Analysis by Oswald Sobrino, J.D., M.A., who has published in New Blackfriars (U.K.), Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Answer, New Oxford Review, CatholicExchange.com, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. He is a lay graduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. © 2002-06 Oswald Sobrino.
"There is much in Christianity which can be subjected to exact analysis. But the ultimate things are shrouded in the silent mysteries of God." --Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
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Saturday, April 17, 2004Next Major Update: Monday, April 19, 2004
Due to events surrounding the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday, the next major update will be on Monday, April 19, 2004.
Divine Mercy Sunday
Tomorrow is again Divine Mercy Sunday. There are many sources from which to learn the details of the appearance of Christ to St. Faustina in Poland. These same sources will give details on the indulgence available to those who participate in the Divine Mercy devotion. One good link for frequently asked questions is sponsored by the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. But in this essay I wish to do something different.
The image of the Divine Mercy is an image of the Risen Christ. Yet it calls us back to the Cross. Emerging from the heart of the Risen Christ are red and white rays standing for the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ on the Cross. That is the blood and water that purifies us. That purification is the gift of God's mercy. It is indeed fitting that John Paul II has chosen the second Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday because the Risen Christ is not just to be commemorated on Easter Sunday: He is to be encountered today and everyday. He is as active today as He was in ancient Palestine. He is the same Christ who died on the Cross, but He is now risen.
The Risen Christ offers mercy. Mercy is primarily for our sins, for our rejection of the God who is perfect love, truth, and beauty and the very meaning of our existence. Mercy includes the healing of sin and the psychological and emotional roots of sin. Christ mercifully healed on earth, and He mercifully heals today. Millions from all ages can testify to that. Mercy is also for assistance in the face of suffering, both spiritual and physical, for our trials, challenges, and daily crosses. Mercy encompasses every aspect of our lives.
So when you think of Divine Mercy, it is not paramount to study the historical details of the rise of this great devotion in the Poland of the nineteen thirties. What is paramount is to behold and respond to the image of the Risen Christ, the same Christ from whom issued blood and water. That blood and water is our health and our medicine. The Risen Christ is actively waiting to encounter you with that medicine on Divine Mercy Sunday and on every day. Christ is still striding through the world, and He is still mercifully healing us. He extends his arms to all people, Catholic or non-Catholic. In fact, Fr. Benedict Groeschel loves to tell how the humble storefront evangelical churches in the poor neighborhoods of New York proudly display the Divine Mercy image, although they are oblivious to its origins in Catholic Poland. Divine Mercy is the message of Easter for all people.
Friday, April 16, 2004A Detroit Good Friday
On Good Friday evening, there was a big traffic jam in parts of suburban Detroit-- and these cars weren't trying to get out of town for a holiday weekend. They were going to church. Southeastern Michigan is known as having a large Middle Eastern population, but what is less well-known is that a big chunk of it--and a highly successful part I may add--is Christian. Among Chaldean Rite Catholics, Good Friday observances include men carrying on their shoulders a reclining statue of the body of Jesus lying on a bier, through a crowded church, accompanied by lamentations in the ancient Aramaic dialect used in some form by Jesus himself. As the statue is carried around the church, the mourners strain to touch the statue. Finally, the bier with the statue is laid at the front of the church and a long line of people stretching out of the church approaches to venerate the statue of the dead Jesus and make an offering. After venerating the statue with a touch or kiss, the mourners drink a tiny cup of vinegar in an echo from John's account of the Passion (Jn 19:28-30).
For a Latin rite Catholic like myself, it is very much like attending a real funeral on Good Friday and thus a fitting liturgical exercise. All generations are present, from oblivious babies in carriages to older children to the elderly women wrapped in shawls or mantillas. It is a ritual that attracts both the practicing Chaldean Catholic and those who rarely go to church. It is, if the size of the crowds is any indication, a bedrock of the Chaldean Catholic identity.
And so, in addition, to uniting the participants with the events of Good Friday, the whole scenario reinforces the vital importance of ritual for us humans. In a sea of Moslem hostility, denigration, and sometimes violence back in the old country, this group of Middle Eastern Christians has survived. I believe their survival is due in no small part to the stubborn persistence of ritual. Ritual is objectivity in repetition. It is a cycle. We know it will always be there. And we know where and when. Even if we are at certain times in our lives emotionally distant from the Church or even the faith, the ritual events are there waiting for us and calling us. Like God, these rituals do not depend on our feelings or moods. They speak truth which is independent of our emotional ups and downs. Through ritual, God calls us always and is available always at a place and time that is familiar. We can always come back home, and at those times when we are in a period of dryness in our faith we can keep in touch in hope with our true home.
