Musings on the Practical, or Practical Musings?

On numerous occasions over the years I have been asked to “make a presentation on Scripture”. The settings have been quite varied: a series on the Gospels or a particular Gospel; a talk to a group sponsored by a parish education program; a study group meeting at the homes of parish members; an RCIA program; members of men and women religious, and the like. One common denominator among all is a lack on the part of many of knowledge of the teachings from Vatican II, especially those contained in Dei Verbum.

Without trying to assess the reasons for this vacuum, I believe some suggestions for increasing the knowledge of the faithful regarding Scripture might be in order. One way to approach the problem is to develop an understanding of the various “criticisms” that Scripture scholars have put forth. For the audience intended, this does not have to be full of technical jargon. But as the title of this article suggests, it must be practical.

José A. Pagola, a Spanish Scripture theologian whose numerous books have guided me in this quest of the “practical,” offers the following response to the question:  What are the Gospels attempting to do?

For followers of Jesus, the four gospels are a unique and irreplaceable resource. They are not textbooks, expounding an academic doctrine of Jesus. They are not detailed biographies, tracing his life in history. These stories bring us close to Jesus as the first generations of Christians remembered him, with faith and love. On the one hand, they show us the great impact Jesus caused in the people who first were attracted to him and followed him. On the other, they were written to inspire new disciples to do the same.[i]

Pagola is in no way denigrating the academic study of the Gospels, for he is a scholar. Rather, he is finding a way to “translate” our studies in such a way that the widest audience possible will understand and be inspired.

How do we approach the “practical”; that is, how do we make the concepts real and compelling in the lives of those whom we teach, preach, and offer pastoral care and support? Three words come quickly to mind: gently, firmly, and spiritually.

Gently: It is imperative that we approach our faithful people knowing they are, in the words of Pagola above, disciples who must be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the original disciples. Thus we are to take the approach of Jesus who ministered to those he described “as sheep without a shepherd.” Doing this will require our own studies to lead us to bring the “good news” in a manner that will not frighten these “yearning disciples” away. Our learning and intimacy with Jesus will provide the means to “break open the Word” to our audience. Our prayer to Jesus should be, “Help me, Lord, to tend to your most precious flock whoever they may be and at whatever stage of learning we find them.

Firmly: In this context, firmly is not to emit a negative or frightening connotation. When we bring the word of Jesus to any audience, we must search for an understanding of just “where” the audience is. If they are novices in the study of the Gospels, we must “feed them with the milk of Jesus’ nourishment.” If they are more learned we can guide them to and through the many techniques with which they can continue to grow in the knowledge of Jesus’ message.

Spiritually: We can intertwine the message of the Gospels with the continual understanding that Jesus’ teachings are designed to lead us to the Father. In this regard, our objective becomes to strengthen each person’s relationship with the Lord. As Lectio Divina teaches, we can read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. Perhaps no greater good can come from guiding our audiences to grow in following in the footsteps of Jesus and to teach them to be more than readers and studiers of the Word, but as the wise saying emphasizes “to be doers.”  Jesus came, Jesus taught by word and example, Jesus reconciled us to the Father. What a splendid way he has given us to lead others to his Father.

John Munroe teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


[i] José A. Pagola, The Way Opened Up by Jesus : A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Miami: Convivium Press, 2012), p. 24.

Immigration and the Kingdom of God

Recently, I was fortunate to attend a lecture on the theology of migration by Fr. Daniel Groody (Notre Dame) at St. Peter’s Church in Charlotte, NC. The following quotation from his article in Theological Studies indicates the themes:

The visio Dei [vision of God] also challenges people to move beyond an identity based on a narrow sense of national, racial, or psychological territoriality. It holds out instead the possibility of defining life on much more expansive spiritual terrain consistent with the kingdom of God. Corresponding with the positive dimensions of globalization that foster interconnection, it challenges any form of ideological, political, religious or social provincialism that blinds people from seeing the interrelated nature of reality. http://www3.nd.edu/~dgroody/Published%20Works/Journal%20Articles/files/TSSeptember09Groody.pdf

