Monday, December 31, 2012

Grant us, O Lord, an open mind, an eager heart, and a spirit ready and willing to recognize and receive your abundant grace. (Reflections on New Year's Day, 2013, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Luke 2:16-21)

A few years ago, I was assigned prefect of discipline (dean of men) at the major seminary in Manila. At that time, seminarians were just beginning to own cellular phones. (Prior to that everyone had to use the seminary’s communal phones.) Since owning a mobile phone was a new experience for everyone, and its impact on the lives of students had yet to be fully discovered, there were a number of priests on formation staff who wanted to simply forbid students from bringing their phones with them.

Others, who understood that the best way to deal with the advent of new technology is not to fight it, but learn how to responsibly deal with it (even make good use of it), decided that the best way to still allow students to bring their cell phones with them while at the same time prevent its use from being a constant distraction from their study and prayer, was to simply have them surrender the gadgets to the prefect as soon as they returned to seminary. They may then ask to use it whenever it were needed.

The arrangement was a little awkward, but it worked. Needless to say, outside my office door there was a basket that was constantly filled with phones with post-it notes tacked on to them, with their owners’ names. We all eventually got used to it even though I would learn from time to time that a student would forget to hand over his phone, or would simply keep his phone in his room, thinking perhaps I wouldn’t know since there were dozens of them. (I, of course, always checked. It was, after all, my job.)

One morning, while preaching at Mass, a phone suddenly began to ring. It was a very low ring, so it was barely audible; though everyone could still hear it. I stopped, looked at the seminary students sitting there in front of me, and asked: “Whose phone is that?” There was no reply. I paused briefly, then said, “Look you guys, we’ve had this arrangement for a number of months now and it has worked quite well. Granted, it’s awkward, but it’s the best arrangement we have right now. Besides, you can always ask me to use your phone. I don’t understand why some of you would still insist on keep them in your rooms. Now, whose phone is that?” 

By then, the phone had stopped ringing, but I still hadn’t resumed preaching as I was waiting for someone to come forward and own up to the whole thing. Finally, I issued a threat, “Listen, unless someone tells me whose phone that was, I’m not going to let you guys go home this coming weekend”. Suddenly, I noticed a hand go up. “Finally!” I thought to myself. “Was that phone yours?” I asked the brave young man who had raised his hand, rather sheepishly. “Uh, father, I think that phone was yours.” I reached into my pocket, and to my surprise—and horror—it was!

It was probably one of my most embarrassing moments; the phone which I would ordinarily never take with me when I have Mass, was right there, in my pocket, ringing during my homily. (It had no vibrate function and the ring wasn’t that loud.) Why didn’t I realize sooner that it was my phone? Why was I so quick to accuse my own students of not handing over their phones to me?

It was probably a mixture of a lot of things: being focused on the homily I was preaching, my ears not functioning well that early in the morning, or perhaps it was something else, something far less kind. Perhaps it was because in my mind, only one scenario was possible (and I was unconsciously so convinced of it): a phone ringing at Mass could only belong to a student, never to a priest, especially not the one presiding; and especially not myself! It was the sole perspective that directed my conclusion that morning. But it was wrong.

We all have ways of seeing things, of understanding and doing things. (Philosophers have sometimes used the more technical term “ways or modes of understanding” to refer to it.) They’re ways by which we make sense of things, our interactions and relationships, and our life as a whole. They assist us in our day to day living. They’re habits of mind, of affect, but also of heart and soul; and in themselves, they are neither good nor bad. They simply are.

The problem with these ways of understanding, however, is that they too often become ‘hard’ and ‘intractable’. Every once in a while, these very aids in making sense of our world, cease to become aids and become instead, hindrances, blinders that prevent us from seeing that there are other possible ‘ways of understanding, thinking, feeling, and doing’, that there are other paths that we may not have considered. What used to be an aid to living life suddenly becomes a stubborn, rigid, and inflexible definition of life itself. When that happens, we too become hardened, inflexible, rigid, and stubborn. “Been there; done that”; “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”; “I know”; are but some of the ways by which such stubbornness is sometimes expressed.

And yet, stubbornness itself isn’t always bad. A lot of times it actually works to one’s advantage. Think of tenacity and that stick-to-it attitude that eventually allows one to triumph over great adversity What is bad and deleterious to one’s growth, however, isn’t stubbornness, it’s obstinacy, stubbornness of heart; because it prevents one from discovering that there may actually be better paths, better ways of seeing, understanding and doing that one may not have seen before, and that one may not have tried. In the life of the soul (but also in one’s emotional and even intellectual life), obstinacy poses one of the greatest hindrances to not only to growth, but also to one’s receptivity to the gifts, graces, and blessings that God may be sending one’s way.

There are three important characters in today’s Gospel: Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. Imagine if each of them held on to their set ways of seeing or understanding things.

Imagine if Mary had said to Gabriel: “I am a virgin. I am not married. I have not had relations with a man. What would other people say if I suddenly became pregnant. Who would believe that I am bearing the Son of God? I cannot accept your word. I have my reputation to protect. I’m sorry, but no”. 

Imagine if Joseph had said: “I can’t accept Mary, or her child. I’ve never had relations with her. How do I know that she didn’t simply cheat on me. Sure I’d love to have a child carry my name; but I want it to be my own child, not a child with such uncertain origins. What would other people say; I have my reputation to protect. Besides, it simply wouldn’t feel right taking care of someone else's child. I’m sorry, but no”. 

