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.

Let’s Stop Mocking Religious Women

So I went to the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington (GMCW) Red & Greene holiday concert last evening.  It was the first of four performances of this annual event here in DC, and usually has a delightful mix of serious and light hearted entertainment. Last night was no exception. I was entertained, I laughed, and was even moved at times.  I’m no drama/theater/music critic, so this isn’t a “review” (if you can go, I recommend going!), but there was one piece last evening which irked me.

Here’s what it was, and here’s why.

Shortly into the second part of the show, the part that is usually more funny and a bit campy, a group of chorus members performed dressed in black habits — the generic habit one sees when someone wants to “dress up as a nun.”  They all had names that were variations of Sister Mary Something — the French accented Sister Mary Antoinette with a large white pompadour; the Latina Sister Mary Juana with … well, you get the picture. The performers were  talented and the parodied lyrics of familiar Christmas songs were certainly clever and witty.

In Catholic parlance, “religious” can be a noun, and “a religious” is a woman or man who takes certain vows, lives in community, and spends her/his life in prayer and service.  Now, even most Catholics would look at last night’s skit and see the humor in it, or at least the intended humor.  But I knew in my gut that I didn’t like it.  Even my companion — a non-Catholic — at one point leaned over and, with a reference to San Francisco’s famous (or infamous) Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, said he never understood why dressing up as nuns was funny.  And, to be blunt, I don’t either.  I found it offensive and sexist.  Religious women (interchangeably referred to as sisters or nuns, though there is a difference) seem to be fair game within the LGBT community when it comes to groups or types of people to make fun of.

You’d think we’d know better.

Just earlier this week I received a Calll It Out alert from HRC seeking support for its very legitimate appeal to ABC about its upcoming show, “Work It.” The premise of that show appears to be that two straight men feel the need to dress up as women in order to get jobs. As HRC puts it, such shows make light of the “very real challenges transgender Americans face,” and it asks supporters to Call It Out, reminding us that transgender people are “worthy of the same dignity that all Americans deserve.”

Actions like this, which challenge us to re-think our received ways of thinking and seeing — especially when it comes to the ways we think of and see others — is what makes me proud of such efforts from within the LGBT community.

Catholic religious women have historically been the unsung heroines of pastoral ministry in the Church (and, I would say, society).  They are the ones who teach and heal and comfort and nurture and care for others each and every day. They typically do so quietly, without much fanfare or recognition. They also are active promoters of Gospel values by seeking social justice, advocating for the poor and the “least among us” by challenging ecclesial, social, and political institutions, often being the voice of those who can’t speak for themselves.

Currently, there are over 55,000 women religious in the US in many and varied ministries, doing good and transforming the world.  Aren’t they also “worthy of the same respect all Americans deserve”?  Let’s stop using these good women as cheap props and easy targets in gay skits, Pride Parades, and drag shows.  They deserve better, and we should know better!

Anger, Advent and Hope

Yesterday, I was a little down. This is my second “holiday season” as a single man, a relationship status not of my choosing, but is mine nonetheless. As a single man of a certain age (!), it’s not always easy constantly encountering the sights and sounds of family togetherness and happy couples holding hands, knowing that the vast majority of my own time is spent by myself and not with the person I had hoped to share life with.

I am self-aware enough to know that this was part of the reason for being down (or “low energy,” as a dear friend euphemistically describes it); and also self-loving enough to do things to get out of myself and become more engaged with others and the world. All this notwithstanding, I also began to realize how very angry I have become. Angry not only because I had little say in my now being single, but especially at the Church, that is, the institutional Church and its officials. Looking through the many Twitter feeds, blogs and news sources I follow, I felt my anger in a way I hadn’t felt before.

Oh, I know I’ve been angry at bishops and others who claim to speak for the Church for a long time. I love the Church; it is and always will be my family. But anger is a natural response when the family you love denies your full humanity, says you are “intrinsically disordered,” and uses its power to maintain your status as a second class citizen by denying you the civil rights your straight brothers and sisters have. Anger is also a natural response when such exclusionary positions are embraced precisely by those who claim to be shepherds, called to bear witness to the presence and love of Christ.

And so I prayed. I prayed last night that this Advent might help me find ways to respond to this righteous anger not by denying it or letting it rule me, but by allowing the Spirit to transform it into something good. How can I not see the reading from today’s Morning Prayer as a response to that prayer, filling me with hope?

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through waters, I will be with you; through rivers, you shall not be swept away.
When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall flames consume you.
For I, the Lord, am your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.”

(Isaiah 43:1b-3a)

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.”

