Thursday, January 19, 2017

actions speak more clearly than words

[Geoff explained difficulties trusting some of the teaching and implementation of Vatican II. I respond at length. Mid conversation ...]

Geoff: the Assisi incident made an impact on you. Truth is, I don’t know anything about it, at all. If you want to send a link or something, I’ll read about it. But off the top of my head, I can’t respond intelligently, although the incident was important to you.

I’d like to describe three incidents, and I’d be interested in your reactions.

The first was decades ago, and involved a gradual change over a couple of years. I read Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Edmund Campion, and was deeply impressed. A detail: when he left his 15-year stint teaching philosophy and rode toward his new assignment in England, the average life expectancy of Catholic priests in England was six weeks. He rode from Prague happily, and was a delight to travel with, his companions said. But also, they said, he dropped back from the group to ride alone to pray the Office with great care. His tranquility and his prayer were linked.

Well, I loved that, and I set out to learn to pray as he prayed. I learned my way around in the old breviary, and brushed up my Latin so I could make my way through the psalms, and visited a monastery to learn psalm tones. But after a year or so, I came to the conclusion that the Latin and the Gregorian chant were eye-opening and glorious, but were nonetheless a distraction. I wanted to focus on the psalms. So I switched to English, with Latin as a backup when I wanted additional insight or clarity. English was my own language, and I wanted to get at the meaning without distraction.

When I switched to English, I read a lot faster, and then read a lot more, and then read the whole Bible … and then made friends with many Protestants who also loved Scripture.

I’ve skipped a lot. But the point is, what brought me into a relationship of love and respect with many Protestants began with a serious effort to follow the path of Edmund Campion, a Counter-Reformation martyr. On the surface, it might seem that where I started and where I ended were diametrically opposed. But I think that times have changed, and the Spirit blows. I am pretty confident that Campion would (did, does) understand and approve. I think he led, and I followed. Catholics and Protestants belong together, not at each other’s throats. The war is over. I am a Catholic, not a Protestant; but the war is over. We have disagreements, but we are brothers and sisters, and the war is over. We are still arguing, like siblings, but we are keenly aware that we agree far more than we disagree. The war is over.

Second. I learned a great deal from a Reformed Presbyterian minister, a genuine Calvinist, who admired Cotton Mather. We had a wonderful discussion one afternoon about idolatry, struggling to understand each other’s views on Mary and on the Bible. He worried that I was worshipping Mary. I said that I thought my relationship with Mary was very much like his relationship with the Bible. Did he worship the Bible? From the outside, it certainly appeared that he was he was confused about the fullness of revelation: is “the Word” Jesus, or is “the Word” a fat book with a black cover? From the outside, he seemed confused; but having gotten to know him, I understood tranquilly that Scripture led him directly to Jesus, and he wasn’t confused or idolatrous. Could he see that a relationship with Mary did the same for me? I’m not confused; I know who she is and who she isn’t; and she has led me to know her son. I do see and understand that from the outside, a relationship on Mary can sometimes look confusing, but let me explain … [extended conversation].

The conversation was enormously fruitful. Because we trusted each other, we got past superficial errors, and got to the heart of the two questions. And we ended convinced: I was not involved in Mariolatry, and he was not involved in bibliolatry.

Third. Much tougher. I attended a conference on bioethics one year. It was a prestigious international conference, with lots of big names. Both major strands of bioethics were represented: (1) bioethics as an ethical system designed to protect the interests of the bios, of Mother Nature (that is, population control); and (2) bioethics as a secular approach to ethical questions about life issues (that is, a search for “neutral” language about abortion and euthanasia and cloning and such). I came as a fierce critic, an outsider, ready to argue. I thought then (and think now) that bioethics often functions as the priesthood of eugenics.

One conferee was a long-haired gentleman who worked in India. He brought four women from Indian villages (who were dressed in saris, and the four of them increased the color and beauty of the conference dramatically). I spoke with them a bit, and at one point I expressed a worry and a caution. I said (approximately, condensing) that the conference was full of intelligent leaders, but I hoped they would not be too impressed; I hoped they would not equate intelligence and sophistication with atheism. One of them lit up, and hastened to re-assure me. Yes, she said, we understand your concern! That’s why we brought our gods with us. Then she reached in her bag and pulled out a small jade elephant. I was totally unprepared for that. Not many of my friends have their gods in their pockets. We laughed and laughed.

