I am on the road today, but I am passing along a useful link to the blogsite of CARA, the Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate at Georgetown University. CARA is the go-to site for research data on Catholic practice in the United States.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 9: 18-24
TWELFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Once when Jesus was praying by himself,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He scolded them
and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to all,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
This weekend’s Gospel is remarkably rich; our house commentator this year, Joel Green, begins his treatment with the observation that this text marks the intersection, so to speak, of Jesus’ identity with the definition of Christian discipleship. (366ff) The text immediately prior to Sunday’s reading recounts the Mission of the Twelve, who are sent out geographically to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. They are evidently quite successful, and word of their mission reaches Herod, who wonders out loud about their identity and certainly that of their leader. (Green calls the Herod interjection a dark cloud on an otherwise sunny scene.) Upon returning, Jesus feeds the enthusiastic crowd with the bread and fish in his rendition of the miraculous feeding.
And so the stage is set for this Sunday’s Gospel, material which Luke clearly borrows from Mark’s earlier Gospel but which he alters in several key ways. Mark records the successful mission of the Twelve, too, but also notes that the success has not been totally enlightening, as they appropriate too much of their good fortune to their own efforts and not enough to the Father working through them. They do not yet understand the nature of the true disciple, a lesson that both Mark and Luke’s text here will attempt to remedy.
Sunday’s text as we have it is not a continuation of the previous paragraph. This is obvious from the phrase, “Once, when Jesus was praying by himself….” On the other hand, the text is something of a retrospective about how the mission of Jesus and the preparedness of his disciples has progressed. Again, there is the simple evidence that “Jesus was praying by himself and his disciples were with him.” Evidently the habit of intense prayer had not yet rubbed off on the Twelve. It is also a staple of Luke’s Gospel that Jesus prays intensely at important junctures in his life--his baptism and his garden agony prayer come immediately to mind, particularly the latter where Luke reports that during prayer his sweat became like drops of blood.
Consequently, we can expect a major declaration to come forth. Jesus begins with his question “who do men say that I am?” This is a repetition of Herod’s question just earlier; and Herod was not happy with the options in front of him. The disciples here provide Jesus with a similar list; it is interesting that John the Baptist is mentioned in both lists. Jesus is not happy with these options, either, and presses his disciples about their own understanding of who Jesus is. Peter identifies Jesus as “the Christ (anointed one) of God,” the first human confession to manifest something of Jesus’ true identity. Green reminds us that in Luke’s narrative the readers (that is, you and I) already know the answer, for it has been revealed a number of times, at Mary’s Annunciation and at Jesus’ baptism, to mention two. That only Peter can make the confession—and even he cannot elaborate upon his answer—is an indication to the reader that the disciples have not been listening observant students.
It may be for this reason that Jesus “scolds” them, but earlier in this Gospel Luke also scolds a cluster of demons “because they knew he was the Messiah.” The issue here appears to be sequence and timing. Jesus has not yet met the final destiny of the disciple—i.e., he has not yet taken the cross and died upon it. He will truly be the Christ, the Messiah of God, when his work is complete. Now is not the time for royal identifications; moreover, it would give the disciples the wrong impression that discipleship can be achieved without the cross. It is better, then, to say nothing, no grand announcements of his identity.
Jesus continues with a description of what awaits the Anointed one of God, and he identifies that segment of the Jewish community which will bear responsibility—the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. Luke is careful not to implicate the entire Jewish community, and he is more precise here than Matthew and John. Jesus continues his discourse with an elaborate and sobering description of the life of the disciple. To deny one’s self means to set aside the relationships, the extended family of origin and inner circle of friends, by which an identity is normally forged. In short, the disciple is “counter-cultural.”
Luke makes one major deviation from Mark’s original text. For Mark, the denying of one’s self and taking up the cross was quite literal, a disciple could literally expect to shoulder a wooden cross on the way to death. Luke, in speaking of taking up the cross, inserts the word “daily.” This change reflects the circumstances of the two Gospels’ composition; Mark’s text was written in the face of imminent persecution. Luke, on the other hand, is taking the long view that the Church and its disciples would both survive for a long time, and the self-denial of a disciple was a lifestyle lived “day by day.” In Jesus’ final remarks here about losing one’s life to find it, Green says that “One cannot cling to this life and also serve the redemptive plan of God. (374)
These are indeed hard sayings, and it is no accident that the next episode in the Lukan narrative is the glorious Transfiguration event on the mountain, a glimpse of what awaits those who die to this life.
During a stretch of eight days--June 4 through June 11--I am teaching five all-day courses for Catholic School teachers for my diocese. Over the years this early summer marathon has come to be known as "the June Institute," though don't let the title fool you. It is not a centrally situated program on a green avenue of ivy-covered brick buildings lined with trees to the sound of hourly Church bells. No, this is entirely a road show--a good thing, actually, to get out to all the parishes. But as I am scheduled for five different courses and locations, Tuesday is always different from Monday, in terms of site, mileage, distance to a Dunkin’ Donut Shoppe, etc. Yesterday, for example, I drove through the teeth of Tropical Storm Colin to a city that sits not too far from Tampa. As I battled visibility and driving rain in a very dark dawn, I did wonder why this city is in fact in the Orlando diocese, and not in the St. Petersburg diocese, which does begin on the other side of town. The question had a little more urgency yesterday than it usually does.
