IMPORTANT INFORMATION: Opinions expressed on the Insight Scoop weblog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Ignatius Press. Links on this weblog to articles do not necessarily imply agreement by the author or by Ignatius Press with the contents of the articles. Links are provided to foster discussion of important issues. Readers should make their own evaluations of the contents of such articles.
A New Adventure with Steve Ray, the Catholic Indiana Jones!
presents ABRAHAM Father of Faith and Works
NEW YEAR – NEW FILM – NEW ADVENTURE WITH STEVE RAY! And ready for the “BIG SCREEN” in Your Parish in 2015!
Have you been following the Footprints of God from Ignatius Press and Steve Ray?
If you have, you already know there is nothing else like these fast-paced, entertaining, educational documentaries on our salvation history. If you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat!
These eight films combine the elements of a biography, travel documentary, Bible study and apologetics course all rolled into a remarkable, family friendly adventure! Each one is a 90-minute, stand-alone masterpiece taking the viewer to another time and place. With ABRAHAM you will travel with Steve back 4,000 years to Iraq, Turkey, Palestinian Territories and Israel. Have you ever seen a ziggurat? You will!
And now this much anticipated foundational film in the series, ABRAHAM: Father of Faith and Works, has been released as an exclusive parish screening program. Parishes, schools and organizations will be able to purchase a package that will include DVDs to have for sale or to gift, a free DVD for showing, promotional materials, and a 12-month site license to show the movie unlimited times in your facility or in a theater!
License holders will have 6 weeks of exclusive sales of the ABRAHAM DVD before general sales will start on March 17th.
FOOTPRINTS of GOD Parish Screening Program
And for those who would like to show all 8 Footprints of God DVDs now available: JESUS, MARY, PETER, PAUL, APOSTOLIC FATHERS, MOSES, DAVID/SOLOMONand ABRAHAM, we have packages that include a 12-month site license to show all 8 DVDs as well as a free copy of each DVD to use for showing, copies of all the DVDs to sell or gift, and promotional materials.
Both of these parish screening programs make great evangelization tools and can be used as a fundraiser as well.
Click here to see an overview of the Footprints of God films.
For more information on packages and prices available as well as the forms to order your packages, please go to www.IPMovieNights.com and click on SPECIAL SCREENING PROGRAMS.
Nuns greet Pope Francis during his meeting with religious at the cathedral in Naples, Italy, March 21. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Five About Francis | Carl E. Olson | CWR blog
A look at some recent stories about the Holy Father and his pontificate
The Holy Father is constantly in the news and there is never a shortage of stories about what he is saying and doing, as well as about what he might have said, should do, or won't say or do. Here are five recent stories about Pope Francis that caught my attention for various reasons.
1. On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of Francis' election, George Weigel spoke with Kathryn Jean Lopez of NRO about the current papacy. Here are a couple of excerpts:
KJL: You’ve written that he has “reanimated the papacy.” What does that mean for Church teaching?
GW: I hope it means that the new interest in the pope evokes a new interest in the Church’s teaching, of which the pope is the custodian. Francis ought to be taken at his word when he says, as he has often done, that he is a son of the Church who believes and teaches what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. If his media-generated popularity, fragile as that may turn out to be when the world discovers that the pope is really a Catholic, opens windows of possibility for explaining that divine mercy leads us to the truths God revealed to us (and inscribed into the world and into us), then his reanimation of the papacy will advance the “Church in permanent mission” for which he called in Evangelii Gaudium, which is the grand strategy document of his pontificate. ...
KJL: In that same article for the Tablet, a British magazine, you said, “All over the world, Francis is news, and when the Pope is news, so is the Church and the Gospel.” Is that still good news when the pope seems to be interpreted in different ways by different people? When the Gospel seems to be interpreted in different ways by different people?
GW: That’s the obvious challenge, perhaps even danger, here. By its very nature as a custodial office, the papacy can’t be a Rorschach test, into which people read whatever they like – whatever they fear or hope for. So when media “narratives” about Francis get set in concrete, and act as filters bending or distorting (or ignoring) aspects of his vision and his teaching that don’t fit the established story line, the Church has a problem. There’s an obvious investment in some media circles in the “narrative” of “the pope who’s finally going to get with it.” And as a friend at a major American newspaper said to me when I complained about this tendency in his own paper, “You know how these media narratives are. They’re like bamboo.” Meaning, once they start growing, you can’t kill them.
Perhaps the dumbest of these story lines is that Francis has re-opened conversation and debate in a Church that had been closed and claustrophobic for 35 years under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I defy anyone who, over the last 35 years, has spent time on the campuses of Notre Dame or Georgetown, or who has read the National Catholic Reporter, or who has gone to a meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to make that claim without experiencing a twinge of conscience that says, “I should wash my mouth out with soap.”
The most enduring of the false narratives is that the signature phrase of the early pontificate — “Who am I to judge?” — was a matter of the pope jettisoning millennia of Catholic moral teaching. It was not. It was a specific response to the circumstances of a man who had repented and was trying to live an upright life; it was, in a word, what any sensible pastor, facing that specific set of circumstances, would say. But ripped out of context, it has become an all-purpose filter through which everything else — including the pope’s multiple reaffirmations of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning — gets airbrushed out of the picture.
And then there’s the trope about an impending “global-warming encyclical.” The pope is preparing an encyclical on nature and the environment, including the human environment (which includes the moral imperative of a culturally affirmed and legally recognized right to life from conception until natural death). So what happens? A low-ranking Vatican official with gauchiste tendencies and a marked talent for self-promotion gives an interview to the Guardian, one of the most consistently anti-Catholic newspapers in the world, in which he claims that this is a global-warming encyclical — which he couldn’t possibly have known, as the document wasn’t drafted yet. The Guardian loves it, because it fits the story line of the long-awaited Great Catholic Cave-In. So the story wafts across the Atlantic, where it’s picked up with glee by Catholic progressives and horror by some Catholic conservatives — and the battle of the blogs is on, full blast. No one bothers to ask whether there’s any basis in fact for the assertion that this is going to be a “global-warming encyclical.” So when climate change gets some attention in a 100-page document, the most important parts of which will have to do with the theology of stewardship and the theology of “human ecology,” it’s almost certainly going to be rapturously embraced, or bitterly opposed, as a “global-warming encyclical,” despite the evidence that it’s much more broadly gauged than that.
