Archive | Ecumenism RSS feed for this section

Mass Cards for Protestants

20 Jun

mass_deceased

A priest is free to apply the Mass for anyone, living or dead.
~ Code of Canon Law

Read more…

Advertisements

Of Ecumenism, Boundaries, and Amicable Disagreement

10 May

Above all, it is necessary to recognize
the unity that already exists.
~ John Paul II

There’s a 7-Eleven across the street and down a couple blocks from where I teach – Bethel College in Mishawaka. I often go there for an afternoon caffeine boost. I could walk, but if I’m pressed for time (or it’s winter), I’ll jump in the Hond711a and make a quick jog over there, fill up my travel mug, and head back to my office.

To an outside observer, unfamiliar with the local terrain, there’d be nothing noteworthy about that: Just another coffee addict stopping in at his local supplier for a fix. However, my java jaunts have real legal ramifications, for the 7-Eleven is on the South Bend side of that street, and my college is on the Mishawaka side. On the surface, and in practical terms, it’s an amorphous, virtually invisible border. But if I got in an accident coming or going? Legal boundaries – possibly even measured in feet and inches – would have real world significance: Is the accident under the jurisdiction of South Bend courts or Mishawaka courts? Which police department would we call? How will one jurisdiction impact insurance and liability claims versus the other?

That’s one picture of superficial fluidity of boundaries; here’s another.

When I was a kid, my family visited the Four Corners Monument. It’s the spot where four Southwestern states meet up at one single point – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. I remember having a blast with my brother running around the concrete slab that marks out the borders leading up to the common point, announcing as we tore around which state we were occupying at any given moment. The legal divisions between those four states is normally very clear, especially when it counts – like marijuana possession and usage, legal in Colorado, but in Utah, not. Yet at that particular spot in the middle of the Navajo desert? Nobody’s hawking pot, so the legal borders are purely a source of amusement, even joy. While marking out true divisions, the Four Corners Monument serves to draw together rather than divide.

Both these images of fluid boundaries capture different approaches to ecumenism, but I much prefer the second. Before I explain why, let me take a moment to define “ecumenism” – a word that is not commonly invoked these days, nor is it well understood. It’s based on a FourCorners1 Greek word that loosely translates as “the whole world,” and, in ecclesiological and theological terms, it refers to anything that touches on matters common to the “whole world” of the church, small “c.” This should be distinguished from interfaith or interreligious matters – those concerns and enterprises involving people of varying major religions (including Christians along with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others). While important, interfaith contacts are the equivalent of a United Nations approach to religion, whereas Christian ecumenism is more like a huge family reunion.

And it’s a family get-together that can and should involve all the clan’s disparate branches – reconciled and unreconciled. It includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants of all types. What’s more, it includes high church and low church, liberal and conservative, traditional and Pentecostal – everyone who calls Jesus Lord, believes in the Good News of salvation from sin, and lives today in the hope of heaven tomorrow. There are disagreements, to be sure, but it’s amicable disagreementa facile disjuncture that allows for rich relationships, and yet respect regarding differences. We come to enjoy each other’s traditions, quirks, and peculiarities; we laugh with and even at each other – in the same way cousins laugh at each other when they get together for the holidays. Behobbit-day-Bilbos-birthday-partytter yet, think of Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s competition, grievance, and dispute between various branches of the Hobbit family tree, and these are not rationalized or ignored. Still, at least for that moment, everybody is overlooking their differences and getting along, which fosters mutual good will upon which real unity can be built.

This was the vision of ecumenism promoted at the Second Vatican Council, and it was one of the Council’s aims – “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” In the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council Fathers went even further and stated that the “restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”

Why? Because it was one of the principal concerns – perhaps even the principal concern – of Jesus himself. Quoting John 17, the Council Fathers wrote:

Before offering Himself up as a spotless victim upon the altar, Christ prayed to His Father for all who believe in Him: ‘that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me.’

He commanded us to “love one another” first, and then sent us the Holy Spirit in order to make it possible. “There is one body and one Spirit,” St. Paul wrIn this panoramic view, bishops of the world line the nave of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, 1962. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the council, one of the monumental events in modern religious history. (CNS photo) See VATICAN-LETTER Jan. 27, 2012.ote the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.”

Thus, unity was a priority for Jesus and the early Church, and so it’s naturally a priority for us. And while nothing can disrupt the invisible unity of the Body of Christ, there’s no question that wide and innumerable divisions have effectively dismantled the visible expression (subsistere) of that Body. We have our work cut out for us!

Yet a word of caution is in order: Authentic unity cannot be accomplished at all costs. “This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal,” the Council Fathers insisted, “which can hinder real progress toward unity.” St. John Paul II addressed this same idea very tactfully, yet clearly:

Good will is needed in order to realize how various interpretations and ways of practicing the faith can come together and complement each other. There is also the need to determine where genuine divisions start, the point beyond which the faith is compromised.

That brings us back to those anecdotes I related above – the 7-Eleven run and the Monument: Both involve real divisions despite practical permeability, but only the second image – messing around at Four Corners – involves clearly demarcated boundaries. That’s preferred, beecumcause the goal of ecumenism – at least from a Catholic perspective – is the real and thorough structural reunion of all Christians, not a mere superficial, subjective one. And overcoming division, no matter how it is accomplished, necessitates both an a priori acknowledgement that divisions exist as well as a thorough grasp of their precise location.

