Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Ecclesiasticus 24: 5, 7, 9-11, 30-31 / Luke 1:26-33

There seem to be two unrelated and contrasting ways to hold power and influence in a kingdom. On the one had, one might be related by blood to the king. For most monarchies, this blood relationship carries with it both rights and responsibilities, but it is undeniable that, apart from a grave act of treason against the sovereign, the mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, and the like all share in the royal dignity, and that to the degree that the tie of blood is stronger. On the other hand, some share in the king's power and influence by virtue of his appointment, being made a minister of his court simply by his decision and favor. So, while some people share in the glory of the king whether he wants them to or not, but to do because of the deep, personal bond that arises by blood relations, others share in that some glory by royal grace alone, by an act of choice and election.

So, then, why do we honor Mary as Queen of heaven? For many, the answer seems obvious, namely that she is the mother by blood of the king, of him who alone can say: I came out of the mouth of the Most High, the firstborn before all creatures; I dwelt in the highest places, and my throne is in a pillar of a cloud. For one of such singular glory, how could his mother not be raised on high? Of course, while there is much truth to this sentiment, we can misunderstand it unless we remember that, unlike other sons, the Son of the Most High chose his mother, was before her, indeed before all ages. While other royal sons cannot help but have their relations share in their glory, the ties of blood being prior to and outside of one's choosing, the coming to be as man in the Virgin, and indeed any virtue or grace she had in her reception of the Word into her womb, was only and entirely a word of grace, the playing out of God's election and predestination, his plan for redemption from before the dawn of time. So, if she is Queen because she is Mother, more true is it that she is Mother because she is Elect, chosen by her Son from before creation, and made who she is by his grace and favor.

This is also why Mary's queenship is not simply a fact about her, in which we rejoice but in which we have no share. The absence on our part of any blood tie to the God Man does not even in the slightest make us distant from his glory and honor. Indeed, we are, each of us, by the new birth of baptism, made his brothers and sisters, sharing not merely a relation of earthly generation, but being made very members of his own body. His glory, then, comes to us immediately, since joined to him as our Head, we make up one Christ, one body. His glory is our glory, his victory over sin and death our victory, and his eternal reign from the right hand of the Father is ours by viceroyal right.

He that hearkeneth to me shall not be confounded: and they that work by me shall not sin; they that explain me shall have life everlasting.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Monday of the Rogation Days

James 5:16-20 / Luke 11:5-13

Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be saved: for the continual prayer of a just man availeth much.

One of the stories gathered by the brothers Grimm is curious in that, while the text is quite short, it had no ending, and indeed we might reasonably think that the story continues even to the present day. The story is called "Der Fuchs und die Gänse (The Fox and the Geese)," and is altogether a simple tale. A fox comes across nine fat geese all gathered together. Unable to escape the hungry fox, who is unmoved by their petitions not to be killed, one of them takes heart and requests that the geese be allowed one last prayer for the forgiveness of their sins. The fox is moved by this pious request, and he agrees not to eat them until they have finished their prayer. Und wenn sie ausgebetet haben, soll das Märchen weitererzählt werden, sie beten aber alleweile noch immer fort. In the words of Margaret Taylor's translation, "When they have done praying, the story will be continued further, but at present they are still praying without stopping."

In his epistle, James assures us of the power of prayer, reminding us of the mighty works produced by the prayers of the prophet Elijah, at whose prayer Israel was both afflicted by three and a half hears of drought and subsequently delivered from the same. However, while Elijah's impressive acts of prayer, not the least of which the calling down of fire from heaven, not once but several times, may give James warrant to have confidence in the continual prayer of a just man, this apostle seems altogether disinterested in directing our prayers to the same end. On the contrary, what James implores of his readers is the prayer for salvation, not merely of one's own self, but of the whole people of God: pray for one another, that you may be saved. Indeed, the very act of leading anyone who strays from the faith, in deed as much as in thought, back into truth is, by its very nature, a leading of oneself back to God — he must know that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way shall save his soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.