Imagine if the shepherds had said to the angel: “All the ancient prophecies have pointed to a strong and powerful Messiah who would come and save Israel from its enemies and oppressors. Every single one of them has prophesied the coming of a mighty king. And you ask us to go and pay homage to an infant, in a manger? You want us to believe, against everything we have been taught, that this infant, born of poor parents, is the king of Israel? That’s too hard to believe and accept. It can’t be. We’re sorry, but no”.

[Deep inside, I think that’s what was going on when I was preaching at that Mass. Deep inside this train of thought was running: “You expect me to believe that I, a priest who has always been most conscientious about things, would neglect to turn off my phone during Mass? You expect me to believe that my students who are often careless in class and in other things, and who would sometimes hide the truth to get away with things, wouldn’t be the ones guilty of leaving their phone on during Mass? Sorry, that goes against everything I’m used to, no”. Obstinacy sometimes runs subtly, but it runs deep.]

We have before us a brand new year, a fresh start, a clean slate – ready to be written on, ready to be filled with God’s graces, gifts, and blessings—something that’s only truly possible, if we are ready and open to receive them.

One of the things I’ve learned from my close to two decades of teaching is that some of the most difficult students to teach and form are not the average or even weak ones. These, when they are willing to put in the extra effort and energy can actually be a joy to teach. The most difficult ones to form and teach are those who believe that they know everything and have therefore very little else to learn, those who are often so full of themselves that there is very little space left in their minds, hearts, and souls, for anything new to make its home, those whose ways of seeing, understanding, and doing, have becomes so rigid, inflexible, and obstinate, that no true ‘formation’ can really take place.

What is true of education is true of all of life, especially the spiritual life. Only a glass that is empty can still be filled, only a mind that is ready can be taught, only a spirit, a heart, and soul that has ceased to be rigid, stubborn, and inflexible, but has instead become open to the many new and amazing things God stands ready to reveal, can truly receive the many gifts, graces and blessings He is always willing to give.

A New Year is before us, a wide open door, a fresh start, a clean and clear slate. Let us keep our hearts, minds, and souls ready, empty of our selves, but open, and ready to be filled by a God who waits eagerly for us to welcome all the great and amazing things he has in store for us this year.

With Mary whose Feast as the Mother of God, we celebrate today, let us proclaim as she did when Gabriel visited her for the first time: “I am the Lord’s Servant. Let it be done to me, according to your word”.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Not everything that glitters is gold." (A Brief Reflection on the Solemnity of Christ the King, John 18:33-37)

As usual, it was the news story of the day (Black Friday)—the official start of the Holiday Shopping season. News story after news story showed it all, people lining up for hours to be the first to get their hands on a bargain. One news feature showed a growing number of people who now decide to forsake Thanksgiving at home and instead camp outside stores from 7 am on Thanksgiving day and bring their Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie with them while waiting in line for hours. (By the way, they just coined a new phrase to describe the fact that shopping now begins, not on Friday, but on Thanksgiving Day itself; they're calling it "Gray Thursday".)
Another video on Youtube showed a number of people pushing each other and screaming at each other, just to get their hands on some cheap prepaid cellular phones. In one mall, a shopper pulled a gun on someone who cut the line.

Yet another interesting item that was played over and over again the last two days was the increasing number of people who prefer to shop over the internet. It’s quick, hassle-free, with no long lines, and you can even do a bit of research and read product reviews by others who have bought them.

I myself was looking at these product reviews, not because I was going to buy something, but because some of them might prove useful as examples in Social Ethics class. Some of the reviews were particularly hilarious.

One of the funniest I saw said: “It looked good, it felt good, the price seemed like a really great bargain… item didn’t work… totally lousy, worthless piece of …..” I’m not going to finish the last word, but you can pretty much fill in the blanks.

It seems that one of the many great lessons of every shopping season is that “looks can be deceiving”. “Not everything that glitters is gold”. Perhaps we can even say: “Not everything that seems like a bargain, is really a bargain”. There’s a “good deal”; and then there’s the “real deal”. Looks can deceive, and not everything that glitters is gold.

Today’s gospel places before us, two men who stand in stark contrast to one another.  On the one hand, you have Pilate, the earthly ruler, dressed in royal finery, with all the trappings of wealth and power.

On the other hand, you have Jesus, garbed in a dirty and bloody robe, all beaten and bruised, with a crown of thorns placed on him by Pilates’ soldiers who mocked and beat him.

Two men, one looking like a ruler, the other looking pretty much like trash. The contrast and irony is striking. For when we consider these two men, we find ourselves asking: “Which of the two is the real ruler? Who has the real power? Which one is the real deal, and which one simply looks like it?”

Pilate certainly looked like a ruler. But we know had the real power in the story. And it wasn’t him.

Jesus certainly looked defeated. But we know who’s the real winner in the end. And it wasn’t Pilate.

The contrast between them shows us the meaning of today’s feast. Jesus puts it in these words: “My kingdom is not of this world”.

Pilate and Jesus are put before us by the gospel to show us the stark difference between “the way of the world” and “the way of Christ”.

Pilate, the earthly ruler, stands for everything “worldly”. It’s all a big “show”, it’s about “being seen”. It’s all about externals. It’s about everything that glitters, that looks good, seems good, sounds good, and feels good.

But the question is: “Is it really good?” The answer, sadly, is “no”.

