Friday, 28 September 2012

Civil disobedience

399px Cloak of Conscience Closeup

One of the most common charges against “religious” people in general and Catholics in particular is that they surrender the use of their critical faculties and follow orders from their leaders like sheep. In other words: they are no trouble, they won't break rank and are all-round model citizens.

Today I'd like to argue that this is as far from the truth as possible, and I will take advantage of the Vatican’s foreign secretary, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti’s address to the United Nations from last Monday, which in many ways tracks Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at the German Bundestag, delivered last year.

He starts by acknowledging the dangers that follow from the “financial crisis, which is worsening some humanitarian and environmental emergencies, does not seem yet to be over, and may even herald new and dangerous conflicts” and that spreading “the rule of law by every means becomes a particularly urgent task for a just, equitable and effective world governance.” Then, he fully aligns himself with the UN’s insistence on: “the unbreakable link between the rule of law and respect for human rights, […] the judicial control of laws and of executive power, […] transparency in acts of governance and the existence of public opinion capable of expressing itself freely.” Mamberti’s key point comes next though:
“The rule of law is also put at risk when it is equated with a legalistic mentality, with a formal and uncritical adherence to laws and rules, in an attitude which can even paradoxically degenerate into a means of abusing human dignity and the rights of individuals, communities and states, as happened during the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Furthermore, in the phrase “rule of law”, the concept “law” should be understood as “justice”.”
The first thing to note here is that it calls for critical thinking and, I believe, that, as far as they are rules, this warning also applies to Church teaching. Taking even the ‘rules’ that the Church presents to its members and applying them with a “legalistic mentality, with a formal and uncritical adherence” can lead to their perversion. The Church has very rightly emphasized a focus on deepening one’s relationship with Jesus during the upcoming Year of Faith, rather than talking about making oneself familiar with Church “rules.”

In case you think that this is just my own interpretation of Church teaching, as opposed to the official line, let me point to one of my favorite lines from the Catechism:
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. (CCC, §1790)
In fact, this brings us back to Mamberti’s talk, where he affirms that justice is “proper and inalienable to the nature of every human being.” Bringing all of this together in fact puts a Catholic into a position of having to critically assess laws and being called both to strict adherence to those that are aligned with their conscience and to resistance against those that don’t. This is neither a position of blind obedience, nor one of disregard for the law, but a more complex, but far more personally and socially rewarding one, where discernment and prudence need to be exercised.

Let’s get back to Mamberti though and see what he has to say about justice:
“Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled, and it is only in this way that we can speak truly of the rule of law.”
The key here, to my mind, is that freedom is not arbitrary. You can’t just decide, with disregard for human nature and your conscience, what behavior to follow and expect that it will allow you to remain free.

Just to avoid giving the impression that this topic is in any way simple, Mamberti rightly recognizes that “[t]he question of how to recognize what is truly right and thus to serve justice when framing laws has never been simple, and today in view of the vast extent of our knowledge and our capacity, it has become still harder.” The more you know the more difficult certainty becomes, which echoes Socrates’ “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.” And, finally, he postulates a very clear link between a subversion of the law and the economic crisis that the world is in today:
“It is well known that, at the international level, there are interest groups present who, by means of formally legitimate procedures, are impacting on the policies of states in order to obtain multilateral norms which not only cannot serve the common good but which, under the guise of legitimacy, are in fact an abuse of norms and of international recommendations, as has been seen in the recent financial crisis.”
Even just the last 100 years have been addled with abuses of the law that were fully legal in the sense of not exhibiting procedural violations. It would be a mistake to think though that this is all in the past or that it only applies to regimes notorious for human rights abuses. Even in the “civilized West” there are attacks on the rights of peoples to express their desire for self-determination and on the practice of religious freedom. As St. Augustine said “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”

Wednesday, 26 September 2012



A relative of mine has committed suicide today. My mind is numb and racing at the same time. Why? I wish I had know him. I wish I had built a relationship with him. I wish I was with his family. I wish I was with my spouse and our children.

His death diminishes me.

What can I do? I pray. The Church prays for him with me. She tells me not to despair. She tells me that God has His ways. I rush to you, Jesus, in the Eucharist. You suffered on the cross. You felt abandoned by your Father. You died, but you rose again. Console my brother’s family! Embrace him with your love!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Belief in theory moves mountains

Theory moves mountains s

Long before a piece of evidence is found for a theory, its postulators need to have faith in it, or at least entertain the possibility of its truth before they have the data to back it up. The first test(s) of a theory may well seem to disprove it, which in the absence of faith ought to be the end of it. However, even a simple, but sufficiently potent, idea carries the potential for “incomprehensible complexity” (see E. O. Wilson’s WWW Conference talk) and therefore also for an incomprehensible complexity in confronting it with evidence. Testing needs to be commensurately advanced relative to the theory for it to lead to either support for or conflict with it.

Many a beautiful theory may well lie dead as a result of an ugly fact (see Thomas Huxley), while the fact is simply not in correspondence with it, as a result of the grotesquely naïve view that a theory-fact mismatch always points the finger of blame at theory. Evidence is as much prone to error as the postulation of theories and all that one can hope to achieve in science is evidence-theory consistency. The absence of such understanding and a lack of faith in a fledgling theory are as damaging to science as is a disregard for data.

Science needs faith as much as religion does, for it to be capable of feats like landing a vehicle on Mars, propelling a human into space, setting off on a ship due west from Portugal in the anticipation of reaching land or building the dome of the cathedral in Florence. In all these cases, theory preceded evidential support and there was significant risk associated with failure, ranging from a huge waste of resources and careers being on the line to death. This is not to say that science and religion are the same, but simply to underline the fact that faith is needed in the practice of advancing science as much as it is for internalizing the doctrines of a religion (more on the role of evidence in the two cases another time :). While scientists (including myself) may rightly point to the fact that a theory ultimately needs to be matched up with reliable evidence for it to persist, I would like to argue that this in no way detracts from my claim that faith is fundamentally necessary for the practice of scientific enquiry and resulting advances, since evidence may often be decades away from theory (see Higgs’ theory postulated in 1964 and supported by evidence in 2012 – 48 years later!).

You may wonder, “Why are you bringing this topic up today?” The answer is simple – my besties PM and JMGR and I have been working on a theory that we postulated almost two years ago (and in a general form with PM five years ago) and it was in these last days that we have found the strongest evidence for it. Along the way we have been faced with a string of failures that could have meant the end of it and that would have resulted in us never discovering the groundbreaking results that now reward us for our persistence. I thank them both for their support!

[UPDATE (27/09/2012)]: I have just received a great message from my bestie, RR, who – unlike me: a peripheral tinkerer – is a real scientist (at Caltech, no less!) and who told me that I was “perfectly on mark with paragraph 3" :) Thanks for the nihil obstat, RR!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Serving the Church

Christ calling Deaconesses to serve the Church

I am starting from scratch after having written a lengthy post on this topic already and realizing - after talking to my besties YYM1 and PM - that I was approaching the topic all wrong. I can still use all the research, but the tone had to change from the playful and partly sarcastic to what I am going to try next.

