oxymorons and the science of being human

2020 is turning out to be the Year of the Oxymoron:

Flattening the Curve.
Social Distancing.
The New Normal.
Fake News.
Social Media.
Supreme Court Justice.
Artificial Intelligence.
Political Discourse.

If I were a Hollywood studio exec, I’d say this would be the time to re-release Romancing the Stone.

But in all seriosity: One oxymoron in particular deserves our attention.

We asked people to engage in disengagement, coining the oxymoronic phrase social distancing.

The compliance has been remarkable.

I’m not sure why we are surprised by the destruction of other people’s property, violent speech, and other threatening and egocentric behaviors.

Most of the appeals to science were appeals to technology, and very little attention was paid to the science of human behavior. We are social creatures, and we were being asked to violate our nature in the pursuit of some greater good (putting aside the question of whether science suggested that the good in question was achievable or even beneficial). I’m not sure why we expected that to come off without some serious repercussions.

To quote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I know there were appeals to altruism in the lockdown (“do it for your neighbor” or “we’re all in this together” or even “you’re not pro-life if you don’t comply”). Instead of appealing to people’s reason, however, or their better instincts, in many situations a play was made to activate a sense of shame in those who asked for a rational discussion. I think that’s a trend that, if not put in check, does not bode well for the future of social change.

“There is a great temptation to say, ‘But there is so much suffering in the world! — let’s suspend the question of truth for a while. First let’s get on with the great social tasks of liberation; then, one day, we will indulge in the luxury of the question of truth.’ In fact, however, if we postpone the question of truth and declare it to be unimportant, we are emasculating man, depriving him of the very core of his human dignity. If there is no truth, everything is a matter of indifference. Then social order swiftly becomes compulsion, and participation becomes violation.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One)

 

Saint John Vianney and the priest today

CureDArsOn the memorial of St. John Mary Vianney, patron saint of priests, I’ve decided to pull a few passages from a letter to priests that was published by Pope Saint John Paul II on Holy Thursday of 1986. In this letter, the Pope reflected on the Curé D’ Ars and the value of his example for priests today.

The depth of his love for Christ and for souls

The Cure of Ars is a model of priestly zeal for all pastors. The secret of his generosity is to be found without doubt in his love for God, lived without limits, in constant response to the love made manifest in Christ crucified. This is where he bases his desire to do everything to save the souls ransomed by Christ at such a great price, and to bring them back to the love of God. Let us recall one of those pithy sayings which he had the knack of uttering: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.” In his sermons and catechesis he continually returned to that love: “O my God, I prefer to die loving you than to live a single instant without loving you… I love you, my divine Savior, because you were crucified for us… because you have me crucified for you.” For the sake of Christ, he seeks to conform himself exactly to the radical demands that Jesus in the Gospels puts before the disciples whom he sends out: prayer, poverty, humility, self-denial, voluntary penance. And, like Christ, he has a love for his flock that leads him to extreme pastoral commitment and self-sacrifice. Rarely has a pastor been so acutely aware of his responsibilities, so consumed by a desire to wrest his people from the sins of their lukewarmness. “O my God, grant me the conversion of my parish: I consent to suffer whatever you wish, for as long as I live.” Dear brother priests, nourished by the Second Vatican Council which has felicitously placed the priest’s consecration within the framework of his pastoral mission, let us join Saint John Mary Vianney and seek the dynamism of our pastoral zeal in the Heart of Jesus, in his love for souls. If we do not draw from the same source, our ministry risks bearing little fruit!

