“A Still More Excellent Way”

Today’s epistle reading features I Corinthians 13:1-13.  Here St. Paul achieves a sublimity and spiritual illumination so excellent that still encourages and enlivens.  This passage surely appears in some odd settings: I’ve heard it read atop Maine’s Mount Agamenticus at a wedding that featured canine wedding attendants, and at Fulton, Missouri’s “Westminster Chapel” (where Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” in 1946) at a Star Wars-themed wedding.  I Corinthians 13 makes these crazy-train stops because St. Paul’s scriptural language on divine love has become the foundation for our secular, cultural language.  Theologians rightly decry inculturation run amok, wherein cultural values infiltrate and overwhelm the Gospel’s primacy.  The cultural popularity of one chapter—roughly two hundred fifty words translated into English—from St. Paul points to another problem:  the dilution of the Gospel beyond the point of recognition.

These problems stem in part from St. Paul’s own words.  This particular segment

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

These are precisely the words that wedding plans—Christian and secular alike—adore.  What could be nicer?  For starters, it helps to remember that St. Paul describes here God’s love (with clear implications for understanding the Trinity) from which our loves—Screenshot 2016-01-31 07.02.27spiritual and physical—take their form and vibrancy.  Love without God is bound to fail; only with God’ love—which we experience as grace—do we hope and endure all things. Supporting, enlightening, and justifying this great spiritual reality that is divine love stands the eschaton.  There will come a day when we realize fully and completely the truths by which we live now only dimly and partially seen.

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

Amen indeed—love is the greatest.  We will know this love fully some day, but meanwhile how do we live now?  The eschaton brings to fulfillment the kingdom of God which Christ proclaimed.  From last week’s Gospel (Luke 4), Jesus reads Isaiah’s proclamation of good tidings to captives, the poor, and the afflicted, then sits down announcing “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  In other words, like St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, the Kingdom already exists here on earth.

Constructing the path to this “already, but not yet fully” is St. Paul’s “still more excellent way.”  God’s love, which the Holy Spirit brings us, enlivens our lives and interactions with each other. Any kingdom, and certainly God’s kingdom, necessarily rests on communitarian foundations. So, the more excellent way—an ethic, and the eventual route to God’s Kingdom—necessarily go through and with the Church. In this we benefit from, as St. Paul said, “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).   Father Michael Sliney, LC, cultivates a burgeoning YouTube and Google+ parish, each post declaring “Thy Kingdom Come!”  Anthony Esolen has written recently a delightful book Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching. Using an impressive grasp of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclicals, Esolen reasserts the Church’s social message for family, Church, and state.  The relationship with God bonds the individual to each of these communities in specific ways.  The key, of course, is to make sure one’s loves are ordered properly.  This happens only with God’s love. Finally, today is the feast day of St. John Bosco, who pursued the “still more excellent way” with working-class boys in mid-nineteenth century Turin, Italy. It was not easy work, but St. John persevered.  A dream at age nine had convinced him God had called him to the vocation.  In the dream John fought a gang of boys, but then a man intervened, calling John to become their leader.  When John protested, the man insisted humility and cheerfulness would win them over.  St. John’s dream, in other words, reaffirmed St. Paul’s “still more excellent way.”  The providential intersection of St. Paul’s epistle and the feast of Catholic youth ministry’s great patron should illuminate our own relationships with God and, through God, with others.

Jeffrey Marlett teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Mercy and Reconciliation

Recently, the Vaticanisto Sandro Magister published a letter sent to him by an Italian professor-priest who, despite his academic activity, dedicates a significant amount of time to pastoral work. While the letter addresses somewhat larger issues, what I found particularly significant is the following observation the author makes concerning the Jubilee Year of Mercy and the sacrament of Confession.

