Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Tears Too!

Reading today's Gospel (Luke 19:41-44) I too was moved to tears:

"As Jesus drew near Jerusalem and came in sight of the city he shed tears over it and said, ‘If you in your turn had only understood on this day the message of peace! But, alas, it is hidden from your eyes! Yes, a time is coming when your enemies will raise fortifications all round you, when they will encircle you and hem you in on every side; they will dash you and the children inside your walls to the ground; they will leave not one stone standing on another within you – and all because you did not recognize your opportunity when God offered it!’"

Those words, "...and all because you did not recognize your opportunity when God offered it!" are for me what opens up this passage, makes me tremble for my own sins and weep over those of countless brothers and sisters here and elsewhere.

The Lord Jesus extends His Hand; He comes to our aid and if we ignore Him going about our own way, we do so to our own peril. The prophecy about death and destruction has been fulfilled again and again over the years and it is inappropriate to speculate on where the siege-works will be thrown up next and who next will be annihilated. The Prince of Peace will indeed be seated upon His Throne as King and Judge. Our sole refuge is in Him.

Have mercy, Lord! Grant Your people a time of repentance and grace! 

Good News! Things are looking east!

In the midst of Russia's stubborn aggression against this sovereign nation and its internationally established borders (never cease praying for Ukraine and its people!), I received my pre-Advent gift for this year in Bishop Conley's announcement that Advent and Christmas in his cathedral in Lincoln will be celebrated with all looking to the East, to Christ the Dawn Which comes to visit us from on High.

Our world has been looking every which way for far too long. Thank you, Bishop Conley for doing your part to sharpen our focus and turn hearts to Christ!


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ecumenism: Quo Vadis

I just finished reading a Catholic friend's editorial on the debacle which surrounds what is referred to here in Ukraine as the "Rivne Memorandum". Rivne is a region in the northwest of Ukraine where Moscow Orthodoxy has held the Byzantine "upper hand" since Czarist times. The Roman Catholic presence there today is important, but tiny, after being decimated in and after the WWII years by Hitler and Stalin. Five Orthodox groupings together with the civil authorities signed the document in Rivne, which is the regional capital. It denounces inter-religious violence, calls for an end to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and formulates the wish that there should be one Orthodox Church for Ukraine, circumscribed by the internationally recognized boundaries of the country and that the Church be autocephalous. An official communique from the Moscow Patriarchate in Kyiv soon followed condemning the Memorandum and a young layman in Moscow, who sometimes speaks on behalf of the Moscow Patriarchate observed that obviously the bishops in Rivne had signed under duress. The highest levels of the canonical church condemned the action of their brethren. 

All in all, Orthodoxy shows signs of its profound crisis here in Ukraine and we must beg for God's mercy for our brethren, even though as St. Augustine described his rapport with the Donatist (I believe) they hold us at arm's length and despite all we have in common do not want us as brothers.

This comes on the eve of festivities in Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of Catholic involvement in the ecumenical movement as structured by a document of Vatican II "Unitatis redintegratio".  My friend in his editorial says that ecumenism in Ukraine is dead. He calls for a renewed commitment to doing what the churches and religious communities of Ukraine are able to do together practically within the structure of the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Communities. I understand his frustration, even if as I have come to understand the reality of Orthodoxy divided here in Ukraine, I have never nurtured illusions about its "Babylonian captivity" going back centuries and under the oppression of various temporal powers, some imperial and some local.

I have no illusions that Catholicism will have it any easier with them than St. Augustine had it in his day with all those rejecting Catholic communion. We pray and extend a hand convinced that the one, visible Church willed by our loving Saviour is, by His will and purpose, built upon the Rock of Peter. 


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Living Consoled and Hopeful

"O Lord, what is my trust which I have in this life, or what is my greatest comfort of all the things which are seen under Heaven? Is it not Thou, O Lord my God, whose mercies are without number? Where hath it been well with me without Thee? Or when could it be evil whilst Thou wert near? I had rather be poor for Thy sake, than rich without Thee. I choose rather to be a pilgrim upon the earth with Thee than without Thee to possess heaven. Where Thou art, there is heaven; and where Thou are not, behold there death and hell. Thou art all my desire, and therefore must I groan and cry and earnestly pray after Thee. In short I can confide fully in none to give me ready help in necessities, save in Thee alone, O my God. Thou art my hope, Thou art my trust, Thou art my Comforter, and most faithful in all things."  [Kempis, Thomas A.; The Collected Works of Thomas A Kempis (2007-11-17). The Imitation of Christ (Optimized for Kindle) (Kindle Locations 2616-2622). Kindle Edition.] 