The specific ministry of the priest

Saint John Mary Vianney gives an eloquent answer to certain questionings of the priest’s identity, which have manifested themselves in the course of the last twenty years; in fact it seems that today a more balanced position is being reached. The priest always, and in an unchangeable way, finds the source of his identity in Christ the Priest. It is not the world which determines his status, as though it depended on changing needs or ideas about social roles. The priest is marked with the seal of the Priesthood of Christ, in order to share in his function as the one Mediator and Redeemer. So, because of this fundamental bond, there opens before the priest the immense field of the service of souls, for their salvation in Christ and in the Church. This service must be completely inspired by love of souls in imitation of Christ who gives his life for them. It is God’s wish that all people should be saved, and that none of the little ones should be lost (cf. Mt 18:14). “The priest must always be ready to respond to the needs of souls,” said the Cure of Ars. “He is not for himself, he is for you.” The priest is for the laity: he animates them and supports them in the exercise of the common priesthood of the baptized—so well illustrated by the Second Vatican Council—which consists in their making their lives a spiritual offering, in witnessing to the Christian spirit in the family, in taking charge of the temporal sphere and sharing in the evangelization of their brethren. But the service of the priest belongs to another order. He is ordained to act in the name of Christ the Head, to bring people into the new life made accessible by Christ, to dispense to them the mysteries—the Word, forgiveness, the Bread of Life—to gather them into his body, to help them to form themselves from within, to live and to act according to the saving plan of God. In a word, our identity as priests is manifested in the “creative” exercise of the love for souls communicated by Christ Jesus. Attempts to make the priest more like the laity are damaging to the Church. This does not mean in any way that the priest can remain remote from the human concerns of the laity: he must be very near to them, as John Mary Vianney was, but as a priest, always in a perspective which is that of their salvation and of the progress of the Kingdom of God. He is the witness and the dispenser of a life other than earthly life (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 3). It is essential to the Church that the identity of the priest be safeguarded, with its vertical dimension. The life and personality of the Cure of Ars are a particularly enlightening and vigorous illustration of this.

His intimate configuration to Christ and his solidarity with sinners

Saint John Mary Vianney did not content himself with the ritual carrying out of the activities of his ministry. It was his heart and his life which he sought to conform to Christ. Prayer was the soul of his life: silent and contemplative prayer, generally in his church at the foot of the tabernacle. Through Christ, his soul opened to the three divine Persons, to whom he would entrust “his poor soul” in his last will and testament. “He kept a constant union with God in the middle of an extremely busy life.” And he did not neglect the office or the rosary. He turned spontaneously to the Virgin. His poverty was extraordinary. He literally stripped himself of everything for the poor. And he shunned honors. Chastity shone in his face. He knew the value of purity in order “to rediscover the source of love which is God.” Obedience to Christ consisted, for John Mary Vianney, in obedience to the Church and especially to the Bishop. This obedience took the form of accepting the heavy charge of being a parish priest, which often frightened him. But the Gospel insists especially on renouncing self, on accepting the Cross. Many were the crosses which presented themselves to the Cure of Ars in the course of his ministry: calumny on the part of the people, being misunderstood by an assistant priest or other confreres, contradictions, and also a mysterious struggle against the powers of hell, and sometimes even the temptation to despair in the midst of spiritual darkness. Nonetheless he did not content himself with just accepting these trials without complaining; he went beyond them by mortification, imposing on himself continual fasts and many other rugged practices in order to “reduce his body to servitude,” as Saint Paul says. But what we must see clearly in this penance, which our age unhappily has little taste for, are his motives: love of God and the conversion of sinners. Thus he asks a discouraged fellow priest: “You have prayed…, you have wept…, but have you fasted, have you kept vigil…?” Here we are close to the warning Jesus gave to the Apostles: “But this kind is cast out only by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21). In a word, John Mary Vianney sanctified himself so as to be more able to sanctify others. Of course, conversion remains the secret of hearts, which are free in their actions, and the secret of God’s grace. By his ministry, the priest can only enlighten people, guide them in the internal forum and give them the sacraments. The sacraments are of course actions of Christ, and their effectiveness is not diminished by the imperfection or unworthiness of the minister. But the results depend also on the dispositions of those who receive them, and these are greatly assisted by the personal holiness of the priest, by his perceptible witness, as also by the mysterious exchange of merits in the Communion of Saints. Saint Paul said: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). John Mary Vianney in a sense wished to force God to grant these graces of conversion, not only by his prayer but by the sacrifice of his whole life. He wished to love God for those who did not love him, and even to do the penance which they would not do. He was truly a pastor completely at one with his sinful people. Dear brother priests, let us not be afraid of this very personal commitment—marked by asceticism and inspired by love—which God asks of us for the proper exercise of our Priesthood. Let us remember the recent reflections of the Synodal Fathers: “It seems to us that in the difficulties of today God wishes to teach us more deeply the value, importance and central place of the Cross of Jesus Christ.” In the priest, Christ relives his Passion, for the sake of souls. Let us give thanks to God who thus permits us to share in the Redemption, in our hearts and in our flesh! For all these reasons, Saint John Mary Vianney never ceases to be a witness, ever living, ever relevant, to the truth about the priestly vocation and service. We recall the convincing way in which he spoke of the greatness of the priest and of the absolute need for him. Those who are already priests, those who are preparing for the Priesthood and those who will be called to it must fix their eyes on his example and follow it. The faithful too will more clearly grasp, thanks to him, the mystery of the Priesthood of their priests. No, the figure of the Cure of Ars does not fade.

