Monday, December 08, 2003
I see that the Holy Father is listening to meditations on Lent on Tuesdays, which is good for me, because that is when I indeed will post mine, Lord Willing.
Sunday, November 30, 2003
Be Watchful, Therefore: The First Sunday of Advent
Today begins the joyful and solemn season of Advent. Solemn, because it is a pentitential season; joyful, because we celebrate the coming of Our Lord in human form.
Advent was not always the four Sundays before Easter. In the early days, it was another 40 day pentitential season, like Lent. The change in calendars reduced the number of days before Christmas, and so it became the season that we know. (Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians still keep the old calendar, and so observe the forty days.)
As with Lent, Advent has two parts. (Didn’t know Lent had two parts? Wait until the spring to read about that.) Only the last 8 days, from Dec 17 on, concentrate on Christ’s birth at Bethlehem. The days prior to that (which may fewer or more, depending on what day of the week Christmas falls), concentrate on what is normally called The Second Coming, the ultimate revelation of Christ as King and Judge, the coming of the Messiah as predicted by the prophets of old.
And with that, most Americans’ minds click off. Why that happens is an important question.
What can we say about Jesus as Judge? Not much, beyond what He Himself has said, because we do not think God’s thoughts and we cannot judge the way He does. The Second Coming is a central part of the Creed—“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”—but the section on the Catechism that deals directly with those words is only 5 pages long in the English edition. (14 paragraphs out of 2685.) In Scripture, too, while it plays a central part, there is little detail. Exegetes have had no end of fun with the images in the Apocalypse, but they often leave the reader feeling empty. We all know the parable of the sheep and the goats, and we should meditate on it, but the response it brings from each of is surely personal, and that brings us again to the Church Year.
The Church Year is not just an exercise. It has a point.
Imagine you know a woman, an educated, successful woman with several children. In the course of conversation, she says, “I am so grateful for my husband. I worry too much about the children, and he is able to balance things out.” If you have had any experience of the world at all, you have some intimation of what the woman means. It is a proposition that you can understand.
But you do not understand what it means to this woman.
Now let us say that you have known the family for a while. You know the nervous look the woman gets when one of her boys in particular begins to act up (which the busybodies and know-it-alls in church refer to as “acting out”). And you have seen how the husband steps in and smoothes the waters. So when you see it happen yet one more time, you may begin to have a feeling about it, a feeling of recognition, and the inkling of an intuition of what that woman means when she says she is grateful for her husband.
But you do not understand what it means to her.
You do not, and cannot, understand how her “standards” control her life, and what it means to her (Wellesley BA, NYU Law) to have a boy who probably cannot live up to the exalted hopes and expectations she has for her children. And how she feels personally responsible that he was not born with all the abilities that she might have wished, and how her impulse is to step in and fix everything, but she only makes things worse because she cannot let go. And you cannot understand how relieved she is that the boy is very comfortable with her husband (Stanford BA, Harvard MBA), who somehow can suppress his own frustrations and just accept the boy as he is and yet be strong enough to discipline him when it is necessary. That is often enough, because they have put him in schools where “he can get the personal attention he needs” but nearly all the other students are destined for Harvard and Princeton and he isn’t and feels it. And you cannot understand how she feels one Christmas when the boy, now a young man who is a shift manager at a friend’s business, which is all he will ever “be” in the way that DC means it, and who is dating a girl that he met at work, comes home happy and confident as she has never seen him and begins to shoot pool for the 2683rd time with her husband. You can never really understand what she means when she says, “I am so grateful for my husband.”
Just so does the Church Year leads us to a deeper understanding of Him, and a deeper relationship with him. As the woman goes through 25 years with her son, through Christmases and graduations, and everything else that goes on in a normal family’s life, so we go through every year again with Him. And each time around leads us to see Him, and ourselves, more clearly.
The central truth of the family above is that the husband can probably never make the wife really relax, and the wife can never really change her son much as she wants to. Indeed, the success of the family is that they see each other clearly. They do not just have relationships, they have relationships with other, specific, objective human beings.
There is a difference in this human marriage and our marriage to Christ, of course, in that the husband doesn’t focus much on the house, can be rude to waiters, and displays an obsessive desire to win when playing pool against any business associate who has come over for dinner.
