Thursday, February 26, 2009

Inner Conversion -- Outer Works

St. Paul emphatically teaches that one is saved not by observance of the Law of Moses but by faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 2:16). Still, the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus teaching the crowds that not only has he come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, not to abolish them (cf. Mt. 5:17), but also warns his followers that it is not enough to call him "Lord, Lord", but also do the will of the heavenly Father (cf. Mt. 7:21). And First John exhorts us that if we claim to love God whom we cannot see and fail to love the brother (or sister) whom we can, then we are liars! (cf. 1 Jn. 4:20).

In various places in the New Testament, both in the Gospels and in some of the Epistles, we are advised that the fulfillment of the Old Testament is to loved our neighbor as ourself (cf. Lv. 19:18b).

Conversion, or metanoia from the Greek meaning a "change of mind" (so, Mk. 1:15; Mt. 3:2 [John the Baptist] and 4:17 [Jesus]), is the universal call to think and do differently. Yesterday, for those Catholics of the Roman Rite, we heard the injunction to either "Turn from sin and believe the Gospel" or the reminder echoing the Book of Genesis, "You are dust and unto dust you shall return." (cf. Gen. 3:19c).

St. Paul reminds us we who are baptized must have a change of mind (cf. Rom. 12:2) and that, in fact, we have the mind [psyche] of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 2:16b). And yesterday we were also reminded that "today is the acceptable time" (cf. 2 Cor. 6:2-3).

So, being a Christian -- as we all know -- is more than saying words; it is a lifetime of practice and working. We yield to God's Holy Spirit and allow the Spirit of the Living God to transform us -- our ways of thinking, our attitudes, our bad habits, our speech, our behaviors, our actions -- so that they more readily and clearly reflect the image [ikon] of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18).

Our Christian vocation is ongoing converstion into Jesus Christ. For us members of the Franciscan family, friars, Sisters, nuns and laypeople alike -- our life is one of penance in joyful response to the Lord's call. Not only to follow Jesus Christ, but to live in him and him live in us, thus following the lead from our holy founder, St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis of Assisi embracing the leper, through whom he encountered the Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Giving Up? Giving Over!

Perhaps something for us to consider this Ash Wednesday 2009 is what we are handing over to the Lord. As Catholics, we have been well-trained (I hope!) to think about "giving up" as a means to penance. Chocolate, ice cream, alcohol, pastries, desserts . . . renouncing all of these can help us to be aware of the luxuries of life and to help increase our awareness of Lent.

We certainly fast during Lent from the Gloria and the Alleluia during our liturgical celebrations and prayer. But all the giving up, as it were, the abstaining from meat (i.e. poultry, beef, veal, pork products) on all Fridays of Lent is meant to be a signpost to us of our need to convert. And to point us to what -- that is WHO -- is really important. The Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Gospel!

Something that is ancient, that is biblical, that is primordial in the human-divine relationship is giving over. This handing over, not as a passive resignation but an active trust into Someone else's safekeeping, this is really what we are called to. It is the basis, interestingly enough, of the Latin root for our English word tradition (in Latin, traditio). In his first Letter to the Corinthians, in both chapters 11 and 15, St. Paul writes to the Christian Church there, "I hand on to you what I myself received, namely . . ." (1 Cor. 11:23; 15:3). He hands over, in trust and safekeeping, to the Corinthian Christians from whom he has been absent, the deposit of faith and the right practice of that faith.

Handing over is actually a choice for life. Jesus does so continually during his ministry, culminating in the Agony in the Garden and his death on the Cross -- for the life of the world, for our salvation. The Eucharist is our frequent celebration of this handing over.

Our handing ourselves over to the Lord is not some kind of "human sacrifice." Although it is, indeed, a sacrifice, it is us allowing the Lord to be Lord, to be Savior, to be who Jesus says he is in our lives. And it's allowing the promise of our Baptism to be once again renewed and fulfilled in us!

We see St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi do this frequently in their lives, both in imitation of Jesus and even moreso in response to his call. It is the vocation of every Christian to hand ourselves over to the Lord. Our Franciscan vocation impels us to do this, to be a people of penance, so that we are not only giving up what is unnecessary, but giving over in hope and trust to the One who has saved us and who never gives up loving us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Beyond Mardi Gras -- Entering Lent 2009

Here we go again! We enter into the Great Fast (so the Eastern Churches) or Lent this new year of 2009.

As Catholics, along with many Orthodox and even several Protestants, we are commemorating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul the Apostle (Saul of Tarsus).

What do these two have to do with one another? It's about conversion. In his epistles the Apostle periodically refers to his own conversion, although obliquely so. He does mention that he was a persecutor of the Church until the Lord Jesus himself definitively affected his life.

