Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gratitude is the key that unlocks life's abundant blessings (Reflections on Thanskgiving Day)

The gospel read at Mass tells us that what we celebrate today lies at the heart not only of life, but of our very relationship with God. And it’s a relationship that’s defined by two things: our gratitude for God’s many blessings, and our openness to even more blessings from him.

Ten lepers come to Jesus asking that they be healed, ten men who were rejects of society—the gospel tells us that when they approached Jesus, they had to stay some distance away from him. That’s because Jewish law stipulated that lepers may not even come near healthy people. They were outcasts and often were not even regarded as persons. And yet Jesus reached out to them and healed them.

Gratitude is an important part of our relationship with God because God reaches out to us no matter what our state in life might be. Strong or weak, good or sinful, God comes to us and offers us his love. And the only response we can truly give in return is our thanks.

Ten lepers were healed, but only one returned; and Jesus noticed that. But while ten were healed, only the one who came back to say thank you was truly healed. “Stand up and go”, Jesus tells him, “your faith has saved you”. The nine ungrateful ones may have had their bodies healed, but the thankful one found healing in body and soul. His thankfulness did not only restore his health, it made him whole.

The nine ungrateful men probably thought that since they had already received what they wanted, they had nothing more to gain by going back and thanking Jesus. And that’s where they were wrong. For as the one grateful leper showed, by going back and giving thanks, one actually stood to receive even more.

And that perhaps is the most remarkable and even mysterious thing about gratitude. The more we give thanks for the blessings we receive, the more abundantly the blessings flow. The more we return to God and thank him for his many gifts, the more the gifts come—and like the grateful leper, we discover that as our gratitude increases, God’s generosity increases even more. Gratitude is the key that unlocks life's abundant blessings.

As we celebrate this wonderful holiday, as we celebrate with family and friends on this Thanksgiving Day—let us remember the story of the grateful leper in the gospel, and make his story our own. Let us thank God for his many gifts. And let us remember that gratitude is a recognition of God’s blessings, and an invitation for more.  The more we are thankful, the more we will be given.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Life as it is (Reflections on the Gospel of the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 21:5-19)

“While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, "All that you see here-- the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down”. 

Imagine being a tourist, standing with a whole bunch of people, ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ at the beauty of some magnificent tourist spot. You’re snapping photos right and left as you listen to a guide say all sorts of interesting historical stuff about the place. Then all of a sudden, there’s this man who starts saying rather unpleasant things—even frightful ones. What would your reaction be? You’d probably go, “Ok… whatever buddy…” And you’d most likely begin moving slowly away, to enjoy the scene and take your photos, far from this scary person.

Now put yourself in the position of the people around Jesus in today’s gospel. Historians tell us that the Temple of Jerusalem was a sight to behold. All the gold and jewels embedded in its walls made it shine and glimmer in the sunlight for miles. So all these people were there, admiring its beauty. Then Jesus suddenly says: “This will all be destroyed”. And then he continues by talking about disasters that are going to take place: wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation, earthquakes, famine and plagues.

If I were one of the people there, I probably would be a bit scared, and I’d move away from the guy. I don’t want anyone ruining my vacation.

What seems to have gotten into Jesus in today’s gospel? Why is he being so pessimistic? Was he in a bad mood perhaps? Or was he saying something else?
The fact is, the things he mentions did take place. Israel was destroyed by the Romans and the temple was obliterated in 70 AD. All that remains today is one of its walls. Jesus wasn’t being scary. He was just being realistic about things and about life.

If you really think about it, one of the really odd things about human history is that there seems to be more bad news in it than good ones, more destruction than construction, more death than life. Despite all our hopes, “our history”, as one philosopher said, “seems written in blood”.

Who can forget the revelry of the year 2000? The whole world was so hopeful and happy. The Y2K scare proved to be a dud. The future looked bright for everybody. Perhaps human beings would now learn to live in peace. A year later of course, September 11 happened, and much of our optimism about humanity hit the hard rocks of reality.

Jesus wasn’t being pessimistic. He was in fact being realistic about the world and the challenges we face. Our faith as Christians doesn’t isolate us from the hard realities of life. The headaches and heartbreaks of life are real. And being a Christian won’t shield us from them. In today’s gospel, Jesus is simply showing us, life as it is. 