Like the prayer of the brothers Grimm's geese, or the continual prayer of James' just man, so too should we find our prayer life. We can be, of course, drawn away from thinking about salvation by all sorts of concerns, some sinful, some merely trivial, some necessary but quotidian, some urgent or catastrophic. If we follow the whole of James' epistle, we know that James is not advocating a turn away from making practical responses to the needs of the world, and we know he is a hard critic for those who take comfort in having prayed for the hungry or naked without a care for actually giving him food, clothing, or shelter. Even so, James reminds us here, as do in their own way the clever and pious geese at prayer before a now quite hungry fox, that whatever we seek from prayer, indeed whatever else we do during the day, the one irreplaceable need and desire must be that we, and all whom we know, might live forever in the joyful presence of the risen Lord.

The geese, the brothers Grimm tell us, have not yet finished their tale, for their prayer continues alleweile noch immer fort. We would do well to follow their lead, and in our prayer for salvation, of ourselves and one for another, not to imagine that our story is over, that we or anyone we meet are either safe and in the clear or beyond deliverance. What we can know is that the fox who desires to devour us need not have the final word, and when the story ends we may yet find ourselves happy and whole, able to turn the page of that tale and begin the one that never ends, turning our ceaseless petition to ceaseless praise before the throne and the Lamb once slain, who dies no more.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Easter

James 1:22-27 / John 16:23-30

Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, we are told by St James, and rightly so. However, one wonders why he needed to bother. After all, it does not seem to require the authority of Holy Writ or any special insight derived by holy inspiration or the direct, personal instruction given by the Word made flesh, risen from the dead, to see the obvious truth of this dictum. Every child hears, at some time or other, while wasting his time avoiding a clear and unmistakeable request from a parent or teacher, "Did you hear me?" In other words, we know intuitively that any true hearing calls for a doing, the failure to do indicating most generally, if not always, an antecedent failure to listen in a fruitful way. In this light, the folk wisdom that we should "walk the walk and not just talk the talk" looks as effective as any apostolic exhortation to be doers of the word.

Of course, this seemingly clear and intuitively acceptable command is somewhat troubled by the words of our Lord: If you ask the Father any thing in My name, He will give it you. That is, from this perspective, the man of faith ought to live not as though the Gospel is about a call to action so much as it is a call to petition. Here the Lord reveals to his disciples more plainly than before his divine Sonship, and as coming from that Sonship as shared with the disciples, their intimate bond with the Father, who will anticipate their every needs even as he does for his eternally-begotten Son: In that day you shall ask in My name: and I say not to you that I will ask the Father for you: for the Father Himself loveth you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came out of God. Here is seems just as obvious that the key is not doing but believing, more specifically, believing and loving, which will result in the goods which the Gospel promises being given freely and gladly by the Father at the merest asking.

The answer to this conundrum, so sadly a cause of divisions among Christians, even today, is not to prioritize either active response to the Gospel or loving belief in Jesus Christ as primary, the one over the other. Rather, we need to see, as James tells us, that there is a certain kind of knowing that comes only from doing, a certain kind of belief that only arises from a faithful response in action. The hearer of the word and not a doer he likens to a man who sees his face in a mirror but, looking away from the mirror, presently forgot what manner of man he was. Said differently, there is a kind of knowledge of self which is passing, which, focusing on the self alone ironically gains no lasting knowledge of the self. Conversely, it is by gazing not on one's self, but by looking into the perfect law of liberty and doing the works told therein, that one can come to right knowledge, not only of God and right action, but of one's own self. That is, if we would believe in and love God as he is a work in us, the only way we can do so is through living out, putting into action what we have heard in his Word.

Loving belief just is the kind of belief that responds to the word and puts in into practice, even as the blessing of the deed promised by St James just is the conformity to the Son that renders us more loveable to the Father, and in so doing places our desires and requests more in line with the good he wills to grant to us. To live by loving faith alone, then, is to live a life of works, and to be a doer of the word is to be someone who places all his faith and love in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead for our salvation.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

