The Sensus Fidelium of Catholic Ireland

(Source: The Irish Times)

(Source: The Irish Times)

Ireland is a country with a huge Catholic majority. Though recent data indicate a decline in those who identify as Catholic, at least 84% of the population still do (Central Statistics Office Ireland, 2011). Ireland has also just become the first nation in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular referendum. This historic change came about not by legislation passed by elected officials and not by judicial decree. It came about through the most democratic tool available to a free people.

Termed a “national act of inclusion” by former tánaiste (deputy prime minster) Eamon Gilmore, in Catholic theological language Friday’s vote can also be seen as an act expressing the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country where religious faith is deeply embedded in the lives and culture of the people.

Is there a lesson here for Catholic leaders both in Ireland and around the globe? Perhaps this vote is telling the world that as Catholic Christians, Irish men and women have a deeper understanding of the Gospel than those whose role it is to preach it. Perhaps this vote is telling the world that the Gospel of Jesus — so strongly interwoven into the everyday lives of a faithful, evangelized people — challenges people everywhere to recognize that all persons, regardless of sexual orientation (or race or ethnicity or language or skin color or….), are children of God called to live lovingly, openly and honestly — just as God created us.

As an Irish-American, I am so very proud today of the country where my grandparents were born; so very proud of my many cousins and “relations” whose grandparents never left “the auld sod” and today are part of a new Ireland that has spoken loudly, clearly and forcefully.

Vatican II: The Optimism of John XXIII

Blessed Pope John XXIII

Fifty years ago today, one of the most momentous events in the life of the Catholic Church took place.  Attentive to the “signs of the times” as he was, Pope John XXIII officially opened the Second Vatican Council.  Others more astute than I have commented at length about the importance of this day and the event that so deeply affected the experience of millions of Catholics around the world. Nonetheless, there is no Catholic alive today who hasn’t felt the impact — whether he/she is aware of it or not — of that Council.

Pope John’s complete opening remarks are worth reading and absorbing.  Parts of those remarks  somehow sound even more relevant to the Church in 2012 as they must have sounded to the Church in 1962.

In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Dignity/Washington

June 10, 2012

Today we celebrate a feast that has been a part of the Church’s liturgical calendar since the thirteenth century.  In English we call it the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, but it’s also commonly known by the abbreviated version of its Latin name, Corpus Christi.  Although I’ve never actually participated in it, one of the special ways in which this feast can be celebrated is to have a public Corpus Christi Procession.  While the liturgical norms provide great detail on how to conduct such a procession, it essentially is quite simple.  After Mass, the gathered community is lead through the streets of their city or town by the celebrant of the Mass.  He carries the Eucharist, which in turn is held under a canopy of some sort – a sign of respect for our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

I couldn’t help but think of that image yesterday as a group of us – over 40 members of this community – joined with many hundreds of others in marching in yesterday’s Capital Pride Parade.  Thanks to the artistic skills of Larry Ranly, we had our own version of such a Corpus Christi canopy.  Constructed in the shape of a chapel, our lightweight canopy was draped in the colors of the rainbow, and it was carried by six of us as we walked the parade route behind a banner indicating that we were the Dignity/Washington contingent.

Even as I thought of that image in relationship to today’s Feast, I couldn’t also help but think of what this feast – the feast of Corpus Christi – means for me personally.  For the past quarter of a century, it has been a very special day. Although it’s been quite a few years since I was in active parish ministry, it was on this weekend twenty-five years ago that I was ordained a priest. And so it was on this feast day that I had the great joy of presiding at the Eucharist as a priest for the very first time.

In the diocese where I was ordained, the tradition is that a newly ordained priest would often invite someone else – perhaps a close friend, maybe a classmate from another diocese, or someone who had been influential in one’s years of seminary study – to give the homily.  And so it was that I asked my good friend Gerry – ordained several years ahead of me and who, sadly, has since passed away – to give the homily at my first Mass. In that homily, Gerry talked about the room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem that has been venerated as the site the “Upper Room” since the 4th century.  In that room, there is a carving at the top of a stone pillar.  It’s a carving of a mother pelican feeding here young with her own flesh and blood – a symbol of Jesus who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us, who gave us the gift his very self on the cross, a gift which we remember and receive again and again every time we share in Eucharist.

