Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Church History - Class 2

Tonight the instructor introduced us to the metaphor of family stories and personal turning points. Although future plans are important, the future isn't fixed. Each of us is the result of a process of decisions that have led us to this point in our lives, and specifically to this class. Historians try to be selective, trying to understand where the stories come from, to understand the "big picture". This process of decisions and turning points is important in understanding the history of the Catholic Church as well, which includes both saints and sinners.

6) The Comedian
The 16th century, with all of its anxieties over religious division and repeated attempts at reformation, needed a comedian. St. Philip Neri initially desired to remain a layman at work in the streets of Rome, inviting others to a deeper awareness of Christianity. He was apprenticed as a young man to a business man in Florence, Italy, but he was a very funny person in constant good cheer, and without the heart and passion for business. Through a series of mystical experiences he moved to Rome, where he became interested in engaging strangers to work with the poor. He collected these strangers by standing at a street corner, and asking those who passed by, "My friends, what good work will we do today?" Once he was ordained he dedicated himself to hearing confession, ministering to long lines of the poor and wealthy alike.

7) The Farmer
St. Juan Diego is an elusive figure, historically speaking, but the story associated with his life, his vision of an indigenous woman in 1531 who described herself as the Mother of Jesus, had a tremendous impact on the evangelization of Mexico and all of Latin America. Our Lady of Guadalupe is as emblematic of the Mexican Church as she is of Latin America culture as a whole. The Spanish conquistadors came to the Americas for conquest and conversion, similar to the crusades of the 13th and 14th centuries, supported by a belief that the indigenous people must be converted to Christianity. Juan was influenced by the Franciscans who had translated scripture into the Aztec language, and one day on his way to Mass a vision spoke to him asking for a church to be built on a hill. The miracle of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe caused Bishop Zumarraga to begin building within 2 weeks. The traditional European image of Mother Mary appeared as an indigenous person, and encouraged the rapid acceptance of Christianity throughout Latin America.

8) The Mathematician
Blaise Pascal was a famous scientist in the great age of reason, referred to as "The Enlightenment". But he was also devoted to a movement in the Catholic Church which, though eventually condemned, had a long and controversial impact on Catholic spirituality. During this period, Christianity was breaking up along national boundaries; France was mostly Catholic, Germany was mostly Lutheran, etc. Pascal himself underwent a personal conversion and became involved in the Jansenism movement, which emphasized predestination, denied  free will, and maintained that human nature is incapable of good. Jansenism was condemned as heretical, and because t
he enlightenment was seen to be encouraging the idea that "I think, therefor I am", the Church feared that reason was becoming the basis for existence. As a result, the Church assumed the dangerous position by resisting reason.

9) Wife, Mother, Widow, Nun
Elizabeth Ann Seton was all of these and represents Catholicism in a new age and country. A convert from the Church of England, she moved to Baltimore after her husband died, where she helped found the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. They started a community to educate children and this model became the template for Catholic schools throughout the nation. It has also greatly influenced the development of Catholic parochial education to this day.

10) The Journalist and the Activist
Two of the greatest leaders of ministry in the American Catholic Church were Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Dorothy Day. Both had an extensive impact on Catholic life: Sheen as a master of the media, radio and then television, and Day as a powerful advocate for the poor, homeless, and those without a voice. He took Catholicism from radio to Television, exploiting the developing technology of his time, and she was a social activist, writer, and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Isn't it sad?

Isn't it sad how you can forward a thousand jokes through e-mail that spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about passing them on? Isn't it sad that it is so easy to delete a Godly e-mail and yet forward all the others? Isn't it sad how when you do forward an email regarding the Lord, you do not send it to your entire address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it to them? Isn't it sad how you can be more worried about what other people think of you than about what God thinks of you?

This kind of thinking has caused a lot of the problems in our world today. So many people try to meet God in church on Sunday mornings; and maybe Sunday night and the occasional midweek service. Those same people want to keep God near during sickness and at funerals but don't have time or room for Him during work or play; because that's the part of their lives they think they can and should handle on their own.

Isn't it sad how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world is going to hell? Isn't it sad how someone can say "I believe in God" but still follow Satan (who by the way also 'believes' in God)? Isn't it sad that it is so hard to tell the truth and yet so easy to tell a lie? Isn't it sad that some people can be so sleepy in church and yet suddenly awake when the sermon is over? Isn't it sad that we find it so difficult to tell the people we love and the people we meet about what God has done in our lives?

