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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

12-04-15: Second Sunday of Easter

Second Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday

Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35 / Psalm 118 / 1 John 5:1-6 / John 20:19-31

Some say the Acts of the Apostles reflects an idealized rather than an actual view of the early Christian community. The skeptical sight today’s first reading which says that no one claimed any possessions and all held everything in common. That’s a pretty tall order for any group to accomplish – just look at the mess that Communism engendered in the twentieth century. But the clincher, as to the use of hyperbole in describing the early church community, lies foremost in the rather nonchalant statement at the beginning of the reading: “the community of believers,’” it asserts, “was on one heart and mind.” Thinking of the church today, no less imbued with the Spirit now as it was then, you’d be hard pressed to see us as of one mind on anything.

There is one notable and undoubtedly true exception to this thesis and that’s what’s stated in today’s gospel. After the crucifixion, the gospel tells us, the apostles were locked away in a room “for fear of the Jews.” Scholars disagree what John’s gospel attributes to the cause of that fear. Were the apostles fearful they would be persecuted by the Jewish authorities as Jesus was; or were they fearful they would be accused by the Jewish authorities of having stolen Jesus’ body? Whatever the reason: they were certainly of one mind and heart in that fear.

Bishops, the Catholic Church maintains, are the successors of the apostles. This distinction, a guaranteed-given by the grace of ordination, is meant to assure the continuation of church and sacraments, and suggests as well that the bishops share in witnessing to the truth about Christ and his presence among us. Unfortunately, the grace of episcopal ordination doesn’t safeguard from that all-too-human affliction of fear. In this, modern day bishops are just as weak as their apostolic forbears. A case in point: the trial of Msgr. William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Msgr. Lynn is now on trial for endangering the welfare of children - all in connection with the priest sex abuse scandals. No one is accusing Msgr. Lynn of abusing children himself, though he is accused of being no less responsible, since he was the head of clergy personnel when a number of cases of abuse were reported and accused priests, rather than being removed, were transferred to other parishes. If convicted, Msgr. Lynn would be the first priest to be held responsible for covering-up the sexual abuse of children by “protecting” the abusers.

On the face of it some might breathe a sigh of relief, saying to themselves: Well, finally someone is being held accountable. But, as every priest I suspect knows deep down, Msgr. Lynn is the quintessential scapegoat in this ugly drama. Because, as every priest also knows (and anyone else who has seen firsthand the bureaucratic workings of the church), it is the bishop of the diocese who bears the responsibility for the placement and removal of his priests. In this case the responsibility rested with the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Bevilaqua, who died a few days before the trial began. The prosecution felt so robbed by this twist of fate that they ordered an autopsy against the wishes of both the archdiocese and the cardinal’s family – implying there might have been foul play (echoes of the Borgias right here in Philadelphia).

There can be little doubt that the prosecution does not also know that Msgr. Lynn, as wrong as he might have been in hindsight to dutifully fulfill his obligations to episcopal authority, was not the person ultimately responsible for these bad, but all-too-common decisions, on how to handle abusive priests. Lynn is the district attorney’s clerical scapegoat. But, much worse it seems to me, Msgr. Lynn is the bishops’ scapegoat as well.

For fear of the authorities, not one American bishop has spoken up explaining how decisions are made on a diocesan level and how those decisions are executed within the clerical bureaucracy of the local chancery. Not one bishop has publicly expressed support or even concern for Msgr. Lynn. Not true, some say: the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has offered their legal counsel to Lynn, probably free of charge. This, despite the repeated warnings of the judge, that this in itself is a clear conflict of interest and would not serve Msgr. Lynn well at all. Alas, Msgr. Lynn has not taken the judge’s advice and has refused separate counsel - reason unknown. Perhaps he has grown used to being used, and abused, by the workings of the American episcopate – of one heart and mind, locked in their fear of those secular authorities.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

12-04-08: Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34,37-43 / Psalm 118 / Colossians 3:1-4 / Victimae Paschali Laudes / John 20:1-9

If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem and had the opportunity to visit the Holy Sepulchre you might agree that it’s a big mess. Different churches control different parts of the church and their respective (though not very respectful) clergy are constantly getting into arguments with each other that quite often escalate into fist fights and brawls. If you can manage to get through the main entrance and make your way to the tomb itself you can actually enter the tomb, say a prayer and maybe light a candle - before you get thrown out. Unlike any other famous tomb, there would of course be no remains present because, as the gospel states, “He is risen as he said.” In this, you would have walked, literally, in the footsteps of Peter and the beloved disciple and experienced what they experienced on that first Easter morning – an empty tomb. Yet we are told, the beloved disciple “saw and believed.”

So, what did he see? That’s the starting point of a book just released this past week in which a British professor makes the case that it was the Shroud of Turin, or more precisely, the image on the shroud that engendered belief in Jesus’ resurrection for Jesus’ first disciples. John’s gospel tells us that the burial cloths that covered Jesus’ body, as well as the cloth which had covered his head, were in plain sight. The author of the book makes the case that, unlike today, an image had an enormously powerful effect on ancient peoples and it was the image of the crucified Jesus on the shroud that engendered belief in the resurrection. I haven’t yet read the book (only a review) so I don’t know how the author deals with the other very obvious detail in the gospel account – the fact that the body of Jesus was missing.