I began thinking of how the Gospel of Luke explores similar issues. On Gabriel’s announcement of her upcoming pregnancy, Mary’s response is to ask an intelligent question to this oddly invasive and unsolicited migration of God. “The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’” (Lk 1:35), the same image as the presence of God filling the tent of meeting (Ex 40.34); in other words, Gabriel uses the image of God migrating with the Hebrew people after leaving Egypt. Only then does Mary make a commitment to the kingdom of God rather than to social custom. The requirements to build the kingdom of God, foretold in covenantal theology, trump the local laws of humans.

This commitment sets a tone for the Gospel, in which we see various examples of those who will, and who won’t, migrate with the kingdom of God. We find, for example, a parable of a man with excess grain. Surprised by unexpected bounty, the man asks himself (not God, not his priest, not his neighbor): “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops…” (Lk 12.12). His first person soliloquy continues; then he is condemned as a fool by God. This man won’t budge an inch from his own concerns, and by staying stationary in every way, refuses to see “the interrelated nature of reality” and thus rejects all covenant relationships. In contrast, outcast and tax collector Zaccheus breaks strict social rules in several ways, and Jesus responds in like manner. The encounter outside the boundaries creates conversion, and salvation came to that house (Lk 19.10).

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Onlline.

The New Martyrdom

Everyone is talking about the New Evangelization. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (the reason for the Council, in this author’s humble opinion), it is a missionary effort to bring the Gospel to a modern, secular world which has, for the most part, rejected, ignored, or at best, compartmentalized it for its own purposes.

I love Pope John XXIII’s image of “opening the windows”. Some have interpreted this as the Council’s blessing on bringing the modern world into the Church, on updating its teachings and practices to “better fit into” the modern world that the Church finds herself in. These same people have been gravely disappointed that the Church has remained consistent in its teachings, especially the ones that prove difficult for the modern mind to accept. If the Council was not about bringing the modern world into the Church, then what do we do with this image of the open window?

I say, “Fly!” Yes, the New Evangelization is about flying out of the window with the Gospel in hand (and heart!) and living it radically, encountering the world at every turn, bringing the light of Christ to it. I say flying because human beings cannot fly of their own power. The New Evangelization requires a complete trust in God’s providential care. A radical living of the Gospel demonstrates that trust. It will bring about a transformation of the world, not a “better fitting into” it.

The Christian views the world through the eyes of the Gospel, not the Gospel through the eyes of the world. Just like the first Christians, a person radically living the Gospel, radically loving as God loves, will be misunderstood, labeled an outcast at best or a threat at worst, and ultimately rejected or persecuted. The Christian is not of the world, and will be hated by the world (John 15:9). Thus, the New Evangelization is a call to a New Martyrdom.

This martyrdom is not to be sought, nor is it a rejection of the world. It is simply the response the world will have to the Christian, who is loving for the world’s sake, in order to transform it. If the world is considered “the enemy”, the Christian loves the enemy, making friends (even brother and sisters) in the process, and bringing about the kingdom of God. We fight the enemy with love, not so the enemy dies, but so that he may have life.

Both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis understand this. Two ways the contemporary Christian lives out this martyrdom is by loving God and loving one’s neighbor – regardless of the worldly consequences. In a modern world, where human reason is god and wealth is the measure of success, faith in a transcendent God and life that first concerns the welfare of one’s neighbor put one in opposition to the way things work. Benedict spent much of his papacy tending to the celebration of the liturgy, the worship of God. His papacy culminated in a Year of Faith, celebrating faith in the resurrected Jesus and the consequences of having a personal relationship with Him (which is, of course, to know unconditional love in one’s life and to be able to recognize the lack of it in the world). Pope Francis has followed up with a focus on how human beings are to treat each other in light of this faith, placing a spotlight on the poor of the world, our neighbor.