Jesus doesn’t have any of that. He is in every way “like as we are, yet without sin.” He has already conformed Himself to us; we must, in gratitude, seek to conform ourselves to Him.
That’s what the Holy Father has said in his Advent sermons: now is the time to prepare for our encounter with him, an encounter with a person.
Propositions play their part. My Catechism is an old and valued friend, never very far from my reach. More importantly, Jesus taught the crowds in parables, and then pulled his disciples aside and taught them the meaning in plainer words.
But they still did not understand, did they? They had to live with Him through Calvary and beyond, and receive the Holy Spirit, and begin their lives together as the Church before they really began to understand. And none of us will really understand until we see Him face to face.
Which brings us back to the first half of Advent. Why is it that we turn our faces from this glorious and reassuring truth of the faith?
First, surely, there is simply the human reason that we do not want to be judged, or we do not think it is necessary. Or we find it frightening.
There can be theological reasons, though I confess I have always found them bewildering. There are Christians who simply remain unmoved at the thought of evangelism, or the Second Coming. (The two doctrines are intertwined.) Usually, this is because they are convinced that their calling is in this world, to solve its problems, and they find more “heavenly” concerns irrelevant. Jesus, however, did not.
But ultimately, there is a simpler reason: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Americans, and most Western Europeans, are, by any reasonable standard, as rich as any people have ever been. We therefore find ourselves sucked into the material culture around us, and the upward call of God in Christ leaves us cold.
And that is why the Church has given us the Church year. We must be reminded that every part of our lives is oriented toward that day when we will be judged, and, we pray, saved. It is a time to give us hope, and to make us draw ourselves up and rededicate ourselves, “knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer thatn when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.”
End Times Mania and the Actual End Times. Both Protestant believers and Protestant detractors from the concept of a final "Tribulation of the Church" will be surprised that the Catholic Church teaches something very similar. (See the new Catechism, sections 675-677.) The reason is easy enough to adduce: Scripture teaches it. However, the Church also takes seriously two other equally clear teachings of Christ: one is that we "shall know neither the day nor the hour" of Christ's return, and the other is that "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." If one can see beyond one's own daily troubles, the Churches in many countries are today undergoing exactly the kind of trial that Scripture talks about, and we must join ourselves with them through prayer, even as we go about our daily business in relative peace, trusting in God, and keeping in mind the Final Judgment that is to come.
We cannot know the End Times, because God has not shown them to us, and we cannot ignore the End Times, because God has commanded us not to.
That's Interesting. The Apostle Paul points out (Ephesians 6:2), that the commandment to "honor thy father and mother" is the first commandment to come with a promise, "that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth." Those who have succumbed to the enticements of modern pop psychology and the license it gives you to blame and despise your parents surely can understand viscerally the truth of the promise, having lived out the opposite of the commandment.
It has been a long time since I heard a wonderful Church of God minister show how Paul lays all the troubles of the church at Corinth on the divisions that exist among them. Indeed, it is concern over those divisions that, in part, made me Catholic.
One of today's readings is quite striking, in that regard. Notice how the command to "love one another" mirrors the older commandment with a promise, to "honor thy father and mother:" "The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: to the end that he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, with all the saints." (I Thess 3:12-13).
Surely, here, is a piece of the Cross that we must all take up. I was put in mind of a bit of verse that the Baptist pastor of my early years as a Christian was fond of quoting:
To live in love
With saints above,
Oh, that will be Glory!
To live below,
With saints we know,
Well, that's a different story.
Peace to you all during this wonderful season.
Sunday, November 23, 2003
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servatns fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
Pilate therefore said unto him, “Art thou a king then?”
Jesus answered, “Thous sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear wtiness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”
Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year before the solemn and joyous penitential season of Advent.
Penitential? Advent leads us to Christmas, does it not? Don’t we get excited as the annual celebration of Our Lord’s birth approaches? Aren’t our spirits supposed to lift, aren’t we supposed to have a smile on our face, a song on our lips as we shop on our way to Christmas parties?
