“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.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett 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.


Hope is a word that has been tossed around quite a bit recently – perhaps I have just become more aware of its frequency … or it really is having a resurgence! Just yesterday I noted the title of a book of Lenten reflections asking “what are we hoping for?”

Hope is a powerful thing, one that I am often unaware of, yet confident of its presence. A friend of mine, who has been in a very difficult place in life, recently mentioned finally being hope-is-the-good-thingable to hope again. I had no idea. It’s true; when someone has “lost hope” they determine that they cannot go on. That was one of the most striking things for me when I first watched the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” The character played by Morgan Freeman was “an institutional man,” he had been incarcerated so long that he couldn’t imagine life on the outside or any possibility of his surviving it. Part of surviving life on the inside was to not hope – not look forward to the future, to better or even different times – “hope is a dangerous thing!” [You can watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hB3S9bIaco ] And yet, this movie is ultimately about this man, Red’s, journey to rediscovering hope – it ends with him listing all of the things he hopes for and hearing himself saying “I hope, I hope, I hope …”

We are encouraged, in our society, to state very clearly what we want – and this can be interpreted in many ways: what do we think we deserve, what we can earn, what our material goals are. Do we realize that these future desires speak of hope? Any yet, if someone were to ask me what I hope for, I would not be inclined to enumerate material things. The Christmas “hangover” has just about dissipated. Think of how we speak of our Christmas anticipation – what do I want for Christmas? What if the question were, what do I hope for at Christmas? What do I want? Maybe some new electronic gadget. What do I hope for? Peace on earth, safety of my brothers and sisters in places of war and violence, shelter for those without homes, heat for those with inadequate housing …

Hope is deeper than want. Hope is one of the “big three” – faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13), but not the most enduring. Why? Faith is belief in that which is not known – when we enter into the kingdom of God, all will be known so faith will not be necessary. Hope is desire for that which is not yet realized – as all will be known, so all will be realized, hope is fulfilled. Love is the only gift that endures in this life and the next. But 1 Cor. 13:7 tells us that love always hopes! Commentaries state that hope for another (not about myself) is a fruit of love.

Hope. Do I have hope? Do I remember what it is to hope? What do I hope for? I am hopeful in this Year of Mercy – that it will be full of graces for the Church, the world, and in my own life. What do I hope for?

I hope that you receive all of the graces that God has in store for you this year!

Sr. Kelly Connors, pm, teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Courtyard of the Gentiles

Courtyard project ParisThe purpose of Pope Benedict’s initiative, which he calls “The Courtyard of the Gentiles,” is to promote communication with human cultures, sciences and institutions. It is a practical implementation of what Pope Francis is calling “a culture of encounter.” Although its first meeting was in Paris in 2011, it is the kind of thing that Christians have been doing since the beginning when Paul praised the Athenians for their worship of the Unknown God (Acts 17: 22). “The Courtyard of the Gentiles” came to mind as I read about Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book, Living with a Wild God (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

In his speech founding the Courtyard project Pope Benedict noted, “I consider most important the fact that we, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists. When we speak of a new evangelization these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us. … We must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God, but rather see it as an essential question for their lives. We must make sure that they are open to this question and to the yearning concealed within it. Here I think naturally of the words which Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah, namely that the Temple must be a house of prayer for all the nations (cf. Is 56: 7; Mk 11: 17).”

The Pope concluded: “Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.” (Address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2009)

When she was 13 years old, Barbara Ehrenreich had the following experience:

The world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with the ‘All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

Was this a religious experience? I don’t know. In an April 14, 2014 Time magazine interview with this scientist, defender of the poor, and atheist, she spoke of this fascinating event. And judging from her interest in publishing a book about it, the experience is still important to her.

And here’s one of two things I want to point out: the experience is important to her not in spite of her scientific training (she has a PhD in biology) but because of it. Her account of the experience and why she has refused to dismiss it should be of interest to those in the Courtyard project or anyone concerned with the relationship between religion and science.

Question: “Are you worried that people are going to think you’ve gone off the reservation?”