It you either marched in or were present for yesterday’s Parade, you know what a wonderful spirit was there – a spirit of celebration blessed by the beautify of a warm June day, but also marked by a sense of a changed or changing landscape for the LGBT community in the U.S.  When we look at past Gay Pride events – events which have become the “High Holy Days” for the gay community around the globe – one cannot fail to recognize how different things are for us in 2012 than they were say, in 1987 when I was ordained … and maybe even before some of you were even born!  So much has changed, in fact, that I’ve heard a number of people say over the past year or so that the struggle for gay rights and for the full inclusion of LGBT people in civil society here in the US is just a matter of time.  I think perhaps the general consensus is that, although there are goals yet to achieve, it really is just a matter of time before the barriers toward such full inclusion in civil society are greatly diminished or eliminated.  Indeed, I think there is strong evidence to support this perspective.

If that is true – and I hope and pray it is – I think it presents to us as LGBT Catholics an important time for reflection.  At the heart of this is the fact that what can be said about civil society, the broader culture, and even many other branches of the Christian family tree … those things unfortunately cannot yet be said about our Catholic community. While there are many positive indications about where we as LGBT Catholics are today when compared with two decades ago … it is not quite so clear that the tide has turned, or that full inclusion of LGBT Catholics into the life of the Church at all levels is in any way imminent.  If it is indeed, just a matter of time for such inclusion to come about, I daresay we’re probably talking in terms of decades and even longer, rather than months and years.

So if that is true, then what does this mean for us as a community of LGBT Catholics? Where do we want to be in 5, 10, or 25 years in terms of our relationship with the broader Catholic community … and how do we get there? What does this mean for how we will move forward in ensuring that popes and bishops and other leaders of our Church – as well as those of our lay brothers and sisters who still accept what the media call the church’s “official teaching” regarding human sexuality and the rejection of God’s image and likeness reflected in people like you and me – what does this mean for how we ensure that they understand that we, too, are members of the one Body of Christ?  How do we share with our fellow Catholics at all levels of the church’s structure the truths of our own lives? How do we help them to understand that the there is indeed room under that Corpus Christi canopy for ALL members of Christ’s Body? How do we do all this and still remain faithful to our call to live our Christian faith in the context and tradition of Catholicism?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but if we are to take seriously the fact that through our Baptism we have been made part of that One Body of Christ, then I think we at least need to think about this unique moment in time, recognizing who we are, where we are, and being thoughtful about where we are heading. While I don’t know all the answers, I have no doubt that sacrifice will be involved. Just as that mother pelican gave her life for her young, and as Jesus gave up his very self so that we might have access to the fullness of life,  we too must be prepared to give up and let go of what is non-essential, so that our voices may be unified and the core truth of our message will be not only heard, bur received.

As you’ve heard before and I’m sure will hear again … this year marks a very special anniversary.  It’s the 50th year since the Second Vatican Council began its work in Rome in 1962. If you’re not familiar with that Council’s 16 Constitutions, Declarations and Decrees, maybe you should pick up a copy and add it to your summer beach reading list!  There is in those documents great richness for today that goes beyond what is sometimes minimizes the Council’s work by referring to the “spirit of Vatican II, ” as the documents themselves paint a picture of a Church very different than what some current leaders would have us see.  In the Dogmatic Constition on the Church, Lumen Gentium (#12), the Council Fathers wrote:

“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.”

I don’t know how you could be more clear in declaring that every member of the Body of Christ has a role to play and a voice to speak in discerning matters of faith.  As we claim our rightful place within the Body of Christ – as we become more fully what we receive in Eucharist – our task as faithful members of Christ’s one Body – is to discern rightly and to live out that discernment in faith and in hope and in dignity.

Happy Pride!

Democracy: America’s Unopened Gift to the Church

We have a mission and a mandate, in independence and baptism, that will not allow slavery again in this nation, this time under the guise of religious tyranny. For we have been called to freedom by something even more awesome than the Declaration of Independence. We have been called to freedom by Christ. [emphasis added]

Anthony T. Padovano

That’s the closing paragraph of Chapter 2 in Anthony T. Padovano’s book, A Path to Freedom. The chapter’s title, The American Catholic Church: Assessing the Past, Discerning the Future, gives a sense of what it’s about. Padovano argues convincingly that we are in a unique moment in history where the ideals of American democracy can and must continue to push for reform within the Catholic Church.