Christianity is a very realistic religion. It doesn’t promise us a pie in the sky. It doesn’t tell us that if we believe, everything in life will be easy, or that everything will be alright. Rather it tells us that at times, or even often, things will not be easy. Many times, things will not be alright.

It makes us realize and accept that suffering and difficulty are part of life. We can’t escape or deny them. If Jesus went through it all, so will we. Our faith in him doesn’t assure us a carefree and worry-free existence.

But Christianity is also a religion of genuine hope. Because sorrow and pain are not our promised lot. God’s promise to us is one of joy, of fulfillment, of abundance and life. As Saint Paul tells us, “suffering and death are not the final word. Life is.” And just as Jesus triumphed over suffering and death, so will each one of us triumph over the headaches and heartbreaks of life. The joy and hope of a Christian lies not in the guarantee of an untroubled existence; it rests rather in the conviction that “my Savior lives! And where he has gone, so shall I be”.

"The souls of the just are in the hands of God", the Book of wisdom tells us, “and no torment shall ever touch them”. For while our Christian faith gives us no guarantee of a problem-free life, it does guarantee us that Christ will always be there for and with us, guiding us at every moment of our life, our names forever written in the palm of his hands. 

“Do not worry too much”, Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. “Try not to be too weighed down when the difficulties and challenges of life come your way. And they will come. But trust. Because not a hair on your head will ever be destroyed”.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"The most powerful signs efface themselves." (Death is never the final word; it is no more than a passage to that fullness promised by Christ who has conquered death itself.) A Reflection on the Feast of All Souls.

Death’s a strange creature. We only know it from a distance, it seems; our own death being something we can only imagine. “No one attends his own funeral”, says one philosopher. Another, a stoic from the ancient world, tried to calm the fears of his students by telling them, “death’s not something to fear; when we’re around, it isn’t; and when death’s around, we aren’t. So what’s there to fear?” 

The Christian view of death is very different, of course; it does not deny death’s pain, sorrow, and even uncertainty, but it transcends these with the promise of hope and the encouragement to confidence and trust. It speaks of a “passage”, not an “end”. It speaks more of a promised and hoped-for future than a completed and remembered past.

I’ve always been fascinated, whenever I attend a memorial service or even funeral mass sometimes, when someone, usually at the end, gets up to speak about the deceased. On several occasions, I’ve heard those speaking say, “He died what he loved doing”, or “We’re gathered here today to celebrate the life of so-and-so”, or “He lived a good life”. 

I’ve always felt—despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the speakers never do it on purpose, nor are even aware of the implications of what they say—that something seems to be sorely missing, something lacking, something left unsaid or perhaps even left out by such statements, beautiful and respectful of the deceased though they may be.

As I listen to these words meant to console and comfort those left behind and to pay tribute to the one who has passed on, I couldn’t help but think to myself "Ok, that’s nice, even beautiful. He died what he loved doing. We’re celebrating his or her life, a good life…. But then what?" 

For us Catholics especially, a funeral isn’t simply a celebration of the deceased person’s life, neither is it a mere commemoration of our dearly departed; it is in fact a statement of the most profound faith a human person can ever have: 

"This isn't the end; because there is more, so much more to come. So much fullness, so much happiness, so much life – for one who holds on to the promise of Christ who has conquered death." 

Death, for a Christian is never the final word; and no matter how good one’s life may have been, we believe with every fiber of our being, that there is so much more good to come. Death may be a necessary passage, one we must all go through, but it isn’t the end of our story. 

"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," Jesus tells us.

Without death, there can be no life eternal, no life without pain, without sorrow, without agony, illness, and heartache. Death is our gateway, our passage to glory.

Really, though? A number of years ago, as I visited the graves of my grandparents, I noticed a rather unkempt grave; it was overgrown with weeds and so it was hard to read what was written on the tombstone. I got curious so I went closer and cleared some of the weeds and dirt that covered it. It was a priest’s grave. He had died in the mid-70’s, was in his late 80’s when he passed away, and perhaps there was no one left in his family to tend to his grave. “How sad,” I thought, as I proceeded to clear the weeds a little more. But at least he had a tombstone, a marker to remind those who pass by that he once walked this earth.