More of that in a moment. It all makes sense if we pause to consider the solemn celebration that takes place today.
The Church Year has been developed over time as a way to keep our minds on the full Gospel, not just the parts we like. Our tendency is to focus on just those aspects of the Gospel which give us comfort. When we are suffering, we look to scenes of suffering in Christ’s life and the promises of redemption. When things are going well, we look to verses that match our feeling that “all’s right with the world.”
But the Gospel is one unified whole, as Jesus is one person. Particular moments in His life, certain verses, certain doctrines, reveal aspects of His Person. The stages of our life help us see parts that we may have missed or forgotten, or did not understand in the first palce. But He is One, One Person, who must be worshiped in His entirety.
No aspect of His person clashes with our modern sensibilty more than His Kingship. But King is what He is, right now, as expressed so clearly at the beginning of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “...he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.”
We may like the idea of all that power, but we don’t like the word “king,” and so it is worth taking a look at what the Church has taught about that over the centuries.
The Church has always proclaimed the “Threefold Office” of Christ, as Prophet, Priest, and King. A prophet is a popular thing these days, so we may not squirm at that one. Still, it implies telling people they are wrong. Priest is a bigger problem, as a number of Protestant churches, and a number of individual Catholics, are far more comfortable with the notion of Christ as “pastor” rather than priest. Indeed, the notion of hierarchy is so obvious in the traditional formulation that people, with the very best of intentions, sometimes use the words “teacher, pastor, and leader,” or some other substitution.
So it is not just the idea of “king” that upsets our democratic instincts, but surely it is the hardest for us to swallow.
Yet Jesus was not born in Philadelphia, and the words used to describe Him—however restricted by the limits of human language—must reflect as much of His Person as they can. “Prophet, priest, and king” do so as well as any we can come up with.
I am not so sure that is so very hard for us to understand these concepts, but we must strip ourselves of the demand to hear only words we like. Millions of youngsters and quite a few adults over the years have been lost in the great Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkein did not intend to write an allegory, where each character obviously represents someone or something else. But he did mean for the book to offer illustrations of deeper truths. And, according to him, the three offices of Christ are represented by prophet (Gandalf, who guides), priest (Frodo, who offers himself as a sacrifice), and king (Aragorn, who leads the faithful into the battle against evil.)
Returning to Scripture, the office Christ occupies in the final vision of the Apocalypse is King. It is to Christ's kingship that the whole Gospel points.
And it is exactly that which gives us the most trouble.
It is not just our democratic sensibilities that get offended, is it? We are offended personally that someone should control us. We may pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but we do not mean it. We want someone to comfort us, to help us, to guide us, but on our terms.
Maybe we do want a King, just not the kind of King Jesus is. We want someone who will fight for us, someone who will take care of our problems, someone who will give us the authority to beat up on our adversaries.
We do not want to pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We want to pray, “save us from the time of trouble.”
But the peace that Jesus offers is not trouble free. “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” That does not seem like much comfort, but it is, “for I have overcome the world.”
But it is a pearl of great price. We must sell all that we have, and follow him. We must imitate Him, even in His Kingship.
And what kind of King is He?
One who did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. In that final vision of Revelation, John sees the "Throne of Godand of the Lamb." The Lamb that was slain.
We must, in short, take up our cross and follow him. Every step we take during the year points us towards this day, when we focus our feeble vision on Christ as King, just as every step of our lives points us toward that day when we shall see Him revealed as King, and we shall be as he is, for we shall see Him face to face.
Which brings us back to Advent. It is indeed a penitential season, when our churches are decked in purple. We must turn our faces toward Bethlehem, and empty ourselves in preparation for that glorious moment when He came to us in human form.
But today our churches are decked in white, as a symbol of a purity that we have not yet attained, and we must look to where we cannot see, into heaven, and worship Christ the King.
Come, let us adore Him!
Saturday, November 01, 2003
The Vigil of the Saints
Today is the Solemnity of All Saints, or All Souls, a most important and beautiful point in the Liturgical Year. We are a few short weeks from the Feast of Christ the King, which ends the year, and then the year starts over with the pentitential season of Advent. We pause to remember that we are indeed "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses," and that they are walking with God.
