Archive for the ‘Catholic Identity’ Category

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” the main character, Mrs. Turpin, is a proper southern lady who has a very high opinion of herself and a very low opinion of nearly everyone else. But when she’s brought up short by an accusation from a mentally unstable girl in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, she wrestles like Job with questions of God’s intentions and her own place in the kingdom.

The story closes with a vision of “vast hordes of souls rumbling toward heaven.” At the very end of the procession she sees those with whom she most identifies, orderly and proper to the end. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This vision, this revelation, may finally turn her from her self-righteous obsession with other people’s failings. The story ends on a note of hope and expansiveness.

I always think of this particular story, not surprisingly, when I hear the line from today’s Gospel: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The shock Mrs. Turpin experienced when her worldview was turned upside down must have been something like what the people in Jesus’ parable felt when the Lord said, “I do not know where you are from.”

It seems that we see a lot of religious posturing in the media these days, particularly from politicians who are already racing toward the 2008 presidential election. Religion has become a hot issue, and unfortunately people are too often more interested in presenting themselves as “religious” than in taking a genuinely faith-based approach to the issues and wrestling with Scripture and church teaching and the way to bring these things to bear on 21st century situations. It’s difficult to distill faith into a soundbite. There is also an increasing emphasis on “My religion is better than your religion” or “Inherent in the truth of my religion is your wrongness.”

Both the Gospel and the first reading from Isaiah remind us that religion is neither a popularity contest nor an exclusive club. Isaiah tells us that the Lord says, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” There’s always going to be tension between being committed to one’s own beliefs and open to dialogue with those of other faiths. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the Chosen People interacted with the cultures around them. We see it in the New Testament as the early Christian communities worked to define themselves in relationship to their Jewish roots. We certainly see it in our pluralistic American society with its emphasis on a separation of church and state. And we even see it within the Catholic church as liberals, conservatives argue about who’s the most orthodox, who’s really Catholic.

The official stance of the church is clear in the documents of Vatican II, in the Catechism, in the writings of the popes and the bishops. It’s also clear in the Gospel. As children of the one God, we are to see all people as our brothers and sisters, created by God and held in the infinite mystery and mercy of God’s grace. Our focus needs to be on the Good News and the good works generated by our faith in God. We are heirs to the inclusive love Jesus practiced as he walked this earth.


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“From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.” These words from Luke’s Gospel always seem to startle—even scandalize—us. We’re so familiar with Jesus preaching a message of peace and love that these words about division and conflict as a necessary part of the coming of the kingdom seem harsh, even frightening.

Yet, if we’re honest, they can also offer a kind of tough love, a comfort to those who are struggling with family issues and questions of religious expression. They name a reality that many people experience but feel guilty about. To hear Jesus himself say that following him may break even the most sacred bond of his time, perhaps of all time, can offer hope in the midst of darkenss.

Religious identity, and the deeper questions of faith that accompany it, can be a stormy time for many people. Certainly for the early Christian community, people were confronted with the realization that they were no longer welcome in synagogues because of their commitment to the way of Christ. The reality of the communities that produced the gospels was that people were being rejected by their familes of blood and searching for new family ties with those who shared their faith in Jesus.

Many people who come into our Catholic faith from other denominations, other religions or no religion find themselves wrestling with objections from family members, even rejection. Hearing Jesus’ words today at least give these people a sense of not being alone in their struggle, as well as some assurance that faith in Christ is worth the price, whatever that might be.

Even lifelong Catholics find themselves going through transitions in their faith and their Catholic identity. Sometimes it’s more difficult for these “cradle Catholics,” because there’s no ritual for claiming an adult commitment to one’s religion. Polls and studies over the years have shown that many people drift away from the church in their young adult years. They may have been raised Catholic, gone to Catholic schools, but the pressures of being away from home, the fascination with learning new things and encountering new cultures, can distract them from things they took for granted. Often they return to church when they marry or have children, or when they go through some life crisis.

Sometimes young Catholics find themselves searching for a more intense expression of religion than their parents have. Like tastes in music, political values, standard of living and geographical location, religion can be a way to carve out a distinct identity, a way of being in the world. This doesn’t always happen, of course. But when it does, it’s good to know that its not completely alien or unexpected. The key, perhaps is to focus not on the division, not on the conflict, but on the ultimate goal: a deeper commitment to Christ, a closer relationship with his followers, whoever and wherever they are.

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… or Wednesday of the 13th Week of the Year? This can be a tricky question for homilists and liturgists in the United States. I think people going to Mass in the typical parish today expect some acknowledgment of the civic holiday. The danger lies in using the Mass to praise America more than we’re praising God.
I’ll leave the discussion of patriotic hymns to the liturgist and musicians. The lectionary readings are more in my domain. The US Liturgical Conference calendar suggests that if Independence Day is being observed, the Ritual Mass for Peace and Justice or the Mass for Public Need can be used, Both offer a fine selection of readings from the prophets and the Gospels, all of which make quite clear that the word of God takes precedence over national loyalties if the two are in conflict.

But the readings of the day seem appropriate as well. I was reading the declaration of independence earlier and thinking about how July 4 was just the beginning of a long and difficult struggle to realize the ideals set forth in that document. And in fact much of it struck me as ideals we’re still falling short of. And the first reading from today’s liturgy continues the story of Abraham, in particular his struggle with the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. God’s original promise to Abraham set forth a shining ideal: “You will be my people and I will be your God. I will make of you a great nation.” But again and again the flawed human beings on our side of that covenant struggled with the details. Today’s passage is the conclusion of what can happen when we try to take matters into our own hands, to think that we know better than God the when and the how of the promise. We end up with a painful and confused mess on our hands.