Nothing inside me rose up in worry, crying out against paganism and idolatry. At the time, and since, I thought her response was precisely on target (almost precisely). But wait: wasn’t she openly explicitly obviously manifestly idolatrous? No alarm bells went off inside me; why not? Am I stupid, jaded, careless, privately idolatrous? I think not. (But of course, if I were idolatrous, I wouldn’t think so, would I?)

We didn’t settle down to talk about theology, so I don’t really know what that was all about; and I don’t expect I will ever know (this side of the grave). But I am pretty sure that the way she used a word had nothing whatsoever to do with the way I use the same word. I don’t think that she was confused about the power and majesty of her toy elephant, any more than Catholics are confused about the power of relics and statues. I don’t think she thought she was holding God in her hand; I think she showed me an outward manifestation of a belief, that the Creator knows us and responds to us, and that we should turn our minds toward heaven regardless of what others say.

I think idolatry is real. But I don’t think I saw it there.

I think idolatry is real. I know a man who lives in a gold temple, a shrine. The shrine doesn’t seem to have a clear focus at first; there aren’t any altars or icons or indications of who the god is that the temple was built for. Was it a temple to worship gold, to bow down to money? I think not; I think the gold points – as gold should – toward something else, something or someone worthy of golden worship. After a few disoriented moments, I think, it gets clear that the shrine is built for the exaltation of the owner himself. He is the god in the shrine. I don’t think he worships Mammon, although some people who are smarter than I think he does. He would never claim to be a deity, but I think the temple is an expression of self-worship. I could be wrong, but that was my impression.

Sometimes words communicate ideas, and sometimes they are just in the way. Sometimes you have to shut your ears and open your eyes to understand what’s happening. I don’t think the Indian women were idolaters, despite their words; I do suspect that the rich man was an idolater, despite his silence on the subject.


It seems to me that this periodic weakness of words is key to understanding a fundamental teaching of the Lord. In his description of the Last Judgment, Jesus did not talk about creeds or beliefs; he talked about acts. It seems to me that acts reveal the heart much more clearly and reliably than words, and it seems to me that the Lord said the same. It seems to me that Jesus said: if you serve your neighbor with love, it’s because I prompted you to do so, and you heard my voice inside you and you responded to me. You may or may not know me by name, but you know my voice, and you respond to it. And by contrast: if you know my name, but refuse to respond to my words that I speak in the quiet of your heart, then you won’t serve my people with love; and when you say you know me, you are lying.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

the rupture of Christian hospitality

I have been trying to find a way to understand the extended period of time, several hundred years, when the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church regarding hospitality was defensive and inward-looking.

I see and understand four patterns of hospitality in our history: first a national response in the Old Testament, then (second) a personal response in the New Testament, and then (third) a church response in the Patristic era and Middle Ages – then a gap, a puzzle – and then (fourth) a global response starting with Pope Leo XIII and confirmed by Vatican II.

What happened between the third and the fourth? I am not sure, but I think perhaps I have a handle on it.

The third pattern, from the early Church up through Aquinas and beyond, had an architectural face. Beginning with St. Jerome, monasteries built guest houses to welcome strangers. What most people did about the grave responsibility to welcome strangers was to delegate the responsibility to clerics and monks, especially monks. Aquinas says it’s mortally sinful to neglect the six precepts of the Lord, including the command to welcome strangers; but most people fulfilled that solemn duty without giving it much thought, by supporting monasteries which had a variety of responsibilities. And so, I suspect, caring for strangers was not a significant part of the daily life of most people.

So what happens if monasteries disappear – not totally, but mostly?

I wonder if the interim pattern – for several hundred years ending in 1891 – began with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. I wonder if the wars between Christians taught us (Christians) to regard outsiders with suspicion. Instead of a more or less united Christian society offering the hospitality of a monastic guest house to strangers, we (Christians) became accustomed to the idea that people of a Christian denomination other than our own might be deadly threats. We didn’t have 400 years of constant warfare, but we did have 400 years of tension and suspicion with periodic outbreaks of open warfare.