And with us, to help us and to lead us to the Vision of God, when "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."
All Souls, this year, turned out to be quite special.
I get a ridiculously large number of e-mail newsletters, it seems, but one that never fails to interest and inspire is the Zenit news agency from Rome. It provides a daily digest of Church activities both in Rome and around the world, with usually very instructive interviews with various experts.
I was pleasantly surprised to see an article about the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington, just across the street from where I teach. Five years ago, they revived an ancient Liturgy known as the Vigil of the Saints, and, the news account said, it had become the most popular event that the monastery holds. (Dominicans are monks, which means they take a vow of permanent residence at the house where they are assigned. The one here is quite large, with about 80 monks.)
As it happens, I had no work last night, and so after the Vigil Mass at the National Shrine, I went back to my office for 45 minutes and then walked over to find out what it was all about.
The Dominican House in Washington is a very English-looking place, and their chapel may be the most English-looking part of it. It is beautiful, with white plaster walls and beautifully carved wooden furniture. Typically, the only colors are white and brown, interrupted by the colors of the altar cloths and the officiating priest's vestments. And just as typically, the "choir," where the monks sit facing each other on either side of the altar, is much larger than the "public seating" outside the screen. They let the public into the choir for this. Every seat was filled, and many were standing in the halls outside.
The service itself was beautifully simple: after a moment of adoration, the lights were turned out, and various readings from the lives of the saints were read, punctuated by chanted responses. After that, we lit handheld candles and chanted the Night Prayer (Compline) that ends the liturgical day. At the end, as we processed to the monastery's reliquary (a very small display, actually), two monks chanted the Litany of the Saints. After each name, we all chanted, "pray for us." And that was it. It took a little more than an hour. But it was beautiful and moving.
Afterwards, there were light refreshments, the only concession to the secular traditions of halloween being an old favorite of mine, candy corn. After many years of not eating it, I must confess I realized it is just nothing by died sugar. Still, I could not avoid eating two mouthfuls.
This simple service inspired a few reflections. One is that it was extremely easy to do. The singing was not really that great, but it was fitting. The plainsong chant with which we recited Compline is very easy for even the inexperienced to do, and the chants by the monks were dignified, and appropriate, if not expertly executed. The very young diocesan priest sitting next to me was easily the best singer in the place, and he was just there with the rest of us. The hardest part seemed to be fitting the names of some martyrs and saints into the Litany, so the cantors stumbled, and everyone tried to supress smiles.
And for all its beings simple and dignified and very, very old-fashioned, the place was filled with young people. No doubt, many of them were going to ignore the fact that Compline is sung before you go to bed. None of us go to bed with the sun anymore, which they did when the monastic schedule was set, and even the schedule for the Dominican House seems to be less stringent than the old Medieval ideal. But young people are young, and the rock music blasting away quietly in the distance told us all that there were other things for the youngsters to do that evening. But they participated fully in the Liturgy.
The part about the schedule interests me, because the Dominicans have kept most of their traditions intact and you feel the difference when you enter the House. I myself find it preternaturally difficult to give myself a schedule and stick to it. Indeed, I dropped out of the Washington rat race and took on jobs that would force me to develop those skills, though it has taken a long time. As a bachelor, I am not forced into a schedule by those around me. While I make quiet fun of the excessive scheduling that is typical of the average Washington professional's normal routine, I myself take on far too much, with the result that my days are busy without always being full, and important things fall by the wayside.
Years ago, I started using the Liturgy of the Hours, the book of prayers that priests and monks use. The Holy Father has dedicated the last few years to encouraging laymen to use it. It divides the day into sections, sections that are not the same as society would like us to observe. "Glorious and powerful Lord," begins one of my favorite Italian hymns, "who alters the rhythms of time..." For someone like me, cast alone on the waves of life, the Liturgy forms a necessary anchor.
And last night, when everyone else was partying, we were adoring. As I said at the beginning, the Vigil of the Saintsfell into disuse, probably after Vatican II, probably because somebody "didn't see why" it was worth observing. God alters the rhythms of time, and we whould participate in that, that is why.