Answer: “I’m more worried that people will say I’m crazy. But I was educated as a scientist, and one of the things I learned was that you do not discard anomalous results. If you have a result that doesn’t fit your theory, that falls way off the curve in your graph—I’m sorry, you don’t get to erase that. You have to figure out what’s going on. I’m just opening up the conversation. If in the process I completely ruin my reputation as a rational person and end up in a locked ward, that’s the chance I’m taking.”

Notice that the questioner makes the predictable secularist assumption: religion and science are incompatible because religion is irrational. If you think such an experience is important, you must be leaving the rational world of science. But also notice how Ehrenreich refuses that presumptive cliché: the authentic scientist does not discount what is exceptional. Unlikely things do happen, and they fall within post-Newtonian scientific theories, which search for probability and not necessity. The dismissal of such experiences as Ehrenreich’s is not science but ideology. The task is, as she knows, to interpret it, not to prejudge it as impossible or meaningless.

Here’s the second thing I want to say: in the Christian theology of the Trinity there are two missions. The more familiar mission is the Outer Word, the Logos incarnate, sent by the Father into human history as Jesus of Nazareth. But there is also the pre-verbal, pre-conceptual Inner Word that we call the Holy Spirit, sent into the hearts of all human beings. Tad Dunne has sums up the role of the Spirit this way:

The “Spirit” very seldom is reported in Scripture to deliver a message; rather, it disposes men and women to receive a message. At times this “Spirit” is portrayed as seeking, groaning or wondering. …It seems, then that the mission of God’s “Spirit” is experienced in our inner and immediately-felt wonder, be it the suffering kind that still searches or the enjoyable kind that appreciates the meanings embraced. God is present to us in the unmediated fashion that our own dynamic wonder is.[*]

Thank you, Barbara Ehrenreich, not only for your relentless work in defense of the poor but now, for “opening up the conversation” about your experience. Perhaps your book will give others who feared that they would be branded as unscientific or even crazy the confidence to heed Hamlet’s words:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. 

David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

[*] Tad Dunne, “Trinity and History” Theological Studies 45 (1984), 147.


In the Spotlight

In late 2015, Hollywood released the movie Spotlight which chronicles the story of four reporters from the Boston Globe, who in the summer of 2002 wrote the story that broke open the scandal of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. The movie has an all-star cast, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Keaton among others. I was intrigued by the movie as I began to hear about it because the promotional material stressed that the focus of the movie was on the work the reporters did in connecting the dots and digging deep to find out how widespread the abuse was and how widespread the ensuing cover-up. Rather than focusing on the victims or on the church, it tells the story of investigative reporting.

In anticipation of its release, and an expected wide-scale conversation about the movie, about how the Church has responded and how the church is caring for victims, a team of us went to see the movie the first weekend of its release. I found the movie to be well-done, gut wrenching, and true to its stated purpose.  My only surprise was how little reaction there was to it and how few people called or wrote to the archdiocese. I wondered if, for a lot of people, 2002 was a long time ago, or the story was a little “wonky” as it focused on the mechanics of investigative journalism or if we have really never stopped dealing with the scandal and so it is one more piece in the telling of the story. I think the movie was overlooked—until now—when it is widely thought to be a contender at the Academy Awards, and so it is back in the theatre and, if my friends are any indication, very much on the minds of people.

jesus-weeps-over-jerusalem-stained-glassThe scandal of the abuse of youth and young adults by priests is one of the darkest and most sinful periods in the history of the church. The abuse happened not just in Boston or the U.S., but all over the world, and, as the movie highlights, the cover-up was just as widespread. The movie does a good job of showing how powerful the church was in the life of the city and how that power was exercised. It does a good job of showing how even the Boston Globe failed to see the real story and how some people at the Globe buried the story at different points through the years. We don’t know why, but we see that there were attorneys and publicists and other influential lay people who either didn’t know the enormity of the problem or chose not to know, and did not act in the best interest of the victims or the church.  We learn that there was not only a failure within the leadership of the church but also a failure of lay Catholics to step up and call the church to act.

As the spotlight returns to this period of the Church, we have the chance to once again apologize to every and all victims. We have the chance to remind people that anyone who has been a victim or believes a priest or any church employee to be a predator can come forward and call the diocesan office for Child Protection and report their concern. Every call is investigated and all cases that warrant the involvement of the civil authorities get reported to them. While we can never tire of taking responsibility for what happened and doing all that we can to help every victim and their family to move toward healing and hope, we also cannot be afraid to say that in the darkness of sin, grace can be found.