Yesterday, for some reason, I just couldn't get out of my mind St. Jerome Emiliani and the image I quoted from his little "vita" of him being freed for God's service through dungeon and chains. St. John of the Cross and his harsh imprisonment at the hands of his own brothers in religion, who were resisting the Carmelite reform but perhaps actually furthering it by contributing to the process of St. John's own refinement in the crucible of suffering, also came to mind. Known or unknown, beatified, canonized or not, heroic virtue in the face of opposition, a rough and tumble dialogue, if you will, seems to be part of the Church's story, successfully prevailing against the gates of hell, indefectible. Little stories of intense personal suffering, not defiance but humble adherence to the Will of God, triumphs again and again after the image of our Savior Crucified, lifted up unto life.

It doesn't really seem to matter whether we are put in chains by enemies or by interests within the Church itself seeking the upper hand and their own path, rather it seems abundantly clear, no matter what, that shackles accomplish the work to be done by God's will. Yes, the fuller's lye, the smith's fire is indeed at work. Apparent conquests by heterodoxy, laxity or inertia are just that apparent; they aren't even temporary setbacks in the plan of God to save His people from sin and further His reign. It seems thus that His holy will is accomplished. "Where Thou art, there is heaven; and where Thou are not, behold there death and hell. Thou art all my desire, and therefore must I groan and cry and earnestly pray after Thee. In short I can confide fully in none to give me ready help in necessities, save in Thee alone, O my God. Thou art my hope, Thou art my trust, Thou art my Comforter, and most faithful in all things."

One of the words much thrown about these days, a word with which both sides of an argument seem ready or determined to upbraid the other is the word "mercy". It got me to thinking again about two moral theologians who haunted the corridors of my student years in Rome, one as a prof, Joseph Fuchs, and the other as a guest speaker at the college, Bernard Häring. Both had the war years and their trauma to excuse their rationalizations in favor of showing mercy in limit cases. I didn't agree with them as a 22 year old, but it is only now that I understand how thoroughly faulty their approach was: excusing not only a mother's prostitution to feed her children, but per force also any number of executioners collaborating to further Hitler's schemes for the final solution in the death camps. The "I could not have done otherwise" is no exoneration from guilt, and not because God is unflinching but because He is truth. His mercy is indeed unto the forgiveness of sin, even the seemingly unforgivable.

St. Ignatius of Antioch on his way to death in the circus at Rome wrote begging his fellow Christians to show him no false compassion by working to spare him a martyr's death. Indeed, while not wishing conflict, dungeon and chains upon the Church, I rejoice when the light of truth shines forth in the lives of God's servants. May their sufferings in union with Christ bear abundant fruit! The example of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, for the sake of the truth, comes readily to mind.



Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Wall and What Divides Us

This Rome Reports video is an exceptional gift in troubled times, at least it was for me. It speaks about the past, yes, but offers some handles for dealing with our future. While speaking about what divided Germany and Europe, Pope Benedict offers me light on how to face today's divisions and choices. Walls crumble because God and man created in His own image and likeness are greater than anybody's dissonant variations on any theme unworthy of the fullness of life and truth as it comes to us from Him through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

At the very latest since the Malaysian Airliner was shot down over eastern Ukraine, I find myself again and again confronted with other people's difficulty in choosing: between the Putin regime and the West, between the European extreme right and liberal European posturing, between the Realpolitik of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic and other religious communities it undermines and endangers... You might say I hang out with too intense of a crowd, that folks should leave such choices to the movers and shakers and just go with the flow. I don't know if that is a fair assessment of what worries and why folks are in anguish. It would seem that whether my ballot really counts or not, I do owe the world and myself before God a right choice, a fundamental choice in favor of the reign of Christ the King, even when that means rejecting the oligarchic system which pays my meal ticket while depriving me of my dignity and keeping me far from the love of God.