This has been driven home to me in the last two months, perhaps the hardest two months of my adult life. (And the troubles are not all over.) Nearly everything came unstuck, and I responded badly. I found myself sinking into a generalized depression and floundering. I was so distracted that I completely dropped the Liturgy of the Hours because the only thing I could concentrate on was the Rosary. (The lesson there was obvious: I had not made the Rosary part of my routine, as I should have, and that was partly for the prideful reason that I was using the Liturgy of the Hours. The Rosary began, it is felt, as a layman's version of the Rosary, though all Catholics should pray it. It sure is part of my life now. And just because you say it in the morning doesn't mean you can't repeat it at night: several nights when I simply could not sleep, I started a Rosary and fell asleep in the middle of it.)
Now that life has righted itself somewhat--and I made it to confession--I hunger again for the rhythm of the Liturgical Year. I actually asked my second employer to call me if they needed someone before I remembered the Vigil at the Dominicans. After I waited a suitable time--having offered to go, I felt responsible to give them time to respond--I e-mailed them that I had something else to do. And, after Mass, I was tempted not to go. But I did.
And it ignited something in me. After these two horrible months, I come back to a fuller observance of the Church Year more alive to its richness, and to the great mercy that it extends to us all. And I am grateful that there are people like the Dominicans with the boldness to be a "sign of contradiction," to have a schedule in keeping with God's designs, and not man's.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
This blog is to be given over to questions of spirituality and the Liturgy, not doctrine, but since I started down the doctrinal road I have to go to the end. This blog will resume in earnest with some concluding thoughts on the nature of Christian meditation, and on confession, and, with the Feast of Christ the King, will begin to follow the announced plan of discussing spirituality through the Church calendar.
Well, Mel Gibson Could Get My Intestines On a Stick, Probably Fried.
In a rather longish piece below, I discuss Mel Gibson's upcoming The Passion, which I personally expect to be magnficent. But in it, I discuss Mr. Gibson's form of Catholicism, which I find to be quasi-schismatic and harshly doctrinaire. As with so many Catholic archtraditionalists, he does not recognized the validity of recent changes, and seems very close to denying the validity of the last four Popes, or at least their teachings.
Over one particular doctrine, he says that he accepts the doctrine because it was spoken from the chair of St. Peter. That is, a Pope had spoken infallibly in pronouncing the doctrine to be true. I said that he showed admirable obedience, but, most importantly, I would find it more admirable if he extended it to the current occupant of that very Chair. On that point I remain adamant.
However, I also said that it may not be particulary well-informed because the doctrine had never been infallibly pronounced.
For no reason whatsoever, I decided to check on the status of that doctrine, and there I indeed found someone who wants to reassure us all that the doctrine in question--extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church, there is no salvation)--most emphatically has never been Catholic doctrine in the sense that one must be a member of the Cathoilc Church in order to get to heaven.
But then I discovered the existence of a group known as the Feeneyites, the followers of a priest named Feeney, who maintain that the Church has indeed taught that, most particularly in a papal document known as Unam Sanctam from 1302. And sure enough the author, Pope Boniface VII, says,
"i therefore declare, say, define" that it is necessary for "every creature" to be under the Roman Pontiff for salvation.
The Feeneyites, just to make sure, add an extra verb--"pronounce," though the Latin text I found online just has three. I will have to check that one a little more fully.
Well, now, whose obedience is ill-informed?
I must confess that I have learned a lot of my Catholic doctrine from supporters of this current Pope, and from the wonderful Catechism that he had written up. Also, a few years ago, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published an admirable document called "Dominus Iesus." I was not a Catholic at the time, but nothing in it gave me pause. Indeed, it helped make clear to me that the Roman Church took its role as the guarantor of truth very seriously, and hastened me down a road I was already taking. (Links to be provided when I get to a PC.)
In that document, one finds the statement that Eastern Orthodox Churches "remain united to (the Roman Church) by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist," so they are indeed "true particular Churches" where the "Church of Christ is present and operative," despite their rejection of Papal primacy. It extends much less recognition to the Protestant Churches, of course, because they reject the Apostolic Succession and the Eucharist. In fact, it extends NO recognition to them as Churches. However, the MEMBERS of these Churches are 'by Baptism, incorporated in Christ."