A detail of this huge split in Christianity was that monasteries were suppressed in many places – particularly in England, but elsewhere as well.  The pattern of offering hospitality through our monasteries was broken – and – key! – was not replaced. To be sure, some personal service continued, but it was limited, and was/is in fact re-named: sheltering the homeless.

One architectural expression of the new pattern of “hospitality”: monastic guest houses disappeared, and Catholics built priest holes to hide fugitives from their Protestant neighbors.

I do not mean to blame a worldwide disruption of Christian thought and practice regarding hospitality on Protestants. There was a split on Christianity, with plenty of wrong on both sides. One un-noticed (as far as I know) casualty of this war was monastic hospitality. And it wasn’t replaced.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation taught Christians to be defensive – even among or perhaps especially among other Christians. That was bad enough. But also, the previous pattern of hospitality was shattered and not replaced – gone, and largely forgotten, for hundreds of years.

Or so I suspect.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Reject Leo, trip on Jesus

When I noticed four years ago that Jesus had spoken with shocking force about the importance of welcoming strangers (do so and meet my Father or don’t and go to hell), I was baffled. Where did that come from? So I spent some months exploring the Old Testament to understand the teaching about welcoming strangers before Jesus.

The Old Testament teaching was another shock: it is abundant, clear, and forceful. To miss the teaching about hospitality, you have to miss or mangle: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, the Prophets, the Babylonian Exile. (See “Sign of the Crossing” and “21 Stranger Claims in the Old Testament,” Amazon or Kindle.) Welcome strangers, because – remember! – you too once were a stranger in a strange land! But a detail: hospitality in the Old Testament was a national responsibility.

If it was so abundant in the Old Testament, where was it in the New? So I returned to the New Testament, with the lessons from the Old Testament fresh in my mind. It’s there and vibrant, and definitely not isolated in Matthew 25: welcome strangers or make you own eternal arrangements. Two slight changes: since the Jews were strangers in their own land, under Roman occupation, Jesus did not talk about “strangers” versus “citizens,” but rather about “neighbors.” And second, he emphasized personal responsibility, rather than national responsibility. (See “The Persistent Other: Strangers and Neighbors,” Amazon or Kindle.)

If hospitality is central in the life and teaching of Abraham, Moses, the Prophets and Jesus, it must show up in the teaching of the Church. Is it there? Indeed! But there is a third pattern of hospitality. In the Old Testament, hospitality was principally a national responsibility, and in the New Testament it was principally a personal responsibility. In the early Church (early and medieval, up to Aquinas), the pattern was principally ecclesial. That is, it was clerics, especially monks, who offered hospitality. And although Aquinas taught clearly that sins of omission regarding the six precepts of the Jesus (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, etc) were mortally sinful, these grave obligations were generally fulfilled by delegation. Most people, most of the time, supported monasteries or parishes, which in turn cared for the needy including strangers.

It is tremendously freeing to see these three patterns. They are not absolute, of course; they overlap. But if there are three patterns, there can be a fourth. Which makes it easy to deal with a common bit of confusion in our time. Today, many good people are certain that caring for the needy (such as strangers) is a matter of personal charity. They assert as if it were Gospel that the State cannot care for the needy properly, that hospitality is a matter for individuals or the church. Additionally, often, the same people make a related assertion, that hospitality is a matter of generosity, not a matter of justice. I think that what is happening here is that people get stuck on the New Testament model, and think that promoting any other model is an attack on the purity of the teaching and example of Jesus.

Wow. I don’t want to argue with Jesus. But the fact is, I don’t have to: Moses and Jesus and St Benedict were all determined to offer hospitality, but they went about it in slightly different ways. I’m not arguing with Jesus when I try to implement his teaching by imitating the practice of Moses or Benedict! Hospitality is a personal and a national and an ecclesial responsibility – all three.

A fourth pattern of response emerged with Pope Leo XIII. He taught that there are some problems (like labor relations) that cannot be understood properly on a personal level, nor within church structures, nor by individual nations. Some problems are caused by global changes, and must be dealt with globally. It is unfortunate that in our time some bureaucrats aiming for a global perspective saw fit to meddle in national or local issues – telling the French how to make cheese, for example. But despite such foolish abuses, it remains true that there are some problems that require a global perspective and a global solution. The issues that can be addressed personally or locally or nationally or globally include: labor relations, international trade, famine, disease, war, poverty, migration, and others.

