Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Dialogue as a Christian Imperative: Reflections on Pope Francis' Address to the US Bishops

"I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly" (Pope Francis, 23 Sept 2015)

Although I'm supposed to be working on book research today, I managed to catch Pope Francis' talk to the United States bishops at the Cathedral of St Matthew.  If you didn't get a chance to hear it, you can read the entire thing here.  There's a great deal in the text about which one could comment, but there was one section that particularly caught my eye.

Not long ago, someone challenged me on Twitter for drawing attention to the importance of dialogue, and specifically for focusing on Pope Francis' insistence on dialogue in Laudato Si'.  This person understood 'dialogue' to be a meaningless buzz word with no real purpose; I believe he dismissed it simply as 'cant.'

As he does so often, Pope Francis emphasized the centrality of dialogue in words that merit closer examination:
I know that you face many challenges, that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.
And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter.  We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty.  We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.
Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society.  I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.  The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.  Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.  Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.  Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.
While Pope Francis' words were directed to our bishops, we would be remiss were we not also to apply them to ourselves and to endeavour to live out this exhortation to dialogue in our own lives.  The pope roots the importance of dialogue in God's willingness to enter fully into our experience to encounter us in our brokenness.  This occurred most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, and God continues to encounter us, to condescend to us, in the waters of baptism and in the Eucharist.  The Christian God is one who doesn't set himself in opposition to us, but rather one who unites himself to us in a manner that reveals God truly to be Love.

Pope Francis argues that it is God's example that we are to follow in our interactions with one another, and particularly with those with whom we disagree.  Why?  Because we cannot truly love the other unless we truly encounter the other, unless we truly come to understand the other.  This is not, as Pope Francis insists, a simple strategy for eventually winning the day against our opponents.  This is, rather, to be our way of being as followers of the one who abased himself for us and continues to give himself to us in the sacraments.  It is a path of humility paved for us by the Incarnate Word.

Pope Francis is saying nothing new here.  Pope St John XXIII also exhorted Catholics to enter into broader dialogue.  In his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton wrote the following about John XXIII's 'Socratic principle' that illuminates perhaps why our present pope places so much emphasis on the necessity of dialogue:
One of the admirable things about Pope John is his simple fidelity to the Socratic principle which is essential to our Western cultural tradition.  This is a very profound element in Pope John's thought, and he has shown in fact that true Christian renewal implies an understanding of and a commitment to Christian Socratism.  This means respect for persons, to the point where the person of the adversary demands a hearing even when the authority of one's own ecclesial institution might appear to be temporarily questioned.  Actually, this Socratic confidence in dialogue implies a deeper faith in the Church than you find in a merely rigid, defensive, and negative attitude which refuses all dialogue.  The negative view really suggests that the Church has something to lose by engaging in dialogue with her adversaries.  This in turn is a rejection of the Christian Socratism which sees that truth develops in conversation.  And, after all, that is the spirit of the Gospel also.  We see it everywhere in the New Testament.  Those who were open to Christ and the Apostles, received the truth.  Those who refused dialogue, or who engaged in it only with political intentions, with pragmatic reservations and tactical subtlety, ended by crucifying Christ and slaying the Apostles.
The Socratic principle, as Pope John definitely sees, means not only the willingness to discuss, but the readiness to meet one's adversary as an equal and as a brother.  The moment one does this, he ceases to be an adversary.
Some seem to fear that in such encounters, meeting the adversary on his own ground, we leave the protection of the Church and Catholic truth.  They forget that if we meet the non-Christian as a brother we meet him on ground that is Christian.  If we fear to meet him on what is really our own ground, is this not perhaps because we ourselves are not sufficiently Christian? (p. 218)
To dialogue is to approach the other with love.  This does not mean that we abandon our positions simply to meet on some sort of meaningless common ground.  Merton himself rejected what he referred to as any affirmation of the other that amounts to "syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing" (CGB 141).  

It does however mean that we affirm the other as a person, and (in the words of Pope Francis quoted above) "to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain." 

The problem of course is that we as Roman Catholics cannot seem even to dialogue meaningfully with each other.  Suspicion of the other appears to run deep in our veins, at least if the Catholic twittersphere and blogosphere is anything to go on.  'Traditionalists' and 'conservatives' reject and condemn 'progressives' as ill-informed, un-Christian, and opposed to the church herself.  'Progressives,' on the other hand, dismiss their 'traditionalist' and 'conservative' opponents as unthinking, hateful, and out-of-touch.  We've ceased to love one another, and we've certainly stopped listening to one another.  What we see are positions, not persons, and what seems to matter most to many of us is that our position wins.

