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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Pres. Bush's Christmas Message
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Saturday, December 25, 2004Pres. Bush's Christmas Message
Below is the text of President Bush's Christmas radio address made today. Especially significant for Catholics is the explicit reference to the hope of Mary awaiting the coming of her Son. The following confirms why so many people of faith voted to reelect the President:
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. On this Christmas day, as families across the nation gather in our homes to celebrate, Laura and I extend to all Americans our best wishes for the holidays. We hope this Christmas is a time of joy and peace for each of you, and we hope it offers you a chance for rest and reflection as you look forward to the new year ahead.
The Christmas season fills our hearts with gratitude for the many blessings in our lives. And with those blessings comes a responsibility to reach out to others. Many of our fellow Americans still suffer from the effects of illness or poverty, others fight cruel addictions, or cope with division in their families, or grieve the loss of a loved one.
Christmastime reminds each of us that we have a duty to our fellow citizens, that we are called to love our neighbor just as we would like to be loved ourselves. By volunteering our time and talents where they are needed most, we help heal the sick, comfort those who suffer, and bring hope to those who despair, one heart and one soul at a time.
During the holidays, we also keep in our thoughts and prayers the men and women of our Armed Forces, especially those far from home, separated from family and friends by the call of duty. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, these skilled and courageous Americans are fighting the enemies of freedom and protecting our country from danger. By bringing liberty to the oppressed, our troops are helping to win the war on terror, and they are defending the freedom and security of us all. They and their families are making many sacrifices for our nation, and for that, all Americans are deeply grateful.
The times we live in have brought many challenges to our country. And at such times, the story of Christmas brings special comfort and confidence. For 2000 years, Christmas has proclaimed a message of hope: the patient hope of men and women across centuries who listened to the words of prophets and lived in joyful expectation, the hope of Mary who welcomed God's plan with great faith, and the hope of Wise Men who set out on a long journey, guided only by a promise traced in the stars.
Christmas reminds us that the grandest purposes of God can be found in the humblest places, and it gives us hope that all the love and gifts that come to us in this life are the signs and symbols of an even greater love and gift that came on a holy night.
Thank you for listening, and Merry Christmas.
Source: White House website (emphasis added).
from God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (London carol, c. 1770).
It always happens. The old traditional hymns still tug at us even though we have heard them year after year. We find deep truths in the less familiar verses of the old songs. More than mere abstract knowing, we emotionally assent to the truth that the tide has turned, and evil is on the run in spite of its destructive effects. God came down to make all things, all things, new.
Friday, December 24, 2004What It Would Be Like Without Christmas
Let's take the secularists and anti-Christians at their word and pretend for a moment that they have achieved their wish: no more Christmas, just a generic "Holiday/Winter Festival" of some sort. For all the commercialism now present during the Advent season, just imagine commercialism with no religious competition whatsoever. The annual Winter Festival of the secularists would testify to one thing only in the affluent West: an extended display that what we value most is the accumulation of luxuries and the embrace of cheap thrills.
What would mark the culmination of all the holiday preparations in a Christmas-less secular Holiday period? No more church services, no Midnight Mass, no baby arriving in the manger scene. There are several secular possibilities that I can imagine in keeping with the known tendencies of our culture. A Holiday lottery could take center stage all by itself with no religious competition whatsoever. Or we could have a TV special with Donald Trump crowning a successful status seeker. Or, more likely, we would inevitably invent some sexual angle with some crazed, exhibitionist "liberated" woman jumping out of a cake or enacting some other debased stunt reminiscent of a recent Super Bowl stunt.
Notice that some or all of the things that I imagine already take place during this time of the year to one degree or another. We have the materialism, we have the conspicuous consumption, we have the "sexy" gifts. But, because of the religious meaning of Christmas, many know intuitively that all of these things are shabby embroidery around the historic religious meaning of the feast. Everyone in our society, Christian or non-Christian, secular or religious, owes a debt of gratitude to Christianity for giving us a feast that celebrates faith, hope, love, and humility--in other words, sanity--as we complete another calendar year and enter a new one. Otherwise, we would be left only with a generic, jaded secular festival regurgitating our obsessions with things, with showing off, and with the cheap thrills of alcohol and lust.
Thursday, December 23, 2004Our Prophetic Pope
In finishing John Paul II's ("JPII") latest book, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, I am once again struck by the prophetic wisdom of our Pope. Although far away in Rome and constrained by the physical effects of aging, JPII writes a wisdom that is applicable to our own distant circumstances. In many ways, the stooped elderly man in Rome has more insight into what is happening and needs to happen in our own parishes, dioceses, and communities than many American clergy and lay leaders here on the ground with their innumerable workshops, committees, and paid consultants. But the reality of this papal insight should not surprise us. After all, we believe that the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth is a special and outstanding recipient of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Recently, I wrote about the factors that result in the loss to the Church of Hispanic and other Catholics. I focused on the broad topics of Emotion, Bible, Eucharist, Mary. The Pope's book touches on all four of these factors.