We might come to an awareness of how our actions – economic, political, environmental, etc. – affect other people (even future generations), but we will only care about these effects if, by faith, we are united to all people in the love of God. Only with the faith of which Benedict speaks can the Church of Francis come to fruition. The witness of the New Martyrs will bring the world to Christ, for they will prove the truth of the Gospel.

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Ut Unum Sint

Pan Orthodox Synod announcedThis month, an event of tremendous religious significance is in the process of coming to fruition and, yet, is receiving far less media attention than it deserves. The event in question is a Pan-Orthodox Synod which is the formal title for, what one might call, an Orthodox council. For those who might not be familiar with Orthodox Christianity, such an event has not happened since the split between the Eastern (later Orthodox) and Western (later Catholic) branches of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In other words, an event of this type has not occurred since the 9th century! [Some Orthodox theologians contend that a 14th century synod held in Constantinople which endorsed the theology of St. Gregory of Palamas also qualifies, but that is by no means a universally-held position among Orthodox Christians.]

The news relating to this event was made public on March 9th (the actual communiqué can be found here: http://www.patriarchate.org/documents/synaxis-2014-communique ). At a Synaxis (gathering) of the primates of all the autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox churches, it was agreed that the proposed Pan-Orthodox Synod should be held in 2016 in Constantinople (Istanbul). [The one “hitch” to the vote was the absent Patriarch of Antioch, who left because of a dispute unrelated to the pending council. Because he elected to “suspend” his vote, rather than dissent from the vote, the plans for the future Synod will proceed.] The preparations for this historic Pan-Orthodox Synod began in 1976 and, needless to say given the date, the process has been an arduous and often politically-fraught one.

[For the input of the USCCB on the topic (from 1977!), see the following link: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/orthodox/reaction-orthodox-council.cfm ]

How does this topic relate to the “average Catholic?” According to St. John’s Gospel, the final prayer which Jesus uttered before his arrest on Holy Thursday was for the unity of all those who believe in him. “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” (Jn 17:11). Jesus’ prayer not only expresses his ardent desire for our communion, but also points us towards the mystical font of all Christian communion, i.e., the very inner-life of our Triune God. Blessed Pope John Paul II, inspired by this verse of St. John’s Gospel, entitled his encyclical on the Church’s commitment to ecumenism Ut Unum Sint (So That They Might Be One). In this text, Pope John Paul reiterates a phrase which he often used in relation to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, namely, that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (§ 54). That is to say, the Church is called to the communion which she enjoyed during the first Christian millennium. Pope John Paul’s successors have consistently echoed this belief as well. Pope Benedict XVI stated in an address to Orthodox church leaders that “we dare to hope, even if humanly speaking constantly new difficulties arise, that the day may still be not too far away when we may once again celebrate the Eucharist together” (9-24-11). Pope Francis, speaking to a delegation from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, said that “the search for unity among Christians is an urgent task – you have said that ‘it is not a luxury, but an imperative’ – from which, today more than ever, we cannot rescind” (6-28-13).

The eminent Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+1983) once said that any communion with Rome would have to follow a Pan-Orthodox Synod. In other words, intra-communion among the Orthodox must come first. He also, rather infamously, followed that statement by referring to the idea of a Pan-Orthodox Synod as an “eschatological concept.” Well, given the recent communiqué from the Synaxis, perhaps we all should be a little extra-vigilant in awaiting the Lord’s return in the next few years. At the very least, we should all share in his prayer that we be one as he and the Father are one. “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

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

Setting Relationships Right

Among Catholics who take the season of Lent seriously, I’ve noticed a number of different approaches. There are the subscribers to Lent as boot camp. Boot campers decide to fast not just from one food they love, but from most foods they love. Added to this, they decide to get up an hour earlier than normal to pray or go to Mass, and they are going to give money to anyone they meet who needs help.  A second group makes one serious commitment and day by day spends a little more time thinking about God, remembers they are not eating fried foods and discovers the joy of crunchy vegetables, and starts collecting their change each day so as to make a contribution to a worthy group. A third group is pretty darn casual about the whole thing, happy that, over forty days, they may remember not to eat meat on a Friday or two, will get to confession, and will go all in for the campus ministry or parish hunger awareness campaign.