What of the others? Who now remembers the countless millions, nameless and faceless who have 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, perhaps, 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.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lukewarmness, the devil in disguise (Our calling as priests is not to comfort and ease, but to nobility and greatness.)

Many years ago, I remember complaining to my spiritual director in seminary about how I was having a hard time juggling the intensity of my studies with the other demands of formation. After a few moments of silence, he simply said to me: “Jesus didn’t call you to a life that's easy; he calls you to an adventure that is great.”

He then got up, took a book from his shelf and asked me to use it for spiritual reading. He placed a marker on page 291, and suggested I read the contents of that page first.

It was the memoir of the Greek poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, and the pages Father John singled out was from a section entitled “Report to Greco”. Let me share with you briefly what that section said. [I've written it in my journal, together with many other ideas and whatnot that I picked up and learned from my good spiritual director, God rest his soul.]

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you asking me to do? You ask the impossible!” But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouted, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”

It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.

Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine”, they said. “We’re comfortable here; we’re not budging!”

But the terrible Cry hammered them mercilessly. “Leave the mud, stand up!” “We don’t want to! We can’t”

You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”

And lo! After thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs.

The human being is like a centaur; his hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is tormented by the merciless Cry. “Be what you have been made to be”, it calls to him. 

Man replies: “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond me is an abyss”. 

And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”

Jesus in the Gospels, speaks of the kind of life those who wish to follow him can expect: “Foxes have dens, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head”.

There is an urgency to his invitation, and an earnestness that is expected of one who responds. “Let the dead, bury their dead”, he says to one prospective follower. They are words that show, not a lack of sympathy, but a sense of urgency. And to another he says, “No one who sets his hands to the plow and keeps looking back is fit for the Kingdom of God”.

Jesus didn’t call us to a life that is easy; he calls us to an adventure that is great. “Offer to God,” St. John Vianney says, “only that which is worth offering”.

And is that not the reason we were drawn to the priesthood in the first place; to offer to God, our best, our utmost, our highest? Because nothing else will do.

Why is it then, that after a while, we begin to lose fire, zeal, and enthusiasm? We begin seeking the easy way, the comfortable and convenient way, the way that requires the least amount of effort and energy on our part.

Lukewarmness, a number of masters of the spiritual life tell us, is the devil in disguise. 

Gregory the Great and Thomas tell us it has “six daughters”: (1) a lack of hope, (2) uncontrolled imagination, (3) laziness, (4) a cowardly disposition, (5) an overly-critical spirit that fails to see anything good or worthwhile in others, and (6) an ill-temper.

These are snares, they say, that are placed on the path of one who seeks to follow Jesus who says: “If you wish to be my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”.

And yet, how often do we find ourselves creating strategies and game-plans (for every area of our life in formation) to make things as easy as possible, and to take the path of least resistance. (Mind you, there is nothing inherently wrong with that; we aren’t masochists.) But when seeking the way of ease becomes a habit, especially for one who seeks to one day be an effective minister of the Gospel, we slowly but surely, extinguish the fire of our commitment.

Beware the snares of comfort, ease, and convenience that will be placed on your path towards following Christ.

He didn’t promise us ease; he promises us greatness. He promises an adventure in which we will have to spend our entire life, and every single breath aiming not for the easiest way, but the highest way, the utmost, and the best. Our goal is to reach the summit of life and of faith, and there, encounter the God who says to us: “I am beyond, stand up!”

Lukewarmness, my dear younger brothers, is the devil in disguise.  

When things start getting too easy, and when you start getting far too comfortable, when you start getting lukewarm in any area of your life here in seminary – be wary, it may no longer be Jesus walking by your side.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Tiring the gods" (Reflections on the Prayer of the Persevering Widow, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 18:1-8)

Children have different ways of getting their parents to give them what they want. When I was a kid, I used to pester my parents with small notes I’d tape all over the place. I’d put them all over the house. And just to make sure I have all the bases covered, I’d also call up my grandparents and get them to put in a good word for me.