The other way to read the same gospel account is to understand that what the beloved disciple saw was, in a word, nothing. He believed on account of what he didn’t see. And it’s this experience – the experience of what’s missing – which can be of great value, precisely because we human beings all know that feeling. And we don’t like it! That empty, hollow feeling we get after a long relationship breaks up, when the doctor gives a diagnosis of terminal disease, when someone we’ve loved so much takes his last breath. It’s that hollow, empty feeling that brings on that sick-to-the-stomach, I–just-wanna-wake-from-this-nightmare feeling. But maybe that’s the first fruit of the resurrection – that hollowed feeling can become a hallowed encounter with the divine.

The notion that the hollowed may be a sign of the hallowed, that emptiness is the mirror image of holiness, that what is missing is already evidence of what will be found, resonates with that old rabbinic take that God created the world by withdrawing, just as the beautiful sandy beach appears only when the wave recedes. This might not be an experience of the Risen Lord in the flesh, but it may well be the first fruit of his resurrection – hope. A hope which intimates that all is possible. That’s what happens when you hollow out space; you make it hallowed, holy – you make room for what’s missing.

Monday, April 2, 2012

12-04-01: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Mark 11:1-10 / Isaiah 50:4-7 / Psalm 22 / Philippians 2:6-11 / Mark 14:1-15:47

If you had seen the Oscar winning movie, The Artist, you might have assumed it was making allusions to that heartthrob of the silent screen – Rudolph Valentino. It’s my understanding that Valentino, like the leading man in The Artist, lost out when sound came to cinema: not so much a problem of foreign accent which both men possessed but, for Valentino, because he had an unusually high-pitched voice. Suspicion about Valentino’s sexuality, verbalized at the time as doubts about his masculinity, hounded Valentino till his early death at thirty-one in 1926. It seems Valentino was a bit avant-garde when it came to fashion as well. He began to wear an item which men judged effeminate. After WWI this particular item of fashion became quite common and remains so today; but when Valentino sported it, he was judged a danger to the idea of what an American man ought to be. No, it’s not an ascot, not a monocle, not even that questionable cigarette holder – the kind FDR would constantly hold. It was just a wristwatch. Some say that pegged Valentino’s “deviant” orientation more than anything else. Times have changed – thank God.

Those who embody sexual difference, or what others might judge as sexual deviance, have always been a part of every culture. Take today’s Gospel which begins Jesus’ Passion. The account opens with the scene of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive nard. Very early on the Church Fathers would identify her as a prostitute and the ointment she used as something bought with the money she earned in “the world’s oldest profession.” What is Jesus’ response: “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her?”

Then, almost incidentally, a very interesting thing occurs. The disciples ask Jesus where he would like to celebrate the upcoming Passover meal. “Where should we go?” they ask him. “Go into the city,” Jesus says. “And a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him.” It would have been very unusual, in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, for a man to be walking about carrying a jar of water. Why? Because that was what women did; work was gender-specific. Men simply did not carry jars of water about; a man doing so would have seemed very strange. What the gospel is describing here might be called, in modern parlance, a trans-gendered event. Yet, Jesus tells his disciples something extraordinary: “Follow him.” It must have taken more than a bit of courage for those two disciples to follow this man-acting-like-a-woman. But they obeyed Jesus so that the Passover meal could be prepared as he wished. This incident which could be perceived as an example of an inversion of nature would prepare the way for the great conversion of nature into supernature, of bread and wine into the Lord’s body and blood. The disciples were able to know where to go because they would have recognized the man easily; his ‘difference’ made it all possible.

These days the so-called culture wars, and presidential politics as well, remain concerned with issues surrounding sexuality, be it soccer moms moonlighting as high-class madams, those seeking the right to same-sex marriage, or those same-sex couples seeking to adopt. Today’s hot-button issues make the wearing of a wristwatch seem a very minor affair. Sticking with the analogy some might contend that some of these issues have become, in the minds of the more liberal, as innocuous as wearing a wristwatch. But for many, especially the religious, issues involving sexuality can still rattle more than a few feathers. The Church, the Body of Christ in the here-and-now, has the right and the duty to teach as Jesus did in matters of morality. But timing can make all the difference. Jesus did not condone prostitution, yet he saw the innate dignity of the woman who anointed his feet with her ill-earned ointment. And while it doesn’t seem likely Jesus would have been turning water into wine if the feast at Cana was a same-sex wedding, he still recognized the innate dignity of the man carrying the water jug, the man acting like a woman within that cultural context, and used him to lead his disciples to their appointed task and their ordained destiny.

Was it Flannery O’Connor who once remarked that it remains a sublime paradox that many enter the Church by means the Church does not allow? Perhaps there are lessons yet to be learned by all parties, religious and secular, gay and straight, in this mystery we call human sexuality, on this Sunday we dedicate to passion.