Watch!

I am very glad to be posting on this day, the first Sunday of Advent, because it affords me the opportunity to meditate on a theme which one seldom hears preached from the ambo but upon which our very salvation rests! This theme, of course, is Christ’s return (parousia) in judgment over the living and the dead on the last day (eschaton).

ChristMost Christians, and many non-Christians for that matter, could easily identify Jesus’ resurrection is the central belief of Christianity. In fact, it is only in the light of Christ’s resurrection that other Christian dogmas, such as the Trinity and Incarnation, can be seen as revealed truths. But what is often obscure is the meaning of Christ’s resurrection for us. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruit,” i.e., the sign and the promise, of the transformation that awaits all of creation (cf. 1 Cor 15:23-24). To put it plainly: a heaven of disembodied spirits is not our ultimate destination. Our ultimate destination, what we hope for, is the transformation of the entire cosmos, God’s Kingdom on earth, and our own resurrection into eternal life.

The celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas ought, therefore, to make us “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). Just as at the birth of an earthly prince, an heir to the throne, we might anticipate the time when he finally rules over his kingdom, so too do we anticipate at Christmas the time when Christ’s Kingship (last Sunday) will be manifest “on earth as in heaven” (Mt 6:10). The Preface Prayer from today’s Mass reminds us that this is the fulfillment our hope.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh,

and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,

and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that,

when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest,

we who watch for the day may inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope.

One might say that our very lives while here on earth are preparation for the Kingdom. Jesus’ own Gospel proclamation announced its arrival. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15; cf. Mt 3:2). Jesus’ life, his teachings, and the grace which he bestows upon us through the sacraments of the Church, are all preparations for this Kingdom; a Kingdom which will only be consummated at his return. In this regard, all Christians are called to be Echatological Christians; that is, Christians who pray and long for Christ’s return. We are all called, with St. Paul, to pray “Marana tha” (1 Cor 16:22), which means “Our Lord, come,” or, as elsewhere in the NT, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

Sistine ChapelThus, perhaps for reflection on this First Sunday of Advent, we ought to ask ourselves: Do I pray for the coming of the Lord or would I prefer that he take his time in returning? Have the goods of this world captured my imagination so that, in my everyday life, I have made them ends in themselves rather than means to my salvation? Do I live St. Paul’s exhortation to “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of [my] mind” (Rom 12:2). Will the Master of the house arrive and find me sleeping, at rest with the comfortable life I have made for myself? In today’s Gospel Christ reminds all of us to be prepared for his return at any and every moment. “Watch!” (Mk 13:37).

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

 Don’t miss Saint Joseph’s College Online faculty (and blogger!) Susan Timoney presenting a webinar through the Catholic Apostolate Center on December 2. Click here for details!

Making Sense of Suffering

The tragic choice of Brittany Maynard for (physician-assisted) suicide (here are Brittany Maynard’s first and second videos) and of the response of Raleigh (NC) seminarian Phillip Johnson (see his open letter, “Dear Brittany: Our Lives Are Worth Living, Even With Brain Cancer”) draw into sharp relief two different views about how to handle suffering at the end of life. Both had aggressive forms of brain cancer. Both were terrified, as anyone would be, of passing through a horribly debilitating state before death and of the effect on their loved ones of seeing them in that state.

ignatius of antiochWhile it is important to give well-founded arguments against physician-assisted suicide, it is equally important to give a thoughtful, nuanced response to the problem and mystery of suffering as we encounter it in our society today. In an effort to consider this topic from a Christian perspesaint-thomas-more-00ctive, I have introduced into my bioethics courses readings by and about saints on the problem of suffering and death. One such book is On Christian Dying by Matthew Levering. Reading through this book, one notices that some saints willingly—even eagerly—embrace suffering, that other saints strive mightily to avoid it, and that in each case, suffering is a very personal experience.

