Monthly Archives: September 2011

Is the Church Dying?

Pope Benedict’s talk to German Lay Catholics at the end of his visit to that country this September addressed the decline in church membership and structures. Providence is at work the pope said. God is cleansing the church from worldliness for the next step in its mission.

“ One could almost say that history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularization, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform.

“Secularizing trends – whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like – have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she has set aside her worldly wealth and has once again completely embraced her worldly poverty. In this the Church has shared the destiny of the tribe of Levi, which according to the Old Testament account was the only tribe in Israel with no ancestral land of its own, taking as its portion only God himself, his word and his signs. At those moments in history, the Church shared with that tribe the demands of a poverty that was open to the world, in order to be released from her material ties: and in this way her missionary activity regained credibility.

“History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from her material and political burdens, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour.

“The missionary task, which is linked to Christian worship and should determine its structure, becomes more clearly visible. The Church opens herself to the world not in order to win men for an institution with its own claims to power, but in order to lead them to themselves by leading them to him of whom each person can say with Saint Augustine: he is closer to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions, III, 6, 11).”

We need wisdom like this to face decline in the Church and its institutions today.

Learning from the Bible

In my last blog I mentioned an article about Catholics reading the bible. They don’t read it much, in fact, and those who do may read it as biblical fundamentalists do. The author quoted from a 1998 report from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the pope’s advisors in biblical  matters, which said that “Fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide.”

It can also lead to political damage as well according to an article in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times today “Why the AntiChrist Matters in Politics” by Matthew Avery Sutton.

Especially in troubled times, some may see political consequences in the bible and its prophecies that really aren’t there.

“Biblical criticism, the return of Jews to the Holy Land, evolutionary science and World War I convinced them that the second coming of Jesus was imminent. Basing their predictions on biblical prophecy, they identified signs, drawn especially from the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation, that would foreshadow the arrival of the last days: the growth of strong central governments and the consolidation of independent nations into one superstate led by a seemingly benevolent leader promising world peace.

This leader would ultimately prove to be the Antichrist, who, after the so-called rapture of true saints to heaven, would lead humanity through a great tribulation culminating in the second coming and Armageddon. Conservative preachers, evangelists and media personalities of the 20th century, like Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, shared these beliefs.”

Last week was catechetical Sunday, marking the beginning of our religious education program at St.Mary’s. We blessed our catechists who are going to be involved in the religious education of our young people.

But religious education involves more than young people. All of us are called to grow in our faith and live what we believe. Unfortunately, as adults we may see faith as something you learn as a child in school or in a religious education program and you never have to learn about it again.

The Catholic writer Frank Sheed said the problem with adult Catholics is that they don’t keep engaged in the faith they learned as children. He used the example of our eyes. We have two eyes. Let’s say one of them is the eye of faith; the other is the eye of experience.

As children, with a religious education, we may  see the world with two eyes; but as adults losing our engagement with faith we gradually come to see the world only with the eye of experience. We lose the focus that faith gives, another dimension. We won’t see right. Faith is what  helps us to see.

“You are all learners,” Jesus said to his disciples in the gospel. It’s not just children who learn, all of us learn. We are lifelong learners. Lifelong believers, engaged believers, struggling believers, even till the end.

One of the areas we have to learn about today in the Catholic Church is the Bible. It’s there every Sunday and every day of the week. It’s our new catechism and prayerbook, one of the gifts our church gives us.  We need to learn about it and pray from it as much as we can.

What Do The Scriptures Mean?

An article in a recent issue of the Jesuit magazine, America,  discussed the way American Catholics read the scriptures. Actually, they don’t read them very much or know much about the writings we call the Word of God, the author, Brian B. Pinter, says. Also, many Catholics who do read the scriptures, read them  literally, like fundamentalists. But the Pontifical Bible Commission in 1993, Pinter points out, said  “Fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide.”

Last summer the pope urged Catholics to take up and read the scriptures. It wasn’t a pious wish, he was dead serious. As the Word of God the scriptures nourish our faith and help us know God’s will. The scriptures are our new catechism and our new prayerbook.

I like Pope Benedict’s books “Jesus of Nazareth” because he takes seriously what the scriptures and biblical studies today say about Jesus. Those books–and others like them– are worth reading if you want to learn how to read the Word of God. There’s also some good advice about reading the bible on the website of the American Catholic Bishops.

But don’t forget to begin with the scriptures themselves. Get to know them, their stories, their words and images. A good way to start leaning the scriptures is to let them be your teacher, let one part teach you about another part.