1.       Old Testament, Moses: national
2.       New Testament, Jesus: personal
3.       early Church, St. Benedict: ecclesial
4.       modern world, Leo XIII and Vatican II: global

A detail of immense importance in a global response to global issues is it demands cooperation with other people – including people of different faiths, different beliefs, different cultures, different ways, including people with whom we may have serious disagreements about many important issues.

Since Leo XIII, and then more assertively since Vatican II spoke about the role of the Church in the Modern world, the Church has seen fit to address the moral dimensions of global issues. But a small group of protesters have claimed that when the Church addresses international issues, the Church is drifting (or galloping) into Socialism and Communism and Satanism.

Here’s an oddity about the people who ereare bound and determined to stick to the personal model. If you have only one model, instead of four (or more), there are tools that you may not be able to use (or even imagine??) And if you reduce the tools that you are ready to use, you are far more likely to find that you face problems you can’t solve. If you stick to a small toolset, what do you do about large issues? You decide to do whatever small thing you can do, and then turn the rest over to God. So pious practices don’t just accompany works of mercy and justice: sometimes, acts of piety replace work for justice. And the oddity goes farther: pious practices, cut loose from their roots in faith, can replace genuine prayerful obedience to the Lord.

Take immigration, for example. If an individual will not cooperate with leftists from Latin America nor Muslims from the Middle East, what he or she can do is reduced. It’s not possible to think about how to help 65 million refugees and displaced persons, if you rely on the charity of a few million people.

So what happens? If you are unaware of the work of Moses and Benedict, and you are determined to follow Jesus in every way (growing a beard and wearing a robe, and serving people one by one ONLY), then you respond to the needs of refugees with personal trivia. You can’t help millions, or even thousands – so don’t try! Do your bit, and pray. (Your bit: the story of the widow’s mite is about giving your heart, not about giving a penny. And praying: the Rosary is not about your determination to persuade a deaf and distant God, but about your determination to listen, like Mary.)

And here’s another oddity. The New Testament approach is based on the story that Jesus told about the Good Samaritan (a stranger, serving another stranger). The heart of that story is, you start by getting inside the experience of the person in need, as well as you can. But if you refuse to deal with global issues, you can’t get inside the experience of a Syrian refugee. If you refuse to use the models and tools of a national approach or an ecclesial approach or a global approach, and you insist on a personal model ONLY, then you will fail promptly with the personal model also. You can’t get into the experience of a Syrian refugee without a global perspective. So you can’t take the first step in the only model you have.

Bottom line. If you say, I will serve the way Jesus did it, one on one, and no other way, then you will fail to help globally and nationally and ecclesially – and personally too. It turns out that if you insist on ignoring Leo’s way, in this century, you can’t do things Jesus’ way.

If you want to imitate the way Jesus talked about the service of the Samaritan on the road to Jericho, then you have to be willing to take the road to Jericho. And Jericho is a Muslim town.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The challenge to understand

Liz Di Nunzio (not a Trump enthusiast) posted a short item yesterday about understanding your opponents; she defended Trump supporters from blanket charges of racism and xenophobia. She is emphatically not a Trump supporter, but is serious about understanding the other side. Understanding: it’s admirable.

I saw a good friend at Mass this morning. Fr. Francis Martin is slip-sliding toward the fullness of the life, and so he’s not celebrating Mass in the morning any more; I went to St. John Neumann. There, I saw Susan Abel, who spends many mornings in front of the Germantown third-trimester abortion clinic. She shared a vignette. There was a woman approaching clinic, with someone already inside doing paperwork for her. She avoided the pro-life counselors outside, stood off by herself. After some tension and hesitation, Susan walked over to about ten feet away from the troubled woman, and said quietly, “I understand the pain of abortion.” The woman came over immediately, talked a bit, and left with her child intact. Understanding saved a life.

Understand. I have chosen to live my life in the crack – the divide, the chasm, the abyss, whatever – between the left and the right. I believe I am supposed to make each side comprehensible to the other. Whoo-ee, am I bad at it! Over four decades of practice, and I’m still a beginner, likely to cause trouble instead of helping anything. I admire Liz and Susan, and try to do the same. Try.

