Wednesday, November 2, 2016

FutureChurch - Further Considerations

In mid-September, I accepted an award from an American Catholic group called FutureChurch. They wanted to recognize me for having brought up the issue of women’s roles in the Church during the Synod on the family last year, particularly their access to the permanent diaconate. I didn’t know much about this group and readily accepted readily, without imagining my decision could cause controversy.

Well, it did. The day I was to receive the award, a blogger wrote to tell me this group was heretical. He referred to a few interventions by members of the group who seemed to take issue with some teachings of the Church. At the heart of the accusation was the group’s public support for the ordination of women to the priesthood, a position that Pope John Paul II had rejected in quite powerful terms in his letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, published in 1994.

I did not have time to verify these accusations and decided to accept the award. As I told the blogger, I felt it was important to practise dialogue in our Church and to build bridges. As it turns out, I made the right decision. An exchange of emails with the executive director of FutureChurch in the following days helped me understand the source of the misunderstanding.

Here is what she wrote me.

FutureChurch works for Vatican II reforms within the Church.  Our mission, vision and all our initiatives focus on the needs of parish based Catholics.  In 1990, when Catholics from across the Cleveland diocese gathered under the leadership of Fr. Louis Trivison and Sr. Chris Schenk, FutureChurch educated about the priest shortage and, because we believe the Eucharist is central to Catholic life, advocated for new discussions of married priests and women as priests.  But we ended our advocacy for women’s ordination to the priesthood when Pope John Paul II issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis because we wanted to continue to work within the Church.  That is a critical distinction that we continue to uphold and it shapes our work with Catholics and with those in the hierarchy.  Thus, we do not advocate for the ordination of women as priests and have not done so for more than 20 years… 

We have chosen to educate and advocate for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate, an effort that began in earnest during the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist where we delivered over 30,000 signatures to the CDF asking them to open the discussion again after the 2002 ITC [International Theological Commission] report. 

We believe the female diaconate is important because we recognize that integrating women into our governance and ministerial structures will help us carry out the work of the Gospel more effectively.  For instance, in terms of violence against women (…) we believe that when women are deacons, Catholics will hear much more preaching about ending violence of all sorts against women (…) When women are more fully integrated into the leadership and decision making structures of the Church, our teaching and policies will more effectively address these issues of violence against women and a whole host of other challenges we face. 

I uphold the work of FutureChurch as a service to the wider Church.  Our supporters are faithful Catholics – still active and involved in their parishes.  Many have told us that being a part of FutureChurch has helped them to stay loyal to the Church because it gave them a voice to speak about their pain as Catholics.  We ask questions and work for change because we love the Church.

Now, one can agree or disagree with FutureChurch as to the advisability or even possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate. However, the International Theological Commission’s 2002 study clearly affirmed that this was an open question within the Catholic Church. So we cannot call a group heretical or in dissent for supporting this option.

And we cannot call a group heretical or in dissent for having held a position which, at the time, was not against Church doctrine. The fact that the group renounced that position once the Pope had spoken authoritatively indicates, to the contrary, that this group regards faithfulness to the Church as a sine qua non of its identity and work.

I hope this clarification his helpful to all concerned.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Homily for the Ogdensburg diocesan day for vocations at the Lake Placid Olympic Centre Arena.

The great American educator Parker J. Palmer writes, "Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about, quite apart from what I would like it to be about […] Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am." I like the way Dr. Palmer relates the question of vocation to the question of identity. The answer to the question “What shall I do?” must be grounded in the answer to a more important question “Who am I?"

I’ve recently been rereading a fascinating novel, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In it, we see the protagonist, Stephen Daedelus, growing from childhood into adolescence into young adulthood. His journey is similar to that of all young men and women who grapple seriously with the question of their identity in life and their role in the world. Stephen has a hard time of it, zigzagging between moral depravity and religious excess. He finally settles on the ideal of the artist, of the writer who, standing aloof from the world, comments on it with his skill in shaping language. However, if we follow Stephen’s adventures in Joyce’s next novel, Ulysses, we will see that he actually falls far short of his ideal. And Joyce implies that this is because of Stephen’s inability to truly enter into relationship with others. In a famous scene, Stephen is asked, “Don’t you love your mother?”, to which he replies, “I don’t know what your words mean.” Joyce seems to imply that Stephen’s inability to love impedes him from finding his true identity. Indeed, Joyce hints that our true identity is to be found in the relationships that make up the warp and woof of our lives.

When Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John, Saint Luke tells us the Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven was heard proclaiming, “You are my Son whom I love; with you, I am well pleased.” This was a revelatory moment for Jesus and for those who accompanied him. His deep identity was revealed in these words. Who is Jesus? He is the beloved Son of God. His identity lies is grounded in his relationship to the Father in the Spirit.

Why did Jesus then go directly into the desert for a forty day fast? Perhaps it was to meditate on this revelatory experience and to understand all its implications. Luke tells us that Satan tested Jesus’ faith in this revelation. Two of the three temptations start with the words, “If you are the Son of God…”, as if the devil were trying to foster doubt in Jesus’ mind and heart. But Jesus did not falter, did not hesitate, and rose to the occasion. He remained faithful to his relationship with the Father and his deep identify as the beloved Son.

In the next scene of Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus back in Nazareth, where he had grown up. He is invited to read and explain the Scriptures in his synagogue, and he does say by proclaiming the same text from Isaiah that we have just heard proclaimed in this arena. It seems that Jesus is using this text to explain the meaning of his experience in the Jordan to his friends and family. Perhaps he had meditated on this text during his days in the desert. It starts, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Clearly, this refers to his baptism when the Spirit came down upon him and the Lord’s voice proclaimed his identity as God’s own Son. But Jesus continues with Isaiah’s text, “The Lord has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, and to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.”

Did you notice the shift here? Jesus reflects with his friends and families on his own baptism not by emphasizing his identity but by drawing attention to his mission. He is sent by God to do something in the world, to change something in the hearts of the men and women of Israel. Let us not imagine that this mission is disconnected from his identity. On the contrary, it rises out of his identity, it is rooted in his identity, and it can only be accomplished by keeping his identity at the heart of everything he will say and do.

I think this is why our Church both baptizes and confirms those who want to be followers of Jesus. In baptism, our deepest identity is given to us. We become sons and daughters of God the Father, we become brothers and sisters of Jesus, and the Spirit dwells within us to help us live up to our identity day after day. I’m not sure we are conscious of the marvelousness of our baptism. In the second reading today, Paul describes God as “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see.” And yet, in baptism, this overwhelming, distant God bends down to us, embraces us and calls us his children. Our whole lives resemble Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, as we are constantly challenged to believe in our identity and to grow in it. The world keeps on mocking us, “Are you truly a son of God, a daughter of God?” We are continually tempted to hide our identity and to take up the masks that the world would have us adopt. Here is the first, ongoing challenge in developing a true culture of vocation: to remain faithful to the identity that was given to us in our baptism, and to help our brothers and sisters grow in that faithfulness.

But we have not only been baptized, we have been confirmed. With Jesus, we have been anointed – not by the voice of God speaking from heaven, but by the oil of chrism – and we have been filled anew by the Spirit in order to be sent into the world just as Jesus was. Christ’s mission becomes our own mission as the sacrament of confirmation indelibly inscribes it within our hearts and our souls. If baptism gathers us as disciples of Christ, confirmation scatters us into the world as his missionaries. This is the second challenge in developing a true culture of vocation: to continually identify and respond to the concrete mission God is entrusting to us every day.

There are so many needs in the world, so much pain and suffering, such loneliness and alienation, so many false roads that ultimately lead to sorrow and death, both spiritual and physical. Our identity as children of God compels us to respond to these needs by following Jesus in living out his mission. But do we? In the Gospel story of Lazarus and the rich man, we hear the tragic tale of one who had an abundance of gifts to share but was blind to the needs of those who sat on his very doorstep. I can’t help but think of the rich countries of our world that hesitate to open their doors to the victims of terrorism and war even today. However, this man also represents each one of us, for we have all been blessed with a variety of gifts and we all suffer from one type of blindness or another. Jesus’ parable presents us with a household where there is no culture of vocation. And the warning is clear: those who do not take up the challenge of Christ’s mission cannot lay claim to Christ’s identity as children of God. You cannot deny your confirmation and claim the grace of baptism at the same time. Or, as Jesus said in another context: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” 

The question then becomes, “Well, what is MY specific vocation, how is God calling ME to follow Christ in his mission to the world?” The Presbyterian author and theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I understand this to mean that God is calling me to respond to the needs I most clearly recognize with the gifts within me that most call out to be developed. I can only figure this out with God’s help.

