It is customary at our Christmas Masses in my home parish that our pastor always makes a point to welcome those who do not regularly attend and to invite them into more regular participation. On Wednesday’s post, I observed that the 7 PM Christmas Mass was exceptionally full by the standards of my memory, shaky as that may be, and that thought had been running through my mind throughout the evening. My pastor could not have missed that, either, and I think that this year the very large number of marginal members in the house had a stronger impact upon him than in the past. For in his standard message I detected a spontaneous detour of emotion. He said with some feeling that he could not imagine how one could live without the sustaining power of the weekly Eucharist. Always the gentleman, this was a strong demonstration of feelings—probably mixed, I am sure.
As a spiritual leader, it is always painful to see so vividly in the flesh that large numbers on the rolls—and probably as many off the rolls—are essentially “cultural Catholics.” Attendance at Christmas Mass is part of the family tradition of the holidays along with Christmas Dinner at grandma’s and Ralphie’s “Christmas Story” on the TNT marathon. Whatever else the Christmas liturgies symbolize, they are stark evidence that over the past generations large numbers of infants and adults were baptized and modestly catechized to the point that they may identify with the Church but do not embrace it as a personal “game changer.” As such, they are more easily susceptible to the inconsistencies of Church life. At the very least, one can be consoled that part of this population has become more honest with pollsters, as former and/or inactive Catholics are reporting their status to investigators to the point that social scientists can identity “former Catholics” as this nation’s number two religious cohort.
In the case of my own pastor, it must be particularly difficult to see this disparity because I cannot think of another pastor who works harder to engender a parish curriculum of spirituality and basic catechetics. One hardly knows where to start: from the booklets on Lection Divina--mailed to each home for the New Year, days of Eucharistic Adoration, on-line access to FORMED for every parishioner (at considerable parish expense), promotion of devotions, the recruitment of a community of young sisters who live on-site and have their thumbs in every worthwhile pie in the parish, the continuing excellence of a Blue Ribbon Catholic school—no one can ever say that my parish does not exert high volumes of energy and backing in its attempt to provide opportunities of faith enrichment. And yet, for all that work, the parish has maintained an equilibrium—albeit an enviable one--while the community around it continues to grow. We are in that politically famous “I-4 Corridor” of voter rich Florida which seems to be the hinge of this true swing state.
Equally true of my pastor and parish has been the avoidance of the deep divisions between red state and blue state, or liberal versus conservative, in our public parish life. I know that there is a substratum of fringe elements in religion and politics among some members—I get emails and solicitations from individuals and causes clearly out of step with the “parish theology.” This is a national problem as much as a local one, particularly on the internet. I feel that my pastor has handled the USCCB political agenda package about as impartially as is possible, to the good of the parish in my view, while the American bishops overall seemed more than slightly tilted toward Republican candidates (giving more weight to John Kennedy’s famous dictum in 1960 that all bishops are Republicans and all nuns are Democrats.).
I think I can safely say that the pastor is working to replicate the model of his own parish of origin. I think this is the first instinct of all professionals, sometimes to our peril. He is a generation younger than I am but from a part of the Northeast where Vatican II made a gentle landing into an entrenched Catholic stronghold. He cherishes that youthful memory and seems determined to restore it. He may or may not be aware of what historians and sociologists today are coming to understand about “the good old days” of post-World War II American Catholicism, that in terms of numbers of members and clergy the Church in the United States experienced an extraordinary blip in vocations, as did religious sisters, and the declining numbers across the board are partly a return to the median of American Catholic experience.
Between the demographics of American Catholicism in general and a continuing decline in the numbers of ordained priests (the United States, interestingly, was clerically self-sufficient only between 1940 and 1960), my pastor has made recruitment of seminarians and the growth of vocations his number one personal priority. That is a refreshing change from parishes where all the pastor ever talks about is money (a major complaint across the country, per pollsters.) My parish has “vocation cups” circulating through the parish homes where we are encouraged to pray and “whisper the names of worthy candidates” into the cup. We have hosted the cup here in our home on several occasions but I did draw the line on “priest whispering.” We have three seminarians, I believe, possibly more, and I genuinely like the ones I know and wish them well, of course. I would like to know them better, their thoughts on priesthood, ministry, and the culture they will soon serve.
