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I wonder what kind of monument would be built for former Alabama Governor George Wallace?

Slavery Reconciliation monument, Richmond, VA

By all accounts, George Wallace began his public service career in the 1950’s as a local representative and eventually a circuit judge who leaned progressive, even liberal on many of the cultural issues of the day. But after a couple of election losses, he started to pursue a more populist campaign, one built on outspoken criticism of the federal government, virulent opposition to the civil rights movement, and unvarnished racism.

He rose to national prominence in 1963 when, during his inaugural address as governor, he railed, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Two years later, he would be governor of a state whose police force set dogs on peaceful marchers while troopers beat any who fell in their path. He even stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to try to block the entry of African American students into the all-white school.

A would-be assassin’s bullet ended George Wallace’s presidential run in 1972. Maybe it was pain, maybe it was the true understanding of mortality. But shortly afterwards, Wallace began one of the most remarkable changes of character of any American leader.

He eventually reached out to the African American community, even to individuals who were beaten by his state police — to seek forgiveness. In 1976, he personally called many of those he offended, including civil rights leader John Lewis who had been beaten in Selma during that 1965 march. He eventually won re-election as governor, winning a substantial number of African American votes.

During the governor’s ‘forgiveness tour’ of the 1970’s, most civil rights marchers publicly forgave the man who expressed such hatred only a few years earlier. But not everyone accepted that Wallace had a true change of heart, some believing that his change was a matter of political expediency or, as he grew older, an attempt to make amends before called to judgement.

It is not too hard to consider that one of the factors contributing to the governor’s turnaround was his receptiveness to God’s grace after the assassination attempt forced him to change the way he saw things.

Living his life in a wheelchair and in a good deal of pain, in 1979 Wallace was wheeled into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery (Dr. Martin Luther King’s original church), and told the congregation that he finally understood the pain he had caused the black community as he asked forgiveness.

So, theoretically speaking, what kind of monument would be built for Alabama’s George Wallace? A statue of him standing in the way of African American students trying to enter the University of Alabama, or a portrayal of his shaking the hands of the congregants in an African American church? I guess it would depend on who is erecting such a monument — and when.

 

Can a community ask forgiveness for history?

I live in Richmond, Virginia. It is a wonderful city, manageable in size, blessed with natural beauty,  characterized by a number of high quality universities and colleges, a good mix of different business communities, and an increasingly diverse population. I love my adopted home.

What makes Richmond unique is the fact that it sits at the crossroads of American history and culture. A few miles east sits Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the Americas. It was also the capital city of what was the Confederate States of America.

In the early 1900’s, residents of Richmond worked on Monument Avenue, now a beautiful tree-lined residential boulevard of stately mansions, apartment buildings, and churches. It is on the National Register of Historic places, and the American Planning Association named it one of the ‘10 Great Streets’ in the country. Monument Avenue is indeed, a strikingly beautiful thoroughfare.

It also includes soaring monuments to five of the leading military and political leaders of the Confederacy: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Matthew Maury, and Jefferson Davis. Also in line along the median is a less imposing statue honoring Richmond native, Arthur Ashe.

Richmond, and its stretch of monuments to Confederate leaders, sits 70 miles east of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, the site of recent confrontations ignited by the response to a proposal to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Are there those who celebrate such monuments in genuine respect for the sacrifices of ancestors? Probably.

But as we have seen in Charlottesville,  these monuments have often served as a rallying point for those desiring to use the word ‘heritage’ to hide their own attitudes of racial superiority.

 

Forgive what?

We often hear the argument that monuments to leaders of the Confederacy honor men fulfilling their duty to defend their homeland and resist the interference of a large federal government in local affairs. Adding to that mix, some argue that the war was caused by everything from tariff policies to a conflict between the Christianity of the South and the secular humanism of the North. To such proponents, slavery was a secondary cause of the war at best.

Such an argument may make believers in the ‘Lost Cause’ of the South feel as if they hold the moral high ground, but there is no high ground to be found in the words of the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens as he described the value of the seceding states’ new constitution in 1861: “[Our] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Or as Confederacy president, Jefferson Davis said in an 1861 speech: “We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him. Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”

It is irrelevant to argue if slavery was the most significant cause of military action or a secondary cause of hostilities. What is important is that slavery was by far the most significant moral failure, based on perceptions of racial superiority, that was passionately defended as a property right that needed to be preserved in the Confederate States’ constitutions.

 

A need to see other perspectives

One cannot look at the public monuments to the leaders of such a cause and think only of states’ rights without acknowledging that the most important right that mattered involved the perpetuation of slavery. The celebration of such monuments allows a community to honor courage and valor in battle, but too many of the celebrants stop there, not considering that such valor was invested in keeping millions of persons in chains.

In doing so, the community says, ‘if what we celebrate offends someone else, that is their problem.’ No apologies, no need for forgiveness.

But is there no point at which the offense done to others becomes so grievous that our humanity asks us to at least mute the honors to those who ignored such offenses? Is there nothing in our history to even hint at the possibility that celebrating a cause codifying racial subjugation has allowed that cause to ripple through time, from the speech of Jefferson Davis, to the steps of the Alabama capitol, to today’s rancorous ‘dialog’.

Or are such alternative perspectives to be ignored because too many of us blinded by that ‘stick in the eye’ mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel?

 

How can a community seek forgiveness?

For George Wallace, asking forgiveness was pretty straightforward. Find the people you beat up, call them, and tell them you are sorry. For a community of a diverse population, many years after a conflict that opened an unhealed wound, it is less clear as to what should be done, and by whom.