I feel that my being married, working at a tech company and being a lay person allows me to seek God without limits, to fully participate in the life of the Church and to have the path to sanctity wide open to me. At the same time I realize though that some of my Catholic sisters suffer from feeling the call to the priesthood and being faced with (a now final) barrier to it:
“I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, §4)
At first sight (and maybe even after repeated reading) this might sound like an aspect of Church teaching that is simply out of date, that needs to catch up with the times and that can be summed up with the following:
“[T]here is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State.” (Letter to Women, §4)
Now, maybe this will come as a surprise, but the author of both of the above quotes is the same person: Blessed Pope John Paul II, and you may ask yourself how he can at the same time talk about women’s rights and slam the door shut on the question of women priests. I believe the answer lies in the following (and, yes, it too is by John Paul II):
“If Christ […] entrusted only to men the task of being an “icon” of his countenance as “shepherd” and “bridegroom” of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women, or for that matter from the role of the other members of the Church who are not ordained to the sacred ministry, since all share equally in the dignity proper to the “common priesthood” based on Baptism.” (Letter to Women, §11)
When I first saw this, a light went on in my mind after I read the words “an “icon” of his countenance.” Priests are Jesus’ proxies and transmit to us his presence in the Church and his being the source of the sacraments. When I attend mass, I experience a man saying the words that bring about the Eucharist, like I would have, had I been at the Last Supper; when I go to confession, I speak to a man, as I would have, had I been among Jesus’ disciples. Jesus having come into the world as a man rather than a woman is not an accident, nor is it a consequence of social conventions. I believe, that God became flesh as a baby boy, to use the male gender in a specific way, just like he sought consent from a girl to become His mother, again because of the specifics of the female gender. To read this as in any way discriminatory against women is incomprehensible to my mind, but I'll leave that to another post.

Let me now put my last card on the table with regard to the priesthood. God’s call is ultimately the same for all of us: to choose Him as the first priority in our lives and to follow his new commandment of love. Placing something above a love for one’s neighbor and for God is a mistake, even if that something is the priesthood. If love for God and neighbor are missing, the priesthood becomes a millstone (“The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” St. John Chrysostom) and if they are present, then it becomes secondary and one seeks specifics with humility. To come at the argument from a perspective of rights is also a category mistake. No one has the right to be made a priest, whether man or woman, and it is in all cases a gift that is received rather than an entitlement that can be claimed.

For now, let it suffice that my argument is this: the priesthood is only open to men, because Jesus was a man and because he indicated to us from the very beginning that it was through men that he wanted certain aspects of his ministry to be perpetuated. In this way, his ministers’ being male is integral to their being Jesus’ proxies and no matter what social or other developments ensue, the priesthood in the Catholic Church is going to remain restricted to them.

This is not the end of the story though, since we are ultimately all being called to be Jesus’ proxies: to be the means by which He can show His love to all. As a married, lay person I don’t feel in any way limited in the extent to which I can strive to imitate Jesus’ love for humanity, even if I don't become a priest. But, and there is a but, there is a variety of other ways in which Jesus can be imitated and and in which Catholics can serve the Church (which is fundamentally also what the priesthood is about: service). Two of these, which today are not open to women, are the diaconate and the office of cardinal, and I would like to argue that they may both one day (hopefully soon) be conferred on women.

Bishop Emil Wcela has just published a very interesting article (that I recommend in full), entitled “Why not women?” It starts where the final word on women priests in the Catholic Church ends: by making a case for exploring the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. Wcela presents a compelling case, starting with evidence for deaconesses dating back right to the time of the apostles (giving the example of St. Phoebe, whom St. Paul calls a diakonos in his letter to the Romans (16:1) - although the meaning of the term is disputed) and dotted through the history of the church (including Pope Benedict VIII writing to the bishop of Porto to give him authority to ordain deaconesses). He the proceeds to give the example of deaconesses in other Christian churches, but is also clear about the fact that this is not the case in the Catholic Church at present.

Nonetheless, there has been a desire to explore its possibility since the Second Vatican Council, including a raising of the issue by the US bishops in a pastoral letter from 1992. 2009 then saw an important change to Canon law, which differentiates between the nature of the priestly and episcopal order and that of deacons, stating that bishops and priests “receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head; deacons, however, are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.” (Canon 1009 of the Code of Canon Law). This change removes the constraints that previous legislation placed on the diaconate and historical precedent further supports a future change in this area. Bishop Wcela finally notes that women already participate extensively in the Church’s ministry and that ordaining them as deacons would provide greater official recognition, confer the grace of the sacrament on them and give them access to ecclesiastical offices that require ordination. The article ends with a call to raising awareness of this opportunity and I would personally like to add my voice to it.

On a related note, Cardinal Timothy Dolan stated in an interview last March, that the office of cardinal is in principle open to women, since it does not require priestly or episcopal orders. He then proceeded to tell the story of how someone once suggested to Pope John Paul II to make Mother Teresa a cardinal, to which he replied: “I asked her - she doesn't want to be one.” While the John Paul II - Mother Teresa story may be little more than an anecdote, it nonetheless expresses both the Church’s newfound openness and Mother Teresa’s humility beautifully. What is key here is the acknowledgement by one of the cardinals that his office is in principle not restricted to women.

I hope it is clear what I am getting at: the role of women in the Church is certainly not what it ought to be, but I see clear signs of a desire to change that, including at the highest levels. What it won’t be is an opening of the priesthood to women, but the diaconate and the office of cardinal are both on the horizon (hopefully even in my own lifetime). One point I would like to emphasize though is that the role of women in the Church needs to be all-pervasive and not only constrained to “women’s issues.” When one of the 23 women present at the Second Vatican Council – one of the Council Mothers – was asked what topics were discussed that related to women, she responded “We are now interested in everything.” As Fr. Fabio Ciardi, who was taught by Rosemary Goldie (another Council Mother) during his time at the Lateran University, said: “The temptation is to constrain women in the Church to dealing with topics that are about women, not knowing that all topics are about them and that they have a contribution to make to all of them.”

1 Thanks to YYM also for giving me probably the most acceptable label: “progressive orthodox.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but I shall wear it with pride :).

Friday, 21 September 2012

Mercy, not sacrifice

Jesus Heals 1 op 364x600

Today’s Gospel reading1 is definitely among my favorites, as it makes one thing very clear: Jesus did not come to set up a new club for the “good.” Instead, he and the Church are here for sinners:
While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” He heard this and said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
Maybe the word “sinner” sounds uncomfortable, antiquated and out of fashion today, but I believe it can be read more broadly here as failure, outcast, disgraced, rather than only in the moral theology sense (i.e., as someone rejecting God’s call to love (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §397)). I don't mean set up failure in general and moral errors as an identity, but instead suggest that Jesus referred to the attitude of his “righteous” contemporaries towards those whom they considered failures. In other words, it is Jesus’ peers who equated sin not only with moral failure but also with mental or physical illness (considered to be a punishment for sin - either the patient’s own or that of their ancestors3) and with living at the margins of society.2 The “righteous” of the first century (and of today), considered sinners unworthy of Jesus’ company and would have preferred to have them out of sight. “Eugh, what do you want with those types, Jesus? They are not good, decent folk, pillars of the community, like us! They are not the sort of people who come to church!”