In his address to the US bishops this afternoon, Pope Francis reminded us of another way, one that has as its model the Incarnate Word, who revealed to us what it could mean to go out of ourselves in love to encounter one another as persons.  I, for one, was convicted.

Photo from

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Prayer & Bourbon: Spirituality Kentucky-Style

"Fortunately I had some bourbon in the hermitage" 
- Thomas Merton (August 2, 1967 journal entry)

Yesterday we visited the Abbey of Gethsemani & Makers Mark distillery, and in the process managed to combine two things for which Kentucky is known - prayer and bourbon. I'm neck-deep in research on my Cyril of Alexandria book right now, and so haven't had much opportunity to write on here recently. So I thought I'd share a few pictures from our trip.

My 4-year-old and 7-year-old waiting to pray the office of Sext with the monks:

On a hike on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani:

The all-important Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport:

Bourbon barrels as far as the eye can see:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Questions about Familial Spiritual Practices

I'm curious about experiences you had of spiritual disciplines and devotional practices in their families while growing up. I'm also curious about what spiritual disciplines and devotional practices you practice with your family now, if you have children.

My reasons are primarily personal (though I don't want to discount the possibility of writing about this in the future). I did not grow up Roman Catholic, as regular readers of this blog know. I did not, therefore, experience 'traditional' Roman Catholic devotional practices until well into my twenties. Both Kim and I are interested in being more intentional about familial spiritual practices, but both of us are unsure about what this might look like. While we're an interchurch family, both of us sense that the Roman Catholic tradition perhaps offers a richer source for familial spiritual practices than the Anglican tradition, though the two have many similarities. So I want to know what kind of spiritual disciplines and devotional practices you experienced in your family, what this looked like, whether you found these experiences beneficial to you in your journey of faith, as well as whether you continue to inculcate this spirituality in your family today.

You can help me by commenting below, sending me a tweet, or sending me an email.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Interchurch Families and the Upcoming Synod on the Family - *Updated*

*Update* The Instrumentum Laboris has now been published in English

The Instrumentum Laboris was published last week by the Vatican, albeit only in Italian. This is the working document for part II of the Synod on the Family this October. There are, of course, many issues to be discussed at the Synod, and most people are focused on what the Synod will have to say about divorce and remarriage, as well as about same-sex relationships. Less attention is paid to an issue that is important to me as someone married to an Episcopalian: interchurch families.

The report issued at the conclusion of the Synod last October was disappointing on this issue. Only after warning people in 'mixed marriages' that they are in danger of 'relativism and indifference' did the document suggest that people in interchurch marriages may have something worthwhile to contribute ecumenically. Nothing was said about the possibility of intercommunion for those in interchurch families.

In April, the Interchurch Families International Network (IFIN) released an open letter to the Synod delegates, which you can read here. One of the issues to which IFIN draws attention is the possibility of greater Eucharistic sharing for those in interchurch families. The 1993 Ecumenical Directory, published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, opened the door to greater Eucharistic sharing between interchurch couples, but the directory is not widely known nor does it provide much guidance regarding the difficult issue of Eucharistic sharing for children in interchurch families.

So I was delighted to see that the Instrumentum Laboris devotes more attention to the issue of Eucharistic sharing than seen in previous Synod documents. Of interest to me particularly is paragraph 128. The Italian is below, followed by a translation graciously offered by Dr. Thomas Bolin at St Norbert College (the translation below is now the one from the official English translation. Thank you Thomas for the previous translation!):
Alcuni suggeriscono che i matrimoni misti siano considerati tra i casi di “grave necessità” nei quali è possibile a battezzati fuori della piena comunione con la Chiesa cattolica, che condividono però con essa la fede circa l’Eucaristia, essere ammessi alla ricezione di tale sacramento in mancanza dei propri pastori (cf. EdE, 45-46; Pontificio Consiglio per la Promozione dell’Unità dei Cristiani, Direttorio per l’Applicazione dei Principi e delle Norme per l’Ecumenismo, 25 marzo 1993, 122-128), tenendo conto anche dei criteri propri della comunità ecclesiale alla quale appartengono.
Some suggest that mixed marriages might be considered as cases of "grave necessity," in which it is possible that a baptized person who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, yet shares the Church’s faith in the Eucharist, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, when their pastors are not available and taking into account the criteria of the ecclesial community to which they belong (cf. EdE, 45-46; Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 25 March 1993, 122-128).
There are two significant features of this paragraph. First, canon 844 §4 refers to whether sacraments can be given licitly to non-Roman Catholic Christians. It reads:
If the danger of death is present or other grave necessity, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments to other Christians who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed (italics mine).
One of the arguments made by those in the interchurch families movement (including by canon lawyers involved with the movement) is that it should be considered a 'grave necessity' that family members in interchurch families are out of communion with one another, and therefore that the sacrament can and should be given licitly to non-Roman Catholic family members. The 1993 Ecumenical Directory actually implies this reading of canon 844 §4, though this is not made explicit enough, at least in my reading. It is therefore very significant that the Instrumentum Laboris indicates that the Synod delegates are going to take this argument seriously.