The facts are these. Since the opening of the Holy Year backed by Pope Francis and on the occasion of the Christmas festivities of 2015 – as also since Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been sitting on the throne of Peter – the number of faithful who approach the confessional has not increased, neither in ordinary time nor in festive. The trend of a progressive, rapid diminution of the frequency of sacramental reconciliation that has characterized recent decades has not stopped. On the contrary: the confessionals of my church have been largely deserted.

Despite the anecdotal nature of this observation, I have a sneaking suspicion that it rings true throughout much of the Church in Europe and North America. And while it may come as no surprise to many, I am nonetheless saddened to hear it.

By declaring this liturgical year a Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis is attempting to place front and center the very core of Jesus’ own preaching message. At the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus proclaimed: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent (metanoeite), and believe in the Gospel (evangelio)” (Mk 1:15; cf. Mt 4:17). The word which is often translated as ‘repent,’ more literally means ‘change your mind.’ Jesus’ message is a call to conversion, an invitation to accept God’s abounding mercy into one’s heart, soul, and mind (cf. Mt 22:37; Dt 6:5); dying to sin and living a new life in the Spirit (cf. Rom 6:11; 8:10). God had frequently proclaimed this call to repentance to ancient Israel through her prophets. As the psalmist writes, “Oh, that today you would hear his voice: do not harden your heart” (95:7-8). But in the person of Jesus, God’s mercy has taken on human form.

The Latin word for ‘mercy’ (misericordia) contains within it the word ‘heart’ (cordis). To be merciful is to share in the ‘heavy’ (miseria, misery) heart of another. In this regard, God’s mercy is made flesh in the incarnation of His Son; who entered into a fallen world, i.e., “became sin” (2 Cor 5:21), for the sake of our salvation. In Christ, God has taken on our ‘heavy hearts’ in a unique and definitive way. Thus, as the letter to the Hebrews states, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy” (Heb 4:15-6). This is indeed ‘good news’ (evangelion)!

In synoptic gospels most especially, it is clear that Jesus’ mission is one of healing and Rembrandt's Prodigal Sonforgiveness. Again, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus proclaims that he “did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17), and Jesus’ capacity to forgive sins is a sign of his divine authority (cf. Mt 9:6). This ministry of mercy is one that he enjoined to his apostles (cf. Mk 3:15; 6:7; Mt 18:18); they were to participate in Jesus’ own ministry of healing and forgiveness (cf. Jn 20:21-23). Only God can forgive sins, and this ‘capacity’ (potestas) to forgive sins comes not from priests, or bishops, or even the apostles themselves, but from God’s “Word made flesh” (Jn 1:14), Jesus Christ.

And so, when the Church, Christ’s body (1 Cor 12:27), forgives sins through her ministers, she is participating in Christ’s own ministry and has done so throughout the ages. What we Catholics call the sacrament of Confession or Penance or Reconciliation, is an extension of various scenes contained throughout the New Testament of Christ forgiving the sinner: the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11), the paralytic – lowered down from the open roof of a house (Mk 2:5, 9), and the ‘sinful woman’ who bathes Jesus’ feet with her penitential tears (Lk 7:48).This mercy, Jesus’ own, is offered to us every time we visit in the confessional.

Often, we view the sacrament of Reconciliation as a “duty” or, even worse, as something

Pope Francis - penitent

Pope Francis – penitent

superfluous. It is no more a duty than it would be to seek Jesus’ forgiveness if he were standing right here before you. It is no more superfluous than it was for the adulterer, or the paralytic, or the sinful woman. Rather, the sacrament of Reconciliation is supreme gift. Through it, and the other sacraments, Jesus fulfills his promise to be with us “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). In fact, in the confessional, the mercy of God is being offered exactly as if Jesus were standing right here before you.

Thus, for this Year of Mercy, what’s more important than visiting a ‘holy door’ – with all due respect to those involved in this activity – is to visit the ‘holy door’ of the confessional. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, you have an opportunity to visit Jesus. Make that your first stop before visiting his house.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.