May God forgive us for thinking that there is a time or place where He is not first in our lives. We should always have time to remember all He has done for us, and is doing for us at this very moment. Jesus said, "If you are ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of you before my Father." Don't be ashamed! He is our source of existence and our Savior, and He keeps us functioning each and every day. Without Him we would be nothing, but with him we are strengthened. Of all the free gifts we have received, prayer is one of the best; use it! Prayer doesn't come with costs, only rewards, so if you Love God and are not ashamed of all the marvelous things He has done for you, tell God in prayer, and then tell someone else.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Church History - Class 1

Tonight the instructor began by saying that history is not a study of the past, but is an interpretation of the past. He also pointed out the difficulty of teaching 2000 years of history in 4 hours. To provide us with a historical perspective on the history of vocation and ministry in the Catholic Church, he decided to present 10 turning points and persons in the history of lay ministry.

1) The Emperor
Constantine was the first Christian Emperor whose reign marked a profound change in the early story of Christianity. The church was both helped and hindered by the emperor's close involvement, but in either case it would never be the same again. This was a period of rapid and dynamic change in the church. Preceding a battle with local city states, Constantine had a vision of a cross accompanied by the words, "By this sign you shall conquer". He wasn't a Christian, although he had Christians on his advisory teams and recognized that Christianity could bring stability to his empire. He legalized all religions, including Christianity, and returned property using earlier records of persecution. This was a quantum leap forward for Christianity. He was very committed to knowing what was happening in the church, and his involvement in the Council of Trent impacted it's direction and results. Uniformity developed as Christianity began to be accepted and encouraged growing uniformity. Although Christianity was advanced significantly, where it might have gone without this influence is unknown.

2) The Desert Mothers and Fathers
The Desert Mothers (Ammas) and their male counterparts, the Desert Fathers (Abbas), left the distractions of everyday life in order to retreat to the desert for solitude, silence, and prayer. Their intention was to "be alone with God", but they often formed small, loosely-knit communities for common prayer and mutual guidance. Their movement marked the beginnings of Christian religious life and their contemplative prayer had a great impact on the history of Catholic spirituality. As Christianity became more accepted and uniform, people began to ask "how do you live a life of radical faith" which had been the model of Christian life under persecution. They're answer was a retreat to isolation, the desert life, and to give up the comforts, beauty, noise, and distractions of the big cities. Out of this developed the religious life of monastic communities, with their constant desire for meditation, prayer, and worship.

3) The Pope
Pope Innocent III is considered the most powerful of medieval popes, but much of his greatness had to do with an authority based on integrity and wisdom. A lawyer by training (both civil and canon), he represents a new standard in the ministry of St. Peter. He was a devoted pastor and did much to shape parish identities, in clergy and parishioners, for centuries to come. During this period scholarship became important, and education shifted back from the monastic communities to the Cathedrals. This shift back to the cities provided a different emphasis on education, such as current affairs and diversity of ideas. It was a boom time of relative prosperity, and a period of peace. Although these new ideas challenged orthodoxy, resulting in another council, they also resulted in a response to the poor within the cities, and a raising of the expectations and standards for the education of parish priests.

4) The Laywoman
From the early 13th century, groups of lay women (mostly in the cities) began to form communities without vows for the sake of a common life, prayer and various apostolates. Like so many other groups before and after them, they sought to live "as the disciples lived" in their own time and place. A male version of this non-vowed model of religious life, the Beghards, flourished at roughly the same time, the late Middle Ages. Vocations in life happen in non-programmed ways, and for these women, the Begheens, vacations were born when their spiritual desires met a challenge, educating women and children and providing medical aid and service. Unfortunately, other more radical non-Christian groups of women called themselves Begheens as well. Although eventually suppressed, dedicated lay women re-emerged as educators.

5) The Teacher
St. Thomas Aquinas is considered the greatest mind of the Christian Middle Ages and represented the human desire to join reason with faith in order to more fully explore the vast mystery of the Devine. As a child he was sent to St. Benedicts Abby, but he wanted to be a Dominican and went to Paris for school, where his instructor, St. Albert "the Great" introduced him to Aristotle. St Thomas tried to understand "how such a brilliant mind could not know God" and this led him to explore three schools of thought about faith and reason. As a member of a young religious community, the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), St.  Thomas was a profound intellectual. He began writing Summae Theologiae (The Summary of all Theology) but it was never completed. One day half way through a lecture he suddenly stopped later claiming that "all he had done was like wind and straw". He ended his life crossing into the mystic realm of contemplation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mrs. Doubtfire

In my Parish we have a person who would insist that she is Catholic, although we find some of her ideas to be ... different. For instance, she is in love with a local Presbyterian church and insists that everyone should be attending this church "to find out what we're missing". She also tends to see things from the fringes, doesn't agree with Catholic teaching on a lot of issues, and would prefer to be free of the Pope. She feels that everyone else is missing something important, and needless to say she tends to be outspoken, although luckily not disruptive.