Ritual has preserved the identity of our elder brothers the Jewish people through centuries of discrimination, persecution, and holocaust. Ritual has preserved the ancient Christianity of the Middle East long enough to be transplanted to our shores. Ritual is a sign that God is always faithful even when we are not. So it is not surprising that in our modern secular society that views belief in God as a mere option or convenience to be summoned up at our whim, ritual and its obligations are so absent or minimized. The true Catholic, East and West, knows better.
Thursday, April 15, 2004Protest Hits Home
Indications are beginning to emerge that the outcry against Kerry and the Eucharist is hitting home. The arguments directly from Church teaching and from recent pronouncements by the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, plus the bold stand of Archbishop Burke of St. Louis and others, can't be ignored. Reliable theologically liberal voices like Prof. Drinan of Georgetown Law School and Ladislas Orsy have already risen to defend Kerry (see Bettnet.com for April 2, 2004 and CBS News story for April 6, 2004). Today, the Boston Globe has a columnist bewailing what she calls the "media frenzy" over Kerry and the Eucharist (Ellen Goodman, "Putting Kerry on the 'wafer watch,' " April 15, 2004, Op-Ed section). But when you read the column closely you see a complete absence of substance and a complete lack of engagement with the arguments made against Kerry. There is no wrestling with the relevant Church documents. Instead, there is an exasperation that the debate is even taking place. The Boston Globe columnist quotes the leader of "Catholics for Free Choice"-- an organization that the U.S. Bishops have labelled as non-Catholic-- bemoaning any questioning of Kerry and the Eucharist. The message seems to be: how can you keep pro-abortion people from the Eucharist since so many of us are pro-abortion?
The leader of "Catholics for Free Choice" even raises the specter that a strong stand against pro-abortion Catholics receiving the Eucharist will empty the churches. Of course, all of this is beside the point and an attempt to evade the clear issue: a prominent public figure openly claims that his extreme support for abortion is fully consistent with the Catholic faith. The result is desecration of the Eucharist and scandal. The prominent public figure persists in this theological attack on the Church. Does the Church roll over, or defend the faith? It is absolutely not a matter of the Church interfering in politics. It is an issue of a politician recklessly disrupting and attacking the sacramental discipline of the Church and the divinely revealed teaching that the direct killing of innocent human life is gravely immoral.
By taking a firm stand in defense of the Eucharist, the Church does what is best for Kerry and for others who are similarly confused. Kerry is the focus because of his leading role as an abortion extremist and his provocative public statements about Catholic teaching. The issue has been created by Kerry. The Church has no choice but to respond to defend herself and the deposit of faith.
As to emptying churches, the best alternative for Kerry and others similarly situated is to stay in the pew and pray rather than desecrate the Eucharist and bring condemnation on themselves and scandal to others. If they choose to stay home, in my opinion, that certainly seems better than desecrating the Eucharist. Honestly recognizing that you are not in full communion with the Catholic Church is surely better for everyone concerned than desecrating the Eucharist. Sometimes leaving is necessary before you can come back home. It worked for the prodigal son. And Kerry and others in the same situation will be eagerly welcomed back with open arms once they have changed as the prodigal son changed. The goal is not to merely count noses, but to count Catholics.
Update: The Associated Press reports today that Kerry has met privately with Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C. The report says that Kerry requested the meeting. The meeting signals that Kerry is concerned about potential sanctions. Since most of us lack the prominence to get a private meeting with Cardinal McCarrick, this meeting should prompt many of us to communicate our views to the Cardinal by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). Readers should also take a long look at Fr. Rob Johansen's post for today, April 15th, in which he aptly describes the current situation. His links to a recent Fox news story and to an extremely disturbing Catholic World News story are well worth the time. In addition, it is clear from the Fox news story that the U.S. Bishops' Conference needs a new spokesperson. A certain Mary Ann Walsh speaking for the bishops has come out and effectively put the abortion issue on the same level as other election issues. That is a gross misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, to put it mildly. Is it too much to insist that a spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops' Conference be familiar with Catholic teaching on a particular issue before she addresses that issue? She needs to find a new job.