The second significant feature of the paragraph is simply that it cites the 1993 Ecumenical Directory. My experience has been that this important document is far too neglected by pastors and laypeople, and that more attention needs to be given to the pastoral guidance provided in it.

The pastoral realities facing interchurch families are very real to me. I have an essay forthcoming in America magazine that speaks personally about the kinds of challenges my wife and I face as an interchurch couple trying to raise our children in a way that exposes them to the depth and beauty of both of our ecclesial traditions. I'm thrilled that the upcoming Synod on the Family is going to take these challenges seriously.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Struggling to Respond to Racial Violence

My Twitter feed this morning was filled with tweets about two events: the release of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and the racially-motivated shooting of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina. I tweeted and retweeted about the former. I didn't tweet anything about the latter.

This is not because I have nothing to say about the racial violence plaguing this country, violence that, far from abating, seems to be ramping up. This is not because I feel like racial violence has nothing to do with me. Although I'm a Canadian living in the United States, I'm fully aware of my complicity as a white person in an economic and social system that continues to disadvantage ethnic minorities. This is not because I'm unaffected by racial violence emotionally and intellectually.

Rather, my reluctance to contribute to the conversations about race on social media has to do with two factors: 1) My own smallness in the face of the immense problem of racism and 2) My fear that I'll simply be assuaging my conscience by making a few comments on social media without doing anything more substantial.

In a class I taught this past semester, we read Thomas Merton's "Letters to a White Liberal," a trenchant essay that criticized whites for thinking and saying the right things (and even promoting the right legislation) while at the same time being completely unwilling concretely to change their ways of living in order to work for and attain racial equality. Merton wrote that whites are willing to go only so far for racial equality. They'll join the rallies, they'll push for equal rights legislation, they'll say all the right things. But when they realize, as they must, that racial equality will mean actual equality, when they discover that racial equality means that whites are actually going to have to make real economic and social sacrifices to attain real structural equality, whites pull up on the reins.

Many people in my Twitter feed who are commenting on the Charleston shooting aren't doing so just to assuage their consciences. Many are actively working for racial justice.

However, if I'm being totally honest with myself and with you, I'm not actively working for racial justice and equality. I remember how shocked Kim and I were to discover the pervasive racism and segregation that is still so much a part of this city and country when we moved to Louisville from Ontario in 2008. And yet, without us trying or meaning to do so, we became part of the structure. Our neighbourhood is predominantly white. Our churches (I'm Catholic and Kim is Episcopalian) are overwhelmingly white.

Sure, I attend lectures and read books on the problem of racism and we read important texts in my classes on racism and racial conflict. But I know - I know - that none of this is good enough. I know - I know - that to be serious about racial justice requires real changes in how we live our lives.

So I worry that, were I to comment on social media and elsewhere about my grief and anger about the Charleston shooting, I'd simply be assuaging my conscience. That I'd - even subconsciously - think that I've 'done my part' when in reality I've done nothing.

I'm not excusing myself here. I'm repenting.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Extraordinary Form and Concepts of Beauty

I should know better than to tweet about liturgical traditionalism, but I don't. Michael O'Loughlin at Crux wrote a piece about attending a liturgy conference headlined by Cardinal Raymond Burke, and I commented briefly about something that continues to trouble me about liturgical traditionalism. Here's the tweet:

The tweet met with a less than enthusiastic response from traditionalists on Twitter, some of whom chose to interpret me as making a blanket condemnation of liturgical traditionalism and even of wanting to suppress the Latin liturgy. I'm sorry to disappoint, but neither is anywhere close to being true. There have been relatively few moments in my life when the veil between heaven and earth became thin, but at least one of those moments occurred during a celebration of the Extraordinary Form at the Birmingham Oratory (Blessed Newman's Oratory). In a previous blog post, I wrote about this experience, and about what my profound experiences of the Latin mass mean for my understanding of traditionalism:
Three years ago I spent a few days at the Birmingham Oratory founded by Blessed John Henry Newman.  I've long been fascinated by Newman, and the Oratorians were gracious to let me stay with them, to spend time in Newman's library, and to visit the room where he studied and said mass.  One of the highlights for me was the high mass in the Oratorian church, a mass celebrated in the Extraordinary (Latin) Form.  Beautiful liturgy is an essential part of the Oratorian charism, and the Latin mass I attended was stunning. There have been only a few moments in my life when I felt transported by an experience of Divine Beauty, and this was one of them.
I write this to underline that I have a deep love for the Latin mass.  Even though I am not a traditionalist nor do I regularly attend a Latin mass, I like to think that I 'get' at least some of the concerns of my traditionalist sisters and brothers.
Far from suppressing the Latin mass, I long to see Catholics listen more deeply to the concerns of those devoted to the Extraordinary Form, particularly their concerns about the importance of liturgy - beautiful liturgy - for the life of the church.

