Monday, December 29, 2014

Francis' Merry Christmas: Christians 15; Lions 0

Pope Francis and the Christmas 

I remember the afternoon that Josef Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI.  It was a Tuesday afternoon—almost, one could say, in the declining April sun, early evening.  The white smoke had plumed out of the Sistine Chapel about 4:45 pm and I had taken my place on the roof of the Jesuit Curia on the Borgo Santo Spirito where RTE, the Irish National Broadcasting Network, had set up their cameras and microphones to cover the news in Saint Peter’s Square below.  I was doing some consulting for RTE and other networks and it was all very thrilling.  We knew a Pope had been elected but we didn’t yet know whom.  We had presumed it would be Cardinal Ratzinger but as the first day and a half of the conclave had passed with (presumably) 10 ballots and no quick conclusion, we weren’t sure the frontrunner was going to emerge after all.  It would, of course, be Ratzinger/Benedict but, at this point, we were waiting anxiously for the announcement.  We had Cardinal Dulles all lined up to speak once the announcement was made, but as they tried to fill to awkward time between the smoke and the announcement, one of the commentators suddenly had a camera put on me and asked “Who do you think the new Pope will be?”  I had no idea, of course, and said so, adding “I can’t tell you who we will get, but I can tell you what we need.  We need someone who get in there and clean out that rats’ nest of pezzi grossi monsignori that calls itself the Curia Romana.” My friends have long known that I lack that part of the brain that filters what one says, and anyone who knows me would never put me live in front of a microphone, much less on camera.  What I didn’t know until Irish friends called and told me later that day, is that in the Dublin studio was Bishop John Magee, then Bishop of Cloyne, who had served long in Vatican administration and had been private secretary to three popes (Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II).  Magee is the only person in Vatican history to have served as private secretary to three popes.  Magee was obviously displeased at my remarks about “that rats’ nest of pezzi grossi monsignors” and even more so when the Dublin commentator asked him if he had been one of those pezzi grossi monsignors.  He had, of course, and it served him well over the years; he “resigned” under Benedict because of his duplicity in covering up sex abuse charges in his diocese—the orders for which had come from that very same “rats’ nest,” the Curia Romana. 
Well, one Conclave later it looks like we got the Pope we need to clean up the rats’ nest.  One of his first actions as Pope was for Francis to appoint a commission of eight cardinals to look closely at the Curia and see how it might be reformed.  While this seems to be primarily a matter of reorganization and streamlining of the bureaucracy, Francis has not overlooked the issue of moral reform as well.  He has moved and removed people who appeared to him to be more career than service oriented or who have been suspect of using their positions for financial gain.  He has ordered drastic reforms of the Vatican Bank and its practices.  But the greatest surprise—and most heartening sign of his determination—came in the Christmas message to the Curia just three days before Christmas.  Beginning with a pro forma pious reflection on the feast and the usual congratulations and thanks to those who work in the Curia, he soon swung into the most unexpected, indeed revolutionary, set of reflections that a pope has given in the recorded history of the Church.
Pope Francis named fifteen “diseases” that are eating away at the health of the Church and located these diseases right in the middle of what some of us have long seen as the Excretory System of the Mystical Body, the Curia Romana. 
To quote the Pope, the first of these ailments is:
  The disease of thinking we are “immortal”, “immune” or downright “indispensable”, neglecting the need for regular check-ups. A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body. A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable! It is the disease of the rich fool in the Gospel, who thought he would live forever (cf. Lk 12:13-21), but also of those who turn into lords and masters, and think of themselves as above others and not at their service. It is often an effect of the pathology of power, from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the image of God on the face of others, especially the weakest and those most in need. The antidote to this plague is the grace of realizing that we are sinners and able to say heartily: “We are unworthy servants. We have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10).
Anyone who has lived in Rome knows precisely what the Holy Father is addressing here.  It is a profound challenge to dress in red silk and Brussels lace with a large amethyst on your pinkie and silver buckles on your shoes and be led to your little gilt chair by two uniformed Swiss Guards and a white-tie and tailed Gentleman of His Holiness and remember you are a mere mortal.  All the bowing and scraping and Eminenza this and Eccelenza that throws all but the most holy into a parallel universe where, to say in genteel terms what I would like to say in street talk, their feces doesn’t reek and they have an august importance beyond mere mortals.  In the Curia of John Paul II and Benedict, those aforementioned pezzi grossi monsignors sitting enthroned behind their desks in some Vatican palazzo or other, could make Archbishops tremble with knocked knees by their imperious irreverence as they paged through dossiers making wild accusations and refusing to name their sources.  And as for arrogance: “We do not speak to the help” was one memo sent to a visiting priest from the Emirates who had dared to speak to an elevator operator in the presence of a Cardinal Secretary of a Congregation.  So thank you, Pope Francis, for calling out the pride of men who claim to be the disciples of the one who came to serve and not to be served.  Hopefully your mission of Reform will be accomplished but it certainly will be remembered. 
Thank you even more for the antidote: the grace of realizing that we are sinners.  This fits all of us.  We need to see that while the Church is the spotless bride of the Lamb, we ourselves, as individual members of that Church each carry our own burden of sin.  As we realize this, truly realize it, we are not so anxious to cast the first stone at someone else.  The “Who am I to judge” spirituality of Francis begins to make profound sense as I become not ready to condemn or even offer my own opinion about another, but only anxious for others and myself to together find the tender and accepting mercy of God and some desire down in our deepest being to turn away from sin and be the person this loving God has created me to be.  I am no longer anxious to keep others from Grace, and especially from the Eucharist, as I know that every Holy Communion, even for the best of us, is to some degree “sacrilegious”; and every Holy Communion, even for the most sinful, is an Encounter with the immeasurable Love of God.  But it is only when we have looked squarely at our own moral fractures that we can understand this.  So perhaps if some of those tired old souls would take off their red dresses and look hard and honestly at themselves for whom they truly are, the tone that Pope Francis is trying to set would catch on and we could get the wagons rolling again towards the Kingdom of God.  

