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.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Life's never-ending hello's and goodbye's (Prayerful thoughts as one bids goodbye to yet another group of students)

“Oh, only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other,
because we take form
in your act of drawing us.
And we take life in your painting us,
and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other.”

[From an Ancient Aztec Indian Prayer]

Another school year has come to an end. This evening’s graduation mass and ceremony here at the seminary were simply beautiful. Afterwards, I saw my graduating students leave for home, one by one they left, and the pre-theology house in which I’ve lived with some of them this past school year began to once again quiet down. I saw them pack, yesterday and earlier today, managed to congratulate them and wish them the best before the mass began.  Goodbye’s have never come easy to me, the stoic facade notwithstanding.
I am very proud of these young men. And I am grateful, not only for having been blessed with the opportunity to be part of their life's journey, but also for the knowledge that there are still those who seek to live this life, this joyful, challenging, yet supremely beautiful life in the priestly ministry. It is good, and tremendously encouraging, to know that one has company. We priests come and go; but the work of ministry goes on, and will go on, in the lives of these young men. That is more than enough consolation.
Still, for a couple of days, recollections of the past two semesters will linger: conversations in the living room, or in the kitchen and dining area, classes and seminars, Friday masses at St. Vincent’s chapel, fun with Bella (our English bulldog); they were her “uncles”, and she had a couple favorites among them. Yes, students come and go; such is seminary ministry. They sink roots for a while, listen to you in class for a time, and then they move on.
I still find saying ‘goodbye’ challenging,  despite having to do it at the end of every year. Nor does it get easier with every year that passes. One builds relationships, makes friends, and then one has to let them go, trusting only that the next step on their journey will be good, because they are in good hands, in God's hands, and he'll always have their back.
Earlier tonight, as I came home from the grocery store, the first thing I noticed was the absence of cars in the driveway, then the darkness of the house when I came in, then the silence. And when I turned on the lights, I saw the open doors to rooms which until earlier today, had my students living in them. I walked around the house, with Bella (she’s gotten used to hanging out with the guys; she’ll be missing them for sure), “It’ll be this way for a while”, I thought to myself, “until the next group of students come in the Fall; then it’ll start all over again”. I went back to my room and picked up a book I’ve always returned to, again and again, Joyce Rupp’s “Praying our Goodbyes”. I needed a reassuring voice.
Goodbyes, especially the more intense ones, cause us to face certain ultimate questions in life: “Where am I headed? What are my most cherished values?” Goodbyes create a space within us where we allow ourselves room to look at life in perspective and gradually discover answers to some of those questions about life. We also learn a lot about the significant others in our lives; we learn who is willing to walk the long road with us, whose heart welcomes us no matter what, who loves us enough to stand with us in good times and in bad, who is willing to love us enough to speak the truth for us or to us.
Goodbyes, when reflected upon in faith, can draw us to a greater reliance upon the God of love, our most significant other. With God we can learn to live in hope, with greater meaning, and deeper joy. All this only comes with time and with great care of self.
No one can avoid the ache of autumn. We all hurt in our own way, but hurt we do. The blessedness in the ache within us is that when we grieve over the farewells, we both give ourselves and find ourselves. We become one with whoever and whatever has met us on our journey. We choose to invest ourselves deeply even though we know that the investment might cost us the price of goodbyes and letting-go. We believe that the investment in our love is worth it, for we have entered into the mystery of life where the hello’s that follows our goodbye’s are guideposts to our eternal home.
We all need to learn how to say goodbye, to acknowledge the pain that is there for us so that we can eventually move on to another hello. When we learn how to say goodbye we truly learn how to say to ourselves and to others: “Go, God be with you. I entrust you to God. The God of strength, courage, comfort, hope, and love, is with you. The God who promises to wipe away all tears will hold you close and will fill your emptiness. Let go and be free to move on. Do not keep yourself from another step in your journey. May the blessing of the God of autumn be with you”.
Priesthood, I've come to discover more and more, involves a lot of 'hellos' and 'goodbyes', in an endless cycle—because those we meet, those we care for, those we serve, those we love, are never really ours to keep. They merely pass through our hands, through our lives, and then we let go. And that's alright. Because in the end, that's what a priest is; not the destination, only a path, a bridge, a road, one that ends not in himself, but in God alone whose work he does.
Another school year has ended, another group of young men have moved on. I will miss these guys; just as I still miss the many students whom I’ve taught over the years. The ache of autumn is part of a priest’s life; it’s a part of everyone’s life.
The night of graduation has always been a little tough for me, ever since I began teaching; because the tender sting of letting-go is felt rather acutely at that point, and because I know that the day after, the journey begins all over gain. Saint Thomas says that to love someone is “to wish him well”. To the young men who today have begun another chapter in their lives, all I can really say is that “I wish you guys well”.
When someone we love so carefully grows,
with courage and struggle to let love be their home,
we sing, yes, we dance and share our delight
to witness such beauty and a strength so right.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his hands.

The joy that you’ve found is a gift for us all.
It glows like the velvet of a crystal moonlight.
Over the years, the choices you’ve made,
have clothed you with freedom to nurture and heal.

And as we move on to other horizons of light,
we hope for each other, we drink deeply of life,
to know and to love, to choose and to share,
this garden where we know, happiness dwells.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his hands.

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