How then are we to carry out the ecumenical enterprise? There’s lots we can say about the record of ecumenical efforts over the centuries, particularly since the halcyon days following the Second Vatican Council, but generally the most successful ecumenical efforts include at least these three dimensions:

  1. Common ground: This involves seeking unity where possible, and understanding when it isn’t. Of special importance are those formal gatherings, usually conducted by those with authority in their respective traditions. The point of these meetings isn’t to water down differences, nor is it to engage in apologetic debate. Instead, ecumenical gatherings bring together representatives of different traditions to foster good will, increase understanding, and contribute to the mitigation of structural division.
  1. Common prayer: Closely related to common ground, and always included in formal dialogue, is shared prayer – what the Catechism, quoting Vatican II, refers to as the “soul of the whole ecumenical movement.” In this regard, it’s important to emphasize that lack of structural unity precludes intercommunion under most circumstances. This is a source of great pain for those interested in ecumenical rapprochement since the Eucharist is the pinnacle of unity that Christ himself instituted for his followers. At the same time, however, that painful sacramental separation motivates us to work all the more diligently toward real reunion.
  1. Common cause: Short of full reunion, here’s the best kind of ecumenism in my book – the most organic and natural, and certainly the most visible in terms of witness. “Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them,” the Council Fathers wrote, “and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.” This happens when Christians of all stripes come together to defend the unborn, the death row inmate, and the marginalized of every kind; when we work for peace and an end to all violence and bloodshed and war; when we strive together for justice and reconciliation in every corner of our society and world.

For a glimpse of how ecumenical common cause works in practice, try The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as Fr. Francis Chisholm, a missionary priest laboring with seemingly meager results in rural Chimethodistsna. At one point in the film, a Methodist missionary couple, Dr. Fiske and his wife, Agnes, arrive to minister in the same village, and Fr. Chisholm calls on them. “Tell me, Fr. Chisholm,” Dr. Fiske asks, “do you resent our coming here?”

Fr. Chisholm expresses consternation, and then says: “You know, sometimes I wonder how the Christian faith must appear to the Chinese mind – with all the different sects, all crying at the same time, ‘Come over here. This is the one. This is the true one.'” There’s no denial in this statement that real divisions persist in the church, nor any dismissal of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the true church. Instead, there’s a practical acceptance that, at least in that far-flung corner of the world, Catholics and Protestants can serve God best by showing as much unity as possible. That applies to our own far-flung corners, wherever we find ourselves.

Later, in the film, as Fr. Chisholm is leaving, Dr. Fiske says, “I can’t tell you how happy you’ve made me by your friendliness. And, by the way, I’m not a bad doctor. Let me be of some help to you.” With that statement, Fiske anticipates the teaching of Vatican II:

Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.

Chisholm’s reply to Fiske is equally amicable and the perfect remedy for the sad divisions in the church that he alluded to earlier. He says simply, “We’ll help each other.”

“Right!” is how Dr. Fiske responds. Let that be our response as well.
______________________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

A Glimpse of Mary’s Garden

22 Feb

1804

“The whole Mountain’s my home.”
~ Br. Klement, a monk of Athos

Do you have a short list of retreat books? I don’t mean books that you’d take on retreat for edification and spiritual insight. No, I mean books that are themselves retreats – books that you can escape into and can do so repeatedly with confidence: Every time you re-read one, without fail, you find yourself interiorly slipping away to some foreign realm of refreshment.

My list of retreat books includes A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth saga and virtually any Jeeves and Wooster story by P.G. Wodehouse. Better tolerated than pharmaceuticals and booze, and cheaper than weekend tropical jaunts, retreat books are allow us to calm the spirit and shed a day’s stress by ushering us into parallel worlds – however briefly – that become ever more familiar and comfortable with each successive immersion.

Many books do those things, but retreats books do so repeatedly and predictably, and there’s no way to know ahead of time which ones will make the cut – which ones, that is, that will stand up to a second reading after an hiatus, and then a third reading, and more.

On the other hand, we can sometimes have a hunch about new reads, and it can take two different forms. The first is palpable disappointment that a book we’re finishing for the first time has an ending at all – as in, “Phooey! I only have two chapters to go!” The second form of the hunch crops up once we’ve actually reached the end, the last page is turned, and our minds are flooded with enthusiastic anticipation – “Maybe if I set it aside for a year (or six months, or a month?), I can jump back into it afresh!”

Then there’s that rare volume that elicits both responses in abundance. Such was the case recently as I finished reading Sydney Loch’s Athos: The Holy Mountain. It’s a remarkable book about a remarkable place. Mt. Athos is the Greek peninsula that has been populateathos_bookd exclusively by Orthodox monks for over a thousand years. Its claim to fame in the popular imagination is its total exclusion of females – entirely and completely. Nothing politically correct about Athos, that’s for sure, but the intention isn’t at all misogynist but rather penitential: The celibate monks of Athos are deadpan serious about their laser focus on holiness, and so they’ve created an entire society where, in the words of Peter Maurin, “it is easier for men to be good.”

I inherited Loch’s book from Tom, my bibliophile father-in-law, along with numerous other books associated with Mt. Athos – like Pennington’s O Holy Mountain! and several copies of the multi-volume Philokalia. “Here,” he’d say, shoving another volume at me, virtually every time I saw him, “have you read this yet?” Assembled on Mt. Athos by St. Nicodemus in the eighteenth-century, the Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual writings that has exerted a tremendous influence on Orthodox piety, and it’s a testimony to the far-reaching influence of Athos itself.