As that internet review said: “It looked good, it felt good, the price seemed like a really great bargain… but the item didn’t work… it was a totally lousy, worthless, piece of junk.”

Pilate, just like the world, is all about show, with very little soul. It may look good on the outside; inside it’s usually empty. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but in the process lose his soul?” Jesus asks in another part of the gospel.

Today’s Feast of Christ the King is a reminder to us to not allow ourselves to be deceived and misled by the ways of the world. It invites us to look for what is valuable, not in fancy and showy externals, but in what is true, meaningful, and lasting.

Our values, our principles, our relationships with one another and finally, our faith in God: these things that last. It is these things that remain, long after we’re gone.

Two thousand years after the encounter between Pilate and Jesus, Jesus is the one who is celebrated as king and ruler, not Pilate.

We wouldn’t even be talking about Pilate, if it weren’t for Jesus. Pilate is largely forgotten, Jesus is not.

“My kingdom is not of this world”. Jesus’ words place a stark choice before us today, and it’s a choice that will determine whether we will live forever, like Christ; or be largely forgotten, like Pilate.

And the choice is simple: Shall we pattern our lives after this showy, unreal, and ultimately fading world? Or are we going to be like Christ? Are we going to be “the real deal?”

Thursday, November 15, 2012

In this alone one truly lives...

“Lord, make us know the shortness of our life, and we shall gain wisdom of heart”. (Psalm 90:12) 

To live like one were dying, to give at every minute of one’s life, one’s all, to put in the treasury, everything one owns, like the poor widow of the Gospel, willingly perishing from one’s thoughts all and every worry about tomorrow; in this alone one truly lives.

There's  a certain reckless abandon required if one is to live life to the full, a certain surrender to the unknown, a willingness to walk and be guided by the most ephemeral signs and pointers along the way, as one allows himself to be led only by God’s providential hand, from the comfort and security of terra firma to the immense mystery and awesome darkness of terra incognita, trusting only in the God who shall always be waiting.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law" - Paul in his Letter to the Romans (A Reflection on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 22:34-40)

"The entire Law is summed up in a single command: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:15) 

Dr. Tom Dooley was a well-known doctor who spent his life helping thousands of refugees in Vietnam many years ago, before he himself died of cancer. He used to tell a story of how one time he was brought to a small dark and dingy hut where in a corner was a little boy huddled and crying out in pain. He couldn’t figure out what it was that smelled so bad until he finally touched the child and discovered he had been covered with cow dung, probably the only known home-remedy that these poor people could afford.

He asked the parents to help him remove the dung that had covered the child, and only then did he discover the sores on the boy’s flesh, already infected and in some places, infested with maggots. Gross, isn’t it! I found the story quite terrible myself. The good doctor, said he felt nauseous at first, but eventually got to cleansing the boy’s wounds, applying proper medication, and bundled him with a ton of bandages.

On his way out of the hut, still feeling quite shaken by what he had seen, Dooley found himself crying and telling himself: "I do not know if that boy will survive or eventually die (in those conditions, he was more likely to die), but this I know: crying out from that little bundle of flesh was my Lord in agony, and I know that what is done for the least of my brothers is done to him". 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus—in response to the question, Which is the first of all the commandments?—places side by side the command of Love of God and that of neighbor. The two commandments are inseparable; they form two aspects of but one commandment of love. Our love for God can only be made manifest in our love for our brothers and sisters in need.

I once knew this lady who’s very religious and pious; she was very active in church, was very generous to the parish, and very kind to priests. When her kids were all grown-up, she decided to join a religious order as a lay member. I admired her a lot and enjoyed having conversations with her about faith and religion, since she wasn’t only very bright, but was also well read.

Once however, I ran into her in a religious goods store; she didn’t see me come in of course, but from a distance, I noticed she was harassing the cashier about some little item the girl mistakenly priced. (Granted the cashier should’ve been more careful. But that’s beside the point). Never did I think this nice woman who always had “God” on her lips, could actually act so mean, and for something so minor. She finally noticed me walking towards her, and her demeanor changed. “Oh, Father, I didn’t see you there”. And then, embarrassed perhaps that I had seen and heard her nastiness, she said: “You know Father, you really have to act this way to these people. They’re so lazy and incompetent. That’s why these people are poor and will stay that way. I just don’t have time for these people”.

Who among us has not met such persons? Who among us has not been that kind of person, at one point or another? Perhaps because of that encounter, and the embarrassment she felt, she never asked to talk theology and religion with me again. I, on my part, was somewhat glad, because honestly, I felt quite mad as I stood there listening to the uncharitable words that came from this woman who, just days ago, was talking to me about the parish’s outreach program to the city’s poor she was involved in.

At such moments, I couldn’t help but find myself understanding, if not actually sympathizing with my atheistic and agnostic friends who would complain that Christianity would be ok if it weren't for some Christians who give it a bad name; and I couldn’t help but recall Jesus’ rather harsh words: 

“Away from me you accursed ones, away to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you did not give me food; I was thirsty, and you did not give me drink; I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me; naked and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.” 

How much do we really love God? Do we love him enough to love him truly and sincerely? Or is our love mere lip service? Our love for God can only be proven by our love for people, people who are flesh and blood, good and bad, pleasant and undesirable, our friends and our enemies. 

“What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” (James 2:14-16) 

A tree is known by its fruit, and the tree of our faith and love of God must bear the fruit of neighborly-love; there simply isn’t any other way.