St Philip Neri, Confessor

Wisdom 7:7-14 / Luke 12:35-40

We are often, and rightly, suspicious when something of value comes to us too easily. We know ourselves too well, and we know that whatever we have most wanted and whatever has been most for our good has been had not without a good deal of effort, struggle, or cost. To be sure, it was a cost happily paid, a struggle gladly engaged, and effort willingly made. Even so, we assert that good things come at a cost, and so whatever comes quickly and with ease is more than likely ill gotten.
This is why, no doubt, we can find ourselves resenting those who receive great and wonderful things not by lengthy trial or by years of tiresome service, but merely by the asking. All that time, all those sacrifices, and we still produce at best mediocre work, when at the same time others are, so far as we can see, the recipients of blessings well out of proportion to their merits. However, then we hear about King Solomon and his gift of wisdom. Ironically, while the aged Solomon was notable for his folly, it was this great king in his youth to whom the riches of divine wisdom were laid bare. That is, Solomon's wisdom, his intuitive grasp of the divine pattern in all things and how each thing, both in general and in its particulars, related to everything else and to God, came merely by the asking: I wished, and understanding was given me; and I called, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me.

While we may grit our teeth in envy, waiting hopefully that such as receive good and great things easily will have their reward in a well-earned fall from grace, we are in no way to be commended for these sentiments, rather this sin of envy. The Gospel, after all, is not about the vindication of injured right, nor about the reward of lengthy work and tireless service. The Good News of Jesus Christ is rather about God's calling back all of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve to share in the divine life. To see anyone depart from a life of sorrow or darkness and embrace Jesus Christ ought for those in the faith to be only a cause for joy.

So, if we have labored long and hard to serve God and keep his commandments, only to see others who labor far less enjoy a much grander and more manifest consolation from God, this too ought to be for us a reason not for resentment, but for delight. Our keeping of God's commandments, our being asked to keep faithful vigil through the first, second, even into the third watch of the night, was never meant to be a way to curry God's favor or to win points with the Almighty. We keep faithful vigil rather because of love, because the beloved delights to do the will of her Lover.

It is, as St Philip Neri reminds us, far easier for a joyful heart to be made perfect than for a downcast one. This is why our response to goodness anywhere ought to be joy, why God may well pass over giving us consolation for our labors. What Philip Neri knew, what he tried to encourage in his fellow priests in the Oratory, and what he teaches us, is that our very service, our being able to be of good use in good cheer to the beloved poor of God is, for those made alive in the risen Christ, itself the very cause of our joy. We are to run God's commandments, when He does enlarge our hearts, rather than follow his path in the hope of a solemn recognition for the good we have done.

The sole prayer we should have, the sole consolation we ought to seek, is the sort that enjoys at one and the same time, the Gift, the Giver, and all those whom the Giver loves. It is the consolation which we gain when we pray together with Philip Neri: O my God, my love! Thou art mine and I am wholly thine. O most adorable God! Thou who hast commanded that I should love Thee; why hast thou given me only one and so narrow a heart?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Translation of our Holy Father Dominic

 2 Timothy 4:1-8 / Matthew 5:13-19

We are right to care about last wills and testaments. How someone wants to dispose of his goods after his death, how he wants his legacy to continue, should not be set lightly aside simply because a man is now dead and buried, alive perhaps unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord, but not reliably able to make his will known in this vale of tears. Indeed, we are generally and rightly disheartened by attempts to manipulate the will of one who has died, whether by contesting a legitimate will out of greed or conniving to have someone less than competent produce a final will before his death that does not represent his true or best desires.

So, this celebration by the Order of Preachers may well seem more than a little out of place. Saint Dominic, after all, was quite clear to the brethren. He wanted to be buried "under the feet of his brothers" in the choir at the convent of San Nicolò delle Vigne, and so indeed he was. However, not long after his death on 6 August 1221, his successor, Jordan of Saxony, ordered in 1233 that the body of the founder of the Order of Preachers be put in a simple, but public marble sarcophagus, located in the main church for public veneration. Nor was that the last departure from Dominic's wishes. Given the large crowds, and so as to make the holy founder's relics more accessible, a shrine was erected in 1267, decorated by the great artist Nicola Pisano, and then embellished over the centuries, including additions by Michelangelo and Filippino Lippi. The final Arca di San Domenico, while lovely to behold, and not simply for the friars of the Order of Preachers, but for the faithful in Bologna and from across the world, is without a doubt a refusal to follow the dying wishes of Saint Dominic himself.