To its credit, the leaders of the State of Virginia have issued a formal apology for slavery. Yet such a proclamation seems less public than a parkway of fully illuminated statues of Confederate leaders.

Personally, at least as far as Richmond is concerned, I don’t think we should tear down the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue as a symbol of an apology. (Well, not all of them, at least). Maybe I feel that way because such a gesture is akin to saying that the South’s past never happened. It may be of value for all to recognize that some past generations wanted to continue a cause well after 1865. But I trust that members of a recently formed commission staffed by civic leaders and those experienced in the ebbs and flows of history will make the best choice regarding the avenue’s future.

I, for one, would rather build something new.

Tucked away in a tiny corner of Richmond’s government district is the Slavery Reconciliation monument. Its simple, though unmistakeable form does something that the statues of mounted soldiers does not — it tugs at the heart. Looking at the statue, you aren’t sure if you should feel the pain of divided families, or the joy of re-connection, but you feel something, something that evokes human compassion.

I would suggest that if any monument should be relocated, or better, enlarged and enhanced, it should be the Slavery Reconciliation monument. Perhaps a larger version (at least as tall is General Lee’s horse), should placed in the most visible part of the city near a soon to be replaced civic center, or perhaps at the gateway to the city’s Museum District; not some out-of-the-way spot that people stumble upon, but someplace passed daily by residents and visitors of all backgrounds. It should sit as prominently and be lit as brightly as any of the Monument Avenue statues. Maybe Richmond can keep its street of statues of Confederate leaders as a reminder of the values of past generations, but it is time to turn attention to a new focus on its path forward.

 

Reconciliation requires two parties.

But no matter the gestures of repentance, it is forgiveness that is needed to allow people to move on.

It is unfortunate that for some folks, holding onto the pain of past wrongs is easier than forgiving wrongdoing. There seems to be something satisfying about holding onto pain, of reminding others of the magnitude of their wrong actions, attitudes that make the act of forgiveness seem to be a bridge too far.

There will be some in our society who, just as those who turned away from George Wallace’s attempts at reconciliation, will dismiss such efforts as inadequate or ill-conceived. Such a move will be their loss, as well as the community’s. (Not to mention contrary to Matthew’s Gospel of the need to forgive).

As one African American business leader wrote of her interactions with Wallace, ‘How do we move forward if we won’t forgive? If we won’t believe that type of change is possible?’

I believe that the human heart has room for only so many different emotions, and that a spirit filled with resentment will eventually harden to the point where there is room for little else. We can never know what truly motivates those seeking reconciliation. We can only base our actions on words we hear and acts we see.  Judgement of what is in the heart is left to God.

 

The near future is going to be hard.

Regardless of your political views, recent events portend an immediate future threatened by expressions of deep anger, hurt, and resentment. I will leave it to others to argue who lit this fire, but the fact is that we will have to deal with the emotional ashes that are to follow the happenings of Charlottesville.

But there are examples where acknowledgement of past wrongdoings have, as in the case of George Wallace,  led to enough of a sense of reconciliation that allowed all parties to move forward.

I don’t know if a community can apologize for the past, and we cannot know the true intentions of the generation of the early 1900’s that erected monuments to Confederate warriors. But we do know the motivations of this generation in this community. A monument that dominates the city-scape in a place of honor no less visible than that reserved for Confederate generals and presidents,  with a message that combines an acknowledgement of past injustices with hoped-for reconciliation, is at the very least, one step further away from the past, one step closer to a different future.

 

Only forgiveness ends this.

There are some Catholic teachings that are hard to comprehend. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t that much of a stretch.

There are no ambiguities, no different interpretations of scripture that can lead one to any conclusion other than the requirement to seek repentance for wrongdoing, and to grant forgiveness when asked.

Whether we are talking about personal hurts, or a history of events where society falls short, no true reconciliation, no permanent healing, no true victory over injustice comes without the trio of acknowledgement, repentance, and forgiveness.

As far as our communities are concerned, we may tear down statues erected by past generations out of anger, but perhaps we are better served by public expressions of today’s aspirations that hold a promise greater than the Confederacy’s ‘Lost Cause’ could ever stand for.

Such a statement would be the first step towards the repentance and forgiveness that will finally end this madness.

‘…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…’  Matthew – 6:12.

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References:

 

Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech: referenced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone_Speech

Look Away – A History of the Confederate States of America. William Davis, published by Simon and Schuster, 2002

Monument Avenue: Referenced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monument_Avenue

Forgiving George Wallace: Referenced from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/16/opinion/forgiving-george-wallace.html

 

What George Wallace Taught Me About Forgiveness: Referenced from

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/trudy-bourgeois/what-george-wallace-taugh_b_6647468.html

 

Wallace talk at Dexter Avenue Church: referenced from

http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/theme/4372

 

On hypocrites and planks in the eye: Gospel of Matthew – 7:5

 

On forgiving 77 times: Gospel of Matthew – 18:22

 

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StickFiguresOne of of the practices at our parish during the great Easter Vigil is to have those in attendance walk past the font, dip our fingers in the water, and make the sign of the cross on the person next in line.