And why is that? Precisely because it is Christ that we love when we serve those in need. And it is also Christ whom we refuse and reject when we fail to assist those who need us. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me”.

Albert Aerts, a Belgian lawyer during the war, spoke of it in an experience he had during the war. He picked up a wounded man and carried him for more than a mile till he found a house where he could be treated. As he carried him along those devastated streets, he wondered what the point was of carrying this man who would surely die anyway. As he looked at his bony hands, black and blue, and full of bruises, it suddenly dawned on him, it was Christ he was carrying. Suddenly everything had a point, and it was no longer futile to carry this man who would die anyway.

“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, [namely] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These are Saint Paul's words in his Letter to the Romans. (13:8-9)

The scribe who came to Jesus wanted to know which (of the hundreds of laws they followed) was the most important one. Jesus didn't pick a few, instead he pointed his questioner to just two: love of God and love of neighbor - two inseparable commands, summed up by Paul in just one word: "love", which he calls "the fulfillment of the law." (Rom. 13:10)

Friday, November 2, 2012

“If Christ did not rise from the dead, then our preaching is useless, and you have believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:14) Thomas Aquinas on Death and the Immortality of the Soul

What happens when we die? To grasp Saint Thomas Aquinas's thinking on this question, we will need to be clear on at least one thing. This is that he does not believe that human souls survive as complete human beings after we die. He thinks that human beings are both bodily and non-bodily beings. He therefore concludes that the survival of them as nothing but body, or as nothing but what is not bodily, cannot be the survival of them properly speaking. 

To understand Thomas on the survival of the human soul, we must forget about notions like that of people surviving their death as complete incorporeal persons, which is certainly the Cartesian view of survival after death, and which is also, perhaps, the most common view among non-philosophers. [Think of movie portrayals of souls leaving the body at death, dressed in pretty much the same clothes, looking pretty much the same as the deceased, except having some sort of translucent, spectral quality.] Thomas’ view is that Fred's soul can survive the death of Fred. But the soul of Fred when he has died is not itself Fred (i.e. Fred's soul, apart from Fred's body, is not Fred).

Yet why should we even say that Fred's soul can survive the death of Fred? At this point it is important to remember that Thomas thinks of the human soul as 'the form of the body' and as something subsisting. For his argument is that, if that is what the human soul is, then the human soul is not something perishable. He holds that for something (e.g. a cow) to perish is for the thing in question to lose its substantial form, to lose what makes it the kind of thing it is. Perishing, for Thomas, is the loss of form, and form is that in terms of which we analyze perishing. He therefore concludes that it makes no sense to speak of form as such perishing. And if the form in question subsists, he reasons, it continues to exist as something subsistent.

Not being a body capable of perishing (as the biological human organism is), and yet being subsistent, the human soul cannot perish. For Thomas, that by virtue of which I understand and think is not the sort of thing which can die as bodies can die. (Ia, 75, 6) Of course, he is perfectly aware that people die and that their bodies perish. But he does not think that this entails that people are totally extinguished. It only entails the destruction of everything which belongs to them as animals.

However, people, for Thomas, are rational, understanding animals, and they are what they are by virtue of what is not material. This aspect of people must, he concludes, be capable of surviving the destruction of what is material. He does not think we can prove that the soul of Fred must survive Fred's death. In his view, whether or not Fred's soul survives the death of Fred will depend on whether God wills to keep it in being, and Thomas does not think that we are in a position to prove that God must do that. For him, therefore, there is no 'proof of the immortality of the soul'. He holds that Fred's soul could, in principle, cease to exist at any time. But he also thinks that it is not the sort of thing of which it makes sense to say that it can perish as bodies can perish.

Yet, for Thomas, neither is it the sort of thing which can survive as a human animal can survive. So the survival of Fred's soul is not the survival of the human being we call 'Fred'. Or, as Thomas puts it, 'my soul is not I'. People, for him, are very much part of the physical world. Take that world away and what you are left with is not a human person. You are not, for example, left with something able to know by means of sense experience. Nor are you left with something able to undergo the feelings or sensations that go with being bodily. On Thomas’ account, therefore, the human soul can only be said to survive as something purely intellectual, as the locus of thought and will.

One implication of this teaching which Thomas draws is that there is no joy or pain in the life of a surviving soul, where joy and pain involve physiological processes and states. 'A disembodied soul', he states, 'does not feel joy and sadness due to bodily desire, but due to intellectual desire, as with the angels.' (Ia, 77, 8.5)

Given all that, of course, one might naturally ask: 'Can I live after my death?' If my soul is not me, and if only my soul survives my death, then it would seem that I cannot really be said to survive my death. Aquinas, however, accepts this conclusion. He does not regard it as ruling out anything he wants to maintain. In his view, the existence of a human soul apart from what is bodily is unnatural. He also thinks that, if I die and only my soul survives, then I do not survive. For my soul is the soul of the individual person that I am. And I am a particular, perishable, bodily individual. Destroy my body, there­fore, and the particular person that I am ceases to exist.

On the other hand, however, not everyone who believes in human life after death wishes to conceive of it as survival of something incorporeal. And such is the case with biblical authors such as the evangelists and St Paul. In their scheme of things, life after death is not a matter of what we might call 'the immortality of the soul'. It is a matter of resurrection.

And this is Thomas’ view as well. My soul is not me, he says. But he also believes that it shall be reunited with my body. And then, he thinks, I shall live again. When my soul is reunited with my body, he argues, I shall again be there as the person I am now. In fact, he adds, the soul naturally belongs with the body.

