Lot’s of people have been asking questions about the new movie “Noah.” I’m learning how to do video, so here is my first attempt at making a YouTube video for a movie review.
Today’s story of the woman at the well uses one of our most basic human needs, our thirst, to teach us about God. We thirst for all kinds of things besides just water. Like the woman at the well, we keep going back over and over to try to satisfy our desires. We too would be attracted by the idea of never thirsting again. Jesus comes to teach the woman what will ultimately satisfy her thirst. None of us will have rest until we rest in God; only God can truly satisfy our thirst.
Yet, the reading today adds something that might easily be overlooked. Jesus also thirsts. He begins by asking the woman for a drink. Just as the woman is thirsting for more than mere water, so too Jesus is thirsting for something deeper. As we continue our journey toward Calvary, it won’t be long before we will again hear Jesus crying out “I thirst,” this time from the cross. What is Jesus thirsting for? He thirsts for us.
Pope Francis started it. He said that we need to look at how the Church can better minister to people in “second marriages.” That doesn’t seem so bad. It seems like a very pastoral concern. He even decided to have the Synod of Bishops brainstorm some ideas this fall. A great idea. However, it seems that the Holy Father might as well have pushed a snowball down the start of large mountain.
From the time that Pope Francis informally mentioned his concern, it seems that everyone from “high ranking theologians” to talk show hosts have now decided that the result of all this will be that the Church is going to radically alter her teaching on marriage. Although I was not alive at the time, I can’t help but think that this all has a very similar feel to 1968.
Venerable Pope Paul VI saw a pressing pastoral problem in his day too. The Catholic faithful were abandoning the teaching of the Church to follow the rest of society in the use of contraception. To help him think through the issue, he formed a commission to advise him. Meanwhile, the media and popular opinion began to create the narrative that the result of all these deliberations was inevitable; obviously the Church would “get with the times” and approve the use of contraception.
When the Pope’s commission concluded their work, most of these important theologians concluded that they had come up with some theology to explain how contraception could be tolerated and that the Pope should approve it. Case closed. Problem solved. Except for one thing…the Holy Spirit. Human wisdom can of course fail, but Jesus promised that his Church would not. As affirmed at Vatican I, the Holy Spirit will prevent the Holy Father from formally teaching error on a matter of faith and morals intended for the universal Church, and that’s exactly what happened here.
Venerable Paul VI released his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae in July of 1968 which not only failed to approve contraception, but infallibly taught that it was a great evil that would have evil consequences for the world. Today, we can look back and see how right Paul VI was and breathe a sigh of relief that the Church came down on the right side of this. His decision was of course no surprise to God, but it shocked the rest of the world, including many of the Christian faithful.
Although the Holy Spirit did in fact prevent the Church from formally teaching error, the results were problematic. Because everyone was led to believe that a change in teaching was not only possible, but really a forgone conclusion, they had great difficulty accepting what seemed to be a surprise. The truth is that there was never a chance that the Church would come out in favor of contraception; God would not allow it. Yet, the speculation and false leadings of the media and theologians led to a lot of unnecessary hurt and confusion.
I think the present discussion regarding the situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could end up mirroring that of 1968 and I fear a similar outcome.
People are speculating or even assuming that certain things will change where there is simply no chance that they will. Here are a few points to keep in mind as we prepare for the Synod this fall. Some things are possible; others are not.
Things That Can’t Change
- A Sacramental, consummated marriage is completely indissoluble. There is no possibility for the Church to change this. The Church did not create the Sacrament of Marriage and has no power to alter it.
- This means there is no way that the Church could ever “forgive” a valid marriage (as has been suggested), certainly less dissolve or annul it.
- This is not a matter of forgiveness or mercy. When two people come before God to enter into marriage they ask God, “Please join us together in a way that is so permanent that no one, not even we ourselves, are capable of breaking this union.” The couple not only consents to this but begs God to do it, and he does.
- Holy Communion usually cannot be received by those who have attempted a second marriage because, by engaging in marital relations with someone who is not their spouse, they are committing adultery. That is the explicit teaching of Jesus. You can’t be forgiven of a sin you’re not sorry for and have no intention of stopping.
Things That Could Change
- There is talk that the ability to leave one’s marriage and enter a new one should be decided “pastorally” rather than “juridically.” Certainly the primary concern is always the care of souls. One is always aware of trying to help a person in these difficult situations. However, we have to be clear about what question is being asked. The question that must be answered is, “Who is married to whom?” Messy as it may be, this is of its essence a juridical question, not a merely pastoral one. If you’re already married to a living person then you can’t get married again. How we determine who is married to whom and how quickly this determination is made is something that could change.
- We could ignore the sin. I know…I can’t believe I’m putting this out there. It’s not my opinion, but I guess I can’t say that it’s theologically off the table since just yesterday a Cardinal of the Church put forward basically this argument. In his language, he says we could never “accept” a second marriage, but we could possibly “tolerate” one. I have no idea what this means.