On the whole I enjoy doing the courses, though with the schools going to summer schedule (Florida schools are now off for the summer) it is a little more complicated in finalizing the arrangements. I work as a contractor for an office of the chancery that directs faith formation—that’s as best as I can describe it, because it changes names more than I change my oil. This office sets the schedule and collects the money: the contractor/instructors handle the middle-man position of communicating information via email to the students who have registered, etc. and getting our handouts arranged and printed. In fact, I just returned from the Apopka Staples’ where I burned out two of their copy machines doing my paperwork for tomorrow, Friday, and Saturday. As far as I can tell, I am one of very few instructors who is not employed at a diocesan or parish site, and thus I have no personal access to one of those monster Cannon copiers common to parish and school offices. (For reasons unclear to me, the faculty has not been convened since Benedict was still pope.)
It may be my imagination, but because I do not depend upon the Church for a paycheck I have seemed to draw a fair share of the courses that cause a certain amount of angst or anguish—where the issues discussed abound with land mines. There is an old joke in the Church that more promising clerical careers have been wrecked on the shoals of teaching morality than anything else. This summer I did not draw a straw for Course 105, “Morality,” but last Saturday I taught Course 211, “Christian Sexuality;” tomorrow I have 208, “Social Justice,” during a presidential election year, no less.
Whenever I enter a classroom to teach Christian Sexuality, I do feel significant pressure. There is always a portion of the room that carries an expectation—perhaps it is fairer to say “the hope”—that I will restate the teachings of the Church as found in the Catechism without gloss or nuance. My sense as a teacher is that those teachings are pretty well known, easily available for reference in the Catechism, and that the diocese has put me in the classroom to do more along the lines of explaining the nuances of the teachings and discuss with frankness why some teachings—notably on artificial birth control, for example—are not received by a large number of the faithful. Once you start down this road, however, there is always the risk of being accused of “squishiness” in expounding moral norms. You open yourself to terms like “liberal” (which for some reason has become almost an expletive in American life) or “modernist” in the blog world of the Catholic right.
In reading my evaluations from Saturday it does not appear that I offended traditional sensitivities in my assembly of professional teachers, but in the very open and honest exchanges during and after the course I did feel some stress about my choice of words and the need to carefully weigh my deliberations. First of all, there is a genuine fear among many Catholics that the culture is going to hell in a handbasket, and that the Church is the last best hope, like the Rock of Gibraltar. If the Church were to “compromise,” as many would put it, then the game is indeed lost. I heard this fear in the voices and saw it in the faces of some of the participants. As teachers they worry about their students, but as parents they worry about their teenaged kids and the amoral/cultural jungle through which they trod.
I sweated on Saturday because this concern deserves addressing, and I did my best to put them at ease with the better angels of Catholic theology. For example, I raised the various theories of human development, all of which converge on the basic truth that the teenaged operational mind has not yet fully knitted together, and probably won’t until at least the age of 21. (Privately I have always believed that teenagers are all oppositionally defiant to some degree in that they believe adults have nothing meaningful to offer them by way of wisdom.) Thus, when a parent discovers that a 15-year old son is burning up the Ethernet in his search for porn sites, he does not yet have the wisdom and the savvy to understand that the women he is viewing are often themselves victims of sex abuse, drug abuse, or trafficking; that there is an inherent indecency about the whole deal. Nor would they likely hear counsel that the stimulation of pornography can be as dangerous a drug as heroin or nicotine.
I also pointed out to them that even the Catechism’s concise definition of mortal sin is multi-faceted, that a number of stars must align to commit a full-blown mortal sin, and that their offspring will not go straight to hell for the trial and error of their youth. I had not exactly planned to delve into this area of Catholic moral realities, and so I had to think on my feet in order to balance the justice of Tradition with the compassion of Francis.
I will admit that there are areas of the Church’s moral teaching that remain works in progress, at least in my mind. In one exchange with a concerned participant who asked about in vitro fertilization, we agreed for example that if science would ever reach a degree of precision in which the by-product of extra fertilized eggs (conceived) would not be necessary or come into being in the process of fertilization, perhaps the Church might revisit its opposition to such procedures. As I pointed out, in my counseling experience I knew of a number of couples who spent massive amounts of money to conceive, who were in their own consciences trying to fulfill the very purpose of the marital sacrament, procreation.
I counsel professionals to listen to their students and their offspring, and I try to do the same for them. In the more delicate areas of Catholic life such a strategy presents subtle challenges and risks, and that’s why I sweat. But I try not to let them see it.
I came across an intriguing essay entitled "Theology Ruined My Life." Elizabeth Nawrocki changed her college major from biology to theology, and with insight, some pain, and humor talks about how her life, not just her business prospects, were turned upside down. This is something to think about: she advises--correctly--that the serious study of the Bible, Church History, and particularly the literary giants of the Church like St. Augustine can have a profound and troubling impact. As Elizabeth writes, she can no longer live with the pedestrian parochial pieties knowing what she knows now, particularly in terms of her sensitivity so human suffering and injustice.