More pro-active Vatican communications might be able to do something about all this, but when the Holy See is constantly in the mode of, “No, what the pope really meant was . . . ,” the game has already been largely forfeited.
2. Veteran Vatican reporter Sandro Magister's most recent piece suggests that Francis is starting to shy away from his earlier support for Cardinal Kasper's proposals about Communion for some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics:
The Mystery of the Annunciation is the Mystery of Grace | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) | Ignatius Insight
The mystery of the annunciation to Mary is not just a mystery of silence.It is above and beyond all that a mystery of grace.
We feel compelled to ask ourselves: Why did Christ really want to be born of a virgin? It was certainly possible for him to have been born of a normal marriage. That would not have affected his divine Sonship, which was not dependent on his virgin birth and could equally well have been combined with another kind of birth. There is no question here of a downgrading of marriage or of the marriage relationship; nor is it a question of better safeguarding the divine Sonship. Why then?
We find the answer when we open the Old Testament and see that the mystery of Mary is prepared for at every important stage in salvation history. It begins with Sarah, the mother of Isaac, who had been barren, but when she was well on in years and had lost the power of giving life, became, by the power of God, the mother of Isaac and so of the chosen people.
The process continues with Anna, the mother of Samuel, who was likewise barren, but eventually gave birth; with the mother of Samson, or again with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptizer. The meaning of all these events is the same: that salvation comes, not from human beings and their powers, but solely from God—from an act of his grace.
Detail, Ordination of St. Stephen by St. Peter, by Fra Angelico (1447-49).
New Testament Witness | Fr. John Navone, SJ | HPR
The faith of the early Christians in Jesus and the Kingdom of his Father constituted them as a community or Church. If it was their shared faith that formed them into a community, who and what they believed in would be the decisive factor in shaping their shared life as a community and their self-understanding as a Church. The self-understanding or their ecclesiology had to be shaped by their Christology, their theology of Jesus.
Christology and Ecclesiology
In both his Gospel and in the book of Acts, Luke associates the resurrection experience very closely with the notion of “giving witness.” In the speeches of both Peter and Paul that are narrated in Acts, this is a recurrent theme: “This Jesus God raised up, and, of that, we are all witnesses” (2:32; see also 3:15; 5:32; 1:31). In one passage, Peter sees the reason for the resurrection experience in the fact that they were chosen by God as witnesses: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses …” (10:39-41). In his Gospel, Luke makes this association in the final conversation between Jesus and his disciples, where Jesus tells them that they are to be “witnesses of these things” (24:48).
Moreover, the role of giving witness is associated, not only with the resurrection experience, but also with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the Gospel account of the final conversation, the disciples are told to stay in the city until they are clothed with the power which the promise of the Father will bring (24:49). In the Pentecost event itself, the Spirit comes in the symbols of fire and a rush of mighty wind, and Peter stands to speak and give witness (Acts 2:2-14). The power which they received from the Holy Spirit was, in a special way, the power to give witness.
These associations of both the resurrection experience and the Pentecost experience with the call to give witness and the power to give witness suggest that Luke’s theology, both of the resurrection and of Pentecost, was formulated within the context of the delay of Jesus’ coming, and are Luke’s theological solution of this problem. Luke’s theology of the Ascension also makes sense within this context. When Jesus did not come in power and glory as they expected, his power and glory was portrayed as his heavenly exaltation “at the right hand of the Father.” The manifestation of his power is that power which comes with the outpouring of the Spirit. The opening scene in Acts shows the interrelationship of these various elements in Luke’s theology: the disciples are not to inquire about “times and seasons” for the coming of the Kingdom, but they are to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and they are to be his witnesses, and after saying this, Jesus departs from them. It was his absence that made witnesses necessary, and made the role of the Spirit in empowering to give witness so central.
The disciples, then, were constituted witnesses to Jesus through the resurrection experience and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. What the nature of their witness was to be, however, and what all it was to include were things that they had to learn. Luke brings this out in Acts in the story which he tells about Stephen, who was one of the seven deacons chosen to take care of the daily distribution to the widows. We are told that Stephen was “full of grace and power, and did great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). So great were the wonders and signs, that they began to cause trouble for Stephen with the synagogue. Members of the synagogue began to dispute with him, but when they could not withstand the “wisdom and spirit” with which he spoke, “they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes” and had Stephen arrested (6:12).
There follows the story of Stephen being brought before the High Priest and the Council, and his lengthy speech about the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, ending with the account of Jesus, whom Stephen calls the Righteous One, being betrayed and put to death (7:52).
Ideals and Norms | Russell Shaw | Catholic World Report
You can affirm the truth of a moral doctrine while at the same time undercutting it in practice—by treating the doctrine as an ideal rather than a norm.
Lately the idea has been gaining currency among some responsible conservative Catholics that unless the synod of bishops or the Pope specifically repudiates a settled Church doctrine—which is highly unlikely—there’s no immediate cause for alarm. I wish it were that simple, but it isn’t.
Philip Lawler, paraphrasing Ross Douthat, gives this summary account of the viewpoint in question: “The tensions between the Pope and doctrinal conservatives could become enormously important if the Pope makes an effort to change established Church teaching. Unless and until that happens…it’s a gross exaggeration to say that the conflict is tearing up the Church.”
And, one might add, since that effort to change Church teaching almost certainly isn’t in the cards, what’s to worry?
Alas, this way of thinking could be an unintended invitation to complacency. For it’s possible sincerely to affirm the truth of a moral doctrine while at the same time undercutting it in practice. The way to do that is to treat the doctrine as an ideal rather than a norm.
Right here it is important to say that I don’t know exactly what Pope Francis thinks about all this. What I do know is that he has said repeatedly that, as a loyal son of the Church, he has absolutely no intention of overturning any Catholic doctrine. In saying this, he obviously means it, and I applaud him for that.