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Thank You Dear Sisters For Empowering Today's Youth

The Madames at the NYC 
Convent of the Sacred Heart 
on 91st St "Back in the day"

I had some ties to the Convent of the Sacred Heart School on Manhattan’s upper east side back in the late ‘80’s.  Even then I was impressed.  Here you had high-school girls from the wealthiest families in New York volunteering in AIDS shelters back in the day when Doctors were refusing to treat HIV positive patients for fear of a disease we did not yet understand.  This was a school that turned girls into women and prepared them to take their place at the top echelons of whatever career they chose to go into.  But then that was the way that the Religious of the Sacred Heart—those nuns in “back in the day” were known simply as “The Madames”-- approached education.  They were the drill sergeants of the Church’s women marines and they weren’t going to waste their time on the arts of Eisenhower-era housewifery.  So I was delighted a month ago or so to see the following article appear on the local newstation:    
Some high school students in Manhattan are using their math lessons to lend a literal helping hand.  They've created and built a prosthetic using a 3-D printer.  It's not your traditional high school math class. Instead, it's a brilliant blend of math, engineering and problem solving, all with a purpose. With the help of a state-of-the-art 3-D printer and a group called E-NABLE, students at Sacred Heart are now constructing prosthetic hands for children in need.
"It makes you want to go to math class every day, as funny as that might sound," one student said."
And how it all works is surprisingly simple and inexpensive. Through E-NABLE, the students were matched with 16-year-old Justyn, who needs two hands made, as well as Nathanial and Isaac, who are both 6 and need one hand each.  By calculating and scaling each boy's measurements and taking into account their unique personalities, the kids have been creating custom designs.
"We're designing him a Wolverine X-Men-themed hand, which is really exciting," one said.  They are designs that can easily become a reality with the help of the printer.  According to teacher, Tanya Lerch
"One of the biggest things you get that makes you cringe as a teacher is that question, of when are we going to use this in the real world," "So to suddenly have this project where they not only saw how it was helping the real world, but there was a real person receiving it on the other end."
When Lerch first heard of the E-NABLE project, she knew her students would jump on board. Now, the all-girls school on the Upper East Side is one of only a select few in the country participating in the project.
"They're using their heart, they're using their brain, they're here after school working hard when they don't have to be, I think it was a really nice change of pace for them to do something that is helping someone else, and to see that engineering can be used for the good of people."
It's truly a labor of love that will undoubtedly be well received this holiday season. In fact, Nathanial is planning to visit the school next Friday to receive his custom prosthetic in person.
"We take having hands for granted so often, at least I know I do, so I think the fact that we can give a little boy a hand that he doesn't have, it's something that's so simple and absolutely amazing," one student said.
And believe it or not, this is not an expensive endeavor. Granted, these aren't medical-grade prosthetics, but they're functional and only cost about $20 a hand to create.  The staff at Sacred Heart hopes upon seeing this, more schools will jump on board.
The Religious of the Sacred Heart, by the way, are members of LCWR.  This is one of the things that causes the fear and anxiety about the modern nuns of people ranging from Archbishop Lori and Cardinal Burke all the way down the ladder to the Katholik Krazies like our friends at Restore DC Catholicism and The Tenth Crusade (which apparently has moved back to its previous name from being—for a while—What The Pope Really Said.  Why do so many people fear competent nuns?  Is it because they serve as the perfect foil for us to see the incompetency of so many priests and bishops?  Whatever the reason, we need more women like the Religious of the Sacred Heart that can give our future generation both a mission and the tools with which to accomplish it  