(from the Letter of Pope John Paul II To All the Priests of the Church for Holy Thursday 1986)

See also:

Letter of Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests – June 16, 2009

Encyclical Letter of Pope John XXIII on Saint John Vianney – August 1, 1959

podcast episode 2: the meaning of communion

Screen Shot 2020-06-20 at 3.06.30 PMreceiving_communionOne of the hot-button issues of our time is: Should Holy Communion be given to political candidates who publicly favor abortion? Many Catholic Americans have a tendency to frame this question in a merely legal or disciplinary way. Very few seem to ask the sacramental and theological question: What does receiving the Eucharist express? Once I frame the question in this way, I can hardly say that the Bible is silent on the matter. Saint Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 11. And I think the tradition is clear that receiving Communion expresses a communion with Christ and with his Bodya union of heart and mind on essential matters.

When a Catholic serving in public office clearly opposes the Church’s teaching, he makes himself incapable of receiving the Eucharist for what it isa life-giving union with Christ’s body, a giving and a receiving that one participates in without reserve. For such a Catholic, receiving the Eucharist could be considered a kind of spiritual contraception. He engages in the act without intending to express the very meaning of the act. In effect, he uses Christ’s Body rather than receiving that Body for all that it is.

It’s common knowledge that those who reject the Church’s teaching authority often do so as a result of the Church’s teaching about artificial contraception. It seems to me that this is no accident. Contraception is an act by which we give ourselves permission not to respect the other, but instead to use the other in the service of our own interests. It might be a mutually agreed-upon use of each other, but it is use nonetheless. When we contracept in married life, holding back our fertility or rejecting the fertility of our spouse, it damages marital communion, because it interferes with our vocation to be a gift to our spouse and to receive our spouse as a gift in all the dimensions of their being. And when we engage in spiritual contraception by receiving Communion unworthily, holding back our assent to the deposit of faith preserved by the Church, it damages our communion with Christ’s body. We begin to relate to the Church simply in terms of how She might benefit us, and we cease to pay attention to how we might serve Her.

A public servant who is Catholic is just thata servant. It’s a noble calling and a beautiful witness when lived authentically. The more deeply I come to appreciate the faith, the more I recognize that the service of the common good is sustained and nourished by a vibrant Catholic faith. It is the Church who fosters the awareness that in every person we discover an image of Christ, that Christ gave His very life for every human being, and that we are called to revere every life even when it costs us dearly to do so. We must not cease to remind ourselves that our leader in the faith sacrificed His very life for the well-being and redemption of every human life.

Our true adherence to the Church does not make us partisan in our attitudes, as though we had joined some club which only respects its own members. Rather, our life in the heart of the Church opens our heart to every human person, regardless of creed, ethnicity or any other distinguishing characteristic.

