Tuesday, May 29, 2012

12-05-27: Solemnity of Pentecost

Solemnity of Pentecost
Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11 / Pslam 104 / 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13 / Veni, Sancte Spiritus / John 20:19-23

What do you call a person who speaks three languages, the joke goes. 
A person who speaks two? 
And a person who speaks just one language? 
An American.

Implied in the joke is the premise that the ability to speak more than one language is beneficial, though for many Americans, if it’s going to be only one language, it best be English.  The readings for Pentecost speak to the point: the Tower of Babel, imaging humanity’s fall into mutual incomprehensibility as the purity of an original language is lost, vs. the Holy Spirit’s gift to the apostles, allowing them to be understood by their listeners who spoke varied languages. 

In some way, language was treated a lot like religion when America came to be.  Communities were separated by both their religion and their language: the Pennsylvania Dutch, the French-speaking Louisiana Territory, the English-speaking northeast, each mirrored Reformed, Catholic and Anglican religions, respectively.  While the children of foreign-speaking immigrants quickly assimilated English as their own, their religion was usually a different story; though, in isolated cases like Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn or the German-speaking Amish of Pennsylvania, adherence to language became as important as adherence to religion. 

Apropos this dilemma of what it means to become an American, there’s been renewed interest of late concerning the background of America’s discoverer, Christopher Columbus.  Doubts about Columbus’ pedigree first emerged in Franco’s Spain when it was suggested (until Franco quashed the research) that Columbus was either a descendent of a converso or perhaps a converso himself: Conversos being Jews who had converted to Catholicism in fifteenth century Spain.  Their conversion, however, can only be understood as a forced assimilation, since they were heavily penalized for remaining Jewish.  Finally, in 1492, the same year Columbus made his epic voyage, the Catholic Monarchs of the united Kingdom of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled from their kingdom all Jews who had not converted to Catholicism.  The desire for a Spain unified by religion, language and culture would eventually produce the Spanish Inquisition to insure those conversos didn’t lapse into their former religious practices. 

On a recent PBS episode of Finding Your Roots, genealogical and genetic research into the ancestry of Linda Chavez uncovered her Jewish roots that had been transported clandestinely to America early on.  Evidence of other Spanish immigrants’ Jewish background turned up when tombstones were discovered in Catholic cemeteries carved with Stars of David and notations in Hebrew script.  Chavez recalled, as a young girl, seeing her grandmother mysteriously turn statues of saints, which adorned her house, to face the wall; perhaps an attempt to observe the Jewish prohibition against graven images.

The desire for unity is always a good and noble endeavor.  But unity is not necessarily uniformity.  Uniformity, when imposed, may do more to fracture authentic unity than solidify it.  Just remember the Inquisition in Spain or the Know-Nothing and Ku Klux Klan movements of early twentieth century America.  The great strength of the American enterprise, it seems, has been flexibility, patience and tolerance in regard to assimilation.  And, no doubt, the protection afforded by the government to speak your native language and practice your chosen religion without fear of punishment or threat of exile.

[N.B. It’s that time of year once again to sign off on these Pastoral Reflections and give the patient readers of this column a well-deserved break!  Until September…tfb]

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

12-05-20: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 1:15-17,20-26 / Psalm 103 / 1 John 4:11-16 / John 17:11-19

The election of a pope always makes for a good story.  For Catholics, all bishops are successors to the original apostles, though only the pope, the bishop of Rome, claims succession from a particular apostle - Peter.  One exception of course is the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, the ignominious apostle who betrayed Christ with a kiss.  Today’s first reading records the event of selecting a replacement from two nominees: Matthias and Judas (aka Barsabbas).  Both had the necessary credentials, being bona fide witnesses of the risen Lord.  After much discussion and prayer, Acts tells us, the eleven apostles commend their choice to the Holy Spirit by casting lots (apostolic succession by the role of the dice might explain the strange idiom: holy crap(s)!).  The Holy Spirit chooses Matthias: and we never hear of him again.  Understandable enough.  It couldn’t have been easy – taking over for Judas Iscariot – too much baggage, too many bad memories.  This might explain the Spirit’s decision of choosing Matthias over Judas Barsabbas; a successor with the same first name as the traitor might prove problematic – people easily get confused.

