Monday, July 25, 2016

Out of Africa: Christ Continues to Speak

A recent family mission trip to Malawi, the "Warm Heart of Africa," opened my eyes to the beauty of a youthful Catholic Church.

A youthful Church dares to keep itself attuned to the voice of Christ; it is more interested in leading others to the fullness of life than in making accommodations with a post-modern culture. A youthful Church may experience growing pains, but it trusts in Jesus' promised Advocate--and in its supernatural mission.

As with any authentic mission experience, this was more of a pilgrimage than an outreach--a journey forth from a Land of Libertine Comfort Zones, into a Land Alive to the Presence of God Among Us.

When my parents first traveled to the Namitembo Mission a number of years ago, they were deeply moved by the joyfulness and generosity of the people. They were also edified by the Malawian reverence for the Mass and by the multi-part harmony of the hymns--accompanied with drums and shakers (My father even predicted that the music in heaven would be sung in Chichewa!)

I was struck by the experience of praying in communion with the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, while in a small village somewhere in southeast Africa. Novices from burgeoning communities of women religious; seminarians from vibrant centers of formation; families making sacrificial offerings at festive Sunday celebrations: This Church is no self-referential community focused on getting its needs met. They are a people on the move, Spirit-filled evangelizers indeed.

The Church in Malawi is a Christ-centered community which celebrates Mother and Child and which sees suffering in light of the Paschal Mystery. It is a People of God clearly rooted in familial relationships, even while this people recognizes their deepest identity as adopted siblings of the Father whom Jesus came to reveal.

The Church in Malawi continues to touch minds and hearts through education, resisting the neocolonialism of the West which insists on tying economic development to an atheistic anthropology. Like the Church universal, the Church in Malawi stands committed to solidarity with the people rather than to slavery to anonymous cultural forces and powerful ideologies.

The Church in Malawi seems to embody Jesus' simple saying: "The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed."  From humble beginnings not so long ago, through sacrificial giving of selfless missionaries, the beauty of God's self-revelation in Jesus has begun to bear much fruit.  I pray that the small seed planted by my family at the St. Joseph Center in the Thyolo region of Malawi will continue to germinate and flower.

The vibrant voice of Christ himself continues to speak through the Church in Malawi. A people attuned to beauty and goodness and truth can still recognize that He alone makes all things new. 

Our Lady of Africa, pray for us--

P.S. The U.S. Bishops continue to promote this Solidarity Fund for the Church in Africa, as a way to contribute to helping our brothers and sisters begin meeting their many needs.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Our Struggle is Not with Flesh and Blood

"For our struggle is not with flesh and blood
but with the principalities, with the powers,
with the world rulers of this present darkness,
with the evil spirits in the heavens."

(Eph 6:12)

What if meaninglessness is the root cause of our world's senseless and spiraling violence?  

"Right and wrong" have been uprooted from reality by the principalities, powers and world rulers of this present darkness. A chasm has opened up on all fronts. It is a void, a black hole, a vacuum which strives to swallow everything in its path.

The name of this abyss is absolute freedom--a liberty disconnected from reality. We may think it our own freedom, or we may consider it a capricious will from on high, but its seductive appeal is easy enough to grasp. And its logical implications are now playing themselves out.

After all, when each person is absolutely free to determine the meaning of one's own existence, a collision of conflicting freedoms becomes inevitable. When people feel justified in causing carnage to achieve some allegedly noble ends, the "means" have ensured the emptiness of the effort. 

When we define reality based on how we feel, and when we try to redefine what is based on how we wish things were, then we make ourselves impotent masters of a universe without order. We unleash the whirlwind of anarchy. We allow the arbitrary to become absolute.

In this context, the logic of Islamic jihadists and domestic terrorists thus looks shockingly similar to those who think that they can defeat violence with violence. This seems to be the only way to resolve the clash of conflicting freedoms. It looks like the only way to bring order into an ocean of emptiness. Evil spirits everywhere hiss, "might makes right," and there seems to be no alternative world view.

But there is a different Way which could redeem human freedom itself. There is a  response to emptiness and hopelessness rooted in a deeper logic of reality itself. It requires opening ourselves to a piercing Presence which can transform the apparent absence of the moment.

This one credible response to meaninglessness and endless cycles of violence comes in the confounding shape of the Cross. Cruciform love delivers self-transformation, rather than mere self-actualization. Its stance is always other-centered, not self-centered. It manifests as self-giving, rather than self-seeking. 

Such love alone creates--even out of death and nothingness. "Therefore," St. Paul advises, "put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground" (Eph 6:13).

Monday, July 11, 2016

"In the Light of the Word" (AL, Ch. 1)

"Given the rich fruits of the two-year Synod process,
this Exhortation will treat, in different ways,
a wide variety of questions.
This explains its inevitable length.
Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.
The greatest benefit, for families themselves
and for those engaged in the family apostolate,
will come if each part is read patiently and carefully..."

+Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia [AL], (n. 7)

Pope Francis longs to speak heart-to-heart with "Phil and Frannie."  Phil and Frannie are regular "family folks"--our neighbors and relatives and old friends.  They are ourselves--men and women who are living and loving as best we can, given the messiness of our post-modern and increasingly post-Christian world.