To be Catholic is to love and to defend humanity as such: Children on either side of the birth canal are truly human. The lives of our African-American brothers and sisters are truly human. The lives of undocumented immigrants are truly human, as are the lives of displaced Uighur Muslims in China. The lives of forgotten elderly and the homeless in our own neighborhoods are truly human. The lives of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are truly human. The disabled in mind and body are truly human. The lives of our enemies and those with whom we engage on Facebook are truly human. Rioters are truly human, as are police and politicians and drug lords and money launderers. And our own life also is truly human, in all of its beauty and its brokenness.

Failing to see the humanity and the dignity of other people diminishes our own humanity, because it robs us of the beauty both of being a gift to others and of receiving others as gift. A kind of blindness can set in.

The gift of the Eucharist can help restore our vision as it is a sacrament not only of communion with God, but also of communion with our neighbor. Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the interplay of the two dimensions of communion eloquently in his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est. Here’s an extended passage from that letter:

Love of neighbor… in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus… consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave. Here we see the necessary interplay between love of God and love of neighbor which the First Letter of John speaks of with such insistence. If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper,” but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Part of the miracle of the Eucharist, when I consider it personally, is the astonishing fact that it reveals that even I have been invited into the embrace of the love that made the universe. Who am I to receive such a gift? And who am I to hesitate even a moment in desiring to share that unmerited gift with others?

C.S. Lewis says it succinctly in the final words of his essay The Weight of Glory:

…It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Before this great mystery, let all mortal flesh keep silence.

Pentecost

Jesus said: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

The truth which makes us free is Christ, because only he can respond fully to the thirst for life and love that is present in the human heart.

Those who have encountered him and have enthusiastically welcomed his message experience the irrepressible desire to share and communicate this truth.

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to raise up courageous communicators and authentic witnesses to the truth, faithful to Christ’s mandate and enthusiastic for the message of the faith, communicators who will “interpret modern cultural needs, committing themselves to approaching the communications age not as a time of alienation and confusion, but as a valuable time for the quest for the truth and for developing communion between persons and peoples” (John Paul II, Address to the Conference for those working in Communications and Culture, 9 November 2002).

Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI for the 42nd World Communications Day (Sunday, May 4, 2008)

the message of Fatima

FatimaOn May 13, 1917, Mary appeared to three shepherd children in the hills of Fatima, Portugal.

I had the chance to be in Fatima for the 75th anniversary of the apparitions, in 1992. (It was also the 11th anniversary of the assassination attempt on the life of Pope Saint John Paul II).

It was an amazing week. I was digging through my photo albums a while ago, and it gave me the idea of blogging about my overseas travel adventures: the semester I spent in Austria back in 1992, the summer I spent in England in 1993, and the travels in Europe and Israel during my seminary studies in the fall of 1996.

Fatima, Portugal

Today I’m posting a link to the document about Fatima published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the year 2000. It includes several elements about the secrets of Fatima and their interpretation. The theological commentary – which has a great discussion of the proper understanding of private versus public revelation – was written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Here’s a teaser from the end of his analysis:

What is the meaning of the “secret” of Fatima as a whole (in its three parts)? What does it say to us? First of all we must affirm with Cardinal Sodano: “… the events to which the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fatima refers now seem part of the past”. Insofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity. What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the “secret”: the exhortation to prayer as the path of “salvation for souls” and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.

I would like finally to mention another key expression of the “secret” which has become justly famous: “my Immaculate Heart will triumph”. What does this mean? The Heart open to God, purified by contemplation of God, is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind. The fiat of Mary, the word of her heart, has changed the history of the world, because it brought the Saviour into the world—because, thanks to her Yes, God could become man in our world and remains so for all time. The Evil One has power in this world, as we see and experience continually; he has power because our freedom continually lets itself be led away from God. But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word. From that time forth, the word that prevails is this: “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The message of Fatima invites us to trust in this promise.