I remember in high school when my best friend, an evangelical Protestant, asked me a question that both shook me and piqued my curiosity, "Joachim, do you know Jesus Christ?" I answered him, "Well, I go to church on Sundays," to which he replied, "That's now what I asked."

So, I asked myself that question. I think that is one of the aspects of St. Francis of Assisi that really attracted me, and still does. He knew Jesus; not just knew about Jesus! It was later on that I began to appreciate that I, too, could know Jesus Christ. But knowing the Lord is not just about saying the right prayer or practicing some kind of ritual.

No, rather, it's about growing in a relationship with him. And that is ongoing conversion, something that all of us Christians are called by the Lord to do. As Church we have this wonderful opportunity to do this through the ancient biblical practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (giving to the poor).

As Franciscan friars, we were originally called the "Penitents of Assisi." Not as self-punishment, but rather, following the inspiration of both St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, to seek the Lord as our highest good and to pursue him before all others. Having Jesus first in our lives, that's what penance, repentance and conversion is all about.
Being focused on God's Word -- allowing that Word who became Incarnate for us and for our salvation -- is the "center of gravity" of Christian conversion, knowing the Lord.

For Byzantine Rite Catholics who began the Great Fast this past Sunday night at Forgiveness Vespers or Roman Rite Catholics -- and other Western Christians -- who will begin Lent tomorrow with Ash Wednesday, maybe it is time for us to prayerfully consider if we know the Lord. Do our words show it? Do our actions demonstrate it?

For those being marked with ashes tomorrow on our foreheads, and for those who have already begun the Great Fast, perhaps we can enter into this great season of conversion together toward Easter with renewed purpose and vigor to seek the Lord and come through this holy season knowing Jesus more fully. Just like St. Paul the Apostle and St. Francis of Assisi!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two Men Sharing the Same Birthday Who Changed the World

Just think of it. Two men whose life work and ideas in the 19th century changed the course of human history and human thinking.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) both shared the same day of birth which was commemorated last week, 12 February 1809.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America

Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evoltion

One was born in rural Kentucky in the newly formed United States of America and the other in England of practicing Christian parents. In fact, Charles Darwin's father was a pastor and hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.

Each followed a very different path than may have been originally anticipated or expected. Lincoln had difficulty in the mercantile profession of rural Illinois, where he would eventually have greater success as a self-taught lawyer. Darwin was a botanist and zoologist -- more curious than anything. He wanted to know what made living things "tick" -- how they worked and why they were the way they were.

Each ended up radically shifting the course of history. Abraham Lincoln eventually won the presidency of the USA at the time of the secession of the Confederate States in the south was being realized. His dream and purpose was to keep the union whole, even to the point of engaging in the War Between the States (so the South) or the Civil War (so the North).

Charles Darwin, traveling across the world on the H.M.S. Beagle, became convinced of the interconnectedness of all living things through what he would eventually call "evolution." This theory of the beginnings of life on our planet was written under the title, The Origin of Species. It really wasn't until the early 20th century that Darwin's theory began to take hold -- after Gregor Mendel's experiments with genetics, along with others who exprimented similarly, were published. Gregor Mendel, by the way, was a Catholic Augustinian friar from Austria.

For Lincoln, what began as a manifest struggle to hold the country whole resulted in his famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, following the Battle of Gettysburg, in which he declared that all African-Americans who were held as slaves should be considered as free individuals. While held high for its lofty aims, it was also a pragmatic piece of literature to incite slaves to revolt and help destabilize the South. Apparently President Lincoln invited Frederick Douglass, the freed slave cum abolitionist to the White House to discuss this and to promote it.

But his incisive proclamation paved the way for the end of institutionalized slavery in this country. It wouldn't do away with the "Jim Crow" laws which followed Reconstruction in the South and subsequent institutionalized segregation. That would not be resolved, at least officially, until the Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the following century.

Charles Darwin's comments and inductive reasoning landed him to be hailed as an enlightenment among many in the scientific community and vilified by many in the religious (especially Protestant Christian) community. His insights and seemingly irrefutable evidence pointed to something quite different than a literal interpretation of Sacred Scriptures of both the Jewish and the Christian communities of faith.
Holding the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation and the theory of evolution in tension has been the struggle for many believers. Some outright deny the possibility of evolution. Others deny the possibility of creation and even a Creator. Some other subscribe to the notion of "intelligent design." Others have no problem whatsoever holding the two together -- creation by God through the means of evolution. And even those who subscribe to evolution note that their understanding of what is evolving and how these processes occur disagree.
What these two men leave us with, though, is a remarkable sense of hope. They never knew one another, although I would suspect that they heard of one another and what the other thought and did. But the hope that they offered -- in Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address and the aforementioned proclamation, and Darwin's great studies of living things and fossils in nature -- show us the beauty of human life, the great variety of all living things on our planet, the great purpose of the struggle for freedom and the dignity of reconciling one's enemies, as Lincoln did at the end of the bloodiest conflict in our nation.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Denying the Holocaust -- A Frightening Scandal

How can a bishop deny the truth? This one has heads around the world shaking in disbelief. The sad reality is that Bp. Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X publicly denied that the "Holocaust" as such ever took place.