I also made sure I behaved myself at home and school and was extra helpful in the house. When I now remember all the things I did as a child to get what I wanted, I feel rather silly. But it always worked! I always did get what I want, usually after my parents got sick and tired of all my reminders.

The pagans of Jesus time had a term for a similar practice. They called it fatigare deos, “tiring the gods”. They believed that their perseverance in telling the gods what they want would pay off, because the gods would eventually get sick and tired of hearing their prayers and would finally grant their requests.

The story of the woman and the judge in today’s gospel reading could perhaps resemble this ancient pagan practice of “tiring the gods”.

And yet it’s very different! The point of Jesus’ story in fact is that we aren’t like this poor ignored woman before God, and that God is not at all like this indifferent judge. God isn’t someone who will hear and respond to us only because we’ve worn him out with our prayers. 

"Consider the birds of the air”, Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Or look at the lilies of the field. They neither sew nor spin. Yet not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like them”.

"If you know how to give your children good things, how much more will your heavenly Father give you what you need”. 

Trusting in God’s wisdom is the point of Jesus’ story in today’s gospel. He asks us to trust that God knows all our needs even before we say them. “Even the hairs on your head have all been counted”, he tells us, because “God knows each one of us by name”.

We don’t have to ‘tire’ God; we have to trust him. And trusting him means two things.

First, it means trusting that while he may not immediately give us what we ask for, or give us what we want, God always knows what we need, and will always give it to us when we need it.

Abraham was promised a son, and was promised to be the father of many nations. Years later, we hear him saying, “O God, what good is all my wealth if I have no son?” 

In due time, of course, God did give him a son. In fact God gave him not one, but two: Ishmael and Isaac; and Abraham did become the father of many nations.

In due time, God does respond to our prayers. And while the reply may not be in accord with what we want, it will always be in accord with what we need and what is for the best—something that may not be as clear initially, but turns out to be so eventually.

Second, trusting in God’s wisdom also means realizing that we pray, not to tire him into giving what we ask, but to remind ourselves of our dependence on him. 

To persevere in prayer is to increase our trust in God, because in doing so, we increase our confidence in ourselves. 

The ultimate purpose of prayer isn’t simply to receive what we ask, but to make us strong, confident, and without fear in facing the challenges, difficulties, and hurdles life sometimes puts in our way.

It makes us remember what Scripture says: “Do not fear. I have your name written on the palm of my hand”. 

It is when we realize the profound meaning of trust in God’s all-embracing care that we discover deep within our very selves, a power and a force capable of overcoming tremendous odds—something that is itself a gift of grace.

To borrow the words of the atheist, Albert Camus, “in the midst of winter,” prayer allows us to “find in ourselves, an invincible summer”.

“Persevere in prayer”, Jesus is reminding us in today’s gospel, and trust that with God “nothing is impossible”.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Brief Reflection on the Work and Ministry of the Catholic Theologian, on the Solemnity of Pentecost

On the 9th of October 1958, having heard of the death of Pope Pius XII, a man  by the name of Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, found himself writing these lines in his journal: “We are not on earth as museum-keepers, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare for the church a glorious future”. Three weeks later, on the 28th of the same month, he was elected to succeed Pius XII, and took the name John XXIII.

Four years later, John XXIII would open what is undeniably one of the most significant events in the history of Roman Catholicism since the Catholic Reformation, the Second Vatican Council - an event which has so changed the face of the church, it has, despite the many challenges that came afterwards, become more equipped to face the challenges of the contemporary world, and a little more assured of its continuation into the third millenium.

A ‘garden’, not so much a ‘museum’—Blessed John XXIII could not have used more appropriate imagery to convey the idea of what he believed the church should be primarily. A garden is a place where growth is always present, where there is freshness and the promise of continuous renewal. Leaves whither, flowers fade, branches dry up, but only to spring forth and give way to life reborn, more beautiful, more alluring, ready once again to join in the endless cycle of God's creative work.