The election of popes throughout the millennia have likewise been ascribed to the decision of the Holy Spirit.  Though, if you’ve been watching Showtime’s The Borgias, about the papacy of Alexander VI, you might wonder about the wisdom of the Holy Spirit’s choice.  But, who knows, the alternative might have been even worse.  My favorite pope by the way is Clement VII, one of the Medici popes (who reigned a bit after the Borgia one), whom Ludwig von Pastor, in his classic History of the Popes, ranked as one of the worst – bastard that he was.

Although it’s easier to assent to the reality of divine intervention in the selection of a good pope (or, at least, a moral one) this reference to divine intervention poses a dilemma for the modern believer because it reflects ultimately how we view our own lot in life: how we came to be and what we’ve done with what we got.  Phrased in differing ways, the dilemma is all about free will.  How much free will do we really have; and how much free choice do we really exercise in the many decisions, major and minor, we make throughout our lives.  The Church teaches that human beings possess free will – this is a tenet of faith to which Catholics are required to assent; but, as to how much free will we have - the Church has never said. The more we learn from neuroscience and psychology, for instance, the less real choice we seem to have; or, if we have it at all, it must be very limited indeed.  An even more disturbing prospect: Could divine providence – that mysterious Holy Spirit - move us to make a bad choice to achieve a good end?

The pathetic figure of Judas Iscariot looms at the heart of that question.  Regarding his own destiny on the cross, Jesus seems nearly obsessed with telling his disciples that the Messiah must suffer and die so as to fulfill the dictates or prophecies of scripture.  Skeptics claim that the gospels had to put these words into Jesus’ mouth in order to explain such an ignominious death and, further, to defend his choice of Judas Iscariot as an apostle in the first place (if Jesus was God, the jaded might argue, he surely must have known!).

And so was Judas, poor Judas, just a dastardly coward who sold out his friend for money; or was he a dedicated but misguided follower who had his own ideas about how things should turn out; or, shuddering to contemplate, was he the servant par excellence, an agent of divine destiny that made the prophecies of scripture come true – a necessary hinge in the divine plan of redemption? 

Bob Dylan put the question best in his old ballad, With God On Our Side
Through many dark hour /
        I’ve been thinking about this
      That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss
 But I can’t think for /
      You have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side

If you were to take Bob Dylan up on it, your decision regarding Judas Iscariot might not be so academic; it would reflect your take about how you view the meaning of chance and providence, choice and destiny in your own life - whether or not you are or ever will be a successor to an apostle or just an ordinary soul making sense of the lots cast that has become your life, that hand of cards you’ve been dealt.

Monday, May 14, 2012

12-05-13: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 10:25-26,34-35,44-48 / Psalm 98 / 1 John 4:7-10 / John 15:9-17

Searching is a theme that runs through my life – everyone’s life, I imagine. On this Mother’s Day I’m remembering, though it’s hard to believe, it’s been thirty years since I decided to search for my birthmother. The process was an adventure, like unraveling clues in a mystery novel or going on a journey into unchartered terrain. Looking back it didn’t take me so long to find her (only a matter of months); though, truth be told, I’m still searching for something - that ever-elusive goal, that destination never quite reached.

I’m sure that’s why I’ve liked history so much. Because I’m a slow learner (this is not self-deprecation, just honest perception), it took me a long while to question that much-accepted myth and acknowledge that there’s no such thing as an objective view of things – history depends on who’s telling the story, on what and how much that who chooses to reveal. It’s precisely those dull textbook accounts, filled with numerous unadorned facts, which serve to turn most kids off to the study of history. You might think you’re being very wise when, like Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet, you say you want just the facts, ma’am; but those facts need to take on some flesh and blood, be embodied so to speak, in order for us voyeurs of history to get the meaning – to understand what’s really happening.