I just happened to read a chapter from the Imitation of Christ this morning which firmly warns against picking favorite saints or presuming to fuddle around with things too sublime. The counsel as always was to seek above all humble subjection to the Divine Will. The overall divide does not seem to be between perdition and salvation, however, but rather of the how and wherefore for moving ahead. For instance, I get the impression that the powers that be in Hungary might be "picking their favorite saints", touting certain values while serving themselves, and thus leaving themselves open to criticism; their choice of Christian values and culture does not seem to be altogether unconditional.

The same is true in Ukraine, where in the past the looting and plundering of the nation has been more blatant than in Hungary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most of the unloved oligarchs have impressive collections of saints in their homes and in many cases even private shrines for those they have appropriated as heavenly intercessors. The ultimate red flag here, for instance, seems to come from video footage of any one of our "prepotents" crossing himself or lighting a candle. Thomas a Kempis might have been making a more subtle point but the glaring abuse calls each of us to an examination of conscience. Where does "choosing saints" end and voodoo begin?

Today here in Kyiv we are praying for orphans in a very special way. Lord knows, thanks to the injustice of the past and the present aggression against Ukraine, they are legion. In violation of my own principle, I wish to recommend them to God through the intercession of their Catholic patron saint, St. Jerome Emiliani. His little online "vita" is telling for what I am thinking about in terms of choices as well:

Jerome Emiliani lay chained in the dark dirty dungeon. Only a short time before he had been a military commander for Venice in charge of a fortress. He didn't care much about God because he didn't need him -- he had his own strength and the strength of his soldiers and weapons. When Venice's enemies, the League of Cambrai, captured the fortress, he was dragged off and imprisoned. There in the dungeon, Jerome decided to get rid of the chains that bound him. He let go of his worldly attachments and embraced God.

When he finally was able to escape, he hung his metal chains in the nearby church of Treviso -- in gratitude not only for being freed from physical prison but from his spiritual dungeon as well.

After a short time as mayor of Treviso he returned his home in Venice where he studied for the priesthood. The war may have been over but it was followed by the famine and plague war's devastation often brought. Thousands suffered in his beloved city. Jerome devoted himself to service again -- this time, not to the military but the poor and suffering around him. He felt a special call to help the orphans who had no one to care for them. All the loved ones who would have protected them and comforted them had been taken by sickness or starvation. He would become their parent, their family.

Using his own money, he rented a house for the orphans, fed them, clothed them, and educated them. Part of his education was to give them the first known catechetical teaching by question and answer. But his constant devotion to the suffering put him in danger too and he fell ill from the plague himself. When he recovered, he had the ideal excuse to back away, but instead his illness seemed to take the last links of the chain from his soul. Once again he interpreted his suffering to be a sign of how little the ambitions of the world mattered.

He committed his whole life and all he owned to helping others. He founded orphanages in other cities, a hospital, and a shelter for prostitutes. This grew into a congregation of priests and brothers that was named after the place where they had a house: the Clerks Regular of Somascha. Although they spent time educating other young people, their primary work was always Jerome's first love -- helping orphans.

His final chains fell away when he again fell ill while taking care of the sick. He died in 1537 at the age of 56.

He is the patron saint of abandoned children and orphans.

Saint Jerome Emiliani, watch over all children who are abandoned or unloved. Give us the courage to show them God's love through our care. Help us to lose the chains that keep us from living the life God intended for us. Amen.

Walls that divide or chains that bind, real or figurative, we cannot seem to get beyond them within our own realm of choice. I don't wish Europe war and dungeon, but light and hope in Christ. Come home to God's love!


Friday, November 7, 2014

In God's Good Time - Biological Clocks Revisited

There was a time not all that long ago when certain types of irrational behavior were attributed to some sort of gut feeling arriving from the awareness that one's "biological clock" was running out. The usual case was that of the single-still-at-home daughter who all of a sudden went on the rampage as if her parents were somehow to blame for the fact that she still hadn't found a suitable husband. There was great wisdom in the centuries old usage of arranged marriages, I dare say. At any rate, I can't say when I heard the expression used last, so perhaps it falls in the obsolete column. I am sure men have biological clocks too, which probably explains why some of them buy red, convertible sport cars at some point on or after their 40th birthday. 