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 8, 2009
Dignity NoVA

As you know, a new justice to the US Supreme Court was confirmed by the US Senate this past week. Earlier today in fact, Judge Sonia Sotomayor actually took the oath of her new office and become Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the newest member of one world’s most select group of people – one of only nine people who, in our judicial system, have a voice in that Authority which can decide whether existing laws and their applications are or are not consistent with our Constitution. Now, I’m not an attorney or any sort of legal expert, and so it doesn’t matter whether I do agree or don’t agree with her selection and confirmation or what I think about any of the varied legal and other issues that were raised during that process.

What I found fascinating, however, was one of the main reasons – perhaps THE main reason – that was given by many in the Senate who voted against her. In explaining their vote of disapproval, several senators cited what they believe is her commitment to a so-called “empathy” standard and that this would inappropriately sway her one way or another in making sound legal judgments.

As I said, I’m not an attorney, and I don’t know whether it’s appropriate or not for “empathy” to play a role in the making judicial judgments. Nonetheless, this little drama in our national life can provide us an opportunity to think about what exactly empathy is and how it does or does not fit with our own lives. Empathy comes from the Greek – empathes, with its roots em and pathos, meaning feeling, or emotion. As it’s currently defined in English, empathy (according to Merriam Webster) is: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another [of either the past or present] without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Empathy is different from sympathy; although they’re similar and related, empathy has a little bit more of a sense of “I know where you’re coming from,” “I can relate,” “I’ve been there, too.”

In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we hear very clear and explicit guidance on how the followers of Jesus – members of the Christian community – are called upon to act and to treat not only one another, but all others. Even though the specific word “empathy” is not used here, it certainly is consistent with that list of Christian virtues about which Paul writes – kindness, compassion, tenderness, forgiveness. As followers of Jesus, Paul reminds us that we are not to be characterized by bitterness, by anger, by shouting at one another and having malice toward others, as I’m sure we all feel like, on occasion. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all felt like Elijah does – like throwing in the towel and calling it a day. Even though he has just successfully defeated the prophets of Baal and demonstrated that the God of Israel is indeed the one true God, nonetheless Elijah is dejected and worn out as others are trying to have him killed.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not always easy to be kind and compassionate, to be upbeat and positive. It’s not always easy in the day to day lives that we live to go on with the journey of life that God has given us. I’m from New England, and I’m what you might call your typical “Boston driver.” For some reason, all the patience I have goes out the window when I’m driving and dealing with other drivers who – from my perspective (!), would probably be much happier walking or taking public transportation! I’m sure many of us would rather not have to deal with certain colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, or others with whom we interact with regularly.

Likewise, I’m sure that each of you can easily call to mind someone with whom you occasionally get angry or frustrated; perhaps someone you’ve even had words with and shouted at. I’m sure you’re aware of those situations which cause you to be less than patient, less than kind, less than understanding and compassionate.

Today’s readings not only remind us of how we are called as followers of Jesus to be in the world and to act toward one another, they also remind us how we are able to do this. Left to our own devices, who knows what our lives and our world would look like. But as followers of Jesus, as ones who believe that God so loved the world that God took on our very humanity, our flesh and our bones to become, as we say, “One like us in all things but sin,” we are nourished and strengthened every time we come together in prayer to break bread and share in the Eucharist.

The sacramentality of our Catholic Christianity is perhaps most characterized by the Eucharist. This is what we DO as Catholic Christians … we gather together, we listen over and over to the stories that have formed us, we break bread and share the cup, and by doing so are not only nourished and strengthened to live as Paul encourages us, but we in fact become that which we celebrate. We become Christ’s living presence in the world, in every contact with the incompetent driver, in every encounter with the frustrating colleague, the troublesome neighbor, the aggravating person in the grocery store checkout line. John reminds us, in the words of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It is indeed our prayer and our hope that not only will our sharing in this same Bread from heaven bring us to the fullness of eternal life, but that we can in some small way be the living presence of Jesus in our world – a world in which just a little more empathy probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

"There is something radically wrong …"

“…with the institutional Catholic Church.”

That sentiment, expressed by Fr. Thomas Doyle in a National Catholic Reporter commentary on the recent report about decades-long abuse of children by clergy, brothers and sisters in Catholic-run institutions in Ireland, is nothing new to many of us who have lived both inside and outside the walls of clerical life.

While U.S. Bishops spend their pastoral energies condemning Notre Dame University for inviting the President of the United States to speak at its commencement, or organizing letter-writing campaigns to lobby against the recognition of the right to marry civilly for same-sex couples, the Church — the People of God — continue to be ignored and ill-treated.

Where I attend Mass regularly, there’s a man who offers a frequent prayer when the community is invited to voice its own “Prayers of the Faithful.” Today especially, I make his prayer for “new and enlightened leadership in the Church” my own.