Thomas does not think that human happiness consists in bodily life. He sees it as ultimately lying in the vision of God, which can be enjoyed without the body. 'There can', he says, 'be no complete and final happiness for us save in the vision of God.' But he also holds that something is lacking with respect to happiness in disembodied souls, and that the lack here lies in the absence of the body.

So long as the soul enjoys God without its partner, its desire, though at rest with what it has, still longs for the body to enter in and share. Desire in a disembodied soul is wholly at rest on the part of the object loved, for it possesses what contents it. Yet not on the part of the subject desiring, for the good is not possessed in every manner that can be wished for. Hence when the body is reassumed happiness will grow, not in depth but in extent... Since it is natural for the soul to be united to the body how is it credible that the perfection of the one should exclude the perfection of the other? Let us declare, then, that happiness complete and entire requires the well-being of the body, both before and during its activity. (Ia2ae, 5.4)

In short, if human beings are to be happy after death as human beings, they will need to be raised from the dead in bodily form. They will need to be what Thomas thinks people are now, i.e. human beings, not incorporeal substances. 'Therefore we believe according to our faith in the future resurrection of the dead.' And this, Thomas thinks, means that between what I am now, and what I am to be hereafter, there must be material continuity. Some philosophers speculating on the possibility of personal survival have settled for less than this. They have, for example, said that I can survive if there is some kind of psychological continuity between me now and me hereafter. Others, believing that for people to exist involves bodies existing, have said that I can live again if there is some body or other for me to 'inhabit' or for me to be identified with. For Thomas, however, personal identity requires bodily continuity. For me to live again, he says, there must be a human body. But not just any old body will do if I am to live again.

Just as the same specific form ought to have the same specific matter, so the same numerical form ought to have the same numerical matter. The soul of an ox cannot be the soul of a horse's body, nor can the soul of this ox be the soul of any other ox. Therefore, since the rational soul that survives remains numerically the same, at the resurrection it must be reunited to numerically the same matter. (Compendium Th., 153)

How? Thomas simply does not explain. He does not claim to know what processes must occur in the resurrection of an individual human being. And he does not think that there is any general scientific reason for holding that people survive their death. 'Since the human body substantially dissolves in death', he says, 'it cannot be restored to numerical identity by the action of nature.' But he is absolutely clear that such numerical identity is needed if I am to live again, and, given his belief in the power of God, he finds no objection in principle to believing that it can be brought about.

Since all things, even the very least, are included under divine providence ... the matter composing this human body of ours, whatever form it may take after our death, evidently does not elude the power or the knowledge of God. Such matter remains numerically the same, in the sense that it exists under quantitative dimensions, by reason of which it can be said to be this particular matter, and is the principle of individuation. If then, this mat­ter remains the same, and if the human body is again fashioned from it by divine power, and if also the rational soul which remains the same in its incorruptibility is united to the same body, the result is that identically the same man is restored to life. (Comp.Th., 154)

On this basis Thomas firmly insists on the reality of Christ's re­surrection. 'Whatever properties belong to the nature of a human body', he says, 'were totally present in Christ's risen body.' And this, so he adds, means just what it says. It means, for example, that the risen Christ had flesh, bones, blood, 'and other similar elements [which] pertain to the nature of a human body'.

 (From Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, 215-220.)

“We aren’t the entire score, simply a note in the eternal melody, a line in a verse of God’s everlasting poetry”. (Reflections on the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, November 2nd, John 6:37-40)

Death’s a strange creature. We only know it from a distance; our own death is something we can only imagine. An ancient philosopher, trying to calm the fears of his students once said that death is not to be feared, since when we’re around, death isn’t; and when death’s around, we aren’t. So what’s there to fear?

The Christian view of death is of course, quite different; it’s one of hope and trust. It speaks of a “passage”, not an “end”. It speaks more of a promised future than a completed past. Today’s commemoration of all souls witnesses to this fact.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit." Death is our gateway to glory. "It is the supreme festival on the way to freedom", as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer says. Really? 

Who remembers Bernard Connelly? [He’s one of the students buried in the American College plot in Park Abbey cemetery in Louvain. He was a seminarian who died in Belgium, years ago.] How about Joseph Nuttin? Who remembers him? He’s buried in a neighboring plot, also at Park Abbey. [He was a professor at the university.] We used to visit their graves during All Souls’ Day when we were students in Louvain; we’d say prayers for them and all the other students and professors of the seminary and university who have died over the years.

They’re fortunate to still have their names etched on tombstones. What of the others? Who now remembers those countless millions, nameless and faceless who died loving Christ and serving others throughout the ages? Even we who remember our own dead can only think and refer to this now anonymous crowd under the traditional collective term—“faithful departed”. It’s rather difficult to hold onto a promise of glory when you know there won’t be anyone left to remember you at some far distant future. For a handful of human beings, I guess it isn’t a problem. The more famous ones among us go down in history and are remembered—as two dimensional characters in history books. Is this the glory promised by Christ? I certainly hope not.

“The most powerful signs efface themselves”, says the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Today’s commemoration of the dead reminds us of this fact. Sir Lawrence Olivier was once asked why he became an actor and he answered: “Look at me; look at me; look at me”. Robert, a priest I met at The Hague many years ago also gave me that answer when I asked him why he decided to become a priest. 