So here’s a scrap of an idea from a failed bridge. This is a scrap from a Catholic pro-lifer, to a Catholic pro-lifer, about the Catholic left.

I think it would be worthwhile to study “social sin.” Most conservatives don’t like the term, but I think it’s indispensable for understanding most of the divisions in American (and Catholic, and global) life.

#1! Permit me to urge you: Start here, with a poem by Pope John Paul II, “The Armaments Factory Worker”:

I cannot influence the fate of the globe.
Do I start wars?  How can I know
whether I’m for or against?
No, I don’t sin.
I only turn screws, weld together
parts of destruction,
never grasping the whole,
or the human lot.

I could do otherwise (would parts be left out?)
contributing then to sanctified toil
which no one would blot out in action
or belie in speech.
Though what I create is not good,
the world’s evil is not of my making.

But is that enough?

Is it “sinful” to make weapons? How can it “sinful” to turn screws? Am I really responsible for the things that go out the door of a factory where I work? The Pope does not answer this question, at least not in this poem. It’s a question, not a thesis. If you wrestle with this question, you can talk to the denizens of the 20th and 21st centuries; but if you don’t, you can’t. (Or: so says one leftie.)

#2! Sticking with Pope John Paul II. In 1984, he wrote a letter about penance and reconciliation. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but it’s over 30 thousand words, with 207 footnotes. So you might not race out to get your copy today. But it’s definitely worthwhile to read paragraph 16, “Personal Sin and Social Sin” (1,410 words).

The Pope said that people use the term in at least four different ways. The first is probably too fuzzy to be useful, although it contains an important idea: in a sense every sin, regardless of how private, damages the Body of Christ, and can therefore be called “social.” The fourth usage is completely bogus, he says: contrasting personal and social sin, watering down and almost abolishing the idea of personal sin, recognizing only social guilt and responsibility.

Between these two extremes, there are two legitimate definitions – both useful. The left uses them; the right does not. And these conceptual tools are fundamental to clear thought about our times. If you avoid them, you are crippled.

One paragraph:

“Whenever the church speaks of situations of sin or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of higher order. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.”

He wrote that over three decades ago. And yet, today, there are still many Catholics whose view of sin does not include: xenophobia and anti-immigration laws, religious bigotry and Islamophobia, dismantling health care for the poor without rebuilding a better system, breaking contracts with small and independent entrepreneurs and underpaying workers, expanding an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, to mention just a few.

Third step: my ideas, not the Pope’s. Having quoted Pope John Paul II, I should specify firmly and repeatedly that the following is my thought, emphatically not his. Even if you reject my thoughts, go get his. You need them. You NEED them.

An oddity: pro-lifers struggle to explain what’s wrong with abortion. Part of the explanation seems so obvious that pro-lifers don’t believe for a moment that someone who misses the bloody-photo argument will listen to anything else. And yet: if a pro-lifer explains abortion as a structure of evil, as a social sin, how many pro-choicers stop and listen? This a language that takes the message across many barriers. It’s not magic; people don’t become pro-lifers in one quick moment. But if you’re having trouble communicating, maybe it’s worthwhile trying something new. Abortion is a social sin.

Here’s another oddity, and this is the one that got me writing this morning. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who supports the Pope and American bishops on immigration – AND supports Cardinal Burke in his confrontation with the Pope over marriage and divorce and communion. I am sure such people exist, but offhand I can’t identify any. (What do Grisez and Finnis say about immigration? For sure, I listen to them on marriage, because of what they say about war.) In general, it seems to me that there’s an overwhelming congruence: “conservatives” on immigration are “conservatives” on divorce, and “liberals” are “liberal.” But why? What’s the connection? Why does your view on immigration serve as a moderately reliable predictor of your view on divorce?

Perhaps, just perhaps, this: liberals use the thought and language of social sin, and conservatives don’t. It’s been 32 years since the Pope’s letter defining the term. Using that term makes it possible to see xenophobia as a sin. So Pope Francis says it’s not Christian to build a wall. If you insist on seeing that assertion without reference to social sin, it was a ridiculous thing to say. There are good Catholic bricklayers, building sin-free walls. And yet, an honest reader who understands social sin, and is aware of the Pope’s repeated forceful pastoral exhortation that we break free of the sin of xenophobia, can and will understand what Francis said without a split second’s hesitation.