Yet facts are essential. They’re the skeleton on which that flesh takes form. That’s why despotic governments throughout history have always tried, and often succeeded in manipulating people, by withholding from them the uncomfortable facts of their own history. In a recent interview to promote his new film, For Greater Glory (opening June 1st) Eduardo Verástegui told how he had been raised and educated in Mexico’s public schools and yet had never heard of the Cristero Rebellion of the 1920s. The film is about that uprising which rebelled against the Mexican government’s attempt to eliminate the power of the Church by suppression, violence, imprisonment and execution. Embarrassed by those events, subsequent governments sought to brush things under the rug – what they don’t know won’t hurt them, seemed to become accepted government policy. But lies always hurt; and the greatest lies are the ones that are told to keep secrets. So a Japanese student will never read from a Japanese textbook about the misery his countrymen perpetuated in China in the 1930s or about their cruel occupation of Korea for nearly forty years. And you’ll look in vane through any Turkish history book in search of that chapter on the Armenian Genocide.

The adopted suffer a similar injustice; the lie, for us, writ large on amended (i.e. false) birth and baptismal certificates – the original facts sealed under lock and key. But lies always backfire. It may take time, but they always do. Lies not only deceive others but they deceive the liar as well. I remember an adoptive mom asking me once whether I thought she should tell her two sons they were adopted. After all, she said, they came from abusive homes. It might hurt them to know. But, I said, they’re only four months apart in age. Don’t you think that someday they’ll figure out they’re not related to each other? It literally never occurred to her. The adopted, who have been lied to about their origins, may indeed someday forgive the adoptive parents – as was the case in the recent film October Baby. But that type of lie – the biggest kind of lie you can tell – can never be forgotten. “It is secrecy that is everywhere the soul of bureaucracy,” Simone Weil wrote. “It is the condition of all privilege and, consequently, of all oppression.”

I now know many of the facts of my particular history – at least, a lot more than I knew before – but I’m still sifting through them, deciphering their meaning, trying to understand how they became the deck of cards I was dealt. Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that we are no longer slaves because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing – he doesn’t have the facts. Jesus calls us friends because he lets us in on things, reveals, discloses, sheds light on the situation. This is why we call the gospel the “good news.” Love always seeks knowledge and knowing inevitably leads to loving – and that’s a fact.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

12-05-06: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31 / Psalm 22 / 1 John 3:18-24 / John 15:1-8

Clean up your act – or else might be the subtitle for today’s gospel image of God the Father as he prunes the vines and cuts down all the deadwood in the vineyard. It didn’t take long till the Church Fathers understood the vineyard to be synonymous with the Church, ever in need of purification from doctrinal error and moral misbehavior. This outlook would eventually give rise to things like the Inquisition, the Index (of forbidden books) and, in our time, a renewed emphasis on the demand to conform to the Magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority, with little room for questioning or nuanced disagreement.

These “markers” in the history of the Church might be perceived as extremist positions. Not satisfied with the conversion (albeit pressured, if not forced) of Spanish Jews during the Reconquista of the fifteenth century, the Inquisition sought to make sure their conversion “took.” Spying on friends and family was encouraged so as to report any remnant religious practice, like avoiding pork or seeking to circumcise your son. And well into the twentieth century Catholics were forbidden to read certain books and authors deemed dangerous to your faith. How a book ended up on the Index was a mystery unto itself, though an insight was given a few decades back by Graham Greene. What is now considered a very Catholic novel, The Power and the Glory, was about to be placed on the Index when a young monsignor working in the Vatican interceded on Greene’s behalf, insisting that the character of the priest, weak and sinful though he was, is ultimately a noble testament to divine grace working through that weakness. The monsignor won out and Greene was spared condemnation. The monsignor, Giovanni Battista Montini, would eventually become Pope Paul VI.