I suppose that could also be said for many of us. We have gifts and talents, strengths and abilities we are proud to be able to share them. And that’s fine; the problem is, when the “I” is gone, there’s nothing left to look at, except perhaps a trace, which only gets dimmer as time go by.

The glory of which today’s Gospel reading speaks and is promised to us Christians is the glory of Christ who suffered, died, and rose again. We’re baptized into it. Now for John, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, though temporally distinct, are not three separate episodes. They’re part of one piece, a seamless garment revealing the glory of Christ. For John, Christ’s glorification is not an ‘after-effect’ of his death, and his death is not a mere ‘prelude’ causing or leading to his glorification. His death is his glorification. In his destruction and effacement lies Christ’s true power and glory.

The most powerful signs efface themselves. A Christian, initiated into the Body of Christ is initiated into Christ’s death. Dietrich Bonhoffer could not have put it more powerfully. He says: “When Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. What kind of death? Death to self.

The most powerful signs efface themselves. It’s easy to fall into the danger of wanting to save the world and putting ourselves in the forefront of salvation history. No need, the world was saved two thousand years ago. We’re not asked to do it again.

It’s easy to despair that our effort to change the world is often frustrated, our voices, silenced by a world so eager to prove itself right by proving us wrong. Does it matter?  Hardly. For we know that nothing we do is ever in vain. Our glory is not measured by our success. Instead it lies in the realization that our Redeemer lives.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” The faithful departed whom we remember today remind us that our true glory is in the person of Christ. It is not ourselves we proclaim, but him who sends us. We are not the sun, simply the moon reflecting the sun’s light. We are not the entire score, simply a note in the eternal melody, a line in the verse of God’s everlasting poetry.

Our hope of everlasting life is in our sharing in Christ’s death; our power in the losing and effacing of ourselves in order that Christ may be known; our glory in our being part of the Body of Christ our Head. The most powerful signs efface themselves. The faceless and nameless and now voiceless crowd whom we remember today speaks eloquently of this fact.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Your Father knows what you need, even before you ask". (A brief reflection on Bartimaeus' request, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mk. 10:46-52)

If God knows all things, if he knows our needs even before we ask them—why is there a need for us to pray? Why do we have to ask him for things, if he already knows what we are going to ask for?

A story is told of Alexander the Great wanting to meet the great philosopher, Diogenes. He finally had the chance one day, as he learned Diogenes was sitting alone on the beach. Alexander, with his retinue of soldiers went to the beach and saw Diogenes sunbathing. 

They walked towards the old man and Alexander stood right in front of him. Diogenes looks up and sees the young Alexander who then says: “Great Diogenes, I have heard your renown and the great things you have taught many. I have come to pay you homage. Ask me for anything and I will grant it”. 

Without even thinking, the old philosopher says to the young man: “There is but one thing I ask of you, great king. Do move aside. I am sunbathing, and you are blocking the sun”.

What we ask for in prayer shows who and what we are as persons, what we value and cherish most, what we find meaningful and important in life.

For Bartimaeus, it was sight. “Lord, I want to see”. What is it for us? What do we pray for? Whom do we pray for? What do we ask?

What do we ask God when we pray? Do we pray for ourselves? For those connected to us? Do we pray for wealth? For health? For success? Do we pray for that thing which will give us what we are really looking for in life, like Bartimaeus?

God hears our prayers, we know that. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you”, the Bible tells us. We may not get exactly what we ask for, but God does hear our prayers.

The question is, do we—hear our own prayers? Do we listen to ourselves praying? Does our prayer make us realize important things about ourselves? Does our prayer make us realize what kind of person, what kind of man or woman, father or mother, brother or sister, friend or co-worker we are?

What we pray for is a reflection of who we are: of our deepest values and longings, of what we believe to be most important in life. Sometimes, the things we ask for are daily needs, sometimes, they’re urgent needs; but they are always a reflection of who and what we are.

Bartimaeus’ prayer was answered because he came to Jesus in complete and total honesty. He knew what he wanted; he wanted to see—because he knew he was blind. He knew himself completely and presented himself to Jesus with no masks and no pretensions.

When I began this reflection I asked the question: If God knows all things, if he knows our needs even before we ask them—why is there a need for us to pray? Why do we have to ask him for things, if he already knows what we are going to ask for?

The answer is simple. God knows us, even before we ask him for anything. He knows us through and through. He knows our needs, our wants, and our desires. It is we, who often do not know ourselves. When we pray and ask God for things, it is not so much to tell him about us, but to tell us about ourselves. By letting God know what we want and what we desire—we come face to face with who and what we really are.

And because God knows us more than we know ourselves, he often answers our prayers, not in the way we want them to be answered, but in the way they should be answered. Let me share with you a poem that speaks of how God answers our prayers, and the need for us to recognize who and what we are when we pray.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for wealth, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for—but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue (By Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, March 11, 1984)

I first wish to express my appreciation to St. Louis University for the invitation to deliver the 1984 Wade Lecture. "The William Wade Lecture Series" is a fitting way to celebrate Father Wade's life as a priest, a philosopher, and a teacher. His interest in the moral issues confronting today's Church and society was an inspiration to all who knew him. I hope that my participation in this series will help to keep alive his memory and his ideals.

Three months ago I gave a lecture at Fordham University honoring another Jesuit educator, Father John Gannon, and I addressed the topic of a consistent ethic of life. That lecture has generated a substantial discussion both inside and outside the Church on the linkage of life issues, issues which, I am convinced, constitute a "seamless garment." This afternoon I would like to extend the discussion by expanding upon the idea of a consistent ethic of life.