People mostly carry out this ritual by signing their loved ones or close friends. But this time, while my wife and I dutifully stood in line, the queue dissolved a bit into a crowd of random members of the faithful, separating this loving couple’s duo. I admit some apprehension at the thought of having to touch the forehead of a complete stranger behind me. I didn’t even bother to glance behind me to see what was in store as I drew nearer the font, and I was a bit amused as a looked ahead to see my wife’s reaction when she turned to see someone 6 inches taller than me waiting for her blessing.

My turn came, and I also was greeted by someone who looked nothing like me who placed the sign of the cross on my forehead, and as I returned the gesture to the person behind me, a question wafted through the air (along with the incense) – ‘Just what was I afraid of? WHO was I afraid of?’

Fear dominates us these days – fear of losing our jobs, fear of not being able to provide for our families, fear of being killed by some wacko terrorist. This fear spawns a more subtle though insidious emotion – suspicion. It is not enough that we fear the unseen, we now suspect those we can see of ill intent, especially those whose background doesn’t line up with ours.

The gestures during the Liturgy of the Mass should be the small step we need to take to keep fear, especially fear of those who we don’t know, at bay. But even our Americanized Catholicism has to work a bit harder to make certain that faith triumphs over the culture that seems too enamored with independence and isolation.

I remember the days in the early  70’s during the reform of the structure of the Mass. Change was hard, especially for the older pastors. I distinctly remember the monsignor carefully instructing the faithful about how his parish was going to implement the sign of peace.

Upon prompting from the celebrant, persons on the right side of the church were to turn to those on the left, and say “Peace be with you”; those on the left side would then turn to those on the right and reply, “and with your spirit”. (It’s a good thing he wasn’t celebrating the liturgy in a worship space in the round — the exercise would probably have ended up being an early version of the wave as the greeting would continually circle about the church.) I think that lasted for a year or so before people actually started shaking hands, a little stiffly, grudgingly, perhaps, but still a gesture that forced us to look at something besides our worship guides.

What is it about us that moves us to resist touching another human? Is it possible that our love-affair with our personal space helps make fear and suspicion so easy for us?

And what do with our gestures of touch during the celebration of the Mass and other sacred events have to do with how we behave in our politically charged environment?

Much, I think.

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Our liturgical practices are spawned by the message of the Gospel and Christ’s sacrifice. That message and example of sacrifice demands that we break down barriers with those suspected of being unclean, of bad behavior, of incorrect values. The same inspiration that moves us to make contact with others in our church MUST inform our behavior in American civil society, especially now, before we discover that our fear-motivated behaviors have taken us to a dark place from which there is no easy return.

Fears have always been with us. What is so dangerous today is our penchant to blame our fear on somebody else – somebody different, someone who may not look or act exactly like we do, someone who resembles an evil-doer. And for some of us, resemblance is good enough justification for mistrust and suspicion.

This suspicion and mistrust has become a rallying point for those who want to lead our civil government (should ‘mistrust’ and ‘civil’ be in the same sentence?). We have seen leaders who thrive on fear through much of history. Such episodes began very badly for those considered outsiders, and ended tragically for everyone else concerned.

Is it possible that the same same hesitancy to make contact with those around us, the same tendency to stay within ourselves to the point of avoiding eye contact with those we don’t know, the same proliferation of technologies that conflate smart-phone delivered bubble-text with meaningful dialogue,  are behaviors that provide fertile ground for suspicion and fear of those who we don’t allow into our emotional space?

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And yet, it is easy for us to suspend our much needed sense of isolation when it comes down to the relationships that are truly important to us.

When we hear the news of family members encountering serious illness or tragedy, the first thing we are pushed to do is the find them and embrace them, holding onto them, hoping in some way to move their pain onto our own burden.

Is it even possible to think of a parent who can’t hug a son or daughter as they get married, celebrate the joy of parenthood, welcome their return upon military deployments, or welcome their triumph over health challenges?

But while I am not an expert on Scripture, I do not recall any of Jesus’ examples that call us to connect only with those who we know and like.

As I visit my 94 year old dad at his care facility run by the Brothers of Mercy, I am moved when I see some of the elderly residents become disoriented or afraid, and witness the brief miracle that happens when a staff member simply reaches out to gently pat their hand. Just that simple gesture of touch seems to do wonders for those confronting the fear of circumstances beyond their control.

During a recent visit to my dad and a couple of ladies (the average age being somewhere north of 88) at his dinner table, we had a lively chat that included a fair number of good-natured jokes poked at each other. As I stood up to leave, one of the ladies looked up and asked, “Can I have a hug?” I don’t know what moved me more, the need she had for a brief moment of human-ness, or the privilege I felt in having a practical stranger ask me for the gift of a gentle embrace.

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It is a crazy world out there. Our technologies, while providing tools that allow us to briefly overcome limitations of distance, often make it too easy to remain ‘virtually’ connected while physically distant. Our politics too often call us to suspect, blame, and fear them, the outsider, the person who is different.

And yet our Church, our liturgies, our gestures, call us to connect with each other, reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, we are all called to move from isolation to connection with everyone God has placed in this garden we call Earth.

So what should we remember, the next time we are to hold hands during the Lord’s prayer, exchange the sign of peace, or sign the cross on another?

  • We probably won’t die from the gesture. Yes, such acts should be suspended during cold and flu season and those contagious are excused from outreach. But, generally speaking, most people survive the ordeal.
  • Reverse the perspective. Think of how we would want to be seen through the eyes of the stranger standing next to us. For God’s sake (really, for God’s sake), smile at the opportunity to break down a barrier for just those few seconds.
  • Move the experience of church into the multi-cultural, multi-religious, noisy, messy, community setting that we have been blessed with. We can muster the strength to connect with those who share our religious tradition, but we are also called to connect with those who aren’t like us.

