us from God alone. Peace be with you!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ever and Again Out of Egypt

Today's 2nd Reading from the Office of Readings from St. Gaudentius of Brescia put once again before me an image I cannot escape for explaining the centrality of Christ in my life and in human history. The image is that of the Exodus:

"And so, now that you have escaped from the power of Egypt and of Pharaoh, who is the devil, join with us, all of you, in receiving this sacrifice of the saving passover with the eagerness of dedicated hearts. Then in our inmost being we shall be wholly sanctified by the very Lord Jesus Christ whom we believe to be present in his sacraments, and whose boundless power abides for ever."

In terms of our struggle to attain sanctity in this life and everlasting glory in the next with Christ and for all eternity, it remains a daunting task to choose between Egypt's leaks and melons, the devil's passing spread, and Christ's banquet forever. In slavery, to die and be buried amidst the passing splendor of Egypt, seems to have more takers than living in genuine freedom with Christ in the desert and following Him, Risen and Victorious, into the glories of His Everlasting Kingdom.

Would that it were simply a situation of choosing rightly or wrongly, but what renders the scenario so daunting is that, just like for the children of Israel, we find ourselves divided in our own allegiance, with our backs to the Red Sea and with Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers bearing down upon us, hell-bent on dragging us back into slavery. We seem in our own eyes to be defenseless.

No doubt some will scoff and perhaps even grind their teeth when I say that this is how I carry Ukraine and all the people who dwell here to prayer these days, as conflicted and hard pressed. We know that God Almighty's predilection was reserved for only one people, for His chosen people, Israel. God's chosen people was spared no trial, and even so, they were delivered and saved once they turned to the Lord in obedience. They were in the course of their 40 year sojourn in the desert tried again and again, purified and wedded to their Lord. So it is always for the individual soul and so it is for those who out of many come to form a unity under God. Scoff, then, but apart from seeing the Church as that People of God journeying, I see Ukraine from a similar perspective and in need of my prayer, for unity and deliverance from harm.

I pray on behalf of the people of Ukraine for that parting of the waters and deliverance from destruction, which seems to be only in God's provenance. I pray constantly that the people will forge that unity under God, which will bind them together under His protection for the trek ahead. I do not see this as a nationalist prayer, but rather as a prayer of hope, trusting that it is not God's will that this people be lost and dispersed. I pray that Ukraine's peoples, as divergent of custom and language as they seem to be, might carry each other and together brighten our world.

The Divine favor may seem from our vantage point to be capricious, but let it be so! Let a light go forth from Ukraine to brighten the paths of others, all of us fellow travelers on the path to Christ's Kingdom!