Yet, in many ways, this translation of Dominic's relics from the floor of the choir under the feet of the brethren to a public and adorned space for the veneration and inspiration of the faithful echoes a pattern seen throughout Dominic's life. From his very first voyage out of Spain, Dominic had been seized with a desire to live as a missionary, and such was never his lot. Again and again, Dominic was asked by the friars of the Order he founded to remain their Master, and again and again Dominic yielded to their wishes. He knew that there was a wisdom in the brethren gather together in prayer greater than his own preferences and desires. He knew his obligation was not to follow merely his best ideas of how to fulfill the Lord's command, but rather, guided by the common good of the Order and the Church, to preach the word and be instant in season, out of season. It was in this way, in yielding to his deeper desire to serve the Gospel, that Dominic, never a foreign missionary, was able to say with joy and without regret, along with Saint Paul: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.

And what was this wisdom of the brethren? The brothers knew that, however holy the Order of Preacher may be collectively, it needed not only the structures and constitutions set up by Saint Dominic, nor even merely his example as something past, but, as he himself promised on his deathbed, it needed his help from heaven even now, which would be of more use to them than his presence here on earth. In other words, they saw that his earthly desire to decline, to be out of the public eye, to remain humbly with the brethren, needed to be refused even as they had refused his desire to cease leading the Order as its Master. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven. The brethren knew that the Church needed not only the Order Dominic founded, not merely a share in his charism and mission, but they needed him, his personal presence, to accompany them in their preaching and teaching, instructing and exhorting, arguing and cajoling, until and even into that time when men will no longer listen to sound teaching. It is Dominic, the man, the saint, the Light of the Church, Doctor of Truth, Rose of Patience, Ivory of Chastity, who would be with then and endure as a faithful witness for all eternity.

Laudes ergo Dominico personemus mirifico, voce plena
Clama petens suffragia, ejus sequens vestigia, plebs egena.
Sed tu Pater pie, bone, pastor gregis, et patrone, prece semper sedula,
Apud curiam summi Regis, derelicti vices gregis commenda per sæcula.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fourth Sunday after Easter

James 1:17-21 / John 16:5-14

It is today the twenty-second of May and, to the best of our knowledge, the rapture of God's saints which a preacher had predicted to have been foretold, in complex and obscure numerological codes in the Scriptures, to have occurred on the twenty-first of May did not happen. I have no doubt that, while some who believed this prediction will be disillusioned, many will find a way to account for the failure of the rapture to occur. Perhaps, as the same preacher said after his previous failed prediction of the rapture to have occurred in 1994, he miscalculated the numbers. Perhaps, as with Nineveh's conversion at the preaching of Jonah, God withheld his coming wrath for a while longer, to give a wayward world more time to repent. There will no doubt by a litany of reasons available to those who were led astray by this preacher, and they will likely prove impervious to criticism or to doubt.

To much of the unbelieving world, this predicted rapture of God's saints was not an example of a peculiar aberration of Christian belief. It was not and will not be seen to show that one cannot just make the faith to be whatever we want it to be. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians past and present have never accepted that the "rapture" of which the preacher spoke is even part of God's revelation will not sway them. Rather, they are likely to see in this small group of Christians the very paradigm of what religious faith is like, namely, belief without any rational grounds in something fundamentally unreal, which belief is so irrational that it resists even the most evident proof of its falsity.

Now, the desire for a more empirically certain revelation, of a technique which admits to number crunching and demonstrable evidence even for the unbeliever, is a tempting one. Many Christians might find themselves wishing that perhaps, in his Scriptures and in his Incarnation, God might have been a tad more undeniable by the world. However much we may understand this desire, we must nonetheless reject it. After all, we affirm with St James that every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with Whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration. We have received, in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, suffered, buried, and risen from the dead, not simply a signpost to a higher truth, but the very truth of God himself. More than that, in his merciful coming among us, dying for our sake, and rising from the dead, we who have been chosen in his grace and receive him in faith are not left untouched. We are rather begotten anew by the word of truth, that we might be some beginning of His creature.