With all of the protections in place, for which, speaking for my diocese, every parish and diocesan agencies must be in 100 % compliance, today, there is no safer place for a child than in a parish or church sponsored program. Every adult (priests, seminarians and lay women and men) who has any level of interaction with children complete training, regular background checks and finger printing. Every child receives training to know what a safe environment is and what it isn’t. Every child is told to whom they can go to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. While none of this can change the past, it can contribute to a future that is vastly different for our children. At present, very few educational institutions or youth programs have put in place the kind of protection the church has implemented. Hopefully, the church can share best practices so that kids are safe in all corners of our communities.

If you find yourself in a conversation about the movie, take the time to support the changes the Church has made, to encourage people not to be afraid to trust the priests they meet as men who humbly acknowledge the pain and disgrace of the scandal and desire to be part of the solution,

Particularly, in this Year of Mercy, we remember that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, and we continue to pray for God’s healing love for all victims of abuse and for the continued renewal of the Church and her leaders.

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington. She will be team-teaching Being Christian in Rome – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in the SJC Theology Rome Program, July 18-25, 2016.

God love you!

The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen opened one of his New Year’s broadcasts with this greeting:

God love you! That is the way I shall conclude my broadcasts, and that is the way I shall begin them today. I want the first word on the air of this New Year to be God. It is God who makes us happy. It is Love, which makes old things new. It is you who count the years in terms of God’s abiding love. Combining all three we have “God love you,” which is but another way of saying, “Happy New Year.” —The Relevance of God

God is the author and the subject of every single day, and it is no coincidence that we devote to God the first day of the calendar year. You may scratch your head and say, “What do you mean?” January first is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. While God is mentioned, isn’t the New Year really about Mary?”

"Virgin of the Green Cushion, " by Andrea Solario, 16th century

“Virgin of the Green Cushion, ” by Andrea Solario, 16th century

Any Marian feast is about her Son, and specifically, about our salvation. For example, the Mysteries of the Rosary—Mary’s Prayer—are, essentially, a meditation on God’s salvific acts, of which His Mother is central.

What is it about Mary that makes her so special? Surely, her complete and unreserved surrender to God’s will makes her special, but we can point to many saints who, as Mother Teresa said, gave themselves to God in “Total Surrender.”

Catholics, however, acknowledge Mary to be above all saints because of her Immaculate Conception—conceived without sin. Catholics also admit that Mary, like any human being, is saved by the grace of God, but unlike us, God graced Mary in an inimitable and extraordinary manner, making her the first to be redeemed. Mary’s soul was transfigured into the image of Christ in this life; thus, for us, she becomes a compass of sorts, pointing true north to Heaven: “to Christ through Mary.”

Integral to her purity of heart and unreserved assent to God’s will, Mary gave us Christ’s human nature, and, above all, this is why we give Mary our highest honor above every great saint who ever lived. God could have redeemed us in any manner but, as Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us, the most fitting way was to become Incarnate: God-made-man. Because God shared in our lives, utterly and truly, we know that God wants us to share in His Life, that is, to be transformed into the image of His Divine Son. The Incarnation is the transfiguration of humanity. Saint Athanasius said, “God became man that man may become god,” that is, full of grace—divinized. Or, as Saint Paul put it, “It is no longer I who live but Christ in me.”

At heart, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, is about the Incarnation—about the human nature that she freely gave to her divine Son: “Let it be done to me according to Thy Will.” Christ is born of a woman, true man and true God, and this woman, Mary, is the Mother of God.

On January first, the Byzantine Rite and the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite celebrate the Octave of the Nativity of our Lord, which is the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision. The Nativity of Christ is, of course, a Marian solemnity as well, for we never can view the baby’s birth apart from his mother. Noting Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day (the octave), the Church unequivocally claims Christ’s human nature, truly born of a woman, and at his circumcision, our Lord bled for the first time. We cannot help but wonder at the stirrings in Mary’s maternal heart, as she heard her newborn Son cry in pain and shed His blood on the octave of His birth and as she pondered the magnitude of God’s love expressed in such a tiny and vulnerable vessel.

God love you!

Patricia Sodano Ireland is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Program Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College.