But Cardinal Burke – God bless him – rejects the Pope’s teaching on immigration, does not accept the repeated pastoral exhortations to open our hearts to refugees. And so when he talks about sin, I find it impossible to take him seriously. I think that a moral teacher who overlooks xenophobia and bigotry and abusing workers and ending health care for the poor and proposing new nukes – but wants an audience for his theories about divorce and remarriage – has absolutely no credibility. If you overlook huge evils, but want to keep the sinners out of the communion line, it’s just not possible to hear you.

Xenophobes are welcome to communion. Bigots are welcome. Bombers are welcome. Torturers are welcome. Tax evaders are welcome. Abusive employers are welcome. Liars who won’t pay bills are welcome. But the divorced and re-married: they are a public scandal.

I can’t get my head around that. I cannot take seriously the moral teaching of someone who is unaware of social sin, doesn’t use the category, seems unaware of the problems, or even dismisses the structures of sin as irrelevant and sides with the perpetrators.

Constructive communication between the left and the right within the Church can (and should?) begin with the teaching of St. John Paul II – not only of the theology of the body, but also on structures of sin. Without it, we have little or no hope of understanding each other.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ambrose and the works of mercy

 The sale of church vessels controversy

One of the best known incidents in the rich and tumultuous life of St. Ambrose was his decision to ransom captives with treasures from the church. What are the riches of the Church?

In explaining his decision, St. Ambrose referred to the six precepts of the Lord in his description of the Last Judgment. But he was drawing on the spirit of the precepts – serve those in need – not on a specific item. Later in Church history, the six precepts in Matthew’s Gospel became the foundation of a teaching tool called the seven “corporal works of mercy.” (The seventh, burying the dead, is based on the Book of Tobit.) The seven works of mercy drifted away from the six precepts a little, and “visit the imprisoned” became “ransom captives.” And to understand how the Church’s teaching on hospitality changed over the ages, it helps to see how Ambrose and others thought about the six precepts.

In 379, amidst a growing civil war in the Roman Empire, an army of Goths marched across northern Italy, and took thousands of captives. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, decided to free them; so he broke up consecrated vessels, and melted the gold and silver. This was controversial, but St. Ambrose defended his decision firmly. (The Duties of the Clergy, Book II, chapter 28)

Mercy requires that we share in others’ misfortunes, and help them in their needs as far as our means allow – and sometimes even beyond that. It is better, for the sake of mercy, to take up a cause, and to suffer hatred, rather than to harden ourselves. Once, I provoked hatred of myself because I broke up the sacred vessels to redeem captives – an act that could displease my opponents the Arians. It was not the act itself that provoked them; it provided them with an excuse to blame me for something. Who can be so hard, cruel, iron-hearted, as to be displeased because a man is redeemed from death, or a woman from barbarian sexual assaults that are worse than death, or boys and girls and infants from the pollution of idols, whereby – through fear of death – they were defiled?

I have never let go of it, and have stated over and over: it was far better to preserve souls than to preserve gold for the Lord. He who sent out the apostles without gold also brought the churches  together without gold. The Church has gold – not to store up, but to lay out, to spend on those who need. Why is it necessary to guard something that’s worthless? Do you know how much gold and silver the Assyrians took out of the temple of the Lord when they attacked Jerusalem? Isn’t it much better that the priests should melt it down to help the poor, if other supplies fail, than that a sacrilegious enemy should carry it off and defile it? Would not the Lord himself ask: Why didst you let so many needy people die of hunger? Surely you had gold? You should have given them something! Why are so many captives sold as slaves? Why are so many captives – who could be ransomed – abandoned, left to be slain by the enemy? It would be better to preserve living vessels than gold ones!

There was no answer to this. What would you say? I was afraid that that the temple of God would need its ornaments? The sacraments don’t need gold. It’s not improper to use something other than gold. They aren’t bought with gold. The glory of the sacraments is the redemption of captives! Truly, these are precious vessels, because they redeem men from death. That, indeed, is the true treasure of the Lord, which effects what his blood effected. Then, indeed, is the vessel of the Lord’s blood recognized, when you see redemption in the vessel and in the blood both: the chalice redeems people from the enemy, people whom the Lord’s blood has redeemed from sin. How beautifully it is said, when long lines of captives are redeemed by the Church: these Christ has redeemed. Behold the gold that can be tested and tried, behold the gold found useful, behold the gold of Christ which frees from death, behold the gold whereby modesty is redeemed and chastity is preserved.