Wednesday, April 14, 2004Eucharist: Spirit and Flesh
In chapter 6 of John's Gospel, we have the famous "Bread of Life" sermon by Jesus (Jn 6:22-66). Since the time of the Protestant Reformation, this passage has been at the center of disputes about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The conflict has not only been between Catholics and Protestants, but even among Protestants themselves. Luther held to some sort of real presence in the Eucharist (termed "consubstantiation") in which the body and blood of Christ "coexist" with the bread and the wine, as described in Fr. Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary. In contrast, others like Zwingli held to a purely symbolic representation of the body and blood of Christ (see, for example, the comments in a 1993 Oxford tutorial paper by Reformed Protestant philosopher Michael Sudduth contrasting Luther and Zwingli on the sacraments).
In contrast to both Luther and Zwingli, the Catholic view is that at the consecration the bread and wine become in substance the body and blood of Christ with only the outward appearances of bread and wine remaining ("transubstantiation") (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1376).
Catholics point in support to the famous passage in the "Bread of Life" sermon:
Jn 6:54-55 (New Jerusalem Bible or NJB).
In response, Protestants holding to a symbolic representation like Zwingli point to John 6:63 (NJB):
The inference made by those Protestants holding to a symbolic Eucharist is that Jesus is mitigating his statement that his flesh and blood are real food and drink. The contention is that Jesus is pointing out that he is speaking in a purely spiritual sense that has nothing to do with the "flesh." The problem is that, if this particular interpretation is true, it has Jesus saying in effect that his flesh "has nothing to offer." Going back to the beginning of John's Gospel, we have the famous affirmation that the Word "became flesh" (Jn 1:14). The result is that the symbolic interpretation lands us in a contradiction: that the Incarnation of the Word is of no avail. The belief that the Word did not really take on flesh is an age-old heresy, the heresy of Docetism which affirmed that Christ only appeared to have a body.
The Catholic interpretation is more straightforward and does not entail contradicting the Incarnation. Von Balthasar makes the key point that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit who is inseparable from the Eucharist:
Balthasar, The Threefold Garland (Ignatius Press, 1992), pp. 111-12.
The key to a Catholic understanding of the "Bread of Life" sermon is that Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit as the source for understanding his previous scandalous words that his flesh and blood are real food and drink. This interpretation is consistent with the rest of John's teaching about the Incarnation and about the Holy Spirit (see, for example, Jn 14:26 on the Paraclete). The point is also evident in the Eucharistic liturgy at the crucial point of the epiclesis when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit who will transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (Catechism, 1105). The inseparability of Holy Spirit and flesh is also evident in the infancy narratives where the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:35). Thus, it is a Trinitarian perspective that makes sense of Jesus' words. That Trinitarian emphasis is a hallmark of Balthasar's theology.
In sum, the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharistic passages in John chapter 6 is faithful to the whole of Scripture and to the liturgies of both the West and the East. It is truly catholic in the sense of being true to the whole.
Tuesday, April 13, 2004For Us
In a time when the impetus is to level all religions as equally effective ways to salvation, the Christian gospel stands as a great and unique contradiction. In my view, few modern theologians capture that unique Christian essence as well as the late Hans Urs von Balthasar. In his meditations on the rosary, entitled The Threefold Garland, von Balthasar provides prayerful and theologically intense essays on each of the mysteries of the rosary. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis provides a helpful introduction in which he acquaints the English-speaking reader with the German way of praying the rosary or rosenkranz ("rose garland"):
Leiva-Merikakis, "Preface," in Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland (Ignatius Press, 1982), 15-16.
So in the fourth sorrowful mystery (the carrying of the Cross), Balthasar uses this phrase from the Hail Mary as the title for his meditation: "And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus, who bore the heavy cross for us" (Balthasar, p. 91, emphasis added). The words in bold print make up the added relative clause that Leiva-Merikakis refers to.
In this mediation, Balthasar makes clear the uniqueness of Christianity in a time of "equal opportunity" religions:
Balthasar, pp. 91-92.
While in such religions or world views there may be sacrifice for the sake of the group or for one's convictions and a resulting example for others to imitate, the one sacrificing "cannot interiorly communicate to others his own sacrificial power" (pp. 92-93). Only Jesus surrendered everything for the sake of his enemies and did so "efficaciously for all humanity, in the name of a God who is ignored and hated, fully empowered by this God to do so" (p. 93). What made this sacrifice effective was the Incarnation "which is the prerequisite for the 'wondrous exchange' (admirabile commercium) between sin that is borne and grace that is communicated" (p. 93).
What does this "wondrous exchange" mean for us? For Balthasar,
Balthasar, p. 94.