For example, this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is about the two sons going out into the vineyard. One says right off to his father, “I won’t go” , but eventually he goes. The other says “Sure I’ll go”, but he doesn’t. That story begins with the note that Jesus said this to the chief priests and elders of the people who weren’t responding to the invitation to believe in him.

We may shake our heads and say, “It’s too bad they failed to answer the call of Jesus.”

But a further question is, “And what about me? Do I just shake my head at them?” That story’s meant for me too.

There are other sons mentioned in scripture who may help me out.  The prodigal son and his brother come to mind. The two thieves on the cross, brothers in crime, also come to mind.

Jesus didn’t recall the story of the two sons to the Jewish leaders to condemn them, but to wake them up. His words are for me too. God calls me everyday to go out my door into my world and do his will. It’s an everyday call. Do I say “yes!” More importantly, do I mean it!


My Thoughts are not Your Thoughts

Last Sunday religion played a part in the tenth anniversary of 9/11, though some wanted to be silent about it. At the anniversary ceremonies, we heard words of belief among the questions and the tears.

Religion always has a role when something tragic like 9/11 happens. That’s because a tragedy like that– and it was tragic on a grand scale– is something we can’t measure or understand, and so we look for meaning and support in a power and a wisdom beyond our own.

People from many religious traditions died in that tragedy, and many turned to their own religious traditions for support. Of course, some had nothing to turn to.

As Christians we believe that God’s not silent in tragedy. God speaks to us through Jesus Christ, his Son. Yet, even so,  God’s wisdom is not so easy to understand.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

As high as the heavens are above the earth,

so high are my ways above your ways

and my thoughts above your thoughts.”  Isaiah 55, 8-9

In situations as simple as that described in today’s gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, God’s ways are not our ways.  They’re higher and deeper.

At the heart of the tragedy of 9/11 is the mystery of death,  a reality common to all that lives.  Nature in our part of the world is now  experiencing a kind of dying as leaves turn and fall. We human beings die too, but death for us is different than it is for the rest of the natural world. We have a strong unique desire for life within us, for our lives to continue, and that makes us different.

Death happens to us in many ways. Some of us will die from natural causes, like sickness or old age. Some may die in accidents, earthquakes, floods. And then, some die because other human beings cause their death. That’s what happened at 9/11. That’s what makes that event so tragic; an evil injustice caused them to die.

Over the ages, there’s been a lot of reflection about death. Of course, today we don’t like to talk much about it. It’s become a taboo in our society.

But for Christians, death is important. The heart of our faith is about death and resurrection, which we see in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hear about  it over and over in our liturgy. And we reflect on it.

Some theologians, reflecting on sources like  St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Chapters 4-5), speculate that in the beginning God planned death of another kind for the human race, before sin intervened. If human sin had not entered the world, they suggest , maybe human beings like us would reach a climactic moment in the normal course of our lives when God would invite us to another higher life. It would be an invitation we’d welcome, we’d freely choose it, sure that a new and better existence waits for us with our Creator.

But it was human sin that darkened that moment in the beginning and made it the death we know now. So, instead of an experience of joy and adventure and new beginnings,  death became for the human family a moment of fear and suffering.

We believe Jesus came as our Savior and Redeemer to enter that dark, fearful moment and change it to a moment of salvation. “Dying, you destroyed our death; Rising, you restored our life,” we say in our liturgy.

To save and redeem us, Jesus truly experienced death in all its ferocity. The gospels clearly say he did.  Jesus faced a death,  not from old age or from sickness, not from some act of nature, but from sinners. He was put to death by evil injustice. It was death at its worst that he faced.  But when he died, he conquered death and evil and gave us hope by rising again. He “destroyed our death” we say.

He gives us now the power to face death, to go through the moment of death, even at its worst, and to know resurrection. He’s there at the moment of our death; he’s there with all who die; he’s there as our Savior and Redeemer. None of us dies alone.

After the tragedy of 9/11 you may remember they found a cross of twisted steel from the   wreckage of the World Trade Center and placed in the ruins. I think that cross hangs now outside St.Peter’s Church a few blocks away. For religious reasons, of course, it probably will remain there.

But the wisdom of that Cross, hard as it is for us to understand, speaks to that tragic place. His ways are not our ways, his thoughts not our thoughts, but God is not silent, God speaks  in the death and resurrection of his Son.

Reflections on the World Trade Tragedy

Some moving reflections from Sister Maureen Skelly, SCH, a New York Police chaplain, on the World Trade Center tragedy and the mystery of the Cross.

