Going for Two

Thirty years ago, a great college football team faced an awful choice.  Expected to win a championship game handily, they instead found themselves playing catch-up throughout.  With less than a minute to go, though, they scored and trailed by only one point.  Thus their choice:  play it safe and kick an extra point to tie the game and probably still win the championship, or go for two points, risking everything to win clearly.  The team and its coach never hesitated; they lined up for the two point conversion but fell tragically short.  The other team won, and ever since experts have mused ‘what if’ the expected winner hadn’t overreached.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II. (CNS photo)

On Divine Mercy Sunday, the Universal Church celebrated the canonizations of two recent popes:  John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli, 1881-1963) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, 1920-2005). The Church prepared for this remarkable day with great anticipation.  All sorts of Catholics offer their devotions to John and John Paul.  Their legacies appear where the Church now grows fastest.

Still, similar ‘overreach’ questions have emerged.  What does it mean that two popes enter the Communion of Saints on the same day?  In the conventional wisdom, John XXIII and John Paul II represent two loci of the post-Vatican II Church.  John XXIII, who convened the Council but then died before the Second session started, stands as the great hope of liberals or at least those who seek greater reforms in the Church.  “Good Pope John” wrote passionately about socio-economic justice and peace.  On the other hand, the same stereotype casts John Paul II as the great restorative hope for conservatives.  Elected as a young, vibrant fifty-six year old, the Polish pope quickly restored the Church’s teaching and spiritual authority following the decade-long fallout from Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.

Of course, the nay-sayers offer counter-narratives.  John’s Council welcomed the very Modernist innovations condemned so vigorously by Popes Pius IX and St. Pius X.  John Paul’s concern for restoring authority suppressed the Council’s reforming zeal, especially regarding women’s ordination, and ignored clear signs indicating clergy sexual abuse.  How can these two popes stand, let alone enter sainthood, together? Thus in “going for 2” the dual canonization appears as overreach or, perhaps worse, a confused message about papal legacies.  Well-read Catholic critic Paul Elie sees (mistakenly, I think) Francis slyly undermining Benedict’s legacy.  How then would this dual canonization aid that quiet revolution?  (If anything, Benedict will perhaps enjoy the canonizations more than most.  After all, he worked for and with both saints!)

Investigation reveals the myopia of such concerns.  For all his zeal about the Council’s aggiornomento, John XXIII conserved as much as he inaugurated.  Reading John’s body of work (short, compared to John Paul II’s exhaustive writings) challenges the customary view that John’s Council turned its back on Catholic history.  Roncalli clearly saw himself standing on the shoulders of giants.  His early encyclicals in 1959 and 1960 teem with references to Pius X and Pius XI, especially. This makes sense; St. Pius X had ordained Roncalli to the priesthood and both men came to the papacy through Venice.  Furthermore, John saw aggiornomento following Pius X’s motto:  Instaurare Omnia in Christo (To Restore All Things in Christ).   Likewise, John Paul II cannot be dismissed as a ham-handed reactionary.  His five-year lecture series on the Theology of the Body thoroughly reconstructed the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and continues to inspire new research, especially among women theologians.  His extensive writings on work and freedom contributed directly to the downfall of the Iron Curtain, starting in his own beloved Poland.  John Paul II also boldly added the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary, that most Catholic of prayers.  Tellingly, the most frequent citations in John Paul II’s own writings?  Scripture and the documents of Vatican II.

So instead of overreach, perhaps Francis chose, following John XXIII’s own example, to celebrate two of the popes who most formed his own ministry.  If that’s the case, we should expect more citations from both as long as Francis remains pope.  Given their heroic challenges to unreflective conventions, this cannot be bad.

From what Pope Francis has shown us thirteen months into his own ground-breaking papacy, celebrating the saintliness of these two predecessors reaffirms the Church’s catholicity—its universality and inclusiveness.  Both John XXIII and John Paul II celebrated the joy and hope the Gospels give the entire human race, not solely Christians or Roman Catholics.  The canonizations also remind us of God’s surprising providence.  That God might call a humble Italian or an orphaned Pole, both of whom worked clandestinely against the Nazis, should alert us to God’s unexpected presence in our own lives.  A glance at Pope Francis’ Twitter feed reveals the same utter reliance on God’s grace.  Why play it safe?

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

“Jesus, I Trust in You.”

Divine MercyAs the Church and world celebrate the canonizations of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II today, it is important to note the significance of this day on which these canonizations are taking place, Divine Mercy Sunday.  For St. John Paul II, the Mercy of God was an early and prevalent theme in his pontificate.  In 1980, he issued the encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, which not only views Jesus Christ as the “Incarnation of mercy” (2), but also teaches that mercy is “the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission” (6).  The ramification of such a bold way of describing mercy challenges human beings to move beyond a basic understanding of justice.  He notes that “mercy has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness” (14).