For example, consider the very different experiences of two martyrs: Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Thomas More. St. Ignatius sounds positively gleeful that his execution might mark for him an “auspicious beginning” to eternal life “if only I obtain the grace of taking due possession of my inheritance without hindrance.” He writes the Christians in Rome not to intervene with Roman authorities to commute his sentence. Rather he asks “suffer me to be the fruit of wild beasts, which are the means of my making my way to God” (On Christian Dying 2-3).

Yet St. Ignatius’s letter to the Christians in Rome acknowledges the evil of his suffering, as when he refers to his guards as “wild beasts… who prove themselves the more malevolent for the kindnesses shown to them” (On Christian Dying 3). His words even suggest his own fear of a slow, agonizing death when he hopes that the lions finish him quickly: “Better still, coax the wild beasts to become my tomb and to leave no part of my person behind: once I have fallen asleep, I do not wish to be a burden to anyone. Then only shall I be a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ when the world will not see even my body” (On Christian Dying 3). But does St. Ignatius seem a bit too eager to die? Perhaps he fails to appreciate the goodness of remaining in this earthly life. Or perhaps his eagerness is explained by the fact that he is a bishop and recognizes the need to set a perfect example of the willingness to accept martyrdom rather than abandon his faith to escape persecution.

St. Thomas More was also motivated by the need to set a faithful example for his fellow Christians, but he hardly displayed St. Ignatius’s eagerness to be a martyr. More was sentenced to death for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church of England and spent the days before his execution in the tower of London, where he wrestled with his own fear and sorrow by meditating on Christ’s final hours. He writes to console himself and to edify anyone who might later read his writings. He earnestly did not want to die, observed that Jesus didn’t either, and struggled to share Christ’s willingness for self-sacrifice. More takes Jesus’s fear as “evidence” that fear and avoidance of death is entirely natural and proper to human beings.

As averse as he is to suffering death at the hands of his executioners, More never accepts sin to avoid death. Rather, he recalls Saint Paul’s comforting words to the Corinthians: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) Then he wrote, “[W]hen things have come to the point of a hand-to-hand combat with the prince of this world, the devil, and his cruel underlings, and if there is no way left to withdraw without disgracing the cause, then I would think that a man ought to cast away fear and I would direct him to be completely calm, confident, and hopeful.” (On Christian Dying 83)

With these words Saint Thomas More brings us to one of the most difficult decisions a person can make, the decision to confront intense suffering without compromising moral integrity. He had to accept hopefully a different life than the one he had planned when tragedy was thrust upon him. In his weaker moments, being “completely calm, confident, and hopeful” was more aspiration than reality. But the way he died displayed a deep faith and a willingness to wrestle with the problem of suffering and death. I do not know what Britney Maynard’s faith commitments were and have no judgment to make about her existence now. At the same time, her videos do not express a grappling with the problem of suffering that each person must at some point confront. Perhaps she did. I hope so and would like to know what she thought. I do know the faith commitments of seminarian Philip Johnson. When his diagnosis dashed hopes and dreams, he did the hard, messy work of discerning new reasons to live. Thank you, Philip Johnson, for your example.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

An Invitation to Missionary Discipleship.

“Today we ask the Lord to become missionaries in the Church, apostles in the Church but in this spirit: a great magnanimity and also a great humility.” – Pope Francis

Many people throughout the world whether Catholic or not have been affected by the humility of Pope Francis. His witness calls us to more, a more generous spirit that is not tied to things or honors or what we desire, but is instead showing love of God and love of neighbor in what we do and in what we say. This witness is not meant to be held Christ the Kingwithin our families, among our friends, or in our churches. We are sent as apostles, as witnesses of faith and charity to a world that is in need of hope. Faith grounds us in the One who is beyond us all but is also the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, God, who is Infinite Love. We are called to share this love in our acts of charity, justice, and service – building up a broken world not for ourselves or our own benefit, but as co-workers in the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

The type of kingdom is the one brought forth in our world by Jesus Christ. The preface for Mass today offers us some insight. Christ’s kingdom is:

an eternal and universal kingdom,

a kingdom of truth and life,

a kingdom of holiness and grace,

a kingdom of justice, love and peace.