The setting of a Catholic university is one deliberately chosen for these lectures. My purpose is to foster the kind of sustained intellectual analysis and debate which the Jesuit tradition has cultivated throughout its history. The discussion must go beyond the university but it will not occur without the involvement of Catholic universities. I seek to call attention to the resources in the Catholic tradition for shaping a viable public ethic. I hope to engage others in the Church and in the wider civil society in an examination of the challenges to human life which surround us today, and the potential of a consistent ethic of life. The Fordham lecture has catalyzed a vigorous debate; I seek to enlarge it, not to end it.

I will address three topics today: (1) the case for a consistent ethic of life; (2) the distinct levels of the problem; and (3) the contribution of a consistent ethic to the Church and society generally.

 I. The Seamless Garment: The Logic of the Case

The invitation extended to me for both the Gannon Lecture at Fordham and the Wade Lecture today asked that I address some aspect of the bishops' pastoral, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." While I would gladly have spent each lecture on the question of war and peace, I decided that it was equally necessary to show how the pastoral is rooted in a wider moral vision. Understanding that vision can enhance the way we address specific questions like the arms race. When I set forth the argument about this wider moral vision—a consistent ethic of life—it evoked favorable comments, often from individuals and groups who had supported the peace pastoral but found themselves at odds with other positions the Catholic Church has taken on issues touching human life. At the same time, the Fordham address also generated letters from people who fear that the case for a consistent ethic will smother the Catholic opposition to abortion or will weaken our stance against the arms race.

Precisely in response to these concerns, I wish to state the essence of the case for a consistent ethic of life, specifying why it is needed and what is actually being advocated in a call for such an ethic. There are, in my view, two reasons why we need to espouse a consistent ethic of life: (1) the dimensions of the threats to life today; and (2) the value of our moral vision.

The threat to human life posed by nuclear war is so tangible that it has captured the attention of the nation. Public opinion polls rank it as one of the leading issues in the 1984 election campaign; popular movements like the "nuclear Freeze" and professional organizations of physicians and scientists have shaped the nuclear question in terms which engage citizens and experts alike.
The Church is part of the process which has raised the nuclear issue to a new standing in our public life. I submit that the Church should be a leader in the dialogue which shows that the nuclear question itself is part of the larger cultural--political--moral drama. Pope John Paul II regularly situates his examination of the nuclear issue in the framework of the broader problem of technology, politics, and ethics.

When this broader canvas is analyzed, the concern for a specific issue does not recede, but the meaning of multiple threats to life today—the full dimension of the problems of politics and technology—becomes vividly clear. The case being made here is not a condemnation of either politics or technology, but a recognition with the Pope that, on a range of key issues, "it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can be saved." That quote from the Holy Father has unique relevance to nuclear war, but it can be used creatively to address other threats to life.

The range of application is all too evident: nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.

The reason I have placed such stress on the idea of a consistent ethic of life from the beginning of my term as chairman of the Pro-Life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is twofold: I am persuaded by the interrelatedness of these diverse problems, and I am convinced that the Catholic moral vision has the scope, the strength and the subtlety to address this wide range of issues in an effective fashion. It is precisely the potential of our moral vision that is often not recognized even within the community of the Church. The case for a consistent ethic of life—one which stands for the protection of the right to life and the promotion of the rights which enhance life from womb to tomb—manifests the positive potential of the Catholic moral and social tradition.

It is both a complex and a demanding tradition; it joins the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate. The potential of the moral and social vision is appreciated in a new way when the systemic vision of Catholic ethics is seen as the background for the specific positions we take on a range of issues.

In response to those who fear otherwise, I contend that the systemic vision of a consistent ethic of life will not erode our crucial public opposition to the direction of the arms race; neither will it smother our persistent and necessary public opposition to abortion. The systemic vision is rooted in the conviction that our opposition to these distinct problems has a common foundation and that both Church and society are served by making it evident.

A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.

A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life. It is not necessary or possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and necessary for the Church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection among the several issues. And it is very necessary for preserving a systemic vision that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other moral claims on the overall spectrum of life. Consistency does rule out contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life. No one is called to do everything, but each of us can do something. And we can strive not to stand against each other when the protection and the promotion of life are at stake.

 II. The Seamless Garment: The Levels of the Question

A consistent ethic of life should honor the complexity of the multiple issues it must address. It is necessary to distinguish several levels of the question. Without attempting to be comprehensive, allow me to explore four distinct dimensions of a consistent ethic.

First, at the level of general moral principles, it is possible to identify a single principle with diverse applications. In the Fordham address I used the prohibition against direct attacks on innocent life. This principle is both central to the Catholic moral vision and systematically related to a range of specific moral issues. It prohibits direct attacks on unborn life in the womb, direct attacks on civilians in warfare, and the direct killing of patients in nursing homes.

Each of these topics has a constituency in society concerned with the morality of abortion, war, and care of the aged and dying. A consistent ethic of life encourages the specific concerns of each constituency, but also calls them to see the interrelatedness of their efforts. The need to defend the integrity of the moral principle in the full range of its application is a responsibility of each distinct constituency. If the principle is eroded in the public mind, all lose.