Jesus’ response is a sharp, sarcastic jab: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” While I have for a long time though that Jesus refers to those that the Pharisees complain about as sinners, I now believe that a much better fit to this event is to take him as talking about the Pharisees themselves. By reprimanding them that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, he is charging them with having sinned against God’s call to love. The Pharisees are the ones in need of a physician too, but their self-righteousness blinds them to their own lack of openness and charity.

Applying this to myself makes me examine my own attitude to those that strike me as unfit for building relationships with. By sacrificing them to my own false sense of superiority (even if unwittingly at times), I place myself besides the Pharisees rather than in the circle around Jesus, where were are all weak, but where were have Him amongst us. I'll start again tomorrow!

1 Incidentally, it is the feast of St. Matthew today, who’s call to follow Jesus precedes the passage quoted here.
2 Incredibly this attitude persists in some societies to this day …
3 See, e.g., “If you listen closely to the voice of the LORD, your God, and do what is right in his eyes: if you heed his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not afflict you with any of the diseases with which I afflicted the Egyptians” (Exodus 15:26) and “For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5), but don’t ignore the next verse: “but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” which is another way of saying that God’s love is disproportionately greater than any punishment :). Also, see “The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. Justice belongs to the just, and wickedness to the wicked.” (Ezekiel 18:20) – just picking a single verse tends to be a great way to come up with nonsense …

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Jesus’ wife: clicks, facts and ‘children in a marketplace’

King jesus wife

I wasn’t going to write about this, but then I received a direct (and very welcome) requests by my bestie PM, and with his help realized that there was a much more interesting angle to this story than the obvious (and not all that exciting) one.

Let’s start with the facts of the matter: a fragment of Coptic script on papyrus that may date from the 4th century AD and that consists of 49.5 words in its English translation (see the top of this post) was presented at the International Congress of Coptic Studies on 18th September. The fragment contains no complete sentences and the sole reason for its overnight fame are the following words it contains:
Jesus said to them, “My wife
Looking at reports in the media, the following picture emerges:
“Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple.” (New York Times)
“The discovery that some ancient Christians thought Jesus had a wife could shake up centuries-old Christian traditions” (Washington Post)
“A discovery by a Harvard researcher may shed light on a controversial aspect of the life of Jesus Christ.” (Huffington Post)
“A Harvard Divinity School professor’s interpretation of a scrap of fourth-century Egyptian papyrus that quotes Jesus Christ making reference to a wife could stoke new debates to the role of women in Christianity, theologians say.” (Boston Herald)
“An 4th century papyrus fragment could call centuries of celibacy into question.” (Time)
The message is clear: this is a major discovery that could alter that very foundations of Christianity in one fell swoop. As much fun as it would be to debunk statements like the above, it would be falling for a textbook straw man argument (as some have, while others, like Fr. James Martin, haven’t). Instead, let me defer any comment on the matter, until we see Dr. Karen L. King, the scholar who presented the fragment at the Congress, speak for herself. And what better way to do that than to refer to a draft of her peer-reviewed journal paper, to be published in the Harvard Theological Review (link courtesy of Harvard Magazine):
“This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century. Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.
The use of the term “gospel” here regards the probable genre of the work to which this fragment belonged (see below, “Genre”) and makes absolutely no claim to canonical status nor to the historical accuracy of the content as such. This invented reference in no way means to imply that this was the title in antiquity, or that “Jesus’s wife” is the “author” of this work, is a major character in it, or is even a significant topic of discussion—none of that can be known from such a tiny fragment. Rather the title references the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves therefore as a kind of short-hand reference to the fragment.”
Wait, what?! Unlike the cat-among-pigeons reaction of the media, Dr. King’s words (maybe with a little help from the journal’s reviewers :) sound rational, factual and well representative of what this fragment may be: a text recorded probably in the 4th century AD that may be a copy of a 2nd century one, situated among the ’intra-Christian controversies’ of the day. No “Christianity 2.0”, no “we have had it all wrong for 2000 years” and no “shake up.”

In this (hopefully) more complete picture, Dr. King (who, after all was speaking at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, which is part of the Pontifical Lateran University – i.e., popularly known as the “Pope’s University”!) comes up smelling of roses, while the various media reports happen to fit the topic that I actually wanted to talk about today like a glove! Namely, yesterday’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus vents his frustration with childish attitudes. In Luke 7:31-35 he is reported as saying the following:
“To what shall I compare the people of this generation?
What are they like?
They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance.
We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’

For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine,
and you said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’
The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said,
‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
When I read this, I could picture Jesus’ disbelief in the face of his contemporaries’ conduct (“What are they like?!”), who thought of John the Baptist as a nutter and of Jesus himself as a pig [my own words :] and who jumped at anything to push their own agendas. How little has changed in 2000 years!

Let me not finish on a negative note though as I do see this episode as positive overall. That a new fragment from the early days of Christianity has come to light is great (the more we know the better, since knowledge is power and the truth will set us free [apologies for this fragment–peddling - it just seemed fitting :]) and so is the scholarly integrity of Dr. King and her fellow coptologists, who can shed light on the history of this find and its place within the overall corpus of early Christian writings.

I know the media reports are a straw man, but a very juicy and tempting one, so let me just take one slash at it: Assuming the fragment’s authenticity (which I am in no position to question or believe in) places it into the 4th century. Taking it as a record of events from the first century is like someone discovering the following fragment from this post in the 38th century: “Newton wrote: ‘This quantity I designate by the name of aura” and considering it as a record of Newton’s words from 1687 …

On an entirely separate and unrelated note, let me just share what I found out about the following words that Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel: ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’ This intrigued me straightaway and I first though that it may come from one of the Psalms or another part of the Bible. It seems instead that they were just part of a game that kids played at the time. Two groups would be formed - one playing jolly music and another a wailing funereal tune and they’d compete in who’d gather more followers as they moved through the streets. What a bizarre (but great :) game! Thanks to St. Cyril of Alexandria for the tip!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Without words

Juan macias

The saint, whose feast is celebrated today, stands out from among his sainted brothers and sisters in that he never preached or wrote about his faith. Instead, St. Juan Macías, who was a Dominican lay brother and spent his life performing domestic and administrative tasks as his monastery’s porter, gave witness to his faith by welcoming and feeding the needy who came to his door for help. He lived his life in simplicity and frugality, serving his neighbors more eloquently than if he had been a great orator. Reading about his life made me think of last Sunday’s second reading, which ends as follows:
“So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” (James, 2:17-18)

Sunday, 16 September 2012

A man the color of a sapphire

Meister des Hildegardis Codex 003

Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a great 12th century German mystic who was a Benedictine Abbess, poet and composer and all round intellectual (having contributed not only to theology but also to medicine and science as well). Even though she has been venerated as a saint for centuries, she has only been formally canonized last May by Pope Benedict XVI, who also spoke about her in several of his sermons. There he emphasized her as a role model for spiritual leadership, since “she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.”