As number 31 of Lumen Gentium teaches, all of the baptized are “sharers” in this kingly mission of Christ. How? By growing in holiness and working toward a more just and virtuous society (CCC, 908-909). This work is not simply in word, but most especially in deed.

Apostles, or missionary disciples, are sent then to not only preach, but to heal (Luke 9:2; 10:9). Our world is in need of so much healing. Look anywhere in the world and it seems that destruction and hate are much more present than life-giving love. We can and must be bearers of love! If we, as people of faith, as Catholics, are not apostles of faith and charity, then who do we expect to do it? What are we waiting for, an invitation? Look again at the quote above – it is not only a prayer, it is an invitation by Pope Francis to generously and humbly give of ourselves to Christ and to others. It is part of our sharing in the kingly mission of Jesus Christ.

Faith is not meant to be kept to ourselves or locked in our churches, it is meant to be shared in word and deed. We are challenged then to deepen continuously our formation so that we may more fully embrace our being sent as apostles of faith and charity, doing what is said at the end of Mass – “Go, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C., is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center and teaches for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Two of our Saint Joseph’s College Online faculty (and bloggers!) will be presenting webinars through the Catholic Apostolate Center on November 25 and December 2. Click here for details!

To Be or Not to Be

“Worthy are you, Lord our God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things;
because of your will they came to be and were created.”

(Revelation 4:11, from today’s First Reading)

God is no magician with a magic wand, as Pope Francis correctly pointed out recently. However, Scripture and Church teaching affirm that, at will and out of nothing, God monreale_adam_eve600x3001created the world and all that it contains, visible and invisible, in their entire substance, at the very beginning of time. (See, for example, the following: Rev 4:11 above; Gen 1; Isaiah 45:12 and 48:12-13; 2 Maccabees 7:28; the Fourth Lateran Council, Chapter 1, with proper translation, including that of simul; and Vatican 1, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chapter 1, Canon 5.) Two of the more common approaches among faithful Catholic theologians concerning creation in respect to revelation and science are theistic macroevolution and special creation. (By special creation, I do not intend to discuss special transformism of monogenistic theistic macroevolution, the inherent problems of which I cannot address in this space.) According to theistic macroevolution, the first divine fiat was the creation of matter from which the Big Bang came. The expanse of the universe and macroevolutionary development of life—from molecules to man—were all guided by God’s providential design. Because this model predominates at this time, I will briefly present, in the following paragraphs, a rationale to embrace special creation according to a representation of its advocates.

Evolution often is presented in two different ways; this distinction is very important but often is blurred, engendering confusion. “Microevolution” is adaptation, or a change in gene frequency (genetic drift). It shows how a species genetically reduces into various subtypes through genetic isolation, inbreeding, natural selection, etc. It is a scientific fact—therefore the Church, at least theoretically, embraces it, for truth is one.

“Macroevolution,” however—especially from research and discoveries in the past two decades—seems unscientific. The macroevolutionary belief contends that one species can genetically change into another species. There are several reasons that macroevolution seems (or is) contradicted by science itself. Just three examples are the following.

First, macroevolution requires the emergence of positive or “information-adding” mutations. However, this has never been observed and would require something beyond nature to create it. Mutations are negative (harmful) or neutral—neutral can include protective mutations, but never an instance of acquiring new genetic material that previously did not exist. Genetic changes in context involve loss of material, never additional genetic stuff. Even cross-breeding adds nothing new. Gene duplications do not, either; they usually degenerate, and regulating them to elicit a new function requires a naturally impossible simultaneous genetic contextual development. Two examples of internationally renowned geneticists who advance this position against macroevolutionary belief are Dr. John Sanford, inventor of the gene gun, and Dr. Maciej Giertych, a Catholic.

