Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Enduring Part of the "Fireworks" of the Faith

Today's Gospel from Luke 21:5-11 got me off on a tangent and to thinking about how the Church grows and spreads in time and space:
"When some were talking about the Temple, remarking how it was adorned with fine stonework and votive offerings, Jesus said, ‘All these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’ And they put to him this question: ‘Master,’ they said ‘when will this happen, then, and what sign will there be that this is about to take place?’
  ‘Take care not to be deceived,’ he said ‘because many will come using my name and saying, “I am he” and, “The time is near at hand.” Refuse to join them. And when you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened, for this is something that must happen but the end is not so soon.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there; there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.’" 

Obviously, living in Ukraine it is not hard to take such words of the Lord almost literally and to fixate on the menace which refuses to let Ukraine live at peace, sovereign within its 1991 borders. That is another matter and actually my distraction was quite another. Beyond thoughts about these days maybe being the end times or that simply here we have no lasting dwelling, and that we should never put our confidence in monuments of stone, I was asking myself where we as a Catholic Church, whether Byzantine or Roman, can call ourselves to home. What entitles us to say that we are established in a given place, that we belong there and must not move on?

Years ago at an archaeological exhibit in Jerusalem on early Christian churches in the Holy Land, I learned about the countless little churches built there of stone and all having similar hollow cornerstones. Archaeologist speculated on what might have been the content of these cornerstones until they found a couple still intact after more than a thousand years. They were full of coin and inscriptions led one to conclude that, way back then to slow the pace at which wealthy people were building and endowing  these lovely little churches, local bishops had established the rule that the cornerstone had to contain equal value in coin to assure the church's repair or restoration at need. No one was allowed any one shot flashy "fireworks", if you will, but provision for the ordered growth and maintenance of places of divine worship was assured by making the donor or benefactor pay twice.

I guess that is not our problem anywhere in the world today; correct me, but I don't know of any place where people are standing in line for permission to help with church building. Today's rich and famous aren't begging to build houses of worship. Most of the big charitable funding agencies won't even give you a second look if in your poverty you tell them what you really need is a church building for your people. Clinics, social halls, maybe, but not a church or a chapel, please! And yet, it seems to me that it is the place where we worship God Almighty, where we give Him His due, that defines us for who we are as His people. But how do you do that in the absence of people with means when you are for all practical purposes destitute yourself? Israel under tents for forty years in the desert!

One of the great parts of the story of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Mission Societies, was making the establishment of the Church possible in places where it wasn't yet or wasn't strong enough to stand on its own. From the very first days of Christ's Church we've known that God's People are destined for more than cemetery space, more than worshiping in the catacombs, if you will. We admire churches for their beauty, for their majesty and size in some cases, but more importantly we admire them as ongoing projects in brick and mortar, marble, glass and steel, which like the legendary Gothic cathedrals are never really completed. Church buildings mark where we stand and where we belong on God's earth.

I think of the just over one hundred years of my home town cathedral, which has been lovingly roofed and tuck pointed a couple of times in that century, which has known four distinct altars of celebration over the course of those years and two major renovations, leaving aside stories about stained glass, baptisteries and pipe organs. Church art and architecture is an expression of devotion toward God, a testimony of faith, but just as importantly, it is a clear statement about the Church's belonging.

Maybe it is too much to say, I build and therefore I am, but by way of a negative statement, impeding a faith community in its building a house of worship is fundamental aggression against who I am as Church. As the so-called "caliphate" demolishes ancient Christian churches it not only destroys a monument to the past, it denies to the community today its ongoing project of realizing itself in worship of the living God, yes also through building and restoring again and again that proper and sacred space.

"Jesus said, ‘All these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’ " Yes, Lord, most assuredly, but until You come again I'll need to get back to building and seeking out that coin which maybe I don't possess in sufficiency to see to it that the project goes on and Your Church of Living Stones has a face and a foothold in this world.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Don't Rain on my Parade?

I think I troubled my early morning "Christ the King mood" by reading an article in the National Review Online rubric "Postmodern Conservative". The article by Peter Augustine Lawler is entitle Against Rage and Despair (you can see how entrapment of good Christians sometimes happens: seeing the rubric, I should have steered clear!). The article seems to be an encouragement to cultivating wholesome friendships as the path through life's storms. (as in period)?

Without wanting to criticize anybody, let's just say that in the face of such I find myself again invited to look beyond the grass which withers and the flower which fades. Yes, Peter, I noted that you referred to the Lord as friend, too! Ultimately, however, our faith is more than an all too human intimacy based solidarity with Jesus: the Song of Songs motif does not stand alone at the pinnacle of our spirituality. The Lord is King, in splendor robed, robed and girt about with strength! The whole thing is about principalities and powers and my loving Lord is indeed more than a friend in time of need, He is my Rock, my Fortress, my Deliverer.

In a little mosaic of quotes from the Book of Revelation, the Church teaches in the First Reading from today's Office of Readings:

"Grace and peace to you from him who is, who was, and who is to come, from the seven spirits in his presence before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the First-born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood, and made us a line of kings, priests to serve his God and Father; to him, then, be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.
  It was the Lord’s day and the Spirit possessed me, and I heard a voice behind me, shouting like a trumpet, I turned round to see who had spoken to me, and when I turned I saw seven golden lamp-stands and, surrounded by them, a figure like a Son of man, dressed in a long robe tied at the waist with a golden girdle. His head and his hair were white as white wool or as snow, his eyes like a burning flame, his feet like burnished bronze when it has been refined in a furnace, and his voice like the sound of the ocean. In his right hand he was holding seven stars, out of his mouth came a sharp sword, double-edged, and his face was like the sun shining with all its force.
  When I saw him, I fell in a dead faint at his feet, but he touched me with his right hand and said, ‘Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and now I am to live for ever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld. To those who prove victorious, and keep working for me until the end, which I myself have been given by my Father, to rule them with an iron scepter and shatter them like earthenware. And I will give him the Morning Star. I shall not blot their names out of the book of life, but acknowledge their names in the presence of my Father and his angels. Those who prove victorious I will make into pillars in the sanctuary of my God, and they will stay there for ever; I will inscribe on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God in heaven, and my own new name as well. Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him. Those who prove victorious I will allow to share my throne, just as I was victorious myself and took my place with my Father on his throne."
[Apocalypse 1:4-6,10,12-18,2:26,28,3:5,12,20-21]

Gospel? Good News? How about getting across the message that in stating that we are loved first and foremost by God, truly we are also jumping up and shouting that in that everlasting love we are not only affirmed, but caught up into the sublime. If I but respond to the grace extended by Him Who stands at my door and knocks, then nobody, but nobody will ever rain on my parade!

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!