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Once Again, Sheldon Cooper Solves the Paradox

Last Saturday evening I caught an episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon reaches through a wormhole into a series of parallel universes in an attempt to discern whether there is life there.  It is actually a practical joke he is playing on Howard and Raj who are invading his privacy to satisfy their own curiosity and it plays out quite funny.  I will come back to this point, trust me. 
Then I read an article on the internet Sunday morning giving the reasons that Americans are becoming a secularized nation and rejecting religious beliefs.  I wish that I could have found the article Sunday evening when I sat down to write this blog and if it sounds familiar to any of you readers, please send me the link. 
The article claimed that scientists and philosophers are in a consensus that humankind has outgrown religion.  Science sees the claims of religion not only as improvable but as unfounded in a world where science has unlocked the mysteries of human existence.  Indeed, the author asserts,  religious claims are clearly in conflict with scientific knowledge and thus without credibility.  Philosophers, for their part, range from the materialist atheism of Diderot with an absolute denial of a Deity to the Enlightenment concept of a Deity who sets the clockworks of the universe in motion and then withdraws from its running its course to the Jeffersonian concept that God and Religion have a crucial role to play in the establishment of a moral order for those persons unlike themselves who are not sufficiently intelligent or moral to arrive at a natural understanding of human ethics.
I am probably not doing the article justice—I only had time to read it once before it disappeared in “the Cloud” or wherever things go these days and I don’t mean to dismiss it.  To the contrary I found it a compelling argument despite its troubling thesis.  I wasn’t overly impressed by statistics such as the claim that only 7% of scientists are religious believers; statistics as every historian knows can be cooked to come up with whatever results supports our thesis.  But the article did make me stop and think and I had fully intended to go back to it after Mass and give it a second and third read.  Again, if anyone can help me find the article, I would be interested.   
What interrupted my reading the article, ironically, is that I wanted to go to Mass.  Our parish has a monthly Mass for “Families with Special Needs”—kids with Autism, Downs Syndrome, and other life challenges.  This was the pre-Christmas Mass and the number seemed to have doubled—perhaps about 250 people, about 35 or so who are “Special Needs” and the rest being their family, friends, and parishioners whose ministry is the liturgy and social that follows.  The Mass is pretty lively—it is also somewhat chaotic as the normal conventions of social behavior don’t apply.  One never knows what little bit of theatre will play out but that is precisely why we have this Mass.  Parents can bring their families to Church without worrying if some outburst or other activity will disturb the other worshipers.  We all know the fundamentals of the game at this Mass before we cross the church threshold.
But as I watched that congregation in Church and thought about the academics who are becoming evangelists for the rising secularism of our post-Christian culture, I could only think back to Sheldon and his wormhole into various parallel universes and it hit me how we believers and our non-believing friends live in parallel universes.  The Special Needs faithful and their families would not have any interest in what the Philosophical and Scientific communities supposedly are saying about religion.  They wouldn’t (for the most part) understand it and, more important, it would ring false to their experience.  And the academics (and remember I know those ivory towers well having spent my years in the club) are, for the most part, clueless about what it means to live a life of 24/7 responsibility for someone who faces the sorts of challenges that a parent or family member of a “Special Needs” individual has.  I am not saying that one is right and the other is wrong.  Each system has its own internal cohesion, but the reality coordinates differ in each universe.  I also know from attending these monthly Masses which universe I want to live in—which universe has the reality coordinates that ring most true to my experience and in which universe I might not find sure and fixed answers to speculative questions, but where I do find meaning for life. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas--God So Loved The World That He Sent His Only Son