There, then, is the rub, the point at which we chafe and struggle. While we want to assert our own maturity, our own sophistication, our own depth of understanding, God, who will one day bring us to the fulness of life, has for now made of us only a beginning of what lies in store for us. As Christ told his apostles at the Last Supper, I have yet many things to say to you; but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will teach you all truth. Dead to sin, casting away all uncleanness and abundance of naughtiness in the death of baptism, and rising up from that watery tomb as born again from a womb to new and eternal life, we are, even those who have lived decades, a whole lifetime in the faith on earth, only experiencing the beginning of what God plans to make of us. The Spirit will, in his grace, make us conformed one day to the image of the Son, of Jesus Christ in his glory, but now is the time for us to be formed, day by day, year by year.

This, then, is the attitude of the Christian, that we be swift to hear but slow to speak and slow to anger. That we wait on the voice of the Spirit to us, not as though awaiting a new and clearer revelation, something that has not already been made known in Christ Jesus, but that we, made more conformed to him by the Spirit, may come to grow in knowledge and love, and what Christ has done will be for us less opaque, less distant, more gloriously apparent: For He shall not speak of Himself: but what things soever He shall hear he shall speak, and the things that are to come, He shall show you. To be a Christian, to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ risen from the dead, is to enter into a lifetime of listening, to follow the Spirit's lead, hearing from the Spirit even as the Spirit listens to the Son and the Son to the Father. It is in our receptivity to the gift and knowledge that God wishes to impart, with the clarity and assurance that God wants to give, not in our assertion to unpack and decode hidden and arcane secrets from the Scriptures, that we will be made ready for the glorious return of the Lord.

With meekness receive the ingrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

St Francis Coll y Guitart, O.P., Confessor

Ecclesiasticus 31:8-11 / Luke 12:35-40

How well do we hold up to our convictions and commitments when no one expects us to do so? When we find ourselves in a time or a place where doing, daily, what we have pledged to do is made not merely inconvenient, but difficult, and yet we have no a community to support or even give witness to our efforts, how quickly do we compromise, and perhaps even abandon what we have set out to do? It's not so hard, after all, to find ourselves, now a month into the season of Easter, in just that situation. During Lent, of course, we may have had support, in the liturgy, in the precepts of the Church, and in the company of our neighbors who share the faith, to remain true to our commitment in our Baptism, to renew our lives where they had fallen short and strive to reach a deeper engagement with the Gospel. In the initial glow of Easter, we no doubt found the joy to sustain those hopes, no longer in the context of Lenten asceticism, but in the glorious Good News of the empty Tomb. Yet now, when time has passed, when no one seems to ask anything much of us or expect more than the minimum, when we perhaps even discourage anything out of the ordinary in our lives, thinking more of the summer vacation than of Christ risen from the grave, where have those commitments gone?

Today we thank God for the witness of St Francis Coll y Guitart, O.P. A diocesan seminarian in the early nineteenth century in Spain, he joined the Order of Preachers, made solemn profession, and was on his way to priestly ordination when, in 1835, the State suppressed all Catholic religious orders and disbanded the Dominican house of studies where Francis lived. Separated from his community and the structures and rhythms of religious life, Francis completed his priestly formation in a diocesan seminary and served initially as a parish priest. However, he never forgot his solemn profession, and while the State might have been able to dissolve the Order materially, it had no power to free him from a vow made to God, the Blessed Virgin, St Dominic, and his successors, to live in obedience according to the Rule of St Augustine and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers until death. Indeed, he eventually became an intinerant preacher, as well as the founder of a congregation of Dominican sisters who would teach the young where he had gone to preach. So faithful had he been to Dominican life, even while the State had officially abolished it and no one would have begrudged his simply having adopted the patterns of the secular clergy, that when religious orders were restored in 1872, nearly forty years later, his unbroken commitment to the life of the Order allowed the newly-restored community to begin its life almost at once, as though there had been no suppression.

What Ecclesiastus says of the blessed man can thus rightly be said of St Francis Coll: he that could have transgressed, and hath not transgressed: and could do evil things, and hath not done them. So also does his lifetime of fidelity in the midst not so much of open persecution as suppression and neglect, rightly echoes the blessed servant spoken of by the Lord Jesus Christ, who remains faithful not merely during the first watch, but the second and the third as well. He was indeed ready for the coming of the Son of man, and in that watchfulness, even without the benefit of the very regular life to which he remained faithful, the Order could restore its witness to the faithful in Spain.