Many of us, me included, have a love-hate relationship with Lent. It can so easily become more of a contest than a season of prayer. Thomas Merton once remarLentked that his brothers, in wanting to outdo one another in the severity of their fasts, became a bunch of grouchy, miserable men. Far better, Thomas thought, to feast and give thanks to God for his abundance than to fast and make yourself and others miserable. How is that holy? Thomas wondered.

The ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving which define the season of Lent are about making right the three most important relationships in the life of a Christian, God, self and others. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). Rather than a contest with our best and worst selves, we are invited to think about what will make our relationship with God stronger. Where do we need to bring some balance into our lives so as to be healthier and what relationships are asking us to be more giving; emotionally, practically or monetarily?

I’ve learned from my own experience that Lent is most fruitful when I take some time to think about how I can deepen my relationship with God. What am I eating or drinking or doing (or maybe not doing) that is really not healthy or good for me? And where can I be more generous with the people who are part of my everyday life?  Answering these questions opens up a number of practices that will make a difference over the course of forty days. My goal is to make these things a habit, not doing them for forty days and then be done, but rather to discover at the end of 40 days, they have become easier and have found a permanent place in my daily routine. If done well, I also am more aware of the depth and breadth of God’s love and mercy, because whether I am successful or not, I am saved. Jesus died for me so that my own failures and sins are not the end of my story.

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Embracing the Rejected

Studying theology invigorates the mind and soul but sometimes, unfortunately, it can also distract us from God…or perhaps even hide Him.  January 23 was the feast of St. Marianne Cope (1838-1918), canonized 20 October 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. With all the media’s attention on Pope Francis (and rightly so!), it might help to recall one of the saints elevated by our Pope Emeritus.  Amid all the constant scandal and political chatter, St. Marianne’s example gives us a great reason to reflect on God’s love for those whom the world has rejected. From Twitter, January 23:

Community of Grace ‏@communitygrace Today is the Feast of St. Marianne Cope of Hawaii who risked her life to bring Christ to those whom the world abandoned. #saintoftheday  

Exactly. At age 45, St. Marianne took six of her Franciscan sisters from Syracuse, New York, 20140311-212746.jpgto minister to the leper colony isolated on Hawaii’s Molokai Island.  She had worked in a factory to support her younger siblings and then, after joining the Franciscan sisters, founded hospitals welcoming all patients, including alcoholics and single mothers, in Utica and Syracuse.  St. Marianne was no stranger to helping those whom everybody else had rejected.  She lived another twenty-five years working on Molokai, helping St. Damien DeVeuster build a community where previously leprosy patients had lived in abject poverty.

In an age where we obsess over Super Bowl performances, celebrity arrests, and viral videos, St. Marianne’s quiet heroism reminds us of what the Gospel can accomplish…precisely where nobody else is paying attention.  However, Gaudium et Spes, the crowning statement of Vatican II, opened by declaring the Church’s desire to share the Gospel with the world and in so doing embrace the hopes and concerns of all.  Theology students know that. St. Marianne’s life offers a sobering—and inspiring!—commitment to do just that. Of course, it is not easy, but St. Marianne (and Vatican II!) knew that…and embraced the rejected anyway.

Learn more at http://blessedmariannecope.org/index.html

Jeffrey Marlett teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. Follow his blog, Spiritual Diabetes.

Mencius and Misericordia

Mencius leaps right over the dichotomy of mind and heart: “all people have a mind and heart which cannot bear to see the suffering of others,” that is, misericordia.  Mencius thought with his heart and felt with his head.