Catholics don’t really have anything that parallels Athos in terms of spiritual clout. We have the Benedictine tradition and the Franciscan tradition and the Carmelite tradition – a host of spiritual traditions, in other words, that appeal to individuals according to their particular tastes and inclinations. For the Orthodox, however, monasticism is the dominant spiritual heritage – the “very soul of the Eastern Churches,” according to St. John Paul II – and Athos is like Orthodox monasticism’s 800-pound gorilla. Its origins as a monkish settlement trace back almost to the very beginnings of Christianity, and tradition has it that the Blessed Mother herself designated the land as her own special garden.

Tom and his recommendations about Athos came to mind as I rummaged our stacks last month and happened upon Sydney Loch’s memoir of the Holy Mountain. I was in desperate need of a reliable retreat read – the polar vortex had swooped down on us with a ferocious bite, and the stress of nighttime hospital clinicals was weighing heavily – so I was tempted to go with the tried and true. In the end, however, I decided to skip my trustworthy Wodehouse and honor Tom’s memory by giving Loch a shot.

It was a fabulous and providential choice, and my only regret was that I didn’t put it off a few weeks so that it could be Lenten reading. Delving into Loch’s Athos book was like following a seasoned author’s travel blog in real time – evocative, punchy, occasionally reflective, always engaging. What’s more, it was a travelogue that doubled as a succinct and illathos_mapuminating history, mapping out the contours of the unique promontory’s rich and ancient past. Plus, on account of its subject matter, Loch’s Athos turned out to be a retreat book that not only provided escape, but spiritual refreshment as well.

And it was a spiritual refreshment of an unusually ecumenical character. Loch himself was a Scottish Protestant, but he was clearly comfortable with Roman Catholicism, he worked for Quakers, and he eventually became intimately familiar with Orthodox doctrine and practice. This cosmopolitan religious sensibility, so evident in his plainspoken and respectful manner of taking the Athonite monks on their own terms, was rooted in a lifetime of travel, service, and experience, both in peacetime and in war.

As a naturalized Australian, Loch joined his adopted country’s army at age 17 and fought in the initial stages of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign. A bout of dysentery took him away from the front and gave him the freedom to write up his observations about the horrors of battle.

Loch’s memoir of Gallipoli, The Straits Impregnable, was so graphic that it could only be published as a work of fiction (and under an assumed name, Sydney de Loghe) in order to avoid scaring off new recruits. Eventually, the truth surfaced that the book was in fact a realistic depiction of the conflict, agallipol3__jpg_633x270_crop_q85nd it was banned by the military censors.

Regardless of the book’s fate, Loch himself was intent on exorcising the demons of his wartime trauma – a phenomenon captured by the title of the latest edition of his Gallipoli book, To Hell and Back – and he devoted the rest of his life to selfless humanitarian work. He and his wife, Joice, a celebrated author and humanitarian in her own right, worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims of war and persecution in Poland, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Eventually, the couple settled in Ouranoupolis, a village at the very threshold of Athos and its effective gateway community.

That proximity to Mary’s garden and the peaceful world of the Athonite monks seems to have provided the healing that Loch yearned for, and he became a regular visitor on the Mountain, recording details about his wanderings and contacts that he began assembling into a book in the early 1950s. Sydney died unexpectantly after finishing his manuscript, but with only the first six chapters edited and typed. His beloved and devoted wife put together the final chapters of the book after Sydney’s death, remaining in their village home in order to, in her words, “edit and type the book in the atmosphere in which it was written.”

And Loch himself? Was the lingering anguish of his Gallipoli ordeal dispelled in the end? Neither he nor his wife refer to it directly, so you’ll have to read Loch and draw your own conclusions – that is, if you can locate a copy of Athos, because it is long out of print. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that this entire essay is a tathos_lochhinly veiled attempt to conjure up popular support for getting Loch’s book back in print and into the hands of readers.)

As for me, I have no doubt. Throughout his book, and despite sectarian differences, Loch assumes a unanimity with his tranquil brothers of the Mountain. He exudes equanimity and peacefulness, and his accounts of events, places, and, especially, people, are replete with affection and even playfulness.

And then there’s this – a confessio of sorts that appears without warning or fanfare in one of the earlier sections of the book, and worth quoting at length:

Wakening to the transcendence of God. God in the stones, in the sky, in the trees. In the gnat. And the trumpeting elephant. On with the sandals. Down from the shelf with the script. Along the highway to reality.

Wakening to the Immanence of God. Realizing the presence of two extended arms, tirelessly held out. The inviting, untrembling arms of God. Closer, closer. And at last a kiss! To the desert! To the cave!

Loch had been to hell and back, and he was now living on the doorstep of paradise and Mary’s own spiritual greenhouse – a foretaste of heaven, where God’s infinite transcendence and condescending immanence are right there for the taking, right there in reach!

It’s Lent and time for a parched desert of deprivation and sacrifice. Even so, make room for some refreshment along the way, and track down a copy of Loch’s Athos. It’ll be like a visit to a garden – a very special Garden indeed.
__________________________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Billy Graham Had A Runny Nose

15 Feb

billy-graham-340x161

Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you.
Consider the outcome of their way of life
and imitate their faith (Heb. 13.7).

There’s a scene in Robert Duvall’s film The Apostle where the renegade evangelist, Sonny Dewey, comes upon a boat blessing ceremony on the river. “You do it your way, I’ll do it mine,” Sonny allows, acknowledging the efforts of the presiding priest, “but we get it done, don’t we?”