At the same time, Francis also has provided two synods as forums in which people who wish to divorce pastoral practice from doctrine and treat the doctrine as an ideal rather than a norm have been given the opportunity to publicize and press their view.
"A Field of Wheat" (1878) by Ivan Shishkin [WikiArt.org]
Unless we become grains of wheat... | A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for March 22, 2015, the Fifth Sunday of Lent | Carl E. Olson
Readings: • Jer 31:31-34 • Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15 • Heb 5:7-9 • Jn 12:20-33
“If a tree falls in a forest,” goes the philosophical riddle, “and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
In today’s Gospel we hear something similar, yet not it is not a riddle or philosophical puzzle, but a clear response and a spiritual challenge. “Amen, amen, I say to you,” Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
Put as a question: if a grain of wheat does not fall to the ground and die, will it bear fruit? No, the Lord says, it will not. For although death is the enemy, it is also, paradoxically, the means to everlasting life. “By death,” the Byzantine Easter chorus announces, “he conquered death.” Such paradoxes appear contradictory and illogical, but they express a truth; it is a surprising and profound truth, as with the analogy used by Jesus.
But how is it that those who love their lives will lose them? What does it mean to say that whoever hates his life in this world will gain eternal life?
This strong language is quite similar to Jesus’ assertion that if “any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). We know, of course, that Jesus did not condone hatred of family or strangers. Rather, by using a common form of Semitic rhetoric, he brought into bold relief the two possible options: either put Jesus first, where he belongs, or put him somewhere else.
It is never wrong to love our family, but it is wrong to put our families or ourselves before Jesus and the things of God. The man who loves his life in this world is a man who puts more sweat, tears, and time into this world than he does into the kingdom of God. If we live as though this passing, temporal world is our highest priority, it necessarily means that we have placed something that is good, because it is from God, above the greatest Good, which in turn pits that good thing against God.
Some might argue—as many critics of Christianity do—that such thinking forms people who are so heavenly-minded they are of no earthly good. In reality, the Christian who is oriented toward his final destination and who lives with the hope of heaven is of the greatest earthly good, for he rightly perceives the place and value of this world.
After all, no man has ever been more heavenly-minded than Jesus Christ, and no man has ever done more earthly good than Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, human history is marked with the tragic and bloody remains of those destroyed by men who were so earthly-minded that they were of no heavenly or earthly good.
St. Irenaeus, in his famous work, “Against Heresies,” observed that a kernel of wheat “falling into the earth and becoming decomposed rises and is multiplied by the Spirit of God, who contains all things. And then, through the wisdom of God, it serves for our use when, after receiving the Word of God, it becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ. In the same way our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time.”
The God-fearing Greeks who came to Jerusalem to worship during the Passover said, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” This is the desire of those who know this world is not enough; they want to see and know the One who is Truth. And when the Eucharist is lifted up at Mass, we do see Jesus. We receive him completely. Having died with him in baptism, we will one day, by God’s grace, rise with Him at our appointed time.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the March 29, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
The Importance of Knowing St. Joseph | Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R. | The Introduction to The Mystery of Joseph by Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P. | Ignatius Insight
The publication of this serious, even profound study of a person intimately joined to the life of the Messiah and written by one of the most respected figures in our contemporary Catholic scene should cause serious attention to be paid to the often neglected figure of Saint Joseph.
Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P., an important French theologian who died only in 2006, was a man whose thought was of great influence and depth. He was also a man greatly devoted to the Church who founded the Community of Saint John. This new community is now recognized in several countries as a very successful attempt to restore a vibrant spirituality to the religious life, which in many places has seemed moribund for years.
The Brothers and Sisters of Saint John are a cause of hope to those who look ahead to the restoration of the authentic and powerful traditions of the religious life that have gotten lost in recent times. The Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Renewal have welcomed them with joy.
Father Philippe's book on Saint Joseph is very consistent with the new biblical theology called for by Pope Benedict XVI. The author very impressively examines the sparse facts that we have concerning the life of Saint Joseph, teasing from them material that connects easily and well with a very impressive structure of theological teaching. This then becomes a means of providing a firm foundation for devotion to the Foster Father and Guardian of the Son of God.
Except for Christ and Saint Paul, New Testament figures attract little attention from the secular world and especially the secular media – even when they are in a kindly mood. Occasionally a small amount of attention is shown to the figure of the Blessed Mother but rarely is Saint Joseph or any of the Apostles mentioned. Even in cities named Saint Joseph or San José are the inhabitants really conscious of the fact that their hometown is actually named for a person – a person who played a role of immense importance in God's plan of redemption for humankind. This apparent obscurity finds at its root a kind of Protestantism that is focused intensely on the figure Christ and on the writings of Saint Paul, but which seems barely acquainted with Saint Joseph and even the Mother of God, herself.
Catholic theology, which takes a less constricted view of such things, opened up a world of devotion to Saint Joseph the humble carpenter of Nazareth as well as to the Mother of God. How could it be otherwise? These are the figures who stood at the manger on the first Christmas; they are the ones to whom the care of the Word Incarnate was entrusted by God.
Pope Francis hands gifts to children during a meeting with an Italian association for large families to mark the the feast of the Holy Family in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 28, 2014. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via EPA)
A mission of love | George Weigel | CWR blog
The months leading up to the World Meeting of Families this September should be a time when Catholics ponder the full, rich meaning of marriage and the family
The World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this September should be more than a vast Catholic “gathering of the clans” around Pope Francis—and so should the months between now and then. If the Church in the United States takes this opportunity seriously, these months of preparation will be a time when Catholics ponder the full, rich meaning of marriage and the family: human goods whose glory is brought into clearest focus by the Gospel. Parents, teachers and pastors all share the responsibility for seizing this opportunity, which comes at a moment when marriage and the family are crumbling in our culture and society.
Now, thanks to a fine mini-catechism prepared by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Pontifical Council for the Family, we’ve been given a basic resource with which to do months of preparatory catechesis on marriage and the family—and preachers have been offered reliable material for shaping homilies on these great themes between now and September.
“Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive” (Our Sunday Visitor) begins by reminding us that the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family is not composed of “positions” or “policies,” a widespread misunderstanding today.