A second level of a consistent ethic stresses the distinction among cases rather than their similarities. We need different moral principles to apply to diverse cases. The classical distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means has applicability in the care of the dying but no relevance in the case of warfare. Not all moral principles have relevance across the whole range of life issues. Moreover, sometimes a systemic vision of the life issues requires a combination of moral insights to provide direction on one issue. At Fordham, I cited the classical teaching on capital punishment which gives the State the right to take life in defense of key social values. But I also pointed out how a concern for promoting a public attitude of respect for life has led the bishops of the United States to oppose the exercise of that right.

Some of the responses I have received on the Fordham address correctly say that abortion and capital punishment are not identical issues. The principle which protects innocent life distinguishes the unborn child from the convicted murderer.

Other letters stress that while nuclear war is a threat to life, abortion involves the actual taking of life, here and now. I accept both of these distinctions, of course, but I also find compelling the need to relate the cases while keeping them in distinct categories.

Abortion is taking of life in ever growing numbers in our society. Those concerned about it, I believe, will find their case enhanced by taking note of the rapidly expanding use of public execution. In a similar way, those who are particularly concerned about these executions, even if the accused has taken another life, should recognize the elementary truth that a society which can be indifferent to the innocent life of an unborn child will not be easily stirred to concern for a convicted criminal. There is, I maintain, a political and psychological linkage among the life issues—from war to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril: a systemic vision of life seeks to expand the moral imagination of a society, not partition it into airtight categories.

A third level of the question before us involves how we relate a commitment to principles to our public witness of life. As I have said, no one can do everything. There are limits to both competency and energy; both point to the wisdom of setting priorities and defining distinct functions. The Church, however, must be credible across a wide range of issues; the very scope of our moral vision requires a commitment to a multiplicity of questions. In this way the teaching of the Church will sustain a variety of individual commitments.
Neither the Fordham address nor this one is intended to constrain wise and vigorous efforts to protect and promote life through specific, precise forms of action. Both addresses do seek to cultivate a dialogue within the Church and in the wider society among individuals and groups which draw on common principles (e.g., the prohibition against killing the innocent) but seem convinced that they do not share common ground. The appeal here is not for anyone to do everything, but to recognize points of interdependence which should be stressed, not denied.

A fourth level, one where dialogue is sorely needed, is the relationship between moral principles and concrete political choices. The moral questions of abortion, the arms race, the fate of social programs for the poor, and the role of human rights in foreign policy are public moral issues. The arena in which they are ultimately decided is not the academy or the Church but the political process. A consistent ethic of life seeks to present a coherent linkage among a diverse set of issues. It can and should be used to test party platforms, public policies, and political candidates. The Church legitimately fulfills a public role by articulating a framework for political choices by relating that framework to specific issues and by calling for systematic moral analysis of all areas of public policy.

This is the role our Bishops' Conference has sought to fulfill by publishing a "Statement on Political Responsibility" during each of the presidential and congressional election years in the past decade. The purpose is surely not to tell citizens how to vote, but to help shape the public debate and form personal conscience so that every citizen will vote thoughtfully and responsibly. Our "Statement on Political Responsibility" has always been, like our "Respect Life Program," a multi-issue approach to public morality. The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective.

As I indicated earlier, each of the life issues—while related to all the others—is distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis. Both the Statement and the Respect Life program have direct relevance to the political order, but they are applied concretely by the choice of citizens. This is as it should be. In the political order the Church is primarily a teacher; it possesses a carefully cultivated tradition of moral analysis of personal and public issues. It makes that tradition available in a special manner for the community of the Church, but it offers it also to all who find meaning and guidance in its moral teaching.

 III. The Seamless Garment: A Pastoral and Public Contribution

The moral teaching of the Church has both pastoral and public significance. Pastorally, a consistent ethic of life is a contribution to the witness of the Church's defense of the human person. Publicly, a consistent ethic fills a void in our public policy debate today.

Pastorally, I submit that a Church standing forth on the entire range of issues which the logic of our moral vision bids us to confront will be a Church in the style of both Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes and in the style of Pope John Paul II's consistent witness to life. The pastoral life of the Church should not be guided by a simplistic criterion of relevance. But the capacity of faith to shed light on the concrete questions of personal and public life today is one way in which the value of the Gospel is assessed.

Certainly the serious, sustained interest manifested throughout American society in the bishops' letter on war and peace provides a unique pastoral opportunity for the Church. Demonstrating how the teaching on war and peace is supported by a wider concern for all of life may bring others to see for the first time what our tradition has affirmed for a very long time: the linkage among the life issues.

The public value of a consistent ethic of life is connected directly to its pastoral role. In the public arena we should always speak and act like a Church. But the unique public possibility for a consistent ethic is provided precisely by the unstructured character of the public debate on the life questions. Each of the issues I have identified today—abortion, war, hunger and human rights, euthanasia and capital punishment—is treated as a separate, self-contained topic in our public life. Each is distinct, but an ad hoc approach to each one fails to illustrate how our choices in one area can affect our decisions in other areas. There must be a public attitude of respect for all of life if public actions are to respect it in concrete cases.

The pastoral on war and peace speaks of a "new moment" in the nuclear age. The pastoral has been widely studied and applauded because it caught the spirit of the "new moment" and spoke with moral substance to the issues of the "new moment." I am convinced there is an "open moment" before us on the agenda of life issues. It is a significant opportunity for the Church to demonstrate the strength of a sustained moral vision. I submit that a clear witness to a consistent ethic of life will allow us to grasp the opportunity of this "open moment" and serve both the sacredness of every human life and the God of Life who is the origin and support of our common humanity.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)