I preferred to hand these people over to you as free men, rather than to store up the gold. This crowd of captives: surely this company is more glorious than the sight of cups. The gold of the Redeemer ought to contribute to this work so as to redeem those in danger. I recognize the fact that the blood of Christ not only glows in cups of gold, but also the work of redemption has displayed the power of God’s work.

The holy martyr Lawrence preserved the same gold for the Lord. When the treasures of the Church were demanded from him, he promised that he would show them. Then on the following day, he brought the poor together. When asked where the treasures were which he had promised, he pointed to the poor, saying: “These are the treasures of the Church.” And truly they were treasures, in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in him. So, too, the Apostle Paul says: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels.” What greater treasures does Christ have, than those in whom he says that he himself lives? For thus it is written: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in.” And again: “What you did to one of these, you did to me.”  What better treasures has Jesus than those in whom he loves to be seen?

Lawrence pointed out these treasures, and he prevailed, for the persecutors could not take them away. Jehoiachim, who preserved his gold during the siege of Jerusalem and refused to spend it providing food, saw his gold carried off, and himself led into captivity. Lawrence, who preferred to spend the gold of the Church on the poor, rather than to keep it in hand for the persecutor, received the sacred crown of martyrdom for the unique and far-sighted vigor of his message. Did anyone say to holy Lawrence: “You should not spend the treasures of the Church, or sell the sacred vessels!"

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Feast of the Holy Family - 2016


Friday, December 30, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family. Usually, it’s celebrated on a Sunday, but when Christmas falls on a Sunday, it gets bumped.

The Gospel for the day is about Joseph, who dreamt of angels and acted on what he heard. An angel told him in a dream that Herod was trying to kill Jesus, and that he should get up and flee. He got up, took his small family, and fled to Egypt. Later, in Egypt, he dreamt that an angel said it was safe to return, so he did, although Bethlehem was still dangerous and so he settled in Nazareth.

Joseph showed up in Egypt – a foreigner, unemployed, with a wife and a child. We know nothing about what he did there, other than that he and his family survived.

Centuries before, there was another Joseph who left Israel and went to Egypt, and by that change was able to protect his family. The older Joseph was also a dreamer, and able to interpret dreams. The older Joseph brought his whole family to safety that lasted many years; but then as generations passed, their time of exile devolved into a time of slavery. For the descendants of Israel, Egypt became a byword for slavery. Moses led the people from Egypt/slavery back to Israel/freedom.

When Joseph the younger took Mary and Jesus to Egypt – in the second great flight – Egypt protected the exiles from Israel – again, and this time successfully for the whole time of need. One of the first miracles of the life of Jesus was the healing of Egypt: after a thousand years of cosmic shame, Egypt was transformed from the land of slavery back to its original status as the land of refuge.

Recalling these times in Egypt, the Catholic Church today is solidly pro-immigrant, protective of refugees. The history of the Church’s firm position on immigration has deep roots, going back three thousand years; but the teaching in our time goes back more specifically to the firm and clear words of Pope Pius XII. Pius XII was a man of incredible courage and clear-headed justice, who protected Jews during World War II (although he was maligned starting with a work of fiction in 1963).  The New York Times said about him, on Christmas 1942: "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas. He is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all.” And Pius continued his work after the war, protecting refugees and migrants. His apostolic constitution in 1952, “Exsul Familia Nazarethana,” is the foundational document of modern Catholic thought on immigration.

The letter begins: “The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”

“The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth … the archetype of every refugee family … for all times and all places … every migrant, alien and refugee … of whatever kind … compelled by fear of persecution or by want.” EVERY, ALL, ALL, EVERY: there aren’t a whole lot of exceptions, nuances, wobbles and exclusions in that language.

That’s my Church. I stand with Pope Pius XII and Pope Francis – and with Holy Family – and with all those whom they seek to protect. ALL, so help me God.