One thing I do know is that Jesus would never leave anyone beyond hope. No matter how deep one is in sin, there is always a way out. The Holy Father said yesterday that we must “accompany” those in this difficult situation and not condemn. Amen. But how should we accompany them? When one’s brother is lost in the forest, one does not accompany him by walking further in the wrong direction lest both of you become lost. The thing to do is to show up with a map and compass and lead the way out.
Until now, the pastoral “way out” of the sin of attempted marriage has been for the couple to live as brother and sister. Often they have children by this second relationship. They do not have to leave this relationship, but they have to act in a way that recognizes that they are not married, most especially in not having marital relations. This pastoral “way out” is already there. Is there another? That is the real question that the bishops will be asking this fall. Until then, let us all work to dispel myths about what can and cannot change. Let us work to avoid another 1968.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of a city on a mountain or hill not being able to be hidden. Perhaps we might think of a city high up on a mountain. When I went to Galilee to the spot where Jesus spoke these works, I found that he might be referring to something different. A city set on a hill might be something more like the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. It is literally “set on a hill” by being built into the hillside. You can see each successive terrace of the city as it climbs higher and higher. Indeed such a city cannot be hidden, especially at night.
Today we look at the city of Tiberias at night and think how beautiful it is. Yet, when Jesus spoke about such a city, his apostles would have though also about how dangerous it is. In the ancient world you constantly had to worry about your city being attacked. For protection you could make high walls or, better yet, completely hide the city underground. A city that could be hidden was a safe city, a “city that cannot be hidden” as Jesus spoke of was a dangerous city.
Despite the dangers, Jesus clearly wants his disciples and his Church today to take the riskier path of being a city exposed for all to see. We are to let our light shine. The readings today tell us that the best way to do this is not just with words, as St. Paul cautions, but with our actions. We know that if we stand for moral principles, bear witness to the truth, live our faith in public, then we will be exposed and vulnerable to attack like a city on a hillside. Yet this is what we are called to do.
When we know this we shouldn’t be surprised that we get singled out for special scrutiny or that the devil seems to be constantly putting up obstacles. If you’re under attack, it means you are doing real damage to Satan’s kingdom, it means you have a city that is worth attacking. Good for you! It won’t be easy, but it’s worth the risk. In the end, there are two options. We can build our city on a hillside with all the opportunity and danger that go together or we can try to hide underground where it will be safer. Which city do you want your life to be?
People who know me know how much I love the liturgy. I obviously love celebrating it, but also studying and coming to understand it better. Yet, more and more there has been one issue that has kept coming back up as something to put on my “to do” list: The Extraordinary Form…the “Old (Latin) Mass” from 1962.
Well, I have a sort of confession to make. Over Christmas break I finally decided I needed to learn what this Mass was all about, so I went and got some training. I can now report that today, on the feast of St. Martina in the traditional calendar, I celebrated the Mass in the Extraordinary Form for the first time in the Lourdes Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington.
Now, before anyone begins to label me some kind of “radical traditionalist,” you should know that I have really not been a fan of the 1962 Mass. I’m too young to have ever attended it growing up. Moreover, I have always felt that our primary goal has got to be to make the regular Sunday celebration of the Mass a much more sacred and transcendent experience. I was not a fan of the indult that existed under John Paul II. I at least wasn’t a fan of young people going to this. In my mind, the indult existed for those who couldn’t change, but it would eventually go away.
Pope Benedict caused me to have to do some rethinking of all this. As you may be aware, in 2007 Pope Benedict did away with the indult or “special permission” that a priest would have previously needed to celebrate according to the 1962 missal. Moreover, he seemed to be saying that all priests should know how to celebrate this Mass if their people asked for it. His desire, like mine, was to restore sacredness to the liturgy, but he wanted to do it through what he called a “mutual enrichment” between the 1962 Mass and the contemporary Mass. I could see that this wasn’t just a plan to allow certain people to remain wrapped in the nostalgia of the past, but a real way forward. This was not a return to the past but, in a way, a chance to perhaps go more slowly and get right some of the things that went wrong with liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council.
I have to admit that, although I could see what Pope Benedict wanted to happen, I wasn’t completely on board. I still worried that the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite as he now called it would create division and isolated groups. I thought that Latin would be a barrier to full, conscious, and active participation in the Liturgy. Would it ever be normal to have an Extraordinary Form Mass on the normal schedule at most parishes, an option no different than going to a guitar Mass? That was clearly the plan, but I wondered.
It’s been six years now and the Extraordinary Form is gaining in popularity amongst some pretty amazing Catholics that I have met. I finally decided that I needed to get on board with this. If nothing else, my research into the pre-Vatican II rites of Holy Week showed me how much I really didn’t understand what Mass was like before the Council. I knew some things, but the only way to really understand what that Mass was all about was to do it.