Also with regard to her mystic visions he praised here humility, which at first made her doubt them and only when they received approval first from St. Bernard of Clairvaux and later from Pope Eugene III did she share them with her followers and the public. “The person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority.” As far as she herself was concerned, this is how she described her visions:
“The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries.... I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).
From among her extensive visions that touched on virtually all aspects of Christianity, I would just like to pick out her vision of the Trinity, which struck me as particularly beautiful:
“Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.” (Scivias 2.2, quoted in Anne Hunt’s The Trinity: Insights from the Mystics, pp. 38).
In fact, the image at the top of the post is a representation of this vision from an early illuminated printed version. St. Hildegard explains this vision as follows:
“You see a bright light, which without any flaw of illusion, deficiency or deception designates the Father; and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which without any flaw of obstinacy, envy or iniquity designates the Son, Who was begotten of the Father in Divinity before time began, and then within time was incarnate in the world in Humanity; which is all blazing with a gentle glowing fire, which fire without any flaw of aridity, mortality or darkness designates the Holy Spirit, by Whom the Only-Begotten of God was conceived in the flesh and born of the Virgin within time and poured the true light into the world.” (Scivias, 2.2.2, quoted in ibid).
What I find very attractive about St. Hildegard is the visual and allegorical nature of her mystical experiences (which she is careful to describe as spiritual rather than ocular) and their subtle beauty that is particularly clear in the above example.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Continuity in the present

Perkins frolic graphiteacrylic 4ftx6ft 2010 s

Since the start of this blog, I have noticed another theme emerging, in addition to the one about saints and the related roles of orthopraxy–orthodoxy and dissent. Namely, the question of traditionalist versus liberal Catholicism and more generally the concept of neatly-packaged, pre-cooked labels or categories. Looking at my 56 posts so far, I note a greater propensity for opposing those who self-apply the traditionalist name, which leads me to today’s question: am I a liberal or a traditionalist, on the left or the right of the Catholic spectrum, a dissenter or a wholehearted follower of Catholic teaching?

I find this question quite challenging as I don’t come to an easy answer when I ask myself: “Who would you rather spend an hour with in a stuck lift - someone who calls themselves a traditionalist or a liberal?” Indulge me therefore during the next two paragraphs, while I share with you my thoughts on two imperfect and incomplete stereotypes.

What I value in traditionalists is their dedication to continuity: what the Church has understood throughout its history and as a result of the Holy Spirit’s acting in and among the people of God, is to be treasured and must be built on. The heritage of the Church - including its saints, liturgy, practices and dogmatic teaching - throughout its 2000 year history is a precious gift to us, members of the Church Militant today. After all, the starting point of tradition and its continuity is Jesus himself and the value of preserving it is unquestionable. We can only be Christians if we follow Jesus’ teaching and example, handed down to us by tradition. Just picking up the Gospel today and trying to apply it without the benefit of our predecessors’ insights and lived experiences would greatly impoverish it or even falsify it. Where I part ways with traditionalists though is on the point of whether what tradition teaches is immutable or open to adaptation. My impression here is that traditionalists tend to fall into the trap of considering the past homogeneous (i.e., “this is what the Church has always taught”) and implicitly that it was in a perfect state typically at some date before their birth, e.g., see the Society of Saint Pope Pius X. Incidentally, note that Pope Pius X has introduced numerous changes versus the tradition that has preceded him, such as allowing children to receive the Eucharist instead of them having to wait until adulthood. The result often is a distancing from neighbours whom Jesus called us to love.

Liberals, on the other hand attract me for their desire to bring Jesus to today’s men and women, who live in a culture other than that of the traditionalists. The role and rights of women, the participation of divorcees and homosexuals in the life of the church, the role of the laity, an openness to other Christian denominations, religions and society at large and the broad question of how those who do not live in complete accord with Church teaching (which liberals often see as covering everyone) are to participate in Her life are all of great relevance to me. What does distance me from them though is a seemingly great ease of slipping into dissent - a lack of humility that places their own views above those of the Church and that gives preference to interfacing with contemporary trends and challenges over ensuring that one’s actions and views are those that Jesus would have done or thought today. Then there also seems to be an element of pride and personal importance that doesn't gel with the beatitudes.

So, what is the right answer, as neither traditionalism nor liberalism look like the way forward in their reductio ad absurdum. I believe that the answer is to develop a personal relationship with Jesus, by seeking and loving Him in the people I meet - regardless of their views, actions or allegiances, by encountering him in the Eucharist, the Gospel and the teachings of the Church and by listening to His voice as made accessible to me via my own, imperfect conscience. Whether the result will look like traditionalism or liberalism or whether it will be foreign to both is irrelevant, and, I believe will also lead to solutions that neither extreme school of thought would arrive at by its own means. What Pope Benedict XVI said about ecumenism - that “the most important thing is that we listen to each other, since as fellow Christians we cannot create unity, which is a gift from God.” - is a template that can be applied more broadly.

Friday, 14 September 2012

I’m with Müller: Ecumenism


After addressing criticisms directed at Archbishop Müller1 in terms of his statements about the Eucharist and about this virginity of Mary, let me now turn to the last of the three topics that most irked ‘traditional Catholics’ when he was named head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog, enforcer and promoter). Before looking at the evidence, let me start off with putting my cards on the table: I am deeply committed to ecumenism, inter–religious dialogue and dialogue with those of no religious convictions. I believe God made us all and wants to have a personal relationship with us all - then who am I to pick and choose who to try and relate to! What I do value as well though, and here I can intuit some of the feelings of ‘traditionalists,’ is the truth and a jealous preservation of Jesus’ message - a message though that is not dead, fixed, static, but alive and active in the here and now, in our continuing relationship with Him.

Before we proceed, let me just share a word of caution - what follows is fairly technical and, if you are not that way inclined, you may do better to skip this post, or just take a look at the last paragraph. With that caveat out of the way, let’s look at what Archbishop Müller said that angered his critics:2
“[C]hristians, who are not in full communion with regards to the teaching, means of salvation and apostolic–episcopal constitution of the Catholic Church, are also justified by faith and baptism and fully members of the Church of God, as the body of Christ. In this way we are brothers and sisters among ourselves and really belong to the ‘whole Christ, head and body, one Christ’ (see Unitatis Redintegratio, 3))” and
“Baptism is the fundamental sign that sacramentally unites us in Christ and that makes us visible as one Church in front of the world. We, as Catholic and Evangelical Christians, are also already united in this, that we call the visible Church. There are therefore – to be precise – not multiple Churches alongside one another, but we are dealing with divisions and splits within the one people of the House of God: Credo unam ecclesiam … confiteor unum baptisma [I believe in one Church … I confess one Baptism].”
Both were quoted here and come from a speech he gave when Dr. Johannes Friedrich, regional bishop of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Bavaria, was presented the ecumenical award of the Catholic Academy of Bavaria. Note though that the above includes an additional sentence in both cases versus the English article and even though it does not change what the critics attack, it will allow me to more clearly present my defense of Archbishop Müller’s views (if his critics are allowed to pick two sentences from a lengthy speech, then surely I am allowed four :).