She quite often attends events in the Parish like the Spirituality Tuesday evenings, and her comments and questions tend to be off topic and predictable. Her favorite question is, "Don't you ever have doubts?” referring to some aspect of the speakers subject. In the past the speaker would attempt to satisfy her with a quick answer, while the rest of us remained quiet hoping to move on to something more interesting. I think most of us hoped that (over time) these quick answers would help her to move on too, but since they haven't we've begun a silent campaign to reinforce a more Catholic perspective.

For instance, the other night when she asked if the speaker ever had doubts, quite a few of us had something positive to say about the nature of doubt, mentioning that sometimes we can be strengthened by doubt. In another comment she insisted that forgiveness is an unreasonable expectation despite Jesus' suggestion that we turn the other cheek, because after all "we're just human". I pointed out that Jesus was "human" when He said to "turn the other cheek". During the discussion about pride, she insisted that making a donation (even to the church) and not getting public recognition for it in return was an unfair request. We pointed out that if someone donated money for a stained glass window, just so that they could put their name at the bottom of the window, then they did it for the wrong reasons.

Please help me pray for this person, she is obviously troubled by something that is holding her back and I hope that as a group we can help her "move on" in a positive way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Church, Theology, and Culture - Class 4

Jesus didn't come to establish the Church, although He laid the foundation for the Church. In reconciliation, for instance, the community is always involved. As Catholics, we repent to a Priest, and although we all know that repenting to a person is not valid, repenting directly to God is. Even when repenting to a Priest, both are present and hear our confession; the Priest gives us absolution while God gives us forgiveness.

Theology changes as history changes; and if our faith does not change it dies. Good theology is not faithful to time; it interprets things differently in different times. Those who thought they were creating a theology "for all time" didn't understand their place within time. Hindsight is 20/20 but at the time what is happening is confusing to all, it just takes a long time to figure things out. You don't change the "that" of the creed, even though your understanding is different.

The Church as Institution was the dominate model for about four centuries. The mystery of the church was not written about; it was the community, visible, and tangible, and not spirit which was considered to be invisible and intangible. In fact mystery wasn't considered until the 12th century as civil structure was growing stronger. Even though the structural Church was in need of reform, because too much trust was being placed in the visible and tangible, the Mystery of the Church wasn't discussed in its entirety until 1964.

The Mystical Church is the oldest model of the church, the People of God or the Body of Christ. The Church as Sacrament unlocks the mystery of God's grace for us. The Church as Herald is essentially preaching, or the Liturgy of the Word. The Church as Servant although not popular at the beginning of the church, is popular with today's young people; serving God by serving neighbor. The Church as Disciple is also popular with young people, and it is embodied in the community.

People think they can define the Church, but like love, poetry and music, it is difficult to define something that is intangible. As we can see there are many models of church, even though no one model works by itself. These models do however unlock the mystery of the Church. The Church began to become a reality at the time of faith in the resurrection. The Church emerged from the community experience (not from a few isolated individuals) in faith in God through Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is present in the celebration of the Mass and it is the presence of the Spirit that is required for the Sacrament to be valid.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Wooden Bowl

There is a story circulating on the internet called "The Tale of the Wooden Bowl". I like these kinds of stories because although they are very simple and incredibly predictable, they present a glimpse of real life with a valuable message that we should take seriously. The story goes like this;

A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man's hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step was unsure. The family ate together at the table, but the elderly grandfather's shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor, and when he grasped his glass milk spilled on the tablecloth. The son and daughter-in-law were often irritated with the mess, and finally the son said, "We must do something about my father. I've had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and the mess on the floor". So they set a small table in the corner of the room and made the Grandfather eat alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner, and since the Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. Occasionally, when they glanced in the Grandfather's direction, they saw tears in his eyes as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled some food.

The four-year-old watched it all in silence, and one evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, "What are you making", and the boy responded just as sweetly, "Oh, I'm making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when I grow up". Then the four-year-old smiled and went back to work. The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks, and though no word was spoken both knew what must be done. That evening the husband took the Grandfather's hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days he ate every meal with the family, and for some reason no one seemed to care when a fork was dropped, or the milk was spilled, or the tablecloth was soiled.