Now Boniface had never heard of Protestantism, but he had most emphatically heard of the Orthodox, and Unam Sanctam, among other things, seems to be directed at them.
This Catholic is a most obedient Catholic, and if Mother Church says that Dominus Iesus is but a clarification of Unam Sanctam, then I accept that, but I admit that it is a hard circle to square. There are of course Protestants with anti-Catholic websites who figured this out long before I came to the party, and have even given the problem a name, 'the Unam Sanctam Contradiction."
It is interesting to note that the Council of Trent, the pre-eminent Council of the last 1000 years, did not seem to address this issue, as it was concerned with other things. The Feeneyites don't even cite it on their website. The Council Fathers were also a little more expansive on the mystery of savlation than was dear old Boniface, as they were concerned to answer the bold and stark Calvinist doctrine of "hard predestination."
I have to admit, I fit the image of the typical Catholic convert who knows much more about his Church than most cradle Catholics, but I actually would not claim that against Mr. Gibson, who bought the entire library of a closed convent and can at least function in Latin. (The script of the Passion was translated for him, so I have no idea of his level of expertise.) He is one spectacularly well-informed man, especially considering that he is largely an autodidact, and I herewith offer my apologies to him, and to my readers. I have pulled all the relevant documents issued by the Magisterium on this question, and you won't hear any more from me on this point until I wrestle with it a little longer.
For now, read this article by Ralph McInerny on Mother Anglica's website.
And don't miss Fr. Richard John Neuhaus's excellent discussions of Dominus Iesus by going to First Things and entering "Dominus Iesus" in the search engine. (Be sure to select only "The Public Square" as your search doman.)
Sunday, October 19, 2003
It is worth noting that this afternoon, John Paull II did not "preside" over the Mass for the Beatfication of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He was actually the celebrant, despite his overwheling physical difficulties. It was he who lifted the Cup and the Bread at the Offertory, the very moment at which the Mass is celebrated. The Cup barely made it up, at a worrisome angle, but the wine did not spill. For a man who cannot move, and who values the Eucharist above all else, this was an act of sacrifice, and a moment worthy of notice.
I here reproduce an article from the indispensible Zenit news agency. It goes to the question, so often posed, that those who experience the worst of oppression are somehow disqualified from speaking about how one should live in the world.
The Ukrainian Church which is at the center of the discussion below is the largest of what are known as the "Greek Catholic" Churches. That is, they observe the Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) Rite, but they are faithful to Rome. They were illegal in Ukraine between 1944 and 1991, and it is a point of honor with me that I taught Engilsh to many of the young men who came over here to serve as pastors to the immigrant community in the United States.
If you are concerned about the Church in the world, you should, I humbly suggest, subscribe to Zenit . Personally, the only reason I do not read it every day is that it brings so much interesting, even fascinating, stories that I do not have time for it.
Laity Seen as Key to Evangelization in Former Soviet Lands
Interview With Vicar General of Kiev
KIEV, Ukraine, OCT. 12, 2003 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- Conferees at the first Congress of Catholic Laity of Eastern Europe concluded that the role of the laity in evangelization is "an indispensable duty after 70 years of forced marginalization."
This conviction was expressed by Father Wieslaw Stepien, vicar general of the diocese of Kiev and organizer of the meeting, who revealed that the idea of holding a congress in Ukraine on the role of the Eastern European laity "was born practically the day after the Pope's visit, in June 2001."
The Pontifical Council for the Laity promoted the congress, which ended today.
In this interview, Father Stepien highlights the importance of the meeting for the Eastern European Church and lay faithful.
Q: Congresses of the laity are frequent in the West. Here, however, it is the first time that one is organized. Why?
Father Stepien: Here, man has been destroyed by 70 years of Communism. All the realms of human activity, at the professional, social or communal level, were controlled for a long time by a totalitarian regime. And the Church had a hard time surviving, restricted to the exercise of worship.
It made no sense to talk about the presence of the laity in the university or at work. This is why it has taken 10 years to have a meeting of this nature.
Q: Does it mean that the Church in the East has always been primarily clerical?