Before going into what the above means, let me just start by showing how this is very much what the Church teaches, rather than some deviation introduced by Müller. In fact, if we follow up the hint he himself makes at Unitatis Redintegratio – the ‘Decree on Ecumenism’ of the Second Vatican Council, we’ll find the following:
“[A]ll who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” and
“Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.”
If anything, Archbishop Müller could be more effectively accused of plagiarizing Vatican II documents, but in his line of work that is not a bad thing. On the face of it, it might seem difficult to see why ‘traditionalists’ got so het up about these words of the Archbishop, but - extending the Principle of Charity to their words too, quickly leads to the Dominus Iesus declaration of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), written by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2000 when he was its head. This declaration, which at the time caused a lot of hurt to Evangelical and Anglican Christians (and should have been much better handled by the CDF), spoke about what a Church is and who are to be considered Churches versus other entities. The following are a couple of excerpts that would give you a sense of the declaration’s gist (all from section 17):
“[T]here exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.”
“[E]cclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.”
“The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection — divided, yet in some way one — of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach”
While it does seem from the above that the traditionalists do have a leg to stand on, the declaration is definitely among the more technical and complex Vatican documents I have read and it is in fact Müller himself who offers the following explanation in the same speech – his point being that the term ‘Church’ is used in a very specific, legal sense in Dominus Iesus:3
“The assertion that the Ecclesial Communities that have not upheld valid episcopacy … are not Churches (plural) in a proper sense is not translated theologically correctly by the bold statement that ‘the Evangelical Church is not actually a Church’. That is because the plural designates the Churches as local Churches with a bishop. The question here is not whether the confessional Churches of reformed character are actual Churches -- it is rather whether sacramental episcopacy is a constitutive element of a local Church or of a diocese. The difference between an Evangelical local Church and a Catholic diocese is being described – not evaluated. The Catholic Magisterium is far from denying an ecclesial character or an ecclesial existence to ‘the separated Churches and ecclesial Communities of the West’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 19).”
So, what does all of this boil down to? I believe that it depends on how you view the scandalous divisions among Christians today. I understand that ‘traditionalists’ are protective of Catholic teaching and that there may be different takes on and interpretations of the key Catholic texts regarding ecumenism. I also read Pope Benedict’s declaration as a call to being precise - to not calling the current situation something that it is not (yet). But, I do feel a misplaced us-versus-them attitude in ‘traditionalist’ statements and very much stand by Müller’s ‘us’-only take on things (which nonetheless does not lack precision). An ‘us’ that is painfully and unacceptably divided, but an ‘us’ nonetheless.

1 Note that in the meantime there are others, who have come to his defense too.

2 The English translations, as reproduced in the source I refer to above were actually the following:
“Also the Christians that are not in full community with the Catholic Church regarding teaching, means of salvation and the apostolic episcopacy, are justified by faith and baptism and they are fully incorporated/ integrated into Church of God, being the Body of Christ.” and “Baptism is the fundamental sign that sacramentally unites us in Christ, and which presents us as the one Church in front of the world. Thus, we as Catholic and Evangelical Christians are already united even in what we call the visible Church.” Since the original German (contained in the full text of the speech here) was the following, the English above is my own translation: “Denn auch die Christen, die nicht in voller Gemeinschaft der Lehre, der Heilsmittel und der apostolisch-bischöflichen Verfassung mit der katholischen Kirche stehen, sind durch Glaube und die Taufe gerechtfertigt und in die Kirche Gottes als Leib Christi voll eingegliedert. So sind wir untereinander Brüder und Schwestern und gehören wirklich zum „ganzen Christus, Haupt und Leib, ein Christus“ (vgl. UR 3).” [this includes the additional sentence I refer to above] and “Die Taufe ist das grundlegende Zeichen, das uns sakramental in Christus eint und vor der Welt als die eine Kirche sichtbar macht. Wir sind als katholische und evangelische Christen also auch in dem schon vereint, was wir die sichtbare Kirche nennen. Es gibt daher – genau genommen – nicht mehrere Kirchen nebeneinander, sondern es handelt sich um Trennungen und Spaltungen innerhalb des einen Volkes und Hauses Gottes: Credo unam ecclesiam … confiteor unum baptisma.” [again with an additional sentence included versus the original English source].

3 Note the irony of this also being Müller’s choice of episcopal motto :).

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lord Sacks, Prof. Dawkins, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama

Introspection 709731

Just a quick one today - a link to two fantastic videos:
  1. Yesterday the BBC broadcast the best program I have ever seen about the science-religion relationship, following Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, talking to three non-believing scientists: Baroness Greenfield, Prof. Al-Khalili and Prof. Dawkins. I have to say that I fully agree with Lord Sack’s view, which in fact is pretty much what I got to in an earlier post. The most impressive thing to me was how he and Richard Dawkins arrived at consensus precisely about the need for rational, good-willed people to work together regardless of their religious or areligious views. I am now officially a huge fan of Lord Sacks (see also my post on one of his blog posts on how hatred and liberty cannot coexist).

    If you are in the UK, you can see the program on iPlayer here and I'll look for a source accessible from outside the UK later.

    To whet your apetite in the meantime, here are just a couple of quotes:
    “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” Lord Sacks
    “There's nothing quite as frightening as someone who knows they are ‘right’.” Michael Faraday (quoted by Baroness Greenfield)
    “For me religion at its best involves asking questions and challenging conventional assumptions.” Lord Sacks
    “The answer to bad religion is good religion, not no religion.” Lord Sacks

  2. A while ago Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama had a chat via the Google+ ‘hangout’ videoconferencing feature. It is somewhat lengthy, but a joy to watch two friends having a great time. One of the gems was:
    Desmond Tutu: “Do you have an army?”
    Dalai Lama: “Yes, at the spiritual level! No weapons, but wisdom!”
Enjoy! :)

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A golden mouth against corruption

John chrysostom

Q: Which saint had (at least) four skulls?1
A: John Chrysostom - just ask a Russian, a Greek and two Italian churches who all claim to have it. :)

St. John Chrysostom, whose feast day it is tomorrow, is actually one of my favorite saints and I'm sure he won't hold this joke against me. He is one of those saints – like Saint Pope Gregory the Great, whose thought had a wide-reaching influence on the Church during their lifetime and, even more impressively, still continues to have today (just note the 18 sections of the 1992 Catechism that cite him).