How apt to describe the life of the church in this way! John XXIII was a genius in his own right. He saw that there was a real danger that the church would not be well equipped to face the challenges presented by the swift pace of change in the world, and that instead of making the most of its being in the world, it would set up a massive fortress around itself, protecting itself in fear of the unknown dangers that lie outside its thick walls.

During his address to the bishops  at the opening of the great council, Pope John reminded them that while there is an undeniable need to safeguard the ‘deposit of faith’ as this has been handed down to us by the Tradition of the Church, there is an equally pressing need to always present this ‘deposit’ in a form understandable to the men and women of the age, and in a manner that speaks not only to their heads, but to their hearts and hands as well.

The pope who would ‘open wide the windows’ of the church, would have none of the closure and fear that beset the hearts of many even today. For these only serve to stifle the Spirit of God already at work in the world in which the church finds itself immersed. Instead, the church is to discern the movement and action of this Spirit within the world itself. It is to hear the voice of God spoken through lips of ordinary men and women who yearn to live godly lives. It is to see the face of God in ordinary individuals, but most especially in the poor and the downtrodden. It is to live the life of Christ amidst the day to day experiences of the people of this age. Finally, it is to discover God where he disguises himself—veiled in the very trappings of frail humanity.

Today's solemnity is a celebration of the continuing work of this same Spirit, the Spirit that emboldened John XXIII and the men and women of that great council whose work we continue today. It is this same Spirit that Jesus Christ breathed on his disciples two thousand years ago and sent upon them on Pentecost, enlightening their minds and inflaming their hearts with zeal for the gospel.The flames ignited by that initial outpouring continue in the dynamism of the church, now in its third millenium. Today, my thoughts focus in a very special way, on the fire of the calling awakened by the Spirit in the life, work, and service of the theologian whose role is the pursuit of an ever deepening understanding of the Word of God found in Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. I have had the opportunity to meet some of these men and women who labor in this particular ministry in the church. As a student in Louvain, I was privileged to listen to the likes of Cardinals Avery Dulles, Walter Kasper, Leo Suenens, and several other eminent theologians, clergy and laity alike. 

Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the variety of gifts bestowed by the Spirit on the community of believers. It is a variety of gifts that manifests itself in many forms of ministry and service to the Body of Christ. The ministry and service of the theologian in particular is one that is done in loving communion, not only with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith, but with the entire community of believers whose life and struggles both theologian and Magisterium must embrace. 

For it is the task of those whose calling is to form and inform the hearts of men and women to draw from their life and struggle—as these are embedded in their culture and history—those elements which will allow for the better illumination of one or another dimension of the mysteries of faith. This is by no means an easy task. Rather it is arduous and fraught with risk, but it is legitimate in itself and hence must be encouraged, for as the good Pope John had so brilliantly seen, this endeavor to bind the mind, heart, and hands of God’s people, difficult as it may be at the outset, can only lead to a deepening of the loving communion which must define the life of the church as a community of faith.

It is from out of such loving communion that theological study and reflection arise. And it is from such loving communion as well that the theologian must draw his strength and nourishment in his pursuit of obedience to the impulse of truth and its clear articulation. Such obedience is the reason why a theologian must be attentive to the requirements of his discipline, to the demands of rigorous critical standards, and hence to a rational verification of each stage of his or her research.

Nevertheless, this obligation to be critical should not be identified with a critical spirit that is born of mere feeling or whim, or simple prejudice. This is why the theologian must discern in himself or herself the origin and motivation for his critical attitude and allow his gaze to be purified by the light of faith. This is also the reason why commitment to the scientific study of theology must go hand in hand with a spiritual effort to grow in virtue and holiness.

The theologian is therefore called to deepen his own life of faith and continuously unite his scientific research with prayer and a continuous openness to the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit. In this way, he will become more open to the supernatural sense of faith upon which he depends. And it will disclose itself to him as a sure guide for his reflections and a dependable aid in his assessment of the correctness of his conclusions.

For the theologian must never forget that he is a member of the Church, the People of God, and as such he must foster respect for them and be committed to offering them a teaching which, while challenging them at times to reconsider the expressions of their faith, does no harm to the sacredness and integrity of this faith. The theologian too, when approaching the faith of another, must take off his sandals, for the ground on which he treads is holy ground and God has been there, long before he has set his discerning gaze.