There is of course no formula to let us know how to maintain our commitments when the means of doing so are taken from us. There is no easy way to know what we might adapt, what we ought to keep strictly, what we can morally let slide. The gift of prudence is never so important as during such times. Even so, in St Francis Coll, we can have confidence that our continued witness to promises no one much expects us to keep — the religious deprived of her community, the husband whose spouse obtained from him a civil divorce, the falsely accused removed from her ministry — will not be fruitless, not without its reward. Therefore are his goods established in the Lord, says Ecclesiasticus, and so say we even more boldly in light of the Resurrection, and all the Church of the Saints shall declare his alms.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

St Venantius, Martyr

Wisdom 5:1-5 / John 15:1-7

According to legend, the tormentors of St Venantius, a mere boy of fifteen years, were not satisfied to end his life directly by beheading, which was the fate he ultimately met. Rather, the sufferings of the young and faithful servant of Christ read as a grim and gruesome litany of torture: scourging, burning by torches, and hanging upside-down over flames. In a perverse reversal of dentistry, he had his teeth knocked out and his jaw broken. He was thrown to the lions to be mauled, but not slain, and subsequently thrown from a cliff. Only then was the fatal blow struck.

Were it not for the cruel, and cruelly efficient, regimes of torture crafted in the twentieth century, and given new vigor at the dawn of the twenty-first, we might be left unable to make any sense of the sufferings of Venantius. Indeed, we could be tempted to dismiss them as pious elaboration, a kind of gilded masochism in which the faithful of days past delighted. We might even find ourselves laughing, unable to handle this vision of a sustained assault on the dignity of the human person without the refuge of gallows humor.

On the other hand we could turn away from the dark scenes of Venantius' burned, broken, and savaged body with a renewed vigor to call out and resist the regimes of torture which still exist today, which are deployed even now on our behalf and in the name of our nations on those suspected of being, or even proven to be, enemies of the State. Make no mistake, torture, less public and extravagant than the sufferings of Venantius, but no less dehumanizing, no less intended to assault and dissolve the victim to his very core of personhood, no less directed at violating and all but eliminating his reason and his will, are committed even now, and in the name of free peoples as well as of tyrants.

To be sure, God does bring pain to his saints. In the language of our Lord Jesus Christ, Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He will take away: and every one that beareth fruit, He will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Purging and pruning may indeed make things more fruitful, but a plant repeatedly pruned needs the constant tending of the vinedresser to keep its growth from becoming unruly. One must imagine that, could it feel, the plant would hardly enjoy its purging. However, God, who works not only without, but also within, can heal and restore us. He can transform who we are, so that the pains we endure in him are not merely compensated for, but actually become, at one and the same time, our penance and our sharing in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. God, that is, fulfills our prayer that we be conformed to his Son, and that means being conformed to his suffering as well, to then be made like him in his Resurrection.

We however, whether as private persons or in the collective authority of the State to promote and defend the common good, have no capacity to work on human persons from within. By God's grace, the permission of Venantius' suffering served for his sanctification and glory and the confounding of his enemies. In the hidden and desolate chambers of torture maintained by the State, there is no like font of grace. The desire to break another human person so that he might no only manifest anything he knows and then, being irredeemably broken and harmless, be cast aside, the mere residue of a man, has nothing in common with God's providence. The terrible but redeeming work of suffering in the hands of God may be inscrutable, but they are, received by grace in charity, the means by which our personhood is uplifted, transformed, united to the joy of the abundant life of the risen Christ. The work of the torturer, the criminal or the State-appointed practitioner of coercive interrogation, has only the end to unwork, to undo, to reverse the wondrous marvel that is a rational animal, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, made according to the image and likeness of God. Even more so than execution, which can oddly enough respect the person by allowing his dignity in defiance, torture assaults the very means by which the human person echoes the Word, Jesus Christ, in his flesh, in his reason and will, in his power to hope and love.