Forgiveness in an age of self-centeredness and rabid individualism is often seen as weakness.  And yet, through the seeming weakness of the Cross, his “sorrowful passion”, forgiveness, love, and mercy are offered “to us and to the whole world” (Cf. Chaplet of Divine Mercy).  They are confirmed in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ who St. Faustinaappears to his disciples and takes away all doubt, bringing peace to those in fear.  All of the baptized are called to carry on this mission of Christ that offers mercy to a suffering and broken world.  A life lived in mercy will lead to greater unity with one another.  St. John Paul II, when he canonized the visionary of Divine Mercy, St. Faustina Kowolska, and declared the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday in the Jubilee Year of 2000, said in his homily that day that Jesus “showed us the many paths of mercy, which not only forgives sins but reaches out to all human needs…every kind of human poverty, material and spiritual” (Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday, 4).

True and lasting forgiveness that leads to living a life of deeper compassion and mercy can only occur with trust.  The Apostle Thomas in today’s Gospel passage did not trust the word of witness of his brothers and sisters in the Upper Room.  He needed to experience the mercy of Jesus Christ for himself, as do we.  It is only through a personal encounter with Christ as the Merciful One that we have the graced strength to say, “Jesus, I trust in You!”

Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C., is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.

“Nothin’ Left to Lose” — Perhaps Everything!

Thoughts for Earth Day 2014

In Kris Kristofferson’s poignant song, “Me and Bobbie Magee,” there is the haunting line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Let me transpose the idea: “Freedom’s just another word for everythin’ left to lose.” By itself, the line “nothin’ left to lose” is metaphysically incorrect, although it has its truth in human experience. The universe, if created by God, is not a “sound and fury signifying nothing.” If God created the universe out of nothing, then the universe signifies everything that God intends. A thing is wonderful when it is significant, revealing purpose metaphorically and analogically. There is no wonder in the insignificant, and thus no purpose. In a metaphorical universe, there is nothing insignificant. If the universe is not created by God, if the universe is not a metaphor analogically expressive of the fullness of meaning, then, indeed, there is “nothin’ left to lose” because there was nothing there to gain in the first place, and everything signifies nothing. There is nothing to imagine that would not be merely “imaginary.” This latter insight is close to the heart of Buddhism.

Sebago Lake, Saint Joseph's College of Maine

Sebago Lake, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

No one deserves a star or merits a sunset. The universe, if created by God, is a vast metaphor saying that it is God’s gift. It has been said, very cynically, that “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” And such a person will have nothing to be thankful for. Chesterton wrote in his St. Francis, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.”

There is a tendency when speaking of metaphors to say that something is a “mere” metaphor. But if God created the universe, then it is no “mere” metaphor. The Catholic analogical imagination imagines that everything speaks of God and everything is a gift of God. If God saw that everything was good, then human beings must see everything as a gift, a gift for which human beings are responsible and accountable. This gift deserves our gratitude, a gratitude that can be put into environmental action. Gratitude may be the “real skill” with which Thomas Berry hopes “to raise the sails and to catch the power of the wind as it passes by.”

Since Fall, 2001, our College has offered the course, “Ecology and the Environmental Challenge,” required of all the students of the Sebago Lake Program. The course is a teaching challenge not just for the professors, but also for the whole College community. It is not just about self-preservation. We need to go much further. As Pope John Paul II stated, “An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others and for the earth . . . A true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior.”

I would add that a genuine conversion of imagination, one consonant with the Catholic imagination, is needed if we are going, as a College, to contribute solutions for our environmental crisis. A universe that is good, that is filled with real things that are good, and that speaks of God, surrounds us. If it is so, we are indebted to God for it, an infinite debt that can only be repaid by an everlasting hymn of gratitude. Dante Gabriel Rosetti said somewhere that “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” Every Earth Day, we should remind ourselves that our “Attainable/Sustainable” efforts need to be grounded in the deepest Catholic identity of the Mission of the College. Gratitude is a greater motive for environmental action than self-preservation. In Chesterton’s words, all “goods look better when they look like gifts.”

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

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Resurrection by NesterovChrist is risen! He is risen, indeed!

If there is any doubt about the veracity of that acclamation, the “indeed” removes it.

In contemporary academia, awash in moral relativism, the emphasis often is placed on skepticism at the expense of certainty – that is, the divorce of reason from faith. True intellectual engagement, however, need sacrifice neither questioning nor certainties. Faith and reason can and ought to live together in a wonderful and lively union.