Hence, the freedom proper to theological research is always to be exercised within the domain of the Church’s faith and conscious at all times of this faith’s integrity. While the theologian therefore might often feel the urge to be daring in his work, he must remember that this will not bear fruit or “edify” unless it is coupled with that patience which allows for genuine maturation of insight to take place. New proposals for articulating the faith and making it more understandable to men and women of every age, while definitely encouraging as signs of growth and renewal, remain but an ‘offering’ made to the People of God.

Continuous broadening of perspectives, nuancing of concepts, and even modifications within the context of brotherly dialogue may be necessary prior to the moment when the whole Church can accept the fruits of theological research. In line with this, the freedom of research, which the academic community rightly holds and must therefore cherish as precious, must be regarded as signifying an openness to the acceptance of truth that emerges at the end of a rigorous and often painstaking investigation.

The task of theology is one of service to the faith; and the task of the theologian is one of loving and committed service to God’s faithful. The two paradigms do not merely go hand in hand; they are dynamically entwined. For ‘faith’ is not a mere abstraction, distinct and isolated from the ‘community of faith’, rather faith and its articulation find their ‘origin’ as well as their ‘point’ in the living, growing, maturing and journeying community. It is in this sense that we who receive the sacred task of ministering as theologians and teachers of the faith are truly, in the words of Pope John, “gardeners” and not merely “museum-keepers”. What is entrusted to us is the furthering, the extending, and the enkindling of the fire of God’s Spirit that swept the hearts, minds, and souls of the disciples on that glorious day, in that upper room, on the first Pentecost.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Recommended Summer Readings for Seminarians


Since I've been asked by a couple of students before the start of the summer break for a 'list' of good (and manageable) books to read, I'm posting a few titles that I've found very helpful. I hope the list helps:

(1) Timothy Gallagher. "The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living". - A substantial yet extremely accessible presentation of the fourteen Ignatian rules. Leads the reader to a deep level of understanding of difficult spiritual issues. Gallagher's discussion of the phases of consolation and desolation and how to live with and live through them can be of great help. Not a technical read at all, but highly informative and practical.

(2) Thomas Merton. "Meditation and Spiritual Direction". - an excellent guide to the practice of meditation and the "art" of spiritual direction.

(3) Donald Cozzens. "The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest". - timely, down-to-earth, practical, a collection of writings by those in the "field"; won't disappoint.

(4) Timothy Gallagher. "Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision-Making". - Practical advice for those of us seeking to align our will with God's.

(5) Joyce Rupp. "Praying our Goodbyes". - For those going through a period of transition, whether from college seminary to the theologate, from discernment in seminary to discernment in another setting, or those of who seek to slowly detach themselves from old ways or habits that are no longer compatible with their present calling, but are still struggling to do so. A highly recommended read.

(6) Henri Nouwen. "Compassion". "In the Name of Jesus". - excellent and easy reads on the Christian life and the challenges (as well as temptations) of ministry.

(7) G. Tyrell and Henri Joly. "The Psychology of the Saints". - An older text (originally published in 1898), yet still relevant today in terms of its grappling with profound issues of the uniqueness of one's humanity and the action of God's grace.

(8) Sergio Rubin. "Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio". - Recently published. - The result of a series of interviews conducted over the course of two years. The text is a great introduction to the life and thought of Pope Francis when he was still the cardinal of Buenos Aires. In it, he discusses a wide-range of subjects, including some uncomfortable ones such as the decline in the number of priests and religious, celibacy, and the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church in recent decades.

(9) Thomas Bokenkotter. "Dynamic Catholicism: A Historical Catechism". - Blessed John XXIII once said that "the deposit of faith is one thing, the manner by which it is presented to men and women of every age is another". Bokenkotter's text shows how the dynamic and evolving nature of the church's faith represents a true embodiment of the Spirit's continuing work of guiding the community of believers towards a fuller understanding and appreciation of the most important elements of its belief-system.

(10) Benedict Groeschel. "The Courage to be Chaste". - a really good book for us called to live a celibate life, spiritual, balanced, down-to-earth.

