Aged To Perfection

John XXIIIToday Fr. Chuck returns to Houston for three weeks then its off to Maryland again until January.  It will be good to have my old friend back.  Fr. Chuck and I have been friends ever since he came to Texas in 2002 and I feel rather bereft when he is away.  When I refer to Fr. Chuck as “old” I do not infer “elderly” rather, I use it as a term of endearment.  “Old” is not derogatory although some may connote it as such.  Of late, I find myself remembering  St. John XXIII whenever someone is dismissed or discounted simply because they are “old”.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was 77 years old when he was elected Pope; an age when most are inclined towards retirement if not already there.  Taking the name, “John XXIII”, he was the oldest Pope to be elected in more than 200 years.  After the whirlwind pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the Cardinal electors thought Roncalli would be a simple Pope, one who would slow down the Church and be a Pope of transition— instead they introduced a revolutionary.  He could have been content with just blessing people and having a few ceremonies in St. Peter’s but instead he surprised a group of 17 cardinals on January 25, 1959 when he announced that he intended to convene an ecumenical council.  “Trembling with emotion and yet with humble resolution” he said, “we put before you the proposal of a double celebration: a diocesan synod for Rome and an ecumenical council for the universal Church.  I would like to have your advice.”

The cardinals simply stared at him without a word. There were a number of reasons for this.  Some of the cardinals were shocked that a Pope whom many saw as merely a “transitional” figure, holding down the fort, as it were, until a more dynamic Church leader might come along, was proposing something so monumental.  After all, there were only twenty such councils in Church history; the last had been the First Vatican Council (so called because it took place within the Vatican) in 1870.

But the main reason that the cardinals withheld their approval was that they were members of the Roman Curia. The Curia—curia from the Latin word for “court” – is the administrative arm of the Holy See.  They run the departments, or congregations, of the Church on behalf of the Pope.  Pontiffs came and went but the Curia lived on. They had a vested interest in protecting the status quo.  Now, here was this elderly Pope, only three months into his pontificate, and he was acting in an entirely unexpected way—at least to them.

The other thing unsettling the cardinals was that in the past, the great councils had been called to condemn heresy but what John was proposing was a pastoral council, a council in which no heresy would be expunged, no dogma reasserted, rather it would be an “updating”, aggiornamento, of the Church.

As the council was announced to the whole world a flame of enthusiasm swept over the entire Church.  “This holy old boy”, wrote Cardinal Montini, “ understood immediately, perhaps by inspiration, that by calling a council he would release unparalleled vital forces in the Church.”

The third of 13 surviving children born on November 25, 1881 to a family of farmers in the tiny village of Sotto il Monte in the region of Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was always proud of his down-to-earth roots.  Even after he became Pope he eschewed the trappings of his position and refused to take advantage of it either for himself or his family.  He left his personal “fortune” to the surviving members of his family  – they each received less than $20.

When Roncalli entered the major seminary in 1895, the fourteen year old began to keep a journal upon the advice of the school’s spiritual director, Canon Luigi Isacchi. The journal, kept in a series of black academic notebooks with stiff covers, was a way to stay in touch with his spiritual goals.  He would continue this practice for the rest of his life, ending up with thirty-eight notebooks and folders which were published after his death in the volume titled, Journal of a Soul.

Pope John, stout as he was, sat lightly upon the papal throne at exactly the moment when such a position would be critical for the very survival of the Catholic Church in a brave new world.  Setting the tone for his successors, he moved the Church in a new direction in its relationship to Jews and to non-Catholic Christians and to a whole new attitude on the part of clergy, the hierarchy and the laity.  Pope John XXIII stood with his feet planted firmly in the swiftly flowing river of history and helped the Church move safely from one bank to the other without being swept away by the raging currents beneath.