It’s a fairly sophisticated ecumenical observation, and it came to mind when an oversized ad in the Family Christian Bookstore window caught my eye last year. It was Billy Graham, the king of the altar call, all silver-haired and looking distinguished as ever. And he had a new book!

At least, there was a new book with his name on it, and it had in fact already come to my attention because of a story by Kenneth Woodward in the WSJ. Woodward argued that Graham himself had little to do with the book, and that the Billy Graham machine was largely responsible for cranking it out. Woodward went on to suggest that the machine ought to consider giving the nonagenarian and his legacy a break.

Perhaps.

I grew up on Billy Graham’s preaching and Christian vision, and he was my childhood hero. I never made it to one of his famous crusades, but I remember watching them on TV with my family – even running to my room during an on-the-air altar call to re-dedicate my life to Christ on at least one occasion.

That was back when I was memorizing Bible verses with the Navigators and gobbling up books from InterVarsity Press about apologetics and evangelization. There were youth groups and Sunday school, summer camps and work trips, quiet times and discipleship meetings. And Billy Graham? He was the Evangelical standard-bearer, a key rBilly-Grahamole model for carrying out the Great Commission and spreading the Good News.

Graham was knowledgeable and learned, but he never came across as arrogant or pretentious. His preaching was passionate and persuasive, yet devoid of the scaremongering hellfire that characterized other popular evangelists of his time. Although Graham routinely counseled U.S. Presidents and his televised crusades made him a media superstar, Graham nonetheless gave you the impression that he was a regular Joe – that he was approachable and normal and downright human.

So, I wanted to be like Billy Graham – what young Evangelical wouldn’t? How to accomplish that was the question.

Rather, the real question was: Are you kidding me? Graham appeared to be a normal human being, but there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that he was still somehow different and, thus, in an altogether foreign realm as far as life trajectories went. Consequently, the famous evangelist represented a goal that was both admirable and yet unattainable – and therefore quite safe.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and you’ll find me as a freshman at Wheaton College in Illinois – Graham’s alma mater. I didn’t go there just because of the Graham connection, but it was certainly a factor, and when I heard that Graham would be coming to visit Wheaton that semester, I was thrilled.

460_345_resizeHe was coming to dedicate Wheaton’s spanking new graduate school and center for evangelization that was to be named in his honor: The Billy Graham Center. I marked the date on my calendar, and I eagerly anticipated the day I’d get to see this larger than life paragon of the Faith up close for the first time.

The day arrived – it was cold and windy. I bundled up and headed down to the Center for the dedication ceremony. There was a crowd already gathered before the dais, and I wormed my way to the front, rationalizing that my past history of Graham enthusiasm justified a bit of jostling and rude behavior.

No matter – I was there! Maybe 20 feet from the great man – him, sitting up on the platform with the other honored guests; me, down below at the edge of the horde and gazing up at the podium. Impatiently, I waited out the string of introductions and mini-speeches, and then the moment I’d been waiting for: Billy Graham stepped up to the mike to speak – right there, just above me! I could’ve reached out and touched his shoe!

Then, I noticed something: Billy Graham had a runny nose.

“Billy Graham – a runny nose?” (Pause.) “Heck, even I get a runny nose from time to time.” I watched with curiosity as Graham reach for his handkerchief. “Why,” (wait for it) “that means,” (wait…) “that means that…Billy Graham isn’t all that different from me!”

Simple, I know – painfully obvious even. But recall that I was just a young undergraduate at the time, and up to that point (believe it or not), it had just never occurred to me that superstars and larger than life heroes – even the Evangelical Christian ones – were, well, human. Mortal. Ordinary folks that catch cold like everyone else.

It was a revelation, yes, and a challenge: If God could accomplish so much through an ordinary, cold-catching mortal like Billy Graham, what might He accomplish through me? And, more to the point, what’s holding Him up?480f8bda14

Fast-forward once again to the present day. Billy Graham is back in the news because of Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s Oscar nominated film that tells the story of Louis Zamperini – the Olympic runner, World War II hero, and internment camp survivor. Sadly, the movie downplays Zamperini’s faith, and, as Grant Wacker pointed out, it totally bypasses his watershed conversion at a post-war Graham revival in Los Angeles.

In the movie “Unbroken,” Billy Graham goes unmentioned, and Zamperini’s redemption narrative is largely reduced to a few title cards flashed before the closing credits. Yet Zamperini himself believed that the religious event was the pivotal moment of his long journey.

Zamperini was raised a Catholic, and it would’ve been all the more glorious if his adult conversion had brought him back to the Sacraments. Even so, it’s clear that Zamperini totally surrendered himself to God’s grace, and that grace had a field day in and through his life. He gave up his heavy drinking, sought to forgive his Japanese captors, and, most significantly, ended up devoting his life to telling others about the Lord – the most sure sign of an authentic interior about-face.

“The Church wants to preach the Gospel together with all who believe in Christ,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II. “It wants to point out to all the path to eternal salvation.” Note the Holy Father’s double emphasis on the word “all” there: All need to hear about the Gospel, and, consequently, all need to preach it – it’s a team effort! That means clergy and religious doing the preaching, as well as businessmen, homemakers, and students. Both young and old are called, as are both the educated and the illiterate. What’s more, the mission includes every kind of Christian, Catholic and otherwise, and even those who might be struggling in their faith orTheApostle moral life. “All who believe in Christ,” St. John Paul wrote, not “all who believe in Christ and meet a certain minimal standard of virtue and piety.”