St. John’s epithet, Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostom) means “golden mouthed,” and if you start reading his many homilies and treatises you will soon appreciate his obvious rhetorical gift. The Church is fortunate to have had him on her side and to have had Jesus’ teaching so clearly, elegantly and effectively applied to his day. Take a look at the following quote on poverty and Church property (which applies today just as it did in the 4th century AD) and I hope you will agree with me:
“Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: "This is my body" is the same who said: "You saw me hungry and you gave me no food", and "Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me"... What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”

(Evangelium S. Matthaei, hom 50:3-4; Cited by Blessed Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, footnote 34.)

1 Multi-skulled saints cannot be mentioned without telling a joke by an Irish relative of mine:

A rogue relic dealer kept selling skulls, claiming to be St. Oliver Plunkett’s, until one day a customer said to them: “This can’t be St. Oliver’s skull. I am a doctor and can tell you that this is the skull of a child and St. Oliver died in his fifties!” The dealer, thinking on their feet, retorted: “Well, of course it is a child’s skull. It is St. Oliver’s skull when he was a child!” :)

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Beauty, ugliness and art

Michel pochet

“Ugliness will redeemed us” was certainly among the most provocative and profound insights shared at a conference of Christian academics and artists that I attended some 12 years ago in Rome. This statement, by the French painter Michel Pochet, was made very much in earnest and at a moment of reflection on a sacred text that spoke about Jesus’ suffering on the cross and his cry of abandonment before his death (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mathew 27:45). It certainly was not a frivolous, Oscar Wilde-esque quip, yet the reaction to it was one of disbelief, shock and immediate, widespread opposition. A very prominent Italian sculptress asked to be given the floor and launched into what was effectively a plea for reason to return: “How can you say that ugliness will redeem us? God is beauty and it will be by beauty that salvation will be delivered!” Personally, I was very much attracted to Pochet’s words and equally disappointed by the immediate opposition they received. Thankfully, the conference chair swiftly rebuked Pochet’s critic, with something along the following lines: He said that the sculptress’ words were not in the spirit of charity, reminded her that we must believe in the good intentions of others and that if their views differ from ours, we must try to understand why they are different. In the end what she said was true but so was that which she criticized, in its own context. The most impressive thing to my mind was not only Pochet’s insight, but also that this group of distinguished academics and artists was both capable of open disagreement and of accepting a rebuke that in many contexts would have lead to offense.

But, let us return to Pochet’s insight, which has immediately attracted me, for which I could see good reason, but which I never had the opportunity to know more about, until I read the transcript of a talk (in Italian) that he gave at an event in 2006. There he talks about his experience of returning to painting after many years and being in post-war Croatia with some friends. Materials were scarce and when his friends realized that he was painting again, they were looking for supplies for him. One day he was given a piece of canvas that was badly marked, torn, discolored and generally not in a fit state to be used as the basis for a painting. Since it was offered to him out of love by his friends, he could not refuse it. Examining the canvas, the thought came to him to paint a portrait of Jesus in his abandonment on the cross, since there he too suffered from the damage that this canvas presented.

Upon completing the painting (shown at the top of this post), Pochet realized that what he did was not so much a portrait of the abandoned Jesus but of the risen one, bearing the marks of his crucifixion and suffering. Looking at his own work, Pochet understood that this dual portrait of the suffering and risen Jesus provides an insight into what beauty is. He realized that Jesus, being God, is also perfect beauty and that his person is substitutable with that of Beauty in the Gospel:1
“[Beauty] seems dead, buried under the rock of ugliness. But on the third day the tomb is empty. Someone tells us that she is risen and that she waits for us. She walks with us, talks to us. My heart burns in my chest. It is getting late. We ask her to stay for supper, but our eyes open in the moment she disappears. Risen Beauty does not appear again: she disappears, hides in the anonymity of whomever, in the banal, the everyday. […]

Beauty is at the lake’s shore, unrecognizable. A pure eye intuits her and opens our eyes. We dive into the water and Beauty nurtures our mind and our senses, with bread baked on a hot stone. Beauty climbs a mountain with us, is lifted up high before our eyes and a cloud removes her out of sight.

And while we are staring at the heavens as she leaves: “Why are you looking at the sky? This Beauty, which has been among you and has been taken up to heaven, will return one day in the same way in which you have seen her leave.” And we, along the ways of the world, remember her words of farewell: I am with you all the days, until the end of the present age. […]

[T]he death of Beauty, “ugliness” - if we want to call it that, [is] assumed by God, divinized, in the risen Jesus.”
This fits perfectly with the intuition I had when first hearing him speak about ugliness, although the profound insight that Jesus’ life can be applied to Beauty, to gain a deeper understanding of it, is an impressive bonus! Beauty, understood through the optics of Jesus, is not superficial, ‘kitsch’ or only concerned with aesthetics, but one that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. It embraces the ugliness of suffering and uses it to arrive at love and joy.

What Pope Benedict XVI has to say on the subject is very much related. E.g., when talking about Michelangelo's “The Last Judgement” fresco in the Sistine Chapel, he says that it “issues a strong prophetic cry against evil, against every form of injustice” and goes on the exult beauty as follows:
“[T]he experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.

Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy "shock", it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum -- it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it "reawakens" him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.”
He then quotes Simone Weil, saying: "In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious."

I hope that you won’t see this as an attempted land-grab for all art in the name of religion. Instead, I believe, it is an acknowledgement of art expressing a fundamental attribute of God, which believers can seek regardless of whether the artist intended it, agrees with it or believes in it. With the profound understanding of beauty (including a “risen” ugliness) that both Pope Benedict XVI and Michel Pochet talk about, we can further seek to recognize the presence of beauty also in art (and life!) that at first sight appears ugly.

1 Apologies for this unpolished translation - it is mine and was done in a hurry :$

Monday, 10 September 2012

2012 Year of Faith directory

Since I keep wondering who else is trying to participate in the upcoming Year of Faith by means of blogging, I would like to start compiling a directory both of official and personal blogs and other internet resources relevant to this event. Needless to say, I am in no way endorsing these, but am merely trying to get a sense of what is out there.

Official websites/blogs

Personal websites/blogs

If you are writing a blog on this topic or know of other relevant links, please, let me know in the comments and I'll add them to the list.

To all my regular readers, apologies for this logistical interlude - it's a one-off, but as I couldn’t find a directory like this anywhere, I thought I’d set one up. End of caveat.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


Pieter Brueghel the Elder Christus und die Ehebrecherin

Neither WWDC, nor WWJZD, but WWJD - “What would Jesus do?” A question that, in this specific form, originates in the writings of the US evangelical pastor Charles Sheldon, that has regained currency in the 1990s with evangelical youth groups and that has even been adopted by parts of the current Occupy movement (e.g., including protesters camped outside London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral).