What Is the Spirit Saying through Pope Francis? | Fr. Michael Najim | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
When I was in seminary, I learned in moral theology the importance of avoiding moralistic preaching. In short, moralistic preaching is when a priest simply states the rules. For example: a priest preaches that abortion is wrong and sinful; however, the preacher fails to put the sinfulness of abortion into the larger context of God’s plan for each person, that God wills and loves every human life, that each human life, created in God’s image and likeness, has dignity and inestimable value.
Sadly, the preacher does not speak of the love and mercy that God offers to the one who has chosen abortion, that God can, and desires, to forgive and renew us. The preacher ends, or even remains exclusively focused, on a note of judgment, rather than inviting his hearers into the fullness of God’s love, and, more importantly, inviting them to know that God’s love and mercy is infinite. To the hearer, moralistic preaching is judgmental, cold, and unfeeling. Moralistic preaching rarely, if ever, can lead the hearer to a genuine, life-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, who is Love and Mercy incarnate.
This might explain why so many people throughout the world have been so attracted to Pope Francis, for his style is the antithesis of moralism. Francis came onto the world stage proclaiming that the Church and the world, more than anything else, need to be invited into a personal relationship with a God whose very essence is love and mercy, a God who desires that all people be saved.
To be clear, this was the same approach taken by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict; neither was moralistic in his approach. John Paul and Benedict both proclaimed God’s love and mercy, and the importance of friendship with Jesus. However, and sadly, the truth is that, for many, the face of the Church for some time now has been perceived as a face of judgment on immoral behaviors. And unfortunately, for many, perception is reality.
And this is where Pope Francis comes in, for maybe the Church and the world—and the media!—are in need of being shaken from this perception.
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it about the same number of times.
“It” is John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” I first memorized it at the age of four, reciting it before a small Fundamentalist congregation.
That verse, from today’s Gospel reading, is a beautiful summary, from the lips of the Savior, of the heart of salvation. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in the opening of his encyclical on love, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” And that is an apt description of the season of Lent: a transforming encounter with a person, the Son of God, who gives us life, direction, purpose.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sought out an encounter with Jesus. He came at night, fearful of being seen with Jesus The nighttime, in John’s Gospel, symbolizes the spiritual darkness in which man lives apart from God, a theme introduced in the opening verses of John’s Gospel (Jn 1:4-5). This ruler of the Jews realized his need for spiritual light, readily confessing his belief that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God.” Surely he must have been challenged by Jesus’ declaration that “whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
A decisive direction was presented to Nicodemus. Yet the Apostle John does not describe what reaction Nicodemus had to the words of Jesus; the secretive visitor seems to have silently disappeared back into the night. Perhaps St. John did not immediately reveal Nicodemus’s choice because Nicodemus, in a certain way, is each of us. We have met Jesus, we have sat at his feet, and we have heard his words. What will we do?
This is one of so many brilliant qualities of the Fourth Gospel, which is a literary and spiritual icon offering a window into the mystery of Christ—and into the mystery of our own hearts. We can relate to Nicodemus, just as we can understand the joy of the woman at the well (Jn 4), the hunger of the crowds who followed Jesus (Jn 6), and the fear and anguish of Peter, who betrayed Jesus after the arrest in the garden (Jn 18). “Nicodemus,” wrote Monsignor Romano Guardini in his classic work, The Lord, “has been shaken by Jesus’ mysterious power; his wonderful teaching has struck home.” But, just like the woman at the well, the crowds, and Peter, there was at first bewilderment and confusion. He no longer wanted to be in the darkness, but he was not ready to step fully into the light. He would stay in the shadows for a while longer, pondering the person and words of Jesus.
But eventually Nicodemus did, cautiously, step forward a bit, coming to Jesus’ defense before his fellow Pharisees (Jn 7:50-52). But his appeal for fairness was met with suspicious anger. Perhaps he pondered again these words: “whoever lives the truth comes to the light…”
We meet Nicodemus one more time, after the Crucifixion. Pilate had given Joseph of Arimathea permission to remove and bury Christ’s body, and Nicodemus, “the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds” (Jn 19:39). He was finally in the light completely, revealing himself as a disciple of the Son of Man who had been lifted up “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Lent is a time to come into the light and to embrace the gift of eternal life. That’s worth hearing about a thousand times. Or more.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the March 22, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
U.S. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is pictured preaching in an undated photo. (CNS photo)
Fulton Sheen's Intense Life of Holiness Worthy of Sainthood, Biographer Writes | Joseph M. Hanneman | CWR
Thomas C. Reeves, author of America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen, has written a final chapter, now available for free online
Driven and sustained by his daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen lived an intense life of holiness, zeal to save souls and Christian love that helped make him the most influential Catholic in 20th-century America, biographer Thomas C. Reeves says.
Reeves has released a previously unpublished conclusion to his 2002 Sheen biography, America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (Encounter Books). The concluding chapter, titled "Living Intensely," covers Sheen's spirituality, his inspiration and how others viewed his life. While Reeves does not directly promote Sheen as a candidate to be raised to the altars, his book's concluding chapter is a very tidy summation of Sheen's merits for sainthood. Reeves is making the chapter available for free on the internet, and has donated it for inclusion in his papers at Marquette University.
"To an extraordinary degree, his mind was on God," Reeves wrote of Sheen (1895-1979), the prolific author and Catholic evangelist best remembered for his 1950s television series, "Life is Worth Living." "This supernatural approach to life activated and sustained his enormous energy. He said late in life, 'the secret of my power is that I have never in fifty-five years missed spending an hour in the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That’s where the power comes from. That’s where sermons are born. That’s where every good thought is conceived.' "
Sheen's commitment to keeping a holy hour began on the day of his ordination on September 20, 1919 and lasted until the day of his death on December 9, 1979. He was clearly devoted to the practice, but he viewed it not as a devotion but "a sharing in the work of redemption." For many decades, he urged brother priests, religious and all the faithful to make a daily holy hour.