Second, the fossil record still shows massive gaps that should not exist if macroevolution occurs. Attempts to show (strikingly few) transitional forms in the fossil record—

e .g., Ambulocetus Natans, Archaeopteryx, and Tiktaalik—have failed in several ways. Concerning macroevolutionary hominid to human transition, the supposed pre-Adamic hominids were arguably completely human: “Neanderthal Man” had a brain capacity that at least equals that of modern man, and he buried the dead and played the flute—hardly pre-human. “Homo Erectus,” possibly a more slender variation of the Neanderthal, possessed a brain size within human range. Hence, no evidence really exists that humans evolved from “apes.”

Third, in the past two or so decades, chemical paleontological technology often has been able to detect soft tissue—e.g., blood vessels (on a T-Rex in 2005), collagen, skin, and muscle—on dinosaur remains. According to the two scientific studies on soft tissue longevity, these dinosaurs cannot be more than thousands of years old. This detection and analysis seems to completely eliminate macroevolution from consideration, because the youngest dinosaurs would have to have become extinct about 65 million years ago for mammals to survive and further macroevolve into us.

Theologically macroevolution is problematic, too. Polygenism is the only apparent way it could work (if it were scientific), but this contradicts Scripture’s numerous references to Adam as the first man—and Adam and Eve as the first couple—from whom the human race came (see, for example, Romans 5:12; Tobit 8:6; 2 Maccabees 7:28). It also contradicts Church teaching articulated by Humani Generis and the doctrine of original sin and redemption. In addition, the literal/historical sense of Scripture cannot accommodate a macroevolutionary time scale without inventing and imposing special symbols, and without changing aspects of infallible teachings, e.g., concerning death as a consequence of original sin.

In addition to Church teaching on the divinely decreed creation of all things in their entire substance at the very beginning of time, the unanimity of the Church Fathers (about thirty) teaches explicitly that the universe was created in six days or less (i.e., St. Augustine, concerning the latter view). We can add other great Doctors of the Church and saints, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Maximilian Kolbe, in support of this teaching, which is exegetically tenable. The Hebraic use of yom in Gen. 1, the relationship of Gen. 1 to Gen. 2, new insights into genre and dating Genesis, a careful look at Exodus 20:11, and other exegetical considerations present a six day creation.

Obviously, a major objection is the age and constants of the universe according to the dominant scientific view of our time. However, many scientists are now seriously challenging tenets of this paradigm, e.g., speed of light as a constant, as articulated by physicist/cosmologist Joao Magueijo, among others. Though new theories may be helpful to better understand the natural order, we should remember that God’s supernatural creative activity “in the beginning” transcends science. We were not there at creation to observe as scientists; even if we were, we could not verify by scientific experiment the hypotheses formed by our questions from this observation. All we can know about the beginning is what God has revealed…

Concerning special creation, then, and theistic macroevolution, and other positions related to this issue, I shall be open-minded, seeking the truth with my colleagues and students within authentic Church teaching.

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

“Nudus nudem Christum sequi” or, “Here I Am”

“Naked, follow the naked Christ,” counseled St. Jerome. Physical nakedness would be much simpler (if rather awkward): we understand and can accomplish that, even daily. For most of us, spiritual nakedness is quite another matter. And yet, spiritual nakedness before God, what we usually call humility, is surely the requisite to hearing and following Christ. Our Jewish forefathers and mothers in scripture can give us insights into that humility when they respond to God with the simple answer, “Here I am.” If we look carefully at only a few of these instances, we see that each provides for us example of qualities necessary to the humility that enables us to listen to God’s voice.

Burning BushWhen Moses, innocently tending his flock (and probably bored stiff), came upon an angel “in a flame of fire out of a bush,” a bush that remained unconsumed, he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” And “when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’” (Ex 3.1-3). We learn here that curiosity, the desire to know and to question, is a key to an openness that leads to the humility to hear and obey God.

Samuel, dedicated to God by his mother Hannah, serves under Eli. Samuel is lying down in the sanctuary: “Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’” And we know the story. At the third repetition of this hilarious episode, Eli understood that it was God who was calling Samuel, and he told Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3.1-10). Like Samuel, we need to listen to the wisdom of others, often our elders, to open ourselves to hear the voice of God.