John did not get to see his Council to the end.  He died of stomach cancer on June 3, 1963.  He had been Pope for just under five years but accomplished an extraordinary amount.  In his moment of history, Pope John stood at the pinnacle of an ancient religious hierarchy during an era of secularism and ideological conflict.  With both a prayerful humility and an iron will, he moved a massive institution toward a more open relationship and engagement with the world.  Unblinking and with a smile, he sought to reform and reclaim his cherished Church.

Anyone who associates aging with dysfunction does not know the story of St. John XXIII and so many others like him—and among us.  In a partisan culture such as ours there is no shortage of “divisions”: religious and secular, the ninety –nine percent and the one percent, red America/blue America and young vs. old.  Sitting on my desk is a paperweight with a quote from Abraham Lincoln which reads: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” I picked this up for myself and derive inspiration and courage from it to challenge those ready to marginalize people simply because of advancing years.  And when I look at an image of St. John XXIII, I can imagine him saying to the world: “You ain’t seeing nothing yet!”




Something About Mary

The Assumption of MAryOn August 15 we celebrate the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.  This Holy Day of Obligation gives expression to the dogma that the Blessed Mother was assumed into heaven.  Catholics believe that at the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body was not subjected to the usual process of physical decay rather, she was “assumed”, body and soul, into heaven.  A distinction here is necessary:  Mary did not ascend into heaven.  Only Jesus, by his own power, ascended into heaven.  Mary was assumed or taken up into heaven by God; she did not do it by her own power. Pope Pius XII, in the document, Munificentissimus Deus, defined the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of faith.  It states, “We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul, to heavenly glory.”  What the Pope solemnly declared in 1950 was already a commonly held belief in the Catholic Church. There are homilies on the Assumption dating back to the 6th century and documents reflect that this belief was universally held and celebrated by the 13th century. In his book, Introduction to Mary, Dr. Mark Miravalle writes, “In the New Testament, with the establishment of Jesus Christ as the new and eternal King in the universal Kingdom of God, we also have the establishment of a new Queen Mother and Advocate, who is the Mother of the King. The Virgin of Nazareth becomes the new “Great Lady” of all nations contained within the Kingdom of God, and as well, becomes the new Advocate for all peoples within this universal Kingdom.  It is for this reason that her cousin, Elizabeth, greets Mary with the expression, ‘Mother of my Lord’, (Luke 1:43) which was an ancient expression for referring to the Queen Mother in the language of the ancient semitic courts.” Seeing Mary approach, Elizabeth acknowledges that the Mother of her Lord,  the Messiah, is coming to visit her. Elizabeth is professing that Mary is the Queen Mother of her King. The title Gebirah (Gebira), meaning, “Great Lady” or “Queen Mother” was a royal title and an office which was bestowed upon the mothers of the kings of Israel and limited to those queens who were mothers of kings in the line of King David.  The Gebirah, the Queen Mother of the Kingdom of Judah, was the most important and influential woman in the royal court and the king’s chief counselor.  Recall that the practice of polygamy was not uncommon; Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).  Instead of choosing a wife to be queen, a king would choose his mother; a king had many wives but only one mother.  A throne would be placed on the right side of her son and a magnificent crown reserved for the Gebirah.  She served in a position of authority and great intercessory power for the people. It is significant that the mother of the Davidic king is listed along with her son in Sacred Scripture.  The name of each Davidic Queen Mother is given in the introduction to each reign of the Davidic Kings of Judah; see, 1 Kings 14:21; 15: 2; 22:42; 2 Kings 12:1; 14:2; 15:2; 15:33; 18:2; 21:1: 21:19; 22:1; 23:31; 23:36; 24:8; 24:18. In tune with their ancestral religious sensibilities the Jews, who were the first to embrace the Christian faith, undeniably acknowledged Mary’s royalty and her prerogatives by the right of her divine motherhood. Thus, the early Christians in apostolic times held the Mother of their Lord in the highest esteem, whose efficacious intercession should not be ignored.  Mary was their Queen Mother who went before their Messiah King to intercede for them. The angel Gabriel asserted Mary’s royal dignity when he greeted her (Luke 1:28).  In the original Greek text, it is written, “chaire kecharitomene”.   In ancient times this form of salutation, “hail/chaire”,  was used when greeting or acclaiming royal figures.  Only on one other occasion is this expression used in the New Testament.  After his arrest and scourging, the Roman soldiers mock Jesus by placing a crown of thorns on his head and clothe him in a purple robe since his alleged crime was that he claimed to be King of the Jews;  jeeringly, they proclaim, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (“chaire basileus ton ioudaion”) (John 19.3). The Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1-11) also exemplifies Mary as the Advocating Queen.  As Queen Mother, Mary brings the needs of the couple to her royal Son.  Because of the love Jesus has for his mother, he responds in a majestic way and provides a large amount of wine for the wedding feast. Through Mary’s motherly intercession, Jesus performs his first sign. From the cross, with his dying breath, Jesus said to his beloved disciple, “Behold your mother,” thus giving his mother to all of us to be our mother.  The Gebirah of  the eternal Davidic Kingdom is Mary of Nazareth.  Upon her Assumption into heaven her Son placed her beside him as Queen Mother of the King of Kings. The Assumption at once, completes and anticipates God’s saving work.  It looks to eternity and directs us to consider the conclusion of our earthly life. We believe and hope and resolve that one day we too will be rendered immaculate and be with Jesus forever.  Until then, Mary, our Gebirah,  intercedes for us as our advocating Queen Mother, the holy one who received early, the blessing we all hope to enjoy.

Celebrating a Perfectly Natural 4th

flag and crucifix

Will you be celebrating Natural Law this July 4th? You should be. Your Founding Fathers did.

In declaring their independence and asserting their God-given rights, the Founding Fathers—particularly the pen of Thomas Jefferson—acknowledged the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” These were no minor things. Indeed, maintained the Founders, you were entitled to them. (These were days when an entitlement meant something rather than any new thing.) The Founders believed that, in the course of human events, they had at long last arrived at that point where they and their countrymen could rightfully assume these rights “among the Powers of the Earth.” They were not only declaring their independence from the British Crown (itself a huge deal); they were asserting self-evident truths and claiming certain unalienable rights that were theirs not only as Americans but as humans.

So, what of this Natural Law stuff? What did and does it mean? And why does it still matter?

“There can be no doubt that those delegates in Philadelphia who adopted that Declaration believed in, and based the nation’s independence on, the Natural Law,” states Robert Barker, professor emeritus of law at Duquesne University, and an eloquent expert on the subject. Addressing the American Founders Lecture Series, held quarterly at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Club by the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, Barker defines Natural Law thusly: “God, in creating the universe, implanted in the nature of man a body of law to which all human beings are subject, which is superior to manmade law, and which is knowable by human reason.”

The Natural Law as understood by the Founders, says Barker, was the same that for two millennia had been a “traditional and essential” element of Western civilization.

To illustrate the point, Barker marshals the likes of Aquinas, Sophocles, Aristotle, and Cicero. Among them, he cites Sophocles’ play Antigone, where the heroine (of the same name), condemned to death by an unjust king, informed the king that he was violating a superior, natural law. “I had to choose between your law and God’s law,” she told the king, “and no matter how much power you have to enforce your law, it is inconsequential next to God’s. His laws are eternal, not merely for the moment. No mortal, not even you, may annul the laws of God.”

As Aristotle put it, the Natural Law is a universal law that transcends earthly regimes and stands common to all human beings, “even when there is no community to bind them to one another.”

Cicero saw Natural Law as true law. He wrote: “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting…. It is a sin to try to alter this law … and it is impossible to abolish it entirely.” He added that “whoever is disobedient” to the Natural Law “is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature.”