At the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass I attended, after his invitation to fallen away Catholics, the pastor then turned to the coterie of black-cassocked seminarians seated in the sanctuary (white albs for the seminarians on the Christmas feast would have been much more appropriate on many levels) and he expressed his happiness with their success in the seminary. Then, noting the large number of young men in the congregation, he appealed to them to consider the priesthood.
Call it une event psychologique as the French would say, but I felt a dissonance here about this particular pulpit reference before this congregation on this occasion of Christmas Eve. Later in the evening I worked to put my finger on my problem. It may have something to do with the ongoing research of dissociated Catholics by CARA, PEW, or independent studies such as Father William J. Byron’s (former president of Catholic University) for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey in 2012. I have linked a summary of Father Byron’s research here, but a major factor in departures from the church is detachment from the “clerical world” of Catholic existence. Byron makes the point that nearly 50% of marginal Catholics do (or did) like their pastors personally; it is the optics (how I love that word) of clericalism that puzzles or alienates so many Catholics, and how subtle a virus it is—there was no recruiting on Christmas Eve for the sisters who serve our parish. I thought of my own failings as a minister when I read one man’s observation that “when you ask a priest a question, you get a rule.”
The low rate of participation at weekly Eucharist nationwide—about 22% seems about the mean of most present-day research—worries me. Thus, when we have that rare occasion like Christmas Eve when some of the alienated 78% are likely to be at hand due to tradition or family pressure, do we want to advertise a reality that may be part of the problem? I agree that the Church needs more healthy priests. But I also agree with CEO’s in other industries who, observing the exodus from Catholic Churches, are perplexed that no one in Church leadership takes the time to examine loss of the market, so to speak. (Give the bishop of Trenton credit for that.) I will keep praying when the Vocation Cup comes around again, but I will pray that God blesses us all—priest and lay--with the vocation of listening.
Paragraph 67: Staying on PointRead Now
67 Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations".
Paragraph 67 is probably the first “directive” we have come across in our reflections upon the Catechism. Previous texts have laid out principles of the Faith, including last week’s teaching on the body of Revelation we are bound to uphold. Today’s text is a no-nonsense instruction which defines how para. 66 is to be enforced. There are no footnotes here, which suggests to me that the editors are addressing real time problems in the Church that call for clarification. To the best of my knowledge the Roman Catechism of 1570, by contrast, contains no such instruction.
There are a number of points to be made about this text, the first being the division of the teaching itself. I have reproduced the authoritative text as it appears in the original, the first paragraph in a smaller type than the second. The first paragraph is a historical and explanatory text describing “private revelations” with a deliberate “small r” in the word revelation, explaining the Church’s contemporary pastoral and doctrinal practice on such revelation. Regarding such private revelations, “some” have been recognized by the authority of the Church. To say that that the Church recognizes “some” private revelation is really to say that the Church recognizes the credibility of the subject of the vision and the message put forth, which must be synonymous with what Scripture and Church Tradition already teach. The religious experiences of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Avila immediately come to mind, as both called for a reform of the Church and a return to its basic truths and practices. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The Church, obviously, would have no objection to the content of such revelations, as they repeat what St. Mark taught in his Gospel in the first century.
But what does constitute a private revelation? In my own terms, I would define para. 67’s discussion as involving a personal experience of God, the Virgin Mary, or a saint where the intent is proclamation to the wider Catholic community. The context of the Catechism here is God’s Revelation and its parameters, so the concern here is any visionary’s claim to be adding new information to the body of Christian faith. I would venture a guess that a large number of believers over two millennia have had corporal or spiritual encounters they ascribed to the presence of God in some way. I use the word “encounter” because the exact nature of a private revelation defies a scientific explanation, and descriptions of such revelations vary greatly. St. Francis of Assisi believed that a speaking crucifix delivered to him his life’s work. Joan of Arc testified that she heard the voices of three saints instructing her to take up arms for the French. Other mystics report intensive experiences of losing themselves or passing into states beyond sensory or literary description.
Our main concern here is a reported revelation claiming to carry important information for the Church. The Catechism is clear that no one’s experience can undo or add anything to the Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition. It is the content of a private revelation and its claims upon the faithful today where bishops have a legitimate right of judging authenticity, in determining whether a “revealed message” in a private vision is consistent with the Apostolic Tradition. Perhaps the best contemporary example is the ongoing reported private revelations from the Virgin Mary to six individuals in Medjugorie, Bosnia-Herzegovina. These revelations began in 1981 and are continuing to this day. There is a home website maintained by believers in the revelation, and I have linked to a segment of the site where Mary’s reported instructions are posted verbatim, the most recent being this month.