"We become like that which we gaze upon. Looking into a sunset, the face takes on a golden glow," Sheen wrote in his autobiography, Treasure in Clay. "Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way, as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain." The holy hour was also a source for intellectual ideas and preaching. "Theological insights," Sheen once said, "are gained not only from the two covers of a treatise, but from two knees on a prie-dieu before a tabernacle."
In September 2002, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints officially opened Sheen's canonization case and conferred on him the title "Servant of God." An investigation into Sheen's heroic virtue began in 2008. After a tribunal on a miracle attributed to Sheen's intercession, Pope Benedict XVI in June 2012 affirmed Sheen's heroic virtue and conferred on him the title "Venerable." In 2014, a dispute arose as to where Sheen's body would repose for the expected beatification and canonization. The Archdiocese of Peoria announced on September 3, 2014 that the Sheen cause was being suspended indefinitely.
A lifelong drive for holiness and purity was not just a Sheen hallmark, Reeves wrote, but a key to his success in spreading the Gospel and winning converts.
Prof. Tracey Rowland, Dean and Permanent Fellow of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute (Melbourne, Australia) and an expert on the thought of Benedict XVI (middle), was appointed to the International Theological Commission last year by Pope Francis (right). [Photo: CNS]
A View From the International Theological Commission: An Interview with Tracey Rowland | John Paul Shimek | CWR
The Australian theologian discusses Synods, Cardinals, Popes, theological issues—and being called a “strawberry” by Pope Francis
Professor Tracey Rowland is the Dean and Permanent Fellow of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, Australia. In 2003, she published Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II, establishing herself as a bold, fresh voice in international Catholic theological circles. A member of the editorial board of the North American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review, she is also the author of Ratzinger’s Faith and Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed. Last September, Pope Francis appointed her to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s International Theological Commission.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with her about her recent appointment, her work with Australia’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, her thoughts about the forthcoming 2015 Synod of Bishops, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, Thomism, Cardinal Pell, the Church in Australia, and other topics.
CWR: In September, Pope Francis made new appointments to the International Theological Commission (ITC). Could you tell us about the ITC and its current projects?
Professor Tracey Rowland: The International Theological Commission was created after the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. It comprises 30 members all of whom are professional theologians. The appointments are for 5 years and during those 5 years the theologians work on producing 3 documents covering topics of current theological significance. The three topics for the next 5 years are: (1), synodality, (2) faith and sacraments and (3) religious freedom.
CWR: Synodality seems to be very important to Pope Francis. Already, he has called two Synods of Bishops. And, he has asked the Orthodox to help us understand better the role of syodality in the life of the Church. Was the topic of synodality proposed by Pope Francis himself? As a theologian, what do you make of his sense of synodality? Why do you think it is an important issue for the ITC to discuss?
Rowland: Synods of Bishops are nothing new in the life of the Church. They were held during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well. None of the topics was proposed by Pope Francis. The topics were chosen by the members of the ITC themselves.
I really haven’t any insightful comments to make about the pope’s sense of synodality. There has been a lot of media interest in it, and people blogging about it, but papal commentary in the present era reminds me very much of Kremlin commentary during the Cold War. Instead of referring to documents or books where people spell out their ideas, in this instance there is no body of work from which to quote. All one can do is to draw inferences from actions and reactions and social data like who the Pope invited to lunch. That’s shaky ground and I would rather remain on the more solid ground of academic work.
CWR: Five women were among the September appointments, including you and Sister Prudence Allen (USA). Was this the first time women were appointed to the ITC?
Supper at Emmaus, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi (1615-1625).
How to Read Christology and Still Keep Your Faith | Dr. Jake Yap | HPR
“Christology” is everywhere. That is, if we take its basic etymology and understand it simply as “speech concerning Christ.” People can utter his name flippantly, even blasphemously. Popular films and novels can be “christological.” And there are many serious books about Jesus, written for a mainstream, theologically-minded audience. As Gerhard Lohfink states in the preface of his Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was (2012): “There are innumerable books about Jesus. The reason is obvious: we can never finish with him, and every age must encounter him anew.”1 Lohfink says that, while some of these books on Jesus are very good, others are “very bad,” and the reason is that “they are far from understanding that the real ‘historical Jesus’ cannot be grasped independently of faith in him.”2 Here we can see three things: a judgment that some christological books can be “very bad,” the possibility of knowing and understanding the “real, ‘historical Jesus,’” and faith as one of the necessary criteria for interpreting him correctly.
Christology is also not immune to theological fashion. It is trendy. Theologians down the centuries, except for the few who are utterly “unworldly” and even saintly, compose their accounts of Christ not only to serve the truth, to enlighten believers, and to convince the skeptics; some also write Christologies to make a name for themselves, “to win a place in the biblical sun.”3
There are christological writings from various perspectives and contexts: liberationist, feminist, political, ecological, cultural, and so forth. Teilhard de Chardin’s “cosmic Christ” continues to appeal to certain readers. And if it could be argued that Christologies “from above” served well an earlier epoch when Christ’s divinity, robustly upheld, was gratefully received by believers, it is now asserted that such an approach fails to speak to a contemporary world that, on the one hand, has grown skeptical of the supernatural, and, on the other hand, sorely needs a human and humanizing Jesus. Lohfink writes:
So we see Jesus as an opium for the soul and as a political revolutionary. Here, he is the archetype of the unconscious, there a pop star. He appears as the first feminist and as the faithful advocate of bourgeois morality. Jesus is used by those who want to see nothing change in the Church, and he is used as a weapon against the Church. He is instrumentalized over and over again to confirm people’s own desires and dreams. At present, he must, above all, stand for the legitimation of universal tolerance, which is no longer interested in truth and, therefore, threatens to slide off into arbitrariness.4
So are there “many Christs”? Not at all. But the array of christological writings, each presenting an “interpretation” of Christ, can be bewildering. This essay addresses itself to Christians who are interested in reading Christology. More specifically, I write for those who wish to read and learn (and indeed there is much to learn) while keeping their creedal faith intact. I wish to help them to navigate the expansive terrain, the sheer scope of the literature, and to steer clear of landmines and trenches. For they will find it a formidable task, if no one will guide them through it. Any good theological library will have an extensive collection of christological literature. And every year, more and more books are being written, published, and promoted. Which ones should they read? By what criteria should they approach a particular author, adopt a particular perspective, embrace, or at least be sympathetic to, a particular interpretation? Let me offer six pieces of advice.