Padovano is not naive. He notes:

The fact that Americans cannot bring democracy … to the Catholic Church at large is the single greatest failure of American Catholicism. The fact that American bishops repeat enthusiastically that the Church must not be a democracy is anti-American and anti-Christian. … Loyalty to Christ, after all, is not essentially connected with monarchy and ecclesial feudalism.

Democracy is without doubt the greatest gift that America has given to the world. Our system is not perfect, to be sure, but the ideals enshrined in our founding political documents envision a world very different from the world in which they were written. Those of us who’ve been both raised and long-educated in the the spirit and practice of Catholicism will agree that the values of democracy are not only consistent with but are natural sisters to the ideals of Catholicism’s world-view where charity, justice, and all God’s People live in freedom. Let me be clear: by Catholicism I mean the Catholicism of the broad universal Church with its rich tradition of intellectual rigor and pastoral sense of mission, and not the “Catholicism” that is increasingly characterized by anachronistic liturgical practice and a childish adherence to rules meant to form and guide and lead to freedom, not to squelch and imprison and lead to a slavery of the soul.

When and how will this gift of democracy be received by the institutional Church? Padovano notes some movement toward this over the past century, though that movement has been marked both by periods of great progress, as well as periods of retrenchment. It seem that this is where we are now, in a period where forces within the papacy, the episcopacy, the clergy and even among the laity are hearkening back to a fantasy vision of the Church they think once existed, but never really did. In noting a list of pressing pastoral issues that a small group of US bishops identified in 1995, this one seems to be the most overarching and is behind so much of what we see today: it’s the practice of Presenting the minority position of Vatican II as though it were the majority.

As American Catholics try to find a way forward during these challenging times, Padovano’s words are worth remembering … again, and again, and again.

We have come this far with broken hearts and bruised spirits, betrayed too often by shepherds who became predators and preyed on our trust. But no more. We ourselves were not always sinless. But the crimes of democracy are always less than those of tyranny. We are free of that now.

Amen!


These are some of my thoughts; what are yours? Would love to read your comments and feedback.

The Cycle of Life

I live in a relatively small space. For mostly sentimental reasons, I’ve kept a few pieces of furniture that used to belong to my grandmother, Eileen “Nana” MacGeorge. Nana passed away January 21, 2005, just one week shy of her 99th birthday. Today I gave away one of those pieces of furniture, an old worn wooden desk that actually had been a vanity at its birth many decades ago.

The Eileen Desk

I wanted to give it away rather than sell it, and so posted it on the DC Freecycle group. Just a short while ago, a young woman named Ali came by to pick it up. She and her husband and two children have recently moved from the city to the suburbs and they’re working on filling their larger living quarters as inexpensively as possible. As we were taking the desk down in the elevator and I told her of its history, she asked what Nana’s name was.  “Well, she said, it’ll be the Eileen desk!” After putting it in her vehicle and shaking hands, she said with a smile, “Thank you Tim; it’ll be well-loved.”

Recently the father of a good friend of mine passed away. Although I didn’t know my friend’s dad, I know that he raised at least one wonderful son in my friend, who is a genuinely good, loving, and kind-hearted man.

These two unrelated events — the giving away of a desk that evokes my grandmother’s memory and the passing away of a friend’s father — seem so relevant as we enter this week we Christians call “Holy.” Beginning with the fanfare of Palm/Passion Sunday, Holy Week culminates in the celebration of the Sacred Three Days — the Triduum — as we liturgically live once again through the deepest mysteries of Christian faith, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.

As Catholics, we believe that our liturgical rites are note merely commemorations of those events from two thousand years ago.  They are not simply a re-telling of what has been told and re-told over the centuries.  No, Liturgy in the Catholic world (as well as other traditions) transcends time and place and pulls us in once again to what Life is really all about.  If we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hands to touch and hearts to love, then this cycle of life invites us deeper and deeper into the Mystery that is God.

May Eileen and “Bud” rest in peace, and may this Holy Week be for us, our communities and our world and time of blessing, joy and peace.