As for the renewed emphasis on the Church’s teaching authority and its demand for the believer’s obedience, we seem now to be approaching a crisis point. Evidence of the dilemma erupts here and there in ever-increasing frequency: bishops refusing communion to certain politicians who hold pro-abortion views; the recent case of a Catholic school teacher being fired because she became pregnant through in vitro fertilization; the Archbishop of Seattle requesting all parishes in his archdiocese to campaign for signatures at Mass in order to place a referendum on the ballot attempting to overturn same-sex marriage legislation. The dilemma occurs not because bishops are teaching in error, but because other loyal believers see the enforcement of certain liturgical embargoes in response to views held, or lifestyles practiced, a foolish response to complicated issues.

The rector of the Seattle archdiocesan cathedral, for example, refused his archbishop’s request to campaign during Mass for parishioners’ signatures to place on that referendum because, he said, it would serve only to offend and divide his congregation. Or, in the case of a lesbian who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral because the priest knew she was living with another woman, the Archdiocese of Washington apologized to the woman and put the young priest “on leave.” And, perhaps most significantly, the recent case reported from the Archdiocese of Vienna where Cardinal Schönborn overruled his own spokesman who had stated that active homosexuals are living in the state of grave sin, and permitted an openly gay man, living with his male partner, to serve on his parish council after being elected by parishioners. Cardinal Schönborn made the decision after meeting with the man and his male lover for lunch. It serves well to remember that the cardinal was the main editor of The Catechism of the Catholic Church and a former pupil of Pope Benedict himself.

Although moderation in doctrinal enforcement may indeed be coming to the fore, the forces that seek to prune away what they perceive as deadwood in the contemporary church seem all too willing to sacrifice anyone, and nearly everyone, for the sake of purity in faith and morals. Remember that movements like the Inquisition and the Index ultimately backfired: so-called heretics were emboldened in their perceptions, and books placed on the Index (as well as movies later condemned by the Legion of Decency) became guaranteed best sellers.

As for pruning those vines, it might be wise to acknowledge that an unblemished purity in matters of faith and morals is seldom found (except in bishops, of course); and, more importantly, that perceived impurities can in fact be the very place where grace enters the human heart – O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, sings the Exultet. The esoteric Alan Watts, once Anglican priest turned Buddhist, reflected on this deep and essential paradox when defending his own lack of purity in both faith and morals when he wrote that “the finest incense in the world – aloeswood – is made from a diseased part of the tree, and pearls are a sickness of oysters.”

Saturday, May 5, 2012

adoption reform NYS Legislature

5 May 2012

The Honorable Edward C. Braunstein
Assemblyman - District 26
213-33 39th Avenue
Bayside, New York 11361

Dear Assemblyman Braunstein,
I hope this note finds you well. I’m writing in the hope that you might consider supporting recently proposed legislation in the New York State Assembly concerning the right of adopted adults to have access to their original birth certificates. It is my understanding that Assemblyman Weprin is now sponsoring such legislation in bill A8910.

As someone who was adopted in New York City in 1953, I have been involved over the past twenty years in efforts to change the laws that currently prohibit citizens like myself from access to the identifying information with which they were born but have been denied through legislative action that had sealed records and issued amended, i.e. false, birth certificates.

In recent years virtually all adoption professionals have advocated openness in adoption procedures and the free access on the part of the adopted and their adoptive parents to vital information concerning their natal identities and medical information. What adoption reformers, myself included, are now seeking is the same right and practice extended to those born into the closed adoption system that sealed records in most states, including New York.

The main objection, I believe, on the part of those who oppose access to original birth certificates on the part of adult adoptees has been the assumption that women who relinquished children to adoption were promised confidentiality from everyone at the time of relinquishment. Though this position is often stated, there is actually no evidence that any such confidentiality was ever promised at the time of relinquishment. In fact, my own adoption (which was emblematic of adoptions conducted in New York State at the time) suggests otherwise. When the adoption papers were issued by Surrogate’s Court and given to my adoptive parents, I was identified in those papers with my birthmother’s surname. If the state had indeed intended to guarantee confidentiality to my birth mother – from everyone, including the adoptive family - why would the state issue the adoption papers with my mother’s surname? I would submit that one could only logically infer that confidentiality, i.e. anonymity from the adopted themselves, was never intended.