Well, we finally finished the series on what an evangelical renewal of Religious Life might look at.  I was relieved to hear from one reader, Olllddude, that he (I presume a he) “really enjoyed” it because my readership went waaaay down over the two weeks or so I was posting it. It just isn’t as sexy as calling out the krazies or hitting issues like who gets to go to Holy Communion or just how many silk worms have laid down their lives so that Cardinal Burke can cut his dashing figure at Christmas Midnight Mass.   Nevertheless, I am glad to have written it because I believe that the renewal of Religious Life is a top priority for a renewal of the Church.  Love ‘em or leave ‘em, the Nuns on the Bus and the LCWR mavens arguing with the plump prelates of the CDF get the rest of us thinking, arguing, and looking at the issues.  And if these same women—and the guy Religious too—got their act together in terms of a truly evangelical life-style that shook the rest of us out of our cultural complacency, I think our Church would be something very different.  Not only would our favorite member of the Sacred College find himself under inpatient care for his wardrobe affectations that are somewhat of a hybrid of Louis XIV and Lady Gaga, but we would be freed of the web woven by the culture wars that are confusing the platform of the Religious Right for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in how we reach out to Gays, the Remarried, the Cohabitating, and those for whom English is a second language.  But enough about all that for now.  I want to get to the purpose of this particular posting. 
Purpose of this particular posting, Oh! I almost forgot: Merry Christmas.  Let’s remember that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  God did not send his Son to condemn the World, but so that the World might be saved through him.  Not my original idea, but it works so well, I want to borrow it.
About a week and a half ago I had a response from a reader named Christopher.  Christopher got a little itchy about my not responding right away, but that was, I assured him, because I didn’t want just to do a response hidden away beneath the posting to which he was reacting, but to do a posting on the questions he raised  about several of my entries, and in particular about my claim that the translation “for many” is not a good translation of the “pro multis” found in the Latin text of the Mass because the “pro multis” itself is a faulty translation of the Greek original.  But before I go further, let me post Christopher’s remarks. 
I've read your back posts concerning 'pro multis', and you're simply mistaken in your reading of the Greek. The phrase which is rendered into Latin as 'pro multis' is not, as you state, 'hoi polloi' ("the many" or "the multitude") but 'peri pollwn', which can only mean "for many" or "on behalf of many" (which is why it's rendered precisely as such in modern translations of the New Testament, which are based directly on the Greek). And while "for many" CAN be interpreted with a Calvinist slant, it need not be. It's perfectly consistent with the Catholic belief that those who, in fact, are reprobate need not have been and could have freely availed themselves of salvation through Christ. Your preferred translation of "for all," however, is extremely problematic, since the only way you can rule out universal salvation (if indeed you wish to rule it out) is to say that Christ's suffering was at least partially in vain (i.e., his suffering for those who would nonetheless reject salvation on Foundations of the Anglican Church XCVIX
Well, let me begin by coming clean.  When I referred to the Greek word πολλοι I referred to it in the nominative case. (Greek, unlike English, is a highly inflected language, which means that a word changes its case (nouns or adjectives) or tense (verb) depending on its role in the sentence.  A noun, or the adjective that agrees with it, which is the subject of the sentence is in the “nominative case.”  A noun (and its adjectives) which is object of the action of the verb, is in the “accusative case.” And so on, there being distinct cases for indirect objects, to imply possession, to follow certain prepositions etc.  This exists only barely in English but we can find remnants of inflection in pronouns: “I” am the subject of this sentence.   But when you are talking about “me” you might need to use the accusative case following the preposition “about.”  When you give “me” a gift you also would use the accusative case since “me” refers to the object of the action of the verb “give.”   (Actually, that could be a dative since I am the indirect object and not the direct object of the verb, but we don’t have a dative in English and thus the indirect object in English is in the accusative case. And now of course that gift is “mine” which is the possessive form of the pronoun “I.”   I hope you get this concept because in all honesty as a freshman in high school starting Latin I, it was the most difficult concept for me to grasp.  Even though I instinctively get it right in English 99.9% of the time, I never really understood it until well into Latin III.  And then there was Greek.  And German.  And Hebrew.  Fortunately French and Italian are not so highly inflected—they are more like English but you still have to watch out a bit. 