So I did it. And you know what…I’m glad I did. For having loved the liturgy for so long, I’m amazed at how I was able to study so much of “liturgical history” and yet never really get into the nuts and bolts of how the Mass was celebrated. There is a reason why the Holy Spirit inspired Pope Benedict to preserve this Mass, not just in a book but as an ongoing lived experience. Pope Francis too has said that he intends this to continue. This is clearly of the mind of the Church and this is always where I want to be.
With all that said, I think it important to end with this point. Someone asked me today after having celebrated if I had found the Extraordinary Form to be the incredibly amazing and powerful experience that clearly he expected I should have. I said to him simply that “it was Mass.” It was a different book with different words and gestures, but it was Holy Mass, and I had the same joy that I have every day to wake up as a priest and know that I get to make Jesus present and that he gives himself to me.
I don’t know exactly what I’ll do with this now. I consider it to be one more tool in the pastoral tool bag. Over the course of these years since the changes of Pope Benedict I’ve had people, young people even, come to me and ask if I could please celebrate the Extraordinary Form for them since they know that I love the liturgy. To this point, I’ve always had to say no. Now I have something else to offer my people for their spiritual edification. I might even find that praying these beautiful prayers, the exact ones, which sustained the greatest saints in the Church for 1500 years…well, it might just lead to my spiritual edification too. Prosit pro omnibus et singulis.
Prophets for Life
Today’s readings speak to us of two great prophets, Isaiah and John the Baptist. We tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future. Yet the role of a true prophet of God is to speak the word of God to the world right now. The message might concern the future, but more importantly it concerns what God is saying to us right now. Everyone who is baptized has received the call to be a prophet, to speak on behalf of God. This homily was given to a church filled with young people preparing for the March for Life this week. They are prophets, speaking for God and speaking for those who cannot speak.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, I am reminded of the prophetic gathering in Washington 50 years ago for the famous “I have a dream speech.” I remember seeing the pictures growing up of the national mall covered with people. Coming to my first March for Life 14 years ago, I felt that this was my generation’s chance for a moment like that, to be prophets. The media doesn’t give much coverage to the March for Life, but the truth is that there are twice as many people in Washington for the March for Life as were in Washington 50 years ago…and this event happens not once, but every year!
It’s not easy being a prophet. Yet, I don’t suspect that John the Baptist spent much time worrying about how successful he was on worldly standards. He had his mission and he did it. May God bless all the modern day prophets who this week pray and march for life. Safe travels, and may more and more of the baptized find the the courage to be prophets of God, prophets for life.
The Pax of the Magi
As we contemplate the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem today it’s important that become more to us than just some additional figures in our Christmas nativity scenes. They give us an example to follow. Today’s homily reflects on three important things that the Magi did that we should also do if we want peace (Latin: Pax) in this New Year:
P- Pay Attention
A – Act
X- Exchange Your Path for God’s (sorry English teachers)
Peace for the New Year
Today is not only the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, but also the World Day of Prayer for Peace. In today’s homily, I consider Mary’s example as a way for all of us to have peace in the New Year. If you want peace in your hearts this new year, here are five practical tips based on the word peace.
E – expectations
A – activities
C – completely trust
E – eternity
Save the Family, Save the World
As we look today at the holy family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, it wold be easy to dwell on just how much our actual families don’t measure up to this standard. Our families aren’t perfect. There are all kinds of struggles and difficulties. Often our families seem to be a bit of a mess. While this may be true, it’s not really unusual. Being part of a family has always had its joys and struggles. What seems to be different about our day is that people are believing that there really can be “perfect” marriages or families, or at least better ones than what they’ve got. Sadly, people abandon their spouses and children in an impossible quest for the “perfect” family.
The holy family gives us the perfect answer today. Their situation was far from ideal, but they continued to say yes to God, even when His plan didn’t match their plans. We’ve got to be willing to do the same. We’ve got to fight for our families. If our culture is sick it is because our families are sick. A lot is riding on remaining faithful in the school of holiness we call family. Save the family, save the world.
The Quest for the Perfect Christmas
Each year I set out on a secret quest to try to celebrate the “perfect” Christmas. I begin with careful mixes of Christmas music, Christmas cookies, and the right proportion of present buying and present receiving. Try as I might, I don’t think I’ve ever had the “perfect” Christmas. Real life always seems to get in the way. The good news is that the first Christmas wasn’t so perfect in the normal way either. There were a lot of problems with that first Christmas. So, if your Christmas doesn’t seem all that perfect, or if life seems far from perfect right now…don’t worry. Jesus came precisely because things were not perfect; things were a mess really, and in many ways still are. The good news of Christmas is that “A Savior has been born” for us as the shepherds were told. If you feel like your Christmas needs a little saving then the words of the angel are indeed “Good news and great joy.”