Isaiah is in the temple when he is granted a vision of the Lord enthroned in the Holy of Holies, a vision that inaugurates Isaiah’s commission as a prophet (6.1-8). “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (One wonders if he had the same enthusiasm when commanded to walk around Jerusalem for two years quite literally naked!) Sometimes our openness begins in bowing before the wisdom of the generations in our inherited traditions, including those of ritual and symbol, to hear how God speaks to us through them.

And last but never least, there is the famous visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary of Nazareth (Lk 1.26-38). At his greeting, Mary “was much perplexed at his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Gabriel goes on with the typical angelic statement “do not be afraid,” apparently too fully in traditional messenger mode to notice that she has shown no fear! At Gabriel’s announcement of the role of her future son, Mary shows little of the impetuousness of her forefathers. Instead, she calmly asks the further reasonable question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Only when Gabriel gives her a satisfactory explanation does she give the famed answer we tend to jump to when we recall this story: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Humility does not necessarily mean immediate acquiescence; the gift of reason is given by God, and careful discernment often involves painstaking thought and many questions.

The desire to know, a willingness to accept the wisdom of others and of our tradition in story, symbol and ritual, and fearlessly asking the hard questions and being ready to think differently than we have before: these are not the totality of humility, but they are preconditions for it, the beginnings of recognizing “God’s humble love and our response to that love” (Sr. Ilia Delio).

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

More on Secularization

“The German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, once wrote: ‘Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration.’ When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing . . . The issue is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that he is a reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good.” —Pope Benedict XVI.[1]

Our America is hard on believers in God, Catholics or Jews or Muslims. Believers may be, in Robert Reich’s words, “anti-modern fanatics . . . who believe that human beings owe blind obedience to a higher authority . . . who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious Church with skyscraperdogma.”[2] Charles M. Blow in the New York Times pontificates, “I don’t personally have a problem with religious faith, even in the extreme, as long as it doesn’t supersede science and it’s not used to impose outdated mores on others.”[3] Is it in the DNA of the American culture to marginalize belief? Secularity has become a steering current for the direction of American polity, values, and culture.[4] Institutional secularity undermines social supports for the practice of faith and distracts from deeper existential concerns. It can swallow a church whole. Secular modernity discounts the transcendent claims of the monotheistic faiths. Secular humanism asserts humans are better off without transcendent visions. Without God, without religion, without illusions, humans prosper. “Thy will be done” gives way to “Be all that you can be!”

With insight Pope Francis in Joy of the Gospel states:

“The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and the personal . . . while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, ‘there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom.’”[5]

In his The Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor distinguishes three uses of the term “secularity.”[6]

Secularity1 is where public spaces function without any reference to God or to any religious beliefs.

Secularity2 is where religious belief and practice have fallen off.

Secularity3 is where a society has moved from unchallenged and unproblematic belief in God to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.

All three pertain. Secularity1 is given constitutional warrant. Least problematic is secularity2’s decline in numbers, even if ex-Catholics are the second largest group in the country. How many of us there are is not the ultimate issue. In secularity3 belief in God is an implausible option at cross-purposes to the human good. Secularity3 includes two themes tensely at odds with each other, naturalism and anti-realism. The first holds that the universe is entirely material, based solely on physical causes. The second holds that the cultural world is a creation of humans who impose its concepts and categories.[7]

Catholic Americans should share what they have learned, and probe what needs to be learned, in order to live under, to live with, and perhaps to transform, America’s omnivorous secular polity, values, and culture. They need to create, or to recreate, a Christian culture, which will, at least initially, be a sub-culture.[8] They need to be, to use the Biblical term, “resident aliens.”

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

[1] Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. 33.

[2] See Robert Reich: “The great conflict of the 21st century may be between the West and terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying battle is between modern civilization and anti-modern fanatics; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind obedience to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for existence beyond life; between those who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and between those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic.” The American Prospect (2008).

[3] Charles M. Blow, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” New York Times (January 3, 2014).