As to emotion, JPII points to the essential human need for a living tradition that touches our hearts and souls. For a Polish or Mexican Catholic, this tradition is palpable. But for an American Catholic, there is a problem: the U.S.A. is not a culturally Catholic nation. In addition, our national American identity is a matter of loyalty to a Constitution by many disparate ethnic groups with different customs. To further complicate matters, materialism seems to have become the national glue that holds us together. The emotional connection to tradition is weak.
But that emotional connection to tradition is precisely one of the many gifts that Catholicism offers to Americans. In praising the "multiple forms of popular piety," JPII points out that "[t]o be rooted in what is ancient, strong, profound, and, at the same time, dear to the heart, gives an extraordinary energy" (p. 180). As Catholics, if we neglect or abolish our traditions, we are neglecting and abolishing precisely the gift that American society today is in great need of receiving.
So, when I wrote about why we lose Hispanic Catholics, I urged a return to traditional Eucharistic and Marian devotions and piety. These are the ancient, strong, profound, and heartfelt traditions that will give us the extraordinary energy to which the Pope refers. As to Mary, what a gift we have to give. Providentially, the influx of Mexicans and other Hispanics to our country provides a sign of the times: to bring the Latin love for Our Lady of Guadalupe into all corners of the Church in America. The Pope himself draws the connection between the great Polish devotion to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa and the dark-skinned Lady of Guadalupe:
The love that the Mexicans and the people of Latin America in general have for Our Lady of Guadalupe--a love expressed spontaneously and emotionally, but intensely and profoundly--is very similar to the Polish Marian devotion that shaped my own spirituality.
JPII, p. 54.
And so the Pope addresses two of the factors important for bringing back Catholics: emotion and Marian devotion. JPII also addressed the other factor I emphasized, the centrality of the Eucharist. He speaks of the importance of a bishop having a house chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is present. Here is his personal experience of the power of the Eucharistic Presence:
I have always been convinced that the chapel is a place of special inspiration. What a great privilege to be able to live and work in the shadow of His Presence, such a powerfully magnetic Presence!JPII, pp. 146-47.
And yet, in too many parishes, this magnetic presence is relegated to weekday devotions that few who are working can attend. It is time to bring Eucharistic Adoration to Sundays--between Sunday Masses--when all can access this "powerfully magnetic Presence" in prayer and contemplation. This Sunday adoration will not minimize the actual reception of the Eucharist in Holy Communion but will rather create a great hunger for Holy Communion and a great desire to remove any obstacles that keep us from Holy Communion. Eucharistic adoration and contemplation will lead many back to the Sacrament of Penance.
And so the Pope addresses the human need for an emotional bond, Marian devotion, and Eucharistic devotion. But what about the other factor I mentioned, the Bible? The very title of the Pope's book is taken from the Gospel of Mark: "Rise, let us be on our way," the words spoken by Jesus as he left the Garden of Gethsemane to face his death. The last chapter of the book ties the Old and New Testaments together by focusing on the figure of Abraham as he relates to Christ. The Pope thinks biblically in a very fundamental way. Biblical themes permeate his encyclicals. I counted at least 94 citations to the Bible in this one small book with 216 pages of text (using the extensive list of biblical citations at the end of the book). That comes to one biblical citation for about every two and one half pages of text. John Paul II's mind and spirit are immersed in Scripture.
So the Pope's latest book has all the pieces we need for renewal of the Church in America: recognition of the emotional value of popular devotions, of the centrality of the Bible, of the role of Mary, and of the power of Eucharistic contemplation. Let's hope more American dioceses and parishes take notice of what our prophet in Rome is telling us.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004Archaeologists Claim to Find Cana Miracle Site
The A.P. reports that archaeologists in Israel are claiming to have found the site of the wedding at Cana famous for Jesus' turning water into wine as his first miracle. They base their claim on the discovery of pieces of several large jars similar to the jars described in John 2:6.
All of which leads me to ask: if the wedding at Cana attended by Jesus was indeed a real historical event (as I have always believed) and the event is remembered because of a miracle occurring there, isn't the alleged discovery of the wedding site indirect evidence bolstering the historical nature of the miracle recounted in John 2:1-11?
Or, as theological liberals would have us believe, was there a wedding at Cana attended by Jesus but no miracle? (And I would be willing to bet that some liberal biblical scholars have, in the past, maintained that there was not even a real wedding at Cana attended by Jesus in the first place, with or without a miracle, and that the Gospel writer made the whole thing up for theological reasons.) It seems that the skeptics are the ones asking us to believe the improbable: that we have a Gospel account of a particular wedding feast and that we appear to have located the physical site of the event, but that nothing miraculous occurred.