It is not without critics though, such as the US evangelical and academic Dr. Conrad Gempf, who has the following to say:
“[The Early Church] didn't copy Jesus. [...] They didn't walk on water. Jesus didn’t tell us to do what he did, he told us to do even greater things.”
To my surprise even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, whom I greatly admire, has some things to say against WWJD:
“The Jesus we meet in the Bible is somebody who constantly asks awkward questions [...] rather than just giving us a model of perfect behaviour.”
Instead of getting het up about the above, it is worth realising that the point of the criticisms is not about being against imitating Jesus (Dr. Williams starts his talk by saying “Well, an archbishop is hardly going to suggest that it isn’t a good question to ask!”). It is all about a well-founded concern regarding the dangers of oversimplification (maybe tinged also with a pinch of cynicism - that I too share - regarding the wearing of the now-popular WWJD bracelets). Simply mimicking Jesus’ actions verbatim, taken out of context and without the benefit of either an attempt to develop a relationship with him or of learning from how his followers have imitated him over the centuries, runs the risk of going off course.

Even if naive extremes, like attempting to walk on water, taking up carpentry or growing a beard are left to one side, there is still plenty of room for error, just like there would be with mindlessly applying the Golden Rule (“What do you mean? I would like it if you made me watch football!”). Dr. Williams comes to the following conclusion in his criticism of a headless use of WWJD:
“First, what changes things isn’t a formula for getting the right answer but a willingness to stop and let yourself be challenged right to the roots of your being. And second, we can find the courage to let this happen because we are let into the secret that we are in the hands of love, committed, unshakeable love.”
To me this doesn't sound like he is challenging WWJD at all - he is merely highlighting two important aspects of it. WWJD? He would want to get to the root of things (“The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)) and away from the formulaic. WWJD? He would place his trust in his Father, who is love (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16)).

It is also worth noting that the idea of following the example Jesus set is fundamental to Christianity and has been a core part of it since day one. Jesus called the apostles to follow him (“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)), he called all to embrace their sufferings and follow him (“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)) and his call has been heard by every generation of his followers (e.g., look at St. Augustine and St. Francis, who deeply believed in an imitation of Jesus, and at Thomas à Kempis’ book even entitled The Imitation of Christ).

Personally, asking myself the question of what Jesus would do is something I have been encouraged to practice since my childhood and is something that I see as an effective guide also for my sons. Even to a four-year-old the answer is obvious when the question is asked in a situation where they have to make a choice. Focusing on Jesus in a decision making moment helps to introduce the selfless, altruistic and loving into a context that may otherwise be steered to an excessive focus on oneself or on following conventions. And even when at times I cannot answer the question unequivocally, placing myself in front of Jesus is of value in and of itself.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Catholics in a water park

This is not the sequel to Snakes on a Plane, but if you read various “Catholic” blogs, you could think that holding a youth day in a water park (and having mass during its course) was to Catholicism what Snakes on a Plane is to cinema. Before proceeding to the outburst in these blogs, let’s just take a quick look at the event’s announcement by the Diocese of Honolulu, which, apart from organizational details about the event that took place a week ago, includes the following quote from Pope Benedict XVI:
“Joy is at the heart of the Christian experience. [W]e experience immense joy, the joy of communion, the joy of being Christian, the joy of faith [… and w]e can see the great attraction that joy exercises. In a world of sorrow and anxiety, joy is an important witness to the beauty and reliability of the Christian faith.”
The theme of the year is then stated as “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) – i.e., the same theme as that of this year’s World Youth Day - and a key part of the program is a mass presided over by Larry Silva, the Bishop of Honolulu. And it is precisely this that so incensed my (at least by name) fellow Catholics.

I don't want to pollute your mind too much, so let me just pick out a couple of choice cuts from among the dissenting blogs:
“Does it strike anyone else that “joy” is being confused with “frivolity” or “fun” in this case? Second, how exactly does spending a fun day at the water park “better equip” the youth for their “witness to Jesus”? And third, are the youth really going to be reflecting on the presence of God in their daily lives at this event? I have nothing against the kids (or the adults, for that matter) enjoying a day of fun at a water park, but let’s just call it what it is and not pretend it’s something else. And let’s not mix the sacred with the profane.” (Philothea on Phire)

“First, it could be argued that the location planned for Mass is a demeaning venue and contrary to the dignity due to the Blessed Sacrament. The focus of the surrounding environment of a water park screams personal fun and self-gratification rather than personal sacrifice and the selfless sacrifice of our Lord and Savior made present at the holy Sacrifice of the Mass with the real presence of His body and blood.” (Unam Sanctam Catholicam)

“I'm not sure I've ever noticed people doing much reflection at a water park. I have no idea how wading pools, slides, etc. contribute to a renewal of faith.” (Popin' aint easy)

I'll spare you all the other nonsense, including copious references to Canon Law and to the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (i.e., the mass manual), as the above should be plenty to last anyone for a good while. Fundamentally they boil down to an attempt to justify the underlying, grave misunderstanding shared by all of the three blogs mentioned above. Namely, that one’s Christian faith applies to some aspects of life - “the sacred” (self-sacrifice, reflection, selflessness, “witnessing to Jesus”) but not to others - “the profane” (fun, leisure, “enjoying a day at a water park,” “wading pools, slides, etc.”). In other words, we can be good Christians in church and when doing “spiritual” things, but everyday life is another, separate matter.

Such schizophrenic compartmentalization of life is, in fact one of the worst mistakes that the follower of any religion can make and that will ultimately either lead to psychological damage or to a very hollow, superficial religiosity that so many now rightly reject. What is the point of going to church if that is a self-contained, separate activity, unrelated to the real challenges and joys of life? It certainly wouldn't be for the music …

Just to make it crystal clear that such dualism is not Christian, bear with me during this paragraph. Jesus himself says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12), not “I'll turn the lights on while you are at church, but you are on your own in the water park.” In fact, the whole underlying idea that there is a separation between God and non-God and the heresies that follow from it - starting with Docetism (that Jesus was just a spirit and therefore separate from the material world) and then spreading through various forms of Gnosticism (that the world was created by an imperfect/evil being and that there is a struggle between it and God) – were among the chief issues fought by the Church, starting with St. Irenaeus (my namesake) in the second century AD. St. Augustine puts it very well, as follows: “How is it, then, that I seek you, Lord? Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you” (Confessions 10:20) and St. John, in his first letter, then goes to the root: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16) Jesus asks us to follow him body and soul, weekdays and weekends, in secular contexts and religious ones and both when working and resting.

Finally, just in case you were wondering what sacrilegious frivolities and self-gratification I am trying to cover up with this post, here are two photos from last Sunday’s youth day at the Honolulu water park (taken from their Facebook page):


Since the blogs I am arguing against here have all asked their readers to write to the Diocese of Honolulu to voice disagreement with their Youth Day, I would like to ask you to join me in writing to the Diocese of Honolulu ( and/or to their Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry ( to share with them your appreciation for their good work, if you are that way inclined.

UPDATE: A reader has just shared with me the following email, received in response to their message of support sent to the Diocese of Honolulu:
Thank you very much for your note of support, which my staff and I appreciate very much. I wish our critics could have seen how reverent the young people were at the Mass, especially when they spontaneously knelt in the grass for the Eucharistic Prayer.