Those of us in adoption reform wish to argue that the right to know your parents’ names and the facts of your own birth is a human, civil and inalienable right. I hope you would consider backing A8910 and help those of us long denied this right – a right which every other American citizen possesses, that is, the right to one’s original birth certificate - be granted.

(Rev.) Thomas F. Brosnan

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

12-04-29: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12 / Psalm 118 / 1 John 3:1-2 / John 10:11-18

“There is no salvation through anyone else,” Peter says of Jesus in today’s first reading.  That conviction, perhaps more than anything else, has driven the efforts of Christian missionaries for two thousand years.  The history of that missionary effort, its beneficial as well as its harmful effects, has been the subject of much debate in the past fifty years. 

I remember, in seventh grade, reading Maryknoll Magazine for the first time and deciding there and then I wanted to be a missionary, travel to far and exotic places and bring Christ to the “heathen nations.”  Within the religious ghetto where most Brooklyn Catholics of my generation grew up, there was little doubt that the Roman Catholic Church not only subsisted in the one true Church of Christ (as Vatican II put it) but was identical to that true church and, thus, the only way to salvation – the one door to heaven, so to speak.  Some would argue that Vatican II changed all that, opening up a way to acknowledge Christ as the unique Savior of the world while respecting other religious traditions as valid: if those non-Catholics were not on the designated highway to heaven, at least they were seen as traveling in the right direction. 

I’m not so sure Vatican II invented that idea as much as verbalize what had already been brewing in our collective unconscious for some time, especially since the time when Europeans embarked on that so-called “Age of Discovery”; when they encountered peoples, cultures and societies which challenged their basic notion of what Cardinal Ratzinger called the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and his Church in his now famous declaration from the year 2000 – Dominus Iesus.

That encounter with difference, way back when, posed the challenge of first seeing peoples outside Western culture as human, as capable of salvation (African slaves and Indians being the prime examples); and then, once their humanity was acknowledged, to make every effort to convert and baptize them, igniting a great missionary effort not seen since Christianity ceased being simply a Jewish sect.  Even in China, where Europeans encountered a culture more advanced and sophisticated than their own, the emphasis was on making the other conform to western ways of expressing faith at the expense of their own cultural practices.  There were notable exceptions: the remarkable Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, being perhaps the greatest example. In sixteenth century China Ricci translated himself into Chinese Confucian society.  Rather than simply imparting truth, he sought to discover it – practicing that Thomistic (and very Catholic) principle he had learned so well: God can indeed be known through the light of one’s own reason and that, therefore, in a mysterious way, salvation can be experienced by those who never heard of Christ.  Ricci’s non-Jesuit successors, however, didn’t see things the same way.  One could argue that their arrogance in these matters lost China to the Church, altering the course of world history in a significant way.

Some see the theology expressed in Dominus Iesus as a revisionist document in much the same vane; a return to that type of arrogance where the explicit necessity of confessing Christ and the Catholic Church as the only way to salvation is reiterated.  And even for those of us completely convinced of the truth of that document, the fact remains that we no longer live, or can live, in that Catholic ghetto of yesteryear (even though we might want to).  There remains that nagging question in the back of our minds, brought forward every time we meet someone – be they Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or even atheist – who leads a good and perhaps even exemplary life: How can it be that someone who is outside the Church, or who denies Christ’s unique role as savior, lead a better, happier or more meaningful life than people like you and me who claim more complete access to truth and grace?