Medjugorie, as many of you may know, has become an international site of devotion for many. You may also know that there has been a long running contention between the local Franciscan friars of the site and the regional conference of bishops and the Vatican involved in examining claims of authenticity. I reviewed periodic samplings of the text, and I did not see any major claims of new information—though Mary’s mention of six secrets of the future does seem to run counter to Christ’s teaching that only the Father knows the timing of the end days. But the Church’s rush to caution, so to speak, is well justified. I can single out several reasons, which would be applicable in any similar circumstance now and in the future.
My primary concern would be priorities. The three decades of Medjugorie revelations have coincided with the papacies of three remarkable men—Benedict, Francis, and of course St. Pope John Paul II in his writing and teaching prime. Each pontiff has written and taught the Church in his official capacity as successor of Peter in communion with all the world’s bishops. In addition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued in 1993 under Pope John Paul. When one considers the richness of the last three decades in terms of the ordinary teaching power of the Church, or its Magisterium, one must ask why there is a need for an independent track of teaching from Eastern Europe when Jesus has commissioned the apostles and their consecrated successors, the bishops, who enjoy the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as first teachers and catechists of the Church and exercise this teaching authority magnificently in our own time?
There are other concerns about the content of this private revelation as the six individuals have reported it. The personality of Mary in the reported visions does not resonate with the Mary of the New Testament. There is estrangement from the life of the Church in that there is little connectedness to the Church’s liturgical cycle, and Mary’s reported messages include little recourse to the Scriptures and the ordinary teaching of the Church. As a catechist, one might ask whether the faithful are enriched or distracted from their Baptismal call through preoccupation with this local devotion. Reportedly some kind of decision about Medjugorie’s canonical status awaits the attention of Pope Francis; my guess is that he will pass over the matter in silence as his predecessors did, allowing the good sense of the faithful or the sensus fidelium to gently resolve the matter.
The second paragraph is stronger in its condemnation, and it does not seem directed toward the faithful who engage in the devotions of Medjugorie, who at the very worst can only be critiqued for faulty emphases. Rather, the text itself may be directed toward contemporary advocates of “liberation theology,” which attempts to redefine the mission of Christ as liberator from economic and social oppression. Liberation theology is based upon a scholarly reading of Scripture, however, and not from a unique vision or claim of separate revelation. Or it may be directed toward Islam, which has incorporated both Hebrew and Christian Scripture into the Koran toward a resolution far removed from Christian Tradition. Islamic faith is rooted in the unique visions or ecstasies of Mohammed. Again, it is hard to say precisely who is targeted in the text of para. 67; one would need to do considerable research into the archives of the Vatican committees to unpack the full meaning.
What can be safely assumed here is the desire of the Church to challenge all its members to remain focused upon the authentic teaching handed down to us from Christ through the agency of the Apostles and their successors, under the lasting presence of the Holy Spirit. Last week I mentioned that it is the mission of Catholic theologians to continue to unveil better understandings of this Tradition. Along the same lines, there is a mission too of select holy people to give witness to divine reinforcement of fidelity to this Apostolic Tradition. While we can never know the precise nature of these moments of enlightenment, the Church is fully empowered to assess the content for its fidelity and usefulness to the salvation of us all.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 11: 2-11
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off,
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,
“What did you go out to the desert to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?
Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
This Sunday’s reading is set midway through Jesus’ public ministry—at roughly the halfway point in Matthew’s Gospel—and fittingly marks off the “end of the old” and the “beginning of the new” covenant with God. The last text of the Sunday reading could not make it clear; Jesus describes John the Baptist as the greatest man born of woman, yet “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
One of the most intriguing episodes of my own seminary studies was attempting to penetrate the mysteries of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. My own childhood catechetics—or perhaps more fairly, the folks who taught my catechism—described John’s exclusive mission as setting the stage for Jesus. John’s own circumstances, his identity, and the number of his followers were never much discussed, perhaps because of the instinctive need to say or do nothing that might minimize the exclusiveness of Jesus. The new Biblical scholarship had not yet percolated into Buffalo Catholic school classrooms in the 1950’s, nor into the rectory, I might add.