“All people have the mind/heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning is this:  When people see a child falling into a well, they feel distress, not to gain friendship with the parents, nor to seek the praise of neighbors, nor because they dislike the reputation of in humanity if they did not rescue the child. A person without misericordia is not a person; a person without the feeling of shame is not a person; a person without the feeling of deference is not a person; and a person without a feeling of right and wrong is not a person.  The feeling of misericordia is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.  People have these four beginnings, feelings, just as they have four limbs. Having these four beginnings, but saying they cannot develop them is to destroy the people.  If anyone with these four beginnings, feelings, in them knows how to give them extension and development, the result will be like fire beginning to burn or a spring beginning to shoot forth. When developed, they will be sufficient to protect all the people.  If they are not developed, they will not be sufficient to serve even one’s parents.” 

The Book of Mencius,  2A:6

The four beginnings are innate moral qualities that bridge the dichotomy of head and heart. For Mencius, they are the core of humanity and the center of education.  Analogously, these four beginnings help us understand that our educational mission is essentially religious, but specifically intellectual.  Our educational mission should neglect no significant dimension of human possibility and experience.

The one thing necessary here is not to draw an unnecessary dichotomy.  Our merciful minds and hearts, fully engaged in education, seek to understand and encompass the full breadth of human experience. Our Sister of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, challenges us as educators to see higher education as a work of mercy, as an activity of a compassionate mind and heart, as misericordia.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

A Work of Missionary Discipleship

Pope Francis with UND coalition

Pope Francis with UND delegation

Recently, Pope Francis greeted a delegation from the University of Notre Dame.  He offered the following exhortation to his guests, but more broadly, to be received by Catholic colleges and universities everywhere.  He said:

In my Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions.  This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities, which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. 

This “missionary discipleship” is the impetus for Saint Joseph’s College Theology blog, which arose out of the desire on the part of the faculty for the Online Theology Programs to foster intellectual engagement among each other and in the wider arena of the Church in which our students and graduates live out their vocation of discipleship in many and various ways, such as religious educators, pastoral associates, hospital chaplains, college professors, campus ministers, just to name a few.  The topics discussed in this blog reflect the varied interests of the bloggers, and so the topic of our inaugural blog on this Ash Wednesday is Confession.

The Medicine of Confession

It is thanks to the medicine of Confession
that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.
Augustine, Sermon 82

It is fitting that a blog’s debut on Ash Wednesday be devoted to Confession.  It may, however, seem odd that a college sponsored blog kick off with sinAfter all, in the ever increasing competitive market, many universities are clamoring to attract students by highlighting the warts-free ideal.  It goes something like this:  You, prospective student, are terrific.  We, the college for you, are terrific.  Together, we are perfect.

Maybe so, but since this is a blog of Catholic theology, sin and redemption are foremost in our minds.  Catholics – theologians or otherwise – view those they encounter as souls in need of salvation.  That is to say we see others and ourselves as possessing an immortal soul and that human actions are for the good or the ill of others, not just here and now, but eternally.  When a teacher of Catholic theology remembers that core truth and teaches in sincerity and with humility and joy – all the while sensitive to the diverse needs and backgrounds of his or her students—the extraordinary happens.  The student who doesn’t “feel” terrific and may be on the brink of despair, experiences something wonderful:  hope.  For Catholic students, the Sacrament of Reconciliation may seem like a wonderful starting point, for in the confessional, “hope springs eternal,” as the saying goes.

After my son made his First Confession at age seven, he ran to me and blurted out, “Mom, I feel like I have never sinned in my entire life.”  While we are reluctant to speak of “feelings” in relation to faith—as feelings come and go–what he really was conveying was an experience of grace that involved his entire being.  When not even ten minutes later he started fighting with his brother, I was tempted to say, “So, do you remember now what it feels like to sin?”  Of course, I bit my tongue and refrained from sharing the proverbial parental “gotcha.”  It was well I did keep silent because that initial grace of the confessional stayed with him, and later when the experience of sin became more profound as one matures and grows, Confession was a home to which he could return, a respite from the crushing weight of sin and guilt, and a place of hope from which to set out on the path of True North again and again.

Patricia Ireland is the Director of Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.