When I was in graduate school, I participated in a student forum. It was a diverse group: a few Protestant ministers and a mix of Catholic lay and religious. The faculty mentor was a nominal Christian who described the Scriptures as something scholars must “push up against.” We had a meeting during Holy Week on how to preach on the “resurrection” (quotation marks intentional). One of the students said that if she were to preach an Easter sermon, it would be on the passage in John 20 in which, after the resurrection, Mary “recognizes” Jesus in the gardener. The theme, she said, is that the importance of Easter is that Mary experienced the resurrection, and not that it happened as a matter of fact. Implicit in this statement is that the resurrection may not have happened in-deed. Christ is risen! He is risen, in my experience! Surprisingly, my forum group thought this was a good idea, and anyone who disagreed with this notion kept quiet for fear of embarrassment at being a believer.

A faith that becomes subjective and privatized lacks true transformative power. It is a vanity that leads to despair when the bloom of youth and vigor fail. As Saint Paul preached to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain; your faith also is vain” (1Cor. 15:14). Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to the contrary:

Christ has been raised, and because of this, so also shall we: Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? … But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive… 

1 Corinthians 15:12, 20-22

And what will Christ’s resurrection mean? Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
          “O Death, where is your victory?
           O Death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
                                                                                                        1 Corinthians 15: 51-57

Every Easter for close to twenty years now, I think back to that forum, and how thankful I am to have had other wonderful faculty mentors who were great scholars and believers in the resurrection, and how grateful I am to be teaching at a Catholic college that marries faith and reason in a wonderful and lively exchange.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

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

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! While most consider Christmas to have that honor, I think the Easter Triduum takes it – hands down.

In the next few days, the universal Church will celebrate the reason for her existence. We will remember the moments in the life of Jesus that make the kingdom of God our reality. I use the present tense intentionally here because the memory of these events is of a very particular kind – an anamnesis. Such a remembrance implies a making present of the event, as well as a participation in the event. Though we have this experience at every Mass, during the Easter Triduum, we have the opportunity to travel the road of the disciples in the same time frame that they did – over the course of three days. The Easter Triduum is actually one extended liturgical celebration, not three separate ones. For me, the most powerful moments come in the waiting between our times in the church.

On Holy Thursday, we sit with Jesus at the Last Supper. Here, Jesus gives new meaning to the Passover ritual gestures that fulfill God, the Father’s plan of salvation. The sharing of bread, which bonded those present at the Passover celebration, is “My Body”, indicating that the unity of his disciples lies now in His Person, not merely common food. The cup of wine blessed by Jesus is the Cup of Elijah, the Messiah. This cup is “My Blood”, by which Jesus both claims his Messianic identity and indicates the way in which salvation will be won. Furthermore, the cup is shared, indicating the sharing in Christ’s suffering that the disciples will undergo – suffering which will have the same redemptive effect as that of Christ’s own. Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

We then go off with Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane. Traditionally, we visit local parishes to visit with the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night – entering into the mind and heart of Jesus, pondering the thoughts and feelings that caused him to sweat blood, staying awake with him as best we can. I always appreciated not having to go to work on Good Friday because it enabled me to truly enter into this moment, and, the next morning, to feel the anticipation of the trial of Jesus to be remembered at the Good Friday service.

tomb mosaicOf course, on Good Friday, we are present at the trial, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus, playing our role in His suffering, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Leaving Good Friday service, I am always left with a keen awareness that the tabernacle is empty, that all tabernacles are empty. I must admit, it scares me a bit – to think that Jesus is not here! Yes, I know he is in my thoughts and in my heart, but that makes his presence dependent on me. In the Eucharist, he is here in a much fuller capacity (indeed, the fullest) than I could ever imagine spiritually – and I can feel that presence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a grace far beyond me. With that presence gone, I feel the inadequacy of my own memories of Jesus.

Holy Saturday is a very long day for me. I imagine what it must have been like for the disciples and Mary during that time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. What they hoped for had never been done before – a man would rise from the dead. Plus, the Romans would be after them soon, too. What if this really was the end? What if they had been duped? What was it all for? What if they stopped trusting themselves and their own experience of Jesus? Did he really heal and feed all those people? Could they trust their own memories? What if it was all in their imaginations?

Slowly, the church illuminates with the light of the Easter fire, then pew by pew until the darkness is lifted, and we are bathed in the light of Christ at the Easter Vigil. Halleluah! He is risen! Jesus is the Messiah. He has conquered sin and death. The kingdom of God IS our reality! And we are here, present in this anamnesis, at its founding. We can trust our own memories of Jesus because we have been present to and participated in the Paschal Mystery.

So tell me, is there a more wonderful time of the year?