We believe our faith and commitment to the Gospel drives behavior that gives encouraging, hopeful witness in world of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities, a witness that is especially important during times of great change and turmoil.

What does the sign of peace, grasping hands during the Lord’s prayer, and signing the cross on the forehead of a stranger, have to do with our response to terrorism, economic uncertainty, and cultural change?

Nothing, if the only hands we grasp are of those who remind us of us.

 

Image from Catholicapologetics.org

“The sensus fidei fidelis also enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them.” – Sensus Fidei In the Life of the Church.

In October this year, the bishops of the world will be traveling to Rome for the “Synod on Family”. The synod will be the first of two meetings called by Pope Francis to confront the pastoral challenges of today’s world.

Packed away in their luggage will be the results of a recent survey sent to Catholics to gage their sentiment regarding Church teaching on issues of family life.

The fact that some bishops even bothered to ask Catholics (about a third of the dioceses made the survey easily accessible on their websites) is laudable, but initial feedback from some bishops hint that the problem with adherence to church teaching lies primarily with effectiveness of teaching, rather than the content of the lesson.

Which brings up the question, does the laity have any options (besides silent disregard) to  respond to the magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) when teachings run counter to some inner sense of right and wrong?

The blueprint of guidance for the relationship between the church’s teaching authority and the laity can be found in the Vatican publication –  ‘Sensus Fidei – In the Life of the Church’.

This publication, issued by the International Theological Commission, describes the basic instinct of faith shared by all in the church (sensus fidelium), and further explores that sense as experienced by individuals and shared throughout the community. It would be fair to say that if any publicly accessible document describes the roles of the church hierarchy and laity in sensing the truth of our faith, and implementing that sense in doctrine and action, Sensus Fidei is it.

Sensus Fidei (or SF as I will call it) is one of those writings that can be cherry-picked by anyone wishing to justify or criticize any of the church’s cast of characters (including the laity). Persons looking for references to criticize church leaders can find just as much fodder as those who argue that her people have all the common sense of a flock of lost sheep.

But taken in-toto, the writing strikes me as an encouraging and cogent (if not a bit tedious) explanation of how the sense of faith from the laity of the church is to be integrated into her teachings.

The writing includes topics covering the scriptural basis for the sense of truth in all followers of the gospel, the nature of the sense of faith as it evolved in church teaching and structure, how the sense of faith is discerned by individuals, and how this interaction is to be played out in what the church teaches to be true.

While certainly not a ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of Sensus Fidei, I humbly attempt to highlight some of its points that are a relevant tonic for today’s culture war mentality.

In the beginning there was the beginning.

Even at the very start of the church, the process of deciding how the truth was to be taught in words and practice involved a balancing of the knowledge that all persons of faith have an instinct for what is right, with the pragmatic view that not all people are invested enough in the church to earn a role as decision maker.

Early church leaders well understood Jeremiah’s words which described the place that truth held in all the hearts of the faithful – as, the essay cites:

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me.”

SF further points out that Augustine asserted that Christ is ‘the interior Teacher’ who enables the laity as well as their pastors not only to receive the truth of revelation but also to approve and transmit it.

Nevertheless,  St. Paul warned that sometimes communities are ‘still of the flesh’, and need to mature a bit in order to perceive the real truth behind Christ’s example.

But although some Christian communities were ahead (or behind) the learning curve in understanding the nature of faith, there evolved a general understanding that all true followers of the gospel have an intimate understanding of the truth, and that “the general consent of Christians functions as a sure norm for determining the apostolic faith”.

 

That Darned Reformation

The 16th Century Reformation built much of its foundation on the nature of scripture as interpreted by the priesthood of the faithful. The importance of tradition and the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (primarily bishops) as primary teachers of the faith were – somewhat successfully –  challenged.

In response, Catholic theologians of the day argued that anything taught by the bishops was really the truth as experienced and accepted by all the faithful of the church.

But other church leaders began the process to justify the importance of the hierarchy’s teaching role by contending that the bishops were ‘actively infallible’, while the laity (students) were only ‘passively’ infallible. Other Catholic theologians started to more forcefully emphasize that pastors were incapable of erring in matters of doctrinal judgement, since their decisions were guided by the Holy Spirit.

Regardless of the rationale used by church leaders in response to the Reformation movement, its counter-arguments didn’t always win the day during the foment of 16th-17th centuries, and her policies and practices to hold things together (e.g. the Roman Inquisition of Galileo) didn’t work out all that well (my commentary).

 

Vatican II and the ‘Organic’ View

The role of the laity in active participation in the sense of the faith earned greater emphasis during the 20th century, particularly with the writings of the Second Vatican Council. The emphasis on the distinction of roles of teacher (hierarchy) and student (laity) gave way to a more organic view. As SF cites theologian  Yves Congar, “The Church loving and believing, that is, the body of the faithful, is infallible in the living possession of the faith, not in a particular act or judgment. The teaching of the hierarchy is at the service of communion.”

SF also points out that the Council’s writings described how the Apostolic Tradition makes progress in the church:

  • through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts,
  • from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience
  • and from the preaching of the bishops who have received … the sure charism of truth

 

So what does this all mean?

Once the reader gets past the lessons in history and theology, the real crux of the matter is approached. There is little doubt that we are all in this together.  Based on scripture and tradition, the truth is sensed by all members of the church (episcopate, clergy, and laity).