Apart from a ghetto mentality that basks in black and white, either/or formulas, the answer resides in mystery.  Even those graced with the gift of infallibility in matters of faith cannot (at least, till now, have not) pronounced on how that divine mystery of love and redemption enters the hearts of those outside the faith.  Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie so much in explaining what that faith entails, but rather, depends on the definition of what you mean by “outside.”

The Catholic Baptismal Rite might be a case in point.  While blessing the water to be used for baptism, the priest says: “Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.”  One might wonder if those Israelites of a pre-Christian age knew they were being baptized into Christ as they trod through the muck and mire of those parted waters.  I wouldn’t think they did.  But the blessing does reveal the Church’s willingness to accept that salvation can come in different guises, through many different translations of that one eternal Word.  Revelation may have ended with the death of the last apostle, but history has not.  It’s not the fact of the redemption that one questions in this regard, but how that redemption is revealed in time, in history.  The task of the missionary, our task as Catholic Christians in this age of the so-called “new evangelization,” is perhaps not so much to simply reiterate an ancient truth but to discover its manifestations – the translation of that eternal Word - in ever new and surprising ways.   

Monday, April 23, 2012

12-04-22: Third Sunday of Easter

12-04-22: Third Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 3:13-15,17-19 / Psalm 4 / 1 John 2:1-5 / Luke 24:35-48

Last Sunday, April 15th, was a day saturated with history.  It was the day Abraham Lincoln died from the gunshot he endured the night before; it was the day the Titanic sank into the icy Atlantic taking fifteen hundred human lives; and it was Pope Benedict’s 85th birthday, celebrated amid widespread rumors that he would announce his resignation (retirement), as pope, due to age – it never happened.

There had been several popes in history who resigned in order to end schism or the scandal of simony but only one, Celestine V, who did so without external pressure.  Having been a Benedictine monk for most of his life, Celestine was elected pope, without his knowledge, because of his reputation for sanctity and humility.  He resigned the papacy at eighty years of age within a few months of his election because he felt that he could not handle the burdens of administration.  He sought to complete his life in peace following the ordered routine of monastic life.  Not too long ago Pope Benedict had visited Celestine’s grave, fueling the rumor that at some point Benedict might follow the example of his predecessor and resign the papal office because of age and/or infirmity (an option allowed by Canon Law).  From remarks made on his birthday last week, however, the pope seems to have the clear intention to continue as successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ until death. 

Apropos of rumors of papal resignation, the newly-released Italian film, We Have a Pope, is the fictional story of papal resignation or, more accurately, papal abdication.  Although the film is difficult to follow at times and gets sidetracked into unnecessary farce, the plot remains an interesting one.  It’s about the election of a new pope, Cardinal Melville; but, before he is introduced to the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s, the newly-elected pontiff experiences a psychological breakdown of sorts – he gets cold feet and, literally, runs away from his appointed destiny.  You could say the frightened pope, filled with doubts about his own abilities, is the contemporary anti-hero, akin to the likes of an Edward VIII abdicating the British throne, his destined duty, “for the woman he loved.”  The pope and the king just can’t measure up.  But, we post-moderns might ask, who could?

At the heart of such human predicaments lies the question of duty, sacrifice and heroism and the quest for happiness and fulfillment.  The more conservative among us might argue that, in the good old days, there was no predicament – happiness and fulfillment were found in doing one’s duty even if it required heroic sacrifice.  But then, one might argue back, Pope Celestine lived in those good old days – the thirteenth century being, as Tennyson might have put it, the greatest of all the good old days.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in the way we understand how we engage our responsibilities and the permanence of our promises.  Evidence of such is increasingly more clear in the way the Church approaches the possibility that circumstances can change the nature of our previous decisions: consider the number annulments the church grants every year or dispensations from active ministry (and celibacy) granted to priests.  We might, from that more conservative viewpoint, condemn the objective decision of a fictional Cardinal Melville or the historical Edward VIII in forsaking the duty they seemingly were destined for.  But we cannot judge their interior motivations or whether those decisions evince genuine courage or an unfortunate cowardice.  That, only God knows.