Arrest of Polish Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II

When Bp. Williamson, originally from Great Britain, went on Swedish TV and publicly denied that millions upon millions of Jews perished under the Nazi regime throughout Central, Western and Eastern Europe, an international outrcy went up.

Thankfully, over the course of several weeks, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI weighed in to affirm the sobering reality of the Shoah ("holocaust" in Hebrew) and denounce any denial thereof.

In Germany it is a crime to deny the reality of the Holocaust that occured in Europe when the Nazis came to power. Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and began the anti-Jewish practices that resulted in the "Final Solution" of the Jews. There were others whom the Nazis persecuted -- homosexuals, Roma (gypsies), Masons, Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, trade unionists. But by far the attempt to eliminate Jews from Europe, even from the face of the earth, was the Nazi plot of the so-called "Master Race".

Survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in southern Poland. The camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1945

My Dad, Joseph AR Studwell, Jr. was an MP with Gen. Patton's Third Army during World War II. After the concentration camp at Buchenwald was liberated by the Allies, he entered the camp and told me as I was growing up the gruesomeness of the camp. He had a photo of himself and another MP taken by the bodies of the victims of Nazi atrocity. (I don't have that photo readily available for this blog).

The sad reality with which we still have to deal is anti-Semitism and racism in all its ugly and evil facets. Truth, even when negated, does triumph. Even sadder, though, is when it exists among people who claim to believe in Jesus Christ. How odd that the Messiah of Israel, himself a Jew, becomes coopted by those who would deny the reality of the Holocaust.

Pope Benedict XVI and many, many bishops in communion with him have decried the untruthful comments that have resulted in scandal provoked by Bp. Williamson's remarks. This is also "anti-life", and disgracefully from within the Christian community.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

We've Got to do Something! But What?

Seems like old times, doesn't it? Democrats and Republicans wrangling (again!) about the economy. So much for "change;" at least so far.

Sen. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Harry Reid (D-NV) at a press conference advocating the Decomcrats' nearly $800,000,000,000.00 (that's approaching $1 trillion!) Stimulus Package.

Democrats are touting this as necessary, although imperfect, to get the economy going again. Republicans tend to disparage it as inconsequential and a huge waste of government funds.

One very practical question, of course, is where is the money coming from? Our government is already in deep debt to China. And the rest of this economic business becomes foggier and foggier to figure out. We rely on "experts" of economy, who don't necessarily agree with one another. Depends to which Party one subscribes and promotes, I suppose.

Nevertheless, any Stimulus Package, any antidote to a toxic economy that is malfunctioning must always take into consideration the effects on human lives. In a very real way, at least for people of an ethical conscience, be they believers or others, the economy is meant to serve humanity, not humanity at the service of the economy.

Regardless of one's economic theory(ies) or school(s) of thought, it must never be forgotten nor forsaken that so many human beings' lives have been adversely affected -- loss of employment, loss of livelihood, loss of homes, loss of credit, loss of savings, loss of retirement, loss of businesses -- all these add up to people, especially those who are older and therefore more vulnerable, suffering through the ignominy and grief of loss.

As Franciscan friars, we stand in solidarity with all those who are struggling and who are suffering the weight of grief. Our charism, a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and to the world, mediated through the person of St. Francis of Assisi, is to accompany those who are being cast aside through this economic downturn of the last half year or so.

Beginning with property speculations and the bubble that burst and all its subsidiary effects, we have seen the reality of human greed. It's seamy and it's ugly. Greed has no concern for the other, for human life. It respects no one; it is completely self-centered.

Generosity, on the other hand, is life-giving, as its root suggests. St. Francis, inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, wanted to be generative and so became generous. He wanted to live completely for the Lord Jesus.
Greed seduces us into the lull of self satisfaction. Generosity leads us beyond ourselves, away from the pit of self preoccupation into communion. This is what the late Pope John Paul II wrote and again what the current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI teaches.

Bro. Andy Brophy, OFM at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Greenwood, MS with parishioners.
Simply put, it's Gospel! And that is life. Perhaps coming through the murkiness of this current economic situation we can learn to be generous and to advocate those values for the economy that are virtuous; those values which respect human life and the goodness of being human. remembering that the economy serves humanity, not the other way around.