The only source descriptive of John’s childhood and blood relationship with Jesus is Luke’s infancy narrative, where his positioning is more theological than historical. Matthew’s first introduction of John is last week’s chapter three, where the Baptist appears as an adult. And whether Luke’s sole account of baby John is historical or not, his role is one of contrast: John might become a great prophet, but his conception is natural except for the age of his parents. Jesus, by contrast, is fathered miraculously by the Holy Spirit.
It was not until the post-World War II discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that scholars came to a better understanding of John’s own ministry. The Scrolls are a virtual library of a variety of Hebrew biblical and contemporary texts from the era of Jesus. They do not mention John by name, but they reveal the existence of an apocalyptic community of ascetics living outside of Jerusalem. This community, known as the Essenes, had cut itself off from the Jerusalem Temple for a multitude of reasons. The Essenes lived as highly ascetical communal life with rituals of bathing and purification for the coming of a coming judgment ushered in by the Teacher of Light. They were celibate for the most part and eschewed material riches.
The Dead Sea Scrolls led to a spate of speculation as to whether John the Baptist was himself an Essene. There was a good deal of overlap; John offered a bath of purification (baptism); he was alienated from the Temple; and he too looked forward to a great one to come. The differences included John’s public ministry in the wilderness; the Essenes were separatists by nature. What can safely be established is a similarity in world view between John and the Essenes. That said, recent scholars are returning to John’s affinity with the classical prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and this turn is certainly reinforced by Sunday’s Gospel.
Father John Meier, in his masterpiece five-volume study of Jesus, A Marginal Jew II (1994), devotes nearly 250 pages to the John-Jesus question. Meier concludes three points: (1) Jesus and John spent time together early in Jesus’ public life; Meier refers to John in his own work as a mentor of Jesus. (2) Jesus and John both understood and appreciated a water event that would forgive sins or purify. (3) Both John and Jesus were apocalyptic, though as Sunday’s text reveals, they did not view the future in precisely the same ways. Matthew and Luke agree that John’s preaching drew very large crowds out to the desert for his teaching and baptismal washing.
John, then, was much more than a passing shower on the Israelite landscape. His life and fate drew attention from several non-Christian contemporary sources. The process by which some or many of John’s followers—including the first Apostles! -- moved their religious affections to Jesus is not spelled in any Gospel. But it is fair to say that John and Jesus were moving in different directions and that some sort of gulf was dividing them. This is the setting of Sunday’s first line. John sends two of his disciples from prison to present a rather pointed question about Jesus’ identity and style. This was not idle curiosity. John’s imprisonment was the result of his preaching against King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. It was a typical Old Testament response to royal evils that John had inherited from the Classical Prophets. To use American jargon, he preached fire and brimstone to the King, and thus was arrested and put to death.
Sunday’s Gospel states that John had heard of the works of the Christ, and he probably accepted prophetic identity for Jesus. His puzzlement may have been why the prophet Jesus was not chained in a cell next to his. Why wasn’t Jesus confronting Herod’s sin? Another puzzlement might have been Jesus’ own conduct, eating and drinking with sinners, and the company he kept. John may have envisioned a more politically oriented “anointed one,” a sharp contrast to the mission of mercy and forgiveness by which Jesus had come to be identified.
Jesus summarizes his answer to John’s disciples in the language of Isaiah 35 and 61 (blind…lame…lepers etc.) There is a corrective here; by citing one of Israel’s best known prophets in describing his own ministry, Jesus is suggesting that even a man with John’s passion can sometimes misconnect the dots. Jesus’ quote that “blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” was a reference to John, but beyond him, to the broader community of Jews with slewed messianic expectations.
The second paragraph contains Jesus’ assessment of John (presumably after John’s disciples have left) and Jesus’ words are most laudatory. John’s followers were (and probably still were even with John in prison) both enthusiastic and numerous. Jesus makes the point that these folks did not go into the desert to see reeds and flowers (of which there were none in the desert) nor the fashionably dressed leaders in Jerusalem. He confirms that they had been right in seeking to encounter a prophet, and he goes on to acclaim John’s importance by citing the Prophet Malachi’s third chapter prediction of one who is even “greater than a prophet,” namely John.
Our house commentator R.T. France describes John as a hinge between the old and the new, for as great as John is by the standards of Jewish history, the least in the new kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Sunday’s reading is not a diminishment of John but a lesson of the glory of the new kingdom that Jesus has come to effect.
This Sunday of Advent is the last which focuses upon the adult Christ and his second coming. The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s Gospel is Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything