Monday, June 30, 2014

The Monday Psalter

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1

Reflection – It is time for a new running series on the blog, one that will likely run for as long as the blog itself runs. Welcome to the “Monday Psalter.” (UPDATE: This later became the 'weekly psalter', as its normal day of running changed from Monday to Friday).

I have felt for some time that the psalms get short shrift in our contemporary spiritual exercises. When is the last time you heard a sermon on the psalms, or were encouraged to pray the psalms daily? Ever? How often do you pray the psalms? Priests and religious are supposed to pray them every day, and perhaps most do, but we never seem to talk about it or encourage it or seem terribly enthused about them.

And yet the psalms are the very backbone of Christian worship and liturgy, and have been since the beginning. They were the prayers of Our Lord and Our Lady, the prayers of the Jewish people, and that alone makes them normative for Christians. The very words that God Incarnate used to address His Father are privileged words for our own efforts to speak to God.

And from the beginning of the Church, the psalms formed a solid core of our liturgical worship. The liturgy of the hours grew from a simple brief office prayed by all the faithful in the first cathedrals of the great cities of the Roman Empire to much more elaborate and lengthy offices prayed in the deserts of the monks, to its present form which has elements of both.

And so I want to read through the psalms each week, starting with Psalm 1 and getting (God willing) all the way through to Psalm 150. The blog is named Ten Thousand Places, and these are 150 of the places the Christian people have always sought and found the face of God in the world.

Psalm 1 is a favorite of mine. I know a little Biblical Hebrew, and I like to pray it in its original language, where it has a truly lovely poetic cadence. Ashrey ha-ish… happy is the man. The Hebrew word is derived from the word for footsteps, suggesting something like a path or a sequence of movements. To be ‘ashrey’ is to have one’s life proceed along the course that will lead to success. To have things unfold, step by step, in a good way.

And so we have the whole famous ‘two ways’ that are a dominant theme in the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. There are only two ways in the world, ultimately. As C.S. Lewis put it, in the end there are only two kinds of people, those who say to God ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, sadly, ‘Your will be done.’ And that is a pretty accurate summary of this psalm.

Wicked means willful, headstrong, unwilling to be led, to be taught, to surrender to the will and law of God. The alternative is not some artificial and pompous path of moral rectitude, but to meditate, to ponder, to read the law of God day and night. There is an interiorization already happening here, a relationship, a sense of receptivity, of humility, of faith.

And in this comes this beautiful image, so beloved of the writers of Scripture, of the tree planted by the waters, leaves ever green, yielding its fruit, as opposed to the path of the willful and disobedient who are swept away like chaff. It bears noting that the wicked in this psalm, set in the life of Israel, have full access to the Law and could root their lives in it as well as anyone. It was their own choice to uproot themselves from the soil with the living water that nourishes the soul.

And it is so in our day as well. But this psalm is not to bring us to judge other people or look at the root system of others’ lives—no, it is about me and you and how deeply, how often, how seriously do we meditate on the law of Christ, ponder it day and night, and build our lives on it? This is the ‘ashrey’ of the Christian, the footsteps of Christ left on the soil of the world, and the blessedness of our life wholly depends on how we attend to those footsteps and walk in them each day.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The End of Morality

And now as We come to the end of this encyclical letter, We turn Our mind to you, reverently and lovingly, beloved and venerable brothers in the episcopate, with whom We share more closely the care of the spiritual good of the People of God.

For We invite all of you, We implore you, to give a lead to your priests who assist you in the sacred ministry, and to the faithful of your dioceses, and to devote yourselves with all zeal and without delay to safeguarding the holiness of marriage, in order to guide married life to its full human and Christian perfection.

Consider this mission as one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time. As you well know, it calls for concerted pastoral action in every field of human diligence, economic, cultural and social. If simultaneous progress is made in these various fields, then the intimate life of parents and children in the family will be rendered not only more tolerable, but easier and more joyful. And life together in human society will be enriched with fraternal charity and made more stable with true peace when God's design which He conceived for the world is faithfully followed.

Venerable brothers, beloved sons, all men of good will, great indeed is the work of education, of progress and of charity to which We now summon all of you. And this We do relying on the unshakable teaching of the Church, which teaching Peter's successor together with his brothers in the Catholic episcopate faithfully guards and interprets.

And We are convinced that this truly great work will bring blessings both on the world and on the Church. For man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature. These laws must be wisely and lovingly observed. On this great work, on all of you and especially on married couples, We implore from the God of all holiness and pity an abundance of heavenly grace as a pledge of which We gladly bestow Our apostolic blessing.

Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 30-31

Reflection – So at long last we come to the close of the encyclical, which is a call to the bishops of the Church, and then to all men and women of faith and of good will, to build up marriage and family life according to the laws of God. “For man cannot attain that true happiness for which he yearns with all the strength of his spirit, unless he keeps the laws which the Most High God has engraved in his very nature.”