Father Stepien: Exactly. However, as I said, it was due to external circumstances, not to the will of the hierarchy, which feels strongly the need to have a mature and responsible laity, which is the principal agent of missionary activity.
Q: Is there a change?
Father Stepien: Yes. Suffice it to think that in Ukraine there are 5 million Catholics, or close to 10% of the population, and half of them are practicing. They feel all the weight of being Christians in a society that is fast becoming secular, with the phenomena of social and moral degradation typical of post-Communism. Moreover, there is another reason that makes the issue of the laity ever more urgent.
Q: What is it?
Father Stepien: There are few priests and the territory is very extensive. Naturally, I'm not just talking about Ukraine, but about the whole Soviet Union. The new evangelization toward the East depends above all on the witness of ordinary believers.
Q: The Pope sent a message rich in content to the congress. The assembly received it with much applause. There was something special between these people and the Holy Father. How do you explain it?
Father Stepien: It is natural that it should be so. Basically, this congress is also a tribute to all that John Paul II has done, and continues to do, for the countries of the East.
His visit to Ukraine rekindled the soul of many persons in the religious sense. To invite representatives of the laity of all the former Soviet countries to this congress is our gift for the 25th anniversary of his pontificate.
Sunday, October 05, 2003
This morning's Washington Post Book World contains an interesting review of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, a book about a Christian minister who loses his faith in anything supernatural while maintaining a firm belief in right and wrong. In case you were wondering, the Post's "Book Club" discusses classic books in an online forum, so it is not unusual to see a review of a book that is 100 years old or more in the Post. In fact, it is quite refreshing.
But Samuel Butler is a disturbing author for a Christian, because of the kind of things he advocates, which are the same kind of thing that every aggressively non-Christian writer since Machiavelli or Rousseau has advocated: somehow, a world "based on love" begins to look a lot like the world described by Pope John Paul II in which the rich conduct a total war against the poor. In Butler's "utopian" Erehwon, illness is a crime and crime is treated as a disease. Rather like more "liberal" cultures today.
A number of things this week have put me in mind of one of the Pope's greatest writings, a short "apostolic letter" on The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering . Here again, I must protest the bureaucratic note that seems to enter into official English translations from the Vatican, because the name is actually Salvific Suffering (Salvific Doloris). Whatever you call it, it is a lovely work, and one that requires careful reflection. In it, John Paul takes us through the different ways that suffering appears in Scripture, in human life through the ages, and in the world today.
The passage that springs to mind was quoted in part by a Protestant pastor, a man I revered, to whom I had given a copy of it. And he quoted part of the following in remembering a mutual friend of ours, a woman who fought bravely on behalf of the persecuted Church around the world, and who bravely fought, with much suffering, the uterine cancer that took her home at a tragically early age.
Writes Karol Wojtyla:
Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation. This discovery is a particular confirmation of the spiritual greatness which in man surpasses the body in a way that is completely beyond compare. When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.
This interior maturity and spiritual greatness in suffering are certainly the result of a particular conversion and cooperation with the grace of the Crucified Redeemer. It is he himself who acts at the heart of human sufferings through his Spirit of truth, through the consoling Spirit. It is he who transforms, in a certain sense, the very substance of the spiritual life, indicating for the person who suffers a place close to himself. It is he—as the interior Master and Guide—who reveals to the suffering brother and sister this wonderful interchange, situated at the very heart of the mystery of the Redemption. Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation. By his suffering on the Cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death. He conquered the author of evil, Satan, and his permanent rebellion against the Creator. To the suffering brother or sister Christ discloses and gradually reveals the horizons of the Kingdom of God: the horizons of a world converted to the Creator, of a world free from sin, a world being built on the saving power of love. And slowly but effectively, Christ leads into this world, into this Kingdom of the Father, suffering man, in a certain sense through the very heart of his suffering. For suffering cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within. And Christ through his own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of his Spirit of truth, his consoling Spirit.
Grant peace to your servant Karen, dear Lord, and teach us to understand the suffering around us as You do.
The quote is from Section 26 of Salvifici Doloris .
There is a gracious and touching tribute to Karn Lord by Rep. Chris Smith here .