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

Standing by Christ

On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, during a long break in a class I was teaching, students watched, on the “edge of their seats,” the live, televised papal election of Cardinal Bergoglio, presented as “Pope Francis.”   They cheered and screamed exuberantly. In the excitement of the moment, I reminded them that, when the world views him more critically—when the pope’s preaching and living the Gospel evokes anger and hatred among those “of the world”—then they must continue passionately supporting and encouraging our Holy Father. Not so easy, though, when popular culture castigates the Church’s stance “in truth” as an outmoded and bigoted vestige of dark ages in humanity’s past.

We may view Pope Francis’s exceptional popularity—a huge boost for Catholic counter-culture and waning Church attendance—as a timely but provisional blessing from God. As we know, popularity comes and goes. Jesus’ sobering words clarify our focus on realistic discipleship: “…because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:19-20)

Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, on which we recount Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem during his earthly ministry. Just prior to this entry, descending the MoPalmunt of Olives toward Jerusalem, Jesus’ multitude of disciples accompany and receive him. They lay down cloaks and leafy branches on the road before him and proclaim Jesus of Nazareth the “son of David,” the “king.” This alludes to and fulfills Psalm 118:25-27: “Lord [actually, YHWH], grant salvation! [in Hebrew, Hosanna!]…Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…The Lord is God and has given us light. Join in procession with leafy branches…!” Jesus’ extolled, messianic procession also fulfills prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 and alludes to Isaiah 40:9 and 62:11. Concerning Jesus’ approach toward Jerusalem, the intertextuality between each Gospel and the Old Testament is significant and intricate in messianic contour.

Jesus’ peak of popularity, and the renown proper to him as the true Messiah and world Redeemer, are quite transitory. Shortly following his climactic reception on Palm Sunday (as we call it), the religious leaders of Jerusalem—at risk of suffering the fate of the unrepentant sinners of Zion, of those consumed among unquenchable flames (Isaiah 1:27-31)—falsely arrest, torture, and crucify the Christ.

Jesus, undaunted by the esteem of men or their status (Matthew 22:16, John 5:41), boldly speaks the truth: “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus’ mission of testifying to the truth corresponds to his identity, Truth itself (John 14:6). If our discipleship of Christ is genuine, we must be faithful to his word. Can we withstand the pressure to conform to “the world?” By what we say and do, and even at times by our silence or act of omission, do we fail to courageously, faithfully embrace all of Jesus’ teachings? Out of fear of social reprisal, do we slight duty and devotion to Sunday Eucharist and holy days of obligation, patience and kindness toward all, chastity and the sanctity of real marriage, material solidarity with the poor, etc.? When we conform to our fallen nature, we deny our divine image, as well as Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). In our denial, we are saying about the Christ, in effect, “I do not know this man!”

In contrast, by the amazing grace God lavishly bestows on us, along with our freely-chosen resolve, we each can stand by Christ in courage, saying, “I can do all things through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Imagine

In John Biguenet’s short story, The Vulgar Soul, an atheist who is unexpectedly experiencing the stigmata is speaking to a psychiatrist, who asks,

‘“What about religion?”

“Well, I’m Catholic — at least I was raised a Catholic — but of course I don’t practice.”

“Why not?”

To believe in God, he patiently explained to the psychiatrist, one has to be willing to close his eyes to a great deal. “Isn’t that what they mean by faith — refusing to accept the obvious, refusing to accept what has always been right there in front of our eyes.”

“But that’s exactly what believers say,” she countered. “God has always been right there in front of us. We just won’t open our eyes.”

“Maybe it’s not so easy to see what right in front of our eyes.”

The psychiatrist laughed. “That’s certainly true, Mr. Hogue. I’d be out of business if that weren’t true.”’

Faith is an act of seeing what God reveals. As seeing, it is an act of the imagination. The tradition speaks of the “eyes of faith” that see what the “light of faith” reveals. Seeing and believing are complementary. By believing one can see and by seeing one can believe. The phrase “blind faith” is profoundly misleading. God cannot bypass the senses, and since the senses lead to knowledge through the imagination, God cannot bypass the imagination, the means by which the eyes of faith see the form/gestalt of God’s revelation, Jesus Christ. The form is the incarnate, yet risen, human reality of Jesus. The risen Jesus is absent to the physical eyes, but is visible to the eyes of faith. John says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But those who believe now see. Jesus must be imagined to be believed in, or if he is believed in, Jesus is then imagined. To the eyes of the believer, the risen Jesus is not imaginary, but is indeed imagined, and thus the whole world is seen as transformed. If the world is transformed by the resurrection of Jesus, then a living faith must be Catholic, where “Catholic” means “through the whole.” The dynamic imagination of Catholicism, “through-the whole-ness,” cannot rest short of attempting to see and then understand everything.

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