That brings me back to The Apostle. The central character, Sonny, is an imperfect ambassador of Jesus if there ever was one. Among other things, he has a drinking problem and anger issues, and he ends up beating a man into a coma. Instead of turning himself in, he goes on the lam and creates a new life for himself in another state under a pseudonym – not exactly a poster child for Gospel living by any stretch.

As depicted in the movie, however, the flawed Sonny somehow still draws others to Jesus – even as the ending credits roll and we see Sonny the convict leading his fellow prisoners in a spiritual chant as they clear the highway of brush. In this, is he so different from St. Paul, himself a murderer and a leading persecutor of the first followers of The Way? There wasn’t a whole lot of distance between Paul’s acquiescence at the stoning of St. Stephen and his first attempts at testifying to Jesus, and he went on to become the greatest evangelist ever. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (cf. I Cor 9:16) was his motto, in season and out of season. It ought to be ours.

Don’t worry that you don’t know enough or that you think you’re not holy enough or that you might get something wrong. Preach the Gospel with your words as best you can, and strive to bring your life into line with those words. Tell others about Jesus with your voice, and at the same time coax your actions and choices along to follow suit. Do it even if you’re a rotten sinner. Do it even if you’ve got a runny nose or you’re ninety-some-odd years old.

Do it anyway – don’t wait. “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth,” St. Paul wrote the Philippians, “Christ is proclaimed.”  And when Christ is proclaimed, regardless of how, good things happen.
___________________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

Extra Ecclesiam, Ecclesiam

19 Oct

“All the way to heaven is heaven.”
~ Catherine of Siena

“You got any change, man?”

I’d only made it a few blocks from the Denver Sheraton, and I’d already heard that request three times. “Sorry, I’m tapped out,” I mumbled.

“That’s OK,” he replied with a smile as bright as his20060526_101616_twilight big orange Broncos sweater. Something in his tone made me think it really was OK, so I hazarded my own request. “Can you tell me how far up the Cathedral is?”

“Sure,” he said. “Just a couple blocks more, and then one block over. ‘Can’t miss it.”

I was in Denver for a conference – downtown, near Capitol Hill. The conference was well worth the trip, but the schedule was pretty packed every day, sunup to sundown. In fact, I had to duck out early from one of the Sunday morning sessions and hoof it double time to the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception so I could get to Mass.

The Basilica was up a ways on Colfax at Logan, and if my trek was any indication, the neighborhood hadn’t changed much in the quarter century since I lived in Colorado. Gritty, a bit raw, the Basilica’s immediate vicinity retains a rough edge despite loads of redevelopment and rezoning. You see it in the mix of storefronts along Colfax – bars and sandwich joints mingling with upscale dining and boutiques – and you see it in the immense variety of folks on the street from all walks of life. The whole scene reminded me of 1980s NYC and Chicago; it was a homecoming in more ways than one.

I reached the Cathedral just in time for Mass and approached the west transept entrance on Logan to avoid the crowd at the main entrance on Colfax. Immediately across the street was the Fork & Spoon, and I couldn’t help pausing to admire their mural on the wall opposite the church. It was a tribute to Jack Kerouac, featuring the beat author’s profile along with a quote from a Buddhist-inspired letter he wrote his first wife, Edie Parker. “Practice kindness all day to everybody,” the quotation read, “and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

Kerouac

Was it an intentional challenge to the Cathedral across the street and its habitués? The mural’s placement could be interpreted as a rebuke, or perhaps a wake-up call to the hoodwinked faithful. Alternatively, it could be argued that Kerouac’s Catholic upbringing led him to unconsciously represent the very teaching of the Church herself. About seven years after Kerouac wrote his letter, the Council Fathers had this to say in Lumen Gentium:

Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.

If that’s the case, though, why go to Mass at all? And why endure the rigors of the Church’s moral requirements when you can just be nice and achieve the same result – hand out a few coins on the street, for example, and call it a day, à la Kerouac?

Why indeed.

I entered the Cathedral anyway.

People were filing in, finding their places in the pews. It was a typical Cathedralish cross section of the population: Families, individuals here and there, regulars and visitors, random groupings of people that defied easy classification. I grabbed a seat on the aisle right in front of a transept pillar – it was close by and adequately inconspicuous for a visitor. On my right was a group of folks that were apparently related – a father, it seemed, with his grand, white, Amish-like beard,  along with his clan. In front, a couple with a toddler in tow, and a young woman, stylishly attired and sitting by herself. Mass was just about to get under way…

*Whoosh!* A rolled-up newspaper flapped in front of my face. I turned in the direction of the flap, and there was a woman with multiple layers of clothing and shopping bags, clearly annoyed, waving her paper at me as she walked by. I think she was indicating that I had usurped her usual pew for Sunday Mass, but by the time I figured that out, she’d already taken a seat a couple rows ahead of me.

20120529_080154_photo3Stealing somebody’s regular pew is a major breach of Mass attendance protocol, but what could I do? Figuring I’d only make matters worse if I tried to rectify the situation, I stayed put. It was a good call for nothing else came of it, and I think she even acknowledged me at the sign of peace. In a way, by overlooking the unintended affront, she in effect became my host, and I, her guest, the recipient of her sacrificial hospitality almost like an estranged family member whom she welcomed home.

The Gospel that day reflected a similar theme. It was Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast where all the seats ended up being filled by outsiders and hoi polloi:

Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’

Among other things, that image of a wedding feast and invitations assumes that God’s kingdom has boundaries and limits it’s a party, to be sure, but not a free-for-all. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus goes the ancient patristic dictum “outside the church there is no salvation.” This is still the teaching of the Church, although the Catechism frames it in a new way:

Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.