1. Trust the Gospels
“The key question for studying Jesus is,” according to N.T. Wright, “can we trust the Gospels?”5 This is a legitimate question, but to answer it more fully will take us far beyond an essay such as this. The short, correct, and defensible answer is: Yes, we can. Wright elaborates:
The wars of the world are first fought in the minds and hearts of the wise before they ever reach visible reality; when they do arrive, the ones who suffer most are the weak
“So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more firmly what unites us, namely, our call to share in the mystery of the Father’s love revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit. Christian unity—we are convinced—will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions. When the Son of Man comes He will find us still discussing!”
— Pope Francis, Vespers, Closing of Christian Unity Week, January 25, 2015.
“'Many are the strange chances of the world,’ said Mithrandir, ‘and help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter.’”
— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
“While ideas are indeed important, a history of ideas is far from being always a history of good ideas. Good ideas may easily be lost sight of, whether willfully or by lack of publicity. It was as true in the past as it is in the present, not only that bad ideas drive out good, but that the fortune of ideas themselves is apparently often a matter of chance….”
— John M. Rist, Augustine Deformed (Cambridge, 2014)
Few titles have been more tellingly cited than that of Richard Weaver’s 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences. One could reverse that title with equal force to read: “Consequences result from ideas.” In this view, ideas—far from being vague, inert, neutral concepts—are the main forces in the world for stability or change, for good or bad. Yet, ideas fall in the order of “formal” causality, not “efficient” causality. That is, ideas only indicate a “what”. As such, they do not have any effect on the world unless someone decides to put them into operation.
Ideas have consequences only when they become that which some agent decides to put into effect. Someone must cause them to become the form or design of an actual deed or action. This view does not deny that all existing things implicitly have a “form” or “intelligibility” that establishes what they are. This intelligibility is what the human mind seeks to know about things outside of itself.
Beyond or outside of action in the contemplative or intellectual order, a “war” or lively examination of ideas does occur. This sorting out of the meaning of ideas takes place regarding the truth of things. As such, in the order of thought, it does not much matter whether or not anyone decides to put any particular idea into effect. This rumination about the validity and content of ideas is what the life of the mind is about. Though books are written about it and lectures given, this war of ideas is essentially invisible, lodged in the souls of those who think them.
What subsequently goes on in the visible world has its origin in the interplay of ideas that previously took place often centuries ago or in distant places. To assess the import of ideas, we need to be educated. We need a sound grounding in philosophy itself both because of our inner desire to know the truth and because we seek to know what ideas are false and dangerous so that we do not set them inadvertently loose in the world. It is true, as philosopher John Rist indicated, that bad ideas can drive out good ideas. Yet all bad or erroneous ideas are presented as if they are true. We cannot escape the effort to distinguish what is true from what is not.
The motto of the Dominican Order—Contemplata Tradere—carries a similar notion. We can only teach or “hand over” what we have first reflected on in our own souls. Both false and true ideas can be given existence, can be taught, can be thought about, can be put into effect. The contemplative side, the actual pondering of what ideas mean, recognizes that one of the major sources of the what is done in the world is always an idea, even a bad idea. Too, we should not confuse an idea with our will or our passions that incite us to take an idea outside of ourselves and put into the world in some form or other.
We are beings who cannot be explained only by our reason, but also by our wills, the immediate object of which are indeed our ideas, which in turn have some relation to what is, to what is not our intellects. An idea remains what it is no matter what will or desire is the impulse that puts it into existence. Once in existence, it has its own life as an idea now embodied in a thing, in an act, a habit or custom, or an institution.
How do we arrive at good ideas to carry into effect?
Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (2007), explained that Jesus Christ is the new Torah and the new Temple. “Jesus understands himself as the Torah—as the word of God in person”, wrote Benedict. And then, a bit later: “The issue of Jesus’ claim to be Temple and Torah in person also has implications for the question of Israel—the issue of the living community of the people in whom God’s word is actualized.”
This understanding is not unique to Benedict. For example, Dr. Matthew Levering developed it in his book, Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), emphasizing the insights of St. Thomas Aquinas. But, you ask, what does such high-minded theology have to do with living a Christian life, especially during Lent? Today’s readings, which focus on the Torah and the Temple, provide an opportunity to reflect on that question.
Let’s begin by asking: what was the purpose of the Torah? The Ten Commandments (and 603 other commandments) were given within the context of two key events: the Exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mount Sinai. The Exodus was aimed at two things, the first obvious, the second less so: land and worship. We all know of the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but we often overlook God’s words to Pharaoh, given by Moses: “Let my people go to serve me in the wilderness” and “We must go a three days’ journey in the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord, our God, as he commands us” (Ex 7:16; 8:23). Freedom from slavery meant freedom to openly worship God.
Finally free, the people went to the base of Mount Sinai, where Moses eventually received the Torah. As Joseph Ratzinger notes in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), the covenant established there united “the three aspects of worship, law, and ethics”—that is, how to relate to God and to others, in public and private relationships. The Torah was meant to lead to the fullness of life, which included entering the promised land. Rather than giving blind submission to an unknown, capricious deity, the people were to respond with love to the mercy and goodness of the Lord (see CCC 2062).
The Torah, then, was not legalistic or based in anger, but came from a rather stunning expression of divine, personal love. Just as God had created everything out of love, he also created a people of his own out of love and with a distinct purpose. Jewish scholar Maurice Samuel, in his introduction to Solomon Goldman’s commentary, The Ten Commandments (University of Chicago, 1963), wrote, “Just as Genesis is an explosive denial of the randomness of the physical universe, so the Revelation at Sinai is a repudiation of the meaninglessness of history.”
That repudiation culminated in the Incarnation. And Jesus Christ, by his life, death, and resurrection established a new and everlasting covenant that perfectly fulfilled the Torah (cf., CCC 2052-2055). Through him, we have life and purpose, for in him we share in the very life of God.