I will leave aside, having said in the past couple of days all I want to on the topic, the simple fact that these last paragraphs of the encyclical, and the encyclical as a whole, largely fell on deaf ears in 1968. I consider that to be one of the great, if not the greatest, of the tragedies of the modern Church, but I won’t add anything to what I’ve already said.

But just to conclude this series, it is worth reflecting on the sentence I quote – we cannot have true happiness outside of the keeping of the laws of God which are engraved on our nature. This is quite a statement, really. We can have ‘pleasure’, for sure, any time we want. Sensory pleasure is the easiest and cheapest of games to hunt. We can have all sorts of temporary happiness, perhaps at a little more effort—harmonious relationships, comfortable living arrangements, enjoyable work and recreation.

And all of that—even simple sensory pleasure—is not without its proper value and goodness. But happiness—that is something quite different. Real, deep, total, lasting happiness, the kind of thing that radiates from a person who is genuinely good, genuinely what he or she should be—this is not so common, and not so easy.

It is our Catholic faith, and indeed I don’t see how anyone can even have a theistic world view without holding this in some form, that this level of happiness, this highest attainment of human fulfillment and flourishing, cannot happen out of the keeping of the moral law, the law which comes from God but is inscribed in our human nature, our human being. And this flourishing and fulfillment is the end of morality--the goal, the point of it all.

And so when the Church monotonously, irritatingly, infuriatingly refuses to “change its rules” about this stuff, it is because (as I have said over and over and over again) we sincerely believe that the moral teachings we teach are not ‘our rules’ but God’s, and that God has taught humanity these rules (in part, but not entirely, through the Church He established) so that we can be happy and not miserable, fulfilled and not frustrated, joyful and not sorrowful.

And so the hierarchy of the Church is called to teach the moral law of God as an act of supreme charity and compassion. All the members of the Church, clergy and lay, and truly all men and women, are called to receive these teachings as coming from the hand of God, and strive to live them. And all of us together are called to be deeply merciful to one another, as there is not one of us—pope, bishop, priest, deacon, religious, lay faithful—who does not fall woefully short of the demands of the moral law, and who is not a sinner profoundly in need of God’s mercy.

Let us be kind to one another, but let us be kindest of all by continuing to set our eyes, minds and hearts on the heights of virtue and holiness and moral goodness, ultimately in living the great commandment to love God with all our hearts and oen another as Christ loved us.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What Does the Word 'Pastoral' Mean, Anyway?

Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners?

Husbands and wives, therefore, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their life, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness of the voice and the love of our Redeemer.

So speak with full confidence, beloved sons, convinced that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the magisterium proclaiming sound doctrine, He also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent. Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 29

Reflection – In the controversy and difficulties around the encyclical, and around the current discussions in the Church regarding the indissolubility of marriage, the word ‘pastoral’ is commonly used as a sort of contrary to ‘doctrinal’.

There are the doctrines of the Church and the call to teach them, but then there is the need to be pastoral, and these two things are seen as quite opposed to one another by some. And so in the face of people who genuinely do have difficult circumstances, even tragic circumstances, the pastoral response is to more or less discard the doctrine and let people do whatever they want. To be a loving and merciful pastor means either consciously or unconsciously choosing not to teach people what the Church’s doctrines are, or counseling them to ignore those doctrines in their lives, and this has been the model of much ‘pastoral’ care in the church of the past fifty years.

Well, it is deeply incoherent. It is either based on the conviction that the Church’s teachings are entirely untrue (in which case why bother being Catholic at all then?), or that ‘truth’ is somehow a bad thing, a heavy burdensome thing. And this attitude is profoundly unchristian in a way that cannot be exaggerated.

‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ The Lord Jesus says it, and this has to be the fundamental understanding of pastoral theology in the Church. We are always to be merciful, always kind, always to proclaim the ready forgiveness of God to all of us who are sinners, always entering into the real struggles and real burdens of people’s lives to do what we can to lift those burdens.

But never at the expense of truth. Never sacrificing our faith in what is true, good, and beautiful out of a misguided compassion. Never telling people, implicitly or explicitly, that there can ever be a set of circumstances so extreme, so difficult, that it justifies breaking even a single commandment of God. The Church is nourished by the blood of the martyrs, many of whom died over what seem like very small things—refusing to burn three grains of incense to Caesar, for example.

We are all of us called, frail sinners that we are, to that degree of heroic fidelity and obedience to God, at whatever cost. The ‘sheep’ of the pasture are called to be shepherds laying down their lives with great nobility of spirit and courage. And it is the true pastoral spirit of the Church, not to lead people into an easier and less heroic way of life, but to call people to the heights of sanctity and heroic charity.

And so with the issues of contraception, openness to life, chastity, and a true understanding of what marriage is and why it is indissoluble (namely, because Christ Himself declared it to be so, and we have not one bit of authority to negate His words), there is a great need to be merciful and kind, gentle and patient, deeply loving, not least because people have been so poorly taught by the pastors of the Church in the last fifty years and there is so little real understanding of the Church’s doctrine.