The Natural Law is profound and profoundly true. Sadly, it has been profoundly ignored and rejected by modern liberals/progressives and the nation as a whole. We could rattle off a litany of examples, but a major one occurring right now is the issue of “same-sex marriage.” The idea of a man and a man or a woman and a woman marrying one another is an unequivocal violation of the Natural Law. It is an arrangement gravely contrary to human nature. Unfortunately, today’s liberals/progressives could care less; they are fine with happily embracing any and all violations of Natural Law in pursuit of their own new, enlightened laws. It’s part of that glorious “fundamental transformation” of America.

Beyond liberals/progressives, there are countless millions of ordinary Americans who likewise could care less. Their idea of America and July 4th is hot dogs, beer, and fireworks. Natural Law? Sounds boring.

Well, it isn’t. Few things are actually as exhilarating, uplifting, redeeming. Think about it: the Creator implanted in you—that is, in your very nature—a body of truth and law to which you and all human beings are subject; it is superior to manmade law, and it is accessible and knowable by human reason. Sounds like something worth knowing.

from Catholic World Report by Paul Kengor

Follow link to text of Declaration of Independence and USCCB document on Religious Liberty

313-2013 Commemorating the Edict of Milan

Edict of Milan

Last month Pope Francis stressed the importance of religious freedom in a message marking the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan in which the Roman Emperor, Constantine, legalized Christianity.

The year A.D. 313 is an important date in the history of religious freedom. That date brought into a positive focus some very significant developments in “Christendom” and the Roman world of that time.  The new emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, signed an agreement with Licinius Augustus, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. By this edict, Constantine agreed to protect the Christians who had endured years of persecution. This document, called the Edict of Milan, became the first edict in favor of religious freedom for all people living in the Roman Empire.

Previously, on April 30, 311, Emperor Galerius had issued an edict of toleration. This was the first step. Christians were at least tolerated. The Edict of Milan was about the recognition of their rights. After centuries of persecution and nearly 10 dramatic, fearful years under the emperor Diocletian, the Christians were finally free to worship God, and the pagans were also free to worship as they chose.

After the Edict was released not all persecutions stopped entirely. As a result Licinius, the Eastern Emperor, soon marched against Constantine to gain control of the whole Empire for himself.  In doing so, he voided the Edict in an attempt to gain the support of pagans particularly those who composed much of the military. Constantine, however eventually defeated Licinius.

Constantine became more and more involved in the life of the Church.  He played a preponderant role at the Council of Nicea which established the foundation of the Christian Creed.  A few decades later, in 391, under Theodosius, the Christian Church became the official state church.

Cardinal Angelo Scola and the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, marked the anniversary of the Edict in a ceremony in Milan on May 16.  Patriarch Bartholomew holds a primacy of honor among the heads of Orthodox churches. On the occasion of the anniversary of the Edict, Pope Francis sent a message to the Patriarch, as well as to the entire city: “…for the importance given to the memory of the historic decision that, decreeing religious freedom for Christians, opened new paths to the Gospel and decisively contributed to the birth of European civilization.”

In the text, our Holy Father expressed the desire that, “today as then, the common witness of Christians of the East and West, sustained by the Spirit of the Risen One, will agree to the spread of the message of salvation in Europe and the entire world, and that, thanks to the foresight of civil authorities, the right to publicly express one’s faith will be respected everywhere, and that the contribution that Christianity continues to offer to culture and society in our time will be accepted without prejudice.”

After the ecumenical prayer service on May 16, Cardinal Scola and Patriarch Bartholomew went down into the crypt of the Cathedral of Milan to venerate the relics of Saint Ambrose and the Saints Gervase and Protaso, a devotion that unites Catholics and Orthodox. Cardinal Scola also gifted to Bartholomew, the new Ambrosian Gospels and some relics of Saint Ambrose. This was the second time an Orthodox patriarch visited the Archdiocese of Milan within a week. Earlier, on May 14, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, visited.

To read the entire Edict of Milan please follow the link under Blogroll (on the menu, to the right).