The Temple in Jerusalem was, of course, a place of worship; it was God’s dwelling place among his chosen people. Sacrifices were offered there for the atonement of sins, but it had increasingly become the home for a lucrative system of money changing and price gauging. The house of God had become, in many ways, a supermarket and a “den of robbers” (Jer 7:11). Rather than a sacred place where man be reconciled to God, the Temple was becoming a place of corrupt commodity.
Just as the covenant at Sinai established man’s right relationship with God, the cleansing of the Temple drew a line in the sand—not to repress, but to redeem. If God is not given proper honor and worship, love begins to die and relationships are perverted. We begin by loving God and accepting Christ’s mercy, grace, and life. All else follows.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the March 11, 2012, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
Pope Francis passes a video monitor as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 4. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Fantastic Francis Fantasies | Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille | CWR blog
Young leftist Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is the latest breathless fan cheering madly at the 2015 running of the Ultramontane Sweeps
The media is so predictable. With Lent well underway, and Easter now just a month off, watch for an increasing spate of cover stories about whether Jesus was really resurrected, whether he ascended to heaven, or whether he fled to Morocco and married one of his apostles in a long-secret gay marriage only now come to light because of a scrap of undated papyrus containing a half dozen Greek letters. I last bothered reading one of these tedious stories around 1995. They never change.
But there is another cycle to media mischief, and it is tied to the forthcoming synod in Rome in October. After the shambolic affair this past October, we can expect reporters to descend on Rome again to report breathlessly on how Pope Francis is going to wave his magic papal wand and declare “gay marriage”, abortion, and Big Macs to be good things. In fact, the media campaign for him to make changes has already begun. Exhibit A is Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig article, “Fear of a Radical Pope”, just published in The New Republic.
If Bruenig, who describes herself on her website as a doctoral student who brings “a Christian leftist perspective to public discourse”, were one of my graduate students and she turned in such a sprawling and incoherent essay she would have received it back drowning in a veritable Red Sea of inky corrections. Leaving aside the fact that there is so very little serious content, and still less rational sequence, to this article, and overlooking its abundant and very adolescent sneering and sloganeering (“irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” to re-purpose Trilling’s famous phrase), the most risible passage is surely this bit of armchair psychoanalysis:
Conservatives inside the Church and out will, in all likelihood, continue to rankle at Francis’s presence, his persona, his wildly successful evangelism. With every word, he offers an obviously superior approach to theirs.
When I was a graduate student, a professor once said to me: “watch your adverbs.” I offer the same counsel here to Bruenig because her careless usage offers very fat targets ripe for ready rejoinder: wildly successful evangelism? Obviously superior approach? Relative to whom—the Westboro Baptists? Such lazy, tendentious and noticeably fact-free generalizations have no place in the writing of any would-be serious scholar—and the fact she’s writing for a once-popular magazine does not excuse this evidentiary burden.
It never occurs to Ms. Bruenig for even a moment that people may disagree not with Francis’s presence or persona, but his practices and perhaps even his ideas, and that doing so is a welcome, necessary, and healthy practice of the Church going all the way back to the apostles themselves.
Pope Saint John Paul II declared that the great challenge for Christians today is to become "the home and school of communion." St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein) in her life and her writings, is a sure guide to attaining the communion for which every human heart longs. This work considers St. Teresa's life and writings in the context of the "spirituality of communion." As a philosopher she was directed towards attaining communion with the Truth, and she discovered that Truth was a Person, Jesus Christ. As a Carmelite nun she gave up everything for communion with him.
Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, in the foreword, says Edith Stein's message "is above her time" and that the author, Sister M. Regina van den Berg, "is well qualified to write such a book." Sister Regina explores in detail Edith Stein's theory of empathy as developed in her doctoral dissertation, as well as her theory of community. Sister Regina has also used a number of Edith Stein's writings which, until this work, have not yet been available in English translation.
Each chapter explores an aspect of 'communion,' richly revealing how Edith Stein, "a Jew who became a philosopher. . . a convert to Catholicism who became a Carmelite nun and crowned her life with martyrdom." Stein's work "provides insights that can help us grow in the spirituality of communion, first by presenting to us the truth about the human person's nature and vocation and then by showing us how we can arrive at a spirituality of communion in the various aspects of life."
Sister M. Regina van den Berg, F.S.G.M., obtained her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She has served in various apostolates for her religious community and currently resides in Rome.
Praise for Communion with Christ:
"Philosopher, convert and martyr Edith Stein is enjoying a well-deserved revival of interest these days. Readers of this clear and careful study will come away with a stronger sense of the depth and breadth of Edith's thought, which is as relevant today as ever." - Colleen Carroll Campbell, Author, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir
"This is an ideal introduction for anyone wishing to learn how one of the greatest saints of our time envisioned and lived the 'science of the Cross.' " - Dawn Eden, Author, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints
"Sister Regina presents a deeply mature and incisive analysis of the heart of Stein's teaching on communion as a union of hearts and minds ultimately united towards one eternal goal and divine destiny." - Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, S.C.D., Author, Artist and Image: Artistic Creativity and Personal Formation in the Thought of Edith Stein
"Sister Regina unveils the depths of Edith Stein's insights, revealing Stein's nuanced account of community between women and men, human and angelic communities, membership in the Mystical Body, etc. An impressive achievement that teaches much about how to be more fully human." - Sarah Borden Sharkey, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Wheaton College
"This book will help the reader deepen an appreciation for the significance of Teresa Benedicta/Edith Stein in contemporary debates." - Fr. John Sullivan, O.C.D., Institute of Carmelite Studies
From Atheism to Catholicism, By Way of Truth and Beauty | CWR Staff | Catholic World Report
“All the different threads of my inquiries,” says Dr. Holly Ordway, “when followed up, led me to the same place: the Catholic Church.”
Dr. Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams; she teaches courses on apologetics, medieval culture and philosophy, and modern and post-modern culture.
Dr. Ordway's book Not God's Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014) describes her journey from atheism to Christianity, and her subsequent entrance into the Catholic Church. She recently corresponded with Catholic World Report, discussing her life and beliefs as an atheist, her journey toward Christianity, the mistakes made by many Christians in conversing with atheists, and the main reasons why she became Catholic.