Catholicism, Fundamentalism, and the Presences of Christ

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 22/23, 2009
Dignity NoVA/DC

Readings: Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but was anyone just a little bit uncomfortable when we listened to that passage just heard a few moments ago – the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in which he says that wives are to be subordinate to their husbands? No doubt that is one of those passages in Scripture that can offend the sensibilities of many of us. In the Gospel passage from John, which continues the long “Bread of Life Discourse” that we have been hearing these past weeks, and in which Jesus previously said his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood, we hear these followers today saying that these words are hard to accept. For those of us in 21st century America, Jesus could well be speaking about the passage from Ephesians when he asks his followers, “Does this shock you?” While we may not be shocked by more conservative societies around the world displaying their very rigid social norms about how wives and husbands, men and women – as well as young and old, parents and children – are to relate to one another, we are I think just a bit shocked when we hear scripture passages such as this one – and many others like it – which on their face can seem very much out of step with the norms and values that we seek to uphold in a free, democratic and open society, a society which claims to see equal human dignity present in every person.

By drawing our attention to this passage, I intend not to raise for our reflection the particulars of how husbands, wives, spouses should relate to each other; but rather I’d like to say a few words about a bigger issue about who we are as Catholics and how we understand and hold together some of the basic and formative elements that define us as Catholic Christians.

In 1963, the Fathers (and yes, they were all men) of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI approved and promulgated the first of 4 “Constitutions” of Vatican II. This first constitution—Sacrosanctum Concilium – was The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Early on in the text, the document identifies four ways in which Christ is present in the Sacred Liturgy. Specifically the document states:

“To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. [Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of [the] minister, …but especially under the Eucharistic species. …[Christ] is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. [Christ] is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20)”

These four presences – the minister, the Word of Scripture, the Bread and Wine of Eucharist, and the Gathered Assembly – these all speak to the richness of who we are and what we do whenever we gather together “in word and in sacrament.”

Why is this important? Why does it matter that we are conscious of these various ways in which Christ’s presence is known and experienced? Well, I think it’s important – especially in our own day – because we are constantly surrounded by and bombarded with declarations about “what Scripture says” and “the authority of God’s word” and “the Bible says…” Such declarations claim that Scripture is the final authority on all things, and they come very close to home when people claim they are just adhering to “biblical precepts” when they make pronouncements about the sinfulness of homosexuality, or about justifications for war, or about the distribution of the wealth and the world’s resources that keep so many millions in poverty; … and yes… we still hear Scripture used to justify the oppression of women and so many others.

Perhaps you’ve seen that bumper sticker or t-shirt that reads: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This sort of fundamentalism, a fundamentalism that leaves no room for the assent of faith, no room for the human person struggling to balance faith and reason, doubt and certainty; a fundamentalism that in effect denies the presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly – such fundamentalism is foreign to us as Catholic Christians, and truly foreign to the most traditionalist understandings of Christianity.

Earlier I mentioned Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In that document’s opening paragraph, it states that one of the constitution’s purposes is, “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.” Let me read that again: “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.”

Fundamentalists thinks that when it comes to God and religion, nothing is “subject to change.” They dismiss adaptations to the needs of our times as being unfaithful at best, and heretical at worst. And yet, throughout the history of the Church, faithful Christians have struggled with how to live out the truly fundamental, the foundational beliefs of Christianity, the ones that transcend time and place and culture, giving them concrete expression in the context of the times and circumstances in which they found themselves. We saw an example of this just yesterday as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Lutheran denomination in the US – voted to lift a ban that effectively required gay and lesbian ministers to be celibate. Their action affirms the loving, committed relationships that gay and lesbian people can and do form and recognized that our understandings about sexuality and human relationships have grown and evolved with the passage of time. As one man quoted in the today’s Washington Post story about the ELCA’s action put it, “We are responding to something that the writers of Scripture could not have understood.”

Applying this same approach to this passage from Ephesians about husbands and wives, isn’t it possible to understand that, even though there may be suggestions of male dominance, influenced by the context of the first-century in which Paul was writing, the real and enduring meaning of this passage is that spouses are to put each other first? Of course it is.

When Jesus saw others leaving because they were not able to hear the deeper meaning of his words within the depths of their hearts, he turned to the Twelve and asked if they were leaving as well. Like Peter and the others, we have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus does have the words of eternal life. We believe that Jesus is present not only in the Words of Scripture and the Bread and Wine we bless, but that Jesus is also present in each of us and in our community, gathered as we are in His name. Although there may be some who might want us to leave, let us today make our own the words of Peter. Peter said, “Master, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Put another way, our response might well be: “You know, Lord, we’re staying with you; we’re not going anywhere.”