Monday, March 20, 2017

Foster Father of the Footwasher

Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What if glorious St. Joseph, universal patron of Holy Mother Church, became "first" by making himself last?

From the beginning, Joseph's role in the Holy Family was not to be served, but to serve the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Christ Child.  Given this, doesn't it make sense that, as a boy, Jesus would have learned to do the will of his heavenly Father by imitating the other-centered witness of his foster father? 

Joseph doesn't need to speak in the Gospels to share what must have been his personal motto: God first, others next, and self last.  A "righteous man," dislocated from the central spot in the Holy Family, finds himself emptied of ego, liberated with Love for the Other in whose presence he lives.

St. Joseph's feast day providentially falls during Lent each year. After all, Joseph is the prototype of what we strive for during this holy season--Prayer-amid-daily-life, Virtue-through-daily-chores, and Humility-in-relationship-with-family-and-friends.

As we journey through Lent again this year, hoping to draw ever closer to the Passover that Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem, let's pray that St. Joseph will help open our eyes to the Paschal Mystery. He did not witness it firsthand, but may have glimpsed its foreshadowing in Jesus' hidden life.  He may have also given some inspiring example to his divine Son along the way.

Beginning with his Incarnation and culminating in his Passion, death and Resurrection, Jesus' mission is to reveal the divine reality of self-emptying Trinitarian Love. But what if the small school of love in the home of the Holy Family laid the foundation upon which Jesus public ministry and witness would build? Doesn't it make sense that Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, reflected and then perfectly lived what he watched in his hidden life in Nazareth?

I like to imagine the following conclusion to the mysterious scene of the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple. After they returned home astonished, while "his mother kept all these things in her heart" (Lk 3:51), perhaps Joseph and Mary discussed the messages of the Angel years before: The child to be born "will be great and will be called Son of the Most High...and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:32-33), and their Jesus was destined to "save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). Perhaps Jesus watched Joseph fetch a basin of water to wash the weary feet of the Queen Mother, the chosen Spouse of the Spirit.

It would have been the least that he could do for her--a moment of tender service, in the face of yet another reminder of the Mystery in their presence. Perhaps it was a different gesture of intimacy, of course, but Jesus certainly noticed how Joseph and Mary responded to his stunning comment about needing to be "in his Father's house."

The Lenten celebration of St. Joseph reminds us of how much the Lord himself must have followed the example of his foster father: "And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man" (Lk 3:52), all the way through his Last Supper, to his last effort to win the hearts of his people at Calvary.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Four Ways to Read the Four Years of Francis


"Please pray for me!"  These most frequently repeated words from Pope Francis hearken back to the powerful gesture with which he began is papacy--bowing on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square and asking the gathered throng to pray that the Lord would bless him.

On the fourth anniversary of Papa Francesco's pontificate, as we continue to pray for our Holy Father, please consider the following "lenses" through which we might read his increasingly complex papacy:
  1. Reading a Walking Parable: Jesus used parables to help reveal deep truths about the Kingdom of God. Scenes or images from everyday life, suddenly turned upside down, now compel a decision on the part of the hearer: Will I open my heart to this surprising revelation?

    Since his first days as Pope, Francis has continued to use symbolic actions--great and small--to capture the attention of the Church and the world. A walking parable does not just preach about love of neighbor or spiritual warfare or global injustices; rather, he acts in often dramatic fashion to grab us by our lapels and shake us up.  Which of Pope Francis' most memorable moments have been particularly compelling for you? Which have been confusing or challenging?

  2. Tracking a Papal Prophet: From St. John XXIII, Bl. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, through beloved Benedict, our recent run of popes has certainly been prophetic leaders. However, if the role of a prophet is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" (F.P. Dunne), then perhaps Pope Francis is best understood not as a reformer but as a prophet.

    Part of the unique dynamic with Francis has been his relentless efforts to challenge those inside the Church--and his apparent preference for those outside! In what ways have you felt comforted and/or afflicted by Pope Francis?

  3. Finding a Third Way: If the political categories of liberal/progressive or conservative/traditional prove to be the only conceptual framework available for reflecting on human existence, then Catholicism has no place to rest its head. Of course, liberals are quick to claim Francis as one of their own, and conservatives seem tempted to reject him for this very reason. But there are too many conflicting realities to make this the true narrative of the pontificate of Pope Francis. 

    Is it possible that Francis is challenging such trite categories? Might he be offering us a Catholic vision of "evangelical orthodoxy"--or "apostolic orthopraxy"? I am convinced that only a paradoxical narrative--one filled with seeming contradictions--is suitable for Holy Father Francis. The Holy Spirit blows where he wills and always breathes new life into the Church, without ever contradicting himself. Real continuity is never a monolithic stasis, just as real change is never the blind adoption of novelties. What if Pope Francis is a progressive traditionalist?

  4. Waiting on a Bonaventure: Peter, the Rock, is supposed to be the symbol of unity. He is like the referee on the field of play who makes sure that the game flows within the prescribed parameters. But, like St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis seems more concerned with disrupting the regular flow than maintaining the status quo. G.K. Chesterton once observed that St. Francis needed to remind Christians how to be Christian; maybe Pope Francis is trying to remind Catholics how to be Catholic (M. Dopp).