[4] Culture is an open, complex, systemic whole of human behavior, and its artifacts, acquired and transmitted by symbols and language, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups. Culture includes a specific polity and promotes values.

[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (November 24, 2013), #64.

[6] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 2-3

[7] See Alvin Plantinga, “On Christian Scholarship.” www.calvin.edu/acadmeic/philosophy/virtual_library_plantinga_alvin.htm.

[8] See Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), pp. 14-15: “The only true criterion of Christian culture is the degree in which the social way of life is based on Christian faith. However barbarous a society may be, however backward in the modern humanitarian sense, if its members possess a genuine Christian faith they will possess a Christian culture—and the more genuine the faith, the more Christian the culture . . . And so when we talk of Christian culture, we ought not to think of some ideal pattern of social perfection which can be used as a sort of model or blueprint by which existing societies can be judged.”

Mariposa

tender-merciesFor this short reflection on the power of film images to convey meaningful theological messages, we will use as our primary example a film that has often passed by general notice—“Tender Mercies” [1983, screenplay by Horton Foote, directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Robert Duvall, supported by Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, and Lenny von Dohlen].  The film did garner recognition from the film community, winning two Academy Awards, one for Best Actor for Robert Duvall, and one for Best Original Screenplay.  Despite the fact that the general public is not familiar with this title, individuals working in the area of “Faith and Film” have used it as a prime example of the successful exploration of theological themes on the big screen.  For example, Sr. Rose Pacatte, has included it in her three volume work that links contemporary film to the three year cycle of liturgical readings, “Lights, Camera, Action”.  Then there is the work by Roy Anker, “Catching Light,” that focuses on a more select series of 13 films with a substantial chapter on each. Somewhat unusual among American films, “Tender Mercies” does not condescend the simple faith of a Texas Baptist woman.

This is a great film to use as an introduction to film study because of its tightly focused structure. The Hollywood distractions and clutter have all been eliminated.  What remains is an austere, spare, and unrelenting examination of dissolution and recreation/ death and resurrection.  Every small detail, from the signage for the small motel run by the young widow and her small son—to the condition of the barren fields engulfing the three main characters is meant to reinforce the theme of the transformation of spirit.

The name of the motel (announced by a bright red sign) is the Mariposa Motel.  There are several times when the film director does a full frame close-up shot of this sign—with no supporting dialogue or comment from the film’s cast.  The sign is an embedded message that the viewer is meant to unlock.  With this in mind, when the word “mariposa” is translated into English, the director’s intent becomes clearer.  Mariposa is the butterfly that has emerged from the apparent death and darkness of the “cocoon” into the realm of freedom of movement in the light–thus referencing a significant Christian symbol of transformation.

A second way that the visuals reinforce this theme of coming to fruition is in the twin “garden scenes” that are part of both the opening and closing sequences of the film.  The spring garden denotes the fragile planting of a new lifestyle, whereas the fall garden bespeaks a coming to ripeness, a harvest of the spirit.  Interestingly, the whole film was shot in four weeks in November.  Both the spring and late summer time frames were created by movie magic (before the use of CG design) and the time span was meant to indicate and underline the process of the spiritual growth of the gardeners.  This is one film where the extra features such as the conversation with the film director lead to a much more intricate vision than what appears to be a very simple storyline.

Enjoy the adventure of the Mariposa.

MaryAnn Sheridan teaches world religions for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Individualism and Family Life – Not a Good Mix

Vaticano, sinodo  sulla famigliaThe Extraordinary Synod of Bishops which met to discuss issues related to marriage and family life has come and gone. A lot of buzz has been created around the hot button issues related to family life, which were discussed by the Synod Fathers. But if we focus only on those hot button issues, many of which have been addressed previously, we will miss other significant points raised in the Synod Relatio, the final document from this Synod.