But all the kindness and mercy, patience and compassion and love, must be ordered towards calling people into the heroic path of faith, into a genuine discipleship of life where we follow the Crucified One so as to be crucified with Him, so as to rise with Him, so as to reign with Him. These are the ‘green pastures and still waters’ to which the Good Shepherd wants to lead his sheep.

And that, then, is the real pastoral love and pastoral care that bishops and priests especially are called to exercise in the Church, but all of us, really, according to our own gifts and station of life.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

An Open Letter To All My Brother Priests, On Humanae Vitae

And now, beloved sons, you who are priests, you who in virtue of your sacred office act as counselors and spiritual leaders both of individual men and women and of families—We turn to you filled with great confidence. For it is your principal duty—We are speaking especially to you who teach moral theology—to spell out clearly and completely the Church's teaching on marriage. In the performance of your ministry you must be the first to give an example of that sincere obedience, inward as well as outward, which is due to the magisterium of the Church.

For, as you know, the pastors of the Church enjoy a special light of the Holy Spirit in teaching the truth. And this, rather than the arguments they put forward, is why you are bound to such obedience. Nor will it escape you that if men's peace of soul and the unity of the Christian people are to be preserved, then it is of the utmost importance that in moral as well as in dogmatic theology all should obey the magisterium of the Church and should speak as with one voice. 

Therefore We make Our own the anxious words of the great Apostle Paul and with all Our heart We renew Our appeal to you: "I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment."
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 28

Reflection – Well, this is painful. I have been staring at paragraph 28 for some time now, trying to figure out what to write about it that is a) true; b) charitable; c) really, really, really charitable.
This is, in my view, the ground zero of HV, the precise place where, if this encyclical had been received by those to whom it was addressed, and lived out in this precise paragraph, I honestly believe things would have unfolded quite differently in the Church over the last forty-five years.

It is a tragedy the scope of which I don’t think we can readily grasp that the clergy of the Catholic Church greeted this encyclical, for the most part, not with ‘sincere obedience’ but without outright rebellion, disdainful scorn, and embarrassed silence. With very few exceptions, when the doctrine has not been openly controverted, it has been tacitly ignored by the clergy of the Church, at least on this continent.

It is a failure of pastoral care and love that HV and the Church’s teaching on contraception has not been preached, taught, promoted, studied, from every parish, every diocese, every Catholic school and college and hospital. The harm done to souls has been incalculable.

I say this without judgment of my elder brothers in the priesthood. I was two years old in 1968 – I do realize that it is the easiest thing in the world to look back at the mistakes and blindness of a past era with easy condemnation and judgment. I do realize that there was a whole social and cultural ferment in the late 1960s and 1970s that was very hard to withstand, that compelled a certain conformity in rebellion and revolution, and that HV was an unexpected and (I guess?) bizarrely counter-cultural document in its day.

Well, we should have tried harder. We should have had greater spiritual maturity, greater intellectual capacity, greater docility and humility and courage. I find it deeply saddening that the average Catholic today has heard virtually no homilies about the subject, to the point where this satirical article is painfully on point. There has been, in most parishes and dioceses, not one word of teaching and guidance from the shepherds of the Church to counteract the ‘shepherding’ we are given by the secular world, which counsels us to simply do whatever we want, however we want, with whoever we want, so long as everyone is consenting.

It is not my way to be critical or harsh or judgmental of people, generally. But… and I address this to my brother priests reading this... surely we can do better than that, can’t we? Even if, in the immediate ferment of the 1960s, the reception of HV was poor, surely 45 years later we can pull ourselves together, guys, can’t we? Who’s with me? Anyone? (Fr.) Bueller?

It’s not like time has proven the Pope to be wrong and the secular world to be right. As I blogged quite a while ago, all the prophetic bits of the encyclical have been borne out with almost scary accuracy.

Besides the negative (and at times, quite deranged) feedback I’ve gotten for this series, I’ve also gotten positive feedback calling me ‘courageous’. This disheartens me more than the hate mail and nasty comments. It should not be a matter of courage for a Catholic priest to teach Catholic doctrine on a Catholic website. I don’t feel especially courageous doing this series. It should not be a matter of  ‘courage’ because all Catholic priests should be teaching the doctrine, but they aren’t. May God have mercy on us.

What would it look like if we had, and if we did, starting now? Would the whole world suddenly break out into mass chastity and sexual sanity? Would every Catholic in the whole wide world be convinced and converted and start obeying God’s laws on this matter? Of course not. But some would. Maybe quite a few. And those who didn’t would have to grapple with the question as they do not have to right now, because no one ever challenges them on it.

Anyhow, that’s enough for one day. Pray for your priests, and those reading who are priests, let’s pray for one another, so that wisdom, charity, and pastoral boldness and love may reign in our hearts. Amen.