In any case, when referring to a noun in a foreign language the convention is that one refers to it in the nominative case regardless of how it is used in the sentence.  And so I referred to ‘οι πολλοι in the nominative when in fact it is, as Christopher points out πολλϖν, the genitive (possessive) case in the Greek.  The reason that it is in the genitive is that it follows the preposition περι which means, “concerning” and περι takes the genitive case when it means “about” or “concerning.”   That provides us with the first level of our answer. (Just in case you feel like we have slipped through the looking glass, be assured that in academics this surrealism is our version of normal.  Just think of what it would have been like if Sheldon Cooper had gone into Liberal Arts rather than Physics.) 
It has been a long time since I studied last studied Greek (44 years to be precise) though I do remember hashing all this out again when I did my theological work. But just to be sure, I went over the classical languages department and sat down with one of our Greek scholars and had him review it with me. 
Whereas when one refers to a noun in the nominative in Greek, as in English, one usually places the article, in this case ‘οι (which means “the”), the article would not normally be used in Koine Greek after the preposition περι.  (Koine is the Greek dialect used throughout much of the eastern end of the Roman Empire at the time the Christian Scriptures [as well as the Old Testament Septuagint] were composed.  Koine distinguishes the popular Greek of the Graeco-Roman world from the Attic Greek of Thucydides (5th century BC) or the archaic Ionic of Homer in an even earlier period.  The significance is not in the absence of the yet implied οι” in the word πολλοι (genitive: πολλϖν) itself.  While it means “many” it is not, as it is in English, an adjective nor as in the Words of Institution, an adjective acting as a noun (poured out for you and for many).  The word πολλοι, or more properly, ‘οι πολλοι is a noun and it  means not “many” in a restrictive sense, but “a multitude,” or “the masses,” or in the phrase of Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton Bulwer (only an Englishman could carry such a name) and much cherished by Winston Churchill: “the great unwashed.”  There is not a universality but an inclusivity built into the word at which the English “many” fails.
So how do we translate it.  The French have, I believe, done it best: pour la multitude.   The problem with a prayer that says that Christ’s blood was shed for “many” is that Christ did not die for many.  He in fact died for all.  This does not mean that all accept the salvation offered them in Christ’s blood, but it is our Catholic faith that the Redemptive Sacrifice offered by Christ on Calvary and renewed in each Mass is sufficient for the salvation of humankind. 
The problem with universal salvation—that all will be saved—is that ultimately it denies freedom of the will.  If we are all saved then we have no choice but to accept the Love of God.  Going back to the beginning of the third century, the Christian tradition condemned this teaching that all are saved precisely because it robs us of our freedom of the will.  Universal salvation requires that we are ultimately compelled to love God and be loved by him for all eternity.  There is no shortage of Catholics greats—including Saint Thérèse if Lisieux who, in forfeit of proper catechesis, so believed however.  And of course, while we cannot hold that all people will be saved we can hope that each person will be saved, the end result being somewhat the same while the later formula leaves the individual’s freedom of will intact. 
When Innocent X condemned Jansenism in 1653 this issue of Christ dying for all, many, some, or a few was raised.  The Jansenists, who in their Catholic mutation of Calvin’s heresy of double predestination, claimed that it conformed to the Semipelagian heresy to claim that Christ died or shed his blood for all men.  Pope Innocent condemned that proposition of Janesnism, and in so doing established that our Catholic faith does indeed claim that Christ died/shed his blood, for all.  Kontemporary Katholic Krazieism today is nothing other than a strain of Jansenism redivivus.  The fuss over the Words of Institution asserting that Christ died for all was a thorn in their double-predestination side as it means that all people are (potentially) saved in as much as Christ’s redemptive act is sufficient for the salvation of all.  Again, remember, though that our free will enables us to reject the gift.    And since the inadequate “for many” translation has been revived in the current translation of the Roman Missal, the krazies in their sermons, talks, blogs, and videos have used the liturgical text to advance their Jansenist poison claiming that the liturgy makes it clear that Christ did not die for all but only for those who will be saved.  I have noticed that since the ascendency of Pope Francis, more and more elements of the previous translation are slipping back into the Mass.  I for one am glad to see many priests going back to the “for all.” 
That being said, let’s slip from the rabbit hole back into the light of day—Christmas Day—and celebrate that wonderful mysterium fidei:  God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  God did not send his Son to condemn the World, but so that the World might be saved through him.   God’s Will, whatever our freedom, is that all people be saved.