One of the key themes in the Synod Relatio which is explicit in some cases and implicit in others is the presence of individualism in the world today. Widespread individualism greatly affects family life, and as such, it affects society. The Synod Fathers discussed the family as “an essential agent in the work of evangelization” because family members can exemplify the Gospel quality of treating others as more important than ourselves (Synod Relatio 2; cf. Philippians 2:3-4). But after discussing some of the positive elements of contemporary family life, the Relatio states, “equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by a troubling individualism which deforms family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading, in some cases, to the idea that a person is formed according to one’s own desires, which are considered absolute (5).

In a later speech, after the Synod, Pope Francis spoke to the members of Schönstatt: “So many families are divided, so many marriages broken, (there is) such relativism in the concept of the Sacrament of Marriage…” The problem which Pope Francis is focusing on is that individuals believe they can define for themselves what marriage is. The reality of individualism and relativism in people today tie into the hot button issues discussed in the Relatio. We have to be aware of the danger of individuals treating their life experience as relative. There is a fundamental need for all members of the Church to speak and live the truth in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15).

The Synod Fathers recognize that sacramental marriage can provide a witness to combat the tendency to individualism: “The full commitment required in marriage can be a strong antidote to the temptation of a selfish individualism” (Synod Relatio 9). The Synod Fathers also state: “Openness to life is an intrinsic requirement of married love” (57).Clearly, Catholic families who remain open to life (21) can combat individualism, particularly with the mother who gives of her body and her life for her child. But also for the father, who willfully accepts each child as yet another sign of the bond to his wife, a sign of his ever deepening commitment to respect the sacred indissolubility of the marriage bond (cf. 14). The Synod Fathers did cite Humanae Vitae, “which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births” (58). The husband and wife offer themselves in mutual self-gift, thereby manifesting divine love: “The ‘true love between husband and wife’ (Gaudium et Spes, 49) implies a mutual gift of self and includes and integrates the sexual and affective aspects, according to the divine plan” (17). Pope St. John Paul II’s 1994 letter to families, Gratissimam Sane, was also cited.

One of the fundamental truths that is occasionally lost is that in God’s design for marriage, the husband and wife manifest Christ’s relationship with His Church (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33) and also provide an image of the Trinity. This large passage from the Relatio might be a bit long for a blog post, but here it is:

Jesus, who reconciled all things in himself, restored marriage and the family to their original form (Mk 10:1-12). Marriage and the family have been redeemed by Christ (Eph 5:21-32), restored in the image of the Holy Trinity, the mystery from which every true love flows. The spousal covenant, originating in creation and revealed in the history of salvation, receives its full meaning in Christ and his Church. Through his Church, Christ bestows on marriage and the family the grace necessary to witness to the love of God and to live the life of communion (16).

The family ultimately receives the grace from God necessary to image Christ’s relationship with the Church and the divine life of the Trinitarian communio personarum. Families can ask God for the grace to persevere (cf. 1 John 5:14). And when we encounter family members who have failed to live up to this ideal for marriage, we can meet them where they’re at without renouncing the truth, since Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (cf. John 14:6).

Edward Trendowski is Coordinator for Catechetical Resources for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Ebb and Flow of Dying and Rising

Maybe it’s the connection of the rhythm of the seasons to the embedded metaphors of Robert Frost. Maybe it is weaved into my training as an academic and a catechist. Whatever the context, I know that it is the beauty of late fall that draws my heart to themes of redemptive suffering and the ebb and flow of dying and rising.  As I walk along the dirt road near my house or through the woods adjacent to the road, I am celebrating and remembering all holy men and women and the lives and souls of the just. These special days of remembrance, All Saints and All Souls and the entire month of November, are an invitation from the Church’s liturgical calendar to enter into that spirit.

In my role as instructor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s I am frequently honored and humbled by the personal sharing of my students. So many of them have suffered almost unbearable wounds. Some carry lingering questions about the purpose and meaning of their suffering. While meditating on the Crucifixion or the entire Stations of the Cross, one can be touched by the ineffable truth and value of suffering. God’s good grace with our tenacious will can wrestle meaning and purpose from anything. I’ve recommended Victor Frankel’s “Man Search For Meaning” and Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I have often sought comfort in a prayerful, meditative reading of the Twenty Third Psalm.

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.