This is a story about elder abuse, and it is a story about how children learn, and it's a story about how adults learn; but for me, it's a story about the importance of something as simple as the Golden Rule. Why is it that people become so tied up in their everyday activities and so focused on their own needs that they detach themselves from the people and needs around them? Pause; take a moment to unload the burden of selfishness and think about what you are about to say and do! Slow down; whatever it is that is happening around you, that you wish wasn't happening, is more important than you could possibly imagine. You and I, and everyone around us, must make an effort to follow Jesus' example, because life is hard and then you die. What we do to help each other is ultimately how we will be remembered, and how we will be judged.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Dear friends in Christ, let us ask our Father to bless these ashes which we will use as the mark of our repentance.

In Joel 2:12-18, the prophet points to the fact that "works" of penance, if not related to that inner conversion to God in love, are worthless. "Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God." Whatever has happened in the past, God is merciful and willing to forgive; "A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me."

In 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 the Apostle Paul insists on conversion now! "God made him (Jesus) who did not know sin to be sin", meaning Jesus became the Lamb of God who took away our sins. Forgiveness is available, ask for it now!

In the Gospel of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 Matthew reinforces Joel's message. External works of penance have no value in themselves; you must relate them to the real penance, your conversion to God. The danger of hypocrisy is always present during this season and throughout the year, so what you give up for Lent is between you and the Lord. It is enough that your heavenly Father sees it and you relate it to a constant conversion to love.

Lord, bless the sinner who asks for your forgiveness and bless all those who receive these ashes. May they keep this Lenten season in preparation for the joy of Easter. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Ethnic Cultures - All day class

What we see as culture is really a shared understanding of symbols, beliefs, values, and behaviors. Culture is formed by transitions within society through the influence of the people and media, and those transitions, like when we moved from an agrarian to an industrial society, have influenced the United States. Sociology was born when people began to ask questions like, "What hold us together as a common people", and "What is the nature of our relationships". In the agrarian age everyone was very similar to their neighbors, in work, values, and religion. Everyone was interdependent. In the industrial age dense populations, family dispersal, and specialization began to have a greater influence. Everyone remained dependent on each other, although in a different way.

The fear of society’s failure in the "new age" didn't pan out because interdependence kept people connected, which might be called "organic solidarity". Relationships were a little more formal but relationships still dominated, and sometimes they developed into friendships; rationality still promoted fairness. The post industrial age is full of faceless interactions, virtual connections, hyper specialization, and isolation, but as people have become separated they have developed technological solutions like Facebook to enable and maintain friendships. For instance today's students, unlike previous generations, are very connected with their parents communicating daily via high tech smart devices.

Parish life has also changed. Although people are there to worship they don't necessarily come together as the "Body of Christ". Kinship is missing in the relationship because personal relationships have not been created. Stories are important to keep connections alive, but anti-historical prejudice within some cultures makes this more difficult. The United States became white through immigration limits, the post war economic boom, neighborhood desegregation, and intermarriage, but a Parish makeup is not static and the pastoral responsibility must also change to keep up.

For instance one student commented that the Black population within the Catholic Church (in 2007) was only about 2% and that it will be changing dramatically in the near future. In his Nigerian community there are about 10K Catholics in Los Angeles and Nigerian’s are very devout Catholics. The Black population in Santa Clara County is currently lower than other local counties, but as it grows the church will continue to experience changes. Sometimes the changes are due to real differences, and sometimes the changes are due to perceptions about the differences. Another student commented that what one generation tolerates, the next generation embraces. The instructor pointed out that the church must not change its teaching but it must respond to cultural changes.

We participated in an exercise about values. In the first column I listed my personal values as honesty, loyalty, friendship, love, support, thoughtfulness, respect, love of God, effort, willingness to try, responsibility, generosity, and tolerance. In the second column I listed the values of the Catholic Church as love of God, tolerance, responsibility, love of others, sharing, respect, generosity, understanding, helpfulness, community, forgiveness, and freedom. Then during the discussion I added others such as devotion, salvation, piety, charity, sacrament, stewardship, blessing, denial, education, tradition, connections, healing, justice, prayer, reason, thankfulness, life, and diversity. I listed the US values as competition, success, growth, dominance, power, freedom, individualism, technology, democracy, and truth.

In the last column I listed some of the differences between in the values of the Catholic Church and United States. Primarily I felt that the concept of freedom within the Catholic Church is considerably different than the idea of freedom in the United States. There are also others (many I imagine) such as dominance vs tolerance, God vs "the almighty" dollar, relative truth vs natural truth, and instant gratification vs patience.