The institutional, big “C” Church is of divine origin, but it has boundaries and edges because it’s run and inhabited by finite humans. It’s like the Basilica itself, which has walls and doors; the liturgy as well, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; there are rules and standards and expectations for those who wish to be a part of these things.

The small “c” church catholic, however, is a mystical body, with boundaries known to God alone. Its membership, unlike the visible Church, isn’t always clear cut. The normal way people attach to that body is through the Sacraments and practicing the Faith, but apparently there are other ways as well and that’s only God’s business.

In other words, outside the visible Church there’s likely a good deal of invisible church (or at least potential church), but we just don’t always have the eyes to see it  yet. In any case, since we can’t know who’s in the invisible church, those of us inside the visible one have a duty to welcome in everybody, no matter what. Lumen Gentium continues along these lines:

Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

womAll Christians have a hand in this to be sure, although as laity our preaching can take many forms. Primarily, we preach through our acts of charity and service, through caring for our families and neighbors, through working hard to improve our little corners of the world living our lives, that is, in a way that always invites rather than excludes. The more we do that, the more we literally extend heaven to those around us, deepening our own interior affinity for heaven in the process.

The irony, of course, is that many of those folks on the outside are already doing this very thing.

The recessional hymn concluded, and following a brief prayer of thanksgiving, I genuflected and exited my pew with a glance at my watch – just enough time to get back for the start of the next conference presentation. There was a light rain outside, and I made sure to slow down and hold onto the handrail as I descended the slippery stone staircase from the west transept door.

Right behind me was an elderly couple, and the woman was attempting the navigate the stairs with a cane. She was doing alright with her husband’s help, but I stuck around just in case – and I wasn’t the only one. An usher and another man stood at the top of the stairs watching the couple take each step. Once the woman made it to the sidewalk, the two men nodded to me as if we three had all been part of a covert stair-descent safety team, and then they re-entered the church.

Nothing particularly virtuous about our watching out for that woman pretty much any decent soul would’ve done the same. And that’s the point we’re all in this together, insiders and outsiders alike.

Jack was surely onto something.

_______________________________

A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

Philippine Epiphanies

14 Sep

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred Name.
~ G.W. Kitch­in and M.R. New­bolt

“The BBC,” the voice-over asserted. “The world’s radio station.”

It was a spot on “All Things Considered” the other day – our local NPR station carries the BBC daily from midnight until 5 a.m. – and it brought on a flood of memories.

I used to listen to those broadcasts driving home after evening shifts as a new nurse, but I’d already developed an affection for the BBC decades before while in the Philippines as an intern with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Jeff, another intern, and I were assigned to a mission up in Mountain Province – literally out in the “boondocks” (a Filipino word) – and the radio was our one routine connection to the outside world, a kind of electronic comfort food.

In the late evenings, after the dishes were done and the chores complete, the missionaries would fire up their shortwave radio, and we’d all gather round to listen in. It was the summer of “Ebony and Ivory,” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, as well as John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” – constants on Voice of America every time we tuned in. The BBC was always meatier fare, and Carabao in rice field, near Baler, Aurora, Luzon, Philippineswe’d look forward to updates about the Falklands conflict as well as other international happenings, all while swatting mosquitos, shooing away geckos, and cooling ourselves with jury-rigged fans.

What an eye-opener that summer was – showering in swimsuits under drenching rain, enjoying strong, fresh coffee near the very tree that produced it, carabaos wandering freely about outside our nipa hut day and night.

And the people, of course. Filipinos are known the world over for their cheerfulness and hospitality, and we experienced it firsthand. The villagers could always scrape up a meal for Jeff and me when we came around visiting – even if it meant, as it did on one occasion, serving rice and “wild bird” (which turned out to be bat meat). The local folks were often initially shy in the presence of us Westerners, but once that stage was passed, they loved to hear about our lives back in the States – especially snow. It seemed like the Filipinos in our mission area could never hear enough about snow, and the postcard of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains I’d brought along from home was a huge hit.

The welcome and embrace of the Filipino people was the best part of that summer intern experience, but the actual missionary endeavors we’d come to further turned out to be quite troubling – at least for me. After the Wycliffe organization had accepted my internship application, I set about learning as much as I could about the land I’d be traveling to and the people I’d be evangelizing. I dug into the history of the Philippines, as well as the current political tensions during those waning days of Ferdinand Marcos’ reign. I also researched the cultural and religious character of the multi-island nation, with its minority Muslim population in the south and the rest overwhelmingly Catholic.

Wait, Catholic? Weren’t they already, well, kinda’ Christian already? Why was I going all the way across the ocean to bring the Gospel to people who already knew it quite well?

I kept these unsettling thoughts to myself as I completed Wycliffe’s orientation at their Texas Summer Institute of Linguistics early in the summer, and continued to quietly harbor them as I traveled with my fellow interns overseas. It never occurred to me to share them with anybody associated with the trip – why invite scrutiny? I figured at some point I’d just “get” it, and the perplexing dimensions of our journey – a handful of zealous, young Christians flying to a country full of Christians to teach them about Christianity – would dissipate and fade away.

But it didn’t. In fact, when I got to Manila, and before we were shipped up to our rural mission placement, the question became all the more disturbing. I encountered evident faith and piety at every turn in that crowded city, and I witnessed a passion for Jesus and his Blessed Mother that made my cautious evangelical sensibilities seem anemic by comparison.