As a young man, I struggled mightily with this question as I sought to determine the direction my life should take. I remember speaking with a high school teacher who would one day become my spiritual director. I asked her, “How can I know that my choice corresponds to God’s will? I might delude myself. How can I be sure?” She answered, “God has given us a spiritual barometer called inner peace. Things might be flowing along smoothly in your life, you might be enjoying yourself and feeling that you are in the right place, but if you stop, ponder and listen to your heart and find that there is not deep peace within you, you are not doing God’s will. However, you might find life battering at you like a vicious storm, full of stresses and uncertainties. If in this situation, you enter within yourself and still find deep peace, then you will know you are doing God’s will.”

I recalled her wisdom a few years later when my career as an opera singer was starting to take shape. I was nearing the end of my Bachelor of Music and already was singing professionally, winning awards and signing contracts. I was popular and enjoying my life. I was even finding time to participate in parish life and occasionally pray. However, when I did stop to pray for a meaningful moment, I sensed something nibbling in the depths of my heart. Eventually, I recognized it for what it was: the realization that I did not possess that deep peace Sister Laurette had told me about. That’s when I decided to drop my music studies and entered seminary. I realized that, though I was passionate about music, it was not my greatest passion, and that the world’s greatest need was not another a baritone. This could not be my vocation.

It was far from clear to me that God was calling me to the priesthood, but I believed that seminary would be, for me, the place that would allow me to seek my true identity and the mission God was preparing me for. It was not quite as much fun as singing with an orchestra, and no one was paying me to preach, but it was the context in which my baptism and my confirmation were finally able to flourish.

It turns out that priesthood was indeed my vocation. However, it might not have been. That would not have been a failure. The failure would have been to have turned away from my identity and my mission, to have given in to the doubts and snares that Jesus had overcome in the desert. My prayer for all of you is that you will overcome all doubts and snares through Jesus and, with him, find your true identity and mission in this life. 

May all of us, as a Church, help each other live our baptism and confirmation, and so build a true culture of vocation, for the glory of God and the salvation of the world. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Address to FutureChurch upon receiving the Fr. Trivison Award

I would like to thank you for the honour you have chosen to bestow upon me this evening. I understand that it is because of my initial intervention at last October’s general assembly of the Synod of Bishops. In that intervention, as you point out, I suggested that we study the possibility of ordaining women to the permanent diaconate in the Church. This is an issue that you have been promoting for some time, and to have a bishop speak about it in such a venue was an encouragement for you. I recognize in this award an expression of thanks for that encouragement. Of course, you have been further encouraged, as I was, by Pope Francis’s response to another group’s intervention on the same issue. I refer of course to the request by the International Union of Superiors General and voiced by their president, Sister Carmen Sammut, that the question be studied in the Church. Pope Francis agreed, and has now set up a commission to undertake that study. So your award should have gone to Sister Carmen or to Pope Francis himself. I guess you chose me because I’m just across the border. Be that as it may, I am honoured and I thank you for this.

I would like to make two points. The first is about the broader issues I raised in my intervention at the Synod. People have asked me why I decided to dedicate my three minutes to the question of women deacons when the Synod was about the family. In fact, my intervention was not dedicated to this issue. 
In the months preceeding the Synod, I changed my mind quite a few times before deciding which issue to address. I had whittled my choices down to three : the impact of social media on family life, the scourge of pornography on the web and its devastating consequences for healthy, holy sexuality, and the ongoing victimization of so many women within their marriages. The balanced was tipped to the latter when I read a report from the World Health Organization revealing that, still today, close to one third of all women will be subjected to violence at the hands of their spouse during their married life. This statistic is astounding and unacceptable. I felt I needed to bring this to the attention of my brother Bishops and invite them to address this pressing issue in our deliberations. This was the central topic of my intervention.