Ethnocentrism, the judging of another culture based on your own cultural values was contrasted with cultural relativism, which is the judging of another culture based on their cultural values. Assimilation results from multi generational households, intermarriage, and adoption of local language and customs. Subcultures coexist if the dominate cultural values are shared, and it sometimes results in something referred to as a bonding culture. Counter cultures develop if the dominate cultural values are not shared, which sometimes results in something referred to as a bridging culture. In this case the values that are not shared are at least accepted and understood. Cultural refresh can result when a new wave immigrants come into an existing community that has begun the process of assimilation.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Church, Theology, and Culture - Class 3

Tonight’s lecture was about myth, symbols, and the theology of sacrament. Symbols are signs that are visible and tangible that also point to some reality, but they are more than simple signs, like EXIT or STOP, because they also participate in the reality to which they point. A ring on a finger is often the symbol of marriage and it points to another person. Symbols have power like words have power, and in fact words can be symbols. Christ as Sacrament precedes our understanding of Church as Sacrament. The handbook called Enchiridion Symbolism is the Church's notebook of symbols. It is a very complete list of statements that embody faith but are not equal to faith. Symbols move us through levels of reality, like gifts or poems or music. There are universal symbols like jewelry, circles, and blue jeans, and religious symbols, like the cross, or bells, or incense.

Symbols come from a collective subconscious, and they grow and die naturally; they cannot be legislated. For instance even though Latin was not in general use people were upset when our liturgy was "switched" to the vernacular. Even when symbols change form they maintain their power, and although they both reveal and conceal, balance is critical. Symbols embody signs at one extreme and reality at the other. When signs and reality come too close together it results it idolatry. The signs and reality of symbols must not be too far apart either, because that results in emptiness. Teachings evolve and change the same as symbols evolve and change. The Eucharist is a symbol and a sacrament, because in some cases sacrament and symbol are almost interchangeable.

Calvin was unable to find the presence of God in and through ritual, which is why he said, "The finite cannot embody the infinite". Obviously, myth is not equal to fairy tale; it is a story line that points to some reality beyond itself while participating in that reality. Myth must be broken through (not destroyed) like opening a window, because it must be opened for understanding. A symbol embodies signs that point us to a reality which in turn points us back to the signs. Just as the the story points us to meaning and the meaning points us back to the story, myth points us to meaning which in turn points us back to the myth. Breaking open the myth leads to an understanding of the meaning of the myth, and in turn it deepens the power of the myth such that more of the story is revealed.

Catholics should not be anxious about the Protestant movement. Luther wasn't trying to create a new church, he was trying to improve his (our) church. The very real danger seen by Martin Luther was taking visible signs of the infinite and equating them as equal with the infinite. Because the Catholic Church didn't respond ... appropriately ... others like Calvin moved beyond Luther which has resulted in the disconnected Church we see today. Catholics still make God present through community and through symbols that are visible, tangible, signs (called Catholic substance) that point to a deeper relationship with God. The Protestant Principle is "Only God is God". For instance the Bible is the Word of God and signs are symbols of God's presence but they are not God. We agree with and accept the Protestant Principle that nothing finite must be made infinite. The most important myth that should be broken to be understood, is theology, as we endeavor to understand where we come from (Protology) and where we are going to (Eschatology).

Obviously some things are not myth, such as things that do not have meaning for our lives. Myths are something we participate in and science is something we understand. Originally myths were self contained, like the idea that the world was flat. The discovery of the Americas proved the world was round but presented a problem, because the New World was "in the way" of trade. As the flat earth myth was broken a new deeper understanding of the world developed. Unfortunately, the theology of some like Calvin condemned all of the new world inhabitants as lost sinners, while Catholic theology didn't believe that God would condemn the inhabitants of the New World.

Myths that are strongly set up become paradigms, but nevertheless, myths are always evolving and changing which might be referred to as a continued loss of innocence. Just like discovering that there is no Santa Claus, the myth is only deepened as we discover the true nature of Santa Claus. This is true of Anselm's Satisfaction Theory as well, which was the Catholic teaching that the cross saved us from our sins because it satisfied God's sense of judgment for sin. It had to change because it does not make sense of our belief in God, and it has done more harm than good over the years. Biblical stories like the Prodigal Son do not support the Theory of Satisfaction, and in breaking that myth our understanding of who God is has deepened. We know that God loves us and is waiting for us.

We cannot live without myth, and it's important to realize that we can only understand the myth if we don't reject it. Myth is not equal to untruth, "The empirical scientific verifiable truth of the myth is immaterial to the meaning the myth is trying to portray." Jesus was breaking myths when he said, "It's not what goes into your mouth but what comes out of it", and when He said, "I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it". An example of a myth that I don't accept is, "We no longer have any need for myth because now we have science and knowledge". An example of a myth that I do accept is, "God acted in Jesus' life in such a way that it has meaning for my life". My life has meaning because Jesus is within.