The burden of evil has "already been borne" by Christ who alone was able to bear it, yet we are called to "formulate the resolution to be willing to bear what is given us to bear" (pp. 94-95). This efficacious bearing of our sins by the God-Man is unique to Christianity. It is why it would be worth much to be able to see and explore the reactions of those thousands of non-Christians all over the world, whether Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu or, yes, even Jewish, when they see the bearing of that burden by the Incarnate God through Gibson's film.
Monday, April 12, 2004Time to Speak Out
Over the weekend, various news reports made it clear that there is a split in the Catholic Church in the United States. On the one hand, there are the apparent majority of bishops who take a passive approach to protecting the Eucharist. On the other hand, there are those bishops such as Archbishop Burke of Saint Louis who take a proactive approach to protecting the Eucharist. Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C., places himself in the passive camp:
"Kerry Marks Easter With Communion at Catholic Mass," by Patricia Wilson, Reuters (April 11, 2004).
Cardinal McCarrick is heading a task force of U.S. Bishops considering how to deal with pro-abortion Catholic politicians. It is not clear what restrictions the cardinal is referring to. But his comments put him squarely in the passive camp reluctant to use the power that bishops already have and are morally obligated to use to protect the Eucharist. The New York Times report on the same story also characterizes McCarrick as reluctant to bar Kerry from the Eucharist (see "Kerry Ignores Reproaches of Some Bishops," by Katharine Q. Seelye, N.Y. Times, April 11, 2004, free reg'n required).
McCarrick frames the issue exactly backwards. From his public comments, it appears that he views the issue as one of what the Church will do to Kerry. The more accurate way to frame the issue is to focus on what Kerry is doing to the Eucharist and therefore to the Church. Kerry would have the public believe that any efforts to bar him from receiving the Eucharist are a form of political interference by the Church. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Kerry's continued reception of the Eucharist is a politically and theologically aggressive attack on the faith of the Church. The Church must defend the Eucharist and the faith, and let the chips fall where they may. The Church should be oblivious of the political or media consequences of defending the Eucharist. The Church should do the right thing to keep order in the household of faith, and leave the social and political ramifications in the hands of Providence. Yet, McCarrick seems to accept the Kerry outlook that it is the Church that is overstepping her bounds by protecting the Eucharist. In fact, it is Kerry who is aggressively flouting the prerogatives of the bishops by challenging them to protect the Eucharist. Kerry is betting that most of the bishops will lack the spine to perform their mission. He might be proven right if past experience and McCarrick's media comments are good predictors.
Yet, such cowardly behavior would be a betrayal of the specific mission of the pastors of the Church:
The safeguarding and promotion of ecclesial communion is a task of each member of the faithful, who finds in the Eucharist, as the sacrament of the Church's unity, an area of special concern. More specifically, this task is the particular responsibility of the Church's Pastors, each according to his rank and ecclesiastical office.
John Paul II, Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), 42 (emphasis added).
Moreover, the same Encyclical makes clear that what Kerry is doing is intolerable:
Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 37 (emphasis added).
By his public political support for abortion, Kerry has freely chosen to "obstinately persist in manifest grave sin." That fact has already been affirmed by Kerry's own bishop, Archbishop O'Malley of Boston, who has publicly labelled Kerry's conduct as disqualifying him for Communion:
See Reuters news report by Patricia Wilson above.
The Boston archbishop has publicly made the appropriate finding of fact as to the situation freely and persistently created by Kerry. For the "good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament," priests and bishops must now act forcefully. It is not the judgment of this writer and of other like-minded Catholics that they must fear, but the judgment of the Risen Christ who is the definitive judge of all of us. To whom much responsibility has been given, much will be demanded. The pastors of the Church are on the spot. If you wish to communicate your views to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C., here is the appropriate e-mail address (email@example.com) for your use.
Update: The Boston Globe's coverage of Kerry's Easter worship is evidence of the de facto division within the Catholic Church in the United States--a division between those Catholic liberals who reject the non-negotiability of the divinely revealed teaching against abortion and faithful Catholics who accept the divinely revealed teaching against the direct killing of the innocent. The Globe reporter notes that the liberal Paulist parish that Kerry attends appears to have banished kneeling from its Catholic liturgy and so Cardinal Ratzinger's prediction comes true: a liturgy without kneeling becomes dysfunctional. Here are Ratzinger's own words:
See Adoremus.org (emphasis added).
From all indications, Kerry's Paulist parish is highly dysfunctional. And so the new Catholic scandal begins for all America to see throughout the presidential campaign.