This image helps me understand much of what has been going on in the Church of late. The "biological clocks" of different groups are running out and they are unwilling to go down without a fight, unwilling or anguished at having to resign themselves to the fact that they have no one else to blame for their lack of fruitfulness, that others will supply the remedy or carry on without them. We see it with consecrated life (ever plummeting numbers of religious women), with a renewed liturgy which does not fill the bill, and with much more. At age 50, you might say that the biological clock of the Council has run out and that the proponents of the so called "spirit of Vatican II" have been hit by this gut-wrenching feeling that their inner clock has run out; they are passe and others are on deck.

I beg pardon for the defiant tone of these words, prudence and good common sense dictate that we just leave those having such issues the time and space to work through the thing as long as the family finances can afford the tutor at the local race track or cross-training doesn't kill him. On a societal or Church level, I guess we just have to endure as the Church did while heresies like Arianism, Donatism or Gnosticism raged on and on.

That said, I would also like to make clear my profound gratitude for the voices of reason within the Church, who work hard to call to order those kicking against the goad. We need to pray hard that those hell-bent on carrying us back to the "glory days" of the 1970's will fail and the restoration in continuity with the tradition and in faithfulness to Christ might continue apace and be crowned with success in God's own good time.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Truth or Democracy?

Almost by chance, I stumbled on a hope-filled quote from the US Ambassador here in Kyiv, putting on a brave face, if you will, as Russian arms pour into Donetsk and as the Donbas prepares for a sham vote tomorrow [Remarks by Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, "The Menace of Unreality: Combating Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century", Legatum Institute, London, October 30, 2014]:

"Our best weapon in dealing with this, in answering this campaign of misdirection, of course, is the truth." 

He's absolutely right, you know, but that did not spare me an ever so brief "panic attack" earlier today while watching a news video on protests in Hungary against an internet consumption tax the government of that country had intended to impose. I think the "attack" was a cumulative reaction to a series of things out there which sort of came together when the news commentator said that the Budapest protest was reminiscent of the Kyiv "Maidan" which began almost a year ago: parallels between Hungary's President and Yanukovych over restrictions on basic freedoms were made. I simply asked myself, how do you compare, how do you so judge? I suppose an internet tax is as good a pretext for a revolution as any. Please excuse my irony. I am not saying that Ukraine has a monopoly on victimhood; I am saying that the world seems to have problems grasping what is at stake here and what we should be striving for in life beyond our next meal and uncontrolled internet access.

Sometimes I wonder if people are willing or able to grasp the sense of what has popularly been referred to here as a revolution of dignity. The history of the last year in Ukraine would have been quite different if young protesters on the square had not had to pay with life and health at the hands of storm troopers in the night of November 30. Saying no to indignity/oppression as Ukrainians did through the months of December, January and February somehow distinguishes itself from saying no to an internet tax. That is the truth and it is a distinction the West is seemingly still unwilling to grasp. Geopolitics really do not explain Ukraine's martyrs, its wounded, its heroes.

The new Russian menace in the east of the country will no doubt advance in these next days and sadly the fatalities will parallel Kyiv's hundreds lost, this time with tens of thousands lost and a region left generally in ruins like we see in the pictures of the Donetsk airport. Europe has its gas assured for this winter and Russia has its gas money. The pattern is established and crime's economy will proceed apace; no one will wonder when France delivers a couple so called Mistrals as it is all part of the bargain.

I remember a young man taking the microphone on the Maidan stage back in February and ordering Yanukovych out of town as elders and politicians stood by dumbfounded. Yanukovych fled with many of his henchmen and ill-gotten gains. These days I have heard newly elected parliamentarians express their resolve to clean up corruption and build a just nation that cares for its citizens. I have no reason to doubt that once again the small voice will ring true and Ukraine will move forward.

Ambassador Pyatt is right to say that lying propaganda, even on the massive scale we experience it today, can successfully be countered by the truth. Virtue, especially justice, too will see its day in Ukraine and beyond, perhaps sooner than we with all the answers and power could ever imagine.

Saints of God, come to our aid! Angels of God, be our safeguard and defense!
Eternal rest grant to all those fallen in innocence or in defense of justice and truth!