Further investigation was clearly warranted, but I had to act fast. Our days in Manila were few, and they revolved around jet-lag recovery, a few touristy jaunts, and more orientation. So I got up my courage and approached the Wycliffe staffer assigned to our team.Manila_Cathedral_Facade

“About worship on Sunday…,” I tossed out vaguely.

“Did you have something in mind?” she asked.

“The Cathedral,” I replied, then adding cautiously, “I’d like to find out more about the local culture.”

She was surprised by the suggestion, but she agreed to accompany me there. The other interns turned down the offer to join us, choosing instead to worship with the missionaries at the compound. I didn’t mind. It was already a quixotic quest, and having to share it with the Wycliffe staffer was going to be awkward enough.

After a jeepney ride or two, we got to Manila Cathedral, and nothing could have prepared me for the cross-cultural jolt I received there. Even if I’d arrived in the Philippines a lifelong, born and bred Catholic, I would’ve still gaped at the Cathedral scene: People coming and going indiscriminately, in and out of pews, in and out of the building; worshippers praying at side altars, lighting candles and saying rosaries; folks talking and laughing and wrangling children inside the church, men (mainly) talking (and smoking) outside the church. All of that while the priest and his retinue were praying the Mass in the clouds of incense up front around an elevated altar.

I was captivated.

What’s more, I was convinced. The practices and postures were foreign to me as an evangelical Protestant, and the Sabbatarian informality made me very uncomfortable, but I knew these people were already Christians, and I had very little to offer them. Moreover, I suspected (rightly, as it turned out) that I’d encounter the same level of passion and piety in the mission area to which I was being sent to evangelize. Yet, even then, I was yearning to receive evangelization myself from those people, to know Jesus as familiarly as they did, to know his mom and his friends, to feel at home in his house. It was all backwards, and the summer ended up a disaster as far as the internship was concerned.

It wasn’t a total loss, however, because the experience planted seeds – seeds of curiosity and longing that, in time, led to my reception into the Catholic Church. Plus, it was an object lesson in an organic missiology that seemed revolutionary to an impressionable Protestant missionary intern at the time – the idea that drawing others to Christ could be accomplished simply by living out the faith, regardless of whether the Gospel was verbally proclaimed or not. Avant-garde, to be sure, and radically effective as well.

It was the missiology at work in the lives of people like St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day – to proclaim Jesus by being Jesus. It’s the philosophy of Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association today. And it was Tamanrassetthe guiding light of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the hermit of the Saharan desert who converted no one, but whose remarkable life of heroic witness continues to inspire so many today. Of his missionary approach, he wrote:

In order to save us, God came to us and lived among us, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, in a close and familiar way. God continues to come to us and to live with us in a close and familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the holy Eucharist. So we too must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way.

This is precisely what the Church teaches us with regards to how the Church goes about doing missionary work. Here’s the Catechism’s summary of that teaching in its section on Missionary paths:

By her very mission, “the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.” Missionary endeavor requires patience.

Yes, it requires patience, but not like we might think. It’s not the patient waiting for the heathen to respond positively to our Gospel proclamation, but rather the patient perseverance required in our own personal conversions. Here’s Bl. Charles again:

Everything about us, all that we are, should ‘proclaim the Gospel from the housetops’. All that we do and our whole lives should be an example of what the Gospel way of life means in practice, and should make it unmistakably clear that we belong to Jesus. Our entire being should be a living witness, a reflection of Jesus.

In that sense, we’re to be like mini-BBCs, don’t you think? Broadcasting Jesus wherever we go – around the world to the boondocks of the Philippines, if we’re so called, but even more importantly, right here at home.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Nativity Sets, Mary Worship, and Missions

15 Dec

Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.
~ William Wordsworth, “The Virgin

During Advent, every Christian is a Mary-worshiper.

processionMary1024Naah, just joshing you. Not even Catholics worship Mary, despite appearances to the contrary. We pay her tribute and honor her – even reverence (dulia) her in a singular, intense manner (hyperdulia). But worship (latria)? That’s reserved for the Persons of the Trinity alone.

Our hyperdulia can get pretty darn close to latria I suppose – Rosaries and icons and processions and statues, et cetera  – and it’s understandable that outsiders might get confused.

Let’s set the record straight then. Mary is not God – she was a human being. Immaculately Conceived, to be sure, but a human being in need of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as much as anybody else.

That being said, the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (AD 431) did bestow on her the title Theotokos – mother of God. It was a way of combating Christological heresy, but also a way of putting into words what the whole Church had long embraced and celebrated. As the mother of the incarnate God, Mary shares His flesh – in fact, it could be rightly said that He shares hers. She played a unique role in salvation history, she continues to play a role in the life of the Church today, and we are devoted to her as any child ought to be devoted to his earthly mother.

Can that devotion go off the rails? Perhaps. Chesterton admitted as much when he wrote this of Mary:

If Catholics had been left to their private judgment, to their personal religious experience, to their sense of the essential spirit of Christ and Christianity, to any of the liberal or latitudinarian tests of truth, they would long ago have exalted our Lady to a height of superhuman supremacy and splendour that might really have imperilled the pure monotheism in the core of the creed. Over whole tracts of popular opinion she might have been a goddess more universal than Isis.

Still, it’s a truism that virtually all Christians, Catholic and otherwise, honor Mary in their homes this time of year, even going so far as setting up a statue of her in their homes – sometimes more than one!