However, my sympathy for liturgical traditionalism is not without reservation, and it is this reservation that was so off-putting to some traditionalists yesterday. When traditionalists call upon the church to devote itself more fully to beauty and good liturgy, I proclaim a loud and profound 'Amen.' But when traditionalists want to limit the definition of beauty and good liturgy only to the Extraordinary Form, when traditionalists suggest that the only way truly to give credence to the sacredness of the Eucharist and to Divine Beauty is through the Latin mass, and when traditionalists - subtly or not - call for the suppression of the Novus Ordo, I bristle.

Again, I've written my thoughts about this elsewhere on here, so I'll simply quote from a previous blog post:
The beauty of the Latin Mass is very real, but it is a beauty that is entirely European in its history and form.  I get concerned when traditionalists insist on the universality and aesthetic superiority of the Extraordinary Form, for this disregards the reality that the Roman Catholic church is no longer predominantly European.  It also, I think, fails to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation.  Early medieval Irish monks famously painted Jesus Christ with red hair and a red beard, recognizing that the particularity of the Incarnation in first-century Palestine does not prevent us from worshiping and experiencing God in a way that embraces, rather than rejects, our cultural and racial background.  An incarnational God is, I think, a God who is willing to be 'incarnated' or 'particularlized,' and so experienced in a beauty that is culturally specific.  I may not appreciate the "saccharine and theologically insipid" hymns [I'm quoting here from an article by Michael B. Dougherty] so often sung at my parish, but I know that there are those in my parish who are deeply moved by them.  And I can't dismiss that, just as I can't dismiss those moved by hymns sung to blaring synthesizers at a mass I attended in India.
If I'm being honest, I worry that there is a subtle form of imperialism, and even racism, behind the apparent unwillingness to recognize that Divine Beauty is made manifest in culturally particularized liturgical celebrations. I write this with a great deal of trepidation, for this is a very serious claim. But I'm not sure what else to call it when some - by no means all - traditionalists argue that specifically European aesthetic norms must be universal in order to preserve the sacredness and beauty of the mass. An infamous comment by one of the EWTN commentators during Pope Benedict XVI's televised masses when he was in the United States underlines this point. Various multicultural elements were part of the Liturgy of the Word, and as the celebration moved on to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the commentator said: "We have just been subjected to an over-preening display of multicultural chatter. And now, the Holy Father will begin the sacred part of the Mass." One can almost hear the commentator's sigh of relief.

Liturgical traditionalists have a great deal to complain about. The implementation of the Novus Ordo was problematic, and the suppression of the Extraordinary Form even more so. Liturgical traditionalists are also frequently reviled by non-traditionalist Catholics, and I know that traditionalist seminarians have been ridiculed and ostracized during their priestly training.

However, if the church universal is going to take seriously the concerns of traditionalists, traditionalists themselves need to abandon the kind of liturgical exclusivism that refuses to see the truth, goodness, and beauty in liturgical expressions other than the Extraordinary Form.

Last night, I listened to a podcast with Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, and he made a comment about the Eucharist about which I can't stop thinking. After recounting this incredible moment when 7 rival gang members celebrated Christmas by eating a turkey together, Fr. Boyle made a connection between this ordinary meal and the celebration of the Eucharist: "Jesus doesn't lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it's ordinary, that it's a meal shared among friends."

I worry that we as Catholics - traditionalist and non-traditionalist - lose sight of the reality that, however we celebrate the Eucharist, it is a meal shared among friends by which we become truly one with each other. It is the most tragic kind of irony that the Eucharist - that which is to bind us together in body and spirit - continues to divide us as Catholics. As Jesus prayed, "May they be one as we are one" (John 17:22).

Before I end, I want to say that I don't want to pretend that I have any of this truly worked out. I am willing to be wrong, and so willing to receive criticism for what I wrote above (or anywhere). If you think I've read the situation incorrectly, or that my argument is bunk, tell me. I ask only that you do so in charity.