Without the miracle, there would have been no reason to preserve an account of Jesus' attending this particular wedding feast in the first place. It is highly probable that Jesus attended many other wedding feasts that never made it into the Gospels. This wedding feast was special.
But, if this event was so special, why is it not in the Synoptic Gospels? I can give no definite answer, but we may have a clue in the Virgin Mary's prominent role in the miracle at Cana. It would not be surprising that Mary brought the details of her pivotal conversation with Jesus at this miraculous event to John's attention. After all, she did live under John's care after the Crucifixion.
At the Tipping Point: Hispanic Males Voted 46% for Bush
Today's N.Y. Times has a tiny news brief with data from the National Annenberg Election Survey showing that 46% of Hispanic men voted for Bush in 2004. The figure for all Hispanics is 41% for Bush in 2004--compared to 35% in 2000. The lesson: culture is thicker than past party loyalties.
Not surprisingly, the conservative Washington Times ("Hispanic Men Moved to Bush," 12/22/04) thought this data worth a full news article in contrast to the N.Y. Times "footnote" coverage of the same data.
The Pope's Words for a New Year
At a time of the year when many are making plans and resolutions for 2005, it is good to see another perspective on the future. In his 2004 book Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, John Paul II has a final chapter that is a meditation on Abraham and Christ. This meditation points to the open-ended nature of the Christian pilgrimage on earth.
The existentialists, who were so popular in the second half of the twentieth century whether as philosophers, activists, or literary figures, gave readers a sense of the exhilaration of freedom, of the fact that we "make" our lives decision by decision. The problem was that the existentialists mistakenly thought that we bestowed meaning on our lives by those free decisions, rather than responding to the objective, revealed meaning of our lives. There was thus an irrational quality--in the sense of a detachment from reality-- that marked the whole existentialist mood.
But with John Paul II ("JPII") it is, of course, quite different because the Pope "waits" on the Lord, not on personal whim or mere accident. He quotes Hebrews 11:8 on Abraham who gave us the paradigm of setting out, although "not knowing where we were to go" (p. 211). Christian existentialism is radically different from the secular variety. As JPII says,
we "have been chosen and called to set out, but it is not for us to determine the destination of our journey" (p. 211; added emphasis).
This setting out is a continual crossing of frontiers into the
Beginning with Abraham, the faith of each of his sons [and daughters] represents a constant leaving behind of what is cherished, familiar, and personal, in order to open up to the unknown, trusting in the truth we share and the common future we all have in God. We are all invited to participate in this process of leaving behind the well-known, the familiar.John Paul II, p. 213.
The "truth we share" is a personal relationship with Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For Catholics, that personal relationship reaches its acme in the Eucharist, both received and adored. The "common future we all have in God" is that we will be partakers of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb at the end of the age. We will be fellow guests communing with the Lamb and, through the Lamb, with each other at the end of the age. We can all be, if we choose to finish the race, at the eschatological Wedding.
While on the journey to that final wedding feast, we imitate Christ who had "an open heart for everyone He meets" (JPII, p. 213; original emphasis). This "open heart" is necessary because it is God Himself who "for His part leads people towards one another [so that] . . . . all that is mine comes to belong to everyone, while what belongs to others becomes mine also" (JPII, p. 214). That experience is what communion or communio is all about, the communion that will be perfected at the final wedding feast.
So, unlike the existentialist world of Sartre where "hell is other people," heaven is other people. In a purely secular existentialist mentality, it is all too easy to use others as instruments to forge our self-chosen destiny. In the Christian mentality, other people are gifts to assist in the unfurling of our God-given destiny. And, most crucially, in the Christian adventure, we are given the power to fulfill that destiny:
God's love does not impose burdens upon us that we cannot carry, nor make demands of us that we cannot fulfill. For whatever He asks of us, He provides the help that is needed.
JPII, p. 215.
At the end of the day, the secular existentialist recognizes the great truth of our freedom but fails to recognize that our freedom is linked to God's providential plan for us. Even worse, the atheistic existentialist can rely only on his or her own puny and highly flawed powers that, as Aquinas would say, are not proportionate to the goal of eternal happiness that God has prepared for all who freely choose the path of faith. Deep down, the secular existentialists knew that their self-chosen destiny could never be reached. That is why for them life was "absurd."
Tuesday, December 21, 2004John Paul on Episcopal Courage
Earlier this year, John Paul II published a book of reflections aimed at his fellow bishops, Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way (Warner, 2004). But the book is well worth reading by all Christians. The title comes from Christ's words to his apostles as they leave Gethsemane and are faced with the approach of Judas accompanied by an armed crowd (Mk 14:42).