(11) Stanley Hauwerwas. "Resident Aliens". - written by a Protestant theologian (I attended his lectures when he was a guest professor in Louvain); is nonetheless excellent in terms of articulating the perplexities we Christians often experience as we try to "live" our faith in an increasingly secularized and hostile world.

(12) William Barclay. "The Daily Study Bible" (Old and New Testament). - I managed to read the entire bible using Barclay's commentaries. My spiritual director in seminary made me use these commentaries for Bible and Spiritual reading. Excellent set, not only in terms of its scholarship and depth, but also in terms of its spiritual and practical content. Highly recommended. Will prove useful not only for seminary, but later on, for homilies. A definite must-read.

(13) H. Richard Niebuhr. "Christ and Culture". - an excellent book for those who wish to understand the often difficult relationship of faith and ordinary life. A little heavy content-wise, but still very manageable. A highly recommended read for those who are up to the challenge.

(14) Thomas Massaro, SJ. "Living Justice". - for those who wish to be initiated into a serious study and understanding of the Church's teachings on Social Justice (often called the Church's "best kept secret", because very few Catholics have a true knowledge and appreciation of this body of Catholic doctrine which does not only guide our action in the world, but our valuing of life in all its stages, from conception, to its middle stages, to its natural end). A must read for those who wish to live the "consistent ethic of life" which is a true treasure of our faith community that challenges us to defend life at conception, work for justice, education, poverty-alleviation, health and housing, and at life's natural end.

(15) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church". - very accessible guide to understanding and appreciating the beauty of this "treasure" of our community of faith.

(16) Congregation for Catholic Education. "Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church's Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests". - a must read for all of us in formation.

(17) Papal social encyclicals - while there are a good number of these letters of the popes, I highly recommend the following to start one's project of going through as many of them as one is able: Leo XIII. "Rerum Novarum". Paul VI. "Humanae Vitae". "Populorum Progressio" John Paul II, "Redemptor Hominis". "Laborem Exercens". "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis". "Centesimus Annus". "Fides et Ratio". "Evangelium Vitae". "Veritatis Splendor".

(18) Avery Dulles. "Models of the Church". - an excellent book (scholarly but very accessible) to help in understanding the different paradigms or ways of understanding the church; helps in becoming aware of our own personal 'ecclesiology' and how it can be brought in line with what is genuinely 'Catholic': holistic, balanced, and moderate.

(19) Avery Dulles. "Models of Revelation". - also an excellent book (scholarly but very accessible) to help in understanding the different ways of understanding revelation and how we Catholics understand the Scriptures.

(20) Joseph Martos. "Doors to the Sacred". - an excellent book for those who wish to have a deeper understanding of the Sacraments, especially how they have evolved throughout the history of the church. (Scholarly but very accessible).

(21) Brian Davies. "The Thought of Thomas Aquinas". - for those who wish to be introduced to the beauty of Thomistic thought. A good companion to reading the "Summa".

(22) Augustine's "Confessions". (I have found the new Chadwick translation to be quite easy to read for students. Oxford edition)

(23) Pope John Paul II. "Pastores Dabo Vobis". - Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation concerning priestly life and seminary formation, addressed to both clergy and laity; a must read especially for seminarians.

(24) USCCB. "Program of Priestly Formation". - developed by the Committee on Priestly Formation of the USCCB; discusses the core elements of priestly formation, especially the 'pillars' of formation: human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, pastoral formation, and community life.

(25) Jaroslav Pelikan. "Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture". - A scholarly yet extremely accessible text for those who wish to deepen their understanding, love, and devotion to the Mother of God.

(26) Roberto S. Goizueta. "Christ our Companion". An excellent reflection on how a twenty-first century Christian can genuinely embody and incarnate his faith in Christ amidst the complex challenges of contemporary society. Especially relevant to those who wish to deepen their sensitivity to Christ's presence in the poor and needy of the world - a challenge posed by Pope Francis especially to priests and religious.

(27) Donald Cozzens. "The Changing Face of the Priesthood". - A very challenging text to read; delves into some very serious issues and challenges presently confronting the priesthood as well as those in seminary formation.

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