However, I felt that we could not really speak with credibility on this issue if we were not willing within our own Church structures to recognize and celebrate the inherent dignity of all women. So I suggested we seek ways to listen to the voices of women in our reflections on scripture, in our governance structures and, finally, by studying the possibility of ordaining women to the permanent diaconate. 

I believe we can do this without touching on the doctrinal issue of access to the priesthood, which in my opinion is another question. The media pounced on the last sentence of my three-minute intervention and basically ignored the rest. And I have to admit I feel some sadness because of this.

So this evening, as I accept your award, I would ask you to turn your minds and hearts with me to all those women who do not worry so much about whether they can be deacons as about whether they can avoid another argument with their husband, another fight and another beating. I echo Pope Francis’s call that we not be turned in so much on our own inner issues as a Church that we forget the more burning problems with which so many of our sisters and brothers are struggling. I would thank you for this.

The second point I’d like to make is this. A number of people have asked me in the past few days if I know who Future Church is. They have pointed to a number of positions you have taken or initiatives you have undertaken that run counter to the Church’s teaching, particularly on the issue of the access of women to the priesthood. I honestly replied that I don’t know your organization very well, and that I would not agree with everything they told me you are about. 

Nevertheless, like Pope Francis, I believe in building bridges. I believe in dialogue. I might not agree with everything you espouse, and you might not agree with everything I do, yet it is important that in the Church we never stop reaching out to each other and working together for the greater good whenever we can. We are bound by the same faith in Jesus-Christ as the Incarnate Son of God, by a common desire to see his Gospel spread to all the world, and by a shared love for the Church, his Body and Bride. So it is in that spirit of bridge-building and dialogue that I humbly accept your award, as a token of my respect for each one of you, and as a common pledge all of us will continue to speak to one another, pray with one another and walk with one another on the pilgrimage of life. Again, I thank you.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Précis of my homily for Chrism Mass

Our Indulgent God

This evening, as you arrived at the cathedral, we invited you to enter through the Door of Mercy... I often hear questions about the plenary indulgence associated with this practice... I've tried to understand such a complicated topic following a few indications from Pope Francis. Here are three lessons from my musings.

First, indulgence is not a thing, a kind of pass that we earn by accomplishing some quasi-magical acts. Indulgence is not a thing; it is a quality, a quality that we sometimes find in humans, a quality we recognize eminently in God. God gives us life, raises us up when we fall, heals our wounds, sends his Son to walk with us, gives us his Spirit to be our life. Indulgence is the love of God for us, faithful, unconditional, eternal.

Second, God is not satisfied to forgive our sins. God also wants to help us heal the wrong we have done. In his great mercy God forgives us AND helps us to repair the world. In contemporary Judaism, an expression has spread in recent decades: Tikkun Olan - which in Hebrew means 'repair the world'. I suggest that we Catholics should also learn this beautiful expression - Tikkun Olan - because we, as heirs of the Covenant, we share in the responsibility of repairing the world.
According to this evening's Gospel, Christ was anointed and sent by the Father 'to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim to the captives release, and they find the blind sight, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year granted by the Lord.' My friends, we meet this evening in the heart of such a good year, a jubilee year. And there are among us the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. There is still a world to repair. Christ's mission is ours! God, ever indulgent, gives us his grace to help us respond to this mission. His Spirit heals us. His Spirit empowers us to repair the world.

Third, indulgence is not a private reality, but a communal reality. As soon as Jesus was consecrated to his mission, he sought collaborators in this great task. Thus was born the Church. God unites us to Christ and to each other, building up a network of grace, of goodness and of holiness, a network called the communion of saints. The Father's indulgence sets us in this network so that together we might help each other heal our wounds, discern wisely, to act with courage in repairing the world.  

Strengthened by God's indulgence, we go forth to practice the seven spiritual and seven corporal works of mercy and so repair the world. However, in our diocese, we have identified as our pastoral priority a fifteenth work of mercy: affirmation. Affirming another helps that person discover that he is part of this network of men and women dedicated to repairing the world. Affirming another is saying she makes a difference in our world and that her presence is important. Affirming another is to practice indulgence... a bit like God.