CWR: Early in Not God's Type, you state that as a young atheist, you thought that the “decisive argument against faith was that I could not believe, no matter how much I might want to.” What sort of understanding of “faith” did you have at that time? How might you respond now to an atheist who expresses a similar notion?
Dr. Ordway: I had the faulty (but common!) idea that faith meant blind faith: that is, believing something without evidence or even contrary to the evidence. Unfortunately, this is a misunderstanding that is propagated by many Christians. As an apologist, I’ve heard Christians say that they don’t want to know about evidence for the Resurrection or for the existence of God, because that will “diminish their faith.” It’s no wonder that many atheists conclude that ‘faith’ is a synonym for ‘ignorance’.
If having faith really did mean believing something without any grounding for that belief, I would never have been able to do it. I couldn’t then, and I can’t now: it’s simply not possible. It would be wishful thinking or self-deception.
So I would respond to an atheist with this objection, first of all, by saying that the word ‘faith’ is better understood as a form of trust, and in particular, trust of a person. I have to trust that my close friends are reliable, on the basis of my understanding of their character, from many observations and interactions over time. I can never prove that they aren’t secretly manipulating me for their own ends; I can only conclude that it is reasonable for me to trust them. I could be wrong, but that doesn’t make my faith in my friends irrational. Once you trust someone, then you are willing to accept what they say as true, even when you don’t have enough information to judge for yourself, because you have reason to believe that you can rely on them. That’s faith.
Hebrews 1:11 is an important verse to consider: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. An atheist might point to “hoped for” and “not seen” as indicating that Scripture teaches blind faith. Not so! First, the key words are “assurance” and “conviction”: in order to have an assurance or a conviction of something, you must have some reasons for doing so. Second, ‘not seen’ does not mean ‘not real.’ There are plenty of things that are not seen and yet are completely real: my own consciousness, for instance, and all relationships between people. If you know that your mother, spouse, or child loves you, that is the conviction of something “not seen.” And that’s precisely what faith is.
CWR: You admit that after the 9/11 attacks, you found that “atheism was eating into my heart like acid.” What sort of conflicts or tensions were you experiencing? How did you try to resolve them?
The mysterious case of the Extraordinary Synod and the missing books.
Did someone steal books from the Synod fathers' mailboxes?
There've been major news stories reporting the allegation that someone in connection with last fall's Extraordinary Synod of Bishops removed copies of an important Ignatius Press book on marriage, civil remarriage, and Holy Communion from some mailboxes of the Synod participants.
True? ------------------------ If so, what was it somebody didn't want the Synod Fathers to read? ----------------------- Read it for yourself .
Remaining in the Truth of Christ Edited by Robert Dodaro, O.S.A Softcover, 330 pages
Featuring essays by five Cardinals of the Catholic Church and four other scholars.
Detail from "Abraham's Sacrifice" (1655) by Rembrandt [WikiArt.org]
A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, March 1, 2015, Second Sunday of Lent | Carl E. Olson
Readings: • Gen 22:1-2, 9A, 10-13, 15-18 • Psa 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19 • Rom 8:31b-34 • Mk 9:2-10
“God put Abraham to the test.”
Why? That is the natural question to ask when we hear the first line of today’s readings. What, exactly, was God trying to show Abraham? And why did it require such extreme, seemingly cruel, measures?
Notice when God told Abraham to take Isaac to be offered as a holocaust, or sacrifice, he described the patriarch’s son as the one “you love”. We are mindful that Isaac represented, in a most concrete and living form, the faithful promise of God to provide Abraham with an heir (Gen 17). When the ninety-nine-year-old Abraham was told he and Sarai would have a son, he laughed aloud. But God said the miraculously conceived son would be blessed, for “he shall give rise to nations, and rulers of people shall issue from him” (Gen 17:16).
So why would God then tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, who personified the covenantal blessings of offspring, land, influence, and, eventually, a nation?
The third-century theologian Origen wrote at length about this remarkable test. He suggested God described Isaac as beloved so that “by awaking memories of love the paternal right hand might be slowed in slaying his son and the total warfare of the flesh might fight against the faith of the soul.”
In other words, God not only tested Abraham, he intentionally intensified the test by accentuating the great love of the father for his son. This reminder, Origen further noted, “also produces hopelessness in the promises that were made…”
Rather than making sense of the test, this appears to make it even more irrational, even cold-blooded. Within Judaism, this story is known as the “Akedah”, or “binding”, the greatest (and, according to Jewish tradition, the tenth) test faced by Abraham. But, of course, if Abraham had no love for his son, the test would not have been so harrowing. After all, the sacrificing of children was hardly unusual within the ancient near Eastern world; in fact, it was a normal part of some pagan religions.
The horror of the approaching sacrifice was not so much in the command to kill one’s son, argued Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “rather, the horror lies in the fact that this son was miraculously given by God and destined to imitate and accomplish the divine promises.” It’s as if God turned his back on his promises, plunging Abraham into a darkness no mortal could hope to withstand alone.
And that, paradoxically, begins to shed a little light upon what is, without a doubt, one of the most perplexing narratives in Scripture. By stepping into the darkness of God’s will, Abraham cast himself into the light of God’s perfect mercy and love. The test was not meant to prove God can do whatever he desires, but that God desires to do whatever he can for man, who is the pinnacle of his creation.
Yet God’s grace must be met by man’s faith; that is, God’s “Yes” to man must be accepted by man’s “yes” to God. “I know now,” said God’s messenger to Abraham, “how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” That devotion—or, better, “fear of God”—refers specifically to a free and active obedience to God’s will. It is the emphatic “yes!” uttered and lived in faith.
With that in mind, we can better appreciate St. Paul’s explanation to the Christians in Rome that God “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all…” That gift is even more mysterious and confounding than what was asked of Abraham. And Jesus, who is called “my beloved Son” by the Father at the Transfiguration, was not a bewildered young man, but the Incarnate Word who in free and active obedience accepted and carried out the will of his Father.
If the Father freely gave his Son for us, and the Son freely gave his life for us, what will we freely give to God?
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the March 4, 2012 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)