As the comment above suggests, Holy Father Francis wants all of us regular (and "irregular"!) family folks to ponder his words.  To wrestle with them.  To open our hearts anew to the beauty of God's revelation about life and love.

It has been said that, as the family goes, so goes society.  We all come into being through a family, and these families serve as the fundamental building blocks of our local communities.  Some families of origin may be deeply flawed from the outset, of course; others may become so over time. Pope Francis knows that these things happen in a fallen world, and yet he wants Phils and Frannies around the world to hear the good news about marriage and family life...

This brief reflection will begin with some of Pope Francis' insights from Chapter 1 of Amoris Laetitia, entitled "In the Light of the Word." Let's reflect together in the way that Papa Francesco would like us to do so--that is, "patiently and carefully":
  • Pope Francis reminds us that Jesus reaffirmed the primordial plan revealed in Genesis, namely, that God created the human person in his very image--as a couple.  "Male and female": The difference makes all the difference; the complementarity makes the image complete.  The fruitfulness of the love between a man and a woman, which alone begets life, is "a true and living icon" of God's very being (AL, n. 11). 
  • Following St. John Paul II's lead, Pope Francis reiterates that "Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.  That love, in the divine family is the Holy Spirit" (AL, n. 11). The family thus provides a living reflection of the mystery of the Trinity: difference embraced in unity; otherness accepted in communion.
  • The pope's meditation on Psalm 128 paints another portrait of the family, "where husband and wife are seated at table, children appear at their side 'like olive shoots'" (AL, n. 14). Parents provide a foundation so their children can become the "living stones" of new families; in this way, "succeeding generations can raise their song to the Lord" (AL, n. 16).
  • Pope Francis is not naive about the disintegrating impact of sin. He reassures us that "Jesus knows the anxieties and tensions experienced by families and he weaves them into his parables" (AL, n. 21). Suffering and violence run throughout the stories of the scriptures, and the Holy Father reminds us that "the word of God is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering" (AL, n. 22).  The Word of God reveals the goal of our journey: the fullness of Life, which conquers all suffering and death itself. 
Phil and Frannie may not know iconography, but they understand that a work of art reflects the genius of the artist.  They may not know what an olive plant looks like, but they understand that they are the fruit of parents, grandparents and generations of ancestors through whom the gift of love has flown. They may not be able to offer a philosophical critique of the culture's isolated individualism, but they know that real relationships are the stuff of life--and that these relationships overflow with new life.

Phil and Frannie don't need Ph.D.s to understand that marriage and family must be rooted in "the law of love and the gift of self for others" (AL, n. 27).  Indeed, they understand that Christian love is about laying down one's life for one's friends. Their personal experience has shown that love is a matter of mercy and forgiveness and--to use a favorite Pope Francis term--tenderness (AL, n. 28)!

God continues to communicate through families, and the families of so many Phils and Frannies provide images and reflections of the divine Trinity.  Imperfect and flawed though they may still be, family folks everywhere are "called to join in prayer, to read the word of God and to share in Eucharistic communion, and thus to grow in love and become ever more fully a temple which the Spirit dwells" (AL, n. 29).

In the weeks ahead, take some time to check out Chapter 1, and we will continue our journey into this magisterial teaching next month :)


P.S. Starting 8.1.16, we will be sharing Amoris Laetitiae one-paragraph-per-day through the following blog:  If you would like to subscribe to read this document in bite-sized chunks, just go to the "follow by email" tab to register (if you have previously subscribed to read Laudato Si' and Evangelii Gaudium, no need to re-subscribe--you are all set!).

Monday, July 4, 2016

Jesus' Most Counter-Cultural Challenge

"Rich Young Man" by Mironov

In the self-professed "land of the free," and in a global context defined by rapidity of change, it is worth pondering which of Jesus' teachings most challenges the times in which we live.

It could be "blessed are the peacemakers" and the call to radical non-violence.

The powers of the world certainly like to impose their will on others via force, and radical secularism rationalizes its state-sanctioned violence almost as convincingly as does radical Islam. However, there is at least a consensus among reasonable people that peace is preferable to war. The world still longs to celebrate peacemakers, in the hopes human flourishing might advance without endless streams of bloodshed.

Jesus is himself the Peace which the world cannot give itself, but this is not his most counter-cultural challenge.

It could be "blessed are the pure of heart" and the call to chastity.

We clearly live in a world whose understanding of human sexuality has come unhinged. There is no doubt that the ever-expanding pornography industry drives the demand for sex-trafficking, and the sexual abuse of women and children runs rampant. However, there is at least a recognition among reasonable people that lust run amuck is not a good thing, that God has created us male and female from the beginning, that self-giving love is preferable to mutual use, and that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is truly possible.

Jesus provides the answer to today's confused and confusing questions about human sexuality, but this is not his most counter-cultural challenge.

Jesus' most counter-cultural challenge is "blessed are the poor in spirit" and the radical rejection of greed.