And the Pope has words indeed for his fellow bishops, words he quotes from the late Polish Cardinal Wyszynski in 1946:
Lack of courage in a bishop is the beginning of disaster. Can he still be an apostle? Witnessing to the Truth is essential for an apostle. And this always demands courage.Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, pp. 189-90 (quoting Wyszynski).
The Pope quotes at length from later comments by Cardinal Wyszynski who spent years battling both Nazis and Communists:
Rise, p. 190 (quoting Wyszynski; emphasis added).
The Pope adds his own comments to the above quotations:
Here there is no room for compromise nor for an opportunistic recourse to human diplomacy. We have to bear witness to the truth, even at the cost of persecutions, even to the shedding of our blood, like Christ Himself.
Rise, pp. 190-91.
Inevitably, I think of a blonde Canadian-born Michigan governor, with a soft, seductive voice, who claims to be Catholic, who claims to venerate Mother Teresa of Calcutta, but who is in fact a radical proponent of the killing of the innocent unborn and partially born. Then I think of the other numerous supporters of abortion, in and out of politics, who also claim to be Catholic. The silence of too many bishops merely encourages them; and, in the words quoted by the Pope, this silence is "the beginning of disaster."
Monday, December 20, 2004The Two Cannot Be Separated: The Old Mass and the New
There is a resurgence of interest among young Catholics in the Tridentine Mass. It is very understandable. When you have attended so many liturgies in which reverence and the sense of sacrifice to an awesome God are missing, you leap at the chance to experience what worship is really all about--about us puny humans approaching the altar of our Creator who holds our fate in his hands. I will even dare to draw a suprising parallel between the sexual "revolution" and the liturgical "revolution": both have succeeded in trivializing the unquestionably sacred and making it boring and unremarkable. The "romance" of the human adventure has in many, many cases been gutted out of each realm.
Usually, the resurgence of interest in the Tridentine Mass is viewed as a threat to the modern liturgy--far from it. My thesis is that to understand and enter fully into the spirit of the modern liturgy you must understand the Tridentine liturgy, just as to fully understand the impact of the New Testament you must be intimately familiar with the Old Testament. After all, it was always the intent of the Church that the modern Mass should emerge as an organic development of the old Mass--not as a rejection of centuries of liturgical practice, a liturgical practice that nourished and was central for most of our well-known saints. It is funny that many who love St. Francis of Assisi seem so hostile to and suspicious of the Mass that was central to his life.
So if you want to really appreciate the modern Mass and fully enter into it, get a booklet missal of the Tridentine Mass and read the English translation and the accompanying notes. You can get an inexpensive Latin-English Booklet Missal online at EcclesiaDei.Org. As one acquaintance put it to me, the little explanatory notes in English in this booklet are a "little Catechism" packed with theology.
And fear not: Ecclesia Dei is in full communion with John Paul II--the name of the organization comes from the 1988 Apostolic Letter of John Paul II urging "respect" and a "wide and generous" approach to the "feelings of those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition." As so much else with this Pope, the results of his writings and actions are far more wide-ranging than they at first may appear. Because many sense this, many already refer to him as John Paul the Great. What John Paul the Great is doing here is providing us an essential organic link to true liturgical renewal. He is leading us to learn again the lessons of reverence and awe from the old liturgy so that the new liturgy will blossom further.
The prayers of the Old Mass have a striking clarity and theological crispness that open our eyes to what we celebrate at every Mass, new or old style. Here are some examples. When we say the Centurion's prayer in the Old Mass--three times!--that we are not worthy to receive the Lord under our "roof," into our house, prior to Communion, we are, in a very concrete and blunt manner, in the characteristic manner of speaking found in the Gospels, speaking volumes about our bodies as the temples of the Holy Spirit. We are proclaiming the Theology of the Body of John Paul II.
Here is another small, striking example. Shortly before the consecration, the priest prays in the old Mass that the Lord "[o]rder our days in Thy peace." This majestic phrase captures what we seek in our continual conversion: that we live whatever days we have left in the order of God that produces peace. That is what we seek in any Mass we attend, in Latin or English, celebrated facing the altar or facing the people.
So the issue between the Tridentine Mass and the new Mass ( the "Novus Ordo" or "New Order" Mass) is not one of conflict between languages or postures. The issue really is whether we will take a synoptic approach to both liturgical forms. Will we see them together as the Church intends us to see them, or will we pit them against each other as the author of lies would have us do?
Let us pray both liturgies together just as we read the Old and the New Testaments together. In fact, we can paraphrase a wonderful phrase of St. Augustine about the Old and New Testaments found in the Catechism and apply it to these two treasures of the Latin Rite: "The New Mass lies hidden in the Old and the Old Mass is unveiled in the New" (compare Catechism of the Catholic Church, 129). Get a booklet missal and discover the New Mass hidden in the Old.
Sunday, December 19, 2004Next Major Update: Mon., Dec. 20, 2004