The reflections are part of a video The Way of the Cross, produced by Passionist Press.

The World Trade Cross

I’m not sure what they’ll do with the Cross at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street,  salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade site after September 11, 2001, but it would be sad to lose the wisdom that mystery offers. We need it.

After Jesus Christ crossed over to the Garden of Gethsemane that Thursday evening centuries ago, he began his hard journey to death by praying in the garden.  Jesus faced  “the primordial experience of fear, quaking in the face of the power of death, in terror before the abyss of nothingness that makes him tremble to the point that, in Luke’s account, ‘his sweat falls to the ground like drops of blood.’ (Luke 22,44)”

He faced an unnatural death that caused a “ particular horror felt by him who is Life itself before the abyss of the full power of destruction, evil, and enmity with God that is now unleashed upon him, that he now takes directly upon himself, or rather into himself, to the point that he is ‘made to be sin’ ( 2 Cor 5.21)… Because he is the Son, he sees with total clarity the whole foul flood of evil, all the power of lies and pride, all the wiles and cruelty of the evil that masks itself as life yet constantly serves to destroy, debase, and crush life.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part 2, Benedict XVI)

The World Trade Center Tragedy wasn’t caused by an earthquake, a hurricane, some natural cause. Human beings caused it, just as human beings were responsible for the passion and death of Jesus.

Jesus disciples took up their swords when his enemies came to arrest him in the garden, but he told them, “Put your sword into its place. Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” After ten years of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, it might be time to put up our swords too.

You can’t fight evil by violence.

We live in a time that has largely forgotten the Passion of Jesus, but it’s still the wisdom and power of God. We shouldn’t put the Cross aside.

23rd Sunday

One of the hardest things we have to do in life is to correct somebody, to tell someone they’re wrong and take steps to stop some harm being done. Our readings today are about correction. Correction is not just what people in authority or experts do; we all have to stand up for what’s right.

You need help doing this, and the Gospel of Matthew (18,15-20) we read today suggests that sometimes help may be sitting right next to you.

Awhile ago, I was coming back on a crowded train from Toronto to New York;  a long ride that I hoped to pass by napping and reading a book. But around Buffalo, two women got on and sat across from me. They were older women. One of them must have been hard of hearing; she talked so loudly that people all around her could hear her conversation.

They never stopped talking, about food, clothes, their families, their health, the different medicines they were taking.  But then, one  woman brought up her husband. She had had trouble with him. After the kids got married, he started to drink and he got nasty when he drank. It got so bad, she said, that she told him to get out of the house and get straightened out. She wasn’t going to leave the house; he had to get out.

Well, he got mad, she said, and went to live his brother for awhile, but in a couple of months he was back. He told her she was right. He stopped drinking. It was a hard thing to be so strong with him, she said, she loved him very much,  but she remembered the story in the bible where the father threw his son out of the house and after awhile he came back.

The other woman said she knew that story too and wondered where it was in the bible.

I was ready to chime in and tell them that story’s in St. Luke’s gospel, chapter 15, and actually the father didn’t throw the son our of the house. He left on his own. But something told me to keep my mouth shut.

Just then, another woman a few seats down the aisle turned to the women and said, “You must be angels sent by God. I’ve been praying for months, trying to figure out what to do with my son, and I think you’ve got the answer.”

Her son was on drugs, she said. “He’s a good kid, but he’s in the wrong crowd.” She knew that he was having a bad influence on his younger brothers and sisters, but she felt she had to leave him in the house. He just couldn’t manage on his own. Her husband was no help; he wanted to ignore the problem.

She talked to her minister in church and he told her she was being too easy on her son, but she wasn’t convinced.

Now, listening to these women, she felt God was telling her something. She had to be like that father in the gospel story that threw his son out of the house. She was going to look that story up in the bible.

Again, I was going to tell them the location of the story in St. Luke’s gospel and that the father doesn’t really throw the son out of the house, but again thought better of it. Maybe the version they had in their minds was the version God meant them to hear.

By the time the train reached Albany where two of the women got off, they were in solid agreement and were new friends. They had exchanged phone numbers and emails and promises to keep in touch, and they were thanking God for this time on the train as a time of special grace.

Sometimes we think the scriptures are about a world long gone. But read our gospel carefully. It’s not only about a world long gone. It’s also about those three women and all of us who sometimes face hard things to say and do and don’t know how to do it.

God sends help, often in the simplest ways–maybe even on a long train ride. This one ended up in New York City 5 hours late.