We can, of course, know the power of Resurrection even when subject to the worst violations of our persons. After all, this is among the reasons Christ endured the Passion for our sake. What we cannot do is twist our heart after the likeness of the torturer and image that such a heart will survive the Lord's pruning. Change it must, or be cut off forever.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Third Sunday after Easter

1 Peter 2:11-19 / John 16:16-22

In the first centuries of the Church, neither the Jews nor the Gentiles in the Roman Empire knew quite what to make of Christians. On the one hand, Christians seemed decidedly what they were before accepting Christ: Jew, Greek, Egyptian, Roman, African, Libyan, and so on. They had no distinctive clothing, they ate as had their fathers and mothers before them, they spoke as did others among their people. In this sense, to be Christian seemed to mean that very little had changed. On the other hand, Christians seemed irredeemably distinct. The refusal to worship any gods but God, and the worship of Jesus as God, put them at odds with both Jews and Gentiles, both of whom saw in Christianity a gross and culpable betrayal of the worship handed on from of old. To have diversity of worship did not offend the Roman world, and apart from the Jews, to take on another or foreign cult was altogether acceptable. However, to reject the gods of one's ancestors, and encourage others to do likewise, was the crime of atheism, and it smelled of treason.

Even so, what all detractors of the Christian faith had to admit was the admirable way of life, the upright moral example of the Christian people. They married once, and did not dismiss their wives. They manumitted their slaves, and indeed ate and worshipped with them. They did not commit abortion or expose their infants to the elements and wild animals to remove an undesired child from their lives. They cared for their poor and hungry, even when they had little themselves. They held one another as brother and sister, no matter the difference in race or class, language or occupation. So, in spite of the puzzle of Christian identity, the Gospel received its best hearing when Christians themselves lived lives of conspicuous charity.

This, of course, is the counsel we hear today from St Peter. Peter, as a Jew, new the ways the people of Rome and their subjects could deride the faith of Israel. As a Christian, he knew that this derision could and would turn ugly and painful. While not one to avoid conflict if the only other option were silencing the Gospel, Peter nonetheless knew the virtue of prudence. He knew what it was to have the good sense of when to strike a challenging or oppositional pose, and when to live in peace and quiet. In fact, he knew all too well that riotous, unedifying living on the part of Christians was just the excuse his Gentile neighbors would need to turn away from a Good News they so desperately needed to hear. If a Christian could live as a good and faithful citizen, a faithful subject even of a hostile, pagan power, knowing that all power comes from Christ the King, then the Gentiles might be willing to set aside their prejudices, see the virtues embodied in the Church, repent, and believe.

We have much to learn today from Peter's advice. Whatever the causes, however rightly or wrongly earned, the reputation of the Church in the West is bruised, if not broken, tarnished, of not altogether blackened. There are some who find in the Catholic faith the very enemy of human flourishing, and such persons, even if not increasing in numbers, are increasing in volume. Others who may well have no ill will against us will nonetheless want to see if the claims are true, if the Church is indeed the enemy of peace and rational living.

Now, we know that the enemies of the Church are wrong. We also know that the curious onlooker and observer should ask even deeper questions, not merely about peaceful citizenship but about eternal life and the promise of the Resurrection in Jesus Christ. However, they need a reason to hear. They need a reason to think that what we believe, that the living faith that works in charity through being born again in Jesus Christ risen from the dead actually makes a difference, not on a far-off time and place, but here and now, in our everyday activity. This is why we today, like the Christians of old at once citizens in the world and strangers and pilgrims nonetheless, must heed Peter's call to refrain ... from carnal desires, which war against the soul, having our conversation good among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against us as evildoers, they may, by the good works which they shall behold in us, glorify God in the day of visitation.

O God, Who to those that go astray dost show the light of Thy truth, that they may return to the path of justice: grant that all who are enrolled in the Christian faith may both spurn all that is hostile to that name and follow after what is fitting to it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Blessed news in the Dominican Province of Saint Albert the Great (U.S.A.)

Two bits of news. Today is my fifth anniversary of priestly ordination!

Second, three of my brothers in the Province of Saint Albert the Great will be ordained to the priesthood today in Saint Louis, Missouri. Their names are Dominic McManus, O.P., Cassian Sama, O.P., and Joseph Minuth, O.P.. Pray for them, and give thanks with me to God for the gift of Holy Orders! Continue to pray for a bounty of vocations to my province!