Today’s reading from Genesis also has a poignant significance for our world today. God renews his promise to Abraham, but reminds him that the promise will be fulfilled through Isaac. Abraham needs to be faithful to what God has told him.  But just as Abraham loves both his sons, so God will honor both Isaac’s children and Ishmael’s children. We need to remember that Abraham, chosen by God, is the father in faith of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And no matter how much confusion and bloodshed result from the human elements of these three great faiths, we need to trust that God will cut through the tangled mess and continue to bless not only our own country, but the entire world, no exceptions.

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I ended up with this after a visit to The Ironic Catholic. It’s raining and 44 in Cincinnati and I needed a laugh, which I.C. provides in spades. While you’re visiting over there, be sure to check out the Peeps Conclave.


You’re St. Justin Martyr!

You have a positive and hopeful attitude toward the world. You think that nature, history, and even the pagan philosophers were often guided by God in preparation for the Advent of the Christ. You find “seeds of the Word” in unexpected places. You’re patient and willing to explain the faith to unbelievers.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

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Watching The Colbert Report tonight, I found myself wondering whether other people have noticed the ongoing subtext of Lent and the Americone Dream. And in fact I discovered a nice compendium of accounts of Stephen’s Catholic identity here. And this. I’ve just loved the way he’s so typically understated but determined about it. Periodically over the past few weeks he’s reminded his audience that he has yet to taste his ice cream, counting down the days of Lent. Tonight’s showdown with Willie Nelson ended with a mediated taste test of Willie’s Peach Cobbler ice cream and Stephen’s flavor. Stephen reminded Richard Holbrooke that he’d given up sweets for Lent. We saw Willie tasting the ice cream, but at the end of the day, Stephen held out. The spoon sat in the pint of ice cream with no indication that he’d tasted it. But no comment, either. Wonderfully ambiguous. Let those who have eyes to see….

As commentary, let me offer this: The opening line of the show was “Hey camels, stop showing off and drink something.” There’s such a fine line between endurance and showing off, between setting an example and being self-righteous, between witnessing to one’s faith (and traditions) and beating people over the head. And this small example from the world of comedy and satire shows a really classy way of doing that. People who aren’t Catholic may miss the references or take them as a jab at traditional Lenten practices. He couches it as a a schoolboy statement, naively pious: “I promised Jesus I’d give up sweets for Lent.” But then he leaves it there, he doesn’t go over the top with it. “Moving on….” Fasting, abstinence and other Lenten practices are one of those tricky areas. Ideally they’re a way to grow spiritually. They can become ends in themselves, or they can be a mark of Catholic identity. So much depends on the context. And in this particular case, it’s the Catholic identity that wins out.

As a lifelong Catholic, I find myself particularly delighted by this sort of casual Catholic identity that emerges in popular culture. It always takes me by surprise, especially when it’s just a by the way kind of reference, so embedded in the character or the person that it’s not even explicitly identified. Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek Quilts novels strike me this way, and several of my favorite mystery writers. Working in the Catholic press, I can get so immersed in the internal and professional world of Catholicism that I forget that there are a lot of ordinary Catholics out there. It keeps me grounded and reminds me that Catholic is also part of who I am, not just what I do for a living.

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A quote often attributed to British essayist Hilaire Belloc tells us, “Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there’s laughter, friendship and good red wine.” Whoever coined this phrase may have been inspired by today’s Gospel. We see Jesus at a party with his mother and his friends, and when the wine runs low and the bridegroom is faced with a social embarrassment, Jesus offers an abundance of choice wine.


In John’s Gospel, the miracles Jesus performs are profound signs of his glory and his identity as the Son of God. And so the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana is far more than, say, a trip to the corner market to pick up a couple more bottles of wine for dinner. And it’s more than Jesus responding to a gentle nudge from his mother to do something about their friends’ awkward situation.


How fitting it is that the one who would in the end give his flesh and blood to be food and drink began his ministry with the sign of abundant wine. Jesus is, in fact, reflecting the prophecies of Isiah and the other Hebrew prophets who reminded the People of God that their covenant with the Creator was like the bond of a bride and bridegroom. And the sign of that covenant was described more than once by Isaiah as an abundant banquet of rich food and choice wines.


As Catholics, our spiritual life is deeply rooted in the things of the earth. We just finished celebrating the feast of the Incarnation, the mystery of the God of the universe taking flesh as a human baby. The incarnation is at the heart of our sacramental life. We believe that the signs of God’s presence in our midst are things that we can taste and smell and touch. For us, a spiritual life is not something that denies the body, the senses, the stuff of the earth, as somehow inferior to a life of the mind and the purity of a disembodied soul. It’s a spirituality that over and over again looks to creation for signs of God’s very life and presence.


In these Sundays between Christmas and the beginning of Lent, the Scriptures begin to show us what it means to be disciples of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, especially, Jesus’ ministry is one of eating at table with saints and sinners alike. Whether we’re gathered around the table of the Eucharist or around our family tables at home, today’s readings remind us that all is holy, all is sacred, and God’s presence can be found in the most ordinary and extraordinary expressions of human life.

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