Today’s church leaders who will attend the Synod on the Family, and those of us who anticipate their work,   find ourselves somewhat mired in contentious topics that are more intimately experienced by the laity than the clergy, topics involving family life, marriage and divorce, gay rights, etc…

Before all of us stands the question –  how do we know that any perceived need for change is based on  true spiritual growth, and not the often fickle nature of public opinion?

This is a matter of the individual heart. Are we looking for God’s annotation that Jeremiah spoke of, or are we reacting as consumers in a secular marketplace, making a demand that provides something more akin to gratification than meaning?

Here SF does add some guidance – a list of criteria if you will, that gives an individual the light necessary to identify calls for change – or orthodoxy – based on a real sensus fidei.

All those  previous SF references to the church’s laity pre-suppose a community of active believers. You have to be a believer and a doer, someone engaged in her gospel mission, in order to be considered part of the team that helps set her direction.

If there is any part of SF that I recommend, it is Chapter 4, Section 1 – the ‘Dispositions needed for authentic participation’. It is pretty clear what the Vatican is asking for as the price to pay in order to be part of the discussion:

  • Be part of your church, attend liturgy and receive the sacraments.
  • Listen for God’s word
  • Be open to reason, be respectful
  • Understand that this magisterium thing is a joint responsibility to stay true to Jesus’ teaching
  • Stay humble and joyful
  • Stay focused on making our church better

Doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request to me.

 

Let’s Summarize

I started this writing with my favorite paragraph from Sensus Fidei. It is as accurate a simile as any that seems to capture what some, feel about what they see in our church. Sometimes I am not certain that all such discord is a matter of the truth that we all seek, but maybe more a matter of differing perspectives and experiences that result in unfortunate language and unneeded virtrol.

I think I am being true to the message of Sensus Fidei in the following points that provide all followers of all perspectives with a good set of ground rules for meaningful engagement:

  • Our church wants us to be involved in the discussion. “Everyone is free either to criticise or to support her[the church]. Indeed, she recognises that fair and constructive critique can help her to see problems more clearly and to find better solutions.”
  • We all have a sense of the truth of the gospel. Inside all of us, laity, clergy, ecclesiastical leadership, have been baptized in the faith and as such, have been visited by the Holy Spirit with a gift of an instinct for the teachings and beliefs that take us closer to the Truth.
  • There are real expectations of the laity — you have to be sitting inside before you get to throw stones at any glass houses. People who fully engage in ministries to serve the poor, the disadvantaged, those who know who Mark, John, Luke and Matthew are, persons who see and deal with the broken among us and who witnessed and sought to comfort the hearts of those who experience true suffering, those folks have as much a place in the magisterium as any bishop or cardinal. On the other hand, persons who want to contest a teaching simply because it is a church teaching need to go to some personal ‘time-out’ space to think about what they are doing. There may be validity to one’s question or challenge, but the fact of the matter is that unless you have really committed to Christian service, you don’t have enough skin in the game to take over and drive.
  • Public opinion is not always truth. Sensus Fidei rightly points out that the majority public opinion may have little in common with the truth of Christian faith. It correctly reminds us that there have been many instances in history where majority opinion supported views that were clearly contrary to the message of the gospel, and that in the beginning, it was the Christian message that was clearly a minority opinion on the world stage.
  • Teachings and policies that run counter to genuine personal spiritual experiences of the faithful are likely to be discarded. When the faithful who live with a sense of humility sense some off-notes in the lyrics from the pulpit, they are justified in some selective listening (and in asking to speak with the conductor).

Sensus Fidei isn’t a perfect document. But that is OK because I am not a perfect reader. But its wisdom is sound, and it makes the point that if we all want to be teachers, we also need to be students – open to the lessons as delivered in the witness of all the perspectives of those truly seeking the truth of the gospel.

 


 

Refernces:

http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/some-us-dioceses-report-results-questionnaire

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_cti_20140610_sensus-fidei_en.html

Source:  cardiphonia.org

Source: cardiphonia.org

The most powerful experience of hearing a scripture reading during Mass occurred several years ago during Pentecost.

I first noticed something different when two lectors approached the front of the assembly, one to the far left, one to the far right of the front of the church. They then began the second reading, in different languages.

As the readers approached the end of the reading, their words coalesced into English as they finished – ‘the word of the Lord”.

This was liturgical theatre at its best, for never in my past, nor since, have I been so moved by a demonstration of the universality of the gospel message.  We all know of the key points behind the event:

  • It is a joy-filled and exciting time. After the initial descent of the Holy Spirit, followers gathered for fellowship with ‘glad and sincere hearts’.  The fear that overwhelmed them at the crucifixion was forever broken with the understanding that death has no victory, that Christ lives.
  • The universality of the church is demonstrated. When the apostles started speaking in ‘tongues’, they weren’t babbling nonsense – they were proclaiming the gospel using terms, language, and messages that resonated with all the major societies in ancient Judea and its enclosing Roman empire. The bystanders were amazed that the apostles were able to reach across language and culture with their message.
  • It completes the miracle of the resurrection. Up to this point, the resurrected Christ appeared to the apostles and to select believers. Everything changed after Pentecost. Our tradition teaches that the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to move out of the protection of closed, darkened rooms and into the light of the world. It was time to carry the resurrection message to all peoples – to bring Christ to the entire world – making His presence real to all who would listen to the good news of the gospel. For this reason, some refer to this feast as the birthday of the Church as we know it.

I find this is an interesting time to reflect on this feast from two perspectives.

First, I wonder what it would be like today, if we were the visiting bystanders –  if someone were to approach us, telling us to repent our sins.

It is easy to dismiss a message calling for repentance  — the caricature of doomsayers wearing sandwich-boards proclaiming the nearness of the end is fixed in many of our minds.

For the longest time, I equated repentance with sorrow, or regret for doing something wrong. But in a Biblical sense, repentance more accurately means a change of heart, a change of direction away from the behaviors that hold us back, a change towards actions that provide spiritual fulfillment in God’s presence.

When Peter led the apostles into the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the traditional Pentecost festival, he was talking to a community that in one way or another, through direct persecution or distant indifference, had set down a path away from Jesus’ message. Peter’s call to those in Jerusalem wasn’t so much about asking people to apologize as he was asking them to change the directions of their lives.

Couldn’t we use a room full of apostles in our streets today — asking us not be be sorry for doing things that are wrong, but calling us to change the direction of our lives?  Any how many of us are, in one way or another, headed in some wrong directions? How many of us have let our lives be taken over by materialism, disdain for the poor, callousness towards the immigrant, indifference towards the unborn? How many of us have have let ourselves confuse pleasure with happiness and fulfillment?

I think if many of us were to hear Peter’s call for repentance, for a change in perspective, we would quickly walk past him, only to realize that he is talking to each one of us, asking if we have just a moment to reflect, to find those parts of our lives that are headed in the wrong direction, and finally, to ask help in getting our lives back on track.

I also think about a second perspective of the Pentecost feast.

How can we, the (supposedly) faithful, continue the mission started those 50 days after the first Easter?

To me, the message is clearly about reaching people in a language and manner that speaks to those we reach out to. This calls us not only to cross boundaries of culture, language and belief, but also calls each of us to use our talents to bring the gospel to the world (even if we aren’t multilingual).

The second reading during the Pentecost Mass reminds us that we have all been given different gifts and we are called to use those gifts in service:

 

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;

there are different forms of service but the same Lord;

there are different workings but the same God

who produces all of them in everyone.

To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit

is given for some benefit.

 

I think we are called to continue the work of Pentecost, not only in how we proclaim the message in words, but how we give witness to the resurrection in actions that allow us to use whatever gifts we have been given.

Our church is blessed with artists, medical professionals, and engineers who can bring a new hope to those in the dark places of the world. In our midst we find persons of limitless compassion, boundless energy, and unrestrained joy. And yes, just like that Sunday when I saw lectors flanking the altar, we have people of faith on the left and right of the political/cultural spectrum.

I think we are always being called to our own Pentecost – called to use any of the talents, skills, and experiences we have been given to help make the gospel something to be experienced, something like the wind that breathed new life and energy into the apostles.

I have never seen a tongue of fire. But I do know spiritual illumination when I see it. And I see it in the faces of those too few people in our Church who take real, physical steps to minister to the poor, the elderly, and the disenfranchised. Those folks are the closest we have to today’s apostles, and we need to follow them.

It’s time for all of us to leave the closed room.

 


 

References:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/what-is-pentecost-why-does-it-matter/

http://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/p/Pentecost.htm

http://gospeltranslations.org/wiki/Biblical_Repentance/The_Meaning_of_Repentance

1 Cor 12:4-7

 

The Emtpy Tomb

The Empty Tomb – Brother Sylvain, Taize Community

Count me among the Catholic Christians who always felt challenged by the central tenet of our faith – that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. I was always able to justify many of my Catholic beliefs by focusing mostly on the Gospel message of forgiveness, love, and the truth of a God that lives forever.

But the Easter celebration, physically rising from the dead? I never said it aloud, but deep inside there was a voice that muttered ‘did that really happen?’.

To a large extent, my reservations were many of the same as those mentioned in the commentary by James Martin, SJ in the Wall Street Journal:

“Recent years have seen a tendency to water down the Resurrection. A popular tack in preaching and in contemporary books on Jesus is the ‘shared memory’ thesis. That is, the experience of the disciples after Jesus’s death was not about actual ‘appearances’ as about ‘shared memory.’”

“…In this view, the real ‘resurrection’ came after the disciples remembered and discussed what Jesus meant to them during his time on earth. Revivified by this ‘shared memory,’ the disciples were emboldened to spread the Gospel. In this way Jesus was now ‘alive’ among them. He didn’t need to rise physically from the dead; he lives in their shared memory and commitment to continue his work.”

Fr. Martin continues to explore some of the other criticisms or revisionist views of the gospel that work to erode the foundations of modern belief – that miracles really didn’t happen and, essentially, that the apostles decided to continue Christ’s work simply because He was a really nice guy.

That is the way of our times –  to use our need to understand everything by projecting alternative events that explain why people said what they said and did what they did two millennia in the past. Everything that has happened must have an explanation that can be believed.

Which leads to the question for today’s faithful wanna-bees – how can a modern person place religious faith in what seems unbelievable?

It doesn’t seem reasonable.

But it surprises some to know that the doctors of the Church and her teachings strongly argue that faith and reason are both required in response to God’s call:

  • Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 Encyclical “Faith and Reason” argues that faith without reason “runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition…. the parrhesia [confident speech] of faith must be matched by the boldness of reason.”
  • Thomas Aquinas saw faith and reason as two compatible disciplines – reason being what logic leads us to conclude by what we sense and experience while the object of faith is that which is absent from our understanding. Aquinas believed that reason provided our free will with a compass, a direction that leads us to faith.
  • St. Augustine also emphasized the need for reason to provide the questioning framework that leads to a closer understanding of God’s presence – he referred to reason as the ability to know and understand the true meaning of faith – you can’t have faith unless reason informs you of its meaning.

It becomes apparent that our Church wants us to think before we say we believe, otherwise our words become mere recitations.

Which brings me back to thinking about the Resurrection and what it means to me as a Catholic Christian. Fr. Martin’s posting strongly dismisses the ‘watered down’ version of the Resurrection as not being credible, given its affect on Jesus’ followers and the resulting beliefs followed by billions.

But he is a Jesuit priest and I’m a Polish guy from Buffalo. What am I to make of the Resurrection?

We live in a world that wants to dismiss anything that can’t be explained as something that didn’t happen. I need to know why I too can ignore the arguments that my faith is built on the tale-telling traditions of the era and that my Church’s success was due to some quirk of history and the fall of the Roman Empire.

My nature is to understand what I believe – what do I do with this story of an empty tomb and a Christ who rises from the dead and appears only to those who believe?

I can start with reason.

Reason tells me that what happened 2,000 years ago was far more powerful and impactful than anything that happened previously. Yes there were the practices of ‘making up’ gods and miracles – but something had to be different here. The ‘god-making’ practices of antiquity may have provided a framework of daily ritual, but none inspired, none survived, and few can think of the names of anyone who willingly gave his or her life for a Roman god.

And reason tells me that something distinctive and unique happened to the apostles, something that turned a room full of terrified men, men who had nothing to gain by carrying on Christ’s ministry (and literally everything to lose), into a team of global missionaries, most of whom gave their lives for what they believed.

Reason tells me that people don’t give up their lives for a lie; people don’t choose death to defend  ‘a good idea.’ Reason tells me that something more powerful happened there, something transformational.

Reason, the application of logic to what I know and experience, also tells me that the Resurrection continues. I myself have tried to live without belief in things unseen, only to understand that such a choice left me trying to live a life without that compass that St. Thomas talked about 800 years ago.

I have seen the miracles that happen when lives broken by alcoholism, drug abuse, loneliness any any other named infirmity are made anew when the sick turn to the Source, the one Truth, to God, for help.

Reason, the ability to use logic to explain what I have seen, experienced, and learned, tells me that faith in God’s love brings the dead back to life.

We don’t know what the apostles and the women of Jesus’ life experienced. The gospels said they saw, they heard and they touched a risen Christ. They experienced and lived through the events that will occur only once in the course of human history. Most died for what they believed in. Their examples inspired first thousands, then millions to do the same. Who are we to dismiss their witness as lies or exaggeration?

Two thousand years ago, a tomb was found empty. Terrified men and women were given courage. Gods of temples and themes were replaced by the Truth and the Way. And the law of ritual gave way to a law of service. That is what happened, that is history.

So when it comes the Easter and the Resurrection, I have reason to believe.


Sources:
http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/04/18/celebrating-easter-why-a-watered-down-resurrection-doesnt-work/

http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html

Auquinas 101 – A Basic Introduction fo the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francis Selman, Christian Classics, Notre Dame, Indiana

http://www.strangenotions.com/augustine-faith/

 

MonAve10k

2014 Monument Avenue 10K – Source: Chris Conway / Richmond Times Dispatch

Each year in late March, Richmond’s Monument Avenue is the venue for the nation’s fourth largest 10K race (according to Active.com). Some 36,000 runners crowd the streets near Virginia Commonwealth University to run an out-and-back course through one of Richmond’s crowning jewel neighborhoods.

The course is a median divided urban parkway spanned by splendid apartment buildings, churches, and private residences, most of which were built during the 1900-1925 timeframe.

It is easily the premier running event in central Virginia, with the median filled with bands, church groups, and civic organizations – all lending some form of nutritional or emotional support. The Sacred Heart Cathedral, seat of the Richmond Diocese, even hosts a blessing of the runners before the start.

I’ve run several Monument 10Ks – but this year was a particular struggle to step into the morning darkness… and drizzle. Nonetheless, this is one event you don’t miss (kind of like going to Mass on Easter) — so there I was, standing with the ‘SC’ wave, scheduled to cross the start line some 30 minutes after the elite runners had sprinted away into the mist.

You get a chance to think of a lot of things while standing in the rain, looking at thousands of your closest friends as they get ready for their start — naturally I thought of how similar running a 10K was to my Catholic faith experience.

I grant you that the parallels may not be immediately apparent to the outsider, but as we finally got moving and passed the timing sensors at the start, as we made our way past the noisy, cheering crowds, and as we sloshed through the puddles along the 6.2 miles – the analogy grew more pronounced….

 

This is for everyone.

The Monument 10K draws runners and joggers of all (and I do mean all) abilities, shapes, sizes and ages. You could also tell by the variety in T-shirt slogans that the entire political spectrum was represented. All that matters to those running was… the running.

In Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce suggests that the Catholic Church can be described as “Here comes everybody.” The past tradition of our church has been to welcome all to the fold, acknowledging that we all fall short in some way. Each member of the flock has been shaped by experiences very different from all others – difference should never mean disqualification.  All that should matter to those who seek the truth of the gospel is…. finding the truth in the gospel.

 

It doesn’t matter when you start.

The field for the Monument Ave. 10K is so large that it takes an hour and a half for all the ‘waves’ to start. The waves are based on projected running pace (so those running a 10 minute mile don’t get trampled by the 7 minute/mile herd).

Of course, for an event like this, once you acknowledge that you aren’t really in the ‘elite’ category of runners, the starting point really doesn’t matter. Your times are kept individually, so your ‘judgement’ is really only yours – how well you did, not where you started in the pack.

As part of my work with the Christ Renews His Parish, I have come to understand that a person’s journey of faith starts whenever the person allows the Holy Spirit to, shall we say, fire the starting pistol. Some persons were blessed with a strong, well pronounced faith from youth. Others have joined the search much later in life. Just as there are only a very few ‘elite’ runners who finish at the head of the pack, there are very, very few persons of ‘perfect’ faith who we could never surpass.

But for most of us, being elite runners isn’t the point, just as being the perfect Christian isn’t in our reach (I think there was only one). It’s the race that matters. It’s the journey that matters. All we need to do is start – even if we start a little later than others.

 

This is really hard.

Once you get past the point of trying be beat the nearby runners who continually draw farther away from you, the race eventually gets to be what you knew it was going to be all along – a deep personal struggle to keep going at your best possible pace.

As with any physical challenge, the competitor struggles to overcome pain, fatigue, and the disappointment that comes with missed objectives. Add the facts that the adrenalin that flowed during the start of the event wears off quickly, along with the need to avoid the obstacles put in your path (I almost tripped on the curb when I started doing the ‘YMCA’ moves to the music of the Village People at mile 4), and you have an experience that is as deeply personal as it gets.

We like to think that our Church founders all had a direct, straightforward, unencumbered sprint through their spiritual race. But even some of the church founders had a course full of learning curves (Augustine hung with the Manichaeists in his youth, Ignatius wanted to be a famous warrior, and even Mother Theresa often felt that God had abandoned her).

But just like the good runner keeps his or her focus on the finish line, persons of faith keep focus on the truth of the gospel and what they hope to learn from its message. Doubts, disappointments, and pain come with the territory – but just like any competitor, people seeking truth know one thing — if you stop, you get no closer to where you need to be.

 

The good people in your life want you in the race.

I had mentioned that the race course is lined by all sorts of civic organizations manning water and refreshment stops. But there are also hundreds, if not thousands of locals lining the route, some playing music in their front yard, others waving pom-poms and cheering. All are smiling.

I don’t know why they come out – maybe they are waiting for the run to finish so they can get into their cars and drive to the mall. But more likely, they too want to be part of the event, even if it only to show a sense of hospitality and encouragement to those running.

And then, there are the runners themselves. You really can get a sense of how important people are to each other when you watch the countless ‘selfies’ being taken. At the start and the finish, everywhere you looked there were fathers taking pictures with their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and of course, running companions with each other. This event is no place for self-portraits. Here, all digital records capture relationships.

I was left thinking that if my faith journey were like a race, who would be lining the route to cheer me on? On a spiritual course that doesn’t play by rules of time and space, would the course be lined by all those who came before me, past relatives of my youth,  maybe distant ancestors who I never met, maybe even some of the saints of our tradition? Or could there be persons from my future self’s life, persons whose own futures may depend on my actions to come, on my behaviors-to-be, choices based on the race well run.

As for relationships – is it an accident that all the sacraments of our tradition seem to emphasize building relationships? Even those rendered in apparent solitude (e.g. Reconciliation, the Anointing) still involve the presence of another person who helps repair or sustain relationships with our God. Being Catholic Christian may, at times, feel lonely, but the core of our faith always has been, and always will be, growing the relationship with our God and with those around us whose presence testifies to His love.

 

Why do we do it?

Ask any runner (or cyclist, or surfer, or whatever) as to why they do what they do, and you get some mumbo jumbo about it being part of their lives, something they couldn’t live without.

Personally, I think we pursue events like these because, even though we need protection and shelter, we find ourselves missing something without feeling the morning sun on our face, the cool breeze of a downhill run or the smell of the ocean. To live a life only inside our houses, confined by our cubicles, or entrapped in our cars is a denial of natural experience we know we need. That is why runners and amateur athletes of all kinds attest to not being able to live without their passion.

Faith is no different.

Despite all the news about the challenges facing today’s Church, I think that when we are truly honest with ourselves, the spiritual journey is something we all can’t live without. Just as runners feel drawn to the road, we all are drawn to explore our relationship with the one source.

It is hard to put that draw into words.

Paul writes that the God’s Spirit is written not on “tablets of stone, but tablets of the human heart”.

And our own catechism points out: “In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being.”

Just as people say they need to run because it is ‘part of them’, I think we are also called to explore our faith to find the message that has been written on our hearts.

As a part-time runner (other time cyclist), I repeatedly train, rain or sun, night or day, and compete because it feels as if this is a fixed part of my life – a regimen and discipline that I believe makes me who I am, makes me a better person than I would be had I chosen not to join the race.

And…

As a an amateur Catholic, I repeatedly explore my faith, exercise the discipline to seek the answers that don’t always come so easily, and despite occasional disappointments and setbacks, continue to try to understand and build the relationship with a God who calls me to the starting line each and every day.

I believe this makes me who I am, makes me a better person than I would be had I chosen not to join the field.

 


 

References:

http://www.active.com/running/articles/10-biggest-10ks-in-the-u-s
http://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/dec2007/Editorial.asp
http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c1.htm
2 Corinthians 3:3