    The Lord Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide us into all truth, and the charism of infallibility prevent popes from leading the faithful into error on matters of faith or morals. Pope Francis has repeatedly called himself a "faithful son of the Church," and yet he seems to be leaving the work of interpreting his papacy own papacy to others. Thus, much like the Franciscans in the 13th century, perhaps the Church will need to wait for a Pope Bonaventure to connect all of the dots in the picture painted by Francis.
Our Lady of Fatima, please continue to intercede on behalf of Pope Francis--

P.S. Clarifying "Who am I to judge?" This sentence has probably been the most quoted line from Pope Francis since his 2013 interview following World Youth Day in Rio. Unfortunately, the original context and full response have been largely ignored (check out the official full-text translation), as has Pope Francis' own explanation from his 2016 book-length interview entitled The Name of God is Mercy:
  • Andrea Tornielli: "May I ask you about your experiences as confessor to homosexual people? During the press conference on your return flight from Rio de Janeiro you famously remarked, 'Who am I to judge?'"
    Pope Francis: "On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person? I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized. I am glad that we are talking about 'homosexual people' because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love. I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together. You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it." (pp. 61-62)

Monday, March 6, 2017

“Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness” (AL, ch. 8)

Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia is the hot-button chapter. Dubia and discord hover over it like a cloud, along with vastly divergent interpretations by Bishops around the world. Plus threats of schism.

The controversies should be no surprise, given that Pope Francis had declared in the introduction, “everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight” (n. 7). But amid such lingering turmoil, I suspect that Pope Francis may himself be challenged by the questions which surround this section of his Apostolic Exhortation.

Readers who have followed this blog's comments on previous chapters of "The Joy of Love" have likely noted that I see this document as an exercise in creative fidelity: Pope Francis seems to be not only stretching those who want fidelity to the truths of the faith ("let's get more creative pastorally"), but also grounding those who want more pastoral creativity ("let's keep rooted in the unchanging truths of the faith"). Unfortunately, Chapter Eight contains enough ambiguous passages--or even apparent contradictions--that both traditionalists and progressives have much they could latch on to.

Identifying the challenges.  Perhaps the most helpful way to enter into Chapter Eight is to use it as an opportunity for self-examination: As a reader, what do I find most challenging in the passages that follow? Is it feeling that the Holy Father is going too far, or not far enough?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Embracing an Anxiety-Free Lent

I recently drove into Chicago for a meeting, pulled up at the designated site, and jumped out to park the car. The parking attendant noticed my Bible on the front seat.

He proceeded to strike up a conversation by asking, "Is that your Bible?" I replied, "Yes, sir." He inquired further, "Have you read it today?" I answered, "Yes, I have."  Now clearly intrigued, he looked at me and said, "Give me somethin'!"

I told him I had been in chapter four of Philippians, where St. Paul says, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again, rejoice!"  I mentioned that Paul goes on to say, "Have no anxiety at all..."--and confessed to him that I struggle with the "no anxiety" part.

At this point, as we stood just off of Michigan Avenue, he squared up chest-to-chest with me, looked at me intently, and responded with utter confidence: "This is certainly a challenging word, my brother, but today you and I are going to live it--no anxiety for either of us all day!"

I gave him an, "Amen, brother," and walked on from this grace-full encounter to have a joyful day in the Lord, indeed!

Rather than just deciding what we're going to do for Jesus this Lent, maybe we should ask what Jesus wants from us this Lent.

My gut feeling is that one of the best Lenten offerings we can make this year is to hand over our anxieties to the Lord.  Whatever makes you twitch, or keeps you up at night; whatever drives you to compulsive coping mechanisms, or potentially addictive patterns of behavior: I think Jesus wants these from us this Lent.

After all, the Lord himself shockingly says, "do not worry about your life..." (Mt 6:25). Perhaps taking this advice to heart is just what will make Lent '17 different from all the rest. When I hand over the reins of my worries to my Lord and my God, a part of me dies to the illusion that I'm actually in control. Letting go our anxieties could be as easy as humbling ourselves to let God be God.

If the parking attendant and I could do it for a day, couldn't countless numbers of us do it indefinitely with the Lord's help?!
Of course, there is a force in the world which wants us to keep holding on to our anxieties: the Evil One, the Liar from the beginning. As long as we resist the subtle temptation to worry--the age-old murmuring which claims that we can become like gods and can control all the details of our daily lives--as long as we hand all of our concerns to the God-Man, then the Tempter cannot divide and conquer our hearts.

Embracing an anxiety-free Lent will ensure that we rejoice always this Easter :)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Three Ways to Play a "Catholic Trump Card"

In euchre and many other card games, a key question centers on how to play one's trump cards most effectively.  Here are four recommendations for Catholics as they consider analogous questions about engaging the Trump administration:

  1. Pray always. If you like some of the President's actions, offer a prayer of thanksgiving. If you are confused by some of his comments, offer a prayer of petition. If you disagree in any way, offer a prayer of intercessor.

    And, when it seems like the President might be more a foe than a friend, remember not what you have heard said, but what the Lord Jesus says to each of us: "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father" (Mt 5:44-45). At the very least, prayer always changes us for the better.

  2. Speak from common ground, regarding shared truths. Follow the courage and candor of Pope Francis' speech on religious liberty at Independence Hall in 2015. Freedom of religion means much more than mere freedom to worship; the free exercise of religion safeguards authentic diversity--plurality within our unity.  As the Holy Father put it, "Our religious traditions remind us that, as human beings, we are called to acknowledge an Other, who reveals our relational identity in the face of every effort to impose 'a uniformity to which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us' ..."

  3. Petition for positive change, in communion with the Bishops and all people of good will! Check out recent statements from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Bishops Along Northern Mexico and Texas Border Issue Statement on Immigration; USCCB Chairmen and President of Catholic Relief Services Urge the Trump Administration to Care for Creation; finally, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., Archbishop William E. Lori, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane have issued this Statement Urging President Trump to Fulfill his Promise to Protect Religious Liberty.

    If you have not already done so, please join the leadership of the USCCB and urge President Trump to sign an executive order respecting religious freedom.
The most effective "play" for Catholics, today as always is, is to commit our prayer, study and social action toward authentic change which is consistent with core principles of Catholic social teaching. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, pray for us--