God bless you!

+ Larry Silva
Most Reverend Clarence (Larry) Silva
Bishop of Honolulu

Just FYI, here is the message I sent: “Dearest representatives of the Youth and Young Adult Ministry of the Diocese of Honolulu, since I have come across several blogs asking their readers to voice their disagreement with your Diocesan Youth Day held at a water park in Kapolei, Oahu on 1 September 2012, I would just like to express my gratitude to you for bringing Jesus to your youth and assure you of my support and prayers.”

Friday, 7 September 2012

Happy Birthday, Maryām!


Tomorrow is the feast of Mary’s nativity - her birthday :) and, to be honest, it hasn't meant a whole lot to me up until now. I greatly appreciated the feasts of Mary's being mother of God (that opens the calendar year), of her sorrows, of her assumption into heaven (which coincides with my parents’ wedding anniversary and my younger son’s birth), of the annunciation and of her immaculate conception, but her birthday just seemed a bit of an add-on.

Trying to understand the significance of this feast, which is only one of three birthdays the Church celebrates (the others being those of John the Baptist and Jesus), I started looking at what has been said about it so far, and I have to say that most homilies that I came across were rather disappointing. Not necessarily as such, but with regard to shedding light on celebrating Mary’s birthday, rather than other aspects of her life.

Then I found this gem:
“The present Feast is for us the beginning of feasts. Serving as boundary to the law and to prototypes, at the same time it serves as a doorway to grace and truth. “For Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4), Who, having freed us from the letter (of the law), raises us to spirit.” (St. Andrew of Crete, sermon on the Nativity of the Theotokos)
Wow! Reading this was a real ‘eureka’ moment for me as it does squarely hit the nail on its head. Mary’s birth can be seen as the start of Christianity, which becomes flesh in her some years later. It is the beginning of a new way, the breaking of prototypes, the transition from rules to life. I warmly recommend the whole sermon, which opens with the above lines and which, in its joyous tone, is a great fit for tomorrow’s celebration.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Marriage and the family


I am married and am immensely grateful for being part of several families: the family I was born into (since, even though I am a first child, my parents were a family already before I was born or even conceived), multiple extended families, and the family my spouse and I form with our children. And that’s only as far as biological ties go. I am also a member of the Church - the family of Jesus and (some of) his followers. In many ways I also consider the relationship I have with close friends to be like that with brothers, sisters or parents and I strive to extend this circle whenever and with whomever possible.

What is it that is so special about the family? I believe it is the fact that it mimics the relationships of the persons of the Trinity, where each loves the others without limits and with complete self-noughting,1 to the extent that the three become one. In my families I have often experienced love that is selfless, self-sacrificing, generous, gratuitous and unconditional and that invokes Jesus’s promise: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew, 18:20). This love makes the family a place of peace, trust, safety, stability, openness, growth and joy and a place where I can most fully be myself. I can rely on the support and love of other family members and also on their desiring only the best for me. I don't have to look out for myself, as it is the others who look out for me and I can instead focus on them and on others. My families have also been safe havens that have protected me from state-organized oppression, from the negative influence of others, from erroneous tendencies of my own and that have also looked after me in illness, bad moods, uncertainty and fatigue.

Is this to say that there are no challenges with living in a family? Certainly not, since even though the model is perfect, its instances are often not, even to the point of breaking. Does that make the model any less worthy of following? I don't think so, since even when not lived to perfection, the ideal of the family provides a clear direction of what to aim for.

For me, as a Christian (and for others too), the foundation of a family - its birth, is in marriage, where the spouses each make an indissoluble gift of themselves to one another, which they do in front of God and which they aim to sustain with His help and in His presence. The day I got married was one of the sacred, lived in great simplicity (I remember polishing shoes in the morning and sending a couple of emails to close friends who couldn't be with us and being filled with great joy and a delicious lightness of being,2 not even to mention the rest of the day that you would expect to be joyous). The years that then followed and persist into the present have been filled both with everything I said about the ideal of the family and with challenges, trials, difficulties and suffering. To me, as a Christian, these too are very much part of being married and of living in a family, just like they were very much part of Jesus’ life. They are always an opportunity to recognize Jesus’ presence and to start again to seek forgiveness, forgive and love and I am deeply grateful to God for my spouse, children, parents, siblings and all with whom I have family-like relationships.

There would be a lot more to say, but I believe I managed to give an idea of why marriage and the family matter to me. This reflection was very directly motivated by many recent pronouncements by different representatives of the Church who have spent paragraphs upon paragraphs talking about what threatens the family and how it needs to be opposed and which have always left me wondering: ‘But what is it about the family that you see worth protecting? How do you see the things you oppose as threatening? [beyond stating them as such] And what positive proposal can you make as an alternative to the ones you oppose?’ I am not saying that opposition alone isn’t worthwhile, but it is very much a level zero approach and I was certainly hoping for more. The closest I have seen to an acknowledgement of this trend is a statement made two days ago by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin:
“The Church’s social doctrine must always be animated with charity and must be accompanied by charity and will only really be understood through the lens of charity. When the Church’s organizations simply become lobbying bodies alongside other lobby organizations or social commentators alongside other social commentators then they loose their real originality and therefore their original contribution to the debate about the formation of society.”
This is exactly what I have been looking to hear from many others and I hope that Archbishop Martin will follow up this call to a focus on love and apply it to the various issues being so hotly debated these days.

Lest I be misunderstood in a way that is most repulsive to me, let me be explicit about one thing: I believe there is the potential for good in all human relationships, regardless of who their protagonists are or what their status is. What I have said about the family and about marriage was in no way meant as suggesting that the things which I value about it cannot also take place under other circumstances. In no way do I mean to suggest that the family built on marriage has a monopoly on all the good that it is capable of. Compassion, commitment, selflessness, caring, support and love are the potential of any human relationship and my seeking them in the context of my family, and the marriage it is built on, is in no way a declaration of inferiority or inadequacy with respect to other forms of life.

Finally, I do see a big challenge that the Church (i.e., me too!) faces, which is to find a way for all, who want to, to participate in its life. Cardinal Martini in his last interview gave a clear example: “A woman is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion who is concerned for her and her three children. The second love succeeds. If this family is discriminated against, not only the woman, but her children, too, will be cut off.” Cardinal Woelki said that he tries to “acknowledge that [homosexuals] take responsibility for each other on a permanent basis, have promised each other faithfulness and want to look after each other, even though [he] cannot endorse their life choices.” And there are many others like them! What is very positive in my eyes is that there are representatives of the Church, who feel the presence of gaps that ought not be there and even though I don't see how the gaps will be closed (without throwing the baby out with the bathwater either), I trust God will help us find a way to make everyone feel welcome in His Church.

1 Thanks to my bestie, CS, for coining this term, which I believe expresses the extent of the love the Persons of the Trinity have for one another spot on.
2 The antithesis of its unbearable variant, so beautifully described by Kundera though.