You know what I mean. It’s only brought out this time of year, and it’s usually in the context of a larger Nativity set (or several). Elaborate crèches feature Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the center surrounded by shepherds and sheep, magi and their servants, an angel, and a host of farm animals that would be the envy of any homesteader.

Simpler Nativity sets might include just the Holy Family and a single shepherd with sheep, along with a single representative Wise Man – or maybe just the Holy Family and a crib. And the simplest? The Occam’s Razor of Christmas decoration? Mary and her baby. That’s the essence of Christmas.

Jesus, the Son of God, is always the central character in these miniature figurine dramas, as He should be. But consider that rarely is the baby Jesus depicted without His mother – unless you count all those gaudy images of the Infant of Prague, with the frills and the trappings and the lace. Even then, Mary’s presence is felt, because who else but a mother would dress up an infant boy like that?

Oh, but it’s all just Nativity sets, right? Practically toys, or possibly family heirlooms that have been passed down over a couple generations or more. They’re just illustrations of a Bible story in which God the Father is the primary actor. No special credit is meant to be given to Mary just because her image is on display.

holy-family-set-standardYet, skittishness about excessive Marian devotions and fears of Mariolatry are part of the air non-Catholics breathe, so you’d think there’d be at least some hesitation about Nativity scenes – but there’s none. Come November every year, graven images of Mary are on display everywhere, and nobody gives it a second thought.

Why?

Sentimentality plays a part, I suppose. St. Francis set up the first life-size crèche in 1223, and we’ve been oohing and aahing ever since. But even for Christians quite conscientious about such matters, it’s a natural, healthy instinct to honor the Holy Family with a Nativity scene. To be able to see and touch Jesus, Mary, and Joseph isn’t just for kids. It’s also a tangible expression of a theological truth that is itself about tangible expression: The Incarnation. Given that the Nativity is all about making the spiritual and unseen into something – Someone – very physical and see-able, it seems only fitting, even to the most rigorous fundamentalist, that the Holy Family and the Christmas story be depicted in a manner accessible to all our senses.

But perhaps there’s another element as well, one that is a bit more subtle and less readily acknowledged by our Protestant kin.

It’s this: Mary is the first Christian – the first to literally accept Jesus as her Saviour. That makes her a template and model for all Christians, and it’s good to have images to remind us of her –and not just at Christmas, but year round.

I pondered all this the other day when leading devotionals for my clinical group. I teach nursing at an Evangelical college that was founded primarily to prepare young people for the mission field. Almost all my students are Protestants; few of them have much familiarity with things Catholic. So I teach them.

It was the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I talked a little about Mary and her special place in our common Christian heritage. There are two Gospels to choose from that day, both from Luke. For my students, I read aloud the Nativity story itself, including Gabriel’s declaration that Mary would play a singular role in God’s wild rescue plan for the world.

Instead of freaking out, Mary asks an honest question: How can that happen? – that is, how is it possible for her to get pregnant at all, let alone get pregnant with the God-man Himself?

As if to reassure the young girl that “nothing will be impossible for God,” Gabriel relates that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a son despite her advanced years. Mary’s “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” was not just acquiescence to the Lord’s weird scheme, but also a signal of active engagement. She was to be no mere vessel or medium, but a determined player as well.

Same with us.

So what?, my students might ask. What makes her any different than any other Christian responding to truth and God’s call? From their perspective, Mary is simply one in a series of biblical characters that became instruments in the hands of a God determined to save His fallen creatures.

That brings us to that second Gospel choice for last Thursday’s Feast: The Visitation. Mary, filled with Jesus at the Annunciation, turns around and brings Him to her cousin – the first mission trip! Elizabeth confirms Mary’s mission, and John has what may be truly said to have experienced a Christian ‘con-version’ (from the Latin for ‘turn about’) in the womb:

For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.

It makes sense that the first Christian would be the first missionary, and Mary fits the bill in every respect. Compare, for example, what we see of Mary in Luke’s Gospel with the qualities expected of missionary candidates by Wycliffe Bible Translators:Vladimirskaya

  • Am I flexible in working with others in the body of Christ? (Mary rushes to assist her cousin in need [Lk 1.39-40])
  • Can others see Christ at work in my life? (Elizabeth testifies to Mary’s divine maternity [Lk 1.42-43])
  • Do I have healthy, growing family relationships? (Mary’s care for her cousin [Lk 1.39-43])
  • Am I ready to trust God to provide for me financially? (“He has filled the hungry with good things” [Lk 1.53])
  • Am I living within my means? (“For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” [Lk 1.48])
  • Am I living, and committed to continue in living, a lifestyle that is set apart in service to God? (“Let it be to me according to your word [Lk 1.38])
  • Am I ready to explore how God can use my specific interests, experiences, and job skills in Bible translation?

This last is especially applicable to Mary, and it connotes another point of contact for Christians of varying traditions. For, although Wycliffe is referring to translation of the written Word into various languages, Mary devoted her entire personhood – body, soul, and spirit – to ‘translating’ the Word (logos) of God into human flesh.

And that’s what all Christians are called to do: Take the Jesus we receive – in church, in Scripture, in Sacrament, however that happens – and translate Him for those around us – incarnate Him again and again through our own words and actions and lives.

This is why we like to have Mary around throughout the year: To jog memories of our mission and jolt us into action. This Christmas, as you put away your Nativity set, maybe keep out the mother and Child a little longer than the rest. See if their visible presence doesn’t help you remember what we’re all called to be: Pregnant couriers of Christ, just like Mary.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this story appeared on Oblation, a blog of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.

%d bloggers like this: